"Would you like some cake with your tea, Mrs Smith?" I passed her the plate laden with freshly made cherry cake; the small fruits glistening warmly through the sponge. I looked around me, drinking in my finely-decorated surroundings. I allowed a small smile of satisfaction appear about my lips.
Returning to my guests, I said "How about you, Nora dear?" The lady sat opposite me made no response, so I took this as a refusal to my offer. "Suit yourself." I helped myself to some more tea, pouring the amber liquid into my cup with practised finesse. Lifting it properly and carefully to my lips, I took a small, lady-like sip, and then replaced it upon my saucer.
"I don't think it is quite brewed yet. What are your thoughts Miss Elizabeth?" When the woman in question again said nothing, I harrumphed under my breath. "Not in a very sociable mood today, are you girls?" No reply.
Deciding that they were being unnecessarily prim, I rose above it and continued speaking to Mrs Smith, seeing as she was the only responsive person among the company.
I took another sip of tea. It was cooling, and I wrinkled my nose delicately in distaste. Reaching instead for the cake, my hand was outstretched in front of me when I heard a noise coming from behind me. Instantly the magic was lost, and I was sat cross-legged at a tiny wooden table with only several china dolls for company. My hand fell limply away from the minute plaster cake I had wanted.
My face crumpled. My lovely tea-party had vanished. I angrily turned around to see what had caused the disturbance. The old rocking-horse in the corner was tilting backwards and forwards gently, as if someone had brushed past it. The movement was causing a quiet clicking noise against the polished floorboards.
Seeing as I was the only one in the room, I passed it off as a draught and turned again to face my company. Trying intently to get back to the place in my head where I could be Lady Margaret of Chulmely Hall, important, beautiful and rich again.
When all I could see was the blank, staring eyes of my toys, I sighed in frustration. I looked round at my stationary, manufactured companions, trying to visualise them as my upper-class, cream of society friends.
Suddenly there was a grating noise from my left, like a chair scraping against the floor, and a flash of movement, a blur, that I caught out of the corner of my eye. I snapped my head up, looking quickly around the nursery once more. Nobody was there.
My thoughts turned to my small brother. "Geoffrey? Geoffrey! It isn't funny. Stop now or I'll get Nanny! She'll be cross with you for scaring me again!"
After sitting still for a few moments, I determined that I was being silly, and returned to my game. Screwing up my eyes in concentration, I was sure that this time I would end up in my fine dining room.
Slowly, I opened my eyes. I didn't have my companions back. Only one. I blinked, hoping my mind was deceiving me. The girl was still there, sitting cross-legged on the floor across the table from me.
She looked steadily at me, not batting an eyelid. Her dark hair was arranged into perfect ringlets, her face and little pale hands spotless. Her white pinafore was absolutely immaculate, her small shoes without a speck of mud. She was so white it was almost blinding. She looked as though she repelled dirt. She studied my face for a moment.
"Hello." Her little rosebud lips split into a smile, displaying faultless, even white teeth.
My mouth gaped at this strange girl who had somehow found her way into my nursery.
"I like your dolls. They're so pretty." She gave a longing look at my toys, stroking Nora's soft, woolen hair tenderly.
I opened my mouth to speak. When no words came out, I cleared my throat and tried again.
"They're just toys."
She cocked her head to the side, as if considering my words.
"Maybe. You have a lovely nursery then." She gazed round the room, taking in every small detail; from my wide array of teddies, to Geoffrey's endless rows of tin soldiers.
"I suppose." I replied, stiffly. "Who are you?" I tried to be polite, but a touch of my burning curiosity at this stranger's identity leaked through my careful barriers into my voice.
She gave a tinkling laugh that rang on the air like the church bells every Sunday at chapel. "Annabelle."
I nodded curtly. "Victoria."
She raised a hand to her petite mouth and giggled. "Hello Victoria. What were you doing earlier, before I came in?" There was no note of apology, or sheepishness at her frankly rude interruption.
"I was having a tea-party." Father always told me not to talk to people I didn't know, but I knew Annabelle's name now, and I decided that meant she wasn't a stranger anymore.
She clapped her hands together in excitement. "Ooh, that sounds like fun!"
I relaxed a little, and smiled shyly at her.
"Yes, it is rather. Would you like to know my friend's names?"
"Yes please!" The enthusiasm in her voice was the final factor in my decision that Annabelle could be my new best friend. Mother would approve of her anyway.
I formally introduced her to all my companions, and she listened intently, drinking in my every word. I was glad that she was taking it so seriously.
When I was finished, she was looking at me again. She looked a little sad.
Concerned for the happiness of my new friend, I asked, "What is wrong?"
She sighed wistfully. "I wish I could play with you. You have so much fun!"
I was taken aback at this. "Of course you can play with me! Why ever would you not?"
Her eyes were decidedly downcast by now, and she looked positively miserable."Mama says I'm not allowed to play with living children." This didn't make any sense to me at all, so I decided to dismiss it.
"Oh. Well, you're allowed to talk to me, aren't you?" I wouldn't want her to get in trouble with her mother. After all, she was my new friend.
"Not really... But Mama doesn't know I'm here." She sounded a little guilty now.
I frowned disapprovingly. "It isn't safe if your mother doesn't know where you are. I think you should go and find her before you get me in trouble."
Annabelle looked shocked for a second, then deeply distressed. She hunched in on herself; clasping her knees to her chest.
I looked closely at Annabelle. Up close like I was now, there was something noticeably odd about her. Her form appeared... incomplete. Like someone hadn't drawn in her outline strongly enough. She almost flickered.
We sat awkwardly in silence for a few moments. She was so unhappy that I started to regret my harsh words towards her.
I started to reach out my hand to hers, where it was lying motionless on her knee. She shrank back, ringlets bouncing on her shoulders, looking horrified at my attempted contact.
I snatched my hand back, affronted. She returned to her position, miserable as it was. I tried again, verbally this time.
"I would like to play with you, you know." I said it gently, not wanting to alarm her again.
She looked up, giving me a tentative smile. "Really?"
I smiled positively back, glad to have regained the conversation. "Of course! Isn't there any way we could play together? Any way at all?"
Sitting upright once more, her face was thoughtful for a few seconds as she pondered the possibilities. She seemed to come to a conclusion, if a hesitant one.
"There is one way, I suppose."
She looked at me questioningly. I nodded, silently agreeing to whatever she had in mind.
So quick that if I had blinked I would have missed it, her hand leapt across the table and grabbed mine. Her hand was absolutely freezing; it made my skin crawl at the contact. The temperature of the room seemed to fall rather suddenly. I started to feel rather odd. Like I didn't weigh anything at all.
I cocked my head at her inquisitively. I saw no sensible reason for her to seize my hand in that fashion.
She smiled with satisfaction. "There. Mama will let me play with you now."