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Authors: Carrie Adams

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BOOK: The Stepmother
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Jimmy lifted her clean off the ground, threw her up, and caught her. All eyes were on them, the women's on Jimmy, the men's, I'm ashamed to say, on Amber. No one looked at me like that anymore.

Eventually Amber saw me, grinned, and put a wet kiss on my cheek. “I did it!” she shrieked.

“You did more than that, sweetheart. You were brilliant. I'm so proud of you.”

“Thanks, Mum,” she said, and glanced around for the next compliment. She didn't have to wait long. She blew me a wide-eyed, got-to-go kiss and allowed herself to be dragged away by a friend, whose father put his hand around her waist—slightly lower than her waist, actually.

With every compliment I imagined her puffing up like a hot-air balloon. Rather than happily watching her sail up, up, and away, I found myself clinging to imaginary anchor ropes, fighting to keep her feet on the ground. “Exceptional,” “phenomenal,” “genius.” Genius? Too much hot air was dangerous. Explosive. My knuckles were white. I stretched my fingers, half-expecting to see rope burns crossing my palm.


zone. The women at the bar. Women I would be friends with irrespective of the accident of birth. Don't misunderstand me, I like most of the women at this school—that's three classes of thirty mothers—but there's a big difference between like and like-minded.

Angie slapped me on the back.

“What are you all laughing about?” I asked.

“Don't. It's too painful,” she said. She had one girl at the school and three boys elsewhere.


“Last week's Save the Animal Day.” She grimaced. “I forgot. Poor Ella was the only one in uniform. She screamed blue murder when she realized she wasn't an endangered animal.”

“I don't know. Regent's Gate School girls are a pretty rare breed,” I said, “especially the non-Russian-speaking ones.”

Carmen had left her post behind the bar. She prodded me.

“Careful,” I said, pulling my jumper down. “You'll lose your hand.”

“Don't be silly,” said Angie.

“I not only took mine to school the day after the term finished,” said Theresa, a GP who ran her own practice, “I brought them back a day early. My therapist would say I'm subconsciously afraid of being left alone with my children. He'd be right.” Everyone laughed.

I racked my brain for a story of my own hopelessness, but couldn't come up with one. You know what? It embarrassed me. Angie and Theresa worked full-time, as I used to, and Carmen still worked part-time. Sometimes it ran smoothly, sometimes it didn't. But now I had nothing other than my children to think about, so they went to school with their ballet kit clean and ironed; their homework done; a fresh, healthy snack in their bags every day without fail.

“Therapist?” I asked, wanting to change the subject.

“Fantasy therapist, along with the fantasy Pilates classes, fantasy diet, and fantasy lie-ins. He's quite dishy, puts his hand on my fevered brow and tells me I'm doing brilliantly.”

doing brilliantly,” I said.

She shrugged. “I know, but sometimes it would be nice to be told.”

“I'll drink to that,” said Carmen. The women raised their plastic cups.

Then Carmen gave her perfect, sexy smile, and a second later I felt hands on my shoulders. I know that Jimmy is one of everyone's favorite dads, boasting a near-full head of hair, a sense of humor, and an innate ability to talk to women. In a popularity contest with me, he'd win hands down. Years ago I trained myself not to mind.

“Ready to go?” he said.

“You've got the girls?” I asked, surprised.


I imagine only the other women heard my short sigh while I silently listed the irritations Jimmy's “no” had created. But female subtext to men's ears is like a dog whistle to any human's: they simply don't hear it. “I'll get them,” I said. I'll be the bad guy. Years ago I would have sent Jimmy, but experience had taught me that he would come back empty-handed. He couldn't force his will on his eldest daughter, because, where she was concerned, his only will was hers. I left him with my friends and sought out my shining star first.


I could tell she was tired. Overtired, in fact, and that meant dangerous. Highs like that come at a hefty cost. I held back, forming a quick strategy. Finally I came up with something I thought had a chance of success. “Amber, darling, Dad's offering to take us to Nando's on the way home and pick something up.”

“Nando's! Yum, I'm starving,” said her friend Emily.

