“This jam is amazing,” David says, crunching his way through a slice of wholemeal toast.
“Farmers Market,” Josephine replies. “I splurged.”
“There’s a farmers market here?”
“Hardly. I got it in Pimlico between meetings yesterday. This place,” and she pushes down the plunger of the cafetière with a martyr’s sigh, “has no famers market.”
“Probably has a village fête,” David says. “With an old bag who’s won ‘best Victoria sponge’ fifty years running.” He takes another slice of toast from the rack.
Josephine pours coffee into two mugs and passes one across the kitchen table. “Some old duffer who grows record-breakingly big marrows with his secret manure.”
David snorts. “Yeah, definitely a fête. Maybe a jamboree as well.”
“Coffee mornings,” Josephine suggests.
“Mmm,” David says. “Bric-a-brac.” He shakes his head. “I think we landed back in the 1950s. Have you seen all the kids? I bet we’re the only couple in this place without a screeching brat. We’ll probably get chased out with pitchforks.”
“Well,” says Josephine, “The house did come with a nursery.” She smirks at David and he makes a show of shuddering.
“Turning that pink nightmare into a home office.”
Josephine laughs, and then she looks at her husband. “Did we make a mistake?”
He shakes his head. “Where were we going to find a house like this in London,” he says. “Parkdale’s not forever, and we can still take the train whenever we want some culture.”
Josephine strokes her husband’s hand. “So you’re not going to demand I give up my career and grow us a little bundle of joy?” She touches her neck and says, “Maybe I should grow my hair long.”
David shakes his head. “No babies. And I like your bob.”
She nods at the cooker. “Don’t want me waiting for you to get home from work, pulling a pie out of the oven?” She looks down at her Elie Tahari suit. I could swap this for a frilly apron and everything.”
David grins. “How about we leave the babies and home baking to Ella.”
Josephine blinks innocently. “You mean no-longer-with-the-company Ella?”
“I mean used-to-have-your-job Ella,” replies David.
“Bad time to have a baby,” says Josephine in the sweetest tone, and if you didn’t know Josephine, you’d mistake her tone for deepest sympathy.
“Bad time to ask you to keep a secret,” David says.
Josephine fiddles with her wedding ring and replies, “Hey, I was looking after the company’s interests. I’m sorry for the way it worked out…”
David laughs. “No you’re not, you saw an opportunity and you took it.” He grins. “Poor Ella, where is she now? Probably sitting at home, crying into a nappy bucket.”
Her face hardens. “You can’t just say you’re taking a year of maternity leave and think everyone’s going to be fine, not in our business. She made her own choices.”
“Ella and her chunk monkey,” David says in a cloying tone, referring to the one time Ella brought her baby into the office. Faced with indifference, she didn’t go for a repeat performance.
“God spare us,” says Josephine, twisting her wedding ring around her finger. “And Timmy’s still fat.”
David laughs. “How do you know?”
“I follow her on Instagram,” Josephine replies. “And she’s let herself go, trust me.” She thinks back to Ella’s selfies, relegated from power suits to simple blouses and dresses that Josephine can only describe as ‘Mumsie.” Even her hair is different, the colour going from blond to a mousey brown. Josephine understands; what’s the point of dying your hair when the only person to look at it spends half his time trying to put it in his mouth?
David groans. “I’ll never understand why parents insist on being so proud of their kids for doing the most ordinary things. They all learn to walk, and unfortunately they all learn to talk. Parents act like they deserve a medal for doing pretty much nothing.”
“No kidding,” Josephine says. “All Ella does all day, if you believe her feed, is to dress Timmy up in a succession of ridiculous outfits. Never-ending stripy overalls, sailor suits, and oh, and at bedtime, always a fuzzy onesie, declaring something nausea-inducing like Mummy’s Little Prince.”
David laughs. “Why on earth do you follow her?”
Josephine smiles thinly. “It’s like checking under my shoe after I’ve stepped on a spider.” She shudders. “I just want to check it’s still revolting.” She strokes her arms. “I look at the baby’s expression – drooling, goggling idiocy – and wonder how Ella can bare it.”
The doorbell rings.
“And that’s why I love you,” says David, getting up from the table. “You’re such a softie.”
Josephine sticks out her tongue and says, “Good thing you’re so handsome.” She points towards the hallway. “That’ll be the vicar,” she says, “welcoming us to the parish, inviting us over for tea and cucumber sandwiches.”
When David gets back, he’s hefting a large box with a smaller one on top of it.
“Wasn’t the vicar, then,” says Josephine.
