The ring first belonged to my great-great-grandmother. A family heirloom, passed down through the women. For the last thirty years it had sat on the middle finger of Mum’s right hand. Why not her ring finger? Resized too many times to count, the band had become worn and brittle, too delicate for any further operations.
“Which of mine would it fit best?” I asked, splaying my fingers.
“Bryony, really!” said Mum, doing likewise to examine the garnet stone, its shine grown dull by time. The claws of its setting were so worn the gem might slip loose at any moment, a set of Victorian fingers clinging to their former glory. “Anybody would think you were plotting my death.”
She smiled wickedly. Impossible to ever know what was going on in her head. True of everyone, I suppose, but I felt it more keenly with Mum, as though it were a personal failing. Daughters ought to know their mothers’ minds. Share them, even.
“Too nice to be buried with,” I said. “Graves have been robbed for less.”
This raised a hackled laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “Fine,” said Mum, shimmying the ring down the length of her finger before seizing my right hand. “There. Same one. What does that tell you? I guess we both like to flip people off in style.”
She sipped her red wine and I followed. The latest act in a long line of hapless, unhealthy mimicry. In her mouth she lit a pair of cigarettes, one of which she handed to me. Odd: Mum never smoked in the house, even after Dad died and took his protests with him. The smell of it got into the upholstery, the curtains, eventually the walls. Even Mum could admit that.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Call it a game. Indulge an old lady.”
“You’re not that old, Mum,” I said. A depressing sentiment. Glancing at my hand, the ring glistened upon its rejuvenated digit. It didn’t feel right. I slipped it off and handed it back to Mum.
“Oh, shut your beautiful young face,” she said, smiling. She replaced the ring on her finger where its light dimmed once more. “Here it is, the deal: When I die, the ring is yours, but only if – you’re humouring me, remember – only if there’s an afterlife. If there’s not and I’m just worm food, you never see the ring again.”
A jet of smoke burst unbidden from my nostrils. The premise of it was absurd; the outcome in either instance was unverifiable. I stared at her, tried to divine a sense of her overall purpose. She was a closed book, my mother, always had been, revelling in the sneak peeks she afforded those most eager to read her.
“Mum …” I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more, the morbid nature of it all, or the fact that, as an atheist, Mum was essentially wagering against my inheritance. “That’s just stupid.”
She took a deep drag on her cigarette, dropped the butt into the empty bottle with an expiring hiss, then told me she was dying.
* * *
A brain tumour. Inoperable and growing aggressively. She lasted three months more. At the crematorium, I watched as the service came to a close and her casket passed through a curtain at the front of the chapel. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! The line from The Wizard of Oz popped into my head and caused me to smile.
Grief lingered, as it is wont to do. John helped where he could: cooked meals (oven food: his speciality), took up more of the slack with the housework, the legal headaches. When I spoke, he listened patiently. He tried not to tell me how to feel. Until our meeting with the solicitor, the question of the ring – it being on Mum’s finger or not – had not occurred to me. It was, after all, just a ring, not even all that pretty.
The meeting itself was uncontentious. I was the latest in a line of only children and so, barring a couple of charitable donations to local animal shelters, we would be spared any legal wrangling. Mention of the ring, however, was conspicuous by its absence. Recalling the ridiculousness of Mum’s wager, I resisted any theological conclusions. It proved nothing. But it rankled nonetheless. Had she really taken it to her grave? The notion struck me as selfish, not in the spirit of an heirloom. But then, didn’t they remove jewellery before cremation? So just where the hell was it exactly?
Six weeks after the funeral I signed for a package. “Fair warning,” said the Hermes deliveryman, “it’s heavier than it looks.”
It was a safe, small but weighty, the sort you see in hotel rooms for storing passports and, well, jewellery.
“You think it’s the ring, don’t you,” said John, walking around the coffee table where the box now sat, as though he were interrogating a suspect. Not a strong look for a landscape gardener.
“Is there any question?” There was a numbered keypad and a strip of screen – **** – waiting for a four-digit code. I picked it up and shook it side-to-side. Silence. “What is she expecting me to do?” The present tense felt foolish. Then again, there was a chance, however remote, that she was watching, chuckling at our befuddlement.
“Try some numbers,” said John. “Birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing. Knowing your mother, it’ll be the date she died.”
Insensitive but true. Difficult to arrange, though. 2405. A message ran across the screen: Two attempts remaining.
“Shit,” said John, summing up.
Weeks passed as we waited for further instruction, a nudge in the right direction. But none came. The safe, in situ atop the coffee table, remained untouched. Untouched, but never far from my thoughts either. Inside that impenetrable steel case was a piece of Mum that needed to get out, that couldn’t breathe. The ring, at first no more than an idea inside my skull, grew and acquired form, substance, and significance. I wanted, needed, it out.
“I have tools,” said John. “I could bust it open.”
An obvious if inelegant solution. But it was Mum we were talking about. Handle with care; she deserved that much.
