Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Emperor’s Sugar Pot

Irene was perfectly content. Her eightieth birthday was some years behind her, how many, she'd never tell. 

The weatherboard house was comfortable. Her husband, Alan, had passed away over a decade ago and ever since Irene lived a perfectly satisfied life, in her perfectly functional house, surrounded by her perfectly uncomplicated world.

She wasn’t lonely; Homer saw to that. The white cockatoo was now at least twenty years old. No one knew his exact age and like Irene the proud and loyal bird wasn’t about to reveal it. His life expectancy meant he would surely outlive Irene by many years and he seemed to know this as he stood guard over her night and day, waiting for a time where he’d leave her side and take on life alone.

Homer had the run of the house. He’d been rescued by Irene and Alan years before. The bird was lying virtually dead on the road, the victim of a hit and run and unable to fly from a wing that would never be what it once was, he now waddled, almost mocking Irene’s gait, as they hung washing on the old line and came and went from the house into the backyard like a perfectly comfortable pair.


Over the years Irene had served as baby-sitter to her neighbours. Five nearby families had used her services, but as children grow, Aunt Reenie, as she became known, was more invited for tea than to watch young adults who no longer needed her looking out for them. Now she was just happy for the conversation and happier still for the many friends she’d gained through no more than living nearby and being a perfectly agreeable woman.

Days, weeks and even years would pass with Irene traveling a simple routine that left her sleeping soundly at night, satisfied by the way life was treating her.

Then she saw an announcement at the end of her favourite TV show and she sat mesmerized. She made up her mind on the spot to be bold and take up the adventure; the Antiques Road show was coming to town. She spent weeks selecting a number of household items to have appraised. She chose items solely on the basis of her favourite presenters. She took a painting, small enough to fit in her basket on wheels, not for art’s sake, but because the art expert was a frightfully well spoken, slim man with graying hair. She thought he was attractive and in his sixties she fantasized about taking him as her toy-boy. He wore bow ties and Reenie had a thing for bow ties.

She took a carved soapstone polar bear she and her husband had bought from indigenous Canadian tribesmen when they toured all the best known Canadian tourist spots and almost as an afterthought, and despite great consternation from Homer, she emptied her sugar pot of its sugar and loaded it almost as an afterthought.

Over the years Homer had, it was sad to say, become an addict, learning to remove the lid of that pot and indulge to his heart’s content in sugar. He didn’t do it regularly and Reenie was sure he’d say, if he could string a sentence of his random words together to utter intelligent comment, that he had his habit under control, but the number of times she’d found the bird raving in the wee hours, high on the white crystal, she couldn’t count. She excused his behavior as he excused her liking for the odd sherry or three from time to time.

Irene gathered her ‘Road Show’ booty and wheeled her trolley along the street to the bus stop. She sat up front in the bus, referring to her small map to guide her. When she spotted the street she wanted she alighted and walked the short distance to the grounds of the historic monastery. She joined a long queue of equally graying and pedantic collectors, clutching their cherished items, each hoping for a history or news of a re-discovered treasure.

Reenie only had eyes for her presenters and never entertained the idea any of her tributes would be worth a second look. She waited and waited. Finally her art critic’s smile and extended hand beckoned her forward and he played up his warmth and charm as Reenie flirted back. The man knew this would play well with the viewers, Irene blushed; today’s bow tie was particularly striking. The man described her art as na├»ve, an unknown amateur. Reenie couldn’t care less. 

Her flirtation went completely undetected by the eloquent expert. Once her art had been appraised she was so flustered she needed to sit and gather herself before joining the queue for her next favourite appraiser.

This time she held her soapstone carving. The sculpture expert was camp, no other way to describe him and his face seemed to collapse in on itself as he smiled and gushed at everything he saw. He found the carving exquisite, rare, a one of a kind item and worth twenty dollars – maybe – on a good day.

“But it’s the memory, isn’t it? It’s an object cherished by you and bringing memories of a trip you and your husband took so I’m sure, in your eyes, priceless,” his face pushed its features together as he beamed his on-air smile.

