Authors: Cassandra Golds
Cassandra Golds was born in Sydney and grew up reading Hans Christian Andersen, C. S. Lewis, and Nicholas Stuart Gray. She is the author of
The Three Loves of Persimmon
, which won the 2011 Victorian Premier's Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Award, New South Wales Premier's Literary Award and Western Australian Premier's Literary Award. She is also the author of
The Mostly True Story of Matthew and Trim
The Museum of Mary Child
For Tony Thompson â
A pure heart indeed.
Every night now he dreamed the same dream.
He was cutting his way through a forest, sword in hand. The foliage was so dense that he had left his horse behind, and his progress was slow, every step an ordeal of clearing and tearing aside, of making a space for his head, his arms, his feet. He was tired, and bruised, and in pain from a wound in his chest. But he was dogged, for he was looking for something, something desperately important, and it seemed at long last that he was about to find it.
He began to see the blue-grey stone of the castle through the thinning foliage before he came to the clearing. And, in his dream, he had a sense of relief, an easing of pain so profound his throat ached with it and tears filled his eyes. He knew this was the place he had been looking for all his life, and that within lay his heart's desire.
Now his path seemed easy, light, joyful, for although he felt almost at the end of his strength, his heart's desire seemed no more than an arm's length away. But when he stepped out into the light, leaving the clinging trees behind him, he saw a terrible thing â so terrible, and so unexpected, that he could barely grasp it.
The castle was in ruins.
And as he stood staring up at this most beloved of all places, ravaged and overgrown and jagged and leaning crazily, he heard the most awful sound of his life.
Somewhere in the ruined castle, something was crying.
He felt rather than heard the sound â a keening of such utter vulnerable desolation that it was all but unbearable to hear. He had to stop the creature's pain. He had to find and console it or go mad. He ran in through the ruined door; into the great stone hall, which was open through its damaged roof to the sky. He darted from room to room, down this hall and that, but all of them were empty â ruined stone with grass and dandelions poking through the cracks, nothing more.
And yet the sound went on.
It was a child, a girl, he knew it. She was crying inconsolably and the sound was killing him. He needed to find her, to comfort her, to rescue her. But where was she?
He started up the ruined steps and, as he searched on and on through galleries and chambers and interconnecting doors, down halls and up staircases that seemed to lead nowhere, through room after room after room, he began to suspect a terrifying, impossible thing. The flow of his blood seemed to slow at the thought of it. And yet he felt he had known, underneath, all along.
He had entered a place that had no end. The interior of the castle was, in some crazy way, infinite.
And in this infinity his heart's desire was lost.
She was both everywhere, and nowhere. He would never find her, never console her, and yet she would always be present, needing him.
Her need. His search. Forever.
He awoke sweating, sick with an emotion so intense, so appalling, that it seemed impossible that what he had just experienced was not real.
And he knew he had been dreaming about Deirdre.
She was looking out her window when she saw him.
She had spent all her life looking out windows. But this was the first time she had ever looked out on someone who was already looking back at her.
He was too far away for her to be able to see his face clearly. Anyway, it was dark, and the mist obscured everything. And yet, the moment she caught sight of him, standing under the streetlight, she was seeing, not him, but a long vista of halls and doorways shooting out, as it were, behind him.
That was how she knew he was family.
It took a moment more for her to understand who he was, although her heart started racing immediately.
Not with fear. With hope. It was as if her heart knew before her brain did.
He had come back.
She felt like one who had been granted some extraÂordinary privilege in the last moment of her life. She was overwhelmed; it seemed almost too great a mercy to bear.
And now she knew that every time she had looked out a window, all through the years, she had been hoping, without knowing it, that she would see him.
It had been dark for an hour but she was still wearing the white dress she had worn to the funeral that morning â her grandmother didn't like her in anything but white, so she hadn't felt able to wear anything other than white to her funeral. And white was a mourning colour too â she knew that; she had read it somewhere, even if it did look odd. Everyone had ignored her at the funeral â perhaps it was the white dress. But then, people often ignored her. She was cold in the dress now, but then, she was always cold.
Alone and palely loitering
, she thought. She was remembering that poem, â
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
', about the knight who had been deserted by his faery lady, and was condemned to dwell forevermore half in, half out of life. She didn't know whether the line had come into her head because of him, waiting under the streetlight, or because of herself at her grandmother's funeral. But she knew who the lady without mercy was.
She was suddenly afraid that he would be gone before she got down there.
