Historical Fiction Crime Speculative

AUTHOR'S NOTE - this is a pretty rough first draft - just sticking it here as a place holder to come to for some heavy editing. For a start, I think Eloise needs 2 pouches to start with to make the ending work.

If you are reading it at this stage any comments and suggestions for improvement would be much appreciated.

  • Does it fit the prompt?
  • Is it clear what has happened to Eloise at the end?
  • Is the context stuff about the plague working?
  • Anything else?


Eloise creaked open the back door of the abandoned church hall and brushed tepid water from her leather sleeves. Mould and mildew rode the air into her nose as she unbuckled her hessian plague mask, removing the dried leaves from before her face. The musty rot of wooden floorboards where the roof was leaking, mingled with the fungal creep that climbed the crumbling walls and made her retch. But it was still more pleasant than the stench of death on the street outside.

She pulled a cotton handkerchief from her leather pouch and covered her face as she coughed. Stepping over two missing boards and around the wet patch where the rain fell in, Eloise took the last one of the five mismatched chairs and joined the circle, checking her pouch was firmly attached to her belt. The others had already demasked. The vile scent of the place always hit Eloise hard. Because fifty years ago, as a girl, she had known something very different.

Barney looked up from his lap, his grey beard got longer every month. “Welcome to the January meeting. I hope the festive season wasn’t too stressful. Everyone’s here. Who would like to start?”

Stephanie raised her hand. “I would, this time, if that’s ok?”

Barney nodded his agreement.

“I’ve found it hard recently,” Stephanie’s teenage eyes stung with dampness as she started to speak. “My own sister has become my latest source of discomfort. She has a foot condition, and she’s getting treatment from the wise woman, but every time she takes off her shoes I want to vomit. I have to hide my reaction at least once a day and most of the night. But my parents have noticed. They asked if I might be with child, and that might be causing my nausea. I can’t tell them? Can I? And if I wear my mask in the house they’ll suspect.”

Stephanie searched the faces of her companions, one by one. Each of the other four in the circle shook their heads.

Mandy, the skinny, young farmer’s wife to Stephanie’s left, reached over and rubbed the teenager’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Sweetheart, you can’t tell anyone. Not even your family. Only other nosmics can be trusted. I haven’t even told my husband. Keep talking to us. We’ll be your support.”

Eloise sniffed and raised a wrinkled hand. “Please don’t be tempted to put your mask on in the house. If they suspect you can smell at all they’re obliged to report you. The plague is spreading, even in rural places like this, and the authorities are desperate to recruit nosmics as detectors. You don’t want that fate.”

“She’s my sister. I can’t avoid her. At least when I’m outside I can wear my plague mask and dull the excrement fumes and the decomposing bodies. But, as if the washing pile sweat and the food turning rotten in the pantry weren’t a big enough distraction in my own home, my sister, who I have to share a room with, is poisoning my air now too. How can my parents not notice?”

Cyril cleared his throat. “My latest research suggests that the retention of the ability to smell can run in families. It’s possible that either your mum or your dad is actually nosmic, but they’re hiding it, for good reason. If one of them was taken to be a plague detector who would support you and your sister?”

“There must be another way to detect the plague. Is it really only by smell you can tell someone is infected?” Stephanie asked.

“Well.” Cyril ran his fingernails down the lapels of his suit jacket. “It takes time for any other sign to develop and by then the virus is so contagious and so aggressive that not even the plague masks are guaranteed to help. The fact that the sense of smell has been lost to nine out of ten people due to the dust and grime has enabled the virus to take hold. We have no way to avoid it.”

“The world is disgusting now,” said Eloise. “But when I was a child, it smelled sweet. Flowers, fresh bread, cut grass, they all lifted my spirit and brought me a smile. And enough people could smell those things that it was worth making perfumes.” She reached down and checked her pouch was firmly shut.

“I can’t imagine anything smelling nice.” Stephanie frowned. “What was that like?”

“I remember it too,” said Barney. “Cutting into a lemon and the zesty tang dancing through your senses. Catching a whiff of sweet sweet honey on the air near the old bee keepers cottages.”

“What’s a lemon?” Stephanie asked.

Barney drew a breath, recalling the refreshing scent. “It was a kind of fruit, bright yellow in colour and sharp on the tongue, made your mouth water just to smell it. Some people said they were good for curing colds and other ailments. My mother used to make a kind of tea with lemon and sugar when I was sick. So many things I miss from when the world smelled good.”

