Like The Prose Day 20

British folk lore has plenty of allusions to the summer solstice and Shakespeare even wrote a whole play based on Midsummer’s Eve. I’ve tried to take some of the elements from both and weave them into a piece of magic realism – and at only 2,500 words, it’s a third of the length of the previous piece.

Fairy Ring

            Twilight was falling as Cassandra Updike hurried home from the library. Thank goodness it stayed open until 8pm in the summer! she thought. She would have struggled to get her revision done at home. Usually, it would be much lighter than this on the day of the summer solstice, but the weather had been miserable all day, issuing in a dusk-like quality to the evening so that she almost missed the short cut through the wood.

Beneath the overhanging branches, the grey sky above could not be seen. The leaves whispered to Cassandra as she passed, although whether they were issuing a warning or an invitation she couldn’t be sure. She was too busy to wonder what they were saying, her mind full of the revision notes she had been making for her final A level paper the following day; and she was so engrossed in testing herself on what she could remember that she stumbled into the clearing the locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’ quite by chance.

She frowned as she noticed the people who had gathered there. They looked like hippies from the seventies, she thought dispassionately, with the women in long skirts made from some kind of diaphanous, gauzy material and the men wearing tights and tunics. Several of the girls were weaving circlets of flowers and placing them upon each other’s heads and several goblets were being passed around. They were probably all high on pot, she thought sniffily, once again thanking her parents’ strict rules and regulations for ensuring that she had never tried dabbling with any sort of illegal substance herself.

She would have to walk past them, and no doubt they would be like the people at school, sniggering at her for not fitting in. “Excuse me,” she said politely as a tall youth with mocking eyes blocked her way, but he laughed and offered her the goblet in his hand.

“No thank you,” she said stiffly. “I don’t touch alcohol.”

“It’s not alcohol,” he told her: “it’s mead.”

The others laughed in delight.

The word seemed familiar, but she asked anyway. “What’s it got in it?”

“Honey, water, fruits, spices…”

He was pushing it to her lips and the others were waiting expectantly. Exasperated, she took a sip. It was like liquid pleasure going down her throat.

“What’s your name?” the youth asked, his hands putting a daisy chain around her neck.

“Cassie. Cassie Updike.” She wondered why she had said this: she never usually shortened her name.

“Well, Cassie Cassie Updike, I think you need to relax.” He gently removed the schoolbag from her shoulders and placed it on the ground behind them. “Come and join us for the evening – you’ll have fun.”

Against her better judgement, she let him lead her to the camp fire that was blazing merrily. “You really shouldn’t light a fire in the woods,” she said self-righteously. “If it got out of control…”

“Control’s important to you, isn’t it?” he asked, removing her glasses so that his image blurred in front of her.

She held out her hand for the spectacles, but he shook his head.

“Have some more mead,” he said. “It’ll make things clearer.”

She took another sip, telling herself that she really must be on her way soon, but it seemed that her eyes were adjusting to being without glasses because everything was now swimming into focus, the lines becoming sharper the more she drank.

“You haven’t told me who you are,” she said boldly to her new friend. She was normally tongue-tied around boys, especially anyone as good-looking as this one, but he seemed to like her and that lent her confidence.

“Robin Goodfellow,” he said lazily, “but I’ve been called other names.”

Again, laughter.

“You don’t go to my school,” she said reflectively. “How old are you?”

“Old enough to know better,” he said, kissing her lightly and making her head spin.

“No, really,” she protested once she had recovered from the dizzying sensation of his lips on hers.

“I’m as old as the hills,” he teased, grabbing her hand and leading her deeper into the wood.

Abandoning all common-sense, she followed him to a leafy bank covered in flowers.

“Musk-roses,” he told her, pulling her down among the greenery. “And wild thyme and eglantine and…”

But she stopped his mouth with her own, longing to feel once more that sense of belonging to another. Revision forgotten, she let the midsummer magic surround them both as dusk darkened into night and the sun sank behind the horizon.

*

She awoke with a start in the early hours of the morning, just as pre-dawn light was beginning to stretch out cautious fingers. Robin’s arms tightened around her but she wriggled herself free and began to look for her clothes.

“Stay a little longer,” he mumbled, but she was irresolute.

“I can’t – I’ve got an exam today. I should have been home hours ago.”

“Come with us,” he said, sitting up and watching her as she pulled her tee-shirt back over her head. “Where I’m from, there are no exams, no responsibilities.”

He was a Traveller, then; she’d thought as much.

“I can come back tonight,” she promised, but he shook his head.

“This is the only night of the year you’ll find me here. If you go now, you’ll be waiting twelve more months.”

She paused, torn between wanting to stay with him and knowing that the exam was waiting. She had a place lined up at Oxford, subject to A level results. She couldn’t give that up for him, no matter how soft his lips, how seductive his promises.

“I’ll see you next year, then,” she said, kissing him on the forehead and retracing her steps to find her bag.

*

She didn’t go to Oxford, despite her excellent A level results. When the Michaelmas term started, she was three months pregnant, her dreams of an academic career over before they’d begun. The baby she gave birth to in March had Robin’s dark, laughing eyes and every time she looked at him, her heart tugged with love for them both. Her parents, of course, were furious with her – not least because she wouldn’t marry the father. But how could she marry a will o’ the wisp who had vanished as she looked back to say goodbye?

She would have kept their appointment on Midsummer’s Eve, but the baby was teething and fractious and she dared not ask her parents to watch him. She would see Robin next year, she decided; but by then, she had started her Open University degree and the combination of studying and motherhood meant that she was too exhausted to go out in the evenings. It was not until little Robin was five that she remembered her promise and wondered vaguely whether her lover had ever returned as promised.

Although she had initially thought of being a teacher, deciding that having school holidays at home with her child would be useful, she found herself instead enrolled on a post-graduate course to become a librarian. She imagined taking her son into work when the holidays occurred and sitting him down in the children’s corner, but when the time came, little Robin protested that he didn’t want to be indoors.

Cassandra sighed when he told her this. By now, they were living in a tiny flat with no garden and she knew her son loved plants and trees – Like his father! she thought wryly; but she had to work whether it was term time or not: as a single parent, every penny was needed.

Eventually, she managed to find a council-funded playscheme that would take Robin from 9 until 3 for three days a week in the long summer holidays. By rescheduling her annual leave, she was able to cover the rest of the time herself, and her heart breathed a sigh of relief as she realised that they would manage after all.

Perhaps she should have told the leaders at the playscheme that Robin was a dreamy child who didn’t listen because then they might have taken more care when the children were crossing the road on the way to the park. She rushed to the hospital as soon as she received the phone call, but he slipped away hours later and then she was in her own once more.

*

From that point onwards, Cassandra retreated into herself. Her son had been her only chance of happiness: a reminder that once, someone had thought she was beautiful and loved her enough to ask her to run away with him.

She was twenty-five, but she might have been mistaken for someone much older with her scraped back hair and dowdy clothes. There seemed no point in making the effort to look attractive: she was a spinster at heart and always would be. As the years passed, the loss of her son was a constant void inside her: one that no amount of work or reading could fill. She stopped going out unless it was for her library shift or to shop for the small amount of food needed to keep her alive, wrapping grief around her like a blanket as she sat in her tiny flat, Robin’s crayon drawings of trees and flowers still taped to her fridge. His room was just as he had left it – apart from the thick layer of dust that covered the surface of his bed and nightstand and the scattered Lego on the floor.

To begin with, she commemorated his birthday: March 20th, nine months to the day she had met his father. From time to time, she thought about returning to the clearing in the woods; but she knew the Travellers would be long gone by now and that Robin Goodfellow would not find her dried up looks attractive.

Gradually, she stopped making a cake for a child who was no longer there to eat it. The birthday candles had burned down to stumps and there seemed little point in buying more. Some years, she did not even register the date until the day had passed, then felt guilty for neglecting her son’s memory; and with every summer solstice that passed, she felt herself die a little more inside.

*

When Covid-19 appeared, lockdown made little difference to her. Since she never went out anyway, staying home soon became an acceptable mode of life. She missed the library – but it was the books and not the people that she longed for.

She wasn’t totally housebound. Government guidelines allowed her to exercise outside her home for thirty minutes a day, the stipulated time gradually being replaced with a little more freedom. She found that rising early and walking at daybreak ensured her solitude: no one else wanted to be outdoors at the crack of dawn.

She was just about to go to bed one evening, when the date leaped out at her from the calendar on the wall. Robin had made it for her in his first year of school and it bore a photograph of him dressed as a reindeer, complete with antlers, and the words ‘Happy Christmas’ printed below in wobbly writing. (If she looked closely, she could see where he had traced over the teacher’s template.) She had kept the gift for old time’s sake, replacing the cheap month per page calendar at the bottom of the A4 card with a new one each year. Now she looked at the picture of her son and thought once more of his father. June 20th. Why shouldn’t she go back to the wood now? If nothing else, it might lay some old memories to rest.

The evening was far lighter than the fateful one thirty-eight years ago. Thanks to the virus, not many people were about at this time, although she felt sure that under normal circumstances it would be different. Sunlight filtered through the trees as she entered the wood, dappling the ground beneath her feet with the shadows of the solstice. As if in a dream, she made her way towards the clearing and saw Robin waiting for her.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming!” he said with a grin as he took her hand.

She stared at him in disbelief. His eyes still danced with mischief and he looked exactly as he had done the first time; whereas she…

“You don’t look a day older!” she said impulsively.

He smiled at her. “I’m not,” he said.

She held back, regretting the lost years, their lost child. “How?” she asked. “Look at me, Robin – I’m an old woman!”

“Grief does that to people,” he agreed, reaching out a hand and tracing the path her tears had left over the years.

She stared at him in disbelief. “You knew? Why didn’t you come to me? We could have mourned him together.”

He shook his head sadly. “I’m tied to this place, Cassie. I thought I told you that.”

She hadn’t been Cassie in a long while. Not since…

“Not since we met,” he said softly, reading her thoughts. Then, “Are you sorry, Cassie? Sorry I loved you all those years ago?”

Time shimmered as they stood there, and it was if the years rolled away and she was seventeen once more, the whole of her future before her.

“If you could put the clock back,” his voice was serious now, “would you? Would you go straight home instead of lying down with me amongst the leaves and flowers and letting me love you?”

His lips had been soft and his promises seductive, and the goblet of mead had made all her decisions for her.

“I don’t know,” she said honestly. Was such a wonderful night worth it if it only brought pain later?

Past and present blurred in that instant so that it was 1982 and 2020 both at the same time. And when he led her to the grassy bank, it was a girlish figure who lay down beside him and she kissed him with all the intensity of the seventeen-year-old she had once been and still was.

*

“I need to leave,” she said as dawn began to glimmer across the sky. The ground beneath them was hard but her body felt years younger.

“Don’t go,” he said softly, just as he had all those years before.

She hesitated, knowing that now things were different and that there was nothing really to tie her to her own world.

His arms tightened around her again and she snuggled into their warmth. Perhaps this was the decision she should have made a long time ago before she grew old and empty.

“Come with us,” he repeated; and this time, she nodded and said, “Yes.”

*

It was several days before Cassandra Updike’s body was found in the woods in the spot that locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’. Her limbs were cold and stiff as one might expect, but the beautiful smile on her face made her look years younger.

Like The Prose Day 19

Russian literature of the 1800s is full of anxiety, self analysis and angst. It’s also quite lengthy. For today’s challenge, I produced a long short story (just under 7,000 words) that tries to capture the flavour of the Russian novel in condensed form. We have Pushkin, we have vodka, we have Russian insults – and the ending is satisfyingly depressing, in keeping with the genre. Take your time with this one, and приятного аппетита!

Dreams and Dust

I’ve lived to bury my desires,

And see my dreams corrode with rust;

Now all that’s left are fruitless fires

That turn my dreams to dust. (Alexander Pushkin)

“And Dimitri has written to you while he has been away?” The Countess Natascha Petrovsky sipped her tea delicately, watching the younger girl’s face to confirm her suspicions.

Irina Yahontov studied her friend a little warily from beneath lowered lashes. She was almost bursting with happiness, it was true; but she was equally aware that the other woman was a rumourmonger: scandal spilled from her lips like cake crumbs whenever the two took tea together. She did not want this beautiful thing with Dimitri to become tarnished by others’ dissection of it. His love for her was a delicate rose and she wanted to let it bloom unhindered.

“He has written,” she admitted at last.

“And?”

Oh, she was greedy for gossip!

“He is well.” Then, as her friend pouted with impatience, Irina took pity on her. “He has declared his intentions and has also written to Papa, asking his permission to marry me!”

“Well, well, well!” The countess’s voice held a note of admiration. “So our little Dimitri has finally landed himself a girl with money!”

“What do you mean?” Irina asked, a little naïvely.

Natascha shrugged. “He is a handsome man, certainly, but he has broken countless hearts before he met you – hearts of girls without the roubles your father possesses, or a family name as well respected as yours.” She smiled sweetly. “Still, I am sure he will be faithful – or at least discreet. After all, he wouldn’t want to lose your father’s money.”

“Are you telling me Dimitri doesn’t really love me?” Irina felt tortured with self-doubt. No, it couldn’t be true: when they had met for the first time at Count Oleg’s winter ball, the young clerk had been the soul of attentiveness, dancing not one, nor even two but three! waltzes with her, and then he had taken her out onto the terrace and given her a white rose. Its petals were still pressed between the pages of Pushkin’s poetry.

The Countess politely ignored the tears falling into Irina’s teacup. “Darling, you mustn’t take these things to heart. You are young and have no experience of the world, but in time to come, he will take other lovers and so will you. What is important is that you will be his wife and that means that other men will automatically find you more attractive.” She smiled secretively. “There is nothing sweeter than forbidden fruit,” she murmured.

