The Taken: Nathan's Story, Chapter 3

Synopsis:

"Double the chocolate."

Story:

Nathan's Story 3

***

The lazy double-beat of the train’s wheels ran over the joins in the tracks. Sara was sketching something quietly. Jack knew this moment. “What is it?” he asked.

“Nothin’.”

“Okay.” He sat with her for a while and watched her draw. Sara was easy company; happy to get on and do her own thing. There wasn’t much of a view to look at, the carriage windows having been scratched to translucency long ago, but Sara seemed to be drawing something else anyway. Two figures: A little dark-haired girl looking up at a tall, elegant lady.

“That’s áine, the fairy queen,” Sara corrected him.

“Oh.”

“Remember what you said to Danny that time?” she said, still drawing. “’Bout the little people stealing boys, an’ how they used to disguise them as girls to hide them?”

“Elves got pointy ears,” Jack observed. “Everyone knows that.”

“Din’t say she was an elf. Said she was a fairy. See? She’s got wings an’ all.”

~Oh, they’re wings,~ Jack realised, thinking that had been the back of a throne or some ornate doorway in the background.

“Yeah, I’m not very good. See, they took him and shrunk him down to their size so no-one’s ever goin’ to find him. I’m goin’ to do a mushroom or flower or somefin’ to show how big they are.”

“Guess they saw through the disguise then,” Jack said.

“No. The queen wanted a girl. She wanted a daughter this time.” She drew. “’Cause the boys always leave her in the end.”

“What’s she going to do when she finds out?”

“She mustn’t. Not ever.” She carried on drawing.

“’Cause if she does she’ll turn him into a girl for real,” Jack suggested, and felt Sara grinning at the thought.

“I can’t draw horses. Need some pictures.”

“We’ll look for a book when we get home. What’s the horse for?”

“Not a real horse. A pooka. The queen sent him to find her a daughter an’ he come back with this boy. See, the pooka knows he made a mistake, but the queen’s goin’ to be even angrier at him if she ever finds out, so he has to help make sure she doesn’t.”

Jack remembered Granny’s story about a pooka. It was a boy who could take the shape of a fine black horse with blazing red eyes, who would entice his victims to get on his back, then run into the water and drown them. He didn’t know why the pooka should want to do this, but the idea of one being dispatched to bring someone into the fairy-realm appealed more.

“An’ even though it was him what took the boy from his mum and dad, they become best friends an’ go on lots of adventures an’ stuff.”

“Oh, so it’s not all bad.”

“No. ’Cept he can never go home and he has to pretend to be a girl and never ever be found out. ’Part from that it’s a laugh.”

“’Ere, you bin sar-car-stic?” Jack intoned out loud for effect, imitating Alexis Sayle, making Sara laugh and the older boy slouching on the opposite side of the carriage look at them oddly. “’Cause I ’ate it when people are sar-car-stic.” He grinned and stuck his tongue out at the older boy, who just looked away out of the window again.

“‘She has eyes like lapis lazuli and hair like a raven’s wing,’” Sara mused a little later, after some more drawing. She was detailing the pretty dress the little boy was wearing. Tiny flowers, every one drawn neatly with the sharp pencil. “That’s what the pooka tells the queen right at the start. And he says, ‘she always puts out a bowl of cream and some chocolate chip cookies for lonely travellers before she goes to bed.’”

“Double the chocolate,” Jack supplemented. “Triple for special occasions.” Like the ones the nice lady taught him to make when he was scared during the night.

“Yeah.”

The train was slowing down, passing factories and office blocks. Jack wanted to sit there forever and listen as Sara invented the story; and he could give her ideas and watch as she worked them in until they came back to him altered and new, so he could think ‘I thought of that,’ and still be surprised at what she had wrought with it.

“And the queen says, ‘Go and bring her to me before dawn. Tonight the veil will be lifted and she may come into our world. Such a night cannot come again in the span of her mortal life.’” Sara smiled, finding the portentiousness of her own words amusing.

The train slowed, pulling into the station. The older boy got up to leave. There was a poshly-dressed lady and her lonely daughter waiting on the platform, dimly seen through the sunlight on the scratched window.

Sara said, “The queen calls him Brenna, but we don’t know the boy’s name. He won’t ever tell, not even his friend the pooka, ’cause names are power an’ he thinks if he keeps his true name secret he’ll go home one day.”

“But he’s scared, if he don’t tell no-one, he might forget,” Jack suggested. Sara smiled broadly. She liked that idea.

“He’s never going home,” Sara said.

***

Nathan lay very still. He thought that if he moved, Valerie would have to do something, or go away like before. He just wanted to watch her as she typed on her laptop where she sat, cross-legged, on the other sofa. Narrow pillars of gold shone against the wall behind her. Dawn. He tried to keep his breathing light and slow, very slow, so as not to alert her that he was awake.

There was a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the coffee-table. Double the chocolate. He remembered the rich, sweet taste. Triple for special occasions.

His eyes fluttered closed. The broken rhythm of Valerie’s typing lulled him.

***

Sara showed him the fairy-queen’s splendid court amongst the woodland flowers, and she showed him how much the queen loved and doted upon the human child that had been brought to her. He saw how the boy thought she might love him anyway even if she knew the truth, but he was afraid of her, and his friend the pooka was even more afraid of her and of course he must know her better.

And magical creatures and people and scenes flickering, hard to pin down. Brenna riding the pooka’s horse-form bareback, in all the finery that befits the daughter of the queen of the fairies, surrounded by an escort of fairy warriors in armour glittering with dew and silver lustre, ducking under dew-laden nets of spidersilk in the grass at the edge of the forest.

Or the two of them, full-size but invisible to the real world, alone on some high promontory overlooking a human town; no, looking in through a window at his dad watching the football on television and his mum patiently spooning food into that thing’s mouth and wiping its chin when it dribbled and drooled.

“It looks nothing like me!” Brenna cries. It looks like a tiny withered old man with skin like old bark. “Why can’t she see that?”

“That’s the glamour working,” his pooka friend replies. “We’re immune. But look, Brenna, she’s not sad. áine in’t cruel like that.”

Then the scrawny wizened thing catches his gaze through the window and the veil between the worlds, and he can see in its eyes a look that is ancient, knowing and triumphant. And he catches sight of the reflection in the window, and sees just a scruffy little boy in a grubby T-shirt and jeans and dirty, matted hair, not at all like the fine silk and brocade dresses he had to wear at court.

Jack wasn’t sure if that was Sara’s idea or his own. He thought it was probably his own. Sara was more interested in the fairy-kingdom stuff, the magical horses, áine, the beautiful and kindly but terrifying queen, the way the fairies’ wings glistened in the morning sun.

***

“Jonathan,” Mrs. Thompson’s voice cut through the fog in his brain. “Where is the make-up you were wearing last night? I specifically told you not to remove it before coming down.”

“Um–” ~Don’t say that.~ “Sorry.”

Morning sunlight angled into the room. The pillars were brighter now, but thinner, slivers, almost gone. The rollers in his hair itched. He was on a big, comfortable, red linen-covered sofa. A quilt had fallen off him as he’d sat up. He was wearing a fluffy pink sweater over his nightgown. He felt a warning clench in his gut. This was not going to be a good day.

He stood. It seemed the thing to do. By the look on Mrs. Thompson’s face he was in a lot of trouble.

