I walked down a street that seemed much bigger in my memory. Where were the dangers our mothers warned us about? It was a perfectly ordinary row of houses. Small front gardens were tucked behind hedges in every stage of growth from tight restriction to careless abandon.
I stopped outside the wildest hedge of all, overgrown and formless. Branches glossy with recent rain reached damp fingers towards me. A faint scent of unseen roses blew past. The pale green front door was peeling and the windows were blank. Still, your voice drifted down to me.
“You’re late.” I tapped my watch in mock anger but my lips betrayed me. “As usual.”
“Sorry, wait for me.” You flashed that unforgettably brilliant smile, and vanished.
Alone again, I turned my collar up against light but persistent drizzle. Suddenly colder, I wished past and present would unite into the future you promised before we slipped through each other’s fingers, and were lost.
Wait for me.
That’s what you always said. And I did.
I came back, but all I found were ghosts whispering in the wind.
I can hear them downstairs, but I don’t think they’ll find me.
Daddy and me played hide and seek a lot. At first he would stamp on every stair so I could hear him coming, but later on he’d sneak so, so quietly. When I found this spot and stayed hidden for ages, he was very proud. He hugged me and gave me chocolate. He said I was his good boy, his clever boy.
So when he shouted Dannyrun and hideright now I did. My nose itches but I mustn’t sneeze or give myself away. It’s dark and too small in here but it’s not time to come out, not yet.
I can hear heavy boots on the stairs. My heart beats so, so fast. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Here they come. My eyes are wet. Please go away. I breathe fast, quiet as I can. Please, please.
Yes! The footsteps are leaving but now I can hear Max barking. He doesn’t like strangers. I’ll stay hidden until they’re gone.
Aimée hung her head and sighed. Where had it all gone wrong? She’d tried to be a cosmopolitan woman, and when that didn’t work she took refuge in sex on the beach next to a blue lagoon. That was possibly unwise and in any case ultimately unfulfilling. Manhattan was hardly any better.
Damn all men, and damn one man in particular with his easy smile and warm, gentle hands. She couldn’t forget and she refused to cry.
Though a couple of painkillers helped a little, there was one more thing she could try that might cradle her broken body and ease her suffering. She raised a shaky hand.
Lovely afternoon, perfect for a garden party don’t you think?
She nods and smiles, sips her Pimm’s. Strawberry and orange slices are fine, but cucumber doesn’t belong in a cocktail.
Jeremy made partner and our eldest goes up to Oxford this year. Time flies, doesn’t it?
She wears a new summer dress of fluttering silk with wedge heels. Stilettos and lawns don’t mix, and she won’t make that mistake again. Everything is going well. She talks, smiles, laughs when appropriate, passing among well groomed and apparently happy people.
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Her smile is a rictus grin, concealing scars left by her climb from the grim pits of hell to the favoured, sunny uplands of success. No pain, no gain so they say, but you must hide your wounds under layered politeness so no-one knows.
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A headache forms, throbbing at her temples. They might be in the same place now, but they’re not the same. All these years she thought this was the pinnacle but now, up close and personal, she’s not sure she can fake it any more.
It’s cold at the top and the air is too thin. Her breathing is rapid, shallow.
And she hates Pimm’s.
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I worked my way through each room, bagging things for the trash or for donation. Who knew how much stuff one person could accumulate? Well I did, even then. When I finally escaped that overstuffed space I could finally breathe. My own taste is pretty minimalist. No surprise there.
Now I find myself staring at shelves filled with china ornaments. I always hated those winsome shepherd girls and grinning sailor boys. Mum made me clean them weekly with a feather duster under her eagle-eyed supervision. She said they were Royal Doulton, collector’s items. A collection is pretty meaningless without the one who pulled it together, but maybe she left me something valuable after all.
I check the mark on the base of the nearest one. The words ‘Made in China’ leap out at me. Did she trick me, or did she fool herself? What was it all for?
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as the figurine slips from my shaky hand and shatters on the floor. The rest make the most satisfying sounds when I hurl them at the wall.
I can’t believe you’d expect me to lay myself on the line for them. I am not the legend I was. I am not as strong, as fast or as foolish as I was and the world has no right to ask any more of me. For God’s sake. I gave up my one and only love, my peace of mind. I risked everything.
Yes, people chanted my name, put my picture on magazines, even made movies about me. But they didn’t want the rest of the story, did they? Didn’t want to know how my spirit was broken. Didn’t want to hear about the nightmares that haunted me day and night. I see all those faces still. They told me it was a price worth paying. Tell that to the ones I couldn’t save.
Yes, I got a medal from the president, but I was alone. I am alone.
So why should I come back now? I’ve had twenty years to figure out that people want you when they need you. And when they don’t need you any more, you’re dead to them. The fate of the planet lies in my hands, and my hands alone? Don’t be absurd. It’s never that simple.
