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Authors: Carrie Adams

The Stepmother

BOOK: The Stepmother
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The Stepmother
Carrie Adams

For Roxana, Ruby Ann, and Reva.
Light, love, and strength regained.


Crunchy Nut

No Model Lady

What Beast Is This?

You Do Something to Me

Enter the Dragon

Enter the Beast

Eau Sauvage


Liquid Diet

Movie Night

You're Still Alive

Young Love

Sophie Guest

Pink Water

Just One


Hold Fast

For Better for Worse



Crunchy Nut

pretend to join in. I wanted to place one of my daughters on my lap and hug her tightly, but I had taught myself not to do that. At eight, even my youngest considered herself too old for such public displays of affection. On our own at home was fine, but that wasn't when I needed her protection. I felt a hand land on my shoulder, and I automatically formed a smile as I turned.

“Thank you so much for everything you've done,” said the woman looking down at me.

“I'm happy to help,” I replied.

“Everyone tells me you've been amazing.”

My eight-year-old beamed. If her headmistress said I was amazing, I must be doing something right.

“I am so looking forward to this,” the imposing woman said as she took her seat. The nerves tightened. My nine-year-old, sitting on the other side of me, had not noticed the giant presence of her principal, because she was too busy craning her neck to search the back of the
room. Ever since we'd sat down, she'd been keeping a vigilant eye on the entrance. I eased her shoulders round to face the stage. “He'll be here,” I said, glancing at the empty seat. “Don't worry.”

“I'm not worried,” she said, immediately turning back.

The lights dimmed and an awed murmur rose up from the assorted parents, siblings, and extras, and dissolved into a hush. Four worried chestnut-colored eyes sought mine in the gloom of the darkened assembly hall.

“He'll be here,” I said again, taking their hands, and, as the first note drifted up from the piano, he was.

“Daddy!” squeaked the girls, bouncing off their chairs.

Jimmy eased his way along the narrow aisle with such charm that no one other than me seemed to mind. He even stopped to kiss a particularly good friend of ours, and shook some of the other dads' hands. “Sit down,” I mouthed at him.

He leaned over and kissed me, then both of the girls. “Sorry,” he said. “Meeting went on.”

I put my fingers to my lips and pointed toward the stage. The thick green velvet curtains were being drawn back to expose the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen, New York, where girls dressed as boys clicked and hissed and spat at one another, marking out the infamous territories between the Jets and the Sharks.

Then the aggression left the stage and there was our eldest daughter. She peered out at us through an invisible mirror, examining her reflection as intensely as everyone else was now examining her. Was it my imagination or did a collective gasp ripple through the audience? She looked phenomenally beautiful. Older and more self-possessed than her fourteen years—how was it possible that we had a fourteen-year-old child? I stared at Amber, moving around the stage as easily as liquid, my brain leaping ahead to her next line before she'd finished delivering the one she was on. I was impressed, mesmerized, and terrified in equal measures. As for Amber, I could tell by the hem of her dress that she was as steady as a rock.

She looked beautiful. Did I say that already? Her dark red hair was pulled off her face with a white ribbon, her long, slender body still startling inside the neat, sensible dress of a good Catholic. She had skin
the color of milk, but when she opened her mouth to sing, the London girls' school faded away and we fell into the world of a Puerto Rican on the eve of her first dance.

Jimmy reached over our nine-year-old and gazed into my eyes. He squeezed my hand hard, but then our middle daughter took ownership of her father and placed his hand firmly in her lap. I looked down at mine and watched as the warmth slowly left my skin and my fingers returned to their perpetual cold.

At the interval, Jimmy and I were thickly showered with compliments by our parental alumni—some genuine, some tinged with green, and some downright barbed. Why is it that I always remember the barbed ones?

“You must be so proud. When Talullah won her scholarship I made sure she stayed grounded by insisting she make her bed every day. It worked a treat, you should do it with Amber so it doesn't all go to her head.”

“She already makes her bed,” I replied, confused.

“Oh,” said the woman, equally confused.

We stood awkwardly until another “compliment” cut through the air like a missile.

