Diamonds are two a penny, but everybody wants them anyway.
At first, Osian thinks it’s because they hurt. Every time he speaks a new word in the common tongue and a diamond comes up, it feels like dying, like its hard angles will tear his throat open. Something you have to suffer for like that, you hold on to. You want to believe it’s worth something.
On the other hand, once you’ve brought it up, wiped away the blood and sucked on a lozenge to soothe the soreness, you can pretend a diamond didn’t come out of you at all. It’s such a sharp, mineral thing. Pearls are different — stubbornly organic. They roll out of the throat with ease, sticky only with saliva, and they come with the old tongue. Rounded, with a dull shine, they look like a product of the flesh.
At the end of each week, Mrs. Toms has the class empty out their handfuls of diamonds onto their desks, with a bar of chocolate or a book token for whoever has the most. The stones spill everywhere, and the classroom becomes a cold, bright place, an ocean of diamonds whose images glitter behind Osian’s eyelids when he blinks.
They don’t count up the pearls. Some of the other kids have strings of them, pale shimmering legacies from grandparents, worn discreetly beneath their school shirts. Osian doesn’t. Grandmother never passed the old tongue down. Her knuckles were rapped when she spoke it in school, and later, friends would hesitantly say, Well, I suppose we have to move with the times, and You want your kids to get good jobs, don’t you? and What’s the point?
Still, he acquires a few pearls, here and there. They’re swear words, mostly, whispered covertly behind hands and bike sheds, and disgorged in secret, too. He keeps them in a wooden box on his nightstand, another relic from his grandmother.
One lunchtime, Mrs. Toms catches them at it: him and Ceri-Ann from next door, whispering rude words in a corner of the playground, rolling the spit-sticky pearls between their fingers. There aren’t rules against it anymore, not officially, but he still flushes with shame when she walks over.
She frowns down at them, face pinched and disapproving, and Osian’s stomach drops. They were swearing, after all. How is he going to explain the detention to Mam?
But Mrs. Toms just shakes her head, sighs, and says, “Haven’t you children got better things to do with your time?”
She walks away and starts to clean her glasses on the hem of her cardigan, and Osian realises with a sudden thrill that she didn’t understand what they were saying. She doesn’t speak the old tongue.
It’s like having a secret power. At the table that night, Mam asks him what he looks so excited about, and he clamps his lips shut and shakes his head, knowing that the scrutiny of his parents will spoil it, will make this precious thing mundane and useless and no longer his. He reaches into his pocket and lets the pearls roll between his fingers, a small, rattling handful of reassurances.
The problem is, what do you do with a secret like this one? Swearing behind Mrs Toms’ back is funny — although a couple of times, he and Ceri-Ann get kept in at lunchtime for giggling too loudly even though she can’t understand them — but what else? You can’t know if somebody speaks the old tongue or not until you’ve tried them, and when you only know rude words, that’s a problem.
Osian frowns to himself and wonders, but comes up with no solution, and at length the excitement fades from his mind, the pearls sitting untouched on his bedside table.
So he knows swear words, and goodbye and good morning, and place-names nearby, and he knows to shake his head in apology at a “Siarad Cymraeg?” And that’s it.
The years pass, and other things grow more important, and though he still coughs up the occasional diamond when he learns a new term in science or maths class, his collection of pearls remains pitifully small. When he finishes school, first in his family to go to university, he leaves the handful of pearls behind.
Osian is used to seeing diamonds set into earrings and strung around necks, people showing off the brightest and most impressive of their collections. On campus, though, he sees people with other stones: amethysts, peridots, rubies; wine-red garnets and gold-speckled lapis lazuli. With a pang, he remembers the bagful of dutiful carnelians he collected from his compulsory French class at school, weighed up at the end of term and then promptly thrown out. His diamonds glitter as bright and sharp as ever, but beside the other students, he feels like a pigeon in a flock of parrots.
The colours are what make him notice Deri. He’s dispensed with diamonds altogether, wearing a whole rainbow of other stones instead: a yellow citrine in his ear; a blue flash of sodalite at his collarbone where his shirt is unbuttoned a little too low; and, around one wrist, a neat string of pearls.
Osian blinks and stares at it, a ghost of that old playground thrill suddenly waking in him. It’s as though the pearls are a signal and the two of them members of some secret club.
He glances up and catches Deri’s eye. Deri cocks his head, gives him a questioning — though not unfriendly — look, and Osian ducks his head, cheeks burning.
