The Weekend Read

We All Know About Desire

By Regi Claire



26th Jan 2018

We All Know About Desire
‘We all know about love and hatred…’ Read ‘We All Know About Desire’ by Regi Claire…

Truth, well, it comes in all shapes and sizes, doesn’t it, in all colours. What’s black at night might be blue in daylight. So who can accuse you of lying if you say the flower was black when you pulled it off its stem at an ungodly hour and crushed it underfoot for its ungodly colour? As for what’s real, that too depends.

Let’s say the story starts somewhere in northern Italy, with a coach-load of pensioners and divorcees, footloose and fancy-free, inside a chapel. They’re waiting for the sixty-something pixie-petite with spiky red hair. As they wait, they admire the thousand-year-old mosaics – a peacock’s plumage, its fake eyes rimmed in hypnotic shades of lime and apricot. Two turtle-doves, grey as nuns, inspecting each other across a chalice. Holy water? Above them all, Saint Catherine: her haloed face meek yet full of certainty. No wink, no blink, no room for doubts, except perhaps between the cracks where the saintliness ends and real life seeps in, leaking along the tiny grooves between the tesserae.

But here she is now, our new custodian, flamboyant as usual in a turquoise blouse and white bell-bottoms: Pixie Woman.

“Sorry I’m late,” she cries, with a smile that takes in the twenty-three of them (number twenty-four, an elderly widow and gourmet, has opted to stay behind at the hotel for a leisurely breakfast of Panettone, quail eggs and Parma ham). “This is my excuse.” Pixie Woman holds out a smooth, slender hand, showing the ring to the tour guide first, the ring that has drawn us to her: an antique rose ring made of gold, petals clustered tightly round the ruby’s liquid glow. “Spotted it in a shop window the evening we arrived, and for the past few days just couldn’t keep away. Sinfully expensive, but worth the price.”

Cooing, maybe a little envious, the other women flock closer; the men stay put, trying to preserve their dignity as they stretch their necks.

Would Pixie Woman have bought the ring had she been told its secret? The tour guide has guessed, though. We saw him flinch. A trained art historian with an Italian mother whose bloodline reaches back to the Medici, he is familiar with all sorts of stories. Yet does he believe them? What else is belief but fear of the unknown, made palatable?

A week later the coach party has returned to the other side of the Alps, back to the old merchant city on the Rhine that owes most of its wealth to its pharma industry.

The following Sunday, Pixie Woman invites her three grown-up children round for lunch, ostensibly to give them each a small present from her trip; a slim, beautifully packaged bottle of a 20-year-old vintage balsamic vinegar from an exclusive producer.

Before serving her homemade dessert, a hibiscus-flavoured panna cotta, Pixie Woman raises her glass of Oeil-de-Perdrix in a flourish that sprays a neat circle on the linen tablecloth. “Guess what?” she says and, ignoring the spreading pink stain, brings out the ring from under a hollow candlestick.

“But Mama, you’ve got dozens already and only ten fingers,” points out the eldest, a pale girl whose work as a lab technician has drained all the colour out of her.

Pixie Woman just smiles. She is used to her daughter’s utilitarian attitude.

“Leave Mother be,” retorts the son. “She can do what she wants with her pension. After all, it was her hand-modelling that kept a roof over our heads.”

Pixie Woman smiles again, glances down at the perfect almond shape of her nails painted crimson. She’s been able to count on her son ever since her husband’s early death.

The youngest, another daughter, with her mother’s long, elegant fingers, says simply, “That’s the most amazing ring I’ve ever seen, Mama. Please, may I take a look?”

Passing it to her, Pixie Woman blows them all a kiss. “My last purchase, I promise. Made for wearing, not for languishing in a poky box, silk-lined or not.”

But we all know, don’t we, that with the right incentive, anyone will give in to desire, even Pixie Woman. When the flames are fanned, it’s hard to put out the fire.