“Wonderful, isn't she? You'll have a job on your hands keeping Amber's feet on the ground now,” said a starched woman, whom I had tried hard to avoid. “It was quite a big decision to pick a girl from year nine. She's quite brilliant, absolutely the right choice, but I think there were some rather put-out mothers in the year above.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but Jimmy got there first. “Thanks for the tips, ladies. We'll watch our backs.” They tittered. Jimmy grabbed my elbow. “Let's go to the bar,” he said.

“You'd better check for poison.”

“Why me?” he asked.

“Do you want to sew on the name tags?”

“Can't you get iron-on ones, these days?”

“Yes. But answer me one question. What is an iron?”

The lines on Jimmy's face deepened in mock concentration. “You win. I drink first.”

There were more “helpful” comments as we pushed our way through
the crowd, but fortunately, since I have amassed a staggering eighteen daughter-years at this school, I know who and where my friends are. Manning the bar. Womanning the bar, I should say, because women dominate my life.

I left Jimmy happily surrounded by some, walked to the sheeted trestle table, and picked up a handful of crisps. “Hey, Carmen,” I said to one of my favorite fellow maternal inmates.

She was pouring cheap red wine into disposable cups. As she refilled one, she mouthed, “My God, Bea, she's fucking brilliant.”

This, I knew, was a genuine compliment. “One mother told me no one liked a show-off.”

Carmen's jaw dropped. She reached below the table and handed me a bottle of decent white. “You'll need this, then.”

I poured generously into a plastic cup, and handed it back. “She went on to reassure me that of course Amber wasn't like that.”

“And so screamed a silent yet,” said Carmen.


“Shark-infested waters.”

“And that's the ones who like me.”

“Sweetheart, you sewed eight hundred school scrunchies by hand. No one likes you.”

I raised my plastic cup to her. “Ah, but Lulu got a star on her reading test, so it was worth the bleeding fingers.”

“Why do you think I'm behind the bar?”

We smiled conspiratorially at one another.

“Enjoy,” she said. “It's Sancerre.”

“In which case you're forgiven your evil tongue.”

Carmen emptied a party-size bag of ready-salted crisps into the bowl in front of me with a wink, then rushed to the other end of the bar to open several more long-life orange-juice cartons.

I helped myself to some more crisps and studied the field. The cheap wine and the accomplished show were working their magic on the throng. These were paying punters and they wanted their money's worth. Laughter moved through the air like ripples on a pond in the rain. I stood at the end of the bar and watched it. Occasionally I saw my younger two dart between adults, followed by a growing crowd of
children. Amber's star status was trickling down to them. Be careful, I thought, experiencing the familiar knot of anxiety I feel for all of my daughters. Star status can vanish just as quickly.

An arm slipped around my shoulders. Jimmy stood, as usual, nine inches above me. He smiled at me and his arm dropped away. He took a quick sip of my wine. “That's unusually good for this sort of thing,” he said, and took another.

“Carmen's behind the bar.”

His forehead creased as he tried to remember who she was. “Sarah's mother?”

“Daniella and Sophia's mother.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” He had no idea who Daniella and Sophia were. He bluffs well, though. Suddenly he smiled widely. “Isn't she doing an amazing job? I mean, we all knew she could sing, but sing and act and—my God, I feel disgustingly proud. I'm trying to be modest, but it's no use. When anyone tells me how great she is, I grin like an idiot and agree with them.”

“That's no way to get yourself invited onto the playground committee.”

Jimmy laughed at my joke. I was grateful. All too often I say things like that and the person I'm talking to starts grilling me about how important the playground committee is to their daughter's chance of becoming leader of the free world. Or, at least, marrying well.

“You're thinking evil thoughts again, aren't you?” said Jimmy.


“Yes, you are.”

“How do you know?” I challenged, though, damn it, he was right.

“Because I know you.”

He studied me with an intimacy that I no longer knew what to do with, so I covered my discomfort by grabbing another handful of crisps. “Okay, yes. I spend too much time inside this building. I've become institutionalized and, though I loathe my captors, I'm afraid to leave.”

“Well, stop volunteering to make the sets, organize the fair, redecorate the school, and take netball practice. Though why anyone has to practice hopping about on one leg is beyond me.”

