Josephine sits in the back of the car. She’s never been fond of driving, but sitting in the back seems like over-kill. And as for the booster seat?
“I’m not a baby,” Josephine says, arms crossed.
“I know bay…I know,” David replies. “But you’re small and I don’t want to get into trouble.
Strapped in like an infant, Josephine picks at her seat buckle. It’s not hard, all she has to do is press the red button and she’ll be free, but she doesn’t do it. She gets a funny feeling in her stomach when she thinks about pressing the button, a nervous feeling that makes her wish she had something nice and soft to cuddle.
Don’t be naughty for Daddy. Be a good girl! Daddy’s darling little princess!
Josephine grimaces as she imagines the fuzzy doll talking to her, but the words seem true. Unlocking her seatbelt would be so naughty that her heart-rate increases just thinking about it.
What would David do? She imagines him stopping the car, she imagines him putting her over his knee and…
No. Don’t think about that. Don’t think about little red bottoms.
Think about something else. She looks out of the window, watching the streetlights flash past. It’s getting dark, it must be very late. Is it time for bed? Is it…?
Think about the music.
Josephine wrinkles her nose. “David?”
“What’s that on the radio?”
“Oh, that’s just something to get you in the party mood,” David replies.
“Don’t like it,” Josephine says. A bouncy rhythm, a cheerful, childish voice. What happened to Classic FM? “It’s babyish,” she declares, an insult she’s used frequently since David picked her up from school.
“Huh,” David says. He glances at her in the rearview mirror. “I think maybe you’re too grouchy to go to a party.”
“No, I’m not,” Josephine replies testily.
“Prove it, give us a smile.”
She should stick her tongue out, and Josephine giggles at the very idea. That’s probably the sort of naughty she can get away with.
“Even better,” says David. “Much more partyish.”
Josephine stops giggling, feeling as though she’s been tricked somehow. But it doesn’t matter, she’s getting what she wanted, David’s letting her go to Luke’s party. Although she very much doubts this kind of music will be playing there.
What kind of music will Luke listen to? And will there be dancing?
The anxiety returns and Josephine reaches for her doll, and once again regrets not bringing it.
She was clutching it when they were due to leave the house but David had shook his head.
“I think Flopsy needs a rest,” he said. “Come on, there’ll be plenty of fun things at the party, you don’t need her, she’ll only get lost.”
He held out his hand, and Josephine said, “But why?” in a whiney tone even she found grating.
David gave her a firm look. “I just told you why.” His expression softened. “Besides, she doesn’t match your costume.”
Josephine stuck out her bottom lip. “It’s not a costume, it’s a dress.”
“Right,” David replied, nodding with a serious expression. “Definitely not a costume.”
Still, Flopsy had stayed home, tucked up in the nursery cot, and at least David had let Josephine be in charge of putting Flopsy to bed.
In the car, David’s phone rings and he answers.
“Yes, I’m fine,” David says. “Funny old day, but we’re doing okay.”
“Who’s that?” Josephine asks.
“The free sample person,” David replies, “Remember? I called at breakfast.”
Josephine nods. Breakfast feels like such a long time ago. She waits to hear what David says next, but there’s nothing, just a long period where David drives and listens, and even when he talks, it’s just a lot of Yes and No’s.
Bored, Josephine tunes out and examines her dress.
Costume? Hardly. A mix of orange and browns, a short top with a folk art pattern, an overlapping panel with sequin accents and lace trim. She runs her fingers over the raised straw-pattern on her skirt.
What did David call the pattern on her dress? Josephine narrows her eyes and tries to remember, and then grins.
Such a funny word and she smiles, humming along to the radio as David continues his boring phone conversation.
He laughs softly. “Yeah, she looks adorable.” And he looks back to wink at Josephine. “And definitely not a princess.”
Josephine nods in agreement, not bothering to wonder who David is talking to about her.
No stupid princess stuff – Josephine had been adamant about that, not just because she doesn’t like it but she remembered Angela’s experience with her father – and no more stupid school uniforms either.
She had felt so smart, so grown-up in her gingham dress Luke had given her – when David caught sight of her, he put his hand to his heart and said, “Gorgeous,” which made Josephine feel more than a little guilty about her fluttery feelings for the teenage boy.
