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You are my angel, but your bed is not a cloud. The thoughts in my head belong to both of us, because the thoughts that dance from your tamarisk lips do not belong to you, and I am here to keep you safe. To keep you alive in the memories which make you beautiful; you are beautiful, even as you fade from asphodel, to muted primrose, to fairyflax. It is youth that we searched for, all these years but the answer is not there, amongst the young.
I was a young lad, young indeed, when I was twenty. I thought I had the cares of the world but I knew not the world. This is youth. Eyebright and larkspur, I thought that the silky, cream-frothed pint which stood on top of the bar I was proudly tall enough to reach was a key to the world, as though it was mine for the taking. A key to my own future.
Once, once upon a time, there was a girl. A girl and a boy. Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy and they were given what they believed might be love. Once upon a time there were two people and they found themselves together and entwined and legs and arms and hair and beauty. Beauty in the eye of the beholder, but beauty all the same. Once upon a time there was me and there was her and there was us. Once upon a time, there was happiness and joy and tying of knots, around and around and around until those knots were so great that they stuck in throats as a candytuft prince and a sweet-cicely princess walked down an aisle.
When I was thirty I found, in my hands, a small boy. Mine forever and forever. I had believed that I knew love but this, this so small, so huge, scrap of the flesh and bone and fingernails I – me – had given to him, taught me that I was but learning love’s impractical wax and wane; pull and push. I was but young. And, for the first time, I was glad I was young. Glad that what lay ahead of me was new and exciting and different and that I would not understand any of it, nor pretend to understand any of it.
And my princess, my once upon a time, eyes of lupin and hair of goldilocks-buttercup, princess. My butterbur-skinned angel, with your murmurs of love, and of washing days and milky muslins draped across your shoulder in the morning, when we were still plumped and rounded by sleep, teasel-headed clover in the cracked fadings of the first dawn. It made you more beautiful on those mornings when sleep had come to you but not our snuffling, fat-thighed baby, when you smiled and made my toast anyway because that is what princesses and princes do.
When I was fifty, the aches and creaks of age, the sagging of the rigging, fooled me into believing that youth was mine no longer. That twenty years ago I was young. You simply grew into yourself. The hair, once so vibrant, so tumbling, morning light through the dapple of trees, greyed to the whispers of a silver birch, top-knotted by hands which had worked magic into dough, twisted and released and tumbling down your back. You wanted to cut it. ‘Chop it all away’, you used to whisper, embarrassed by the advent of autumn. But Little Red Riding Hood’s daddy had an axe, and no good came of that. Your pearlwort hair made your eyes look bluer than gentian or harebell. Love blinds but I was only just beginning to see.
And now, now I sit, frail, mossy stonecrop eyes muted by age, ears empty of sound apart from my own thoughts which swirl round, round, round. The autumn mist has lifted and, with it, taken all but love. You lie upon your bed, sleeping beauty, princess and the pea. They all took to their beds to be saved by the most handsome prince of them all. But I cannot save you, little robin. No kiss, although if a kiss was all it took, you would be saved one thousand times over.
The sunshine left your eyes, and only I could see the dancing violets inside them. Your hair became thin. Tumbled and did not stop. Fistfuls on the floor of the gingerbread house where we had lived all our prince and princess lives, and the house was enchanted no more. Your hands became gnarled, thick like ropes. Anchors. We have been anchored together for so long that it is never ever and for all time and faraway and as close as our thoughts when we laughed – because nothing was funny – at the absurdity of the truth. And yet, as you curled inwards, furled already, our tree-root limbs twisted together. Legs and arms and hair and beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And we were the beholders. Your memory became clouded by romance and foggy-misted hillside and dreams and nightmares and truth and lies and love and war and hate all mixed together. Christmas pudding. Stir it well. Make a wish.
I made a wish.
Once upon a time and once upon a time and once upon a time we were young.
And one day, the laughter fades into the rook’s caw. The song of the old mother. The song of the forest. I am locked out, but locked in, because there is no door, and we do not have a key.
You cry, but I do not know whether it is for loss, or for longing or for pain. You are curled, but you move your arms and your legs, swimming against the tide. I reach for your hand, but meet only claw. Curled in. Tightly fisted. Lifeline hiding from the grim reaper. There is no cheating, only waiting and waiting and waiting.
And I tell you a story. A story of long ago, of youth and innocence and of bitter frost. A story of us. Once upon a time, and I cannot begin because I cannot end, because there is an ending. Once upon a time, the prince and princess wished to make their kingdom flourish because youth is foolish and perfection unthinking. Laughter and tears and promises and joy and you began to swell, to grow. You became bigger almost before my eyes, and I was proud. So proud.
But there is rue for remembrance, although neither you nor I remember, and I rue that I do not remember, because we are so beautiful. You are so beautiful. But the past is the past is the past and we are not in the past. You are beautiful now. Curved into the foetal position, knotty knees tucked up to your chest, and I wonder whether you are ready to start again. Whether you are not leaving this world, but being birthed into the next.
We have not rue. It does not grow in these parts, at this time of year. We have mallow and bittersweet and corncockle. Pink as the skin of a newborn.
Once, once upon, once upon a time. But this story is too sad. There was no happily ever after. There is a tiny hole in the ground and the prince and princess are wailing as though their souls are torn by scrapping foxes, not the leaden sadness brought only by a tiny hole in the ground, and a tinier muslin package, lowered in slowly, although I – the prince – wished that it would be done faster, faster, faster because cold grief made me want to snatch her back and mould my own life into the body of our daughter. Stop the purple and the blue and give her pink. Mould the afterbirth silence into her cries. We had a son but no daughter. Hansel. Kay. Mallow and bittersweet and corncockle.
And they all… There is no after, only before, and before is the time of dreams. The time of enchanter’s nightshades and beauty. And you are so beautiful and we were so beautiful. We are so beautiful. Your eyes cocklebur-ed shut, proliferous pink against alpine snowbell. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I was the beholder. I am the beholder.
Honesty for honesty. But you know that, my meadowsweet, my spiked star of Bethlehem. You know nothing and you know everything. So wise. So wise to shut your eyes and to forget. Honesty for honesty. My love. My eyes of lupin, hair of goldilocks buttercup princess. Once upon a time, there was no time. There is no time. There has been so much time, and you were so beautiful. You are so beautiful. We are so beautiful.
And now, now I understand youth.