David shakes his head. “Parcel Force.”
“What is it?”
He shrugs. “Ordered a shredder but this box is much too big.” He passes two padded envelopes to Josephine. “These have your name on it.”
Josephine inspects the thick envelopes while David cuts into the box with a pair of scissors.
No return address. “I don’t know who it’s from,” Josephine says. The only clue is a red inked stamp.
She opens the largest envelope fist and groans when she pulls out a child’s doll.
“Well?” she asks, holding the plush doll in her hands. A pink-faced doll with long brown hair, complete with a frilly white dress decorated with blue bunnies.
“Well what?” David asks, pulling the lid off the box.
“You didn’t order this?” Josephine says, jiggling the doll at him.
“Uh, no,” says David. He shrugs, peering over at the doll. “Must be for the baby upstairs.”
“Great,” Josephine says. “A present for our non-existent baby. So what’s in the box?”
David doesn’t reply, just riles through the contents with an increasingly bemused expression.
“Well?” Josephine says.
“It’s clothes,” David says finally.
“Oh?” Josephine says, sound more interested.
“Yeah, but it’s kids stuff. Not in your size.”
Josephine sighs. “Well it’s obviously all been mis-delivered.”
“Funny how it’s got our names on it,” says David. “The box was addressed to me, the doll to you.” He points at the last and smallest envelope. “What about that?”
Josephine spins it around with her fingers. “Mine.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“What’s the point? It’s all crap. I suppose the ‘free sample’ thing means at least no one’s expecting us to pay for it.”
She looks at her phone. “Come on, we’ve got a train to catch. Late on our first commute and Derek will never let us forget it.”
David picks up the envelope and says, “Don’t you want to solve the mystery?” He heads out of the kitchen. “Need to get my wallet from upstairs.”
Josephine makes a huffing sound and tears open the envelope. What’s the big reveal? That a company noticed every new homeowner in Parkdale has kids? Just some marketing gimmick, and that box might be big, but it’s probably filled with cheap crap.
She strokes the sleeve of her fitted wool jacket for a moment, considering the luxury, the price, before huffing a second time and tearing open the small envelope.
The smell is immediate.
Josephine draws her hand back out as if scalded. She imagines broken glass, a perfume bottle shattered on transit, and checks her fingers even as she blinks and coughs against the scent.
No blood. Just sticky,
It’s not a sophisticated perfume. Fruity and blunt, it makes Josephine think of her childhood, of how the bathroom smelled when the bath was filling up with bubbles.
Josephine blinks, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by something inside of her, and she imagines bubbling fruit, replacing her blood, turning her into something else.
Her voice cracks, it’s not her own. Or at least, it hasn’t been for years.
And she knows what this is. The bubbles tell her, they tell her the impossible, and Josephine gets up from the table and is immediately dizzy, nauseous, ready to spray cherry jam onto the doll that shouldn’t belong to her.
“There in a sec,” calls David, still upstairs, missing all the fun.
She grabs at the table, at the chair behind her, missing both, clutching the doll.
Josephine does as she’s told, her knees buckling and sending her to the kitchen floor.
The voice is older, in that it’s younger. It is historic, pre-David, from a previous century, and Josephine can feel her hair tumbling down past her shoulders, she watches as her outfit loses its tidy fit and becomes too generous, and now she knows from the doll in her lap that she is just playing dress-up.
She looks up to find David staring back down at her. His eyes are like saucers, his skin pale.
“Josephine?” he says again, he almost whispers, as if afraid of making a mistake, afraid he’s the subject of a practical joke.
“I fell down,” says Josephine, as if that’s the headline. “There’s something in the…” She waves her hands, sure they’ll be sticky and wet, but there’s nothing. She shrugs her shoulders and she can only imagine her skin is the same colour as her husbands. “It stinks in here.”
David crouches down in front of Josephine, looks her over, every inch of her, making Josephine hiss, “Stop.”
“What happened?” David asks. He touches her hair, stares into her face. “You look…”
“Fourteen,” says David. “You look like a kid.”
That’s the headline.
Josephine scrambles to her feet and grabs her phone from the kitchen table, taps the camera to selfie-mode and looks at her face. Her make-up is still there, but the skin is different.
David is right. She’s lost half her age. And it’s really only now, seeing her image, that Josephine properly takes stock, touching herself under her blouse, finding adolescent breasts and a physique that has only begun its journey into maturity.
“What is this?” She drops the phone and it lands on the floor. She touches her hair, the length it was all through her childhood, before she left for university and cut it shorter.
