Pigeon Blood

Kerry Barner

 

 

 

 

 

For M

 

 

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, since you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 15:58, King James Bible

 

 

THE LAST TIME I saw Nuni, my grandmother, was in 1992. She was dying of lung cancer. My father had placed her in a nursing home where month after month she wasted away. Each time I visited she seemed to shrink a little bit more. Her tiny head bobbed like a shrivelled turtle, wrinkled by age and cigarettes. She got the nickname Rusty because of her striking red hair. Over the years, even though the fiery locks faded, she never lost the sense of her own terrible beauty. I shared her colouring. Maybe that’s why she always considered me her favourite grandchild. Towards the end of her life, she wrapped her hair in the style of Simone de Beauvoir, one of her “heroines”. She loved the glamour and aura of scandal surrounding the writing circles of Europe. She craved the cafe life of cigar fug and chatter. But she ended her days in bitter obscurity in a remote town on the west coast of Canada. On the days that I visited she was always lying in the same position: her hands palm down on the white coverlet. She wore the big ruby ring on her wedding finger. The colour was pigeon blood as they say in the trade. It seemed to be the only thing of magnitude in the place. Everything else was small and white.

 

          It’s of this ring I wish to speak. It began its life as a solitary stone. Sara, my red-headed great grandmother, had been given the ruby by a lover and she had it set into a ring. Her own mother, my great great grandmother Katherine, owned a ring of seventeen diamonds, a present from her doting, much older husband, which she handed down to Sara. Rumours travelled through my family that Katherine had married for money, but in a bizarre twist her old goat of a husband outlived her. And then when Sara died unexpectedly at the age of thirty nine both rings went to Nuni.

 

          Throughout the ruby’s life there were always men lurking in the shadows; even Nuni’s jeweller who put all the stones together into one ring. Nuni owned people. She never just had a cobbler or a seamstress or a cakemaker. It was always prefixed with “my personal...” She told me that when her “personal jeweller” placed the diamond-studded ruby ring on her finger for the first time, he held her hand for longer than was considered appropriate and whispered, “A fine piece of work.” When she finally freed herself from his clutches and left the shop, she was convinced she could hear him sighing like a mermaid. Like Nuni, this red ruby travelled the world. Seated at the casino, sailing on the QE-2’s maiden voyage, my grandmother flaunted her “pigeon blood” ring. A well-known billionaire and inveterate gambler took Nuni’s hand in his and called it “the most perfect ruby he had ever seen”. This man knew his rocks. Nuni refused to name him but she would often boast that she’d held the hand of one of the richest men in the world.

 

          These stories used to infuriate my stepmother, Barbara. Nuni had always thought her a gold digger and “as plain as a grey London sky”. On the event of Nuni’s death the ring would be mine. She made no bones about this. To anyone who cared to listen, be they family or friends, she would pronounce, “This ring is extremely valuable. I’m leaving it to Mary.” Nuni would always look up when she said these words and wait for a reaction. If Barbara was in the room she inevitably got one. A cup put down a little too loudly. A cushion punched rather than fluffed up. “Anyone for tea?” offered at a slightly higher pitch. Nuni would wink at me on these occasions. She’d suck me into the game. Not that Barbara was ever likely to get her hands on this family heirloom. She just seemed to hate the fact that it was worth a lot of money and Nuni was leaving it to me. I was a little embarrassed at first, thinking that my mother or my sister would hate me for being singled out. But Nuni said it so often and with such conviction that everyone learnt to fold it into the family history like a well worn blanket. Most pronouncements, no matter how startling, lose their sheen with the wear and tear of time.

 

          The ring had to be resized on several occasions during her long illness. In fact, it was the only time she allowed it to be removed. She pestered the nurses, the doctors, my grandfather, me, or anyone who happened to be passing by her room with the repeated question, “Is it ready yet? It’s extremely valuable, you know”. Only when the ring was restored on her gnarled finger did she stop worrying her hands.

