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A Ring For Ritzi: Chip Tolson

You get picked on when you’re the youngest waiting to hear your results; the others said they were too busy. I had nothing else to do; there were no valuables in the flat they’d already been taken home.
As I sorted I discovered things, private things; perhaps she’d wanted them to be found. Two boxes were hidden at the back of the airing cupboard on shelves stacked with old linen and worn towels. There were photos in the boxes. She’d been in the wartime air force, not a fighter pilot like women today; she was one of the people you see in black and white films with a long stick pushing model planes over room-sized maps plotting hostile bombers over South East England. I couldn’t work out which of the blurred shapes might be my grandmother amongst the group posing for the camera.
It was weird being in her sitting room expecting her to come home from shopping, to ask what I was doing at her table, the contents of her two hidden boxes spread out in front of me. She hadn’t been out shopping for months; we did it for her. She wasn’t an invalid or anything; she just had to sit down a lot. It’s not as if she’d lost her marbles; my parents said she was exasperating, that meant she wouldn’t do what they suggested.

‘Who was Ritzi?’ I asked at supper.
‘Haven’t you seen the mangy draft-excluder snoring by the fire?’
‘Shut up, Henry. You know I promised Mother.’
‘And to take on the vet’s bills?’ My father looked over his glasses in the annoying way the middle-aged do
‘I don’t mean the dog. Who was Ritzi, the person?’
‘No idea, Andrew.’
You’d think he wouldn’t begrudge vet’s bills when they’re selling the flat. Granny got her first dog when my grandfather died; all dachshunds called Ritzi, three of them over the years; an odd name, even for a dog.
The photographs had set me wondering. She’d never talked about her wartime companions; one picture showed six people, four sitting in a jeep and two standing in snow against a background of open space, a few buildings and what looked like a windsock. On the back was written ‘New Year, 1943’. Another had names on the back written at random: ‘Catch, Walt, Splash, Maggie, Moose, Ritzi.’
That’s how I’d known about Ritzi. Was he the one with pilot’s wings on his uniform? Strange to think of Granny as a young person; she had always been old, and why call every dog ‘Ritzi’? She’d never had a dog called Walt, or Catch.
A celebration dinner menu dated Brussels, August 1945 had a list of names: LACW Bunting, P. was on the second table. A concert programme listed Pamela Bunting on the piano. Even with arthritic hands in recent years she had played the piano, gentle melodies, accompanied by keys knocking on her old upright. And there was Ritzheim Westerhouse listed to recite Daffodils; was he an American and why choose Wordsworth? Was he aircrew? Who knows? Always more questions to ask than answers found.
There was a single letter, no date or sender’s address, just the letter. Reading it I pried into a secret place.

Dearest Splash,
The station is dull without you. I hope your new posting is OK. It was heaven at the cottage for our June week. We didn’t know then you were going to be sent away, but we couldn’t have chosen a better week if we had.
I’m happy you’re pleased with my painting of you, and that you’ll let me keep it. I promise no one else will see it, just me when I’m feeling low.
Write soon, Darling.
Ever your Ritzi.

In Granny’s wobbly old age hand she’d written on the bottom:

I want Ritzi to have my diamond and ruby ring.

I had a mission. I had to find Ritzi.

Gold lettering at the base of the window declared opening hours to be 10.30 am to 4.30 pm. It was a quarter after ten. A stout wooden easel holding a garish painting stood looking out onto Bond Street. Other paintings hung on the walls and at a desk in the further reaches a woman was working at a keyboard.
I ordered a latte and a cheese bagel. A seat in the coffee bar was an ideal spot to watch the gallery. The woman from the keyboard unbolted the door at a studious five minutes after the half hour.
The glazed door held fast; a voice came from a speaker. ‘Can I help you?’ The woman at her desk was looking over.
‘Ritzheim Westerhouse: you had an exhibition of paintings last year.’ A man stood beside the far desk looking at the door over half-lens glasses; a buzz from the intercom and the door unlatched.
A deep carpet deadened sound in the white space smelling of furniture polish, daylight flooded in through a roof-light where the gallery extended into the well of the building.
‘And what, young man, is your interest in Westerhouse?’
‘I have something to hand over. It’s from a colleague who knew him years ago.’
The man, tall and superior, smiled dismissively. ‘We can take it for you, if you wish; Westerhouse is elderly and never answers the telephone. We have to wait for Westerhouse to contact us.’
‘It’s urgent. I’m charged with giving it to him in person.’
‘I fear you have the wrong Westerhouse, young man. Miss Westerhouse is a very private individual; she doesn’t welcome visitors whatever their business.’

Over coffee I told them all I knew of my grandmother’s friend Ritzi. The ring, wrapped in tissue paper and checked in my pocket many times as I journeyed into Town, had been taken from the locked drawer of my father’s desk; I’d found the hiding place for his spare key months before. The woman thought the ring Victorian and valuable; together they examined the wartime photos through a magnifying glass pointing to the woman at the steering wheel of the jeep. ‘She certainly has the look of a young Westerhouse.’

