Seven-year-old Catherine Connelly was seated on a stiff parlour chair, stitched tight into an uncomfortable little-girl dress, swinging her feet back and forth. The crease that formed between her brows showed her distress and distaste for the current goings-on. It seemed that her nanny, the 42-year-old, grey-haired and hunched Nanny Annie, had latched her indoors for the afternoon, while her three older brothers, Marcus, Thomas, and Peter, rushed about across the moors, dirtying their knees, screeching and yelling, their arms wide open to the world.
Nanny Annie slammed a cup of tea into its saucer, grimacing at little Catherine. When she spoke, her jowls shook. “Now Miss Catherine, don’t look at me in such a way. You know very well you can’t spend all your days outside with the boys. What sort of lady will you turn into, should I allow that? No, your mother and father would have my head. Sit there, Catherine. Think about the sort of life you want. You want a husband, don’t you? Little children of your own?”
At only seven years old, Catherine sniffed, sensing the utter contrast between the unmarried Nanny Annie and this apparent “idyllic world” Catherine was meant to want. She glanced at the window, sensing a fire brewing in her stomach. Always, her mother told her to quell her temper, to inhale, exhale, until the feeling passed. But the blue sky above the estate on the outskirts of London was blissful, almost painful to see without experiencing. How was she meant to press on like this?
“I suppose so,” Catherine said, flicking her eyes back towards Nanny Annie. “I know you’re right, Nanny.”
Catherine had always been an intelligent child. She’d had to be, to wrestle any sort of attention from her brothers. But at five years younger than Marcus, she was still regarded as the sissy nobody, the one they were apt to leave at home with Nanny Annie, without a second thought. She had to take charge of her situation, ensure that nothing like this ever happened again.
“Your hair really does look quite nice the way I’ve pulled it back,” Nanny Annie offered, slipping her ruddy fingers across Catherine’s brown bangs. “Perhaps you won’t be such a dull-looking child,” she murmured, furrowing her brow.
Catherine was accustomed to such talk. Since her memories began, since the start of everything, she’d heard whispers that she “wasn’t quite like the other girls.” During family affairs, balls, and picnics, she watched the prissy girls twirl in lavender dresses, while she romped about with the boys. Once, she’d witnessed a little girl topple into the mud, mussing her yellow dress. Catherine herself would have rejoiced at the fact of this, stirring about in the mud like a pig. But this little girl had scrunched her face and let out a horrendous wail.
The contrast between herself and this girl had affirmed something within Catherine. She wasn’t to be like the rest. She wasn’t to want what they wanted, or dress the way they did. She felt tugged in a far different direction. Yet this tugging worried everyone from her mother and father to Nanny Annie. Catherine felt like a sort of clown.
“When is it you told my brothers they were required to come back?” Catherine asked, hating that her voice tweaked a bit. She couldn’t reveal such weakness.
“Oh? Those boys, they might be out till dark,” Nanny Annie offered, reaching for a biscuit and slotting it over her tongue. She chewed while she spoke, something clearly not lady-like, at least in Catherine’s eyes. Crumbs dropped to her lap. “They shan’t get in the way of our lady time, don’t you agree?”
Catherine brought her fingers together, fumbling wildly. Her mind raced over a zillion little possibilities. How could she tear herself from the cage of the estate, feel the sun on her cheeks? How could she distract Nanny Annie long enough?
“Nanny Annie, do you remember that day you played the piano for us all?” Catherine began, hardly knowing how she would wrap the story around to her benefit. Her tongue flailed wildly, seemingly on a path of its own. “We sat on the rug while it rained and rained outside, and you played all our favourite songs. And we sang all throughout the night. Peter was so frightened of the rain …”
At this, Nanny Annie turned lost eyes to the window, her eyes glossy. For a moment, Catherine felt a stab of sadness, knowing that Nanny Annie actually, truly thought this to be a talent she had — building beautiful memories for the children. In actuality, the children largely hated Nanny Annie and begged their mother and father to replace her with someone a bit more empathetic. Thus far, their parents hadn’t given up on her.
“That truly was a beautiful day, wasn’t it?” Nanny Annie sighed. “All those years of piano lessons. I always knew I would bring joy to people one day, with my talent. My father always told me it would happen. Of course, when my fiancé died, I thought surely — surely all the happy days had gone. But it’s now apparent to me that I was brought here for a reason. I’m meant to raise you to become a lady, Miss Catherine. I’m meant to help you become a beautiful woman of Society.”
“Oh, won’t you play for me, Nanny Annie?” Catherine asked, lurching to the edge of her chair. “I so wish to hear it. I’ve always longed to play the pianoforte myself, you know.” She scuffed her foot upon the rug, finally able to reach it. “You know I’m the youngest of four. Four boys, at that. Sometimes, I think I’ve had to become a boy, just to, you know …” She trailed off, slumping her shoulders a bit. Was her act working? Tension filled the air around her.
“There, there, dear one,” Nanny Annie murmured, again slipping her thick hand across Catherine’s braid (admiring her work, of course). “I know it’s been a struggle for you, growing up with these monstrous boys. It’s why I’m here. And you know, any time you want to learn the pianoforte, I will teach you. It’s not so difficult, really. You just have to have diligence. And I can teach you that.”
Catherine hadn’t pushed the envelope hard enough. She squeezed her eyes tight, willing a small, delicate tear to ooze from the corner. “The music calms me so, Nanny Annie …” she whimpered. She swiped her hand across her cheek, sweeping the tear away. “How foolish of me, now. Crying. Like a baby. My mother taught me better than this.”
“She most certainly did not,” Nanny Annie said, her voice edged with judgement.
Even at seven, Catherine sensed what Nanny Annie thought of her mother and father. That they were largely unable to handle the children they’d chosen to have. That they were far more interested in their grand parties in Central London, in running off to Paris together for celebrations that had nothing to do with “family ties.” However, they expected Catherine, Marcus, Thomas, and Peter to become worthwhile members of Society, and they put that complete expectation upon Nanny Annie’s shoulders.