She even felt smart in her white knee socks, holding David’s hand as they walked to the car, smiling up at him and noticing for the first time in a while what a handsome man he was, but the spell was broken on the drive home when, passing the primary school, Josephine sees the little boys and girls in the playground, and sure enough, all the little girls skipping and playing hopscotch are in the same gingham dress and knee socks.
Josephine was adamant about taking off the stupid dress as soon as they got home, and David was just as adamant about “not wanting a half-naked little girl racing about the house” but Josephine was sneaky and said she would have to take off her clothes for nap-time because “I don’t wear dresses at bedtime” and so David had no choice but to let Josephine strip down to her underwear.
Of course, she wasn’t even sleepy, but when David lay beside her and stroked her hair and told her silly stories, Josephine relaxed and fell asleep anyway.
“No, she doesn’t like them,” David says on the phone. “Oh yes, I think she looks lovely in pigtails, but she thinks they’re too babyish.”
Josephine reaches up to touch the flower in her hair; so grown-up, so glamorous. No more stupid pigtails. She giggles, admiring her face in the window’s reflection. Luke will love it, she’s sure of that.
“She’s the boss,” David says to the phone. He winks in the rearview mirror. “Isn’t that right, Josephine.”
Josephine nods enthusiastically. “David has to do what I say,” she says for the benefit of the person on the phone, and then she giggles delightedly.
David laughs and then, after he listens to the phone, says, “Yes, of course,” and then he looks back at Josephine long enough to say, “Better call me Daddy at the party, sweetie.”
Josephine frowns. “But…you’re not…” She blushes in confusion.
“Just for tonight, Josephine,” David says. “You’ll be a big girl again by tomorrow, remember? Right as rain?” There’s a clicking sound as David indicates to make a turn, and Josephine feels the movement in her booster seat as the car slows and then makes a left.
David laughs and adds, “Besides, I don’t think you want to introduce me to Luke as your husband, do you?”
The idea creates even more confusion in Josephine’s mind. Is it okay for her to like Luke and David at the same time?
“It’s okay,” David says, and Josephine can see his smiling face in the mirror. “Daddy doesn’t mind,” he says, emphasising the name, “It’s all just a little bit of fun.”
Josephine nods, grateful for the way out. It’s just fun, it’s not serious. Just a funny game. She swings her legs, pressing the back of the seat in front with her toes, and says sweetly, “Yes, Daddy.”
“Good girl,” David replies automatically, and then he continues speaking on the phone.
“Oh I would, I’ll spend all day with her tomorrow, but I’ll have to go back to work on Monday….”
Josephine sighs. What a boring conversation. She wishes she had her own phone back, she could check Instagram, but David…Daddy said the phone was tired – sleepy like Flopsy! and he’d let her have it back in the morning. She grins, remembering how she enjoys following Ella’s feed – a powerful co-worker, on the verge of getting that senior role, and then oops, stuck at home with her stupid fat baby and posting about how happy she is, how fulfilled, and isn’t he so cute.
Josephine kicks idly at the back of the front passenger seat. Stupid fat baby.
Luke opens the front door and grins down at Josephine.
“Look at you!” he says brightly, “a perfect princess!”
Josephine sighs and shakes her head. “I’m not a princess,” she says, and looks behind Luke to find to her horror a group of small children, no all little girls, running around the living room in pastel-coloured dresses.
She peers at their outfits – puffy sleeves, flouncy skirts and sparkling plastic tiaras.
A house full of little princesses.
Josephine looks up at David and then Luke, her face filled with confusion.
But no one provides an explanation.
Luke ushers Josephine and David inside.
“You sticking around or is the noise too much already?” Luke asks David.
David laughs. “I’m going to try and tough it out,” he says. “What can I do to help?”
Luke points down the hallway. “My dad’s putting the party food together, I’m sure he’d appreciate a hand.”
David nods. “Challenge accepted,” he says gravely, and then smiles, crouching down to tidy Josephine’s hair and say, “Have fun, sweetie.”
Josephine has never wanted her doll as much as she does right now. Peering into the living room, a blur of bright colours and noise, she grabs hold of David’s hand and whispers, “Daddy, I want to go home.”
“Feeling shy?” David asks her gently.
Josephine nods. Sure, whatever works, whatever gets her out of here.
“I think a certain girl is feeling too big for a princess party,” Luke says, putting a hand on Josephine’s head. “Am I right?”
Josephine blushes and nods.
