The boy had travelled more than four hundred miles to meet her. That was what she called him to herself, “the boy”, even though he must have been forty or thereabouts. What immediately impressed her, however, was his resemblance to his father, when he was far younger than his son was now: the same smile, the same physique and way of holding himself, and almost the same face; yes, she suddenly found herself looking at almost the same face, as if time had turned back.
She would have recognized him at once even if she’d met him somewhere else, in a different place or in different circumstances, rather than at that prearranged hour, in her house.
He seemed, therefore, terribly familiar, although the feeling was evidently not mutual. For him, she was a stranger and a matter of complete indifference. She sensed that no sooner had he arrived than he was longing for the visit to be over.
And yet she welcomed him as warmly and spontaneously as she would an old friend, inviting him to sit down and have a cup of tea. She asked if the journey had been tiring, and he said no, doubtless purely out of politeness and without saying anything more, allowing a brief silence to grow.
She had a thousand questions she would like to ask: what he did, if he had children, where he had studied, where he lived. She wanted to be able to place him in the world, to know who he was.
She suppressed that impulse though. She could not submit him to an avalanche of questions, at least not in that importunate way.
After all, she thought, putting a sugar lump in her cup (just to do something, because she never usually took sugar), if he didn’t want to tell her the reason for his visit straight out, he could, just to gain time, at least show a little interest, however false, in the elderly lady sitting before him. He could thank her for her warm welcome or comment on some detail in the living room, for example, the lovely children in the photographs right next to his tea cup. He could even ask if they were her grandchildren.
But that would be a personal question, which he would doubtless prefer to avoid.
Then she decided to leap over the barrier and advance resolutely into the private territory of her personal life:
“These are my grandchildren,” she said, moving one of the framed photographs so that it was facing him.
“Very nice,” the boy said politely, barely looking at the photo. “Really lovely.”
And he chose to continue in the same hesitant mode, rather than tell her the reason for his visit. He did not even mention the snow that was beginning to fall in light flakes outside the window. Perhaps he was waiting for her to do that.
But she would not speak about the snow. Southerners like her, she thought, tended to overflow with emotion with a frank, noisy ease that northerners like him envied, which is probably why they were always so critical.
In the end, she was the one to mention the snow, aware of the ridiculous inevitability of ending up talking about the weather, instead of speaking of the pleasure she took in his company, in the cosy, crackling fire, and the smell of strong tea, which the teapot kept nice and hot under the tea cosy she had patiently made last winter, a patchwork of various colours.
She waited for him to broach whatever banal topic might occur to him before he finally told her the reason for his visit, but he didn’t. And when she mentioned that it had started to snow, he merely nodded, adding that, according to the weather forecast, the snow would linger for several days.
Then he fell silent. Her presence clearly troubled him. He seemed annoyed at having to carry out this mission, whatever it was, and sit there with this complete stranger.
Then she decided to break the silence herself, to broach the topic and say how sorry she was to hear about his father’s death.
He looked at her, somewhat surprised.
“Oh, so you knew?”
“Yes, just by chance,” she said. “It was in the newspaper.”
The boy gave a deep sigh, as if he had been relieved of half his task, and he put his cup down on the table beside him. For a few minutes, neither of them spoke.
“He asked me to give you this,” the boy said at last. “In person. That’s why I phoned you a while ago and asked for a few moments of your time. And I’m very grateful to you for that, I really am.”
He then took a small package from his pocket and rather clumsily handed to her.
She untied the string, removed the paper and opened a small box: inside, was a ring set with a very pale blue stone. An aquamarine.
“It used to belong to you,” said the boy, as if some explanation were necessary. “My father wanted the ring to be returned to you. It was yours.”
“Yes,” she said, slowly picking it up and turning it around on the tip of one finger. “It was mine.”
She noticed with some amazement that it still almost fitted the same finger, even though her hands were now gnarled and arthritic. Her joints weren’t giving her much trouble just then, and she would only need to have the ring enlarged a little, hardly at all really, she thought, looking at the aquamarine, forgetting for a moment that the boy was there.
Then she looked him straight in the eye and smiled gently.
“I’m very grateful to your father for thinking of me. It was very kind of him to return it.”
