She slumped in the armchair with her glass of wine, kicking off the sensible flat shoes that she wore to the office each day. Stretching her legs towards the fire, her dainty little feet finally warming; Claire sighed and closed her eyes.
She had got home around an hour earlier, but had to ensure the cottage was spick and span, the fire lit and the oven on, before she could allow herself to settle. The obsessive cleanliness had been instilled in her as a child – her glamorous, arrogant mother had been a hard taskmistress, and it had fallen to Claire to do most of the household chores. Even though she was the youngest of three, it seemed to her that she had ended up with many of the hardest and dirtiest tasks. Sure, her elder sisters had to clean out pets and were supposed to keep their rooms tidy, but Claire cleaned out fireplaces, lugged bags of rubbish to the gate, dug the vegetable patch, hoovered and dusted and mopped and polished. Looking back, she wasn’t sure whether she had actually started of her own accord. Her mother had hired a cleaning lady, but the woman was lazy and her selfish mother was too concerned with the condition of her own body and face to notice the condition of her house. Claire was certain, though, that once she had begun doing things herself, the cleaning woman’s visits had become rarer, eventually stopping altogether, and the house had become her responsibility alone.
Her father had never appeared to realise, or care. He would distractedly seem to notice the four females with whom he shared a house about once a month, pick whichever one was closest and ask extremely politely, as if speaking to a member of staff in a good hotel, where he might find his maroon tie or his copy of Perrault or whatever it was he had currently misplaced. Claire smiled slightly at the memory – the closest to emotion she ever really came when remembering him was a faint warmth and a feeling of lost opportunity. He had died before she was ten, and it was with his passing that her troubles had really begun.
Anyway, anyway – she shook her head and took another sip of wine. The present needed dealing with, not the past. God knew, she could lose herself enough in regret and missed chances if she chose to, but now was not the time; with pie in the oven and the bathroom still not clean, there were things to be getting on with.
The cottage gleamed around her, firelight sparkling on the looking glass and on the little display case of crystal fancies – crystal mice that she bought on holiday in the Lake District, crystal lizards that she had found in a gift shop in Cornwall, a crystal pumpkin she had treated herself to after a disastrous Halloween party, and an exquisite pair of crystal shoes that she had been bequeathed by her mother. The shoes had been the start of her collection, in fact; they reminded her of another party, and something her mother had said to her afterwards about having ideas above her station.
Yes... her mother. That old bag had finally shuffled off a few years ago, leaving Claire the shoes and just enough money to place a deposit on the tiny, tumbledown cottage in the woods. She had taken out a mortgage that had brought tears to her eyes, and had spent time rather than money on turning the cottage back into the magical hideaway that she could see it had once been. She worked hard in the office, and came home at the end of the day to work hard on her house. Her sisters, on the other hand, had combined their huge legacies with their trust funds and the income they gained from magazine interviews and taking paparazzi to court, and did very well for themselves indeed. Claire didn’t keep in touch with them, although she had not been able to resist buying ‘Hello’ to see the ugly offspring of the eldest and the minor royal that she had somehow conned into marrying her. Claire supposed that, at least, would be the same now, no matter what their mother had done after that party.
She shrugged off the thought and took herself off to the bathroom, pulling on her rubber gloves as she went. It was strange; the house seemed to have learned how to keep itself cleaner recently – she could have sworn she had less work to do each evening. It seemed fresher and more lovely each day, and she woke each morning to a lingering scent of gingerbread that she could never quite place. It was quiet and beautiful, and she felt safer and happier than ever before. The bathroom took only minutes, a quick wipe round and she was done. She surveyed her work, pleased at how nice everything was. She had a familiar, fleeting moment of sadness that there was no one to share it with, no one else to enjoy this cosy little home, and went downstairs to check on her dinner.
The firelight glittered and danced in the smooth sides of the crystal slippers, and Claire’s attention was fully caught as she passed the display cabinet. She stopped short, dinner forgotten, transfixed by the beauty of the little shoes and the memories that stirred inside her. Reaching in, she picked one up, and marvelled again at the cruelty of the design. A shoe that could shatter required a delicate tread. No jumping for joy, no dancing, no running away. A gilded cage, if ever she saw one. She shivered, and sighed, and wondered again at how things had turned out.
That party, so many years ago now, was still clear in her memory. It had been horrific, full of weak-chinned toffs and braying aristocracy. The prince had been surrounded by a coterie of idiots, laughing at his every word, agreeing with his inane or spiteful observations about fellow guests. He had looked lonely, though – as if he knew somewhere inside that he was surrounded by obsequiousness and ersatz charm. Their eyes had met once, as she was slipping quietly out of the party just before midnight. She pitied him, but not enough to go over and speak to him. She could not wait to get out in the fresh air, away from the noise and smoke, away from the false laughter and loud, vain chatter. Her feet were killing her as well, as the ridiculous shoes that her mother had insisted looked ‘so pretty’ were now cutting in at the edges, and were sticky and sweaty inside. Glass slippers – she had never come across anything more absurd, and it was with huge relief that she prised them off her feet as soon as she was outside the palace. Her mother’s voice drifted close, drunk and over-loud, and in a moment of panic Claire had run to the road and hailed a cab. It was only later, when she got home, that she realised she had lost one of the painful, preposterous shoes.
There had been an announcement in all the newspapers – the silly prince was looking for the owner of a shoe. Whose foot would fit? Who would be the match to this pair? The tabloids went mad: ‘Their eyes met across a crowded room – now will our prince find his dainty-toed bride?’ Claire went to hide the remaining shoe, the noise of the party still ringing in her ears, the memory of how insufferable it had all been still fresh in her mind. But the shoe had gone.
She searched the house for it – while cleaning, of course; such a wonderful pretext for knowing all the secrets. She had suspected her middle sister, but a thorough ‘spring clean’ of her room revealed only the usual litter of half empty bottles, celebrity magazines and cigarette ends. Her oldest sister’s room, while tidier, contained only footwear that was suitable for mucking out the stables, and a disturbing number of magazines and books for girls far younger than her who were just devoted to their ponies.
She could barely believe it when she found the shoe, polished to a mirror shine, in her mother’s wardrobe.
The timer on the oven buzzed loudly, bringing Claire back to the present with a jolt. A smell of burning reached her. She would never get the hang of this oven, she thought, it just seems to want to burn everything. She put the shoe back in the display cabinet, and headed through to the kitchen to salvage what she could of her dinner. All in all, she decided for the thousandth time, she was happier here, in her little gingerbread house in the woods. And as long as the big bad wolf stayed in the storybooks, and her sisters in their draughty stately homes, she could think of no better place to be.