This story is by Linda Barrows and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
So many stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’ and end with ‘and they lived happily ever after’. Nice sentiment, I suppose. Things must start at some point in time, so why not ONCE upon a time? There is a certain poetry to it. But why would someone suppose that one would live happily ever after? Is that even possible? These were some of the musings going through Ella’s head as she sipped on her morning cup of tea. I suppose these were triggered by her upcoming tenth anniversary. Reflecting back over the last ten years, there certainly were many happy times–when her son Henry was born, and daughter Iris, two years later. There were also many trials, like when Iris got a high fever and they nearly lost her. That was a time that brought Stephen and her together as they took turns staying with their darling and fragile little girl through several terrifying nights.
Her husband Stephen was tall and handsome and had a most winsome smile, but he was also rather shallow and relied heavily on Ella and his mother for direction. She could hear her mother-in-law’s commanding voice, “Stephen, you must have tea with me, then take me to visit your aunt.” She demanded much of his time to which he dutifully responded.
When one day Ella questioned,”Why do you feel called upon to control Stephen so? Isn’t he a grown man, able to make his own decisions?”
His mother coldly replied, “You should be grateful. I had him choose you, didn’t I? You didn’t exactly have the right pedigree, but I was willing to overlook that because of your unrivaled beauty. I wanted attractive grandchildren.” Did she? Did she and not Stephen choose? Mother did make sure he was a good husband and father, spending adequate time with his family and bringing gifts when the occasion dictated. Ella was now unsure if the gifts were from him or her.
She was often told they made a beautiful couple, but shouldn’t there be more than just their appearances? Ella sighed softly as she gazed out the window. When did things change? Or did they? Maybe she was just waking up. She probably wouldn’t see Stephen until supper time, when he would likely bring her a bouquet of flowers per his mother’s prodding. The children were still asleep and Ella enjoyed the contemplative atmosphere this time of day provided. She would not call this ‘happily ever after,’ nor was she miserable. She did like the fact that her life was easier since her marriage to Stephen. All of the household tasks were attended to by servants. Largely the children were as well, having their own live-in nanny. Ella insisted on more time with them than her mother-in-law felt was proper due to her status, but she didn’t care. She would continue to play with and pamper them as much as she could. They were the biggest source of joy in her life.
The lessening of her workload since she married did come at an expense, Ella sacrificed a lot of her earlier freedoms. She could no longer wander in the woods collecting flowers or even sit outdoors enjoying the feeling of the sun on her face. If she was allowed to venture outside at all, it was encased in hats and veils and parasols to protect her fair skin. At times, she felt more like a prized sculpture than a real woman. Also, her love of reading was frowned upon. Why should a woman want to read? Are overseeing the house and her wardrobe the extent of her usefulness? When she would dine with her husband, the conversations would mostly be about his latest hunt or the next ball they must attend. She would love to talk about a book she was reading or possibly things going on in the world, but these things were not deemed proper for a woman. It’s not Stephen’s fault. He was raised and trained to be in the role he now inhabits. Just as her being raised in more humble surroundings and having to work all of her young life was not her fault. They have shared many a laugh with the children and more than a few tender moments. Would he be more of his own man without his mother’s involvement?
Hearing Stephen talking about balls seems funny now. She still enjoys dressing up and dancing, but she is taken back to that first one. She was so excited to go to that ball. Ella smiles wistfully remembering how she felt in that exquisite dress and those amazing fur slippers that were a little big. How she lost one of them, when she had to hurry home at midnight. It seemed so romantic that the one they called ‘Prince Charming’ found her slipper and searched the kingdom until he found her. Prince Charming indeed? Now knowing his mother chose her, would he have settled for anyone his mama dictated? Did he even love her? He was kind though and enjoyed playing with the children, and certainly had good manners, a very well-bred lad, he was. It could be worse. There was no abuse, just no real passion. Whose fault was that? Wasn’t it every girl’s dream to be a princess after all? She certainly had it a lot better than her friends did. She didn’t have to suffer the trials dear Snow did. Her husband awoke her with ‘true love’s kiss’. Honestly, who comes up with this romantic drivel? Now he constantly questions her as to why she remains so close and devoted to the dwarves who took her in before they met, and as to why their first born was so short in stature, and not as comely as the other children? At least no one pretended he was Prince Charming. Then there is Aurora, the ‘sleeping’ Beauty, also coincidentallly awoken with ‘true love’s kiss’. How could it be true love when they barely knew each other? Now, her prince is constantly off on his latest crusade leaving her saddled with the home and children.
That night at dinner after the children were tucked into bed, she gazed over at her handsome husband, who, when he noticed gave her a big smile and said, “Happy Anniversary Cinderella.” She cringed a little as she always hated the name Cinderella and preferred the simpler ‘Ella’, but even in private, Stephen generally used her proper name. He, as predicted, brought her a gorgeous bouquet of flowers.
“Happy Anniversary Stephen.” She held up her wine glass and they clinked glasses.
“Not too much wine, Cinderella,” he cautioned.
“I thought maybe just one for each year,” she joked, “And I prefer Ella”.
Stephen looked puzzled for a moment, and finally realizing that she was joking, smiled and said, “Ok, we’ll stop at ten, then.” He paused and added, “Ella.”
Did Stephen just make a joke? And he called her Ella. She grinned back at him. Her melancholy had since faded and she was feeling the warmth of his loving gaze and realized he was trying the best he knew how to.
“Stephen, if your mother didn’t send you out to find me the night of that first ball, would you still have come looking for me?”
Without hesitation he replied, “Yes Ella. I would have. You have an honesty and realness to you that is more attractive than your countenance. You were so different from the other young ladies who were paraded before me. I’m so grateful that you would have me. I know I’m not the most exciting of men and maybe overly influenced by my mother. I try to keep her happy, but I truly love you.”
Their dinner was interrupted by Stephen’s mother’s lady in waiting. “I’m sorry to disturb your dinner, but your mother received an urgent message from her sister that she has taken ill. Your mother is preparing to leave immediately to attend to her and may be gone for several months.”
“Thank you for letting us know. Wish her godspeed for us and all the best to her sister.” replied Ella, who smiled slightly. Maybe she still has a fairy godmother after all.
After she left, Ella looked into Stephen’s face and said, “Let’s go for another ten–years.”
They picked up their glasses and walked out onto the terrace together, and Stephen gently took her hand.
Ella’s story did start out once upon a time. She wasn’t yet sure of the happily ever after, but she felt more hopeful than she had in some time.