 

          It was springtime on my final visit to Acacia Lodge. Winter had dragged its dirty feet right up to the end of April, but this particular day was bright and sunny. As soon as I walked into the room I knew there was something wrong. The photo of my grandfather had been moved. In its place was Pussyfoot, a man my grandfather had met in a Prisoner of War camp in Singapore. I knew who it was but all the same I asked, “Who is that?”

Nuni opened her watery eyes and croaked out, “That was the man I should have married.”  What shocked me about this statement was that my grandfather was still alive and, despite his own failing health, came to visit daily. Any minute now he would see Pussyfoot staring back at him from that black and white photo, and it would remind him of the two remaining things in his life: torture and his love for Rusty.

 

         Born in Buenos Aires at the turn of the century, Nuni came from a financially powerful family. My Danish great grandfather moved to Argentina in the late 1800s and worked in finance. He had pots of money, every cent of which he lost through ill-judged deals and the Great Depression of 1929. Before the crash, Nuni, the young debutante, stepped into society, flitting from one man to another. She bragged about having five boyfriends at the same time, including twin brothers from New York. They were always declaring undying love for her. When I asked her whether she loved any of them back, she smiled and squeezed my knee.

 

          Everyone was “a pet” or “an angel” to her. Her mother, her father, the maid, the cook and the string of suitors she dangled from her elegant fingernails. She couldn’t keep anyone’s name in her head. Except the twins. On a whim she crowned these beaux Bing and Bang and their nicknames stuck. Bing and Bang bought her jewels, furs, expensive cigarette cases, compacts, chocolates from Paris, perfumes from Europe. No-one knows what became of them, but something happened in New York, something terrible. There was a fall from grace. Nuni was shipped off to Copenhagen to stay with her father, “in exile”. I once asked my grandmother what she’d done. She waved a cigarette in front of my face, a dismissive gesture she used with the waiting staff, and said, “Angel, I was too ahead of the times.” I’d seen photographs of my great-grandfather. There’d be no dalliances under his stern eye. As for the ruby ring, Nuni told me he thought it “flash”. He felt she was asking to be robbed and ordered her to only wear it at weddings and Christmas.

 

          She referred to her years in Denmark as the “Dark Ages”. Bored to tears by the long winters and the drab social circles, she looked for escape and found it. It was in Copenhagen that she met my grandfather, Bill Stile, a British hydraulic engineer. He instantly fell in love with the colourful Nuni. She fell in love with his passport. They got married in 1935. It was the height of the British Empire. Bill was posted to Singapore to build dams. It was a return to fashionable society for Nuni, or the “beau monde” as she liked to call it. She danced and drank and smoked her way through the 1930s. The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel was known as my grandparents’ “second home”. I could just picture Nuni and her ruby on the balcony, surrounded by acolytes. She’d perform just like Scarlett O’Hara, blowing smoke rings round her captive audience. Her father thought it a vulgar habit which is probably why she continued to practise it her whole life, even when it became her death sentence.

          I have no idea whether she was faithful during her marriage, but my grandfather certainly remained devoted to her throughout his life. Even now, shrunken by dementia, he clings on to his cliché-riddled memories, calling her “Nena, the apple of my eye”, “the bee’s knees”.

 

          In 1939 Grandpa Bill joined the army. It was the only time my grandmother complimented him, saying “he cut quite a dash in uniform”. She hated all the hard-hat safety gear of the engineer. My grandfather was never allowed to step through the front door of their grand home in his work outfit. He had to install a shower and wardrobe at his office to “spruce up” for the cocktail hour. Nuni waltzed through 1940 and 1941 thinking the war was a silly squabble between a master and his servant. The British army, convinced that the Japanese would attack from the sea, felt much the same way. They pointed their guns towards the ocean, and poured another Singapore Sling down their necks. Even on the news that troops had landed in Malaya, Singapore’s Governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, is alleged to have said to the army, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.''

