Like The Prose 2021 – Day 30

Once again, Like The Prose has come to an end. I managed to submit all thirty stories on time but didn’t always manage to post them on this website on the day they were written (hence posting Day 30 a day late).

Day 30’s theme was beginnings – which got me thinking, how would someone cope with having to begin life as a different version of himself or herself? The American TV series ‘Quantam Leap’ (1989-1993) dealt with a character who woke up in a different body every day, and there are several novels which deal with a similar premise, such as ‘The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton or ‘Every Day’ by David Leviathan.

But what if my protagonist wasn’t human? I decided to write this one about an angel who is forced to experience something new when he temporarily relinquishes his angelic powers because he’s fallen in love with a human woman. It’s my own take on the morality plays from the middle ages.

Beginning

It was gone six o’clock when Marie finally finished her shift at the homeless centre. Wrapping her scarf around her neck for protection against the chill November air, she left the building, longing for the warmth of her tiny flat and the companionship of her cat. She loved what she did at the centre, but it wore her down sometimes. It was good to know she was providing a service for people who needed it, but it could be a thankless task – lots of rough sleepers would far rather be given a bottle of whisky than a mug of hot soup. Nevertheless, she tried to dole out smiles along with the soup and sandwiches. Any of those lonely individuals could be her parents or grandparents, her brother or sister-in-law, her nieces or nephew.

A blond, young man passed her on the street. “You’ve been doing a great job in there!” he called and she felt instantly encouraged. She continued on her way, not noticing the three youths following her at a distance; oblivious to a dark-haired man who watched from the shadows, smirking at the assault that was to come.

“She doesn’t deserve that.” The blond man spoke quietly at his darker companion’s side. “You had your chance with her years ago, and you lost. Leave her alone, Samael.”

“You’re somewhat overprotective for a ministering angel,” the demon replied contemptuously. “Isn’t your job merely to lift fallen spirits – metaphorically of course –“ he sniggered at his own joke – “and soothe fevered brows?” Before Joel could answer, Samael continued, “Don’t tell me you have feelings for this human! You know the rules forbid it.”

Joel listened with only half an ear, one eye watching the street and the youths who were creeping ever closer to Marie. She’d heard their footsteps now and turned fearfully, trying to gauge whether to run.

At this point, Joel could bear it no longer. Dropping his visible persona, he shimmered into the gap between Marie and her pursuers, shielding her from their view with his feathery wings. The would-be assailants paused, baffled. Had she disappeared down a side street? Meanwhile, Joel escorted Marie to the safety of the bus stop, keeping her out of human sight until the bus arrived and she climbed aboard. He retained his hidden presence until she had reached her destination, walking her to her front door without her realising that he was there.

As Marie’s front door clicked shut, Samael grabbed hold of Joel’s shoulder. “You’ve gone too far this time – you know we don’t interfere with the course laid out.”

“So you weren’t getting involved yourself when you pointed those thugs in the girl’s direction?” Joel challenged.

Samael pretended not to hear.

“I’ve done nothing wrong!” Joel protested.

“Well, we’ll let the Boss decide, shall we?” And Samael parted the veil that separated the world of men from the spiritual realm and dragged Joel into the Boardroom.

*

“Is there a reason why the two of you are here?” The archangel looked sternly from one to the other.

“This junior“ – Samael struggled to conceal his disgust – “has developed a romantic attachment for a mortal.”

“Well, this is most irregular,” Raphael sighed, clicking his fingers. A golden book hovered in the air before him. A slight nod from the archangel caused the book to flip open, pages turning of their own accord until the section Raphael wanted was on display. “Let me see… Hmm… A young lady named Marie Fellows who works at a homeless shelter. I can understand the attraction: you both spend your time ministering to others. Is there any reason why a friendship should not be cultivated?”

“It’s against the rules!” Samael hissed.

The archangel settled his gold-rimmed spectacles more firmly on his nose and peered over the top of them at the demon.

“That’s not the case,” he said mildly. “In the past, there were some unfortunate incidents when supernatural beings – on both sides – pursued carnal relations with men and women…” For a moment, he was lost in thought. “The mythologies called their children demi-gods,” he mused.

“I’ve done nothing improper,” Joel insisted.

“Yes,” Raphael agreed, “I can see it all written down here. You feel affection for her; you think she’s pretty;” – the junior angel blushed – “but you haven’t introduced yourself or said anything about your feelings. May I ask what your long-term intentions are?”

“I… I’m not sure,” Joel stammered. “I think I’d just envisaged watching over her for the rest of her life.”

“But you know there’s no such thing as a guardian angel? That idea’s merely a human fabrication because they like to think they’re special enough to warrant the attention of a being whose sole purpose is to protect and guide them,” Raphael declared. “What you’ve described sounds remarkably like the institution the mortals call marriage. Are you telling me you would relinquish your wings for this woman?”

Joel hesitated, torn between his longing to look after Marie and his desire to serve the rest of humanity.

“I think this is a moot point,” Samael interjected. He glared balefully at Joel. “If he has feelings for this person, then he’ll be neglecting his care of the others in his assigned district. Surely he should be moved elsewhere and another appointed in his place?”

Joel’s heart stood still at the thought of never again seeing his beloved. “I don’t want to stop helping other people,” he said slowly, “but I don’t want to abandon Marie either.”

“I believe there is a way you can do both.” Raphael twitched a finger and the book’s pages turned again. “If she can fall in love with you – without knowing your true identity – then she will have bound her destiny to yours and the two of you could eventually have what’s been known as a ‘mixed marriage’.”

The junior angel looked up, scarcely able to believe what he had heard.

“However,” Raphael warned, “there are rules which must be followed: you have twenty-four hours to win her heart; and for that length of time, you will be stripped of your angelic powers. You will spend one day in her company in the guise of a human, and if she offers you a kiss before the day is over, you will be deemed to have won her heart.”

Joel’s wings sagged again. How could any human fall in love in only one earth day?

Beside him, Samael smirked. “I take it that if the angel’s unsuccessful, he will be reassigned?”

Raphael nodded. “Your success or failure will be recorded in the book,” he told Joel. “For the time being, your powers will be kept here –“

A golden casket appeared before him. Raphael motioned with his finger and Joel felt a strange sensation as if his angelic power were being squeezed out of him and into the ornate box. Was this what it felt like to be mortal? To feel so weak and unsure, so unknowing?

“Take him back to the world of men,” Raphael instructed and Samael dragged Joel through the curtain once more, depositing him in an unceremonious heap on the ground.

“Make the most of your next twenty four hours,” the demon hissed in the angel’s ear, “because I still have my powers and I’m going to see to it that the woman you’re so fond of gives herself to me and not to you.”

*

Dawn was just breaking as Joel arrived at the homeless shelter. How did the humans manage? he thought. As an angel, he was used to keeping going all the time – never sleeping, never eating, never having to relieve himself; but just eight hours or so as a mortal had exhausted him. He’d never imagined what it would be like to have a body that didn’t repair itself either. Gingerly touching his jaw and shoulder, he thought again of the man who’d assaulted him. It was much easier to restrain someone if you were invisible and had superhuman strength. Now he knew where the phrase ‘As weak as mankind’ came from!

The notice outside the shelter proclaimed that Saint Peter’s was ‘Open 24/7’. Joel pushed the door open and stepped inside, wondering how to offer his services.

The elderly lady sitting at the desk by the door clucked sympathetically when she saw him. “You’ve been in the wars, haven’t you? Let me find the First Aid box.”

It was a novelty to be ministered to rather than the other way around. Joel let the kindly soul inspect the cuts and bruises he’d sustained as he patrolled the streets, wondering why these people kept going in the face of such adversity. At least he was normally immune to physical damage, but these mortals constantly put their own lives at risk when they chose to interact with the lost and lonely on their streets. He felt a fresh surge of pride for Marie and her co-workers as he realised how difficult their task was compared to his own.

By the time Marie arrived, Joel had consumed several cups of tea and three rounds of toast, all while making breakfast for whoever else wanted it. No longer able to know instinctively what troubled people’s hearts – that kind of empathy was locked away with his other powers for the time being – he had discovered that listening to them was a powerful way of gleaning information. Beryl, the woman who had attended to his injuries, had lost her husband over six months ago. She could have let bitterness consume her, but instead, she’d chosen to devote her time to helping others. Justin was the nervous looking man in charge of the kitchen. He’d been partway through catering college when he’d suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out of his course. He’d lived on the streets for a while himself after that, relying on handouts from passing strangers, until eventually he’d plucked up courage to walk through the hostel doors and ask for a bowl of soup. He was now renting a room in another volunteer’s house and trying to complete his catering qualification part time.

As for the homeless themselves… Joel didn’t need angelic powers to see that they were broken and dejected. A strong aroma of alcohol accompanied some of them, and most of them were unwashed and unhygienic, but the shelter welcomed them all. He felt humbled by the humans’ capacity for kindness.

*

Marie’s first task that day was to sort the donated clothing in the stockroom upstairs into different types and sizes. They had a new volunteer – a blond man who looked vaguely familiar – and he offered to help her straight away. As they checked pockets and examined labels for sizing, she found him asking her questions about what had motivated her to do this kind of work. She didn’t normally tell people her life story, but this stranger was incredibly easy to talk to; besides, she somehow sensed that he wouldn’t judge her, so she told him about her wild student days and how she’d got involved with ‘the wrong man’.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said at one stage. “Anyway, the upshot of it was that by the time I did my Finals, I was six months’ pregnant. I somehow scraped a pass and we moved in together, but Sam drank a lot and he was a mean drunk – you know, violent.” She paused momentarily, her face etched with pain. “A few weeks before the baby was due, we got into a fight and he pushed me down the stairs – he’d been drinking heavily all day.” She swallowed. “I lost the baby…”

She’d lost a lot more than that, crying uncontrollably for months afterwards, hating herself for not walking away sooner from a man who’d treated her so badly. Anti-depressants had numbed her to the pain for a while, but eventually she’d wanted to clear her head and start living again. It had been a painful process, but two years further down the line, here she was.

“Thanks for listening,” she told the blond stranger.

Joel smiled sympathetically. “Any time.”

*

It wasn’t until she and Joel were sitting down to take their lunch break together that the new vicar from Holy Trinity arrived. She’d never seen him before, but he introduced himself straightaway, telling her how pleased he was that the centre was doing the Lord’s work by caring for the poor. Forgetting all about the blond man she’d been getting to know, Marie stared into the vicar’s eyes, mesmerised by his devilishly handsome features, feeling her heart flutter when he took her hand in his and pressed it warmly. Almost before she knew what was happening, she had agreed to go for dinner with the reverend that evening so they could discuss fund raising ideas he’d had for the centre.

Joe’s hope cooled with their soup as he heard Marie making her plans.

“Until later, then,” the vicar said, turning to go. He paused just long enough to let Joel see his true features: disguising himself as a man of God was one of Samael’s favourite subterfuges.

*

“Do you think it’s wise to go out with someone you don’t know?” Joel asked as Marie was collecting her things together at the end of the day.

She pulled out a mirror and applied lipstick. “It’s not a date – it’s talking about helping the centre. And it’s really none of your business anyway.”

If he’d still had his powers, he would have cloaked himself with invisibility and stood watch over her while she and the reverend dined in an unpretentious restaurant a few streets away. As it was, he was forced to stand outside, peering in through the window every so often to check that Marie was okay. He knew Samael would not be content with merely stealing Marie away from him: he would try to hurt her in some way to make Joel suffer.