“I get it,” Luke says. “Actually, I have a special, secret favour to ask.” He looks pointedly at David, who puts his hands and says, “Special secret, got it.” He kisses Josephine on the cheek and says, “Give it five minutes, sweetie. If you’re not having fun, we can go.” He winks at her. “I’ll just be in the kitchen with Luke’s daddy.”
Josephine watches David go, feeling helpless, and she looks into Luke’s kind eyes and fights the urge to throw her arms around his neck and burst into tears.
“Come on,” Luke says calmly, “Let’s talk in private.” He leads her into room with a desk and computer. “Dad works from home,” he says, “gives him more time with Molly.”
Josephine looks around the home office and asks, “Who’s Molly?”
Luke laughs softly. “My little sister, silly. It’s her party, she’s turning five.”
“Oh,” Josephine whispers. That explains all the little girls, and now here she is, stuck in a stupid kid party. She tugs at her skirt’s elasticated waist self-consciously.
“You look beautiful,” Luke says. “That costume’s perfect with your long dark hair.” He smiles at her. “And the flower’s perfect.”
Josephine sighs. “But I’m not a princess.”
Luke tilts his head at her. “Sure you are,” he says. “You’re Moana.”
“Oh,” says Josephine again. She shrugs. “I don’t know that one.” Although she remembers Angela talking about Moana at school, just this morning, just a lifetime ago.
“So I know you’re a little old for princess parties,” Luke begins.
“Princesses are stupid,” Josephine blurts out and then blushes.
Luke shrugs. “They’re okay. But I need you here because I need a big girl to help out.” He sits Josephine down on the office chair and spins her gently around. “Thing about little princesses is, they need a lot of gentle supervision.”
Josephine giggles as she spins, holding onto the armrests for balance. The spinning provokes the mildest of popping sensations between her ears, as if they were flying at altitude. When the chair slows she frowns and says, “What’s super-fishing?”
Luke grins at her and says, “It means that little girls can be shy, so you need some games to warm them up. They’re all four or five and so they’re used to a teacher telling them what to do, otherwise…” Luke puts his hands to his face as if seeing something horrific. He whispers, “They…go…mad.”
Josephine mirrors his hand gesture but instead of whispering, she giggles through her fingers.
“Anyway, we need lots of games and we have to tell them what to do, otherwise the worst thing will happen.”
Josephine bits her lip and whispers, “What’s the worst thing?”
Luke shakes his head slowly and replies, “I’ll have a bunch of little girls telling me that Molly’s party is…boring.”
This earns another giggle from Josephine, and then she says, “I know lots of games.” She can remember birthday parties, all those silly and energetic games, the memories are so vivid, as if it were yesterday. She puts a finger to her mouth and says, “I know Simon Says and Hide and Seek and… lots of stuff!”
“Great!” says Luke, “I knew you would.” He takes her hands and looks into her eyes. “So can you be my special assistant tonight, keep those little kids under control?”
Josephine nods. “Yes,” she says softly, and then she adds, the confusion returning to her mind, “David’s my daddy, he’s not my husband.”
Luke grins. “Yeah, you look a little young to be married.”
Josephine smiles back, reassured. She’s not doing anything wrong, it’s just a funny game. She rubs at her ring finger but of course there’s nothing there, her hands are so much smaller than they were this morning. She’ll have to remember to ask David where her rings are later on.
“So what are we playing first?” Josephine asks.
“What, you mean after spin the princess?” Luke says, a gleam in his eye before he give the chair another turn and earns a giggle for his trouble. “I’ve got the first few games organized already, but I’ve got something for when everyone needs to quiet down a bit, and I think you’ll be the perfect girl to be in charge of this one.” He goes to the bookshelf and retrieves a box.
When he shows it to Josephine, she looks at it and grins.
* * *
Josephine runs into the kitchen to find David having yet another conversation with Molly’s daddy.
David turns and smiles at Josephine. “What’s up, Princess Moana?”
Josephine doesn’t even blink. “Look!” she shouts, thrusting her hands at him.
“Well, look at those!” David says, an amazed expression on his face. “Did you…did you make those all by yourself?”
Josephine nods and grins. “I did it myself, Daddy! You have to look!” And she does her best to stand still while David admires the wooden bangles on her wrists.
“So pretty,” David says, picking her up and putting her on his lap. “Just like you.”
Josephine nods. The bracelets had taken a while, but it was a relief, after all the games, and then the snacks and birthday presents for Molly, and then the cake with the candles, and then even more games, to do something quiet.