Reenie waited in another long queue and on more than one occasion she thought about leaving, but the final expert, the man who gushed and glowed over porcelain was now working himself into a rapture over a fine figurine statue not ten collectors ahead of her. Thirty minutes on Irene was ushered centre stage by an assistant.

Squeak, squeak, squeak, went the left wheel of her carry trolley. The expert patronized Reenie as he built up expectations for her reveal. She reached into her trolley and presented her small sugar pot. The expert took it with a smile and looked it over before freezing. He began to tremble then fumble. He went to his pocket and took out an eye piece.

“Where did this come from?” he asked, staring intently at the markings on the pot’s underside.
“My husband was in Korea and he brought home little things. I really don’t know much about it, but it’s good for sugar,” Reenie offered.

The expert kept looking the pot over like he didn’t believe, like his hands had gone numb and had lost feeling, like he was a two year old unable to make sense of the object he held or its purpose.


“Sugar?” he accused with scornful tone that would better suit a judge dressing down a recalcitrant vandal. Reenie nodded. The expert waved his hand and a production assistant raced over.

“This,” he told her without explanation. The assistant turned to Irene.
“Can you take it out and hand it to him for the camera exactly like you did before?” the young girl asked. Irene went to take the sugar pot back from the expert, but he clutched it tight and shook his head.
“No,” he withered. The assistant looked to him with confusion.
“She has to do the reveal for the camera,” the girl repeated sternly.
“Urghhh,” the presenter whimpered in a strangled falsetto. 

The assistant took the sugar pot from the white-knuckled hands clutching at the artifact and handed it back to Reenie. She shot her frozen expert a look of scorn and encouraged him to 'get it together' with her eyes. 

Without concern and failing to grasp any of what was unfolding around her, Irene took her pot and placed it harshly back in her trolley basket.

“Arghhhh!” shrieked the presenter, clutching at nothing. 

The man took a moment to gather himself and then the camera rolled and Irene rummaged a second time and pulled out the pot. This time the expert took it quickly and seemed to relax when he had it back in his hand.

“It’s lovely,” he said with a tight smile. “Can I ask how you came by it?”
“My husband was in Korea during the war. He was a lawyer, working with the Americans so he was able to buy some souvenirs.”
“Interesting,” the expert said as he fingered the pot and rubbed it passionately like he’d just been re-united with a long lost child.

“Well, I can tell you it’s not Korean, it’s Chinese. A small, beautifully worked and hand painted piece of porcelain. And I can see from the markings exactly where it was made. Have you ever had this valued?” The man’s growing confidence was building up to surprise he knew was his to deliver.
“Never. I use it for sugar.”
The presenter held his frozen smile that hid his fury at Irene’s ignorance.
“I see,” he managed. “Well, Chinese, as I said and fired in the imperial kiln. I can tell that by this imperial seal.” He pointed out the marking. “This means it was made by a master craftsman working for the royal house. The house in question is Quinlong, Emperor Quinlong from the Quin Dynasty around seventeen hundred.”

“That’s interesting,” Irene said with genuine intrigue. “How did it come to be in Korea?”
“There was widespread looting before and after the Second World War, but items were also given away to dignitaries and colonial diplomats so it’s not necessarily anything untoward.”
Irene nodded.

“Now, normally with an incomplete pot I would say we have some bad news. You can see the lip here, which tells me at one time there would have been a lid to go with this.”
“Oh yes,” Irene interrupted, shaking the side of her trolley to flip the contents that clinked together. “I have it here somewhere.” She reached down to find the lid, again jangling the trolley’s contents as she rummaged.
"Dear God, woman!” The expert blurted, losing himself and dropping his polite demeanor on camera. Irene came up with the lid and held it looking perplexed by the man’s harsh tone.

“And there it is,” the man said in a stunned monotone. “It’s complete.” He took the lid and fitted it to the sugar pot.
“How nice.” He had that held smile again, his face fixed in the manner of someone trying to be polite in the face of blatant stupidity.

“So, we have a royal pot, complete, from a master craftsman and about two hundred and fifty years old, without even a crack. Remarkable.”