But later, as he’s packing his books at the end of the lecture, he straightens up and finds Deri standing in front of him, colours glinting everywhere. His green eyes are brighter than all of them.
Osian blinks and stammers out an eloquent “Um, hi?” that certainly won’t earn him any prize jewels.
“Hi,” says Deri. And then, “You’ve stared enough. You can buy me a pint.”
So Osian does; turns out, it’s not only the pearls that fascinate him.
The first time in years that he gains a new pearl, it’s in Deri’s box room in student halls, the two of them squeezed together into one single bed. Osian’s sticky and a little lightheaded, the discovery of how good sex with another person can be still giddy and new. Through the delighted fog in his head, Osian remembers something Deri said earlier, whispered against sweat-shining skin.
“What’s that mean?” he asks, sitting up. “Cariad?”
Deri flushes the deep colour of pink tourmaline. “I thought you didn’t want to learn the old tongue.”
“I never said that.” Osian levers himself into a sitting position, inching closer to press himself against Deri’s back. “I wasn’t really interested, but it sounds nice when you say it.” He kisses Deri’s bare shoulder, lets a wheedle creep into his voice. “C’mon, tell me.”
Deri turns his head so that their lips brush. “It’s just like — like saying ‘babe’, or something.” He gives Osian a warning look. “Don’t take the piss.”
“Never,” Osian promises and repeats it carefully, sounding out each syllable. “Ca-ri-ad. Cariad.”
Grinning, Deri bumps his nose. “Close enough.”
And now that he’s spoken it, knowing its meaning, Osian feels the familiar lump of a pearl forming in his throat. More accustomed to the sharp corners of diamonds, he winces in anticipation, but it comes up easy, rolls over his tongue like a boiled sweet. He picks it out gingerly between two fingers, warm and wet with spit.
It gleams softly in the half-lit room. Deri looks at it, and then at Osian’s face, lips parted and wondering. “Can I?” he asks and holds out a hand.
Osian blinks; it surprises him how intimate the request feels. “Really?”
“Is that okay?”
Wordless and smiling, he presses the sticky pearl into Deri’s palm.
It stays good for a year, until Deri comes home to the rented room they’ve been sharing and takes his hand and says, in the common tongue, “I need to tell you something.”
Osian has picked up a few more phrases, a new, small handful of pearls collecting in his nightstand drawer, but that’s all. Deri teaches him new words, coaxes him to use them in public or with the few of his friends that speak the old tongue — but right now, understanding is clearly more important.
“Okay,” says Osian, stomach clenching with nerves. “What is it?”
“I’ve been offered a placement abroad. It’s for a year.” Despite the softness of his voice, Deri’s eyes shine with excitement. “Did you know in Catalunya, they speak opals?”
Osian tries to smile. “You’ve said yes?”
“Not yet. But—” Deri’s hand tightens in his own. “I want to. I’ll understand if you don’t want to — to stay with me.”
Unbidden, a new phrase forms itself in Osian’s mind. Please don’t go. If he knew how to say it in the old tongue, would it work, be a spell to bind Deri to him?
He swallows it down. Shakes his head. “Don’t be daft,” he says. “Of course you’ve got to go.”
They speak every night at first, Osian hoarding ten-pence pieces for the payphone in the foyer of his building, clutching the receiver tightly to his ear. By the end of the first two weeks, though, Deri sounds so tired at the start of their nightly chats that Osian shakes his head and says, “You don’t have to speak to me every night, you know. Not if you don’t want to.”
A brief pause, and then, with an edge of hurt, “What makes you think I don’t want to?”
Osian shrugs. “It’s nothing. Just… don’t want to get in your way. It’s fine.” He hates how sulky his voice sounds but can’t seem to temper it.
“Oh,” says Deri, quietly. “Well, if that’s what you want.”
It isn’t, it isn’t. “Yeah,” Osian hears himself say. “’S probably best.”
A month into the placement, he gets a letter. There’s a Polaroid attached to it with a paperclip, words he doesn’t understand scrawled along the bottom in permanent marker. Osian doesn’t try to read them, too focused on the proud light in Deri’s eyes, the fiery glitter of the opals he holds out toward the camera.
There’s something on the back of the photograph, too. I learned some new words today. Wanted to give them to you. I love you.
“Did my letter come yet?” Deri asks him that night, breathless with excitement on the other end of the line.
“Yeah.” Osian inhales deeply. Deri told him I love you in the old tongue months ago. He hasn’t spoken the words aloud yet, wanting to wait for the right moment. This, he’s aware, should be it.
