The Taken: Nathan's Story, Chapter 5

Synopsis:

"Will there be sherry at dinner?"

Story:

Nathan's Story 5

***

It was a small plastic stick, with a flattened teardrop-shaped blob of spongy material at each end. One end was still white, pristine; the other had been stained or smudged in some tan colour. He tried to remember what it was called.

As he looked closely he could see tiny, tiny specks that shone like fine powdered glitter. ~Fairy-dust.~ It was a real shame, he thought, about the thousands of fairies who lived out their lives in those horrible little steel cages in Revlon’s factories. The way the dust was extracted was particularly cruel, but they didn’t even have room to fly. People always said someone should do something, but no-one ever did. Or not enough people at any rate.

Eye-shadow,” he remembered, and leaned closer to the mirror to put it on.

***

~What day is it?~ he wondered; not that it mattered. ~Wednesday I think. Fourth day. Third morning.~ The stomach, back and headache were gone, and with them the chaos and the… other stuff, that he was supposed to have grown out of. The lie that he didn’t have to be alone.

He didn’t know if he could stand another day of this. The clothes– The clothes didn’t matter, they were only clothes, it was her; she kept knocking him off balance. The way she looked at him. The little soft touches, as she straightened the lie of his dress, or moved back some hair off his face, or applied some correction to his posture; there was always a pretext, something that made it seem unreasonable for him to object, in so many words, at the particular time it happened. And besides, it wasn’t even unpleasant unless he stopped to think about it, and to think about what he was getting used to. It was flattering to have so much attention paid to him; to be told he looked good, or that he was doing well, even just that someone wanted to spend time with him. “Fuck-up,” he said quietly to himself. He didn’t know what that was in French. Mrs. Thompson’s old French/English dictionary didn’t include such words.

***

Nathan realised he was sitting on the bed, not at the dressing-table. The curtains were open and the sun was high. It shone across the pale blue material of his skirts, making an interesting pattern with the light through the lace on the pinafore that caught his eye for a few moments. His feet and lower legs were bare and warmed by the sunlight. He stretched his toes and listened to the cooing of a pigeon somewhere nearby outside.

He stood, and nearly tripped over the discarded high-heeled shoes on the floor by the bed. The stockings lay nearby like shrivelled, shed snake-skins. His feet hurt. Actually… He enumerated, his toes, his soles, his ankles, his calves, his thighs, his lower back and pelvis, his shoulders, his neck, all aching and stiff. He had a bruise on his thigh just above the knee, and two on an upper arm and he couldn’t remember how they happened. And he had a headache. One side of his face felt tender and hot.

He stretched uncomfortably. It wasn’t like before, though. The tense pressure, like he was being pressed in on all sides, the nausea, the dizziness. This was okay in comparison. This was just exertion: doing something for the first time. He looked at the high-heeled shoes again, and experimentally slid one foot into the one that had happened to land upright. Yes, he could feel it; that was what had done it. He kicked the shoe away and went to the window to kneel on the cushioned window-seat.

The light faded quickly as a large cloud stole the sun. It was windy outside, and even through the window, as the sunlight dimmed, he felt a chill. It raised goose-pimples on his arms. There were more clouds coming. A weather-front. He wondered if it might rain.

~Am I supposed to be doing something?~ he wondered. He twisted to see the clock ticking on the bedside table. Just gone midday. He was feeling a little drowsy. ~Have another nap?~ That was plausible. Or, ~Getting changed for lunch? No. I have to wait here until I’m called for,~ he remembered, vaguely. ~She’s… She’s angry with me?~ He raised a hand towards his cheek, reaching for the memory–

A knock, then the door opening. That meant Marie. “Tasha? How are you, dear?” ~Stupid question.~ But he sat on his heels and shifted around until he was sitting on the window-seat facing her. She looked worried. Shaken, even, but trying to hide it. ~Something has happened then. Was it something I did?~ He flashed to Mrs. Thompson looking angry with him. Furious. ~What did I do?~ She’d sent him upstairs. She was in a rage.

“Okay,” he said cautiously.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” Marie asked, still trying to sound cheerful, but the look in her eyes was something else. Awkwardness, doubt. Pity?

He shrugged. “Do I have to wear these?” he asked back, pointing at the discarded high-heeled shoes. ~Why is she speaking English suddenly?~ he wondered. ~What’s this about?~

Marie smiled then, as if grateful for a small humorous moment. “No, dear. We’ll find you some outdoor shoes that’ll fit.” He didn’t think it was worth suggesting his own shoes, the ones he came with. “You’ll find some thicker pairs of tights in the drawer,” she said, then paused and looked out of the window. “It looks cold outside,” she commented, a little fretfully. He went to look for the tights. He found the ones he thought she meant, made of white wool and ribbed. He sat down to get them on. They were much easier to get on than the stockings he’d worn so far. He stood facing the window while he worked the garment up under his skirts to his waist. Marie didn’t say anything about the way he shuffled up the petticoats to do it, but he took care to get them settled again reasonably well. Meanwhile, Marie found a couple of pairs of ankle-boots. They had a slight heel on them but nothing nearly as bad as the shoes he’d been wearing that morning. “Try these on,” Marie suggested. “You haven’t been here long enough to get new things that fit properly, but maybe one of these will fit you well enough.” Nathan sat down again to try on the first pair. “If neither of them fit we’ll have to raid the storage room.” Another awkward smile.

The second pair were wearable, Nathan decided, after walking in them a few steps. The wide, two-inch heels still felt high but not so much as to be difficult, and at least they had a bit of grip on the underside. Marie led him down the service stairs and paused by the small cloakroom to pull two coats out. A plain grey one for herself, which she hurriedly put on as she shepherded him into the kitchen, and a bright blue one, which Nathan realised with a sinking heart had to be for him. She started helping him into it. “Put your arm through here, dear,” she said, holding out the side of the coat so he could get his second arm in.

“Where are we going?”

“No-where in particular. I thought we’d go for a walk in the garden to get some air. You haven’t been out of this stuffy old house since you arrived, have you? It’s not good for you.”

Nathan got his hand through the sleeve. Marie started buttoning the coat’s double-breasted front. “I can do it,” he protested.

