26 hours ago
A6 trunk road (10 miles north of Luton)
The girl sits in the back of the Range Rover SUV, swamped by leather. She is pink and blond against black. From the booster seat, she kicks her feet excitedly. But she doesn’t scuff the back of the driver’s seat. She’s a good girl, and besides, her legs won’t reach.
She looks out the window at fields that all look the same, cows littering the fields, hulking electricity pylons lining the road. This feels far from home.
“You’re nervous”, the woman beside her says. She’s not driving, the driver does that. “You needn’t be.” The woman tucks an errant hair behind the girl’s ear. “We fix naughty people every day. It’s what we do.”
“I just want to do my best,” the girl says softly. She looks too old to be holding the gold-coloured teddy bear on her lap, she looks too old for her pink dress.
“Of course,” says the woman. “You want me to be proud.” The woman smiles and says, “You want me to tell you want a good girl you’ve been.”
The girl blushes. “Yes.”
“Because you love me.”
The girl grins and nods, as if relieved to let go of a secret.
“I do love you,” says the girl. She points to her chest. “I can feel it right here.”
“I know, honey,” says the woman. “That’s what makes you so perfect.” She smoothes the Peter Pan collar of the girl’s dress.
The woman pats the girl’s head. “The beauty of all this – all you have to do is be yourself.”
“Because I’m good as gold,” says the girl. “Like my bear.”
The woman nods. “Exactly right, clever girl.”
The child beams. She holds up her hands, spreading her fingers and examining her nails. She is immaculate.
She looks up at the woman. “And if I’m good, you’ll give me a treat?”
The woman nods.
“And will you read me a story?”
The woman smiles. “You’re old enough to read your own stories. But if that’s what you want.”
The girl nods. “And I can sit on your lap.”
The woman laughs. “You’re definitely too old for that” She strokes the girl’s cheek. “But whatever you want. If you’re good today and tomorrow.”
“Good as Barnaby,” the girl replies, and her face is set. She looks out the window, forward this time, as they draw closer to their destination.
She’ll get the job done. She is good as gold.
The naughty people don’t stand a chance.
72 hours ago
Hardwick House, Bedfordshire
Times are hard at Hardwick House.
These old estates, propped up by fading old money, sprawling across the English countryside. They belong to another era, they belong in history books.
Harvey walks around the estate like he does every morning after breakfast.
“Good morning, Ed,” says Harvey, when he finds the groundskeeper doing his best to tame a rhododendron with pruning shears.
“Good morning, my Lord,” Ed replies brightly. Getting on in years, he’ll be working on this all day; at least the sun is shining after the overnight rain, giving the leaves and stems a soft glow.
Times are hard. Times are overgrown.
Take him to the horse factory, Harvey’s wife said the other day. He’s done, make some glue. She said they needed someone younger, stronger.
That’s probably true but Harvey didn’t like the way his wife said it.
Times are hard, but they’re not that hard.
Britney wants to start tours of the estate, coach loads of tourists traipsing through the house.
I can tell the family stories. Your relatives are like a soap opera, the locals would lap it up!
The Hoi polloi, Harvey’s mother would have called them.
Whenever Harvey imagines them in his house, when he even considers Britney spilling his family secrets in her Lutonian accent, he looks as though he’s just smelled some Stinking Bishop cheese.
Don’t look so snotty.
But Harvey can’t help looking snotty. That’s how he looks. He has blue blood, unlike his wife,
“You found your wife in a shop,” his mother had lamented before she died, referring to Harvey having the temerity to do his own shopping, to venture as far as Bluewater and find this vision, this cracker of a girl behind the counter at H&M. “She’s just so…retail.”
Harvey goes back into the house, wiping his feet on the mat and entering the drawing room.
“You’re up early,” he says, finding his wife lying on the couch and posing seductively for an empty room.
“Catching worms,” Britney replies. She sits up, fussing at her dress and poking at her hair.
“What are you wearing?” Harvey asks. This is why he’d said no to the hare-brained tours idea. No chance he’s letting proles walk in and finding his wife like this.
“Making money,” Britney says. “Doing the thing you should be doing, honeybear. Bringing home the bacon.”
“What are you talking about?” But for a moment, Harvey gets the point entirely. If Harvey’s mother could return from the grave, if she could shake herself back to life for just a moment, she would point a quivering finger at Britney too-skirt and too-long heels and tell Harvey that his wife, Lady Hardwick, is dressed like a prostitute.
