We Were Good Then

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My grandfather gave me one of his favourite rings a few days ago, something which has meant a lot to him over the years. I remember it from my childhood, a tiger’s eye with lateral striations in the stone, set in thin bent gold. It was a permanent fixture on his finger, much like his big silverĀ belt buckle was around his expanding, and now shrinking, waist.

At this family gathering, my grandfather called us aside and with tears in his failing eyes told the three of us that this would be the last time he would ever see his three grandsons in one room again. One of my cousins was down from the UK. With shaking, gnarled fingers he pulled out three rings. He said he would have liked to leave them to us in his will, but when this opportunity presented itself he took the chance. One square onyx, an oval tiger’s eye and a tiny diamond, set in a chunky square ring.

We thanked him awkwardly, my mother’s parents were always ones for grand gestures. Indeed, even fast food experiences with them could be momentous. It’s not often you remember ‘a pizza’ or ‘a steak roll’ and yet at my grandfather’s hand and wallet they have become touchstones for me. My grandfather, a salesman of office furniture by trade and a keen member of the army (how could I forget how dapper he looked in his beret?) was always more of a dreamer. And while he remembers how big the first calculators were (half the size of a desk) and how expensive they were (very), often he prefers to speak of time or space travel. For him, and consequently for me, buying a Hero Steak Roll from the Steers in Gabriel Road, Plumstead for his grandsons was an Event – something to be marked. I remember the rain outside and the immense pride as he clucked over us – his young men. It was the best steak roll I have ever eaten.

And then we shuffled off; the ceremony finished. How do you thank a man for something so meaningful? There’s nothing you can say, not much you can do. My plan is to grill him about the object itself. To try uncover what it means to him – why I was given the tiger’s eye and not the onyx or diamond. Where does it come from? How did he get it? What did he live through while wearing it?

The birth of his first and second grandsons?

The difficult birth of his first granddaughter and the passing of her twin, just a few days after her birth?

My own birth?

My aunt’s divorce?

My uncle’s divorce?

My sister’s birth?

My mother’s illness (and recovery)?

My cousin’s illness (and recovery)?

The gutting of their house, by fire?

The death of their son?

The bolt-from-the-blue divorce that destroyed my own family?

Each shimmering striation in the stone tells a story. And honestly, how do you tie up a life in something as small as a ring? Each of these striations saw us as red-faced children, running through the night garden, fingers burnt by the hot metal of the sparklers and soothed by the cold stickiness of watermelon wedges, destined to become volleys of seeds as we waged war on each other. I spoke about these days, when we were a family, with my cousins (more memories of photographs for me than real memories) and I was touched that they were remembered fondly. We were young and so were our parents. We were all new and uncompromised.

Later, my grandmother handed me a photo – a frozen moment from one of those days, before my sister was even born. My older cousins were arm in arm; so vital, life quivering in their face-wide smiles as I Ā curled up on myself and tried to hide from the camera, offset and to their left, the bright green garden all around us.

I handed the photo back to her and heard the familiar clack of her bangles, waved in the air for every hello and goodbye, every fierce hug balanced over her tottery legs.

‘We were good then, weren’t we?’ she said.

‘We were.’ I conceded.

But those days are gone. People are dead and others as good as – never spoken to or of again, the weight of our own embarrassment pushing our tongues deep into the wet wells of our mouths. We are old and used, shopworn. There is no going back.

And yet now I have this ring, staring at me from the shelf; a circle of gold with a tiger’s eye winking at me every time I shift perspective.

We were good then.