The house was old. They were older. The sisters. They celebrated Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Cried at her funeral. At least if they hadn’t actually seen these events they witnessed it all in the newspapers. The house full of newspapers. Paper bags within paper bags. Letters. Photographs. Pieces of brocade. Satin. Ribbons. Lockets. Hair. Broken spectacles. Medicine bottles. Empty. Foreign coins. Trunks. Cases. Cake. Biscuit tins. And mice. The child never knew whether it was the mice or one of her aunts wheezing in the long nights. Or maybe just the wind from the sea. The downs. Whistling in the chimney. Other nights she knew it was Aunt Molly battling with her asthma. Or Aunt Sally sucking tea from a saucer. And the bed creaked in the room below. As grandma turned over. Back again. From the waist up. Did she have legs? The child thought of them. Thought she saw them like sticks under the sheet. About to thrust up. With barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging. The old woman’s flesh. Scaly. Her eyes like someone just risen from the ocean bed. But then she was grandma. And all grandmothers must look like that. Confined to an enormous bed. Yet not so enormous. For she filled all parts. At all times. As she filled the house with her demands. Commands. In her little girl’s voice. When not eating. Not sleeping. Whined for the bedpan. Another cup of tea. And if Aunt Sally stopped making kitchen noises then she whined for the bedpan again and accused her younger sister of indulging in forty winks. For the house belonged to grandma. Every item down to the shrimp pink corset and purple dress Aunt Sally wore had been billed to grandma. She after all had been married. And no one now would point out she had stolen Aunt Molly’s intended. That a long time ago. And he who had made the mistake by proposing in a letter from India to the wrong sister had long since departed. They lived as best. The three. In the worst. Through thick and thin. They lived their roles. Respected. Detested. Each other’s virtues. Little vices. Whims. And waited for the day the child’s father would pay a visit. That day would surely be tomorrow. If not tomorrow then the next day. When Nicholas Montague. Monty to them all. Would tread the path. Into the house. Receive their love. And tell them of his travels. Successes. Though Aunt Molly would look past him. As if she recognised in his shadow some remembered dream. Go on sorting out little bundles of letters. Comb her long white hair. Thin. So thin it was more of a veil covering her head. Face of crushed carnation that sprouted from the black bent root of velvet. The child would look past him too. Perhaps. At the portrait. For comparison. While Aunt Sally clucked around him. Teeth clicking. Little bird eyes upon the nephew who could do no wrong. If he did a wrong in others’ eyes then he did it because there was no alternative.
The days grew into each and out of each night. With the habits. Dreams. Tales of days gone by. The horse-drawn buses. Dinner. Tennis parties. Musical evenings. Picnic outings with cousins by the Thames. Sunday strolls in Kew Gardens. And the Crystal Palace. For the child these stories merged with those of The Goose Girl. The Snow Queen. And Cinderella. Each of these she was. Saw her aunts as grown ancient but with a wave of the magic wand they would change into beautiful queens with quick queenly steps. She felt sure her father would have this wand. Transform the old castle on the hill. The old ladies. Herself. Into a magical world where they would all live together happily ever after.
Weeks. Months. Years. Came. Went. After hours of anticipation. The child saw the calendar only in the mirror. She was still not taller than Aunt Sally. She thought the day would never come when she would be . . .
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