She shakes her wrists excitedly, showing off the wooden bangles which she took so much care to paint. “Those are beads, Daddy, and they got stickers as well, and special flowers, look!”
David laughs. “I see them, sweetie.” He jiggles her on his lap. “So where’s my one?”
Josephine twists on his lap to check whether David is joking, feels reassured and says, “I helped all the girls make them too,” she says, “I was Luke’s special assistant!”
“Wasn’t that kind of you,” David says. “And here’s the birthday girl,” he adds as Molly rushes into the kitchen and takes her place on her father’s lap.
“Two perfect princesses,” Molly’s father says. “How’s it going, Princess Elsa?” he asks Molly, who’s wearing a blue organza top with glitter screen art to go with her sheer cape decorated with snowflakes. And her brand new birthday bangle, of course.
“Good, Daddy,” Molly says, but there are shadows beneath her eyes and the just-five-year-old puts her thumb in her mouth and strokes the front of her dress sleepily.
Josephine gives the child an indulgent smile, glad she doesn’t look silly and immature like Molly.
Molly’s father kisses the top of Molly’s head, winks at Josephine and says to David, “So you ready to look after Josie full time?”
Josephine bares her teeth and says, “That’s not my name.”
David tickles her sides. “Don’t be rude, princess.”
Josephine squirms and replies, “That’s not my-”
David cuts her off with, “I’ve been thinking about it. I mean, how could I really let someone else do it? A stranger, or even family?” He strokes Josephine’s hair and says softly in her ear, “You want Daddy to stay home and look after you?”
How can she refuse? Josephine smiles and nods, even though the idea is confusing. If Daddy is at home, who’s going to work?
The thought evaporates as Josephine suddenly notices the little pink cupcakes on the kitchen table, and she turns to David and says sweetly, slyly, “I’m hungry, Daddy.”
David laughs. “After all that cake?” He pokes her stomach. “You’re tight as a drum!”
Josephine gives him a sly smile and says, “They’re princess cupcakes and I’m a princess.”
David raises his eyebrows. “Oh really? I seem to recall you telling me you’re definitely not a princess.”
Josephine shakes her head. “Moana’s a princess,” she says slowly, as if David were an idiot. “Louise told me.” She points at a girl in a purple Rapunzel costume.” The girl’s costume has puff sleeves and a glittering, velour bodice, as well as a ruffled tulle underskirt that makes her dress look fuller, wider – as Louise had demonstrated earlier, between games of pass the parcel and musical thrones, spinning on her heels, “I’m all twirly!” and for a moment, Josephine had examined her own dress and felt a twinge of jealousy. But there’s no way she’d dress up as a pink or yellow princess, all frills and idiocy, but Moana is cool.
“All that sugar,” David says with a groan. “How about a nice piece of fruit? Apple, banana?”
Josephine shakes her head.
“I thought you were hungry.”
“I am, but my fruit tummy is full and my cupcake tummy is empty.”
David strokes his chin. “I don’t think it works that way.”
Josephine slides off David’s lap and turns to him. “I want one, and they’re not yours, they’re Lukes. I can ask him and I bet he’ll give me one because I’ve been his helper the whole time.”
She looks to the living room and David laughs and grabs her hand. “Leave that poor boy alone, you’ve been his shadow all night.”
Josephine pouts. “I’m being his special assistant.”
David pulls her to him. “I know, darling, and you’ve done such a good job.” He adjusts the flower in her hair and says, “So you’re happy being a princess?”
David smiles. “Well, aren’t you fickle.”
Josephine frowns. “What’s fickle?”
David kisses her forehead and says innocently, “Means means pretty princess.”
Josephine looks at him suspiciously. “No it doesn’t.”
When David replies with a shrug of his shoulders, she makes up her mind to look the word up, as soon as she has her phone back.
She looks over at Molly, who is now fast asleep in her father’s arms. Silly little girl, can’t even stay away for her own party.
And suddenly Josephine’s bone-tired, she’s worked so hard at this party, and she yawns and then points at the cupcakes and insists, “Daddy, I want one.”
David isn’t smiling. “Try again, Josephine.”
Josephine blushes and says softly, “Can I have one please?
“Of course, Moana,” David says, and seconds later her hands sticky and her mouth full of cupcake, Josephine can’t help noticing how much fun it is to be a princess.
