It was prophetic, calling their bald afterthought Ruby simply because they liked the name. She began sprouting wavy vermilion hair, and her mousy-haired mother would turn to her similar-hued husband and exclaim: ‘She’s not like us, is she?’

She wasn’t. One massive bone of contention was Ruby’s family’s sporting prowess. Her father pulled on his trainers for a daily jog in all weathers, playing tennis frequently. Her mother attended aerobics and gymnastics, and frequently boasted of how she’d been chosen for the town sports in her youth, a feat both Ruby’s brothers (also rodent-haired and quite a bit older than her) achieved each year. But Ruby was hopeless at sport. Unable to throw, catch or hit a ball (she’d never even tried kicking one) she was slung out of P.E. at school for being useless, and came last in all her races on sports day, even when she tried. Sundays were awful. They’d cycle out as a family to the local field (another bone of contention- Ruby took over three years to learn how to balance atop her bicycle; a feat her brothers had achieved in a matter of weeks) to play games which Ruby would inevitably ruin, what with her propensity to automatically wallop a ball away if it was thrown at her to catch (although it was pot luck as to whether she’d manage to achieve hitting it). Their yearly holiday camp sojourn was the worst. Her father would sign the whole clan up for activities like quad biking, volleyball or badminton, resulting in crochety wailing from a reluctant Ruby, usually scabbed and bruised from whatever she’d managed to fail at the day before. But here she stuck her heels in. She wanted to attend the art workshop and was damned if she was going to let these idiots stop her in favour of an hour falling over on roller skates, kicking up such a stink when they told her no that they had to reverse their decision. Her brothers (who were really now too old for family excursions) scowled and allowed their differences to grate. ‘Bloodhead,’ they insulted Ruby, throwing the ball at her head as she sat down to make a daisy chain, stubbornly interrupting their game. But Ruby smiled as she rubbed her skull, liking the moniker.

Ruby wasn’t just a lover of drawing. Her dad had an old pictorial atlas- one with countries she knew were now re-named, such as Ceylon, Persia and Rhodesia– and she spent hours examining it, tracing her fingers over exotic photos of the Sahara Desert, wondering what it was like to live there. As she got older she imagined herself like Scheherazade; riding barefoot across undulating sands on a camel, veiled and mysterious, or wandering into the pyramids then sailing down the Nile like a cursed heiress from an Agatha Christie plot.

They frequently visited her mother’s extended family on their council estate, but there was a family member they rarely saw. “Been married four times!” Judgemental Barbara shook her head; cocooned within her backward morals.

Once she was cycling, Ruby’s father took her to the outskirts of town to meet her paternal granny for his duty visit. Ruby found this statuesque, patrician woman, fascinating. Her granny always wore black- often a severe dress, although trousers when tending her garden- but still drove; her little white Mini Metro parked alongside her cute, picture-postcard cottage. Local folklore dictated that she was a witch; a reputation which no doubt sprang from her ownership of a black cat, a rustic broom and a cauldron for cooking her fragrant, self-grown vegetable soups. She had titian hair as well; although hers now had huge white streaks running through it, like road lines.

By the age of eleven independent Ruby frequently took off to see her granny, usually finding her outside in the garden which veered down towards the confluence of the rivers, intrigued as to why her parents hardly ever saw her.

“Call me Gwen. Short for Gwendolyne. Granny makes me sound old!” she insisted, in plummy vowels unlike her mother’s but similar in tone to her father’s.

“Doesn’t that name come from Guinevere?” Ruby said, always eager to impress adults with her superior knowledge. Pretentious, her mother had labelled her, but Gwen laughed and raised a pencilled eyebrow, rather liking the rebellious nature of this little outcast.

“Drinkie?” Gwen possessed a huge physical globe on a stand, which had attracted Ruby’s attention from the offset. She stared in amazement as Gwen manoeuvred the lid to reveal a myriad of bottles nestled inside, like soldiers. She nodded, getting the impression that it was not orange squash she was being offered, and Gwen poured, squinting and adding a few drips of something which turned the concoction pink.

