The Taken: Nathan's Story, Chapter 4

Synopsis:

"Life in plastic / It's fantastic"

Story:

Nathan's Story 4

***

“I don’t know if I should–”

“She didn’t mind yesterday, did she?” Eleanor retorted.

He wasn’t sure what she’d done to one of the padded bras, but it was more comfortable now. He tried not to pay it any attention.

“She said– She said I should still wear a corset an’ shit, ’cause of my posture. She said it was too grown-up an’ I in’ earned it yet.”

“Don’t talk like that in front of her, Jack. She’ll have a fit. Come on, let’s find a nice dress.” A short laugh, then she was moving, shuffling through the dresses hanging in one of the wardrobes. He wished she wouldn’t call him that. That wasn’t who he was any more. He’d left that name in London. “Then we’ve got to do make-up.”

“I want to do it!”

He’d said that?

***

Waiting behind a chair again.

“What?” Valerie asked. Eleanor had been looking at her.

“Isn’t she going to tell you off for dressing like that?” Eleanor ventured. Valerie was wearing casual clothes; new-ish black jeans and a chenille sweater and entirely sensible lace-up boots, with a slight heel. She’d simply tied her hair back, and Nathan couldn’t even be sure she’d put make-up on. She still managed to look effortlessly elegant and poised.

Valerie rolled her eyes. “Motorbike,” she’d said, by way of explanation. “I’ll be damn– darned if I’m going to get dressed twice before I even get out the door on college days. So either I come to breakfast in what I can wear under my leathers, or I skip it. And Jane’s hell on skipping meals.” Half a grin, hinting, he supposed, at an earlier battle of wills.

~I skipped lunch yesterday,~ Nathan thought. It was a small triumph. And: ~She rides a motorbike! How cool is that?~ Now he was staring at her too, and imagining her in leather. Happy thoughts.

“What?” she asked again. He couldn’t help the grin on his face, and concentrated on trying not to make it seem too much like a leer. Her eyes rolled upwards again and she shook her head in apparent wonderment. Or it might have been despair.

“Good morning girls,” Mrs. Thompson said, entering the dining room.

“Good morning, Jane,” Valerie said, flicking Nathan a knowing ‘let’s humour her’ look.

“Good morning, Mrs. Thompson,” Eleanor said quickly, beating him to it.

“Do be seated,” Mrs. Thompson said, before even reaching the table. He was definitely noticing a pattern there; a useful early indicator of Mrs. Thompson’s mood in how long she made them wait before inviting them to sit.

He took a moment to pay attention to how Valerie did it. There was an elegant precision to her movements; smart, minimal. He tried to emulate the manner as he took his own seat.

He looked at the plate of croissants in front of him near the centre of the table. “They look delicious,” Eleanor remarked, taking one.

“Going to get fat,” Nathan remarked privately.

“Are you feeling any better today, Natasha?” Mrs. Thompson enquired, pleasantly enough.

“Yes thank you, Mrs. Thompson.”

It was true enough, he supposed. At least, his guts weren’t still trying to wrench themselves into knots. He felt a lot steadier in himself, the croissant looked deliciously light and flaky, and there was something about a bright morning that seemed to dispel his worst fears, for the moment. The sunlight was flooding in through the tall windows. The white linen shone brilliantly. The silverware and crystal glassware danced in light.

“I’m pleased to hear it, as I am to observe the effort you’ve made with your appearance this morning. An honest effort does not go unnoticed.” That sounded like a compliment, so he smiled. “Although in future you might show a little restraint with your make-up. For breakfast only a light touch is required.”

“It is a little dazzling for seven-thirty,” Valerie agreed. Her smile took any hurt from her words.

Eleanor was insufferable. She’d said it was too much. “I’m sure Marie would be pleased to instruct you further should you ask her,” Mrs. Thompson continued, “or you may choose to further experiment on your own initiative.”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

Satisfied, Mrs. Thompson turned to Valerie and talked about other things; her college work, from which Nathan surmised that Valerie was into music. For some reason that didn’t surprise him. There was something about the sound of her voice, when she wasn’t being angry like the previous morning, that was musical. Remembering his attempts at reading aloud, and Mrs. Thompson’s comments, he made a point to listen and try to analyze how she was doing it. It sounded so natural and unforced.

The croissants were delicious.

***

“I want you to help Marie clean away the breakfast things,” Mrs. Thompson said, “and afterwards come and find me in the music room. I’ll put off the more strenuous activities until tomorrow. Today we shall make a start on learning how to use your voice properly.”

And that was breakfast. Mrs. Thompson departed and Nathan breathed easier, which was a relative concept while wearing that corset. Valerie took her leave, declaring she was going to take some of the cookies with her into college. “We’re never going to get through them otherwise,” she observed, directing a wry smile at Nathan. Under orders, he carried things down the stairs into the kitchen for Marie.

Put an apron and some gloves on, dear. You can start on the washing up.” She departed in the direction of the dining room, leaving Nathan to translate in her wake. He had to think about that one.

