Faraway, on the edge of an emerald sea, is a city enclosed by walls that tower into the sky. These black stone walls are adorned with hideous gargoyles that leer from every corner. But hidden within is a city where all the buildings are carved from smooth white marble.
Elaborate fountains spray the clearest water on every corner, and brilliant flowers overflow from every balcony.
Inside the walls of the city, there’s always music and laughter.
This private world shimmers under the midday sun, and twinkles at night when all the fairy lights come to life. The scent of flowers mingles with the rich smell of cigar smoke. And beneath the lively voices are always the beautiful melodies which dance through the air from the street musicians.
But, like any other city, it is a place for both the wealthy and the poor.
For every celebration, there’s a tragedy.
And in the shadow of every great love is a broken heart.
Philippe had set up his stall rather late that afternoon, which meant it would be hard to make enough for the day’s wages. He sat down, surrounded by his paintings. He didn’t think much of his work, but with every canvas he set his brush to, he was transported into the world of his subject.
The end result was an image filled with the subject’s innermost self. He could bring out their noblest ambitions, but also their darkest demons.
That was his gift.
He began rinsing his brushes in a murky glass. When he looked up, a young lady was standing before his stall, her sparkling green eyes watching him closely.
‘Phillipe?’ she asked.
‘It’s Eleanor. Do you not recognise me?’
His heart began beating a fraction faster. ‘Of course I do.’
He took her gloved hand in his, but quickly let it go when he caught a glimpse of his paint-stained hands.
‘I’ve missed you Phillipe. And the purple daisies you used to bring me. Do you remember them?’ she said with a mischievous smile.
His hands shook as he rearranged the paints on his table. Memories of all the tears and all the laughter they had shared together are what kept him warm in winter when he couldn’t afford firewood or a hearty meal.
He remembered how she had preferred seashells to jewellery. And how much she loved the simple daisy instead of the gaudy roses that her suitors brought her.
‘I remember how you wore them in your hair,’ he replied.
She opened her mouth to speak, but just as she did an older man in a fine suit put his arm around her and steered her away.
‘What are you doing, talking with such rubble?’ he said loudly.
‘I knew him once,’ her gentle voice replied.
Phillipe walked along the sandy shore, his satchel clinking with each step. The tideline washed over his bare feet. It left a scattering of foam as it retreated once more. He stopped suddenly and knelt down to collect a piece of glass, worn smooth by the sea.
Placing it in his bag, he continued on his way.
Every now and then he would stop in the same way to collect another piece of different coloured glass. The entire beach was littered with the glimmering fragments.
No-one knew why only smooth shards of glass ever washed up on the beach outside the marble city, but pieces of every possible colour and in every possible size had transformed the clean white sand into a brilliant mosaic. And each morning, when the first light of dawn touched the shore, the air was suddenly awash with vibrant colours.
He gathered the pieces until the satchel was full, and then turned back the way he had come.
A roaring fire blazed in his little fireplace. He waited until the coals were glowing, and then melted one piece of glass after another. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead.
He thought of her eyes.
Those dazzling green eyes that used to look at him with such life.
Sifting through the glass in his satchel, he selected another fragment, and held it tightly in his hand.
She had loved him once.
And he had loved her with every bit of his heart. But she had come from a wealthy family, endowed with status, and when he asked her father for permission to marry her, he said no.
‘My daughter? Married to a painter?’ the man had sighed, as if he genuinely felt pity for the boy. ‘Phillipe. Eleanor isn’t like you. She has been born to privilege, and with privilege come obligations. To one’s family. To one’s ties with other families. I’m sorry, my boy, but love is simply not enough.’
‘She loves me, and I love her. I would die for her,’ his voice rose with each word. He tried to keep the tremor out of his voice as anger threatened to take over. ‘You know I would. You know that I’ll love her to my dying day.’
‘If you love her, you must leave now. And don’t return. She’s already engaged to a baron, who offered his proposal long before you reached manhood,’ his voice was calm, yet firm. ‘Please leave. Now.’
With an ache in his chest, he left her home for the last time.
Before that day at the market, the only time he’d seen her since was when a carriage drew her past him on the street. She was dressed in white, and her green eyes looked straight through him as she gazed out the carriage window.
Her husband lay asleep in their bed, snoring loudly. She sat at the open window looking out at the stars. They looked so cold and uncaring in the dark sky.
She felt her heart sink a little lower.
Soon it will be dawn, and her husband will rise from his bed. She’ll sit with the same boring women, embroidering images of roses until her fingertips bled from pricking them. She’d listen to their idle gossip, and smile when it’s expected of her.
But deep down inside she would dream.
The other women were used to the way she retreated into herself, and took it to mean she was simply young and shy. Instead she dreamed of a man who used to gather glass with her along the beach and cause trouble with her at the docks. She would think of his soft blue eyes, and how passionately he had kissed her. She would imagine his warm skin against hers as they lay together, wrapped in her long skirts, the purple daisy still in her hair.
Then she’d remember where she was now.
And another little part of her would die.
She wondered how long it would be before none of her was left inside, and whether anyone would notice. She rested her head in her hands. One by one the stars began to extinguish as the sky lightened.
The sun began to rise.
Its soft light fell upon the garden at the exact moment he walked out before her and placed his easel on the grass.
Something about the sight made her heart come back to life. He shifted the angle of the easel first in one direction, and then another. Suddenly a brilliant aurora sprang into the air.
The colours swirled until finally she recognised the shape of the purple daisies she had loved so much. Both her joy and her pain hit her so keenly she gasped.
She felt the full weight of her loss.
And how completely she loved him.
He saw the despair cloud her beautiful sad eyes. And at that moment his heart broke, because now he knew that she never had a choice to begin with.