In response to a Retreat West photo prompt, my story was selected as one of the runners up in the competition.
A successful wool merchant bought a house in the Market Square for his new wife. Ten years later she’d been unable to produce an heir, so he looked for a more fertile wench in Leeds. He left her the house, but she needed an income. She rented out rooms to local peasant girls to entertain clients. The womenfolk of the town were furious, their husbands were frequent visitors.
One Saturday night Mrs Scraggs followed her husband and caught him in the act. She chased him out of the bedroom, down the stairs and out into the square. A gaggle of wronged wives, gawped at his nakedness. They pounced on him and dragged him to the waiting stocks.
‘It’s a frosty night, Daisy have pity,’ he wailed.
The women hissed and spat on him and worse still made fun of his diminished manhood. Two hundred years later the house became a cafe, named after the unfortunate man. To this day they still offer a wide range of tarts.
This is the edited full version of my story that I used as a basis for my Ad Hoc weekly flash fiction competition.
Martha rests on a tuft of coarse grass gazing out to sea for any sign of life. The final rays of sun sink below the darkening clouds. A glowing golden streak ripples across the water. On the horizon orange bleeds into vermillion, deeper still to purple. The sharp blades of grass attack her bare white legs, scratching her skin leaving thin red trails. The wind ruffles her short brown hair; she feels cold in her thin white t-shirt; below her cut off denim jeans the goose bumps start to gather. The sun descends beneath the water line; darkness falls across the shimmering sea until all light is gone. She forces her legs to push her body up; kneeling she offers a silent prayer.
Picking her way back from the shore, grains of sand infiltrate her feet, coarse between her toes. Short strides up the narrow stone strewn path. Along the road there is no traffic, no streetlights, no sound. Staring up at the twinkling stars, wispy clouds wash over the face of a thin crescent moon. Quickly she marches back to her studio in the fisherman’s cottage on the edge of the moor. The heavy wooden door creaks open, a reassuring metallic sound as she turns the key to lock out the brooding night. Inside a haven of peace, tranquility and solitude, she reaches out for the switch on the brass lamp inside the door. In the corner by the small window stands her easel displaying a half finished canvas. A yacht on the sea, pitching against the tide; the distant hills several shades of grey. On her desk stand brushes in a jar, the smell of turpentine. Her seascapes adorn the walls, stormy seas, the power of the waves and boats in distress.
His red chair in the corner remains empty; his musky fragrance still lingers on the furniture. Lying on the couch her eyes close and she can breathe him in. Thoughts rush through her head, memories of their time together, hopes and fears for tomorrow. Her body trembles, tears trickle down her face like waves rolling to the shore. She wakes in the chill morning light shielded by threadbare curtains. Bleary eyed she wanders to the bedroom and pulls the heavy blue blanket over her cold and tired limbs. A wave of sleep submerges her within minutes.
Hours later she is woken by heavy knocking on the door, she stumbles out of bed.
‘Hello … Who is it? What time is it?’
Still drowsy, she fumbles to unlock the heavy wooden door.
‘Martha, gosh you look as though you’ve just woken up.’
Ruth, her old school friend who runs the café in the village.
‘I thought I’d see you at church this morning.’
‘Oh … it’s … it’s Sunday … I, I forgot, sorry Ruth. Come in, I’ll make us a drink.’
Ruth sits in his chair while Martha is in the kitchen.
‘How are you my dear, I heard your terrible news.’
The room falls silent, the grey stone walls offer no warmth; the embers of the fire lie still and cold.
‘Maybe he’ll return one day, there’s always hope.’
Martha stares into the blackness of her coffee, a solitary solemn tear escapes the corner of her eye, trickling over her cheek. Ruth’s words of comfort dry up; nervously she looks at Martha’s paintings on the wall.
‘The sea is such a lonely place, the wind, the waves, the sun and the rain.’
‘I love the sea.’
‘You could make a fresh start, a new beginning; you have your paintings.’
‘I can only paint the sea.’
‘There are hills and valleys you can paint.’
‘I can only paint blue.’
‘Why not come and help me at the café.’
‘That’s very kind Ruth, but my place is here. If he returns, how will he find me?’
Ruth stares through the grubby window looking for the right words; outside the sky is grey and overcast.
‘He was a good man, he loved you so much.’
‘He was my driving force; I’m empty without him. He was so tender when we made love, so gentle, so kind.’
Ruth’s blush matches the colour of his chair; she shuffles nervously.
‘When he held me, I felt safe. He was so strong, my inspiration.’
Both women stare out of the window in silence.
‘I must be going,’ Ruth declares. ‘I said I’d have lunch with Mrs Fotheringham today.’
Once again alone with her thoughts and memories; Martha replays the fateful day in her mind.
‘Why did I argue? We never argued,’ she berates herself.
‘I should have kissed him, told him I loved him. How stupid was I?’
‘That first day our eyes met was pure magic. I knew I would never love anyone else.’
Her mind and body ache; she lies down on the couch. Memories dance before her eyes, time stands still as the hours pass. She stirs; opening her eyes it is already starting to get dark.
‘The shore, I must go to the shore.’
She opens the front door and steps out to view the rugged landscape. The winding road leads up from the beach and past her cottage to the village two miles away. The long grass sways gently in the evening breeze; the sky dark and fitful matches Martha’s mood. Scanning the incoming tide she sees a figure down on the breakwater. The wind rustles branches in the trees. Someone is climbing up from the sea. She strains her eyes to focus; a dark figure is walking towards her cottage. It’s a man. Her eyes open wider; her heart beats faster as tension knots her stomach. She walks towards him; short steps at first then her pace quickens.
A non-fiction story in response to ‘An afternoon to remember’ prompt, in less than 300 words.
Hungry, tired and alone, I stepped off the train at Munich after twenty-four hours of travelling and very little sleep. My first adventure abroad, one train to Kings Cross, another to Harwich and a night ferry to the Hook of Holland. Then the final train journey through sleepy flat lands with early morning cyclists. The industrial North of West Germany, the gothic beauty of Cologne cathedral, the capital Bonn; southwards along the Rhine with pretty, picture postcard villages clinging to the valley sides. At last, the commercial cities of Stuttgart and Augsburg before the final destination.
Heavy bag in one hand, map in the other I soon found my hotel close by the station. Once checked in I needed something to eat, I returned to the station. I was too early for Oktoberfest, but decided a beer would help me sleep. A neon sign, ‘Metropol Bar’ sounded ideal; I opened the door, it was as black as night inside. In the gloom I made out couples sat in cubicles. No sign of a bar, I wandered further in; from nowhere a tall blonde woman appeared.
‘Ein bier, bitte.’
‘Bier und schnapps oder bier und cognac,’ she replied.
This sounded rather potent for my delicate taste.
