Delores Beatrice Fletcher was the youngest of eleven children, all girls. She spent more time in the care of the servants than her own mother. Her father was a man who lived his life to the rhythm of the clock. A natural businessman, he preferred to a pragmatic approach parenthood that was rarely without his with fiery temper. The adults in her life were forces of nature to be feared. For Delores, her best memories were the times she was curled up with a good book.
Throughout the long stretching hallways and in the cracks of the ceiling marble the jealousy of her older sisters perspired. The living room provided some escape. She lay back on the soft cushions of the window seat, her white dress covering her like a blanket. On the small table lay her prescribed reading, On Grammar: Young Lady Edition. Delores was not so interested in the finesse of language, but much rather admired the book of nursery rhymes.
Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pale of water,
Jack fell down and
Delores was disturbed by the singing and giggles of the ten girls down the hall Panicking, she dashed to behind the great curtain moments before her sisters flooded into the room.
‘Mr. Blackwell said my Français is even better now than last time!’ said Alice.
‘Oh please,’ said Margare, ‘say red again! Rouge. You said it so beautifully.’
Alice obliged, and the others cheered. Delores wished to throw up.
‘It’s beautiful,’ cried Elenore.
Delores held her breath lest the girls heard her. A pleasant Western style melody played out on the keys.
‘Janet!’ Alice cried.
‘Alice, sister, worry not. Father is not home right now.’
Janet continued the upbeat tune. Nobody could command the eldest. The notes of the old piano were chocolate to Delores’ ears, but she couldn’t give away her hiding spot.
‘Where is Delores? This is her book, is it not?’
The piano stopped. Delores shut her eyes tight.
‘She must be here, someplace!’
Please don’t look here, please don’t check the curtains, Delores thought. She hoped that she could open her eyes awaken from this bad dream.
But the girls soon found her hiding there. Janet pulled Delores out from behind the curtain by her hair as the others cackled like hyenas. Janet held her firm. ‘You need to get better at hiding, sister.’
Delores braced herself, but before Janet could lay another finger on her their father appeared father entered the living room with a face like brambles. He was looking right at Janet.
‘Who dared touch the heirloom?’ he said in his booming voice. Nobody dared to dob on the eldest.
‘It was Delores, I tried to stop her,’ Janet beamed a smile at Father. ‘I had to hold her by her hair to keep her from playing.’
‘Delores!’ he shouted.
Delores sulked. ‘No, Father, it wasn’t me! It was Janet.’
‘Enough, girl. You need proper discipline. I’ll make sure go to bed hungry tonight.’
‘Please, don’t be too harsh on her.’ Janet pleaded with puppy dog eyes.
‘That’s not your concern,’ he said. He hoisted Delores under his arm and left down the hallway. Janet watched from the doorway with a gleeful smile.
A lifetime ago it felt, the memories of those days. Her adolescence was like the ancient past, yet the days flashed in her mind like a moving picture. Delores shuddered. The wheels bumped along the road, rocking the carriage like waves. George called out politely to the driver above to mind the potholes, if he would be so kind. Delores pressed her face against the windowpane, watching the sycamore trees go by. Soon enough, the estate house came into view.
The high windows glistened orange as marmalade in the sunset. George held tightly onto her hand. He needn’t say anything to reassure her, for she hadn’t much faith words could ease her worries.
Janet and her husband, a navy admiral named Harry, awaited them by the entrance to their lavish home. Together they were the Cumberbatch family. Delores hoped her husband wasn’t as horrible a person as her sister.
‘Good evening, I am George, it’s lovely to meet you both.’
Janet said. ‘I’m very glad you are both here.’ She turned to Delores. ‘It’s always nice to see family again.’
Delores nodded but stayed silent.
Harry perked up. ‘Say, George, you strike me as a man who knows the battlefield.’
‘Why, yes. I’m an army man, I served in the 5th infantry division and worked my way up to cavalry and eventually commanding officer.’
‘Commanding officer, I say! I’m navy, so I’m sure we will get along famously.’ Harry gave a hearty laugh.
George made a splendid first impression. Delores smiled weakly by his side. Her sister had grown into a very beautiful woman. Her expensive taste in dresses mirrored the high-quality prizes of their mother’s frequent shopping excursions. Janet noticed her gaze and met it with a smile. Delores glanced her eyes to the floor.
