“The Emerald Necklace” by Pauline Burgess

Belfast was russet in the summer sun, and now that the weather had softened, its inhabitants flurried through its streets in short sleeves and sunglasses. Even the old Victorian buildings shimmered as they looked down over the Lagan curving its way through the centre of the city and out into the Lough. Beyond the river, narrow alleys and crowded streets smelled of takeaways and coffee and cigarette smoke.

Martin Kelly had spent all morning roaming through the squares and streets of Belfast. He had walked past Macdonalds and KFCs and high street shops, past travel agents with fantastic bargains that really weren’t so fantastic for somebody like him. Then he suddenly stopped at one of the stalls in the market place. It had a stock of cheap souvenirs; tea towels with shamrocks and ‘brass’ Celtic Crosses and the like. There among the mugs and calendars was a necklace that literally sparkled in the sun, with one emerald green stone hanging from a slim gold chain. He bent down, the sun burning the back of his neck and stared at the stone reflecting the light like a pool of water.

‘It’s beautiful’ Martin said, reaching out to touch the stone.

‘Course it is!’ the vendor responded, his face curling into a scowl. ‘Worth more than you can pay, so move along.’ He smoothed the white cloth over the edges of the table and turned away from Martin as if he wasn’t there.

‘How much?’ Martin asked.

‘I told you. Get lost. You’re keeping customers away from my stall. Now clear off!’

But Martin wanted to touch the necklace, to feel its coolness. He bent down and unlaced the scuffed trainer on his left foot. He pulled it off slowly, aware that it could come apart at any minute. Next he peeled his grey sock off, the stench thick, as the dirty flesh on his foot was revealed. He withdrew a crumpled roll of dirty notes before replacing the sock and shoe. Holding the money aloft, he stood up and repeated his question.

‘How much?’

The vendor glared at him, then noticed the money in his hand. His eyes narrowed then widened slowly.

‘Where’d you get that money from?

‘What does it matter? You’re a seller, I’m a buyer. I want that necklace!’

Eyeing the thin paper notes again the vendor pulled the necklace off the table and held it back from Martin. His brow was low and heavy, rigid above the potholes of his eyes.

‘Why do you want it so badly?’

‘Why do you keep asking me stupid questions? How much is the necklace?’

His voice had become more emphatic, more sure. He knew the vendor looked upon him as just another homeless street-sider. Like everyone else he came into contact with, he was just a tramp, a man without dignity. He might only have rubbed his eyes this morning with his old coat and a spot of phlegmy spittle, but he was still somebody. And he would have that necklace!

‘I have two hundred pounds here. I’ll give you every last penny. Now pass it over to me.’

Shoppers and office workers continued to scuttle past unseeing. Cars beyond the market swept fractiously around, crinkling the air and shining the pavements. The two men stood as if in a vacuum with the thrust of the city carrying on around them. Greed made the vendor relent. He grabbed the money out of Martin’s hand and pushed the necklace, unwrapped into his hand.

‘Now get out of here!’

Martin turned away and became absorbed in the crowd. He rushed back to his spot near the dock and huddled into himself in the corner. The air smelt like low tide and browned-out seaweed. He gave a low laugh. The light that shone in his eyes transfigured his nondescript face and after a long grave, staring moment, he was trembling on the verge of laughter. He had held on to that money for nearly a year now, promising himself that he would save it for something special. No matter that he fed himself with scraps from bins and waste outside the city’s chip shops. He would always find food somewhere, but it wasn’t every day that he could get his hands on something as precious as this.

A few of his homeless comrades loitered about suspiciously but Martin kept the necklace close to his chest, determined never to let it go. He’d have to be careful though. These men would cut your throat for a drink. But ‘better the devil you know’ as his mother used to say; no point seeking out a new haunt at this stage of his life. His eyes darkened with pride as he studied the piece again. It must be over ten years since he’d set eyes on it. How it had ended up on a cheap market stall he didn’t know.

As he studied the necklace he was transported back to the weaving shed with his mother, watching over the women working their looms. His Mam scrutinised the loom minders installing the warp beams and fine-tuning the equipment, making sure their output was as high as possible. Then she would inspect the damask cloth before it left the factory floor. She let him come after school at least once a week, and he loved it; the air trembling with noise and industry.

‘See that Martin?’ asked his mother. ‘That cloth will dress the finest tables all along the Lagan. But not for much longer. There’s talk of them shutting down these factories soon. And what do you think will happen to the hundreds who work here?’

‘Don’t know, Ma. Will they get other jobs?’

‘If they’re lucky, Son. If they’re very lucky.’

He followed her proudly as she braced round the shed, complimenting some work, discarding others. The other women looked upon her with awe and respect, he could see that. He knew she was a woman of substance. She had to be. She’d raised Martin alone since he was three years old, held down a respectable job, and made sure the lad was spiritually and physically nourished. And she loved that job, loved the sense of authority that went with it. She held her head high in the neighbourhood. Until the factory closed.

