My dad is an actor. He kept a huge collection of character masks in the attic. I remember strewing them all over the floor when I was about three. There were sad and happy masks, angry and surprised marks, fearful and laughing masks, old and young, male and female masks, and masks for every kind of animal.
Dad laughed when he caught me playing with them. He put on a bear mask and growled at me, and he gave me a cat mask so that I could miaow at him. The masks must have been quite valuable, but he never worried about my playing with them. My sister Ella-Jane and I used to go up to the attic on a rainy day to wear the masks, pretending to be fairies or Puffskeins or giants.
There were costumes, too, although they were all adult-sized. I coveted a sparkly robe, its fake diamonds flashing all colours of the rainbow, and a pair of high-heeled dancing shoes. Ella-Jane liked the pirate costume and the Muggle bikie's leather jacket, and we both liked the animal furs.
"When we grow up, we'll wear all of them," said Ella-Jane.
"And be actors like Daddy," I said.
But we never did grow large enough to wear Dad's costumes. They disappeared from our house when I was only five years old.
It was on my first day in Year One. I was very excited because I moved up into a new class in the Muggle primary school and I had brought home a real reading book. It had also been Ella-Jane's first half-day at nursery school, so I burst through the front door expecting Dad to talk about school all evening.
Both my little sisters were alone in the lounge. Molly-Rose was reeking of a dirty nappy and Ella-Jane was furiously pulling feathers out of a cushion.
"Ella-Jane, you know you aren't allowed to do that. Where's Mummy?"
"Don't be silly. Where's Daddy?"
"Ella-Jane, stop pulling that cushion. How was nursery?"
Ella-Jane looked surprised, as if she had forgotten about nursery school, and said, "Daddy's gone out, and Mummy's crying."
Mum walked in at that moment, and her eyes were red. "I haven't been crying," she lied. "Sally-Anne, let me show you how to wash your lunch box. What did you do at school?"
"He'll Floo later and explain." Mum sounded very weary, so I let her show me how to wash my lunch box and make tomorrow's sandwich. Then I had to read my reading book and pack my bag for the next day. The hands on the clock dragged until six o' clock, when the hearth finally flared with green flames, and Dad's head appeared.
"Daddy! Daddy!" Ella-Jane tripped over Molly-Rose in her eagerness to be first. I tried to carry Molly-Rose, now clean and combed, but she was too heavy for me, and Ella-Jane had monopolised Dad's attention.
"Hello, darling." Dad smiled lazily. "Blow me a kiss through the fireplace."
It was I who blew the kiss; Ella-Jane demanded, "Daddy, where have you been?"
Dad smiled again and said, "I have some news. I'm in Liverpool!"
"I've moved house. I'm living in my new house in Liverpool, and you can come and visit me here over the weekend."
"Oh. Why are we moving to Liverpool?" I asked.
"You're staying right where you are, fairy. I'm the only one who's moved. Mum will look after you, but you can come and visit my new family for the weekend."
I frowned. Ella-Jane burst out with, "We're your family, Daddy! Me and Mummy and Sally-Anne and Molly-Rose. You don't need a new family."
"Why?" I echoed.
"Mummy will explain it to you," said Dad, still smiling cheerfully. "But I have a brand-new family in Liverpool. It's for the best. Mummy and I weren't happy together, but she's agreed that we'll all be better off now that I've moved out."
Someone shouted from behind Dad.
"Must go!" he finished. "Tell Mummy to send you over at five o' clock on Friday. Sixty-six, Blender Street, Old Swan, Liverpool. Love you all until then!"
His head vanished, and Molly-Rose began to wail. Ella-Jane launched herself on Mum, shouting, "'Splain! 'Splain! Why does Daddy want a new family?"
Mum blew her nose. "Daddy loves another lady now. Perhaps he'll be happier now he's gone to live with her."
"Ella-Jane, stop hitting Mummy," I ordered. "It's Daddy who's moved out. Mummy, why does he love someone else?"
But Mum didn't know. And nor did any of us ever know.
* * * * * * *
On Friday I held Molly-Rose's arms and we whirled through the Floo together. She was crying when we staggered out of the stranger's grate in Old Swan, Liverpool. She was still grizzling even when Dad swept her up in his arms, telling her that everything was safe because Daddy was here. I didn't feel safe until Ella-Jane stumbled out of the grate a minute after us.
"So now we're all together!" said Dad. "One big, happy family. Come this way..." He led us out of the kitchen, past some stairs and into a living room. "Girls, I want you to meet your new stepmother. This is Cressida."
Cressida was scarily tall with long, spiky eyelashes and full, crimson lips. Emerald ear-bobs flashed from under her long, dark curls and there was a sharp-looking emerald brooch on her full bosom. Despite her plump figure, she looked altogether sharp and spiky. Molly-Rose was still grizzling; Ella-Jane was staring warily; and I said the first thing that came into my head.
