Over the years many a Divine girl had spent her time scrunched up in a corner, watching an older sister get all the attention. Claire knew that she was no different to her aunts, her great-aunts, her great-great-aunts, and well, on it went.
'You don't have to watch, dear,' Mother said, as she held another length of ribbon against Sally's face.
'If you must look on like that, Claire, do come and be useful,' said Grandmother. 'Which one of these ribbons best brings out Sally's eyes?'
'What does it matter about Sally's eyes?' said Claire. 'I've got eyes on the outside.'
'You're silly,' said Mother, 'being miserable on purpose.'
'I'm not miserable on purpose!'
'My sisters were the same,' said Grandmother. 'Silly, jealous little girls.'
'If this always happens,' said Claire, 'then why have more than one daughter?'
'To love them, silly. Stop, Mother.' Sally brushed away the length of ribbon, crossed the room and crouched down in front of Claire. 'The Sight may be for the oldest daughter, but the love is for everyone. None of this is important really, but it is fun, so I want you to join in and enjoy it with me. Why don't you come and help me write the invitations? You're so much better with words than I am.'
Claire was very happy to hear Sally say this, because it was true, so she nodded and got to her feet. They linked arms, and Sally led her sister from the room.
'We'll find you a nice dress as well,' she said, 'to show how important you are. I'm sure I couldn't do it without you.'
'Don't say things you don't mean,' said Claire.
'All right, don't believe me, then.' Sally pushed her sister into the study and sat her down at the davenport. 'But you know I need you for this. This is a darling little bit of old furniture, isn't it? Who did it belong to, do you know?'
'I haven't a clue,' said Claire.
'Better not take any chances with it on Sunday, then,' Sally said with a titter. 'It might have belonged to wicked Great-Great-Great-Aunt Millicent, or anyone.'
She opened the drawers of the davenport one by one, pulling out old-fashioned parchment, an inkwell and a calligraphy pen.
'You're so much more arty than me too,' said Sally, and Claire approved, as this was also true. 'You do have gifts, you know.'
'I know. Find me a pencil for rough, will you? I'm not doing it like a medieval monk until we've decided what to say.'
Sometimes, when Claire was asked to write something out many times, she longed for nothing more than a printing set. Just a toy one would do. Then in a hundred years or more, when the oldest Divine daughter wanted to contact her, she would form her circle around Great-Great-Aunt Claire's printing set.
'That is absolutely perfect,' said Sally, many minutes later, when Claire had finished the first invitation. In straight and curling and thinning and fattening letters, it read:
You are cordially and delightedly invited to attend the first séance of Miss Sally Divine, who has recently come into her gift of Sight. Light refreshments will be provided before the séance, which will begin promptly at midnight on Sunday this (i.e. please come earlier on Saturday night so as to have ample opportunity to partake of said refreshments). I am sure you will remember that if you wish to contact anyone in particular, you must bring something that belonged and was special to them (and do please everyone bring something or it will not be much fun).
The first four times she copied this out in flowing, midnight blue script, Claire wished she had not let Sally have the final say on the wording. Then, when her wrist began to ache, she stopped caring.
'How many am I doing?' she asked, as she handed Sally the sixth invitation to sign.
'Three more. You're doing a lovely job, you know.'
'Yes, I know.' Claire sat back and shook some of the pain from her right hand, then let it rest in her lap. 'So, there'll be thirteen of us altogether.'
'Mother says that ghosts like the number thirteen. It's not really sinister, you know, just
' Sally thought for a moment, then said with sparkling eyes, 'Otherworldly. Claire, darling, is there anybody you want to talk to? Oh, I do hope so! I want it to be a special day for you as well as for me. You must find something to bring, Claire, or I shall never ever forgive you.'
Apart from this grand but idle threat, Claire could tell that Sally meant what she said. She thought about it for a moment, massaging her aching wrist as she did so. Then she said, 'I can very nearly remember Great-Great-Aunt Lucy. I think I liked her.'
'Oh, you did!' said Sally. 'Claire, you really and truly did.'
'Who was she anyway?' asked Claire, trying to work it out. 'Grandmother's aunt?'
'Yes,' said Sally. 'She was ninety-six when she came to see us that time.'
'I remember it now,' said Claire. 'Actually, I think she gave me something of hers.'
