It’s better to be outside. The air is cool after the rain, and even though the grounds are wet, it doesn’t matter. Thanks to Nanny, thanks to their wellies.
Britney’s pair are red with yellow butterflies on them, she doesn’t feel self-conscious because Nicole is wearing a pair of wellies too, pink to match her dress, and so it feels almost like a special uniform as they walk through along the tree-lined path, hand in hand.
She can smell lavender, sweet williams. But in truth, none of the flowers smell as strongly as Nicole’s cinnamon scent, a smell that Britney is getting used to, a smell she is taking for granted.
“You look better now,” says Nicole. “Your old shoes were too racy.”
Britney frowns. “Like a car?” Britney looks down her boots. They don’t match her black dress at all. Maybe she should have changed her dress as well? Red wellies, or ‘scarlet’ like Nanny described them, like Miss Scarlet in the Clue game.
Nicole giggles. “No, silly, like…” She looks up at her appraisingly. “You could change your dress when we get back, too, and be even more ladyish.”
Britney knows what Nicole means. The bandage dress isn’t enough, it’s showing a lot of skin, and what felt glamorous earlier now seems like a risk, like a mistake that will get her into trouble. What will Nicole’s parents think of her?
“What will Nanny give us for tea?” Nicole asks, interrupting Britney’s anxiety.
“Oh, lots of things,” Britney replies. “Little sandwiches and cakes, and everything’s on special silvery stands so it’s like a tree.”
“Cool,” Nicole says, and Britney is happy to show off.
“And you have to drink your tea the right way,” says Britney, holding an imaginary cup with her free hand, sticking out her pinkie and grinning. She can’t help giggling when Nicole mirrors the action.
“But that’s for Mummy and Daddy,” Nicole says. “We’ll have squash won’t we? I don’t like tea.”
Britney considers the point. “You can have…I think you can choose,” she says. Tea does sound boring. She’d prefer a Coke, but Nanny…Ruth never buys it. They’ll have to drink squash, but they can still hold their glasses the fancy way, just like the grown-ups.
Britney blinks. What a strange idea.
“All right?” Nicole asks, squeezing Britney’s hand.
The woman nods and smiles. How could she not feel just fine and dandy, walking with her friend, strolling through the garden. It’s good to hold hands, reminding her of school dinners, standing in a line, holding Sharon’s hand. A long time ago.
Suddenly, Britney is sure that she needs to get this over with, to find Nicole’s parents, get back to the house, and then after tea she can have a bath and get changed into her normal clothes, she can get everything back to normal.
“Let’s take a short-cut,” she says, pulling on Nicole’s hand and leaving the path.
“It’s really wet,” Nicole says, “Are we allowed to go on the grass?”
“We can do whatever we want,” replies Britney tersely, “It’s my garden.”
“Are you sure?” says Nicole, looking around, looking anxious. “We don’t want to make Nanny or the gardener cross.”
Britney shakes off Nicole’s hand. “I said it’s okay. I’m in charge, not them.” She waves the bushes and flowers. “This is all mine, I could chop them all down if I wanted, I could…I could have a big bonfire.”
Nicole’s eyes grow wide. “You better not!” Her face pales. “What a mess! And what a smell!”
Britney glares at her new friend. “I’m not going to…I was just…you’re such a goody-goody.”
Nicole looks pained. She whispers, “I just don’t want to get into trouble.”
“And you smell funny,” says Britney with a thin smile.
“That’s my special bubble bath,” Nicole says, and her voice is even softer, tears welling in her eyes. “Mummy says I smell like…” She trails off, tears welling in her eyes.
“Yeah,” Britney says, swallowing the sting of remorse, “I know, Christmas.” She shakes her head. “That’s stupid, it’s nowhere near Christmas. You should smell like flowers or…strawberries or something.”
A single tear rolls down Nicole’s cheek. “It’s not stupid,” she says, and abruptly her tone is furious. “You’re stupid!”
She turns and runs, heading for the slope and hill before the pavilion.
“Hey,” Britney calls after her, “Where are you going?”