“Apron!” he caught up. “So I can start washing something…” His eyes fell on the growing pile of dirty breakfast things. “Oh joy. All this and I get to do the washing up too.” He hesitated, looking around the huge kitchen for where an apron might be hiding. Bizarrely, to him, the sink seemed to be embedded in a central, free-standing worktop. It seemed too small, and there wasn’t a draining-board. The back of the door didn’t have an apron, which is where it hung at home.

“Third drawer,” Eleanor reminded him. “By the sink.”

“Oh, right.” He looked. “I don’t see…” he trailed off, not finding drawers near the small worktop sink; although there were cupboards in that unit.

“The other sink.”

He cast about himself, and found a normal-sized kitchen twin-sink. Right next to the pile of dishes, of course.

“That one’s just for washing veg, I think,” Eleanor explained, meaning the one on the central worktop.

He found an apron in the drawer and started putting it on, Marie returned, bearing more dishes. “Don’t you have a dishwasher here?” he asked her.

Excuse me?”

“Oh come on, she’s not watching now…” He couldn’t believe they were really going to hold him to this. The previous day, while he’d been changing in and out of costumes all morning, had been bad enough. “It’s going to take forever…”

I don’t understand,” Marie lied.

Where is the ‘dishwasheur’” he asked sarcastically. He had no idea what a dishwasher was in French.

I don’t know ‘the dishwasheur,’” Marie replied in an identical tone, clearly enjoying her part in the game. Nathan thought it was getting a little old.

“Er. God. I’d point to it but I can’t see it. I can’t believe you guys don’t have a dishwasher. Er… The machine for, er, to wash the plates? Where is it? It, I mean.”

Ah, a dishwasher!” She chuckled lightly and walked back out of the room, saying, “Do the dishes, Natasha. Start now and you’ll finish in no time.”

“It’s not like you can’t afford one!” he called after her. “What’s the matter, don’t you have dishwashers in the colonies?”

“Nathan, shut up!” Eleanor warned, giggling. “Natasha, I mean.” Nathan groaned aloud. “Valerie says Mrs. Thompson thinks washing up is character forming,” Eleanor explained, rather primly, he thought.

“You want to do it then?”

“Sod off. I did it last time.” She lounged back comfortably.

Nathan sighed and got on with it, muttering aloud, “To do the washing up. To do the washing up. Dishwasher. Dishwasher. Right.” He sighed again, feelingly. “They’ve probably got a scrubbing board and mangle out the back to do the laundry too,” he continued, having a gallery to play to.

“Maybe they leave out a saucer of milk and a plate of cookies and let the brownies do it all overnight?” Eleanor suggested whimsically.

“Would explain why we needed to make so many… Anyway, that’s got to be against child labour laws,” Nathan replied, and was immediately arrested by the mad image of semi-feral little girls in those brown Hitler-youth uniforms and yellow neckties roaming the countryside doing favours in return for Valerie’s chocolate chip cookies and cream. And those little sew-on badges, presumably.

“You’re nuts, you know that?”

“Well, duh.” He grinned and turned his attention fully to the washing up for a moment, being careful not to smash the delicate glassware. “Hey, do they have a badge for washing up?”

“It’s part of the Home Skills badge, I think.”

“Oh yeah. Guess you couldn’t put this stuff in a dishwasher anyway,” he murmured aloud. He started singing in a fit of gallows humour, dancing to the beat with his hips as he washed up. The petticoats bounced.

I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world,
Life in plastic,
It’s fantastic.
You can brush my hair,
Undress me everywhere–

How’s it going, Natasha?” Marie queried, coming back into the room.

Nathan blushed. He hadn’t realised she was coming back so soon. “Er, well, Miss.”

You seem happier today. Jane said you were feeling better.”

Yes.” He thought she was saying he looked better anyway. He felt the release from all the tension and sickness of the last few days. He knew it was illogical, given his situation, but he felt almost elated.

Marie got a clean tea-towel out of a drawer and started drying plates and putting them away. “How often do you do the dishes at home?” she asked casually.

“Er… Almost never? I think. He threw a grin at her. ”We have a dishwasher,“ he said pointedly.

Not everything can go in a dishwasher.”

“Lies! Propa– Hey, what’s– I mean What is ‘lies’?”

“Natasha,” she stopped him, her hand on his arm. “You are being a lazy-girl now. Say: How does one say ‘something’ in French. Repeat!”

Lazy?” he asked.

“Lazy. Repeat: How does one say…”

Er. How does one say ‘lie’ in French? Er, like not-truth?”

One says: ‘a lie,’ or ‘lies.’ The verb is ‘to lie.’”

And… how does one say ‘propaganda?’”

Ah. ‘Propaganda.’” She gave him a wry smile.

“That’s cheating!”

It’s Latin.”