“What did you do?” David asks in return.
Josephine gasps and pushes out her junior chest. “I didn’t do anything! This was done to me!” She points accusingly. “While you were upstairs, I was…” And then she gestures at the smallest envelope. “Something in there, like it was a broken bottle of something, it got on my hands.” She spreads her fingers in front of her face, searching for evidence, but her skin is dry and clear.
“Jesus,” David says, breathes. He can’t take his eyes off her.
“Stop staring!” his wife cries.
“What do we do?” David asks hoarsely, flapping his hands, his face warming back up with perspiration, looking ready to end up on the floor himself.
Josephine grits her teeth. “Oh, I don’t know, how about you take me to the hospital?”
David laughs despite himself. “And say what? You dipped your fingers into the fountain of youth?”
His wife pokes at him in the chest. “Do something,” she says. She flaps at her outfit. “What if I get younger? What if I end up a fucking fetus?”
She bares her teeth at him. “Why am I always the one who has to fix things?”
That’s not true, but it feels good to say it. She’s lost a couple of inches, and out of her heels, Josephine feels defensive, she feels the need to make a preemptive strike.
David hardens his jaw and reaches past his wife for her phone. He looks at the screen and looks as though he’s trying to solve a complicated equation.
“What are you waiting for?”
“Give me a second to think,” he replies. And it’s obvious, he’s finding no next step, not beyond taking her to Accident and Emergency and announcing that his wife has turned into a child. A truculent teen.
“You reached into the envelope?” he asks, gingerly picking it up.
“Fuck, don’t you do it, you’ll end up in the same boat!” Josephine cries.
David wrinkles his nose. “I’m not going to…give me some credit. God, it smells like Lush in here.”
“We have bigger things to worry about,” says Josephine. She looks at the doll, lying forgotten on the table. She picks it up and examines it. Why would someone want to do this, turn her back into a teenager, and give her a little girl’s toy at the same time.
The first thing she notices about the doll, beyond the long dark hair similar to what she had as a child, and the bunny rabbit dress, is how soft it is. She rubs her fingers along the fuzzy material and knows two things; first, this most be the softest material she’s ever touched, and second, it’s a doll meant for a baby.
Lucky baby! Princess baby.
Josephine looks around the kitchen, startled by a voice that came from nowhere.
Nothing, just an echo, just her shock at being reduced to childhood.
She squeezes the doll experimentally, noticing the hands and feet have grains inside, making them feel sandy between her fingers.
No, the voice is nothing, nothing to worry about. It’s just silly.
She smiles, her face relaxed, almost sleepy, and then watches as David takes the envelope to the kitchen sink and turns it upside down on a glass bowl.
Should she expect to see magic, a sparkling gel, a bubbling lotion to pour out?
Nothing. It’s just the scene that’s lingering, reminding Josephine of times older than her current form. Did she shower this morning? Does she need a bath? She sniffs at her arm and smells Dove soap.
Clean as a whistle.
Josephine smiles, and her eyes take on a faraway look.
David frowns. “Sure it was in here?”
“No, David, I imagined it,” she replies curtly, returning her attention to her husband.
David peers into the envelope and says, “Oh hey, here’s something.”
Before Josephine can protest, before she can open her mouth to cry out, David’s fingers are inside the envelope.
He pulls out a piece of paper the size of a business card. He smiles, and Josephine almost asks, What’s the joke? As if her husband has found the insides of a Christmas cracker.
Josephine feels a giggle at the bottom of her throat, a giggle that won’t escape her mouth.
Strange to think about Christmas, about sparkly decorations and pretty dresses at a time like this, but then again, why not think about something nice, something distracting?
She blinks and says with heavy lips, “What’s it say?”
“It’s a phone number.”
Josephine grabs for the piece of card but David snatches it away.
“Honey, I’m dealing with this, okay?”
Josephine folds her arms over the doll and scowls.
“What are you going to do?”
David picks up the phone. “What do you think?”
She watches as David calls the number on the card.
“Yeah hi, I…”
“What? Who is it?”
Her scowl deepens as David shakes his head at her and steps away.
“Hey,” Josephine protests.
“Sshhh,” David says, giving her a stern look. “I’m trying to listen.”
He turns his back and Josephine looks at her husband, not saying a word, just nodding at times.
She taps her foot impatiently. This is about her, she should be the one on the phone. She looks down at her dress, something that had fit so perfectly a few minutes before now hangs off her, might as well be wearing a potato sack. An expensive potato sack.
What does she look like. An adolescent playing dress-up. Who not put the heels back on, complete the effect?
