An alternative fairytale in bite-sized portions
Suitable for family reading
Harriet came down the stairs with an armful of dusky-pink silk.
Mistress stiffened, and Buttons nudged her hand with his nose. She looked down at him, and his eyes pleaded for Harriet. This time she seemed to understand.
‘That’s a nice colour,’ said Mistress, grudgingly. ‘What does it need?’
‘I dunno.’ Harriet shrugged. ‘It looked alright in the shop mirror when the salesgirl was fussing behind me, but in my bedroom mirror it looks like a mousy sack.’ She sighed. ‘You always look like a fashion doll, even in torn jeans and your Pa’s old shirts, but I reckon it’d take a magic wand to make me look good in this.’
She threw the gown over a chair and wandered to the mantelpiece where she picked up a photograph.
‘Your Ma looks like a princess in this photo. Your Pa told us she were an artist. Didn’t she paint that picture of him that used to hang in the hall?’
‘Try the dress on,’ said Mistress. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Buttons glanced towards the under-stairs cupboard, as if the door might fall open, revealing the Master’s portrait. But Mistress had concealed the painting well after the Baroness took it down. The old crow wouldn’t venture in among the spider-webs.
Mistress zipped Harriet into the flowing ballgown. Its lines were simple – like a tent.
‘It fits where it touches,’ she said. ‘I can take in the seams and add some darts.’ She circled, tucking and pinning, and stood back to view the result.
‘See what you think. There’s a mirror in the bedroom.’
The bedroom was a converted storeroom at the back of the basement. After a few minutes, Harriet sang out from the other room. ‘That’s magic! Even with pins in, it looks amazing.’
Mistress watched her stepsister returning with shoulders hunched and eyes lowered. ‘You won’t get to look shorter by stooping,’ she said as she unzipped Harriet. ‘Carry your height proudly. Think “swan”.’
‘Me? I’m an Uglie duckling.’ Harriet draped her ballgown over the back of the worn armchair. ‘Ma says my face is lopsided, and my nose is too big.’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Mistress. ‘It’s a noble nose.’
‘Don’t you mean knobbly?’ said Harriet, buttoning her blouse.
Mistress giggled. ‘No, I don’t. It’s perfectly straight. What’s more, it’s shorter than Tabitha’s and thinner than Abigail’s.’
Harriet raised her head, looked down her nose and crossed her eyes.
Mistress’s snort of laughter brought a smile in return. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen you laugh since your Pa died.’
Mistress stopped chuckling.
‘I miss him too, you know,’ said Harriet. ‘He always had time for us. Not the way you must miss him, of course.’ She sighed. ‘Not the way I still miss my Pa – even now.’
She picked up a shoe and hugged it. ‘He was like a hurricane sweeping through the room and carrying everyone along with him. He made me feel special.’
Mistress smiled. ‘Mine was more of a gentle breeze,’ she said. ‘But if something upset me, he knew how to make it seem… unimportant.’
Harriet nodded and Buttons relaxed as they all remembered the Master.