|Cold, Hard Diamonds
Author: Jenny Sue PM
She's still smiling, and I'm seeing that smile for what it is. It's cold and empty, like the person behind it and the jewels that she wears, that I sold her. If Sabrina Lee is the image of perfection then I think I can live with being flawed.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Friendship - Words: 2,512 - Reviews: 9 - Favs: 3 - Published: 12-16-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2979842
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
'Can I help you with anything, ma'am?'
'Yes. Is this the biggest diamond that you sell?'
People may walk away from my counter with jewellery, but I know that none of them come to me because they actually want diamonds or pearls. They come here to buy a lifestyle. Specifically, they come to buy Sabrina's lifestyle, but they can't have it, so they hand over their cash and walk away with a tiny twenty-four carat piece of it.
Sabrina Lee is the face of Fisher & Sloane's Chelsea department store and her picture pouts down at me from every available surface. In womenswear there are photographs of her draped in fur and red silk. In the food hall she is posing with an oven glove and a tray of prawns, and in the toy department she is pictured giving a rosy-cheeked doll to an equally rosy-cheeked child.
There's a six foot wide image of her face opposite my jewellery counter, and I often spend the quiet first hour of the working day trying to find a flaw, but I haven't seen one yet. Sabrina Lee is as perfect as a woman can be, and then some.
She is lit dramatically from above so that her cheekbones cast shadows like blackholes. A diamond hangs on a chain around her neck, and a manicured hand reaches up to touch it, as if just wearing it is not enough. More striking than the diamond, though, is Sabrina's smile. It isn't a laugh or a forced grin or a self-satisfied smirk. It almost isn't there at all. There's just the slightest invisible tug at the corners of her beautiful red mouth, as if she is remembering something secret and lovely that someone once said to her. People come to me because they want the kind of lifestyle that would let that smile come naturally to them.
The picture hangs overhead as a reminder to customers of the perfection and fulfillment that they should strive for, and that only Fisher & Sloane's jewels can provide them with. Customers gulp down the message of the advert and empty their pockets for our silver and gold, but I'm just as guilty of swallowing it. I don't buy the jewels—I'm on a shop assistant's salary—but I've bought into Mr Fisher and Mr Sloane's idea that the jewels will make me happy. Whenever I'm working, I pretend that the jewels belong to me, and that this will make me as fulfilled as Sabrina Lee with her secret smile.
'I'll see if I can find anything bigger, ma'am.'
I see her through two rows of glass display cabinets, so her face is all distorted and her features are cut up and rearranged like white light through a prism. I'm used to seeing that face six feet wide and wearing a diamond, but I recognise it straight away.
'Is there anything I can help you with today, Miss Lee?' I say to the real face, rather than the poster on the opposite wall or the illusion in the glass.
Sabrina's eyes flit to my name badge and back up to my face. 'Thanks, doll,' she says. 'I'll take these... and that one, please, and this.'
She points to a pair of pearl earrings and a couple of rings as casually as a child picking out toffees in a sweet shop.
'Right away, Miss Lee,' I say, and she moves to circle another display case, eyeing up the prey inside.
Sabrina is every bit as flawless in the flesh as her image on paper has led me to believe. She's contracted to put in the occasional appearance at the store, but I've only worked here for a year and we've never crossed paths before. She's surprising small—still taller than me, but dwarfed by the enormous picture of her face hanging overhead. The only thing missing is the secret smile, but I suppose she can't always be thinking of lovely memories.
'This one as well, doll,' she says as she eyes a diamond brooch.
Her voice is just as beautiful as her face. The accent belongs to London, but there's no trace of Cockney. She's at home here, or in Kensington, Notting Hill or Pimlico—none of the places where I've ever lived.
'This one's pretty,' she says, more to herself than to me, with her manicured finger pressed up against the glass.
I don't say anything but my disappointment probably shows. The bracelet that Sabrina is pointing at—a gold cuff etched with an Aztec pattern—has been on the shelf for six months and has become a favourite of mine. Each piece of jewellery at Fisher & Sloane's is handcrafted, and copies of items that have been sold rarely appear on the shelves again. The gold cuff costs more than I'll ever be able to justify spending on myself but I'll be sad to see it go. While it's on the shelf I can at least pretend that it belongs to me.
'I'll take it,' says Sabrina, and I reach for the keys to unlock the cabinet. 'Isn't it so pretty?'
It is pretty. As the key enters the lock I have a mad impulse to take it out and refuse to sell it to her, but the moment passes. I take the gold cuff and add it to Sabrina's growing mound of purchases. I try not to look at the rising total as I ring them through the till and I try not to look at the gold cuff as I wrap it in paper.
I don't see Sabrina for several months after her visit to my jewellery counter. Or rather, I don't see her in the flesh. The only way to avoid her image—in the shop, on billboards, in magazines—would be to close my eyes. Even then I'd hear her voice floating from the television; Sabrina is the darling of the Saturday morning talk show world.
I hoped she might come back to the shop but I suppose even Sabrina Lee can't afford to spend that much cash on jewellery too often. Sometimes I imagine the experiences that she will have while wearing the jewels I sold her. I think of her sprawled on the deck of a luxurious cruise ship with the sunlight bouncing off her rings. I think of sophisticated men at sophisticated parties admiring her pearl earrings, or the diamond brooch perched on the breast of her gown while she weaves her way through a fashionable bar. Mostly I think about the gold cuff. I think about the life she will lead with that gold cuff on her arm, and then I imagine the life that I would lead if I could have bought it before Sabrina.
When I do see her again, I am caught off-gaurd.
