Shortlisted for the Mind Writing Competition 2019
Audio version available here
Sometimes I wonder if I’m cursed.
The way I’ve been passed along from person to person, like a nasty cold, you start to get a complex.
Not that it matters any more. I’ve been left somewhere frigid and dark, although dark doesn’t feel like a big enough word to describe the complete absence of light down here. It’s turned me brittle over the years, with no one to shine for. I don’t know how long I’ve been here exactly - time doesn’t seem to reach this low - but I would wager a long, long time.
My neighbours are colourful characters, always bickering and bundling into one another, eager to get where they’re going. By now they’ve learned to leave me alone. I’m not useful to them. I wasn’t made for this place.
Let’s go back a bit, so you know how I got here.
The sky was bruised pink and purple as the sun retreated over the horizon, so plump it looked like a fruit about to burst. And it was warm. Deliciously warm. I remember thinking, no one could be sad in a place like this.
When I looked up though, I knew that wasn’t true.
Her face was tragic, with alpine cheekbones and a downturned mouth as if she had been born with a secret. That’s what drew people towards her - that kind of soberness was magnetic. Everyone assumed she had the answers to their questions. Over the years, she’d learned to wield this power, taking what she needed from others without ever having to give back. Being invited into her orbit was enough.
But now there was something new, something different, that I’d never seen before. She was sad. So, so sad. And she was staring at me like I was the root of all her problems.
I longed to tell her it was okay, that when she looked at me I only wanted her to feel joy. She stroked a manicured hand over me, and I began to panic. I knew the past few weeks hadn’t been easy on her, and if I was perfectly honest we hadn’t gotten off to a roaring start either. But had it really come to this?
‘I can’t do this,’ she trembled. ‘I can’t.’
That’s fair enough, I thought. But don’t take it out on me.
The problem was that we’d met under difficult circumstances. A demanding father, an unsuitable suitor, and for the first time in her life no room to negotiate. I still remember the look on her face when she first saw me. Surprise, a flicker of lust, but ultimately disappointment. Once again, I’d let down another woman who expected more.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.
She slid me from her finger and hurled me into the ocean.
I drifted aimlessly, beholden to the current which mercilessly whipped me about. At one point I caught myself on the limb of a coral, which I didn’t mind so much. It was colourful there, peaceful. But it didn’t last long. I soon found myself being sucked deeper into the ocean, hurtling further away from the light, until eventually I found my way to the bottom.
And that brings us up to now.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about why I ended up here. Maybe it’s for the best. Too many times now I’ve looked into a girl’s face and seen her become a woman begrudgingly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met many who were delighted to see me, who wore me with great pride, but it’s the sad ones who have made their mark. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m not happy to be here, but I understand why I am.
At least things can’t get any worse.
Oh. Oh no.
Someone has taken an interest in me. He’s a big brute, with a bulbous head and vacant eyes - if he had even a drop of sense he’d leave me alone. I’m clearly not food, and nothing he could build a home with. Be on your way, nothing to see here.
He hovers in a circle, prodding me with his short snout. I’m surprised he even noticed me, camouflaged among the weeds. Still, I’ve grown used to being alone, and I don’t appreciate the company now.
And then, just when I think he’s grown bored, the dumb thing goes and eats me.
I slide along the carpet of its tongue, rugged from years of gnashing bones. With luck, I manage to avoid denting myself on rows of yellow teeth, sticky with morsels of trapped food. Down I go, through the monster’s rancid gullet and into its belly. The creature seems to wrestle with the reality of eating something so odd, and for a moment I’m hopeful it might spit me back up, but instead it thrashes its fins and takes off.
I must be cursed.
It’s odd, being on the move again after so long. I haven’t got a clue where we’re going, but then again it doesn’t make a difference. One side of the ocean isn’t any different to the other as far as I’m concerned. The undulation of my captor’s tail as it cuts through the water is oddly soothing, although it disturbs my new neighbours, half-digested carcasses who slap me as they roll about. So far they haven’t made for stimulating conversation.
By now you must be thinking my life is an unfortunate one - and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But let me assure you it wasn’t always this way. I was made before you were born, when the world looked very different, by a man in love.
I learned his name was Jim and he worked in a factory that made the skeletons of buildings. He had worked there since he was very young, having never been to school, though I still think of him as one of the smartest people I’ve known. Unfortunately, the rest of the world disagreed, including the parents of the girl he’d loved since he was a boy. Jessica. For some reason, it didn’t matter that she loved him too - it was forbidden.
But where would we be if the young always did as they were told?
So Jim forged me in fire, hammering my body into shape, filing my skin until it was smooth and shining. Finally, he crowned me with a single pearl taken from one of Jessica’s earrings. The first memory I have is of her face, crying and laughing and holding me like I might still burn her.