Josephine imagines standing in front of a full-length mirror, she imagines admiring herself through a child’s eyes. Her younger self would be impressed, big girl in a fancy dress.
Going on a date with Daddy?
Standing on the kitchen floor, regressed and reduced, clutching a little girl’s doll. She glares at the doll and tosses it onto the table. Stupid kids stuff.
Her wedding ring is loose on her finger. She pulls it off and places it carefully on the table.
After a few more seconds, after a million years, David starts to speak into the phone.
“Got it. Yeah, okay, that’s fine.”
Josephine’s eyes widen in surprise as she listens to David laugh.
What’s the big joke? Is it her? She puts self-conscious fingers to her hair, fusses at the folds of her dress.
“Thanks, I’ll do that. Yeah, thanks. Bye.”
David puts the phone in his pocket.
That’s mine, Josephine almost says, but she has bigger things to talk about.
“So?” She holds out her hands as if expecting to catch a beach ball.
David nods and smiles.
“She said it was a free sample.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Said you’d be right as rain in a few hours.”
Right as rain.
“You mean back to normal,” says Josephine carefully.
Josephine produces a frustrated growl. “You suppose?”
“She just said right as rain.”
“And you believe her?”
David shrugs. “Why would she lie?”
He starts putting the breakfast things away. Jam in the fridge, followed by the milk.
“So what do we do in the meantime?”
“She said to stay calm, just have a normal day.”
Josephine produces a derisive snort. “I can’t…I can’t go to work like this, I think the CFO might just notice.”
David smiles. “True. But I can’t leave you here by yourself.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“Work. Obviously.” He walks over to the bigger box and opens the lid. “I think we…” He grins. “Yeah, that’s perfect.” He looks at Josephine. “You better wash that make-up off, honey.”
“Why is that… what? What for?”
David looks down at her with an indulgent expression and replies slowly, gently but firmly, “Well, they won’t let you into school looking like that.”
Josephine stares at her husband. “What the hell are you talking about?”
David smiles, as if everything’s fixed, his face is back to its usual healthy colour. He pulls a piece of clothing out of the box and holds it up to Josephine’s chest. “Perfect fit, I reckon,” he says brightly.
Josephine backs away from her husband. “You think…” She holds out her hands, shaking her head furiously. Is he serious? And why the hell is he so damn calm?
Josephine pushes her shoulders back and stares at David. “If you think I’m going to put that on and step foot inside a school, you’re out of your mind.”
Year 4 Geography
She is the new girl, buddied with Angela for the day.
Buddy, Josephine thinks with a roll of her eyes. How American.
They share a Google Cardboard viewer to look at projected climate change effects on Antarctica.
The ice caps are melting disappearing. losing their shape and mass. Josephine knows the feeling.
“Why’d you move to Parkdale?”asks Angela, looking into the viewer. They’re using Angela’s smart phone, making Josephine miss her own. Did she bring it with her to school?
“I don’t know,” Josephine says. She looks Angela over – they’re in matching outfits, navy blue pinafore dresses and white blouses. The only difference between Josephine and most of the girls is hairstyle – the majority wear their blonds and browns in high pigtails, making them appear younger than their Year Four status implied.
Angela laughs as she continues to look into the viewer. “Twenty years and it’s gone,” she says, “You should take a note.” She takes the cardboard viewer from her face and says, “You must have had a reason.”
“David’s bright idea,” says Josephine, writing in her class notebook.
My husband? Impossible.
My boyfriend? Nonsensical.
She cringes inside. “My…dad.”
Angela passes the viewer and gives Josephine an appraising look. “You call him his first name?”
“Sure,” Josephine replies with what she hopes is a nonchalant shrug. “I’m not a little kid.”
Angela grins. “I don’t know what my dad would do if I did that.” She laughs. “I don’t think I’ll try it.”
Josephine looks into the viewer and then puts it down, as if she has better things to do – and she surely does – and says, “It’s just me and him.” She nods, settling on a version of herself. “David doesn’t baby me, we’re more like equals.”
“Huh,” Angela replies, looking thoughtful. “Sounds cool. I think sometimes my dad wants to keep me his little girl forever, you know? I had a big fight with him when we were shopping for school uniform, he wanted me to get knee socks like I’m still in primary school!”
“You can’t let them patronise you,” says Josephine smoothly, but then she feels a fluttery anxiety in her stomach.
Hadn’t she refused to go to school this morning? Hadn’t she put her foot down, refused to wear the ridiculous school clothes?