* * *
At home, exhausted, Josephine lets David supervise teeth-brushing and dress her in a Peppa Pig nightdress and she sits on David’s lap, in the nursery rocking chair.
She strokes Flopsy’s fuzzy body drowsily and then remembers a question from earlier.
“Where’s my ring, Daddy?”
“My wedding ring.”
David pats Josephine’s stomach. “Oh, I’m keeping it safe. Besides, you’re bangle is so pretty, I think that’s miles better than any boring wedding ring. ”
Fair point. But still.
“Wanna be a big girl tomorrow, David.”
“I know, princess. Daddy will take care of everything, I promise.”
She’s not a princess, that was just for pretend, but instead of complaining, Josephine produces an enormous yawn instead. Does she get smaller? A little bit? She’s too tired to care, and besides, she’s snug in David’s arms and holding Flopsy – what’s the worst that could happen?
The voice is soft, lilting. For a moment, Josephine is sure that it’s Flopsy talking to her.
And then she looks up and sees a woman with mousey brown hair smiling down at her.
“Look at you, in your sweet little bunny dress,” the woman says. “Aren’t…you…cute.”
Sunshine fills the nursery, and Josephine looks around the cot.
She’s inside…she’s lying in her cot. The cot. It can’t belong to her.
Her body feels wrong, and she lifts her head to find that she’s wearing the outfit the woman mentioned.
Bunnies everywhere. Bunnies. Josephine feels a tickle of pleasure between her ears, the mildest of popping sensations, and she smiles.
Sit up, little princess, don’t dream the day away!
Don’t you look darling,” the woman says, but she doesn’t mean it.
Josephine can tell by the expression on the woman’s face – the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. The eyes are full of anger.
“What sweet , frilly, socks,” the woman says, reaching down to tickle Josephine’s feet. “Anyone seeing you now, one look at your outfit and they’d know you’re just a brainless tot.” The woman grins. “No way anyone with an ounce of intelligence would let her daddy dress her like that.” She adopts a thoughtful expression and then adds, “Hmmm, where is Daddy?”
She’s in trouble. Where’s Daddy?
And with a blink, a sliver of recognition comes back.
Ella, Josephine says.
Except she doesn’t.
“Eh-wah,” she babbles.
Ella nods and claps her hands lightly. “Clever girl, you remember me!” She gives Josephine a pitying smile. “I’m glad there’s a little bit of your mind left, Josie, before your brain turns completely to mush. I wanted you to know what’s going to happen next.”
Josephine looks wildly around the nursery, through the wooden bars of the crib.
“It’s okay, Josie,” Ella says softly, “Daddy’s downstairs with Timmy. We’re here on a play date, you see, David agreed that we should all spend some time getting to know each other.” She grins. “David’s been agreeing with me so much recently. All I have to do is talk to him on the phone and play my special music and it’s like my wish is his command.”
Josephine open her mouth wide, sucks in air, and yells, “Dayyyy-duh!”
Ella laughs. “Oh dear, your tongue’s all lazy isn’t it sweetie. Almost as if you’ve got the speaking ability of a baby.” Her tone shifts abruptly, taking on a sing-song quality as she reaches down and picks up the squirming toddler. “But it’s okay, Josie, you’re still a big girl.” She gives a bright smile and coos, “You’re two years old, that’s twice as old as Timmy. Oof! And twice as chunky too! Definitely a big girl! What a tubby bubby you are!”
Josephine struggles in the woman’s arms but it’s pointless, Ella knows how to hold a baby, there’s no escape. She looks down at her round belly and arms. It’s true, she was never a slim child. A fat baby, even fatter than Timmy. A piece of her past she had done her best to hide forever.
After batting weakly with her fists, Josephine slumps against Ella’s chest, limp and defeated, her mind churning so slowly, like it’s filled with glue.
She looks down at her dress. Just as Ella said, bunnies everywhere, with a pleated front and yellow piping along the edges.
Just like Flopsy, Josephine realises, and the idea is almost enough to send her mind over the edge. The skirt is barely long enough to cover her thick nappy, there’s no hiding what she is. And then the white socks, frilly anklets that can only belong on the smallest of little girls.
Josephine whines with frustration.
“You look adorable,” Ella says sweetly, as if Josephine had been fishing for a compliment. “If David and I end up together, and I’ll let him choose, Parkdale doesn’t do love potions, you won’t have to worry about those silly designer suits anymore. I’ll going to dress you up like a princess and post the sweetest pictures on Instagram and you know what? Everyone will say what a darling little thing you are.”