“My fault, Jane,” Valerie said, stepping between him and Mrs. Thompson. She was in a plain cotton sleeveless top and a long, light flowing patchwork skirt, with bare feet and unkempt hair. He looked around him at the comfortable living room. It almost didn’t look like it could belong in the same house as the parlour and dining room he’d seen the previous day. Modern and informal, the only clue that he hadn’t, in fact, been moved to another house was the same tall Georgian windows as he’d seen in the parlour and dining room. There was Valerie’s Libretto lying on the other sofa, and there was a memory of dozing off listening to her typing.

Valerie continued, “I cleaned it off. It was a mess and threatening to contaminate the mix. Marie, why don’t you take Nathan up to get ready for breakfast?” She seemed to be trying to stare down her mother. Adopted, Nathan remembered. There was something about Valerie’s manner that seemed suddenly explosive, but she was keeping it in check.

Miss Marie hesitated, until Mrs. Thompson glanced aside and nodded to her. “Let’s go, dear,” Miss Marie suggested. “Let’s make you beautiful.” He didn’t need to be told twice. The tension between Valerie and Mrs. Thompson was palpable. He was glad to leave it behind and follow Miss Marie up the stairs.

Valerie’s voice suddenly raised into a muffled shout below them. “OH FUCK YOU!” He stopped, frozen. There was a short pause, presumably while Mrs. Thompson said something, then, “I have! I’m not your fucking student! I don’t have to take this shit!”

“Valerie!” Mrs. Thompson’s voice punctured the air. A door slammed.

Come with me, dear,” Miss Marie said gently. He agreed that was probably a good idea.

“I didn’t mean to get her into trouble,” he said aloud, following Miss Marie into his room.

“I know,” Miss Marie said. “Sit down, I’ll take these rollers out and we can see how your hair turned out.”

He sat. He heard footsteps outside the room, coming up the stairs and down the landing past his room, but Miss Marie closed the door on the sound. There was a nearby muffled door-slam.

“Is she in really bad trouble because of me?” Nathan asked.

“She’ll be fine, dear; don’t worry,” Miss Marie said. She was already quickly pulling out the pins and unravelling the rollers from his hair. When a lock was released from a roller it bounced up again springily, then sagged in a helix. “They both have a ferocious temper, that’s all. We shall give them a little time.”

“Okay.” Nathan sighed. He was distracted by the last of the rollers coming out. It looked strange and twisted, just having been let out of the rollers, but Miss Marie picked up a soft hairbrush and began brushing it out. It calmed him.

***

Nathan had been waiting behind his chair in the dining room for nearly five minutes before Mrs. Thompson arrived. She didn’t seem to notice him at first, merely walking into the room and seating herself, taking her time to settle. She poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot.

Finally she looked at him. “Good morning, Jonathan,” she said.

“Um–” damn, “morning.”

She gave him a stern look. “Good morning, Jonathan,” she stressed.

~Oh, she’s in such a bad mood.~ There was no sign of Valerie. He didn’t know what that meant. “G-good morning Ms-Mrs. Thompson,” he stammered.

“You may be seated.” He sat as quietly as he could, remembering how he’d done so before; the movement, then perching upright on the edge of the seat. For a few moments the loudest sounds in the room were the clinks of Jane stirring sugar into her coffee, and the rustling of his own petticoats. “I must concede you’re looking quite pretty this morning,” Mrs. Thompson continued when he had finished.

She fell silent, presumably demanding a response.

“Th-thank you Mrs. Thompson,” he managed. Miss Marie had dressed him in another outfit similar to that he’d worn the previous evening. This one was chequered blue, with a white lace pinafore, like the Sarah Kay pictures in the bathroom, even to the bow she’d put in his hair. He thought it looked as stupid as the one last night, but he wasn’t about to argue. At least the corset seemed a little less uncomfortable than it had the day before. He was sure that would change as the day progressed.

Mrs. Thompson sipped her coffee. “No doubt this is due to Miss Marie’s good graces. For future reference, I always expect my students to present themselves at the breakfast table punctually and well-presented, with a little colour on their faces. Miss Marie was good enough to do it for you this morning, but in future this will be your own responsibility, unless I direct otherwise.”

~Wasn’t I supposed to come down without getting ready?~ he wondered. He felt tired and sore. His legs were shaky from not enough sleep. And he’d missed something.

Miss Marie entered silently, bringing a plate of hot pastries, curtseyed and left.

“Do help yourself to breakfast,” Mrs. Thompson invited, helping herself to a croissant. Nathan tentatively reached for the jug of orange juice and poured himself a glass. Food was out of the question. “What do you say?”

“Um–”

“No, not ‘um.’”

“Th-Thank you.”

“That’s quite all right.”

Mrs. Thompson passed the plate of pastries in his direction. He didn’t want one, but it might be a bad idea to say so, so he took one and placed it on his plate. “Thank you,” he said again, not sure whether he was supposed to. It sat there, accusingly. The last thing he could imagine himself doing at that moment was eat a pastry.

Miss Marie tells me you like speaking French,” Mrs. Thompson said suddenly.

Er, yes ma’am.”

Very well. You will speak it with Marie at all times. That will please me to hear you. Is it not a very beautiful and elegant language? Good morning, Valerie.”

Nathan struggled to keep up. Mrs. Thompson spoke a lot more rapidly than Miss Marie, making no allowance at all for his comparative lack of ability. He was still struggling to parse what she’d said when Valerie’s entrance distracted him.

Valerie made her way to her place and sat before replying. She looked nice in a simple skirt and sweater, her hair swept back under a hairband.

“Good morning, Jane. Good morning, Nathan.”

“Um–”

“Jonathan?” Mrs. Thompson queried sternly.

“Good morning, Miss Valerie.”

“There, we have been making some progress already.” Mrs. Thompson sounded insufferably pleased with herself. Valerie was looking at him with an unspoken question on her face. ~What?~ he wondered. He didn’t know what she meant, so he shrugged in apology. “Don’t shrug,” Mrs. Thompson said. “It shows you to be unkempt and careless in your manners and thoughts.” ~I can’t shrug now?~ “Did you understand what I said earlier?”

Pardon me, Ma’am: No. I do not understand.

No. Say: ‘I did not understand.’ You did not understand.”

I did not understand.”

How is this so? Marie told me your French is very good.”

Slowly, please, Madam. Er… I learn, I mean, I learned in an English school.”

Mrs. Thompson looked at him for a long moment, then laughed out loud.

“Where I come from,” Valerie’s voice cut in from the other end of the table, “I was taught that private conversations are conducted in private.” She was giving Mrs. Thompson a hard stare, and getting it back in full measure.

“I-I’m sorry, Valer– Miss Valerie,” he stammered.

“That’s okay, Nathan. You weren’t to know.”

“Indeed not,” Mrs. Thompson agreed. “Nor that punctuality at all times is considered a cherished virtue in this household, yet he seems already to have mastered it. Jonathan and I were concluding a conversation begun in your absence.” Nathan kept his eyes on his plate, and his untouched pastry. Whatever was going on between these two he didn’t want a part of it. “Jonathan is learning French as part of his school studies. I was just telling him that when he is with Marie, he is to speak only French. It will be excellent practice for him.” ~Oh God,~ Nathan thought. That had been the part he’d not been able to keep up for. “That is,” Mrs. Thompson continued, with an air of condescension, “when you are not also present.”