“Anyway: Lies! Propaganda! All mmmay enters in a dishwasher!” He looked at her. She looked at him. “It’s not funny any more.” He sighed and turned back to the washing up.

***

Mrs. Thompson sent him upstairs in Marie’s company to change for lunch. She had him change out of his dress and sit at the dressing table so she could actually teach him some things about doing make-up properly, rather than just pushing him on to do it any old way in a rush like the day before, only to get yelled at by Mrs. Thompson for not doing it right. The result was a much lighter application that didn’t feel so heavy on his skin and didn’t look like a joke.

That might have been what made his reflection all the more disturbing. It didn’t look like a caricature, or a bad drag queen, or a kid who’d got into his mother’s make-up drawer. It was just his own face, only now unmistakably feminine. It wasn’t even obvious at a first glance that he was wearing make-up at all; merely that his lips were pink and his eyes seemed to be bigger, and somehow his face seemed to have more shape. It reminded him of Gray, which wasn’t happy.

Your skin is so clear,” Marie commented, more than once. After the third time he had to ask her to translate it. “We hardly need to do a thing. We only need to bring up certain features a little.” He let her rattle on, understanding barely half of what she said. He learnt some more nouns though: foundation, lip colour, eye-shadow, face-powder, kohl, mascara, cold cream.

“Cold cream?” He paused in the middle of doing his own eyeliner. He could do that himself without flinching now.

Yes, cold cream.”

Not cold cream?”

No, that’s just a cream which is cold. Like milk.”

That’s absurd.”

Marie shrugged.

That’s like ‘the weekend,’” he insisted. “It’s not real.”

No, that’s ‘the weekend.’”

“No! Weekend is le weekend, I know this!”

Marie gave him a look.

‘The weekend’ is correctly!”

Not in Quebec.” He looked up at her. She was grinning.

“Que– You’re from Quebec?”

Yes, I was born there.”

Oh, sorry.”

Marie looked at him again, then burst out laughing. “It’s not an disease!”

Oh. I didn’t mean–”

Finish putting your eyeliner on,” she directed, still smiling. He got to it again. “You are so cute,” she said, so quietly he wasn’t sure he was meant to hear it.

“Huh.” He finished with the eyeliner while he thought about it. “There: A bloody cute little girl.”

It was a few seconds before Marie got it, then she slapped him lightly on his bare shoulder, chuckling. He grinned. “Cheeky,” she said, getting up. “I will find you a pretty dress.”

He watched her go, then back at the mirror, taking another look at his face. It was done. He looked more like a girl than ever, and this time he’d done it himself.

~Breathe.~

And he realised something else. He’d been sitting in his — worse, in girl’s underwear in Marie’s company for nearly an hour and hadn’t even given it a moment’s thought. She’d kept him so busy speaking French and doing make-up, each of which on their own needed all his attention, that he’d hardly noticed. ~All part of the conditioning,~ he thought darkly, not for the first time.

***

The child’s play-room was directly above the music room; although smaller, and with lower ceilings, in common with the rest of the first floor. Like the music room it had a wide bay window overlooking the garden to the south. There was a thick, plush carpet and pastel coloured walls, radiant in the afternoon sun. Here and there colour danced where it reflected off a gently chiming mobile hanging above the bay, a little way from the large, open sash windows. An old kitchen dresser had been moved up here and was laden with board games and stuffed toys. The window-seats had lids that lifted to reveal hidden chests of dolls and their accoutrements, and it was these to which Marie had taken him. There were bookshelves, with children’s books, two large, squarish sofas, hanging pictures, and a large classically-framed mirror on the chimney-breast.

He had been looking at that, and not at what Marie was taking out of the window seats. When he looked down, he gasped aloud in shock.

Sit down here with me, dear,” Marie said. “Shall we play a nice little game?” She showed him a doll in a dress not dissimilar to what he had been wearing the last few days. “Look!” Marie said, smiling, “Isn’t she pretty?”

“I-I don’t want–” He backed away. “I don’t want to.” He was sweating.

Marie ignored him. “Guess what her name is.”

I don’t know.” He’d learned he had to answer in French or Marie would simply ignore him. “I don’t want to play.”

You can sit with me anyway can’t you?” Marie said, with no edge of duplicity detectable in her voice. He wasn’t fooled. “We can talk and you can keep me company. What’s the harm in that?” She smiled again. “Tasha, dear, don’t be so silly. They are only dolls.”

He sat on a window-seat; not yet on the floor with Marie. He hadn’t been taught how to do that elegantly yet.

He glanced up at the mirror opposite. It was a trap. Whatever he did, they’d be watching and analyzing, trying to catch him out, saying it meant this or that. He wasn’t going to fall for that again.

Little girls like playing with their pretty dolls,” Marie explained. “They like to dress them, and do their make-up, and they like to act scenes.” She had undressed another doll and was putting some different clothes on her. At least, he saw before he averted his eyes, these ones weren’t anatomical. “And practice the art of conversation,” Marie continued. “It’s good practice.” She smiled.

