Paige pulled her coat closer, battling against the chill wind. Autumn consistently brought its own coldness to Paige’s mind, something that could not be so easily deflected. The memories lived deep inside her psyche and ventured out when the days became shorter, bringing shadows from the past with them—not that they were ever really dormant for long. Remnants and reminders remained, sticking fast like a stubborn stain despite the tides of life and time.
I was only a child, was the mantra she relied on to drown out the accusatory inner voices whenever they disturbed her peace. The words had a soothing effect; I was only a child. But the blaming voices always returned.
There remained a sense of nostalgia mixed with grief whenever she remembered her college days. All the happy memories were tarnished by this one regret and, consequently, only accessible after bypassing a mire of trauma, debris, and destruction.
Somehow Paige managed to hide her torment from friends and family, maintaining a calm exterior. She’d married quite young and was the mother of two well-adjusted children: George, ten, and Mia, sixteen. There were five months to go until Mia’s seventeenth birthday, then the child would be the same age as Paige had been when life had changed for ever. As Mia’s birthday drew closer, the tension grew stronger so that most mornings Paige woke up, after a restless night, feeling suffocated by the weight of what she’d done and the repercussions.
Paige hopped onto the bus, having made the decision today—on the eve of her fiftieth birthday—to finally face the fear and guilt. The time had come. Peace of mind would remain a distant dream until the darkness that lingered was confronted and banished.
The journey seemed to take an eternity, but eventually the bus pulled up to the kerb. It had been a while since she last visited this place but not much had changed.
Negotiating the busy high street, Paige attempted to block out the negative voice in her head saying this was too little too late. At the entrance to the alleyway, which led to the back of the college, long forgotten recollections flared up causing a mixture of emotions ranging from mirth to gloom. She walked an obstacle course of echoes from the past.
The oak tree came into view: a long lost friend; the keeper of secrets for so many years. The place appeared untouched, as if frozen in time waiting for this day.
It’s been here all along. … Why did you wait so long? … You could have come here years ago. … You could have made everything okay. … You always were a coward. … Why didn’t you tell her sooner? … Why didn’t you tell him? … It was only a bus ride away. … All these years you’ve wondered. … You’re so stupid. … Silly girl. … You messed up their lives. … Did you actually think it would make a difference? … Jealousy, that’s what it was, you know. … You’re such a loser. … Why are you here now? … What difference will it make after all these years?
She shook away the derisive thoughts.
A leaf fell from the tree, landing above the mound where the ring was buried. Surveying the surroundings to make sure there were no witnesses, Paige took the trowel from her handbag and began to dig, uncovering, breaking through, shaking off the soil, digging deep. With each layer, a little more of the ever-present anxiety was whittled away. I’ll find the ring, soon, and return it—then I can relax, at last. Even as those hopeful thoughts attempted to ease her mind, she knew it wouldn’t be that simple to forget. This secret had endured for over thirty years, had become a part of her, had shaped her. Letting go would be akin to separating from a long-term partner. The habitual, no matter how warped, invariably feels more comfortable.
Ava had shown the ring to Paige in the morning on their way to college: a beautiful gold ring set with one perfect diamond, with a twist of delicate white gold encircling the jewel. It gleamed more radiantly than any piece of jewellery Paige had ever seen. She blinked, hoping it would disappear, hoping it might just be a dream. On opening her eyes, however, Ava’s brilliant smile shone brightly. Paige watched on as her friend snapped shut the ring box and placed it carefully in her bag.
‘I found it in the drawer, in his bedroom,’ Ava explained, the soppy smile not showing any signs of waning. ‘He’s asked me to dinner tonight; says he has something important to ask me. I wanted to show it to you, but I’m going to put it back later before we go out.’
Ava’s ecstatic mood and giddy laughter was too much for Paige to bear.
James had been Paige’s first love. They’d never actually been a couple but were best friends at school and did everything together. Paige simply assumed they’d end up married, unconsciously planning her future around that.
When they started college and met Ava everything changed. Ava and James became a couple overnight, it seemed. With no period of adjustment to allow Paige to come to terms with the changes, it felt like a betrayal.
One day, James said, ‘I’m going to the cinema with Ava tonight.’ He appeared so happy and went on to say, ‘I’ve never had a real girlfriend before: you’re the only girl I’ve been friends with, but we’re just mates. It feels weird, actually. Maybe I’m growing up!’
The sudden realisation that he didn’t feel the same way came as a shock to Paige.
