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The Pearls

The pearl in this ring was found by Catherine Emslie’s mother, Ruby Smith of Hamnavoe, while baiting lines in the late 1920s.

After dinner, it was too wet for us to go out to play. My little sister sat at the table by the window, occasionally peering through the net curtains, as if looking for a change in the weather, but mainly she seemed to be engrossed in her colouring book. I sat on the stool by the fire, my slippers kicked off and my feet on the hearthstone, to keep warm. I was holding my book in front of me, but keeping an eye on Mam who sat in the chair opposite, counting loops in the jumper she was knitting. She’d got as far as the yoke and was preparing to set a Fair Isle pattern. What interested me particularly were the two sacks on the floor beside her; they were made from a soft white cotton and bulged with cloos.

When she’d finished counting, she removed the wire from her makkin belt and put down her work. She pulled one of the sacks closer and rolled down the top to reveal shades of fawn, brown, grey and white wool. Then she picked up the other bag and tipped its contents onto the floor. The round cloos spilled eagerly onto the mat, gold, mustard, lemon, peach; blues, pale, soft and mid-blue; gentle greens, a touch of red, not scarlet to scream at the others, but more subdued. There were duller colours too, deep red, indigo, navy and dark green. Leaving my book on the stool, I got down on my knees to help her select the ten or twelve colours she’d need for the yoke.

The more sombre hues lit up as they were paired with the brighter ones, a colour for the background and a colour for the pattern. I picked up her chosen colours and unrolled a length of yarn from each cloo before wrapping it round its partner to keep them together. She lined up the pairs in the order she’d use them, trying various combinations until she was satisfied with the overall appearance.

Once she’d made her final selection, we replaced the unwanted cloos in the bags and prepared to return them to the linen cupboard upstairs.

“Are you coming?” I asked Robina. She nodded, put down her crayons and slipped off the seat.

Mam went first, carrying one of the bags, then Robina and then me, with the other bag. We had to go in that order as Robina was too peerie to be allowed in the stairs on her own.

The linen cupboard was close to the top of the stairs. Mam opened the door and stepped inside. The cupboard always smelled fresh, a combination of distemper on the walls and the clean towels, tablecloths and bedclothes on the slatted shelves running up two sides. You couldn’t see what some of the stuff was as she’d laid it on old curtains which she had then folded up over, covering the contents of the shelf. I imagined those mysterious bundles were probably her “best” towels and bedclothes for the spare room.

The only bit to which we were allowed access was under the shelves, where cardboard boxes containing our toys and games were kept, but today I had something else in mind. As Mam stowed the white bags on the second shelf, I slipped through to the spare room.

In the spare room I went over to the fireplace, stepped onto the hearth and carefully removed a small trinket box from the narrow mantlepiece. The box was made of some kind of glazed white pottery with a hinged lid that fastened with a little metal clasp. On the top it said A Present from Lerwick alongside a picture of a woman in a very tall black hat, although I’d never seen such a hat in Lerwick. I looked inside to check the contents; all the usual things were there, a kirbigrip, a badge, some kind of brooch in the shape of an aeroplane and a couple of small greyish lumps that Mam said were pearls.

Being careful not to drop it, I carried the box back to where Mam was waiting while Robina rummaged in the foot of the linen cupboard,

“Tell us about the pearls, Mam,” I begged, handing her the box.

“Can I look?” Robina turned round to ask.

Mam held the box so she could see inside it.“Let’s go downstairs, first,” Mam answered.

“When I was young,” she began, “the men didn’t use nets to catch haddock.”

“They used lines,” I interrupted. Dad had been at the line fishing, the year before.

“That’s right,” she said, “but it’s very unusual nowadays and, another thing, you’ll remember that Dad baited his own lines, but it used to be the women and girls that did all that.”

“Girls?” I said, “What age were you?”

“About sixteen,” she replied.

“On their way ashore, the men dredged yoag shells up from the bottom which we had to open, so we could cut up the flesh for bait,” she explained.

“And the shells?” I broke in. I knew what happened to the shells; we’d heard the story so often, it was as familiar as the stories in my books, but I wanted Mam to tell us again,

“The shells were crushed onto paths, so they didn’t get too muddy underfoot.”

“Like the Shelly Road in Hamnavoe,” I exclaimed.

“In Hamnavoe,” Robina said. Mam often called her a parrot.

“That’s right,” she smiled. Mam seemed to like the story too.

“We had a large knife to work with, but sometimes it was difficult to open the shells. The worst bit of all was dealing with the lines. They were in a fearsome tangle when they came ashore and we had to redd them first, being very careful not to get the hooks caught in our fingers.”

“Was it sore?” Robina asked.

“It would hurt you, coming back out,” Mam explained, “because of the way the barbs faced in opposite directions.”

I shuddered. I’d seen fishhooks.

“Were they Faider’s lines?” That was what we’d called Mam’s Dad.

“No, it was Robbie o’ Clate’s lines.”

“Did he let you keep the pearls?” I wondered.

She laughed, “Nobody wanted them.” I never understood that bit.

“Did you find lots of pearls?” I continued, “What about the other girls; did they find any?”

“Most people threw them away.” Mam always said that as well; it was the most puzzling bit of all.

“Some of them were too small or too black,” she went on, “but I kept these,” she added, holding out the trinket box, “and when you’re big girls, I’m going to take the pearls and my gold watch that has broken, the one your father gave me when we were young, to Mr Rae, so he can make rings from the watch strap and set the pearls in them. And when you wear the rings, these dull pearls will become polished and start to shine.”

Robina was playing with her dolls’ teaset and I was back on the stool, reading. Mam stood up; it was time to make the tea. As she moved away from her chair, a pair of cloos tumbled to the floor. A dark fawn brightened by a pretty peach; the same kind of magic that would happen to the grey pearls.

Willa Kate