She crossed the small living room, took the large bunch of keys from the hook, opened the door of the flat â then stopped.
Her eyes had been drawn almost against her will to a photograph, one among many, on the mantelpiece. An old photograph of a little girl in long-outmoded dress, a photograph she had been looking at all her life. It was her grandmother as a child.
She stared at it for a moment. It was impossible not to feel the photograph staring back.
Her grandmother would have forbidden her to leave the room.
She hesitated, even now. It was so hard for her to disÂobey. It always had been. But time was passing! He might be going! He might already have gone! And this, she knew, was her last chance.
After all, she pleaded silently with the photograph, you have me now. You have me forever. He is no threat to you. Not now.
She shut her eyes for a moment, feeling the old familiar pull, first on one hand, then on the other. But that tug of war had been won by her grandmother. It didn't really matter what she did now, did it? So she sighed, stepped out onto the landing, and closed the door behind her.
But the little girl in the photograph was still pulling on one of her hands.
She ran down the wide, grand, carpeted stairway to the street door. And as she ran, she had, as she often did, that peculiar feeling of floating, as if there were a cushion of air between her feet and the floor. It was so long since she'd eaten â there didn't seem to be any point. She couldn't remember her last meal. Now the fasting was affecting her perception.
For a moment she wondered if she would be allowed to go out; if the little girl in the photo could somehow send tentacles of reproach out of the flat and down the stairs and into the door and make the way out impenetrable to her. But no, when she slid the lock open and leant on it, the door opened without resistance. There were the boards to get through on the other side, but that wasn't hard â that was just the council, after all. They had condemned the building some months ago, and put up a light wooden barrier in front of the street door, with
CONDEMNED PROPERTY â ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK
stencilled on it in red paint. There was also some kind of typed statement from the town planner's office, with a signature and the date, weathered and peeling away from the hoarding. It wasn't much of an obstacle, but in addition it had been vandalised, and there was a large splintered hole where someone had kicked the wood in. The hole was big enough for her; she slipped out easily.
The local council couldn't stop her. It was her grandmother â the lady without mercy, the child in the photoÂgraph â she'd been worried about.
She barely noticed the cold of the night. She already felt so cold in herself that no exterior cold was a surprise to her. She glanced up and down the road â which was on a deep slant, for she lived in a mountain town â and crossed diagÂonally as the mist billowed gently about her.
When at last she came up to him, he seemed farther away from her than he had been when she had been looking out at him from her window.
Doubt crept in like a cold little hand. Could it really be him?
He did not appear to have been watching her approach; or at least, he had been watching only out of the corner of his eye. He glanced at her once, directly, then looked away again â downward, not at the ground, but at something located at about half his height in the middle distance. He seemed at once deeply aware of her, and a very long way away. He was trembling visibly with the cold, and she noticed that he was standing a little oddly, crouched inwards, almost as if he had just been hit.
She did not know what to say or do.
But as soon as she came up to him she began to feel a delicious warmth emanating towards her through the cold, as if she had just stepped up to a blazing fire. It made her sway as she stood; it made her want to swoon; it made her want to get closer, but she knew this was forbidden. So she hovered near him, just far enough, just close enough.
He was harder to recognise nearby than he had been from a distance. It had been six years, as far as she could recall. He had been little more than a child when she last remembered seeing him. Now, suddenly, she was frightened by his height and maleness. They were alien to her. In the streetlight, she could see the faint shadow of dark stubble along his jawline.
And yet, she also seemed to have a memory of him from not so very long ago, a memory of him as tall and strong as he was now. Surely this was not, after all, the first time she had seen him as a grown-up? But that didn't seem to make sense, so she pushed it away.
His remoteness, on the other hand, was easy to recognise. He had been like that at twelve too. In fact, he had been like that at five.
She searched his face, trying to find the child she remembered within it, for it was the child she felt most comfortable with.
âIt is you, isn't it?' she whispered before she could stop herself.
He shut his eyes at the sound of her voice. Then he nodded.
âI can't believe you've come back,' she said.
And this time, when he looked at her, there was that sudden directness, that sudden complete honesty and defencelessness she remembered. It was as if he had arrived abruptly, like a traveller, from the remote place he so often dwelt in. And when he was close, he was closer than anyone she had ever known.
âDid you really think I wouldn't?' he said.
His eyes were so terribly blue, they seemed to stop her heart. It was as if, for longer than she could recall, she had been living in monochrome, in a black-and-white movie, and now, by seeing him again, she had somehow stepped back into colour.
