January 1st 2022

What inspires you as a writer?

It’s a little over two and a half years since I set up this site, not really having much clue about what I was doing but thinking that it would be a good way to promote my own writing. I still have no idea how to run a website properly, and I’ve done very little in terms of promoting my own writing apart from posting my daily entries in June each year for The Literal Challenge’s ‘Like The Prose’ contest – before realising that doing so effectively shoots me in the foot as it means I can’t enter any of those pieces for other writing competitions.

Having an extremely time-consuming job as an English teacher in a secondary school means I don’t get as much time to write as I would like to – particularly since I’m also doing an MA in Creative Writing which is another 20-40 hours a week of study on top of the 45+ hours in school each week. So, all in all, I don’t seem to have much to share on my blog page.

That’s when I started re-thinking this site. Writing is a way of life. As Margaret Atwood has said in one of her ads for her online Masterclass, ‘You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it better. Fail. Fail better.’ However, reading is equally important: reading ‘good’ literature expands our vocabulary and improves our own writing style. It opens us up to new ways of looking at the world and fresh ways of describing characters and events. I often tell my GCSE students that I can tell from looking at their creative writing who the readers are in the class – because the ones who read the most are the ones whose writing is richer in vocabulary, more imaginative in ideas and more elegant in terms of style.

So, this year, I’m going to try to post something every day – not to showcase my own writing but to share words from other writers that I find particularly inspiring, challenging or beautifully written. Let’s start with a quotation from a 19th century French novelist:

“La parole humaine est un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.” Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.

I’ve read two different translations of this, neither of which does the original French justice. One reads, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the while we long to move the stars to pity.” whilst another says that “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” My own translation is as follows: “Human speech is a cracked cauldron where we beat melodies to make bears dance when we would like to soften the hearts of the stars.” Whichever way you look at it, Flaubert is saying that human speech will always be inadequate at expressing our truest longings and desires – but he says it in such a beautiful and poetic way that his statement seems contradictory.

What are your thoughts on this quotation?

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.


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.


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. However, I’ve decided not to share it on here in case I want to try publication elsewhere.

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 others in the process. As with other prompts, I’ve decided not to share this one in case I want to publish it elsewhere.

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.