‘Nein, ein bier, bitte,’ I repeated.
‘Bier und schnapps oder bier und cognac,’ she retaliated.
She understood my German, why couldn’t she just sell me a beer?’
‘Nein, ein bier bitte!’ I insisted.
‘You drink ze beer and I drink ze schnapps.’
Struck by a light bulb moment; I realised what type of establishment I was in. With a shaky ‘Nein,’ I made a hasty exit, anticipating a knife in the back before I reached the door; I didn’t look back.
A slight re-imagining of Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale, in a contemporary London setting. Another Christopher Fielden challenge this time focusing on nonsense flash fiction.
Snowy was late, for a very important date; he’d been invited to Alice’s tea party down at the Rabbit Hole. The invitation said six thirty and don’t be late! It was one of those days on the Victoria Line; the platforms were jam packed with tourists. His day at the office had been manic, but he’d managed to escape at five thirty.
The train was full of office types trying to get to whichever wine bar their Thursday is the new Friday drinks night was at. With no phone signal or Wi-Fi he was digitally cut off from the outside world, although he was in physical contact with any number of sweaty individuals speaking in foreign tongues.
Alice wasn’t a girl to be kept waiting, one frosty stare could make people vanish through the looking glass. Meanwhile, down the Rabbit Hole, she made sure everything was ready. She’d invited all her former work colleagues from Carroll & Lewis solicitors. Her ex-boyfriend Graham, with the cheesy grin said he’d stop by later. Mike, the maniacal milliner had agreed to come and so had her best friend Penelope, the Internet dating queen.
Adverbs are often overused by aspiring writers. As a result, a common writing tip is ‘don’t overuse adverbs,’ some observers suggest all adverbs should be banned! Christopher Fielden has come up with a flash fiction challenge to positively embrace the adverb; as many as possible in a very short story.
Below is my contribution which will hopefully be published in the next volume of the Adverb Challenge Anthology.
Susan sensuously made her way onto the dance floor. Red watched this heavenly creature move swiftly towards him.
‘Let’s dance,’ he yelled noisily.
He grabbed her hand; they waltzed across the floor erratically. Slowly they danced as one, painstakingly measuring their steps, unbelievably looking like a couple. The music stopped suddenly; mistakenly they carried on dancing oblivious to their surroundings.
‘Oh Red,’ she whispered quietly, their eyes locked together magically.
Reciprocally they stopped centrally on the dance floor.
‘Oh Susan,’ Red exuberantly moaned.
Blissfully they fell into each other’s arms, ineffably in love.
A pure fantasy story, which was fun to write. Inspiration came from passing through Baker Street tube station on the underground on a regular basis. Just outside the station is Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks (not to mention Sherlock Holmes’ abode). One day on the train as I went through the station I thought … What if?
Jack had been planning his escape for some time; this was no life for a serial killer! People staring at him, speaking in languages he didn’t understand. A hundred years had passed since he’d prowled the streets of Whitechapel. He missed the excitement and the thrill of the chase. He longed for the feel of knife in his hand and the sight of blood.
Tonight he’d follow the last of the visitors out of the Chamber of Horrors; there were some evil looking characters down there. There had to be a way out, a secret passage or something, his long black coat and top hat shouldn’t arouse suspicion. At closing time the stewards hurried the stragglers along. Slowly they wandered past and he nonchalantly stepped off his plinth to follow them. Upstairs they went into the gift shop to buy last minute souvenirs. Jack loitered in the foyer trying to look inconspicuous. Looking round he realised he was being followed; the guy who stood near the doorway in an oversized fur waistcoat, wearing a metal helmet and carrying an axe was making his escape too. They’d never spoken before but Attila grunted in acknowledgement.
Nervously they stood staring at each other when a tall, slim woman in a tight blue cat suit bounded up the stairs to join them; the Invisible Woman. Jack had not seen a woman dressed like this before; he looked her up and down with a puzzled expression.
‘This place is kinda dull, a girl needs some adventure. You guys mind if I join you?’
Jack shook his head.
‘No, I’m heading for Whitechapel,’ he explained.
‘Is that in good old London Town?’ she asked.
‘It certainly is madam, do you know it?’
‘Never heard of it, but I’m sure with my super powers we can soon find it.’
Jack looked mystified, some help would be good but he wasn’t sure about this woman. The visitors drifted out of the shop heading for the exit. From the entertainment section a petite young blonde with long curly hair rushed up to them.
‘G’day mate, you doing a runner? Mind if I join you?’
He looked in disbelief at the scantily clad woman with a strange accent. She wore a short, blue sparkly dress showing most of her bare legs. It was low cut at the front and held up by a single thin shoulder strap.
‘Must be a whore,’ thought Jack.
‘Of course you may join us, my dear. I’ll look after you.’
A sinister half smile crossed his lips. The unlikely looking quartet followed the visitors through the exit as the bemused steward held the door open for them. Once on Baker Street they looked to Jack for directions. He searched for a familiar landmark.
‘So where now?’ enquired the Invisible Woman.
‘Let’s take the Tube,’ Kylie suggested.
Jack was trying to get his bearings, whilst Attila couldn’t stop staring at Kylie’s shapely legs.
‘Come on you guys, down here,’ she ordered, leading the way into the underground station.
They mingled with the late night travellers, just another group of fancy dress revellers looking for a party. Jack marvelled at the array of brightly lit wall mounted ticket machines.
‘Which way to Whitechapel? Kylie asked the ticket man.
‘The Bakerloo Line love, change onto the District at Embankment.’
‘This way,’ she shouted.
‘Not so fast love, you’ll need a ticket,’ advised the ticket man blocking her way.
Attila was not impressed; he pushed Kylie out of the way and thumped the ticket man hard in the face, blood streamed from his nose. He forced his way past with Jack and the girls close behind. Jack felt at home in the bowels of the station surrounded by the dark Victorian architecture. The platform was busy and they quickly merged into the crowd. Their fellow travellers were dressed in a variety of evening dresses, smart suits, scruffy denim and assorted ethnic colours. A bright white light appeared down the tunnel, getting bigger, brighter and noisier. The approaching train roared to a crescendo as it burst out of the tunnel. Jack and Attila took a couple of paces back, shocked by the size and power of the machine. It came to a halt and the doors slid open with a quiet whooshing noise.
‘Get on quick,’ ordered Kylie.
The Invisible Woman appeared inside the carriage as the two men dithered on the platform. Kylie gestured to them to get on the train.
‘Come on slowcoach if you wanna to go to Whitechapel.’
Jack hesitantly stepped into the carriage as Attila followed warily. The doors closed with a clunk and the train accelerated back into the tunnel. The sudden movement startled Jack and Attila as they stood in the corridor. The girls sat down attracting lascivious attention from the adjacent male passengers. Regent’s Park, Oxford Circus; the station names put Jack at ease, Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross.
