Ella-Jane never did have to use a mangle, but she ended up having no choice about attending a christening. For, of course, we had to spend half our weekends at Dad’s house. And in due course, there was a christening in Dad’s family.
Cressida had persuaded Dad not to invite us to their wedding, probably because she didn’t trust Ella-Jane to keep silent when the officiant asked whether anyone knew of any just cause or impediment to the marriage. But nine months later, she had an abrupt change of policy. She suddenly decided that the birth of their son was an occasion to make a public demonstration of family unity and rejoicing. She needed the whole family, right down to third cousins, to drink champagne and eat cake in the new baby’s honour.
“Isn’t he handsome?” Dad was glowing like a lamp in the week after little Xavier’s birth. “I think he’ll grow up to be an actor like me. Look, Sally-Anne – isn’t your little brother bursting with talent? Look at that yawn! I think he has the Plumpton nose.”
Molly-Rose stood up on tip-toe to look and grabbed at Xavier’s arm. Dad smiled indulgently, but Cressida was furious.
“Hands off! Flavian, you might remember that newborns are fragile and keep the little ragamuffins away from him.”
“Yes, yes,” said Dad lazily. “I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm. Be careful, girls. Isn’t it amazing to have a boy at last after all those girls?”
Ursula’s eyes narrowed at these words, but she giggled in a silly falsetto. She waited until Dad had laid Xavier on the lambskin and was looking the other way before she gave his eye a careful poke. I came running when Xavier shrieked, which was a mistake, because Cecilia announced, “Sally-Anne did it!”
“Oh, rubbish, Sally-Anne was nowhere near him,” said Dad.
“Ella-Jane!” Cressida interrupted the baby’s howls. “What were you doing?”
“Ursula did it,” said Ella-Jane.
“No, Molly-Rose did it,” said Ursula. “This is the second time she’s hurt the baby. She must be jealous.”
Dad carried Molly-Rose up to sit in the bathroom and cool off her jealousy. “Let’s talk about something happy,” he said when he returned to the rest of us. “Clothes. You’ll all need new dress-robes for the christening. Mummy and I thought it would be nice if our five daughters were dressed alike. Madam Twilfitt has designed a special velvet robe just for our family, but we still haven’t chosen the colour. What do you think?”
“Black,” said Ursula.
“Red,” said Ella-Jane.
“Green,” said Cecilia.
“Who’s going to pay for it?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t fuss, Sally-Anne,” said Cressida. “This is a special occasion!”
My brother’s christening was a very special occasion, for it was Molly-Rose’s third birthday. But no one had made her a cake, and there were no presents for her in Dad’s house. The elaborate three-tiered fruit cake in the centre of the dining table in Liverpool was only for the toothless new baby, and so were the piles of beribboned parcels from the Honeysmooches, the Plumptons, the Hepplewhites, the Bergamots, the Selwyns, the Vances, the Podmores and the Brocklehursts. Only the Perkses were inconspicuous, for Grandpa Perks was a Muggle, and his relatives didn’t count on this glorious wizarding occasion.
Our new dress-robes were of purple velvet (Cressida had ended up not giving any of us a choice) with bright amethyst-and-silver buttons.
“Birthday cake for Molly-Wose?” asked Molly-Rose hopefully, as I helped her with her buttons.
“Cake later,” I said. “And perhaps a special cake for Molly-Rose when we go back to Mum’s house.”
“Sally-Anne!” rebuked Ursula. “Don’t make Mummy or Flavian sound tight! Remember that they’ve had to fork out for this expensive christening with no help from their exes! Daddy was so mingy; he wouldn’t pay a Knut, not even for these dress-robes.”
“Daddy is mingy,” echoed Cecilia dutifully.
“He’s just had a promotion,” boasted Ursula. “He’s now Lord of all Muck in the Ministry. But does that give him a Sickle extra for his own daughters? No, all he cares about is throwing Galleons at the debt on his fancy wedding. And our new stepmother is gopping.”
I wasn’t sure what “gopping” meant, but Ella-Jane had enough of the idea to remind them, “You shouldn’t say bad things about your stepmother, or they might make you go and live with her.”
“Give your chin a rest, Ella-Jane. What do you know about it?”
Xavier screamed when the Vicar poured cold water over his face. He did not sound at all interested in fighting valiantly against the world, the flesh and the Devil; he just wanted to fight off the Servant of Christ who was wetting him. The Vicar ignored this ingratitude and pronounced that his name was Xavier Marlow.
“I wanted to name him after someone in the theatre,” said Dad proudly. I wondered who Xavier Marlow had been, and it was clear that all the christening guests were wondering that too.