*

Not being able to hear what was said at the couple’s table when normally he sensed people’s thoughts and feelings and could hear audible voices over a span of several miles was making Joel nervous. Peeping through the restaurant window once more, he saw Marie rise to visit the ladies’ room. Seconds later, a waiter delivered drinks: something alcoholic for Samael and a large mug that Joel knew would contain hot chocolate – Marie had confided to him earlier that she didn’t eat dessert but loved to round off her meal with a hot, sweet, chocolatey beverage. As he watched, Samael made a stirring motion above the mug with his finger. Even without his angelic powers, Joel knew instantly that the demon had drugged the drink.

He was on the verge of barging in and pouring the mug’s contents on the floor when Marie returned from the ladies’ and began sipping her drink. Joel watched her with a heavy heart. He knew that Marie hadn’t dated anyone since her miscarriage (how much she’d told him in their brief time together in the stockroom!) and he was worried that she might be led astray too easily tonight. It was obvious to him that Samael had evil intentions; but would Marie be able to resist the demon’s charms when they were so attractively packaged?

*

When they left the restaurant some fifteen minutes later, Marie let the reverend take her arm, surprised at how unsteady she felt on her feet. She must be more tired than she had thought because she hadn’t drunk any wine and yet she could hardly walk in a straight line.

Joel followed at a distance. He was certain Samael knew of his presence – all supernatural beings have a sixth sense that alerts them to each other’s proximity – but he felt compelled to keep Marie within sight, just in case Samael tried to harm her in some way.

Instead of taking Marie to the bus stop, Samael had obviously talked her into walking all the way home. They crossed the road with Joel following and entered the park. Joel quickened his pace slightly, an uneasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He had to protect Marie – even if it meant losing the challenge he had been set.

The pale moonlight of the November sky cast night time shadows on the path in front of Marie. Her head was as fuzzy as it had been when she was taking her medication so that she felt as if she was wading through treacle as they walked along.

Suddenly, the reverend stopped. “Do you know the real reason why I asked you out tonight?”

His question surprised her. “To talk about the centre,” she said stupidly.

“I don’t care about the centre.” Now he was beginning to reveal his true colours. “What I want is you.”

His hands were grabbing for her in the dark. She froze in terror, suddenly back in the past with Sam’s hands moving over her in the same way.

“You know you want it.”

Was that Sam’s voice or the reverend’s?

“No!” she forced out, but his hand had grasped her wrists and he was forcing her backwards, pressing himself against her aggressively, his eyes full of malice. How could she have ever thought him handsome?

“Please! I don’t want to…”

His hand struck her and pain exploded across her cheekbone. He’s going to kill me! she thought wildly.

“Leave her alone!” Joel faced his rival bravely. He still ached from the earlier street assault, but he had to do something to help Marie.

Samael smirked as the defenceless angel approached. Using every ounce of his supernatural strength, he let his fist connect with Joel’s face before throwing him to the ground and delivering a few well aimed kicks. Powerless to protect himself, Joel took the full impact of his rival’s heavy boots, gasping as his head exploded into a galaxy of stars. Meanwhile, Samael stared with satisfaction at the bloody, beaten mass before him, then turned back to his prey – only to experience a burning, stinging sensation in his eyes that made him recoil in shock.

Marie held her pepper spray in front of her defiantly, her other hand clutching her mobile phone. “I’ve just called 999,” she told Samael, “and there’ll be a police car here in a couple of minutes.”

The demon melted away into the darkness, satisfied that he had at least prevented Joel from achieving his reward. Meanwhile, Marie gazed at the figure on the ground, her heart welling with gratitude for what he had done.

“Thank you,” she whispered, gently kissing his cheek; and at that moment, Joel felt angelic strength flowing through him once more as his body began to repair itself and the air glowed with the miracle of love.

Above his head, invisible wings unfurled.

It was definitely the start of something wonderful.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 29

The penultimate day of the challenge asked me to go back to a previous story and rewrite it from a different perspective. I chose to return to my first story this year and write about Jimli, the bizarre mythological creature that my 17 year old son and I dreamed up a few weeks ago. In the first story, it was unclear whether Jimli existed or was just a bizarre idea in the mind of the protagonist’s work colleague. Here, Jimli becomes the star of the story and we learn a little more about him and how he is viewed in other countries as well as the Czech Republic.

Still Waiting for Jimli

Many believe that he is  just a figment of people’s imagination and indeed, at one time, this was true; but the idea simmered and bubbled, growing stronger and more powerful every day until, one winter’s night when the air was cold and the moon was fat, Jimli shimmered into being.

The Czech people will tell you that Jimli is many things, but their tales only scratch at the surface of his true terror. He has one hundred relatives and they are all his father – and his shoes are made from their skin. He eats his hatchlings, and then he weeps over his greed. His children are many and every one of them sows death and destruction. As for Jimli himself, he is the eventual nemesis of the living and the scourge of the dead. Whole villages wait for his appearance when one of their number hovers in the doorway between life and death, but his carriage is drawn by ten fat slugs and so the hour of death comes slowly. Nevertheless, all must wait for Jimli, whether young or old, for if Jimli does not see them waiting, he will hunt them down and steal their breath while they sleep.

In some countries, Jimli is known by other names. In Iceland, he is called þjófur tímans, which means ‘thief of time‘, and he is linked to the Yule Cat which prowls the land in December and eats the naughty children who are not given new clothes for Christmas. The Icelandic legends give him a chariot of bones and he is depicted with long fingernails and toenails which freeze into  icicles around the doors and windows of the houses where his victims dwell. The Finnish version looks a little like a Strömkarl, but instead of playing a fiendish fiddle to lure people to a watery grave, this incarnation sings loudly and tunelessly until dogs howl and windows crack and the townspeople hide under their beds in fright. He lives in a waterfall made from the tears of the children he has stolen away.

People sometimes ask what will happen if they do not keep the traditions and welcome Jimli when he walks abroad. Some mistakenly leave gifts of food, but Jimli has no interest in pork and oranges; instead, all who anticipate his coming should decorate their homes with branches of hazel and rowan for these are known to ward off evil spirits; and those who wish Jimli to smile on their families should leave gifts for him on their doorsteps: screwdrivers in muslin bags tied with ribbon, or tiny cakes in the shape of seahorses.

But for those who do not make him welcome, Jimli will enter through the window and then he will find the sleeper’s bed. And he will place his hairy hand on the sleeper’s shoulder and shake the sleeper to wake him up. And the sleeper’s eyes will open but at the same moment, his blood will freeze in his veins and he will be one of the mrtvoly: the living corpses who have no place in heaven or in hell but must wander the streets of memory for thousands of years until they turn into dust. Then, and only then, will Jimli forgive them, and he will dance with the unarmed raindrops and sing with the spiders in the dilapidated fortress of despair.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 28

Today’s brief asked me to write a story to do with the senses. The concept of synaesthesia has always fascinated me and there are some excellent novels which deal with this, such as Sarah J Harris’s The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder in which the protagonist is a boy who sees colours when he hears sounds. Not wanting to attempt what Harris has already done so well, I decided to explore a different facet of synaesthesia and write about a girl who hears music when she sees people. For the full sensory experience, click on the link and play the music while you read the story:

Waiting For Rachmaninoff

Alyssa has always heard music when she looks at people. One of her earliest memories is of gazing up at her mother and hearing a vibrant, comforting melody that she would later identify as Grieg’s Morning. Her father sounds like Grieg too, although she always associates his more menacing presence with In The Hall Of The Mountain King.

Everyone has their own signature tune, but she seems to be the only one who can hear the music.

*

She’s sitting watching TV with her parents one Sunday afternoon when an old black and white film comes into view. They’ve already missed the beginning and her father changes the channel before the film is over, but fifteen-year-old Alyssa is mesmerised by the haunting music she hears playing in the background as the hero and heroine gaze into each other’s eyes. If only, she thinks dreamily, I could meet someone who sounds like that! She’s so used to being the only one who hears properly that she’s amazed when her father remarks casually, “That’s the Rach Two – Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.”

“You mean you can hear it too?” Alyssa blurts out.

Her parents exchange worried looks.

*

A few years later, she is off to university to pursue a music degree. Surely, she thinks, there must be someone else who’s aware of life’s rhythm the way that she herself is; but instead of the beautiful classical music she’s hoped for, the students she encounters resonate with the harsh discords of disappointment and despair.

It is several months before her ear finally detects a long-awaited melody. Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto drifts its way through the campus coffee bar, causing her to turn her head and follow the sound back to the floppy hair and high cheekbones of a beautiful, androgynous boy who smiles at her and beckons her over to his table.

She’s waited for him so long that when he asks her back to his room, she doesn’t say no. She’s often wondered what will happen when she meets the love of her life. Will their signature tunes blend and harmonise into a new piece of music; or will she find her own solfeggietto replaced with a variation on her lover’s theme? So powerful are the chords of Rachmaninoff when he kisses her that she thinks it may be the latter. She loses herself in the music as he removes her clothes and loses himself in her.

The following morning, he barely looks at her, seemingly embarrassed by her presence. How can he reject her like this when she still hears the Rach Two whenever she looks at him?

*

Weeping later on a friend’s shoulder, she finds herself telling Jenny about the black and white film and how deeply it affected her at the time.

“You mean Brief Encounter?” Jenny says. “Alyssa, you idiot! Rachmaninoff isn’t part of their love story – it’s the music playing in the background when they say goodbye forever.”

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 27

Today’s brief asked me to choose a picture and write about it – which isn’t a million miles away from the Writing question our GCSE students have to do for half the marks on their Language Paper 1. (Except they’re given a picture instead of choosing one.) I’ve taken one of Renoir’s most famous paintings, Le déjeuner des canotiers, and used it as the inspiration for this piece in which Renoir’s much younger lover (later his wife) struggles to establish how the great artist feels about her. Names and dates are factually correct, but the rest is pure speculation.

Domestic Bliss

He stands back from the canvas, eying his work critically. How many days, weeks, months has he put into this painting now? At least he was able to paint most of his group of friends en plein air as they relaxed on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise last summer. It had been a hot day, he remembers – there had been many hot days by the Seine in Chatou –  and he had been able to capture his trademark light and shade in the combination of figures, still life and landscape. Fournaise and his sister had both been there, of course – he’d rewarded them for providing the location by placing them both in prominent positions on the left of the painting. Everyone else is crowded together on the right – everyone, that is, apart from Aline.

Aline is speaking to him now – or perhaps berating him would be a more accurate phrase. “It still doesn’t look like me, Pierre,” she says sulkily. “The hair is darker, and my eyes are almost closed.”

“You know I match hair colour to the rest of the painting,” he replies absently. The truth is that another woman had originally posed for the figure now representing Aline. Aline is blonde but he’s darkened her hair a little for this – it’s easier to show the effect of sunlight glinting off burnished,  brunette locks. He’s captured her plumpness, though, and the rosy softness of her skin, trying to encapsulate the dizzying effect she had on him when he saw her for the first time a year ago. He likes rounded, fleshy women and he will continue to paint their sensual curves for the next thirty-eight years. Aline will grow plumper still after the birth of their three sons – plumper and even more beautiful. She will be immortalised in many of his pictures, sometimes clothed, sometimes not; with their children, or posing with other people, or sometimes just by herself.

