When I was at primary school, the all-consuming craze among the girls was collecting beads. Everyone had a collection, and everyone brought their bead stash to school for swapping and gloating over in the playground. Beads were sometimes acquired from the broken necklaces of aunts, older sisters’ discarded best dresses (sequins were in vogue), theft from mothers and through swapping. Crystals and glass beads were everyone’s favourite, which we called diamonds (or rubies, emeralds or amber, depending on the colour of the glass). I had (oh my god, I still have) a “diamond” dropped by the Queen. Well, I found it in the Mall, when my sister Barbara took me to see Buckingham Palace. She assured me the queen must have dropped it from her coach when waving from an open window. To avoid being hustled for it by the Bead Bullies, I left it at home on schooldays. Most usually, beads were collected by going round the streets and playgrounds picking up those dropped by others. There seemed to be no shortage, but some girls made certain of it. My best friend Pamela (who had a nasty, vicious streak) would run about, “accidentally” barging into gaggles of girls peering into their open bags or boxes of beads. She’d even help to pick them up – but pocketed the choicest, and there were always plenty no-one spotted rolling away. Keep your eyes to the ground long enough, you’d soon build a collection.
I don’t know at what point I decided to look up at the stars rather than down at my feet, but when I did, I realised the most precious jewels were the intangible ones that faded or shape-shifted before your eyes. Recent falls of snow, melting, re-freezing and glittering in cold, rare sunlight have reminded me of the times as a child when I ran across dew-covered lawns, chasing the rainbows in the water drops. If I stopped running, and swayed gently from side to side, the colours of these so-precious gems changed. But if I touched them or moved toward them, they vanished. Then there were the frosty mornings when my mother got me up early to go round the garden with her, finding exquisite frost patterns on leaf and glass and stone, shimmering in the early sun. Or the first foggy morning of autumn, when every spider’s web was be-jewelled and bewildering in its complexity and simplicity.
Diamonds are famously said to be “forever”. What a nonsense. They’re fairly nice to look at, and they collect rainbows in the same way glass or water does, but I wouldn’t pay money for them.
Collecting snowflakes and making mental snapshots of them before they melted. The fractal patterns of ice creeping over a cold surface. The world viewed through a dripping icicle. The vanishing, slippery uncertainty of the Merrie Dancers, green and rose, across northern skies. Sun on a breaking wave. These precious sparkly things, along with the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t twinkling of stars as they emerge at dusk or retreat into cloud, these are the jewels of value, the real pearls-beyond price. Ephemeral, transient, temporary. I can’t buy them, own them, hoard them, swap them or sell them, and I never want to try.
I still have most of my schoolgirl hoard! I am sure one day I’ll find a use for them. I’ve strung some onto the Christmas tree or hung them round the garden before now, and forgotten about them. Maybe they’ll be archaeology for someone, some day. Me, I’ll stick to rainbows in the dew. If you see me swaying about in a meadow on a spring morning, you’ll know what I’m doing!