Sunday 6 July 2014


My mother is leaving the country for a year. Her partner has sabbatical; she has a year's leave of absence; their house is to be let, the car sold, and they're flying to London, via Hong Kong and Spain. "It was a pretty cheap flight," my mother explained. "No one wants to go to Spain via Hong Kong."

"Do you want anything from the house?" she asked. "Any heirlooms?"

If you knew my family, you wouldn't think we had any heirlooms - but a heirloom doesn't have to be a manor-house, it's just a thing, handed down.

I wanted the camphorwood chest, and said so. Part of the scenery of my childhood, I remember it holding dress up clothes: beaded saris, and a battered puipui.

A battered camphorwood chest.

"Your great-grandfather, Arthur Rayner, got that in the War. He was fighting up in the Khyber Pass, and had it shipped back, somehow."
"You mean he looted it," I said. "And how do you post things, in a war?" My mother shrugged.
"It was just something they did in those days," said her partner. "In a hundred years, people will be looking back at what we did in horror."

A scene of a battle on a camphor wood chest.

A dragon carved into the lid of a camphor wood chest.

A battle scene carved into the side of a camphor wood chest.

Rayner was the illegitimate son of a Duke. He was well educated, in France, and after leaving my great-grandmother and their only child during the depression, managed Bellamy's for some time. That's all I know of him: that he was a cad. I took his name by deed poll in my early twenties.

"That's not your grandmother's maiden name," said my mother, wrinkling her nose in horror. "It's your great-grandfather's name. You don't want some man's name. Why don't you take my maiden name instead? That was your grandmother's name too."
I gave her a long look. "How long do you have to argue about which one's a man's name?"
She laughed, realising. I never knew my grandfather either.

Before my grandfather, my grandmother's first love died in the war, at Guadalcanal. He was an American. The army had practised D-Day landings on the gentle shores where my grandmother grew up. After the war, my great-grandmother set up a camp on the land in decommissioned army huts, and it's still a camp ground today. I don't know the American's name. I don't know who remembers him.

"Besides," I said, "Rayner alliterates," and that settled the matter. The surname name I was born with alliterated too. My new name is even neater; six letters in each, and I like the rhythm of it: Ra-chel Ray-ner. My original surname was my father's name - another cad who doesn't deserve to have his name carried on. I guess sins dilute with time. I don't mind my great-grandfather's bad behaviour.

"There's this too," my mother said. We were standing in her empty house, everything stored away, ready for the tenants.
"I'd forgotten it existed," I said.

It was an ivory box, carved with elephants. Did I remember it sitting on my grandmother's dressing table, or did I remember it later in our home? I remembered the word I used to play in Scrabble, every game. P-y-x, pyx, a small precious vessel. Fifteen points.

"It's horrible," said my mother, "but what can you do?"
"Is it legal?" I asked, turning it over in my hands.
"To own yes - but not to sell. You may as well have it. It's not like we can give it back to the elephant. There's nothing to do but keep it."

Ivory is teeth, warm to the touch, organic feeling. I put it on my dressing table, next to the picture of my grandmother.

Once, I had commented idly to a man that I was jealous of my grandmother's beauty in that photo. Her hair, and those eyes. I think I have her eyebrows, something of her chin. He looked at her, and said casually, "You're hotter," as if it was a competition, as if my grandmother hadn't died at 86, the twenty-year-old in the picture long vanished to dust. My mouth is fuller, with a neat cupid's bow, and my nose is wider, not so long.

I have my grandmother's pearls.

"I don't know their story, I'm afraid," said my mother. "But I've had them restrung, so the clasp is very modern. It's magnetic." An offering, the beginning of a story I could finish. I turned them over in my hands, and put them on.

Pearls are biological, like ivory. The test for a pearl is to rub it gently against your teeth. If it feels gritty, it's real.  They are cool to the touch at first then warm rapidly against the skin, to blood temperature.

I am the youngest daughter: the pearls are my sister's by rights. For years this galled me, and I said so to Jesse. He bought me a string of pearls, the first Christmas we were together. I hadn't been expecting it, even though I had said I'd like some, and burst into tears. It's not a reaction I'd had to anything, before or since, and startled us both. "This doesn't - they don't mean -" said Jesse. We hadn't been together very long. Pearls don't mean anything. They aren't gold or diamonds. They're semi-precious, very affordable, as jewellery goes.

Nothing means, anything, unless we say so.

There's meant to be a danger, in putting things like this on the internet. What if some stranger sees, and sneaks in to burgle - what, exactly? A looted chest, ivory, pearls? A photograph? These things don't mean anything, to anyone but me. Who would buy a battered chest, a string of pearls of indeterminate age, with no story?

"It's good to hand these things on," said my mother's partner. "To the next generation." I was startled: didn't they mean to take them back, in a year?

These are the things we can do for the dead: we can bury them; we can forgive their sins; we can remember them.


  1. Rachel you have such a lovely way of putting things into words - such meaningful, difficult things to say but expressed so wonderfully. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    1. Awww, Lena, thank you for reading! That means so much!

  2. Wow, the chest in the top photo looks a lot like one that belongs to my Nana but has been in my parents bedroom for as long as I can remember.