“I think perhaps you should leave now.” Irina’s voice quivered with hurt. “I have a headache,” she improvised, “and need to lie down.”

“As you wish.” Natascha sounded amused. It would be better, she reflected, not to let the little Yahontov girl know just how well she was acquainted with Dimitri. That was all in the past – or at least, it had been for some months. “I’m very happy for you,” she added, kissing Irina on both cheeks before turning to leave. “I look forward to my invitation to the wedding!”

*

Once she was sure the countess had gone, Irina threw herself face down on the chaise-longue and wept bitterly until she thought her heart would burst with grief. The Countess’s casual remarks about infidelity had both shocked and wounded her. At first, she had felt sure that Dimitri wouldn’t treat her in that way, but now …

Rising to her feet, she crossed the room to study her face in the ornate gilded mirror that hung over the fireplace. Her gentle features were reasonably pretty, but she still looked like a child. Would Dimitri really remain true to her when there were so many beautiful women in Moscow to dazzle him? Forming her lips into a pout, she tried to look coquettish. It was no use: she looked more constipated than anything else. Oh, Dimitri! How would she ever hold onto him?

The sound of the salon door opening interrupted her reverie. Her mother was entering the room, almost exploding with excitement.

“Irina!” She clasped her bewildered daughter to her bosom. “My little girl! Your father has just received a visitor in his study – and what do you think is the purpose of their conversation?” When Irina did not answer, Madame Yahontov enlightened her: “He has come to ask for your hand in marriage!”

“Dimitri is here?” At once Irina felt more hopeful.

“Dimitri?” Her mother sounded puzzled. “Mikhail Baronsky is with your father. You know that he has always admired you.”

“I can’t marry dyadya Mikhail!” Irina uttered in shock, using the nickname from her childhood. “He’s old!”

“He’s thirty-five,” her mother corrected.

“That’s still almost twice my age,” Irina protested.

“Mikhail is a good man – wealthy too. It is an advantageous match, zaya.” Her daughter did not respond, so Madame Yahontov tried again. “It is what your father wishes and you know he wants only the best for you. The betrothal will be announced next week – once you and Mikhail have had the opportunity to spend some time together; and then I was thinking, perhaps a summer wedding? That would give us three months to put your trousseau together.”

*

The ballroom felt airless and stuffy in the unseasonably warm April evening. Irina fanned herself with the white ostrich plumes her mother had insisted on giving her as an accessory to the pastel blue ballgown, aware that she would have to disillusion the man by her side. Mikhail had escorted her here tonight, at her parents’ request; and although she would once have felt delighted to be attending Count Oleg’s Spring Ball (“So much more exclusive than the winter one!” Natascha had whispered in her ear earlier), she was now filled with dread that Dimitri would be here and would see her with another man.

Her heart pounded as her eyes scanned the room, desperately searching for the dark curly hair she knew so well. Disappointed, she returned her attention to Baronsky, noting the beads of perspiration that had already soaked his shirt. His trousers were too tight, she thought dispassionately: his girth overhung the dark green cummerbund like a loaf of bread escaping from its tin.

“May I get you some more champagne?” he asked now. “Or a little caviar, perhaps? The blinis are good tonight.”

She shook her head, then froze in horror. Dimitri Vassilyev had just entered the room. His eye caught sight of her with Mikhail and he frowned his displeasure.

“Irina? What’s wrong? You are as pale as a sheet!” Her companion sounded concerned.

“I … nothing …” She was unable to form a coherent reply, aware only that Dimitri’s face was thunder as he glared at them both.

“You need some fresh air,” Mikhail declared. Pulling her to her feet, he whisked her out of the French windows and out into the rose garden. “Now then, lyubimaya, tell me what is wrong.”

Irina looked at her feet. Mikhail was a good man and he would make a good husband – but she loved Dimitri. How could she tell him this? It would crush her dyadya if she admitted that she did not want to marry him.

“I have something to tell you,” she began in a small voice.

“You love someone else.” He said it so easily that she felt surprised. “I saw you looking at that man a few minutes ago,” he continued. “The one who was gazing at you as if his heart would break if he did not have you.” He paused. “You had the same look in your own eyes.”

She glanced up at him now, her heart beating fast.

“I will not marry you against your will, little one,” he said, softly pushing a lock of hair away from her face. “If you love someone else, you must tell your father.”

“He has no money.” Now that she had confessed it, she saw what an insurmountable obstacle this was. The only daughter of Sergei Yahontov would never be allowed to marry a penniless individual.

“Then you must live on love,” Mikhail said simply. “If he truly feels for you as you do for him, you will find a way.” He reached out and stroked her cheek. “I have loved you since the first time I saw you, but I could not bear to make you unhappy. I will tell your father I have reconsidered: perhaps he will look more favourably on this other suitor then.”

“You are a good man, Mikhail Baronsky,” Irina told him, “and you deserve a much better wife than a foolish girl like me.”

“Goodbye, Irina.” He kissed her lightly. “I see your beau approaching. I will leave the two of you alone.”

She watched him leave, her heart flooding with affection for him, hoping that he would find himself a bride before long.

*

“You forgot me quickly, then.”

She span around, startled by the venom in Dimitri’s voice. “I don’t understand.”

“Your new lover!” He spat the words out in disgust.

“Baronsky is an old family friend,” she began, not sure why she should need to defend herself.

“I saw him kiss you! Do you let all your old family friends make love to you in rose gardens?”

“Dimitri!”

But he turned away from her, still sulking at the perceived betrayal.

“You don’t understand how much I’ve longed for you to return,” she heard herself say. Placing a placatory hand on his arm, she added, “You are the only one my heart has ever loved – you must know that.”

“Then prove it,” he muttered.

Her heart stood still.

“Prove that you love me,” he insisted.

Dimitri, I …”

“There’s a summer house not far from here,” he whispered. “We could be private – no one would know we were there.”

Against her better judgement, she let him lead her through the gardens and down towards the ornamental lake. Moonlight glittered on the water as he pulled her into the summerhouse and shut the door.

“Do you know how much I have longed for this?” he asked her as he began kissing her neck.

“We shouldn’t,” she protested, but he ignored her pleas.

“You are mine, lyubimaya, and I need to make sure that you belong to me.”

In the silence that surrounded them, no one else heard her sobs.

*

Dawn was breaking as they stole back to the house. Dimitri held her hand in his; nevertheless, Irina felt as if her heart was ripped in two. How could he have done this to her? Worse still, how had she let him? She had struggled – at first; but his hands had held her down, forcing her into compliance. In the end, she had just let it happen, repeating to herself over and over again, “Dimitri loves me. Dimitri loves me.” But was it love if a man took what he wanted without consent?

Mikhail ran up anxiously as they approached. “Where have you been? The carriage is waiting.”

“We went for a walk.” The lie wrenched from her lips. She could not tell him the truth. “Mikhail, this is Dimitri Vassilyev. Dimitri, Mikhail is a friend of my father’s.”

The two men clicked their heels as they respectfully bowed to one another, but Irina could feel the animosity between them.

“I must go, Dimitri. When will I see you again?”

“I will write,” he said carelessly, his voice sounding strangely cold. “Goodbye, Gospodin Baronsky.”

She did not let her tears fall until she was safely inside the carriage.

*

Two weeks later, she had not received any letters from Dimitri. Her heart twisted as she thought of the night in the summerhouse. Who would want her now? She was no longer innocent, but it seemed she had let someone unworthy rob her of her greatest possession.

Mikhail Baronsky had been true to his word, tactfully breaking off the engagement and telling her father that he thought a younger husband might be a better choice. Each day, she half expected Dimitri to turn up on the doorstep, begging an audience with her papa, but he did not come. Her eyes dulled with disappointment and her skin became unnaturally pale. She felt as if she were dying of a broken heart.

Eventually, her mother noted her pallor and, thinking that the girl was pining for Baronsky, devised a plan. They would visit the dressmaker, she told Irina, and then afterwards take tea in the Perlov Tea House. She did not mention that she had also invited the ex-fiancé.

Irina moved through her dress fitting as one in a dream. Consumed with guilt over giving herself to Dimitri, she was nevertheless desperate to see him again. Surely he would not expect her to do that again now he knew she was his? So lost was she in self-analysis that she did not hear any of the dressmaker’s questions and Madame Yahontov was forced to answer for her daughter. “Yes, the length is fine … No, the grey, not the red … With a black trim.”

Finally, the ordeal was over and the two women made their way on foot to Ulitsa Mayasnitskaya and the waiting tea rooms. Once inside, they were shown to a table near the window and sank down into their chairs in relief.

“Isn’t that Mikhail?” Irina’s mother said suddenly, waving across the room.

Sure enough, Baronsky came hurrying up, delighted to see his adopted niece again.

“How foolish of me!” Madame Yahontov exclaimed a moment later. “I seem to have left something important at the dressmaker’s.”

“Allow me to be of service.” Baronsky sprang to his feet.

“No, no. I’ll go myself. You young ones sit here and chat.” The older woman rose to her feet and swept out of the building before the other two had a chance to stop her.

Irina, looked awkwardly at Baronsky. She was sure her mother had done this on purpose, but to what avail?

Baronsky spoke first. “You’re not happy, are you?”

A tear rolled down Irina’s cheek. She felt suddenly overwhelmed by life.

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

She shook her head, too embarrassed to admit her deflowering. If anyone found out …

Baronsky tried to catch the attention of a waiter but to no avail. “Excuse me a moment.” He left his seat and made his way towards one of the smartly uniformed servers.

He had been gone only seconds when she became aware of a figure looming over her. “Still running around with that oaf, I see,” a voice said bitterly.

“Dimitri!” He was the last person she had expected to see.

“I saw you through the window, taking tea with your lover.”

His accusation squeezed her heart.

“There is nothing between Mikhail and me,” she insisted.

“We need to talk,” he said grimly. “Not here – I have a carriage outside.”

“I must tell someone,” she said, looking around wildly for Mikhail.

“Here,” he said, producing a pencil and paper. “You can leave a note.”

She quickly scribbled, “Something has arisen. I will be back shortly” and deposited the note on the table before letting Dimitri lead her outside. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Mikhail picking up her missive; but the carriage door was already closing and she had no way of letting him know what was really going on.

*

She had thought they would merely sit in Dimitri’s carriage, but once inside, he nodded to the coachman and the vehicle moved smartly away.

“Where are we going?” she asked fearfully.

“To my lodgings,” he told her. “We can be private there.”

The memory of the summerhouse assaulted her with these words and she felt the bile rise in her throat.

“Stop the carriage!” she begged. “I feel faint.”

But they were already pulling to a halt. Dimitri handed her down from the conveyance onto a narrow street filled with dismal looking buildings. The door he unlocked had cracked and peeling paint and one of the front windows was broken. “It’s all poverty can afford,” he said defiantly when he saw her look askance. Inside the dingy hallway, several rooms led off the central corridor. He produced another key and proceeded to open the door closest to them. Taking her by the hand, he almost dragged her into the darkened chamber, fumbling with the shutters to allow some light to penetrate.

Irina surveyed her surroundings. A narrow bed covered with a thin blanket was pushed against one of the walls. Apart from that, the room held very little: there was a rickety table, propped up with a book, a splintered chair, a wash stand and a small cupboard. How could anyone live like this? she thought in dismay, trying not to make her shock visible.

He motioned to her to sit down on the bed, so she did so, hearing springs creak in an alarming manner.

“I can’t offer you tea,” he announced, “but I have some vodka somewhere …” He began moving things around on the table until he found what he was looking for.

She refused his offer of a drink, already regretting her decision to come here. “You said we needed to talk about something,” she reminded him.

“Yes.” He came and sat down next to her, staring at the glass in his hand. “You hurt me,” he began without preamble. “I wrote to you when I was away in Saint Petersburg and I thought we had an understanding, then I came back and found you with another man.”

“I told you …” she began, but he would not listen.

“And then, today, I saw you with that same man. Why are you doing this to me, Irina?”

She looked down at her lap, fighting back the tears. Why wouldn’t he listen to her? He must know how much she loved him. After all …

“You hurt me,” he repeated, “and so now I am going to hurt you – so that you know what it feels like and how important it is that you are honest with me.” Putting his glass on the floor, he grabbed her face and turned it towards him. “When I was in Saint Petersburg,” he enunciated each word slowly and carefully, “I met a woman – an older woman – and she became my mistress.”

She recoiled as if slapped, feeling the room beginning to spin.

“Did you love her?” she managed at last.

He shook his head. “No, but I made love to her – many times. She was much more experienced than you. I can honestly say it was a pleasure.”

Every word a knife in her soul. Anguish bled out from her in rivers of pain.

“You were … intimate with her, and all the while, you were writing to me, telling me you loved me?” None of it made sense.

“I do love you. But you must understand: I never thought I would enjoy you without being married to you.” He tried again. “She was there and you weren’t.”

She looked at the callous, cavalier man in front of her and no longer recognised him. The Dimitri she knew had promised her his heart, but this one …

“I know I’ve hurt you,” he said now, more gently this time. “But you needed to know what it felt like.”

She had not ripped his soul from his body, playing with it the way a cat bats an almost dead mouse around the room.

“I’ll still marry you,” he said magnanimously, “but you have to promise never to see that lover of yours again.”

She nodded mutely. It was all she could do.

Once more, he offered her the vodka and this time she took it gratefully, letting the fiery liquid sear the back of her throat as she tried to blot out the unbearable pain. Once more, he kissed her; and once more, his hands began pushing her skirts aside, seeking to satisfy his own need whilst she wept silently. She was ruined already: what further harm could he do to her?

Afterwards, they lay still, the weight of his body on top of her, and she thought that never before had she known such utter sorrow.

