The stranger and the ring

By Tim Butcher
Cape Town

  • Published
Stanley Butcher wearing the family ring, 2006Image source, Tim Butcher

When my father died he left me a ring that had once belonged to his father. But before long I was thrown into a panic - I had lost it. Racked with guilt, I turned to a stranger for help.

Gold drew many to South Africa and it was gold that has just reaffirmed my faith in this muddled, mosaic nation.

As a Briton living in Cape Town, I recently received the call nobody wants. My father had passed away. After the funeral in England, my mother showed me Dad's will. It mostly went to her with one named item for me - a gold ring, worn for decades by Dad and before him, by his own father.

I've never really been into jewellery, yet when I slipped the ring on my left pinky it felt somehow right. Consoled in my grief by Dad's beloved bling, I flew home to South Africa.

All was well until a wintry Saturday when I walked on our local beach. As so often in the Cape, it was fierce windy, a blur of sand and spindrift. When I got home and lit the fire, I looked at my left hand. The ring wasn't there.

An emotional tsunami washed over me - shock, horror, remorse, anger, powerlessness. And when it pulled back, all that was really left was guilt - a potential life sentence of guilt. Hoping against hope it had not been dropped on the beach, I looked everywhere else. Maybe the car? I stripped it to no avail. Maybe the veranda where I dried off the dog? No luck. Maybe the house? Nothing.

Image source, Tim Butcher
Image caption,
My grandfather, Philip Butcher, wearing the ring in the 1940s

It must have been the beach, an area stretching 200m from the car park - the ring, a very small needle in a very large and tidally wet haystack.

I was out at first light the next day but with no luck, spirits dimming. My only hope was this - the wind had been so strong the ring could have been buried. It might just still be there, somewhere.

I contacted local metal detector users. Two came to help, one even lending me his gear. "Take as long as you need," he said. Days of searching passed forlornly. I found an old mobile phone, circa 2001, a 50 cent coin and a lot of bottle tops.

I rang Mum that long week but was not brave enough to confess. If I had to tell her I had lost Dad's ring, I had to be able to say I had done everything humanly possible to find it.

Image source, Tim Butcher

With my hopes failing, a third detectionist - for that is how they like to be known - offered to drive from an hour away to help. "I have only one condition," he said. "I don't want payment even if I find something."

When things look too good to be true, surely life teaches us that is exactly what they are? Was I being taken for a ride?

So late on Sunday, eight days after the ring was lost, Alan arrived. Fluid dynamics of wet sand being what they are, by now the ring could have burrowed anything up to 50cm down. Was this the last throw of the dice?

Alan surveyed the search area. He talked about the wind, the tide, the currents and then he got to work. Up and down he ploughed, earphones on, criss-crossing dry sand, wet sand and even the approaching surf.

His gear was so good, he was picking up something every three or four paces, ring pulls and other metallic junk, so I rather gave up watching closely every time he started to dig.

And then, a miracle. From a hole 40cm down, Alan had heaped wet sand and his eye, tempered by years of peering into briny swill, had seen something. Calling out for me to come over, calmly he said the best of words: "There's your ring, Tim."

Image source, Tim Butcher
Image caption,
Alan, who found the ring, with the children
Image source, Tim Butcher

This could not be happening. My eyes, prickly with tears and blurry with expectation, couldn't see straight to begin with. And then there it was, Dad's ring, his dad's ring, 90 years of accompanying the Butcher boys on life's journey and lost by me on a beach in Africa after a few weeks' custody.

Alan grinned, the kids capered, the dog joined in and for a moment all was madness. I hugged this big, bearded stranger.

And private though this miracle was, there was a greater miracle at work. My saviour refused all reward. He was firm, he was insistent. No, he would not accept a fee; no, he did not want petrol money; no, he did not want a celebratory drink nor fish and chips to drive home with. He wanted nothing more than to give something back.

I went down to that beach that day to find a ring. What I actually found was more valuable still - that there remain some decent souls out there. Now, at last, I can call Mum.

Image source, Tim Butcher
Image caption,
Reunited with the family ring

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