Nicole doesn’t stop, but shouts, “I don’t want you to meet my mummy and daddy, you’re mean and you’re not a lady at all!”
Britney watches the little girl run up the hill and disappear. She considers the implications and feels dread building inside of her.
Nicole has gone, and what will Ruth say?
You weren’t a good host. You weren’t a good friend.
It’s Britney’s turn to feel tears sting her eyes.
Britney runs, past foxgloves and lilies. Se races past hollyhocks and carnations. But she’s not sniffing and smelling anymore, and there’s something unnerving about not smelling Nicole, as if Britney has lost the scent in a hunt. She needs her bloodhound.
The grass is too wet, her boots aren’t much help, and Britney is lucky to make the top of the hill without slipping.
She looks down at the slope and pavilion. She can see Ed the gardener outside the structure, armed with a spade. The others must be inside, and Britney races down, and that’s when her luck runs out.
The fall doesn’t hurt; it’s more of a roll and a slide, but it takes her down the grass and into a fresh flower bed. She throws out her hands, saving her face but her knees and chest are still filthy.
It doesn’t hurt. Just her pride, just her remaining equilibrium. She gets to her feet and wipes at the mud coating her spaghetti straps. Of course, wiping just makes it worse, rubbing dirt into the material. Britney cries out in frustration and then marches over to the pavilion.
It’s empty, no Nicole and no parents, and she turns to Ed the gardener to protest, to demand answers.
“Don’t let Nanny catch you all muddy, Miss Britney, you’ll be in all kinds of trouble.”
Ed points at Britney’s knees. “What were you doing, swimming in the flower beds?”
Britney almost laughs at the image that pops into her head, but then she sticks out her lip and says, “You’re not supposed to call me that.”
Ed leans his spade against a tree and says, “That’s your name, isn’t it?”
Britney puts her hands on her hips and she’d give anything to be back in her black dress, anything to not have dirt on her hands and knees when she says, “I’m a Lady.”
Ed just laughs. “Oh, you’re playing that game again are you.” He draws himself up straight and gives her a little bow. “How do you do, Lady Hardwick.”
Britney fumes. “You’re not saying it right.” But she has bigger issues. “Where’s my friend?”
“Haven’t seen her,” Ed replies.
“But her mummy and daddy,” Britney whines. “I’m supposed to find them here.”
Ed shakes his head. “No, Miss Britney, I brought Miss Nicole’s parents back to the house a while ago. They’re probably sitting in the drawing room, waiting for you.”
“But…” Britney points at the pavilion. “I was s’posed to…”
Ed winks at her. “Sounds like someone sent you on a wild goose chase, Miss Britney.”
Britney shakes her head, anger threatening to erupt into a tantrum. “I’m not…chasing gooses!”
Ed smiles gently at her. “Let’s get you back inside, Miss Britney, so Nanny can clean you up.”
Britney gives her head another shake. “I’m not Miss Britney,” she hisses, “I’m Lady Hardwick.”
She turns and runs.
Where? Adrenaline brings clarity. She’s a mess, her dressed ruined, wearing boots styled for a child. She touches her hair and doesn’t need a mirror to know it’s a tangled mess. If she makes it to the village, she’ll be a laughing stock.
No, she has to return to the house.
She runs, racing over the slope, surer-footed this time, her boots have traction, and besides, even if she did slip and fall, she could hardly get any muddier.
But if she gets there only to find Nanny…Ruth? How is the bitch doing this – did she drug her food? Or is it something in the nursery…yes, that’s when it started happening.
Even the geriatric gardener is playing along. Britney takes a moment to wonder if she should have been nicer to Ed, then she’d have a friend instead of Ruth having an accomplice.
But there, even better, a black Jaguar purring up the driveway as Britney runs down the hill.
She races past the flower and shrubs, pushing her way through bushes and back onto the garden path.
By the time she gets to the house, the car is sitting there empty.
Britney runs up the steps and has time to notice the tour sign has gone before she pushes open the front door and arrives in the hall to find Harvey and Ruth standing together.
They both give her a wide-eyed look of surprise.