Three weeks later, she realised she was with child.

*

 At first, she did not interpret the signs: the nausea each morning, the loss of appetite, the general feeling of malaise. She put her physical discomfort down to guilt – she had been sneaking off on her own each day, allegedly for a walk; and each day, Dimitri was waiting in a carriage to take her back to the pitiful room with the broken furniture and the lumpy mattress. Each time it happened, she wept – before, during and afterwards; but he seemed immune to her tears. “Can I help it that I find you so irresistible?” he would say to her and, “You should be flattered – most women would love their husbands to pay them so much attention.”

In God’s eyes, he was her husband: they had become one flesh over and over again; and yet she knew instinctively what her father would say.

“How can you live like this?” she asked him one day.

He shrugged. “I make a little money from my job as a clerk, but that goes nowhere. You don’t know what it’s like – you’ve always lived in the lap of luxury.”

“But there must be other clerks who live in better places than this,” she argued. “Could you not at least buy some decent furniture?”

She soon learned the answer to her own questions when she realised how much of his wage went on vodka and gambling – two vices he had always hidden from her until now.

He was the one to divine her condition. They had visited his room and for once he was showing her consideration, taking her out to a tea room for sustenance. “Not the Perlov,” he added hastily when her eyes lit up at the suggestion. She was still touched by his thoughtfulness: he so rarely asked her what she wanted.

Dimitri ordered tea for them both and vatrushka. She looked at the ring of dough and her stomach heaved. The waiter regarded her with some concern.

“I just need a little fresh air,” she said weakly.

Dimitri led her out into the street, his gaze travelling over her face and body. “You’re pregnant,” he remarked coarsely. “Is it mine?”

“You know no one else ever touched me.” She felt wounded by his question but she was too unwell to make a fuss.

By way of response, he kissed her on the mouth, not caring if anyone was passing by. “Sergei Yahontov will have to let me marry you now,” he muttered. “He won’t entertain having a bastard for a grandchild.”

He insisted on driving her back to her house instead of making her walk from the end of the lane as he usually did. “It’s time I spoke with your father,” he said when she protested that she could go in by herself.

The meeting did not go well. Yahontov was outraged that his daughter had deceived him – and with a mere clerk at that! He threatened to disinherit Irina immediately if she dared to marry this adventurer – child or no child.

“Then you must live with the knowledge that you have forced your only daughter to live in a hovel!” Dimitri told him coldly, his face white with rage.

Irina wept quietly in the corner, but since she was always weeping these days, no one paid much attention to her.

“Write to me when your father changes his mind,” was Dimitri’s parting shot to his lover as he stormed out of the room.

*

A little later, Mikhail Baronsky visited the house as was his custom on a Friday evening. He and Sergei usually played chess together, but tonight the master of the house was incandescent with anger. Mikhail listened in horror as Sergei railed against the scoundrel who had seduced his daughter and then expected a marriage dowry.

“As if I would give that negodyay anything!” he exclaimed. “As for Irina – what could she possibly see in a fellow like that?”

Mikhail was silent, thinking of the younger man’s handsome face and the dashing figure he cut on the dance floor. He could understand women being dazzled by the charming manners and the flirtatious eyes, but a part of him wished that his favourite had shown more sense.

“You’re not really cutting her off without a kopek, are you?” he enquired.

“I would rather die than see any of my money go to fund that moshennik!” came the reply.

*

Irina was crying into her pillow when the gentle knock sounded at her bedroom door. “May I come in?” her dyadya asked.

Dimitri had forbidden her to see Baronsky, but he had also insulted her father and left her all alone with only her parents’ wrath for company. Besides, the idea that she could ever love someone like Mikhail was ridiculous! He was losing his hair for one thing and he carried far too much weight.

She would have been wary of any other man entering her boudoir, but when Mikhail came in, she breathed a sigh of relief. He was always so kind to her. One of her fondest memories was of the way he had always brought her special presents when he visited the house in her childhood: a nightingale in a cage, a basket of sugarplums, a kitten with fur the colour of smoke.

“Has Papa told you?” She knew the two men would have had time to talk by now.

Mikhail nodded. “He is very upset, zaya.”

“Couldn’t you talk to him?” she pleaded. “He would listen to you, I am sure.”

“What can I do, little one?” He threw up his hands in despair.

“If you could just make Papa see sense,” she murmured. “We don’t need much money – just enough to live on in comfort, in a little house of our own and not that dreadful room Dimitri currently rents.” Her eyes were wide and blue as she looked at him imploringly. “We wouldn’t have to stay in Moscow. I’m sure Dimitri could find work anywhere.”

Mikhail’s heart was torn. More than anything, he wished he could marry Irina and take her away to his country estate where she and her child could live in safety from Vassilyev. But she loved the man! And he was her baby’s father. It was at that moment that Baronsky made a decision that would change the lives of several people, including himself.

“Where does Dimitri live?” he asked casually.

Irina named the street. It was easy to remember since she had visited it over twenty times. Baronsky made a mental note of the address, then took his leave, promising to come back soon. If all went well, he would be returning with a marriage proposal of his own.

*

The hour was late when he arrived at the dismal building. “Wait here,” Baronsky told his coachman, comforting himself with the thought that the man in his employ was sufficiently well-built to look after himself should the occasion arise. No one answered the first few knocks on the door, but then a dubious-looking woman thrust her head out of a ground floor window, asking him what he wanted.

“I’m looking for a Dimitri Vassilyev,” Baronsky said politely. “I have a business proposal for him.”

A few minutes later, a dishevelled Dimitri appeared at the door. “What do you want?” he snarled at the older man.

“This is not something I wish to discuss on a doorstep,” Baronsky said gravely.

With ill grace, Dimitri let him inside. Baronsky couldn’t be certain, but he thought the room they entered was the one from which the fille de joie had addressed him.

Vassilyev poured himself a glass of vodka without offering one to his guest. “I take it you’re here because of Irina?”

Baronsky nodded.

“I told the little slut not to see you again,” Dimitri growled.

Baronsky ignored the insult. “I have a proposition for you.”

“Go on.” Dimitri seemed interested in spite of himself.

“I’m sure that you would rather live somewhere far more salubrious than this.” Baronsky waved his hand around the room. “I could give you enough money to afford a much better lifestyle.”

“A lifestyle without Irina,” Dimitri said flatly.

Baronsky nodded again.

“Because you want to marry her,” Dimitri guessed. “You’re twice her age, but you want to rescue her from the drunken philanderer she prefers to you.”

“I have an estate in the country.” Baronsky’s voice was tight. “I could take her away from Moscow and give her a good life. And you would have a better life yourself without her.”

“But your little plaything has my baby in her belly,” Dimitri mocked. When Baronsky didn’t respond, Dimitri’s eyes widened. “You knew already?”

Baronsky seemed to have turned into one of those wooden dolls whose head nods incessantly. “Well?” he demanded, somewhat abruptly. “What do you say?”

“How do you think Irina will react,” Dimitri began, “when I tell her that you tried to buy her from me?” When the other man did not answer, he continued, “You’re right that she would be happier in the countryside, but she will be my wife, not yours. This estate of yours – it must have servants who look after it for you while you’re away.”

“Well, yes, but …” Baronsky felt flustered. This was not how the conversation was supposed to go.

“Tell them you no longer need their services,” Dimitri instructed. “Irina and I will run the house for you – with the requisite number of maids and cooks and so forth. I will, of course, expect a small renumeration for my trouble, and in return, I will not tell Irina that it is your house or that you tried to bribe me to give her up.”

Baronsky’s face was white.

“You really don’t have any alternative,” Dimitri mused. “If I stay here, Irina will have to live in this room with me, and her life expectancy will immediately diminish. Thankfully, I drink enough vodka to keep the germs and diseases at bay, but an innocent young creature such as she …” He paused meaningfully.

“I will speak to her father tomorrow.” Mikhail knew when he was beaten.

“I think the marriage should take place as soon as possible,” Dimitri said smoothly. “After all, Irina will need time to get used to her new house before the baby comes along.”

*

After a small, private ceremony which Sergei Yahontov refused to attend, the happy couple set off in a coach for the countryside near Kolomna. Irina was overjoyed that her clever Dimitri had found them a house in the country, and when she saw the impressive building, her delight knew no bounds.

“Your aunt must have thought very highly of you to leave you this!” she remarked innocently.

“Yes,” Dimitri agreed, “her death was most fortuitous, coming as it did when we were most in need of money.”

And so the two of them settled into a peaceable existence. Dimitri did not drink less, but he bought more expensive vodka than he had before and perhaps this accounted for his kinder manner towards his wife. Irina had a beautiful boudoir, ten times nicer than the one at her father’s house, and the bed was quite large enough to accommodate Dimitri as well if he felt in the mood to visit his wife’s room. Now that they were married, she no longer tolerated his lovemaking but had begun to enjoy it.

Some seven months later, their daughter was born. Irina wrote to tell her father but he did not respond. She assumed her was still angry with her. She was also a little upset that dyadya Mikhail had not sent his congratulations – she had not seen him since the night he talked to her just before the wedding.

The Countess Natascha visited, declaring the baby to be milyy. “And so big for a seven months’ child!” she said admiringly.

Irina blushed.

“Well, my dear,” the Countess continued, “you have succeeded where others have failed. Who would have guessed that all it would take to make Dimitri settle down was a baby! Of course,” her tone grew reflective, “it helps that you have your uncle’s house to live in. I’m sure your father wouldn’t have been so generous.”

Irina felt suddenly cold. “What do you mean?” she said sharply. “Dimitri inherited this house when his aunt died.”

Natascha laughed, and it was not a pleasant sound.

“This is Mikhail Baronsky’s estate, child. I’ve visited before – when the rightful owner was here.” Noting her friend’s expression, she said hurriedly, “Whatever arrangement the two of them came to, I’m sure they were only thinking of you.”

*

Irina wept once her friend had gone. She could not believe that Dimitri had lied to her. But what was it her beloved Pushkin had once said? ‘A deception that elevates us is dearer than a host of low truths.’ He had brought her here to make her happy, she was sure of it. Whereas Mikhail … Perhaps his betrayal hurt more.

She could not mention this to her husband. He was happy enjoying the life of a country gentleman, going out riding every day and quite often visiting other local gentlemen in the evenings for a game or six of cards. She hoped that he was being careful with his money for a house like this could not be cheap to run, even if Mikhail was letting them live there, as she suspected, rent free.

From time to time, Dimitri urged her to get to know some of their neighbours – if you could call them neighbours when the nearest house was several miles away. She had dutifully taken tea with a number of them in the early days, but their sophistication frightened her: they were all so worldly-wise – more Natascha’s sort of people than her own.

*

The baby was three months old when Dimitri announced that he had hired a nursemaid. “The child takes up too much of your time,” he told her. “You are overtired and you cannot perform your wifely duties.”

She knew this was an oblique reference to her refusal to allow him access to her boudoir, but she had lost all desire for him since the latter stages of her confinement and the thought of him putting another baby inside her filled her with dread.

The girl, when she arrived, turned out to be an unexpected ally. Closer in age to Irina than any of the other women she knew, Svetlana was a comely maiden with large dark eyes and a plait that snaked down her back. She was devoted to little Anastasia but agreed with Dimitri that the baby needed to sleep in the nursery rather than in the bed with Irina.

“I will place a mattress of my own next to her cradle,” she promised, “and if she wakes in the night and cries, I will comfort her.” Then, turning to Dimitri, she added, “And you must let your wife sleep! She is exhausted from all the constant feeding.”

Dimitri sulked, but cheered up at the prospect of inviting his friends round to play cards when Svetlana suggested that it would be nicer for Irina if her husband wasn’t disappearing every night.

Of course, Dimitri could not invite the men without the women and so Irina found herself hosting an elegant soirée in the drawing room while her husband and his cronies sat around the large table in the dining room, drinking copious amounts of vodka and gambling to their hearts’ content. After a while, the talk turned to acquaintances in Moscow and she was surprised to hear Baronsky’s name mentioned in conjunction with a well-known opera singer.

“And is he really going to marry the creature?” one of the wives asked languidly. “I would have thought that several steps beneath him – after all, he was once engaged to Sergei Yahontov’s daughter, wasn’t he? I wonder why that match was broken off?”

Irina’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as she said stiffly, “Actually, that was me. And the match was broken off because he knew I was in love with Dimitri.”

The other woman shrugged. “Mikhail loved you, you loved Dimitri, Dimitri loved …” She broke off suddenly, leaving Irina wondering how the sentence ended.

“If you’ll excuse me a moment …” She made her voice as steady as possible. “I think my baby is crying. I must go and attend to her.”

She escaped the room before any of the others could point out that she had a nursemaid to do that.

Outside, in the corridor, Irina tried to stop her heart from fluttering with anxiety. Natascha’s long ago words came back to haunt her: “he will take other lovers and so will you.” Were all marriages like this, then? Was fidelity really so elusive?

The dining room door was slightly ajar and she could hear the murmur of the men’s voices as they chatted over their cards.

“I see her once a fortnight when I visit Moscow on business,” one of them remarked. “She’s a welcome diversion: Ludmila lost her appeal six months after we married.”

There was a burst of laughter at this. Irina froze. Were all men so callous?

“Well, you know what Pushkin said.” This was Dimitri’s voice. “With womankind, the less we love them, the easier they are to charm.”

More laughter. Irina crept away, heading for the nursery and the one person whose love she could be sure of.

*

Anastasia was thriving. As the months passed, she grew chubbier each day – and so did Svetlana. Wrapped up in her own misery, Irina did not realise the truth until it was too late. Once it dawned on her that the girl was with child, her heart went out to her, although Svetlana refused to say who the father was. She must have been tumbled under a haystack by one of the local farm boys, Irina guessed, asking the nursemaid gently if she wanted to marry the lad – she was sure Dimitri would spare some roubles for a dowry; but Svetlana shook her head and refused to discuss it further.

