I am walking around the Shambles market in Stroud on a Friday morning. It is a little piece of the past, this market: book stalls selling Orwell marked in shillings and pence and a series of illustrated ‘Life of the greats’ – Goethe and Victor Hugo, both of which I avidly study and realise that I have practically no room left in my life, due to filling my head with the details of someone’s life who I’ve met twice and am now friends with on Facebook. Also, my Aniston fascination (mainly – will I ever be that thin again?). There’s a man who puts out two giant cardboard boxes full to the brim with old and new watch straps, the matching pairs rubber banded together. Behind him, he’s selling various vintage gowns including a flowery terry towelling zippered dress in blues and greens and yellows that all my friends’ mothers wore on the beaches of the seventies when it never rained and the sun seemed to sit above our heads like a beautiful wish come true.
This stall sells old jewellery too. He has a fold out wooden jewellery presentation case which is lined with faded maroon velvet, and on it is pinned the costume jewellery of the past five decades. Hanging closer to him on silver racks are crystal necklaces, each marked up with white cardboard labels. Most say ‘1930s’ – the costume jewellery of that time is stunning. The beads are either facet cut or polished, in different sizes. Many are clear glass, some have the rainbow tones of magpie wing feathers, some are amber, yellow, blue. My grandmother always wore a crystal necklace – three stranded, with a rainbow tinge to the clear facets, the clasp 1920s in its style: art deco-ish. I see one, and think of buying it. But what for? I’ll never wear it. Taking it off its hook and handling it makes me ineffably sad. I almost tear up.
My grandmother was fearsome: a sturdy, 1930s type woman, the sort of woman that comedians like Groucho Marx or Abbott and Costello would laugh at. They had bosoms, rather than breasts, like the helm of ships. They made pronouncements about the state of the world in the butchers’ line. They carried umbrellas at all times, often under their arms like army Majors. On a Sunday, my grandmother, Hilda Millicent – cousin/Aunty Millie to her family – would dress in a Broderie Anglaise sari blouse, and a silk sari, normally in a muted colour: often deep grey or pinky brown. And always a three stranded crystal necklace, and a dab of Eau de Cologne 4711. She would put on her good leather slippers and sally forth into the hot Sri Lankan day, using a beautifully delicate umbrella as a parasol to protect her from the sun’s rays. On one of our trips to Sri Lanka when I was eleven, I remember driving to church on a Sunday morning, and seeing her walking down the street, on her way to the same place, and crying out excitedly – there she is, there she is! But my parents told the driver to drive on. She liked to walk. It would complicate our lives and hers to stop, I think they presumed.
She was formidable, but she was also tender and kind and shy of us as we got older and visited her in Sri Lanka, talking with our London accents and throwing our large limbed bodies around in a forward, brash manner. She taught me everything that I love: to read, to garden, to touch children’s heads with a full hand in order to still them and comfort them, to cook the food children like when they feel miserable, to squat down when talking to someone small, how to sew, how to draw and paint, how to pull a carrot intact, how to walk along next to someone without speaking, how to show love.
Touching the necklace in the market is electric because its cold. I was never allowed to hold my grandmother’s crystal necklace or undo the clasp or do it up again. I would touch the necklace around her neck perhaps once or twice in my life, and it was warm with the heat of her, and then my hand would be taken away. In the market I don’t undo the clasp but trace it with my fingers: she died when I was sixteen, and even now I cannot open it. Even now, I’m not allowed.