And somehow, here she is, in her pinafore and blouse, looking like one more fifteen year old girl. What had happened, to make her give in?
I’m in charge.
“I’m in charge,” David had said. He pointed at himself and then at Josephine in her over-sized dress. “I mean, come on, Josie.”
“Don’t call me that,” she had replied. Not in her condition, not when she needed to hold on to her dignity.
But she had changed into the school clothes, unwilling to share David’s delight in the perfect fit down to the shiny black shoes, and pulling her hair into a simple pony tail.
The bell rings for morning break and the teacher calls out some rushed instructions for homework.
“I wish I could be as assertive as you,” Angela says, taking the phone out of the viewer putting it in her bag.
Not even checking emails, Josephine notes. Not even a furtive glance at Instagram. What a good girl, Josephine thinks sarcastically.
“You just have to build trust,” she tells Angela as they leave the classroom.
Angela wrinkles her nose. “How do I do that when he won’t let me do anything grown-up in the first place?” They walk down the corridor, navigating through the crowd of pupils.
They enter the canteen and stand in the queue. Josephine notices a boy from their class standing behind them – blond hair and such clear skin, it’s as if puberty just kissed him on the cheek instead of throwing a grease pan, the way it treated other classmates.
Hello handsome, Josephine thinks in her head, glancing at the teenager, and she feels a faint blush, a sweet feeling as she imagines making David jealous later. There was a real hunk in my geography class, she’ll say. Drop-dead gorgeous. She swallows a giggle.
“I’m gonna get a drink,” Angela says, digging around in her bag for money, and this prompts Josephine to do the same. Maybe her phone is in there.
“I got top marks for my history test and as a reward,” Angela says, “you know what my Dad does?”
Josephine smiles and shrugs.
“He takes me out for dinner, which is okay because it was fancy, but he kept calling it a ‘Daddy-daughter’ date which made me feel like I was five years old the whole time, and then when we got home, he’d bought Moana for us to watch.”
Josephine searches the outside pockets of her bag. No phone, no nothing. “What’s Moana?”
Angela laughs. “You don’t have younger sisters, do you.”
Josephine shakes her head, shuffling along the queue, and she sniffs at what’s on offer, hoping for coffee but finding only cartons of juice. The handsome boy is talking with his friends, something about a party, and for a moment Josephine glances at him and wonders what she’d have to do to score an invitation, and her blush returns, stronger this time, at the idea of wanting to go to a fifteen year old’s party.
“It’s a cartoon,” Angela says.
“Moana,” says Angela. “Disney.” She counts out some change. “Hey, when Frozen came out, I loved it, but that was years ago, I was still in primary school. Does he really think I’m still into that stuff? So I’m like, ‘Dad, I this isn’t my thing’, and I’m being gentle because I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but then his big idea to make it fun is to say I can invite my friends round to watch it instead!”
“Yikes,” Josephine says, concluding two things simultaneously; Angela’s dad is clueless, and Angela herself doesn’t have the most exciting of lives. She gives up on the side pockets and pokes around in the main part of her school bag. She remembers saying, when they were leaving for school, Hang on, I need my phone…what did David say in response?
“Yikes is right,” replies Angela. “I swear to God, it’s like he’s expecting those girls…” she points to their classmates in the queue, “to want to come over for a little kid sleepover, watching Moana in their Disney princess nighties and then in the morning, sitting around the table for a princess tea party. He doesn’t have a clue!”
“Show him you’re growing up,” says Josephine.
“But how?” Angela asks, screwing up her face. “He won’t let me do anything.”
“Do you help with the housework?” Josephine asks.
“How do you mean?”
“Do the laundry? Vacuuming? Do you help out?”
“Not really,” Angela says. “I mean, I have a lot of homework and stuff…” Angela interrupts her monologue long enough to point and say, “Blackcurrant, please,” and she says to Josephine, “You want one too? I can loan you fifty pee.”
“It’s all right,” Josephine replies, “I’ve got money.” Does she? There’s something at the bottom of her bag, wedged between two books. Something soft, it must be her purse, and surely her phone to go with it. She pulls the books away and looks at Angela, sucking on her straw and looking down, looking practically cross-eyed.
Treated like a child? Josephine thinks but doesn’t say. No bloody wonder. I bet you’re perfectly happy, letting dear Daddy take care of you and not taking responsibility for a damn thing. Typical teenager. She smiles as her fingers curl around the soft object, and she can’t resist giving some advice.