“Hello!” Britney says. She grins. “What do you think about that?”
“What?” says Harvey again, louder this time. What is she talking about?
Britney rolls her eyes. “Hello! magazine.” She pats her hair which is looking even blonder than usual. “No front cover, but they’ve promised us two sides. I’m thinking the wide shot here, although we’ll have to get rid of that damn painting.” She waves impatiently at the oil painting above the fireplace. “And a couple of pics in the garden, if crusty Ed has actually done his job for once.”
Don’t call him that, Harvey is ready to say, but there’s so much more wrong with Britney’s news than how she treats the gardener.
“You can’t spring something like this on me. We can’t… we can’t have journalists at Hardwick,” Harvey says, his face reddening, “especially not from a rag like that.”
“You’ve never even read it.”
“I don’t have to,” Harvey snaps. “Ruth has and she-”
“Oh for God’s sake.” Britney gets up and strides over to him. How does she walk so well on those heels? Years of practice, tottering around pissed outside nightclubs with her girlfriends. Sober, she could probably tap-dance. “I don’t care what the nanny thinks. Wills and Kate have been in Hello!”
“Ruth isn’t the nanny. And it’s not what we do,” Harvey says. He folds his arms. He hasn’t said no to his wife a lot during their two year marriage, but he’ll do it today.
Britney smirks at him. “You made me promises, Harvey,” she says. “Lady of the manor, remember?” She shakes her head.
“Times are hard and-” Harvey begins.
“No,” says Britney. “They’re really not. You’re rolling in it, but you’re so bloody tight-fisted.”
“Just because I won’t buy every single thing you want.”
“You don’t have to buy it, I’ll buy it myself. Just let me have half. Just give me some space. You’ve got me locked up in this place like Rapunzel.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Harvey says. “You’re not locked anywhere. I already offered to pay for you to go to university.”
“Finishing school,” says Britney bitterly. “Polish my rough edges, wasn’t that how your dear mummy put it?”
This argument won’t be settled today. This argument is 24 months old.
“You think I’ll show you up,” Britney says. “I thought you wanted someone different from all those fat sloanes your mother tried to stick you with.”
“I did,” Harvey protests. “I do, but we can’t throw our money around, it’s not the done thing.”
“No,” Britney says. “So instead of giving me pocket money, you’d rather keep your damn nanny in a job.”
Harvey blushes anew. “She’s not the nanny.”
Britney tilts her face at him.
“She was…she’s not anymore.”
“Right,” Britney says, “Governess.”
“Housekeeper,” Harvey says.
“Don’t you see how…suffocating that is,” says Britney. “Sharing my home with the woman who used to wipe your arse. She cooks your meals, she washes your clothes. “What do you expect me do around here?”
Be a lady. Harvey looks at his wife. Behave yourself.
But she can’t. He found something feral and fascinating that day at Bluewater, with slapped on make-up and plastic jewels. How refreshing, her honesty, her blunt observations.
Times are hard at Hardwick, but it’s not about the money. It’s about the wife.
Britney doesn’t fit. His mother was right. Britney is wild, she’s from the gutter.
“When are they due?” Harvey says. He’ll lock the doors, he’ll turn them away. He has a fleeting image in his head of Ed barring the entrance, a rake across his arms like a shotgun.
Britney blinks at him. “They’re not coming today,” she says. “This is a dress rehearsal.” She licks her lips. “I don’t have to do the interview. Let me do the tours,” Britney says. “I’ll make my money that way.”
Never going to happen, Harvey thinks to himself.
“Maybe a small tour,” Harvey muses, as if he’s seriously considering the idea. “We’d have to rope off the bedrooms and living room, of course, I’m not having a bunch of yokels trampling-”
“And sack Ruth,” Britney says.
“You heard.” Britney takes off her shoes and reminds Harvey that normally she’s a foot shorter than him. Heels in hand, she stands on tip-toes to peck her husband on the cheek. “Time for you to choose,” she says sweetly. “You want a wife or a nanny.” She rolls her eyes for a second time. “Because having both is just weird.”
Lady Hardwick adjusts the spaghetti straps on her bandage dress.
She can be a lady in black Spandex, she can be lady-enough. It’s posture, not clothes. She still buys her clothes from Kiss Miss.
