The first time AnnaBella Frostwich put makeshift clothing on her companion, Mr. Featherbottom, her mother thought nothing of it. Anna was only three years old, and small children naturally treated their companions as playthings, almost like the porcelain baby dolls that had gone out of fashion at the end of the last century. But by the time children reached school age, they understood that companions were more than mere toys; they served as playmates, teachers, chauffeurs, and chaperones. In spite of their ubiquitous presence at every level of society, however, there simply was no reason to dress them. Companions did not feel the cold, and their brass and copper plating did not require covering to maintain modesty, after all.
But unlike other children, AnnaBella did not outgrow her habit of dressing Mr. Featherbottom. In fact, by the time she was seven, she was becoming an accomplished little seamstress, and had turned Mr. Featherbottom into a facsimile of a fashionable young “gentleman.” Each time he initiated a growth phase, using spare parts from the local companion co-operative to lengthen his limbs and maintain a commensurate size with Anna, she created a new wardrobe for him, covering his metal body with a green seersucker jacket and trousers, or perhaps a gabardine suit for rainy days. As Anna’s skills did not extend to shoemaking, and her own outgrown shoes would have looked silly on him, Mr. Featherbottom’s metal feet stuck out from the bottom of his trousers rather comically, but otherwise he seemed quite dignified.
Mrs. Frostwich did not know what to do about her daughter’s propensity. It was not wrong, precisely, to dress one’s companion, just as it was not wrong that the newly created Mr. Featherbottom had chosen a male identity and an unusually formal name for himself upon Anna’s birth. It was just very odd.
One day, Mrs. Frostwich happened upon Anna playing with a remnant of white lace that the little girl had found in the household rag bag. Humming and singing little snatches of songs, Anna used a headband to anchor the lace to her head as a makeshift veil. Mr. Featherbottom sat by patiently. In addition to a dark gray walking suit, he wore an expertly tied dove-grey cravat and a matching top hat, which Anna had begged from her father’s valet.
Anna appropriated a small bunch of artificial flowers from a nearby vase and held them towards Mr. Featherbottom, sing-songing, “Oh, Mister F, will you marry me?, uh-huh, uh-huh. Mister F, will you marry me? And when shall the wedding be?’ uh-huh, uh-huh.”
“I should be delighted, Miss AnnaBella,” Mr. Featherbottom said, standing up and doffing his hat. Anna giggled and proceeded to hum a loud wedding march as the two promenaded around the perimeter of the room.
Later, Mrs. Frostwich discussed the matter with her own companion, Geraldine, who unfortunately didn’t have much to say. She then tried Mr. Frostwich, both expecting and receiving his customary response (“I’m sure you can manage it, my dear”). Finally, not knowing to whom else she could turn, she made an appointment to see Dr. Hughes, who had attended the family since Mrs. Frostwich’s own girlhood.
“I really don’t see any harm in AnnaBella dressing her companion, Mrs. Frostwich,” Dr. Hughes said with a reassuring smile. “Do you, Jacoby?”
The doctor’s companion, sitting unobtrusively nearby, shook his head. As with most medical companions, the majority of Jacoby’s body was comprised not of brass and copper, but rather of surgery-grade composite steel, so that he could withstand frequent sterilization and assist Dr. Hughes without undue risk of infecting human patients. Jacoby’s spotless metal torso gleamed yet was not flashy, lending him an air of understated efficiency and trustworthiness.
“It’s unusual but not unheard of,” Jacoby said, inclining his head and addressing Mrs. Frostwich in clipped yet pleasant metallic tones. “There have been a number of reports of children dressing their companions well beyond the play-acting stage. In fact, some of those children eventually grow up to become seamstresses, tailors, or even fashion designers. If Mr. Featherbottom himself doesn’t object, it seems likely that he has noticed her talent and is subtly encouraging her to develop those skills.”
“But the wedding veil...?” Mrs. Frostwich trailed off. She’d been unsure whether to bring it up, but she’d found herself blurting it out to Dr. Hughes as soon as she’d arrived.
“Just exercising her imagination, I’m sure,” said Dr. Hughes. “It makes perfect sense, since AnnaBella is so interested in clothing. I’ve always suspected,” he continued with a chuckle, “that weddings are simply an excuse for the ladies to buy new clothes, wouldn’t you agree? I’m sure AnnaBella is more interested in dressing as a pretend-bride than in actually getting married.”