The boy gave a faint smile, but still had nothing to say.
“And I’m so grateful to you for having travelled all this way just to give it to me,” she added. “In person.”
She stressed those words “in person”, and this time the boy smiled openly. Mission accomplished, he must have thought, because he was clearly relieved.
Now he would just have to say a few polite phrases, eat a biscuit as he took another sip of tea, and then he could leave, free of that awkward visit to an old lady he did not know and whom he would never see again.
The woman accompanied him to the door and held out her hand:
“Thank you,” she said, holding on to his hand for just a second longer than necessary.
He bowed slightly, then left.
She watched him reach the end of the road and disappear around the corner, without, of course, turning back to look at her.
Not that she wanted him to. All she wanted was to be able to watch him like that, almost secretly, without missing a single moment of the joy of watching every one of his footsteps, trying to memorize his shape, the way he moved.
She closed the door when he had disappeared and went and sat down in the now empty living room.
She switched on the lamp beside her and studied the aquamarine glinting on her finger. It was as if the stone had crossed the sea to find her, as if borne along on some unstoppable current, far more certain and far more rigorous than any human act.
It had returned to its proper place, which it would never have left if human beings were not as mad, erratic and unpredictable as dry leaves blown about by the wind.
Many years earlier, and against George’s wishes, she had chosen that ring from among all the other rings glittering on the counter. She had found the aquamarine fascinating and had fallen in love with both the stone and the name: that pale blue stone had a mysterious quality, much as they did. George had insisted she choose a different ring, perhaps thinking that she wanted it because it wasn’t too expensive, and they didn’t have much money at the time. An aquamarine wasn’t even a precious stone, he said, it was only semi-precious.
She had stood firm, though. “That’s the ring I want, George. And it wants to be chosen too. Just look how it’s shining at us.”
“I wish I could buy you a diamond,” he said, once they had left the shop, pressing her up against a wall and kissing her passionately. “The biggest diamond in the world.”
And she had laughed and kissed him back, holding him tightly to her, because all she needed was his love, and nothing else mattered; she could not have been happier with that ring, which was telling her: “I love you.” And it was a love as big as the sea.
So why had it got lost?
Or hadn’t it?
Perhaps they had continued to think about each other all their lives, even when they had each gone their separate ways, after she had left and never written to him again, because she thought they weren’t right for each other.
And yet, quite irrationally, she had continued to think about him.
And now he had come to tell her that he, too, had continued to think about her. That is what he had sent his son to tell her, in that silent way. The boy hadn’t needed to say anything or to know anything either. He didn’t belong to that story, except for that one fleeting moment. He had no words to say, no part to play. There were only two people on stage, her and George. In the end as in the beginning.
She poured herself another cup of tea, removing the tea cosy and feeling pleased to find that the pot was still nice and hot.
The circle had closed. The ring had returned to its proper place. Wherever she went, she would take it with her.
She looked at it on her finger, and smiled. It was a secret. She had never liked sharing secrets and that, the biggest secret of them all, would always be theirs alone.
If someone were to ask her why she never wore any of her other rings, she would simply say that it was the perfect ring to wear for every day, because it wasn’t that valuable and she could wear it while she was doing her housework. It wasn’t even a proper precious stone: after all, it was only an aquamarine.
Teolinda Gersão is a writer of novels and short stories. Her work has brought her major prizes in her native Portugal and has so far been translated into twelve other languages. Four of her novels have been adapted for the theatre and staged in Portugal, Germany, and Romania. Two stories have inspired short films and her recent novel, ‘Passagens’, is being turned into a feature-length movie. Her stories have been published in various American literary journals, with ‘The Red Fox Fur Coat’ being performed several times at New York’s Symphony Space in “Celebrating the Short Story”. Her first novel to be translated into English, ‘The Word Tree’, won the 2012 Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for Translation.
Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for nearly thirty years and has translated novels and short stories by such writers as Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, and Javier Marías. She has won many prizes, including the 2012 Calouste Gulbenkian Translation Prize for ‘The Word Tree’ by Teolinda Gersão, and, more recently, the 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Fiction in Translation for ‘The Adventures of Shola’ by Bernardo Atxaga.