I don’t want to play,” he said again. ~The only way to win is not to play,~ he quoted to himself.

It is necessary that you learn,” Marie said quietly.

This is what she said?”

Yes, dear.” That was that then. Failure to comply would get him into trouble. So much for ‘play.’ He glared back up at the mirror. “But it can be amusing. Maybe you’ll like it when you try?”

He looked back, to see she had manipulated a doll into the same seated pose he was in, sat on the edge of the window seat and looking at him, head cocked insouciantly.

He sighed. “Come on Barbie, let’s go party,” he said flatly. Marie didn’t get it, which might have been just as well. He lowered himself to kneel, and sit on his knees, opposite Marie, and forced a smile. Maybe, he thought, if he just did exactly what she told him to do, they couldn’t read anything into it. “What do you want me to do?” Just play it dumb.

Oh, shall we dress them? We have lots of little dresses we can try on them.”

If you want.”

Can you see a doll you like?”

Three days earlier he might have shrugged. “It’s all the same to me,” he said. He was trying to be dull.

Take her.” Marie handed the first doll into his hands. “Her name’s Amelie. Do you like her?”

Her name is Amelie,” he repeated. That was safe. The material on her dress was the same as his own.

Oh Amelie, you are so pretty! Your dress is adorable!”

She waited for him to respond. He looked at her, holding the doll limp in his hand.

You’re talking to a doll,” he pointed out.

Her eyes met his, a little sternly. “And you are not stupid, Natasha. Play the game.”

He sighed. This was all stupid.

Try, Natasha, for me?”

What do I have to say, Miss?”

Say what you think Amelie would say,” Marie explained. “Amelie, your dress is adorable!” she repeated. He had to admit, she had patience to spare.

What do you think Amelie would say?”

She gave him another look. “Maybe she’d say ‘Thank you. You are pretty too.”

Thank you. You are pretty too,” he murmured.

Marie smiled as if he was playing the game. “Let’s play dress-up,” Marie suggested. “I have lots of pretty clothes for you. Look.” She started laying out a number of miniature dresses, blouses, skirts, shoes.

If you want,” he said quietly.

What would you like to try first?” Marie asked.

It’s all the same to me,” he said.

What about this one?” Marie suggested, pointing one out. It was similar to the one the doll was already wearing, but in a different colour. “I think she’ll look so pretty in that, don’t you?”

If you want,” he said, keeping his voice flat and dull. He didn’t want to do this, but if he balked, she was bound to want to know why, and so was Mrs. Thompson, doubtless watching through that mirror. He glanced at it again, worriedly, as if he could see her through it.

The doll lay stiffly across his hands. ~Don’t be stupid,~ he thought. ~It’s just plastic, wrapped in a bit of cloth. Just unwrap it, and wrap it in a different bit of cloth. Simple.~ His hands wouldn’t move. ~Move!~ he willed at them, because she would surely see his hesitation, and see something in that, too.

Finally his hands did move, in palsied jerks, to turn the doll over and pull apart the tiny poppers down the back of its dress. Its hands got caught up in the sleeves of the dress and his fingers shook as he tried to unsnag it. A moment longer and its tiny, sexless body lay in his hands. He kept it shielded from Marie’s sight and immediately grabbed the other dress and fought it onto the doll in spite of recalcitrant plastic limbs getting in the way. He pushed the poppers closed and tied the little waist-bow at her back in something like a shoelace knot, which he knew was probably not right. He pulled it in so at least the ends draped down the back of the dress and the loops weren’t too big. A little bonnet went with the dress, so he got that on too before setting her down on the floor so Marie could see.

There,” he said curtly. He wished his hands would stop shaking. And his voice.

***

It went on, excruciatingly, although no worse than that as Marie, without comment, didn’t try to get him to dress any more dolls and instead moved the play on to other things; namely a tea party with more dolls and props. It was still hard, avoiding assigning the dolls, Amélie and another, Georgia, personalities or thoughts or stories, when that was clearly what Marie wanted him to do. She said things as if trying to provoke a response out of them. But he knew he had to keep everything dull, making Marie do all the work and only doing exactly what she told him to do; not giving her anything to interpret.

The afternoon wore on and the playroom got warmer. The large bay window acted a little like a greenhouse, even though the windows were open, as was the door opposite, allowing a through-draft via the open door into Mrs. Thompson’s upstairs office to the North-facing front of the house.

Would you like to sleep? Are you feeling tired?” Marie asked.

He nodded, admitting it. “It’s hot.”

I know what you need, dear,” Marie said, and stood up. She went to one of the wooden chests and took from it a muslin coverlet and two soft lace-trimmed pillows. “You need a nice little nap.”

“I’m not that tired,” he protested. Marie ignored his English, of course, and settled the coverlet over the flat seat of the sofa opposite the mirror. “I’m not tired,” he translated. “I am not a little child. I do not need, er, twelve hours sleep of the day.” As if to prove him a liar his body forced a yawn from him. He supposed he had slept at, or after, lunch on the previous two days. Funny how quickly the body could get used to that.

