I come downstairs just as the girls are ready to go out – they had spent so much time getting ready and now I can see the end result of their ‘finery’ – their hair, the fake tan, the spiders’ legs coatings of mascara. All that time and money does not disguise their thickened waists. Rowena at 5’11” is taller than me, just, but in her 4” stiletto heels she towers above me, and Angelica is wearing thigh-high black boots and a very short leather skirt, of the type I have heard described as a pussy pelmet. I didn’t understand how Melinda could let them go out like that. Since I only assumed the role of step-father just as they were going into their teens I have never felt I have any authority over these girls and they treat me with disdain.
Melinda arrives in a gush of exuberant compliments. She can’t wait to see her darlings before they go out and I can so clearly see the similarity between her and her daughters: the coarseness and petulance if everything doesn’t go their way. Of course in the early days I couldn’t see that, smitten as I was, still grieving for my first wife.
The girls call me Albert.
“Hey, Albert,” said Rowena, “What d’ew think?” She strikes a pose.
“Will you be warm enough?” I ask her, “without a coat?”
Three pairs of eyes are raised to the ceiling and I shrug as I pick up my newspaper.
“Have a lovely time,” I say.
“Can we have a lift, Mum?” says Rowena. “ Per-lease,” and she indulges them, says she’ll drive them to the party, which is starting early for fireworks at one of their friends’ houses, before they go onto a big party elsewhere, and by the way did I remember that she is going out with her own friends afterwards? So suddenly there is peace in the home and as the kitchen is the warmest place I sit by the Aga with the crossword, cheese on toast, an orange and a mug of tea.
Ella comes in not much later at about 7.30 pm, following her shift at the fuel station. She looks tired and sits down opposite me on the milking stool with her back to the heat, nursing a mug of instant coffee.
“Are you going out tonight?” I ask her.
“Not sure I can be bothered Dad,” she says, “I’m pretty tired.”
“Seems a shame, to waste a Friday night, love.”
“Well, I’m not sure. Give me half an hour to think about it.” She stretches her neck, then stifles a yawn. “Anything on the box, Dad?” she asks.
“I haven’t looked yet, love. Shall I get you something to eat?”
“I’ll have something later,” she says.
I glance at my watch then take my mug and plate of crumbs and orange peel to the sink.
“I’d better ring Granny before she thinks I’ve forgotten her,” I say, steeling myself for the ear bending my 87 year-old mother is likely to give me about my wife and step-daughters given half a chance.
“Give her my love,” says Ella.
When I came back to the kitchen Ella has moved to the rocking chair and has fallen fast asleep, so I pull the blanket over her and go into the sitting room and light the fire, pour myself a large G and T and settle down to watch my DVD of ’The Two Ronnies’ as there is nothing worth watching on the box. Next time I look at my watch it is 9 pm and I can hear chatter in the kitchen.
Ella is standing on a stool wearing a ball gown and Rose, her godmother is working her way around the bottom of the skirt, with a mouthful of pins.
“What are you two up to?” I say, with a grin. Rose stands up and relieves her mouth of the pins.
“Bertie, I’m glamorising your wonderful daughter,” says Rose, “as I have a project in mind.”
Ella was enjoying herself.
“What do you think, Pa?”
The dress is beautiful; a long, pale-blue, silky-soft dress that skims her body.
“Very, very…” I say, hesitating, “well, very beautiful, Darling, but when will you have a chance to wear a dress like that?”
“Aha!” says Rose, “let me explain.”
The dress is an old ball gown of Rose’s great aunt, it turns out. Rose had the task of sorting out the house after the aunt had died a few years ago, and she had come across a chest full of old clothes.
“I saw these dresses and knew they’d be right for Ella when she had grown up a little,” said Rose, “ and now’s the time for this one.”
“And the event?”
“A charity ball! It came to me I could attract a very affluent crowd with a high-class ball, if it was advertised in the right circles. And the one stipulation being that the clothes have to be old: hand me downs, charity shop finds, what have you. Men as well as women.”
“Sounds great fun, Rosie,” says Ella, “but – I was just wondering… if I want to go will I have to take a partner?”
“Finer details not yet worked out,” says Rose, “but I have a scheme up my sleeve. There, all done.” She has finished going around the skirt with her pins. “go and slip it off and I’ll take it home with me to finish off.” She pauses. “What will you wear on your feet?”
Ella laughs as she leaves the room, swishing.
“No idea,” she says, “I’ll go and change.”
By the time she comes back downstairs, now dressed in her pyjamas, with the ball gown over her arm, Rose and I are sitting at the kitchen table, an open bottle of white wine and a bowl of peanuts between us.
“Would you like a glass, Ella?”
She shakes her head, as she drapes the dress over the back of the rocking chair. “I’m off to bed,” she says, “early shift tomorrow.” She makes a mug of hot chocolate, picks up an orange from the fruit bowl, kisses us both good night.
“Are you working all weekend, love?” I ask.
“No, Dad, I’m off on Bank Holiday Monday. Perhaps we can do something then?”
She smile and shuts the door after herself.
“She’s looking so tired, Bertie,” says Rose.
“She’s not eating properly,” I say, “and working too hard.”
“She’s so like Tessa at that age,” said Rose. “A kind and thoughtful, child. And so unaware of her own beauty.”
Rose and Tessa had been school friends.
“How’s things between you and the terrible twosome?” she says, as a starter.
The next morning the terrible twosome and Melinda are still asleep hours after I’m up and Ella has gone to work. I decide to walk down to the post-office and collect the Sunday newspaper. I notice that Melinda’s car is not in the driveway and wonder what happened last night and how Melinda and the girls arrived home.
In the post office window there’s a notice, advertising a jumble sale on bank Holiday Monday at the village hall. I make a mental note to let Rose and Ella.
The kitchen’s a complete mess when I get back. The terrible twosome and their mother slouch around the kitchen table looking smudged, and deconstructed in their dressing gowns.
“Morning,” I say cheerily, only to be shushed.
“Coffee?” All three nod, though I notice that Melinda has in front of her a glutinous egg concoction which is her favourite hangover cure.
As I place the coffee down in front of them I casually ask how they got home and where the car is this time.
“What do you mean, ‘this time’?” sneers Melinda, spoiling for a fight. I say nothing. Truth will out, in time.
I could’ve guessed that the girls and Melinda would not be interested in a jumble sale, but Ella and I decide to stroll down on the Monday morning and I let Rose know we are going. We meet her there and she is in a state of excitement.
“Ella,” she says, “I’ve found you the perfect pair of shoes, to go with the ball gown. I took the liberty of buying them,” she says, “before they were snaffled by someone else.”
The shoes are made of pale blue patent-leather with a high glassy shine, with a sling back strap and a lowish heel.
“You see,” says Rose, “they look a perfect match and they are a 6 –do try them on.”
They fit perfectly.
“You really are a fairy god-mother,” says Ella laughing.
I look at Rose and suddenly I know something that has been staring me in the face for a long time. How could I not have realised this before?
I am in love with Rose.
I married the wrong woman and now I would have to do something about it. Swept away in that moment all my resignation and making-do leave me. This is the beginning of the end, and the beginning of a new story, I think – and on impulse I pick up Rose and swing her around before, in full view of the assembled Women’s Institute crowd, I kiss her full on the lips.