“I know, dear, but let me?” That funny, awkward smile again, like she was really sad but trying to hide it. Nathan just sighed and let her get on with it. “Oh, very beautiful.” She signalled for him to turn and he went all the way around, so she could see. It fitted close to his waist and flared out over the hips and the petticoated dress underneath in a nice way. Even he thought so. “It’s lovely on you,” Marie said. She stopped him with a touch and put a matching hat on his head. “Oh yes. Very smart.” ~What is this all about?~ he wanted to know.

“Why aren’t you speaking French?” he asked suddenly. This was all wrong. Something was happening, and he was being taken outside, suddenly…

“Because.” Marie smiled. “I’ll tell you a secret. I haven’t spoken this much French since before you were born. It’s giving me a headache, I’ve become so rusty.”

And Mrs. Thompson was angry with him, and Marie was sad… He remembered what he was thinking earlier about their investment. If they decided he wasn’t worth the trouble– ~Oh no!~ “We don’t have to!” he protested. “I’ll be good I promise I’ll be good! I’ll…” He cast about looking for something, some thing he could do to please her. “Wh-What about that dress? You wanted me to try on that dress for tonight! I could do that, and then… and then…” He stopped. She was looking at him oddly.

“Tasha, we did that last night, don’t you remember? After you fixed the lamp. And I didn’t tell her about that, I promise.”

~Oh shit no!~ He held his breath, staring at her wild-eyed. “Y-Y-Y–” He stammered.

“Tasha, it’s all right. Try to relax–”

“Are you taking me out to kill me?” he challenged, directly. He meant it to sound stronger, but it came out almost a whisper, and shaking horribly. And in a moment, he saw he was wrong, in Marie’s look of shock and surprised dismay.

“Oh, No, no, my dearling!” He didn’t understand that word, but he didn’t have time to try to translate it before he was hauled into a quick hug. “No no no. Where did you get such ideas?”

He couldn’t answer right away; off-balance, and pressed against her in the hug. Then words babbled out, in relief. “I-I thought, ’cause-’cause I really made her angry an’ you’re all upset an’ all an’ I thought she wanted… she wanted to get rid of me…”

“No!” Marie protested. She pushed him back slightly, hands on his shoulders, so he could see her eyes, and repeated, “No, Tasha, we’d never do something like that. That’s not–” She had to stop. There were tears in her eyes as she looked at him. Somehow that shocked him more than anything. “What did you think was going on here?” She fiddled with some hair that had dropped out from under the beret he was wearing, putting it back in place.

“Why are you upset?” he asked.

Marie shook her head sadly. “It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you’ve done. I’ve just received some bad news about a friend, that’s all.” She smiled, and raised her hand as if to fix his hair again, but there must have been nothing to fix because she just lowered it again. She sighed. “It was never your fault. Do you believe me?”

“I… I suppose…” ~What does she mean by that?~

“I need some air and I could use the company,” Marie admitted. “I’m sorry, I know it’s selfish of me, but Madame is very busy and Valerie won’t be back for hours. Do you mind?”

He decided in that case he didn’t, and shook his head. “It’s okay.” It was all confusing. Something had happened, and maybe it wasn’t anything to do with him after all. Marie had said it wasn’t his fault. Maybe he’d just happened to be there, and for once it wasn’t one of their little set-up scenes.

Marie smiled and opened the outer door and led the way outside. Nathan looked out across the walled garden nervously, as if almost expecting a football team or, worse, a pack of schoolkids, to suddenly appear from behind a tree as soon as he dared to put a foot down on the ground outside the house.

Not to mention that the breeze coming through the doorway was curling around his thighs in an extremely distracting fashion. The way the skirt and petticoats moved in the light wind and brushed his legs was driving him quietly nuts. His skin prickled into goose-bumps even under the woollen tights. It made him feel exposed all over again, like the first time he’d gone out on the landing. ~This is nuts,~ he thought. ~I’ve been dying to get out of this place.~

Marie, ahead of him, seemed to notice he wasn’t with her and came back, offering her hand. “Take my hand. It’s quite safe.” She smiled sympathetically. “No-one’s going to see you but me.”

He looked around one more time; one last superstitious check for sudden spectators. Marie’s hand was still waiting, outstretched towards him. He took it and stepped carefully out onto the patio. “See?” Marie asked.

Once away from the doorway it was less draughty. The walled garden, of which the plots of herbs nearest the kitchen were a part, opened out from the side of the house and split into two levels; the upper tier towards the front of the house where the ground was higher, and the lower tier, where Marie took him, went further down from the back of the house and gradually seemed to become less garden and more overgrown orchard. It was sheltered and warm. Old apple trees tangled their extremities above his head, still heavy with blossom. Below, any number of flowers and shrubs he couldn’t begin to name competed for light and attention. Climbing plants twisted and twined everywhere. Marie had said they were roses as they passed, and showed him the unopened buds. She was looking forward, she said, to seeing the display later in the summer. Pale blossom streamed from the top branches in the wind, and swirled above his head.

He looked back over his shoulder. The house seemed even bigger from the back. The kitchen was on the ground floor here, and the dining and music rooms opened onto a low-walled terrace that, at this end anyway, also served as part of the kitchen’s roof. He looked up. The corner of the house loomed high overhead.

“Let’s go down to the pond,” Marie offered.

“Okay.”

Marie let them out through a small arched side-door set into the wall. It was windier outside the walled garden, and he decided he was glad of the coat after all as they traipsed down the winding path away from the house. “I suppose I should call it a lake,” Marie was saying as they walked. “It’s not very big. I’m never sure whether to call it a lake or a pond. What’s the difference, do you know?”

“I don’t know.”

Marie seemed still to be distracted by something. Almost absently her hand found Nathan’s and held it. It surprised him, but he didn’t pull away. He just looked at her, not looking at him; looking like she might cry.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing,” she sighed. “I’m sorry.” He felt her squeeze his hand a little tighter and thought he wouldn’t push it, whatever it was that had upset her.

They walked around the small lake. It wasn’t far, and there were things to look at: the wooden jetty without any boats, the faded old summer house, the water, patterned with ripples tugged up by the wind, the pretty little bridge at one end, after which the path plunged into woodland.