“Don’t trouble yourself on my account,” Valerie answered tightly.

“Now,” Mrs. Thompson addressed Nathan again, “today we shall begin your training in earnest. You will be learning about the proper application and removal of make-up and attire under Marie’s expert tuition, and you will present yourself to me for inspection every half hour. I expect you to continue to prove as adept a study at the skills you will be learning today and in the days and weeks to come. It shall not go well for you if I suspect you of being sluggardly. Do you have any plans for today, Valerie?” Mrs. Thompson asked, almost as an afterthought.

Valerie was a fraction long in replying. “I thought I’d go and see Mary and Lizbeth,” she said with equal coldness. “She’s stuck in and her parents are driving her nuts. I was wondering if I might take a car and take them for a day out.”

“Yes.” Mrs. Thompson’s voice matched Valerie’s in frostiness. “You may take mine. That sounds like an excellent idea.”

“I thought it might.”

Nathan caught the tension behind their words and tried to make himself invisible. He thought neither of them were very interested in him right then anyway.

“Do you have anywhere special in mind?” Mrs. Thompson asked. All pleasantries.

“Yes.” For a moment, Nathan thought she wasn’t going to say any more than that. Nathan didn’t have to go to a school for manners to know how rude that would be. He glanced up at her involuntarily, the movement pulling Valerie’s attention briefly onto him. She hesitated for a moment, then continued, “Mary mentioned the beach at a place called Weston Super Mare. She says it’s time I experienced the British seaside town meme.”

“Bring us back a stick of rock.”

Nathan felt himself grinning, then looked up to see both Valerie and Mrs. Thompson staring at him.

“A what?” Valerie asked.

“Sorry. Nothing.”

Mrs. Thompson’s glare was actually directed at Valerie, he noticed, surprised; but if Valerie was even aware of it she made no sign. Blushing, Nathan picked at his pastry. Anything to look like he was minding his own business eating without having to actually ingest any more than a few flakes.

“She means candy. It’s a little like a candy cane, but with no handle,” Mrs. Thompson explained to Valerie.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Valerie smiled at Nathan, illuminating her face again, her voice softer than when she had been addressing Mrs. Thompson. Nathan felt his own involuntary smile in return.

~You’re dressed like a little girl, you idiot,~ he castigated himself and looked away, ashamed. ~You look like kiddie trade. If you’re lucky she just pities you.~ He was well aware what he looked like. The fear bit into his gut again. Mrs. Thompson had said ‘she,’ meaning himself. It made him feel even more nauseous.

“What time shall we expect your return?” Mrs. Thompson was asking Valerie. “Will you be here for dinner?”

“No, I shouldn’t think so, but I have college tomorrow so I’ll be back tonight before too late.”

“Indeed.”

***

We must work quickly,” Marie said as they walked back to his bedroom. “Madame wants to see you in half an hour. And you must do it all yourself.”

“Half an–”

Quickly! Quickly!” She hustled him into his room. “Sit down and start to remove your make-up. While you’re occupied with that, I’ll choose your next ensemble.” She bustled across to the wardrobes, leaving him standing trying to figure out what she’d just said.

~Quick. Sit. Remove. Make-up,~ which he remembered from the previous night.

“I’m not feeling very well,” he said. All clenched up and tense and his back was starting to ache again.

Now, dear, or you will be late!” Marie scolded. “Sit down and get started. Hurry.” He went and boompsed and sat at the dressing table.

He tried to remember what Miss Marie had used the night before to take his make-up off properly. “What do I…” he started. “I mean, What to employ me?” That didn’t sound right, but Marie was busy. He picked up bottles in turn. Toner. He remembered that. But that was last, he thought. Cleanser. “Aha.” He noticed suddenly that a lot of the product labels were bilingual. “Aha again. Again.” He scanned the instructions on the back. It more or less tallied with what he remembered Miss Marie doing the night before, so he undid the top and poured a glob of the stuff out onto his hand and slopped it over his face.

***

“How– I mean, How is that, Miss?”

Marie came back to the dressing table. Nathan stood to meet her so she could better inspect his make-up. “Hm. Sufficient.”

No, it’s bad,” he said.

It’s nothing.” Marie said, with a small time. “It’s your first attempt. Now,” she continued, “I’ve chosen a dress for you, but you must first change your undergarments.”

He looked at the dress suspiciously. “Why?”

Why? Because I tell you to.” For the first time she seemed slightly impatient. “And because your petticoats will show.”

He looked at her, knowing his face had a stupid expression. “Er, I don’t understand ‘petticoats.’”

“Petticoats.”

He blinked. “But they’re to show-er-showing already,” he protested.

They are not supposed to show with this dress,” Marie said irritably. “Hurry. You will run out of time.”

He snatched up the clothes from the bed and retreated to the bathroom.

***

“Thirty-eight minutes,” Mrs. Thompson snapped, as soon as she’d opened the parlour door. “This is unacceptable. Go straight upstairs and change again.”

“Wha– But–”

“The clock is running, Natasha.”

The door shut in his face. She hadn’t even looked at him.

“Well fuck you too,” he said to the door. The door opened again on Mrs. Thompson wearing an expression of contained fury.

“That little outburst has cost you ten minutes. You now have twenty minutes. I suggest you run.”

The door closed again.

***

“Twenty-five minutes. Better, but you have a ten minute penalty for swearing. Go and do it again. Thirty minutes this time.”

The door closed.

Nathan’s headache wasn’t getting any better. Great. Today was obviously just going to get worse and worse. He turned stiffly back towards the stairs.

***

… And finished. Go! Quickly!”

Nathan went. Quickly. His head was pounding and his stomach was churning and his back was aching worse than ever, but he veered out of his bedroom and scrambled along the landing towards the stairs.

***

Nathan knocked and waited, still panting.

“Enter.”

That was an improvement, at least. She might actually look this time. Nathan turned the handle and went into the parlour.

“Well, close the door behind you and come here,” Mrs. Thompson directed. He obeyed, moving stiffly. “Now, come here and stand before me. Don’t dawdle. We haven’t got all day.”

~Haven’t we?~ he wondered. ~What else is happening today then?~

He made his way to the centre of the room and tried to stand still.

“Feet together. Stand straight. Look at me.”

He really didn’t feel very well.

“Yes, there are some quite basic deficiencies. I can see some streaks in your foundation and your eyeliner is shoddy and ill-defined. Stay still.” She moved around behind him, her hand alighting momentarily on his shoulder, before lifting off and correcting something about the way his hair had fallen. “You must take more care of the way you dress. Ensure the fabric lies properly. This is sloppy.” She tugged at the dress he was wearing a few times, straightening things out. He hadn’t had time to check in the mirror. “Again. Thirty minutes. Off you go.” She left him, walking back to the desk. He started to turn. “Curtsey,” she directed, not even bothering to turn and look. She probably had a little mirror set up somewhere, he thought, not seeing it, so he curtseyed to her back and left.

He had to stop on the stairs. It hurt too much. He felt dizzy and sick. He found himself doubled over, wondering if he was actually going to throw up–

***

–Knocking on the parlour door. ~Already?~

“Enter!”

He looked down quickly. Yellow dress. ~Yellow?~ he thought distastefully. It would have to do. He went in and stood on the same spot as before.