Sally clapped her hands together. 'Oh, how frightfully convenient!'
'Yes, if I'm right,' said Claire. 'I need a break from this anyway, so I'll just go and make sure.'
She was almost certain that Great-Great-Aunt Lucy had given her an old doll. It was made from wood, which Claire knew made it older than most of their ancestral dolls, which were made from wax or, occasionally, porcelain. She couldn't remember the wooden doll's name, or the story behind it, or anything that she had heard about it. She only remembered a very old woman placing the doll into her hands with great tenderness, and she knew Lucy must have loved the ugly old thing.
Saturday came, and then night fell. The first guests began to arrive just before eleven o'clock. One by one, aunts and cousins swept through the door and threw coats, hats and a great many other things at Claire. By half past eleven she was responsible for a handkerchief, a parasol, a stamp album, a journal, a scrapbook, a red ribbon, a lavender bag, a fountain pen and an early edition of Enid Blyton's Five on a Treasure Island. She looked at them all laid out around her on the hall floor, Lucy's wooden doll lying atop the pile. She was still wondering what to do with all these artefacts when Sally came flapping into the room.
'Oh, Claire, I'm so nervous!' she said. 'I have an absolutely hideous feeling about tonight, but Mother says it's just butterflies, for all that I'm supposed to be Sighted. Gosh, what a lot of things! I shall never contact all that many spirits!'
'You did tell everyone to bring something,' said Claire.
'So I did. What shall we do with them all? We can't leave them there, and we can't put them in bin bags or anything like that.'
'I'll fetch a couple of those nice wicker baskets,' said Claire. They had plenty, used for gathering apples at Halloween.
'What a good idea,' said Sally. 'You are clever. I'll fetch them - I need a break from all that lot. Go and have something to eat, Claire - I know for a fact that you haven't touched a thing.'
'Yes, well, I've been busy.'
'They shouldn't treat you like a coat rack. Horrid old aunts. They should have a bit more respect for you, Claire. After all, they're younger sisters too, or the daughters of younger sisters. Go and talk to them - I'll worry about all this stuff for you.'
Claire did not much want to mingle with the guests, but she was hungry, so she let Sally push her in the direction of the candlelit dining room. To her relief, everyone ignored her, so she helped herself from the buffet table almost unnoticed.
'Why do you have such a nice dress on?'
Claire jumped, almost choked on her sandwich and then turned to see her cousin Claudia standing over her.
'Sally wanted me to wear it,' she said.
'Where is Sally?' said Aunt Jane, Claudia's mother. 'What have you done with her?'
'I haven't -'
'You be quiet, Claire. This isn't your day.'
'So like a little sister to ruin it all.'
'Have you got her running round at her own séance? Wicked child.'
Suddenly everyone was speaking at once, peering and clucking and looming over Claire like great, hungry chickens. Then, all at once, they fell silent as the mantle clock chimed midnight. As one they all turned, and Claire knew that Sally must have arrived. She stood on tiptoe and peered between the shoulders of two tall women.
Sally stood framed in the doorway, surrounded by a halo of light from the hall. Over each arm was slung a wicker basket full of treasures. She looked very pretty, very mysterious and very happy. Her eyes found Claire's, and they grinned at each other. Claire felt suddenly much better. This was Sally's special day, and it didn't much matter about anything else.
'Don't just stand there, child!' said an elderly voice. 'Blow out the candles!'
Claire frowned at every old woman in turn, not sure which of them had spoken, and then began to blow out the candles at a leisurely pace. Sally turned off the light in the hall and took her seat at the head of the table.
'Don't mind them, dear,' Emma, a more distant cousin, said quietly in Claire's ear. 'They're only jealous of Sally and want to boss somebody.'
Claire gave Emma a grateful smile in the light from the one remaining candle. She then blew this out, and took her seat between Claudia and someone she didn't know.
'Well,' said Sally, 'thank you all ever so much for coming. Now, we'll get straight to it, I think.'
'Start with the Famous Five book,' said someone. 'I want to know where that sister of mine hid my ballet shoes.'
'No, the stamp album!' said someone else. 'Uncle Henry never did apologise for -'
'Oh, now please!' said Sally, raising her hand for silence. 'I don't want to summon any spirits just so you can confront them. No, I am going to start by calling someone my darling sister Claire wants to see, because she liked her very much and wants to talk to her again.'