 

          Singapore fell in two days. Nuni was on the last boat out of the country. My grandfather made sure of that. Despite his military duties, he saw her safely on board. Taking her hand in his, he kissed the ruby ring and said, “Nena, my love, it will be over by Christmas. Until then, safe travels. I love you with all my heart.” I asked my grandfather what Nuni had said in reply. He shook his head and said she was “too choked to speak”.

He was captured the following day and spent the next three and a half years in prisoner of war camps, including the notorious Changi prison. All prisoners were tortured, emaciated, sick with malaria, dysentery, beri-beri, and worked half to death, but my grandfather rarely spoke of this time.  From the postcards he was able to send to Nuni during his incarceration, he made it sound like a holiday camp: amateur dramatics, choir practice, drill and poetry readings. It was clear from the photograph that was taken of him in 1945 that it was no joke. His body was more bone than flesh. Re-reading these postcards it’s obvious to me now that he just wanted to protect her.

 

          My grandfather was moved from Changi and was left in a camp in Taiwan. Conditions were no better there. As more and more Japanese soldiers were drafted into the army, locals were used as guards. One day, a young guard came up to him and said,              “You have the Christo book?”

           “You mean the Bible?” my grandfather asked.

           “You go look. Corinthians, 15:58. Read it: Stand fast. Hold your faith. The people of Asia salute you.” My grandfather never forgot that. It was the only moment of light and humanity during his time in the POW camp, he said. Many years later my own father traced this very same guard in Taiwan. By then he was 92 years old. He would meet former prisoners and their families as an act of atonement. Although he did not remember my grandfather exactly he told my father he would say those words of comfort to those who were really suffering.

 

          Just days before the liberation my grandfather watched as the American bombers flew overhead. The Japanese knew it was all over. They ordered the prisoners to start digging. My grandfather took the spade in his hands, convinced he was digging his own grave. He didn’t want to end his days in some unmarked hole on foreign land, but he was too weak to disobey. To pass the time he talked of what he would eat when he got home, of having “bacon and eggs for breakfast”. Even now, when he sits down to eat, I notice how he closes his eyes as though blessing his good fortune that there is food on the table.

 

          By August 1945 they were free men. The surviving inmates were to board a boat back home. They took a train through Nagasaki.  No-one had told them about the A-bomb. No-one had warned them. The train pulled up on the ridge and everyone fell silent. The whole city was obliterated.

 

          Sometimes, when I stayed in my grandparents’ home, I would hear my grandfather cry out in the middle of the night. The sound carried through their bedroom walls, sending a chill into my heart. The next morning he would often tap gently at his boiled egg as though frightened of doing it harm. “I’ve had these horrible thoughts from the camp. I don’t know if they’re a dream or whether it really did happen to me”. He would look at me across the table and search into my eyes. I could never hold his gaze for long.

 

          Nuni always played deaf at these outbursts, offering neither sympathy nor comment. During the war, she’d worked as a Personal Assistant to a “grim, little tyrant” in the UK’s Admiralty Office. It was the only job she ever had. I’m amazed she held it down as long as she did. Three whole years, in fact. She was usually out on the tiles – or so she claimed - until the small hours. Even during wartime she could hunt down a gathering most evenings.

 

          It was in Changi that my grandfather first met Pussyfoot. Pussyfoot was Australian. From the photograph on my grandmother’s bedside table, he looked like a lot of fun. Wearing a sailor’s cap and a pipe in his mouth, he grinned back at the camera. His face filled the whole frame. Everything about him was big. Wide eyes, wide mouth, full cheeks and thick dark hair that fell in abandoned curls around his forehead.Both my grandparents talked about him in reverential terms. “Larger than life” my grandfather would cry. “A real peach,” agreed Nuni. And when my grandfather was out of earshot she’d add, “He never married. He was very loyal to your grandfather.” After the war Pussyfoot made a fabulous amount of money. Something to do with boats. He spent most of his life on the sea. My grandfather said that after such a long imprisonment no captive liked to stay cooped up for long.

 

          Within a year my grandparents moved to East Africa, to Tanganyika as it was then known. They resumed their intoxicating life of servants and sailboats, and my grandfather returned to engineering. In 1946 my father, Christopher, was born. He was an only child. When asked why she never had more children, Nuni would say, “never again”.