‘Artificial fibres, Son. That’s what they’re all after now. Nobody wants fine cloth anymore.’

And nobody wanted her any more either, it seemed. The factory owners gave her a little money that lasted a few months. She walked up and down the streets of the city, trying to find employment, but none was to be found. Eventually she sold the most precious thing she had – the necklace Martin’s father had given her on her wedding day. It bought them a little more time and a bit more bread on the table.

‘You’ll have to go out to work, Lad. Leave the schoolin’ behind. There’s no other way.’

And he did so, happy to be able to do something for her for once. It was worth it just to give her some money for her pocket and maybe a little bit of dignity back. The money came in handy…the dignity never returned.

He was coming home on the bus the first time it happened. A squall of rain slashed the windows as it crept up the hills, stopping every now and then to let other workers off. Nobody else gave more than a passing glance at the bowed figure of the woman swaying weakly from side to side. Martin remembered the small black speck of terror growing inside him, spreading through his veins. He blundered down the bus and jumped off, taking her softly to him and cradling her there on the street. She didn’t even seem to know who he was. The force of the wind and the rain made them stagger a bit as they made their way home.

‘Hey, Kelly. That you over there? Want a wee drink?’

Martin shook his head, back in the present, and said nothing. He was lucky that he had never succumbed to the temptation of alcohol like the other tramps around this place. He’d seen what it had done to his mother. He preferred to be solitary, huddled in his corner, no signs, no smiles, no contact.

‘Suit yerself!’ the voice came back.

Martin couldn’t risk looking at the necklace now in case one of the others saw. He would steal glances at it during the night and it would whisk him back again to their little house, watching his mother following the news-print with moving lips, her spectacles balanced on her nose. She kept him informed of everything she read; of politics and world affairs and the economy, of course. Then she would stand up and stretch her arms and yawn before putting the two of them to bed.

Sometimes even now he would walk up there to see the house, shining in a shaft of sunlight up on the hills. But he never went in, even though it sat empty. The funny thing was, it still belonged to him. It had never been sold, although there might have been the odd squatter in it from time to time. It was ironic really that he was one of the ‘homeless’ of this city, but Martin couldn’t bear to step inside it. He didn’t want to be reminded of the days he would come home and find her slumped on the floor, or worse; dancing around the kitchen wearing two or three dresses at the same time, her red face growing redder as she progressed from levity to hurling abuse. He preferred to remember the house as a more sober, contented domain, with his mother busy and purposeful.

He patted the necklace, cool in his pocket. It broke her heart the day she sold it. If he could pinpoint a day when everything changed for the worse, it was then. She never spoke about it again, of course, but he could see her reach for it sometimes, lacing her throat with her fingers. She had coped for a time. It hadn’t started immediately after the factory. In fact it took years for her to decline and maybe that was worse, looking back, because it took him just as long. And when she finally died, well, there was little point in him pulling himself together again. He disintegrated just as surely as she did.

An old woman struggled towards him now, her face waxen, almost translucent.

‘Would ye’ have a few pence on ye’ lad?’

Her breath came thickly from between her chapped lips. Uninvited, she huddled down beside him, her bags splaying out around her. She pattered on like a rain shower, and Martin found himself unconsciously reaching into his pocket again. The emerald felt smooth and comforting. He needed to move away from the woman. He shivered in the heat and tried to make himself invisible. Rubbing his other hand across his face he tried to block out the image of what his mother might have become. He took comfort in the knowledge that he had never let her come to this, straddling the streets with her plastic bags. Her turmoil was largely private after that first time, confined to the house. Martin had made it his avowed aim that she would retain what little dignity she had left. He glanced up at the woman again and felt his insides turn over. He might have saved his mother from this but he hadn’t saved himself.

It took the best part of an hour to reach the house in the Castlereagh Hills. The sun, weaker now, glinted on the corners of the roof and on window-panes that bulged out slightly in their narrow frames. Leaning his arms on the wall surrounding the overgrown garden, Martin studied the place and wondered how it managed to stay intact. He saw his mother clearly as if she was standing next to him, the curve of her hip, the roll of her shoulder, the way her emerald eyes danced as she laughed.

‘Time to pull yerself together, Son.’

He went to the front door and pulled at the loose handle. Once inside the hallway, the musty damp hanging like soup in the air, he decided it was time to do just that. Silent-footed, the necklace safe in his pocket, Martin Kelly was home.

 

Biographical Note:

Pauline Burgess is a writer living outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. She has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines in Ireland and England, including ‘Gentle Footprints’ by Bridge House which was launched at the Guardian literary festival at Hay-on-Wye in 2010. Pauline was short-listed for the Brian Moore Awards in 2009 with a story which she is now rewriting as a novel, and which is under consideration by NewIsland. Pauline teaches English part-time in County Down. She is married with one child – Emma Rose – who inspires a lot of her children’s writing.

 

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