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,”
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“Sally-Anne and Ella-Jane did it! It was
* * * * * * *
“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
“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
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
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
“Sally-Anne, is this true? What did Mrs
“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
“Why didn’t they just use a Drying
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
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.