For now, though, she is angry, hands on hips, scolding him as if she were his wife. “You still haven’t introduced me to most of these friends of yours. Are you ashamed of me? Ashamed that your lover is just a dressmaker?”

“Aline,” he protests, listening with only half an ear, his mind already running over further areas that need touching up or repainting. Perhaps it was a mistake to replace the redhead with Aline: one should not let too many mistresses share the same canvas and Jeanne Samary is obviously visible on the right-hand side of the painting. It had never been serious between him and the Comédie-Française actress, despite her parents liking the idea of him becoming their son-in-law. She is definitely his type, though: blessed with the plump figure he admires so much in both a model and a woman, she looks positively pretty in his 1877 portrait of her – the one painted predominantly in pinks and greens.

“Pierre! You’re not listening to me!” and Aline stamps her pretty, little foot. “The Samary woman smirked at me when we met her after the theatre. She said you are not the marrying kind.” Her voice wavers and she turns her large, lustrous eyes on him, full of anger and hurt.

“But we cohabit, my little dove,” he says in surprise. Is that what she wants? A ring on her finger? What difference would it make?

“If I had stayed in Aube,” she says, her cheeks wet with tears, “I would be married by now – and I would have a fat, little baby crawling at my feet.”

“If you had stayed in Aube,” he corrects her, kissing her gently on her eyelids and tasting the salt of her tears, “then we would not have met. How fortunate I am that you came to Montmartre with your mother!”

She twists away from him and he knows that she has not forgiven him – not yet. He sighs. What is a man to do?  His first muse, Lise, had been just the same – but he had been younger then: only twenty-six; and they had moved in with his parents for a while for he could not afford to marry at the time. When she had become pregnant with his daughter, Jeanne, he had not been able to acknowledge her officially – much as he wanted to. A wet-nurse had taken the infant and he had made regular donations towards the child’s keep.

He is now almost forty – nineteen years older than his current lover – and an established artist. Is he ready to be a father in deed as well as in name? Is that what Aline wants?

Two years later, another one of his models, Suzanne Valadon, will give birth to a son. Ostensibly the child of her paramour, Miguel Utriillo, it will be whispered abroad that the father could be Degas or even Renoir himself, such is Suzanne’s bohemian nature. Aline is more conventional and there will be tears when she hears the gossip – not least because she has always suspected her lover to be in another woman’s bed when he is not in theirs; but the birth of their own son in 1885 will give her security; and when Renoir finally marries her in 1890 (she will be thirty and he almost fifty), she will know that his love for her is stronger than his feelings for any of the others.

He examines the painting again, congratulating himself on his technique. The folds of the white tablecloth! The way the light filters through the leaves of the trees in the background and refracts from the wine bottles on the table! And Aline herself – it was a stroke of genius to have her holding the little dog, looking at it as affectionately as if it were a baby. Perhaps one day in the future…

“Is it true, Pierre?” she demands now. She really will not let this matter alone! “Are you truly not the marrying kind?”

“Aline, chérie, you know I believe in marriage – but it is the marriage of my brushes with my paints. I am an artist – not a draper. Respectability is for the provinces, not for Paris.”

She exits the room in floods of tears and he sighs. They have not all been as difficult as her – he and his beloved Marguerite hardly had a cross word; but then ‘Margot’ died of smallpox, four years before he met Aline, and he had buried his love for her in the coffin that held her body.

Marguerite had been beautiful – ‘Margot’ was her alias for her modelling work – but neither she nor Jeanne Samary nor even Lise could hold a candle to Aline. She is my ideal woman, he thinks now, and she will forgive me eventually for not marrying her. He will not break with this one: she epitomises everything a woman should be.

Now, however, more pressing things beckon. The muscles in Caillebotte’s arm are not quite right, and since the art patron is an avid boatman himself, Renoir needs to create an impression of strength and power in those arms, despite his friend’s relaxed attitude sitting backwards on a chair. Angèle Legault has been painted listening to Caillebotte with rapt attention, and as he gives the canvas his full attention, he notices that almost all of the women are staring adoringly at a male figure – even Aline who is gazing at the Affenpinscher in her hands as if the dog is imparting wisdom to her.

No doubt the critics will say the painting symbolises his ego.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 26

Today’s brief asked me to channel my pet and write from his or her perspective. I don’t have a dog or a cat – or even a goldfish. (Years ago, when my daughter was six or seven, we had a hamster but they’re not known for their longevity.) However, a few months ago, a vixen decided to make her home under the decking at the back of the garden and gave birth to four cubs. I’ve watched these little ones grow and develop and spent ten minutes or more this morning at around 5.30 am, standing by the back door and watching one of the cubs prance around, playing with a ball he’d found. They’re such playful little things and in my mind, they’r emy adopted pets – even though I know they’ll grow up and move on soon. (They’ll have to – they leave too many ‘presents’ on the lawn.) This piece, then, is written from the mother fox’s perspective and charts he rlife as a single parent.

Foxy Lady

Darkness descends as I trot along the hard, grey ground, following the scent of other foxes as I search for somewhere that will serve as a makeshift den. I am still not used to these solo journeys, but my mate went out some time ago and did not come back. The light in the sky overhead is a pale colour as it always is when I go hunting. I venture out little when the light is bright – there is not much food to be had then, and the strange two-legged creatures seem to be everywhere.

The trail leads me through a place with grass and trees and I sniff cautiously, wondering if I can find a burrow of some sort. My belly is too heavy with the young I carry for me to start digging a substantial hole, but my babies need to be born underground in a place safe from predators.

Nothing.

My heart sinks as I realise I have nowhere to have my kits. Surely there must be somewhere? I begin to run, trotting away from the soft grass and rejoining the hard surface.  Strange shapes loom in front of me, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen them. Once, I saw another fox push one of these things until it toppled and spilled its guts on the ground – and what wonderful guts they were! Bones with bits of meat still clinging to them, and things that tasted sweet, and green stuff – like grass, only better. For a moment, I wonder if I could somehow climb inside and hide until the cubs are old enough to leave home; but even if I could make my way inside, my little ones could not climb in and out; and if I managed to carry them one at a time, picking them up by the scruff of their necks, I would have to leave them alone while I fetched the next one – and who knows what might try to eat them if I am not watching them all the time.

The wind changes and I catch a faint odour of something that smells good to eat. Letting my nose lead me, I come to a tall, hard structure with gaps large enough to squeeze between. My belly drags on the ground and I know that my time is near.

More grass, with funny trees that grow in long unbroken lines. I wriggle through branches to find more grass and more long trees. Repeating the process, I come to a stretch of grass that smells of something not-fox – some sort of animal that will be good to eat. My eyes make out shadowy shapes within a structure raised from the ground and a smell of fear permeates the night. I approach, but there is something hard and sharp preventing me from investigating these furry creatures. Diving under branches once more, I find grass – lots of it – and an interesting looking hole that disappears under something low and flat and hard.

*

My kits are finally here. There are four of them in total – two boys and two girls but they are all identical. Their eyes are still closed and they are as deaf as they are blind. I lick their grey velvety skin, hoping their hair will grow soon. They smell my milk and whine with hunger, so I wrap my body around them for warmth, letting them nuzzle blindly until they have found my teats. Once fed, they sleep – and so do I.

*

My babies are now balls of black fluff. I worry about how to find food for us all. My milk will not last forever. Several times, I have left them sleeping and crept out onto the grass when the light is pale overhead. I managed to dig up long, slippery things but they were gone in an instant. My belly moans for solid food. If my mate were here, he would provide for us, but he is not coming back. I must raise our cubs without him.

*

Their fur is now grey. They have followed me outside, wobbling on unsteady legs, and they blink in surprise at the light. Until now, they have known only the comforting dark of our strange den and the hard confining walls. I see the smallest scenting the air – they must all feel overwhelmed by the space around them, by the feel of the grass underfoot, by the cool sensation of the breeze. I watch them proudly, marvelling at their perfect black noses and their small, rounded ears. Their tails are covered with the same grey fuzz as the rest of their bodies. They will slip in and out of the shadows when I take them hunting later.

*

The first hunting expedition has worn me out. I could manage two cubs, but four on my own! It is not easy being mother and father at the same time. Still, I have showed them how to sniff the ground and follow the smells that lead to food. I pushed my way through the long trees and back again several times until they understood what to do, then led them away from the grass and towards the hard, grey ground. Trotting through the semi-darkness, we found strange food in a pile. It did not smell harmful, so we tasted and then ate. Perhaps the two-legged creatures left it there for later – I do not think they hunt as we do.

               They are sleeping now, huddled together in a mound of grey fur. I watch them for a while, then close my eyes. It is unlikely that enemies will come while we sleep, but my teeth are sharp and I will fight to the death to defend my babies.

*

They are growing fast. Their ears are now more pointed and their muzzles sharper. They are losing their adorable baby-features, their fur becoming brown. Soon the brown will turn to red and the boys will look like miniature versions of their father.

               They fight constantly, forever squabbling for more room in the safety of our darkened den. Then, when they get outside, they jump around in the grass, tumbling over one another as they play and wrestle, and yelping in excitement. I smile to hear their high-pitched barks.

               One of them has already encountered another animal – much the same size but leaner. The not-fox appeared in the grass, a short distance from our den, and stood staring at my playful little ones. The oldest is the bravest and he bounced his way over to the strange creature, jumping around it as he tried to understand what it was. I have seen these lithe beasts before – they are like us but their tails are thin in comparison to ours and they do not share our long, pointed snouts. When they are afraid, they arch their backs and hiss – as this one did when confronted by a giddy, prancing cub. My poor little one thought it was a game. He tried to bat this stranger with his paw – the way he plays with his brothers; but it disappeared in a blur of black fur. They will learn who to trust as they grow older, just as they will learn which animals are good to eat.

*

I have been teaching them how to bark properly. They can imitate the growl I use when I call them to me or tell them to feed, but they need to know how to warn against intruders. The youngest raised his voice earlier and I thought he was in trouble, but he was telling me he had caught a small, squeaking animal  with a long tail. I showed them how to tear the creature apart and eat the meat. They have been stalking the feathered things but without much success: each time they leap, there is a flurry of feathers and the things rise into the air – too high for any of us to reach. I have caught several in the past and they are plump and juicy compared to the little squeaking things.

               Warmth spreads over the grass from the bright light above. I let it dance on my fur, thinking that soon we must return to the den, but my children are leaping around again, playing hide and seek with each other in the fragrant grass. Perhaps they will sleep for longer if I let them wear themselves out now?

               Keeping one eye open, I let myself drift off to sleep.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 25

Today’s brief was ‘pulp fiction’ – the genre, not the Tarantino film. I decided to give my story a twist by making my protagonist a female detective instead of a male; and I also threw in time travel so that my modern day police officer could travel back to 1920s New York. Since it’s set in America, I’ve used American spellings for this one.

TEMPUS FUGITIVE

A squat grey building of only three or four stories sat amidst towering skyscrapers and opulent hotels, looking as out of place as a dowdy aunt at the Oscar awards. Samantha Reilly checked her sat nav once more: this was definitely the right place.

Exiting her car, she made her way towards the unassuming looking structure, her mind running over the letter she’d recently received. “If you want information about the downtown killings, come to this address.” It was years since anyone had put pen to paper to contact her – but then it was hard to remain anonymous with an email: even if your name wasn’t part of the address, there would still be numerous ways of being tracked via the internet.