‘OK this is our stop,’ barked Kylie as they pulled into Embankment station. ‘Everybody out.’
Stepping out onto the platform they looked around.
‘Now where?’ enquired Jack.
‘I don’t know cobber, the guy said something about the district.’
‘I thought you knew this place,’ the Invisible Woman complained.
Jack looked lost.
‘Let’s follow the crowd,’ Kylie suggested.
Up the escalator, another new experience for Jack and Attila as they exited the station and the crowd dispersed along the Embankment. The road was busy with large, red double decker buses and black taxis hurrying to their destinations.
Jack had not seen a bus or a car before; there wasn’t a horse in sight. The future looked very strange.
‘Where’s all the Hansom Cabs gone?’ he mused.
‘How long have you been in there?’ asked Kylie.
‘Too long,’ Jack scowled.
Across the road he spotted the River Thames, to his left he saw the familiar dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
‘Gee, that’s a big wheel,’ noted the Invisible Woman looking the other way.
Jack looked at the London Eye in amazement; he’d never seen such a monstrosity, there seemed to be people trapped in it high above the river. Things had not changed for the better, during his enforced imprisonment.
‘I know where I am now,’ he declared. ‘If we follow the river we’ll soon be in Whitechapel.’
Wandering eastwards along the Embankment Jack marvelled at the tall floodlit buildings in the City, the skyline had changed so much in the last hundred years.
‘Do you know where you’re going,’ moaned the Invisible Woman.
‘Of course I do; we can cut through Fleet Street to St Paul’s Cathedral. We’ll be halfway to Whitechapel by then.’
‘Why Whitechapel? Kylie asked.
‘My favourite night time haunt; don’t you know who I am?’
‘Some creepy guy in a top hat, I saw you making a run for it and decided to join you.’
‘I’m known as Jack, I pledged to rid this town of miserable whores.’
‘How did you do that’ asked Kylie.
‘There’s only one way to silence them for good. Rip their insides out!’
‘Not Jack the Ripper,’ she exclaimed.
‘At your service, madam.’
‘Wow, you’re an arch villain,’ exclaimed the Invisible Woman.
‘He’s a murderer, I don’t think we should be helping him’, added Kylie.
‘You don’t understand, my mission was to clean up the streets of this fair city. Those women are parasites, destroying the moral fibre of society.’
‘Most of them are destitute, usually because of a man,’ Kylie argued.
‘Nonsense, my dear.’
‘What about women’s rights,’ she demanded.
‘Women don’t have any rights,’ Jack insisted.
Kylie turned to the Invisible Woman.
‘He’s a monster.’
Jack strode on purposefully, leading the party past St Pauls Cathedral. Attila blindly followed Jack and the girls, bemused by the surroundings and traffic, mesmerised by the curvaceous form of the Invisible Woman and Kylie’s lack of clothing.
‘What are you looking for?’ quizzed Kylie.
‘Questions, more questions!’ snapped jack.
‘I don’t know where we’re going,’ she retorted.
‘Commercial Street; I used to frequent a number of public houses there.’
‘We’ve just passed a couple of pubs, if you want a drink we can go in there and you can buy us all a drink.’ she suggested.
‘The Ten Bells was my regular haunt.’
‘Sounds spooky to me; man you’re really weird,’ added the Invisible Woman.
‘Tell your friend to stop staring! He’s giving me the creeps.’ Kylie complained.
‘He’s not my friend; he followed me like you did.’
An awkward silence descended as Jack led the way. He recognised the Bank of England as he continued along Threadneedle Street. Further down the road he recognised Spitalfields Market and knew he was home. At the junction with Commercial Street, the Ten Bells public house stood just across the road. It was just has he remembered it, but now illuminated with bright neon signs with loud music blaring out.
‘Gee, a real old English pub,’ Kylie noted.
‘Say Jack, there’s a guy over there looks just like you,’ the Invisible Woman pointed out.
In front of the pub a man dressed in a black cloak and top hat was addressing a large group of people. His double had one arm round the neck of a woman in a long dishevelled dress and a knife in his other hand.
‘That fellow’s an imposter!’ exclaimed Jack.
Attila decided to confront the rogue. A car blasted its horn narrowly missing him. This alerted the group to his presence as he charged across the road waving his axe. Splitting in all different directions they left Jack’s double holding the knife, as his victim broke free amid the confusion. Attila charged into him knocking him off his feet as several of the women in the group screamed. The knife clattered onto the pavement. Jack rushed across the road to snatch it.
‘Who is he Jack? Why’s he dressed like you?’ Kylie shouted.
Jack stood over the prostrate figure alongside Attila.
‘Get up and explain yourself sir,’ he demanded.
Looking up groggily the man did a double take when he saw Jack standing with the knife in his hand.
‘It’s Thursday, it’s our turn to for the Ten Bells tonight, what are you doing?’
‘I don’t care what day it is,’ Jack retaliated.
In the distance a siren wailed; it was getting louder.
‘What’s that?’ rasped Jack.
‘Police!’ shouted the Invisible Woman.
‘Time to vanish,’ he shouted.
Attila stood rooted to the spot, confused by the excitement and shouting. Kylie made a run for it round the back of the pub; Jack followed with the knife in his hand. Through a maze of back streets they ran, Jack chasing the athletic Kylie. She stopped at the end of a dark alley. Jack looked round; the Invisible Woman was nowhere to be seen.
‘That was a close one,’ gasped Kylie.
‘It used to be much easier to disappear into the night,’ Jack complained.
‘Now where?’ she asked as she stood panting in the shadows.
He eyed her up and down, her heaving chest and low cut dress proved too much now he had the knife. He grabbed her round the neck and pulled her towards him.
‘I said I’d look after you, I’ve waited a long time for this.’
‘What are you doing Jack?’ she screamed, struggling to break free.
He lifted the knife and plunged it viciously into her chest.
‘Jack!’ she screamed again struggling to break free.
He pulled the knife out ready for a second blow, but there was no blood.
Tightening his grip he swiftly stabbed her in the abdomen, again no blood.
‘What are you doing, Jack?’ she screamed again. ‘Help, help, somebody help me.’
Confounded by the lack of blood and winded by a sharp elbow in the ribs he dropped the knife as she struggled free.
Staring at the stab wounds, just marks on her skin, he turned to make a run for it down the dark alleyways and straight out into Commercial Street. The double decker bus driver sounded his horn and braked hard. Too late, the bus screeched to a halt; the stunned driver leapt out. There on the road was the black cloak, a battered top hat and a mass of shattered wax.
I’m not usually a writer of fantasy, but this is a fun story I wrote some time ago.