For as long as she owns the ring, we shall remain with her – that’s our promise. “Too much dust,” she’ll exclaim as she wipes down her Venetian blinds, yet again. “Where is all this damn dust coming from?” Muttering to herself while running a damp cloth over window sills, shelves and chests of drawers. Never once associating it with the ring on her bedside table, its gold petals winking sleepily in the light.

 

Catherine lives in another merchant city – the biggest in the country – about an hour’s drive to the south-east, a city famed for its banks, jewellers, chocolate manufacturers and eponymous lake with its very own ‘gold coast’. Catherine is a woman in the here and now. A former insurance assessor, she hails from a world of greed and trickery, of rising premiums and exclusions in small print. Finding flaws in claims and claimants used to be her stock in trade, once upon a time. But not anymore.

After her husband, who was a good deal older than her, retired from his post as a CEO to spend the rest of his life on one of the manicured, super-expensive golf courses out of town (doubtless in the company of a former secretary), she told her boss she’d had it with the insurance business: she was going to fulfil one of her girlhood dreams.

Wouldn’t we have all liked that! Reached for the stars. Followed our hearts. Traversed the seven seas and scoured the five continents to find the secret before it found us. Before it yoked us together, forever and beyond. The secret, whatever it may be.

Catherine decided to buy a shop. And not just any shop. You might have expected that the years of assessing endless claims for allegedly lost or stolen earrings, necklaces, pendants, brooches, bracelets, watches, rings had killed her love of bling and glitter stone dead. Instead they had only fed her craving. Fattened it to bursting point. So when a certain hip little jewellery shop in the old town, near one of the bridges across the gooseneck of the lake, came on the market, she didn’t hesitate. Not even on being informed by the estate agent that there was a proviso – a proviso omitted from the contract because it had nothing to do with a legal document.

“More like a handshake sort of thing, you know.” The man had shrugged and looked away. “Trust and honour and all that jazz. Probably some kind of cultural custom; the owner’s from Ghana.”

Showing her to the door, he had suddenly grinned, a jittery grin more akin to a grimace. But maybe that realisation had come to her with hindsight.

Well, hindsight’s a luxury, isn’t it? An indulgence. Too late for us to change anything. Much better to be armed with foresight, preferably second sight. As for trust and honour, gone out the window long ago, at least in these latitudes. So here’s to scoundrels and conmen. To magicians and enchanters. To those who get away with it.

 

A few days after seeing the estate agent, Catherine set off to discuss terms with Mr Ansong, the shop’s owner. Late March it was and the sun a menace, so sharp and silvery-bright the lawn in front of her house had a metallic sheen – as if a million shiny blades were crammed inside the fence.

She had suggested meeting at Kafi Schnaps, a former butchers turned trendy bistro-café – original white tiles, modern bar and clean home-cooking with a topspin.

“The patisserie here’s to die for,” Catherine said when they were ready to order, ‘especially the Spitzbuebe and Meitschibei.”

“Pardon?” Ansong stared at her.

For a moment, his ebony head reflecting and, perhaps, rejecting the light put her in mind of a tribal totem, unfathomable, pitiless.

She pretended to laugh it off. “Oh, they’re just names. ‘Rascals’ because the biscuits resemble faces; they’ve got little holes filled with jam, a bit like eyes and mouths. And ‘girls’ legs’ because they’re curved, I suppose, and filled with a delicious hazeln–”

“Horseshoes, more like,” interrupted Ansong. “We’ll get one each for luck.”

“No Spitzbueb for you today, madam?” the waitress inquired. Catherine shook her head, indicating Ansong. The waitress pocketed her pad. “Next time you’re in, have two,” she said with a wink.