What a difference a couple of days can make. She should have thought of threatening journalists ages ago. Her husband is terrified of being exposed, and Britney knows all the skeletons. Uncle Henry getting his maid into trouble, cousin Charles and his trips to Thailand.
And what about Harvey himself?
Ah, she’s fond of him. He’s gentle, a gentleman. But so old-fashioned, and did he really think that he was going to pull a ‘My Fair Lady’?
The rain in Spain…
Britney will never talk like them.
She will never think or act or look like them.
But Harvey agreed to the tours, starting today, and there are even velvet ropes where visitors can and can’t go. A shame he’ll miss all the excitement, off playing golf with his lawyer friends.
Ruth had put an advertisement in the local paper (even bringing it to Britney for her approval – wonders will never cease) and put signs up around the village. Earning her damn keep for once.
Thank goodness, because Britney doesn’t know anyone at Hello!, no hacks and paps ready to pounce on Hardwick.
“Just wanted to check there’s nothing else you need, my Lady.” Ruth pokes her head into the bedroom.
Britney looks at the woman. Ruth must be in her sixties, so how does she manage to look decades younger? Clean-living your Ladyship, she’d said, when Britney asked last year. Being a good girl.
Which felt like a slap to the lines around Britney’s twenty-four year old eyes. It was a struggle to grow up on Britney’s side of the river. But look at her now, after years of working-class struggle. And maybe she should be satisfied with being Harvey’s trophy, his beautiful piece of rough, because hell, she’s not the tart he sneaks into hotel rooms; he actually married her.
No, it’s not enough. She needs to more than look good
Still, when she looks at Ruth, who still looks as though she’d cut up Harvey’s steak if he’d let her, Britney can afford to feel magnanimous. Even if she doesn’t seem to age. Even if she has curves to match Britney’s.
“Thanks for your help with the tour, Ruth,” she says.
“You’re very welcome, my Lady.” And Master Harvey suggested I take some time off. I realised, with you here, perhaps I’m not needed.”
Christ, are those tears in the woman’s eyes? And what is Harvey scheming? Will he put the woman on gardening leave?
Britney shrugs. She’ll take it. If that’s what it takes to get Ruth out of the house, fine. Keep paying her. Just more proof that Harvey has plenty of money to spare.
“He’ll miss you, I’m sure,” Britney says smoothly.
Britney won’t. Yes, it’s luxurious to get up from the dining table and no that someone else will take care of the dishes, it’s delightful knowing she doesn’t have to tussle with the vacuum cleaner or tumble dryer, but when Ruth is folding laundry and has to ask, “I just don’t know, your Ladyship, is this a dress or is it underwear?”
Britney won’t miss that.
She checks herself one more time in the full-length mirror. Very classy, and what’s wrong with showing off those legs, that cleavage?
Show off your boobs or your bum, Sharon used to say when they were getting ready for a night out. Unless you’re as gorgeous as us, and then you can do both.
The black dress does just that.
Britney walks down the winding staircase, ready to make an entrance, an impact on their first visitors.
The hall-way is empty.
The former-nanny arrives on the landing. “Yes, my Lady?”
“First tour at ten, right?”
Ruth nods. “That’s correct, My Lady.”
Britney waves down at the vacant benches. “So where is everybody?”
Suddenly it’s obvious. No one is coming. No one is coming because there is no tour. A fake promise from Harvey, who probably assumed his wife would forget all about her demand.
Ruth blinks and then smiles. “Outside, I expect. The sign said to wait at the front door.” She gives a nervous laugh as if she’s about to point out something obvious. “I showed you the sign before I had it printed. Remember?”
Britney huffs and nods. “Yes, of course.”
Ruth takes a step towards the stairway. “I can let them in, my Lady, only I thought that you….as the lady of the house…I thought you wanted to…”
“Yes yes, of course I’ll let them in. They haven’t come to see the housekeeper.” They haven’t come to see my husband’s old nanny.
Britney walks down the hall in her heels. She is grand, but not old-fashioned grand. She is Kiss Miss cool. The male visitors will want to be with her and the females will want to be her.
But she’s nervous all the same. Take a breath. This is the moment when you finally take ownership of this place.
No noise, no chattering outside. They must be nervous as well.
She puts her hand on the door handle. It’s like before they start singing on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. That pin-drop moment.