Dave was found under a brown and white spotted toadstool one wet autumn morning by a childless couple of squirrels that adopted him. They fed him a diet of acorns, hazelnuts and droplets of morning dew. His face was contorted in a twisted scowl; his right eye much bigger than the left, his large crooked nose came to a sharp point, just like his ears. He walked with a stoop as a result of growing up in a tree trunk and was as mischievous as any pixie given the chance.
Trixie’s wings had grown to full size and the potency of her fairy dust was now sufficiently strong that she could use it for magical spells. Freya, Queen of the Fairies was her mother, a title she would inherit one day. Trixie’s dark auburn hair glowed like chestnuts roasting on an open fire. A small perfectly shaped nose sat between her bewitching dark brown eyes. Red rosebud shaped lips perched above a pretty, dimpled chin. This was the first year her mother allowed her to attend the Valentines disco. It was the only day of the year that fairies were allowed to socialise with the elves and pixies.
Dave had heard about the disco from his only friend, Spike the hedgehog. Spike had acted as bouncer for the last three years, throwing out over zealous elves and pixies who’d drunk far too much elderberry juice. Dave had recently moved out of his parents’ nest and had found himself a more spacious abode. It was a semi-detached cave next to the waterfall. He spent much of his time sat on a rock below the waterfall, listening to the roar of the water cascading over the ledge above and crashing down into the magic pool. He’d often see the fairies flitting through the trees. One in particular had caught his good eye. She wore a short, frilly dress, golden in colour that sparkled in the late evening sunshine. Her fine gossamer wings made a delicate humming noise as she flew. She practised swooping from tree to tree, occasionally scattering a little of her fairy dust to test her magical powers.
Trixie’s mother had warned her about the pixies and elves. They were devious, playing tricks on the animals and sometimes the fairies. There was the cautionary tale of young Letitia, who’d been banished from the glade after an unsavoury incident with Ernie the Elf last year. He’d lured her to the Woodman’s cottage at the edge of the forest. No one really knew what had happened, but Ernie was sent to work for an ogre on the other side of the valley.
Dave wasn’t popular amongst the other elves and pixies; they called him names, made fun of him and wouldn’t let him join in with their pranks. He spent most of his time alone, sat on his rock watching the forest creatures go about their business.
‘You should come to the Valentines disco tomorrow,’ urged Spike.
‘You’ll meet more people there, and some of the fairies usually drop by for a boogie.’
Dave wasn’t sure what a boogie was; his parents hadn’t educated him in the social skills. But they’d shown him how to collect nuts! With further cajoling from Spike, Dave reluctantly agreed to come to the disco. He might meet his favourite fairy and she could sprinkle her fairy dust on him. He was so excited at the thought that he toppled off his rock and fell backwards into the water. Spike couldn’t stop laughing. Dave managed to crawl out of the shallow pool and slumped back on his rock looking bedraggled. A trickle of water ran down his nose from his wet hair.
‘You need to smarten up before tomorrow night,’ chuckled Spike.
‘None of the fairies will speak to you looking like that.’
Meanwhile, back at the Queen’s lair, Trixie was excited at the thought of her first Valentines disco. Her mother had found one of her old lacy white dresses; she’d tried it on, it was a perfect fit. Trixie looked very grown up in her mother’s dress, and tried a few dance moves. Freya smiled fondly at her daughter.
‘Just beware of the pixies, whatever you do don’t talk to them. Remember what happened to Letitia.’
‘What did happen to Letitia, Mummy?’
‘I’ll tell you one day, my dear.’
The clearing in the glade had been decorated with garlands of early spring flowers by some of the elves. Spike was helping to set up the stage at one end on the trunk of an old oak tree that had fallen down during the autumn storms. A group of four beetles had agreed to provide the music for the event, but they had just won a talent competition and had taken a ticket to ride. At short notice a group of three crickets agreed to perform. They’d had a minor hit in the forest some years ago with their recording of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep!’ Finally everything was ready; dusk fell on the glade as the silvery moon rose above the tall fir trees. Glow-worms were strategically positioned on branches to light the perimeter of the dance floor.
Dave was one of the first to arrive. After getting his hair washed in the waterfall yesterday, he’d combed it for the first time. Instead of his usual olive green pixie outfit, he’d put on his best pair of bright red trousers and matching waistcoat.
‘You look smart tonight,’ Spike remarked.
Dave glowed with pride, a crooked smile spread across his lips. No one had ever described him as smart before. Spike directed him over to the bar, where Thumper was acting as barman for the evening.
‘Evening Dave, do you want a drink?’
‘Yes please,’ squeaked Dave.
‘Elderberry juice, only one acorn a goblet,’ Thumper advised.
Dave had picked up a couple acorns on his way to the disco. The old habits he’d been taught by his parents were finally paying off. He took his drink and sat on one of the vacant toadstools at the edge of the dance floor. The crickets were still warming up, rubbing their legs together; the only ones on the dance floor were a couple of blackbirds flapping about.
Trixie spent a long time getting ready; she looked at her reflection in the stream. Her silky brown hair shone; tied back in a neat ponytail with an ivy creeper, to keep it in place whilst she was flying.
‘You look beautiful, darling,’ Freya said with pride.
Trixie turned this way and that checking her appearance, making sure her dress was just right.
‘I’ll fly over later and make sure you’re alright.’
‘There’s no need Mummy; I’m a fully grown fairy now.’
With a quick flap of her wings she leapt into the air and sped off to the disco. The Queen watched in silence, remembering when she first wore that dress.
Trixie swooped down and landed at the edge of the dance floor next to Dave. He couldn’t believe his eyes. His heart skipped a beat and his pulse started racing as he ogled her up and down. She looked beautiful, amazing in the white dress. Looking around she couldn’t help staring at Dave with his pointy ears and sharp nose. Her attention was drawn to his eyes, one large, one small and his contorted face.
‘Hello,’ croaked Dave, almost falling off his toadstool.
Trixie thought about her Mother’s advice and decided the other side of the dance floor might be safer. Without replying she took off sweeping low over the grassy glade landing next to Spike. Here was someone she knew, a friendly face she could trust.
‘Hello Princess Trixie, welcome to the disco.’
‘You need to watch that pixie over there,’ she told Spike. ‘He tried talking to me!’
‘Dave’s lonely but he has a heart of gold; he wouldn’t hurt you,’ Spike reassured her.
‘But … but … he looks odd.’
Spike confided in Trixie, telling her Dave’s sad life story. Feeling sorry for Dave and upset by her reticence towards him she thought it would be kind to go and talk to him, maybe even apologise for her brusque behaviour.
After Trixie had flown off, Dave decided he would use his last acorn to buy another elderberry juice. The first one tasted so good. He felt more relaxed now, although a little upset by Trixie’s brush off. Thumper happily poured out another goblet for Dave. He stood at the end of the bar with his drink. It was getting busier now; all the toadstools were taken by pixies, elves and an assortment of small animals.