I elbowed him. “Would you rather your daughters played rugby?”



“I would. Great sport.”

“And you'd go to watch on the sidelines every Saturday afternoon, would you?”

Jimmy hesitated for a fraction of a second.

“Didn't think so.”

“You're right, I wouldn't want to see any of our girls facedown in a ruck.” He shuddered.

The silence thickened between us. I reached for more crisps, but the bowl was empty. Jimmy pretended to scan the room for familiar faces. I knew what we were both thinking. That it would be different if we'd had a boy. Everything would be different if we'd had a boy. Where were some of those “helpful” comments when you needed them?

“You've been mouthing all the words,” said Jimmy, with a smile that I knew was forced.

That's the trouble with having spent the better part of your life with another person. You do know them. Sometimes, I think, too well. But I took the baton gladly. Tonight was a night to enjoy. “I wasn't, was I?”

“All the way through the first half you mouthed the words—and not just Amber's, everyone's.” Now he was genuinely laughing at me.

“Oh, God,” I moaned.

“Complete with intonation and expression.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“You looked too sweet. But don't worry. Any sign you're about to stand up and prompt her, I'll bind and gag you.” He then proceeded to take the piss about all the other times that binding and gagging me might have been an appropriate course of action, until I was laughing, despite my attempts not to. That's the problem with Jimmy. He's always made me laugh. Except for the times when he's made me cry.

The bell rang and everyone filtered back to their seats in a neat, orderly fashion. What is it about being back on school premises, even though it's more than a quarter of a century since you last wore a uniform, that makes you feel like a schoolgirl all over again? I walk through the corridors of my daughters' school consumed by irrational thoughts of popularity and bad hair. Outside the gates I feel competent, capa
ble, efficient, and together. Inside, I feel small, fat, and unworthy. And it's not that I'm reliving my own terrible schooldays, because I loved school. It's that I'm reliving my future…without the potential. And it scares the bejesus out of me.

I shook my head as I took my seat. This was Amber's night. Not mine. And certainly not a night for my maudlin thoughts. I may not have a great deal of potential these days, but my daughters had it by the bucketload and that was enough. It had to be.

The second half was even better than the first. Amber's performance seemed to grow with the story. I watched as my slip of a girl went from naive to womanly to worldly as the songs spilled out of her. All of the girls performed with a gravitas that reminded me how easy it was to underestimate them. Amber wept over the bleeding body of her beloved Tony—a big-boned girl called Sammy—then stood back and sang as if her heart were breaking, while we watched Tony's limp body carried out of the assembly hall by Jets and Sharks alike. Jimmy and I cried. But we cried separately. We did not hold hands.

The applause was thunderous. Everyone stood. I clapped and cried and laughed simultaneously as the cast took their bows. The girls in the audience stamped their feet, and with a surplus of energy, I did the same, which made me laugh and cry again, because I'd forgotten how much fun stamping your feet could be.

Amber stood, holding Sammy's hand, and smiled. Everyone had been impressive, but our eldest daughter had stolen the show. I don't know why that should have surprised me. She always had.

Jimmy grabbed me and the girls into a huge bear hug, and my ugly thoughts were forced aside.


passed me a white plastic cup with another fabulous long wink. I sipped and was startled to feel the sting of tiny bubbles bursting on my lips. I pointed at her. “You're a bloody marvel,” I said, as she raised her own cup in a toast.

Suddenly a burst of applause rippled through the crowd, and people parted to let Amber and Sammy parade through like royalty. Careful, honey, I thought, careful. I scanned the room like a secret agent for the subversive enemy fire I knew was out there.

Jimmy squeezed my hand, leaned down, and spoke softly into my neck. “Give her tonight. We'll recalibrate tomorrow…” Then he did something he doesn't often do anymore. He kissed my head. As I felt the hairs on my scalp settle back into place, my single thought was this: Me, Jimmy. It'll be me. I'll be the one doing the recalibrating. On my own.

Amber saw us and let go of her costar's hand, smiling at every compliment—“wonderful,” “brilliant,” “stunning”—and shaking every outstretched hand. She floated over to us.

BOOK: The Stepmother
5.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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