“Would they have used it for sugar?” Irene asked curious to know if she and the emperor shared the use in common.
“Possibly, who knows, that’s not the point. I’m not sure you fully understand what I'm telling you.”
“Yes. It's an old emperor's sugar pot,” Irene said, sliding her jaw to the side and looking at the man for the first time with her own disparaging look. 

“Would you like to know the value?” The expert said, believing this might shock Irene into understanding what she had.
“I guess,” Irene said with nominal interest.
“I would be comfortable with an estimate of ten million dollars.”
“For a sugar pot?” Irene exclaimed, screwing up her face with incredulity.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind as Irene was paraded on chat shows, morning and night. She was interviewed in magazines and entertained by a parade of experts who all wanted only the best for Irene – and her pot.

When the circus died down the genuine bidders moved in and offered her options to sell with ever more favourable terms. They put forward cash bids from private buyers and proposals from galleries promising plaques in her name, provided she gifted the gallery, or at very least loaned them the pot for their collection.

“I’ve decided I’d like to keep it. It really is perfect for what I use it for,” Irene finally announced at a press conference. “Apart from it having sentimental value, because of my late husband,” she explained, “The top here,” she pointed out the small indent, “Fits the spoon I bought for it perfectly.”

The press conference thrust Irene into a second tsunami of publicity. The public clambered for news of the sweet old lady who was turning her back on a fortune for the sake of sentiment and a handy sugar dispenser.

Twitter went crazy. One of the night time talk show hosts helped her register a twitter handle live on-air and she quickly built up over a million followers. When one of the young teens she had once baby-sat recorded her and Homer for his Youtube channel his subscribers went from 352 to half a million overnight. Irene was hot property.

Over the next few months she listened to impassioned pleas from many who explained how important the pot was and how it was culturally significant to the Chinese people, although, from what she could tell, it was only significant to very wealthy Chinese people who wanted to own the pot for their private collection.

Museums and galleries contacted her on a daily basis claiming people the world over had a right to view such a masterpiece and even those who knew Irene personally tried to persuade her to sell so she could reap the rewards and buy whatever she wanted to make her life easier and give her security.
Irene denied them all.
“I have everything I want,” she explained, “And that includes using my pot for sugar.”

The online community glorified Irene even more. She became a meme against excess and greed. Everything that mentioned her name was instantly up-voted on Reddit and her twitter account and the Youtube channel featuring her became substantial earners.

The young owner of the Youtube channel arranged to deposit what he felt was a fair split of his ad earnings into Irene’s account. Given every cent was due to the postings featuring Irene, the young teen was relieved and delighted when Irene didn’t challenge what he felt was a ‘fair split’. 

Subscribers to the Youtube channel doubled the night Homer was featured. The bird was in a feisty mood and told Irene to go fuck herself. Irene gave him a blast that sounded like any wife tired of her husband’s uncouth ways in front of company and ended with the foul mouthed and seemingly repentant bird hiding his head under his wing in a perfectly time finale to a neat thirty seconds of hilarious vision.  

More money flowed Irene’s way from the hosted ads and when Irene donated all her earnings to animal shelters she gained even more followers. 

Her fame piqued the night she unwittingly engaged Ricky Gervaise in an argument about God. A series of twitter texts she thought were private sent the twitterverse into re-tweet meltdown. Irene’s followers built into the millions and she suddenly had good wishes and opportunities she could never have conceived coming her way. She simply couldn’t keep up.

A sophisticated alarm system was arranged for her house with a twenty four hour security 'call-out' service. It was donated by a gallery who gained a verbal ‘maybe’ to be left the pot in Irene’s will. Irene was only willing to commit to a maybe because she wanted to leave the pot to Homer, given the birds addiction and his liking for his regular supplier; Emperor Quinlong’s pot.

As the years rolled by Irene never left the public consciousness. To the young she was an anarchist unable to be corrupted by big money. To some she was an eccentric fool turning her back on a lifestyle they all craved. To others she was a woman who simply didn’t want her familiar ways to change; an advocate to simple living.