“For goodness sake,” Ruth says. “You’re a mess! And look at the -”
“It’s her fault,” Britney says, cutting Ruth off. She runs up to Harvey and points an accusing, muddy finger at the housekeeper. “She made me wear stupid boots and confused me and…” She trails off, but isn’t that enough?
Harvey will stand by his wife. He’ll fire the damn housekeeper, and Britney will behave, she’ll learn the ropes, she’ll be a proper lady.
Harvey looks Britney and down. “Brit, what on Earth happened? Did you fall? Did you hit your head? And what happened to your hair?”
“Yeah, I…but…” She points at Ruth again. “Because she made me take Nicole to find her mummy and daddy…her parents. And she made me wear stupid boots and I fell and Ed….” Her voice is reduced to a whine as she completes her story of outrage. “Ed called me ‘Britney’!”
Harvey looks at her with a confused expression. “That’s your name.” He gestures at the muddy footprints. “And look at the extra work you made for poor Ruth.” He shakes his head. “Tell Nanny you’re sorry.”
Britney gapes at her husband. “What?” She pulls off the boots and throws them across the hall. “Never!”
A provocative move. Harvey will be angry, he will have to lay down the law. Instead, he just looks tired. He turns to Ruth and asks, “What’s this about a ‘Nicole’?”
Ruth just shrugs her shoulders, as if she’s helplessly confused, is if this is the first she’s learned about it.
It’s Britney who feels hot rage behind her eyes. “The girl! You made me take her to find her parents! This is all…your…fault!”
Ruth turns to Harvey. “I’m sorry, my Lord, I have no idea what she’s talking about.” And then she lowers her voice and stage-whispers, “She insisted on the pigtails, my Lord, I thought it was harmless at the time.”
Britney’s fingers shoot to her hair. When did that happen?
“She keeps talking about a new friend she’s made,” Ruth goes on, “but…” She gives an apologetic shrug. “There’s been no one else here today.”
And now Britney gets it. A crazy plan from the former nanny to make Britney sound and look insane. Make her delusional, and of course Harvey will want to keep the housekeeper on.
“Harvey looks at his wife and holds out his hands. “Baby, I don’t know what’s going on but making up stories won’t help.” He moves towards her. “Let’s get you to bed and I’ll call for the doctor.”
Britney gives them both her husband and housekeeper a hateful look. “You’re stupid!” she cries, and then she runs up the stairs.
To the left, the master bedroom. She looks down at Harvey and Ruth from the landing and runs right instead, towards the nursery, towards her phone.
She can call Sharon. Someone who can come and get her, someone with nothing to do with this mad family.
No. Her phone has gone, no doubt Ruth hid it, although her black shoes are still there. And there’s the rocking horse, the toy chest.
A there, sitting on the rocking chair, is a little girl in a pink dress holding a gold-coloured teddy bear.
“Nicole,” Britney breathes.
The girl smiles at her and says sweetly, “Sorry I ran off.” She fiddles with the reins. “I got all cross but I shouldn’t have left you behind.” She lower her head. “Can we still be friends?”
Britney nods, despite everything, despite the confusion and humiliation. “Yeah, of course.”
“Cool,” Nicole says. And then she giggles. “You got really muddy!”
Britney pulls at her dress in frustration. “Ruth told Harvey that I made you up,” she growls.
“How silly,” Nicole says. She gets off the chair and helps Britney take off the bandage dress, leaving the woman in her underwear.
Normally she would feel sexy in her bra and panties but now Britney just feels silly, with her dirty skin and pigtails.
“I wonder why Nanny’s pretending I’m not real,” Nicole says mildly.
“Because she wants Harvey to think I’ve gone mad,” Britney replies bitterly. “They’re all against me.”
“I’m not,” says Nicole. She looks up at Britney and holds out her arms. “You need a hug.”
Britney laughs. She needs a hell of a lot more than that. But how can she deny this blameless little girl?
She crouches to put her hands around Nicole and smiles as she makes contact with the girl’s soft cardigan.
“That’s better,” Nicole says. “Lovely cuddles.”