A while later, Irina was wakened one night by the sound of Anastasia wailing. It was not like Svetlana to let her cry for so long, she thought, getting out of bed and pulling a wrapper around herself. Tiptoeing to the nursery, she thought she detected noises coming from Dimitri’s room: a moaning and groaning that suggested her husband was ill.

“Dimitri?” The door was unlocked. She opened it and walked into the room, suddenly understanding who it was that had impregnated the nursemaid.

At first they did not notice her. When they did, Svetlana let out a scream and tried to pull the covers over their heads. Dimitri, meanwhile, seemed quite unabashed, rising from the bed and crossing the room to greet his wife with a kiss on the cheek.

“It was nice of you to visit,” he said coolly, “but as you can see, I already have a prior appointment.”

He had removed her from the room before she had a chance to protest.

*

Irina wept, of course, but not as much as she had done before. She liked Svetlana and since their children would be siblings, it seemed only natural to let her stay on – although she now started taking a few drops of laudanum before bed each night so that she would sleep through any unpleasantness that might be occurring in Dimitri’s bedroom.

Her husband’s son was born a few months later: a darling little boy with Svetlana’s hair and Dimitri’s eyes. He was named Alexei and Irina felt glad that Anastasia would not have to grow up an only child as she, Irina, had done herself.

She heard from others that Baronsky had not married his opera singer: she had found another beau, even older and richer. It was a small consolation when weighed against all the other disasters in her life, but she was glad that her dear dyadya was not going to demean himself by marrying someone unworthy.

*

The seasons passed and little Anastasia became an adorable toddler, following her mother everywhere she went. She was devoted to her half-brother and would sit watching his cradle for hours, a serious expression on her otherwise sweet face.

Dimitri was hardly ever home these days. He would leave every morning to go riding, returning only as twilight began creeping in. She no longer missed him: whatever fruitless fires had once burned within her had effectively turned her dreams to dust long ago.

From time to time, as she thumbed through her well worn copy of Pushkin, a white rose petal would flutter from the pages, reminding her that she was just the trembling leaf that winter left behind; and then she would find herself thinking of Baronsky and of the love she had failed to appreciate when it was within her grasp.

Like The Prose Day 18

Today’s challenge centres around the following piece of music –

Most of us probably associate Tchaikovsky with the 1812 overture or ballets such as ‘Swan Lake’. I decided to recreate the last few weeks of the composer’s life and try to weave into the narrative memories he might have had of previous incidents, taking inspiration not just from the piece above but from ‘Swan Lake’ too. This is a creative interpretation where I have allowed my imagination not only to fill in the gaps but also to invent characters and incidents. Listen to the music, read the piece and see what you think.

Memories of June

He was hurrying along the cobbled streets, anxious to be on time for the recital, when the curly headed boy selling pirozhki caught his eye. Immediately, he was transported back to the summer of 1854 when he’d returned home from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence for his mother’s funeral. He wondered now why his father had recovered fully from the cholera that had killed his mother. His sister Alexandra had made pirozhki then and he could still taste the fried pastry, the sautéed fish and the hardboiled eggs.

 This boy looked like Alexandra’s son Vladimir – or ‘Bob’ as Pyotr liked to call him. His nephew was perhaps the closest he had ever come to a son of his own. Perhaps if God had made him differently… He sighed, remembering the disastrous marriage to Antonine all those years ago – 1877 had been calamitous for a number of other reasons apart from the two and a half months’ union, for it had also seen the première of his first ballet, Swan Lake, and the scathing comments that it was “too noisy” and “too Wagnerian” rankled even now.

 He came back to the present with a start, realising that the lad was holding out one of the pastries hopefully. Taken with the youth’s dark eyes and resemblance to Bob, he failed to notice the grimy hands or the dirt under the fingernails, forgetting all about hygiene as he fumbled in his pocket for a coin and took the proffered delicacy.

 Hastening his step once more, he took huge bites of fish, rice and egg as he scurried in the direction of the Russian Musical Society. Rubinstein was now in his sixties and had mellowed since the early days of the Society in Saint Petersburg when he’d refused to consider Pyotr’s First Symphony without substantial changes. Today’s performance would include, amongst other works, the set of twelve piano pieces inspired by the months of the year. He’d been glad of the commission at the time, beginning the work whilst still in the middle of Swan Lake, but his heart had been so wrapped up with Odette and Odile that he had paid scant attention to the first five compositions.

Sitting in the audience, with the sound of June echoing in his ears, he smiled to himself, wondering if anyone else could pinpoint when this particular piece was written. Listening with the benefit of almost twenty years of experience, he could immediately detect Swan Lake’s influence – hardly surprising when he had begun June immediately after completing the ballet. He checked his programme notes – what was it that Pleshcheyev had written as the epigram for this one? Something about the waves kissing our feet “with mysterious sadness” – but that was totally ignoring the second part of the piece when the tone moved from melancholy sadness to a far more dramatic and vibrant theme. Life had taught him that there was always an Odile for every Odette, that the delicate poignancy of the dying swan would always be counterbalanced by the allegro of a lively courtship. Light and dark, black and white, sadness and joy – existence encompassed them all. He let the music wash over him, lost in reverie, and was surprised when the last notes of December finally came to a close.

*

A few weeks later, he found himself in the same cobbled street, although not in such a hurry this time. His Sixth Symphony was to be premiered and, despite the fact that he had gained popularity since those earlier days of being misunderstood and pronounced “not Russian enough”, he still felt apprehensive each time he introduced a new work to the public. Conducting the symphony himself helped a little – he knew how he wanted it to sound – but it was still slightly unsettling. I feel disconcerted! he thought wryly. He looked for the boy with curly hair, wondering if he were still peddling his food now that the weather had turned bitterly cold. October was never warm, but still … Pulling his fur coat around himself, he let his eyes wander up and down, but the youth was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it was just as well: the face had reminded him too much of Sergey, and that love was well and truly in the past even if it was the longest, strongest and purest he had ever known. Bob understood, of course – but then, that was Bob’s nature too. They were both of them Odettes, he mused, fated to stand forever lonely and watch as happiness was denied them.

He must not be late. Casting a final, regretful glance over his shoulder, he walked on, curious to see how the Pathétique would be received.

*

That night, he dreamed of lost love – not of Sergey, nor any of his other unfortunate infatuations with his male companions, but of Désirée, the Belgian soprano who had captured his heart when he was still in his twenties. She was the only woman he had truly loved, and in his dreams, she was willing to move to Russia to live with him there and even to give up the stage so she could settle down and raise their children. He had been totally captivated by her grace and artistry: she could hit notes that few others could even attempt; and he did not care that she was five years older than he for what was age compared to talent?

In his sleep, he relived their meetings: the parties, the performances, the evening invitations. If only her mother had not disliked him so violently! He held her gloved hand in his own, promising fidelity; but her image faded before his lips could touch hers and he knew that their engagement would not last.

Waking in the small hours of the morning, still overcome with sadness at the memory of what he had lost, he found himself thinking once more of Antonine, his wife. What a disaster that had been! He had married her on impulse – when the derogatory reviews of Swan Lake had appeared, his former student had been one of the few people to give him affirmation. And perhaps subconsciously he had thought that someone so much younger and more innocent than he would restore his creativity – instead, he had suffered from unbearable writer’s block, unable to write a single note until he left her. It had not been difficult to dissolve the marriage, given that it had never been consummated; but eighteen years later, he still suffered guilt when he thought of her tears and how cruelly he had mistreated her.

No, he was not meant for marriage. Some men were not suited to the conjugal state and besides, his work was his mistress, his compositions his children. He loved them all – even the ugly ones.

*

Day after day, he found himself making the same journey, whether or not he had anywhere in particular to go. He was still searching for the boy with Sergey’s face, clutching at memories of June when he was already in the November of his life.

November. Troika. Now that was a Russian sounding piece! His boots crunched over the snow-covered cobbles and, irrationally, he hoped that the boy was not still here. His thin clothing would offer no protection against the weather.

It was on the twenty-eighth, as he was hurrying once more to conduct his symphony, that the face he had been seeking finally came into view. This time, the pirozhki were stuffed with mushrooms and onions. He took two, letting the greasy flakes of pastry sprinkle his coat as he stuffed the still warm taste of heaven into his mouth. The child was dirty and unkempt; nevertheless, Pyotr looked at the exquisite bone structure and saw an angel. His mind still dwelt on the boy as he reached the concert hall.

*

That night, he could not sleep, his body wracked with pain. His gut twisted and he barely made it to the chamber pot in time, the slick sheen of perspiration on his forehead telling him that all was not well. Over and over again, he emptied his bowels, sometimes vomiting at the same time. Was it something he had eaten or drunk in the restaurant earlier? he wondered. Everyone claimed to boil their water these days, but one could never be sure.

The following morning, he felt totally exhausted, yet still the constant retching and diarrhoea continued. Feeling too weak to call for assistance, he tried to crawl as far as the table in the corner, thinking that if he could only help himself to water from the jug that stood there, he would start to feel better. It seemed even this simple task was beyond him.

Parched and empty, he lay on the floor, contemplating his next move. His father had not succumbed to cholera: he had fought it off and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-four. He, Pyotr, would do the same: it was unthinkable that he should die in his fifties!

Drifting in and out of consciousness, all his past loves blended into one. Désirée had Sergey’s colouring; Vladimir sang like a nightingale; even Antonine had the street urchin’s eyes. Was he Siegfried or was he Odette? He was no longer sure, his mind spinning like the dancers in front of his eyes. The waves descended over him, kissing him with the “mysterious sadness” Pleshcheyev had referenced all those years ago, and so it was that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky finally slipped into death.

Like The Prose Day 17

We were asked to write this one for someone special, so I’ve chosen my mum. I don’t think I need to say anything else.

Grown Up

“The stitches are quite hard,” my mother says. “Have a feel.”

The last thing I want to do is to stretch out my hand and feel the place where she had her cancer surgery three days ago, but I feel guilty for being so selfish and so I place my fingers near the spot she’s shown me and try not to think what lies beneath her nightdress.

I found out a week ago that she had bowel cancer – only days after she’d received the news herself. Although I know that it’s inevitable she’ll die one day – she’s 76 this year, for goodness’ sake! – this has all happened too quickly, without any of us having had the chance to prepare for it.

She sits on the hospital bed, suddenly old, suddenly small. I used to think she looked like my grandmother: her face plumped out as she grew older, but she was still the mother I remembered from my childhood. Now, though, she reminds me of my great-grandmother: her face has been ravaged by age, and illness has carved deep furrows into the once smooth skin. She seems tiny – as if the cancer has sucked all the life out of her, leaving her like a deflated balloon.

She’s speaking again, telling me about the lady in the bed opposite – “Philomena,” she says, “like the film with Judi Dench.” – and how she has trouble sleeping when some of the other patients start screaming in the middle of the night. I listen to everything she’s been through and feel guilty for wanting to cry earlier in the day when I got lost on my way to the hospital. Her suffering is real and raw – something grown ups go through; whereas mine seems childish and petty by comparison.

The nurse arrives and asks my mother if she can check her stoma. I’ve already googled colostomy bags and ileostomy bags and know my mother has the latter: they removed part of her lower bowel and now all her waste trickles into the bag in liquid form. She told me she tried to change it earlier but she made a mistake and the waste seeped out over her dressing gown and slippers. I feel embarrassed for her when she tells me this: it’s a role reversal of all those times when I was a toddler and didn’t make it to the potty fast enough.

I offer to leave to give her some privacy, but she and the nurse are quite happy for me to stay with them behind the wall of curtain. Here, in this little world they’ve made for themselves, we’re cut off from the rest of the world: it’s an adult version of a fort or a tree house.

To begin with, I avert my gaze, not wanting to see the bag or the wound – or even my mum’s face as she struggles to decipher the written instructions on the printed sheet in front of her. I hand her her glasses and she reads each line slowly, pausing to let the words sink in. She sounds amazingly detached and practical – almost as if she is reading a recipe or a shopping list. When she removes the emptied bag, I wince involuntarily, half-expecting to see a gaping hole; but instead, a red blob of jelly looks back at me: a children’s dessert where I had thought to see guts and gore.

Independent to her core, she cleans her wound carefully with a dry wipe followed by a wet one. I long to help, but I know she won’t let me: she has to do this on her own. So I watch, and marvel at her bravery, and wonder how long it will be until she can’t do this on her own anymore.

She’s missed her evening meal in all the excitement. An orderly brings her a bowl of soup and a bread roll. Both remain untouched. She’s hardly eaten in four days and yet she isn’t hungry. I’m about to leave when her face twists and she asks for a bowl. Holding it in front of her, I watch her vomit an almost clear waterfall. Her stomach’s empty: she has nothing to bring up except the jug of water she’s drunk since I’ve been here.

I help her back into bed, pulling the sheet over her legs and tucking her in. This is what it means to be grown up: to care for the woman who gave birth to you; to realise that you are now the parent and she the child.

I’m 53. I’ve had three children of my own and two grandchildren; but until now, whenever I’ve been with my mum, I’ve felt like I’m still a teenager. “Don’t touch the iron – it’s hot” and “You can’t go out looking like that” still fall from her lips as easily as they did forty years ago.

I’ve always been the child in our relationship, but now our roles are reversed. I wonder how long it will be before I am feeding my toddler-mother and seeing to her personal hygiene.

“Sleep well,” I tell her, kissing her on the forehead and preparing to leave my childhood behind.