Mrs. Frostwich felt somewhat reassured. Perhaps she should even ask her husband to arrange extra drawing lessons for Anna, who might yet turn out to be a prodigy rather than an oddity. There was a certain prestige in having a child pursue artistic endeavors in this dawning industrial age, and fashion design seemed to incorporate the best of both worlds: it was an artform, yet it was practical and potentially lucrative. Mrs. Frostwich imagined herself at the center of an admiring throng of her peers at a future Gardening Society luncheon.
From that point on, Mrs. Frostwich took an almost perverse pride in describing Mr. Featherbottom’s latest ensembles to her friends during their afternoon visits, and remarking upon the precision of the stitches and other fine details that Anna incorporated into her work. She even allowed Anna to adorn Geraldine with a few small accessories on their days out. But underneath, the devoted mother still wondered whether Anna’s eccentricities were quite ... quite.
When AnnaBella was twenty-two, she graduated with honors from the New Yorke Institute of Fashion, taking home the Weetwood Prize based on her thesis collection. As the winner, AnnaBella was scheduled to give the last student showing in the Institute’s event at the New Yorke Spring Fashion Week Extravaganza.
The decision to give AnnaBella the award had not been without controversy. During her four years at the Institute, other students had partially followed her example by giving their companions occasional accessories to match their own designs. But Anna dressed Mr. Featherbottom every single day, in full rigging right down to his custom-made shoes. Her idiosyncrasy, argued some of the more conservative faculty members, might ultimately reflect poorly on the Institute, which was still struggling to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the more-established fashion academies in Paris and London.
In the end, however, even those professors had to admit that talent such as AnnaBella’s did not come along frequently. During the weeks leading up to the event, AnnaBella had shown her advisors an array of costumes that many of them secretly wished they had conceived themselves. Some of the faculty even wondered whether AnnaBella’s collection would help make the stodgy European and British houses finally sit up and take notice.
It was therefore a shock when AnnaBella’s first models appeared on the runway. Unlike in the dress rehearsal, the models were now accompanied by their fully dressed companions, each of whom wore a simplified, more practical version of their human’s ensemble. Anna’s coup de maître likely would not have succeeded had the backstage tent been less chaotic, but of course Anna had been counting on that, and by the time the faculty realized what was happening, it was too late.
The first shocked titters from the audience quickly gave way to rising murmurs of excitement and a few of chagrin. Journalists’ companions took notes and made quick sketches under the direction of their humans, while society wives relished the thought of all the new shopping they would get to do. The few reluctant husbands in attendance mentally reviewed their bank account balances and sighed. And even the older, more jaded designers perked up, imagining the upswing in demand that this as-yet-unknown AnnaBella Frostwich was creating right in front of their eyes.
Six months later, AnnaBella held an exclusive luncheon for a dozen of the most influential fashion columnists in New Yorke, at which she made the not-unexpected announcement that she was launching her own fashion line, backed by the banking house of Taylor & Sons. No, the surprising part was not the company itself, but rather the company name. Everyone had assumed that AnnaBella would take advantage of her distinctive first name, the perfect mononym to adorn a designer label.
“Can’t you just hear it, darling? ‘I’m wearing the latest AnnaBella!’” Mrs. Frostwich had said to her daughter. “Simply everyone would know your name.”
“I know it has a nice ring, Mother, and I do love my name, but it’s not right for the company,” Anna replied absently, as she pinned up an elaborate skirt hem sporting row after row of seed pearls. Mrs. Frostwich, watching, fervently hoped that Anna would not be run out of town for allowing her models’ ankles to show.
“But darling--” she said.
“Mrs. Frostwich,” said Mr. Featherbottom. He was standing on the dais, wearing the skirt upon which Anna sewed, as the hour was late and the in-house models had already gone home. “We wondered if you would be so kind as to help us settle on the company’s trade-mark, which we’ll introduce at the luncheon. We’ve narrowed it down to these three possibilities,” he went on, leaning over to pick up a folder from a nearby table.
“Stand still, Mr. F!” said Anna through a mouthful of pins.
“--and we simply must have your opinion before we can make a final decision,” he went on. “In fact, Anna thought that you might be willing to serve as our Consulting Advisor -- we’ll have cards made up for you, of course, and there will be any number of social functions that we’ll need your help in planning.”