“Nuhhhh,” Josephine says, trying to move her tongue with her sticky, honey brain. Surely even a two year old can say more than this? And sure enough, when she concentrates, when she stops fishing for the big words and settles for the basics, Josephine can look into Ella’s face and say, “Bad…lady!”
Ella nods. “Yes, yes you are. Well you were.” She gives Josephine a cool look and says, “All I did was want to keep my baby, and I looked for a little support from a co-worker, from another woman, and you set out to ruin me.” She squeezes Josephine tight enough for the toddler to gasp in fright and says, “Spreading those lies and then taking my job? I should be leaving you in a ditch instead of dressing you up in pretty dresses. You don’t deserve to be treated like a princess.”
“Nooo,” Josephine says. “Doan wan be pwinceth.”
It’s as if Ella doesn’t even hear her, and Josephine knows that if she doesn’t escape from this, no one will really listen to her for years.
“But it’s not your fault,” says Ella, “Your poisonous behaviour was a cry for help, and thanks to the people I know in this quite little town, I have the antidote. Now you don’t have to worry about that silly job, because I’ve got it back.
Ella fusses with the front of Josephine’s dress. “And you don’t have to worry about missing Daddy, because I’ve got a feeling he’s going to insist on staying at home and looking after you full-time.”
Ella pats Josephine’s head and the toddler can feel the pigtails her hair has been tied into, and if she had wanted to check her reflection in the mirror before, she can’t imagine anything worse now.
Daddy can stop this. David. She just has to warn him about the bad lady.
“Day-dee!” Josephine cries. “Dah-duh!” She screeches in frustration, her mind and language are no better than scrambled eggs.
Josephine makes a hushing sound. “There, there. Soon you’ll feel much better. I’m told that in a few hours, you’ll have forgotten your old life entirely and you’ll be happy as a clam, Daddy’s little princess, and if things work out with your Daddy and me, Timmy’s big sister too.”
Ella strokes Josephine’s cheek and says sweetly, as if she were telling the gentlest of bedtime stories, “Thing is, I actually like David. I actually love him. I love him more than you ever did. We’ll raise you right, you’ll be a good girl instead of a a selfish, manipulative little bitch, and you’ll love your daddy.”
Ella grins, jigging the two year old in her arms. “And you’ll love your mummy, too.”
Josephine can feel the colour drain from her face. The thought of being parented by this scheming witch, of being treated like a doll, and of liking it. Of loving her?
Like a trigger, something loosens in Josephine’s brain, a melting of that obstructive, intelligence-zapping glue, and she can sense the words returning. Not all of them, but enough, and she glares at Ella with refreshed understanding and says, “No…way. I’m telling Day-fid. He’s gonna…smack your bum!”
Ella’s eyes widen in surprise, and then she laughs. “And just what are you going to tell him, Josie?”
Josephine narrows her eyes and grits her milk teeth. “My name…is Josephine,” and she grins with triumph as her lisp fades. “I’m gonna tell David about the fwee…free sample, and then you’re going to jail.”
Ella isn’t laughing now. She marches back to the cot and plants Josephine back inside. Her face is dark when she says, “What a clever girl you still are, Josephine.” Ella shakes her head. “Maybe there’s something we can do about that.” She reaches in and picks up the fuzzy doll between her thumb and forefinger before dropping it into Josephine’s lap. “Why don’t you play with Flopsy, hmm?” she says sweetly, taking Josephine by surprise with her tone.
Josephine’s mouth drops open in surprise, and Ella nods and gushes, “Play with Flopsy, princess!”
Without thinking, Josephine does as she’s told, looking down and picking up her favourite toy. A smile tugs at her lips as she holds the doll.
She looks up at Ella long enough to see the grimly satisfied expression on the woman’s face, before Ella turns and walks briskly out of the nursery.
Josephine looks at the doll in her hands.
That’s a good girl! Cuddle Flopsy and show us what a sweet little princess you are!
The voice reverberates inside Josephine’s head, and she is on the verge, a mental cliff-edge, ready to clasp the doll against her chest, ready to let her intelligence fade away to nothing, when she instead throws the doll, flings it, and instead of bouncing off the bars of the crib and return to her lap, somehow it flies over the rail and onto the nursery floor.