“Come, now. Let me play for you.” Nanny Annie sighed, seemingly defeated. “You can sit right here if you like. Cozy up. Drink your tea and sing along. I’ll just be in the next room.”
Nanny Annie limped off to the next room, dragging her bad toe behind her. Catherine hadn’t a clue when Nanny Annie had started the limp; had simply linked it to her feelings that the woman was weak, and always had been, and needed to be taken advantage of. The moment Nanny Annie disappeared, Catherine stood up, in rapt attention. And as the chords began to fold out of the piano next door, Catherine took delicate steps towards the foyer. Nanny Annie’s voice rang out, a near-screech as she sang along. Already, Catherine sensed Nanny Annie existed in another realm, now. She wouldn’t drop out of her musical world for perhaps 30 minutes, maybe 45.
It gave Catherine enough time.
Catherine took delicate steps through the foyer of the mighty estate. The reverberations from the piano made her insides quiver. Her hand traced the wall beside her, guiding her towards the front door. It was a rarity for her to exit the estate via the front door. It was generally used for guests, while she and her brothers ordinarily used the sides and back door to scamper out into the wild world.
The moment Catherine opened the door, Nanny Annie struck a strange chord. Her voice rang out over the top, filled with emotion. At this, Catherine rushed outside, carefully latching the door behind her. Her tight dress tore slightly at the waist as she lifted it, stretching her little legs out in front of her. The June wind rushed past her ears. It was a sort of freedom she couldn’t truly comprehend, the sort that she would surely crave as a much older woman. Already at seven, she seemed to comprehend the weight of time, knew the immediacy of childhood.
After running for three or four minutes, she huffed and spun back, blinking down from the hill at the grand estate. She could just barely make out the chords of Nanny Annie’s music, an assurance that she was still in the clear. Now, her eyes snaked across the green of the moors, hunting for those rascals: the brothers who’d allowed her to remain behind.
She heard them before she spotted them. Thomas, the brother who was about three years older than Catherine, let out a wild, rip-roaring yell. Catherine lurched towards the area near to the forest, where she and the boys ordinarily played war, or hide and seek, or some combination thereof. From where she stood, she watched Thomas scamper up a tree, his limbs wiry and monkey-like. Below, her oldest brother, Marcus, lurched forward and tried to lash Thomas with a tree branch. Catherine let out a wild laugh, one that made her body rollick.
“I’ll get you, you monster!” Marcus cried, his voice mocking.
On the other side of the clearing, the blond-haired Peter ran slowly, his motions timid. Behind him, Oliver, their neighbour and Thomas’ best friend, rushed alongside, pretending to whack him with his own branch. Peter flinched each time, despite Oliver being careful not to hit him. Again, Catherine chuckled, knowing her brother Peter to be a quiet, insecure little kid. Sometimes, she forgot that he was a year older than she was, as he seemed to grow increasingly fearful as he grew older.
Oliver rushed the tree in which Thomas remained, clambering up behind him. “I’ll help you secure the fortress, Thomas!” Oliver cried, his voice volatile.
At this, Catherine turned inward, smiling. Always, Oliver was the one that made her wild with laughter. He would flash his crooked smile at her, and her insides would melt together, leaving her momentarily incapacitated. She knew that eventually, one day in some sort of future, she would be meant to feel “something” for boys. She wasn’t entirely sure if this feeling was linked to all that. But it seemed to resemble it.
Unable to wait a moment more, Catherine stormed down the hill, lifting her skirts, yet feeling them rip and tear. She let out a screech as she approached, one that forced each of her brothers and Oliver to whirl around, blinking at her. Only Oliver amongst them gave her a grin in return. She gasped to a halt before the tree, inhaling the thick, moss-smelling summer air. Clearly, she’d done something wrong.
There was silence for a long moment. Thomas clucked his tongue and glared down at Marcus, the oldest, as if to say, “Do something, won’t you?”
Catherine remained stalwart, thrusting her little fists on her waist. “I’ve come to play with you,” she said, her eyebrows low.
Marcus looked at his shoes. Peter shuffled up beside her, his voice timid. “I thought you had to stay inside with Nanny Annie?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said, bucking it. Peter had forged the path, but now he would lead it. “Nanny Annie demanded you stay inside. Mother and Father want you to become a lady, Catherine. You know you can’t be out here with us.”
Catherine sniffed. “As if your foolish games will ever make the lot of you men!”
At this, Oliver laughed. Thomas doused him with a glare before turning back to Catherine. “We don’t want you here,” he stammered. “We already have four people. Four people make a perfect game. We can’t very well add a fifth. It would throw everything off.” He cleared his throat. “And I know everyone here agrees with me.”
Catherine’s throat felt strained. She felt the moor’s wind flapping along the little rips in her dress. Already, she could feel the slap she would surely endure, the moment Nanny Annie discovered what she’d done.
“I’m staying to play,” she boomed. “I don’t want to be a lady. Would YOU want to be a lady, Thomas? Do YOU want to stay inside and listen to Nanny Annie play the piano? I don’t think so.”
Thomas rolled his eyes. “It’s not about what I want, Catherine. For goodness sakes, it’s not about what you want, either. It’s about what’s proper. We’re meant to be out here, while you’re meant to be in there, like a girl. Look at you. You’ve torn your dress. Mother is going to have your head.”
Again, silence stretched heavy between all of them. Catherine now glared at Marcus, the brother who was meant to stand up for her in case of strife. She waited, then she waited some more. It was clear that this was a standstill, and that no play could move forward unless she scampered off.
“Come on, Catherine,” Marcus finally uttered, scuffing his foot across the grass. “No girls allowed right now. Maybe we can play later.”
Catherine felt the cruelty of all of it. Her face grew flushed. She spun around and stormed off, stomping her feet across the grass. Behind her, she heard Oliver whisper, “Thomas, did you really have to be so hard on her? At least she’s not like my sister. Not prissy at all. She’d be better at playing than Peter.”
