I found a ring in Piccadilly Circus. I was in London for a short holiday with my husband and kept my eyes to the ground in search of whatever.
It was a cold day, although spring. The garden beds were chockers with flowers. Those wild ones I recognised from pictures I’d seen of European exotics. All blues, pinks and purple, a messy mix in great clumps alongside the yellow daffodils that stood to attention on windowsills and flower boxes everywhere. Resplendent colours across an otherwise grey/ green streetscape.
It was twilight and people carried umbrellas to keep out the occasional bursts of rain. A gloomy London streetscape that reminded me of something from Dickens, only there were white lights beginning to twinkle in anticipation of the dark ahead.
That’s when I saw it, there on the footpath, a heavy gold ring, with a flattened centre to make way for an initial or something. Only this ring held no engravings or stones. But it was gold. Or so I imagined as I snatched it up and thrust it inside my pocket.
My heart thumped for fear that someone might tap me on the shoulder and accuse me of stealing. Or at least of laying claim to something that belonged to someone else.
An ancient feeling that has dogged me all my life ever since the lolly stealing days of my childhood when the milk bar owner caught me in the act of snaffling a chocolate bar from the front counter and threatened to tell the police.
He did not report me, but instead, told my mother. She spared me the indignity of telling my father. Had she done so my fate would have been sealed. His punishment was fierce. The humiliation of a belting on the behind, naked bum for all to see.
Even as she kept my sin a secret, she shamed me out of ever stealing again, simply by reminding me that I was older than that. She was disappointed in me. She had expected it of my younger sisters, not of me. I was made of sterner stuff. Or so she reckoned all those years ago when I was ten and could not fully understand why I should not share in the spoils that the milk bar man kept on his front counter. When there were so many multi coloured bars and blocks of chocolate. What harm that I took only one a week?
I stopped stealing then but my preoccupation with finding things remains to this day. A preoccupation, ever on the alert to find something no one else wants. Only I see the value in it.
Later that evening my husband examined the ring. Back in the bedsit on the outskirts of London where we kept to our single room. The bed wore nylon sheets and pillow slips, the sort you slide off if your nightclothes are slinky. A silk nightie on nylon and in no time you’re on the floor. Economic sheets, my husband reasoned. Wash and wear in this inhospitable climate. And they’d take up less space in the washing machine. Still, they gave off an unpleasant stink, as though the imprint of the many bodies that had once rested on them was still there lingering among the fibres.
‘It has no internal engravings,’ my husband said. He bit into the side of the metal. ‘It’s not gold. Some sort of cast. Not worth anything.’
Easy come, easy go, as the saying goes, or in my case, not so easily gone. I was crushed. All the way home from Piccadilly rattling along in a train through the underground I had envisaged this huge treasure weighing down my pocket. I imagined I had found value enough to pay for our trip and more.
I slid my disappointment up my sleeve with the soggy tissues I used to wipe my wet nose in this cold country and looked forward to the next leg of our journey to France, to Strasbourg where we would meet my aunt and uncle and stay in a hotel whose beds would surely only use the finest linen sheets, and the ground, although cold, might offer up other treasures.
There on the train station, late at night, as we shivered in wait for the train that would carry us on our final leg I recognised the tell-tale colours of a scrunched-up piece of paper that could only be of monetary value. Only it turned out to be a Russian note to the value of two dollars Australian. By this time I considered my luck had finally run out. In places so far from home.
I had not known till then that to travel is to fill yourself with hope and expectations of all the wonderful things that might happen. All the amazing sights you might see. The extraordinary people you might meet. The return to your ancestors and their origins only to find none live up to your expectations. As my boss at a counselling agency where I worked, himself a dedicated traveller, once told me, ‘Whenever you travel, you are hellbent on survival. Where you sleep and eat matters more than anything. And every day, there are still twenty-four hours to fill.’
In your imagination time runs past in a flash, but in truth travelling is harder than being stationary in a familiar place. When you travel you are uprooted regularly and as much as you might choose this upheaval, it challenges your vestibular system to stay straight, to keep your head steady and your limbs intact.
If you ask me therefore, I tell you now, there is no value in travel other than the crystallisation of unrealised dreams. And a relentless search to find another you elsewhere. Which never happens. Wherever you go you take yourself with you.