There are voices downstairs. Muffled, Josephine can’t make out the words.
Keep it together. No more distractions.
Ella’s telling David to come to the nursery. To play with his daughter, to play with Flopsy until Josephine is a drooling imbecile.
The doll is gone, and with each passing second, Josephine feels more ridiculous in her outfit.
Bunny dress. Silly bunny!
Josephine looks through the crib bars at the doll. “Get lost,” she whispers, and she decides she won’t be wearing a stupid bunny dress when David appears.
Footsteps on the stairs. There’s Ella’s perky tone, along with David’s deep, reassuring replies, in-between a baby’s good-humoured gurgles and grunts.
Her chubby fingers claw at the front of her dress, but there’s nothing to grab hold of, and Josephine realises with a groan that it must fasten up the back.
She glares at herself, and then she sees the socks.
At least she can lose the anklets.
And that’s how David finds her, his two year old on her back, pulling at the second of her frilly white socks.
She can’t remove the dress, it buttons up the back.
Josephine is on her back, pulling at her other sock, and grunting in triumph when David comes into the nursery.
“Hey, Josephine,” David says, “Ella says you’re being grouchy, what’s wrong sweetheart?”
Josephine responds by clumsily tossing her socks out of the cot. Barely, but good enough, and they land on the floor without a sound.
David makes a theatrically sad face. “Poor sockies, what did they do to you?”
He bends down to pick them up and Josephine waves her hands. “No socks! Dah-dee…Day-vid I godda tawk tuh yoo!”
David’s eyes widen and he leaves the socks where they are. “What a chatter box,” he says, “But that’s the longest sen…” He turns his head and Josephine watches as Ella comes into the nursery, carrying Timmy.
“Did you hear what Josie just said?” David asked. “She’s using full sentences.”
“She twicked you,” Josephine cries. “The fwee sample!” She shakes her head. “You’re not my daddy.”
David frowns. “What’s…” He stares at Josephine and then says, “The thing we got in the post?” And there’s a new look on his face, as if a brand new idea is occurring to him, and he looks angry, and Josephine’s heart thuds in her tiny chest, but she’s not the target.
He turns to Ella, and the game is up, his finger pointing, ready to jab, to accuse, and Josephine can afford a thin smile, even if she’s sitting in a stupid bunny dress, even if she’s wearing a nappy. Because Ella’s in big trouble, and Josephine knows that the nightmare is almost over – if this crazy town can make her young, they can make her big again, and she looks at Timmy, wearing that silly sailor suit, goggling at her like he’s never seen a toddler before, his eyes devoid of complex thought, gnawing on his knuckles and drooling down his chin.
That’s when Ella lifts one hand and puts it to the back of David’s neck, and then she glares at Josephine before she leans in and whispers something in David’s ear, this time intentionally within earshot of the toddler.
“You know, honey. I get the feeling that Josie is a little…slow. Timmy’s younger but his vocabulary is better and he just seems, well, he definitely understands more. All Josie can do is babble silly nonsense. It might be a while before she catches up with the big kids, you’ll have to be patient with her.”
“No!” Josephine cries. “Doan lissen!”
The bad lady isn’t satisfied with just making her a toddler. She wants to make her a re…a retar…a cruel, icky word that Josie feels naughty for thinking about and can’t even remember it. Ella wants to make her silly. More than Silly Timmy.
She watches David from behind as he’s shoulders relax and the anger leaves his body. His eyes glaze over with a look that is both pitying and besotted as he watches Josie in her crib.
Ella smiles and squeezes his shoulder; “But that’s okay, because she has you as her daddy. And she’ll get to stay your baby girl for as long as she needs. You won’t have to worry about work anymore. I’ve spoken to head office and they’re fine with me coming back after maternity leave. And when Timmy is a bit bigger I bet he’ll be a lovely little helper with Josie.”
Josie whines and covers her own ears, wishing she could cover David’s. She won’t even get to be the big sister! That fat little drool monster is going to be looking after her! She almost bursts into tears right then, kicking her bare feet, frustrated by the sound of the nappy rustling between her legs.
“I think a certain little princess wants her daddy. See you downstairs, darling,” Ella says, and then she leaves the nursery, taking Timmy with her.
David crouches by the cot and looks at Josephine through the bars. “Hey, princess,” he says gently.
His expression is so sweet, so loving, that Josephine is afraid to break it, but she must if she doesn’t want to end up in nappies and stupid frilly dresses.
