A Different Reality
by Dave Potter
Darkness. Pitch-black. That was all there was when she woke up. She opened her eyes, but no light streamed in. she tried to move but found that she was restrained somehow. All over. Her body seemed encased somehow, squeezing in on all sides. Something was seriously wrong. She screamed but only a groan came out. There was something lodged in her mouth. She screamed again and tried to move. She could wiggle about a bit but that was all. It was as if she had been buried alive. Had she been buried alive? No! She could not die here, now! She was young, with her whole life ahead of her. She screamed and wiggled again. She carried on doing it for dear life. And then, out of the black, light streamed in and she was reborn.
“Miss Suzanna, what are you doing screaming and creating a disturbance like that. It is most unladylike. Madam will be displeased.”
Suzanna. Who on earth called her Suzanna? She hadn’t been called that since she was a child by her great aunt. Normally it was Suzie or just Suze. Suzanna. She didn’t recognise the voice either. As her eyes adjusted to the light she saw a figure leaning over her. She was dressed in a maid’s outfit and she didn’t recognise her at all. But she was smiling, and she laid a cool flannel on Suzie’s forehead. “Now, now, Miss Suzanna, did you have a bad dream…?”
The maid released her from the cocoon that had enclosed her. Looking down, she saw that she had been tightly laced into a large, black leather bag the size of a slumbering human. Her body was covered in sweat from her confinement, but that was not all. A large gag was stuffed into her mouth and a white cotton shift covered her body. Around her middle, squeezing her tightly, was a corset. A corset?! WTF??!!
When her hands were free she fumbled at the gag that was filling her mouth. Seeing her desire, the maid helped. When it was removed her jaw ached from being forced open wide so long. Her throat was dry but she spoke anyway. “Where am I? What is happening?”
“You’re in your bed at home at Madam Rossiter’s Academy, Miss Updike,” replied the maid.
“You know my name? Who are you? How do you know me? What’s happening? What is this place?” Her eyes darted wildly from side to side. The maid, however, merely looked on her with concern and pity.
“Oh dear, Miss Suzanna, I fear the events of last evening may have left a damaging effect on your mind. I must inform Madam Rossiter. She may have to call for Doctor Lowe.”
“What do you mean, the events of last evening?”
But the maid was gone, leaving her all alone and confused.
She returned with another figure. It was a middle-aged woman dressed in a large, frilly, Victorian-style dress with ridiculously large puff sleeves all in a deep red. She had a stern look on her face and came straight up to the confused Suzie who was sitting on the bed still in a daze.
“The servant tells me that you seem to be somewhat disorientated Miss Suzanna. Please, I do not have the time for this sort of immature joking about and I shall punish you…”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you and what am I doing here? I need to return… home. I need to go home; I have things to do and…”
“I told you ma’am, she’s all confused and befuddled and…”
“Yes, yes, Sykes, I can see that. Now, let me handle this. Miss Suzanna, do you honestly not know who I am?”
“Of course not. I’ve never seen you before in my life. How do you know my name anyway…?”
“Miss Suzanna, I am Madam Rossiter, your teacher…”
“Teacher? Whoever you are, I am twenty-five and certainly not at school anymore. I am a businesswoman, not a student and I have things to do, I…”
“Twenty-five? Miss Suzanna, last night was your twenty-first birthday. It was also the night when Lord Roehampton proposed to you. Surely you must recall Lord Roehampton…?”
“Are you mad? My life is not like some episode of Pride & Prejudice. I don’t know any lords and nor has anyone proposed to me of late.” She stopped herself. Actually, there was one guy who would have done; he was besotted with her, but she’d given him the boot a month back. “I don’t have time for this, get me out of here, wherever the fuck it is and back to…”
“Miss Suzanna, your language!”
“Get me home, bitch! Is that language enough for you?!”
“But Miss Suzanna, you are home! This school is your home these days.”
“And you’re mad as a hatter. How can this be my home? I’m a twenty-five-year-old HR executive, not Elizabeth bloody Bennett.”
“Miss Suzanna, desist! I have no idea who this Miss Bennett is that you refer to, but I do know that, judging by the current evidence, if anyone around here is mad, it is not me but you. Think about it! You are lying in your bed in my establishment where you were put to sleep by your maid last night, wearing the clothing that I provided, as you have done for the previous two years. You suffered a shock last night, that much I grant you and it has obviously unbalanced your mind, but one thing is clear is that, if madness is to be blamed, which individual would you point the finger at as being the victim?”
And, sitting there on that bed surrounded by all these extras from an Austen drama, wearing a corset herself, she could not find a suitable answer.
Her name is Miss Suzanna Updike and she is twenty-one years old. She is currently living in Madam Rossiter’s Academy for Orphaned Young Ladies. She is an orphan because her parents died five years ago in an horrific house fire. That bit she really struggled to believe but then they showed her photographs to prove it.