Like The Prose Day 16

This one has a fantasy theme – which would normally be right up my street as I love medieval settings, flowery language and sword fights. However, this particular challenge asks for the fantasy to be set somewhere else, so I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and tried my hand at urban fantasy instead.

Night Vision

Sasha stared at the email in front of her: “Your training will be complete,” it read, “once you have successfully carried out the night duty assigned to you by your commanding officer.”

She sighed as she read the words. It seemed that policing was less about using her considerable intelligence to solve crimes and more about pounding the streets, keeping an eye open for any would-be hooligans. Still, if it was a requirement …

“What you got planned for tonight?” Dev’s voice intruded on her thoughts. “Only, I was thinking of popping by ‘The Stag’ later, if you’re interested?”

She was interested: Dev was probably one of the best-looking guys she knew and he actually had a sense of humour – something that was in short supply at her local police station. Tonight was not the night for such an assignation, though. “Sorry.” She tried to put as much regret as she could into her voice. “I’d like to, but I already have plans.”

Immediately the words left her mouth, she could have kicked herself. Why hadn’t she said she had police work to do? Now Dev would think she had a date with someone else. Okay, so the email had been marked ‘Highly Confidential’ and it had stated, most explicitly, that she was to tell no one (bold font, heavily underlined) where she was going or what she was doing, but surely that didn’t include Dev? He might be a slightly newer recruit than she was, but he’d already impressed half her work buddies with his ability to remain calm in a crisis and his uncanny knack of rooting out bad guys, almost as if he could smell the guilt dripping off them.

“Some other time, then.” Dev flashed her a brilliant smile that showcased his gleaming white teeth perfectly.

“Yeh,” she replied automatically, her mind already moving on to wondering who would walk the dog if she was stuck here all night on secret police business. (If only she’d known beforehand, she could have brought Benji to work with her and walked him as she patrolled.) “Let’s definitely do it some other time.”

*

“Okay.” Julie led Sasha through a door marked ‘No Entry’ and into a room she’d never visited before. “This is where we kit you out. You’ll need a pair of these.”

“Night vision goggles?” said Sasha with surprise. “Why on earth would I need those?”

Julie lowered her voice. “What you’re about to embark on is Special Ops patrol. You’ve read Harry Potter, haven’t you?”

“Well, yes,” admitted Sasha, “but…”

“And you know that there’s a hidden wizarding world that Muggles can’t see?”

“Yes, but…”

“Well, JK Rowling didn’t make any of that up!” hissed Julie. “At least, she did – but she got the idea from the Undercover Crime Department. When we patrol at night, we’re keeping an eye on the hidden world of magic – the one most people think doesn’t really exist.”

“But it doesn’t exist!” Sasha wanted to say. She was beginning to wonder whether Julie was fit to hold such a superior position within the station. Perhaps she should request a psychiatric evaluation?

But there was no time to worry about any of this now. Julie was pushing her towards a gigantic guy in uniform who wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Giants’ Convention – if giants existed, of course. “Merv, Sasha’s your partner for this evening. It’s her first time out, so break her in gently.”

“Hi.” Sasha held out her hand but Merv ignored it. “So,” she continued, beginning to babble nervously, “Merv – is that short for Mervyn, then?”

“Mervatroyd,” grunted the Neanderthal.

Was that even a real name? wondered Sasha.

“You’re gonna need ter put ‘em on,” he said next, pointing at the goggles. “Yer won’t see nuffin’ wivout ‘em. All the magic stuff that’s hidden, that’s why you wear ‘em.”

“But you’re not wearing any!” she pointed out, not unreasonably.

Merv sighed.  “Don’ need ‘em, do I?” He glanced at Julie. “Boss, tell ‘er ‘ow it works.”

“Merv’s a half-breed,” Julia mouthed at her. “He can see the hidden world because he’s part of it himself.”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to say ‘half-breed’ anymore,” Sasha began sanctimoniously. “It’s ‘persons or entities with some magical ability’.”

“So you admit magic exists then?”

Damn! She hadn’t thought of that. “What exactly are you then, Merv?” she said at last. “Half-man and half-what?”

“Put the goggles on!” Julie said sharply. “It’s a lot easier than explanations.”

Sasha pulled the device over her eyes and gasped. In Merv’s place stood – or rather lurched – a hulking great beast that was vaguely human in shape but far uglier than anything Sasha had ever seen. Its limbs were like twisted tree trunks and its skin was a horrible greenish-grey, offset by a bulbous nose and disconcertingly red eyes.

“What is it?” Sasha gasped in horror.

Merv,” Julie emphasised his name, “is part-man, part-Troll – and one of our finest officers. And you will be keeping him company this evening.”

Sasha thought longingly of ‘The Stag’ and Dev, then looked at the slime dripping from Merv’s nose. “Okay,” she said at last, “but I hope you’ve got a good supply of tissues because I refuse to look at snot when I’m on duty.”

*

As they began to walk down the street, Sasha knew she had to ask Merv the question that was burning a hole in her brain.

“Merv,” she began hesitantly.

“Yeh? Wha’ choo want?”

“Well, Julie said you’re half and half…” She paused delicately. “Which of your parents was human?” she said at last.

“That was my dad,” Merv said reflectively. “He wasn’t much to look at, but ‘e ‘ad a good ‘eart. ‘Sno wonder me muvver fell fer ‘im, even though she could’ve ‘ad anyone she wanted. Now, she was a real beauty…”

Sasha gave an almost imperceptible snort of disbelief.

“Troll women are known fer their pulchritude,” Merv said sternly. “Once me dad saw ‘er, there was never anyone else – not as far as ‘e was concerned. She always said she was glad I took after ‘er and not ‘im.”

Sasha listened with only half an ear. Her goggles were really most uncomfortable. She took them off, wondering if she could adjust the straps.

She was still fiddling with them when Merv let out a roar. “Clear off, yer dirty creature!”

Looking up, she realised that he was running towards a beautiful unicorn. Its white coat glistened in the moonlight and its golden horn shone. A mini-skirted woman – presumably on her way home from some nightclub – was stroking the creature’s nose and babbling something about how she’d always known it was true. It seemed unfair of Merv to chase her away, but Sasha supposed he knew what he was doing.

Or did he? She watched in horror as Merv pulled out a nasty looking knife and plunged it into the unicorn’s pure, white throat.

“What are you doing?” she screamed in horror, already mentally filing the report that said the Troll had gone berserk and slaughtered an innocent magical creature before she could stop him.

“Put them goggles back on!” thundered Merv.

Sasha did as she was told and felt her stomach turn over. In place of the unicorn stood a maggot-infested corpse of a horse. Patches of its black hair still clung to its emaciated frame and flaming eyes rolled in their sockets.

“What is it?” she whispered, askance.

“It’s a Nightmare, innit?” Merv seemed matter of fact. “Come out to prey on anyone oo’s stupid enuff ter fall fer that unicorn malarkey. S’all a glamour, innit? The white coat … the golden horn … load of old bol…”

“Yes, yes,” Sasha said hastily, “I can see that now. But how did you know it wasn’t a real unicorn?”

Merv looked at her pityingly.

“There’s no such fing as a ‘real unicorn’. ‘S all just a disguise that Nightmares wear.”

“But there must be!” she said in surprise. “I mean, there are books and paintings and … and some children’s parties have unicorn rides…” Her voice tailed off uncertainly.

“Unicorn rides!” Merv echoed bitterly. “They’d be better off letting their kiddies swim in a shark tank!”

“And you’re telling me that Nightmares are creatures, not just bad dreams?”

Merv nodded slowly. “Now you’re getting’ it,” he said as if he thought she was very stupid. “Nightmares and Gremlins – they’re bad; Pixies are just annoying; and Fairies …”

“Don’t tell me,” Sasha interrupted. “Fairies are evil and nothing like the pretty creatures you see in children’s storybooks.”

“Well,” Merv considered, “it depends, don’ it? Graffiti Fairies – yer wanna stay clear of them. But Washing Up Fairies – they’re a different matter entirely.” His voice became wistful. “Everyone would love a Washing Up Fairy, or a Cleaning Sprite – but yer hardly see any of ‘em around these days. I blame it all on Brexit.”

“Sorry?” What on earth had politics got to do with magical creatures?

“Can’t get the visas these days,” Merv explained sadly. “They’re all French Polish, yer see. An as fer the Gnome Anaesthetists … Well, all them cuts to the National Elf Service were bound to ‘ave an effect on the otherworld staff. Is it any wonder the country’s in such a state?”

It was just her luck to be lumbered with a woke troll! Sasha thought. Still, at least he wasn’t trying to get rid of her. Keeping her goggles firmly in place, she trotted beside him, eyes constantly roving for Graffiti Fairies or Leprechauns.

“Erm, we arrest Leprechauns, don’t we?” she asked, checking for clarification.

“Only when they’re drunk and disorderly,” Merv told her. “It’s Boggarts that are the worst when it comes to closing time – they drink far too much and start rampaging through the streets, knocking everyone’s bins over.”

*

For the next hour or so, they made a systematic sweep of the surrounding streets, breaking up a fight between a Kobold and a Kelpie, and arresting a dozen singing mice who insisted on disturbing the peace. Sasha found she was getting used to the goggles – in fact, after a while, she almost forgot she was wearing them; and when Merv suggested stopping off for a kebab, her excitement knew no bounds.

Despite the lateness of the hour, there was quite a crowd at the counter. Merv motioned to Sasha. “Why doncha take a seat? Yer’ve been on yer feet a while now.”

It was not until he said it that she realised how weary she felt. She sank down gratefully onto the red plastic bench. “Garlic mayo and chilli sauce on mine,” she murmured before leaning back and closing her eyes.

She let the gentle hum of customer conversation drift over her while she thought about the evening. Although she would have enjoyed an evening in Dev’s company, with perhaps a glass or three of prosecco to help her unwind, she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t had fun with Merv, learning about the hidden world she’d never realised existed. She should really have taken off her night vision goggles, but she was so tired and it seemed like such an effort to remove them…

Suddenly, the room fell quiet.  Sasha swivelled in her seat to see what had caused the drop in the noise and felt her heart clench as a huge, ugly looking – thing – almost as large as Merv pushed his way into the kebab shop. By her side, Merv froze with the kebabs still in his hand. “You don’t wanna get on the wrong side o’ one o’ them,” he breathed. “It’s an ‘Obgoblin, that is.”

“Can everyone else see him?” Sasha felt puzzled. “Only, I was wondering why they’ve all gone quiet.”

“I ‘spect that’ll be the gun ‘e’s wavin’ around,” Merv said matter of factly. “No one else in ’ere can see what ‘e really looks like – to them, ‘e’s just a guy with a weapon.”

“So, are we going to arrest him?”

“I fink that might be a good idea,” Merv said gravely. Dropping the kebabs on the table, he whirled round. “P’lice! Put yer ‘ands up now!”

The Hobgoblin shot Merv a filthy look and made a run for the door. Without pausing to take off her goggles, Sasha reacted instinctively, extending her arm and tasering the lumbering creature as it moved past her. It sank to the ground instantly and lay there twitching.

As Merv struggled to get a pair of handcuffs around the Hobgoblin’s hairy wrists, Sasha became aware of how quickly her heart was beating. Adrenalin coursed through her as she became aware that she had tackled something several times her own size on her own. So this was what policing was all about!

“Yer might wanna take yer goggles off an’ see what ‘e really looks like,” Merv instructed. There was a pause before he added poignantly, “You can remove yer filter – I can’t.”

Pulling off the equipment, Sasha found herself staring into handsome features she recognised. Who would have thought that Dev Patak was a Hobgoblin?

“He’s one of ours,” she said tersely. “One of the police recruits, I mean.”

Merv nodded sadly. “Happens every year – there’s always one or other ‘oo tries ter infiltrate us. ‘Ow do yer fink I ended up becomin’ a p’lice officer meself? Only, I saw the error of me ways an’ decided it was a job worf doin’ properly.”

Dev was slowly coming to. “Sasha?” he said a little uncertainly. “What you doing here, Babe?”

Once more, he flashed those brilliant teeth, but this time Sasha wasn’t fooled. “I know what you really are,” she hissed at him. “And I don’t like being lied to.”

“Did I ever tell you I wasn’t a Hobgoblin?” he asked.

Sasha turned to Merv. “Let’s get him back to the station.

There would be other good-looking police officers who invited her out – and in future, she would look at everyone with her night vision goggles before she let her heart get involved.

Destination Unknown

For anyone who’s been following my progress with Like The Prose, this is a brief interlude- I’m still doing LTP but I also entered a one-off contest on the autocrat website which gave the first line of a story and then asked people to complete it in not more than 1500 words. As an added challenge, after a week, writers were asked to try to remove repetition and to incorporate a given last line (resulting in a kind of literary taxidermy). The story below is my entry:

Snails Across The Sahara

We reached the third day of our journey and, to be honest, things were not going well. Who would have thought that giant snails would travel so slowly in the desert?

Before me, golden sand still stretched endlessly despite the hours we had spent trekking across the Sahara. The gritty substance was everywhere: in my nostrils, in my mouth, in my clothing. I itched constantly, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I was still contemplating the scene before me when Hakim’s snail sidled up to mine. The two of us had been racing snails since we were youngsters and it was wonderful to see the way he moved in synchronicity with his outsized gastropod as if the two of them were welded to each other.

Hakim looked at me now, his large, brown eyes full of mischief. “How do you feel about making this a little more interesting?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” he drew out the vowel tantalisingly, causing me to wait to see what he had to say. “We’re a team, right, and this contest says we all have to get across the Sahara before the final deadline which is still –“

“Five days away,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, well, what if …”

Again, that suggestive pause. Hakim had always been able to manipulate me like this: he was the master at making me pause to see what crazy scheme he’d concocted for the two of us.