Britney grins. She pulls open the heavy wooden door.
There are the stone steps, the long gravel driveway with trees lining each side. There are the gardens, which look in better shape than she gives Ed credit for.
And the grand total of visitors?
A little girl in a pink dress, sitting on the steps.
The girl’s holding a gold coloured teddy bear on her lap and hasn’t even looked up at Britney. Is she singing? No, she’s humming, something tuneless.
Britney clears her throat and the girl jumps.
“Oh!” The girl gets to her feet and brushes at her skirt with one hand and keeps hold of the bear with the other. She’s wearing a pink cardigan over her dress and her hair is arranged in pigtails.
“Hi,” the girl says softly.
Britney sighs and says, “Hi.”
“I can’t go on the tour yet,” says the girl, and she looks behind her. “I have to wait for Mummy and Daddy.”
“Where did they go?” Britney asks.
“For a walk.” The girl tugs at the sleeves of her cardigan.
Typical, Britney thinks. They think they’re at the bloody park, they can just wander around her private property, and they just dump their kid on the steps.
And what is that strange odour coming from the kid? Is it something baked?
“Please don’t start the tour yet,” the girl says. She wrinkles her nose. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”
Britney laughs, but it’s the wrong response and the girl looks wounded.
“Hey, you’re fine, I’m not about to show this house to…how old are you?”
“Eleven,” the girl replies, and Britney looks at the pigtails and frilly pink dress, the ruffled anklets and shiny bar shoes and she thinks, One, Sunday best, and two, there’s no way you’re eleven. But she’s tall enough, and Britney decides, Just a kid who’s parents dress her too young, which makes her feel a little sorry for the child.
“Well I’m Britney,” she says, ready to make friends long enough for her parents to show up.
“Nicole,” the girl replies. She looks appraisingly at her host. “Will you get in trouble if we don’t start on time?”
Britney swallows another laugh. “No, love, I’ll be fine.”
“What about her Ladyship?” Nicole asks. “My mummy says she’s really fussy.”
This time Britney can’t hold the laugh back. “I’m her Ladyship,” says Britney.
Nicole’s mouth is a perfect ‘o’. And then it’s her turn to laugh. “No, you’re not,” she says, giggling. “You’re just teasing.”
Britney glares at the girl. “Actually, I am the lady.”
Nicole shakes her head, pigtails jiggling. “You’re not dressed right and you’ve got too much make-up on.”
Britney flushes. She’s going to have to educate this girl, this little snot-nosed brat about how to address the upper-class, she’s going to-
“There,” says Nicole, pointing confidently past Britney’s shoulder. “She’s the lady.”
Britney turns around and her jaw clenches as she finds Ruth standing in the doorway.
“I know we had at least one family who booked ahead,” Ruth says, holding a clipboard to her chest. She looks down at Nicole and then asks Britney, “Where are the child’s parents, my Lady?”
“Gone walkabout, apparently,” Britney replies. She smirks at Nicole who is blushing furiously.
“I’m sorry, your…my…your Ladyship,” Nicole whispers, and she drops her teddy bear and holds her skirt and performs the sweetest of curtsies.
Ruth gives Britney a questioning look and Britney shakes her head. “Teeny misunderstanding, all sorted out now.” She bends down and picks up the girl’s toy. She blinks at how soft it is before handing it back. “Don’t lose Teddy,” she says sweetly, feeling friendlier now that her status has been established.
“He’s Barnaby,” says the girl, taking the bear and clutching it against her chest, looking younger despite her height.
“Well this is…Nanny,” Britney says with a smile, glad to finally put the woman to good use. “She can look after you until your parents get here.”
She turns to Ruth and raises her eyebrows, waiting for a contradiction that can’t possibly come.
And then it does.
“My Lady, I was wondering if you would be able to watch the child for a little while?” Ruth looks over at the garden. “I really want to try and track down her parents – I’ll ask Ed to give me a hand.”
Britney opens her mouth to refuse. Seriously? The nanny finally has a kid to look after and she wants to palm her off on her employer?
But the little girl looks up at them both eagerly and bites her lip. “I won’t be noisy,” says Nicole softly, “I promise. I won’t make a mess.”
“It’s almost like a practice,” Ruth says with a smile. “You could show her the nursery.”
Britney sighs. “No one’s been in there for years, it’s probably covered in dust.”
