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Monday, July 26, 2010

Amber Beads.

My Stepmother didn't possess much that I wanted. She wasn't beautiful or charming like my own mother had been. She didn't have a charismatic personality or an alluring disposition. She was clever, quietly studious and industrious around the luxurious home she shared with my father. She 'contained' her personality rather than wearing it openly for all to see.

Her life with my father was very different to the one we had with my mother and when we went to stay we found we were immediately on edge, usually because we were scared of breaking something. The general vibe was: you can look - but if you want to maintain contact you'd better keep your grubby little paws away from our hard-earned reproduction furniture. Compared to the frenzy of disorder that trailed in my mothers wake it seemed like some sort of fictional set-up. Life there was quiet, stable, predictable...and boring. I didn't yearn for a life like my stepmother and I certainly didn't find her staid existence the least bit appealing.

As far as ostentatious adornment went she didn't really wear much jewellery beyond a traditional engagement ring and a string of pearls but what I coveted more than anything else were her Amber beads.

These beads, thick and chunky, richly coloured like lumps of burnt caramel toffee hung around her neck through out my early teenaged years. They taunted and tantalised me with the richness of their glow and their mysterious, ancient and unfathomed depths. I didn't ever dare to ask to hold them, let alone feel the clunky and heavy coldness of their weighty touch around my neck. I could only gaze enviously as she stroked them casually while reading a book on a Sunday afternoon, or absentmindedly rubbing the largest central one, smooth as glass, round like a marble and as dense as the end of time.

It crystallised my feelings for her. Silently I resented the fact that my father loved her so much that his usually cautious ways with gift purchasing had been cracked open by her charms. He had bought her a necklace that for me held the power of love within its solid impenetrable glow.

It was many years later, after her death, that I learnt the truth about the Amber beads.


* * *

I was about 10 years old when my father married again. My brother, sister and I were not invited to the wedding and that single rather cold act seemed to set in place a distance and formality that flavoured all our meetings. It wasn't really anyones fault, just one of those things that can sometimes happen with second marriages and though my Stepmother was warm and pleasant she wasn't ever really fun to be with. She was friendly enough, she was helpful up to a point, but there always seemed to be something lacking. Perhaps she was overcome with fear at being faced with the rough and tumble of a ready-made family at the week-ends. It's possible we simply didn't interest her that much.

She was reed thin and the kind of woman who never had so much as a teaspoon of extra pudding or even a puff of a cigarette. Ever. She was so unlike my mother that the difference between these two older women was more like a chasm.

We would arrive in London for our visits draped in our teenaged finery (at 14 I favoured the short skirt/thick purple eyeshadow of an underage call girl) to find our Stepmother standing at the front door, a tailored and wincingly tolerant smile in place. Her look was crisply understated, white blouse, knee length navy skirt and hair always a swirl of Elnett elegance and coiffed to within an inch of its life.

I wonder now at how she ever managed to walk by my side when at 15 I would beg to go shopping on the Kings Road dressed from head to toe in mismatched tartan gleaned from charity shops and tacked onto the sides of my jeans during a Bay City Roller phase. All that ever escaped her fixed and slightly bemused manner when dealing with us would be a widening of her eyes. She sensibly left all the reprimanding to my father, but we knew that we had horrified her when her eyes widened and then rolled skywards. This strict emotional armour stayed firmly in place until about 10 years before her death when she then suffered a number of devastating strokes which eventually robbed her of her power of speech and her comprehension of every day manners thus loosening her rigid self-control.

Years after I had grown-up and my stepmother had been led towards a sad decline into senile dementia, her jewellery became a forgotten part of her routine. Sometimes a cameo brooch appeared on her blouse and a fragment of her once smart and refined persona would return to grace her. Occasionally she would appear from the bedroom and anxiously ask my father to search for her lost pearls and he would remind her that they were languishing peacefully in the drawer in her dressing table. She would soon wander back in to the room forgetting she had ever asked about them, but the Amber beads vanished from view and were never mentioned or remembered.

It wasn't until a few weeks after her death that my father sat across the table in his dining room and pushed her jewellery box towards me. I opened it up and we began to go through the contents. A couple of 18th century rings, with scraps of still bright fabric set behind thin glass lozenges - of little value despite their age but exceedingly pretty. A neglected clump of delicate gold chains, irreparably spaghetti tangled and twisted. A second layer revealed, along with a lazy jumble of ornamental trinkets, her Cameo brooch, some giant hat-pins and a slim oblong red leather box containing her string of pearls. We shed a few tears, the rawness of her death still with us and the nearness of such intimate items felt like an intrusion at that early stage. We were just about to pack it all away and close up the box when my father suddenly leaned across and pulled out a long heavy-looking string of something familiar and the colour of once forbidden nectar. The Amber necklace. I gasped in goose-tingling recognition at this once longingly loved forgotten treasure and as my father smiled and passed them over I could barely speak engulfed in a torrent of memories and taken surging and bumping back into my choppy teenaged past. When I finally placed those evocative jewels around my neck I was quickly brought back to earth with a jolt. They weren't Amber beads after all. They were plastic.

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