He saw her fly back over the dance floor and jumped with surprise when she landed next to him again.
‘Hello Dave, I’m Trixie. I’m sorry I was rude to you earlier. Spike told me all about you.’
Dave sort of smiled, his lips curled at one end while the other end remained motionless. The elderberry juice had given him a warm feeling in his stomach; he felt much braver now.
‘That’s alright, not many people speak to me.’
By now the crickets had started playing their catchy little tunes.
‘Would you like to dance Dave?’ Trixie asked.
Dave nodded excitedly and grabbed Trixie’s hand. He led her in to the middle of the open space and started his rather lopsided dancing. Hopping from foot to foot. Trixie stood back a little from him and swayed gently in time to the music.
‘You’re a good dancer,’ he shouted.
Trixie just smiled and carried on grooving. Dave moved a little closer trying to mimic her body movements. He was entranced by the way her hips swayed and gyrated. Her wings gently swayed from side to side. In spite of his truncated height Dave was still slightly taller than Trixie. His closeness made her slightly uneasy, but Dave loved every minute. He reached out and took hold of her hand again; swinging her arm backwards and forwards. He was ecstatic, dancing with a real fairy princess. The crickets stopped chirping so Dave led Trixie back to the bar where he’d left his drink.
‘I’ve seen you flying round the forest and sprinkling your fairy dust.’
‘I’ve just been practising, I can start trying out magic spells now.’
Dave was excited by this news; this was his dream come true.
‘Could you do magic on me?’ he enquired.
‘What sort of magic.’
‘I’d like to be a handsome pixie, it’s no fun looking like this and walking this way.’
A dark shadow descended over them, accompanied by a sudden flapping of wings. Dave turned round as Freya swooped down and landed on the end of the bar.
‘Trixie! What did I tell you?’
Her cheeks turned bright crimson, stunned by her Mothers sudden appearance.
‘But … but, I’m only talking to him Mummy.’
Freya turned to look at Dave who was startled by her presence; his knees felt weak, his confidence just drained away.
‘I know your sort,’ she snarled. ‘Looking to tempt innocent fairies into the forest and take them back to the Woodman’s cottage.’
‘No … no,’ Dave stuttered.
‘You’re all alike. Pixies, elves; you’re all evil!’ she shouted.
Dave stood there trembling, open mouthed and speechless. Turning back to Trixie she flapped her wings ready for take off.
‘Home, with me NOW!’ she commanded hovering just above Dave’s head.
‘I … I was just starting to enjoy it,’ Trixie pleaded.
‘Remember what happened to Letitia,’ her Mother snarled.
Looking down Trixie flapped her wings and gradually took off without any further dispute. Tears formed in Dave’s big eye and his lips began to tremble. Thumper looked on sympathetically.
‘Who’s Letitia?’ wept Dave.
Laurent’s eyes ached, he lay down on his bed. Unfinished canvases stacked in the corner; a blitz of rich, vibrant colours shape vaguely discernable figures. The walls covered in unsold works; young women; their clothes a tangled mess or laid prostrate before the artist. Colours were bright; the detail that binds them had faded. Missing shapes filled in from memory, or guesswork. Since the turn of the century foreign artists have descended on the City of Light. The twentieth century unravels around them, sweeping away principles and ideas.
‘This year’s Grand Exhibition will be the best ever with these young artists.’
‘I have an idea for a portrait,’ Laurent muses.
‘Portraits, portraits, that’s all you paint. Do something different!’
Henri looked round the shabby studio. The half finished canvases, the palette full of strong colours; stale scraps of food on the table.
‘You’ve lost your touch.’
‘Non, my eyes … I’m losing my eyes.’
‘This studio is too dark, you need more light.’
‘I can’t afford a new studio; I couldn’t afford my old apartment.’
‘Paint outside, a landscape, the river, the tower … anything.’
Laurent closed his eyes and his ears. He shook his head; the new world was a frightening place, it challenged his values and beliefs.
‘I’m holding a salon on Thursday for new artists, come and see their work; they see the world through different eyes.’
‘Who are these new artists? Why can’t they paint like me?’
‘Why can’t you paint like them, Laurent?
The question hit him like a metro train bursting out of a tunnel. A sudden blast of air, the blinding flash of light and an acrid smell of smoke. He shrugged his shoulders.
‘I am too old, my eyes are too tired.’
‘Come and talk to them, see their works; hear their passion, feel their anger.’
Laurent closed his eyes and sighed.
‘Monsieur Picasso, a young Spaniard; he paints strange faces and weird shapes.
Laurent reached for the cognac, refilled both glasses and emptied the bottle.
‘Who wants to look at weird faces? Who will buy them?’
‘It’s a different way of looking at people, at the world.’
He wished his hearing was failing rather than his eyesight.
‘I forgot to tell you, I’ve sold the dancer’s portrait.’
‘Ah … Monique, she is a good girl. How much? I’ve only a few francs left.’
‘Forty five, I tried to get fifty but he wouldn’t go any higher.’
‘C’est la vie! I can pay her now.’
‘I sold two Picasso’s; two hundred francs, my client thought it a good price, he would have paid more.’
Laurent frowned, studied the empty cognac bottle then his works in progress.
‘I can start a new portrait, she’s an attractive girl.’
‘Is she a whore?’
‘She is a dancer … but she needs money.’
Henri looked deep in thought. He walked over to the incomplete pictures and flicked through them.
‘Maybe I could sell this one … and this one, even unfinished. They are like the new styles.’
‘They’re not finished … why would people pay for them?’
‘I have many clients, looking for new works.’
‘Take them, take both of them, they’re no use to me.’
‘Start something new for the Exhibition.’
‘I have nothing, just my portraits.’
‘Not more portraits, Laurent! You could do an imaginative nude, you have the whore; try a landscape.’
‘A nude is so dull, so monotone, I prefer strong colours.’
‘I want a large canvas, something shocking.’
The light faded, Laurent cursed; colours descended into a kaleidoscope of light and dark. A flame haired young woman sat motionless on a hard wicker chair; her clothes dishevelled.
‘My eyes, Monique … my eyes.’
A weary sigh escaped her lips. Her face creased into a feint smile; she stood up, stretched her back and pulled her blouse together.
‘Can I see?’ she asked.
‘Tomorrow, can you come again tomorrow?’
She struggled to fasten the buttons with her cold hands then wrapped her thick woollen shawl round her shoulders.
‘Oui, tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Wear the same clothes.’
She nodded; stood in front of the dusty mirror she combed her tangled locks.
‘Monsieur Sauveterre has sold your last portrait, I’ll have money and food tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Merci, I have to dance tomorrow night.’
‘Are you working this evening?’
She shook her head.
‘I need to sleep, I was out all last night for five lousy francs.’