Marie didn’t volunteer anything further about whatever was upsetting her, except maybe once, she just said, “It’s too soon.” He didn’t think she’d intended him to hear it, so he didn’t quiz her on what she meant.

They came upon a little stone naiad by the water’s edge among the trees. Life-sized, he thought; he reckoned she’d be almost as tall as him if she stood, but she sat in her small ruined temple and looked out thoughtfully across the quiet water. “This sort of thing was all the rage in the eighteenth century,” Marie murmured. “There are a few other follies like this, here and there in the grounds. They landscaped the whole area to make it look more like how they thought nature should look, about the time the new house was built. They were looking for something I suppose; some memory of paradise.” Marie sighed and sat on the low wall that just happened to serve as a bench in just the right place to give a view of the naiad and the lake and the bridge and the house on the rise. It was built from the start as a fake ruin, Nathan could see that now. Time had aged it well. Grass and moss and lichen had taken the fake and made it real. “Everyone was doing it,” Marie continued.

“Capability Brown?” Nathan asked. He’d seen a programme about him.

“We don’t think so,” Marie said. “Apparently this place was a little after his time. But it’s definitely the same style, isn’t it?”

He sat on the fallen section of wall next to the naiad and looked where she was looking. Of course, he realised, even the broken piece of wall had probably been deliberately placed just there as well. He wondered if it mattered that it was artificial. It was lovely here, with the blossom-heavy branches lowering over the water, and the tiny delicate petals on the ground.

“Valerie comes down here too, sometimes,” Marie said. “Especially after she’s had a row with Jane about something.” He nodded. “She does it less now she’s got her bike on the road.”

***

Finally she led him back to the house and sent him upstairs to shower and change. By the time he came down and found her in the kitchen, her mood had lightened considerably. “Would you like to help me make lunch?” she asked.

“I’m not hungry,” he said. “Thanks.”

She looked at him tartly. “I didn’t ask you if you were hungry. I asked if you’d like to help me make lunch.”

He chuckled. “You mean I don’t have to eat it?”

“I didn’t say that either.” She smiled wryly. He sighed. “Madame won’t be joining us, but I have my orders too, Natasha. You must eat something.”

“I had a big breakfast,” he protested. It was even true this time. “There’s too much food here, I’m not used to it. Don’t let me stop you having lunch though. I’m just really not hungry.” He stopped, recognising the look she gave him. “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not,” he said. He recognised that look, too. Disbelief, mixed with concern. “I don’t think I look fat,” he expounded. “And my weight’s stable. You can ask Lindsey.” Because she hadn’t believed him either, and neither did Dr. Balham, so he promised not to drop below a certain BMI, and Lindsey read the scales and kept the chart; which was a weekly ritual that in his view could almost have been designed to make one obsessed with gaining or losing weight; only he found it utterly tedious. “I don’t want to lose weight, okay? I just don’t want to put any on either. I want to stay where I am.”

“You’re growing up. You’re supposed to put weight on.” Another look. “All right. You can still help me make lunch.” Nathan shrugged. “And don’t shrug.”

“Aargh!”

Marie laughed.

“What’s that all about anyway? Why can’t I shrug?”

“Well-bred young ladies do not shrug.”

“But I’m not–” Marie looked at him quizzicially. “Well-bred,” he finished, grinning. “I’m a total mongrel. I’m at least half-Irish for a start.”

“Oh are you? I suppose you have something of the colouring…”

But Nathan had shut up. That was more than he’d meant to say. Not even Lindsey knew that.

“Well,” Marie continued, thankfully not pursuing that topic, “in the first place, as a mannerism it lacks grace and elegance, but Jane also wants you to get used to properly articulating whatever it is you want to say.”

He thought about that. “Well, yeah I guess, but…” he trailed off, not having a complete thought there after all. Which kind of was the point, he supposed.

“And she would say that if something isn’t worth saying properly, then everyone would benefit by your keeping it to yourself.”

***

Marie took Nathan out into the garden again to pick fresh herbs, although he put his foot in it again by giggling at the way she pronounced it, “’erbs,” or more like “yrbs.”

The herbs” Marie said stiffly. “I suppose it comes from that.” She bent to pick a couple of leaves off one of the bushes. She straightened and crushed the leaves in the palm of her hand. “Mm. Smell this, Tasha,” she said, passing her hand towards him. He inhaled–

***

–“Smell this, Sheo.” Granny said, in her little patio garden. “Tell me what this is.” Bees hummed among the flowers.

“It’s basil,” he replied–

***

–“That’s right,” Marie said, jolting him into the present. The intense aroma of the herbs curled in the air around him. She quickly picked and handed him a few more intact sprigs to hold on to. “I’m going to make a pasta sauce. Or rather you are, so I want you to recognise what the ingredients look and smell like.” She moved a few steps, obliging Nathan to follow. “Pick some of that and crush it. See what you think.”

He obeyed. The oil from the leaves stained his hand, the smell hitting him again. “Oregano?” he wasn’t quite sure; it might be marjoram.

“Ah– Yes, oregano.” Marie pronounced it differently, the stress on the second syllable. “Pick some more, we’ll have some of that too.” He picked more, getting a hit of tactile memory. Stuffing herbs into an apron pocket… The same action now put the herbs into the pocket on the front of the pinafore Marie had wanted him to wear for working in the garden. “And what about this?” Marie was holding out some other herb.

That’s marjoram,” he pronounced confidently.

“Very good. Let’s go back inside, we already have everything else we need.”

***

Inside she soon had him chopping the herbs up into tiny pieces. Then he had to eviscerate and chop some peppers, peel and chop some garlic and onions, which did nothing good for his make-up, and chop up some tomatoes. The knives Marie gave him to use for all this were frighteningly sharp, much sharper than the ones at home, and he went slowly for fear of losing a digit or two, but he was surprised how much easier it made doing the chopping. Meanwhile Marie, in-between showing him how to use the kitchen knives safely, sliced up some chicken breasts. “This smells amazing,” he admitted to Marie.

“Doesn’t it just?” Marie smiled. “Bring that sauté pan over here and we’ll get it going.”

He looked around. There was a range of copper pans hanging over the centre worktop. “Which one’s that?” he had to ask.

“It looks like a shallow saucepan with a very long handle.”