Being of prime marital age and still a virgin (again, this was proved to her in a humiliating test performed by Doctor Lowe), she is a ripe candidate for marriage. Prior to the evening before the morning when she woke up having completely lost her memory, she had been courting a certain Lord Roehampton. At a soiree arranged in honour of her birthday by the academy, he had proposed to her. She had neither accepted nor rejected the proposal, seemingly overwhelmed by it. Madam Rossiter had taken her to one side and strongly urged her to accept since Lord Roehampton, despite his advanced years, was an excellent match and was extremely wealthy. She had never shown any enthusiasm towards his romantic advances but, conversely, had never been the rebellious type either so, silently, she had acquiesced. This had pleased His Lordship immensely and so he had removed her gag to kiss her passionately, an experience which, according to Petronella, one of the other orphans, she had endured passively. Then, His Lordship, emboldened by achieving his dream, had brought out a document that he had had made. It detailed all the modifications that he would be blessing her with after marriage and included computer-generated images of her future look. Apparently, even according to Madam Rossiter, these were “a trifle extreme” and, upon seeing the pictures of her form blessed with enormous lips and breasts three times larger than her head, she had flipped, shouted and screamed at her fiancé in a most unladylike way and then attempted to run away from the party – an impossibility, of course, in her fashionable attire – and so, having failed in that course of action, had fainted on the spot. Horrified and appalled, Lord Roehampton had declared the engagement terminated despite Madam Rossiter’s finest efforts and so, when she did come around with the help of smelling salts, Miss Suzanna was bundled off to bed straightaway, her night and prospects ruined by her unladylike behaviour. It simply couldn’t get worse.
Except that it did. Because in the morning she woke up with no recollection of her life. The mental stress had erased her brain.
That, on its own, was bad enough, but for Suzie, it got worse. What was most painful was that, instead of her life being a blank slate, ready to be refilled by her teacher and companions, instead she had very vivid memories of a totally different life entirely. In that reality, she also Suzanna Updike, but she was twenty-five instead of twenty-two and she was no virgin. Nor too was she an orphan or a student in some weird ladies’ academy, but instead she was the HR manager in a financial company of some reputation. She was an intelligent, independent and resourceful young woman who, being blessed with good looks (although she had always been a tad embarrassed about her large bottom) had no shortage of male admirers. Admirers that she usually batted away disinterestedly.
How come these “memories” of a life that, according to all those around her and the evidence that was laid before her, never existed, filled her head? And not just that; they were so vivid and real. She could not believe that they were false and so, instead, merely thought that they had kidnapped her somehow and were lying to her to make her accept this new reality. Yet whenever she’d thought of something that would prove the truth of her memories, she was defeated. Like when she remembered the tattoo that she’d had done on her left-hand ankle. Madam Rossiter assured her that a real lady would never dream of having something so uncouth as a tattoo, so they rolled down her stocking to reveal the ankle and, lo and behold, there was no tattoo nor trace of there ever being one.
Yet the memories seemed so real and while they filled her head, adjusting was almost impossible. The problem was that in the reality she thought she’d inhabited, she had been a working woman, independent financially, mentally and physically. In this weird world she now found herself in though, all those freedoms had gone, and, in their place, she found herself as dependent on others as a young child.
To start with, she had no money whatsoever. Ok, so that was a lie. She actually possessed millions, left to her by her late parents as their only child. But being a female, she was deemed to be irresponsible and so the funds were held in a trust administered by Doctor Lowe on behalf of Madam Rossiter. They were used to pay for her schooling and purchase items of clothing decreed by her teacher. Suzie herself had no say in any of it.
And then mentally. She was continually told that, as a young lady, her mind was easily confused, easily led, unstable. Every day she faced a barrage of propaganda regarding ladylike behaviour and the appropriate conduct of a wife. She had little opportunity to contest it and no opportunity to get away.
For the third of her limitations, the physical, was the most trying of all. In Madam Rossiter’s Academy, she was being trained to become was called a ‘Lady of Leisure’, a lady of importance who trumpets her station by being physically restrained at all times and thus largely helpless and dependent on others, namely servants.
Sitting on the couch, Suzie takes stock of all those restrictions currently curtailing her body. She is dressed in a beautiful Victorian-style gown of cream silk printed with a pattern of tiny red roses. With some fifteen petticoats supporting the wide skirts, that alone is restrictive enough, but by far its most noticeable aspect is the tiny waist, achieved by twenty-four-hour corseting or “tight-lacing” as Madam Rossiter refers to it. What this means is that she is always short of breath, always feeling weak and light-headed, never hungry and always, always aware of the crushing presence around her middle.