Wednesday morning Laurent woke up to a loud noise like a hammer blow to his skull. The banging continued; he heard a gruff voice muttering outside. He cursed under his breath. Dressed in yesterday’s clothes he pulled back the blankets and shuffled to the door. He recognised the voice, Monsieur Laporte his landlord. Laurent felt for the key in the lock and turned it with a metallic click. Laporte bumbled in pushing past him. A small, heavily built man with dark greasy hair and a squeaky mouse-like voice; he owned and ran the café downstairs.
‘Ah Laurent you’re in, how are you today?’
‘Tired, hungry and I have no money.’
‘You still owe last month’s rent.’
‘Monsieur Sauveterre sold one of my portraits, I can pay you tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow, always tomorrow!’
Laporte’s narrow eyes bulged and he threw his hands in the air. Laurent ignored his indignation.
‘I could offer this studio to plenty of artists, and they would pay more.’
‘You know I live here now, I eat downstairs when I can.’
‘I know, I know, but I’m not a charity for impoverished artists!’
‘Take one of my paintings, any one; I know you like Monique.’
‘I cannot feed my children with a painting Laurent.’
‘I said, I’ll pay tomorrow.’
‘My wife is not a patient woman, that’s why I spend my time in the café.’
Laporte perused the first portrait; he tilted his head first one way, then the other.
‘That is Monique?’
‘Oui, I may add a bit more colour; her eyes are not finished.’
‘Ah, she has seductive eyes.’
Laurent picked up the canvas and brought it close to his face.
‘Mysterious eyes and an exquisite nose.’
‘She has the body of angel,’ Laporte declared.’
‘Madame Laporte may not agree with you.’
‘No, no … I cannot have the picture, Laurent. My wife … she would not understand.’
He turned to leave, his face crimson, small beads of sweat appeared on his temples.
‘Don’t forget, two months rent now.’
Laurent scoured his studio for leftovers. Underneath a compositional sketch he found remnants of a stale baguette; dry, hard, it tasted of sawdust. He’d promised Monique sustenance, an empty promise if she arrived before Henri. Still tired from the previous evening’s drinking he decided to lie down. At first he didn’t hear the gentle tap, tap, tap on his door. A louder knock opened his eyes; he arose and stumbled towards the door. He unlocked it to find a distraught Monique, sobbing.
‘Come in child, what’s the matter?’
‘That man, he’s an animal!’
‘Oui, he is a pig.’
She wrapped her arms rcound his waist and nestled her head against his shoulder; tears cascaded over her cheeks. Laurent held her close, she was cold, a musty smell from her mess of hair.
‘After last nights show, he made me go on the streets. I was so tired from the night before.’
‘Why my child?’
‘He’d lost five hundred francs at the roulette wheel and still owed fifty. He wanted more money.’
‘Did you go?’
‘He threw me out.’
Laurent pulled her close again, stroked her hair and brushed his fingers gently against her cold, damp cheek.
‘I made thirty five francs, but still he was not happy. I have to go again tonight.’
‘He’s a brute, he lives off you.’
‘I only gave him thirty, I hid five francs in my sleeve.’
Downstairs in the café Laporte was beside himself when he saw Monique. He waited on them personally. She offered to pay but he waved his hands and refused payment.
‘My pleasure my dear, and my good friend Laurent.’
Feeling much better in the afternoon, Monique sat on Laurent’s couch and started to unbutton her blouse.
‘We don’t have to paint today, you’re tired.’
‘No Laurent, finish my portrait, I want to see it.’
She pulled the dirty, crumpled blouse out from the waistband of her skirt, pushed the sleeve off her left shoulder and resumed her pose.
‘I have a friend at the Palais; a dancer,’ Monique began.
Laurent stood directly in front of her taking in her features then went back to his easel.
‘From Russia … Valentina, a year younger than me.’
He studied yesterday’s painting, looked back at her and started mixing paint on his palette.
‘She’d like to pose for you.’
He looked again at Monique, after a moment he spoke.
‘Of course, I must meet her first, talk to her.’
‘She’s attractive, learning the language. Her blonde hair, short, spiky … unusual can light up a room.’
‘I’d love to meet her.’
‘I’ll bring her tomorrow, she’ll be at the Palais tonight.’
Satisfied with the shade Laurent returned to Monique and studied her face close up; looking from different angles. He practised brush strokes in front of her eyes.
‘Is it difficult to see?’
‘I’m happy with the colour; I need to see the shape, the contours, the tone.’
‘Would it help if you touched my face, my neck?’ she asked.
‘Maybe, I need to feel the structure and remember it when I paint.’
‘You can touch me.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m touched all over when I’m working.’
Laurent took a pace backward, to view more than her face. He shook his head.
‘I’m working; you’re painting my face, my body for the world to see.’
He looked at her face and neck again, her shoulder and down to the partially exposed breast. At a distance it was indistinct, he moved closer. He reached out his left hand, slowly so she was prepared. He lightly brushed her cheekbone, then leant in and studied the contours of her delicate face, the recess at the side of her nose. Several times he returned to touch. He was gentle though his rough hands scraped over her tender skin.
Two hours later, the winter light had faded; he could do no more. Monique stretched her arms upwards and yawned. Laurent stood back from the canvas and motioned her to look at his work. She stood up, her blouse hung loose and open. Standing next to him she took her first view, it wasn’t like other portraits he’d done. No hard edges; colours haemorrhaged together. Her blouse and skirt merged, delineated by subtle changes in hue and tone. The sweep of her unruly hair and curls unmistakable, the glimpse of her breast shocking.
‘That’s amazing, I recognise it, but it doesn’t look like me.’
‘I’m not sure,’ he muttered.
‘Valentina will love it. Monsieur Sauveterre also.’
‘Perhaps … I don’t know.’
The watery sun shone through his dirty windowpane offering a promise of a brighter day. His mood was lighter; Laporte would be looking for his rent. He viewed the portrait again, illuminated by sunlight. Colours were more vibrant, stronger than in yesterday’s dismal light. The first knock on his door was Henri en-route to his gallery. He stood at the door holding a dirty cream envelope, sealed with a small drop of red sealing wax.
‘Come in Henri, see my latest work,’ Laurent greeted him as he accepted the plain envelope.
‘I’m late already; I must open the gallery. You’ll be at the salon this evening?’
‘I think so, I want to meet this parvenu Picasso.’
‘Good, good … six o’clock. There’ll be wine and food.’
‘I need food … and wine.’
‘Don’t forget, I want a painting for the exhibition; new and exciting.’
Henri hurried down the stairs. Laurent ripped open the seal and fumbled with the envelope. Inside were two well-worn twenty-franc notes and five small dull francs.
