“Papa’s back, Papa’s back,” rang the chorus as the three children raced towards him. He picked them up with his big, strong arms and spun them around one by one as they shrieked with delight. She remained in the doorway, feeling for a moment that her mother was standing there behind her, but when she glanced to the side she saw only the empty corridor.
He walked up the path, his rucksack slung over his right shoulder, with the children skipping and prancing around him. Standing in front of her, he didn’t smile, but he did look deeply into her eyes. Then he shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly. She took a step back, another to the side, and this allowed him just enough room to manoeuvre himself through the front door and into the house.
This time, the knapsack did contain presents for the little ones, and he handed them out there and then. There were tiny trinkets which only children, or travel-muddled tourists, could enjoy. There was a camel-shaped keyring, a t-shirt with a picture of a tent, a postcard book of picturesque photographs and a plastic packet of strangely-shaped lollies, slightly squashed and leaking a little. The children clapped their hands with delight and took their loot to the kitchen so as to show it to Grandma. As they entered the kitchen, Grandma turned around from where she was standing at the sink, her hands dripping with sudsy water and a strange look in her eyes. Mother-in-law and son-in-law appraised each other at a distance and then their eyes unlocked and they all sat down at the dining table.
“This is for you,” he motioned to her mother, handing her a tiny package wrapped in brown paper. Her mother unwrapped it and discovered a small, soft, square of rainbow colour. It was embroidered in the most delicate and intricate of patterns, and between the threads were tiny beads and sequins arranged in a pattern of leaves and birds. He looked to her mother for a reaction, but she didn’t give him one, she just refolded the present and said “Thank you very much for this. Very thoughtful of you...I shall go put it away in my room before those kids put their sticky fingers all over it.”
Once her mother left, she felt a wave of relief pass over her, but she was still overly aware of herself in her mud-stained nightgown, sitting on the chair with hair still wet and dripping, and the feel of the jewels and the soil still on her fingertips. “I know how much your mother loves that sort of thing,” he said to her quietly, “you know, women’s crafts.” She looked at him a little closer and nodded. She thought to herself that perhaps he was trying very hard to say the right thing. He was trying to say the thing that he thought would make her happy. But he was dead wrong. This was no time for discussing arts and crafts. “Arty crafty talk,” she thought, “huh!” All those years she and her mother had spent finding colours and fabrics, sewing, knitting, crocheting and embroidering. Those patchworking years had long since become their shared ancient history.
Then the foolish, foolish man tried once again. He said, “How is your patchworking going? I couldn’t find it in the tent so I figured you had taken it with you.” Upon hearing this she stood up, pushed the chair back with a loud scrape, and leaned her two arms on the table, pushing down hard. She looked down for a moment, and then she raised her head to look at him hard and long, like the wild animal that she had become. “But I am not a patchworker, you stupid stupid man. I stopped collecting and connecting pretty bits and pieces a long, long time ago.”
His eyes glistened, and the duel was on. “Well, you certainly still like to collect colourful little trinkets, don’t you?” He stood up from the table now, and he leaned in towards her, “trinkets that do not belong to you!” She looked at him and laughed mockingly, “You really honestly believe that I stole someone’s jewels? Who? Who in that godforsaken place has any jewels? It doesn’t even make sense.” “Oh really?” he said, sarcasm dripping from his lips onto the wooden table, “How would you know anything about that? You ran away and left me to deal with it all.” “YOU dealt with it all?” she was now yelling at him. “Yes. I had to deal with it all. The accusations, the malicious gossip, the finger-pointing, the police investigation, the searches, day and night.” She just looked at him and shook her head and rolled her eyes, this stupid stupid man. Was he talking in metaphor? Did he really think that his boring, bland, cliched poetry would move her at this late stage of the game? The answer was no.
"Listen here, you ignorant fool," she said to her husband, "I didn't steal any jewels, but you know what? I am GLAD that I was accused, because if that is what it takes for you to come back home and give your children more than a few seconds of your precious precious time....well...then I will gladly plead guilty to the crime." At this, she thrust her two slim, moonstone-pale wrists towards him, "Here, here you go, handcuff me and lead me to the police-station. Let them sentence me to life. I will gladly spend the rest of my life in a tiny, dark cell if it means my children will have a father."