“Hey!” Peter cried, his little voice a whine.
“It’s true, Pete,” Marcus offered.
Still, Catherine stormed forward. She crossed the moor, and then pulled over behind a tree, turning again to watch the boys. From where she stood, they couldn’t see her, yet the sun touched her cheek; the wind rustled her hair. She was every bit a part of the world, and not cooped inside. Perhaps that would have to be enough if her brothers wouldn’t include her.
Her brothers carried on with their raucous games, nearly blasting one another with sticks. Thomas remained in the tree, seemingly pretending to be a kind of champion over all of them. Soon, Oliver leapt down and took up the fight with Marcus and Peter, all of them pretending that Thomas was a villain they were meant to conquer. Catherine chuckled, feeling an intense sadness in her gut. Would this be the rest of her life? Cooped up on the sidelines until she was latched to some husband somewhere, prepped for popping out children of her own? Perhaps when she did have those children, she would be allowed to play with them? Oh, but what horror — what if that was improper?
Her thoughts swirled with fears and inconsistencies. She strained against them, wishing she could just enjoy the afternoon alone. But as she waited, shifting her weight from foot to foot, she noted movement in the forest, just beyond where her brothers and Oliver played.
Suddenly, three larger boys burst out from the trees. They seemed perhaps thirteen, maybe even fifteen, and they tore towards Oliver, Thomas, Peter, and Marcus, their shoulders surging forward. From where she stood, Catherine could hear their yells.
The oldest, the leader of the threesome, reached forward and grabbed Thomas’ stick. “You’ll take your eye out with that, kid,” the boy said, sounding cocky. “Better trust someone else with it, don’t you think?”
One of the other boys cackled and wrenched Peter’s stick from his hands, as well. At this, Peter let out yet another wail.
Marcus stepped forward, seemingly preparing to speak, as the oldest. But the other boys towered over him, intimidating him. Catherine hated seeing her brother in such a way, fearful and moving backward.
Without a moment’s thought, Catherine sprinted down the hill again. Her eyes burned with anger. Despite her brothers kicking her back over the hill, she couldn’t stand by and allow anyone to knock them around. Love for them surged through her body.
“HEY!” Catherine cried, scampering up behind the head bully. “HEY. WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, on our property?”
At this, each of her brothers and Oliver turned wide eyes towards her. Peter shook his head slowly, looking tentative. “What are you doing?” he mouthed to her, shocked.
But Catherine kept her face forward, glaring as the head bully turned towards her. He pointed the stick he’d stolen from Thomas directly at her. Its tip was just three inches from her chest.
“Who is this little girl come to save you, hey?” he asked, his voice verging on cockney accent.
“And what about you? Picking on boys much smaller than you? What kind of person does that make you?” Catherine demanded.
“The girl has something to say!” the head bully said, his voice lifting. “Look at you. In your little parlour dress.”
“She’s torn it to bits!” one of the other bullies said, chuckling. “The girl’s a ragamuffin.”
“Come from the forest, she did,” the smallest bully said.
Catherine continued to stand her ground, scowling up at all three boys. “If that’s the only sort of insult you have for me then keep throwing them my way. I can stand here all day. I know you wouldn’t hurt a girl. What kind of man would you be if you did that?”
At this, Catherine slotted herself between the bullies and her brothers and Oliver, crossing her arms over her chest. The sun flashed over her eyes, making her squint. At this, the head bully was incredulous. He moved his stick just a centimetre closer to her, seemingly trying to intimidate her. Catherine cleared her throat. Silence grew, becoming pregnant. She knew the boys would have to do something, soon: either attack her, or remove themselves from the premises.
Just above, Thomas cleared his throat, seemingly trying to gauge what to say next. Catherine flashed him a dirty look, telling him to hush. At three years older than Catherine, Thomas was the brashest, the most arrogant, the most difficult to deal with. But for whatever reason, this often made Catherine most in love with him, most apt to follow his lead. She loved the fire that burned within him and craved it within herself. But Thomas did not necessarily covet that love from her. Rather, he rebuked her, more often than Marcus or Peter. Perhaps this made Catherine want his approval all the more.
Just before Catherine felt certain Thomas would yell rash words, eliminating any strides she’d made with the bullies, the head bully took a mighty step back. He sighed, aghast, and dropped his stick to the ground. The smallest bully gave him a disgruntled look. “Paul, you can’t just …” he began.
“I can do whatever I want,” Paul blared, sounding more like a toddler, now, than his fifteen years warranted. He took another step back, glaring at Catherine.
Catherine dropped to her haunches, gripped the stick, and took it back into the air. She pointed it at Paul, as a sort of weapon (although, admittedly, she did struggle to lift it high, as it was quite heavy). She strained, making sure it didn’t shake.
“Be gone from here,” she said, loving the grandeur of it all. “Be gone, and all will be forgotten.” At this, she nearly lodged the stick into Paul’s chest, but just barely missed. She was grateful for this, as she thought surely that would have set him off, enraged him like a bull.
Paul spun on his heels, seemingly defeated. He sauntered back down the hill towards the trees, calling for his two cronies to follow. The younger one spat on the ground at the base of the tree, disrespecting Thomas. Thomas huffed, again close to spewing hatred that would have brought the bullies back for another round.
Luckily, he held it in. The pregnant bubble remained, until finally, the boys disappeared into the trees. At this, Oliver leapt from the trees with a wild, “YIPPPEEE!” He grabbed Catherine around the waist and lifted her, whipping her in a wide circle. “Catherine, that was incredible!” he cried. “Absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t have handled them better.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Thomas spewed from above. He clunked his foot against the tree trunk, making bits of the wood fizzle to the ground. “They only didn’t attack us because she’s so little. It’s not like we won that argument or anything. They’ll be back the minute she leaves.”