Ella-Jane, Molly-Rose and I were extremely glad to stumble through the Floo back to Mum’s house. Mum had indeed baked a birthday cake, shaped like a rabbit and covered in pink icing, but she was also frowning over a manila envelope.
“Mum, what is it? Bad news?”
“Just grown-up stuff, darling. Let’s light the candles for Molly-Rose.”
“Is it money?” Grown-up stuff was usually about money.
Mum sighed. “Did your stepmother give you new dresses this weekend? That was sweet of her, but I do wish she’d told me the plan before she sent me the bill. Come on. Candles.”
After Molly-Rose had blown out her three candles and unwrapped the new picture books from Grandma and Grandpa Flourish, we put her to bed. Ella-Jane was asleep in her chair (Aunt Odette hadn’t been quite quick enough to stop her drinking a glass of alcoholic punch), so Mum put her to bed too, while I sneaked a look at Cressida’s bill. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Five hundred Galleons!
Just for dress-robes? All right, they were real velvet, but we hadn’t asked for velvet. And this wasn’t a request for half the price, which might have been fair if Mum had agreed in advance that we needed the robes. Mum was being charged for all of it.
Wait a minute… all of it. I squinted at the bill, which was in Tabitha Twilfitt’s grown-up, slanting writing. Sixty amethyst buttons? There had only been twelve on each robe. I was quite good at the multiplication table now.
“Mum!” I exclaimed, as soon as she returned to the kitchen. “Mum, I think they’re trying to make you pay for Ursula and Cecilia as well as for Ella-Jane, Molly-Rose and me. And they’re making you pay all, not just half, even though we’ve had to leave the robes behind in Liverpool. Mum, I think they – I mean – Cressida’s cheating!” Not Dad, I told myself. Dad wouldn’t cheat deliberately. Dad just didn’t understand money very well. But Cressida… She hadn’t been able to make her ex-husband pay, so she was trying to trick Mum into paying instead.
Mum didn’t even bother to tell me off for being rude about my stepmother. “Sally-Anne, do you know how difficult it will be to challenge this bill? If we request a Wizengamot hearing, it will cost us more than five hundred Galleons anyway.”
“Can’t we just ignore it?”
“We could try, but then your father will take it to the Wizengamot, and we’ll probably end up paying the court costs after all, as well as the cost of the robes.”
“Well… can we sell the robes? I hated mine. It was all scratchy.”
“Darling, this is my problem, not yours. Just… just go to bed so that you’ll be ready for school tomorrow. Oh dear, oh dear, and I had only just managed to clear the last lot of debts that they dumped on me! If we want to stay in this house, I’ll be charring for a long time yet!”
* * * * * * *
“And I will be faithful to you as long as we both shall live…”
Mum decided to remarry when I was nine; Ella-Jane was seven and Molly-Rose was five. The wedding was to be in an ordinary Anglican church with an ordinary Muggle Rector, because our new stepfather was a Muggle – an industrial maintenance mechanic whom Mum had met through work. I wondered if he would really be faithful to Mum “as long as they both lived”.
“Sally-Anne, don’t worry. This is different – so different – from when I married your father.” Mum had fallen into the habit of talking to me like an adult. She kept saying, “Don’t worry,” but then she’d tell me her worries. “Let’s be honest: I married your Dad for his looks and because the theatre life seemed exciting. I’m marrying Raymond because he’s truly a friend. He was loyal to his first wife, so he has a good track record.”
I nearly asked why Raymond had left his first wife, but I caught myself in time: divorced people became angry when you asked about their divorces.
Mum answered my unasked question. “It was she who left him; she fell in love with someone else six or seven years ago. Raymond’s been on his own all that time and he’s a very good father.”
“Oh, no,” said Ella-Jane, who could never be trusted not to listen at doors. “Not more stepsisters!”
“Definitely not,” said Mum. “This time it’s stepbrothers. Jeremy is ten and Christopher is eight. Do try not to let magic happen around them, girls – they still believe it doesn’t exist. We’ll have to tell them eventually, of course, but let them get used to us as human beings before they think about us as witches. Now, what colour shall we choose for the bridesmaids’ dresses?”
Molly-Rose did not look up from her book: she had progressed to chaptered stories and was an avid reader. Ella-Jane turned up her nose and muttered something about wearing jeans to the wedding. So in the end Mum and I made the decision by ourselves. Yellow didn’t suit our mousy complexions; the new stepbrothers probably wouldn’t agree to pink waistcoats; blue would be difficult to match to flowers… In the end, we agreed on a lovely cherry-red that could be matched to red roses, and even Ella-Jane was happy.