Mrs. Frostwich was so delighted with this idea that she completely forgot the question of the company’s name. A Consulting Advisor! That would be something to tell Mrs. Compton, the current President of the Gardening Society, who made cutting little criticisms to one so politely that it often took half an hour to realize that one had been insulted.
At the announcement luncheon, AnnaBella spoke from the front of the flower-bedecked banquet room that they had rented at the Crestwicke Hotel. The podium at which she stood was emblazoned with a circular trade-mark containing a beautifully scripted letter “F” in dark green, entwined with its own mirrored image in a lighter shade. The guests sat at two large round tables while their companions, a few of whom were dressed, sat in a row of chairs lined up against the back wall. Models, trailed by their matching companions, circulated in a slow figure eight pattern around the two tables, pausing to twirl at appropriate intervals.
“Ladies,” AnnaBella said. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Mr. Featherbottom, who is not only my companion but also my partner in this venture. We hope you are as excited as we are to witness the birth of our new company --” she paused dramatically -- “Frostwich & Featherbottom.”
When AnnaBella was fifty-seven years old, she and Mr. Featherbottom retired, announcing that the firm of Frostwich & Featherbottom would continue under the auspices of Leanna Bowton and her companion Charlotte, who had been with the company for nine years. Although Anna could no longer keep up the frantic pace demanded by the always-changing fashion industry, she still possessed a gentle loveliness that continued to attract suitors, with whom she maintained friendly but platonic relationships. The society pages, which had long since ceased speculating about whether Anna would ever marry, briefly revived their interest in her love life, only to realize that retirement did not seem to indicate any propensity on Anna’s part to “settle down.”
Mr. Featherbottom, naturally, remained by Anna’s side. His body had taken on a dignified patina that was only a shade darker than before, yet somehow conveyed a sense of aging that was as graceful as Anna’s. He had taken to carrying a cane, even though he did not need it, and could often be seen strolling slowly with Anna in the park on warm afternoons.
When AnnaBella Frostwich died at age sixty-three, a stoic Mr. Featherbottom assisted the funeral director’s companion, Wallace, in laying out her body for the service. Mr. Featherbottom had brought Anna’s favorite afternoon gown of light green georgette edged with cream lace, and Wallace tinted her cheeks with a pale pink rouge. As always, Anna was the picture of elegance.
When the service was over, Mr. Featherbottom waited until the last guest had departed, then sat on a chair he placed next to the casket. Wallace stood near the doorway, unsure whether to stay or leave. He watched as Mr. Featherbottom touched Anna’s cheek and then lovingly rearranged her hands, which clutched a lace handkerchief over her midsection.
Finally Mr. Featherbottom stood, but he still did not leave. Instead, he slowly removed his coal-black mourning suit and crisp white shirt. Wallace, unaccustomed to seeing other companions without clothing, did not know how to react. Mr. Featherbottom folded each garment neatly, tucking them along the inside edges of the casket. He placed his shoes at the bottom, near Anna’s feet, and then straightened up to his full height. Turning towards Wallace, he gestured toward the casket, indicating that he was ready.
Wallace, accustomed to observing the small details required by his profession, could not help but notice Mr. Featherbottom’s left hand. One of the fingers had a slightly raised band, as might result from a too-hasty solder repair. It seemed out of place compared to the companion’s otherwise immaculate appearance, but perhaps Miss Frostwich’s illness had demanded all of Mr. Featherbottom’s attention in recent months.
As Wallace moved to close the casket lid, he paused. The ring that Miss Frostwich was wearing -- hadn’t it been on her right hand rather than her left? Involuntarily, he looked back at Mr. Featherbottom.
Without a word, Mr. Featherbottom inclined his head, then turned and made his way to the front entrance of the funeral home. In spite of his unclothed state, his gait was as dignified as ever.
Wallace knew that due to AnnaBella Frostwich’s lack of direct heirs, Mr. Featherbottom would report to a companion co-operative to decide his own future: either service to an adult who had lost his or her companion in an accident, or complete dismantling, so that his own parts could be passed along to the next generation of companions. Wallace felt fairly certain which option Mr. Featherbottom would choose.
This story originally appeared in Robotica.