‘Shall we go inside?’ Someone finally said. The party moved indoors where welcoming snacks were served on platters and white wine was poured.
‘Janet,’ Harry said. ‘Be a dear, play some piano for our guests.’
Piano? Please don’t, Delores thought. She saw a twinkle in Janet’s eye.
‘Oh no, Harry, I couldn’t possibly,’ Janet said disingenuously.
‘If it’s no trouble, we’d love to hear. Delores mentioned you used to play,’ George said weakly.
‘Indeed? Well, I learned to play, and Delores did not, so at least one of us girls are musically inclined,’ Janet said. They all gave a hearty laugh; Delores nodded her head and forced a smile.
‘I just mentioned it on the way here, actually.’ Delores said.
Janet set her wine glass down on the table. She gave two sharp claps. ‘Very well. This way.’
They all followed her to the living room. Harry swung open the two doors to present the family heirloom.
‘That’s…’ Delores put a hand to her agape mouth. ‘The piano.’
Janet gave a shrill laugh. ‘That wine has gone to your head, dear sister. This is just a standard piano. Worth so little, in fact, a commoner could own it.’ Janet donned a pair of silk white gloves.
Delores spoke out to protest. ‘But-’
Janet began pressing the keys into music. As she watched, Delores questioned her judgement. Was this truly not the heirloom? No, it must be, surely. Delores so wanted to play it. Nostalgia had gotten the best of her, maybe.
The husbands and their wives spent dusk on the patio facing the back garden, enjoying the last of the summer sun over tea and biscuits and, eventually, scotch and whisky. The women preferred their wine: Delores sipped red while Janet swore by white. They never could agree on anything.
Puffing out his chest, Harry turned to George and said, ‘I take it you’ve never been sailing before?’
‘I’ve been aboard ships,’ George admitted. ‘Steam powered, mainly transports.’
‘Good sir.’ Harry guffawed. ‘Man was never meant to travel the world so rigidly. What I’m discussing with you is sailing. The Leisurely kind, at the wind’s mercy! You must come with me sometime.’ He shook the glass. ‘But first, more drink!’
The women were not so talkative. The silence was preferable. But why had Janet invited her if not to talk?
As the stars and moon took their positions in the sky, the party moved indoors. The men stumbled as drink coursed their veins, arms around each other like lifelong friends—united in drunken comradery.
‘You army boys could learn a thing or two from us navy men. For one, how to drink!’ Harry refilled the glasses and tucked the bottle under his arm. The women held their wine glasses, the air between them growing colder.
The entertainment was soon underway.
‘Bust!’ cried Harry. ‘Bust again!’
‘Don’t worry, Harry, it’s just pocket change,’ Janet said, setting her own cards down. She smiled. ‘You can win it back in the next round. That is, if I don’t first.’
‘Nothing drink can’t settle.’ Harry clapped his meaty palms together and a servant brought the bottle.
Delores held the cards in hand. She glanced nonchalantly at the ace and suit – an instant win.
‘Bust,’ Delores said. She dropped the cards.
The men stared with disbelief.
Janet scoffed. ‘Did you forget how to play, Delores?’
Delores took a long sip of wine.
George raked in the coins. ‘I don’t usually have this luck.’
Delores stretched her hands out on her lap. ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m not inclined to cards. Frankly, I’m not enjoying this.’
‘Dearest,’ George said. ‘We don’t need to play if you aren’t enjoying yourself.’
‘It isn’t that,’ Delores said. ‘I simply don’t see why we must limit ourselves.’
Janet looked at her sister, quizzically. Harry also put down his glass to watch the scene, spilling a little on the wooden table. ‘Then let’s raise the stakes,’ Janet said. ‘I would hate to bore our guests. How does that sound, dear sister?’
‘Fine,’ Delores answered, pulling her engagement ring from her finger. The ring was gold with a beautiful blue sapphire gem from Ceylon. ‘My wager. What is yours?’
George cried out. ‘Delores, dear, reconsider!’
Janet scoffed. ‘You are so bold, sister. Fine, two can play that game.’ Janet slid the simple silver ring off her finger.
Delores waved her hand disapprovingly. ‘Janet, would you not make a fair bet? Clearly mine is worth more.’
‘Alright, sister. I have a golden pocket watch, or my delicate slippers that I’ve worn but once while visiting Victoria at Buckingham.’
‘God save our Queen!’ Harry cried out, words slurring, drink sloshing.