Per day,’ not ‘of the day,’” Marie corrected him, coming to him and ushering him up and towards the bed.

I not to sleep this night,” he protested. It was obviously no use. “I must?” he asked, resigned. “She said?” One more thing. One more fantasy to learn how to feed.

Yes, dear.” She smiled sympathetically. “Remove your shoes and socks first,” she suggested. He sighed, sat and did so. At least the little white ankle-socks he’d had to wear weren’t such a fuss to get off as the stockings. “And lie down, like a good little girl.”

He thought of another objection. “What about my– I mean, my petticoats?” After all, he didn’t want to get into trouble for getting them scrunched up, again.

Marie looked surprised at the question for a moment. “You’re a good girl for remembering.” He grimaced at that but there wasn’t any point in objecting. “Very well. Remove them, and your dress.” Nathan could have kicked himself for walking into that trap. “I’ll fetch you a glass of milk,” she said. “I will return soon. Will you be in bed by then?”

Er, yes,” Nathan replied. Marie smiled sweetly and left, closing the door behind her.

***

He glared balefully at the mirror. If he couldn’t stop her watching, he wasn’t going to let her get away with thinking there was anything innocent about this. Feeling angry and reckless, he kept his gaze on his own face in the mirror, and reached behind him to start unbuttoning the dress. He had to lift the dress over his head to get rid of it, then he unlaced the drawstrings on the petticoats and let them fall around his feet. Still keeping his eyes on his reflection, he reached behind his back again and loosened the corset lace enough that he could unhook it down the front. He opened it, and let it fall behind him onto the petticoats and stepped forward right up to the mirror, wearing only the stupid lace knickers he had to wear, and rapped his knuckles on the mirror.

“Is that what you wanted?” he asked aloud. “You seen enough, or d’you still want more?” He hated that his voice shook.

He heard only the intermittent chime of the mobile hanging near the open window; then, distantly, he heard a food blender spinning up. The sound must have carried the two floors up the chimney shaft, he realised. It stopped.

“Get it over with,” he whispered to the mirror. Then he retreated to the daybed and got in under the light coverlet to wait for footsteps coming up the stairs. He wished he hadn’t done that now, that reckless thing. If she got angry at him–

Marie re-entered, making him sigh out in relief. She was carrying the expected glass in one hand and a basket in the other. A dark blue dress lay draped over her arm. “Here you are, dear,” she said, coming across to him. She paused for a moment, seeing the pile of clothes on the floor. “Drink this, it’ll help you to relax.”

He sat up, holding the coverlet up to his collarbone. He wished now he’d kept something on his top half. “What is it?” He took it anyway. It smelled faintly spicy.

Milk,” Marie replied, setting the basket on the floor nearby and draping the dress over the arm of the daybed. “With half an apple, vanilla ice-cream and cinnamon. And a little valerian and clary sage to help you relax. Try it.”

He didn’t understand all of that, but it smelled nice anyway. He sipped it. It was creamy and fresh-tasting, and a little spicy and complicated.

Do you like it?” Marie asked. She stepped away to pick up his discarded clothes and put them neatly to one side.

“Mm. Yeah. Um,” he grinned at her. “Yes.”

Good.” She sounded satisfied. She pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat, making herself comfortable with the dress over her lap. He didn’t expect her to do that. He didn’t expect her to stay. He was glad she was staying. He could hear his own breathing, coming a little easier now. Nathan sat back and drank more of the — he supposed it counted as a milkshake. Marie was settling in, pulling scissors and needles and thread out of the basket she’d put down by the bed.

What are you doing?” he asked, after watching her for a few moments. “Er, the dress, um, torn is?”

No. Madam wants you to wear this tomorrow evening,” Marie explained. “I am altering it for you. It’s too big.”

Er, don’t you need to try it me?”

What a good idea! Thank you for offering,” Marie agreed brightly.

“Argh!” He realised too late what he’d done. Marie started chuckling wryly. He had to join in. “I am an idiot,” he said.

An idiot,” she corrected. “You may help me later,” she said. “This evening, before you go to bed, if Madam allows it.”

At the mention of Mrs. Thompson Nathan glanced across involuntarily at the mirror. Marie followed his glance for a moment, then back to him, with a quizzical look.

Your French is becoming much better, Natasha,” Marie observed quietly. “Can you tell?”

He nodded. “You speak slowly, Miss, er, not like a true Frenchwoman person. The French are more difficult to understand.”

Yes, it’s my American accent. My mother tells me I speak like a retard.” There was something a little tense about the conversation; stilted, more than just because he was slow at speaking the language. He started to reach over to put the empty glass on the floor next to the sofa-bed.

Let me take that,” Marie said, leaning forward. He handed it to her.

Thank you, Miss,” he said automatically. “That tired me,” he admitted.

Speaking French?”