He looked again. “Oh right.”

He had to stretch for it. Under Marie’s direction he poured a large quantity of viscous dark green olive oil into the pan and started it heating. “Can you smell the oil?” Marie directed.

“Mmm.”

Marie smiled and went to sort something else out. “Just let it warm a little, so it’s a little runny, then put the onions and garlic in and sauté.”

“What’s ‘sauté?’” He thought he knew.

“Just keep moving it as you’re cooking.” He was right.

She talked him through adding the rest of the ingredients, including passata and tomato purée and a surprising quantity of cayenne pepper she seemed to decide upon at the last minute, “just to give it a kick,” she said. Then it was time to cover it and let it simmer, after which she sent him upstairs to refresh his make-up.

By the time he returned there was another saucepan simmering on the hob and a frying pan, in which Marie was frying the strips of chicken she’d sliced earlier with some butter and herbs. She beckoned him over. “Let me see your make-up,” she said, so he stayed still for inspection. “Yes, that’s much better, don’t you think, Tasha?”

He nodded. The smells in the kitchen were graduating from amazing into being truly astonishing. Marie lifted the lid on the sauce and the aroma just bathed him. “Oh wow.”

“You did that.”

“What’s that?” He indicated the other saucepan.

“Penne. Pasta,” she elucidated. “That’s very easy. You just boil some water and put the pasta in, then let it simmer for about ten minutes. Or a little less. I prefer it a little al dente.”

“It’s an awful lot of food,” he commented. Marie shrugged. “Aha! Don’t shrug!” he crowed, and burst out laughing at the expression on her face.

“Don’t be cheeky,” Marie said, around a laugh she couldn’t quite restrain. “I don’t have to entertain guests and go out to posh functions.”

“Can’t I stay and cook with you instead?” The words were out before he’d thought them through, but it sounded good to him compared to the other possibilities.

“Oh, I don’t think so. Jane has other plans for you.”

“I’m sure she has too,” he said darkly. “I like this better.”

“Here, try an olive,” Marie invited, presenting a plate she had by her side. Dark and green olives and some olive oil and some torn-up crusty bread.

“Um…”

“Just one. They hardly have any calories at all, I promise. Then I can tell Jane I got you to eat something.”

He gave her a look and took one of the green ones. Biting down on it released a strong flavour, slightly bitter; not quite as much like olive oil as he expected, and an odd, slippery texture.

“What do you think?”

“Mm,” he said, still eating. He swallowed. “Mm. Not sure. Tastes a bit funny. Bitter?”

“Have a piece of bread.” He hesitated and took a piece. It had a little olive oil drizzled over it already, and the crust crunched and flaked in his mouth. “In answer to your question, yes, it is a lot, but we can put some in the fridge or freezer and have it later, or Valerie can take some in to college. I think they have a microwave in the cafeteria students can use. Now, this is nearly ready, so we’ll just make a quick side salad to go with it…”

***

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” Marie asked. They had brought the dishes to the big rustic table in the lower part of the kitchen by the patio door and Marie was serving herself.

“No, I’m fine, thank you.” His stomach rumbled treacherously. Marie gave him an ‘are you really sure’ look and started chuckling. He joined in, blushing.

“Get yourself a plate and some cutlery,” she directed. He went.

***

It was delicious. Every part, but especially his sauce. His. Lindsey didn’t cook like this. Everything, every step of the process, played on his senses. The smell of the oil being warmed, the sshk of the knife slicing through fresh herbs on the wooden cutting-board, the smell of that, lingering on his hands, the bright colour of the peppers, the sizzle of the chicken in the pan, even the solid weight of the pan itself.

“So what conclusions do you draw from your experiment, Mam’selle Marie?” he asked.

She chuckled again. “That you have an aptitude for cooking, Mam’selle Natasha.”

“I just did what you told me to.”

“Yes; you listened, you paid attention, you made the effort to understand what you were doing and you applied yourself wholeheartedly to doing it well. You’d be surprised how many people your age seem to find that difficult. I’m pleased with you, and I’ll tell Jane so.” He shrugged, blushing, unused to the compliment, and she reached over and slapped the offending shoulder playfully. “And, I can tell aptitude when I see it, and you have it. Valerie was right. You have the feel for it.”

“And what else?” he teased.

And you like good food,” she said, smiling knowingly. “Especially if you can prepare it yourself. And not just sweet snacks like cookies.”

“See? I’m not anorexic. I like food.”

“Well, you give a very good impression of it most of the time. Why do you do that?”

This time he stopped the shrug before it started. “I don’t want to get fat, that’s all. I’m okay the way I am.” In relative terms.

“You don’t want to lose any more weight?”

“No. I don’t want to get ill.” Getting ill would mean getting doctors on his case, and he wanted more than anything to avoid that.

“You could stand to put a little more on, still,” Marie observed. “I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better for it. You’ll have more energy.”

He shook his head. Thankfully Marie didn’t look like she was going to pursue that.

“You’re not going to go and throw all this up again are you?” Marie asked outright.

“No,” he promised truthfully. “I don’t do that. Unless I’m ill.”

“So, what would you like for dinner tonight?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I really am full now.” He shifted uncomfortably, the corset starting to dig in more. “Miss Marie? Can I– I mean may I loosen this corset a bit?”

“Of course. Would you like me to help?”

He thought quickly. From Marie, he thought, that was probably a genuine offer. And it would be a lot easier. “Yes please.” So she had him stand beside her chair, his back turned, while she quickly loosened the laces; not as much as he would have liked, but enough that he could breathe easier and didn’t feel so pinched at the stomach. “Am I going to have to wear this all the time?” he asked.

“Just until Jane’s satisfied you can keep your posture without it,” Marie replied.

“How long’s that going to be?”

“Well, that’s up to you. And there’ll be occasions after that where it’s simply a part of an outfit she wants you to wear. There, done.” He sat down.

***

“Ah, there you are.”

Mrs. Thompson’s voice startled him from behind. He was sitting at the kitchen table again, peeling potatoes for Marie for dinner, but he’d happened to have his back to the door. There seemed to be a lot, but he didn’t say anything. It was almost pleasant to just sit there and get on with it after helping Marie with the cleaning all afternoon. They’d been chatting, mostly about school and stuff, and for a few hours he’d almost been able to forget where he was, what he was wearing, and what was going to happen to him, sooner or later.