“What if we make it a personal race between the two of us?” he murmured. “Whichever one of us gets to the finish line first has to give the other one whatever they want.”

My mind whirled. Surely this was just a plan for Hakim to scam me? After all, everyone knew that my father was one of the richest guys in the state whereas his family were technically just our lackeys. Despite this, we’d always played together as kids, being a similar age, and the social gap between us hadn’t stopped us remaining close friends as we went through elementary and high school together. Sure, when the summer was over, we’d have to go our separate ways – I’d be off to Harvard and he’d be enrolling in some kind of community college – but right now, we were having our final fling of friendship, making the most of the months before we had to start living in the real world.

I wondered now what Hakim had in mind. Was he going to ask my dad to put him through university, for example? Or would he ask for cash so that he’d have a bit of independence?

“You do know I can’t touch any of my trust fund until I’m twenty-one,” I told him now. “If you win and I have to give you anything you want, it’ll have to be something I already have.”

“What I want is something only you can give me,” he breathed huskily, his hand sliding over my thigh as I sat sweltering under the relentless sun.

And at that moment, I saw the longing in his eyes and suddenly knew what this contest was really about …

*

I was probably thirteen when I fell for Hakim. It wasn’t just a physical thing, you understand, although he’d already developed into the most gorgeous specimen of humanity I’d ever seen. As the next few years crawled past, I found myself staring at him more and more, noting the way his dark hair curled at the nape of neck, admiring his finely chiselled limbs as he stood by the pool. He was beautiful and funny and clever and arrogant – and I knew he could never be mine. It would have given my father a heart attack if he’d thought I was harbouring any sort of feelings for one of the hired help. Hakim’s dad was our chauffeur; his mom was our housekeeper; and he had an older brother who was part of the grounds team – once he was old enough, Hakim was drafted into helping out in the garden, and then he became our pool boy. It probably wasn’t the kind of relationship my father had in mind for me.

You might be wondering why, if I liked Hakim so much, nothing had happened between the two of us before. Opportunity – or lack of it – is the simple answer to that. Even for the past three days, ever since we’d set off on this ridiculous challenge, we’d been consigned to separate tents – me, all alone, in my luxury abode which was more of a marquee that anything else – Daddy’s money had sure come in useful there! – and then the rest of the team (including Hakim) in a far inferior structure without any of the finery I enjoyed on a nightly basis.

I looked behind me now, to the back of the caravan where the worker snails were towing the various trailers that carried all the equipment. I knew that I had no friends amongst the other staff who’d come with me – if any of them even suspected something between Hakim and me, I’d be shipped back home faster than you could blink, without being allowed to finish the race.

My attention returned to the hand on my thigh and the eyes that were staring intently into mine. Hakim seemed to be offering me everything I’d wanted for the past five years – but could I really trust him? What if he was seeing me as the real challenge here? What if he’d only agreed to be part of my team because he thought it would be a short cut to my heart? And if he didn’t win … I allowed my mind to contemplate the possibility. If he didn’t win, what would I ask him to give me?

At that point, I think I suddenly realised that we were both after the same thing.

*

We’d left the others far behind as our snails slithered across the sand in the moonlight. No overnight camping for us tonight!

“Feeling worried yet?” Hakim asked.

“Should I be?” I countered.

On and on we went, our beasts moving as one with us beneath a sky full of stars. At that moment, life had never seemed more magical. From time to time, I stole a sideways glance at the boy my heart was longing for, imagining how it would feel when one of us won the race and claimed the other as the prize.

Finally, I could bear it no longer. “Why are we doing this?” I asked softly.

He looked at me, his lip curved in an amused grin.

“Frightened you’ll lose?”

“You know neither one of us is going to lose.” I pushed the words out with an effort. This was now the time for truth. “We both want the same thing, ergo we’ll both be winners.”

Time stilled for a moment. I was sure I could hear our hearts beating in unison as life slowly returned to normal.

“Tell me,” his voice was deceptively casual, “what it is that we both want.”

“I want you,” I said honestly. “And I think you want me.”

He was silent then, thinking over my words.

“All this wanting,” he said at last, “is it like longing for the cake you see before you: you are desperate to have it, but once it’s consumed, it’s quickly forgotten? Or is it like yearning for the stars: wishing for something you can never truly have, something so far above you that you know it will always be an impossibility.”

When I did not answer, he nodded sadly.

“Am I really what you want?” he asked again. “Your life is so different to mine – you can have anything you desire. You and me – it’s like a fish mating with a bird. How can we ever fly to the stars when we inhabit opposite worlds?”

He was right: in my world, Hakim would always be a fish out of water, never truly belonging. The only way for me to make him mine would be if I gave up my money, my name, and threw my lot in with his.

“If someone wanted you enough,” I laid my heart bare, “then wealth and class wouldn’t matter. I would give it all up in an instant if I knew we could be together forever.”

At this he laughed and it was a strange and hollow sound. “A bird who leaves the nest does not automatically become a fish!” he told me. “Besides,” and his words were painfully honest, “how will I learn to fly with no money?”

He slid off his snail and came towards me. I joined him on the sand and his hand reached out and touched my face. “For future reference,” he said, kissing me slowly, “I’d rather be a bird than a fish.”

Like The Prose Day 15

Last year, one of my favourite ‘Like The Prose’ challenges was when I was asked to write about a painting. (I chose Seurat’s ‘L’Apres-Midi Sur la Grande Jatte’.) Since then, I’ve written several other pieces inspired by paintings, trying to imagine what might have been going through the mind of Wladyslaw Podkowinski when he painted ‘Frenzy of Exultations’ or recreating Lowry’s home life and thinking what might have inspired him to paint the way he did. Today’s piece focuses on perhaps one of the most famous paintings in the world: da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Here, I imagine what life might have been like for the woman who was reputed to have been the model for the painting and I create my own reason for La Gioconda’s enigmatic smile.

Secret Smile

Florence, in the Year of Our Lord, 1503:

I have been commissioned to paint a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife, Lisa, once she is delivered of their second child. This is an honour indeed, for Mona Lisa is a Gherardini by birth and both families, although not wealthy, are well respected. However, the lady is not suited to her current condition for her face and hands are presently puffy and she finds it hard to heave herself from the couch on which she lies. Her little boy, Piero, is five and an angelic little cherub too! Signor del Giocondo suggested that I might paint his wife as the Madonna, adding both the children to the portrait, but I respectfully declined. It may be fashionable for other painters to pander thus to their patrons, but Mona Lisa is not the most beautiful of women, nor the most ethereal looking, and I would be doing both her and her husband a disservice were I to present them with an idealised version of the good lady which bears no resemblance to reality.

Leonardo sighed as he regarded the woman in front of him. Lisa Gherardini had never been classically beautiful, but the dark circles under her eyes and the extra weight from her recent childbearing only accentuated the plainness of her appearance. Quickly, he sketched the outline of her face and figure. She had chosen to sit with her right hand folded over her left as a symbol of fidelity to her husband – not that any other man would look with longing at the lank hair and discontented expression. He knew that she was finding motherhood difficult this second time around – she had said as much when she placed the baby in its basket at her feet, explaining that they could not afford a wet-nurse and that she would need to suckle little Camilla if she cried. When Leonardo remarked that the child seemed remarkably placid, Lisa told him that the infant had spent most of the night screaming, refusing to be quieted. “Piero did not cause such trouble!” she said despairingly. “Perhaps if I had not lost the one before this … It seems I am out of practice at tending a new-born babe.”

He knew that she had been only fifteen when she married Francesco: she was her husband’s third wife, just as her own mother had been her father’s third. Still, Gherardini was an old name and del Giocondo had done well for himself there, even if her family was not as rich as his own. Mind you, her father’s second wife had been sister to Francesco’s first wife, so Leonardo suspected the tenuous family connection had played a part in the match: with four daughters to marry, Antonmaria di Noldo Gherardini must have been grateful for any offers that would take one of them off his hands.

Two of the other daughters had also married, and the youngest, Ginevra, was staying with her sister to help with the children. Leonardo had caught sight of the girl several times: she moved with an easy grace so different to Lisa’s waddle. Her hands when she had opened the door to him had been pale and slender; he looked once more at Lisa’s swollen fingers and knew he could not paint them as they were.

That was when the idea occurred to him: why not let Ginevra sit for him instead? He knew he could not suggest this to Francesco – it was tantamount to telling him that his wife was ugly! – but if the girl was willing, what was to stop her coming to his house so that he could use her as the model for the hands and face that were proving to be so elusive?

He stared once more at la Gioconda. Dark circles were appearing on the bodice of her gown – a sign that her child would soon be waking to be fed. As if on cue, the tiny mouth opened and a thin wail issued from the basket.

“I can see you will be busy for the next hour or so,” Leonardo said, hurriedly gathering his pencils and sketch pad together. “Perhaps if I come back later in the week? I think I have enough details here already to begin work.”

*

He excused himself from the light and airy sala and began to make his way towards the front door. A gentle murmuring reached his ears. He paused, realising that Ginevra must be teaching little Piero how to read. Retracing his steps, he peeped in through the slightly ajar door of another room where the little boy sat learning a, albero; b, banana; c, cane. For a moment, he just stared at them both. Sunlight was streaming through the large windows of the sala da pranzo, golden glints dancing in Ginevra’s dark hair while she took her nephew’s chubby forefinger and helped him trace the letters. She looked utterly serene.

Mi scusi!” he muttered as she looked up.

Ti sei perso, Signor?” Are you lost? Then, catching sight of his sketchpad, she smiled. “Signor da Vinci! Have you finished my sister’s portrait already?”

“If I might ask a favour, Signorina …” Leonardo looked meaningfully at the little boy.

“Piero, go and play. In a little while, we will learn dadi and elefante.”

Leonardo ruffled the child’s hair absently as he squeezed past him.

“As you know, I have been commissioned to paint your sister’s portrait,” the painter began, coming straight to the point. “However, she is not looking her best – she is obviously overtired – and I thought that it would be less stressful for her if I came here as infrequently as possible.”

“I do what I can to help with the children,” Ginevra said, a little defensively.

“I do not doubt that for one minute.” Leonardo paused. “But there are other ways you could help. Does Mona Lisa allow you any time to yourself?”

“I take a walk every afternoon.”

The girl’s eyes were large and luminous in an otherwise unremarkable face. For a moment, he allowed himself to look at her as an artist, his mind thinking of the colours he would mix to create her flesh tones, noting the length of her eyelashes, the delicate line of her neck.

“Would you be willing to pose for me yourself?” he asked her. “Your sister’s face and hands … they are not easy.”

“You wish to paint me as well as her?” She sounded puzzled. Then, as his meaning dawned on her, her eyes widened in surprise. “You mean instead of? But my brother-in-law would never …”

“He doesn’t need to know,” Leonardo said quietly. “It will be our little secret. You and your sister are not dissimilar: you share the same colouring, the same shape of the mouth. I can make you enough like Lisa was before …”

Before she grew tired and fat, he wanted to say, but he deemed it prudent not to say the words.

“She is only six and twenty,” the girl said reflectively. “Having children has aged her. I would rather remain childless than look like that when I am older.”

“How old are you now?” he asked curiously.

“Seventeen. Two years older than Lisa was when she married Francesco. My father is convinced that I am already an old maid!”

“Seventeen is not so old,” Leonardo told her, feeling suddenly aware of the rheumatism brought on by reaching half a century. “Two of my sisters are older than you but have no husbands yet.”

“They might not find any,” she told him gravely. “Men like younger wives who can bear them children. Francesco had two other wives before he married my sister.”

He had never contemplated marriage himself, but he knew he found younger people more aesthetically pleasing than their older counterparts. Youth held so much promise!

“Will you come?” he asked again. “It need not take long – just the hands and face.”

“Yes,” she said slowly, surprising him with her answer. “I would like to know that my life has a purpose.”

*

The following afternoon, she arrived promptly. He was glad that it was summer and that the room was flooded with natural light.

“Sit there,” he instructed. “I want to see the effect of sunbeams on your skin.”

He had painted many women in his time, but this portrait would be different. Ginevra was still fresh and innocent: could he capture that quality on canvas? Of course, he would have to age her up a little if he wanted Francesco to recognise his wife, but he would retain the slender fingers and the large, lustrous eyes and the smile … He froze suddenly, aware that he had never seen an expression quite like this before. Ginevra sat staring into the distance, an enigmatic smile playing on her lips. I know something you don’t! her smile seemed to say; and, Wouldn’t you like to know what I am thinking right now!

For a moment, he gazed, spellbound. There was mischief in that smile and serenity and joy. It really was remarkable. Grabbing his paintbrush, he began to make the most of the light.

*

Six months later, Ginevra told him that she was to be married. “It’s someone Francesco knows,” she announced as she sat with her hands in her lap, waiting for Leonardo to put the finishing touches to her knuckles.

“I’m assuming he’s closer to your brother-in-law in age than he is to you,” the artist remarked, busily applying paint with the lightest of brush strokes.

“He’s old,” the girl agreed, “– about thirty, I think. But his face is not displeasing and he has money. I am to be the second wife – his last one died of some illness or other, leaving a little girl behind. I know Marco di Foscini is hoping I will give him a son.”

Da Vinci stared at the impassive face before him, wondering how long it would be before its youth was stolen by marriage and motherhood. It mattered not: Ginevra’s enigmatic smile had been captured for posterity, along with her slender, white fingers. One day, he would have to show the canvas to del Giocondo and his wife, but he thought the secret would be safe: he had added just enough of Lisa to hide his model’s true identity.

“I wish you a happy marriage,” he said solemnly as Ginevra rose to leave.

Turning towards him, she kissed him on each cheek, almost, he thought, as if he were her father. “Thank you, Leonardo.” The mysterious smile was back on her face. “If I produce a son, I will name him after you.”