“Yes, I think I discern some improvement; however, you’re still being too heavy-handed with your make-up, and there’s some…” she knelt to fiddle with the skirts, “… inattention given to the manner of your dress. It should not wrinkle up like this.” She straightened it out, her hands on him again. “What’s this?”

He didn’t like the sound of that. “What’s what?”

“You’ve gotten foundation on the front of your dress. Oh, Nathan, that’s unpardonable.”

“Where?” He tried to look down, but it was too high up under his chin.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know you did it, I can see where you tried to wipe it off. Honestly.” She sighed and stepped back. “Again. And this time I want to see you do something pretty with your hair. Thirty minutes. Go.”

He turned to go.

“You’ve forgotten something,” she reminded him. He thought furiously. ~Oh yeah.~ He turned back and curtseyed. Mrs. Thompson nodded and he went.

***

This time he double-checked in the mirror. “Oh my God.” There was a fine sheen of sweat threatening to ruin his make up. He could feel himself starting to go a little nonlinear.

He liked the hair though. Eleanor called it a French Plait. He grabbed the hand-mirror and positioned it behind his head so he could see. “Oh right. Thank you for the hair, Miss.”

I didn’t do anything,” Marie said. “It’s lovely. Very elegant.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Tired. He was clearly having trouble concentrating on who exactly was doing what. He started to put more powder on, hoping to blot out the sheen on his skin, and took a moment to brush the excess away off the front of his dress. Blue, this time. Someone else had chosen it.

He stood up to look in the full-length mirror again. He tugged on the dress, trying to straighten it, and sighed. Apparently this was another combination which required visible petticoatage. He hoped so anyway, or Mrs. Thompson would be bound to tell him off about it.

Charlie is dead.”

He turned around and looked over his shoulder to try to see the back. Everything looked straight this time. And no more spilled make-up.

“What did you say?” Marie lapsed suddenly into English, her voice sounding a little shaken.

“Charlie’s dead,” he translated. “Means yer petticoat’s showing.”

Does it now?” Marie looked interested at that, and oddly relieved about something. “Where did you learn a thing like that?”

“Er,” he shifted. “I’d better go. I’m going to be late.” That wouldn’t do, he knew as he headed for the door, so when he reached it he turned back to her. “I think my Granny used to say it. When… Whenever someone’s petticoat showed. Like on telly, I expect.”

He went.

***

Nathan had already sweated through the face powder by the time he’d been able to present himself. So of course, Mrs. Thompson lectured him about the amount of powder he’d put on, before moving on to tear apart the rest of his appearance. It was like she expected him to be instantly perfect at all this. Her voice just went on and on.

He’d really tried this time, too. Even though Miss Marie wasn’t even teaching him properly, but just making him get on with it himself while she picked out dresses. He’d really tried this time, despite the pain and the aching and the nausea, and she was just picking, picking, picking at it just like before. His head pounded, and pieces of memory from the night kept dropping unexpectedly into place. Babbling his mouth off to Valerie in the kitchen like a kid being allowed to stay up late; almost burning his tongue on a hot cookie; Valerie listening, being nice, looking a little sad when she didn’t realise he was watching.

“I can’t!” he heard himself protest suddenly; for the first time that day daring to oppose her. He hadn’t even registered what Mrs. Thompson had said. “It’s not fair! You’re not giving me enough time! I can’t do it that fast! I can’t do it!” He had to fight himself to not cry at the sheer frustration of it all.

He didn’t hear Mrs. Thompson’s reply, although the tone of the lecture was plain enough; disparaging, belittling, humiliating him.

“I tried but you din’t give me enough time ’cause you want me to mess it up don’t you?” His voice ran ahead of him; he was so tired he couldn’t even find the energy to stop himself. ~Shut up, shut up.~ “You’re just doing it so you can tell me off! I tried! It’s not FAIR! I HATE YOU!” ~Fair?~ He marvelled distantly at that part of himself that could be concerned about fairness. ~What do you think you’re doing here, kid?~

“I’m sorry,” he stammered, wishing he could recall that outburst. That was stupid of him, and careless. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Oh, I rather think you did,” Mrs. Thompson observed acerbically.

He was weeping; suddenly, without apparent transition. He felt himself sitting, or rather slumping into the nearest chair, not caring that he didn’t have permission to do so. He was tired and his belly was cramped from that corset and his back hurt and he had a headache and he felt sick and he just hated it. All of it. He wasn’t even crying aloud, but the tears wouldn’t stop, as if they were being squeezed out of him by the huge hand slowly, inexorably, crushing his body–

***

–Throwing up into the toilet. ~Well, that didn’t sound very ladylike,~ he thought distantly, then he was all the way inside the moment. There hadn’t been much of anything to throw up, so it hurt, and he was suddenly covered completely in sweat. He blindly reached for the toilet roll and wiped off the vomity spittle. His hands shook.

Eventually he could sit shivery back on his heels, after checking that he wasn’t scrunching the precious petticoats; then he lowered the seat and the lid of the toilet and reached up to the handle to flush it, then folded his arms on the lid and just rested his head there for a little while, to stop things spinning around. He was conscious that he was probably getting make-up on the sleeve of the dress.

He got unsteadily to his feet and made it to the sink. There was still a little blood in the bottom of the sink. “Shit,” he gasped, and clamped his eyes shut and turned the tap on full. He couldn’t look at that. It wasn’t his–

***

–“For future reference,” Mrs. Thompson said, surprisingly mildly, “you do not walk away from me until you are given leave to do so, and you do not run away from me under any circumstances whatsoever. Is that understood?”

He swayed. He really needed to sit down. “Yes Mrs. Thompson.”

“Are you feeling unwell?” Professional. Dispassionate.

“You’re not exactly seeing–” He swallowed the rest. “Yes,” he admitted.

“What seems to be the problem?”

He looked at her swimmingly for a moment, wondering if she could really be that dense. “I have a headache,” he understated tightly. “I feel sick.”

“Would you like something for it?”

He nodded. “Have you got any Nurofen?”

“That’s ibuprofen, isn’t it?” Nathan nodded again. “I’m sure we have some ibuprofen. Marie, would you see to that please?”

Yes, ma’am,” The glance Mrs. Thompson gave over his shoulder towards Miss Marie said ‘at once,’ so Miss Marie left.

“I’m not displeased with your efforts this morning–”

“You could have fooled–”

“Don’t interrupt.” She sighed, then continued more gently. “Sit down, dear, before you fall down.” ~I must look almost as bad as I feel,~ he realised. He made the few steps to his bed and sat carefully. He still felt pretty shaky, conscious of a sheen of sweat on his forehead, cooled by the breeze from the window. “I can see you’ve worked hard and made reasonable progress under difficult circumstances.” High praise from Mrs. Thompson, he guessed. “In future you are to inform me if you are suffering from an ailment that would affect your studies.”

“It’s only a headache–” It didn’t even convince him.

“I wish to be kept informed of your physical condition. I will make determination as to whether you are too unwell to proceed with any planned activities. I’m making that determination now, do you understand?”

“Yes Mrs. Thompson.” He sighed, feeling sick.

“Are you sure there are no allergies or other adverse reactions about which I haven’t been warned?” she said.

“No. I mean, yes, I’m sure. No allergies.”

“I can’t believe Marie’s cooking has done this. Besides, you’ve hardly eaten enough…” She seemed to be only half talking to him, and half to herself.