Sally bent down and began rummaging in one of the baskets. A moment later she popped up again with Lucy's wooden doll.
'Everyone join hands,' she said.
'With this much beloved treasure, I call you back among the living,' said Sally, her eyes closed and her face raised upwards. 'Come to us, Great-Great-Aunt Lucy
'My name is not Lucy!'
Sally's eyes snapped open. Everyone looked up at the little girl on the table, and then began to applaud.
'Bravo, Sally!' said someone. 'I have never seen a spirit summoned so quickly!'
'Natalie!' the ghost cried. 'Where did you get her? What are you doing with Natalie? You give her back, you horrid girl!'
She made a lunge for the doll, but her hands went straight through it. The girl screamed with rage for quite some moments, then calmed down and seemed to consider. Finally, she disappeared. Then a moment later Claudia was on her feet, yelling, 'Give me back my Natalie!'
She marched to the head of the table, snatched up the doll and then slapped Sally so hard that she fell off her chair. There was a collective gasp as the possessed Claudia ran off with the doll, screaming at the top of her voice, 'I'll get you for this! You'll pay for stealing my Natalie!'
'Sally!' Claire ran to her sister and fell to her knees beside her. 'Are you all right?'
'Yes,' said Sally, sitting up. 'But whatever can have happened? That wasn't Lucy!'
'Claire!' said Grandmother. 'Did you provide that doll?'
'Y-yes,' said Claire.
'Sabotage!' cried Aunt Jane.
'Indeed,' said Grandmother. 'Talentless you may be, Claire, but you are not so stupid as to overlook the clear fact that this doll is from before my aunt's time. You know that objects only summon their first owners, spiteful girl.'
'I'm not!' said Claire. 'How could I know that? You've never told me anything!'
'You're being terribly unfair,' said Emma.
'Grandmother, please!' said Sally. 'I told her to bring it!'
'Don't protect her, dear,' said Mother. 'You shut up, Emma. Claire, you have been against your sister and her gift from the start.'
'Wicked child!' said somebody who was very old indeed. 'Lying! Answering back to your elders and betters!'
'Shut up!' Unable to take any more, Claire rose to her feet and yelled at the top her lungs, 'You don't know anything, you horrible, vile, nasty old -'
'We have to get out of the house.' Sally popped up beside Claire like a terrified Jack-in-the-box, and grabbed her sister's arm. 'Now, all of us, or we'll die. Painfully!'
'Don't be silly,' said Mother. 'Nothing is going to happen. I know. I have the Sight.'
'Well so do I,' said Sally, 'and I'm telling you, we have to leave!'
'Let's go, then,' said Claire, alarmed by Sally's sense of urgency, and pained by her vicelike grip. 'Anyone else who believes Sally really has the Sight, come with us.'
She began to shepherd Sally towards the back door, shushing her sister's whimpering protestations, and saying, 'They'll probably follow.'
They walked across the vast lawn, not turning to see whether anyone did follow until they heard a frightful cackle and felt a rush of heat. Everything glowed suddenly red. Claire turned round, and saw the house engulfed in smoke and flames. She had only time to open her mouth before Claudia, still clutching the doll, hurled herself from an upstairs balcony and landed with a crack on the patio below.
'Oh my crikey!' said Claire.
'What was that?' sobbed Sally, still with her back to the scene.
'Claudia,' said Claire.
Sally screamed and covered her ears as the restless spirit appeared beside her.
'Oh, go away!' said Claire. 'Did you really do that just because we took your doll?'
The ghost laughed, and said, 'Don't be silly. I was doing you a favour, Claire. I saw how they treated you, just for being younger. It was the same for me, so you can trust me when I say you're better off without them.'
'Oh, calm down, silly girl. I saved you the best one. She'll look after you. Oh, by the way.' She pushed her face up close to Claire's and, grinning, said, 'That davenport is Victorian. Too late for me, you pair of ignoramuses. That was Lucy's.'
With that, the ghost of Wicked Great-Great-Great-Aunt Millicent evaporated into the air, leaving Claire with a sobbing sister and the sight of a burning house, from which staggered the singed and startled Distant Cousin Emma.