The fear was back, instantly. Marie put her hand on his, wordlessly, and stood. He stayed seated, feeling paralysed.

“Natasha is supposed to be practicing her French, but instead I find you here speaking English.” Mrs. Thompson said curtly. She sounded annoyed, and not covering it very well. “This is unacceptable.”

Yes ma’am, I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I needed to explain something complicated, and afterwards I forgot–”

You will not forget again,” Mrs. Thompson replied, cutting her off.

No, my Lady.” Another little curtsey.

~She’s covering for me again,~ Nathan realised. He still couldn’t move. He couldn’t figure out if Marie was actually afraid of Mrs. Thompson. Sometimes she behaved a little like it, and deferred to her so formally, and sometimes she spoke of her with such easy informality.

And you,” Mrs. Thompson continued, and he knew even though he couldn’t see her that she was addressing him. “Natasha! Turn and face me!”

He swallowed air, feeling like he wanted to throw up his lunch, and somehow managed to stand and face her.

Yes, ma’am,” he said, tremulously.

Should Marie forget in future, you will remind her. Understand?” Her French-speaking voice was fast, but it was crisp and precise.

He nodded and stuttered, “W-Yes, ma’am.”

“Marie, I want Natasha changed for the evening. I will see to it myself. Where is the dress I said she should wear?”

“It’s in the wardrobe nearest the window, ma’am,” Marie said. Her hand found his shoulder and gripped tight, almost painfully.

“All right. Natasha, come with me at once.”

“Is-Isn’t Marie going to help then? She usually–”

“Marie will be busy with dinner. Come here.” She extended her hand towards him.

Her voice demanded obedience. It was so absolute he actually found he’d taken a few steps forward before he’d realised what happened. “I- I’ve… I mean, I’d better take my apron off,” he explained.

“Well, do it then, and come with me. Come along. Don’t waste my time, child.”

He bit his lip, hesitantly, then untied the apron and lifted it off over his head and handed it to Marie, who had put her hand out for it. Then he had run out of delays. He had to go to Mrs. Thompson, and take her outstretched hand.

She immediately started out of the kitchen, almost pulling him behind her. “What did you think you were doing, sitting with your back to me, hmm?” she demanded as she pulled him through the connecting passageway leading to the strange little circular room where the hall and the music room met and crossed the passageway from the kitchen to the dining room. “It shows execrable manners. Intolerable. You are to stand and curtsey and greet me with ‘good afternoon, Mrs. Thompson,’ or whatever is appropriate to the time of day the moment I arrive. I will not have this insolence.” She started up the stairs.

~She’s still really angry with me,~ he thought, shaken. Only now she was angry at Marie as well. He’d got her into trouble as well.

Coming down the landing. “I-I’m sorry, Mrs. Thompson,” he said. He couldn’t keep the shaking out of his voice. Mrs. Thompson pushed his bedroom door open and pulled him inside. Then she released him.

“Take your make-up off,” she ordered. “Hurry, there’s little time.”

~Time for what?~ he wondered. That made him even more nervous, but he got control of himself enough to sit and start removing his own make-up. Behind him, he could see in the mirror, Mrs. Thompson was busying herself taking clothes from the wardrobes and the chest of drawers and putting them on the bed.

She was finished with that too quickly, and coming back towards the dressing table. She took the cotton-wool pad out of his hand preremptorially and threw it in the waste basket.

“I can do it myself!” he protested.

“Don’t be contentious,” she said irritably. She pulled out another cotton-wool pad and started wiping the remaining goop off his face herself. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed your continual hesitations and delays. It won’t do. Hold still,” she directed as he flinched. She’d been a little rough too close to his eye, her wiping almost in time to her words.

“W-What’s happening?” he stammered. “Why isn’t there time?”

She seemed to ignore his question, and merely worked with brisk efficiency, using the toner to lift the last of the make-up off his face. There was none of her earlier languor. She applied eye-make-up remover over his eyes, both of them, effectively blinding him for some long moments before she wiped them clean.

“I told you,” she said eventually, “that there would be times when you must submit to a woman’s hand. This is one such occasion. I see now that given too much leniency and time, you are too apt to let your attention wander and to make unwarranted assumptions and take unwarranted liberties. There.” She finished with the make-up removal. “Now, go change into the clothes I’ve put out for you. Wait!” she stopped him, as he started to move. “You’ve been working in the kitchen. Show me your hands.”

He put his hands out for inspection. She took each one in turn. As he flinched when she took his left hand, she grasped his elbow with her other hand firmly. “Hold steady,” she said. “All right. Wash your hands first, then change. Be sure to scrub under your nails. I will return in five minutes to finish you off. If you’re not at least changed by then I will do it for you, do I make myself clear?”

He nodded, terrified.

Do I make myself clear?” she said again. Her voice seemed to overwhelm all his volition.

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“We are going to receive a guest this afternoon,” she said, finally. “A dear friend of mine, in fact. I want you to be on your best behaviour, he’s very much looking forward to meeting you. It’s important that you make a good first impression. You don’t want him to find out your little secret, do you?” The smile she gave him was horrible.

“H-Him?” The word thundered in his head. He felt faint, as if the air was being sucked from the room. “A-A man?”

***

“Five minutes, Natasha,” Mrs. Thompson said as he came back out of the bathroom. Then she left him alone. She had laid out an entire new outfit for him, from the skin outwards. He stared for a moment, his head swimming, at the sheer, delicate lingerie. His fingertips still tingled from where he had been scrubbing at his fingernails.

He counted to ten.

~I thought I had more time. It’s too soon.~

He remembered suddenly: Marie had said that, to herself, while they were down by the lake. ~She knew,~ he realised, feeling sick. ~Of course she knew. But she was upset.~

“She’ll be back any minute,” his voice said. Something warned him that he shouldn’t let Mrs. Thompson see him. Even now, her little fantasy required that he have a chance to do this himself, so when she came back, too soon, he would feel it was his fault for being so slow.

He started taking the dress off, quickly. He didn’t know how much time he had left.