She, her pot and Homer featured in a tea commercial where Homer removed the pot’s lid on command. Every time that particular ad came on screen, the expert, who still recalled the pot’s discovery as his greatest ‘Roadshow’ moment, had to turn the TV off in case, this time, the bird broke his beloved treasure.

She knew she’d have to make a decision about what to do with her pot after she was gone. She knew her life was nearing its end when her legs started to swell badly in the heat and simple things, like a walk in her yard, became almost impossible. She began using a Zimmer frame and spent hours sitting, trying not to stress and worry about what she should do with her most valuable possession.

Some nights she would end looking at that pot, trying to conceive how such a thing could be causing her so much concern. She gave up checking her twitter account when @douchecanoe85 relentlessly tweeted, ‘Pass the #sugar – biatch!’ for weeks on end.

She simply couldn’t decide what to do, or who to donate the treasure to on her passing. If she left it to her faithful bird she could never ensure her wishes would be carried out. It was beyond her comprehension that so many people were so desperate to possess her sugar pot and so many of them were prepared to engage in devious diplomacy to get what they wanted.

Every solution she devised seemed to delight some and deeply hurt others.

What had happened to her simple life shared with her foul mouthed, yet otherwise silent avian partner? She was losing sleep and becoming one of those people she swore she would never become; a worrier.

Then one night she was woken by a sharp, shattering noise. She sat terrified in her bed and waited for her state of the art alarm to fire. It stayed silent. The twenty four hour security firm that monitored the system never called.

Irene got out of bed, slipped on her threadbare terry toweling gown and cat face slippers and padded down the hall on her Zimmer frame. She could hear the intruder rooting around in the kitchen. She moved stealthily to the end of the hall and peered into the moonlit room.

There he was, dancing with bobbing head, strutting with everything but a glow stick, raving on her table – Homer was high on sugar and displaying moves like Jagger.

Homer cocked his head sideways spying his mistress, eyeballing her before strutting back to the other side of the old Formica topped table where he brazenly and provocatively danced, urging Irene to join him with her own silky moves. He flicked his beak into some spilled sugar, throwing some Irene’s way, daring her to join his party.

Irene turned on the old fluorescent light and saw it for the first time. Surrounded by the heap of sugar on the floor, splashed out across the streaked linoleum, the Emperor’s pot was shattered, irreparable, unrecognizable.

It took Irene some time to sweep the shards and sugar up. She resorted to hands and knees and Homer only occasionally shimmied to the side of the table to check on her. He was convinced she was indulging and he was happy to be left to do the same with his stash of sugar still on the table.

Irene tipped the sugar encrusted porcelain pieces, glistening like glass, into the bin. A day later that bin was emptied into her wheelie bin and four days after that the contents were collected and taken away to a suburban tip where the ten million dollar shattered dream was buried among a thousand other disposable bits and pieces, now lost among other formerly coveted items. 

The ants swarmed and found the crystal treasure clinging to the porcelain pieces – they left the pieces of the pot – to them it was worthless.

Irene’s death brought with it her final wave of publicity. She was both revered as an icon and reviled as a selfish old hag who kept to herself a fortune that could have helped so many. Then the real news broke; the pot was missing. The house was torn apart before security was even thought of. The treasure hunters found nothing.

Rumours began to fly: Irene had been cremated and her ashes interred in her priceless pot. She had it hidden. It was stolen and secreted away by the Chinese government. 

The legend of the Quinlong sugar pot began to grow. The pot became hunted by hundreds of treasure seekers looking to get rich quick. Irene’s pot had become part of buried treasure folklore.

When the bulldozers moved in to clear Irene’s land, an area of the rubble, many times sifted and searched without reward went unnoticed. It included a green glass pot with a silver spoon lying nearby. The pot contained sugar and even when a feisty cockatoo swooped awkwardly with damaged wing to fend off anyone who tried to move that green glass pot, no-one connected the dots.

Alone and lost, the glass pot had no value to anyone but Irene and Homer. To them it was the equal of Emperor Quinlong's pot, because both were perfectly good for holding sugar.