Later, the sound of girlish laughter outside preceded another a second knock on his door. He opened the door to find a tall blonde with sparkling blue eyes and an impish smile. Monique introduced Valentina.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur Laurent.’
She wore a crinkled lemon dress with frilly white petticoats underneath. Monique was quick to show her his latest portrait.
‘Can you paint me, Monsieur Laurent?’
Monique and Valentina stood close to each other, close enough to touch. They exchanged cute smiles and raised eyebrows during Laurent’s explanation of his paintings. He mentioned a special painting for Henri’s Grand Exhibition.
‘We could both pose for you,’ Valentina suggested.
‘Together on the couch,’ added Monique.
‘A lovers scene, both nude,’ Valentina enthused.
Laurent’s mind spun like the sails of a windmill with the speed of their creativity.
‘Nude is no good, I need colour; bold, strong colours, not just flesh tones.’
‘No, no we must be nude for a lover’s portrait, you could drape colourful clothes or blankets over us,’ Valentina retaliated.
Laurent had to sit down on his one and only chair, to stop his mind spinning.
‘We could start now,’ Monique suggested.
Valentina was eager and started to unbutton the side of her dress.
‘No Monique, no! We need colourful accessories.’ Laurent pleaded.
‘We could borrow costumes from the Palais.’
‘Perfect, perfect; I need to think about the composition.’
‘We must start tomorrow,’ Valentina stressed.
Laurent had a fitful nights sleep, his brain buzzed with ideas. Henri’s salon was a let down; Monsieur Picasso unwilling to talk, his pictures obtuse. Sat by the window in the bright morning light he sketched outlines of potential configurations. Monique and Valentina arrived early, each with a basket of colourful robes and clothes. Valentina was excited to make a start; Monique had smuggled a half full bottle of cognac in her basket. His eyes shone like the full moon when he saw her gift. Laurent wanted to discuss the composition and review the clothes before making any decisions. The sketches showed them standing, seated and lying down. Other options had one stood with the other seated, kneeling or prone.
‘I can lie down facing you, Monique sat behind me; caressing or stroking me?’
He thought about Valentina’s words, and tried to make a mental picture.
‘That might work, I need colourful props to add interest and texture.’
Monique started to pull shawls, skirts and blouses out of her basket. Meanwhile Valentina had taken her shoes off, one foot on the couch, her skirt and petticoats pulled up to remove her garter and stocking. Laurent stared as she rolled the dark stocking down her slender leg. Monique grew impatient.
‘What colours do you want?’
Valentina, intent on being painted nude strutted around the studio naked. Monique wore a flowing red and gold striped skirt, naked from the waist up. Laurent splayed a rich navy blue and scarlet robe over Valentina’s legs up to her thighs. He stood in front of the large canvas and started to sketch outlines in charcoal. His hand stopped poised over the canvas, frozen in time. He staggered back a couple of paces and dropped to his knees. The girls gasped. He clutched his chest and tried to speak; the only sound a suffocated, rattling noise. Monique rushed over to him as he crumpled on the floor. She knelt beside him, her face to his.
‘Laurent, Laurent, what’s the matter?’
He attempted to speak, a stream of saliva cascaded over his lips. Still he held his chest.
‘Quick, the cognac,’ Monique yelled.
Valentina jumped off the couch and poured some into a dirty glass and handed it to her friend. She raised the glass lightly to his lips. The glistening bronze liquid trickled through his lips. He gasped and spluttered as it burnt the back of his throat. He raised himself up a little; Valentina cradled his head on her lap. His eyes stared straight ahead, his forehead burnt with fever.
‘He needs a doctor,’ she whispered.
Without a word Monique stood up and started to get dressed.
‘Stay with him,’ she ordered.
Within five minutes of her departure the door shuddered with a loud, urgent knocking.
‘Come in,’ Valentina shouted.
Henri struggled to make sense of the scene he walked in to. Laurent was sat up but Valentina held him in her arms.
‘What … what has happened?’
‘Laurent collapsed, he has fever,’ she explained, trying to protect what modesty she could from this strange man.
‘My eyes, my eyes, I can only see light and dark,’ he spluttered.
Henri stood and watched, unsure what to say or do.
‘My friend, gone … doctor,’ Valentina tried to explain.
Another sharp knock broke the awkward silence. Monsieur Laporte stared incredulous when Henri let him in.
‘The doctor is on his way,’ Henri explained; Laporte’s gaze was firmly fixed on Valentina’s body.
Monique rushed breathless upstairs to find the tiny studio full of visitors.
‘The doctor is out delivering a baby … he will come when he has finished.’
‘What can we do?’ Henri asked.
‘He needs more cognac,’ Valentina insisted.
The following morning Monique called to see how Laurent was. She brought a bag of croissants and a quarter brie. He was dressed ready to paint.
‘Are you well enough to carry on?’
‘The exhibition; I must finish the painting. Were you out again last night’
‘Yes, a good night; fifty francs and I’ve smuggled ten for myself.’
‘Where is Valentina?’
‘Trouble with Olivier, he wouldn’t let her out today.’
‘Who is Olivier?’
‘He’s a friend of Jean.’
‘I can concentrate on you today, but I need her to finish the painting!’
‘We are dancing tonight, I’ll take her home with me.’
Sleep evaded Laurent; the exhibition, the painting to finish and Laporte’s rent churned over in his mind. As daylight broke on Sunday morning he drifted into a weary sleep. Loud knocking on the door interrupted his dreams; Valentina’s shrill voice was unmistakable. Within minutes she had stripped off and was ready to pose. He washed his face with cold water and helped to arrange Monique’s skirt and the robes. He took a moment to check his compositional sketch then started mixing colours. After an hour he put down his brush and sat at the end of the couch close to Valentina’s legs.
‘I can’t see the colours, it’s a mess … all a jumble.’
Monique leaned forward and took his hand, then felt his forehead.
‘You have no fever today,’ she announced.
‘My eyes, I need to rest them. I’ll be better in a few minutes.’
Monique decided they should get dressed and go downstairs for refreshments; she still had money from the night before. Laurent was unsteady as they went down the creaking stairs. Laporte’s eyes widened when Valentina led them into the café. Monique held onto Laurent’s arm and guided him to a chair.
‘Bonjour Mademoiselles, what can I get you?’
‘Trois café, s’il vous plait,’ Valentina ordered.
The break allowed his eyes to recover, the colours returned.
‘If you need to feel, it’s alright,’ Monique confirmed.
He knelt down in front of them. His hand hovered above Valentina’s body.
‘It’s OK,’ she reassured him.
