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Dreaming of a Future that Cannot Be

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Zoe would catch herself, sometimes, sitting at her desk and staring into the middle distance. She would cradle a mug of tea, letting it warm her hands, while she thought about the future; about being fifty. These daydreams always involved small cottages, rose gardens and a peaceful existence.

It was a fantasy, of course. Not the idea of retirement -- she would be able to retire at fifty, like anyone else in a designated ‘high stress’ profession. Her pension would be generous, filtered through a number of dummy accounts. She would live under her final legend: using her own name, living as someone very much like the Zoe Reynolds she had once been, and yet not quite that Zoe. A different Zoe, one with a calmer life; a more average, usual, normal career behind her. New Scotland Yard detective was a typical choice -- the computer files were easily doctored, and key people could be ordered to ‘remember’ certain facts. By the time Zoe reached retirement age, even the incongruity of a woman senior in the upper ranks would have died a natural death.

None of that was the fantasy. Even the setting she saw in her head wasn’t impossible. After twenty-five years of frenetic activity, of weekly and daily adrenaline surges and crashes, Zoe could see herself content in a rose garden. The cottage, too, so long as it was wired for Internet access and had indoor plumbing and good kitchen appliances. She’d thought about Hertfordshire and the Lake District, but the one was too close to London, and the other too far away. Just outside Oxford, perhaps, if that part of the world was still liveable in twenty years’ time. On the banks of the river, within view of the spires. That was fantasy, but close enough to possibility not to be entirely ruled out.

The real fantasy was the person who hovered at the edges of her daydreams, sharing the cottage and the garden and her life. Because, of course, it was Tessa -- and that was the most ludicrous fantasy of all. Tess in a rose garden was laughable. Tessa -- of the sleek minimalist flat in the centre of London -- in an Oxfordshire cottage was preposterous. And Tessa as a permanent fixture in the life of anyone but herself was beyond comprehension.

Yet the image persisted for Zoe, even as she knew it was impossible. She told herself that there would be someone else, some day. Someone closer to her own age, less controlling, more committed. Someone willing not simply to kiss and caress and be physically loving, but to say the words ‘I love you’, and to mean it when it was said. Zoe reminded herself that she knew -- had always known -- that nothing with Tessa was ever permanent.

Zoe tried to re-imagine the future. Sometimes her efforts were a success: sometimes they were not. Tessa lingered, a ghostly presence in Zoe’s imagination as she was in her life. Just as Tessa’s departure from the Grid hadn’t removed her Zoe’s mind, her removal to Majorca made little difference. She was still there, the shadow on the edge of the impossible future. Zoe knew her fantasy was just that, in her heart no less than in her head. Her head found it just as hard to let go of the idea of a life with Tess as her heart did. And Zoe knew that until she reached that age and that cottage and its garden, its actual inhabitant or its quiet solitude, the dreams would remain the same.