“No, it’s– I mean, I’ve been feeling off for a couple of days; it just got worse today ’cause I din’t get enough sleep and I pushed too hard. It’s probably just a little stomach bug or something. You know, school dinners.” He held off miming a vomit action. In his current state it might turn true. “I’ll feel better in a day or two, I– I expect.”

Mrs. Thompson crossed to the window and looked out. She seemed tense and preoccupied, Nathan thought. He waited, hoping she wasn’t going to start criticising him again, or start quizzing him more about how he was feeling. She only sighed.

Miss Marie returned with a glass of water, paused at the doorway with a glance to Mrs. Thompson, then crossed silently to Nathan. She gave him a whole blister pack of ibuprofen and he popped three tablets out into his palm. She gave him the glass. “Thank you very much,” he said quietly, and downed the pills.

“Thank you, Marie,” Mrs. Thompson said crisply, not looking around from the window. Miss Marie looked at her, then curtseyed to her back and left silently, taking the glass and the rest of the pills away with her.

“I suggest you take a short nap,” Mrs. Thompson said. His attention snapped back to her; she had turned away from the window at last. “I will send Marie later to help you get ready for lunch.” She turned to the windows again and pulled the curtains closed, dimming the room in that strange half-lit way of a darkened room with sunlight beyond. “Do you need assistance in undressing for bed?” He shook his head vehemently. One benefit of the morning’s exercises, he decided, was that he knew how to get out of these clothes by himself now, so if she was going to give him the choice, he’d take it. “Very well, but mind you hang up your clothes in the wardrobe properly and remove all traces of your make-up before you get into bed.”

A response seemed called for, so he said “Yes Mrs. Thompson” again.

“We shall continue with your lessons this afternoon. Something a little less physically taxing until you are fully recovered.”

She left, finally.

***

“Jack, I’m hungry.”

There was no wind even in the park. The sun hurt his eyes. He wished Sara hadn’t said that. He hadn’t noticed how hungry he was getting.

“I know. Lea’ me alone, I’m tryin’ to find somefink, in’ I.”

“You said that before! I want to go home!” She was only little then. She couldn’t understand. He tried to comfort her so she wouldn’t start crying again. She’d been crying a lot ever since he lost the notebook containing her drawings. It wasn’t his fault. It had been in the backpack when that older kid with the knife took it. He still felt ashamed of how he’d just handed it over without a fight. He had been so afraid.

He watched a teenaged girl sitting in the shade of a large oak tree reading NME. “She looks nice,” Sara said. “You goin’ to ask her?”

“Yeah.” Begging got easier the longer you had to do it. The first time he’d tried it he’d felt so humiliated to have to ask a stranger for money so he could eat. The humiliation passed. It was easier to handle than being invisible.

“You goin’ to go like that?”

He looked down. The dress he was wearing must have been pretty once, but it was tired and grubby and the hem was getting threadbare and the petticoats were all torn and crumpled. Mrs. Thompson would be furious.

“Oh shit!” Nathan yelled. Water sloshed over the side of the bath. “Shit, that was fucked up,” he said. The ache in his back had subsided, at least, and his headache had almost gone. Naked in the water. He held back the panic. There were lots of bubbles. He was intruding. He wasn’t supposed to be here–

***

–Cosy in bed. His legs slipped sensuously between the satin sheets. Soft. His skin was soft and smooth after the bath and felt nice. “Mm, thank you,” he murmured.

“Shh, sleep my love.”

He slept.

***

She wouldn’t give him any money for food, but she did something else utterly unexpected. She took him to a café and bought him a full slap-up dinner.

And do they have to know? (Do they have to know?)
About my goodnight girl…

“I’m Louise, by the way. What’s your name?”

“Sheo,” Jack said around a mouthful of burger.

“Sheo? Tha’s a funny name.”

He shrugged.

“Yeah, Louise in’t my real name neitha.” She smiled broadly. Her mouth seemed a little too wide for her face, but not in an unattractive way. She had spots though, which she covered with make-up, and obviously-dyed black hair. She lit up a fag. “How long you been outside, Sheo?”

He shrugged again. “Couple weeks.”

“You stayn’ anywhere?”

He shook his head. “Can’t find nowhere what takes kids.”

“What, shel’ers?” He nodded. “Nah, don’t bother luv. None of ’em will ’til you’re sixteen. If they lets you in an’ someone ’urts you, it’s their fault, innit?”

“That’s stupid.”

Louise gestured with her cigarette and lounged back, propping a foot on the double seat he was sitting on, balancing her chair on its back legs. She wore purple Doctor Martens with painted-on flowers, black tights and a short denim skirt, a tight red top that showed off her navel-ring, and a denim jacket. She’d tied up her hair in a red lace scrunchie. “You run away?”

Jack nodded, still too busy wrapping himself around the burger. He made sure to eat all the salad.

“Yeah, me too.” He thought she didn’t look like it. Her clothes looked new, apart from her DMs, which just looked normally worn-in rather than worn-out. She sang along quietly to the end of the song.

Caught up in your wishin’ well
Your hopes and sadness
Take your love’n’promises
And make them last

She had a nice voice. She tipped forward briefly to steal a chip, grinning. He reckoned she had the right, seeing as she paid for it and all.

***

Nathan stopped in the doorway of the parlour. Mrs. Thompson was alone in there, half-reclining on a chaise-longue, reading some papers and apparently unaware of his presence. A plate of cookies rested on a small table before her. He knocked twice on the open door.

Mrs. Thompson’s gaze switched up to him. She watched him in silence for a moment. “Are you feeling any better?” she asked eventually.

“Yeah. Sorry I flipped out a bit earlier–”

“That is not an acceptable choice of words, Natasha,” she stopped him curtly.

“Sor–”

“Stop saying sorry and take some instruction. In answer to my question you might respond, ‘Yes thank you, Mrs. Thompson,’ and ‘I apologise for my earlier conduct.’”

“Okay. I mean–” ~Wait, what did she call me?~

“So say it.”

He swallowed. Maybe he imagined it. “Yes thank you, Mrs. Thompson. I apologise for my earlier conduct.”

“Apology accepted. I’m glad you’re feeling better, although I must say you do still seem a little fragile.”

“Thanks.”

“Well, come in, Natasha; let me look at you.” ~There! She did it again!~ He definitely wasn’t imagining it. ~Did I miss something else?~ It had been a horrible, scrappy morning, but he was solid from the time he woke up, as far as he could tell. The hot bath and a few hours of sleep had settled him down a lot.

He took a breath and went in.

“Oh dear. You seem to have forgotten what you learned already about walking, I see. No, don’t sit.” Mrs. Thompson sat up herself, as if dragging herself to a tiresome task. “Did you choose that dress by yourself?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Do you like it?”

He nodded.

“Speak up, Natasha.” He didn’t flinch.

“Yes,” he admitted quietly.

“Why do you think that’s so?”

He shrugged, and too late remembered:

“Don’t shrug like that. It’s untidy.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Thom–”

“If you were more attentive there would be no need for apologies. I’m sure it’s at least as tiresome for you to make them as it is for me to hear them.” Nathan bowed his head. Mrs. Thompson sighed. “In any case, a shrug is not an answer. Why did you choose that dress?”

“It’s more grown-up I guess.”