"How can she be my stepmother when you haven't married her?"
Cressida tittered. "Who does get married nowadays? Flavian, if we don't teach these children tolerance for modern customs…"
"Sally-Anne," drawled Dad indulgently, "I wonder who taught you such judgmental attitudes?"
Cressida stopped tittering and her voice became as sharp as her brooch-pin. "We can guess that easily enough! I see that we have a wellspring of poison to stem. Now, girls…" Cressida plastered on her crimson smile. I couldn't help taking a step backwards as she approached. "Let me introduce your new sisters."
For the first time I noticed the two girls sitting in the armchair in the far corner. They were dressed alike, in green velvet dresses with large collars and cuffs of silvery lace, as if they were going to a Muggle party. They both had long, dark curls, round faces and freckles.
"This is Ursula; she is seven…"
The older girl ignored the introduction. She remained settled in the centre of the armchair, petting a black cat as if she had not heard.
"… And this is Cecilia, who is five, like Sally-Anne."
Cecilia, who was perched on the arm of the chair, giggled when she heard her name, but did not look up.
"This is Sally-Anne… and Ella-Jane… and darling little Molly-Rose."
There was another giggle from Cecilia and more silence from Ursula. For a moment Cressida looked deflated; she turned around to talk to Dad. The moment her back was turned, Ursula and Cecilia did look up and they both stuck out their tongues at us. Ella-Jane stuck her own tongue back out at them.
Cressida saw her. "Ella-Jane, that's rude! Merlin, didn't that mother of yours teach you any manners?"
"I daresay she's too young to know," said Dad helplessly. He knew that Ella-Jane had been taught about rude faces.
"Let's cook," said Cressida abruptly. "We'll leave the children to play together."
As soon as the lounge door closed, Ursula and Cecilia exchanged glances and burst into dialogue.
"These are just babies!"
"I thought they'd be prettier. Flavian is handsome, but his daughters are plain."
"Plain like boys."
"That's because of their clothes. Sally-Anne and Ella-Jane dress like boys!"
"Muggle boys without manners. The baby cries; the toddler pulls rude faces…"
"… And the girl asks rude questions!"
"Perhaps she goes to a Muggle school. Muggle playgrounds are supposed to be rude places."
"Rude and rough. Our Mummy wouldn't let us go to a Muggle school."
"But I bet it isn't just the school. I bet that girl learned her bad manners from her Mummy. I bet her Mummy told her that the divorce was all our Mummy's fault, because rude, ugly people never admit that the divorce was their own fault."
"Like our Daddy."
"Like our bullying Daddy and their rude-mannered Mummy!"
I couldn't shut out the sound of their giggling, but I turned my back so that I couldn't see their pointing and grinning. They didn't want to play with us, but there must be something to do in this house. I was facing shelves of toys – dolls, hairdressing sets, boxes of beadwork and découpage, boxes of paints and clay – but I had better sense than to touch their belongings. It took me a moment to realise what was missing.
There were no books.
I had been looking for a picture book to "read" to Ella-Jane and Molly-Rose, but there wasn't a single book in the room. There was no piano, either, and the small collection of board games looked as if they had never been played. I wondered if I dared help myself to the box of Snakes and Lions. I reached out my hand.
"Hands off!" snapped Cecilia. "Those are our toys."
"Oh, I have a plan!" giggled Ursula. "Let them play their divvy Snakes and Lions if they want to. I've had a much better idea!"
She picked up a jar of sequins from a high shelf and scattered them all over the carpet. She handed Cecilia a jar of buttons to throw around. Then she took a basket of art supplies and began to unscrew the lids on the paint tubes.
"Naughty!" said Ella-Jane.
Ursula squirted a tube of purple paint in Ella-Jane's face before beginning work on the walls and carpet. Cecilia smuggled a tube of orange into Molly-Rose's fist, then grabbed two different greens and helped Ursula.
"Don't!" I begged Molly-Rose. "Give it to Sally-Anne. Naughty paint!" But Molly-Rose was only about eighteen months old and of course she had squeezed out half the tube before I could coax it off her. Her overalls were filthy, and Ella-Jane, bumping the wall to escape Ursula, was also smeared.
When Cressida opened the door to tell us that dinner was ready, Ursula and Cecilia, still pristine clean, were lined up in front of her, pointing at the painted carpet. They both spoke with one voice.
"Sally-Anne and Ella-Jane did it! It was Sally-Anne's idea."
* * * * * * *
"Julia, don't worry so much." Dad was speaking to Mum through the Floo. "Relax! There's a little cash flow problem this end, but you'll have the money by the end of the week."
