Lady Philomena Plott came into the kitchen with the post.
Lord Ulysses folded his paper neatly along its creases and laid it aside. “Anything good?” he said, tweaking an errant crumb from his moustache.
Philomena flicked through the envelopes. “Bill, bill, ooh, the new Thompson and Morgan catalogue, yummy, no I’ll save it for later…one for you, one for me…this feels like a cheque, good…”
Ulysses watched with quiet amusement as his wife flittered through the post. He stacked his share into a pile, whisked his paperknife through the seams with practiced precision, and had divided everything into Read, Recycle, File, and Rubbish while Philomena was still reading her first letter.
“Hmm,” she said. “I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology.”
“Yes…” she said. “Yes, well, it’s good money. And they’re well known. It would be a bit of a coup.”
“Splendid,” he said. “Good for you. More tea?”
“Mmm,” she said, frowning at the letter.
Ulysses smiled to himself. Already working on an idea, no doubt.
Three days later, he was concerned. Philomena wasn’t herself. Sporadic bursts of typing, followed by long silences and intermittent muffled swearing came from her study. The smell of her favourite essential oils permeated the hallway and when she left her door open he noticed there had been an outbreak of talismans, totems, crystals and other paraphernalia around her desk. She disappeared frequently into the garden, weeding with a ferocity unusual even for her; and when the garden was stripped of every available weed, she filled in seed catalogue order forms.
Lord Plott found one of these lying on the kitchen sideboard one morning as he wandered down in search of tea. Philomena came down a moment later. He waved the form at her. “Jerusalem artichokes, Philly?”
“Oh, yes, those. Well, I thought it might be worth a try. After all we don’t have any.”
“We don’t have any because neither of us can stand the bloody things, Philomena. Remember? Gave us both godawful wind and even after we thought we’d dug them all out they grew like weeds, took us three years to see the last of them off. Are you feeling all right?”
“Oh, I suppose,” she said, sighing. “No, actually. This story’s giving me trouble.”
“Thought so. Want to chat?” He handed her a mug of steaming brick-red tea.
Philomena wrapped her fingers gratefully around the mug. “Well, it’s just not coming,” she said. “I’ve tried three different beginnings, and none of them feel right.”
“What was this one for?”
“Oh, yes, what was the title again? I don’t think you told me.”
“Criminal Damage. It’s contemporary crime.”
“But…” Ulysses paused, a man entering territory that might, just possibly, be mined. “New direction for you, old girl!” he said, watching her over the rim of his mug. “Excellent stuff. Flexing some new writing muscles, eh?” Internally, he winced at the clumsiness of the metaphor. Philomena didn’t seem to notice.
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” she said. “Well, back to it, then.” But she remained leaning against the counter, staring mournfully into her tea.
“Give it a week.”
One afternoon some days later, Ulysses passed his wife’s study. Her fingers blurred over the keyboard; the essential oil burner remained unlit, half the talismans had been put away. She looked up and beamed. “Tea?”
“Tea,” he confirmed. “You sound busy.”
“Oh, yes.” She bounded out of her seat and patted his head.
“So,” he said as they sipped, looking out at the garden where the first daffodils quivered, buds still tightly wrapped against the February winds. “What are you working on?”
“Oh, just an email.”
“An email?” Damn, he thought she’d got over her block.
“Yes,” she beamed. “I wrote back to those lovely people at Criminal Damage and said I was too busy and could they find someone else for their anthology.”
“I can’t do contemporary crime, Lissy darling, I hate it, all that misery and no magic, it’s just not me.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to say…”
She grinned at him. “I know you weren’t. The thing is one should try new things, but if you already know you hate doing something, what’s the point? It would be like growing…”
“Oh, yes. Or, well, what if you hated roses, but you grew them because you thought you should? All that time and trouble and wasted feed…”
“You’d still have roses, though,” Ulysses pointed out, with inexorable logic.
“I don’t think they’d do very well. Love shows, Lissy darling. Passion shows. If you haven’t got it for what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it. Because lack of it shows, too. Even if I’d managed to come up with something, it wouldn’t have been a very good story.”
“No passion,” he said.
“No.” She put her mug down. “Speaking of which…” she took hold of his cravat, and started moving towards the stairs.
Ulysses Plott went to his fate, smiling beneath his moustache.