at poor little Ella," she mocked, a week after my father had died.
"Crying on the rug in front of the fire. You'd think she was Cinderella,
My father christened
me Ella because he was a jazz fiend and our surname was Fitzgerald.
I had been going to be Louis, after Armstrong, right up until my birth
when, inconveniently, they discovered that I was the wrong sex. My mother,
in the kind of doomed-to-failure compromise that was her trademark,
suggested adding an 'E' to make Louise. My father treated her suggestion
with the contempt he felt it deserved and said that it just went to
show what a fat lot she knew about jazz.
So I was stuck with Ella, and while this was no problem while my mother
was alive - indeed I rather liked it - it played right into the hands
of my wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters once she was gone.
Dad, of course, denied that they were cruel, wicked, or anything other
than a Good Influence. He said I was just playing up. He said that of
course I missed my mother, he did too, terribly, but being bitchy to
my new sisters wasn't going to bring her back, and why, for once, couldn't
I try to make the best of things instead of trying to tear everything
down that he so painfully built up for me.
We didn't understand each other. He'd have liked me to be a sweet, feminine,
silent type like my mother: long-suffering with just enough on show
for him to feel he was worth suffering for, but not enough to make him
feel guilty. I don't say this was deliberate; just his natural ego.
If he had ever believed for real that they were genuinely cruel to me,
I'm sure he would have reacted strongly. Inadequately, but strongly.
As it was, it suited him to see my moans as the whinging of a discontented
adolescent so that he could get on with his music.
"It's always me who does the washing up" I told him. "Always.
Monday to Sunday, week in, week out, it's always me. How do you explain
that - huh?"
"Well, your stepmother can't do it," he replied. "She
has her hands to think of."
"Mother did it. And she played the piano a million times better
than that old hag ever will."
"It's not the piano apparently," he explained, so happy to
have a winning argument he for once overlooked my 'old hag'. "It
seems they want to use her hands for fairy liquid commercials - you
know - the older woman who still has beautiful hands. She can't soak
them in water everyday, it'll ruin them."
There were several answers to that, all of which seemed futile. If my
father were too blind to see them then I was on a losing battle.
"What about the Disgusting Duo?" I changed tack. "What's
"Been there, done that, apparently," my father quoted, his
voice devoid of all flippancy. "Their mother says that when they
were your age they had to do the dishes, just like you do now. She says
it was very good for them to have to learn what kind of work goes into
running a kitchen, and that it wouldn't be fair on them - or you - to
deprive you of the same experience. She said they hadn't liked it either
at the time, but that they appreciate it now and that if she were to
let you forgo your turn they'd see it as favouritism."
For a minute I didn't say anything. I was stunned by the monster's degree
of deceit and manipulation. She'd needed to justify herself then. My
father had queried her actions of his own accord. I grasped at that
straw of hope.
"And you believe that?" I asked.
"Hm?" My father, taking my silence for acquiescence, had already
plunged back into his work.
"I said, 'and you believe that?' I mean, jesus christ, you just
have to look at them to see they've never done a day's work in their
life. Honestly, dad, you can't seriously believe her."
I had made a wrong move. Dad was now supposed to say 'are you calling
her a liar?' to which I would say 'yes' and the showdown could commence.
However we'd been there before. There's nothing craftier than a father
who doesn't want to look things in the face.
"I have tried to do my best for you," he said instead, gathering
up his dignity and injecting sorrow into his voice. "Lord knows
I'm not perfect and neither is your stepmother. But she has made many
sacrifices to come and live here with us and it isn't easy for her either.
I can't make you like her - I can't even make you understand if you
don't want to. But please, please, try and be patient. It'll all work
out in time, you'll see."
And then he gave that sudden smile of his - the rare one that lit up
his face and made him suddenly alive, and he chucked me under the chin
and looked me in the eyes and kissed me. And I realised why my mother
had stayed in love with him all that time. My rebellion melted, even
though I knew I was right and he was wrong, and I agreed to be patient,
because it would, of course, all work out in the long run.
What in fact happened, in the not so very long run either, was that
my father died. The doctors say it was a stroke: I said it was my stepmother's
constant nagging which set the tone of our relationship to follow. My
mother had always given him a quiet life. My wicked stepmother, while
seeming all soft and tractable in the courting phase, actually saw to
it that the only way he'd get a quiet life was to give her (and by extension
her daughters) what they wanted first. I'd warned him of course, but
he was far too unworldly to see it. He put my predictions down to jealously
and general adolescence like everything else.
Well he paid the price for it, and while I surprised myself at how bloody
awful and grief-stricken I felt at his loss, I have to admit that I
reserved a lot of sympathy for myself. Life from now on, I could tell,
was going to be a bitch.
I was given a week after the funeral. My father was famous in a mild
sort of way, and it wouldn't have done for the papers to get a sniff
of the poor little stepchild maltreated at his parting. So, for a week
I was allowed to mope in my room, play heavy metal as loud as I wanted,
get a new black outfit for the funeral ("If your father could see
you wearing that he'd turn in his grave." "He's not in his
grave yet, for god's sake and I've been wearing clothes like this since
I was twelve.") and not even do the dishes. A week may be a long
time in politics, but it's bloody short in the life of a grieving child.
I wasn't very wise I suppose. If I'd been less suspicious or less bloody-minded,
I could have kept our war down to sniping level instead of gearing it
up to a full-frontal attack. But misery and rage made me reckless. I
had no cause to trust them, so I threw caution to the winds and tried
to get them before they got me.
Note: three against one are not good odds - especially when one arrogant,
but ultimately naive and innocent adolescent is playing against three
It was Mimi who struck the first blow.
