Christchurch, 29 April 2011
Of course, there are rumours that there has been much more looting in the Red Zone than is being officially admitted, the lawyer in Christchurch said when I phoned him about my mother’s diamond ring, worth as much as a new European car, and last seen in a jeweller’s shop in Cashel Mall five days before the earthquake.
Then there was a silence.
There are rumours that it is the soldiers, he said.
There’s such a lot of property in there at the moment and no one really knows who owns it, he said. Most people have turned out to be very honest, he said. But some haven’t.
Realistically, I said, what do you think the chances are that my mother will get her ring back?
Nil, he said. You should make an insurance claim.
Sooo, I said, feeling free to speculate now that we had received our advice, what’s to stop the jeweller from keeping the ring, not telling his insurance company he has it, and selling the stone in Amsterdam?
Nothing, the lawyer said. I think you should make a claim.
He didn’t respond at all to my next suggestion that we could perhaps retain a member of a motorcycle gang to shake down the jeweller on our behalf.
After a long silence he said, let me know if you have any trouble with the insurance company.
Sometime in the 1980s my mother had inherited this ring.
A canny Scottish farming woman, doing very well, thank you, was the first owner of the ring. She was a big woman with strong hands. She wore the ring to church on Christmas Day and when she went to the races.
She kept the ring wrapped in cotton wool, in a round ivory box with a carved lid inside her wooden jewellery box on her dressing table which had been brought out from Scotland. Huge dark and shiny furniture. Carved edges. Solid brass handles. When she died, at the end of a good long life, she left the ring, along with her maiden name, to her daughter, who, when she died, left the ring to my mother. The huge dark furniture and the Highland flower name went somewhere else.
Himself, as the farming woman called her husband, had inherited one farm, and then he had four, and although he grumbled about the wharfies and their revolutionary tenden- cies and the effect of wage increases on the cost of shipping, over the years he made pretty fair prices on his mutton and wool. In his fifties he became ill with a disease that caused unbearable pain. A long sea voyage was prescribed. That and morphine. Knowing he would never work again, he gave the farms to his sons, who lost them almost immediately.
My mother wasn’t the sort of woman to go to church on Christmas Day or to the races, but for the sake of a farmer’s wife from Palmerston and a Highland flower name, which had by then been lost in a sea of men’s names, she would sometimes wear the ring. Mostly the ring lived in the ivory box with the carved lid, inside her plain modern jewellery box on her plain modern dressing table, its value something of a worry.
With my father lying beside her in bed, big and warm like a bear, she didn’t worry too much. But after he died she took the ring into town and, with a certain amount of formality, placed it in a safe deposit box at the Westpac Bank and there it stayed, in a cool dark box, for a decade or so. Late in 2010 my mother received a letter from her insurance company, saying that the valuation on her ring was out of date. The value of precious stone sand gold had been rising rapidly, the letter said, and she should have the ring revalued. What a waste of money having insurance, we said. Surely items in a safe deposit box in the vault of a bank could never be stolen. We thought this was quite funny. We did not consider that the building itself might become a pile of rubble.
My mother decided she should follow the advice of the insurance company and get the ring revalued, but there was a problem. Over the years she had lost the key to the safe deposit box. Some months went by, during which we turned out every corner of her drawers and looked for the key to the safe deposit box, but we never found it. We did find a number of keys for which we could find no locks, but that was no help.
17 February 2011
My mother paid a locksmith to come to the bank, had a new key made for the safe deposit box, opened it, took out the ring in its ivory box and put the box in her purse. Then she walked down a couple of streets to the jeweller in Cashel Mall. I’m not sure why she took the ring to this particular jeweller.
22 February 2011: Earthquake Day
Our main concern was her, but her main concern was her house, her cat, and the fact that there was no power, water or sewerage. I don’t know when she first remembered the ring – it might have been after a few days. It is also possible that she remembered straight away and spoke about it, but for a few days I wasn’t listening.
I do remember that we talked about it a few times during March. She would use a pragmatic tone. Oh yes, she would say, the ring is almost certainly gone, but it doesn’t matter really. People have had such terrible things happen to them. Then we would discuss those terrible things.
As time went by our discussions changed a little. We would each say that the ring was lost. I would say it was lost in the same way as I might refer to the scent of honeysuckle in an English country garden before World War I. She would say the ring was probably lost. It took me a few weeks to notice this difference, more time to realise that the person who should do something was me, and more time again to actually do anything.
In the meantime I attended a poetry reading at which a woman collapsed, took out a new mortgage and read books about sculptural representations of the Holocaust.
19 March 2011
I phoned the jeweller’s shop in Cashel Mall. There was no reply. I pictured the phone ringing in the Red Zone. Perhaps there were other phones ringing? There was an email address in the jeweller’s advertisement in the Yellow Pages, so I sent an email.
I don’t know how things are with your people and your business – I hope you are all alive and unhurt, and that you might be reading emails. My mother had a diamond ring in being valued on Feb 22. She has asked me to enquire about the ring. We assume it would be in your safe and that you can’t access it. Could you please
help us with any information on the ring? It isn’t as important as people, but it is of sentimental as well as financial value to my mother who is in her eighties. It would be great to hear from you
My email came back to me with a message saying the jeweller’s inbox was full.
31 March 2011
My mother read an article in the Listener about frustrated businessmen who were unable to get in to their businesses in the Red Zone because Civil Defence authorities wouldn’t give permission. Gerald (his real name), a jewellery valuer, also from Cashel Mall, was quoted. He found it hard to understand some business people taking a passive attitude, moaning about not being able to get in to their businesses, and meanwhile he had been in to his business three times, he said. My mother thought Gerald might know some- thing about the ring situation because his shop was near the jeweller. I thought that idea was a bit far-fetched, but said I’d try to contact him.
I looked up Gerald’s name in the Yellow Pages, phoned his business and the call was redirected to his cellphone which he answered. He told me he had been in to his business, got all his stock and computers, and had now moved his business into a new location in Papanui Road. I asked Gerald if he knew how I could contact the jeweller with my mother’s ring. He didn’t, but he thought perhaps he remembered valuing the sparkly old thing. He told me he would check his records in case he still had the ring.
He phoned back the next day and told me he had valued the ring on the morning of 22 February and returned it to the jeweller at lunchtime. He also told me the jeweller’s name was Ted (Gerald didn’t know his surname) and he gave me Ted’s home phone number.
Now there was a trail. My mother took the ring to the jeweller named Ted on 17 February. Ted sent one of his shop assistants, with the ring, to Gerald, the valuer across the road, on 18 February. Gerald took photographs of the ring and wrote up the new valuation on the morning of 22 February then he took the ring across the street, back to Ted the jeweller.
First published in Jenner's book Lost and Gone Away (Auckland University Press) in July 2015. This extract from Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016. Published with permission; thank you to Lynn Jenner and Auckland University Press.