I don't know how many times my parents had this conversation. Dad was always calm and relaxed, and he always promised to pay the child support "soon". Money usually did turn up, but never as early as he promised, and never the full amount that he owed.
Mum appealed to the Office for Social Services for benefits; but she was never quite entitled to anything from the Ministry because Dad could "afford" to support her himself. Mum would point out that he had defaulted on his payments; a wizard from the Office would follow it up; and Dad would always promise to pay "soon". On paper, in the Ministry filing cabinet, we didn't look like an abandoned family, because Dad always paid something sooner or later, and he was charmingly honest about his lateness. In practice, however, there was never quite enough cash for new shoes or Floo powder, and we sometimes received ugly letters from Gringotts about our mortgage repayments.
"Julia, you need to stop and smell the roses. Make time for bubble baths and art galleries – play your piano – take a holiday – marry again – it's all in your attitude!"
Dad's grin was so infectious that I thought he must be right. Mum didn't have much fun.
"Look honestly at my past track record," Dad pleaded. "I sent those Connect-a-Hex blocks for Ella-Jane's birthday, as well as the tickets for Dudley Zoo and the crate of Easter eggs. You know I don't neglect my children, and of course there will be gold in your account just as soon as Gringotts has processed my royalties. Oh… Cressida wants a word. Something about arrangements for next weekend. Well, I'm busy recording a new album, so must dash!"
It was only when Dad's head vanished from the fire that I remembered that the larder was empty. Dad sent us presents and funded excursions, but he didn't understand that we needed money for food.
Cressida was angry, her nose sharp and pointed in her round face. "Julia, how dare you slander Flavian to your children? It doesn't matter how inadequate you feel about your failed marriage: talking about infidelity in front of the girls is instructing them to take sides."
Mum was angry too: her face was white and stiff. "It was Ursula who told Sally-Anne that Flavian had been unfaithful. Sally-Anne only asked me if it was true. Was I supposed to lie?"
"You were supposed to tell her not to poke her nose where it doesn't belong. You certainly have no right to use judgmental words like 'adultery'. You are ruining this family with your spiteful gossip. Have you considered how it damages your children to be turned against their father like that? If any more psychological abuse occurs, Flavian will apply for custody."
After Cressida had gone, Mum turned to me uncertainly. "Sally-Anne… you do love your Dad, don't you?"
"Of course we love Dad!" I was suddenly terrified. "Mum… if they thought we didn't love Dad… why would they make us live with him? Wouldn't it be more sensible to stop us visiting him at all? Mum! Are they going to stop us visiting Dad?"
"No." Mum sighed wearily. "As long as you love both of us, you'll carry on living with me and visiting Dad. It's only if the Wizengamot thinks that something's gone wrong… Well, the Wizengamot doesn't seem to understand how real families work."
"Cressida's the one I don't love," I complained bitterly. "She's horrible."
Mum sprang to her feet with real alarm. "Sally-Anne, don't ever let anyone hear you say that! We could all be in serious trouble if… they… thought you didn't like your stepmother. Tell yourself you love her as much as an aunt, and everything will be fine for all of us."
I thought of fat, vague, kindly Auntie Begonia, who worked in Grandpa's bookshop and always had her nose buried in a leather-bound volume. I thought of glamorous, graceful Aunt Odette, who danced in a Muggle ballet company, and of all my grand-aunts, both magical and Muggle. I thought of Great-Grand-Aunt Alexandra Plumpton, who was still agile enough to fly her broomstick to cloud-height by midnight and whose Polishing Charms kept Great-Grand-Uncle Roddy's Quidditch trophies shining clearer than glass. I knew I could never dislike any of them as much as I disliked Cressida.
* * * * * * *
After about a year of these squabbles, Mum went back to work. I was starting Year Two with my skirt too short and my shoes too tight. Ella-Jane was starting Reception, clutching at my hand because Mum couldn't be there to show her to her classroom and make sure she handed over her medical forms. Mum took Molly-Rose through the Floo to Madam Alma's Sunny House in Diagon Alley, then Apparated home so that she could walk to her job as a clerk at the Muggle steelworks. Mum worked eight or nine hours a day, checking other people's numbers, typing up letters, telephoning instructions through to Dispatch, and brewing the important employees' coffee.
"It sounds boring," complained Ella-Jane.
"That's what the workforce is like," said Mum. "You can all have your new shoes next week – isn't that worth it?"
"No," said Ella-Jane frankly.
Ella-Jane and I came home to an empty house. Ella-Jane always wanted to play outside, but I made her read her flash cards and wash her lunch box before she went outdoors. She whined that I was bossy, but she shut up when I asked, "Do you want Mum to have to do the jobs this evening?"