***

“Rich pervs in denial,” Gray said. “Pay through the nose for you to keep your mouth shut. Real family men, y’know? Wife an’ kids back home. ’Cept the ones what turn fucking psycho on you. Then you just get out, y’hear? You don’t fuck around tryin’ to get your money.”

“Leave it out, Gray,” Louise remonstrated.

Gray was so pretty. On the steps outside the squat, taking in the sun where they all used to gather and pass round a spliff. Louise wouldn’t let him try it, but the smoke in the air sometimes made him feel a little dreamy anyway. He could still see Gray’s eyes. He had such beautiful blue eyes.

“Least you get a ride in a nice car,” Gray continued. He sucked on the spliff, then gave it to Jack, to pass on round. “Two if he wants to act like a gentleman an’ bring you back. Nice quiet ride ’cause they don’t want to get nothing on the seats.” He lay back to look at the gold-edged clouds. Jack passed the spliff on to Karen and lay back next to him. “Merc. Jag. Beemer convertible. Even got a ride in an Aston once. Oh wow.” Gray sighed and reached his hand out towards the clouds, as if only he could grasp one it would carry him away.

***

Mrs. Thompson came back too soon. The door opened without even a warning knock. He quickly turned his back to the door. “I’m doing it, I’m doing it!” he protested, still clipping together the busk of the corset, down the front. The stockings had taken too long: Flustered, the fine mesh had kept catching and dragging across his clammy skin and he had been terrified he might tear them in the rush. Finally he’d got them on, attached to the garter straps fixed to the bottom of the corset. He finished with the busk and reached behind him to tension the laces.

Mrs. Thompson didn’t say anything, but he could hear her coming up behind him. He froze. But all she did was take the laces and continue tensioning them herself, with brisk and expert efficiency. He felt the constriction increase, evenly, his breath shortening. “Lean into it now,” she directed, and by now he knew what she meant; what muscles he had to relax, to let the corset do its work. He felt his breathing shift up to his chest again. “Like so,” she said, her hands at his back, just above his hips, gently but firmly shaping his posture. “Good.” Her hands lingered a moment at his waist, then adjusted the laces a little more. At least she didn’t seem angry any more.

It was as if, he realised with a shock, the act of handling him soothed her, and calmed her. That was worth remembering. That could be useful.

Then she helped him into the petticoats, and finally into the rich dark blue dress Marie had taken in for him. It was shimmering, and sleeveless, with a stiff, self-supporting bodice. And yes, it felt familiar now he had it on. There had been pins last time. Mrs. Thompson laced up the bodice and turned him around with a hand on his bare shoulder.

Very beautiful,” she said. “Now, sit down dear.” He obeyed numbly, remembering to boomps as he sat, and Mrs Thompson started brushing out his hair in strong, brisk strokes.

“I’m scared,” he admitted at last.

“Nonsense. You’ll be fine, just as long as you remember your lessons and apply what I have taught you already.” She started gathering up his hair. “You shan’t be expected to say more than a few words. Stay close to me and follow my lead.”

His hair was being bound up into a braid of some sort. “The curls faded,” he observed.

“Yes. There’s no time to rectify that now, and besides, this will show the shape of your face to good advantage.” She put the last, decorative clasp into the hair at the back of his head. “There.” She came around to his front.

“Mrs. Thompson…” he started.

“Yes?” She was busy at the table, choosing which make-up she was going to apply.

It came to something that he found he would prefer to stay just with her. She had, at least, never hurt him.

“What is it, Natasha?” Mrs. Thompson asked, turning to face him.

He couldn’t speak. Instead of pressing him, Mrs. Thompson merely started applying foundation to his face.

***

He could hear a car’s engine. Throaty, growling, like a predator. His breath caught, then he was on his feet, running. “Natasha!” Mrs. Thompson called after him, for once, maybe, taken by surprise. He used a hand to slingshot through the doorway and down to the top of the stairs. There, at the tall sash window, he could see down onto the driveway. He saw the car pull up. It was sporty, but surprisingly large, with a long bonnet and a distinctive downturned grille. It gleamed dark green.

“Aston Martin,” he whispered, his breath coming fast now. The engine died and the driver’s door opened. His own breathing was the only sound, rushing in his ears. He felt a warning twitch, below, as if he might lose control of his bladder, but he clamped down on it. That might, he supposed grimly, get him out of what was to come for an evening, but the punishment–

“Natasha,” Mrs. Thompson said, behind him. He glanced around at her, then back down to the driver. Middle-aged, but tall and very fit-looking, as if he might have been an athlete when he was young. He moved like that too; with strength and elegance– “Natasha,” Mrs. Thompson said, more firmly. He glanced around again. “I’m not given to repeating myself. Don’t make me do it again.”

“I can’t do this,” he said, his voice shaking. His legs wanted to crumple rather than carry him any further.

“Don’t be ridiculous. We have a guest, and it’s our pleasure to entertain him for dinner. Now, come back and allow me to finish your make-up.” Downstairs, the doorbell rang. “Marie will answer it and show him into the parlour. Now, Natasha.”

***

The old image, again, of the little body, naked and pallid and broken, lying lonely and cold amongst the discarded carrier bags and the decaying wet cardboard boxes in the bushes behind the recycling bins. He hadn’t seen it himself: It had all been cleared away by the time he got there; there was just that blue and white police tape whipping in the wind; but his imagination had furnished the image anyway.

***

He looked at Mrs. Thompson, feeling broken. “Will there be sherry at dinner?” he asked quietly.

“I should think not, for an evening meal. We may have a glass of wine. You may have some if you promise to behave and not make any scenes.”

That could hardly be any clearer. “I won’t,” he promised, and went with her.

***

The cops never found who did it. No-one expected them to try very hard for a street kid, let alone a ‘mixed up little freak’ like Gray.

Those were Gray’s own words. One day Jack asked why he called himself that, and Gray took him into the bathroom and showed him. The impossible. The rare thing the men in the sports cars desired.

***

“Mark, how lovely to see you,” Mrs. Thompson said, all warmth and cheerfulness, crossing the parlour to where the man was rising too his feet.

“Jane,” he said, smiling. They kissed cheeks. “Are you sure you don’t mind me dropping in on such short notice? I hope I haven’t put you out of your routine?” English accent, like the BBC.