We had searched Mum’s house top to bottom, excavated every cupboard, every chest, every drawer of infuriating miscellany. Pursuing some semblance of a clue. It wasn’t like Mum to frustrate for the sake of it; she was fun-loving, certainly, a joker even, but never cruel. This scheme, this game, as she’d termed it, had started to feel like cruelty.
* * *
The psychic’s house was, appropriately enough, a mid-Victorian terrace. Narrow, tall, a town-house; purple door, brass knocker and letterbox, a sign safety-pinned to the wood: No nonsense calls. I hoped, for my own sake, that the notice didn’t apply to the spirits.
What other way was there to prove the existence of an afterlife? Short of Mum’s ghost appearing to me in person – a hideous thought – I could see no alternative way forward. I had spent the previous month refusing to engage in her gameplay, but the safe had by now acquired a talismanic quality. Truly it had become a lightning rod for all my anxieties and was obstructing any useful grief taking place. No closure until the box was open. A pithy little dose of self-delusion.
I found Jane via Facebook, a local woman with “no husband but two adorable cats”, her profile stated proudly. I had warmed to her instantly, even while regarding her profession with the severest scepticism. Seems that in spiritualism, as in life, sometimes the biggest clichés are the most reassuring. She invited me in and led me through to the living room where a pot of tea and two cups stood ready. Expecting me? Yes, but then appointments are handy like that.
Sage green walls, exposed hardwood floors, a mellow fragrance of jasmine, trinkets and doodads and statuettes on every surface; the windowsill, a coffee table, the shelves of a bookcase. A framed certificate hung on the wall. Jane was certified by the British Society of Parapsychology, a fact that I found – ahem – encouraging. In one corner stood a stack of identical books: Gifted: Communing with the Other Side. At the table, I sat opposite their author.
Tall and narrow to match the house, Jane was shoeless and loosely clothed. No less elegant for it. With her hair silver and thick, there was a grace to her, the beauty of tried and tested self-confidence, hard won over many years. Her voice was soft.
“You understand, Bryony, that it’s an inexact science.” This after I had spent twenty minutes and a pot of Earl Grey telling Jane all about Mum. I didn’t regard it as cheating. I wasn’t here to test Jane, I wanted to assist her as much as possible. “Your mother might come through clear as a bell, or she might not. I don’t control it. I’m just a channel.”
Curtains drawn, candles lit, we held hands, each of Jane’s adorned in colourful, many-shaped rings of their own. Between us stood a solitary crystal, a light blue pyramid. Something to do with energy.
We sat for forty-five minutes, the spirits’ silence punctured now and then by Jane’s imploring tones. Did I grow impatient? Did my hands begin to sweat and spasm in hers? Did my scepticism threaten to morph into cynicism? Of course. But there was a sincerity to Jane that prevented me. I had read about so-called “cold reading” before making the appointment – the devious art of mining your client for information without them realising, then parroting it back to them as though it were revelation. Jane tried none of it.
Withdrawing the curtains to the daylight, she said, “I’m sorry, Bryony. Really, I am. We can book another session, but I understand if you’re not interested.”
No sign of Mum. Correct in her atheism, then; the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. “Is it okay if I think about it and let you know?”
“Of course,” said Jane. “And today’s session is half price, as promised. Honestly, I’m as disappointed as you, Bryony, if that isn’t a terrible thing to say.”
I felt bad. Jane was evidently an honest woman. Would her faith be rocked by this failure? Or, to her, would it be the exception that proved the rule? Not that any rule has ever been proved by an exception, of course, but pliant logic is still logic, of a sort.
“How much for one of your books?” I asked.
Jane brightened. “Should be £9.99, but it’s £4.99 to you. I’ll write you a receipt, for the session and the book together. I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be amazed how many businesses come to me for help. It’s tax deductible, depending on how you phrase it.”
* * *
John thumbed the pages of my new purchase, scoffing over the passages he deigned to read. Satisfied, he tossed it onto the coffee table beside the safe.
“I wish you’d let me get my tools. We could be done with this in ten minutes.”
A look passed between us. If there was no afterlife, I didn’t get the ring. That was the deal.
“At least try guessing the code again,” he said. “You’ve got two more goes. When was her birthday? November twenty-first, right?”
He punched in the numbers: 2111. One attempt remaining.
“Stop!” I said, batting his hand out of harm’s way.
“It’s ridiculous, Bryony,” he said, huffing from the room. “I’m getting a screwdriver.”
I slumped back on the sofa, exhausted and defeated, the safe and the book now twin pillars, mocking me. I dug into my pocket and plucked the receipt. One failed séance, one volume of pseudoscientific hokum: £34.99. Good money wasted.
But as I stared at the receipt, a thought occurred to me. Or rather, four numbers did. I pulled myself upright and onto the floor, kneeling before the safe. I entered the numbers.
3499 … Click!
Matthew Twigg lives in Oxford (UK) where he works as an editor for an academic publisher. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Fiction Pool, Penny Shorts, Dream Catcher, East of the Web, Gold Dust, decomP, Scarlet Leaf Review, formercactus, The Hungry Chimera, The Big Jewel, and Hypnopomp.
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