Howard Neville had never counted himself a timid man, nor a man who found himself wrong-footed, but when Lottie pulled him up off the bed and started helping him dress he found it impossible to react apart from following the instructions he was given.
This was still a dream. That was the only reasonable explanation. It simply wasn’t possible to go to sleep in his own bed; in his own body; and wake up in somebody else’s – a slip of a girl no less and one of his own domestic servants! It couldn’t really be happening.
“I’ll not ave the butler tell me what for fer letting you fall behind my girl,” said Lottie, pulling the nightie up over Howard’s head. “It’s a reflection on me and I ain’t gonna let you get me in trouble. Are you listening?”
Howard stared at her, thunderstruck by the entire situation. “Uh, yes,” he said timidly.
“Well good,” replied Lottie. “You and me ave a responsibility to work ‘ard and if we don’t then we’ll be for the high jump quick enough and no mistake.” She pulled the black maid’s dress over Howard’s head and he dumbly followed his instructions to put his arms through the sleeves.
He was so far outside his experience now; knocked so far onto his back foot; that he couldn’t manage to summon his usual bluster. And it was a dream after all. He couldn’t really fight against it; strange though it was. Whatever was going to happen would happen. That was how it was in dreams.
Lottie started fiddling with his hair, brushing it roughly and painfully while all he could do was look down at himself; at the skinny arms and little hands; the black dress falling to the floor. He looked at Lottie but she seemed indifferent to him, seeing nothing odd in the way he looked, like he really was just a maid.
“This is going to slow us down down,” she said. “I just hope we don’t get in trouble for it. It’ll be your fault if we do. You may only be eventeen but you should know ‘ow to do your own hair by now. I’m not going to help you every day.”
It couldn’t be.
Lottie finished tying Howard’s hair into a tight bun then attached the maid’s cap and handed him his white apron. “Here y’are then and be quick about it.” She hurried back round to the side of the bed to finish getting ready herself.
Howard inspected the apron in his unfamiliar hands, fully aware of how he would look if he put it on; what he would become; but he didn’t know what else to do. He had no idea the drug was in his system still and the doziness it wrought left him feeling a little confused; helped him to believe this really was just a dream
“Hurry up Nellie!” urged Lottie and Howard found himself putting the apron on over his head as though he had no other choice and tying up the straps at the back.
It was only a dream. He told himself that. And though he had no idea why he would dream about such a thing, it only seemed right to play along with it.
“Put your shoes on. Hurry.”
Howard saw the shoes she meant at the side of the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. He didn’t put them on right away; he was mesmerised again by his slim wrists; his dainty fingers.
“Yes. Sorry,” he stammered, hurrying to put on the women’s shoes and tie them up. He stood up and saw the small mirror on top of a chest of drawers by the window. He went closer, afraid to look; afraid that this wasn’t a dream. It seemed too real and it was going on for far too long.
He stepped level with the glass and the face he wore looked back at him from it.
He was a woman. He was a maid. There could be no mistake. And it was as he feared. It was the face of the new maid who had just started; this Nellie... Barrow. It wasn’t a beautiful face but nor was it ugly. It was just ordinary; unattractive if anything. The mirror girl’s mouth hung slightly open, dull-looking eyes flicking up and down. She was unremarkable and most definitely nothing but a maid.
Howard raised his hand to touch his face and as the girl did the same he got a shudder of anxiety as the realism chipped away at his belief that it wasn’t really happening. It was far too realistic. It had to be real. But how could it be? How could he wake up in the body of one of his own servants? It was against God. It was an abomination.
Behind him Lottie was almost ready but she was looking harried. “Right then Nellie,” she said. “We’d best be getting downstairs and getting to work. Come on.”
“What?” Lottie stopped at the door and looked back testily.
“This isn’t right,” said Howard. “I’m not meant to be here. I’m not a maid.”
“Yes you ruddy well are,” said Lottie, coming across and grabbing his wrist painfully tightly, jolting him along with her. “You’re coming with me and I won’t hear nothing against it!” She was taller than Howard was now and he could do little to resist, especially in his current state of mind.
“But this isn’t right,” said Howard. “I’m meant to be downstairs. I shouldn’t be here.”
“I know,” said Lottie. “You’ve got jobs needing doing and you’d better get on with it or there’ll be hell to pay!”