He brushed her thigh with a light stroking motion, upwards over her hips. Long forgotten passions surged inside, like a young man again. Memories of Celeste and his early days in Paris flooded back. He felt Valentina’s slender fingers, her bony knuckles; the length of her thin arm, down to the softness of her young breast. She moaned quietly as his fingers circled then lingered. He worked the brush furiously; dragging bristles over the canvas, layering veneers of paint. Colours merged into a vision of a seductive young woman and her lover. Stamina enhanced by an influx of testosterone soon ebbed away. He staggered to his chair and wilted like flower in the midday sun. A grey pallor washed his face, his breathing rapid and shallow. Monique tapped Valentina’s shoulder to signify the end of the session. Still topless she squatted down beside him. Wheezing for breath, his gaze drawn to her bosom.
‘Do you want a drink?’
He nodded, unable to speak. Valentina came over and wrapped her arm round his shoulder. Monique held the glass to his lips, the water dribbled onto his smock. Valentina dressed, while Monique monitored his breathing. Loud footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs, followed by an assertive knock. Valentina opened the door to Henri, his eyes drawn to Monique. He could see Laurent was in distress.
‘Henri … painting,’ he gasped pointing towards the incomplete canvas.
Valentina’s prone body was evident on the couch, her shock of blonde hair recognisable. Laid on a multi-coloured robes, her thighs framed by the red and gold swirl of the skirt. Monique delineated only in outline.
‘So much expression, such freedom! I said you could do it.’
Laurent held up a hand in acknowledgement, a gurgled sound emerged from his mouth. Henri looked to Monique for a translation, but lowered his eyes in wonderment.
‘I must have the painting by Wednesday, I’m setting up the exhibition ready for the grand opening on Saturday.’
Laurent shook his head.
‘That’s only three days.’ Monique replied folding her arms.
Valentina looked at Henri, her eyes flared.
‘He’ll finish it,’ she scowled.
‘Good, good; I’ll come again Wednesday.’
Breathing easier, Laurent let his eyes wander round the studio. Above the fireplace, an early portrait, a sour faced man with wispy grey hair. Only the shoulders of his dark coat were visible; the background dark and foreboding, reminiscent of a Rembrandt.
Monique was unable to return until Tuesday, Jean forced her to work both nights to pay off his gambling debts. She arrived early, fatigued and distant with an odour of the night. Absinthe on her breath; her clothes smelt damp from walking rain washed streets. Laurent was tired, short of breath; his eyes heavy. He offered her a leftover piece of baguette and some cheese; she devoured them hungrily like a starving child.
‘We can wait for Valentina,’ he suggested.
‘No, you need to finish me; I know my position.’
She started to undress, the stale odour of sweat and sex. She pulled on the skirt, sat on the couch and spread it out. He started mixing his flesh tones; concentration was difficult. His right arm ached, the brush felt as heavy as an iron bar. He tried to focus on Monique, his eyes bloodshot; everything was blurred.
He stepped forward and knelt by the couch; rearranged the hem of her skirt and ran his hand along the outline of her leg underneath. At her waist he met cold, bare skin; there was little spare flesh between her waist and ribcage. His fingers lingered over the soft tissue of her breast; he felt the response of her nipple. Back at the easel the brush felt lighter, it swept across the rough surface of the canvas with ease, depositing thick, rich marks. When Valentina arrived her mood was dark. Laurent could feel her tension as she started to undress without a word.
‘What’s wrong,’ Monique asked.
‘What’s he done?’
‘Later,’ she snapped.
She positioned herself in front of Monique, rearranging the skirt and robes. Monique shuffled closer and settled herself. Laurent stood and checked their composition. The brush slipped from his hand; he staggered towards the couch and fell on top of Valentina. She screamed as he pinned her down; his face fell into Monique’s lap. She tried to push him up as spittle oozed from his mouth. Monique took the frail weight of his upper body as Valentina extracted herself from underneath him. A sudden knock on the door added to the confusion.
‘Get dressed,’ barked Monique.
Valentina grabbed the scarlet robe as she opened the door. Henri rushed in.
‘I heard the scream, what’s happened?’
‘He was painting and collapsed.’
Laurent lay face down across the couch, his legs trailed on the floor.
‘Is he breathing?’
Monique knelt by him and listened, whilst Valentina struggled with her clothes.
‘I think so … but it’s shallow.’
‘I’ll go for Doctor DuPont; He only lives down the street.’
‘Merci, be quick.’
Valentina sat on the couch, her hand in the middle of his back.
‘Should we move him?’
‘Wait until the Doctor arrives.’
Helpless they sat beside of him; minutes seemed like days. Monique stroked the greasy grey hair at the back of his head; faint murmurings came from his mouth. Valentina dropped to the floor; listening, but it was only sounds.
They heard clumsy footsteps up the stairs; Doctor DuPont was a short, stocky man who walked with a limp. He looked at Laurent and grabbed his wrist.
‘He’s weak; we need to turn him over.’
Laurent lay in a deep, coma like sleep. Monique sat in the chair, Valentina at the end of the couch; they looked at each other as Henri and the Doctor left
‘I must have the painting tomorrow.’ Henri insisted, closing the door behind him.
‘What can we do?’ Valentina asked.
‘I love Laurent, he’s like a father to me,’ Monique mused.
‘Monsieur Henri will be angry if the painting is not finished.’
Valentina looked towards the canvas. She considered his interpretation of her body, the colourful swathe of material around her. Monique’s body was sketchy, her face far from complete, only a rough charcoal outline for her hair.
‘I did some painting in Russia, I wanted to go to art school,’ Valentina recalled.
Monique looked at her friend with furrowed eyebrows.
‘You cannot finish his painting, he would never forgive you.’
‘Just a few brush strokes … it would not be difficult.’
‘It would be wrong, you’re not the artist.’
Valentina took a closer look.
‘It’s not detailed, just impressions of colour and form.’
‘I could not do it,’ said Monique.
‘I can mix dark red for your hair. Short brush strokes; this way and that.’
Monique looked at their figures.
‘He is so clever, you look like a temptress.’
‘And you look like my lover.’
Monique glanced across at Laurent.
‘I don’t know … he can’t finish it in time.’
Valentina looked over his palette and picked up a clean brush.
Monique opened the door when Henri arrived on Wednesday morning; Laurent was propped up on his bed.
‘How is he? Is it finished?’
‘Better than yesterday, but very weak.’
She gestured towards the canvas with a tilt of her head. Unable to recognise his visitor, Laurent croaked; Henri’s gruff voice gave away his identity.
‘Magnifique … that’s what I wanted!’
He took several moments to take in the different elements.
‘Such powerful brush strokes and vivid colours. I knew you could do it Laurent.’
Saturday afternoon Henri Sauveterre welcomed guests to the Grand Exhibition in his gallery on Boulevard de la Bastille. Laurent’s ‘Aphrodite’s Lover’ displayed on the main stage, the centrepiece of the exhibition.
‘Ladies, Gentlemen can I ask for a few moments silence in memory of our featured artist … Laurent Gaillard.’