“Ella’s bad,” she whispers. “She tricked you.”
David reaches behind him and picks something up.
Josephine strains to see what it is.
“Flopsy wants a cuddle,” David says simply and places it gently in Josephine’s lap.
“No!” Josephine cries, shuffling back on her bottom as if stung.
David looks at her with a puzzled expression. “But she’s your favourite.” He offers the doll to her again and Josephine shakes her head frantically.
“Please, David, don’t…”
He smiles, as if he can’t hear her words, as if the witch has put a new spell on him, and takes the doll back before brushing the soles of Josephine’s feet with it.
She pulls her legs away immediately, feeling the bulge of her nappy, but the damage is done.
Such a soft doll. Definitely meant for a very little girl.
“Day…” she whispers.
“My sweet little princess,” David says softly, and he brushes her feet with the doll again. “Want your Flopsy, darling? She always makes you feel better.”
“Day…” Josephine’s vision blurs in childish pleasure as the fuzzy material tickles her soles. She giggles, and a familiar popping sensation returns to her mind, only this time it’s bigger, it’s everything, it’s the beginning of complete relief and submission, and when David offers her the doll, the little girl reaches with both hands.
“Dowwy dah-dee!” she squeals, grabbing her doll and clutching it to her chest.
Such a good girl in her bunny dress. Such a sweet little princess.
“That better?” David asks, reaching to stroke Josephine’s hair.
The toddler nods, her eyes glazing as she rubs the doll’s soft material against her cheek. “Dahhhh” she mumbles, saliva escaping her open mouth as her fragile intelligence collapses, the thoughts and ideas she had tried so hard to maintain floating away.
Silly little princess, you’re all fluffy! Happy baby girl for Daddy!
She looks up at David, and she knows she’s been tricked, that the doll will make her as mentally infantile as Timmy, that even though she’s bigger, her words are all going, because that’s how Ella wants it, so there will be no surprises, no revelations as Ella develops her relationship with David
“Bahhh…” Josephine mumbles. A final attempt to tell David falls apart as she giggles, producing the most babyish of happy sounds even as her awareness reduces to that of a baby that hasn’t celebrated her first birthday.
All she knows is Daddy, and Timmy, and the Timmy’s mummy. All she knows is this house, and Daddy’s strong arms as he takes Flopsy gently from her and then picks Josephine up, holding her and taking his turn to laugh as she babbles excitedly into his neck.
Daddy smells nice and feels nice too, he gives the best cuddles. Josephine smiles at him as he pats her bottom and tells her sweet things.
“It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a bit slow, Josie. Just means you get to stay extra-cute. And Daddy kind of likes being needed so much.” He smiles, as if pleasantly surprised. “And you won’t mind me calling you princess, because you look like one. Don’t you, ickle princess?”
He sits down and stands Josephine up, holding her hands for support. “Look at you, all dressed up like Flopsy, look at that frilly skirt! Just the thing for twirling,” he sings to her sweetly, and Josephine remembers the smallest of details, Louse in her purple dress – I’m all twirly! – and Josephine giggles and sways, safe in her daddy’s grip, until feels something funny in her tummy and she crouches, still holding onto Daddy and watching him smile as she fills her nappy with pee and poop.
And it’s no worries, as Daddy lowers Josie gently onto the carpet and the brown mess squishes and smears around her bottom, just as Ella reenters the room with Timmy in her arms.
“All better now? Is Josie a good girl?” she smiles, so sweet.
“Always.” Daddy confirms with loving pride. “Just a little bit smelly.”
Josie barely notices the comment as Ella puts Timmy down beside her. Josie smiles, open-mouthed, at her new friend. Her equal, almost. And it’s the best of games when Timmy giggles and removes his dummy to pop it in Josie’s mouth.
Josie glances up to see Timmy’s mummy holding up her phone. Josie catches her reflection in the nursery mirror and, for a mercifully brief moment, is aware that soon all the lady’s friends will see a picture of Josie as a mentally backwards toddler with a heavy nappy, a fluffy bunny dress and sucking a dummy. She gives Timmy’s dummy a small suck and all other thoughts vanish from her mind.
Josie giggles at the girl in her bunny dress and dummy. What a silly, drooly baby! Then Josie gazes adoringly at Daddy who lifts her up for a nappy change, knowing she is perfectly safe and loved, as her mind completes its return to innocent infancy.