Ella looked up from where she knelt at the fireplace, raking cinders from the bottom of the grate. Her father loved a log fire in the evenings but, like a small boy begging for a puppy, he had no notion of the time and energy lost in feeding it and cleaning up its mess. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’d love to, Gris, but you know what it’s like.”
Her youngest sister, Anastasia, had a nonspeaking role in some tedious theatricals as a gosling. For some reason she couldn’t fathom, her other sister was trying to arrange for the whole family to watch the drama together from the front row. “It’s so frustrating,” whined Griselda. “You haven’t left this house for months.”
Ella gave her sister a martyred look. Six months had elapsed since she’d been seen beyond the front door, or the back; seven since she was gifted the dual diagnoses of agoraphobia and OCD. Most blessings come with a cost, however: in this case, her supposed obsession with housework that enabled her father’s wife to give notice to the char. But commandeering the cleaning was a small price to pay to have the house to herself in the daytime. Indeed, once she got the hang of it, the monotony of dusting and hoovering, and even scraping the ashes from the grate, afforded the ideal conditions for her creativity to flourish.
Catching Ella’s pained expression, Griselda pouted. “Sorry! I know it’s awful for you stuck indoors every day. I wish Daddy would find you another therapist. One who actually knows what they’re doing.”
Ella smiled, generously overlooking the girl’s appropriation as a parent a man with whom she shared no DNA. She never referred to Anastasia and Griselda’s mother by any version of the M-word. Indeed, she endeavoured to avoid referring to her stepmother altogether.
The union of her father with that woman and her daughters lay at the root of Ella’s predicament. While her psychiatric symptoms might be fraudulent, her underlying dissatisfaction was sincere. She and her father had muddled along rather nicely since her real mother’s death when she was a baby. Ella had never imagined her father would feel the sap rising just as her own hormones kicked in. She’d never imagined he’d look for someone to share his bed permanently.
She might not have minded had his paramour been childless, or possessed of older children who could facilitate Ella’s entry into the world of drug-fuelled raves. But he’d chosen a woman with two young daughters who would look to her for support and guidance. No way was Ella baby-sitting someone else’s kids.
But how to avoid it? Swap her comfortable home for some dim corner of a flat-share with mould veneering the walls? Saddle herself with the interminable debt of a student loan? Ella didn’t fancy either. So, on the cusp of adulthood, she found her wings clipped by her father’s new wife and her considerably irritating baggage.
She’d resigned herself to stomping down the aisle with Anastasia and Griselda, identically dressed in a confection of frills and lace reminiscent of the half-doll half-doily doodah she’d once encountered not quite disguising the spare loo roll on a schoolfriend’s bathroom shelf. This same friend’s panic attack before an exam inspired Ella’s escape. Regulating the level of disturbance proved a challenge: too little and they’d have given her a cup of hot sweet tea and hauled her off to the ceremony; too much and she’d trigger her dad’s angina. Despite his treachery in remarrying, she loved him dearly and didn’t want him hurt more than absolutely necessary.
After the fuss of preparing for the wedding and for the merger of two households, a day at home alone proved sheer bliss. Her mind, reeling from the onslaught of noisy new relationships, finally found peace. But not slob-in-front-of-the-telly-with-a-bar-of-chocolate peace. Not soak-in-a-hot-bath-with-a-glass-of-gin peace. No, on the day she absented herself from her father’s nuptials, Ella discovered a contemplative kind of tranquillity, one which generated a plethora of sparkling ideas and slotted them into a story.
Embarking on her novel was intoxicating. Once she’d started, she didn’t want to stop until she typed THE END. She resolved to withdraw from the world until she’d achieved her goal. She soon discovered that agoraphobia absolved her from the twin distractions of socialising and finding a job. Concerned for her well-being, her father didn’t balk at bankrolling her a little longer. During the day, with her stepsisters at school and her father and his spouse at work, she rattled away on her laptop at the kitchen table. In the evenings, she retired to her bedroom, ostensibly to commune with friends online.
When her father suggested a therapist, she envisaged lounging on a couch soliloquising while some bearded Austrian sucked on a pipe. Perfect for ordering her thoughts before composing the next scene. But her dad had engaged a behaviourist to fight her fear with a programme of sorties progressively farther from the house. It took all Ella’s reserves of ingenuity to thwart him while keeping her deception intact. When the behaviourist resigned, her dad replaced him with a cognitivist who claimed she was blocked by negative beliefs. Asked to keep a daily thought diary, Ella treated it as a writing warmup, splurging on synonyms for misery and despair. By the time he too gave up on her, her word count had rocketed.