Oliver set Catherine back on the grass. Her stomach bubbled with excitement, loving this feeling of being in Oliver’s stick-thin, childish arms. Her cheeks felt flushed. Marcus, just beyond Oliver, sped forward and patted Catherine on the back, wearing a very older-brother, stoic expression. He was careful not to give too much, and was eternally reserved. But the twinkle behind his eyes told Catherine she’d done well. He approved.
“That was really something to see, Caty,” he said, his voice low. “Don’t listen to Thomas. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“They would have killed us!” Peter piped up, ever the youthful one.
Catherine chuckled, feeling the gaze from each of her brothers and, most importantly, Oliver. She lifted the stick higher, feeling adrenaline pulse through her. At this rate, even more of her dress had split apart. Everything about her felt wild, free.
“Well. What do you say, boys?” she demanded, her voice volatile. “Are we gonna play war, or what?”
Oliver clapped his hands together, charged with energy. Thomas rolled his eyes while Peter rushed towards the far end of the clearing, seemingly frightened that the war game would begin before he was fully prepared. Marcus arranged new teams, with Catherine alongside Oliver and Peter, taking on Thomas and Marcus. At this, Thomas had something to say — mentioning that Oliver was HIS best friend and therefore should be on HIS team. But Oliver disputed this, saying that it would be more interesting to be at war.
Catherine felt delirious during those twenty minutes. She sparred with her brothers, drawing the stick high and wild. Her muscles pulsed, her face twitched as she screeched and yelled in the sort of way she’d always craved. It was the first day her brothers had ever allowed her to go all-in on play. Gosh, she’d been missing such a beautiful reality.
Of course, all things had to come to an end.
With Thomas galloping across the field toward Catherine, and with Marcus ambling to the side, his own stick high, Catherine felt herself in the midst of an attack she couldn’t quite bear. Marcus slammed into her from the side, while Thomas’ stick lashed through her dress, ripping it from the bottom all the way through her legs. Catherine felt the stick slice through her skin. Blood dripped down her leg, oozing into her shoe. But she forced herself not to cry.
Instead, she just looked down at the devastation, feeling the reverberation from Marcus slamming into her, up and down her right arm. Had she broken it? Why had she thought she could do something like this, something so enormous? Blood flickered onto her dress. There was silence between all of them. The boys stared at her, seemingly waiting for her to break. Just her chin quivered back and forth.
Nanny Annie’s howls burst across the hills. Catherine’s shoulders slumped. In every sense, she felt pulled home, to pay for her sins of the day. She took a slight step forward, fully recognising the pain that shot up and down her legs, now. But she forced herself to take another, and then another.
“Someone help her!” Peter whimpered.
Again, Nanny Annie’s voice rang out. “CATHERINE!”
This time, the voice was much closer, creeping towards them. Catherine felt Nanny Annie like a sort of cockroach, ambling across the moor. The sun had begun to dip lower in the sky, casting a beautiful orange light across everything. It dropped over Nanny Annie as she surged down the hill, her eyes wide and panicked. Her arms flailed on either side. She darted directly towards Catherine, falling to her knees before her.
“What on earth have you done to yourself, girl?” she cried, taking the bloodied fabric and piecing it apart. “I can’t begin to imagine how you did this. Do you know how long it took to make this dress? Do you know how I toiled and stitched and measured … No. You don’t care, do you? You’re willing to lie and deceive to get yourself out here and pretend to be a — a wretched boy!”
Catherine again set her face, telling herself repeatedly not to cry. Behind her, she heard Thomas leap from the tree. He grunted upon impact. Oliver snuck up to the side of Catherine. His energy was anxious, making Catherine’s stomach flutter.
“It wasn’t her fault, Nanny,” Oliver said, just as accustomed to these run-ins with Nanny Annie as the actual children of the house.
“It wasn’t her fault that she conned me into playing the piano and snuck from the house. That what you mean, Oliver?” Nanny Annie grumbled. “It’s not her fault she tore the perfect dress I crafted for her?”
“It ain’t proper for Catherine!” Peter cried, hopping up beside her. “Keeping her cooped up in that house. You know she’s more like a boy than a …”
“And that’s precisely what I’m trying to break her of!” Nanny Annie spat. “Peter, you’d do best to keep your mouth closed.”
It was Marcus’ turn, the “man” of the situation. He hunkered close to Oliver, his eyebrows low. “She’s pretty badly hurt, Nanny Annie. I think we’d better get her home and deal with any punishments later. Look how much she’s bleedin’, hey?”
Nanny Annie lifted the “curtain” of the mighty dress, blinking up at the darkness between. She reached along the thigh, touching the precise spot where the stick had breached through Catherine’s skin. Catherine squeezed her face tight, making a soft, “Ooph.”
“You really got yourself into a pickle, didn’t you, my girl?” Nanny Annie sighed, lending a bit more compassion. “All right. I ain’t strong enough to carry ye. Marcus? Thomas?”
Thomas took a large step back, his face a strange grey colour. Perhaps it was guilt, as he’d been the one to create the wound.
Instead, Oliver reached for Catherine’s hand. He held it tenderly as if he was holding onto a flower just fallen from a tree branch. Catherine’s heart fluttered with wonder.
“I’ll carry you,” he said.
“You’ll get all bloody, I think,” Catherine told him, her eyebrows lowered. “I don’t want you to muss up your clothes.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Oliver said. “We need to get you home.”
It was settled. Oliver slipped one quasi-strong, eleven-year-old arm beneath her legs, then another, tucking her higher onto his chest. She tried at first to keep her head upright, but soon found herself leaning it against his shoulder, loving the feeling of being so tight against him.
“Put your arms around my neck,” Oliver said. “It’ll be easier.”
She did as she was told, without speaking. She felt none of the “spitfire” nature she’d had throughout much of the late afternoon. Her eyes remained on the back of Nanny Annie as she led the ragtag crew up towards the main house. Marcus, Peter, and Thomas whispered amongst one another behind her, but Catherine couldn’t make out their words.