It was after he had finished eating his ‘horseshoe’ that Ansong told Catherine she could have the shop, “on one condition.” His voice was so taut it seemed to vibrate. “Don’t ever, under any circumstances, sell or dispose of the small mahogany cabinet in the back room, nor of any of the African jewellery inside. That cabinet with its contents belongs to the shop.” He sipped some coffee before continuing in a near-whisper. “Think of it as a dog. A sleeping dog. You don’t like dogs? Well, never mind. It isn’t a real dog, anyway.” His eyes had fastened on hers, his pupils like black holes that sucked in matter. She thought she could feel her mind beginning to wrench loose. Or maybe they were snake eyes hypnotising her? Finally he nodded and said, “You’re in agreement? Yes? Then let’s shake hands.”

Why? she wanted to ask. Why should I keep something that isn’t mine? That I have no use for? It’s ridiculous! But all she could say was “Why can’t you take it away with you, please?”

“My dear lady, either the cabinet stays or the deal is off. Many years ago I had to promise my father what you have to promise me now. He brought the cabinet over from Africa for safety, his safety and that of others.” Ansong gave her a grim smile. “So, no more questions, please. Let sleeping dogs lie.” And he stuck out his hand.

Perhaps she was too polite, too anxious not to offend a man whose skin was a different colour. Perhaps she was intrigued by the mystery of it all. Or perhaps she was, quite simply, overwhelmed by her craving for the shop.

Still, at Ansong’s touch, she felt a frisson of something; not doubt exactly, but a kind of wonderment mixed with unease. As if, she later told Zora, her best friend, she had just signed her promise in blood. But of course, that was afterwards.

The frisson was our doing. Our warning. It was all we could manage. Now that we are without real substance, signs and shadows have become our only language, our sole conduit of communication. The warning went unheeded. What remained was our hovering disquiet.

Catherine, on the other hand, rushed home excited, not in order to tell her husband or her sons, who at any rate were away golfing and being further-educated, but the lime-green squirt of a budgerigar Zora had given her for her birthday “to make you sing again.” She opened the cage door and the little bird came shooting out in a spray of fluff and seeds.
“I’m going to be the owner of a jewellery shop,” Catherine said, “a bijouterie.” The bird ignored her.

Sipping a cup of green tea, she allowed her imagination to strip Ansong’s shop of its tie-dye ethnic fabrics, then to redecorate it with organza-style wallpaper, near-transparent, opalescent, for that feel of understated cool. Budgie chirped and fluttered around the kitchen, flicking fresh specks of dust off the lampshade, playing catch with sunbeams and sudden cross-currents of air that seemed to come out of nowhere. Birds, you see, are aware of us, much as cats are aware of birds. On the window ledge outside sat the neighbours’ tabby; its yellow eyes never flickered as it watched the beating wings, gauging the delicacy of hollow bones and a joy-filled heart.

 

Pixie Woman has always loved markets, particularly flea markets. She still remembers the days when stall holders would shout to attract attention, hawking and praising their wares until they grew so hoarse they croaked like frogs.

Today is a Saturday in summer, warm but not too hot, and Pixie Woman has invited her youngest daughter along on one of her jaunts. She wants to buy her a present for her recent diploma as a yoga teacher. “How about this?” she keeps asking, “Or this?”

Rose ring flashing, she holds up silk scarves – in dazzling purplish blue, screaming green, acidic orange. Holds up ancient little hats with veils and feathers, Venetian masks and, her personal favourite, a heart-shaped silver locket that clicks open to reveal, pressed against its mirrored insides, a brittle lock of greying hair. At which her daughter gulps audibly and looks away.

Angry-hurt, Pixie Woman stalks off. “Let’s have an ice cream. I need to cool down.”

They join a cram of people in front of a wagon held afloat by bunches of balloons, where a man dressed as a clown dispenses soft-ice in giant cones painted with flowers. “I hope that’s food paint,” comments Pixie Woman, to glares of disapproval from parents whose children are happily scrunching away at the papery wafers.