“Lucky you! We're never allowed to go there,” said a girl I didn't know.

“What I wouldn't do for a plate of chips now,” said a third.

I smiled. I get a big kick out of the ravenous appetite of the prepubescent girl. I savor it, actually. I have friends with older daughters, and I know it won't be long before the Special K diet worms its way into my child's consciousness.

Amber stood up. “Sorry, guys, gotta go.”

“You coming tomorrow night?” Emily asked me.

“I'm coming every night. We've got the grannies and the aunts tomorrow, too.”

“Mayhem,” said Amber dramatically.

Here we go, I thought, taking her arm gently.

I managed to scoop up the other two on the way, and the person it was the hardest to prize out of the assembly hall was Jimmy. He left behind a horseshoe of crestfallen women when Maddy pulled him away from his adoring audience. Amber and Jimmy are more alike than I ever realized. Charmers. It makes them attractive to be around, but the trouble with charmers is that they need an audience. Always.

I climbed into the driver's seat, Jimmy next to me, and the girls in the back. It was a cold night, and I put on the heater. Winter was stub
bornly refusing to move aside for spring. I knew people were desperate for the clocks to go forward, for the season to change, but the cold early evenings suited my life. It was easier to be a hermit in the dark. I had whispered the plan and, having slipped Jimmy thirty quid because he'd spent his last cash getting a cab to the school, drove us to the fast-food place. “Anything for you?” he asked, leaning back through the open door.

“No, thanks. I'm not hungry.”

A little later I let us into our small house in Kentish Town and the girls ran ahead to fight over the bucket of cholesterol now sitting in the middle of the pine kitchen table. Jimmy went to the fridge, got himself a beer, found an open bottle of wine, and poured me a generous glass. The five of us sat around dissecting the performance again, as we had in the car, while the kids dipped chips into an assortment of glutinous sauces. As usual, Jimmy had ordered too much, and after a ten-minute eating frenzy, the girls pushed themselves away from the table and groaned.

“Bedtime, you lot,” I said.

For once no one protested. Even Amber stood up without a fuss. “I need to rest for tomorrow. Do you mind if I don't help clear up?” she said.

Cunning…I thought. I'd happily throw the rest of the congealing food and the paper plates away if it meant no bedtime tantrums. “Go on up. I'll put this away.”

“I'm too tired to walk upstairs,” said Maddy, knowing full well how her father would respond. Dutifully, he picked her up, and then Lulu was begging to be carried too. But Jimmy wasn't as young as he once was—they'd have to take it in turn. It seemed like yesterday he could carry all three.

“Daddy will carry you to bed tomorrow,” I said, sensing a storm brewing.

Jimmy gave me a look. I had to concentrate on stopping my jaw clamping. I knew what that look meant: he wouldn't be around tomorrow night to put them to bed. He was going to be “busy” again. I implored him not to say anything. They were too tired, and news that Daddy wouldn't be home again guaranteed a meltdown. Instead I
picked up Lulu and carried her up to the room she and Maddy shared, then went downstairs to throw away the leftovers. Well, tidy up, anyway. I found it difficult to throw food away. It seemed such a waste.

“Mum! Can you bring some loo paper?” yelled Lulu.

I swallowed a cold chip. “Coming,” I mumbled.

I could hear Amber singing in the bathroom as she reluctantly took off her stage makeup. I was relieved to see her emerge barefaced and swamped by Snoopy pajamas. I hugged my eldest child. “I'm so proud of you, Amber. You put so much work into that show and it paid off. I don't think even you thought you were going to be
good. Did you?”

“But Mummy, when the lights came up I forgot about me and became her. It was like I'd gone through the looking-glass. It wasn't until I saw you guys that I remembered who I was. It was weird.”

“You were Maria absolutely. Even I forgot it was you at times,” I said, stroking her hair. “But as brilliant as she was, I'm very glad I have my beautiful Amber back.”

“I'm pooped,” she said, flopping into her bed and reaching for a tendril of hair, which she curled around a finger and held to her face. She's been using her hair as a security blanket since the first tufts appeared behind an ear. So much easier than Lulu's rabbit, which I've lived in fear of losing for nearly a decade now. I didn't make that mistake a third time. Maddy had a muslin cloth to cuddle up to and I used to buy them by the sackload.