She was approaching the main entrance now. The building wasn’t just unassuming: it looked totally abandoned. Windows had been boarded up for some time, judging by the spray-painted graffiti that covered most of the wood; and had it not been for the small, handwritten sign tacked to the door, proclaiming ‘Tempus Investigations’, she might have turned on her heel and walked away. As it was, she tried the handle – locked – then hammered on the door. No answer. Perhaps someone was just messing with her mind after all?

It was only then that she noticed the dilapidated intercom at the side of the door. Despite being covered in dust, it seemed to crackle with electricity. Pressing the large button at the bottom of the device, she waited.

“Tempus Investigations.”

She replied to the tinny voice by giving her credentials. “The name’s Reilly. I’m a detective with NYPD.”

“Come in, Reilly.”

The door swung open and Sam inched her way inside, hoping that her gut instinct – that this really could be the breakthrough she’d been looking for – was correct. If not… She supressed a shiver as she tried not to think of grisly tales of female police officers being assaulted and murdered by crazed psychopaths they’d trusted.

But it seemed her gut had been correct after all. The bespectacled young man who greeted her in the corridor looked completely unthreatening and was even attractive, albeit in a nerdy sort of way.

“Ms Reilly? Follow me.”

She was already beginning to regret her decision as he led her through a corridor that was far too empty for a thriving investigation business. Surely she should have seen someone else by now? Grimly, she concentrated on the back of this unknown man’s head, cursing herself for not asking for proper identification. It was a rookie mistake, but she knew why she’d made it …

Briefly, her mind skittered back to the body of her partner. She’d been the one to find him, three weeks ago, blood leaking out of the unnecessary wound in his side. The bullet to the brain must have killed him outright, so why bother to…

“In here, please.”

She came back to her senses with a start, realising they had reached their destination. Pushing away the memory, she walked through the door that would change her life forever.

*

The first thing that caught her eye was the strange contraption in the centre of the room. It was almost like something out of a 1950s B movie, she thought dispassionately. A large seat – not unlike a massage chair – was wired up to an incredibly complicated-looking machine, full of dials and switches. If she squinted, she could almost detect a pale green glow around the chair and there was definitely a faint humming sound emanating from it.

“Ms Reilly, take a seat.”

That was when she noticed the man standing in front of her, carrying a clipboard.

She looked around, puzzled. Take a seat where? Then comprehension dawned.

“I’m not sitting in that thing,” she said pointedly, “until you tell me who you are and what the hell’s going on.”

*

Now, as she sat alone in her downtown hotel room, she wondered if she’d made the right choice. It had all seemed so plausible when Mr Spectacles and Mr Clipboard described it – they were time travelling private investigators; but it was much harder to feel positive about her situation when she was a hundred years away from the life she knew in 21st century New York.

Still, the fact that she was here, in the 1920s, proved they hadn’t been lying. They really could sit people in that funny-looking chair of theirs and send them hurtling through time to a predetermined decade. At first, she’d been skeptical – especially when they’d told her to remove her clothing and don the ‘age-appropriate’ garments they offered (the hat alone was enough to make her think they were just laughing at her); but she certainly fitted into this era in her knee length dress and T-strap heels.

She hadn’t reckoned on how restrictive it was to be a woman at this time, though. When Mr Spectacles had explained the principles of Tempus Investigations – to counteract a group of criminals who were travelling forward in time to murder the descendants of the cops who’d put them away – the idea had seemed totally preposterous; but she’d liked the idea of flitting in and out of the past, experiencing ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and the birth of Jazz. She hadn’t realised that an unmarried woman like herself would be seen as ‘easy game’ by any of the men she encountered in the speakeasies; but if she didn’t hang around these illegal bars, then how could she possibly get any information about where her suspect might be hiding?

So far, she’d been investigating just the name at the top of the list supplied by Tempus. “Why me?” she’d asked when they’d explained the set-up to her and asked her to track down Larry the Hat. It was only when they’d shown her the sheaf of papers full of details of people who’d been murdered in the same way as her ex-partner that she’d understood.

“You mean criminals are literally hopping through time to avoid being caught?” she’d echoed incredulously.

Mr Spectacles (his real name was Richard Jenkins) had given her a disarming smile at that point. “That’s a rather simplistic way of looking at it.”

“But they’re able to commit a string of crimes a hundred years ago and then hide in the twenty-first century – or vice-versa?”

Spectacles and Clipboard exchanged glances.

“Think of it in terms of artistry,” Clipboard explained. “A murderer’s proud of what he does: his modus operandi – for example, the way he leaves a red rose on every corpse or carves his initials into the dead woman’s flesh – becomes his calling card. And what better way to achieve notoriety than by establishing a reputation that lasts throughout the centuries?”

“But surely people would just assume the modern set of killings is a spate of copycat murders,” she’d argued. “If these – low-lifes – are so keen to make a reputation for themselves, wouldn’t it irk them not to get the recognition they deserve?”

“I think they’re more concerned with not getting caught,” Richard had said mildly. “And that, Ms Reilly, is where you come in…”

Sam flicked through the folder again, although she had already committed most – if not all – of the details to memory. Larry the Hat was known for his penchant for cutting his victims’ bodies after they’d died – at the time, he’d been dubbed ‘The Sculptor’, due to the number of corpses found with a bowl-shaped incision. Like the one in her partner’s body, she thought now, her mind seeing for the umpteenth time the neat gunshot wound in the head, the precisely carved hollow in the belly.

She was here, she told herself furiously, for Jack Hareton, her ex-partner. If Larry the Hat was truly responsible for Jack’s death, then she would grab the 1920s gangster and carry him back to the 21st century to receive the justice he deserved.

Briefly, she ran through the instructions she’d been given. Larry’s last recorded murder of the 1920s had taken place today – or, rather, it would take place in another two hours and forty-seven minutes. “You’ll need to take a room in The Marlton,” Clipboard had told her, “and entice our friend Mr Hat back to your room somehow. The machine’s programmed to zap the two of you back from there at 23.00 hours precisely – that’s ten minutes before the time he killed his last victim.”

“What if I can’t get him into my room?” she’d asked.

At that, Richard had blushed a becoming shade of pink. “That’s one of the reasons why we chose you, Ms Reilly. The Hat had a thing for redheads –”

“Curvy redheads,” Clipboard chimed in.

“And you – well, you’re the type he goes for.”

“So I’m just bait?” She wondered whether to feel offended: after all, she was one of the best cops in her precinct.

“No!” Jenkins hastened to atone for his mistake. “We chose you because… because we knew you could get the job done,” he finished.

“So, I get him into my room at 11pm, you flick a few switches, and pow! we’re back in the modern day?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

Spectacles looked like he was going to say something more, but Clipboard threw him a warning look. Sam wasn’t a betting woman, but she had more than a sneaking suspicion that she shouldn’t trust Richard’s colleague.

*

Ten minutes later, she placed her pistol under the pillow and left the room, heading for the bar. This had become a nightly occurrence: the lone female act certainly attracted a lot of male attention, and she’d chatted to a number of men who claimed to know gangsters – although she suspected most of them were lying to impress her. She’d even spotted Larry the Hat once or twice, resisting the urge to approach him but instead making a point of ignoring the approving glances he cast in her direction. She had to make him wait for it: if she was going to get him to her room at the right moment, timing was of the essence.

This night was no exception. It was around eight thirty when he strutted in – confidence and charisma neatly packaged in a well-cut suit; danger tossed casually over his shoulder like a silk scarf. For a 1920s gangster, he had an almost modern air of insouciance – almost, she thought dreamily, as if he were playing a version of himself in some modern-day movie.

No, she couldn’t let herself fall for his disturbing charm. She had a job to do – and she would bring Jack’s killer to justice. He wouldn’t be expecting her to be a cop – female law enforcement officers were still few and far between in this day and age; and that could only work to her advantage. If possible, she wanted to bring him in alive; but the pistol under her pillow could be used in self-defence if necessary.

This time, when Larry looked at her, she caught his gaze instead of turning away like she usually did. A moment later, when he slid his body onto the stool next to hers, she knew she had caught her man.

He glanced at the almost full Negroni in her hand and ordered her another by way of introduction. In turn, she tried to channel everything she could remember from when she’d seen ‘The Great Gatsby’, trying to imitate the correct way to speak and laugh as a 1920s woman. A flutter of eyelashes here, a stretch of stocking-clad leg there and she could feel the chemistry between them taking on a life of its own. Damn you for being so attractive! she thought viciously as his hand reached out and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. She tried to centre herself by thinking about Richard Jenkins and his clean-cut image, but the glasses slid out of her mind to be replaced with the much more present and exciting gangster who seemed to be under her spell.

As one cocktail chased another down her throat, she realised that Larry’s fingers were creeping further and further up her leg. Placing a restraining hand upon the offending digits, she threw him a questioning look.

“You know you want to,” he whispered.

In the middle of the crowded bar, they were suddenly the only two people in existence.

*

They walked back to her room slowly, Sam swaying a little from the effect of the alcohol. She’d drunk more than she’d intended. She unlocked the door, wondering what she could do to keep Larry occupied for the ten minutes before the machine zapped them both back into the present. His hands encircled her waist and a thrill of electricity pulsed through her. Don’t get involved, she warned herself. He killed Jack. But when he pushed her onto the bed and began to kiss her, she found her lips parting treacherously and her arms holding him close.

It was only as he became more forceful that she started to panic. She needed to keep him there – but at what cost? She tried to push him away, but he pinned her to the bed, using his weight to render her immobile.

Surely it must be time now? Her eyelids flickered to the carriage clock on the bedside table. It was past eleven. Something had gone wrong.

Larry began to fumble in his clothing for something, keeping her arms pinned down with his other hand. In horror, she saw him withdraw a revolver; and suddenly the pieces fell into place and she knew: she had been his next victim all along.

She wriggled desperately, wondering if she could reach her hidden pistol, her mind still frantically trying to ascertain why Tempus hadn’t transported them back to the 21st.

“I like a woman who puts up a bit of a fight,” he purred lazily.

He liked fights, did he? Well, she’d show him!

Summoning up all her strength, Sam managed to shift enough to bring her knee up and catch Larry in the groin. As he doubled over in pain, she wrenched her hand free and scrabbled for the pistol, her fingers closing over the handle just in time. Whirling round, she aimed it at his head.

“Come on, Tempus!” she muttered.

Larry began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded through clenched teeth.

“Tempus set you up, Sweetheart.” He was enjoying the joke. “That machine of theirs is one-way: they don’t send cops back in time to catch killers: they send them to us so we can get rid of them.”

“So, I can’t go back?”

Without waiting for an answer, she shot him straight between the eyes.

*

A week later, Sam shivered in the early morning air, scanning the streets before her. One day, she vowed, she would find the prototype Tempus office here in the 1920s, and then she would destroy the plans they’d made for the machine that would be built nearly a hundred years later. Would that effectively trap her here forever? Her knowledge of time travel was too sketchy for her to say with any certainty, but she was past caring by now. Trying to remember where she’d seen the building in the future, she checked her notebook again. There was a lot of New York to cover, but she had all the time in the world.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 24

Today’s challenge was to write in the style of an artist. I’ve chosen an imaginative interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh, using his painting ‘A Starry Night’ as inspiration.