“You guess?”

He started to shrug again, and stopped himself before it progressed beyond a twitch. It seemed nothing he did was right. He saw Mrs. Thompson smile at his discomfiture.

“It seemed more grown-up,” he tried again.

“Indeed it is. Too much so for you, I fear.” ~Here it comes then,~ he thought. “The clothes Marie and I selected for you earlier were chosen for a reason, Natasha. They are constructed in such a fashion as to encourage a proper posture and gait. This dress does nothing of the kind, you must provide your own posture-discipline if you are to graduate to more adult garments that don’t enforce it. See, you’re slouching again already.” He tried to straighten further. “Oh dear, not like that! This isn’t a parade ground!”

“Sorry Mrs–”

She rose to her feet, a single graceful movement, and came to him. He backed off a step instinctively. “Oh, don’t be silly,” she remonstrated. “Stand still.” She went behind him. “Put your feet together.” He obeyed. “Now, raise your arms and reach for the ceiling. Try to touch the ceiling.”

“What?”

“Just do it.”

He raised his hands.

“Stretch. Up on tip-toes.” He tried to go up onto his toes, but tottered and nearly lost his balance, until he felt her hands at his waist. Firm. He gasped, his heart thumping harder. “I have you. You won’t fall. Stretch, Natasha.”

Her presence so close distracted him. He could smell her perfume. He stretched. Something popped. “Ah!”

“Oh dear, you’re not very limber, are you?” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t doubt your being excused from school sports has something to do with that.” ~Don’t go there. Don’t go there,~ he wished. “Now I want you to lower your arms to your sides until they are horizontal. Slowly. There.” He stood in a cruciform. “Now slowly, lower your hands to your sides, still keeping your arms straight. At the same time lower your feet as well, until you’re standing normally… That’s it.” He stood at the end of the sequence. “That’s your posture. Doesn’t that feel better?”

“Yeah. I mean yes Mrs. Thompson.” He had to admit it was true; even if her hands were still on his waist. The stretch had eased the residual dull ache in his back somewhat. Slowly, her hands slipped away and she came around in front of him.

“Yes, that’s much better. We shall have to see what we can do about loosening you up, however.” She went to sit down. “Did you do your own make-up, or did Marie help you?”

“I did it myself, Mrs. Thompson.” He’d tried to replicate what he’d been practicing at high speed all morning, only this time he had some time to get it right and he thought he’d done a better job.

“Well, come here and sit by me so I can see. Maintain your posture as you sit.”

Nathan felt tense and short of breath again, but he forced himself not to show it as he stepped closer and sat next to Mrs. Thompson. He felt her gaze over him, and even managed not to flinch when she corrected some stray tendrils of his hair, her fingers brushing momentarily against his cheek. That was what all this was about, he knew: Getting him used to having her touch him. She was playing a long game, that was all. She wanted to believe he liked it. She wanted to believe she was giving him a lesson he’d thank her for later. He pasted a smile on, and felt it fade after a moment. He remembered consciously to sit more upright, not to lean back, seeking the same set to his back as she’d shown him standing.

“Yes, that’s adequate. I’m glad to see you applying what you’ve learned already. I was told you are a quick study.” There didn’t seem to be an answer to that, so he sat still, turning his gaze to the floor in front of him. “I’m afraid you missed lunch. Marie looked in on you but you were so soundly asleep she thought it better to leave you.”

He’d slept longer than he thought then. “W–What time is it?” he asked. He didn’t have a watch, and hadn’t thought to look at the clock in his bedroom.

“Nearly four. Are you hungry? We appear to have plenty of cookies.” She sounded wryly amused about that. He glanced at the cookies on the table. “I’m sure Marie would be glad to bring you a glass of milk.”

“No. Thank you,” he remembered to add, just in time. He’d probably only drop crumbs on the furniture and so get into trouble, he knew, but food was quite impossible in any case; his stomach was clenched painfully tight with tension.

“All right.” Approval. And that was that, it seemed. Mrs. Thompson picked up the thing she was reading when he came down and resumed. Neither dismissed nor further engaged, Nathan sat still, not knowing what he was supposed to do. ~Nothing, I suppose,~ he thought. ~Just sit here and look pretty or whatever.~ He tried to glance sidelong at what Mrs. Thompson was reading.

Mrs. Thompson cleared her throat without looking up.

“Sorry.”

Then she looked over her glasses at him.

“Sorry, Mrs. Thompson,” he amended.

“Curiosity is a virtue, Natasha, but spying on what other people are reading is not. If you’re looking for something to read, you may choose a book from the bookshelves.”

Relieved at the excuse to get off the chaise-longue, he stood and wandered across the room to the bookshelves. Even as he tried to focus on the books in front of him, and figure out the layout (if any) of the bookshelves, he felt her gaze on his back, and consciously tried to keep it straight, as it was before. It made his sides ache slightly.

There seemed to be a lot of romantic fiction at eye-level, he noticed quickly, and stepped back to get a clearer view of the higher and lower shelves. The top two rows turned out to comprise classic and modern literature. The larger bottom shelves held mostly larger-format books and encyclopá¦dias; coffee-table fare, it seemed at a glance. Many, he couldn’t help noticing, seemed devoted to what he supposed were feminine arts: costume history, cookery, flower-arranging, dressmaking, music and dance, and some looked to be more serious reference material, and well-used. Some of the books were very old. He bent to try to read the title of one, eroded gold-leaf lettering stamped on a leather spine–

“I’ve just remembered,” Mrs. Thompson said behind him. He turned in trepidation. “Don’t you have glasses you’re supposed to wear for reading?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Go and fetch them then, and return immediately. Have you chosen something yet?”

“No.” Pause. He remembered to add, “Mrs. Thompson.”

“Very well. I will select something suitable.” His heart sank. So much for stretching that out. “I should like to hear you read aloud. Go and get your glasses.”

He went. He didn’t exactly dawdle on the way, but he did take the opportunity to practice walking the way he’d had to walk in the petticoats and corset earlier in the day, which just happened to slow him down.

His back was threatening again by the time he came downstairs, so he stopped outside the parlour door and repeated the stretching exercise. It helped a little, and corrected his posture before going in to see her again.

Mrs. Thompson seemed unconcerned at the time he took to return. “Come here,” she directed. “Sit by me again.”

He sighed and obeyed.

“Put them on, let me see what they look like on you now.”

He put his glasses on, then endured her gaze for a few long moments.

“Hmm.” A tone of dissatisfaction. “They’ll serve, at a pinch. Do you remember when you last had your eyes tested?” He shook his head. “Speak up.”

“No, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Maybe we shall see to that, then. Do you only need them for close-work?”

He nodded again, looking down. “I’m slightly long-sighted. Bit of astigmatism. I can see all right, but I get eyestrain.” He shrugged. “Be easier to remember if I couldn’t actually see without them.”

There was a sharp tap on his shoulder, making him look up quickly. “Don’t shrug,” Mrs. Thompson reminded him.

“Oh, yeah. I mean yes. Sorry, um–” That put him off completely.

“Never mind.” She said it with a long-suffering sigh and handed him a book. “Read to me.”