It had never occurred to her that he would come back, that he could come back. It would have seemed too much to ask. But she didn't know how to put that into words.
âYour voice is different,' she said instead.
âSo is yours.'
âYour hair's darker.'
âYours is fairer. But your eyes are darker.'
âYou're grown up.'
âSo are you.' He paused. âYou're scared of me, aren't you?'
The question filled her with remorse. She was, of course â she couldn't help it. But how cruel it was, after all, to be scared of him â him of all people, the only person she had ever known who had done her no harm. Anyway, she wasn't really scared of him. She was scared of the feelings she had for him, the intensity of her longing to be nearer that warmth. And she was scared of her grandmother. But she didn't feel able to say it. That more recent memory of him came to her again â it was something about his skin, the warmth of his skin against her own, and the fine down of hairs on it â but again, before the memory had even fully formed, she pushed it away. She searched for words. âYou're the same. But different.'
âI'm the same, really,' he said. âSo are you.'
âShe's dead,' she said.
âI know,' he said quickly. âSo everything should have changed. Shouldn't it?'
She took a breath, but said nothing.
He was silent for a moment. He seemed sad â deeply sad. He seemed to want to say something, without knowing how to say it. Finally he ventured, very gently, âSomething else has happened too, hasn't it?'
She glanced across the street, through the mist, up at her window.
âYes,' she said.
âCan I come in?'
âYou're not allowed,' she said automatically, like a little girl.
âBut she's dead.'
She just looked at him.
âShe's dead,' he said again. âYou get to say now, Deirdre. It's your decision.'
But that idea was like blasphemy to her.
She stood swaying slightly in his warmth, hoping she wasn't going to faint, unable to think, unable to decide. And the mist billowed gently around them, making stars of the streetlights, and every so often a car swished past, and a couple walked slowly up the hill on the opposite side, arm in arm, talking and laughing. How she longed to let him into the building. What bliss it would be to have his company again for one last time, even if only briefly. But she could not even begin to think it without being pinpricked with guilt and fear.
âOh god, oh god, oh god!' she said at last. âI can't â I can't â I'm frightened of disobeying her, it's true. But I can't let you in, Gal. You don't understand. It's not safe. For you.'
âI'll take the risk,' he said.
âYou don't know what the risk is yet.'
âIt doesn't matter. I've got nothing to lose.' He bent his head a little, and looked into her face, as if, like her, he was trying to talk to the child behind it. âPlease, Deirdre. You don't know what it's like. You don't know what life is for me now. I've got no place to go. I don't belong out here. And I'm not allowed in there. And it only gets worse.' He took a sudden deep breath, and winced, as if it hurt. âIt's torment. I can't sleep. I can't eat. I'm â suspendedÂ .Â .Â . And I keep having this dream, this awful, awful dream, about you, and Corbenic. Except Corbenic isn't a block of condemned flats. It's a ruined castle. And you're trapped in it. Anyway,' he added earnestly, âwe have to talk. About you. About her. I have to help you. I don't know if you understand, I don't know if you'll believe me, but you can't do this alone. If you could, you would have done it by now. And if I don't help you, who will? I'm the only one who knows.'
He waited, his expression taut. He was right; she didn't understand. But all at once, she saw the twelve-year-old boy he had been six years ago. His face had always had a certain naked quality; it was a face that had no mask. To see him was to understand that everyone else wore one; and that what it hid was pain. It was as he had said: he was the same.
âI've missed you so much,' she said.
âMe too,' he said.
âI've thought about you every day.'
He shrugged. âEvery minute,' he said. âEvery time I breathe, it hurts because of you.'
She had to choose her side. And she knew whose she belonged on. But it was like fighting instinct or some dreadful taboo. She didn't seem to be her own person. She didn't seem to be free. She seemed to owe her loyalty to the side she did not want to be on.
âIt's like I'm her slave,' she muttered.
âBreak free!' he whispered.
She touched him lightly on the arm, meaning to draw him back across the street with her, but he flinched, as if she had touched something sore. Or as if her touch was so cold it shot arrows of ice through his veins. Or as if he had not been touched in a very long time.
âHave you remembered?' he said.
She knew immediately what he was talking about. It was the most important thing in both their lives.
âNo,' she said. âHave you?'
He sighed. âNo,' he whispered.
For Deirdre and Gal had something strange in common, something that set them apart. It was a memory of something, a thing they knew to be more important than anything else in the world, a thing that had happened to them both when they were only five years old.
But neither of them could remember what it was.