“Actually, I keep it clean,” says Ruth. She shrugs and smiles. “Just in case.” She winks at Nicole. “There are some jolly fun toys that his Lordship used to play with when he was a little boy.”
She gives Britney a humble look. “It’s just an idea, to save you the running around. Once I find her parents I’ll bring them straight to the nursery. I’m sure it’ll only be five minutes. That is, if it’s all right with you, my Lady.”
Looking down at Nicole’s hopeful face, Britney smiles thinly. She’s not made of ice. How can she refuse?
“Fine,” she says. “But I don’t have all day.” Even though she does, especially if no more visitors arrive.
Where are the other guests? For a moment, Britney is furious, sure that Ruth didn’t advertise after all.
But her anger subsides when she thinks, if it wasn’t advertised, where did the little girl come from?
“Very good, my Lady,” Ruth says.
Nicole grins and bounces lightly on her feet.
“Nursery’s on the first floor,” Ruth says as Britney walks into the house.
“I know,” Britney replies.
“Of course,” Ruth says.
Britney turns and waves impatiently at the child. “Come on.”
“Sorry,” Nicole calls out and runs into the hall.
Britney sighs and walks on, approaching the staircase before she find a small hand has found its way into her own, along with the return of that curious smell. Not bad, just unusual. She looks down at the girl and sniffs. It’s Nicole, and it’s not baking after all, but like chewing gum, the spicy kind.
Yes, just a warm little hand, and Britney smiles at the sound of the little girl’s shoes clip-clopping beside her as Britney strides in her heels along the landing.
How does the kid feel, holding the hand of a real Lady? Is this like meeting a Disney Princess? How sweet, to be so innocent.
Get a grip, Brit. Britney rolls her eyes. Nothing will make her feel maternal, not even this frilly little thing. But there’s something rather disarming about the way the little girl puts her trust in Britney. And there’s no question now who Lady Hardwick is.
The nursery is immaculate, as promised.
Who has Ruth been keeping this room so clean for? The heir and spare that Britney hasn’t provided?
Britney sits down on a rocking chair and gestures towards a toy chest. “Take your pick,” she says generously. She takes out her phone long enough to take a selfie. This is how you look when no one turns up for your house tour. This is how you look when things don’t go as planned.
Nicole looks down at her feet. “Should I take my shoes off?”
“I just don’t want to get dirt on the carpet.”
“Kiddo, do what you want.”
Nicole crouches to loosen the buckles on her shoes and slips them off. “Maybe you should take yours off too.”
Britney gives the girl a straight look. “Don’t worry about my shoes, love.”
Nicole nods and wanders over to the toy chest.
She shakes her head. “Mostly baby stuff,” she says dismissively. “And it’s all for boys.” She holds up a plastic car and shrugs.
“Girls can play with cars,” says Britney.
Nicole doesn’t look convinced.
Annoyed, Britney points at a rocking horse that’s seen better days. “You could ride on the horsie,” she says in a sweet voice that sounds immediately fake.
Nicole frowns. “I’m not a baby,” she says peevishly.
“And I’m not your babysitter,” Britney replies, just as peevishly. “It’s not my job to entertain you.”
Nicole looks Britney in the eye, and for a moment it seems as though she’ll protest or pout, but then her expression changes and she nods. “You’re not my babysitter,” she says. She smiles. “Nanny is.”
Britney laughs. “I suppose so.”
Britney watches the girl investigate the toys. How old is she? Is she six, is she twelve? Raised an only child, Britney has never been good at guessing kids ages. And there’s something funny about this one, in her frilly socks and that stupid bear and yet sometimes she sounds quite mature.
She should ask, she should produce the classic kid questions.
What year are you in at school? What’s your teacher like? Did you go anywhere for your summer holidays?
No. Children are rarely interesting and this one will be out of her life in around ten minutes. Just keep her from catching fire, from drowning in a shallow pool.
At least the kid is being quiet.
Britney watches Nicole sitting cross-legged in front of the toy chest, the gold-coloured bear in her lap.
“Find something to play with?” Britney asks, looking at the girl’s back.
A nodding head.
“What is it?” Britney asks.
A shake of the head, pigtails in motion.