“Perhaps you’d like to buy that locket for yourself, Mama?” the daughter ventures after several minutes of silence, between licks of ice cream. “I could do with a tea service to be honest. I saw a lovely one at that Women’s Aid stall we were passing earlier…”

The silver locket has been sold by the time they return. “Never mind,” says Pixie Woman. “We’ll go and get your tea service, and then I’ll treat you to coffee and strudel.”

The vendor, a man with liver spots, Lennon glasses and too-white teeth, stops her. “Excuse me, madam. May I take a look at your rose ring, please? I haven’t come across one in a long time. And yours is a very fine specimen.”

Pixie Woman is flattered. “I bought it in Italy recently. Couldn’t tear myself away once I’d laid eyes on it.”

“I’m not surprised,” the man replies. “Its history has a certain pull. All that death and intrigue.” The glint of his glasses conceals his eyes.

Pixie Woman frowns at him. “What do you mean? Are you trying to be funny?”

A couple of market-goers inch closer, ears straining while they feign interest in a display of curly-edged brooches and antiquated chokers.

“Not at all,” the vendor says calmly. “If you allow me, I’ll show you.”

Obliterated or, rather, obscured by the light, we watch unseen, unnoticed. Watch as the man reaches for Pixie Woman’s hand. Gripping it hard, so hard she can’t pull away, he lets one of the ring’s petals spring open – exposing the secret. The secret cavity that was our undoing.

Pixie Woman jerks away, towards her daughter, who has been standing transfixed.

The man chuckles. “Roses do have thorns, remember. This,” he pauses for effect, “is a poison ring.”

He wheezes slightly, and that’s when Pixie Woman realises he is much older than she first thought. There’s a tallowy quality to his features, as if they might melt and dissolve in an instant, only to reset themselves into an altogether different face. Uneasily she glances at her daughter. But the girl just smiles in that patient let’s-humour-Mother way she developed as a toddler.

The man murmurs, “Not to worry, there’s no poison now. That ring has been scoured, probably with ultrasound. Whatever murders it may once have committed, no one will ever know.” Again he wheezes. Then he laughs. Laughs so heartily his dentures almost drop out of his mouth.

 

Catherine fell in love with her bijouterie. Fell in love with the refraction and the rainbow sparkle, the curve of a bracelet on a wrist, the glinting tremble of a necklace against a collarbone. The way gold and silver blended with blonde or white, how they burned against red, brown or black. The exquisite feel of metal and gemstone against skin, cold initially, then warming up as they absorbed the body heat, some stones changing colour in the process, some metals causing blisters, rashes. Even this reaction, so physical, so visceral, seemed pleasurable. Not that she sold rubbish, of course. Cheap crap could be bought from the stalls along the river bank or on the lake front. After all, Catherine knew the value of things. Could have calculated the price of a single flake of gold to the third decimal. No, she wanted to be known for the special stuff. The stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else. The costume jewellery with a difference. Emerald-green kingfishers in flight. Silver geese with tiny glittering eggs nestling inside their bellies. Pebbles sourced from the Alps, polished to the pinkness of dusk on mountain tops, to the blue of ice and snow or the milky green of melt water. ‘Provenance’ was one of her buzzwords; Catherine was proud to be able to tell her customers where her jewellery came from.

The bijouterie flourished. Business got brisker as the summer ended and autumn approached with its wayward winds that skimmed and raced and bragged. Sometimes, as she lingered in the back room of her shop, enjoying an end-of-day vanilla espresso, Catherine sensed a disturbance in the twilight. I really must fit a draught excluder, she’d think, then forget again. She never once noticed the little whirls of dust. Those dervish-swirls that are nothing less than human debris in motion, bits of ancient skin and hair, filigree exhalations of breath. Nothing less than existence in a different form.

Meanwhile the locked cabinet, its carved designs and figures dutifully brushed by Catherine’s feather duster every so often, sat biding its time. Sat in its corner, deepening the shadows into something altogether darker, the black mahogany making it almost invisible.