A Starry Night

1881. Stars explode in a million galaxies when I see her. My emotions swirl. She is a splash of light against the darkness of my life. Colours  dance across the canvas and my heart swirls, whirls and twirls with them. Kee. The name pulses, radiates. I see her face and I am spinning across galaxies, dancing with stars. She is seven years older than I, recently widowed and with an eight-year-old son. These layers of information only add depth to my feelings for her. I lay out the canvas of my heart, swirling dark blue emotion in dizzying patterns, punctuated with explosions of yellow happiness. Kee. It sounds like the French word for who. Who has made me happy? Kee has made me happy. The yellow stars eclipse the dark night; she and her son have broken through my depression and we will form our own little universe together.

She does not want me.

I have declared my love; I have proposed marriage; but she does not want me. “Nooit, neen, nimmer.” No, nay, never. The stars wink out so that only deep blue swirls remain. The untouched yellow paint dries up on my palette. I no longer dance across the sky.

Picking up my charcoal, I sketch the bleak lines of life without her.

1882. I have learned to love again. Colours swirl in my mind. Sien also has a child and she is pregnant with another. Am I fated only to love maternal women?

Sien’s life is as tumultuous as mine. Wine swirls in the glass of her life, pulling her down to depths even I was unaware of. I keep my alcoholic prostitute a secret: she is the Mary Magdalene to my former Virgin Mary. It seems purity and degradation are not so different after all. The deep blue swirls in my mind, merges both women into one. Kee. Sien. Sien. Kee. Keesien. Sienkee. I am spinning through galaxies, searching for pinpricks of light.

1883. We drift apart. Sien will spiral deeper into deprivation, returning to her former trade. She will outlive me by fourteen years,  but in twenty-one years’ time, she will let the dark blue water of the River Scheidt swirl over her head.

The sadness lasts forever.

1884. A neighbour’s daughter, Margot, is in love with me. I return her affection, though with less enthusiasm than I might have done before Kee. Our marriage is thwarted by both sets of parents, but I am used to disappointment: first Kee, then Sien, now Margot. She, alas, is not so lucky. Strychnine swirls through her bloodstream but the hospital saves her before her face can turn blue. The oil paintings I produce the following year are dark and sombre. There is no life in them.

1889. I have entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy. It is not so far from Arles. Years of disappointment and despair have piled layer upon layer of deep, dark blue on my heart and mind. Taking my palette knife, I cut through the paint as Kee cut through my heart with her rejection. I swirl the layers into never-ending circles of despair. Here and there, blobs of yellow paint suggest hope, but the stars and even the moon are overshadowed by the dark tower of my mind. It looms at the forefront of the painting, reminding me that I am still a prisoner of my own unhappiness.

It is one of the best paintings I have ever done.

In years to come, those who view my painting will not see the years of hurt and rejection. They will be deaf to the voices that cry out constantly in my mind. They will admire the swirling blues of depression and the clouds of despair, and they will think the yellow stars and moon symbolise light and hope. I have painted my agony in a maelstrom of madness, but they will only see A Starry Night.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 23

Today’s prompt asked me to write about why doing something right ended up feeling wrong. I’ve interpreted this rather loosely with a somewhat ASD narrator who needs everything to be ‘right’ and inadvertently causes problems for othes in the process.

Stuck in the Midlands With You

Guilt was the glue that held our relationship together.

When people ask me why I hung around so much with Helen Sutcliffe when we were in high school, I never tell them the truth. “We lived near each other,” I’ll say; or, “We both liked the same band”. The real story is far more sinister, but I can’t keep on living a lie.

I was an anxious child at eleven years of age, fearful of everything and two weeks into secondary school still without a proper friend. I didn’t fit in, you see: I was small and skinny and clever, and the girls who were popular all had the right shoes and the right bag and the right make up – yes, some of them wore mascara to school at that age – and an easy confidence which enabled them to sashay around in their unflattering uniform as if they were strutting the catwalk in the latest designer outfits.

The boys in my year group were an unruly bunch – they were still suffering from the immaturity that made them think flatulence was funny or that pulling up a girl’s skirt to see her knickers was an acceptable mating ritual; and when I was forced to spend my hour’s lunch break with them in the school playground, my misery knew no bounds. By the end of the first week, I’d developed the art of hiding round the back of the science labs, as far away as possible from the raucous games of football and the shouting and screaming that seemed to be the expected form of communication.

That’s where Helen found me. I was standing a few feet away from the wall, bouncing a tennis ball back and forth in a complicated game I’d devised for myself. “Can I have a go?” she asked. I flinched, not liking the idea of anyone else invading my private world.

In the end, I let her join in – not because I wanted her there but because she simply refused to go away. She ruined the game too, claiming that my rules were far too complicated and that my final challenge – back to the wall, legs apart, bouncing the ball and then twirling around in time to catch it as it rebounded – was ridiculous. I could tell she thought she was doing me a favour by replacing ‘double bounce, on the wall, clap and catch’ with ‘left-handed throw’, but it just wasn’t the same. I spent most of the next week trying to avoid her, but she always found me.

And in fact, it was her fault that the whole incident happened. Luckily she was in a different class to me – we weren’t set for subjects until the following year so we were taught in mixed ability groups, chosen by surname: I was an ‘A’ and she was an ‘S’ – and I didn’t have to do any lessons with her. She was always waiting outside my classroom door at break and lunch time though … After a while, I wondered if she left her lessons early on purpose – just to make sure of catching me.

Anyway, on this particular day, she didn’t even wait for me to come out of the classroom – she just stormed in while everyone else was leaving and decided to help me pack away so I could get out faster. (I’d started tidying my desk fastidiously in the hopes that it would keep me in the classroom and away from her for a few more minutes.) Completely ignoring my established routines and rituals, she grabbed a handful of the felt tipped pens I was lining up in alphabetical order and stuffed them randomly into my pencil case. I was so traumatised by this anarchic behaviour that I panicked and dropped my ruler – and then Helen stepped back and trod on it and I suddenly found myself in possession of two pieces of ruler. What was worse was that the ruler had cracked unevenly, leaving me with one part that was much longer than the other. I almost cried with despair.

For the rest of lunch time, I was too upset to speak to Helen. I had prided myself on my perfect school equipment; and the thought of those two bits of plastic made me physically ill. I still have an uneasy feeling in my stomach even now when I think about it.

It must have been about five minutes before the bell went when Helen had her bright idea. “You could Sellotape the pieces back together,” she said.

I knew that Miss Jones, my form teacher, had a roll of Sellotape in her desk, but I didn’t want a taped-together ruler that looked like one of Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments. What if she had something better than Sellotape though? I was pretty sure I’d seen a tube of glue in her drawer when I stood by her desk as she was hunting for a red pen the other day.

My mind was made up. I would go to the classroom now and ask Miss Jones if I could use her glue. Relief flooded me; the solution brought a smile to my face.

Annoyingly, Helen followed me back into school. “Where are you going? Why aren’t you talking to me?” She was still asking her inane questions as I reached my form room.

Her eyes widened as I opened Miss Jones’ drawer. “You can’t touch the teacher’s stuff!” she hissed.

My fingers closed around the tiny tube – I knew I had been right; but was there enough in here to do the job?

Taking the two pieces of ruler out of my bag, I laid them on Miss Jones’ desk. This should only take a few seconds, I told myself, but although I squeezed the tube as hard as I could, nothing seemed to be happening.

“You have to pierce the end with something sharp,” Helen told me. I hadn’t realised she was an expert in household repairs. She wrested the glue from my hands and studied it. “There should be a pointy bit on the cap. … Here.”

She handed it back and I took it from her gratefully, realising this was the only time in my life I’d actually been pleased to have her around.

Flushed with success, I squeezed again, expecting a tiny dribble to drip onto the piece of plastic I was holding in the other hand. To my horror, what looked like the entire contents of the tube suddenly squirted out in a joyous bid for freedom – right onto Miss Jones’ chair.

Frozen in shock, I gazed at the clear liquid, wondering if I could dip the broken end of my ruler in it before it started to set. Helen looked at me unsympathetically. “You’ll get in trouble for that.”

She was right. My careless accident would be viewed as an act of vandalism. “Don’t tell,” I begged.

She looked at me slowly, Machiavellian wheels already spinning in her brain. “Okay,” she agreed, “but you’ve got to start being nicer to me. I want you to be my best friend.”

The bell sounded before I could reply. As the rest of my classmates streamed in through the door, Helen slipped away quietly, and I slunk to my seat. With any luck, no one would notice I had already been in the room when they entered.

Moments later, Miss Jones appeared and made her way towards her desk. I felt my heart start to flutter. Would she notice the mess on her chair?

Apparently not, because she sat down on the gluey substance without even noticing it and began to take the register.

It was only later on, when she tried to get up from her chair and start writing on the board, that I realised the full implications of my mishap. Try as she might, Miss Jones couldn’t extricate herself from her seat. The veins stood out on her forehead as she exerted every last ounce of energy, but she was well and truly stuck.

Looking back, I realise that I should have said something, but I was so mortified at what I’d done that I couldn’t speak. The superglue had effectively moulded my lips together so that all I could do was watch in horrified silence as she pulled and tugged, growing increasingly more frustrated by the minute.

One by one, the rest of the class began to catch on. The quiet whispering became a louder murmur as pupils turned to their neighbours, nudging them excitedly and speculating about what was wrong until finally, with one last, superhuman effort, Miss Jones wrenched herself free from the chair, leaving most of the seat of her trousers behind her.

I don’t think she realised what had happened because she strode confidently to the board, turned to face it and began writing down simple equations – all the while affording Class 1A a spectacular view of the frilly pink knickers she was wearing on that particular day.

The boys started the sniggering, but the girls joined in pretty quickly too. Before long, most of the class was laughing hysterically while poor Miss Jones kept on writing, every now and then turning around to glare at us for being noisy. It was only as she returned to her desk that she caught sight of the remnants of trouser material stuck to the chair and knew that she’d been inadvertently flashing us for a good ten minutes.

Miss Jones went home early that day and was “off sick” the following week. In the meantime, my year group had a special assembly in which the headmaster castigated us all for the malicious trick that had been played on one of his teachers and threatened to cane the culprit – once he caught him. I stole a quick glance at Helen when he said this, but she was sitting demurely, making her face look as ignorant as everyone else’s – she might have been annoying, but she knew how to keep a secret.

So that’s how Helen and I became best friends. For the next five years, she stuck to me like that damned superglue, boring me to death every break and lunchtime with her eternal anecdotes about her guinea pigs and her horse riding lessons. She didn’t even take the hint when the boys in our year group started growing up and became worthy objects of affection: I had to invent after school flute lessons just so I could meet up with Martin Jenkins in one of the music practice rooms at the end of school instead of walking home with her.

We parted company after O levels: I was going on to do A levels at the girls’ grammar school in Kings Heath and she had an apprenticeship lined up in hairdressing. We promised to keep in touch, but we never did – I suppose that was one of the benefits of living in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era.

I never did mend my ruler.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 22

My brief for the 22nd was to write about a con artist. I love the TV show ‘Hustle’ and the various films concerning con artists, scammers and swindlers, but felt I wanted to take a more literary approach with this one, so I’ve created a Regency style story involving a young man who decides to con women out of their jewellery. I had a lot of fun writing it and hope you’ll have fun reading it.

Broken Hearts and Baronets

Henry Davenport was broke. He’d frittered away most of the fortune his father had left him – wine, women and cards were expensive hobbies – and was down to his last few hundreds.

“You need a rich wife, Harry,” Josiah remarked as they cantered through the forest one fine autumn afternoon. “A girl with enough money to keep you in the manner to which you’re accustomed.”