He nodded.

But you’re finding that you like it?”

He had to think about that. It was certainly true that he felt better when he was with Marie, speaking French with her, than at any other time since his arrival. It was deeply frustrating, literally not having the words to say anything in more than the most simplistic terms. It was hard work, all the time. He didn’t have the hang of thinking in French: Almost everything had to be parsed, translated, and his answer translated back again. He knew he must be the one sounding like a retard.

But the effort took most of his attention. It was a welcome distraction, so he didn’t have leisure to think too much all the time about what was going to happen to him.

He only smiled, close-mouthed, and nodded, and found himself looking askance at the mirror again. He was feeling tired after all, he realised, catching himself yawning. He knew better than to fight it, the lassitude. It was easier just to drift and let things take their course as they would.

Now, lie down quietly, and let me get on with my sewing,” Marie directed, and settled in to her work.

Nathan didn’t feel like lying down, so he curled up in the corner of the daybed and laid his head on his arms. He could sleep like this, he felt, watching Marie work. A little tendril of awareness kept a hand still holding the coverlet close to his body. A warm breeze curled over his naked back, and he wondered that he didn’t mind that she could see him, not that she was paying any attention. Maybe that was it, he wondered. When Mrs. Thompson looked at him he felt like she was deciding whether to add him to her butterfly collection. Her attention flayed him. Marie was easy to be with, in comparison. He watched her hands working the needle and thread, and her expression, passive yet focussed. The mobile chimed lazily and the long, white curtains swayed and billowed at zephyrs.

Slow blink.

The dress is pretty,” he heard his voice say distantly. It seemed as if golden motes of light fell like snow all around him, making Marie’s blonde hair glow as she glanced up and smiled at him. She lifted the dress up and out so he could see it all. It danced like a butterfly in her hands. He didn’t need to move. He just gazed. Behind Marie, the broad bay window wasted away, and the walls of the room seemed to dissolve, or become insubstantial, and he was floating above the green rolling parkland of the estate. “Oh wow,” he whispered, his voice like thunder. He sighed.

Marie looked up at him again, and smiled again. “Lie down, dear,” she said, bright as sunlight. This time he didn’t resist, but snuggled down so he could lie flat.

He thought he might sleep then, but there was too much to look at to close his eyes. Cotton-wool clouds drifted under the ceiling. Ding, faintly, from the mobile. Ding. And birds, outside. His arm rose, without volition, as if it might reach them. After a while it had to fall, and it fell gently to the pillow as if settling on a cloud. He sighed, deeply, and snuggled in further. He blinked slowly. “Lovely,” he whispered.

“My lovely boy.” Fingers brushed the hair from his cheek. He opened his eyes. Mrs. Thompson smiled down at him, then held one finger to her lips. “Shh.”

“Oh, you’ve come,” he whispered. His voice still shook.

“Yes.”

“Where’s Marie?” His voice was a long way away from him. All he could remember was how safe he’d felt, with her there.

“I sent her away. She won’t disturb us for hours.” The sunlight etched out a line of fire in her red hair.

He wanted to sit up. He was too heavy to move. His limbs lay flaccid and useless.

“It’s time for your next lesson,” Mrs. Thompson said gently. He shook his head. Time was slow. “No, don’t get up. You’re not going to be difficult, are you?” Mrs. Thompson warned. Then she softened it with a smile and placed her finger across his own lips. “No-one can hear you anyway, but you don’t have to make this unpleasant.” Her finger traced back to his temple, and around his ear, and down his throat onto his chest. “Do you want this to be unpleasant?”

He couldn’t breathe any faster. He couldn’t get the oxygen to move in this gravity.

“No,” his voice said, without him.

“No, what?”

The voice took a long time to answer. “No, Mrs. Thompson.”

~It had to be the drink,~ he thought sluggishly. ~The milkshake. Like the sherry on Sunday–~ He blinked. It took an age. He’d forgotten about the sherry. A loose memory of Valerie undressing him, sudden and vivid, and then nothing. He’d assumed he’d just fallen asleep. ~Will I forget this time too?~ he wondered. ~Will I think this is a dream?~ And: ~I hope so.~

Mrs Thompson smiled beneficently and touched his cheek with her left hand, now, while her right stroked down to his waist, over the swell of his hip, and down his thigh. He gasped at the intense sensation, and heard distantly as it escaped his mouth sounding almost like a moan.

“That’s right, Jonathan,” Mrs. Thompson approved. “You’re being a very good student.” Her fingers stroked lightly up the inside of the thigh. “And there’s so much I have to teach you.” She took her time, but there was no hint of hesitation or even a moment’s doubt as her hand met the already-swelling flesh. He heard his voice moan again.

“You shouldn’t,” his voice said, after a while. Her hand was cold at first, like the doctor’s. “Oh,” as another wave of sensation flooded over him. He could only see the clouds and the stars and the ceiling, vast and immanent, and crysanthemums blooming in the silvered snow. “You shouldn’t touch her there,” his voice said from the other end of the universe. Tears fell back from his eyes into his hair. He was faint and short of breath. He couldn’t breathe fast enough. His fingers stretched and clutched yearning at the viscous air.

