Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Start

The first pink light of day was just starting to touch the edges of the palace. The courtyard was still in darkness, as Rafael stood silently at it's edge. In the centre of the courtyard, the long, expanse of shallow water glistened, flat and dark. Such a beautiful place. Such a beautiful prison cell, this palace. Rafael knew today was the day to leave. nevertheless, sadness at leaving encircled his fear. It must be now, before it grew any lighter.

The boy felt his way lightly around the edge of the courtyard, keeping to the shadows, moving silently as his heart beat so loudly, he was sure it would be heard. Rafael made his way to the Easternmost edge of the palace, and looked over the wall to the drop below. Even with his makeshift rope, he would still have to drop the last part - the height of three or four men - to the rocky hillside below. If he hurt himself, if he twisted an ankle, that would be the end of it all. He secured the torn and twisted together sheet rope to an iron hoop set in the wall, and quickly, stealthily, slid down the rope. There would be no way of bringing it after him, and once it was fully light, the rope would be seen, and they would know he had gone.

Time to let go, and take his chances. He felt resigned now. The overwhelming fear had passed. Now, he would either get away - or they would find him, injured, and he would die. He looked down, and tried to focus on a clear spot. Boulders, rocks, everywhere he looked. No point in waiting any longer. He let go - and astonishingly, landed grazing only his ankle and his wrist. Nothing broken. Nothing sprained. He stood up. Long shadows now, as the first rays of sunlight made their way over the horizon in front of him He was facing the sun, facing East. He needed to go West. Keeping close to in the shadow of the walls, he made his way as quickly as he could to the opposite side of the palace.

Now, now it was time to go down the hillside, and cross the dry, rocky, boulder strewn plain ahead of him, stretching to the far, still dark horizon. Now is when he would be seen, if he was to be seen. He could hear already, the single note of the bugle shouting out the alarm, the baying of the hounds set loose and the desperate knowledge that he would be torn apart when they reached him. There was still time to turn back, maybe get back up the rope before anyone noticed. Life wasn't so very bad in the palace. He had plenty to eat. His work was not too hard. Nobody was too cruel. But the dream he had had so many times now kept calling him, telling him he was to go West, that he needed to find someone. Another boy, like himself, but living a very different life, in a very different place. There was something they had to do together. What it was was unclear, and now, standing shivering by the towering, shadowy walls, it seemed stupid and pointless. He didn't know where he was going, and he didn't know why.

Taking his courage in his hands, he stepped away from the wall and began walking steadily towards the dark horizon. Not running. Running would be too obvious, would be visible to even the sleepiest sentry on duty high above. His hope was that a steady walk would be less easily seen in this half light. Step by step, he made his way down the hillside. Step by step, he moved west, leaving the palace behind him.

Up in the highest tower, the woman looked out, watching him. So, he had done it. She had thought he might, but hadn't been at all sure he would. He was young - only twelve years old. Perhaps too young to face what lay ahead of him. She watched for a long time, until finally, his small, slight frame disappeared over the horizon.



Somewhere else, another boy opened his eyes. He had had such a lovely dream.  A dream of a hot, sunny place, and a palace with pink walls. He pulled the thin blanket over his thin shoulders, and tried to hold the vision of warmth and comfort in his head for as long as possible. A shout brought him back to his surroundings. It was the drayman, shouting for him to get up and see to the horses. He shook himself awake and stood up from the lumpy mattress in the corner of the kitchen. He made his way through the grey early morning light in the yard, to the stable. His first task was to see to the horses. Huge draught horses, they were. He had been so scared of them, when the drayman had first taken him on as his boy. Now, he liked them. He trusted them, and they trusted him. In his whole day, they would most likely be the only living things to look at him with kindness.

First, he filled the pail with oats. This time of year, they needed the heat of the oats to keep them well. Next, he brushed their coats, picked out their hooves, and brushed their tails. The horses had to look good. It was very important, the drayman told him constantly. He brushed until their dark coats gleamed in the lamplight. Then he filled the metal pail with freezing cold water from the barrel outside and brought it in for them. Later, when they were being harnessed, he would clean out the stable. He liked being in the stable, liked feeling the heat of these massive bodies and smelling their comforting horsey smell.

It would be a long day, as every day was. He would be out all day with the drayman and his men; big, strong men who could roll full barrels of beer without effort. He would run in to the public houses, dodge the drinking men with their coarse shouts and coarse hands, and find the landlord, race into the cellar to unlatch the huge wooden hatches from underneath, so that the men could deliver the wooden barrels, run on to wherever the drayman told him with whatever message he had to carry; at midday, when the men went into whichever public house they happened to be at for their pints and their pies, he would again feed and water the horses, hoping the men would remember to bring food out for him too. Sometimes, when they forgot, he shared the oats which he fed to the horses with them. He knew better than to go into the public house with the men. He was a target, in too many ways, for drunken badly behaved men. If it was raining, he would sit under the cart; if dry, he perched among the barrels.

He was an observant boy, and watched the world around him. In the mornings, he watched the well dressed men, in suits and hats, and carrying black leather bags, board the tramcars and leave for a very different kind of working day. He wondered what that sort of life was like. He wondered whether those men had wives and children, and what kind of a life they might lead.

"Tom!" The drayman's rough voice cut through his daydreaming. Time to pay attention again, avoid anything that might lead to a beating. He was too sore for another beating. Time to get back to work.

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