“Love you, Mum.”

“I love you, my amazing girl. I'll come and give you a kiss after I've settled the other two.” She waved her hair-ringed fingers at me. It was these gestures, not her perfect pitch, that made me love my daughter.


cross-legged between the two single beds and read from a book he'd picked off the shelf. It didn't matter that it was babyish, it didn't matter that they didn't like the story, it didn't matter that they were virtually asleep: their eyes and ears were on their father, drinking him in. My heart constricted and I retreated to the corridor. By the time I'd picked up the discarded clothes, screwed the cap onto the toothpaste, flushed the loo, put out clean uniforms for the follow
ing day, checked all three book bags, hung up the wet laundry, disposed of the empty Nando's bucket, and sorted out breakfast, the house was quiet. I went back upstairs to kiss my sleeping children, then joined Jimmy at the kitchen table. He opened the box of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes and grabbed a handful. A few spilled out, and more dropped from his hand as he threw them into his mouth.

“Sorry about tomorrow night. It'll be a late one,” he said, crunching. I stared at the cereal scattered over my recently cleaned table. “I had to juggle some things to get to the play, and they've been moved to tomorrow.” He put the packet back in its place but without folding down the plastic innards or the top of the box.

“It's okay,” I said, itching to close it but resisting, because I knew it would be seen as an act of aggression.

“God, she was brilliant, wasn't she?” said Jimmy.

I tore my eyes away from the bloody cereal and forced myself to remember the show. The smile returned to my lips. “Yes, she was.”

“I hope they're making a movie. Lucy's coming tomorrow, right? She's got one of those digital recorders. Shall I ask her?”

I had already called Jimmy's wonderfully left-field sister and asked her. “She's bringing it.”

“Perfect. That's the sort of thing we need to save up for Amber's twenty-first.”

“Or her wedding,” I replied. We caught one another's eye, then looked away.

“Right,” said Jimmy, standing up. “I'd better be going.”

I glanced at my watch. “Gosh,” I said, faking a yawn, “how did it get so late?”

“Bea, I'm sorry I can't collect Lulu and Maddy tomorrow.”

“It's all right. I'll sort something out. Maybe they'd like to come and see the show again.”

“I would.”

“Really? Do you want me to get you an extra ticket? The last night is Friday.”

“Friday, Friday…Yes. I can come on Friday. I could take the girls afterward for the night. Make it up to them for missing my night tomorrow, give you a break.”


“Have a think, let me know. I won't make any plans.”

Nor would I, since it was never going to happen. “Okay. Thanks.”

He gave me a brief hug. “Night, Bea.”


I heard the front door close, and as the latch clicked into place, my spine collapsed and I folded with exhaustion over the kitchen table. For a moment everything went blank. When my eyes opened again, my vision was filled with the Kellogg's rooster. I reached for the packet, picked it up, and scanned the enticing health figures. “Fortified, my arse,” I said to the rooster. “If you were fortified, I should have the strength of ten men by now.” Then, as if the spirit of that damn bird had possessed me, I emptied a small hill into Lulu's bowl. By leaning back in my chair, I could open the fridge, yank out the milk, pour, and replace it so quickly that it was almost as if it hadn't happened.

I walked through to the front room and switched on the telly, put my feet on the table, and spooned sweet, crunchy mouthfuls of honey-coated happiness into my mouth. Hell, everyone needs a love interest. I placed the empty bowl on my chest and gazed, weary-eyed, at the telly.

“I really should go to bed,” I said to myself, picking up the remote and flicking through a couple of channels. I had stopped paying for cable as part of my new economy drive, and didn't miss it. The kids had incredible ways of downloading all the latest series from America, and knowing I did a lot of “babysitting,” my friends and family were generous with their boxed sets. Anyway, there was always a
on Channel Five at about this time of night.

Sure enough, there was Grissom, his head in a jar of cockroaches, and some fancy film-work to ease my whirring brain.

BOOK: The Stepmother
6.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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