Two very very short tales....
With my eyes tightly closed With my eyes tightly closed, I can feel the irregular bumping of the wooden wheels of the cart on the cobbled streets. I have not left the confines of my cell since I entered it two and a half months ago, but I died months before. With my husband dead, my son taken, my best friend Princesse Lamballe vilely murdered, I no longer live. I have not exercised and barely eaten since Louis went to the guillotine in January. The pain in my heart is too great, too cold, too intense to want to remain on this earth gone mad. My only wish is that my daughter, Marie-Therese, will not be harmed, although tearing a child from her mother or a mother from her child is more harm than a soul should bear. But now I have been tried and found guilty. Guilty of crimes I could not even have imagined, yet they say I committed. It is all over now; it is a moment of peace, as I sit here, in this cart with my hair cut short, my hands tied behind my back, my dress the simple white peasant dress I dreamt of wearing but not of the circumstances.
With my eyes tightly closed, I can smell the crowds. Paris. Great perfumed city where all those who could afford perfume have been murdered or have fled to England or Austria. My Austria, home of my adored brother, home that I will never see again as France has elected to kill me. France with its smells of death, bloodshed, hunger, bad bread, onions, of a desperation to see my head fall. The smells of confusion yet hope, children born into a new regime. I can smell sweat, leather, wool, autumn, the river rising. The last smells my nose will read. I love them all. They are the smells of a city and a country that will live.
With my eyes tightly closed, I can hear the cheering, the insults, the spitting, the cries for mercy from the same women who wanted my blood just four years ago. I can hear it all. I can hear them as they throw rotten vegetables, and lift their children high to see the Widow Capet’s last ride through Paris, in a cart rather than a carriage. I can hear the fear mixed with the celebration. The fear that times will change like the wind and they will ride in this same cart, that others will come, take revenge, rescue my son from his cell and proclaim him king.
With my eyes tightly closed, I can hear beyond the crowd and my executioner placing the basket against the guillotine. I can hear beyond this square to the sky with its birds playing, diving, singing, oblivious to my life and my death, the same birds that will still be playing, diving and singing tomorrow when I am just a memory. I can hear the wind, the fields and flowers outside Paris, the pages of books savoured, the rustle of silk dresses past, the last sounds I will hear.
With my eyes wide open, I climb the stairs with dignity, at peace, as I have died to meet those I love, I have died to join my husband the king.
Henry Blythe's last laugh
Henry Blythe looked at the screen with its luminous yellow line like a mountain landscape as it monitored his heartbeat, and watched the flashing green light that told the world he was still alive. He contemplated the photograph sitting on his bedside table. Lorna had left twelve years ago now; she had ‘gone to a better place’, according to the vicar, but it occurred to Henry now that that might not be strictly true. She might, in fact, be somewhere quite similar. Lorna’s life had been comfortable in their home in the country, a large converted farm that Henry himself had designed and then had built by his team. There were some advantages to being an architect of international renown. But Lorna had been bored with her comfortable, safe life. They had travelled widely, met princes and presidents, yet had hardly spoken to each other for the last twenty-five years of their marriage, as they felt they had run out of words. Curiously, though, he missed her now and would have given anything to feel her head on his shoulder as they chatted late into the night. And he told her the news. Perhaps soon.
He could feel the slight discomfort of the plastic tube in his nose, unfamiliar pyjamas and the room temperature, set one or two degrees colder than he would have liked. He wanted to go home. His 98th birthday had been the day before and had provided his family with an excuse to fill his room with flowers that the nurses had then taken away ‘in case the pollen affected his breathing’ – at 98, did he really care about pollen and breathing? – and to eat cake he couldn’t share. They had brought him presents he couldn’t open and didn’t need anyway, they had lit candles he couldn’t blow out. Fortunately, they had limited themselves to a bright red 9 and a bright red 8; to attempt to put ninety-eight candles on the cake would have constituted a fire risk. Yes, all in all, he had had a good day yesterday, even if it had had its absurd moments.
And this morning, this feeling of contentment had increased. Henry had been buying a weekly lottery ticket for as long as he could remember. Even now in hospital, he had been almost religious in his weekly purchase, sending his 85 year-old hospital neighbour, one of the few who could not only walk but was allowed to, to pick up his ticket. And at 98 years and 1 day, he had won. He had had everything he could ever need in life, houses, cars, paintings, his own beach; he had been everywhere from Iceland to Tasmania; his bridges and airports were familiar on five continents. He had donated to charities and museums, adopted whole villages in Guatemala, and provided the government with enough tax to build several schools. He had spent it all.
And now he had won the lottery! A young journalist had come to see him this morning and had asked him ‘How are you going to spend the millions?’ and the question had seemed surreal in its innocence. ‘Who are you going to leave it to?’ was the question on many people’s lips: the nurses and carers were treating him like a cute newborn baby, the hospital priest had been to visit, and the relatives were already stuffed into their cars and on their way ‘to celebrate’.
Henry reached out to the bedside table with his shaking hand and picked up the lighter his son-in-law had left there. He smiled and flicked the flame into action. His smile grew into a grin as the flame touched the ticket and ate it greedily. Henry didn’t see the flame go out. He had gone.