Near-invisible, like us. We swirl-whirl endlessly; we dance, rise and fall; we chase and are chased in great puffing clouds that swell then subside, disperse into thin air. Always quiet, though. On very still nights, the occasional dog might lift its head, aware of a sifting softness as we settle for a short respite. Our numbers have grown over the centuries – until a few decades ago, that is. Since then, they’ve stagnated. The custodians have become more careful, it seems (or perhaps more fearful). They try to keep their rings safe from doing harm. But you never know: one mistake, one softening of the heart – or a hardening – and we may welcome another into our midst.

After her encounter with the waxwork man, Pixie Woman’s obsession had flared up with a vengeance. Something about that man and his laughter had made her itch. When she returns to the flea market the following month she does so alone. At first she can’t find him. Can’t remember where his stall had been, as if something is blocking her memory. That something is us. For a while we manage to hold her back and she is lost. She meanders, strides, rushes past vendors and flaneurs blindly, her loose sienna-red trousers flapping. Then, all of a sudden, she breaks through and there is the stall. She stops to wipe the sweat from her forehead. More lockets on display today, tarnished-looking. And mourning brooches. Jet. Onyx. Obsidian. Cameos in ivory and coral. Austere heads in profile, long dead.

The man moves towards her with outstretched hands, his eyes fastened on her ring. “May I ask you something?” she blurts out before he can speak. “In private?”

A couple of teenagers giggle, glance at her spiky hair and flamboyant outfit, then at the vendor’s pallid face. An image flits through her mind, of a witch consorting with a dead man. But she isn’t a witch, whatever stupid jokes those kids might be telling each other.

The vendor signals to a neighbouring stall holder to keep an eye on his stand, then gestures to her. “If you please. My workshop is just round the corner. A relief to get away from this glare.”

He brings out an embroidered handkerchief, takes off his glasses and dabs daintily at his face, which seems to have slipped a little, as if the sun is too hot for him today and has begun to melt his features. Pixie Woman almost expects the black of his hair and moustache to run like mascara, leaving behind streaks of dirty white.

“This way, please.”

He leads her into the drowsy half-shade of a courtyard overhung by balconies and the usual jumble of geraniums, tomato plants, limp flaps of washing, bicycles and languorous cats. In the far corner, some children are building castles in a sandpit while their chaperones chat on nearby benches. No knitting needles in sight, flashing mercilessly in the sun.

“How tranquil!” gushes Pixie Woman. Then she gets straight to the point: “About my ring… Tell me, are there many like it? I mean, rings with … with…”

“…a history?” He looks up at her as he unlocks the shop door, and his glasses catch the light.

She nods, but makes no move to follow him inside. “You see, I’ve always had this urge. It’s why I became a hand model. I adore rings.” Her voice has dropped to a whisper. “What you said about my rose ring… Well, it set me wondering if you knew of any other rings that are special. Unusual in some way.” Pixie Woman closes her eyes; she doesn’t want the man to see what’s there: speculation, greed, excitement.

Much later, weeks later, in fact, she has tracked down several of the contacts he had given her, unwillingly and only after repeated cajoling, on that soporific Sunday afternoon: people who know people who know people.

Ever since, she has tried hard to forget his parting words, but they won’t leave her in peace. They nag at her constantly, insinuate themselves into her dreams. They warp the summer sunlight until it buckles and breaks and lies in shards upon her floor. We all know about about love and hatred. About desire. But curses and warnings? They are a different matter. Nobody believes in them. Do you?

 

On All Souls’ Day, Catherine receives a phone call from a woman who sounds oddly nervous, although her approach is bossy enough. The woman, with the tell-tale accent of a neighbouring town, neglects to introduce herself and, after a perfunctory greeting to establish that Catherine is indeed the owner of ‘Bijou Jewellery’, dives straight in:

“I’ve been told you have some African jewellery. I’d like to buy one of the rings. Can I come and see you?”