I'm not at a sophisticated party or a fashionable bar. I don't get invited to sophisticated parties and there are no fashionable bars in my part of London. I'm at a grim little hole-in-the-wall bar where the music is too loud, the tables are too sticky and the men are too forward. No-one flouts the smoking ban but the air is still somehow opaque. My friends are revelling in the male attention but I slip outside for a cigarette.
'Got a light, doll?' says a voice behind me, and I turn around.
I've seen that face distorted through glass and I've seen it stretched six feet wide and hung on the wall. It takes me longer to recognise it now, though, just because I wouldn't expect to see Sabrina Lee in this part of London. In fact, it's not even her I recognise at first. It's the gold cuff on her wrist that identifies her to me.
I fumble for a match and light Sabrina's cigarette. She takes a long drag, sucking in those already hollow cheeks, before there's a flicker of recognition.
'Don't I know you?' she says, as the string of smoke slithers from her lips.
'From the jewellery counter at the store,' I say, but she doesn't know which store I mean. 'From Fisher & Sloane's store.'
'Oh, of course! Yes, you sold me this old thing.'
Sabrina rattles her wrist at me and my hand twitches as instinctively as if she was rattling a baby. She doesn't notice, though. Her words sound a little slurred and she seems to be having trouble standing up without the help of a wall.
'Those lovely pearl earrings, too,' she says, 'although I'm afraid I've lost one of them, so the other one is quite useless now. If only you sold them separately!'
She laughs, but it's not the refined tinkle that would match her voice. It's more abrasive and it lapses into a cough.
When we've finished our cigarettes she insists that I join her inside for a drink and I put up no resistance. My friends turn their heads simultaneously, like parts of a machine, when I re-enter the room with Sabrina Lee clutching at my arm. A man who Sabrina must know blows us a kiss from a table in the corner and we join him. One of his friends buys a bottle of red wine and I find myself wedged into the corner between the beautiful woman and a seedy little man. My friends on the other side of the bar haven't taken their eyes off me yet.
I spend a long time ignoring what Sabrina's saying and just trying to find a fault in her appearance so that I can feel more comfortable in my own. She's slurring her words but her hair is still immaculate and her lips are impossibly scarlet. They stretch in a wide grin, but there's no secret smile like the one from the poster. Eventually I notice that her lipstick has stained her wine glass and made it look disgusting. It's not much of a fault but it will have to do. I settle for that and tune myself back into the conversation.
'Sabrina,' one of the men says, 'how is John these days?'
'He's called James, sweetheart, and I've chucked him. He just would not stop his nagging.'
'Yes, sweetie,' says Sabrina. 'I moved into his vile little place because I thought that would stop his whining, but I should've known that would only encourage him. He started rattling on about marriage and babies and the future and I just had to get out of that miserable situation.'
'So you're not seeing anyone? You're a free agent—like me?'
He puts a hand on her arm and she swats it away, but only playfully. He lays it there again and she does nothing. His grimy fingers are so close to the gold cuff. One of the men orders another bottle of red wine and fills my glass without asking. It tastes acrid and I intend to leave mine untouched, but Sabrina is clutching at hers and I find myself mirroring her body language, until I realise that our glasses are empty again.
After a while Sabrina accompanies me to the ladies' room and I'm glad to get away from the corner and the men who occupy it. As I pass the table where my friends were sitting earlier I realise that they have all left; I must have abandoned them over an hour again, and now they've abandoned me. Sharing a little slice of Sabrina Lee's lifestyle certainly isn't as glamorous as I thought it would be.
When I come out of the toilet cubicle Sabrina is bent over the sink. For a moment I think she is being sick and I reach out to move her hair away, but then I notice the rolled up note in her hand. There's a slither of white powder on the rim of the sink. The sink isn't so clean.
'Sabrina,' I say, 'I've had a really nice time with you, but it's getting late, and I've got to be at the store tomorrow...'
The powder disappears up the roll in Sabrina's hand and she stands upright, sniffing and wiping at her nose. 'That's too bad, doll. It's still early. Are you sure you've got to go?'
There, finally, is her secret smile. It's the smile from the poster at the store—the one that I thought was caused by remembering all of the lovely things that people have said to her at classy dinner parties and art gallery openings. I wanted the lifestyle that would let me wear that smile. If this is what lets Sabrina wear it, then I'm not so sure I want that smile.
Sabrina is holding a tiny plastic bag out towards me and I don't have to look hard to know what's in it. She's the one behind the counter, selling the lifestyle and the smile, and I'm the customer.
'My friends have gone home,' I say, shaking my head. 'They were supposed to give me a lift. I should go.'
She's still smiling, and I'm seeing that smile for what it is. It's cold and empty, like the person behind it and the jewels that she wears, that I sold her. If Sabrina Lee is the image of perfection then I think I can live with being flawed.
'I'm sorry, sweetie. I'd give you some money for a taxi but I'm all out of cash...'
The rolled up twenty pound note is still clutched in her fist.
'Don't worry about it. I can walk,' I say. 'Just please be careful—'
'No, I insist!' She laughs that abrasive laugh again. 'Oh, I don't know—here, take this.'
She takes off the gold cuff and puts it in my hand, parting with it as casually as she paid for it in the first place. Before I can object she has left.
It's been a long night and my muscles are crying out for a soft mattress and a hot water bottle. I should head home and get some sleep if I'm going to get up early and look for a new job tomorrow.
There's an old man playing a Spanish guitar outside the tube station and I pat my pockets, looking for something I can give him. The busker's eyes are closed in deep concentration, but he smiles when he hears the clink of generosity as I drop a gold cuff into his pot. Time to go home.