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First Chapterss


Finn Clarke

"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,

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 their excuse?"
"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.

Big mistake.

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 experienced manipulators.
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 hearts' content.

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 I could…."
"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 around her.
"Well," she sighed again. "It's no good crying over spilt milk. Maybe Mimi or Lily have something you could wear."

Continued on next page

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