Henry nudged Lady’s reins gently. The mare was spirited, but he managed to let her know who was in charge. Women were a lot like horses: once you’d broken them in, you could easily steer them in the direction you wanted.

“There’s a ball at Grantleigh Manor this Saturday,” Josiah continued. “Bound to be a few fine fillies there, what?”

Henry considered his friend’s words gravely. At twenty-three, he felt he was far too young to be shackling himself to a wife; still, needs must where the devil drives and all that rot. He’d put on his best frock coat and the breeches from France and he’d jolly well bag himself the prettiest little thing he saw – provided she had enough money, of course.

As Lady trotted over the bracken, he began planning how he would spend his new wife’s money.

*

Lady Lavinia Grantleigh was one of the richest women in the county. She was also one of the most foolish. Slightly too tall and well built to look entirely feminine, her eyes were just a little too pale and her nose just a trifle too long for her to be regarded a beauty, but Henry would say anything necessary to convince this prize specimen that he was marriage material.

“Have I mentioned how musical your laugh is?” he murmured, bending low over her hand – ostensibly to kiss it but in actual fact counting how many rings she wore. Why, just one of those sparklers would cover his losses at the card table for a week!

Lavinia let out a self-conscious peal of laughter. It reminded Henry of a corncrake, but he pressed on, determined to clinch this transaction.

“I wonder if I might beg a keepsake of the woman I love,” he tried next, gazing soulfully into her anaemic eyes with a look that hinted at barely bridled passion. (He’d been practising in front of the mirror all week.)

Lavinia blushed, staining her cheeks an unbecoming red somewhat at odds with her rather carroty hair. Some women could carry off auburn locks; unfortunately, Lavinia was not one of them.

“Lord Henry,” she simpered, fluttering her fan in what she hoped was a suitably flirtatious manner, “you should not say such things! We have known each other only an evening.”

“Is that all?” Henry replied gallantly. “It seems much longer.”

It really did seem much longer. Lavinia had to be one of the most boring women he had ever met. She knew nothing about horses and less about dogs. (You couldn’t call that ridiculous rat she kept on her lap a dog! What was it she’d said it was? Some fancy Mexican name.)

Eventually, after a truly excruciating evening, Henry managed to extricate himself from Lavinia’s presence with an invitation to come for tea the next afternoon (tea, for goodness sake! Why not coffee? Now that was a man’s drink) and a rather ugly looking ring containing a large garnet which, she whispered, was a sign of good faith. It was not exactly a promise to marry him, but it was her way of saying she would not pledge her heart to another.

*

It was as he was riding home (the coach already having been sold to settle a few gambling debts) that an idea struck him – why get married at all? If it had been as easy as this to persuade that frightful looking girl to part with some of her jewellery, why shouldn’t he court as many women as he could and amass the funds he needed by sweet talking them into parting with rings and lockets? And they might give him other things that could be turned into gold.

Impressed with his own brilliance, he withdrew to the study as soon as he reached the modest eight-bedroomed pile left to him by his father. Fetching the copy of Debrett’s Peerage from its place on one of the bookshelves, he began turning the pages. He would limit himself to girls who had no brothers, he decided – after all, he didn’t want to be challenged to a duel by some angry chap who thought Henry had besmirched his sister’s honour.

*

And so it was that Henry found his true vocation. Like any other modern man of the early 1800s, he applied himself seriously to idle pleasure. Always impeccably dressed, he was the quintessential dandy; conversationally, he was a rattle par excellence; and above all, he was a fastidious flaneur. What Henry didn’t know about the well connected simply wasn’t worth knowing. He kept a small, leather-bound notebook in which he recorded every conversation he had with a woman – along with details about her likes and dislikes and how easy it was to part her from her jewellery. One typical month’s entry included no fewer than six different women, each one accompanied by a description of the ‘gift’ she had given him. So far, he had pawned an emerald necklace, two strings of pearls, six diamond rings, three pairs of earrings, several tie pins and sets of cufflinks and an incredibly vulgar ruby pendant. His modus operandi was simple yet effective: no matter what the girl looked like, you just told her she was pretty then looked at her for a while with what she construed as desperate longing while you let your mind wander into more interesting realms.

He had perfected the art of making it seem as if he were proposing marriage without ever actually using the words – that way, he could not be sued for breach of promise. He was careful, too, to choose impressionable girls who would believe his claims that their reputation would be ruined were they to tell anyone what had transpired between them. (It was mostly flirting with very occasional kissing, but his objets d’amour were too inexperienced to know that every woman indulged in a little dalliance now and then, finding excitement in the secrecy.)

*

It was on a beautiful spring afternoon that he thought up his finest plan yet. A gentleman by the name of Mountebank had recently begun renting Rugely Hall, a well-appointed establishment on the other side of the park. The man was a widower with five daughters – all of them at marriageable age. There was some sort of unmarried sister who acted as chaperone to the girls, but Henry decided she wasn’t important. He had learned from experience that most young women possess a devious streak when it comes to matters of the heart and he was convinced that these newcomers would be like all the others and would endeavour to find ways of being able to talk to him alone. What a triumph it would be for him to court all five simultaneously without any of the girls knowing what her sisters were up to!

Without further ado, he ordered a servant to deliver his card to the Mountebanks. Thanks to his hard work over the past six months, he was now well equipped to play the rich, young gentleman. He had cleared his gambling debts and built up a respectable bank balance, and he once more owned a fine-looking carriage and a pair of well-matched horses. It should be easy to inveigle himself into the family – particularly one with so many daughters who would all be seeking husbands.

The first meeting was a great success. Henry had never been more charming; his conversation never wittier; his attire more flamboyant. He was unable to meet Colonel Mountebank himself as the gentleman was suffering from a particularly nasty episode of gout which kept him confined to his chamber, but every one of the five daughters had turned out to meet him and pretty things they were too – each one of them as different as if they had not been related. Under the pretext of wanting to see the garden, he had managed to persuade the eldest, dark haired Maria, to step outside with him for a few moments and had then declared his undying love for her in the rose garden. The location had been a nice touch: he was able to present her with a rose, deliberately pricking his finger on a thorn as he did so and telling her piteously, “My heart bleeds for your love – far more than that finger.”

The following day, he visited again – this time to accompany the young ladies on a walk. He somehow contrived to find himself alone with green-eyed Louisa – how convenient that she had caught her foot in a rabbit hole and twisted her ankle! A very pretty ankle it was too – he had placed it in his lap and gently massaged it until she felt able to rejoin the rest of the party. He knew she would not tell anyone he had declared his feelings for her: it was not done for a younger sister to have found a potential husband before the eldest.

The third day saw him begin his campaign to capture Sophia’s heart. Her brown hair and blue eyes were pleasing to look at, and she had a rosebud mouth that seemed to demand kisses. She did not complain at any rate when he demonstrated his ardour for her by letting one of two land on her lips rather than her hand. “Of course, you can’t tell your sisters about this,” he murmured in her ear as they left the drawing room where, she insisted, she had left her novel, and returned to the smaller salon to resume polite conversation over tea. “I wouldn’t want to be the cause of any jealousy.”

Her large, innocent eyes widened in surprise before she dimpled prettily and agreed that some things were best kept secrets.

By some stroke of luck, he was able to begin his charm offensive with Eleanor, the fourth sister, only a day later. Eleanor had offered to play for them and Henry gallantly said he would stand by the piano and turn the music for her. That gave him ample opportunity to murmur endearments to her whilst out of earshot of the others. The sunlight catching her red gold curls was not as bright as the dazzling smile she gave him after he had showered her with compliments.

He now had four out of five of his targets lined up and was somewhat surprised it had been so easy. He had half-expected Colonel Mountebank’s sister to intervene at an inopportune moment, but it was almost as if she knew what he was up to and was actively encouraging him to court all five sisters at once! Perhaps she was: she might reason that at least one flirtation would end in marriage and she might not be particularly choosy which one was married first. It would no doubt make her job easier if she only had to find husbands for four girls and not five.

Rosamund was the last to fall under his spell. Only just eighteen, she had large, blue eyes and golden ringlets and had not yet lost her childhood plumpness. She reminded him of a puppy: quite adorable and with no sense at all. When he told her he loved horses and would like to see the stables, she was more than happy to offer to take him there – and she didn’t complain when he kissed her in one of the stalls. No doubt she was over-excited at the thought of being the first of them to have a beau, but he made her swear solemnly not to tell anyone else that she was as good as engaged.

*

He’d been a frequent visitor to Rugely for three weeks when he began to wonder if it were a mistake to court five women simultaneously. So far, they had all seemed receptive to his advances, but not one of them had offered him a present and he was used to being able to wheedle wealthy young women out of their jewellery in half as much time. However, things took a surprising turn when the girls’ aunt approached him one afternoon as they were setting off for a group walk and asked if she might converse with him.

Strolling through Rugely’s ample grounds, they let the girls wander ahead of them, smiling to see them enjoy the morning sunshine. “You have been very kind to my nieces,” Miss Mountebank remarked.

“They are delightful young ladies,” Henry said carefully. Attempting to change the subject, he added, “You seem an excellent chaperone to them, although I confess you do not look much older than they do.”

It was true. Colonel Mountebank must have been approaching fifty whereas his sister seemed not to have reached thirty.

“He is my half-brother,” Miss Mountebank said. “Edwin’s mother died when he was a boy and his father re-married some fifteen years later. He has always been very good to me and offered me a home with himself and his wife when he got married. It was fortunate that he did so, for poor, dear Allegra died soon after Rosamund’s birth. I have cared for all five of them ever since.” She paused. “They are as dear to me as daughters, Mr  Davenport. I would not see any of them hurt.”

“Nor I,” Henry protested. “Why, I have been the soul of propriety…”

“Not so.” She cut him off. “I rather fancy that you have let each and every one of my nieces believe that you intend to marry her.”

Henry’s heart stood still.

“You have not been entirely honest with them, have you?” she continued. Then, as he started to protest, she laughed. “Did you really think I would not notice? You and I are cut from the same cloth, Mr Davenport. I too have mastered the subtle art of dalliance in order to gain men’s confidence and inspire them to shower me with gifts.” She smiled roguishly. “An unmarried woman must resort to whatever tools she has at her disposal.”

Henry began to relax. She was just like him! He could not help feeling admiration for her.

“Please, call me Harry,” he said.

“Very well, Harry – and you can call me Letitia. Now, let us discuss how we can use this situation to our mutual advantage.”

*

A week later, Henry invited the Mountebank sisters and their aunt to visit his home. Although not on the same grand scale as Rugely, it had a fine library and Letitia had expressed an interest to see some of the first editions his father had collected.

“Besides,” she said, dimpling prettily, “it will further the pretence if the girls think you intend for one of them to live there with you as your wife.”

And so it was that Henry found his house filled with women. Leaving the girls to exclaim over the wallpaper in the parlour, he led Letitia to the library. However, once inside, she closed the door and motioned to him to sit down on one of the dark green Chesterfields.

“Have you noticed that each of the girls is decked out in her finest jewellery?” she muttered. “I know it is not usual for an afternoon occasion such as this, but I thought this would be an ideal opportunity for you to relieve them of their gems. I take it you have a safe?”

Striding to the fireplace, Henry reached up and removed the oil painting that hung there, revealing a small door built into the wall. Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked it and showed her the items he had collected so far. It was a while since he had visited the pawnbroker and the cupboard housed a most impressive haul.