“Oh for…” Check she’s not drowning, make sure she’s not sticking her finger into electrical sockets. Britney walks over and crouches by the girl, who responds by hiding her face in the teddy bear’s stomach.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nuh…nothing,” Nicole replies unconvincingly.
“Hey,” says Britney. She pats the girl’s arm, the fuzzy pink sleeve, and is given a fresh hint of the cinnamon scent.
And then her hand on Nicole’s back, Britney feels a shudder as Nicole seems to cower, and then a one-two-three shiver.
“What’s up, lovely?”
Nicole’s voice is muffled, but the reply sounds anguished.
“I can’t hear you, ducks,” Britney says, and when she tries to pull the bear away from Nicole’s face, she’s met with stiff resistance. “Do you…do you have a sore tummy?” It’s all she can think of. Kids get sick quick, Britney knows that, they’re always sniffing and puking.
Nicole says something but it’s just as muffled as before.
“Ducks,” says Britney, “Come on ducks….”
Christ. Hasn’t it been five minutes already, hadn’t it been ten? Ruth should be back, she should be here to deal with this. She looks back to her phone, sitting on the rocking chair.
She puts her arm around Nicole’s narrow shoulders. “Hey, hey ducks. What’s the matter? You can tell me.” She gives the girl a squeeze. “Come on, I’m a lady, I can do anything I want, pretty much. Pretty sure I can fix whatever’s wrong.”
And that lie does it.
Nicole takes the bear from her face, her face that is a pink mess of tears and hair, and gulps.
“There you are,” Britney says softly. She smiles. “Found you.”
“Maybe they forgot,” says Nicole.
“Who?” Britney replies stupidly.
“Mummy and Daddy.” Nicole wipes at her eyes with her fists.
“Oh,” Britney says. She strokes hair away from the girl’s forehead. “I don’t think so.” She blinks. “No way, kiddo. But maybe they got lost, that’s all. The garden is really big.” She hugs Nicole. “We’ve got a gardener, his name is Ed, and you know, his only job is to work on my garden. That’s all he does!”
And really, isn’t this all a little girl needs? A hug and a distraction?
Instead, Nicole looks haunted.
“Sometimes they forget about me,” she whispers. She reaches for Britney’s hand and holds on tight. And what a hot and sweaty hand it is, how desperate, like someone, dangling from cliff-edge, hanging on for dear life
“They haven’t,” Britney says, suddenly more protective, suddenly fierce. “Like I said, it’s a big garden, but Ed knows every inch of it. If your mummy and daddy are lost, Ed will find them. He’s like…what are those dogs that can are good at finding things by smell.”
Nicole provides her own sniff before saying, “Bloodhound.”
“Bloodhounds. Right! Clever girl! He’s like that.” And Britney makes a big sniffing noise, giving herself a fresh helping of Nicole’s scent.
And what is it about that funny smell that makes Britney think of fairytales and happy endings? She kisses the girl’s cheek and says, “And no way anyone’s forgetting about a pretty girl like you. Hmmm, look at you, pretty as a princess aren’t you ducks.”
This earns a smile, but there are shadows under Nicole’s eyes, and how old is this kid? She might be ancient and yet she smells brand new, something delicious right from the oven, something spicy and warming you only get on the most special of holidays.
She’s practically a teenager, she’s just a little girl, and she climbs into Britney’s lap and sighs when Britney puts her arms around her. “You’re nice,” says the girl, and Britney manages not to reply, I wish my husband agreed.
“You too,” Britney says. And she can’t resist saying, because surely this girl is just a nursery schooler, “I wonder if you might out-rank me, actually, because I’m just Lady Hardwick and you’re a princess.”
Britney feels a sweet relief when Nicole giggles, head bobbing, and her hair ribbons tickle Britney’s chin.
“I’ll give Ruth…I’ll give Nanny a call in a minute, see how she’s getting on.” She tickle’s Nicole’s sides playfully. “She’s probably having tea with Mummy and Daddy in the living room right now.”
“Prob’ly,” Nicole replies, and it’s funny how heavy a child can feel when they’re relaxed in your lap. They sit in silence and Britney can feel the child’s breathing slow, and she wonders, is the kid going to fall asleep in her lap?
Britney feels a tightness in her lower back. She digs her heels in to the carpet and scuffs off her shoes. They can’t sit like this forever, even though there’s something nice about it. Something about the cinnamon, combined with getting an eyeful of the shiny hair ribbons, makes Britney think of Christmas, of getting a wonderful present.
