Short fiction inspired by the Damascene Helmet and Shield, in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. In this piece of writing I imagine a connection between a widow from the Great War and a “Persian”/Iranian warrior from 1750.
Mrs Wetherby’s sugar bowl sits, as sure as a cat, on the table.
The light glints amberish from the golden trim – real gold no less – in jigsaw lines around the rim. Mrs Wetherby is pleased with the sugar bowl. It was not a cheap purchase; her father was quick to remind her, but he’d bought it for her anyway. A guinea no less, from Perrin and Fletcher up in the part of town where they made such things. Perhaps in Mother’s absence it was an attempt to do what mothers do; buying homely things to make a home.
Mrs Wetherby’s sugar bowl is round and squat, with a lid which curves, and it matches nothing. She sometimes wonders if the rest of the set could still be found; cups, saucers and whatnot. Damascene the name of the set, it’s possible she could find a catalogue, find the maker, even go up town back to the store – but there’s more to life than sugar bowls, and pussycats, come to that and so the bowl remains alone.
She looks up the word Damascene in Father’s Cyclopedia when his things became hers. Relating to Arabia – a country. She thinks this sounds rather romantic. A beautiful colourplate catches the light – a lone warrior in 1750. Helmet and shield, iron-chiselled and inlaid with gold wire and adorned with a feather, apparently. Prayers scribed into the metal, for what good they’d have done. Lions and kings wrought around with vines and leaves like Mr Morris’s. At least he’ll have been with his pals, she thinks, he wouldn’t have been alone. Just a boy, she thinks. But then that’s what happens to boys isn’t it?
Scrutinising the sugar bowl, after tea with the priest, it seems to her that the pattern on her sugar bowl is not like a jigsaw – it’s a labyrinth with no escape – that trim around the rim. Like the legend of the minotaur – she can’t recall how it ended – not well, she presumes.
Mrs Wetherby lives alone. It hasn’t always been so but that’s life isn’t it, there’s no sense in dwelling on it. There had been a husband, and children. She may still even have a husband, somewhere in France, tending a vineyard and keeping a low profile. She wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this turned out to be the case, because that’s what he was like. The army hadn’t supposed this to be possible and instead surmised him to be dead, of course, like all the others.
After she’d buried the last of them it occurs to her that children learn the word sad but only adult human beings understand what it means. Terrifying and infinite in its depth, sadness. She recalls being a child, and, alone with her Grandmother the lady became morose then tearful and then oh heavens the aching sobs about how she was alone always so alone and no one could understand, no one. Only you, Mary, you’re the only one who understand don’t you? Mrs Wetherby had, as a child enjoyed picking flowers in posies for Grandmother, unlike her older sisters who found the old lady tiresome. Small kindness was repaid in these tears, this gift of sadness.
This continuity – if not exactly comfort permits Mrs Wetherby to know that this is what life is like. Wars and death, and sunlight on the rim of a sugar bowl, where it sits, cat-like on the table. This is what life is like.