The amber of the moment

The necklace first heard the whispers when they entered the ballroom. Clasped around her neck, the two completed a portrait in oil that rivalled those mounted on the walls. The whispers flowed around Sarah, hovered like fairies, coiffed her hair with wands, showered her in magic dust, and placed final touches to a taffeta, sky-blue ball gown. Pinched tight around a narrow waist, the gown draped a lazy embrace around open shoulders. The alabaster skin of her chest offered the necklace.  It captured the gaze of those gathered who’s eyes were drawn from blue, to pale, then fastened to amber, their sight trapped like once prehistoric insects in the honeyed stones.

Her entrance to the ballroom was grand. She hushed the genteel conversation of the gathered glitterati with quiet elegance.  The ceilings rose high, stencilled with intricate detail which could only pay faint compliment to the magnificent stones that dangled loose. Forged by the hand of nature, scorched by a hell-like heat and entombed by the burden of crushing earth. Revived, the hands of gods passed them to those who scratched fortune from the ground.

“It was a scandal,” they whispered.

“How could she?” they said.

A distinguished gentleman kissed the soft flesh on the back of her hand.  The skin behind her ears tingled. Her ivory chest flushed rouge and warmed the stones around her neck.  The two passed a look of shared knowledge, a mutual secret that remained unspoken.

“We will talk later,” he whispered.

She sipped punch from a crystalline glass, offered by a smiling servant.

“Good afternoon ma’am,” then a knowing whisper. “Sarah, you look splendid.”

Only twelve months earlier, Sarah was in a similar position to her servant friend. It was at a ball like this that she offered ‘The Lady’ a similar glass. After becoming ‘acquainted’ with His Lordship – The Governor of New South Wales, she rose through the servant hierarchy with unprecedented haste.  She now held the prized role of The Lady’s handmaiden. From her humble position, she admired gentle manners that eased tense grace. Privy to the most astounding attire and jewelled adornments, along with overheard secrets that passed between the head of house and the head of state.

The whispers amongst the guests subsided. Not one chose to engage her presence.  Sarah stood alone, the punch glass her only company. She would catch a stare that was averted before she could make eye contact.  The beauty of the parlour and its people looked down at her.  She took leave through the glass doors to the eastern terrace.  She knew he would not be far behind.

The gardens sprawled before her. Tidy and formal. The breeze of the cool southerly change caressed her shoulders and drained the flushed warmth from her cheeks. She heard a footstep from behind.

“Sarah. My darling. You look marvellous. The necklace is a spectacular match for the grace and beauty your presence carries.”

Sarah bowed her head. “Thankyou M’lord,”

“I fear it is necessary for us to have my words my lover. Shall we walk in the garden, where we can talk? In private.”

“As you wish M’lord.”

Sarah placed her arm through The Governor’s elbow and they descended the steps to the crunch of pebbles beneath firm soles. The garden flowered with late spring radiance. Vibrant colours punctuated the sea of green that disappeared into Farm Cove and the harbour further beyond.

“I have just received word. I am to return to England.”

“England? But m’lord what about me?”

“I am afraid I will return to a house full of servants. As you are aware The Lady has already returned. I cannot see fit to pay for your return without betraying our charade.  Perhaps at some stage you may see fit to pay your own passage back. You have my gift. This is the thing that ties my deepest love to your soul.”

Sarah dropped her arm and turned to the sandstone monolith of Government House. What beautiful safety it afforded. A garrison. Turrets rose high above crenellated walls. Now its protection turned against her.  Invisible red coats mounted the defenses and were pouring barrel loads of shot into her chest. Peering from castellations to take aim before retreating to reload and returning to take aim once again.

“You can’t sir. This is not the way. What shall I do?” She was helpless.

“You will be well cared for.  There is a servant position for you here. Oh Sarah my love you are truly special.”

“Sir. I can’t . I won’t. After this day you will never see me again. You have betrayed me. You are worse than Judas.” Sarah was adamant.

She stormed away. Marching with determination along the path that divided the gardens in a large cross . Her mind swam with emotion.