When they arrived at the big house, Oliver spread Catherine out on her little four-poster bed on the second floor, his arms quivering. He blinked several times, seemingly trying to regain his strength. Catherine felt a bit woozy with pain.
“You need to get yourself something to eat,” she murmured, knowing how nonsensical she sounded.
“I’ll head home in a bit,” Oliver said. “I just want to make sure you’ll be all right.”
“Don’t be stupid, Oliver.” Catherine sighed. “It’s just a little scrape. I’ve been through worse. So have you.”
Oliver kicked one foot against the other. Her brothers ambled into the room immediately, their faces looking more muddied and sweaty when inside, outside of the context of their games. Catherine’s stomach squeezed with laughter.
“You are all such messes!” she cried.
“You’re one to talk,” Thomas said, rolling his eyes.
“Everyone! Out!” Nanny Annie said from behind, forcing the boys to scatter like ants. “It’s time to take that monstrous dress off you, now.” She sighed, latching the door behind her. “And dress your wounds. My goodness, what on earth will your parents say when they see you like this? Again and again, they tell me I’m meant to make you into a lady. As if that’s a task for the faint of heart …”
Catherine shrugged out of the dress, tossing it onto the floor. Nanny Annie prepared bandages. The woman and the girl were quiet. Water splashed as Nanny Annie cleaned Catherine’s wounds. Catherine watched with cat-like eyes, wanting to learn this sort of skill, just in case this ever happened again.
She had a sense, like a coming storm, that her life would be filled with scrapes, that blood would pour from her knees and elbows and feet. It was simply an element of being alive, perhaps. Alive in all the ways she wanted to be.
Oliver darted across the moors, feeling as though he was racing the sun home. His long, thin, eleven-year-old legs shook with hunger, and his belly felt strained, aching, from such a long afternoon of play. His arms still shook from carrying Catherine in from the moor, although his heart still fluttered with it. How he loved protecting that little girl! How he loved ensuring that everything would be all right for her. The fire that burned behind her eyes was electric, something he’d never spotted in any of her brothers (not even Thomas, although he felt closest to him).
Oliver burst into his own home, scrambling across the foyer floor. The smell of dinner, of baked breads and roasted meat, cut through the air. He tossed his shoes into the far wardrobe then rushed up the steps towards his bedroom. While passing near the playroom, he heard the tart voice of his little sister, Margery. He pulled back, peering into the room to watch her.
His sister Margery was a beautiful child: blonde, blue-eyed, with thin, lithe limbs and an affinity for big, pretty dresses. Their mother often joked that she was primed and ready to join Society, even at just seven years old. At this, Margery didn’t laugh. Rather, it seemed she agreed with her mother, was ready to walk the walk and talk the talk of being a lady.
From where he stood, Oliver watched his sister as she played with dolls — dressing them up in little, beautiful gowns, and forcing the ugly one of the group to be the “man.” When she did the voices for the ladies, her voice grew high-pitched and glossy, irritating. For the men, her voice grew gritty and strained.
“You are looking quite lovely today, Lady Garrison,” she forced the “man” doll to say. She shifted the doll, allowing Oliver to see that it was the brunette doll her father had retrieved for her from his visit to Spain. She’d pulled the hair tight behind the ears, and tied the gown tight around the legs, to make them look like pants.
Oliver rolled his eyes back. Everything within him detested his sister. As he sprung back towards the hallway, however, he made the door creak slightly. Margery swung her head around, her eyes darting directly towards him.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, her voice cutting, no longer the cutesy one she’d been using with the dolls. “Are you spying on me?”
“I would never waste my time spying on you,” Oliver spat.
“I’m going to tell Mother what you’ve done,” Margery said. “And look at you. You’re absolutely atrocious. You’ve been playing on the moor again, haven’t you?”
“It’s much better than being cooped up in the house with you,” he stammered indignantly.
With that, he stormed the rest of the way down the hallway, rushing into his bedroom. The water basin had been filled that morning by the maid. He lifted droplets into his hands, scrubbing his face. He tore his clothes off and threw them into the corner, shoving his little shoulders back.
In many ways, Thomas, Marcus, Peter, and even Catherine were far more his “family” than his actual one. His parents were stuck up, concerned with their image alone, and had already begun to press this upon Oliver. At only eleven, he felt his life stretched before him, one that his parents had plotted for him.
He wasn’t entirely sure how to unlatch from that reality.
In many ways, he felt as caged as perhaps Catherine had felt earlier that afternoon: locked inside the house while he and her brothers played outside.
The following afternoon, Thomas appeared at Oliver’s house, as he always did, around tea time. Oliver gave him a firm shake of his head and darted outside, feeling as though he was stripping himself of his parents’ expectations the moment he tore through the field. For the first three or four minutes of sprinting, neither Thomas nor Oliver spoke. Then, Thomas collapsed on his knees, gasping and laughing. Oliver joined him, tossing himself onto his back. The grass was soft and slightly itchy on his limbs.
“Man. You’re getting faster,” Oliver said, his stomach squeezing.
“So are you. I felt like I was trying to keep up with you the whole time,” Thomas said.
They laughed, gazing up at the wide blue skies. Oliver pressed his lips together, straining against what he wanted to ask. Finally, it blurted from him.
“How is she?”
“Who?” Thomas asked, sounding disgruntled.
“You know. Your sister. Catherine,” Oliver said. He propped himself up on his elbow.
Thomas scoffed. “She’s just as manly as ever,” he said. “I swear she’s more like my dad every day. I don’t know what we’re going to do with her.”
“I wouldn’t call her manly,” Oliver said, his voice creaking slightly. “I mean, she’s certainly strong. The way she took on those boys yesterday! I’d never seen anything like it.”
“We could have taken them,” Thomas said. “Don’t be stupid. She’s just a little girl.”