“Seriously, if you help out around the house, your dad will see how you’re changing. That’s how it is with me and David, we’re pretty much equals.” She gives Angela an encouraging smile. “You just have to show him you’re not a little girl anymore.”
Josephine grunts as she pulls at her purse, and the timing is perfect as she heaves it from her schoolbag, holding the prize high in her hand.
It’s not a purse.
Angela stares at Josephine and gives her a tight-mouthed smile before bursting into laughter.
“It’s not…”Josephine begins desperately, holding the fuzzy doll in her hands. “I didnt…”
“Are you serious?” Angela gasps between giggles.
“Aw,” says a girl behind them, “She brought her dolly to school.”
Josephine’s cheeks burn with embarrassment. She should stuff it back in her bag but it’s too late, everyone’s seen it, and besides, she feels paralysed, standing frozen in the queue, and when she looks at the teasing girl, she’s furious that it’s someone who looks younger.
“It’s not mine,” she hisses. “My hus…” She glares at the other girl and appeals to Angela, “My dad must have sneaked it into my bag.” She holds the doll away from herself, as it were a filthy rag.
“Don’t you mean David? Angela covers her mouth to smother another giggle. “Don’t think even my dad would do that.”
“Poor little thing,” says the other girl. “I’m sure your dolly will make you feel better,” and she pushes the doll into Josephine’s arms. “Go on, cuddle your dolly like a good girl!”
“You stupid cow,” Josephine hisses, “I’m twice your…” She trails off, looking down at the fuzzy doll. It does feel better to hold it. There’s sand inside, something like that, and she rolls the doll’s hands and legs between her fingers, a faint smile tugging at her lips.
That’s better. Such a good girl, all happy and sweet.
Josephine blinks and looks around her in sudden panic. A voice in her head, or worse, a voice from the doll, she’s heard it before, a murmuring at breakfast time, and how can any of this be real? A psychotic break is more likely, and feels increasingly realistic as Josephine looks around the canteen, looking for a hiding place, a black hole to jump into, anything but be subjected to this teenage humiliation.
But this isn’t a bad dream, it’s not a hallucination.
She’s really standing there, in a school uniform that no longer seems to fit as well as it did two hours ago, and Josephine gazes at her shirt sleeves as the slip over her wrists.
Angela gives her a concerned look. “Hey, are you…” She looks her up and down. “Are you supposed to be in my class?” She doesn’t want for a reply and tells the other girl, “It’s her first day, but I think she’s in the wrong year.”
Josephine’s shoulders slumps, and she hugs the doll against her chest.
“You look a little pale,” a boy’s voice says, and Josephine’s eyes fill with tears when she sees the handsome teenager look down at her.
She feels a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, let’s get you to the nurse’s office.”
“I don’t…” Josephine begins again. She’s the only adult there, she can’t really let these kids take charge. Where’s her damn phone? She’ll call David, tell him to get back here and end this nightmare.
Right as rain? Hardly, not even close. Forget calling the stupid help number, it’s time to get her to a hospital.
“I got your bag,” the boy says, and he takes her hand. “Come on, it’s gonna be okay.”
It’s not. There’s no way back from this, and Josephine makes a hitching, gulping sob as tears roll down her face.
But the boy’s hand is firm and gentle at the same time. And he looks at her with such kind eyes that as Josephine looks at him through her tears, she finds him irresistible.
Josephine lets herself be led from the canteen, head bowed, hair in her face.
Her shoes loosen around her feet and she steps out of them, and there, now this must be the end, she is a little girl walking along the corridor in her socked feet, the skirt of her dress threatening to trip her up until she lifts the hem.
And she thinks of wedding days, her own and friends, lifting the train of the dress, and then she thinks of weddings she’d attended as a child, a flower girl in an ivory dress, scattering flower petals and beam as the guests looked at her, knowing she was special, knowing she was perfect.
“Here we are,” the boy says, bringing her into the nurse’s room.
There’s no nurse, just a bed with a soft blanket that Josephine sits down on.
She’s safe. Safe with a boy she doesn’t know. But somehow, yes, safe, or at least she can’t hear those kids laughing at her anymore.
She holds onto the doll with a pincer grip. It makes her feel better somehow, even as she grows more confused.
The doll makes her think of home, of being secure of…
How had she forgotten? Dad…no, David, where is he? And a flicker of anxiety passes through her mind as she wonders if David knows where the nurse’s room is.
And even if he does find her, what will he think? She’s gotten smaller, she didn’t mean to but she did, will David blame her? There was no sticky stuff this time, it’s as if it happened by itself.
Josephine lifts her chin to find the boy looking at her.