“Sarah, Sarah,” he called. It faded into the eddies of her thought.  She was being dragged down.  Perhaps she would drown. The cliff.  She had to get to the cliff. To get away. To think.

Sarah looked out across the harbour.  Ships bobbed in the wind whipped water.

‘There is nothing to be done for it,’ she thought.

Her hair now down, it danced a frenzied dance in the strengthening afternoon wind. She thought of the Dunbar, wrecked below The Gap. She was now that ship, driven on to the cliffs by a raging torment. All the pointless loss of life.  There was no use in following that with more loss.

Sarah ran her fingers over the smooth stones of the necklace.  What once symbolized her freedom, now assumed the presence of a noose. It tightened around her throat, a hand that strangled, her breath came in gasps.  She was tied, a prisoner, to a place she now wanted to escape.  The day after The Lady made return to England, he presented the necklace to her as a gift.

“A symbol of my love,” he said.

It was now his parting gift. Their illicit love felt dirty. Something once so sacred, their passion now sacrificed to the desires of a man bound by position, both private and public.

Sarah unclasped the necklace. The stones and their silver, a snake that slithered in her palm. She cast the stones over the cliff’s edge. Sun glinted through amber as they drew an arc across the afternoon sky and trailed to a pile of rubble at the base of the scarp. She watched after it for a moment. It was not to be seen, vanished between a cleft in the rocks, now resting in the bosom of its mother once again.

*                                             *                                             *

Albert alighted from the tram at the Fort Macquarie terminus. The crumbling battlements rose high above, a fortress-like tribute to a former building that the structure now symbolised.  Once proud, now smashed. Its face caved in as it lay dying beside the water.

“It all has to come down,” they said. “It’s gotta be totally demolished.”

It was a shame to knock down such a beautiful building. Its exterior disguised the mundane purpose of its function. A house for trams. It would make way for a grand structure. The whole of Bennelong Point cleared to make way for heavy machinery and the foundations of immense concrete sails. The sails would one day catch the wind and become full, but the hull on which they took anchor would never progress across the deep blue water of the harbour. The Opera House with its beauty and clean modern lines eclipsed this building and assured its demise.

“Morning Albert,” Bert was cheery. “We’re working down there today.”

He pointed to a pile of rocks.

“There’s a whole heap of rubble we need to soften up.”

Albert grimaced at the large mound of boulders below them. He thought of those who had strained to raise great structures of the city. The effort and hours of painful labour, Trading blood and sweat to provide food for families. He looked over to the Harbour Bridge that towered above the water. He drew inspiration from those whose hands lifted it above the city.  He steeled himself for the day ahead.

“Well let’s get to it. They’re not gonna break ‘emselves.”

He swung his sledgehammer over his shoulder, and with his comrade Bert, scrambled over the now receding foundations of the tram depot, down to the pile of rubble.

Albert raised his hammer high above his shoulders. It hovered in the air silhouetted against the bright morning sky.  With a resounding tink he smashed the head of the hammer into the sandstone.  Dust sprayed into the air like the mist of seaspray. After a couple of swings, he stood back and leaned on his hammer. The first strikes had jarred his shoulders and rattled his spine.

It was then that he saw it. He caught a glint of sunlight reflected from between the rocks. Perhaps a pebble, ground to a shiny gloss by the relentless action of water. But it seemed to be something more.  He dropped to his hands knees and peered through a crack between two large boulders. A single ray of light penetrated the space and highlighted amber and silver. Albert stretched his arm into the crevice and grasped the delicate ornament. The rocks surrendered the treasure without struggle. Albert held up the necklace in triumph to the morning sun. It was sure a good find and looked like it was worth a bit. Probably dropped by someone who was rich many years ago. It had to be years ago because you couldn’t get to these rocks before now.

‘Phyllis would die for something like this,’ he thought.

He could certainly not afford to give her a gift of this nature. He examined the stones hard against the sky. Bert, propped on his sledgehammer nearby, called to Albert.

“What ya got there Albert?”

Albert tucked the necklace inside the deep pocket of his overalls

“Awww nothing really mate. Just a shiny pebble. Might take it home for the kids. They love things like that.”

© Anthony Wood 2011


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