Grizel wrapped her arms round her legs and rested her chin on her knees. They were half an hour late already. She hoped Father’s car hadn’t broken down. But probably it was just that he was distracted. Grannie had told her, when she’d realised that Father had forgotten to send Grizel a birthday present, that people often were distracted when they got married. She shivered a little with excitement. They must be here soon, and then she would meet her stepmother for the first time.
Grannie had shown her some pictures of the new Mrs Cochrane, and Grizel thought her very beautiful, though not at all the sort of person she would have thought of Father marrying if she had thought of it at all. But he had, and Grizel was to live with them and have a proper family at last. It would have been even better if Grannie could have come and lived with them, but Grannie had said Grizel would get along much better without her there.
Her thoughts burned to a halt. Was that a car she had heard? Yes! She scrambled to her feet and brushed her skirt down, then checked to make sure her stockings were straight. Father had told her in his letter that she must be clean and tidy when they arrived. His new wife liked children who were pretty and quiet and well-behaved. Grizel knew that she was pretty, but she had never been very good at being quiet or well-behaved, and Grannie hadn’t minded much. She stood at the bottom of the steps, feet nicely turned out, hands clasped in front of her, as the car drew up at the gate.
Father got out, walked round to the other side of the car and opened the door. Grizel hadn’t realised from the snaps how tall the new Mrs Cochrane was, or how elegant her clothes. She held her breath as they came up the path, Mrs Cochrane’s hand tucked into Father’s arm. They were looking at each other; then, halfway up the path, Mrs Cochrane looked up and saw Grizel. She stopped. Father looked up, too, and instantly Grizel knew something was wrong. He turned to say something to his wife, and she whisked her hand away from his arm.
Grizel’s heart sank slightly. Perhaps Mrs Cochrane thought little girls ought always to wear hats. She had thought of putting one on, but Grannie never made her if she didn’t want to, and she had thought it wasn’t important. Or maybe there was dirt on her skirt where she had been sitting on the step. She took a deep breath, clutched her fingers together, and walked towards them.
Father rested his hands lightly on her shoulders and planted a tiny kiss on her cheek.
“Hallo, Grizel,” he said, and he sounded so normal that Grizel thought it must be all right after all.
“Hallo, Father.” Her relief was so great that she felt herself smiling at him hugely, and then she turned to Mrs Cochrane. The smile died, slowly. The silence seemed to last for hot hours. Then her father took his hand off Grizel’s shoulder and touched his wife’s elbow instead.
“My dear,” he said in a voice that was suddenly quite different. “This is Grizel, my – my daughter. I’m sure the two of you will get along very well once you get to know one another.”
But Grizel could only see her stepmother’s face as she and Father swept past her into the house. And when she followed them inside and closed the door, they stood in the wide, tall, hall facing one another and didn’t even notice Grizel as she slipped past and ran down to the kitchen. The cook – Grizel couldn’t remember her name – put down the jug she was holding when Grizel ran in, and gave her the sort of hug Grannie would have given if she had been there.
“Oh, Cookie.” It was all she could think of to say just then. Cookie sat her at the big kitchen table and made her a great mug of cocoa. Grizel drank it and ate two cakes, warm from the oven, and tried not to hear the shouting from the hall.
She was just about to start a third cake when, without warning, the kitchen door banged open and Mrs Cochrane stood there, her face rather red, with Father just behind her looking angry.
“Grizel!” said Mrs Cochrane. Grizel dropped the cake and jumped to her feet, her heart thundering. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I – I,” Grizel faltered, but Cookie – dear Cookie – saved her from having to say anything else.
“Begging your pardon, madam, but the young lady came down here to me as you two was having words, and I don’t know what else you would have had her do.”
Mrs Cochrane looked at her as though she was nothing more than a cockroach.
“I do not allow my – stepdaughter – to associate with servants. It is not appropriate. Come, Grizel.”
But somewhere in among her confusion and terror Grizel had discovered a burning nub of anger.
“Why shouldn’t I talk to Cookie?” It came out as a shout, but although she hadn’t meant it to, she found that she didn’t much care. “She’s the only person in this beastly house who’s been nice to me and you shouldn’t talk to her like that, and it’s not fair. I want to go home!”
Mrs Cochrane’s face grew redder.
“I will not permit you to speak to me in that way,” she said in a quiet voice that scared some of the anger out of Grizel. “Go to your bedroom. You will have no supper tonight.”
“Father!” She turned to him, but he only stared at her as though he barely knew her. All the anger that was left slithered out of her, leaving nothing behind. She walked past Mrs Cochrane, past her father, and up the stairs to her big, empty, white bedroom, and closed the door behind her.
After a few minutes they started shouting again, but she couldn’t hear the words. She crouched down beside the bedroom door and started to count. When she got to three thousand two hundred and thirty four they stopped. Just to make sure, she started from the beginning and counted to a thousand, slowly. The shouting hadn’t started again, so she stood up, rubbed the pins and needles from her legs, and climbed into the cold bed. Things would be better in the morning.
This was written for the 'Scenes you wish EBD had written' challenge on Lime Green Musing, but I'm posting it here too for the sake of completeness.