Cressida made a fuss. She tried to say that the wedding had been timed for Dad’s access period, even though it was right in the middle of Mum’s section of the summer holidays, and she tried to say that Dad had never agreed to the “religious indoctrination” that we would receive from spending a single hour of our lives in a church. She complained that the bridesmaids’ dresses looked too Muggle and couldn’t be worn again, even though they were only hired and Grandma Flourish was paying, and she complained that the Muggle stepbrothers would be a “toxic influence” on girls who were “already poisoned against the best sectors of wizarding society”.
Actually Jeremy and Christopher looked very harmless. They both had dark hair like Raymond; Jeremy was tall and wore glasses, while Christopher was stocky and arrived at the church with his hair uncombed and his cherry-red waistcoat half-unbuttoned.
Mum and Raymond were allowed to be married in church even though they were both divorced. “It’s a good church,” said Raymond. “They allow for human nature. They deliver food parcels to unemployed people and there’s a Sunday School programme – why don’t we try it out sometime?”
“Yes, let’s!” I agreed. “Oh… but, Ella-Jane, don’t tell Cressida!”
Ella-Jane said a rude word. “I never tell Cressida anything!”
At first Ella-Jane gave Raymond a hard time. She argued when he told her go to bed; she ignored him when he told her to put on her shoes and walked through the streets in stocking feet; she whined in the back of his car about wanting sweets and nearly caused an accident. When Raymond found me drying the dishes as well as washing them, while Ella-Jane lounged in front of his television with her homework untouched, he almost lost his temper. But in the end, Ella-Jane had to admit that Raymond was good for Mum, and not just because he had provided us with the amazing Muggle television set.
We never found out what Molly-Rose thought because she rarely said anything to anyone; Ella-Jane talked enough for both of them.
Mum was able to give up her charring jobs so that we could have family time on Saturday. She was less tired, and we would go to museums or amateur football matches over the weekend. Raymond found the money to pay for my piano lessons, and even talked about saving up to buy bikes so that we could cycle alongside the canal, which he had always dreamed of doing with his own sons.
We got along well with the boys, too. Jeremy talked about books with Molly-Rose and music with me and taught both of us to play draughts. Christopher climbed trees and dug holes with Ella-Jane; her proudest moment was when Christopher’s teacher happened to walk past and ask, “Christopher, is this your brother?” But we only saw them once every couple of months, because Cressida usually arranged to have us in Liverpool when the boys were due to be in Hereford. She said that Ella-Jane and Molly-Rose were too young to understand the Statute of Secrecy and they might leak something out to “those hooligan boys”. We really only saw our stepbrothers at all because their own mother was so disorganised that they sometimes turned up at our house unexpectedly.
On Sundays Mum and Raymond went to church, taking with them whichever children were resident. All of us liked the church more than we had expected to. We made new friends, who invited us round to their houses, and we joined a roster that helped elderly people with their shopping and gardening. Ella-Jane and Christopher found that the Sunday School teacher allowed children to wear jeans to church and that the crafts were satisfyingly messy, while Molly-Rose loved the Bible stories.
I did wonder whether there was a deeper meaning to this religious hobby. It was difficult to keep track of the spiritual messages when I could only attend church every other week. I learned that God had made the world (obvious) and that He loved everyone no matter what (good to know) and that He wanted us to share our possessions and do our work without complaining (one would certainly hope so!). I asked Jeremy if he thought it was true that God really answered prayer, but Jeremy didn’t know.
* * * * * * *
Unfortunately, the improved financial situation only lasted about six months. Then Cressida realised that Mum was in a two-income family.
“It is so unfair that you ask Flavian to pay for their school excursions and new shoes,” she told Mum through the Floo. “Why do they want to go on those Muggle excursions anyway? You know very well that Flavian has Xavier and my girls to support now; he shouldn’t have to maintain two homes. Get your new fellow to pay for something for a change!”
At about the same time, Raymond’s ex-wife and her second husband came to the same conclusion. Mr and Mrs Bufton were like Muggle versions of Dad; nothing ever worried them because nothing was ever their responsibility. Every time Mrs Bufton dropped the boys off at our house, there was the same argument.
“Jeremy and Christopher are your sons too,” she would say. “You can’t expect Clinton to support them – he’s already putting their food on the table six days out of seven, and we have two children of our own to consider. And it would be wrong of me to go out to work while Nathan and Adam are so young. Yes, yes, I know you’ve acquired three stepdaughters, but you’ve also acquired a working wife – can’t she support her own children? What about her ex? Let him pay for something for a change!”
I ran my fingers over the ancient piano that Great-Grandmother Plumpton no longer wanted, but the scale of D major could not drown out Mum and Raymond’s worried discussion after the Buftons had departed.
“I spend as much on my sons’ food and clothes as you do on your daughters’,” said Raymond. “And I have only two! If the money isn’t lasting, am I subsidising the Buftons’ mortgage?”