Britney nods and sighs. Because it is better, all of a sudden, and she’s reminded of when she held Nicole’s hand before, and when she hugged her earlier, how nice that felt, how simple and good.
And it’s easy to sit down on the floor and find Nicole back on her lap, the little girl giggling as she strokes Britney’s legs and arms, petting her like a cat.
“Lovely cuddles,” says Nicole again. “Much better.”
Britney giggles as well, she can’t help it, and she kisses the girl’s head, breathing in her scent.
Nicole hugs the woman tightly. “Are you smelling Christmas, Britney?”
Britney nods and giggles again. “Uh-huh…” She blinks in growing confusion, as if her mind is being covered by the softest, fluffiest blanket, one that is growing heavier by the moment, by the inhalation.
As her intelligence shrinks, Britney is able to understand that Nicole is the blanket, in her pink cardigan and Britney opens her sleepy mouth and says, “Wuh…where’s your parenth…parents?”
“Mummy and Daddy?” Nicole replies, her voice a sing-song that only scatters Britney’s thoughts further.
“Mummy an’ Dah-dee,” Britney echoes.
“They didn’t bring me,” Nicole says. “A lady did. She’s not my mummy but she’s very nice.” Nicole puts her hands around Britney’s neck, bringing her face close, letting her smell the cinnamon.
“Noh muh-mee?” Britney asks, her tongue misbehaving, giving her the diction of a three year old.
“That’s right, clever girl,” Nicole sings to the woman. “But you don’t have to worry about that.” Nicole giggles sweetly. “You won’t have to worry about anything in a few seconds, because it’s working so much faster now you’re nearly naked. You can smell me, you’re breathing me all in.”
Britney nods as memories and knowledge leave her mind, the ability to form complex thoughts falling apart as her intelligence fades and gives her a mental age to match her vocabulary.
“Can…me can smell…” Britney squeals with a final understanding, that it’s Nicole who is making her this way. “I can smeh yur buh-buhs!”
Nicole reaches for Britney’s hair and strokes her pigtails. “That’s right. Even though it’s not from bubble bath, it’s just now I smell. I smell like this all the time, and you want to know the really strange part?”
Britney nods dizzily. Of course she does; it’s like trying to stay awake to hear the end of a bedtime story.
“It smells different for each person,” says Nicole. “So you smell cinnamon and someone else might smell fruit, or flowers. Something that reminds them of a lovely thing. Isn’t that funny?”
“Fuh-eee,” Britney babbles.
“You’re the one who needs a bubble bath, silly Britney,” Nicole says sweetly, in a voice normally reserved for the youngest of children. “You’re all muddy! And you need a new dress as well, you can’t go with Harvey in just your undies!”
She gently pushes Britney’s head back so she can look into her face. “Yes,” Nicole says softly, “We’re all finished. Didn’t that feel nice?”
Britney nods, her face relaxed, all the tension and intelligence gone.
“And now we’re going to do something fun.”
Britney nods again. She likes fun, and she agrees to do what the big girl tells her to.
And that’s how Harvey and Nanny find the two of them. Nicole standing by the rocking horse while Britney rides it, the little girl shouting encouragement while the woman pushes back and forth, mostly naked, and when Britney sees Nanny and Harvey looking at her, the woman doesn’t have a care in the world.
Harvey takes Britney into the village to meet his lawyer friend. It’s a short walk and so they don’t bother with the car, which gives Britney a chance to show off her pretty new dress.
Nanny helped Britney with her new outfit, with the fiddly buttons up the back and the matching tights, and the buckle on her shiny bar shoes. Nanny even tidied up Britney’s pigtails so they looked pretty like Nicole’s.
There are two horsies on the dress, one on her arm and one on her tummy. Harvey says she looks very pretty in it and Britney can’t help but agree, especially when she waves and greets the locals. Lots of people want to say hello, and some of them give Britney sad smiles, and Harvey says that Britney is okay, that she woke up this way, all silly and little in her head.
Britney isn’t embarrassed or upset when Harvey says that. She just smiles and swings Harvey’s hand.
