Lottie jostled the Earl to the top of the servant stairs and then on down toward the kitchens.
Every step he took in this woman’s body; in this maid’s uniform; felt more real than the last – made him lose his grip on the rigid belief he’d had up to now that he was imagining all of this. The two facts couldn’t coexist in his mind: that he couldn’t have been transformed into a common serving girl but that he undeniably had.
They got to the first floor – where all the bedrooms were for him and his family – and all he wanted to do was pull free and race along there; push open his own chamber door and see that lay in there; but Lottie was relentless. She pulled him on by the hand , down two more flights of stairs until they came out in the back corridor.
“Stop,” said Howard. “Where are you taking me?”
“Don’t be dense Nellie,” replied the other maid. “We’re going to the kitchen.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“Let’s hear no more of this nonsense.” Lottie dragged him round the corner and into the kitchen where the cook and butler were already present.
“What’s all that racket?” demanded Powell. “You’ll have the family up with that din!”
“Nellie’s being a royal pain,” complained Lottie. “She doesn’t want to do her chores.”
“Oh really?” Powell turned his steely glare on Howard and Howard quailed under it. All his life he had used his social position and towering physical frame to intimidate all those he met. He had seldom met a man taller than himself and never one both taller and of equal or greater rank. As a result he had dominated most everyone he had ever known, exploiting the very definition of a bully.
Now though he had no physical height; no muscle. Powell towered over him and as the sense of dreamlike quality slipped away from him – as he realised more and more that this was no phantasm; it was a painful reality – he understood better than most exactly what it meant to be a lowly maid within a hierarchy of his own design.
Powell was the butler. He was in charge of all the servants. His authority over them was absolute, second only to the members of the Neville family. If this new reality was as true as it seemed then Howard was suddenly the newest member of the serving staff, the lowest ranking indoor servant of all. He had no power whatsoever compared to this man and clearly Powell was no stranger to physical domination. It was the Earl’s decree after all. He had always demanded total obedience and efficiency from his staff and had instructed Powell on numerous occasions to use physical punishment liberally if it led to better behaviour.
“So you think you’re too good to do your tasks now, eh?” asked Powell, approaching, his greater height becoming more and more contrasting as he got closer.
Howard looked up at him and like any bully divested of his superiority became instantly filled with fear. “I... I shouldn’t be here,” he said, his timorous girlish voice undermining his confidence further. “There’s been some terrible misunderstanding.”
The butler grabbed him by the upper arms and pushed him back, almost off-balance, until he banged up painfully hard against the wall. “There is no misunderstanding my girl,” he said. “You have jobs to do and you’re going to do them. Is that clear?”
Howard stared wild-eyed up at the old man. What could he do, or say? He had to get up to his proper bedroom. He could only think that the maid had stolen his body; that he could demand she return it; but Powell pinched his arms hard. “Speak up girl!”
“Sorry,” stammered Howard, fully cowed by the domineering physicality of the man.
“That’s better.” Powell loosened his grip. “I’ll hear no complaints or excuses; do you understand? You’ll get your work done quickly or you’ll be out on the street.”
Howard gaped up at him, unsure what to say but knowing a response was required. He didn’t want to be a maid – couldn’t imagine a worse fate – but what choice did he have? He had to play along until he could get back to his real body; his real life. “I’m sorry sir,” he stammered. “I’ll do my duties. I shouldn’t have... I shouldn’t have talked back to you.”
He hung his head, hoping Powell would back away. After a long threatening moment he did. “See that you do girl. I don’t take to fools on my staff. Get in the dining room and clean out the fireplace then build a fire ready for breakfast.”
The Earl looked in the direction of that room forlornly.
He wanted to wake up from this. It wasn’t a dream at all. It was a nightmare. But worse; it was real. He knew that now. He wasn’t sleeping; he was wide awake. He really had awoken in the body of one of his own maids and he was going to have to go on acting like he really was one until he could work out a way out of this predicament.
But how could he begin to find a solution when he had no idea what had caused the transformation in the first place?