Stella Vaizey, it turns out, is more wicked stepmother than mother, a heartless, self-centered creature worthy of Evelyn Waugh at his most savage. Her “interest in bridge outstripped by light-years any other feeling ever to have moved her.” While she lounges in bed maintaining her beautiful complexion, her two daughters do all the household chores, and the gifted Laura, who once dreamed of becoming a doctor, attends a glorified secretarial school.
Eventually, Laura finds a job in a box factory, where she helps keep the books for its “swarthy nuggety” owner, Felix Shaw, who for all his misogynist vulgarity possesses a flair for business. Laura hopes that her sacrifice will help save Clare from a similar destiny, or even allow her sister to go back to their old school. One day, while mopping the floor in their flat, she broaches this idea to her mother:
“ ‘It’s hard on you, Laura.’ Mrs. Vaizey looked up from her magazine and trailed an arm along the back of the sofa.
“ ‘I wondered,’ Laura leaned on the mop and picked at a loose flake of green paint on the handle. ‘I wondered if — out of what Dad left — you couldn’t — ’
“Stella Vaizey shook her head and gave her daughter an oddly calculating smile. ‘I’ve told you how we’re placed. You know as well as I do what your father was like.’ Shaking her head again, she lifted a fine china teacup (one of the few relics saved from the sale) from the small table by her side.
“Laura left the paint alone and looked at her mother tenaciously, still leaning her weight on the mop.
“ ‘You’ll break that, Laura! — No, I suggest we put it to someone in the Education Department that we must have Clare at the local high school.’ Her small white teeth snapped a little coconut biscuit in two. She ate one half of the biscuit with paralyzing slowness, watching Laura all the while in a bright, patient, impersonal way.
“Laura took a deep breath through her mouth, pressed her lips together and lunged away with the mop, starting to push it to and fro over the varnished boards surrounding the emerald carpet. ‘No. They only give them domestic science courses here. I’ve got this rise. We’ll manage.’