“You want to talk about it? I’m a pretty good listener.”
What can she say? Nothing the teen will understand.
“It’s all Day….my dad’s fault! That stupid doll!” Even though she won’t let go of it.
“It’s okay,” the boy says, “your dad probably just wanted you to feel better on your first day.”
The boy crouches in front of her and wipes her cheeks with a tissue. “Let’s clean up that pretty face,” he says softly.
“Dank you,” Josephine says, her voice thick.
“Blow your nose,” the boy says with a smile, and he holds the tissue around her nostrils as Josephine exhales, feeling like the most incompetent of children.
“There, much better.” The boy pats Josephine’s hand and says, “I’m Luke, by the way.”
Luke smiles. “That’s a lovely name.”
The girl with the pretty face and the lovely name smiles. “Just don’t call me Josie,”
And this is when a lesser boy, a typical boy, would ask why.
Luke nods. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” He winks at her. “And what’s her name?”
Josephine is confused for a moment and then remembers the doll. “Oh, she’s not…I don’t…” She shrugs, looking down at the bunny pattern on the dress. “Flopsy,” she says softly.
The boy grins. “Perfect.”
Josephine looks at him and wonders if she’s falling in love, just a little bit, just for today.
“You got a bit upset,” says Luke, sitting beside her on the bed and putting an arm around her. “Sorry that girl was so nasty.”
Josephine nods, feeling better. “I didn’t know my doll was in my bag,” she says softly. She looks at Luke and says, “I’m not a baby.”
Luke grins. “No, you’re not. But you do need a change of clothes.”
Josephine looks down at herself. “My dress got all baggy,” she says, and she can’t help giggling at how silly she looks.
Luke puts a finger to his chin and says, “I bet there’s some spare clothes in here somewhere.” He goes to a cupboard and looks inside. “Yeah, this’ll do.” He glances back at her. “Take your dress off, honey, we’ll soon have you looking good as new.”
Josephine puts the doll down and touches the buttons on her dress. And she frowns. Is she supposed to just get undressed in front of this boy?
“It’s okay,” Luke says, walking over to her. He puts a set of clothes on the bed and turns his back on her. “I won’t peek, I’m a gentleman.”
Of course he is, Josephine thinks, and there’s that flutter again, filling her chest with warmth.
She quickly takes off her loose clothing and puts on new underpants. She slips a gingham green dress over her head and zips up the front. And then all that’s left is a pair of white knee socks and shiny black bar shoes.
“Oh,” she says, wrinkling her nose.
“Are you decent?” Luke asks.
Josephine nods and says, “Uh-huh.”
When Luke turns around, he smiles and puts his hands together. “Perfect fit, I reckon. You look very nice.”
Josephine blushes and then points at the socks. “I don’t like that kind.”
Again, Luke doesn’t ask why, he just nods. “What we going to do with your hair?”
Josephine touches the hair falling around her shoulders. “I had a hair-band,” she says, looking around the blanket.
“First things first,” Luke says, taking a brush from the cupboard.
Josephine nods and reaches for the brush, but Luke shakes his head. “Non, madame,” he says grandly, making Josephine giggle with his French accent, “Ah weel make you look…how you say…the bell of the ball.”
Josephine closes her eyes as Luke brushes her hair, gently but thoroughly, and she smiles, imagining herself becoming prettier, , and yes, as if she were at a fancy ball, ready to dance with a handsome prince. She covers her eyes with her fingers, thinking of how she’d look with a mask. What do they call that kind of party?
She bites her lip, concentrating even as she relaxes under Luke’s care.
“Thanks for not fidgeting,” he says softly. “My sister can never keep still when I’m doing this, but then after five minutes, you know what?”
Josephine gives her head little shake. “What?”
“After five minutes, her eyes get all droopy and she starts yawning, and she’s ready to go to sleep. Can you imagine?”
“Yeah,” says Josephine, because she can. She almost yawns there and then, and then she does.
“Exactly like that!” Luke says, laughing. “So instead of a thank you, I get snores!”
Josephine giggles. “Girls don’t snore!”
“Some do,” says Luke. He stops brushing and whispers in Josephine’s ear, “Even pretty princesses.”
Josephine blushes, her skin tingling where she felt his breath. If she’s a princess, then Luke is definitely a prince.
And she keeps her eyes closed, because maybe he’s going to kiss her, and she imagines his lips brushing against her own, and the fluttering in her chest is intense, it is a bird in a cage, but there’s no kiss, just gentle pulling at her hair, and then more brushing, and Josephine opens her eyes to find Luke has is holding a scrunchie.