If I take on this fight and win, what’s in it for me? I already know what the world’s gratitude consists of. And if I try and fail, what’s in it for me? I already know the bitter taste of rejection. There are many less painful ways to die.
How dare you come here to weep and beg for my help. How dare you pretend to care about anything other than yourselves. Guilt and fear is written all over you. Save us, you cry. We’re all human, all in it together. Well then.
If that’s true, let us all burn together.
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She moved in on a grey, wet October day, carrying what she’d salvaged from the ruins of her life. Her tears were long dried but her heart wept blood tears unseen as she tried to make a new home. She gave up and settled for a place to lick her wounds in private.
She started cutting back the overgrown garden on a cold, clear December day. New Year’s Eve came and went; no kisses for her.
Instead she donned gloves and hacked away at brambles and nettles. With the right protection, she faced thorns and stings without fear. The compost pile grew. Her muscles strengthened. She transformed pain into something good, something that could feed new possibilities.
And one bright April day, once-hidden daffodils greeted the sun in the spaces she created, happy that their time to bloom had come again.
Shackle your greed and curb your desire, lest all be consumed by brimstone and fire.
Sulphurous air filled my cave, stealing through every gap around the stone door. I lived in almost complete darkness while the sun rose and fell unseen. The earth trembled under the heavy tread of an enraged dragon whose shrieks pierced my ears, even underground. I could not eat the food stored with such care when my stomach was sick with fear.
Eventually my craving for light and the need to know drove me out again. I heaved the stone aside with a great effort, weak from lack of sleep and hunger. And stepped out into a silent hell.
Grey ash blanketed the world. Blackened tree stumps and shattered dwellings were all that remained of the once thriving town. All that remained of its inhabitants were piles of bones huddled together, small and large, remnants of people and their pets, people and their hopes for a better future.
“Enough is better than riches,” I whispered, pulling my scarf tighter over my face. Choking on tainted air, I stumbled back to my cave. There I threw myself down and wept. Grief scoured out my heart and left it hollow.
After three days of mourning I bathed in the stream nearby and combed out my hair, then ate my first meal of porridge and fruit. That night, I slept without nightmares. The next day, I dressed in my work clothes and returned to Kasparenya with a shovel.
Day after day, I buried bones. Amongst the remains of Kasparenya I found gold; jewellery, coins, toys, teeth. I took them to the collapsed church where the golden spire was missing yet the altar remained intact. A miracle, of sorts.
Many exhausting days have passed. The stench of brimstone is faint now but I sense the dragon’s eyes watching me still. Its heartbeat pulses through the ground. The pile of gold on the altar grows daily. I hope my store of food is enough, for I have no time to grow more. I hope my strength is enough, for there is no-one to help me.
When I’m done burying bones and collecting gold, I can rest. The visions have promised me that much.
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The small fishing village of Kasparenya was established generations before I was born. By my time it had grown fat and sprawling, rich in thieves and merchants alike. Like my mother and her mother before her, I led a quiet life in our cave house. The townspeople extracted easy gold from the generous hillsides while mocking our unfashionably modest lifestyle.
For years I lived alone, growing food and herbs by day and feeding my brain with Great Mother’s ancient books by night. Occasionally, people passing my field would taunt me.
“Why don’t you work in the city, earn some coin? Perhaps then you could dress less like an old crone and more like a decent woman.”
I wiped my brow. Digging was hot work on a summer day. “I must tend my garden, and I do not need more coins. Enough is better than riches.”
“Whatever you say, Cassie.” Sarah turned away, but not before tapping her forehead and giggling with her friends.
They always ignored my calls to beware of greed. Old books had nothing to teach the modern world and they stood in the way of progress. Why not have more, if there was more to be had?
Kasparenya’s gilded church spire was a fitting symbol of hard work and enterprise. It showed what a man could do if he worked hard and dug deep. It showed what to aim for when more was never enough.
We should learn from history. But how to learn when history is forgotten and those who remind us are mocked as wrong-headed fools?
News of the gilded spire travelled far and brought even more people to wonder and dream of riches, then buy shovels and buckets. Meanwhile I harvested and stored enough food for a season, oiled my tools, stockpiled candles, and waited.
And one day a shiver started in my bones that grew inexorably. I rolled the stone over the cave entrance and hid.
Above, though I could not see or hear, I knew it was happening just as the visions foretold.
The endless beat of huge, leathery wings.
The stench of sulphur as the ground trembled.
A shriek that split the air when the dragon, drawn by our golden beacon, discovered its plundered hoard.
Fiery vengeance raining down from the sky.
I rocked and chanted as mother and grandmother and all the mothers before had done in their cool, dark sanctuary.
Shackle your greed and curb your desire, lest all be consumed by brimstone and fire.