“You’ve done well,” she said approvingly. “Oh, Harry, just think of the life we could have together if we teamed up. I’m tired of playing nursemaid to my nieces – once you’ve filled your safe with their jewels, we should elope together. We could live in luxury for years on what you have here.”

“I’m not really the marrying kind,” he protested.

“Nor I. But there are certain… benefits… to a man and woman working together.”

She was suddenly very close to him. He became aware that the dress she was wearing was exceptionally low-cut – almost scandalously so – and that her diamond necklace only accentuated her decolletage.

“I see you are admiring my own jewels,” she murmured. “The stones were a present from a would-be suitor – they are worth hundreds.” Again, she paused. “With what you have here already and my nieces’ jewellery, we have a small fortune.”

Her eyes held his. Mesmerised by her diamonds as much as by her beauty, he found his mouth reaching for hers. He did not really want a partner in crime – she would be old one day, and women only really appealed to him if they were attractive to look at. But there was no harm in making her think that they could work together.  After all, she could not expose him without compromising herself.

“You may have my diamonds as a sign of good faith,” she said, slipping them off and presenting them to him. “Now, shall we return to those girls? I think we both need a little refreshment.”

*

Despite the fact that it was only mid-afternoon, someone had laid out glasses and a decanter of sherry. He should have really offered some to his guests first, but Henry needed a drink to steady his racing heart. Damn the woman! She was incredibly bewitching – but then she wouldn’t always look like that. He grabbed the glass from the table and downed its contents hurriedly. And then he knew no more.

*

When Henry came to, he was back in his study, sitting on one of the hardbacked dining room chairs, his hands bound behind his back and his feet tied to the chair rungs with what looked like a silk scarf. What was happening?

“Letitia?” he croaked. His throat felt dry and parched.

Her lovely face loomed above him. He noticed she was wearing her diamonds once more, and that the door to the safe stood open. The cupboard was completely empty.

“I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, Harry,” Letitia said, watching his gaze travel from the empty safe back to her. “Only, you made it far too easy. Did you really think no one would realise what you’ve been up to these past six months?”

Surprise and shock numbed him.

“Not one of these lovely young ladies is my relative,” she continued. “They have merely been bait used to inveigle an invitation to your home. I knew you must have stowed your ill-gotten gains somewhere – and I was not wrong.”

Not her nieces? Henry struggled to understand.

“Colonel Mountebank is not my brother,” she went on, “and nor are these girls his daughters. We are friends who work together to relieve scoundrels like you of the wealth they have stolen from others. We don’t return the money and jewels, of course – if the victims are stupid enough to let themselves be gulled, they deserve to lose everything.”

“You won’t get away with this.” Henry’s voice came out in a croak.

“I rather think we will,” she replied smoothly. “How can you complain that you have been robbed when what has been taken from you was not yours in the first place?”

She bent and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “It couldn’t have happened to a more worthy opponent, Harry. And perhaps, in future, you will think twice before you try to swindle innocent women out of their jewellery.”

As she and her five accomplices quit the room, Henry was left staring at his empty safe and ruing the day he decided to deceive the Mountebanks.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 21

Today’s brief was to write a fantasy story. I had the idea of ‘The Last Dragon’ going around in my head, mixed with the notion of a dying world, so I decided to use the metaphor of dragons dying out to symbolise the state of our planet – have I just created the eco-fantasy genre?

The Last Dragon

As lightning lit up an apocalyptically black and red sky, Hrath clung to the back of his dragon, urging her to safety.

No strength left. Her words filtered into his mind, as ragged as her once magnificent wings.

“We have to keep flying,” Hrath told her softly. “You need somewhere to hide until you’re stronger.”

Below them, the battle was still raging. Hrath felt a choking sickness in his throat as he remembered the corpses strewn across the ground. Some of the bodies had only lain there for minutes before paid scavengers had swooped down on them, desperate to grab, teeth, claws, blood – anything that would fetch a good price. The wizards’ justification for the Dragon War was that the beasts were dangerous – but everyone knew its real purpose was to harvest the parts necessary for the philtres and elixirs they peddled to the gullible masses.

He felt the wind on his face as they flew on, but she was struggling now: he could feel her tiredness seeping into his own bones. They had to keep on going – pausing for a rest wasn’t an option; yet her sheer exhaustion was so overwhelming that he almost begged her to stop.

Finally, as wasted battlefields were replaced by isolated farms and homesteads, Hrath urged his queen to the ground, towards a heavily wooded area that would provide cover for them both. As she sank gratefully to the ground, he rolled nimbly off her back, realising as he did so that his body had stiffened from so long in the air. His own aches and pains were nothing compared to hers, though. It was more than fatigue: her whole body seemed wracked with a debilitating lassitude that sapped every last ounce of energy from her.

Alarmed, he turned to face her. She seemed suddenly old.

It is time.

He knew without any further explanation what she meant: they had talked of this day many times before.

Slowly, she heaved herself off the ground, her distended belly far more prominent than it had seemed in the sky. Grunting with the effort, she squeezed her eyelids shut and concentrated on the egg’s descent. He opened his mind to her once more, aware that this last act might well kill her, trying to let her borrow some of his own strength to aid her in her purpose.

When the egg lay on the ground, he regarded her anxiously. A thin sheen of sweat covered her face and her breathing was fast and shallow; but she was still alive. Wordlessly, he placed his arms about her neck, willing his youth and vigour to flow into her. She painfully opened an eye.

You must keep it safe. And when my egg hatches, tell the little one of its mother. Pass on all the memories I have shared with you.

Her voice faded out of his mind. He knew it would not be long. Building a small fire, he placed the egg in its centre, the way she had instructed him to – oh, so many moons ago! – and waited, fragments of the past dancing through his head as he remembered how this had all started.

*

As a boy, he’d been taught, like every other child in the village, to fear the fire-breathing monsters that descended every so often and carried off livestock. The wizards had ruled that dragons were the enemy and that no one was safe until they had all been eradicated. At the time, he’d had no reason not to believe them.

It was as he reached his twelfth year that the dreams began. There was nothing tangible that he could remember when he awoke, only a vague sense of someone asking him for help. Gradually, he found he could recall strange sensations of flying through the air, his wings beating against the wind, and he would jerk into consciousness, sweating with fear. He could not tell anyone else of these night terrors: if the wizards were to hear of it, they would think he was evil and cart him off to the capital city, Erisnor, to be locked in a cell for the rest of his days. So it was that by day he dissembled, matching his words and actions to those of the other village lads; but in his dreams, he always heard that elusive voice calling him, whispering into his subconscious with a promise of something beautiful and terrible.

Another summer passed and then another. Hrath was now considered a man. He still said nothing about his dreams, not even to Megan, the girl he’d developed feelings for ever since he’d danced with her at Wintersfest. She was tall and slender, with dark hair and eyes like periwinkles, and when he kissed her, her lips were as soft as rose petals. Her father was the local blacksmith and he knew that if he married her, he would be taken on as his apprentice instead of doing piecework here and there on the neighbouring farms. It felt as if his whole life were already mapped out before him; but this was not to be.

All Summer’s Eve was fast approaching, and with it the yearly handfasting. It was the one night in the year when girls could go a-courting and ask the men they chose to plight their troth in front of the gathered assembly. Hrath knew that Megan intended to take his hand and show her father that he was her chosen husband, and his heart sang as he milked Farmer Prentiss’s cows in the early evening.

Suddenly, the sky grew dark and an ominous noise was heard overhead. Hrath rushed out of the barn, overturning his milking stool in the process, just in time to see a huge, winged beast swoop down over the farmstead. The cows were all safely in the barn, but a dragon’s fiery breath could cause devastation in the wheat field. Without stopping to think, Hrath ran towards the immense creature, yelling and flapping his arms as if it were a recalcitrant goose.

The dragon stood its ground, regarding Hrath with a somewhat bemused expression. You have been hard to find, youngling.

Hrath blinked with surprise. There had been no audible words, he was sure of that, but the dragon had spoken into his mind.

“What do you mean, hard to find?” he challenged.

The dragon sniffed him cautiously. We are wasting time on unnecessary conversation. Come – I will explain further on our way.

Barely knowing what he was doing, Hrath found himself scrambling onto the scaly back that the beast had lowered towards him. A half-formed thought told him that he was leaving everything in his heart – including Megan – behind; but something far stronger than his own will was urging him forwards and he was powerless to resist it. Leaning forward, he realised that the creature’s neck was too thick for him to wrap his arms about it; at almost the same time, he noticed the leather bridle, so thin as to be almost invisible. He gripped the reins in his hands and held on tightly as the dragon rose into the air and carried him away from the life he knew.

*

On and on, the dragon’s wings beat steadily. “Where are we going?” he asked after a while.

To a place where you will find your destiny, it told him.

“And what makes you think dragons have any part in my destiny?” he exclaimed. “Why would someone like me want to have anything to do with a savage killer like you?”

For a while there was no answer, then the dragon sighed. The wizards have clouded your mind. I see that it will take time to teach you.

“Teach me what?” he cried, but the beast made no response.

*

Eventually, they came to a clearing in the forest of trees beneath them and the dragon’s flight path began to change as it slowed its speed and gently floated down at an angle. By now, Hrath was totally disorientated. Never having travelled any distance away from his village, he felt lost and alone.

It was necessary.

“How do you do that?” he asked curiously. “Talk to me inside my head, I mean?”

The beast’s clawed feet made contact with the ground. Dismount! it barked suddenly and Hrath did as he was told and slithered from the shimmering back.

For a moment, neither one of them said anything; then, as the dragon luxuriantly stretched, it answered the question.

Once, it said reflectively, all men heard and understood the dragon-tongue. Now only a handful of true believers remain, and your wizards have decimated our numbers. Without your help, the dragons will die.

Hrath shrugged. “Why should I care?”

Your world is dying, it told him bluntly. For as long as time can remember, dragons have nurtured not only your people but your entire planet. You need us to survive.

“But the wizards said –“ Hrath protested foolishly.

The wizards lie! The creature moved its head closer to him, almost as if searching for something in his mind. Are you afraid of me, youngling?

“I’m not called youngling,” he said proudly. “My name’s Hrath. What’s yours?”

The dragon bristled, then, and he wondered what he’d done wrong. She was angry about something. (He somehow knew, without being told, that she was female.)

Her sigh ruffled his hair, like a parent trying to explain something to a child.

You have not been taught the Power of Naming. It was not so in the recent past.

A series of images and ideas danced through his brain. She did not explain in words: rather, she let him see through her eyes, feel through her soul. He opened himself up to the dizzying cascade of light and colour, of sound and experience, and then he knew as she knew, understood the great and terrible danger of sharing his name with another being. He was hers to command now: if she but breathed his name, he would be bound to obey her, no matter what she asked.

An uncomfortable sensation told him she was sifting his own memories, searching for clarity.

They have all forgotten, she said at last. The world of men has grown arrogant, forsaking the majick we taught you many lifetimes ago. Your wizards have chosen to ignore the ancient ways and create spells of their own – weak, puny charms with no life in them.

She delved again.

That is why you hunt us. Her words were filled with regret. You forgot that we were your masters, that we had given you so much already. You thought you could extract our power, bend it to your own purposes.

“Not me!” Hrath protested, but she was not listening.