“Could you offer to pay goods in kind instead of cash? That’s what Flavian offered me – although, in his case, the only ‘goods’ that arrived were those party dresses three years ago, for which I ended up paying. Oh dear, I only asked him to pay for half of the girls’ expenses, but Cressida seems to think I want him to pay for everything.”
Mum applied for a small promotion, which resulted in a higher salary but longer hours. Raymond took on more mechanical contracts, which resulted in more wages but more hours away from home, sometimes even at the weekend. Fortunately, I was now old enough to manage the stove safely, so most evenings I could help by cooking the dinner. After Mum came home, I could borrow her wand to cast some of her household charms; it wasn’t really allowed, but it was a more efficient way to clean the house, and how was the Ministry to know which of us had done the magic?
On Saturdays I went down to the Muggle supermarket to select our food and organise a delivery. One afternoon the lorry arrived while Raymond was out, and Mum didn’t have enough cash in her purse to pay for it. It was so embarrassing! Fortunately I had enough in my dragon-bank to make up the difference.
“Mum, you had money yesterday. What happened?”
She bit her lip. “Cressida came right into the lounge after you were in bed. She said I had to pay my share of the trip to Cornwall that you’ll all be taking over the Easter holidays. What could I do? I couldn’t let her start a figh… I mean, the argument might have been loud, and Raymond might have tried to intervene. So I gave her the money; I hope I can sort it out with your father next weekend.”
“Mum, let me see your bills. I think I should be managing the money in this family. And if we can’t afford extra holidays, we just won’t go!”
Needless to say, when Mum complained to Dad, he lazily replied that the girls needed a holiday and that we couldn’t not go because it was all scheduled for his access week. Needless to say, Cressida managed to reschedule the trip for the other week of the school holidays and to announce that the Perks girls didn’t deserve to go because we had been “ganging up” on Cecilia.
We did not go to Cornwall. Mum did not get her money back. But I did end up balancing the books for the Perks–Slater household. All I managed to prove was how many more hours Mum and Raymond would have to work in order to pay the debts that Dad, Cressida and the Buftons poured down on them.
“Enough is enough,” said Raymond. “Jeremy and Christopher are mine, and I won’t neglect Sally-Anne, Ella-Jane or Molly-Rose. But it isn’t my job to support Adam, Nathan, Xavier, Ursula and Cecilia as well. We’ll show them Sally-Anne’s numbers and pay only what’s fair.”
The next Friday evening Cressida arrived in our lounge in a very good mood. “I have delightful news!” she announced. “Odette has finally hit the zenith of her career – she is dancing Swan Lake tomorrow night.”
I was surprised; Cressida had always seemed to despise Aunt Odette’s Muggle ballet company and her string of Muggle husbands.
“Odette is dancing the part of Odette,” Cressida repeated. “She’s finally a prima donna! We’re taking the children to the première performance tomorrow night. I’m sure you’ll appreciate what an important family occasion this is, cultural experiences aside, so we’ve booked dress-circle seats.”
We all knew immediately what was going to happen. Before Cressida had time to demand that Mum should pay for our tickets, Raymond moved to the centre of the room and looked her straight in the eye. “It sounds great,” he said. “You’re lucky to be able to afford it, Cressida, for we certainly can’t.”
“What?” Cressida slid her wand into her hand. “No, of course we can’t afford to take six children, Raymond. I’m here to tell Julia that – ”
“Don’t bother.” Raymond spoke quietly, yet somehow Cressida shut up. In that moment, I knew I loved him like an uncle. “If Odette can’t supply her nearest relations with free tickets, then I’m sure she understands that the children can’t watch her dance until they are old enough to earn their own spending money. I actually believe that it’s quite good for children not to have luxuries before they’ve learned to work for them.”
“What… you think…” Cressida spluttered; then she recovered her composure. “Oh, mind your own business, you Muggle drongo. Cornifors! Furnunculus! Crures Flaccidae!”
Raymond crumpled to the ground as if his legs were jelly. Horns were sprouting from his head and boils were erupting over his skin. My stepparents each took a long glance of derision at the other, then Cressida abruptly Disapparated.
Mum cast a Finite Incantatem while I helped Raymond to his feet. After that, I really didn’t want to walk through the Floo to Dad’s house for the access weekend, but I reminded myself that none of this had been Dad’s idea. After all, he was Dad.
On Saturday evening, Dad and Cressida left my sisters and me alone in their house while they took Xavier and the girls to watch Aunt Odette’s ballet.
“I can’t imagine what you must have done to deserve this punishment,” sneered Ursula. “After all, Aunt Odette did send eight free tickets.”