“There were oranges too. You’d pull off the thick peel with your fingers and reveal juicy, sugary segments of orange coloured fruit sitting inside. It took a few moments to get them out and pull off the bland, white pith, but the sweet sourness of the scent would hit you before you took your first bite and let the fragrant juice flow over your tongue with the flesh that melted in your mouth.” Cyril sat up in is chair. “And limes.”

“Oh, I loved a lime.” Barney chimed in. “That vivid green skin, slightly pitted in texture, bitter and fresh to the nose and the juice so good in a glass of rum. My dad would add mint. Fresh from the garden, back when you could grow your own food. We grew six or seven herbs, we had apple trees, pears, potatoes, carrots, cucumber. Each had a distinct and beautiful smell. Before the soil turned bad and the crops failed in most places.”

Barney and Cyril fell silent.

Stephanie and Mandy stared at each other. Though they had kept their senses of smell when most people had lost theirs in the toxic dust storms, they were too young to remember anything pleasant about it. The stories of lemons and oranges and limes were hard to believe.

“Would someone else like to speak?” Asked Stephanie.

Eloise stroked her leather pouch. “I may have found something. At my mother’s house. It’s been empty for months since she died. I never had the heart to clean it out, but last week, over new year, I decided on a new beginning and went round to check it. It’s time I put her to rest properly and sorted through her things.”

“That must have been hard.” Barney put a soothing hand on Eloise’s arm. “What did you find?”

“She loved perfume when I was a kid. She always smelled beautiful. Florals, musks, citrus scents.”

Barney and Cyril shifted in their chairs. Barney’s nostrils flared a little above his beard.

“I found a few small bottles with some left in. She must have hidden them for years. I don’t know, maybe she could still smell them, or maybe she just couldn’t bear to part with the memories.”

“Either way, you mustn’t be caught with them.” Cyril said. “I can take them for safe keeping if you like, put them in my hidden lab.”

“Thank you, but no. I can’t bear to part with the things that remind me most of my mother. I’ll be careful.” Eloise ran her fingers over the drawstring of her pouch.

“Would anyone else like to share anything?” Barney asked.

The room was quiet and there were head shakes around the circle.


Barney, Cyril, Stephanie and Mandy gathered in the musty church hall for the February meeting.

“Who would like to speak first?” Barney asked, fingering his beard.

“Is Eloise not coming?” Mandy scratched her cheek. “Where is she?”

Cyril and Barney exchanged glances.

After a moment of silence Cyril spoke. “She was found out. About three weeks ago. And taken to be a plague detector.”

Stephanie and Mandy gasped.

Stephanie kicked her heels against the floor. “What does that really mean? Will she be safe from the plague?”

“No. I’m afraid she won’t. This is why we didn’t want you to tell your parents you’re a nosmic.” Barney put his hand on Stephanie’s knee. “Those who can sense the plague in others are taken on tours of the country, sniffing it out. They don’t get to wear masks anymore, don’t get any protection from the dried leaves. They’re on duty all the time. And when they smell it on someone, that person is taken away to a colony with other plague victims. They stay there til they die. Then they get thrown into pits to rot.”

Cyril coughed. “Most plague detectors only last a few months, if that, before they end up in the colonies themselves.

“That’s terrible.” Tears welled in Mandy’s eyes. “I don’t think I can talk tonight. I just want to go home.”

Stephanie stood up and ran her fingers through her tangled hair. “Me either. I’m going to head home, that’s horrible.” She reached for her plague mask, catching a whiff of the dried leaves inside it before she pulled it over her nose and mouth and buried her senses in it.

The two women crossed the creaking floor and Stephanie pushed the back door open before they both disappeared out into the drizzle.

Barney stood up from his chair. “Anything you want to talk about? Or should we go too?”

“I don’t think I have anything I want to share today.” Cyril touched the leather pouch at his belt with his hand. “Nothing you don’t already know.”

Barney ran his hand around his belt and found the leather pouch hanging there. He checked the shapes of the small glass bottles inside and felt his mouth begin to water at the thought of the citrus scent contained within. 

October 01, 2023 21:02

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12:46 Oct 02, 2023

Love this! ❤️ Really interesting subject, really good writing to carry it along! Unless I'm missing something, it's obvious what happened to Eloise. She's taken to be a plague detector... Saying that, I definitely feel like I'm missing something. Definitely fits the prompt. Context stuff about the plague... Love it. It's perfect. I'm not sure I like the title that much to be honest... It doesn't link to the plague in any way which is the main focus of the story? It might be something to do with the above thing that I think I missed... P...


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Mary Bendickson
02:57 Oct 02, 2023

I guess she did have two pouches and those wily oldsters helped themselves to them.


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