How the stranger could have possibly heard about the jewellery locked away in her back room, Catherine has no idea. She has never told a soul about it, not her husband, not the twins. Not even Zora. Something has stopped her – embarrassment, perhaps, or unease. That she should agree to such a silly proviso. Which is why she has taken to covering the cabinet and its contents with an ivory-coloured flutter of silk.

“Well, I can’t stop you from visiting the shop,” she replies at last.

“But the jewellery? Do you have it?”

“If you’ll excuse me, I really must deal with a customer here. Goodbye.” Replacing the receiver, Catherine steps over to a young man who has been hovering by a display case of indigenous stones, fondling a string of crystal beads. “May I help you?”

Minutes after Catherine has gift-wrapped the necklace and wished the youth goodnight, the phone rings again.

“Don’t hang up,” says the bossy-nervous voice from before. “Tell me, please, do you still have the African jewellery? If not, who has it?”

Catherine feels herself shrink inside her skin, a little shivery all of a sudden. Those damn draughts, she thinks.

“Hello? Are you there?”

Catherine hesitates a moment longer, then says with forced nonchalance, “I’m sorry, I don’t sell any jewellery of the kind you are after.” She shivers a little less now, as if the draughts have stopped in mid-current.

“But do you have it?”

‘Those items aren’t for sale.’

The stranger sighs, rather theatrically. Then the line goes dead.

Catherine sighs too, with relief. That night she treats herself to two caramel cappuccinos before returning home to Budgie and her husband, who is watching a golf tournament on television, a bottle of Chablis and a half-eaten pizza beside him.

A week later, the woman calls again. She sounds rushed now and much more urgent. “I simply must have one of those African rings. I must.”

Catherine declines politely.

How proud we are of her! What a paragon of truth and steadfastness she has proved to be. What a custodian. Worthy of her sainted namesake. Almost. For we know well enough that truth hasn’t come into it. Fear has. Fear of what might lurk just out of reach, in the twilight. Fear of the unknown, plain and simple. Not belief. Catherine will never be a saint, not in this life, at any rate.

Over the next month the stranger phones at least twice a week. Always at different times, on different days. She tries to reason with Catherine: “No point in hoarding stock, surely? You’re a business, I’m a customer. One single ring is all I ask for.” She tries pleading and wheedling. She tries ridicule, tries intimidation: “Wait till I put this on Facebook; my friends will lap it up. And when the papers get wind of it…”

Catherine remains adamant. “A promise is a promise,” she says. “I promised the previous owner.”

“He’ll never know. Why would he be bothered anyway?”

“You don’t understand.”

“What’s there to understand apart from your refusal to sell me a ring?”

“You’d better be careful. This is harassment.”

The calls stop. A week passes. Catherine begins to breathe more freely. Then, shortly before Christmas, the now-familiar voice is back, in tears this time. The woman claims she can’t hold out much longer. That she’s been ill. Has lost her sleep, her appetite. “My birthday’s coming up on Boxing Day, and I hoped…”

Although she tries to resist, Catherine starts to feel sorry for her.

 

The following morning, a misty grey day, the woman turns up at the shop. Catherine recognises her at once, as if they’ve met before. And perhaps they have, somewhere in their subconscious, or in their nightmares. Stylish lapis wool cape, feminist stubble of hennaed hair, a face that sags in a tired, dejected sort of way, little hamster cheeks drooping on either side of the chin. And the most exquisite hands Catherine has ever seen. Slender and long-fingered in an almost elegiac way.

“What beautiful hands you’ve got,” she exclaims. “I wish mine were half as lovely. And that rose ring is stunning.”
The woman doesn’t seem surprised, just nods. “Well, my hands used to be my job.”