The lawyer isn’t a stranger, Britney has met him many times, but they’ve never been friendly. Today, however, she’s delighted to show him the horsies on her dress.
“This is incredible,” the judge says, “I hardly recognised her!”
Harvey chuckles. “It’s a bit of a makeover.”
“I’ll say,” the lawyer agrees. “And this just happened?”
“Over-night,” Harvey says. “She went to bed one way, and then she woke up talking and acting like a little girl. I tell you, if Ruth hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
“Yes, good old Nanny. I don’t suppose she’ll be retiring any time soon.”
“No chance of that. She’s agreed to stay on, thankfully. I know Britney’s adult-sized, but in her head…” Harvey gives a sad smile. “She’s good as gold, really.”
The lawyer nods. “She’ll need a medical exam, but if she presents like she does now, like I said on the phone, you won’t have any trouble gaining full authority.”
He pats Britney gently on the head and is rewarded with a giggle. “You always looked so much taller in those heels of yours.”
Britney looks at him with wide eyes. She can’t remember her special shoes. But then she pulls out the skirt of her dress and says, “Lookit hossies!”
“Lovely,” the lawyer agrees. “How old are you, sweetie?”
Britney looks down at her fingers as if the answer might lie there.
“Are you a big girl? Are you all grown-up?”
A much easier question. Britney giggles and shakes her head. She’s only little.
The lawyer nods. “I see. So Harvey will need to look after you.”
Britney nods cheerfully, her pigtails jiggling. “And Nanny!”
“Yes, Nanny too. We’re going to let Harvey look after you, and that means all the money and things like that, okay?”
Britney nods. “Hah-vee big boy.”
There are papers to sign, but not for little girls. The two men have Britney sit at the desk and colour with crayons while they take care of business. Britney won’t have to worry about money or boring grown-up things ever again.
Back home, Harvey and Britney go upstairs to the nursery, where Britney immediately scrambles onto the rocking horse and pushes herself up and down.
“All done, your Lordship?” Ruth asks.
“Signed and sealed,” Harvey replies, his face full of relief. He looks down at Nicole. “And we have you to thank for it.”
Nicole blushes. “Just doing my job.” She buttons up her cardigan and straightens the skirt of her dress. “You know, we can make her physically small as well, if you bring her to Parkdale.”
Harvey walks over to his wife. “No thank you. A wife who’s had a break-down and thinks she’s a three year old, I can explain that. But wife who disappears and is replaced by an actual child? Not so much.”
He pushes Britney on the horse and says to her, “Besides, it’s rather fun having her full-sized like this. No more fights, sweet girl, unless it’s about your bed-time. And Nanny’s ordered all kinds of pretty dresses for you sweetheart, no more showing off and being naughty.” He slows the horse and kisses his wife on the cheek. “And you’re perfectly happy this way, aren’t you darling.” He doesn’t wait for a reply before adding, “Nanny’s going to give you a lovely bubble bath after tea!”
Britney’s face lights up with delight and gazes adoringly at the woman who has helped reduce her to mental childhood before smacking the sides of the horse excitedly. “Bubbehs!” she squeals.
Nicole picks up her bear and walks to the nursery door.
“Won’t you stay for tea?” asks Ruth. She opens the toy chest as if looking for something new for Britney to play with.
Harvey nods. “You deserve to be part of our celebration.”
Nicole shrugs humbly.
Harvey nods. “That’s settled.” He looks at her in amazement. “You made all this look easy. And it’s your first assignment!”
The little girl smiles. “Well, actually it’s my second.”
“Harvey, you should change before tea,” says Ruth.
“Hmm?” Harvey looks at the folded outfit in his housekeeper’s hands. “What’s that?”
“Your play clothes, silly,” Nanny says. She unfolds the bundle with a flourish, revealing an adult-sized sailor suit.
“What on earth…?” Harvey takes a step back, almost knocking into his wife. “What’s the big idea?”
“Time for you to return to the nursery as well, sweetie,” Ruth says. “Time to let Nanny be in charge of both of you.” She takes another item from the toy chest, something white and thick. “You’ll be even sweeter than Britney, even more innocent, so I’ll have to make sure you don’t make any messes on the carpet.”
