Fiction: ‘Lily Shaw’

I truly loved with all my heart but once.

I believe that’s the only way we can ever be sure we have actually experienced love, when we feel something so strong, so over-powering, that it lingers across our entire lives. And when we look back, no matter how happy we are now, we only wonder with an aching sadness what might have been.

To me, that is love.
And I loved Lily Shaw.

***

When I was a young man in London, working as a clerk at a law firm, I used to spend every spare moment walking the streets for hours on end, watching the people working and bartering for their daily bread. But one lonely figure stood out to me more than any other soul in this crowded city.

She was the daughter of a local butcher.

And though her fingernails were always red with dried blood and her apron stained, she would heave her heavy cart over the cobblestones as her beautiful voice rose above the chatter:

‘Rabbits and fowl, and fresh meat from a cow.’

Her words sang through the streets every day, sweet as a bell, sacred as a prayer, as she pushed her cart far and wide through the broad streets and down twisting narrow lanes, until her goods were gone.

***

The first time I heard her sweet musical voice, I followed it through the market, trailing her spun wool skirt. And though her voice was so full of joy, I noticed how her large blue eyes brimmed with sadness.

I soon learned her name at the local tavern.

Every man there had dreamed of gaining the affections of sweet Lily Shaw, but her gentleness and kindness kept them all at bay. They told me that her mother and father were butchers, and so were their mothers and fathers before them, and so on for many generations. They had all at one stage pushed their cart through the lanes of London, calling the same chant:

‘Rabbits and fowl, and fresh meat from a cow.’

From then on, I spent each morning before work in the market with Lily Shaw as she pushed cart. I purchased a fowl from her every day, just for an excuse to speak with her. Her warmth and the sweetness of her gaze chased away my loneliness like a strong wind sweeping away the clouds. I spent all my hard-earned coin on fowls.

But every last penny was worth the joy of her company.

I brought her bouquets of cornflowers which I purchased from the docks. And she brought me bones for soups in a pouch tied around her waist. We spoke merrily and I walked alongside her for as many blocks as I could, offering to push her heavy cart for her, but she would never let me take the burden from her arms, even on those treacherous days when the ground was frozen with sleet.

Her smile was the brightest thing I had ever seen, and her blue eyes began to sparkle. I felt privileged to be the one to take the sadness out of those eyes. These days were the happiest of my life.

***

But then one pink dawn at the beginning of December, Lily Shaw didn’t arrive at the market pushing her heavy cart laden with meat, to call over the noise and chatter:

‘Rabbits and fowl, and fresh meat from a cow.’

I waited every day for a week, but she had simply vanished.

While drowning my sorrows at the tavern, I discovered that Lily Shaw had died of a fever. No doctor could have saved her, and she met her end quietly in her sleep.

***

Although in some ways we had been strangers, losing her made the world slow to a stop. Time ceased. The figures of a thousand strangers stood frozen around me in a world suddenly made empty.

I couldn’t eat, or drink, or be merry. Christmas came and went. And the New Year passed unnoticed. Letters went unanswered and my work at the law firm remained unfinished.

All I could do was sit upon the bench at the square in the heart of the market, watching the snowflakes fall, and waiting for Lily to come calling through the dwindling crowd:

‘Rabbits and fowl, and fresh meat from a cow.’

***

After many months, I left London to return to my hometown. I met a beautiful Irishwoman with kind eyes and rosy cheeks, and soon we were married and had three sons together. For many years, I stopped thinking of Lily Shaw. Life had been kind to me, giving me a lovely wife and cheerful home.

But years later, when I returned to London on business, I decided to visit the old tavern in the marketplace. There were faces I recognised, and those that I didn’t. I listened to the folk talk late into the evening, when one particular conversation caught my attention. An elderly man swore that the ghost of Lily Shaw was now pushing her cart through the streets and lanes, repeating those same words she had always called.

His blurry eyes widened with the gravity of his claim. No one could refute him, and soon others came forward to admit they’d also heard her voice calling across the market, as it used to.

I spent the remainder of the night on the bench in the marketplace, waiting for the ghost of sweet Lily Shaw to come with her cart, but as dawn appeared and the time came to return home, I stood up to make my way through the people setting up for the daily market. And perhaps it was my imagination, but as I left I heard something sweet and musical in the wind, calling:

‘Rabbits and fowl, and fresh meat from a cow.’

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