Subconsciously, Suzie tries to move her hands to her middle to try and relieve some of that awful pressure, but then is sharply reminded of how impossible this now is. Her gown, like that of Madam Rossiter and all ladies of fashion, incorporates two ridiculous ballooning puff sleeves (called ‘gigot’ apparently), out of which the lower part of her arms and hands – gloved in appropriate cream leather of course – protrude. The sleeves actually have an internal steel framework construction to achieve the ballooning look, but that is not the worst of them for in fact, the gloved hands that protrude from them are not her real hands at all, but instead handmade wooden replicas! Instead, to trumpet her helplessness, her real arms and hands are folded up inside the sleeves, hand-to-shoulder, elbows firmly bent, making them entirely useless. When her maid first tried to do this to her, shocked, she rebelled, but help was procured, and she was restrained. Wearing such an arrangement, she is almost entirely helpless, having to be fed her meals like a baby and being unable to do such simple tasks as open a door or even stand unaided (for wearing such encumbering clothes, one would need some support). Instead, for this active and independent woman to do anything, absolutely anything, she has to call on her maid for support.
Except that even that is impossible now, for lodged in her mouth and buckled firmly behind her head is a large gag fronted by a panel on which, in pretty embroidery, it says ‘Silence is golden’. At most all she can do is grunt and groan, but since that is frowned upon in this insane place, instead Suzie just stays silent and still, fearing the punishment that may come from breaking one of the myriad and ridiculous rules that plague this place.
Nor are the arm restraints, the corset and the gag the only restraints that this lady of leisure is forced to endure. Her feet have been forced into a ridiculous pair of white leather boots with heels of ten centimetres and her stocking-covered ankles are linked by a sturdy chain of twenty centimetres “to ensure ladylike gait”. No one can see these of course, nor can they see the most humiliating item of her attire. This is not a restraint but instead a large adult nappy. She only wears it as a precaution: when she has to go, undressing for the toilet is no speedy process and being gagged and trammelled, if there is no servant present, she often struggles to make her needs known. Thus far, it has not been necessary, but the mere thought of a free-willed and independent young businesswoman (for in her mind, she still views herself thus, even though she knows the memories cannot be real) having to wear attire designed for infants or geriatrics, is humiliating to the core of her being.
She glances across at her companions, Petronella and Carmelita and then at the clock. It is ten to three. At three the maids will come and take them all away. In the sanctity of their bedrooms they will be offered the opportunity to use the toilet (Suzie never refuses for fear of having to actually utilise those adult nappies) and then their arms are unbound and the gloved, real appendages are fed into the dress sleeves. With the ridiculous gigot, brachial movement is still extremely limited, but the two hours between three and five, providing there are no visitors, are reserved for “ladylike crafts”. In practice, this means embroidering things, so far gags. She is given a gag with a front panel which she is then expected to embroider in accordance with the instructions propped up on a stand before her. Sometimes it is a pattern, sometimes a picture such as roses or foiliage, but more often than not it is a phrase. The one in her mouth at present says ‘Silence is golden’ and she has embroidered that on a couple of gags already, it being by far the most popular. But there are others. Sometimes it is ‘Property of…’ and then a name. Always a man’s name. Many husbands like their wives to wear such a gag. But there has also been ‘Females should be seen and not heard’, ‘God blesses a quiet house’ or perhaps the Biblical ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak’. It is humiliating in a way, but far less dull that merely sitting there silent and helpless.
And at the academy one is always silent or helpless or both. Usually both, but, for an hour before bed she is allowed to converse with her fellow students. Her arms are restrained for this of course (after all, they are not needed), this time not in the gigot sleeves but instead a single glove that fastens them behind the back, palm-to-palm. It is painful and totally demobilising but said to improve posture. Whatever. Trammelled thus, she can get to know her fellow sufferers, except that they, not being plagued by false memories, revel in their situation and feel great pity for those lowly women who go around broad-waisted, ungagged and with free arms. Their lives are narrow and dull; both have never left the town and look forward only to marriage and a chance to wear the latest fashions. Still, it breaks the monotony.
The door opens, and, to her surprise, Madam Rossiter enters. Suzie is surprised. She glances at the clock; still five minutes to three and, besides, their teacher never comes to change their attire. Why is she here? The mystery is soon revealed.
“Girls, I have news for you. Ladylike Crafts is cancelled for today as we have guests coming for dinner. Doctor Lowe is joining us, and he has invited Carmelita’s fiancé, Mr. Macauley, and his medical colleague, Doctor Potter, who has recently returned from a professional trip overseas. Therefore, you shall all be changing into your finest evening dresses to mark the occasion.”
Although sad that she wouldn’t get the opportunity to use her hands freely, Suzie was happy at this announcement. Visitors! Surely that should break the monotony a little!