“You’re lucky,” Nicole murmurs, not asleep after all.
“How’s that then?”
“You’ve got Nanny. I bet she takes really good care of you.”
Britney laughs softly. “Well, she’s not my nanny. She was my husband’s nanny, when he was a baby and the his governess.”
“What a governess?”
“Like a teacher, so he didn’t have to go to school.”
“He’s the lucky one!” Nicole says, and giggles. “But Nanny’s still here, looking after you.” The girl sticks out her legs and points her feet forward. “Do you like my socks? Mummy says they’re only for special days.”
Britney blinks, suddenly feeling slow and confused. “Nanny’s here because…yes, your socks are lovely.” She takes a deep breath, wanting to clear her mind. “Nanny still helps but she’s not really a nanny anymore, because my husband, Lord Hardwick is all grown-”
“What did you think about?” Nicole asks, twisting around and looking at Britney. A healthy colour has returned to her cheeks. If anything, she looks a little pink, pink like her cardigan and dress. Pink like a little piggy, Britney thinks suddenly, and a giggle bubbles in her throat, but she’s glad she didn’t say it out loud. It’s not polite to call people pigs.
“Lady Hard-wick,” Nicole says in a sing-song voice, “What did you think about?”
Britney hesitates, her mouth hanging open. “When?”
Nicole smiles sweetly, and her eyes shine with happiness, as if any concern about her parents has been completely forgotten.
“When you cuddled me? Did you think about something special?”
“I…” Britney begins. She holds onto Nicole, hands around her waist, because that’s better, that so soft and sweet. She smiles back. “I thought about Christmas.”
“Mmm,” Nicole says. “What do you want for Christmas?”
Nothing. Everything. Peace on Earth. Why can’t Britney think of anything sensible? Desperate, she tickles the soles of Nicole’s feet and says, “Frilly socks, so I can be a pretty princess like you!” And she wriggles her own toes for effect.
It must be the right answer, because Nicole squeals with delight.
“You could ask Santa Claus for a socks like mine. And a dress like mine as well,” Nicole says softly, musing, a finger on her chin. “And then you’d look more like a lady.”
Britney twists her lips. “What’s wrong with my-”
Nicole points with a stiff arm. “Can I ride on the horse?”
Britney laughs. “I thought that was for babies.”
The girl shakes her head. “I was just nervous before.” She climbs off Britney’s lap and skips over to the horse. “I’m not nervous now.” She strokes the horse’s mane. “You’re not nervous now either, are you.” She says it like a statement, a confirmation, but Britney feels the need to answer anyway.
To agree. To agree to whatever the girl says.
“I’m not nervous,” Britney says. She joins Nicole by the horse, watches as the girl climbs onto it and puts her feet in the stirrups, takes hold of the reins, and shifts the horse with her hips.
Nicole looks too old for rocking horses. But maybe not. Look at those frilly socks, those fluffy pigtails.
Britney feels a gentle envy as she watches Nicole rock back and forth.
Is she jealous? Is she really? If she were smaller, younger, yes, she could dress up in pink and pigtails and ride a rocking horse here in the nursery. And would life be simpler, wouldn’t things be easy? She could just relax and rock back and forth. Afterwards, she could do whatever Nanny tells her to.
But why would she want that, when she has a real horse, when she has a entire stable of them?
The two ideas sit in her head, jarring, fighting for prominence. There’s not enough room for both, and Britney knows there’s something very wrong with one of them, there’s something wrong with wanting to-
Britney turns to find Ruth standing in the doorway. “There you are,” says Britney.
“Having fun?” Ruth asks brightly.
Britney blinks in confusion, and then she realises the question isn’t for her. It can’t be. The staff don’t talk to her Ladyship like that. She turns to Nicole who stops rocking on the horse and nods. “Yes, Nanny,” she says.
“Lovely,” Ruth replies.
“So what’s the news?” asks Britney.
Ruth raises her eyebrows. “News?”
“Nicole’s parents.” Britney rests her hands on her hips. If Ruth hasn’t even bothered to find-
“Oh yes,” Ruth replies, “Nicole’s mummy and daddy, you mean?”
Britney nods. “Of course.”
“Apparently they’re in the pavilion,” Ruth says mildly, as if it’s not such important news.
“Apparently?” Britney asks.