"You wicked, wicked bitch," he said, his eyes a deep, hurtful emerald glow, his neck muscles flexing, his hands shaking with anger. "You ASKED for a meaningful life, you BEGGED to get out of the house and away from the children." Tears came to her eyes, but she held them back. "Yes you did," he said while watching her eyes, knowing that he was wronging her with his words, and preparing for the next attack. "Yes, who was that woman who would call the surgery every day saying that the children were driving her insane? that being a mother was a life sentence? that she was losing her authentic self?" Her tears were pouring down her cheeks now, thin shiny rivulets of tiny diamonds, and so he went in for the kill, "And who was it you ran to for help? Yep, that's right sweetheart, good ol' Mummy, running back to Mummy, crying on her shoulder because you were born for better things than childcare, because you could save the world."
That was enough. The wound was as precise as it was deep, and with no doctor in the house who could fix it, so all she could do was turn and walk out the of the back door and into the garden. She felt him following her, and so she walked faster and faster across the lawn until she found herself up against the back fence, near the lemon tree. He walked right up to her and they stood there, one against the other, body to body, eye to eye, saying nothing. She blinked once, looked down, and noticed that he was standing on the freshly dug soil which she and Baby had used to rebury their cache. The weight of his body compacted the earth beneath it and pushed the treasure deeper underground. She took a deep breath and then another and yelled right into his face “But I am not a patchworker!!!” He just looked at her as if she was insane and took a step back away from her, bumping into Baby, who had sneaked outside without Grandma’s permission and was now standing with them at the garden’s end.
They both looked at Baby in horror. “Go back into the house this minute Baby!” he shouted, pointing a trembling finger towards the opposite end of the garden. But Baby didn’t move. Baby very bravely tilted his head up and looked at Papa and said in a scared little voice, “But you’re stepping on the jewels Papa.” She felt her heart miss a beat, and her face flush a ruby red, and she watched him as he slowly turned to look at Baby, and then at her, and then at his feet. He knelt down and bent his back until he was Baby's height and he looked directly into his turquoise eyes and he held his two little hands in his own rough large hands, and he said "What jewels am I standing on Baby?" Baby wrinkled his forehead and bit his lower lip and said "Oh no. Oh...It was a secret...Mama said it would be our secret...I'm sorry Mama." He looked up at her with tears in his eyes, and she knelt down as well, and told him that it really didn't matter, and he was a good little boy. But Papa had already stood up by then, and he was already returning from the shed with the shovel. The shovel which was still covered with the damp, dark mud of their morning work.
As Papa shovelled, Mama and Baby stood by, and in a few moments Grandma arrived as well, with the two older children. As expected, the hessian sack was discovered and brought up from the bottom of the pit. He unfolded it and opened it and peered inside. Then he put his hand in the bag and rummaged around. Then he turned it upside down and shook it long and hard. It was empty.
Mama looked at Baby, Baby looked at the sack, Papa looked at Mama, the two older ones craned their necks so as to get a better look at the pit. Then they all turned and looked at Grandma. Grandma stood there, tall and proud, looking at each one of them in turn with love and happiness. She reached into her trouser pocket and took out the delicate square of fabric which her son-in-law had given her earlier that morning, but it was no longer folded neatly, for it now seemed to be bunched around a hard round object. As she opened up the cloth, she held her secret treasure in her cupped hands, and then held it out for every member of the family to see. Baby drew in a breath of surprise and delight, "Oh Grandma, you have Mama's jewels!!!!"
Grandma laughed, and her laughter became infectious, so that one by one, they all started laughing. It felt so good and so right that they almost forgot about the jewels. Almost. Mama turned to Grandma and said "I don't understand." Grandma replied, "That's all right. You can't understand everything. Sometimes only a mother can know. Now...this cache of jewels, my darlings, this is not just any ordinary cache. No, indeed. These are birthstones, one for each month of the year, and they are not precious, nor rare, nor in any way interesting in and of themselves." Grandma took a deep breath, then continued. "They are souvenirs. They serve to remind us of the time when babies are born. These birthstones remind us of the years and months you three were born, and they remind me of the time your beautiful mother was born," and with that Grandma turned and looked at her daughter, "and it also reminds us of the day your wonderful Papa was born, because without those births all of this would be...it would be...it would be as dull as a simple cache of jewels."
With that final observation they all began to walk back towards the house. They left behind them the pit, the shovel and the hessian sack, and they took with them a cache of birthstones, hidden safe and deep in Grandma's pocket.