Ruby sipped her gin and tonic, the crisp alcohol giving her a lovely, soft fuzzy head. “Mum and Dad don’t drink. Ever.”

Gwen scowled, exasperated. “That’s Boring Barbara’s influence.” Then she looked contrite. “I’m sorry. I know she’s your mother. But she’s so… modulated. She could have represented her country in gymnastics- freestyle, floor acrobatics. But did she? No, because she thought it best to leave school and work in a factory shelling peas, like her small-town, narrow-minded family wanted.”

“It’s where Mum and Dad met.”

“Humph. I know.” Gwen slotted a pastel coloured cigarette into a holder, lighting it with a chunky pewter lighter. “All that money wasted on a private education for him to work as a bookkeeper. In a factory. Ambitionless Aubrey. That’s what she turned him into.”

Gwen later elaborated, smirking ironically as Ruby shared her ambitions of travelling. “I didn’t want children, you know,” she gave Ruby a concentrated stare.

Ruby reddened, but she was well-read enough to understand and preened, inordinately pleased that Gwen saw her fit to confide in.

“There were ways and means, even back in the thirties. I used the Dutch cap. Until my first husband,” Gwen never mentioned him by name “Found it and beat me. I wasn’t going to put up with that so I left him, much to the scandal of my family, who temporarily disowned me. Come,” she took Ruby up neat spiral stairs, pulling open a heavy wardrobe on the landing, presenting a glittering rainbow of dresses, feather boas and heels; clearly old-fashioned but extremely well-preserved. Gwen laughed, and for a second the timbre of her voice took on a high-pitched nuance, like that of a much younger woman as she recited the designers of her clothing. “Vionnet. Paquin. Schiaparelli. Coco Chanel. I rented a flat with another girl and took a job as a nightclub singer, travelling up to London on the Tube- we’re at the end of the line, as you know. I sometimes stayed out all night…” she winked at Ruby, who got the gist and grinned conspiratorially. “Then…” she looked wistful, “..the war started. I remarried – of course it was lust. My contraception failed, I had your father. He never met his father- he died fighting. Well, I drove ambulances, for the ATS,’ she shrugged. ‘By then Mama was widowed and she looked after Aubrey.”

At home Ruby’s frequent visits were questioned outright, so she raised the issue in Gwen’s refreshingly light and modern sitting room, prompting her to elaborate. “They said I’m after your money…”

“Ha!” Gwen said, walking outside and passing a trowel over to Ruby. “They think I’m loaded, coming from the upper class- impoverished though it was.”

“They reckon you’ve got more jewels than the Queen…”

Later, when they’d finished planting and rinsed the pungent smell of rosemary off their hands, Gwen padded upstairs and returned holding a thick photo album, continuing the conversation. “They’re stupid. How d’you think I paid for Aubrey’s upbringing? His education? How do you think I paid for this place? I sold ’em.”

“They said it was your fourth husband’s house, and that you married him for it.” Ruby smiled, vaguely remembering kind Ted, who’d continually sucked on Murray mints; removing a half-eaten sweet and secreting it in his handkerchief whenever he was called to the dinner table.

Gwen shook her head sadly. “Rot! It’s always been my house, and I married him for companionship.”

“They reckon you’ve buried all your jewellery in your garden…”

Gwen laughed incredulously. “One day they caught me unawares, burying my furs.’I came to realise that killing animals for their coats is wrong, so I started wearing fake. And I thought the dead animals deserved a proper burial so I buried ’em outside, in the same way I buried Winston, Queenie and Tabitha.” Ruby refrained from referring to the chewy roast beef sandwiches they’d devoured for lunch, but as if on cue Tiberius came up for a snuggle, rubbing his soft fur against Ruby’s legs.