“Not in the slightest. Oh, allow me to introduce my protégée, Natasha.” She turned to Nathan. “Come forward, dear.”

Nathan knew better than to delay, but as he approached his heart quailed. He wished the skirts didn’t rustle so loudly. ~Oh God, he’s big.~ He had to be at least a clear foot taller than Nathan, and powerfully built. He seemed huge. Dark hair, greying at the temples.

“Natasha, this is Mr. Kingsley,” Mrs. Thompson explained, like that was a real name.

“I’m delighted to meet you Miss…” He trailed off. Perhaps, Nathan thought unexpectedly, a little hesitant there. He expected to use a surname and Mrs. Thompson hadn’t supplied it.

“Shaw,” he heard himself say quietly. His throat felt dry.

“Miss Shaw,” he took up. “It’s a pleasure.” His hand. Nathan stared at it for a fraction too long, then remembered, and placed his own hand in Mr. Kingsley’s palm. It almost disappeared inside the man’s much larger hand. Again, almost too late, he remembered to curtsey. “And I must say, you look quite charming, doesn’t she, Jane?” He released Nathan’s hand, finally.

“She shows some promise,” Mrs. Thompson allowed. “Do be seated, Mark. Or if you prefer, we could step out onto the terrace. It looks like being a pleasant evening.”

“I’m afraid appearances are deceptive,” Mr. Kingsley said. “It’s quite chilly. Certainly too chilly for Miss Shaw’s current attire, I fear.”

“In that case, do sit. Natasha.” She took Nathan’s hand and led him to a two-seater settee. A turn in the way she held his hand meant he had to sit with her, close next to her. Mr. Kingsley massively occupied a chair opposite.

“I brought the final papers for Valerie to sign, as we discussed” Mr. Kingsley said. “Is she here?”

“She’s at college,” Mrs. Thompson explained. “I think she’s doing something after school with this drama group to which her friend belongs. But she is expected home before too late. She knows you’re coming.”

“Ah. Well, there’s no rush. I’m glad she’s making friends at last. I know it’s been difficult for her to adjust.”

“Indeed. For a long time I did question the wisdom of bringing her here with me. Part of me still feels she would have been better off back in the States with Art and Darryl.” She sighed. “But, this was her choice. I’m glad she’s settling in, finally. Were there any problems with the plan as we left it?”

“None whatsoever. It’s all drawn up and the funds have cleared; I just need her signature and it’s done.”

“I’m sure she’ll be glad to do that when she gets in.”

They talked, apparently forgetting Nathan’s presence, although he couldn’t help but feel Mr. Kingsley’s eyes rest on him from time to time, occasionally catching him in a curious, interested look. He blushed and occupied some time imagining whatever nefarious plan for Valerie those two were cooking up, into which she was going to unwittingly sign herself, and whether he should try to warn her. It was diverting in a grim sort of way, given he didn’t actually wish harm to Valerie, but it soon became apparent they were talking mostly about money. Large sums of money. Funds and portfolios and stuff. ~Maybe she’s the heiress, and Mrs. Thompson’s the wicked stepmother, trying to swindle her out of her inheritance…~ After all, he had heard no word of a Mr. Thompson.

***

He couldn’t take his eyes off the porcelain figurine. It was on the mantlepiece, a little off to the side and unregarded. It looked old. A girl in a pink Victorian dress with an exaggeratedly wide skirt billowing around her. Her shoulders were left bare by the wide neckline. She was holding a fan, her eyes demurely downcast, caught in the moment of curtseying. Or maybe, he thought, she was just sitting, like he was forcing himself not to, tired and resigned.

~There are worse things. If I don’t co-operate.~ Fluttering blue and white tape, and a small, cold, broken body.

He longed, irrationally, for Valerie. For some lead. For a look that might say ‘I know. It’s all right.’ Something.

~You coward, Nathan.~

~I don’t want to die. Not like Gray.~

***

Valerie was in the doorway, apparently freshly showered and blowdried and changed into an elegant evening dress. As she turned Nathan glimpsed the pretty butterfly clasp she’d worn on the day he arrived. “Hello, Mark. I’m sorry I’m so late. The rehearsal overran.” She seemed a little breathless. Mark was already on his feet, to greet her. She shook hands, with that little curtsey Nathan had last seen on the railway platform, and sat. “Good evening, Jane. Natasha.”

“Rehearsal?” Mark asked.

“Would you believe, I’ve been drafted as some kind of fight director for a play some friends are doing.”

“You? A fight director?”

“It’s not as surprising as you’d think,” Valerie protested, managing to sound a little hurt. Nathan was astonished enough to be distracted from his own worries. Valerie seemed so gentle. “You should have seen the way they were holding those knives. I had to do something. Someone was going to lose an eye.”

“Valerie, Mark’s brought those forms for you to sign,” Mrs. Thompson quickly interrupted that line of conversation.

“Oh, yes.” She looked like she was visibly shifting gears. “Which one is this again?”

“This is the covenant.”

Valerie’s mouth opened in a silent ’Oh.’

“Why don’t you two go and finish that in the private living room. Mark, you’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” she asked, as if it hadn’t already been set up. Valerie had stood again already. Mark was following.

“With pleasure, if you’ll have me,” Mark replied.

“You’re welcome any time, you know that.”

The two of them left.

***

“You’re doing very well, Natasha, given I haven’t had time to instruct you as thoroughly as I might have wished.” Nathan fought to keep his eyes dry. He was thinking of Valerie. She was with him right now. “Now, when we go in to dinner I shall suggest that you accompany Mr. Kingsley.” Nathan’s breath came faster. “This is what you’re to do.” She stood up. “He will offer his hand like so. Place your right hand in his…” She waited for him to obey, “and stand, that’s right.” He felt dizzy. “Now, put your right arm through there.” He tried. “All right, try that again. It should flow naturally– Just take my elbow– That’s right. Then all you have to do is follow his lead. He’ll direct you where you need to go. Show me how you walk. I want to see if you’ve remembered your lesson this morning.” And they walked, and he found the muscle-memory. “He won’t go too fast, because I’ll be in front with Valerie setting the pace. Yes, that’ll have to suffice,” she added, commenting on his walking. “Remember to keep your head up and your eyes level.” It wasn’t as if he could see his feet anyway. “Try to be graceful, and if you have to speak, keep it to a minimum and remember to keep your voice light and musical, the way you’ve been practicing.”

