“Arthur, what on earth are you doing with the window hangings, dear? Come and sit down and have some tea”.

Ignoring his mother, Arthur continued flapping away at the heavy, brocaded drapes, pulling them, first, one way, then, the other. His sister, Marie-Louise, stood watching, transfixed, as the sunlight invaded the vast drawing room each time Arthur pulled the curtains back, revealing the many trillions of dust motes floating in the air in front of them.

“You see. That’s what you are breathing in. Not this”.

As he spoke these last words, he swung the curtains closed again and, immediately, without the spotlight of sunshine, the armies of tiny specks disappeared. Turning to his sister, Arthur proclaimed triumphantly:

“And that is why you should not pluck the hairs in your nose!”

Marie-Louise, not one to admit that her brother’s experiment had, indeed, raised doubts in her mind about the very air that she breathed, retorted in a sarcastic tone.

“Ah, now I fully understand”.

Surprised, Arthur turned to his sister, as he joined his mother on the davenport.

“You do?”

“Of course, brother dear. Now I completely understand why it is that you insist on growing the equivalent of the Amazon Forest from your very own nostrils!”


“Now, now, stop it, you two. Marie-Louise, stop upsetting your brother and come and sit down”.

As the girl obeyed her mother and took a seat on the settee alongside her family members, she aimed one last barb as she pointedly examined her brother’s ears in passing.

“And that must be the Black Forest sprouting from both your ugly lug holes”.



Mother and son exclaimed simultaneously.

“Goodness, what has got into the two of you. Can’t we simply have a civilised cup of tea like any normal family?”

“But we aren’t normal, are we, Mummy?”

“Marie-Louise, whatever do you mean, girl?”

“Well, do you call...this...normal? This ancient, rotting, eerie house?”

As she spoke, Marie-Louise waved her arm generally around at their surroundings: the candelabra hanging above their heads, cobwebs drooping from each crystal, the ancient portraits of unknown men and women adorning the walls, their frames chewed and gnawed at by the mice, their co- habitants of this once stately mansion, the books, also rodent ravaged, that stood, side by noble side in the bookcases, defiant to the last.

“We must be grateful for small mercies, my dear. These are difficult times. Yet, thanks to your Papa, we are able to live in a house such as this and remain civilised”.

I preferred our old house”, Arthur piped up. “It was smaller but it wasn’t so rundown”.

“Yes, Arthur, but, as you know, houses come and go, dear...”

“You mean depending on Papa’s luck at chemin de fer!”

“Marie-Louise! I will not have your father spoken of in that tone, young lady. It is true that your Papa was unfortunate enough to...uh...lose a hand after wagering...”

“Our house, mother! Our home!”

The poor, put upon matriarch began to weep, producing a linen and lace handkerchief from somewhere within her clothing and dabbing at her eyes.

“Oh, please. Not the tears again, Mother”.

“I say. Stop being so beastly to Mother”, Arthur demanded of his sister. “She does her best for us under the circumstances”.

Contrite, Marie-Louise comforted her mother, noting the handkerchief in her mother’s hand could do with a good wash, its colour more grey than white, its lace edging seemingly crumbling with every dab.

“There, there, mother. I was only speaking the truth and, at least, the old man managed to win this place, gross at it is, in a dice game. So we have a roof over our heads at least”.

Placated, momentarily, Marie-Louise’s mother reached across and patted her daughter’s hand while, with her other hand, she adjusted her beehive of a powdered wig. Marie-Louise could swear that she saw a grey-headed mouse peep out from within the coiffure, thought about pointing this out but decided to maintain her silence for fear that yet another outburst of crying might lead to the total disintegration of her mother’s handkerchief.

“Mother, who’s that man?”

Arthur pointed suddenly at the stranger who had entered the room unexpectedly, a clipboard in one hand, a pencil in the other.

“Oh, take no notice, dear. That’s just a surveyor”.

The man made his way slowly around the room, making note of everything and pausing to jot down his observations. Arthur’s and Marie-Louise ’s gazes followed him as he slowly navigated the room.

“Have a biscuit, dear”.

Marie-Louise turned up her nose at the proffered plate that her mother held out to her.

‘Oh God, no. I looked in the biscuit barrel this morning and there were...things...crawling around...”

“Boll weevil, most likely”, said Arthur, matter of factly. “Though, generally, they prefer things like cotton. Fabrics, you know”.

The surveyor reached the centre of the drawing room where the trio sat. They looked up at him with curiosity.

“May I offer you a cup of tea, Mr...uh..Mr. surveyor?”

“Thank you, ma’am, no. I like to get the job done, you know. No time for niceties”.

“And...everything is...looking good?”

“You’ll get my full report, ma’am, in due course. I pride myself on being very thorough. Very thorough, indeed. Oh yes. People may say a lot of things about Albert Makepeace but the one thing they can’t say is that I wasn’t very...”