“They said they’re going to dig up the garden once they inherit your cottage…”

“Good luck to them!” Ruby never mentioned what was discussed at the cottage with her parents, although they mined her for information.

‘They say you like…’ Ruby was unsure how to word this, ‘…men of colour.’

Gwen’s eyes grew wistful and she turned sharply. ‘Sd,’ her voice was very low. ‘They mean Saĩd. The true love of my life.’

Gwen then flapped her arms, surprising Ruby by asking her to leave; something she’d not done before. Although stung by the rejection, on the way home Ruby rolled the foreign name around her tongue, for effect. Saĩd…

It was some months before Gwen talked about her love again. “It was not his real name. And, like Heathcliff, he tended to use only the one name serving as both Christian and surname.” She quizzed Ruby, “Do you know what an Emir is?”

Ruby shook her head so Gwen told her. “It means prince. Saĩd was a Saudi Arabian prince.”

Ruby was obviously impressed, but noted how Gwen’s whole demeanour became guarded as she embarked upon this subject. “He had to leave after the territorial merger of 1932. There were problems with family affiliations,” Gwen said carefully, picking at unseen cottons hanging from her dress, “so his mother granted him access to their bank vaults. He cleared it of money and jewellery and left. I met him at the end of the war – I still popped down to London whenever I could. I remember him just sitting alone in a jazz bar, exhaling cigarette rings into the air like a magician.”

She looked at Ruby intensely. “I can’t explain how I felt that first time we locked eyes- it was like spiralling down into a vortex. It’d never happened before and it’s never, ever happened since,” Gwen said candidly. “We were married five weeks later.” She winked at Ruby. “Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was devastatingly, hypnotically attractive but yes, he was an Arab. He was a ‘man of colour’ as your mother so succinctly puts it. He’d claimed asylum here and had returned his debt to the British government by undertaking very important top secret work during the war. But he couldn’t tell me about it, or his previous name, so I remained ignorant of the details. But I did know that he was Saudi royalty. As do Boring Barbara and Ambitionless Aubrey. Or, maybe I should rename him Avaricious Aubrey. We put Aubrey in,” she smiled thinly, “a very expensive boarding school and set about travelling the world. First class.”

Gwen filled in the details in stages over the years, always referring to her special, leather-bound photo album. “The best twelve years of my life.” Each time she pointed a square fingernail at a photo- rough, gardener’s hands, that didn’t seem to go with her beautifully made-up face and her classic perfume. “We resided in hotels, mostly, when we weren’t on cruise ships. Every time we ran out of money, Sd would call his contact in London. A piece of jewellery would be sent. I’d wear it then we’d sell it, using the proceeds on which to live.

“Buenos Aires, and we stayed at the Governor’s house…” Gwen jabbed at a lovely photo taken by a cerulean blue pool. She was wearing an amethyst tiara.

“Barbados, and we stayed at the Chancellor’s home…” This time Gwen was in some kind of tropical garden, decorated in elaborate diamond and pearl earrings.

“New York, and we stayed at the Algonquin…’ Gwen said, as Ruby viewed a lovely photo of a happy Gwen sitting by a bookcase, showing off a stunning sapphire necklace.

‘Hong Kong, and we rented an apartment for a year…” Gwen was in an emerald choker, her earrings reaching her shoulders.

“Sydney. Before the days of the opera house…” Gwen was photographed wearing what looked like a mesh of moonstones set in a complex neck confection.

“Delhi. Then down to Kandy…” Photos of yet more diamonds and deliquescent aquamarines shone out at Ruby. She could understand why her parents might get covetous, and said so. She was not averse to finery herself, having developed a rather eclectic, teenage way way of dressing.

“I’m thinking about becoming an archaeologist.”

“Then you’ll want to visit Egypt. I did – I insisted.” Gwen pulled out another photo, and this time she was bedecked in a pearl tiara with colossal cluster earrings. “But that’s when Saĩd started to get ill. I’ve always felt guilty…” Gwen’s rubbed her forehead (she seemed to flag easily these days) shooing Ruby away, and the conversation was aborted until their next meeting.