Again, she let her memories meld with his, showing him millennia of history in the blink of an eye. He saw the world, dark and unformed, taking shape as dragons flew over it, scooping up mountains with their powerful wings, levelling plains, dividing sea and land. He watched as they breathed life into the ocean, creating thousand upon thousand of strange, tiny creatures. Then the sea teemed with fish, and minutes later unfamiliar beasts crawled out of the waters and made their way onto land. Some of them resembled wingless dragons; others had their parents’ wings and scales but seemed like carnivorous birds, swooping through lush jungle terrain, calling out in harsh voices.

As centuries shimmered around him, more easily recognisable animals took the place of these armour-plated ancestors, and then, finally, a vaguely anthropoid biped staggered to his feet and shuffled with hunched shoulders towards others of his kind. And Hrath saw that the dragons were ever present, teaching these pathetic pre-humans how to hunt and gather food, even breathing fire for them that would keep their naked bodies warm. Little by little, they learned to clothe themselves in animal skins, and then to communicate with simple grunts.

Ages spun. Hrath blinked as scores of dragons soared upwards, disappearing beyond the sky. The voice spoke inside him. Once, we flew to the stars. There were majicks there that fed our souls, making us bigger, stronger, faster than any of the dragons you have seen.

“Why did you return?” He had felt the dragon’s pure elation as she left the world of men, wondered why she or any of the others had bothered returning to a place where they were persecuted.

Tenderness merged with sorrow as she imprinted her words on his brain. For you, youngling – for you and all the other pitiful humans who needed our guidance. A sigh as deep as the wind. But we were too late.

“Too late for what?”

Too late to save you from yourselves.

An unbearable sadness filled him as she let him see what humanity had become in the dragons’ absence. Wars tore countries apart; death and destruction rippled through the planet.

That was what gave birth to your wizards, she whispered. When we returned, they thought they could use us to gain dominance over each other.

Tears rolled down Hrath’s cheeks as he watched the vile spectacle. Dragons, cornered by men with steel nets and weapons, were taken captive and made slaves. Men with whips and spikes goaded them, clipping their wings together so they could not fly and forcing them to lumber in chains behind troops of soldiers. No! he wanted to protest. No! Had he been there in reality and not merely observing a phantasm from the past, he would have charged at the wizards at the head of each army, would have snapped their rods and broken their heads. Now he felt annoyingly helpless, unable to change the past and right the wrongs of his race.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, opening his heart to let her share his genuine remorse.

You ask how it is that I can speak to your mind, the creature whispered. It is because your soul is still soft: the wizards have not hardened it – yet.

It was true. The grief he felt leaked from his gut in agonising pain

“What can I do to make it right?” he asked brokenly.

Her answer was simple. Help us to survive.

*

He communed with her long into the night, as the evening air grew cool and moths fluttered about their heads.

They harnessed us but not our majick, she said at one stage. That which we once gave freely, they tried to take from us by force, but we refused to become wizards’ puppets. Her tone grew bitter. That was when they decided to take us apart, piece by piece, to discover where our power lurked. Even now, they do not understand that the diluted majick in our dead bodies holds but a fraction of the terrible force which we unleash in life.

She paused – and the silence that ensued was full of warning.

When the last tooth has been harvested, the last drop of blood poured into a phial – what then? What will your wizards do when their potions are gone and there are no more dragons whose powers they can steal? Our majick formed your world, youngling; and without our majick, it will perish.

“I won’t let it happen,” Hrath muttered fiercely. “I won’t let them kill any more of you.”

She regarded him tenderly. One so small, against an army of wizards? You have a dragon’s bravery, little one. You will succeed.

*

Later, she joined her mind once more to his and let him see far across the planet, showing him where the last remaining dragons were hidden. They numbered less than fifty, but he thought it was enough. From fifty, they could rebuild.

And so, from then on, Hrath nailed his colours to the mast by joining the war against the wizards, sharing the dragons’ hope that – by eradicating the misconceptions of the humans – they could bring a dying world back to life. Together, with the handful of Dragon Warriors that embraced the cause, he took part in many a daring rescue mission, entering Erisnor under cover of night to search the subterranean dungeons for lizard-like prisoners. But after he had found the fifth or sixth maimed and toothless beast, he realised it was kinder to put it out of its misery there and then. What life would it be for a dragon who could not fly? One who could not even tear a sheep or cow to pieces?

*

From time to time, he thought of Megan with her dark hair and periwinkle eyes and wondered if she could be persuaded to join them. When a year had elapsed, he returned to look for her – only to find her father’s house and forge burned to ground. Burned – but not with dragon fire.

Eventually, he found her at one of the neighbouring farms but she was married now with a baby in a basket at her feet. He thought then that no pain could be greater than this, but the words she spoke cut deeper still. Janneth was a good man, she said, and he’d taken care of her when her father was tortured by wizards’ men. And this was Hrath’s fault, she said bitterly: everyone they knew had thought him burned alive or eaten by a dragon until one of the villagers had gone to work as guard at Erisnor and had recognised him leaving the dungeons.

“He told the wizards,” she spat, “and then the wizards came here and exacted their revenge.”

Hrath’s heart broke inside him as he thought of all the death and destruction he had inadvertently brought on the people he loved.

“It would have been better for this village if a dragon had eaten you,” she said – and that was the last time he saw her.

*

Time continued to unfurl.

“There are only twenty-three of you left now,” he remarked one night, curled up between her front paws as they dozed together, both with one eye open.

And those that remain are old and tired, she finished for him, sighing as she did so. I am no longer young, little one. I have seen millennia come and go, but I am still able to mate – if we can find a drake healthy enough. We need new dragons, youngling: children who can carry on in our stead.

Hrath began to count on his fingers. “There’s a white dragon in the snowlands – another queen, I think – and two red drakes in Cymru. The others are all much older than you: I don’t think they’d last the distance.”

I have taught you well, little one. She was momentarily amused. Let us share the information with my pale sister, then. Two offspring will suffice for the present.

Moving deeper inside his mind, she pulled him into her subconscious, letting her thoughts flow out to the dragons he had mentioned. Hrath felt the touch of an angry fireball and knew they had reached at least one of the drakes – they were always much fiercer than their sisters. Gasping a little, he pulled back slightly, feeling for the others. There was the second drake, wrapped in fury like his brother. Then a picture of iron bars forced its way into his brain and he understood their recent capture.

“They’re still intact,” he murmured, for want of anything better to say. “And en-route to Erisnor. Maybe we could effect a rescue?”

His mind worked busily: if the two queens both lent their assistance, he and some other Dragon Warriors could intercept the travelling cages and free the drakes. If they waited until the captives reached their destination, it could be too late.

And then the image of the dead white queen flooded his mind and he knew that there was now only one hope for humanity’s survival.

*

The cavalcade had already set up camp for the night. Although the drivers had been ordered not to stop until they reached Erisnor, they were tired beyond belief. Besides, their exhausted logic reasoned, no one knew what was in the covered wagon-cages.

In the darkness beyond the camp, Hrath kept a lookout as Ffion crept forward. Slight and short-haired, she was nothing like Megan, but he liked the musical lilt of her voice and the fearless way she’d volunteered to lace the drivers’ cooking pot with a sleeping draught made from local roots. Hywel, the third member of their company, had been all for slitting the drivers’ throats as they slept, but Hrath had refused. That was wizards’ strategy, he’d argued, and they were better than that.

As Ffion approached the pot, one of the drivers suddenly turned his head. Hrath’s breath caught in his throat: he knew these men would not be merciful were they to catch her. An endless moment seemed to stretch for eternity before the man turned back to his flagon of ale, facing away from the fire. Hrath watched the shadowy shape moving ever closer, his heart swelling with a mixture of pride and – what? He could not explain this strange attraction the Gaelic girl held for him; knew only that he trusted her to complete the task.

*

Some hours later, only snoring could be heard from the huddled heap of bodies. Hrath fiddled with the lock of the first cage, jiggling his knife until he heard something click. He turned to see if Ffion needed any help, but the second cage door stood open already and the scarlet beast within bristled with outrage.

“Shut up, you daft thing!” Ffion said lovingly. “It’s rescued now, you are. Let’s get the two of you to safety.” Leading him outside, she leapt onto his back, leaning the weight of her body down onto his scales and sending him soothing thoughts.

Hrath focussed once more on the dragon in the cage in front of him, probing its mind the way he’d been taught and sharing the image of his silver-scaled Mistress.

She will suffice, the drake replied haughtily. We will fight for her, according to the ancient ways.

“Hurry,” Hrath whispered. Ffion had claimed that the potion was potent, but the sooner they got away, the better.

“What’s the problem?” Hywel hissed. “We need to leave. Can he carry two?”

Hrath let the image of two riders skitter across the drake’s brain. Within moments, they were helping each other clamber onto his back, ready to make their escape. A nod from Ffion confirmed that she was ready, and the scarlet dragons soared into the sky, leaving captivity behind.

*

Back in the present, Hrath poked the fire with a stick, ensuring that the egg slept soundly. He remembered the breath-taking sight of the three dragons in the sky, the drakes chasing the silver queen ever upwards until they were almost lost to sight. A while later, the younger one returned to earth, exhausted. His brother would be the one to couple with the shimmering female: they had both chased her, but only one had the stamina to keep going after so many hours.

Hrath craned his neck to see them, then stopped, feeling ridiculously prurient. Better give them some privacy, he decided – although a part of him thought wistfully of the stories he could have told his grandchildren.

Beside him, Ffion slipped her fingers through his. “Leave them to it, eh?” she suggested, taking his hand and leading him to a quiet patch of bracken where he forgot all about dragons as he lost himself in her slight curves.

She was gone now. The wizards had shot down her scarlet drake so that he plummeted with her on his back, breaking her neck in the process. His brother had swooped down on the assassins, breathing vengeful fire, and had managed to eradicate six of them before one of their arrows found the vulnerable spot on his throat. Hrath had held Ffion’s limp body tightly in his arms, knowing that he would now never see their children or grandchildren. Still, in a dying world, no one else could hope for that either.

He wondered now how long it would be before the planet collapsed in on itself. He had seen in just the last two or three years the devastating effects of the loss of dragon majick. Once lush fields had become barren wastelands; streams and rivers were drying up; more and more babies were being born with twisted limbs. How could the wizards not tell that their world was dying? Could they not see the correlation between the diminishing number of dragons and the increasing afflictions suffered by all?

A cracking sound from the fire made him look up. The egg glowed with a strange translucence: he could see the outline of a tiny dragon inside it. Once more, the words reached his mind: It is time.

“It’s nearly hatched!” he cried out urgently. “You must hang on a few minutes more!”

But it was too late: he felt a sudden wrenching as her soul left her body and he was alone for the first time in years.

More cracking. Shards of shell flew in all directions and a bedraggled-looking creature, not much bigger than a newt, sat staring in surprise as the flames licked around it.

He could not lift it out: the heat drove him back even as he stretched towards the fire. Instead, he reached out with his mind, probing gently, wrapping the tiny lizard in comforting thought-swathes.

Mama? a voice enquired.

“No,” he choked back the tears, “I’m not your mama, but I have a message from her.”

When the fire had burned low, he would retrieve this little orphan and let it feed on the memories its mother had stored inside him. Perhaps in sharing the past, he would be able to forget the pain of the present and move forward into the future – or what little of it remained; as it was, his head currently felt empty without the presence that had kept him company for so long.

He had to think of the days to come; could not afford to wallow in the past. His silver beauty had died, fighting for the survival of a planet that had turned against her. He would protect her legacy, care for her offspring – and maybe the existence of this tiny dragon would keep his dying world alive a little longer.