“R–” he began, scanning the cover. It was a Jane Austen novel, he saw immediately; and shockingly not Pride and Prejudice. He’d sat through that on television at home a couple of years ago as Lindsey, in common with a large part of the female population of the country, hung on every tiny thing Mr. Darcy did. It was tiresome for a good year or so after the series finished, although less so than Lindsey teasing him for somehow always having nowhere else to go on the evenings it was on, as if he had anywhere else to go any other evening except up to his room. If she hadn’t kept teasing him about it, and if he didn’t know she’d tease him so much worse if he did so, he would have admitted long ago that, yes, he’d enjoyed watching it, albeit not for the same reasons.

“You can read, can’t you?” Mrs. Thompson said rhetorically.

He gave her a look.

He hadn’t heard of this book: Northanger Abbey. “Where do you want me to go from?”

“Start at the beginning, naturally.”

He leafed through the first few pages — there was an editor’s preface, which he didn’t think she meant by ‘the beginning,’ and a short author’s preface which he didn’t think counted either — until he found the start of Chapter 1.

He felt her fingers on his wrist suddenly, bearing down, lowering the book. “Can you read comfortably at that distance?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Then do so. Remember your posture.” Pressure from a hand in the small of his back. “And relax your shoulders. Now read.”

Her touch was so assured.

He started reading. “‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine,’” he began. Mrs. Thompson let him read a few sentences before interrupting him.

“How would you describe the tone she’s using?” She had shifted her position to make herself more comfortable as she listened; she was half-turned towards him, her legs curled up onto the chaise-longue, and one arm casually lying along the back. He could sense her hand behind his left shoulder.

“Tone? Um–”

“Oh, Natasha, you were doing so well. Never mind. Answer the question, when you’re ready.”

“I think she’s taking the pi– she’s being satirical?”

“Satirical would be the preferred term,” Mrs. Thompson agreed dryly. “Why do you think so? What is it in the writing that’s telling you she’s being satirical?”

He shrugged and immediately felt another answering tap on his shoulder. He swallowed. “It’s just the way she puts things. Like she says the father’s a very respectful man, even though his name was Richard,” he stressed. That was the most obvious example to hand.

“Very well. Continue, and this time try to let that satire find expression in your voice.”

“I was being deadpan.” The joke slipped out.

“A little less morbidity then, if you will,” Mrs. Thompson riposted. He grinned despite himself. “Read now. Immediately.”

“‘She was fond of all boy’s plays,’” he got out, before the smile-impulse had faded. ~Oh!~ “‘and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the–’ dead again,” he admitted.

“You have a tendency to gravitate to a monotone,” Mrs. Thompson agreed. “Pay attention to the words, and apply stress where appropriate. ‘She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls.’ Do you hear?” He nodded. “Try that sentence again.

“‘She was fond of all boys plays,’” he stressed, “‘and greatly preferred crick–’” Mrs. Thompson was raising a hand for him to stop again.

“Can you hear what you’re doing wrong?” An ‘um’ hovered on the brink. He shook his head. “I asked you to stress and what you did was to punch the word out. I want you to try applying stress to syllables by raising pitch, not volume. In fact, try to keep the volume constant throughout and only vary the pitch. Listen carefully: ‘She was fond of all boy’s plays,’” She paused, then softly hummed a seven-note phrase that matched what she’d just said, the highest note on the ‘all’. Her hand, not the one behind him, lifted from her lap and seemed to play the notes upon an air-keyboard as she spoke. ~Ahh.~ “Speech is musical. It offers so much more nuance and flavour than merely quiet versus loud. Be alert to it.”

He nodded. “I think I’ve got it.”

“Now,” her hand, the one that had rested behind him, landed softly on his shoulder. “Relax your shoulders. Don’t hunch. Don’t stiffen, or I’ll feel it.” She waited until he forced his shoulders to relax by main willpower. It was almost impossible with her hand right there, on him. But she was patient. She waited. “There, that will allow you to breathe and speak more easily. Continue.” He took a breath. “… Without rushing. Take the time to understand what you’re about to say.”

Still her hand remained, for the most part just resting lightly against his back, her long fingers just lying passively over the top of his shoulder, not gripping in any way. She would be able to feel instantly if he tensed or stiffened. All he could think to do was just to carry on reading and try to bury himself in that and try not to think about what she was doing. She let him do so largely uninterrupted; only giving him an occasional verbal nudge when his voice was starting to drop to the ground state again, or a pressure on his shoulder when he did, inevitably, tense up.

It was tiring to read in this fashion. He wasn’t in the best of health anyway, he reminded himself, and it was only in consideration of that that Mrs. Thompson was foregoing some more strenuous activity like the morning’s rapid changes of costume; but the slightly archaic prose, with its long, multi-claused sentences, had to be read and understood; then he had to remember to say it out loud the way to Mrs. Thompson’s specifications, and she was quick to correct him if he let himself slip and just start spooling the words. On the other hand, she didn’t seem to mind at all when he misread the structure of a sentence or fluffed a line; she’d just wait patiently for him to sort it out, and sometimes make a small suggestion of how to read a phrase.

After a while she did withdraw her hand, without comment, as she shifted her own position to listen more comfortably. He took one slow breath, but managed to control any further reaction. He honestly wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he was restraining. She confused him. Even just her physical presence confused him; the gentle assurance she displayed towards him; the attention she was giving him — all her attention, he had no sense that she wanted to be anywhere else in the world than with him, listening to him read Jane Austen — was flattering; the subtle encouragements; the fact that everything she told him to do made things better, not worse, if he did them. There was an implied promise in that: something negotiated.

For the first time in over a day he was almost feeling all right.

***

Valerie, true to her estimation that morning, had not returned in time for dinner, and the food was laid out in serving-dishes for each person to take what they wished. He couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it, so he was content to sit back, figuratively, and listen to Mrs. Thompson talking to Eleanor. “Yes, I’d like that,” Eleanor said, when Mrs. Thompson had suggested she read further. So after dinner they returned to the parlour and Eleanor read to Mrs. Thompson for a further hour or two, until Mrs. Thompson congratulated her on the improvement she had shown and declared that it was bedtime, and that the reading would resume tomorrow. Nathan was in no mood to object, being tired, but he had a thought, which might make the next day’s reading less tiring.

“Can I take the book?” he asked Mrs. Thompson. “So I can read over it before tomorrow?”

Mrs. Thompson smiled for a moment. “You should say ‘please may I borrow the book,’” she explained.

“Oh, yeah. Please may I borrow the book?”

“Of course you may. You may avail yourself of any book in my collection for the duration of your stay. Mind only that you take care of them. Some of them are very old and require gentle handling.”

He stood, holding the book in front of him. He asked tentatively, “Do you have a French/English dictionary? I’m a bit short on nouns.” He smiled awkwardly. He’d perforce picked up a number of new ones during the morning, but it had all been so hectic he didn’t think he’d retain them.

“Oh…” Mrs. Thompson hesitated. “That’s a good question.” She looked like she was trying to remember, then she rose elegantly to her feet and crossed to the bookshelves. “Somewhere I must have,” she mused. “Ah!” Her hands plucked it from a high shelf and handed it to him.

“Thank you.”

“Now, say goodnight and curtsey. Then you may go.”

“Good night, Mrs. Thompson,” he said, and managed a small smile as he curtseyed.

“Good night, Natasha dear. And don’t sit up reading too late. You must get your beauty sleep.”

She had to say that, of course.