Blink.

“Jonathan,” Mrs. Thompson said. She stroked his hair fondly, while keeping up the rhythm below. “You’re doing very well, but I think that’s as far as we need to go today, don’t you?” Her hand withdrew and the body stretched treacherously for it to return: A small moan of frustration, and his hand reached blindly for his groin, but Mrs. Thompson gave it a quick, light smack. “Ah-ah. You know that doesn’t belong to you,” she reminded him. “Now don’t fret, my dear; I won’t let you misbehave. Look.”

Ordered to, he was able to look, and saw only the body encased in rigid plastic; flesh-coloured, cold and sexless. He could only look back up at her with gratitude as she pushed the poppers of his dress back together over him; and still, sealed safely inside the plastic shell, the traitor body yearned for fulfilment.

Blink. Slow, languorous.

“I didn’t know,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

He was alone. The golden motes still drifted down around him, and over him. The mobile still chimed delicately in the light breeze, and the white curtains still billowed and dived. The walls were slowly regaining their substance and the ceiling no longer encompassed the sky.

Time was real again. Sound came back in a rush, like it had been pent-up and released all at once. A whumph that sounded right through his head. He was awake and panting hard, like he’d run a mile. He scrambled back and drew his knees to his chest and hugged them. Marie was not there. The basket and the dress she had been working on were gone too, as was the glass, and the clothes he had removed. Instead the silk gown from his bedroom lay over the arm of the daybed nearest his head. That hadn’t been there before.

He felt wetness inside his knickers. It was horrible and wrong. “Oh fuck–” He couldn’t help it, and he tried: He clenched his teeth, and squeezed his eyes shut and covered them with a hand, but he couldn’t stop his shoulders shaking, and he couldn’t stop a sodden sniffle, when it came. Belatedly he wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said through it all, to nobody. “I can’t stop.” He wanted distance more than anything, but it wouldn’t come. It wouldn’t come. He had to do this alone.

He yanked the gown off the daybed’s arm and put it on, still sitting up. Then he threw himself off the bed and bolted for the door, out onto the landing and across to his bedroom.

He couldn’t lock his bedroom door, but he could lock the bathroom, for whatever that was worth, so he threw himself in there and locked it. He needed a shower. He needed to get clean. And the knickers. He needed to wash them, or rinse them out at least, before Marie took them to be washed. It disgusted him. He turned the shower on. The temperature had already been set right by someone at least, so he threw the robe off and left the knickers on as he climbed into the shower. He would take them off once he, and they, were under soaking, numbing hot water. But first, lost in the heat and the deluge and the noise, he let himself sink to the floor of the shower-unit and cry.

***

Nathan knocked on the parlour door. No response. There was a piano playing somewhere. Something sad. He opened the door and looked into the parlour. It was empty, but for all the old furniture and the bookshelves. He didn’t know what he should do. The music stopped, reminding him that it was there. It started up again after a moment, repeating the last phrase played. He followed the sound through the other parlour door, by the fireplace, that led into the dining room, and then to the other dining room door, leading into the music room where Mrs. Thompson had been teaching him vocal exercises in the morning. He knocked, tentatively, and opened the door.

Valerie was sitting at the full-size grand piano, her back towards him as she played. Mrs. Thompson was standing at her side. “Yes, that’s better now, isn’t it?” she said to Valerie.

“Uh-h– Yes. Thank you.” She played on. “There’s a bit later on as well. I can’t seem to get it…”

Nathan started to back out and pull the door closed, but Mrs. Thompson turned suddenly and smiled at him. “Well, come in, dear, don’t dawdle in the doorway. If you promise to sit quietly you may stay and listen. Do you mind, Valerie?”

“No, that’s fine.” The playing paused while Valerie twisted her upper body around to see him. “Good evening, Natasha. Did you have a nice day?” She flashed him a quick leering grin.

He almost smiled at her expression, but instead he glanced at Mrs. Thompson momentarily, then down. “Yes thank you, Miss Valerie,” he said quietly.

“Of course you have,” Mrs. Thompson said, sounding satisfied. “You’ve had a nice afternoon nap, haven’t you?” The long fingers of her right hand idly stroked the gleaming black finish of the piano. He shivered at the sight, as if feeling those fingers drawing across his skin. “Close the door and come here.” Her other hand extended towards him.

He nearly bolted then; but he had to go through with it, of course, or she’d make things much worse. He closed the door and stepped further into the oval room. The wide bay window, rising from near the floor to the high ceiling, cast long diagonal shadows across the room and against the wall behind him.