The surveyor shot Marie-Louise a sharp look, unsure if she was actually mocking him, but decided that the young girl, of such innocent countenance, staring up at him, could not possibly have meant anything by her comment.

“Aye. Thorough. If I may, ma’am, I would like to proceed to the upper quarters and conduct my inspection”.

“Yes, of course. I wonder...could you pay special attention to the master boudoir? I have, for some time, detected a rather abhorrent smell”.

“Indeed, ma’am. You can count on me to be very...”

“Thank you. Before you go. Is there anything in particular that we should be aware of concerning this lower floor?”

“Well, how long’s a piece of string, ma’am, if you get my drift? Everything will be in my very... uh...in my report. But, I suppose I would be remiss if I did not point out, immediately, that the back staircase; the staircase at the back of the house, is, well, is condemned. That is to say that I strongly advise against the use of it. It is dangerous; likely to collapse at any moment”.

“Thank you. We shall certainly adhere to your professional advice and refrain from using the back staircase”.

As the man disappeared from sight, all three stared at each other, eyes wide open, appalled that this man should think that they would ever contemplate using the back staircase.

“Such a common man”, opined Marie-Louise.

“The very thought that we would even think of using the back staircase”, laughed Arthur.

“Things might be difficult, indeed. But everybody knows that back staircases are for servants. Goodness. What a ghastly man”.

“But let’s be fair, mother. He may be ghastly but he is very thorough”.

The three of them convulsed with laughter.

“Mother, why don’t we have any servants?”

“We can manage quite well enough on our own, Arthur. We don’t need any unnecessary expense, thank you very much”.

“Why do we have a surveyor inspecting the house, mother? Are we moving yet again?”

“Now, now, Marie-Louise. You, neither of you, like this house. You both carp on about it all the time. Arthur keeps hearing strange noises in the night. You, yourself, said it’s “ancient, rotting and eerie”, did you not? It’s just your dear Papa, looking out for all of us as usual and planning ahead...”

Marie-Louise, ever the sharpest, always the first to intuit the truth, stood up in alarm.

“Oh my God! Did Papa gamble and lose this house at cards?”

“No, Marie-Louise, your Papa did not gamble this house at cards. Certainly not. He did, however, lose a sum of money in a game of roulette; money that we do not have and, as such...”

“I knew it! We have to sell this house. Are we never to be settled properly ever again?”

“Marie-Louise, you know that we can always depend on your father. He always has our best interests at heart; no matter what! We can, without fail, rely on Papa to take care of us”.

“Then why does he gamble so?” A perfectly reasonable question posed by Arthur.

“And drink?”, added Marie-Louise.

“And stay away from home for days on end?”

“And bring those frightful women home...”

“Enough. Those...uh...women are your Papa’s friends. They...”

“They’re whores, Mother. Why can’t you admit it? Papa doesn’t care about us at all”.

‘Marie-Louise! I will not have you speak about your Papa like...”

“He sold my pony, Dobbin’, Arthur began to wail.

“I hate Papa. I hate him”, Marie-Louise wept.

Amid this cacophony of exclamations, accusations, realisations and incriminations, as the three members of the family wept and hugged, the poor mother’s handkerchief, once again, being pressed into the final action of its life, crumbling to dust and joining its colleagues swirling around in the beam of sunlight that penetrated the drawing room through the gap in the window hangings, the surveyor suddenly reappeared, staring bemusedly at the sight before him.

“Ahem”, he coughed.

Looking up, startled, the trio, interrupted in their sorrow by this intruder, stared at the man balefully.


Uh, you complained of a smell, ma’am. Upstairs. The master...”

“The master, my husband, will be home in due course, my good man. You can make your thorough report to him and include the cause of that atrocious smell and, naturally, the demise of the back staircase...”

“No, ma’am. You don’t understand. The smell... in the bed; dead. The smell is your husband”. 

September 26, 2023 20:29

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Kathryn Kahn
22:03 Oct 05, 2023

This feels like the very beginning of a much longer story. Nice job.


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Hannah Lynn
02:55 Oct 05, 2023

What a fun writing style you have! I could just see those precocious children sitting with their mother having that conversation!


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Nicole Ortiz
23:08 Oct 02, 2023

I really liked this, the descriptions were interesting and had place in your story. I particularly liked the bit about the handkerchief. And the dialogue! Really fun and funny, and a smooth pacing.


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08:59 Oct 01, 2023

I enjoyed this story, but where was the mother sleeping?


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Michelle Oliver
12:55 Sep 27, 2023

Eewww! That last line. How did she not know her husband was rotting there! Creepy. I really enjoyed his tale of financial woe and wilful ignorance on the mothers part. She is the last bastion holding together this poor family come hell or high water, totally ignoring the shortcomings of the man of the house. I was not disappointed to find out that he was dead, just wondering what the cause of death was. If he were my husband the death certificate would read death by asphyxiation due to strangulation. Thanks for sharing


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