In the early sixties the independence revolutions kicked off in East Africa and my grandparents moved reluctantly to Vancouver, Canada.  Although my Nuni spent her remaining years there, she never settled. She labelled it the “Living Death”. There were no parties, no cocktails on the lawn, no maids to boss around. She joked bitterly about the bungalow they lived in as having no grandeur.  Year by year they sunk into the obscurity of middle class life.

 

          Only the ring gave her any comfort. To her, it represented her life in swell New York, dear, dear Kent in Connecticut, and that “peach of a place”, Singapore.

Vancouver was to be my Nuni’s final resting place and she hated it. She hated it with the same passion with which she loved her pigeon blood ring. Maybe that explained why Pussyfoot replaced my grandfather on her bedside table. It was an act of vengeance. He would not have left her to languish in a nursing home. Pussyfoot would have bought her a hundred rocks, each one bigger than the next. Every year she would have been tickled pink with his latest Pontiac. They would have gotten tight together on quarts of gin, danced till dawn, and watched the sun rise over some sappy horizon.

 

          My grandfather never featured in these fantasies of hers. His passport had long lost its pizzazz. In her final weeks, as he sunk further into the broom cupboard of her emotions, Pussyfoot soared. I doubt if my grandfather even noticed. By the time of Nuni’s death, he had dementia. He would sit on the same chair for hours, barely moving, not really focusing on the world. Nothing was going to shift his view of the woman he’d loved for almost sixty years.

 

          When Nuni died, I was still a teenager. My father took the ring and placed it in a vault for safe keeping until the day I got married. That is what Nuni wanted.

I got engaged to an actor. My father got the ring out of the vault for it to be resized. He also asked the jeweller to value it. Nuni’s words kept coming back to me, “This ring is extremely valuable. I’m leaving it to Mary.”

 

          I went with my father to collect it. The jeweller dove into the back of his shop and came back holding a padded velvet box. The beaded curtain swayed and jangled on his return. Nuni had had something similar hanging from her porch door in Vancouver to “keep away those damned flies”. I used to wrap myself in it as a child and pretend to be a flapper girl. The jeweller was a head smaller than me with a shock of white hair giving him an extra inch of height. He opened the lid slowly and I peered down at his handiwork. He cocked his head to one side as though trying to gauge my reaction. For a moment I thought back to the love-struck craftsman holding on to Nuni’s hand, not wanting to let go. That scene would not be replayed here.

 

          I placed the ruby on my wedding finger and it fit beautifully. I looked up at the jeweller and smiled. He smiled back, showing tiny, yellow teeth and said, “You realise it’s a fake.”

 

          I gazed at the red stone. It glinted at me, silent and complicit.  I pictured my stepmother, Barbara, crowing at this news, delighted that the world had “got one over on Nuni.''

 

          I tried to picture Nuni now. She’d been dead ten years. I tried to imagine how she’d have reacted on hearing that her precious stone had been fake all along. I closed my eyes. I could see the nursing home, the white sheets. I could see Pussyfoot in a frame. But when I thought of Nuni, all I could see was a pigeon with its head cut off.

 

 

Kerry Barner was born in Yorkshire, but has lived in London for over 20 years.  She is a senior editor for an international academic publisher. Her writing career began in 2009 when she was shortlisted for Wasafiri’s New Writer Prize, in 2014 she was longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and in 2015 she was longlisted for the Fish Short Story prize. In November 2015 she received Highly Commended for the London Short Story award 2015. Her work has appeared in Brand literary magazine, Notes From The Underground, Anthropology and Humanism, Spilling Ink Review, The Bicycle Review, the Momaya Annual Review 2012, To Hull and Back Short Story Anthology 2014, Platform for Prose and Red Savina Review in which she received honourable mention in the Albert Camus Short Story competition. In 2011 she co-founded The Short Story competition and now runs it solo: www.theshortstory.net. Love dogs, hates mash.

 

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