“Is that the dress Marie put out for you?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“It’s very pretty, dear. And so are you.” She smiled. Next to her, he caught Valerie rolling her eyes ceilingwards as she turned back to the music. It surprised a giggle out of him. Valerie started playing again and Mrs. Thompson turned and put a hand to his back to direct him. “Now, why don’t you go and sit yourself down by the window there,” she moved him towards the sweeping window-seat — more of a wide window-sill, in fact, at the base of the bay windows; already laid out with cushions and throws. “I should like to see you in the light of the fading sun. I think it’ll really bring out the colour in your hair.”

~If you wanted to see the colour in my hair, why did you put that dye in the shampoo?~ he wanted to snap, but he kept his mouth shut and went meekly, aware of her gaze on his back as she released him and sent him on. Where she had indicated was exactly where she could see him best from where she was returning by the piano.

“It’s this bit,” Valerie warned, launching into a phrase in the music. He sat, feeling fragile and alone. The music sounded all right to him, he thought.

“I’m sorry, Valerie. Play it again.”

Valerie switched suddenly into the first bars of that song from Casablanca. Mrs. Thompson laughed. Valerie just looked up at her and grinned.

“All right, you’ve got my attention,” Mrs. Thompson said. “What do you think you’re doing wrong?”

Something,” Valerie said. “I don’t know exactly.” She started the troublesome passage again. It still sounded fine to Nathan.

With Mrs. Thompson’s attention away from him, he looked around the room, but soon found his eyes drawn to the scene outside; to the terrace that ran along the South side of the house, the sweeping stone staircase leading down from that outside the bay window where he sat, down to a wide lawn that stretched into open, rolling parkland: trees, some still with blossom, and a small lake in the distance with a picturesque Arcadian stone bridge. Further off to the right, almost looking into the sun, he could see a small herd of deer grazing in the long grass at the edge of the woods.

“How can it be so beautiful here?” he asked; only a whisper, so no-one would hear him. It wasn’t fair.

***

“Nathan, it was a dream.”

He couldn’t stop crying, so she shut up and just held him close for a while. Enfolded, like a child just out of the bath, wrapped in a big warm towel. He sat on the bed, in darkness, and cried.

“You were right, I’m sorry,” he said. “Should have run–”

“No, you were right. It wouldn’t have worked. We’d only be in worse trouble.”

He could almost laugh at that. He heard a quiet knocking on the door. It was a long way away and nothing worth reacting to.

“Stop that,” she said. He stopped rocking. ~Wouldn’t want to look like a crazy person. Haha.~ “It was a dream,” Eleanor insisted again.

“I know.” He wasn’t even sure if that mattered any more.

There was someone else in the room. Not that it mattered, until the figure in the darkness moved in front of him and bent to turn the bedside lamp on. It was a long way away. He didn’t want to come back. He felt the weight of another person settle on the side of the bed next to him.

We don’t have to play with the dolls any more,” Marie said. For some reason he hadn’t expected it to be her.

He shrugged and looked at his fingernails. How smooth they were. It was bizarre, how much difference even a little attention over the last few days had made. His hands, too. The skin liked the moisturisers and the exfoliation. So smooth, so pristine.

Tell me, what’s the matter?”

He thought about telling her. Eventually he just said, “Nothing.”

Marie seemed to be thinking about what to say to him. He didn’t give her any help.

Would you like to help me with your dress for tomorrow evening?”

~It must be some occasion,~ he thought numbly. He shrugged. ~Is that all she has to say?~

I’ll go and get it,” Marie said, and got up to leave.

I am her boydoll.” The words came out of his mouth unbidden.

Her doll,” Marie corrected him. It must have just been habit for her, but it was more than he could bear. With a sudden wordless howl, he lunged and hurled the bedside lamp towards the window. Tethered by its power cord it only flew a couple of feet before it was checked and slammed down to the carpet, hard. The light fitting lolled brokenly loose from the base, throwing shadows and light across the ceiling. The alarm clock and a couple of ornaments were knocked down onto the floor nearby. He stood amidst the ruin, trembling and breathing hard.

After what felt like a long time, he heard Marie speaking, a long way off, but bringing him back, “You are her student, Natasha,” she stressed. He just sagged to the floor and hugged his knees. Then Marie was kneeling in front of him, making him look at her for the first time since she entered the room as she tried to take his hand. “Tasha, dear, what’s–” He shoved her hand away, twice, and buried his head in his arms. “You’re not a doll. Don’t think that!”

He ignored her, until she started picking fallen things off the floor around him. She picked up the broken lamp and turned it off, the loss of light visible even with his face pushed into his arms.

“Leave it,” he said.

“It’s broken,” Marie replied redundantly.

“Get me some Superglue and I’ll fix it.”

“I’ll take it downstairs–”

“I’ll fix it!” he insisted, looking up at her. It was dark without the lamp on. “I just need some glue. She doesn’t have to know about it, does she?”

She looked like she was thinking about it. Finally she nodded. “No, she doesn’t.” She smiled. “We’ll fix this.” She braced a hand on the bed and got back to her feet and quietly left the room.

Notes:

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