The train reached the end of the line, a taxi driver stuck fast in his seat looked at the directions written by the gallery on a postcard from the Westerhouse Exhibition.
The driver nodded his understanding and drove out of town along diminishing roads winding into Suffolk countryside until weaving round potholes on an unmetaled track we reached a cottage standing back from marshland. Beyond the building mudflats went down to a tidal river.
Two birds, long beaked with a plaintive cry, flew up from the estuary on a salt breeze making for farmland. Dark clouds, full and purple, were piled high into the sky. There was movement at a downstairs window.
‘Miss Westerhouse?’
‘The mower is in the shed, young man. There should be petrol in the can.’
I didn’t question her greeting. The clouds threatened rain; with a few pulls of a worn starter cord oily blue smoke billowed out, the rotor turned and cut into the overgrowth. The mowing, long overdue, left the ragged lawn strewn with chopped grass, but somehow looking neater for the cut.
With the mower stowed back in the hut the old lady reappeared asking if I wanted a drink. She wore what was once a cricket sweater, a faded vee of colours at the neck, elbows worn through to loose strands of wool, she had on cord trousers with paint marks where her hands had wiped the fabric.

‘My name is Andrew; my grandmother was Pamela Bunting; I’ve brought you something she wanted you to have.’ Why spin out the story? I’d learned that lesson at Sable’s Gallery in the morning.
‘Splash?’ She stared open mouthed, her grey eyes blinking behind dirty spectacles trying to focus. For a while she looked away in silence. ‘Splash is your grandmother?’
‘Why do you call her Splash?’
‘And you live in the village? How is… you said she was your grandmother.’
‘She died last month. She was eighty-two.’
‘I’m eighty-five… poor old Splash… Pamela. I never called her Pamela.’ Ritzheim Westerhouse sat at her kitchen table, occupying the only chair. She held a key in her hand, an old-fashioned padlock key tied with string to a worn label. The key tap-tapped the table from her effort to hold her hand still.
Cold lemonade was welcome after struggling with the mower. The room, smelling of turps like the art room at school, was cluttered, unclean paintbrushes muddled with knives and forks, plates with scrapings of past meals and broken handled mugs on the wooden draining board.
At the gallery I’d seen the catalogue of her exhibition, seen reproductions of her paintings. The exhibition had sold out in days. Here in her cottage pictures were propped on shelves and stacked in overlapping piles against walls: bold patterns of mudflats, filigrees of flotsam, broken boats, craggy fishermen and long coastal seascapes.
‘My grandmother told me you painted a picture of her during the war. I would like to see her portrait as a young woman.’
‘You’ve brought something from her?’
‘Yes. It’s a ring.’
‘Poor Splash. I suppose she married him. That would be your grandfather, he was an awful drip; decorated in the war, but wet enough to wring out, and he was an unmitigated snob.’
‘I didn’t know him. He died soon after I was born.’
‘She was a widow? I didn’t know; we had no contact after the debacle.’ Her blinking eyes surveyed me, eyes of an artist seeking the essence of her subject before committing paint onto canvas. ‘Splash took me home to meet her parents after our posting in Brussels, but it was a disaster. Her folks didn’t care for me, or I for them. Things were different in the days when she and I were young; there was no tolerance.’
Her fumbling fingers struggled with the tissue paper until the ring fell onto the kitchen table.
‘I gave Splash this ring, my mother’s engagement ring; she died when I was five; it was only me and my father after that, refugees in our adopted land.’
‘Why ‘Splash’?’
‘Your grandmother could swim beautifully, but she never got the hang of diving. It was a little cruel, but it was the spirit of the time.’ The old lady gave me a long look, perhaps seeking some shade of the past in my looks.
‘She had a dog. She called it ‘Ritzi’.’
Miss Westerhouse laughed, lighting up her lined face. ‘When I left her, after that awful weekend with her parents and the young man who was to be your grandfather, I told her I would get a dog, a little dog, and call it ‘Splash’.’ She pointed to a faded photograph on the wall. It was a dachshund.
‘Andrew, I’ll give you my painting of your grandmother. Look after it; it’s personal, but I expect it’s valuable these days. They wanted it for the London exhibition, but I’d promised her it was private. It’s concealed in a frame on the stairs. Find the picture of a woodland cottage; your grandmother’s portrait is set in the frame on the reverse. Take it in exchange for the ring.’

A helmeted moped rider, a youth on his errand to mow Miss Westerhouse’s lawn, weaved round the puddles towards the cottage. I walked by up the lane with the double-sided picture wrapped in brown paper under my arm pondering how I could explain the missing diamond and ruby ring at home.
I could never show them the intimate portrait of the young woman lying on the sofa of a wartime cottage.

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