Harvey waves his hands at Ruth as if trying to ward off a wild dog. “You’re mad, woman, there’s no way I-”
He turns to find his escape route impeded by Nicole. He walks over to her and looks down. “Get out of my way, I’m in no mood for any of this.”
Nicole just smiles, stands aside and Harvey hurriedly tries to pass, the girl takes his hand and squeezes it.
“Britney was my second job,” she says calmly, nodding as Harvey comes to an abrupt stop and looks down at her with a puzzled expression. “You were my first.”
Harvey shakes his head even as his facial expression starts to relax. “No, please don’t, I-”
She wraps her arms around his waist and says sweetly, “I spent special time with you yesterday, remember? And after we had a lovely cuddle we agreed that you needed to be a good little boy for Nanny, such a good boy.”
The man continues to protest, even as his knees buckle and he slides down the doorway and onto the carpet. “Don’t wanna buh-beh,” he whimpers, and it’s clear he knows the fate that awaits him; the same one he was happy to green-light for his wife.
“It’s okay,” Nicole says. She strokes his hair and asks, “What do I smell like, Harvey? What do I smell like to big, brave boys like you who always do what Nanny tells them to?”
And that’s enough. The corners of Harvey’s mouth tug upward in an imbecilic grin as his mind accepts the nonsensical compliment and he manages to say one more thing, “Cheh-wees!” before his vocabulary disappears, leaving him babbling like an infant.
When Nanny walks over, Harvey looks up at her adoringly even as he wets himself, a puddle spreading across his crotch before he adds to the prize by messing his underwear.
Ruth looks down at him with affection. “Good to have you back, Harvey.” She says to Nicole, “That was quick!”
Nicole nods. “The work I did yesterday helped, but truth is, it wasn’t hard to help Harvey understand what he really wanted.” She gives the man’s hands a final squeeze. “To be back in the nursery, utterly dependent on you.” She smiles at Ruth. “He loves you, and now Britney does too.”
Nicole picks up her teddy bear and feels around the toy’s sandy feet and then pressing a small cube that produces a soft clicking sound. “She’ll come and collect me now,” Nicole tells Ruth, and they both know who she’s talking about.
Ruth gets busy cleaning up her new, her old, charge and soon he’s in a clean nappy and crawling around the nursery in his sailor suit.
“Off, nah-nee,” says Britney holding out her hands, and Ruth helps the woman to get off the rocking horse. The woman sits on her bottom, thumb in her mouth and drooping eyes, thumb is in her mouth and her eyes are heavy, she’ll be ready for bedtime soon.
Harvey looks up at the rocking horse, still lightly swinging, and craws towards it.
Ruth re-directs the mental baby easily by offering him some brightly coloured wooden cubes, a toy he hasn’t played with in over a quarter-century but now command his attention.
“Harvey’s too little for horsie…but you can play with your blocks, won’t that be fun!” Ruth says brightly, and Harvey crawls clumsily but determinedly to the cubes, drool running down his chin and spilling onto the soft carpet.
“You’ve got this under control,” Nicole says, the bear dangling from her hand. “I’ll wait outside.”
Ruth smiles at her. “Thank you again.” She laughs. “I’d give you a hug, but something tells me that’s a little dangerous.”
Nicole giggles. “Little bit. And you’re welcome.”
“Tell her thank you,” Ruth says. “For being so patient, and for helping me stay young in the meantime.” She laughs. “There’s no way I could handle these two without a little medicine of my own.”
Nicole nods. “You’ve been patient as well.”
Ruth smiles. “I never could have done this when Harvey’s mother was alive. But I’ve been waiting…”
She turns back to Lord and Lady Hardwick, crouches down and croons at them, “I’m going to look after you both forever and ever. That okay with you, sweeties?”
Both Britney and Harvey give their agreement, Britney clapping her hands and cheering and Harvey babbling and bouncing.
Job done, Nicole leaves the nursery and goes downstairs. To wait for Mrs. Bennett. To give her a full report. And to get a treat of her own.