“It was Ed who spotted them,” Ruth replies, gesturing a phone call. He says he’ll look after her until Miss Nicole gets there.”
And then she frowns, as if she’s thought of something more important. “Britney, did you lose your shoes?”
Britney looks down in surprise and then looks back up in shock. Has Ruth ever addressed her by her first name?
“Where are you shoes?” Ruth asks, and her tone is so reasonable that Britney finds herself answering.
“No,” Britney replies, “I just took them off for a bit.” She points to the rocking chair, and there are her heels, safe and sound.
“I took mine off so I wouldn’t get mud on the carpet,” Nicole pipes up.
“Very sensible,” says Ruth.
“So did I, Nanny,” Britney blurts, suddenly wanting to share the credit, and then she blushes at using a title that hasn’t applied in over twenty years.
Why did she do that? Because the child is here, of course. Simpler just to call the woman Nanny.
Ruth smiles brightly and says, “What clever ladies you both are.”
Britney feels a warm tingle of pleasure at receiving the praise.
She blinks. Time to get things straight. “So take Nicole to her parents,” she says. And then, “Please, Nanny.”
Nicole climbs off the horse and takes hold of Britney’s hand, and Britney remembers how soft, how warm it feels.
“I want you to take me,” Nicole says softly.
Britney sighs. “I’m really very busy,” she replies, although for the life of her, she can’t remember a single plan she has for the rest of the day.
“Please,” Nicole whispers. “They won’t be angry if you take me.” And she squeezes Britney’s palm just as the woman wonders, why would they be angry, and the question evaporates before it has a chance to leave her mouth.
It’s nice to hold hands. Britney smiles down at the girl. But really, it’s not her job to look after children. It’s Nanny who-
“Have your mummy and daddy ever met a real Lady?” Ruth asks Nicole.
The little girl shakes her head. “They’d be…I mean, they came to see Lady Hardwick.”
Ruth walks over and stands in front of Britney, and she’s taller, with Britney in her stockinged feet. “It would be a lovely gesture,” says Ruth, “And a great way to treat our first official visitor.”
Britney smiles at that. “Okay.”
“Lovely,” Ruth says. “I tell you what, ladies. Bring back Miss Nicole’s mummy and daddy and we can all have tea in the nursery, okay?”
Nicole grins. “They would love that!”
Of course, there’s nothing special about tea and biscuits for Britney. She almost says as much, but then just goes over to put on her shoes.
“Your Ladyship, what are you doing?”
Britney picks up her shoes and waggles them at Ruth. “I’ll need these for walking in,” she says, her tone heavy with sarcasm. “Unless you think I should go outside in bare feet?”
Was that cheeky? Is she in trouble? What is it about being in the nursery that makes her feel like a child? She wants to take hold of Nicole’s hand again, there’s something so comforting about that.
“I don’t think you’ll want to wear those outside, my Lady,” Ruth says, and there’s something equally sarcastic about her tone. She walks to the window and points outside. “Didn’t you hear all the rain?”
Britney looks and can see that the grass looks sodden. “Oh,” she says.
“Yes,” Ruth replies. “Oh. She smiles back at Nicole and says, “I rather think you’d get stuck in the mud with those things.”
Nicole giggles and Britney pouts. “But they’re my favorites.”
Ruth strokes Britney’s arm, which seems at once unforgivably intimate and yet appropriate. In the nursery. Where Nanny takes care of the children.
“You don’t want to get stuck in the mud, do you, your Ladyship?” Ruth asks gently. The title is correct but there’s something funny about the way Ruth says it, as if she’s indulging Britney, as all of this is make-believe. She looks down at her shoes and while they will fit perfectly well, they look too much, too shiny and grown-up, they can’t be for her.
“No, Nanny.” It’s so easy to say her name, so easy to obey.
“Lovely,” says Nanny, and Britney wonders if this is okay, if this isn’t just nonsense, but then Nicole runs over and puts her arms around her waist, looking up and saying, “Thanks for going with me!” Britney instantly feels better.
Ruth gives the pair an approving nod and announces, “I’ve got wellies for both you ladies.”
“Thank you, Nanny,” Britney says softly.
And Britney must have made Nanny happy because she’s smiling and says, “Good,” and then to both of them, “Let’s get you ready for your walk, and when you get back, we’ll have orange squash and cakes!”