“Come on, Thomas. Have you met my sister? SHE’S just a little girl. Catherine. She’s something special,” Oliver stated.
“Well, she’s locked inside for good, now,” Thomas said. “Nanny Annie won’t let her out of her sight. So don’t have any more hope.”
“Wait. And you’re letting that happen? After all she did for us yesterday?” Oliver demanded.
“Absolutely,” Thomas said. He hopped to his feet, shrugging. “We have our own games to play. We don’t need her.”
“It’s not about if we need her or not,” Oliver blurted. “It’s about what’s right.”
Oliver hopped to his feet and sauntered towards Thomas’ home, snaking along their familiar path.
“Wait. Where are you going?” Thomas demanded, following Oliver’s lead. He scuttled up behind him like a sort of rodent, his fingers twisting around at his chest. “Oliver, I’m telling you. You can’t win this battle.”
“I don’t understand how the three of you just stand around and allow your nanny to do this. It’s not as though your parents are around to see what sort of girl she’s growing into. She’s just allowing that idiot Nanny Annie to take charge, living with some antiquated notion that Catherine needs to stay indoors all day …”
“It’s not antiquated!” Thomas cried. “Your sister. Your mother! They all understand the rules.” Thomas sighed.
Oliver turned quickly on his heels, glaring at his best friend. The boys were almost precisely the same size, had always been, as if one another’s genetics had whispered what it was going to do next, keeping each other in the loop. They’d been friends since age five, perhaps age six, when Catherine had been no older than two. Oliver didn’t have many memories of those early days with Catherine. He remembered her only as the spitfire wonder, continually picking fights with Marcus and Thomas, despite her younger age. “You need to take care of her!” Thomas’ mother had continually scolded, seemingly not understanding the pure, unadulterated fact that Catherine didn’t need any saving. She never did.
“We’re getting her out of this if it’s the last thing I do,” Oliver said.
He strutted the rest of the way through the woods between their two estates, knocking his shoulder into a tree branch once and hearing a scraping. “Always you boys, tearing apart your clothes like this!” his mother shouted frequently, seemingly at a loss.
Marcus and Peter lingered near a small brook that trickled at the very edge of their property. Peter smashed his feet into the water, flashing droplets onto the lower halves of several trees. His feet were upon the tops of stones, doing a little penguin dance. He giggled as he did it, showing his eight years of age. Marcus, twelve years old and growing ever stoic, gazed on.
Oliver burst towards them, then curved his back and sunk to his knees, gasping. Marcus and Peter gaped at him, while Thomas joined from behind.
“What’s up, mate?” Peter asked, donning a cockney accent.
Oliver coughed. “We have to make a plan to save her.”
“Who?” Peter asked, ever the idiot.
“Catherine, of course,” Oliver stammered. It was clear that these imbeciles, the ones he called friends, weren’t quick on the uptake.
“She has to stay inside today,” Peter said, shrugging. “She hurt herself, remember?”
“As if we don’t hurt ourselves all the time,” Oliver said.
Marcus pressed his lips together. His eyes focused first upon Oliver, then back towards Thomas, questioning. Oliver felt a strange rift form between him and Thomas as if they were suddenly on two sides of a mighty river that continued to widen.
After a long, stretching silence, Marcus finally clapped his hands. As the oldest, he had to be their leader, the man who would rectify any situation and lend truth to it.
“Oliver’s right.” He sighed. “We have to get Catherine. Like it or not, she’s one of us, now.”
“She’s just a kid!” Thomas cried.
“So are you,” Marcus said, his eyebrows low. “And if you don’t follow what I say, I’ll tell Mother and Father you haven’t been obeying my orders. That they need to have Nanny Annie put a more watchful eye on you.”
“You wouldn’t!” Thomas cried.
“I would,” Marcus confirmed, sounding contemplative.
“We’re wasting time,” Oliver said, his heart thudding. “Where was she last seen?”
The brothers blinked at one another, perhaps waiting for one of the others to speak. It was a frustrating affair.
“Nanny Annie had her dressed up again,” Peter finally uttered, stepping out of the water towards his shoes. “She looked altogether miserable, to be honest with you.”
“How can we distract Nanny Annie?” Oliver demanded. “I’m sure the pianoforte trick won’t work again. Perhaps … Perhaps we can stage something else?”
Marcus shifted his weight and cupped his elbows, the way he often did when he was deep in thought. Oliver’s own thoughts whirled, unable to latch onto anything that made any sense. Could they pretend that Nanny Annie was needed in central London? Could they fake some sort of letter, telling her she had to leave at once? Could they sneak Catherine out the back window while Nanny Annie worked on her stitching in the very room before her?
Thomas sighed, thrust his fists on his thighs, and said, “I think I have it. But I will say, I don’t want to do this. I think it’s foolish, and it might be risking our OWN personal time in the process. But if you truly want to try …”
Thomas proceeded to describe his plan, which involved all four of them. In essence, Peter would arrive home first, crying about something that one of them had done. “It can be me, I suppose,” Thomas said, “as everyone already thinks I’m the mean one, anyway.”
“Thomas. Give it a rest.” Marcus sighed.
“Regardless. Peter arrives to the kitchen and begins to wail. Says I hurt his feelings, something like that. Says he wants to be held. That he wants a biscuit, some tea. Peter, do you think you can handle that?”
“I do very much want a biscuit,” Peter said, sounding thoughtful.
“Perfect. So it won’t even be an act,” Thomas scoffed. “Anyway. While you’re up to all that, another one of us will head to a different floor of the house. Say, Mother’s stitching room upstairs. You know there are about a zillion things in there that are apt to be broken, yes? Well, I deign to say we break one of them, in the midst of Peter’s little biscuit situation downstairs. Nanny Annie will have to rush upstairs at the sound, knowing something’s amiss. But all she will find is me, having recently broken one of those collectible items. She will all but lose her nerve at that.”
“But won’t she then punish you?” Oliver asked. “You’re putting yourself in eternal danger here.”
