Lily’s eyes twinkled with tired relief as she watched the clock move into position. The night was done and it was time to go home. She packed away each box with practiced hands; slowly wrapping each precious glass flower in its own glass case, before placing them in the boxes. Every flower dimmed its light away, reserving it for the next day. They yawned with one last bright shine before settling down again.
Only a few snowdrops remained to pack, but she didn’t want to put them away just yet. They were her favourites, so fragile and small. The snow falling around her little flower stall shone with the light that grew ever brighter from the snowdrops, in defiance of the quick approaching morning glow. She stared at its tiny shining form and with a sigh, popped the glass lid into place and placed them lovingly, at the top of the box.
She took a moment to look out past the tops of the buildings to the great wall of the city. How it protected them every day made her thankful. Nothing could get into this walled city.
As she pulled the shutter down over the front of her stall, she heard unhurried footsteps and the echoes of conversation approaching from across the square. Of course, she thought, chuckling a little to herself. This was why she left locking up to the very last second. Men looking for flowers for their sweethearts that were awaiting their return from another outing. You could always count on them for that extra coin at the end of a night, and it would go well towards that late wedding present for her son.
“I’m sorry lads, but you’re too late now. I am closing for the night, with day approaching n’ all. I think Old Maggie might still be open over on 4th…”
“Identification card, citizen.”
Lily turned. The two city guards who stood before her were a sight she could have done without tonight – Adam Karlitz and Ian Cole. At one time, they had been close friends with her son, Michael. But that was when they were young, and children were still allowed to be young back then – able to play out at night; play with a ball in the street and explore the city… But times had changed. They had all changed and they were no longer friends of hers for the way they had treated Michael.
She gave them a polite smile. “Just one moment please lads, my purse is in the back here.”
She moved around to the back of her stall and pulled the patchwork mess – that could possibly at one time have been called her handbag – up onto the counter. They followed her like hungry dogs – eyes ever vigilant, watching her every move. She pulled out the contents of her bag: glasses, keys, transit pass, purse…
Where was it? She knew she couldn’t have left home without it. You needed it at every checkpoint in the city – she had to cross three just to get to her stall in an evening. The guards started beating their hands together and tapping their feet against the cobblestones. They could not be cold, she thought, they’re wearing more than herself! Both guards were dressed in nearly floor length felt coats, thick caps of office adorning their heads and hands protected by velveteen gloves imported from far off lands. While she, a humble stall owner, wore little to protect against the bitter cold. She had a tattered shawl across her shoulders, no hat to speak of, instead using the shawl to cover what she could. No fancy gloves had ever touched her hands, wrinkled and white as they were. She felt no love for these men who pretended themselves to be hard off, when people like her were around.
“What’s taking so long, Old Hag?”
The shorter of the two, Adam, called out. His fat face pink in the cold air – or was that from the piss they claim to be whiskey nowadays? Thin brown hair fell in ragged strips against his sweaty forehead and his guard’s hat had slipped to one side. He had always been a loud-mouthed little boy, and now he was but a loud little ‘man’. But he was still a guard and if she couldn’t find her card…
Lily glanced back, hand hovering over her bag. Her eyes must have betrayed her because the silent giant that was Ian Cole pushed past her, knocking the neatly pilled boxes across the cobblestones – their precious cargo spilling. He picked her bag up in steel hands and emptied its contents across the counter, to Lily’s dismay. Her hands rose to cover her eyes from the sight of the glass cases broken and scattered at her feet. Ian roughly pushed aside her possessions and turned up empty.
“No card sir.” He reported to Adam in an almost bored tone.
“To the cage with her then, she knows the rules. Get on with it man! It’s freezing enough out here without you dawdling til sunrise!” Adam snapped, turning away as Ian grabbed her arm, with no regard to the pain it caused her and dragged her along behind him. She barely put up a fight – the image of the snowdrop’s white petals which she had nurtured from crystal shoots, trod into the cracks between the cobbles, burned in her distant eyes. She hardly noticed as they approached the carriage parked across the square, Ian opening the padlocks in his damn efficient manner. She didn’t hear him bark the order to get in. But the harsh shove between her shoulders sent her tumbling onto her chest in the straw strewn cage.
She never raised her voice; didn’t cry out in outrage or for justice or for mercy. All she did was pull herself upright, to sit nursing her wrist – which was surely broken by the fall. No tears came, she hadn’t got to that bit yet – the shock was too fresh, too in control, too consuming. She never even noticed the bundle of rags at the other end of the cage, as the cold numbed her into a troubled sleep.