Beryl, single and singularly bitter about it, who blamed her three brothers for having failed to find her a husband and loathed her sisters-in-law in equal measure, grudgingly thanked her only niece, Deirdre for the nice lunch she’d been treated to.
Now in her nineties, Beryl lived in London after a lifetime spent in India. She had been born into one of those English families who, for generations, were the backbone of the British Empire. As soldiers, civil servants, traders, missionaries and professionals they’d served and died for King and Country overseas until the Union Jack was hauled down for the last time. After the last British tea plantation managers had left the sub-continent in the late 1970s, Beryl had obstinately clung to the hillside tea planter’s bungalow near Darjeeling where years earlier she’d celebrated with aplomb her twenty-first birthday, refusing all blandishments to sell the property.
Eventually, frail and increasingly forgetful, she’d reluctantly moved out to settle in a high ceilinged, somewhat gloomy flat - crammed with the possessions of a lifetime- in a big mansion block in Kensington where she and her elderly neighbours – nearly all women, their exhausted menfolk having died years earlier, reminisced about old times in the heyday of the Raj and vied to outflank each other in rank and achievement.
Wielding her walking stick and whacking a few passersby with it, Deirdre couldn’t be sure this was not unintentional, Beryl, stooped and thin as a reed, walked slowly home. It took several minutes for her to find the key to the front entrance door, and even longer in the vestibule fumbling with the lock in the ground floor flat door.
Deirdre braced herself. She’d visited a month earlier and tidied up, throwing away hoards of newspapers, magazines, empty bottles of alcohol and half empty tins of baked beans, and opening envelopes postmarked weeks earlier that threatened dire consequences if Beryl did not pay the gas/electricity/water/telephone bills. Deirdre had mollified the utilities people, cancelled the appointment Beryl had made for a facelift at a swanky clinic and got the deposit refunded, and persuaded the smart, neighbourhood department store to take back the unopened, top of the range PC, cinema screen TV, smartphone, tablet, and other high-tech items that Beryl had ordered from the glossy catalogue but hadn’t any idea how to operate. Similar success, however, couldn’t be achieved with the many pairs of Jimmy Choos, Prada clothes and Gucci handbags.
Deirdre had organized a cleaning woman who’d left after a week never to return owing to Beryl’s rudeness. Her successor had fared no better as Beryl had rung the police and accused her of trying to poison her. The next woman was said to have drunk her booze and stolen her jewellery, a claim that was hotly denied and never pursued given the medical diagnosis that Beryl was not only paranoid but suffered from dementia. The current helper was made of sterner stuff, a tough but kindly Jamaican whose grandparents had sailed to Britain in the Empire Windrush and who knew instinctively how to handle the likes of ex colonials like Beryl.
Beryl sank into a chair and focused her rheumy eyes on the bottle of Gordon’s at her elbow on which she’d marked the last level with a pencil. She opened it and sniffed, her sense of smell, unlike her other senses, still acute. Satisfied that it hadn’t been adulterated with water by nefarious third parties who may somehow have gained access, in her absence, to plunder the flat that was a veritable Fort Knox, she motioned to Deirdre to mix her a stiff gin and tonic.
If one hoped to survive unscathed, it was no good telling Beryl she’d had quite enough to drink.
Beryl’s latest moan concerned her wind up gold Rolex wristwatch that had been a Christmas present to her from her parents. It had stopped working and she’d asked a nephew, working in one of the Gulf states , to get it fixed as he’d assured her there were many clever watch repairers out there. Job done he’d returned it and although it worked after a fashion, it then stopped, never to go again. Beryl was convinced that it had been tampered with, that it had been subjected to some jiggery pokery and would not be persuaded otherwise. The family had dismissed Beryl’s suspicions as unfounded and simply another symptom of her condition. Deirdre offered to get it mended again and it had languished in a drawer of her dressing table for many months, a guilty reminder of her promise.
Now executor of Beryl’s will, Deirdre had cleared the flat of her belongings and put it on the market. It was odd, though, there was so little jewellery given Beryl had come laden with the stuff on her return from India. Maybe she’d had disposed of it in dribs and drabs to supplement her meagre pension. Deirdre turned her attention to the Rolex watch- there was a market for such vintage timepieces regardless of their working condition. She resolved to sell it at the best possible price in order to add value to the small estate of which she was the sole beneficiary.
She went on-line and tried to match the serial numbers on the watch with the officially issued ones, but to no avail. She telephoned an antique watch dealer and described the watch to him; he told her it wasn’t something he recognized. Eventually, she took it into a local watch repairer who sat in a workshop surrounded by an array of malfunctioning clocks and watches. He studied it carefully with his loupe and announced it was a fake, and a not very good one at that. Another expert who ran a business several miles away corroborated this.
So, not so demented Beryl was right about the watch. Deirdre judged it likely that a dishonest repairer had substituted a sham for the genuine.
Months later, Deirdre was browsing in a West End antiques market when her eye was caught by a striking, large blue-green pendant swinging from a gold chain. Somehow it looked vaguely familiar. But where had she seen it before?
‘The stone is a beryl. It’s very pretty, isn’t it?’ said the dealer.
Deirdre thoughtfully turned it over. On the reverse were engraved the initials B.M.C. – those of Beryl.
‘How did you come by it?’ Deirdre asked, her heart in her mouth.
‘A nice woman, I remember her well because she had ash blonde hair and sounded foreign, said her family was disposing of it to fund her university education. I bought a quantity from her not so long ago. Here are some other lovely pieces we shook hands on.’
With horror, Deirdre recognized the other items on display, and the description of the vendor matched that of Beryl’s erstwhile domestic help…