***

There was a knock on his door. Nathan froze for a moment, looking up from the book, then relaxed. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t knock. “Wh–Who is it?” he asked aloud.

“Valerie,” the voice came back. “Are you decent?”

He nodded, and caught himself in the absurdity of the act. “Yeah.”

The lock shot back and the door opened. “Catch.” Something was flying towards him. He reached for it and missed. It clattered against the headboard and slid between the pillows. He rummaged to retrieve it. Long, hard, with a red and white helical stripe, wrapped in cellophane.

He laughed quietly, picking up the stick of rock and holding it to his chest. “Thanks.”

“De nada,” she smiled. “Merry Christmas.”

“Eh?”

“Nothing.” She sounded tired, but in a happy way. Her face was edged in the light spilling in from the landing.

“D–Did you have fun?” he asked. He thought it sounded stupid and pathetic, but he didn’t want her to go just yet. Which, when he thought about it, was stupid and pathetic.

But Valerie was nodding, leaning back against the door frame. “Yes, I did.” She sounded slightly surprised by it herself, replaced quickly with a smile, remembering something. “Thank you for asking.” He shrugged. “Actually made sandcastles. Watched the sunset over the ocean.” That sad look aside again. “Have you been there? Do you know the place?”

He shook his head. “Used to go to Southend a lot. When I was little.” Summer holidays with Granny.

“The seafront at Southend?” Valerie prompted. He nodded. “You noticed how the sea stays steady as a rock–?”

“And the buildings move up and down.” Nathan found a real smile on his face. “Yeah, it really does that. Sarf-end, innit,” he enunciated, to demonstrate the accent properly. She was looking at him, head cocked slightly to one side, the attention making him blush. “What?” he asked eventually.

“Lacuna, huh?”

“Er… yeah?” It wasn’t like there was any point in denying it. “Oh no wait. Apparently it’s Natasha now.”

Valerie chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that.” She came into the room and closed the door. “You okay with it?”

He shrugged. “‘Least it matches the dress code.” He pondered. “I’m going to have to go out in public like this, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are. Well, not in your nightgown.”

“I’ll take that as reassurance.”

Valerie laughed quietly. “So what do you do, then? When you hack computers?”

“Er, all sorts of things. It’s a bit technical. I mean, if you really want me to geek at you…”

“I saw Hackers once. You know, the movie?”

“Oh yeah?” He smiled at the memory.

“I had a friend who was really into computers and stuff like that, and he said it was really dumb how they were supposed to be hacking and there’s all these swirly graphics and stuff going on.”

“Oh, I really liked that.”

“You did?” She looked genuinely surprised.

“Well it helped seeing it in the cinema,” he conceded.

“You didn’t think that was unrealistic?”

“What about the music?”

That seemed to confuse her. “What about the music?”

“That’s not very realistic,” he prompted.

She looked at him.

“The graphics come from the same place as the music,” he explained. “It’s like, that’s what it feels like, when you’re in deep hack. Specially that bit when they’re tag-teaming the garbage file. It’s not really on the computer screens. That’s what’s in their heads. You know, when you just zone in on a problem and before you know it it’s morning.”

“Mh. I don’t buy it.”

“Guess you have to have done it. It’s like, you know, you get into this Zone and you can see the shape of what you’re doing. It’s just there, you know? And your brain’s whizzing on it, keeping track of all the variables an’ stuff but you’ve got it under control and you’re just in this amazing space.” He shrugged, feeling his description lacked something. “Beats trying to sleep, some nights.”

Valerie gave him a curious, suddenly vulnerable look, but didn’t say anything. Instead she crossed to the window seat and sat, where he had seen her upon waking up the previous afternoon. He couldn’t work out what she was doing in here, talking to him. He doubted she was that interested in the Zone.

“So, what are you reading, there?” Valerie asked, diffidently.

He wished he could work her out.

“Oh. Words.”

“Words? That’s it?”

He raised the French/English dictionary for a moment so she could see the title. “Pretty much. She’s got me talking French to Miss Marie all the time. I need more words. My vocab’s a bit lacking when it comes to all this girl stuff. The petticoat, the stockings, the pinafore, the night-shirt. Words.” He sighed. “Um, I’m sorry about what happened at breakfast, you know, about speaking French. I didn’t know you didn’t understand it.”

She made a little wave. “De nada.”

“What does that mean? You’ve said that before.”

“Oh, ‘it’s nothing.’ As in, ‘you’re welcome; don’t worry about it.’”

“Oh, right. It’s nothing,” he translated.

“Whatever.”

“So, um,” he wondered, openendedly. Not that he minded talking to Valerie, although he’d like it better if she wasn’t trying to appear less intelligent than she was. He wished girls didn’t do that. He couldn’t understand why they felt they had to. At least he was pretty sure Valerie wasn’t doing it for the usual reasons, which at school seemed to pretty much revolve around getting a date with the biggest moron available. “Admit it: You want your computer fixed but you don’t want to have to talk to the BOFH?”

Valerie laughed. It lit up her face, just as he knew it would. He felt proud that he’d done that, although she did seem to find it disproportionately funny. It wasn’t that good a joke, even if you knew what a BOFH was. She hadn’t asked. “No, it’s fine,” she said eventually. “And anyway I’m not even supposed to let you near it.”

He shrugged.

“I wanted to see if you were doing okay,” Valerie continued.

“For very small values of.” He gave her a small, wan smile.

“Yeah.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. There was something specific troubling her, he was sure of it. “So… She’s got you all dressed up and wearing make-up and stuff.” She was using that voice as if to make light of it all. He shrugged. “Has she done anything else?”

“Um. Making me speak French to Miss Marie. Oh, and reading. I got sick earlier and she got me to read aloud to her instead of all that running around and quick-changes.”

“You were sick?”

“It was nothing,” he said quickly. “Just a headache, and… stuff. Something disagreed with me.”

“You’re okay now?”

“Yeah. Ish.”

Valerie hesitated. “She hasn’t done anything else?”

“What, apart from making me dress up and act like a girl?”

She smiled wryly. “Yeah. Apart from that.” Her eyes glittered in the dim light. She had a tight, suspenseful energy about her.

~If you have to ask…~ It was something, at least, to know he wasn’t just overreacting.

~But still…~

“No, nothing,” he said.

“You sure?”

His eyes met hers. He made himself look firmly at her. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He managed a smile. “Thanks.”

She kept looking at him for a few moments longer.

“Okay,” she said eventually, the word turning into a long, relieved exhale. She smiled wryly. “Don’t mind me. I just… Someone said something… random, but it got me thinking weird shit. I know Jane. She wouldn’t…” She trailed off.

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“Okay, well,” she said, and got to her feet. “I’m going to hit the sack. You going to sleep okay tonight, do you think?”

He made half a smile. “Hope so.”

“Me too. Well, goodnight Nathan.”

“Natasha,” he corrected her.

“Argh, yeah.” She grinned and let herself out. The lock slammed home after her.

***

~Why did I lie to her?~

He was still sitting, unmoving, exactly as he had been when Valerie left. Still clutching the stick of rock to his chest.

~She looks at me like she owns me.~ ‘She’ being Mrs. Thompson. ~For all I know she does, now.~

~She puts her hands on me like she has the right to do that. And I let her.~

He drew up his knees to his chest and hugged them. The stick of rock Valerie gave him still held in his hand.

~Because it’s nice.~

Notes:



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