‘Sister, you still need to better.’ Delores danced her fingers on the tablecloth, imagining the white and black keys singing at her will.
Henry nearly chocked on his liquor. ‘The piano!’ he said. ‘Delores wants the piano! I can read it on her face clear as day!’
Janet shot daggers at Delores. Her stare was cold enough to freeze the wine in her glass.
‘Sister are you so daring?’ Her expression was severe.
Delores met her gaze. ‘What’s the matter? It’s a regular piano that even a commoner could own, you said so yourself. Why, then, are you so unwilling to part with it? Unless, of course, it is the piano from our childhood.’ She felt a gentle tug at her arm.
‘Darling,’ George said. ‘Why don’t we get some fresh air? I think we all need a break.’
George and Delores stood in front of the open window in the hallway. The forest was peaceful. The occasional yelp of a fox and hoots of owls broke the never-ending crickets. The air was refreshing.
George spoke softly. ‘I know you haven’t seen your sister in quite some time.’
Delores scoffed. ‘That would be an understatement.’
‘I know you were never close, but she did invite us here.’
‘She merely wants to brag about her newfound wealth. It’s in poor taste, considering everything.’
‘Delores, darling, please try to understand. Janet only means well.’
The game of cards was well and truly finished. Harry reached a drunken sleep and was facedown on the table.
Janet was complaining. ‘Sailors,’ she sighed. ‘They don’t know the word sobriety.’
George grinned. ‘Harry is a good fellow. Always a pleasure meeting another military man. Give me a few minutes, I must find the water cupboard.’
He took his leave, giving a nod of confidence to his wife before leaving them alone in the living room. They stood in silence listening to the crackling fire.
‘Thank you for coming,’ Janet said.
Janet continued. ‘Father’s death affected me terribly.’
Delores looked noticed a tear roll down Janet’s face.
Janet continued. ‘I realised after his passing the people you have in your childhood will not always be around. The piano wasn’t just a parting gift. It has been in our family for generations. I can’t imagine having children of my own. Being motherly seems so far from me.
‘When Harry leaves, I am sick with worry. I worry he’ll be caught in a storm, or he’ll be captured, or he’ll get lost… or he’ll leave me. Delores, I regret how I treated you when we were children. I tried to have all the sisters come here tonight, you know, but none arrived but you. Not even Alice had to decency to write back. Maybe they hate me more than I imagined.’
‘No, Janet.’ Delores took a deep breath, calming herself. ‘I… I really didn’t want to come here tonight. Ever since I got your invitation, I’ve been fabricating excuses by the thousand.’ She sunk. ‘It could surprise you to hear, but George insisted we come. He’s always had a close bond with his family. He treats his soldiers like brothers, for heavens’ sake. But I’m glad we did. You’re my sister; we’re family. We were never friends, that’s safe to say, but I can see it, you’ve changed.’
‘Oh, Delores! Please just say that you’ll forgive me for the horrible things I’ve done to you. The truth is I was jealous. The eldest has so much responsibility. Mother and Father expected me to lead the family. They wanted a son to carry the family name, but they were burdened with eleven girls. Do you know what Father told me in his last letter?’ She sobbed. ‘He wrote, “The family’s fate is in your hands.”’
Delores took her sister in her arms.
Janet whimpered. ‘Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.’
‘It’s okay,’ Delores said. ‘I forgive you, sister. There, there.’
The next morning, they were back in the carriage. As the wheels rumbled along the road, Delores she felt peaceful. Janet made Delores promise she would visit more often, and Janet offered to make the journey herself. It was a new beginning for Delores, one where her lifelong grudge seemed so silly. As George took her hand, she felt so grateful for him.
‘Let’s go home,’ George said.
Author: This is Lachlan. He has been taking his writing more seriously since he decided that writing was his life’s passion at the age of 15. Lachlan most enjoys learning about other cultures, and trying to understand the world’s people better so that he can try to connect with them. He has a love of sci-fi and surrealism, and likes to write his own.
Artist: Emma Bruce is a multi-disciplinary visual artist from Yugambeh country working out of Meanjin. Her work discusses the relationship modern society has with the environment through an archival style in hopes to preserve the experience of being in the natural world. Her work hopes to invite her audience to partake in activities that nurture native flora and fauna as well as create a sense of pride to be part of it.
Editors: Kelly Rouzbehi and Rory Hawkins