That, he thought as she left, would be his legacy, for sons had sons after them and names were handed down from generation to generation, but the unfinished painting on his easel would quickly be forgotten.

Like The Prose Day 14

Today’s challenge was to write a story in which I’m mean to the protagonist. I went for a fairy tale without a happy ending, written in the style of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’.

The Noble Heart

There was once a young girl and her name was Nousha. When Nousha was born, her mother breathed her last, and so it was that Nousha grew up with only her father for company. He was a humble shepherd and they lived the two of them in a small hut on the edge of the forest, taking their sheep every morning to graze in the lush, green fields of the surrounding countryside. All day, they would sit and talk as their flock wandered about in the grass, content with each other’s company and enjoying the simple life with which they had been blessed.

As time went on, Nousha grew into a beautiful young woman and she was the delight of her father’s heart for he had nurtured her from her babyhood and surrounded her with flowers and birdsong that she might never know sadness and thus become a comfort to him in his old age. And the two of them were happy indeed, for she loved her father with all her heart and longed only to make him happy.

Now the sultan who ruled over their province was an old man and fat, and he had forty wives and four hundred concubines and his sons were many and his daughters plentiful. And although his sons were all strong and handsome, his eldest son, Firuz was the one he loved best for Firuz was the son of the sultan’s first wife and the heir to everything his father owned, yet he was also arrogant and proud and so when, one morning, he rode past Nousha and her father as they sat tending their flock, he did not greet them courteously but instead bade them move their sheep that his fine Arab stallion might pass by unimpeded.

Nousha looked at the handsome man before her, and though his hair curled about his neck and his eyes were the colour of chestnuts, she saw too that his heart was as black as the steed on which he sat and that his lip curved cruelly. Nevertheless, she was as kind and considerate as Prince Firuz was selfish, and so she rose to her feet and curtsied very prettily to the sultan’s son, saying that she and her father would gladly move but that her father was an old man and his limbs were weak and so it would take some time for them to grant the prince’s request.

Then Firuz looked at the girl and he noticed that her eyes were large and almond shaped, and that her hair cascaded down her back in a perfect waterfall, and he was moved to lust after this innocent young creature, so he struck her father with his whip in one hand and then, using the other, he scooped up Nousha and placed her on his horse in front of him and they galloped back to the palace where he intended to make her part of his harem. And Nousha wept bitterly for her poor, injured father for she feared that she would never see him again.

But as they galloped towards the sultan’s palace, a band of brigands appeared, their horses circling that of Prince Firuz. His stallion reared and kicked but the bandits were not alarmed and took Firuz and Nousha captive and led them to a cave some leagues hence where they dwelt in secret.

Nousha wept once more as she was led into the robbers’ cave for she felt sure that she and the prince would be killed. Firuz had grown pale of face and weak of knee, yet he tried to frighten the brigands, promising all manner of punishment from the sultan if he were not immediately restored to his father, but their captors merely laughed in his face and led their two prisoners into the middle of the cave where their chieftain sat on silken pillows, surrounded by all the gold and jewels he had stolen.

Abu ben Sabr – for that was the robber chief’s name – looked long and hard at the two who had been brought before him and he saw straight away that Prince Firuz was a coward but that Nousha was made of sterner stuff, despite her tears, and he tied the prince’s hands with rope but Nousha’s hands were bound lightly with a silken scarf, and he addressed them both, saying, “I am Abu ben Sabr, ruler of these men, and it is our custom to execute all our prisoners, but I see that you, sir, are of noble birth and so I will grant you the opportunity to free yourself and this maiden before you. I challenge you now to the Ordeal of a Thousand Cuts: if you will stand before me and let each of my men in turn slash your skin with his sword, and if at the end of such a ceremony you are standing still, then you will have proved your worth and you may leave in peace.” (He said this knowing that the first cut would most likely kill the prince, but he wanted Nousha to think that he was a fair man for he had already lost his heart to her beauty.)

Prince Firuz trembled at these words, knowing that the pain would be terrible if he were not lucky enough to die immediately from the first sword thrust. “Let me die now,” he begged, falling to his knees before the robber prince. “Let you or one of your men remove my head with your sword that I may die swiftly and without suffering.”

But Nousha spoke up, surprising the men and saying, “If I undertake this ordeal, will you release us both?”

Abu ben Sabr’s heart swelled as the gentle maiden made her offer and indeed he would have loved nothing more than to release her immediately and make her his bride, but he could not afford to lose face in front of his men, so he answered her gravely, saying, “If you withstand the ordeal, then you and your companion will go free.”

So Nousha stood before the company of robbers whose men numbered one thousand and each man stepped forward in turn to slash her with his sword. Nousha closed her eyes and prayed for strength to survive this ordeal, for though Prince Firuz was selfish and a coward, yet still, thought she, he is one of God’s creation and if it is within my power to save him, then save him I must. And each man was moved by her bravery and so not one of them used all his strength and might when he cut her, but he only nicked the skin; yet even so, every one of the thousand cuts stung and smarted until Nousha thought she would pass out with the pain.

At last, after several hours, every man had taken his turn and blood dripped from the thousand scratches on Nousha’s skin. By now, the girl was feeling weak and faint, yet though she wobbled, she did not allow herself to fall.

“If you please, sir,” she said, addressing Abu ben Sabr, “I have completed the task you set and I now claim my reward.”

The robber chief caught her in his arms before her legs gave way and he laid her gently upon the silken cushions and bathed her wounds with water and applied a foul smelling salve which, he assured her, would help the cuts to heal.

“You have done well, little one,” he told her tenderly, “and now I will grant your request. Your companion may leave as promised and so may you – unless I can persuade you to remain here with me and be my queen?”

Nousha looked at Abu ben Sabr and saw that his heart was honest even though he was a robber and she answered very prettily, saying, “Good sir, you do me an honour, but I am  simple country maid with an aged father who would die from grief if I did not return to him.”

Then Prince Firuz spoke up and said, “The girl speaks true. Release us both now and I will return her to her father and we will say no more of the kidnapping that has taken place today.” Yet even as he said these words, he was already planning in his heart how he could carry Nousha away with him to the palace.

Abu ben Sabr sighed, but he was a man of his word and he was known for keeping his promises, and so he and his men led Prince Firuz and Nousha back to the black stallion, and first the robbers swung Nousha up onto the mount and then Firuz climbed up himself, and Abu ben Sabr and all his brigands watched their former captives gallop away until only a cloud of dust could be seen in the distance.

Once he knew that they were out of sight, Prince Firuz brought his horse to a halt and told Nousha to dismount. “Do you think I want that foul smell in my nostrils!” he demanded, wrinkling his nose with displeasure at the salve on her skin. And taking a leather cord from round his neck, he bound her hands once more, then forced her to walk behind his horse – and not a word of thanks did he give her though she had been the one to spare his life.

The day was hot and the sun beat down on Nousha as she trudged along behind the proud stallion, and after a mile, her feet were cut and bruised for it was her custom to run barefoot amidst the sheep when they grazed in their field and Firuz had carried her away with nary a thought for her comfort.

At last, Nousha sank to her knees for she was exhausted and could walk no further. “On your feet!” said Firuz in a voice of grim displeasure; and when she did not obey his command, he made his horse walk forwards so that the girl’s prostrate form was dragged through the dust and the skin was flayed from her flesh, and when they arrived at the palace, she was more dead than alive.

Prince Firuz looked at the battered and bruised creature and no longer saw the beautiful girl he had stolen from her father that morning. “Throw her onto the rubbish heap!” he commanded, dismounting from his horse and striding into the palace without even a backward glance at the woman who had saved his life.

Nousha was aware of her body being dumped unceremoniously on the dung heap. It felt blissfully soft after the sharp stones of the road. As she lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness, beady eyed rats scurried out from their hiding places and stared at her; then one, a little bolder than the rest, approached her cautiously and sniffed. It began tasting the sole of her foot, and then another joined it and another, until dozens of the creatures were running over her, licking her cuts and wounds and gnawing through the cords that still bound her wrists.

Their work was almost done when a shadowy figure appeared, followed by a thousand others. Abu ben Sabr stepped out of the night, his face frowning as he saw Nousha’s almost lifeless body. “Find the worthless cur who treated her thus,” he told his men, “and cut his throat!”

The brigands sped off to do his bidding and Abu ben Sabr picked up the girl and carried her to a waiting litter. Within minutes, Nousha had been transported to a physician who examined her and shook his head. “There is but a slight breath of life left within her,” he said. “If she has any family, they should come and pay their last respects to her now.”

Abu ben Sabr bent close to Nousha and whispered in her ear. “Where does your father reside, little one? I will bring him to you that you may say goodbye.”

“A hut … on the edge of the forest.” Her words were so faint he could hardly hear them.

The robber chief placed a gold coin in the physician’s hand. “Keep her alive until I return,” he said, “and you will have ten more.”

Setting off on a horse as pure white as Nousha’s soul, he quickly reached the humble dwelling where the girl and her father lived. He knocked gently on the door, not wanting to alarm the old man for it was already late.

“Your daughter is close to death,” he said bluntly when the door was opened. “Come with me now and you might yet see her before she breathes her last.”

He helped the old man onto the horse then climbed up behind him and they galloped like the wind until the physician’s house came in sight.

Upon entering the house, the old man fell on his knees when he saw his daughter’s body. “Who has done this to her?” he wept brokenly.

Abu ben Sabr found that tears were streaming down his own cheeks as he answered, “May God forgive me! Your daughter received those cuts at my command; yet even so, my men were gentle with their swords for they could see her noble heart. She sacrificed her own life to protect another.”

“Father?” Nousha’s voice was now only a whisper. “I’m sorry, Father. I wanted to take care of you for the rest of your days.”

“Do not grieve, Daughter,” the old man said. “Truly, you have made me a proud father,” and he clasped her hand in his and held it tightly until the life ebbed out of her – at which his own heart burst with sorrow for he could not live without his pride and joy.

And then the King of Brigands mourned the deaths of these two good people and he said, “Would that my men had never found this sweet maiden and her captor, or that I had killed that dog outright instead of letting her intercede for him!” And from that day forth, he became an honest man and lived in the hut that had once been Nousha’s and her father’s. And his men killed Prince Firuz while he slept and then stole away silently so that no one knew they had ever been in the palace, and in this way, Nousha’s death was avenged, but Abu ben Sabr lived out the rest of his days in sorrow, thinking of how he had caused the death of an innocent girl.

Like The Prose Day#13

Today’s offering is a five sentence story – however, there were a few other components to this challenge (just in case you’re wondering why these sentences are very long). I’ve chosen the fantasy genre, but don’t feel I’ve really done the story justice by limiting it to five sentences, so I’ve also written a longer version of this (using the same basic storyline, but with more detail and – you’ll be happy to hear – fewer semi-colons) which comes in at just under 4,000 words compared to the 630 words story here. If anyone would like to read the longer version, please let me know.

If Men Were Warriors

If men were warriors, Selene thinks crossly, hacking her way through the bodies in front of her, then they might think twice about starting wars; but she knows that the world is not made that way and that men cannot dance with death and destruction the way she does now, letting her sword whirl and spin, painting patterns in the air as she deftly slices through flesh and bone, spilling the blood of her enemies in scarlet pools around her feet; and although in other cultures, men and women belong to each other, she knows that this is foolish for it would be like the stars belonging to the ocean or the earth belonging to the sky.

She glances about her again, to check that they have left no man alive, and her heart sinks as she realises that reinforcements have arrived whilst she has been daydreaming, but this is a minor inconvenience, nothing more, as she hacks her way through swathes of soldiers to reach the man she can tell is in charge; and her blade dances as she thrusts and parries but it seems she has met her match at last; and perhaps she is fatigued from fighting so long, or maybe it’s the surprise of finding a man who knows how to use a sword properly – whatever it is, she is totally unprepared for the slash across her side, so that startled by pain, she stumbles backwards, hits her head against a rock and sinks into oblivion.

When she wakes, she finds herself in a tent, feeling fire in her side, unable to move, and there, in the corner, is the man who ripped her apart with a sword; and against her better judgement, she swallows several mouthfuls of the warm, unfamiliar liquid that he lifts to her lips and her mind swirls and she sinks into unconsciousness once more; and as time drags by, she finds herself wondering why he hasn’t killed her yet, remembering the dagger tucked in the folds of her clothing; but although her hand reaches out, fumbling for the blade, she’s too tired and too weak, and instead his fingers close around the hilt, putting it safely out of reach, and he stares at her reproachfully, but she refuses to feel guilty.

As the pain gradually subsides, he tries to make conversation with her, but she resolutely refuses to answer his questions until gradually, she curses herself for noticing the softness of his fingers as he attends to her wound and pretends she is immune to the way his hands caress her skin, telling herself that the stars cannot live in the ocean; but this man is turning her world inside out so that she no longer knows whether she is earth or sky; and then she realises that they have been dancing with desire from the moment he brought her here, and that longing is now a spider, weaving its web around each minute that they lie together, cocooning them in a world that is at once more real than anything she has ever known, more terrible than anything she could have imagined.

But the stars cannot live in the ocean and she knows that when she is strong enough, she will have to kill him; and so for several days, she is an attentive lover, committing every inch of him to memory, storing him up for a later time when he will no longer exist; and when she finally decides to leave, she cuts his throat quickly and quietly, holding a pillow over his face to prevent any noise, before stealing away unseen, trying not to think of the life she has tasted in a land where a man was a warrior and the stars briefly lived in the ocean.

Like The Prose Day#12

Today sees Part 3 of our melodrama set in a college dorm. You’ve heard the view of Ally, an impartial observer; you’ve also seen the story through the eyes of Ken, one of the people actually involved in the love triangle; and today, you’re going to hear from Emma, the wronged girlfriend – but is everything really as it seems?