When Catherine looks perplexed, she adds, “I was a hand model. I modelled jewellery and watches. Cartier, Omega, Rolex, all the big names. But rings have always been my passion.” She pauses, holds Catherine’s gaze. “Unusual rings like this one.” She fiddles with the gold rose, flips open the poison chamber. “That’s why I must have one of your African rings. A gift to my hands for supporting my family.” And, in a lower voice: “I was widowed in my forties.”

Maybe if Catherine didn’t have such thick fingers herself (‘sausages,’ her mother used to lament), if she had a harder heart, if she hadn’t had a row with her husband that very morning, if he hadn’t stormed off to his poison-green golf course and his harem of ex-secretaries, if he hadn’t kept breaking his promises like the eggs he ate for breakfast every day, maybe then she would never have relented. But because of her sausage fingers, her soft heart and her skirt-flirt of a husband, she does. How couldn’t she?

Very slowly, reluctantly, she slides the length of silk off the mahogany cabinet, drapes it over a chair. Then she retrieves a small key from a shelf. The lock is almost invisible, disguised as the belly button of one of the delicately carved figures – a warrior king, possibly, or a medicine man. There’s a shriek as she pulls out the top drawer, the sound of unoiled wood on wood. But is it, really? Over the years, layers of black dust have accumulated and got trapped in the gap, effectively sealing the drawer shut. A protection of sorts.

The woman is smitten as soon as she sets eyes on the rings. The third one she tries on fits– “A good omen!” she cries – fits as snugly as if it had been made for her. And who knows, perhaps it had. Perhaps somewhere in the vast spaces of the African continent, in the shadows of Kilimanjaro or in the heart of the jungle, while the hooting of elephants made the air vibrate and their herd-trample shook the earth, that ring had been fashioned, expressly for her. A gold snake biting into its own tail. Solid and thick, with two diamonds for eyes.

The woman wants to offer Catherine more money, she is so grateful. So happy. “My best-ever present,” she says. Delight has transformed her face, has lifted her hamster cheeks and lent them the shimmer of youth. Her coppery hair shines as she leaves the shop. In the cobbled lane outside she pauses just long enough to give Catherine a wave, her new purchase on her finger.

Catherine sees the glitter of snake eyes before she realises it’s only the sun, which has finally burst through the clouds. One of its shafts has struck the gemstones like a mini-flash of lightning.

That day was Catherine’s busiest. With Christmas less than a week away, the phone kept ringing and there was a steady stream of customers: students, bankers, pensioners and tourists, and whores from the nearby massage parlours. By late afternoon she felt frayed, inside and out. Even her smile was in tatters. Then, a few minutes before closing time, she had another call.

A male voice. Police. “Do you know a Frau Salander?”

“Who? No.”

“Have you sold any jewellery today?”

“What do you think? This is a jewellery shop. Selling jewellery is what I do. Plus it’s Christmas.”

“Have you sold any rings?”

“A dozen at least.”

“African?”

“One. A gold snake with diamond eyes.”

“What did the customer look like?”

That night Catherine doesn’t sleep – nor will she sleep soundly again until her bijouterie has been sold, with a certain proviso which the new owner doesn’t hesitate to accept, the shop being such a bargain.

Two policemen had paid her a visit, after hours. They had inspected the cabinet and its contents. Yes, she confirmed again, the woman had spiky red hair. And yes, she had been wearing a blue wool cape and a distinctive, rather valuable rose ring. The policemen told her they had found that same woman, her hair black now with blood. No African ring had been recovered at the scene, only the receipt with the details of Catherine’s shop, tucked inside the victim’s purse, which contained various bank cards and several hundred francs. The rose ring was still on her finger. Frau Salander most likely hadn’t seen the blow coming as she walked home along a night-darkened avenue of plane trees. An avenue on which the tracery of the skeletal, wind-barren branches had painted a shiver of images of a witching hour unobserved and unheard – except, that is, by us.

We all know about love and hatred. About desire. But curses and warnings? They are a different matter. Nobody believes in them. Do you?