(A piece of Flash Fiction)
When you’re a kid, you don’t get the whole picture: you might have all the facts right under your nose, but somehow you don’t join the dots, if you know what I mean?
For instance, I remember asking my Mum: “Mum – why don’t you ever wear your beautiful diamond ring?” I twirled it round on my ring finger, where it sparkled and shone like a gigantic Christmas decoration. I must have been about 6 years old at the time. Mum let me play with her jewellery, but only on our bed, so as not to lose any of the little pieces, like her gold studs. One of them rolled under the bed and it took ages to find, and when I finally found it, Mum snatched it from me and gave me a hiding. I think was more sore at the injustice, than at the hiding!
Asking Mum about the ring was asking for trouble, even another hiding. Her expression always darkened, and she usually ignored the question; only once did she let slip the mysterious phrase “it’s your Father’s insurance policy, that’s why,” but as usual she didn’t elaborate. Another dangerous question was “When’s Daddy coming home? Where is he?” I soon learned not to ask.
When I was ten years old, Mum had a terrible cough, grew thinner by the day, and then she got dreadfully sick. I had to stay with Aunty Lynne while she was in hospital, but Mum never came back home. Nobody explained anything to kids in those days. Aunty Lynne was quiet and tearful for a week, until she abruptly announced I wasn’t going home, and that Mum was with the angels. I didn’t understand – not really – what that meant. Somehow my clothes and my tatty toys appeared in my room at Aunty Lynne’s house, and that was that. Life with Aunty Lynne and Uncle Johan dragged on for years.
But when I was sixteen, I started to join the dots. I had to do a Local History project for school, so I spent happy hours at the Library, flicking through the newspaper archives on the microfiche system. Why this particular banner headline caught my eye, I’m not sure. ROBBERY OF THE CENTURY! screamed the headlines. JEWELLERY HEIST : DIAMOND MILLIONS! Intrigued, I read on. A gang of thieves had robbed de Beers Johannesburg Diamond Showroom, at 6 a.m. on a Monday, and made off with jewellery worth literally millions. The story continued to page 3, together with a foggy black and white photo of the more valuable pieces. In the centre of the display was a magnificent diamond ring. I peered closer at the screen and tried to adjust the focus. I gasped. Stunned, I sat back. The stolen ring looked remarkably like my Mum’s ring. Come to think of it, where was my Mum’s ring?
That night I asked Aunty Lynne. She looked uncomfortable and muttered she didn’t know. Her expression was so like Mum’s black look, that I prudently dropped the subject. By now I was way too old for a hiding, but I knew trouble when I saw it.
Back I went to the newspaper archives. I joined more dots. The jewellery thieves had been arrested, tried and jailed for twenty years. I eagerly scanned the blurry picture of the three men making their final Court appearance. I didn’t recognise any of them, or their names.
That night I tried another question on Aunty Lynne: “What was my Father’s name? And why’s my surname Phillips, like your maiden name?” Surprisingly it was Uncle Johan who answered. “Girlie,“ he said “it just is. Leave it be. It’s what your Ma wanted. It’s better this way.” He gave me a long, hard look. So I shut up and left it.
After Matric I wanted to go nursing, but how was I going to pay for it? Uncle Johan wanted me to join the Railways as a clerk, but I wasn’t interested. I brooded, moped around the house, irritating everybody, including myself.
Two days later the city was abuzz with news of a massive fire at Pretoria Central Prison. An entire wing burned down, and eight prisoners died of smoke inhalation. For some reason the domestic atmosphere was tense, heightened by the arrival of a telegram for Aunty Lynne. She waited until Uncle Johan came home that afternoon, before she opened it. Pale-faced, she shoved it across the table for him to read. He read it, looked at Aunty Lynne and nodded. She got up, and disappeared into their bedroom.
Aunty Lynne returned, slowly handed me Mum’s trinket box, and said “Now we can give you your father’s insurance – maybe if we sell it, you can go nursing.”
Stony faced Uncle Johan added:” And your name’s still Phillips – get it?” I mentally joined up the last dots. I got it.