After Ella-Jane had crawled under the garden fence to play with the Muggle boys next door, I would read my own book to myself, write down the number of pages I had read and scribble "JMP" so that it looked as if Mum had signed it. Then I would learn my spelling or tables, make tomorrow's sandwiches for all of us and lay the table for dinner. Mum had usually left dinner cooking in a slow oven, so I only had to peel vegetables. After that, I would mop the kitchen floor, then go upstairs to clean up the bathroom. Mum could have done it all much faster by using magic, but when she stumbled through the Floo at half-past six, clutching Molly-Rose in one arm and her briefcase in the other, she always looked so exhausted that I was glad I had saved her the job.
At dinner, little Molly-Rose would perch on three telephone directories next to Mum, picking at her food without any appetite. She never said a word unless Mum coaxed a brief "Yes" or "No" out of her. Mum always tried to talk over dinner. She asked about our day, even when she was too tired to hear our answers properly.
"We dug down to Australia, Mum!" Ella-Jane usually had dirt smeared all over her face to prove her point. "We nearly reached the end of the earth's crust; I bet we go through the mantle tomorrow! And we climbed the next-door tree and dropped water-bombs. You'll never guess who walked past – it was Sally-Anne's teacher, Mrs Prunefrown. We dropped a big one on her. It serves her right for being mean to Sally-Anne at school!"
"Sally-Anne, is this true? What did Mrs Prunefrown do?"
"She shouted at me in P.E. because I couldn't climb the rope. I was trying, Mum, but I'm not good at P.E. Mrs Prunefrown shouts at everyone equally."
"She's just mean, mean, mean!" chanted Ella-Jane. "I hope I'm never in her class. She's nearly as mean as Cressida. No, she isn't. No one in the world could be as mean as Cressida."
"Ella-Jane, be careful…" I began.
"Shut your mouth! It's the truth. The only people who are nearly as mean as Cressida are Ursula and Cecilia. They shout at us more than Mrs Prunefrown shouts at her class."
After dinner, Mum used magic to wash up, but then there was the pile of laundry to sort between bathing Molly-Rose and writing the shopping lists. These jobs were not very much slower without magic, so Mum soon had me helping with them. I always finished the day just as tired as Mum – there were never any late nights in our family, not even on Saturday.
On Saturdays Mum went charring at the neighbours' homes. She would unlock the front doors with a Muggle key. Molly-Rose stood behind her, clutching a picture-book; Ella-Jane stood behind Molly-Rose, carrying a large, plain-bound book; and I stood behind Ella-Jane, carrying a bucket of potions and powders. The Muggle family was usually out, so Mum could use magic to clean their house. The spells were all in the plain-bound book that had been Great-Grandma Flourish's wedding present to Mum: it had old-fashioned charms to operate mangles and sweep chimneys, old-fashioned recipes for mixing home-made cleaning powders and disinfectants that we could nowadays buy from Skweekerkleen's in Diagon Alley, and old-fashioned etiquette tips for how to write a christening invitation and how to dress for a funeral.
"I would never use a mangle," said Ella-Jane. "And I would never go to a christening either."
"You would if you lived in those days," I said. "Everyone was christened then. I think it's a nice idea; it welcomes the baby. And everyone had a mangle too. They didn't have another way of drying their clothes."
"Why didn't they just use a Drying Charm?"
Mum used the Desiccatio all the time on the baths and ovens that she cleaned. She looked up from the dirty toilet now and patiently explained, "Because that would make creases in the clothes. Yes, we do it that way nowadays, but nowadays the ironing is much easier."
Mum could set up a laundry sequence – wash, rinse, squeeze, dry, air, iron, fold – in just a couple of minutes. Then she would leave it alone, and by the time she had cleaned the rest of the house, she would have a beautiful pile of perfectly clean clothes, ready to be returned to their wardrobes. She could clean a bathroom in about five minutes, using a combination of Cleaning Charms and cleaning agents. Kitchens took only a little longer. Mum's Pulvinexpulso charm ripped the dust out of a carpet in a matter of seconds – she never went near those Muggle vacuum cleaners – and a jet of Aguamenti followed by a Scourgify polished up the most stubborn window. Molly-Rose would follow her around with a little duster, pretending to be useful, but of course her pretend-cleaning could never keep pace with magic. Mum did jobs that had never been mentioned in her contract: polishing up wooden furniture, dusting out the insides of cupboards (without removing the contents), stitching up leaky pillows and cushions with Consuo, tending pot-plants with Floresco, even resetting the clocks and tuning the pianos. It wasn't surprising that her clients were delighted with her work.
Mum could work much, much faster than any Muggle char-lady. But it still took a great deal of time and energy to clean five houses in one day. And, of course, if the family should happen to be home, she couldn't use magic at all.