Afterwards, they ran away to the country and found a small house to live in. Jim found another place to work where he could put his skills to use, and Jessica made a little extra by washing clothes. They were never rich, which often worried him - he was certain Jessica would eventually become bored with this life and go back to her old one. He was wrong. Happy years went by, giving them laughter and tribulations and children. And I was there to see it all.
Their son, James, inherited me when Jessica died. He offered me to his sweetheart, who in turn disappeared overnight, selling me for money to buy her passage overseas. After that I went to a woman who wanted a family but never got one; a woman who lived a long, happy life; her daughter who didn’t; a little girl who kept me in her jewellery box, never really knowing what I was for; a woman who became a movie star and met the most fascinating people, from famous gangsters to the Pope. So, you see, I’ve lived more life than anyone ever will.
Even now, in the belly of an ugly fish, I can’t wish any of it away.
Suddenly, there’s a terrible sundering and I’m thrown from one side of my captor’s stomach to the other, the floor and ceiling interchangeable as I spin. There’s a growing pressure which becomes impossible to ignore - it feels as if the walls of my cage are getting smaller, closing in. And they are! There’s a wet noise as it’s finally torn apart and I come face to face with a row of even larger and more yellow teeth.
Ribbons of blood are sewn into the water, staining it maroon as this new contender feasts. Being eaten by this one won’t be any fun. But as he continues to crunch and tear, I realise I’m floating away, drifting further from the line of fire until - yes! - I’m on my own again.
I expect to sink back into the dark, but the water is churning excitedly, carrying me along on its back. Just once I’d like a say in where I’m taken, who I’m eaten by. Is a little peace and quiet too much to ask for?
I’m so busy being catapulted back and forth that I don’t notice it at first.
The light. The warmth.
I’ve been spat up somewhere shallow, where colourful fish blend in with the reef to hide from sea turtles, circling lazily above, and starfish flex their limbs, hungry for clams. I land gently on sand which is soft and fine and scattered with the vacated shells of molluscs. For the first time in a long time I feel myself shine as the sun, tantalisingly close, picks out my angles and edges. I feel beautiful.
A shadow sweeps over me. At first I think it’s another turtle, come to take a look, but then I get a better look at the shape, the self-entitled limb with appendages that wiggle greedily. And even though I know it’s better to be found like this, I wish I could rest for a little while longer.
Water drips from me as I’m hoisted into fresh air.
‘Look at this, Mark.’
‘Blimey. Looks old.’
‘My aunty works at a jewellery shop in town - let’s take it over, see what she says.’
‘Alright, but don’t forget I’m the one who found it, yeah?’
‘Charming, mate. Come on, let’s head back to the boat.’
I watch the water shrink away from me as I’m jetted back to land, and even though I’ve spent so long waiting for this, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve lost something, like saying goodbye to an old friend.
He’s nervous, I can tell. I am too. It’s been so long.
There’s no point trying to predict what will happen, I’ll only spook myself. But I’m back in the dark now, and I don’t like it, makes me nervous.
He bought me two weeks ago, and ever since then has been waiting for the perfect moment to bring me out. There was a dinner a few nights ago which went well. I was sure that would be the night, but in the end the waiter had spilled their bottle of expensive wine and spoiled the mood.
He’s kept me in his jacket pocket ever since. It’s given me time to get to know them. I listen to their muffled conversations in my box, trying to build a picture of the woman he’s fallen in love with, what makes her laugh, what makes her cross. She’s a nurse and takes great pride in her work - he sometimes visits her at the retirement home and brings her lunch. They sit on the pavement outside the building eating their sandwiches, he dutifully laughing as she gossips about her funny patients.
Today he’s asked her to go for a walk. I can feel his heartbeat next to me, drumming a fierce tattoo as he works up the courage to ask her the question. But every time he opens his mouth to say something, she beats him to it, regaling him with more work anecdotes or to compliment the scenery. It’s a warm day and she asks him why he’s wearing such a heavy jacket - ‘You’re sweating. Gross!’ - but he shrugs, tongue swollen in his mouth.
I’ve forgotten how much I’ve missed this.
Eventually they settle on a bench. His heart is beating harder now, his leg bouncing spasmodically. His nervousness is infectious. I wish the best for them, but I wish the best for me too. If she turns him down, he might throw me away in anger or shove me at the back of a cupboard or sell me on, when all I really want is to sit on this nurse’s finger.
‘Couldn’t have picked a better day to do this,’ she says.
‘Y-yes,’ he stammers in return.
‘You’ve been acting funny all day. What’s wrong, are you coming down with something?’
‘No. I’m just...getting ready.’
‘Getting ready for what?’
His hand moves towards me.
‘I want to ask you something. I’ve wanted to ask you it since the day we met.’
His fingers close around me.
He opens the box and the sunlight makes me shine, refracting onto the face of a young woman whose smile is shining brighter.