Perhaps propelled by Griselda’s disappointment at the vacant seat in the auditorium, perhaps recognising that a daughter acting like a skivvy reflected badly on him, her father consulted his wife. She scoured her contacts from Glastonbury to Hebden Bridge. One fine day, a herbalist knocked on the door.
Ella was not averse to recreational drugs; in fact, the lack of opportunity to experiment was her regime’s biggest drawback. But she didn’t expect much of a high from the basket of dried herbs the hunchbacked old woman placed on the kitchen table. Ella swallowed her laughter as, muttering some hocus-pocus, the herbalist mixed up a foaming concoction in a pint glass. But she’d barely imbibed her first mouthful when things began to change.
First, she turned up the volume on her music until it thumped off the walls. Second, she grabbed her make-up bag and painted her long-neglected nails. Third, she texted her friends to ask if there was a party in process RIGHT NOW! Forgetting her dream of literary fame and fortune, she donned her most outrageous outfit and called a cab. Her family smiled, but the herbalist wouldn’t let her go without extracting a promise that she return before dawn.
All evening, Ella danced and drank and squealed in delight as she reacquainted herself with youth culture. She must’ve been crazy to shut herself away. Now she was determined to catch up on the pleasures she’d forsaken. To discover sex.
Ella had known Hal since primary school. He was nicknamed Prince because of his arrogance—his dad was the richest man in town. At school he wouldn’t have given her a second look, but a reclusive Ella had scarcity value. For her, it was bliss to end the night in his bed.
But rather annoying to wake up in it.
Careful not to disturb her companion, she slips from beneath the duvet and scoops up her clothes from the floor. Pulling her skimpy dress over her head, she tiptoes to the window. A rosy tinge to the horizon reminds her of the herbalist’s caveat.
Her parched throat urges her towards the ensuite, but she can’t risk turning on the tap for fear of waking Hal. It’s rude to leave without saying goodbye or good morning, but Ella’s in no mood for chat. The effects of the herbalist’s potion having faded, she has her next chapter to write.
Scanning the dimly-lit room for her shoes, she recalls kicking them aside to dance. But had she worn them for the short walk to Hal’s? Sod it, I’ll go barefoot. She grabs her bag and creeps downstairs.
A tangerine sun peeps over the horizon as she arrives home and slides her key into the lock. Relieved to find her family still in bed, she makes pot of tea and carries it upstairs. Although her fingers itch to re-engage with her novel, she checks Facebook first.
Every picture on her timeline tells a story, and it’s completely at odds with the fiction Ella has battled to promote. Her smiling face in every pose betrays her. Once he sees them—and her pesky sisters will ensure he does—her father will expect her to socialise like a normal teenager. He’ll expect her to find a job.
She can’t go out to work with ten chapters still to write. Perhaps Hal could marry her and let her keep house. But how likely is that after a single night? Overwhelmed, and a little hungover, Ella sprawls on her bed and weeps.
A car door slamming piques her curiosity. Through a gap in the curtains she watches Hal exit his Mercedes with her strappy sandals in his hand. Her family would be chuffed to think she had a boyfriend. But Ella hasn’t time for a boyfriend and a novel, especially if she has to get a job as well.
As the doorbell chimes, another dreadful thought strikes her. Her night away affording her some distance from her manuscript, she’s abruptly mindful of its flaws. Indeed, the novel on which she’s slaved for over a year is crap. Infantile, derivative, dull. How could she have convinced herself readers would be fascinated by a boarding school for orphaned wizards?
Ella moans in concert with the doorbell. Can she face scrapping thousands of words to begin again?
Griselda taps at her bedroom door. “Are you in there, Ella? You’ve got a visitor.”
How naive to imagine she could continue to spend her days at the keyboard. No one earns a living as a writer, unless it’s with a memoir about surviving horrific abuse. But, unfortunately, Ella has no experience in that area. She might be a half-orphan who detests her stepmother, but she’s lived a charmed life.
Why didn’t she think of it earlier? She has all the right ingredients. They just need a little tweaking.
“I’ll be down in a minute.” Ella opens a new document on her laptop and dances her fingers across the keys. A few words to jog her memory later. Mother’s death in childbirth. Father taking frequent business trips abroad. Two spiteful older sisters envious of her beauty and accomplishments. A cruel stepmother who treats her as a slave.
The premise has potential, but it needs another ingredient to confer that extra edge. Ella closes her laptop. Perhaps she’ll find inspiration once she’s sent Hal on his way.
He hovers in the hallway, more handsome than she recalls. Ella descends the stairs and takes her shoes from his hand. “How charming of you to bring them,” she simpers. “May I introduce you to my mum and dad?”
Men have their uses, if only to rescue the heroine from drudgery. Besides, what’s a novel without a sex scene? Hal might be the knight in shining armour that Ella needs.