The seven golden shamrocks on the thin chain gleamed brightly in the hotel room when she took them out of her brown leather handbag sitting on the table between herself and the dealer.
They were identical, I remember, quite thick, about three quarters of an inch wide from veined leaf to veined leaf. She had polished them for sure before coming in to the hotel and climbing the green stairs to the commercial room the dealer had hired for the day.
The seven golden shamrocks clustered together in a sort of defensive group as she held them up that afternoon about 20 years ago in Galway City. Her square little competent hand shook a little as she held them up for inspection.
The seven golden shamrocks swung from side to side like a bright pendulum. When the dealer reached over to take them from her the three ornate gold rings on his right hand did not shine as brightly as her shamrocks.
He had a white pudgy hand with tufts of black hair on the backs of the fingers. I can still see it.
Those were hard times just like these. The sharp traders who advertised in the weekly newspapers that they would buy your old gold for hard cash were making a killing as the depression hit, as workers lost their jobs, as the cost of living soared. You could call them the Celtic Tigers of that era! Most of them came from Dublin, some from England too. They began to get bad press with allegations that they were paying nowhere near the true value of the gold which people in need were queuing up to sell to them.
I got in touch with one of them a week before the afternoon of the golden shamrocks, though, and he was instantly prepared to let me watch the trading in the hotel room as long as I did not reveal his name later, just sat there quietly as if I was one of his assistants, and reported accurately afterwards.
I made a couple of telephone calls in advance to get some idea of what fair prices would be, and I did all that he asked. In the event he was a palpably decent trader from Dublin paying a fair enough price for what was being offered, according to the estimates I had been given.
But it was a very harrowing and heartrending evening I spent there, and I will never forget her seven golden shamrocks on the thin chain.
“This is breaking my heart,” is what she said to him when he took them away from her. “This is a lot harder than I thought.”
But she did not shed any tears, and remained poised and composed as he began his examination of the gold. It was a February day, midweek, and you could hear the heavy sound of the traffic through the window.
She was a quite elegantly dressed woman who resembled a younger Hillary Clinton more than a little, the same pert head and close-cropped fair hair. Maybe she was about 42 or 43.
She was wearing a wedding ring but no engagement ring. I wondered if that had been sold already.
There was another man in the room, in the far corner. He was the trader’s driver and, surely, his bodyguard too at the end of the day. I never spoke to him at all.
The dealer had little weighing scales and various vials of liquid on a pad in front of him as he examined the seven golden shamrocks through one of those jewelers’ eyeglasses. Sometimes he grunted softly in his throat.
As he continued his inspection, almost like in a confessional box, the woman told him (and me) the story of the seven golden shamrocks.
Her birthday, she said, was St. Patrick’s Day, and in an era when charm bracelets were all the rage her husband Tony always gave her a golden shamrock charm for her birthday. She got the second one in the maternity wing of the Galway Regional Hospital three days after her daughter was born.
The ones after that were all bought in Birmingham where they went as a family of three when work was scarce in the west, and Tony could get work on the building sites. They had a nice flat in Birmingham, she worked too at a florist, and his aunt looked after Danielle during the day. They were as happy as anybody else and better off than most.
They were always going to come back to Galway and buy a house, and they had saved some money for that.
“There would be 11 of them there if things went right,” she said.
Her voice got a bit lower then, and I could not hear all the words she said, but I heard enough to know that a trench caved in on her Tony one Friday, and even though his colleagues got him out alive he died on the Sunday. And that was that.
She came back to Galway afterwards and was living with her parents, herself and the child, but there was no work she could find. As she talked the dealer inspected away, sometimes grunting slightly in the back of his throat.
“There would be 12 of them in three weeks time if things went right,” she said at the end, her two hands now resting atop the brown leather handbag. She was still very composed.
The dealer paid her just over £300 Irish punts. He passed it over to her in cash, in twenties, in tens, and fives.
She counted it herself before putting it in the handbag, thanking him, standing up and walking away from the table.
The driver and I looked after her, both noting that she had beautiful ankles. The dealer was holding up the seven golden shamrocks.
He was happy with his deal. According to the information I had garnered it was a fair enough price at the time.
I saw the golden shamrocks one last time before he put them away. They seemed to have clustered even more tightly together than they had been before. Imagination I suppose.
The dealers have not yet appeared in the provincial hotels this March. Probably they wait for the recession to bite even deeper than now before they begin to advertise that they will buy your old gold and its golden memories for cold hard cash.
It is the way of the world.