"Look at poor little Ella," she mocked, a week after my father
had died. "Crying on the rug in front of the fire. You'd think
she was Cinderella, wouldn't you, and we the Ugly Sisters."
Lily clapped her hand to her mouth, and the two burst into peels of
giggles at the idea. They were both considered very pretty - and I suppose
they were, if you liked the over-made-up, doll-like, artificial look.
"Well, she won't be going to the ball, that's for certain,"
Lily continued. "There's no money coming into the family now."
"Shouldn't think she'd want to," Mimi took up. "She is
grieving, after all." I stood up to go. Tears were pricking at
my eyes and I didn't want to give them the satisfaction.
"Goodnight," I said roughly, to prove that I could talk and
that they didn't bother me.
"Night night Cinderella," said Lily,
"Goodnight Cinders," said Mimi at the same time, which set
them off laughing again.
Needless to say, it stuck.
The important thing to remember about life is that no matter how bad
it seems, it can always get worse. Before my father's death I had been
a victim of my stepfamily's countless injustices; picked on, unloved
and generally used and abused, but all within a containable way. My
stepmother never let her daughters overstep a certain line and never
herself went beyond what she felt she could justify to my father who,
for all he was distracted, wasn't completely stupid. I didn't know how
lucky I'd been.
I was now on one of those downhill slides where it's hard to tell how
or when you precisely got from there to here. One thing led, vaguely
but remorselessly, to another. When a visitor came to stay I was asked
to give up my room for her. When she left, somehow I never got it back.
Doing the dishes came back again, naturally, to be joined by the odd
meal "to help out". This inevitably became all meals, and
soon all the housework, until I was a full-time unpaid servant. And
while I objected to each specific new thing they introduced, it was
never so obvious that I could rebel against the whole thing.
Then there was the ball. Mimi had been right about my not going to that.
Before dad died I'd pushed my 'staying out' boundaries to the limit,
going out whenever I could and stopping out as late as I could get away
with. I'd dance to loud music, drink as much as I could afford, take
the usual drugs and tell anyone and everyone who cared to listen what
a bitch my stepmother was, what utter twats my stepsisters were and
how miserable they made my life. And people did care to listen. My friends
felt sorry for me, genuinely cared about me and were mostly at the same
stage of rebellion as I was. At least I had something real to rebel
about. We'd discuss my situation and dream up fantasy solutions to our
After dad died all that changed. Somehow it seemed too important to
bitch about, too humiliating to talk about - too complicated and messy
to deal with. Besides which, I was knackered. Not just emotionally,
but physically. Full-time servant to a lazy family of three in a semi-mansion
is no easy number and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise. In a strange
kind of way I almost welcomed the tiredness. They were mean to me; that
was clear and straightforward. I was too tired to think; that was a
relief. Why not just go to bed when I could, and stay there as long
as possible. Sometimes I would even get up early or in the middle of
the night and do my work then, to avoid seeing anyone. It was a solution
that suited everyone and my stepfamily conspired in my isolation. When
my friends phoned up to ask me out or to come round, my stepmother would
explain, oh so gently, oh so convincingly, that I needed to be alone
right now. I didn't argue. After a while friends stopped calling. I
was alone, truly alone, like I felt in my heart. It was easier that
way, and christ knows I wanted life to be easy.
The invitation to the ball though, was addressed to me - me and them.
That is, me first, and them as a polite addendum because they were connected
to me. It touched my pride.
Lily rubbed it in: "Royalty" she swanked. "We're invited
to a ball by real royalty. Oh, I can hardly wait!"
"What a shame Ella doesn't go out any more," said my stepmother,
sure of her ground. "She'll be missed."
"She will, will she?" I retorted, stung. "Well, I wouldn't
be so sure about that. Besides, if I don't go you can't go - and where
would that leave your precious daughters?"
Her precious daughters looked at each other and laughed. I think they
practised that laugh in private, planning how they could 'tinkle' together
to up their sex appeal - adding it to the 'cute' mannerisms they pulled
out whenever they deemed necessary. Needless to say, it was highly irritating.
"We can't go," echoed Mimi. "How delightfully old-fashioned.
But Cinders, dear, don't be absurd. Of course we can go. Our names are
on the invitation. We just need to explain that you don't go out anymore."
"The idea that we'd stay in because of that," continued Lily
with a sniff. "Honestly, Cinderella, dear, for a modern girl you
have some delightfully old-world notions."
I looked at them all with their triumphant faces and felt my ground
slipping away from me.
"Well, maybe I will go" I said, too loudly. "Maybe I
will go after all. I haven't been out for a long time. It'll do me good."
"Of course dear," said stepmother in her most oozing tones.
"Of course you shall go if you want to. We'll have to see what
we can find you to wear."
I knew at that moment that I'd lost.
When I went to my old wardrobe to find my going-out clothes, I wasn't
surprised to find they'd disappeared.
"We needed the space," murmured stepmother, sounding apologetic,
" - and, well, to be honest dear, the money too. Some of them fetched
a good price at the seconds shop and you weren't wearing them any more."
"You could have asked," I protested, but without hope. "Oh,
I did," she assured me. "Of course I did, didn't I girls?"
Pause for the chorus of assent. "But you just weren't there, Ella
dear. You just shrugged and said 'whatever'. So I waited as long as
"Long as you could," I shouted. "Long as you could. Since
when did you wait for anything a moment longer than instant gratification?
We've got a whole great big house of space here - I should bloody well
know, I clean it. There was no need to get rid of them at all and you
fucking well know it."
Wicked stepmother gave one of those victimised sighs she's so good at
and looked to her daughters for support. Mimi immediately put her arm
"Well," she sighed again. "It's no good crying over spilt
milk. Maybe Mimi or Lily have something you could wear."
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