She imagined James proposing to Ava, placing the ring on her finger, and the couple’s inevitable kiss. The reasoning behind stealing the ring was to delay James’s proposal until she could figure out what to do. Burying the ring wasn’t a carefully constructed plan, but more of a desperate act.
It proved easy enough to steal the ring from Ava’s bag. Burying it beneath the oak tree was supposed to be a temporary solution. She almost went back to get it a couple of times, but when Ava and James broke up it just didn’t seem as important. They left college a few months later, and Paige decided to leave the ring under the tree and to try to forget about it. Even after years passed by, however, the constant niggling guilt over having stolen the ring and changing the course of Ava and James’s lives, proved a heavy burden to bear.
As Paige continued to dig, the box came into view. Although covered in mud, it hadn’t eroded. Eyes closed, Paige pulled out the box as if exhuming a dead thing. She shuddered at the realisation that it did represent death, in a way; the death of a blossoming romance. She’d purposefully driven a wedge between her two closest friends and contributed to the end of their relationship, and for what? Nothing had been gained except a lifetime of regret.
The tiny box brought to mind Ava’s smiling face, a reminder of when she’d first shown the ring to Paige. Then an image of James entered her mind’s eye as she recalled the time he’d revealed he was in love with Ava, a look of delight on his face.
Paige dared not open the box; it contained other people’s thwarted dreams.
The painful memories assailed her… Ava’s tears on confessing to Paige about losing the ring had eclipsed the smile she’d worn earlier when telling her about finding it in James’s room… James blamed his mother for stealing the ring. Ironically, it had been Paige he’d offloaded to:
‘My bloody mum took the ring. I was gonna propose to Ava but now it’s all ruined.’
‘Are you sure your mum took—’
‘Of course I’m sure. She’s a thief. She’s been taking things from me and my brother for years so she can sell them and pay off her gambling debts.’
Paige avoided his eyes. Couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth. ‘I’m sorry, James,’ was all she said.
‘Sorry? It’s not your fault. Oh, do you know what, maybe it’s the universe sending me a sign, or something. I’m too young to settle down, ain’t I?’
‘That’s what it is.’
James and Ava dated for a couple more months then parted. Ava broke down one day and admitted to James that she’d taken the ring and then lost it. That had led to their separation, as far as Paige knew. She’d kept her distance from the couple so couldn’t be sure.
Paige’s own relationship with James became strained. They lost touch within months of leaving college.
Paige left the ring buried, despite knowing what James and Ava were going through. Over the years she’d questioned herself about it, again and again; why hadn’t she dug up the ring and found a way to return it to James all those years ago? The answer never came.
The reason Paige had come here to dig up the ring was so that she could return it to James. She intended to post the ring to him. Anonymously. Standing here under the oak tree, the box in her hand, the voices of doubt began to stir. Does it even matter anymore? Why bother? The damage has been done. James might not even be living at the same address. If it does reach him, what will he think when it turns up in the post? He might be able to trace the parcel back to me. Paranoia reared its head; a feeling she had grown accustomed to.
Paige stood staring at the ring box. How could it be possible that this small piece of jewellery, this inanimate object, had caused so much anxiety?
She placed the muddy trowel into a plastic bag before putting it back into her handbag, along with the ring box.
Paige held back tears and turned towards the high street. She walked swiftly, trying to avoid overthinking by looking in shop windows.
Stopping outside a jeweller’s, a ring that was displayed as something of a centerpiece in the window caught her eye. It was identical to the one in her bag. There was no mistaking the design: the ring had haunted her dreams for many years, the image of it ingrained like a subconscious tattoo. Questions flooded her mind: How did it get there? Did someone find it? But why would they have taken the ring and buried the box again?
Just then, a woman’s voice called out to her. The voice sounded strange but familiar at the same time.
‘Paige? Paige, is that you?’
She saw a middle-aged woman emerge from the shop doorway. Ava? Paige put a hand to her mouth.
Ava approached, arms outstretched, and hugged Paige tightly. ‘Wow! Long time no see. What are you doing here? Do you still live around here?’
‘Um… no, I… I was just passing through.’
‘Come in for a cup of tea. We must catch up! James is at home with the kids; shame, he would have loved to see you. You know, you’ve hardly changed; you look the same!’
‘Did you say James?‘
‘Yes. James and I own this shop. Come inside and I’ll tell you all about it.’
‘Oh, Paige. I can hardly believe you’re here,’ said Ava, setting a pot of tea on the table after pouring two cups.
Ava had introduced Paige as “one of my dearest old friends”, to the staff in the jewellery shop before inviting her upstairs to the kitchen area.