“I think it was passing up the Red Sea. He knew he could never return to Saudi Arabia. If he had his mother would have been killed, and that thought destroyed him inside. Then they had all that Suez Canal business going on, so we had to backtrack. I’ve stood on all six continents, you know,” Gwen changed the subject. “Do your mother and father know I’ve definitely sold the jewellery – have you told them?”

“No.” Ruby rather liked imagining them digging furiously in the garden, like dogs seeking out a previously-secreted bone.

“Good girl.”

“After that we sailed down to Zanzibar. Then we moved on. We docked in Cape Town, but weren’t allowed to disembark; there was an outbreak of yellow fever on-board. But the authorities did put on a boxing match for our entertainment on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Then we sailed around the bulge and into Morocco. By then most of the money had run out. Sd knew he was dying – lung cancer – he smoked those wretched Senior Service cigarettes. Not just the odd Sobranie Cocktail, like me.” As if on cue, Gwen coughed and lighted one of these, positioning it in her holder. “He gave me the permissions to his safe deposit box. He died on a horrid, muggy June day, in our apartment. I had him cremated and scattered the ashes into the Strait of Gibraltar as I took passage.”

Gwen showed Ruby a photo of her wearing her favourite necklace; a series of small rubies in a fantastic gold mesh, with a central star and teardrop strands hanging down. “Bloodhead, he called me. He loved the way this necklace matched me.”

Ruby was incredulous. “That’s what my brothers used to call me! It was meant as an insult, but I actually quite like it…”

“From Saĩd’s lips it was a compliment. I haven’t parted with that one necklace. Of course, I made my way up through Europe, but it was such a blur. I couldn’t see the countries for my teardrops. I loved him so much… I was so very numb…” Gwen ticked them off on her fingertips; “South of France, Italy, Portugal. Even pretty Holland; one blur. I busied myself caring for my dying mama, lived with Aubrey for a while before he went to university- waste of money that was- and married Ted.”

Somewhere along the line Ruby’s plans changed. She still wanted to travel, but now wanted to be a cartographer. “Mum and Dad want me to work in a factory, like my brothers. And get married and have kids. But I don’t want that.”

“Wise choice,” Gwen said.

Gwen’s drinks cabinet was starting to look as faded as her, so Ruby designed a new map, which Gwen had transformed into a new globe bar. She died just before Ruby graduated. “Promise me you’ll do what you have to do…” she kept reiterating in the hospice, which Ruby found odd.

Her parents were relieved when they took ownership of the cottage; glad that it hadn’t gone to their whipper-snapper daughter. They set about digging up the garden, and Ruby imagined Gwen laughing at them from beyond her grave. “That garden floods – I doubt even my pets’ skeletons are left!”

Ruby inherited Gwen’s globe and her clothing. “haven’t parted with that one necklace,'” Gwen had said, and it was right under her parents’ noses. She made a decision and contacted the V&A Museum; there was going to be a small exhibition telling Gwen’s story and including her personal artefacts. “Promise me you’ll do what you have to do…” Ruby didn’t know if she could ever part with her globe, but she did know that she now had the means to get on with her life in the way she wanted.

On Gwen’s globe bar, overlooked by Ruby’s teetotal parents, was her bloodhead trail, mapped out in small, red stones. The little rubies were like spots of blood flowing like pinpricks from a needle, mounted in gold and celebrating Gwen’s love journey, the star centrepiece of the necklace now marking the spot where Saĩd had died; the teardrops representing the remaining, broken-hearted steps home. It was all there, hidden in plain sight- the journey her parents knew nothing about as they hadn’t bothered to get to know Gwen well enough to understand its significance.

On the exhibition opening evening Ruby gave her speech and viewed the globe, running her fingertips over the cold glass cabinet. She raised her red glass of gin and bitters to the heavens, smiling respectfully.