Triple Aspect – Emma

May 1st, 3am:

Mandy – my lovely Mandy; my best friend. Tears stream down my face as I look at her. I know that life will never be the same again.

March 10th, 12.30pm:

I’m walking back to the dorm room after my morning’s classes when I catch sight of that cute, blond boy in front of me. I know he lives in the same dorm as me because I see him from time to time, although we never talk – he’s just way out of my league. The other evening, I was sitting in one of the campus bars with Mandy, my roommate, and after a while, I realised that he was staring at us from across the room. I say ‘us’, but it was probably Mandy – she turns heads wherever she goes with her long, black hair and her distinctive dress sense. Don’t get me wrong – I like Mandy: she’s probably the closest thing I’ve got to a best friend – but I can’t help feeling like the clichéd ‘plain Jane’ when I’m around her.

“I think you’ve got an admirer,” I say, nodding my head in the direction of the Ken doll.

Mandy blushes. I can’t believe someone like her has so little confidence. She told me at the start of the year that she looked totally different in high school and decided to reinvent herself for college, but at heart, she’s still a bit of an introvert – likes making jewellery in her spare time; hangs around our room, listening to music (loads of weird bands no one else has ever heard of). Neither of us are party people, and the fact we’re here tonight in the bar is a bit of a break from routine for both of us – I guess you could say we’re seeing what ‘real students’ do every night.

The guy looks over at us again – he’s tall and blond and I somehow know he’s fallen for Mandy. My gut twists as I think about this: if the two of them get together, I’ll be on my own again. There’ll be no more cosy crafting afternoons; no more nights in, eating cookies as we work on our assignments; no more nights out, just the two of us together. Somehow, I always end up being the one who’s left out, so I resign myself to the fact that I’ll end up losing my roommate when she starts dating Mr Perfect.

The memory fades as I watch him now, entering the dorm, and wonder if I should follow him to see where his room is. Not that I’m planning on stalking him, you understand – I mean, he’s cute and all, but it would be so embarrassing if he thought I liked him.

My mind whirls and I’m hit with another flashback – a much older one this time. I was fifteen and my parents had taken me on holiday to this hotel in the middle of nowhere. There were some other teenagers staying there too with their families – I think it was some kind of arty retreat or something. Anyway, there was a boy my age I really liked and as the days went by, I found myself developing more and more of a crush on him; and then, on the last day, a group of us went for a hike up some sort of mountain and I thought it would be the perfect time to tell him how I felt, only it turned out he was already involved with one of the other girls in the group and I had to watch them making out when we got to the top. I still feel nauseous when I think about it now.

But I follow the guy anyway and he leads me right to my own door. I’m momentarily confused, hanging back in the corridor and trying to look as if I’m searching for my key so I can open one of the other doors. He pushes an envelope under the door of my room, then turns to leave, nodding at me as he passes. I say nothing, my mind wondering what’s going on.

It’s only as I start reading the note he left that I realise I was right all along. He’s left Mandy a poem, although I’m pretty sure he didn’t write it himself because the lines seem vaguely familiar, and he’s asked her if she wants to meet up for coffee in a few hours’ time. My heart stops momentarily as I read that bit – if she goes to see him at Starbucks and they get together, I’ll be on my own. I crumple up the letter, knowing I can’t ever let her see it. If she doesn’t turn up, he’ll just think she wasn’t interested. Unless …

My heart’s restarted and it’s working overtime now as I formulate my plan. What if I go to see this guy instead? I could tell him Mandy’s not interested in boys, or that she’s got a boyfriend already. I uncrumple the paper and check the details. 3pm, and the guy’s name is Ken. (I knew he looked just like a Ken doll!) I suppose I should feel guilty, but hey – all’s fair in love and war, right?

March 10th, 3pm:

Ken blinks at me in surprise. I can tell he’s wondering whether he put the note under the wrong door as I sit down on the chair opposite his and thank him for inviting me for coffee. “Your note was a lovely surprise!” I babble. “I mean, I’ve seen you around, of course, but I never knew you liked me.”

For a moment, I think he might be going to tell me the truth, but good manners win out and instead, he smiles politely, showing off all those perfect white teeth, and asks what I’d like to drink.

Over coffee, we chat and tell each other about ourselves. I mention my roommate – “You’ve probably seen her with me,” I say carelessly. “She’s got long dark hair and a leather jacket.” – and by the look in his eye, I can tell he’s regretting ending up with me instead. “Mandy will be so thrilled to know I’m seeing someone now,” I say, watching to see if he’ll choke on his coffee. He splutters slightly and I wonder if I’ve gone too far. “We’ll be able to double date with her and her boyfriend.”

His face slumps at the mention of the imaginary lover. “Does he go to school here too?” he asks.

“Oh, no,” I say airily. “Rob’s at Stanford. I guess Mandy’s always had a thing for super-intelligent guys.” (I’ve only been talking to Ken for ten minutes, but I’ve already established that he’s not very bright. It’s a good job he’s pretty, as I can’t see him ever amounting to much academically.)

I think I’ve done what I set out to do, so I get up to leave, but Ken – ever the gentleman – insists on walking me back to the dorm. We reach my room and I ask him if he wants to come in – luckily, Mandy’s there too, so I make a big show of showing off “my boyfriend”, knowing that Ken’s far too nice to contradict me. The spark kind of goes out of Mandy’s eyes when she hears we’re together, but she recovers pretty quickly and even asks us if we want to go with her to hear a band tonight. “I’ve asked Ally as well,” she says, mentioning a girl she sits with in Philosophy. “I think you know her too, don’t you, Ken? What I mean is,” and she blushes, “it won’t be awkward or anything – it’ll be the four of us in a group, so no one will feel left out.”

After Ken’s gone, I turn to Mandy, my heart beating fast. “Do you forgive me?” I ask.

“What for?” But I know she understands what I’m saying.

“I know you liked him too,” I continue, “but I bumped into him in Starbucks and we just kind of hit it off – and I really want this one to work out, Mand – you know what a tough time I had in high school.”

She gives me a quick hug, but I can’t ignore the sadness in her eyes.

March 30th:

I am a horrible person.

Somehow, I’ve managed to keep things going with Ken for the last three weeks – he’s too nice to tell me it’s a mistake and he’s in love with Mandy, but I can tell by the way he looks at her. I keep telling myself that it’s all in a good cause – Mandy’s my best friend and Ken’s just not good enough for her; but deep down, I know that I’m getting a kick out of having a boyfriend – especially one who’s so good-looking. I love the way that other girls turn and look at me enviously when I’m with him – ha! Not such a loser now, am I? All those comments in the yearbook about me being “least likely to get married” suddenly don’t seem so funny, do they?

Anyway, like I said, I’ve kept it going for three weeks, but I can tell he’s gearing up for the big speech. I can’t let him end things, though – not yet. I need to spin this out a while longer so I can convince Mandy that Ken would be a terrible boyfriend for her. It’s quite sweet, really, the way he’s tried to put me off him by being late or acting like a jerk – I’ve made sure I’ve given Mandy all the details and I think she might be going off him. Now, if I can just get him to break wind violently in front of her, or roll up to our room all drunk and disorderly, I might have a chance of destroying her crush for good.

(Later) I hate myself right now. Ken and I went for a walk, and I knew he was about to tell me it was over, so I started crying and told him my grandpa’s got cancer. I feel really mean about lying, but Ken’s so nice, I knew he’d never dump me if he thought I was already suffering. I was going to say it was my mom, but she and Dad are bound to come and visit at some point, and I don’t want anyone asking her questions and finding out I lied, so I made it my grandpa because that’s a bit more believable. Besides, he actually died a few years ago, so it’s not like he can tell anyone I’m making it up.

I probably sound crazy right now, but I don’t care. Mandy’s my friend, and I don’t want to lose her. She’s being ultra-nice to me at the moment – Ken told her and Ally about my grandpa; and today we had another one of our legendary sessions, with her sitting at her desk, making jewellery, and me at mine, painting a ceramic pot whilst crafting all the details about my grandpa’s illness (bowel cancer: he has nurses going into his home every day as he’s too sick to be moved). They’re all so sorry for me and I have never felt so loved.

April 25th: 10pm

I think I may have outmanoeuvred myself. This grandpa story has resulted in unseen complications, like Ken and Mandy both trying to “give me space” because they “know I’m going through a difficult time”. I suppose I’ve had to try to act upset and withdrawn – I don’t want anyone to think I’m heartless; but I would have thought Mandy knew me well enough to stay in with me for moral support.

She’s out late too. I wonder where she’s got to, out on her own.

And then a horrible thought strikes me: maybe she isn’t on her own: maybe it’s no coincidence that she and Ken are both elsewhere. I can’t lose her now – not after everything I’ve done to preserve this friendship.

(Later) I’m lying in the dark when the door opens and Mandy creeps in. Her flushed face and shining eyes tell me exactly what she’s been doing and who she’s been doing it with, but instead of talking to her, I squeeze my eyes shut and pretend to be asleep.

April 29th, 1pm:

I’m pretty sure Mandy and Ken are seeing each other secretly. I need proof though, so I’ve managed to get a spare key cut for Ken’s room (I just told the guy at security it was for my room and that my roommate keeps losing her key) and I’m on my way there now to see if I can find any evidence. Not that I can put the clock back, you understand, but I can sure as hell make them feel guilty for what they’ve done.

I feel kind of mean doing this, though, because they’ve both been so sweet recently when I’ve been feeling stressed about my grandpa – except none of that’s real: sometimes, the lines blur and I forget what’s true and what’s part of my elaborate fantasy world.

I’m going through the drawers in his desk when I hear voices outside, so I slip into the closet and stand as still as I can, my heart beating so loudly I’m sure it’s audible out in the corridor. And then I listen as the door opens and Ken enters – and I start feeling sick because he’s not alone – and there’s another girl’s voice, and I feel dizzy because a guy only takes a girl to his room in the middle of the day for one thing – and that one thing’s supposed to be with me, not someone else.

The world tilts momentarily, and then it rights itself once more and I recognise the other voice: Mandy – my lovely Mandy; my best friend. Tears stream down my face as I listen to her. I had my suspicions, but even so … How can she do this to me? To us? I stand there, crying in silence, and I know that life will never be the same again.

May 1st, 1am:

My heart’s pounding as we creep along the corridor – not because I’m scared someone will hear us and realise we’re drunk – well, the others are, a bit, but I’m stone cold sober: I made sure the bartender gave me light beers when the others were drinking the regular stuff – but because I’m finally going to confront my best friend for stealing my boyfriend. There’s a part of me, you see, that hopes Mandy will feel so guilty that she’ll stop  seeing Ken and then things can go back to the way they were before when it was just me and her. I can’t believe that I still haven’t told them I know – but I’ve needed to wait until I could get the four of us together, because I have to see Ally’s face so I know whether she was part of it too – has she known all along and been keeping it a secret from me?

May 1st, 2.11am:

“It’s not you,” he says, “it’s me. I’m not good enough for you, Em.” He looks so sincere when he says it – apart from his eyes, and they’re as guilty as hell. A part of me can’t believe that he’s actually doing this, that he’s breaking up with me in front of Ally and Mandy. And then I realise that I can’t let him get away with it: I have to confront him and Mandy now and make them admit he’s been two-timing me – but the room starts spinning, and my throat is hot and dry and uncomfortable, and all I can do is look accusingly at Mandy instead of denouncing them both.

“I’m so sorry, Em,” Mandy whispers. Ken shoots her a dirty look, but it seems she needs to confess and get it all off her chest, so I let her continue. “I’m so sorry – we never meant to hurt you.”

“How long has it been going on for?” I have to know.

“About three weeks.”

Each word is a dagger in my heart. Three weeks of him lying to me, cheating on me, kissing someone else – and more – behind my back. And until two days ago, I didn’t know – well, not for sure.

I hate him right now and I hate her too – but I think I hate myself most of all. I was trying to keep them apart, and instead all I’ve done is push them together.

“Thank you for your honesty,” I say, my voice tight and brittle. I wander over to the desk and pick up my craft knife, testing the weight in my hands, then put it down again. I’m not that girl anymore – the one who self-harms. Or am I? All of a sudden, I find I don’t know who I am anymore and what’s real and what’s not.

And then I remember the fourth person in the room. Did Ally know? I wonder. Did she know all the time what they were up to? Tears are pricking at my eyes as I turn to her and ask, “Did you know?” 

May 1st, 2.30am:

I still don’t know why I grabbed the craft knife off my desk. All I wanted was for both of them to know how much they’d hurt me – how they’d ripped my heart out by getting together behind my back. Once the knife was in my hand, I wanted to make them watch me bleed so they’d know how my heart was bleeding too – I wasn’t going to cut my wrists or anything dramatic like that: I just wanted to nick the skin a little – Ken’s always been pathetically sensitive to the sight of blood: he used to go to pieces if I had a nosebleed. And then both Ken and Mandy start shouting and trying to snatch the knife off me – and I panic – and Mandy somehow gets in the way – and I watch in horror as the knife makes contact with her neck… But it’s okay, because as long as we leave the knife there to stem the bleeding and call 911, she won’t die – because I won’t let her. And I’m about to pick up my phone when Ken – stupid, stupid Ken! – pulls the knife out of Mandy’s neck and we all watch in horror as she slumps into unconsciousness in his arms. And then I hear someone screaming, and I realise it’s me.

Mandy – my lovely Mandy; my best friend. Tears stream down my face as I look at her. All I wanted was not to lose her, but instead it seems like I’ve lost her forever. I look from Ally to Ken to Mandy, and I know that all of this is my fault and that life will never be the same again.