“She’ll either send me to my room, or send me back outside.” Thomas shrugged. “She won’t have me sit downstairs with her, that’s for certain.”
“Why is it so certain?” Oliver said.
“Because she HATES Thomas,” Peter tittered, grinning wide. “She can’t help it. She detests being around him.”
Oliver felt vaguely incredulous, realising he’d never noticed this before. Had never sensed the darkness that overcame Nanny Annie’s face when she glanced Thomas’ way. He turned his eyes towards Marcus, arching his brow.
“I’ll stand watch,” Marcus offered. “While you help Catherine out of the house. I’ll be the last one there, to make sure everyone gets out.”
“Good,” Oliver said, nodding.
The plan was set. Now, the four boys walked like a troupe, two and two, with Thomas and Oliver in the front. Marcus and Peter made a funny pair behind them, with Marcus’ increasing height and Peter’s still tight little form. But nobody’s face was stonier than Peter’s just now, as, it seemed, he prepared himself for what he was meant to do. The boy would be a remarkable actor if he ever took that route.
Once at the front porch, Oliver scowled at each of the brothers, gauging whether each was ready. But it was Thomas who made the first sign to GO. With that, each of them surged in through the front door. Thomas scuttled up to the next floor, preparing for the alarm, which would come in the form of Peter’s wild screeches and cries. Oliver crept along through the foyer before disappearing in the library across the hall from where Catherine and Nanny Annie sat, seemingly mending yet another bit of linen. Marcus remained at the front door, hunched near the closet so that Nanny Annie wouldn’t spot him when she had to shuffle back up the stairs.
The clock had begun to tick. Oliver tipped his head slightly out of the library, listening to the little voice of Catherine, trying her hardest to thrill herself in the wake of so much boredom. She sang a soft song while she sewed and mended, one that reminded Oliver of his much younger years.
Suddenly, the cry rang out. It was straight from Peter’s mouth, volatile and wild. Oliver had to hand it to him: it was convincing. Immediately, Nanny Annie shot up from her chair with a sound that made Oliver believe that she’d knocked all her linens to the ground.
“What on earth?” Nanny Annie cried. “Catherine. Did you know your brothers were indoors?”
“No. I didn’t,” Catherine said, sounding a bit incredulous.
“Wait here, dear,” Nanny Annie tittered. “I suppose that’s from the kitchen. I’ll check … It sounds much like Peter, doesn’t it?”
“I believe so, Nanny Annie.”
The big woman bustled into the hallway in front of Oliver, nearly catching him. He tucked his head back inside just in time before rushing towards the far end of the room and leaning his ear heavily near the window, which was just a few inches from the kitchen window. From there, he continued to hear Peter’s wails.
“What on earth?” Nanny Annie howled. “Peter, darling. What’s gotten into you? Look at you. You’re just a mess, aren’t you?”
“NANNY! NANNY!” Peter cried, sounding perhaps four years younger than his eight years. “You can’t imagine what’s happened!”
“Oh, darling. Come here. Come here!” Nanny Annie cried.
Oliver could only picture it. He imagined her bulbous arms drawing young Peter against her. Imagined Peter struggling not to show that he was grinning, perhaps tearing his fingers across his cheeks to keep them as red as possible. He continued his wailing, such a stellar display of torture, for the next minutes.
“What can I get you?” Nanny Annie asked, sounding quite wild, spastic. “Do you need something, darling? Oh goodness, you haven’t had an episode like this in quite some time, have you? What a wretched thing. What used to work? Biscuits, darling? Would you like a biscuit?”
Peter uttered another wail, but one lined with approval at the suggestion. Oliver listened close as Nanny began to rustle through the cabinets.
“There you are.” She sighed. “Have one. Another? Three? Oh, goodness. Yes, Peter. Eat as many as you like, my child. Your mother and father will be home on the weekend, you know. And all will be right as rain. But now, tell me. Tell me. What’s happened?”
“It’s — it’s Thomas …” Peter whimpered.
“Thomas? What on earth has he done, now?” Nanny Annie muttered, seemingly speaking through her own bites of cookie. “That boy. It’s impossible to tame him. The sort of things he gets up to … He injured you, did he?”
“I … I don’t know,” Peter answered. “He’s just so …”
“Absolutely wretched,” Nanny Annie said, her words speeding up. “To think he would pick on someone of your size, Peter. Catherine can handle him, but you? He should know better.”
“What … what do you mean?” Peter asked, his voice growing tart.
“Darling, never you mind. Never you mind.” Nanny Annie sighed.
Oliver snickered to himself, and then spun towards the door. He counted, his hands in fists, knowing that Thomas would soon begin his part of the project. “Un. Deux. Trois,” he counted in French.
And then, all at once, something crashed upstairs. Oliver’s smile widened. Nanny Annie’s screech echoed throughout the house. In the far sitting room, he heard Catherine gasp with wonder. It seemed she’d started to suspect that something was amiss.
“What in heaven’s name …” Nanny Annie cried. “Peter. Eat your biscuits. I’ve got to run upstairs …”
Her frustration was apparent. Oliver rushed to the doorway once more, watching as she shuffled down the hallway. “Catherine! I don’t suppose that’s you making all that racket?”
“No, Nanny Annie!” Catherine called, doing her very best to sound youthful and innocent (at least, in Oliver’s ears). “I’ve been sitting here this entire time, just waiting for you to return. The sound, it seems to be coming from upstairs!”
“My goodness. Are your brothers still outside?” Nanny Annie demanded.
“I wouldn’t know, Nanny,” Catherine murmured, just barely loud enough for Oliver to hear. “I’ve been sitting here the entire time, waiting for you to return.”
“Check on little Peter, Catherine,” Nanny Annie demanded. “I’ve got to run upstairs. Whatever it is that shattered …”
“I’ll check on him,” Catherine said. “Don’t worry at all.”