“Matches your dress,” Luke says brightly, and then he produces a second scrunchie, and he fusses at her hair a little longer and then stands back and smiles.
“Just perfect,” he says.
Josephine looks down to find her long hair has been tied into two bunches, one on each side of her head.
“I wanna see,” she says eagerly.
Luke takes his phone and uses selfie mode to let Josephine see herself.
For a moment, she isn’t sure. Her face is too round, features too immature.
“Give us a smile, then,” says Luke.
Josephine does as she’s told, showing her teeth, and that does the trick. “I love it!” she gushes as Luke reaches and takes a photo with a tap of his finger. She twists her pigtails between her fingers and swings her feet excitedly. “Just like the other girls!”
“Same style,” says Luke, “it’s kind of a trend around here. But none of them look as good as you. Look at you ,what a sweetheart.”
Josephine slides off the bed and puts her arms around Luke’s torso. “Thank you!”
Luke laughs gently. “You’re very welcome.” He gives her a squeeze, strokes her hair and then points at the top of her gingham dress. “See, that proves you’re a sweetheart.”
Josephine looks down and for the first time notices the shiny metal heart on her zip. “It’s pretty,” she says delightedly, “like jewel-luh-ry!”
Luke nods with approval. “Your daddy’s gonna love it.”
“Uh-huh!” Josephine agrees. “When’s my daddy…dad gonna get here?”
“Soon,” Luke says. And then he points at the socks. “Gonna try those socks on for me, sweetie?”
Josephine shakes her head, pigtails jiggling. She takes the doll and holds it to her chest as if for protection. The socks are too babyish, they’re for really little girls and if she wears them, maybe Luke will think she’s really little and silly and…and then she won’t get to go to his party!
But what can she say?
Silly Josie, your head’s full of pink fuzzies!
Josephine looks at the doll and almost talks to it, her face reddening at just the thought of being caught speaking to a toy.
“Well?” Luke asks.
“They’re…they’re too small,” Josephine says. “I’m too big for that kind.” She nods determinedly.
Luke makes a so-so gesture with his hand. “Well…they look like a good fit to me. How about you try them on, and if they don’t fit, you don’t have to wear them?”
Josephine raises her shoulders and makes a huffing noise.
“They’re for babies,” she says in a whiney tone.
Luke doesn’t argue the point, and instead gets down on one knee and holds out a sock. “We can pretend like Cinderella,” he says, “I’ll be Prince Charming and you’re the princess!”
The idea bubbles into Josephine’s mind and she opens her mouth to agree, and then she frowns. “Cinderella’s not real,” she says, her expression looking as if she’d just sucked on a lemon. “And princesses are silly.”
“You’re half-right,” Luke says. “Cinderella’s just a story.” He stays on his bent knee and smiles. “But there is a ball.” He grins at her. “At least, there’s a party, and I’m looking for pretty girls to invite.”
Josephine’s eyes widen as she grasps Luke’s meaning. She snatches the sock and tries to pull it onto her foot, but her excited hands leave her fumbling.
“Slow down, sweetie,” Luke says, laughing. He rests her leg on his knee and pulls the sock over her heel and up her leg. “So far so good,” he says mildly, and then repeats the job.
He finishes by slipping Josephine’s feet into the bar shoes and fastening the Velcro buckles. He pats the toes of her shoes and gestures for her to stand up. “Let’s see you,” he says.
Josephine stands up, stroking the skirt of her dress self-consciously.
Luke nods with approval. “Definitely not babyish.”
Josephine beams as she looks from her white knee socks to Luke’s face.
“So I can come to your party?” she asks, feeling breathless with excitement.
“You sure can,” Luke says, “It’s not my party exactly, it’s my sister’s, but you’re welcome to come.”
“And you’ll be there?” asks Josephine.
“Of course!” Luke says, “Wouldn’t miss it. You’re going to be the prettiest princess there,” he says, making a show of bowing to her.
Josephine giggles. She’s not really a princess, and she doesn’t even like stupid princesses, but she can’t resist taking her skirt and performing a curtsey in response.
Luke taps his hands together in light applause.
And that would be perfect, except Josephine remembers David. She feels a burn of guilt at forgetting him. But maybe…
“Can my dad come?” she asks sweetly? “I don’t want him to be lonely by himself.”
“Sure,” says Luke, “I could do with another helper.” And then he bends to kiss Josephine on the cheek. “The prettiest princess,” he says again, and even though Josephine doesn’t care for princesses, her heart flutters with joy.