Instead, he finds them sticking in his throat. In the common tongue, he says, “Wish I’d got to hear you say it in person.”
There’s a long silence. He tries not to picture Deri’s face falling. “I’ll, um. I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” Deri says, at length. “Early start.”
Deri’s true to his word: he calls back the following night. Osian, waiting beside the payphone, feels a flutter of relief in his belly — and then it fades, because he can’t think of a single thing to say.
He turns and walks back to his room, the ringtone echoing around the empty foyer.
Bored and lonely, Osian finds himself skipping classes to sit in the common room and stare at the telly. Sometimes, he gets as far as collecting up the change from his pockets and heading to the foyer. A couple of times, he even dials Deri’s number, but then a hot shame floods through him, and he slams the phone down before it can connect. Once, it starts to ring as he walks past, and his hand is almost on the receiver before he remembers and pulls back.
He locks himself in his room for the rest of the evening, pretending to be asleep when Ceri-Ann bangs on his door to try and drag him to the pub. Maybe it wasn’t even Deri calling the payphone. But if it had been, what would he say? Fuck, what would he say? He groans and bangs his head against his pillow.
His friends tell him he looks like shit. There are worried calls from his parents, threats of them coming down to visit. He insists that he’s fine, just worried about exams (a lie: he’s barely even thought about revising), but he won’t be able to put them off forever.
In the cafeteria, Ceri-Ann pokes him in the arm with her fork. “What’s up with you these days?” she asks. “Walking around with a face like a smacked arse.”
“Fuck off,” Osian tells her, without heat, and then deflates. “I think I really messed things up with Deri.”
“How’d you manage that?”
He shrugs miserably. “I don’t know. Every time I speak to him I just… end up being such a dickhead. I feel like I’m losing him.”
“So stop being a dickhead.”
“Yeah.” He sighs. “Got that part, thanks. I owe him an apology. But, I dunno.” He waves his hands uselessly. “It’s like we’re on opposite sides of this… this ravine, right? And I need to get across it before I can even tell him I’m sorry. Only I can’t jump that far, and I haven’t got anything to make a bridge with.” He slumps, head falling into his hands. “God, that sounded stupid.”
Ceri-Ann looks at him sideways, a careful, measuring glance. “Deri speaks the old tongue, doesn’t he? You told me that was how you guys met.”
“Yeah.” Osian frowns. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well,” she says, “I’ve been learning. Properly, not just bits and pieces. Why don’t you come to class with me? Might help you, I dunno, feel closer to him while he’s gone.”
“I don’t know,” says Osian, because right now anything hopeful feels treacherous. “I’m not sure if he’ll even want to speak to me now.”
Ceri-Ann shrugs. “If he needs space, give it to him. This’ll keep you occupied in the meantime.”
So, the following Monday, he finds himself sitting with Ceri-Ann in a classroom after hours while a cheery young woman in sensible shoes teaches them to say Hello and My name is in the old tongue. They’re such small steps, the possibility that he could ever be fluent seeming to recede each time some new piece of the puzzle shows him how little he knows. But each step forward feels like a tiny thing slotting into its right place, and so he keeps going.
He goes home with pockets full of pearls. The warmth of them in his hands is almost like being touched.
Almost. Not quite. He still can’t walk past the silent payphone without remembering his own stupid, petty jealousy and wishing he could unsay the words, swallow them back down.
He can’t do that. He can only replace them with new words. Every time he learns one and imagines saying it to Deri, the sting lessens a little. He pictures himself on one side of that ravine, reaching across for Deri like a plant seeking sunlight. Becoming the bridge.
Weeks pass. The term is almost over. Deri will be home for Christmas, soon.
On the last day of the course, he plucks up his courage and approaches Beth, the tutor, after class. There’s a sheet of paper folded tightly in his pocket, and he opens it with sweaty hands. “There are things I need to say to someone,” he says. “I’ve written them down. Will you check for me? I want to get it right.”
And, a few days later, Osian is waiting at the airport, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as the announcement that Deri’s flight has landed flashes up on the board.
Deri’s eyes widen in surprise at the sight of him, and Osian feels briefly sick. Then a grin splits Deri’s face, and they’re in each other’s arms, Deri’s suitcase abandoned on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Osian tells him, in the old tongue. “I’m sorry,” and “Never again,” and “Forgive me,” and, over and over again, “I love you.” The pearls shower down around them like rain.