Sunday, 30 September 2012

Everything I Had by Ruby Cowling


I had a stone in my shoe.
I stopped at the bench and unlaced, tipped it out. A tiny emerald tumbled onto the tarmac. I picked it up and looked at the thread of light glowing through it. Wait until I tell Harry about this.
But at home, he was distracted. “Have you seen my keys? I can’t find my car keys.”
“An emerald, Harry!”
“I’ve been looking all day for my bloody keys.”
While he was downstairs I put the emerald away in the black velvet pouch with my mother’s earrings.

Passing the same bench three days later, I felt a sudden jab in my heel, and I hopped over, sat down and pulled off my shoe. An emerald the size of a hornet was rolling around inside. It shone from the inside and it smelt like limes. My breath caught in my throat. I’d spent hours researching emerald values, and learnt that even Monday’s little chip was precious enough to worry about. Looking at something as large and beautifully cut as this one, I felt as if I’d suddenly found one of my own vital organs outside my body.
I was sure I’d be mugged on the way home. I hardly trusted my fist not to develop a hole for it to drop through, but I made it back, shaking, went to the bedroom and put it straight into the black velvet pouch.

I realised Harry’s coat had been there in the hall when I’d dashed up the stairs. I found him in the kitchen with his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he managed after a minute.
“What is it?”
“We’re being let go. Thirty of us. Orders down again, current climate, blah blah. They’re going on last in first out, nothing personal, they reckon.”
I could still smell limes. I was going to tell him, I was, but the words just didn’t come out.
“We’ll be all right,” I said. "Something’ll turn up.”
“At my age?”
He started to tell me what the boss had said, but there was a humming in my ears that drowned him out. I gave him a cup of tea and went upstairs to sit on the bed. I just wanted to be close to them.
Time passed; I didn’t realise how much until Harry’s querulous voice came up the stairs: “Love? Are you going to make... should we get a take-away, tonight?”

I didn’t sleep. For two days I walked and walked in the park, but nothing happened when I passed the bench. I just needed one more emerald - even a medium-sized one would be okay - and then I could take it and the first one to a dealer and tell Harry about the money, and keep the big one for myself. I couldn’t bear the thought of reducing the gorgeous jewel, its shine, its hum, its citrus tang, to a grey set of digits in our bank account, never seeing or touching it again. It was special; it was magical. Above all, it was mine.
On the third day, I was 100 yards from the bench when at last I felt it: a rock - a boulder! - pushing into my toes. Standing on one leg, I yanked off my shoe. But the irritant was just a piece of gravel I’d kicked up from the path.
I hardly spoke all evening. As I switched off the television at eleven, Harry said, “I’m sorry, love.”
It wasn’t anything to do with him, but I couldn’t explain that. All I could think about was green.

On the fourth day I went out at dawn. I walked even though my knees were swollen and the blisters on my toes were raw. I passed the bench again and again. And again and again. Harry called my mobile five times that morning, but I didn’t answer. I was busy walking. After midday, he didn’t call again. 
And then, late on, it happened. One second just the burning of my blisters, the next a sharp lump right under the ball of my foot. I fell to the ground and scrabbled at my laces. My worn shoe cradled the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. The size of a robin’s egg. A scent of grapefruit, of grass, of the very idea of freshness. A colour you could breathe instead of oxygen. I stroked it with a fingertip.
It was dark when I turned the corner into our street. I would tell Harry everything, make it up to him, just as soon as I’d made sure I could get for the other emeralds what I hoped I could. But then, perhaps this wasn’t the end. Perhaps I should wait for the next one and really make sure I was safe. Perhaps they would just keep coming - I could collect a whole velvet bagful, more! The thought made me dizzy, and I realised I was passing number 95, a long way down the street from where we lived. I must have walked straight past my own front door. I turned back.
I stood and looked at the space where our house had been this morning. Between our neighbours’ houses was just a gap: a rutted driveway. A rusty bicycle leaned against the weathered wall. The streetlamp above me caught the foil of a crisp packet drowning in a shallow puddle, and, next to it, something else breaking the surface. A filthy set of car keys.
“Harry?” I croaked, and then, louder: “Harry!”
I tried his number, but it didn’t connect. I dropped the phone, and clung to the stone in my pocket, just standing there, calling Harry’s name, until our neighbour opened a bedroom window and shouted “Keep it down, will you? People are trying to sleep.”

About the author: Ruby Cowling, originally from West Yorkshire, now lives in north London. She is working on her second novel while the first matures in a drawer, and her shorter work has appeared or is forthcoming in various literary journals in the UK and US including Waterhouse Review, The Pygmy Giant and The Writing Disorder. She blogs occasionally at
Photo Credit: Adapted photo, (c) Ruben Chase via Flickr Creative Commons