‘Isn’t it funny how time flies? The last time we saw each other we were teenagers, now look at us!’ said Ava as they sat opposite each other at the kitchen table.
Paige laughed. ‘I’ll be fifty tomorrow.’
‘You don’t look a day over twenty-one.’ Ava giggled.
‘Oh, maybe just a day.’ Paige joined in with the laughter but felt awkward having this light-hearted conversation with Ava; she couldn’t help wondering how welcoming Ava would have been if she’d known the truth.
‘Fifty is the new thirty,’ quipped Ava. ‘Happy Birthday! Let’s have a bit of cake to celebrate. I made a chocolate cake last night, actually.’ Standing up, she busied herself taking plates out of the cupboard along with a cake tray.
Paige watched her. Ava hadn’t changed much, was still as pretty as she used to be, with her delicate features and wavy blonde hair. Her hair was speckled with grey now but retained a beautiful glossy sheen. She’d hated Ava for being so pretty when they were teenagers, when James had fallen for her. Now, though, there was just an overwhelming sense of sadness that they’d lost touch for so many years.
‘Fifty is a big birthday; are you having a party?’ asked Ava.
‘No. I don’t celebrate my birthdays much these days.’
‘I know what you mean, although James and I had a massive party this year for our joint fiftieths. It’s quite a milestone if you think about it.’
‘So, tell me all about what you’ve been doing all these years,’ she said, placing a plate with a large slice of creamy chocolate cake in front of Paige.
‘Thank you. It looks delicious.’
‘Are you married? Kids? Career?’
‘I have two children and have been married for twenty-three years. My husband, Michael, is a teacher at our local primary school.’
‘I’d love to meet him, and your children.’ Ava sighed. ‘Why did we ever drift apart, hey? We should have kept in touch. You, me, and James, we were like the three amigos, weren’t we?’
Paige forced a smile as so many memories erupted. None of this made sense. Had Ava married James after all?
‘I suppose when I stupidly lost the engagement ring, things changed a bit, didn’t they? I was such a fool back then.’ Ava rolled her eyes. ‘I remember being so excited when I found it and wanting to show it to you. We were such good friends, weren’t we? I couldn’t wait for you to see it.’
‘I still sometimes wonder what happened to that ring, you know.’
Paige sipped some tea to avoid Ava’s eyes.
‘I wonder who took it. Someone from college, I suppose. Or it could have just fallen out of my bag; I was always losing things. It was my own fault; I should never have taken it. Remember the time when I lost my house keys and we walked for about a mile looking for them?’
‘Oh, yes. I’d forgotten about that.’ Paige pondered what Ava had said, “…or it could have just fallen out of my bag”; “It was my own fault.” All this time she’d been so worried and dejected about what she’d done, but Ava held no blame. Ava hadn’t lost any sleep over it. “It was my own fault; I should never have taken it.”
So many wasted years of wondering, so many wasted years of worry. All it would have taken was one conversation with Ava to ease her concerns. “…or it could have just fallen out of my bag.”
It had never really mattered.
‘Funny how the things we worry about as teenagers actually don’t mean anything in the long run,’ said Ava. ‘James and I got married in the end, anyway.’ She let out a laugh. ‘Not immediately. It actually took us another twenty years or so. But we met up again not long after leaving college. We often joke about me losing the ring.’
‘It all kind of came together nicely, actually; James told me about his uncle who was retiring from the family business, and as we were both out of work at the time he said I could join him and work here until I found something else. I’m still here nearly thirty years later!’
‘It all worked out well in the end,’ said Paige, trying to sound upbeat while a million thoughts converged.
‘I’m glad the ring was stolen,’ continued Ava.
Paige’s eyes widened at that.
‘It was a blessing in disguise. It taught us something. We both found it so hard being apart and that was a great foundation for our marriage. We’ll be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary next month. We didn’t get married straight away, we wanted to save up and have a special day. We should have invited you. I have the photos at home; you can come and see them. James will be thrilled to see you again.’
Paige smiled at Ava. On averting her eyes she noticed that Ava was wearing an engagement ring identical to the one she’d seen in the shop window; the one that looked the same as the ring Paige had taken and buried.
Ava followed her gaze. ‘Look,’ she said, holding out her left hand. ‘This engagement ring is an exact replica of the one James’s uncle made all those years ago when James was going to ask me to marry him. We love the design so much that we decided to sell it in the shop. It’s one of our bestsellers. Who would have guessed back then when I was stressing over losing the ring that all this would have happened? Funny how life is, isn’t it? Full of surprises. So tell me more about what you’ve been up to these past thirty-odd years, Paige.’