Now, Nanny Annie disappeared down the hall, reaching the staircase and trudging up. With each step, the staircase creaked. Oliver could just make out her mumbling to herself as she scuttled, seemingly lost in thought. “What on earth has happened to this house? Why did I think I could handle something like this?”
The moment she hit the second floor, Oliver rushed into the hallway, unable for a moment to catch his breath. When he reached the doorway between the hall and the sitting room, he nearly rammed nose to nose with Catherine herself, who’d apparently leapt up to check on Peter. When their eyes met, her shoulders immediately began to shake with laughter.
“I don’t know what you are up to …” she began.
“What do you suppose we’re up to? I wouldn’t think you’d have a single guess,” Oliver teased, reaching forward and rustling her hair.
“I know that Peter isn’t actually crying about Thomas,” Catherine said, rolling her eyes. “He wouldn’t do anything like that, really. He’s far too embarrassed of how sensitive he is. He wants to hide it from Nanny Annie, along with the rest of us.”
“I have to admit, the fact that he went along with it is a real testament to how much he cares for you,” Oliver said.
Catherine tilted her head. Her eyes sparkled mischievously. “Don’t tell me that this was all your big idea, Mr Oliver Garrison,” she said, sounding snarky.
“In actuality …” Oliver began, before they both heard the alarming sound of yet another expensive item smashing to bits upstairs.
Catherine clasped her hand to her mouth, her eyes filled with light. Nanny Annie let out another shriek, then, “THOMAS! WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING? DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR MOTHER THINKS OF THOSE …”
“What did Thomas do?” Catherine whispered, her voice harsh.
Oliver shrugged. “We all agreed we couldn’t allow you to stay in here. Not after what you did for us. You don’t deserve to stay in here like some sort of animal. You should be out. You should be free. With us.”
After a long, hesitant pause, Catherine burst forward and wrapped her thin arms around Oliver’s neck, leaping into him. She whispered a tiny, “Thank you,” before shuffling back, blinking wildly.
“We need to get out of here.”
The words were foreign, from another side of the room. Both Oliver and Catherine whirled towards them, noting Marcus near the door. He looked upon them sternly, his thumb pointed towards the door. Seconds later, Peter sauntered towards them from the opposite direction, his cheeks peppered with cookie crumbs.
“What?” he asked, blinking at their collective stares.
“We have to go,” Marcus said. “Thomas will be out of his stage soon. And Nanny Annie will be in a fit of rage. She’ll need to be up there for the next hour or so, collecting herself. Cleaning the glass. That gives us time.”
“Time to play?” Catherine murmured, sounding hopeful. Her voice was high-pitched, delighted.
“Absolutely. Where you belong,” Oliver said.
The four of them shuffled towards the front door. They paused in the crack, blinking up at the staircase. Still, Nanny Annie’s voice boomed. It seemed that Thomas (as usual) had taken the entire affair too far. He crashed yet another glass, then another, until Nanny Annie seemed to catch aflame with anger.
“GET OUTSIDE THIS MINUTE, YOU MONSTER!” she cried, forcing Thomas out of the room like a bomb. “GET OUT.”
At this, Thomas burst down the steps, wagging his eyebrows at his brothers, his best friend, and his sister. “GO. GO. GO,” he murmured before lurching out in front of them, tearing down the steps, and surging forward, through the fields.
The other four ran out after him, almost forgetting to close the door behind them. Oliver made sure to run only slightly slower than Catherine, making sure she got out — as she was, in fact, the very reason that they had conducted such an affair in the first place. She brought her skirts high over her knees, making sure her legs could rocket out in front of her. In no world could Oliver’s sister do anything like that. In no world did he know any girl who could do something like that. It was utterly miraculous. And she was only seven years old.
The five members of this strange and varied team collapsed along the side of the moor, near the trees. Catherine brought her arms across her chest, huffing several times, while Oliver brought himself up on his knees, assessing the damage. Sweat bulleted down his cheeks. He hadn’t the thought to wipe the droplets off.
“Thomas. I’ve never seen you run so fast,” he said, still stuttering a bit with fatigue. “That was incredible.”
Thomas remained on his back. Oliver could just barely catch the pulse of him, erupting up from his stomach. Catherine rolled around on the grass, drawing herself up on her knees like Oliver. Her eyes glistened with tears as she assessed her brothers, each and every one.
“I had no idea you boys would do something like that for me,” she said, her eyes now completely focused on Thomas — her favourite, Oliver knew.
“It was Oliver’s idea!” Peter chimed in.
“But it’s true that Peter here was the mastermind,” Oliver said.
Catherine blinked several times, seemingly on the verge of saying something emotional, something girlish. But as the moment passed, she leapt from the ground, pointed her finger at each of them, and said, “Are we going to play? Or are we going to just let Nanny Annie come and find us and make us go inside to play?”
The boys followed suit.
“The Rebirth of a Peculiar Lady” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Catherine Connelly is a girl different from the others: courageous, confident, assertive. But not even the ones closest to her would ever call her a conventional beauty; a title she wouldn’t crave either way. All until the pressure of Society and her parents will imperatively start demanding that she compromises with the standards a typical debutant of her age should follow. Soon enough she finds herself trapped, away from London, with an obstinate aunt, aching for the comforts of home. How will things evolve, though, when she comes back, totally transformed?
Oliver Garrison has experienced unique moments alongside Catherine, as her brothers’ best friend. When she leaves London without letting him know, the only way they could communicate with each other are the countless letters they exchange. But when she returns, there is something changed in her… How will he deal with feelings of jealousy when his childhood friend will now be approached by every eligible bachelor, even by a despicable Duke? Will he dare to even risk his reputation in order to save her from the prison of her beauty?
Catherine finds herself in the midst of a budding war, unsure of how she should proceed. Should she uphold her parents’ wishes and marry for title and position? Or should she listen to Oliver’s advice to ignore other people’s opinion and just follow her heart?
“The Rebirth of a Peculiar Lady” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.