“I haven’t done this before,” he said, his voice quavering.

“I should think not. But you’re doing very well. Just continue as you are.”

“I don’t want to do this.” He could feel the panic rising. “I don’t want to do this.” He heard the desperation in his own voice, now it was coming to it. Now it was becoming real and close.

“Natasha.” Mrs. Thompson spoke firmly. “It is common courtesy to entertain one’s dinner guests. Now, we’ll have no more of this nonsense. Go sit down and remember what I told you.”

He lingered for a few seconds longer, trying to get up the courage to say something more. Anything. In the end all he could come up with was, “Can I– may I go to the toi– May I go to the lavatory please?” He was shaking, and he really did need to go.

Mrs. Thompson looked at him for several seconds, as if weighing up whether to believe him, then she nodded. “Return straight away. Do not dawdle. If you make me come and get you…” She left the rest unsaid. Nathan nodded desperately and just about remembered to curtsey before fleeing the room.

***

He really wasn’t dawdling, it just took a while to sort out the petticoats and knickers and everything without scrunching things up or getting them wet. It kept him busy anyway. He flushed and washed his hands and went back out into his bedroom and checked that the skirts had fallen back down all right in the full-length mirror. It was the look in his eyes that stopped him.

“Gray always said I’d end up some rich cunt’s fucktoy,” he said aloud, as if there was anyone there to hear him. Gray had been liberal with the swear-words; always a shock coming out of that too-pretty face. “Not sure this is what he had in mind.”

It would do.

***

He saw Gray’s face in the mirror. All made up like a china doll. Gray grinned back at Jack. His pupils were dilated, inky and restless. Eye-shadow like bruises.

“You look pretty,” Jack said. He was just a stupid kid. He didn’t know what was going on.

“Aw, sweetums,” Gray said, and pulled him close and kissed his cheek bumpily. Perfume.

“Ur yuck, get off me, you sissy,” Jack protested, wriggling free. Giggling as Gray snatched a tickle on his ribs as he went.

“You be alright Sheo?” Louise said from the door; dressed, like Gray and Karen, for a party or something. Louise wouldn’t say what kind of party, just ‘no, you can’t come.’

“Yeah, s’pose,” he said. Then he had to giggle again, because Gray was posing. Wiggling his narrow hips and taking the piss as he left the room.

“Fuck, Gray, what you on?” Louise yelled after him, then looked back at Jack. “Stay ’ere, right?” He nodded. “Don’t go nowhere and don’t answer the door to no-one, you ’ear me?” Before he could answer she disappeared down the dank hallway after Gray, still shouting at him. Karen looked in on him too, and smiled faintly, then followed without a word. Karen didn’t speak much. The front door slammed and it was quiet.

***

“You do look pretty,” Nathan said quietly to his own reflection, years later. He’d never thought of himself that way before, but it was true, he could see now. He could see it, and say it, without flinching. “Time to earn your keep, Sheo,” he said. He caught himself biting his lip and swore, and diverted briefly to the dressing table to fix his lip colour, took one more deep breath and headed out briskly, letting his door slam shut behind him.

On the way down he was surprised by Valerie bursting out of the private living room’s door and hurrying toward the stairs. She passed close to him, without looking at him, and he could see she had been crying. He stopped to watch her go up the stairs, his heart banging in his chest. When he turned back to carry on down, he gasped in surprise, seeing Mr. Kingsley standing in the hall, regarding him curiously.

“Are you all right, Miss Shaw?” he asked her. He realised then he was breathing hard. He tried to swallow with a dry throat and slow his breathing. He nodded and came down the last few steps to the floor of the hall. ~What am I supposed to do?~ he wondered. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to do something or just wait for Mr. Kingsley to– “I’m afraid I upset Valerie a little. I didn’t mean to.” He sounded genuinely concerned, the bastard. “I think she’ll be all right. She’s just a little emotional about something.” Nathan made himself look at him, and forced himself to smile.

“M–” He hated stammering just then. “Mrs. Thompson says you’re a g-gentle man,” he forced out. He deliberately made it two words.

“Far be it from me to disappoint her,” Mr. Kingsley replied wryly, and smiled. “Or to keep her waiting,” he added, and started ushering Nathan back towards the parlour. Not the direction Nathan had expected, but obviously they were playing out some kind of scene, with all the old-fashioned clothes and manners, and it had its own pace. Mr. Kingsley opened the door and held it open over Nathan’s head for Nathan to walk through.

He was astonished at the relief he felt on seeing Mrs. Thompson again, and it was all he could do to walk to her side, rather than run there. He sat close next to her, wishing he could stop shaking. He knew it was only a reprieve. He was hardly aware of Mrs. Thompson and Mr. Kingsley talking, and jumped when he felt Mrs. Thompson’s hand on his shoulder, but it felt like she was only trying to steady and reassure him.

“Calm,” he whispered, and felt a slight answering squeeze on his shoulder, while Mrs. Thompson kept up the conversation she was having with Mr. Kingsley. Nathan watched him warily, and still caught him glancing curiously back from time to time. He gathered from the conversation that Mr. Kingsley had a wife and two daughters, both into horses, although the elder girl had just discovered Backstreet Boys. ~Yeah. Real family man,~ Nathan thought sourly.

Valerie re-entered. Nathan watched her. She still looked a little fragile, like she’d cried some more, but she smiled and crossed to Mrs. Thompson and surprised Nathan by bending to hug her around the neck for a moment. It seemed uncharacteristic somehow, and certainly seemed to surprise Mrs. Thompson. He heard Valerie’s quiet “Thank you,” in her ear.

“One less thing for you to worry about, I hope,” Mrs. Thompson whispered back.

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“It’s my business to know. Now go sit down before you embarrass our guest.”

Valerie disengaged her arms and backed off, still smiling, and went to sit down. She seemed lighter, somehow.

Nathan was now completely confused. He wondered for a moment if he’d got it all wrong. Something was going on here and maybe it wasn’t what he thought it was after all. Only… no other explanation made sense.

Marie returned to announce dinner.

Notes:

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