Tom says I’m a magpie. Looking around our bedroom, I’m inclined to believe him. 19 years we’ve been together. 19 Christmases, 19 birthdays. The results are coiled in dishes, hung from hooks, strewn on ornaments glittering with jewels themselves. I just need a beak and feathers.
My daughter Andrea says it’s like entering Aladdin’s cave. As these things tend to go, Andrea’s look is the opposite of mine. She likes minimalism and block colors. Sharp tailoring. Natural make-up, if she chooses to wear any at all. Her beauty shines all the brighter because of it, although she would roll her eyes if I were to tell her. She’s still at that age where eye-rolling is the default response to any parent’s comment, question or plea.
The pieces from friends and family, bits that have caught my beady eye in flea markets, rings I inherited from my mother (a lady who would have sooner gone out naked than go without being draped in gems) are all dear to my heart. But it’s the gifts from Erika of which I’m most proud.
Erika was a student of mine in the late 90s to early noughties, where I taught home economics at Dunderdale School and where I met Tom, who taught math. Erika arrived a sullen, shy and slightly grubby-looking 13-year-old. She became an easy target of cruelty, as new kids who don’t possess a personality larger than their stature often are. She’s had a bit of work done since – I hope she won’t mind me saying – but she had a gap in her front teeth you could park a bicycle in as well. Some of the taunts you overhear as a teacher do stick with you. Her black hair was cut in a shaggy way – think Joan Jett stripped of all the rock chic. Her fringe was often too short, giving a stage for her worry lines to play on when she struggled to pay attention to a text, which was most days. Her hair was cut by her father, as I later discovered, which explained a lot.
She was a steady C- student. Maybe the Dunderdale curriculum differed wildly from that of her home country. It was hard to find out. It would’ve been easier to spend the day scraping barnacles off a shipwreck than getting her to open up to say more than “okay”.
“Erika, you’re late again.”
“Erika, didn’t you hear the bell? You’re free to play outside now.”
“Erika, can I play dot to dot with your pimples?”
That last question wasn’t one of mine, by the way.
In the staff room it was common to hear tales of Erika falling asleep yet again at her desk. We even pondered for a while whether it was narcolepsy. But truth was, she was just doggone tired. I found out why the day I went to get my engagement ring resized.
The wedding was about a year off at that point, but I’d joined a diet class as a matter of preparation mere weeks after Tom proposed. I wanted my dress (with its well-chosen accessories, of course) to be the main fixture, rather than my derriere being the source of awe. The results of giving up microwaved meals for one after moving in with Tom, where he rustled up mounds of home-cooked goodies, carbs upon carbs, desserts with fluffy tufts of whipped cream, and of course our date night restaurant visits, were on display for all to see. On one memorable occasion where the seat of my pants ripped as I got something off the bottom shelf in the grocery store, quite literally. I was that person you didn’t want to end up finding yourself next to on public transport, as you were gonna have to give up half your seat without being asked.
I went to my favorite local jewelers, Kallaste. I just adored their fine, unique craftsmanship and wanted an excuse to nose around even though I could’ve had the ring resized at any nearer jewelers. The owner, Mak, could be pretty brusque and it was easier to imagine his sausage fingers crushing the creations rather than shaping them.
He looked up from his mug of tea and newspaper splayed out on the counter, obviously annoyed his break had been interrupted by a customer sounding the bell upon opening the door. I tried pretending I hadn’t felt the force of his death stare and busied myself retrieving the box containing the no longer fitting ring from my handbag. I waggled my hand while explaining my dilemma. It was always a guessing game as to how much of my language he actually understood. He nodded and with a grunt, heaved himself up from his stool and muttered something about checking downstairs to see when I could collect it. He stomped on every wooden step as he descended to the ground floor, small shrieks of creaking wood protesting their undeserved punishment.
Meanwhile, I wandered over to a display case festooned with fluid-looking Dali clock-like pieces. The curves and waves gleamed on an ocean of indigo velvet. I had a sensation of falling through space almost, admiring the wealth of beauty filling the little box.
The sensation was shattered by the sound of a door opening below. From where I now stood, I could see down the flight of pummeled steps to a door marked ‘PRIVATE’. I only glimpsed her in the second it took for Mak to swing his heft to grab the side of the door to close it behind him again, but I would recognise that hedgehog hair anywhere. Erika. With a complicated looking pair of goggles on, back bent over some small project that was nothing to do with schoolwork.
I ended up staying quite some time in the shop that day. Part PTA meeting, part social services intervention, part financial adviser. And grievance counselor. But concerned teacher, first and foremost. It all comes with the territory. My job means being a lot of different things to different people at times. The same person at Dunderdale that supposed narcolepsy in Erika would’ve immediately diagnosed me with multiple personality disorder if they’d seen me then.
I listened as Mak told me in broken English how he’d lost his wife to leukemia a years prior and his struggles to run his shop and care for his daughter since. I persuaded him to hire someone to help with his diary, assist with the general running of the shop and basic tasks such as fitting new batteries in watches or repairing broken clasps. Erika would still be allowed to practise her gift – I was right, the most breath-taking pieces weren’t produced by Mak – but she’d have time to pull her grades up too. Mak was reluctant to have to hire someone else, so I may’ve cracked down hard at that point, stressing the risk to his daughter’s health and happiness as well as homework if he didn’t put his hand in his pocket.
Over the next few months, the unique items Mak’s was known for still kept coming, if at a slower rate than before. But this just served to drive up their desirability, and therefore Mak could bump up the price.
As Erika progressed through the school, so did her grades. She became more talkative, picking up the language quickly now that she wasn’t so exhausted she was about ready to fall over as soon as she stood up anymore. The bullies found other interests to occupy their time. Erika had a particular skill with business studies, it turned out, as well as being a natural with art and design.
I read a magazine interview with her last week. One of her tiara designs had been worn by an actress picking up an academy award, so the trade publications were clamoring for her. She had opened three stores in London so far and was planning on expanding to at least eight by 2021 she said.
Fame and fortune may have found Erika, but she never forgot me. She sends me new treasures every Christmas, beautifully wrapped with ribbons and a seal stamp bearing her logo and a handwritten note inside, always starting ‘To Mrs Magpie’.
It takes getting to know the right amounts of water, sunshine and darkness to get the rarest blooms to flourish, but when you strike the right balance many get to enjoy the rewards.
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