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Authors: Carrie Adams

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BOOK: The Stepmother
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“Five minutes,” I said to myself. “Then bed.”


and stared at the luminous green numbers on the video recorder: 12:56. I lumbered up from the gap between the sofa cushions and rubbed my eyes. I ran my dry tongue over my dry lips and knew, as clearly as if I were my old granddad, that I'd been snoring open-mouthed for a while now.

I stood up, stepped on something hard, and heard the clatter of cut
lery on china. I'd upturned my cereal bowl. For once I was grateful that I had the bad habit of drinking every last drop of sweet milk at the end.

Sliding the bowl with my foot under the sofa, I reached for the light switch and forced my way up to bed. I put my clothes on the small armchair in the corner of my room, in reverse order to how I would be putting them back on in an unbearably short time.

Less than three minutes later, I was in bed with the lights off, perched precariously close to sleep but not quite stepping over the precipice. Why was I always so cold?

I curled up into a ball and tried to get warm, but all I managed to do was surround myself with a sea of cold. It was too cold to stretch my legs out, and too uncomfortable to stay trussed up like a chicken. Thinking about chickens made me think about my archenemy, the rooster, which made me think about my stomach, which made me fling myself into another position with such forceful loathing that I sat up and turned on the light. I picked up the novel lying by my bed and started to read. I read and read and read until the words swarmed before my eyes and it was dawn.

No Model Lady

I was sympathetic at first, adoration is hard to replace, but one more rendition of “Somewhere” and I was ready to shove a scouring pad down her gullet. “One Hand, One Heart” made me want to take up arms, which, I was fairly sure, had been neither Bernstein's nor Sondheim's intention. Add to this artistic misery the natural ability of the teenager to self-indulge and, for once, I was happy to see her walk through the school gates the following Friday with her weekend bags to go to her father's. Sadly, my daughters were a job lot, which meant I lost the little ones too.

However, this Friday was different. This Friday I was going out. By some miracle, Faith, who is married to Jimmy's younger brother Luke, had remained one of my closest friends. Jimmy's family is huge and varied, and somehow I'd got so lost in the crowd that they'd forgotten to ask me to leave. I wondered whether they were the reason Jimmy and I had stayed friends. Even with the best intentions to part amicably, divorce is unimaginably hard. Whatever knots two people may
have wound themselves into, the unraveling is worse. We had our moments, of course—what couple, divorced or otherwise, doesn't?—but considering the circumstances, I would have said we separated well. And, most of the time, I was pretty happy. Well, if not happy, then certainly busy. And weren't they the same? As Dory in
Finding Nemo
sings, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”

I saw Faith through the frosted-glass window of the bar and pulled at my jacket self-consciously. I watched her push open the door as I stuffed the empty packet of nuts into the empty half-pint glass and slid it away from me.

Faith raised her arms in a celebratory salute. “Friday!” she exclaimed.

I pointed to the bottle of wine and the two glasses. “What's it doing still in the bottle?” she asked, giving me a hug. “Get pouring.”

For a second, I leaned into her shoulder, but bodily contact is not something Faith misses, with an adoring husband, a marsupial five-year-old, and an office team of fifteen. Her personal space is anything but personal.

She plonked herself on the stool next to mine. “So. How are you, Bea?”

“Good,” I replied. If Faith had heard my voice rise a decibel or two, she didn't mention it. “Really good.”

“I'm so sorry I had to blow you off the other week—bloody work dinner.”

“I totally understand,” I said. “I had some crocheting I really wanted to get on with.”

“Stop it. You should start going to a class or something on Wednesdays.”

“I would if Jimmy was reliable. But one Wednesday out of three, something comes up.”

“Because you make it too easy for him,” said Faith.

“This is my night out. We're not talking about Jimmy.”

“Sorry. Has Amber come down from on high yet?”

“No. And she's got all weekend being worshipped and adored,” I said.

“I thought we weren't talking about Jimmy,” said Faith.

“You're right. Fine me.”

“A shot.”

“Shit! On an empty stomach?”

“Best place for it. Come on, it's Friday, I'm jangling and, to be honest, I can't be bothered to wade through half a bottle of wine before I level out.”

“Tequila?” I suggested.

Faith giggled like a naughty schoolgirl. “Brilliant,” she said, then hollered for the barman.

“Hey, I'm the one getting fined,” I protested.

“Did I tell you I saw Jimmy the other day with a young woman?”

“Ha, ha.” The barman reached us. “Two shots of tequila, please, and make hers a double.”

I sucked the lemon until I felt the enamel on my teeth creak.

“Aaah,” said Faith, closing her eyes. “That's better.”

“Bad week?”

“Well, Friday's always better than Monday.”

“Not in my life.”

“What I wouldn't do to have a couple of free days to myself. There are so many things I never have time to get done.”

“Faith, you overestimate my life, as usual. All I have is time to get things done. And you know what? The list never gets any shorter.”

“Then stop adding to it.”

“I can't. It's a terrible compulsion. Sometimes I add things just to cross them off. Talking of which, I have a lovely list for you.” I reached down and pulled a plastic folder out of my handbag. “Eats,” I said.

Faith bounced excitedly on her stool. “I take it all back, List Lady, Queen of the Lists, Mother List. What are we having?”

Luke, my ex-brother-in-law, was turning forty in a few weeks' time. Faith had passed that milestone a couple of years earlier with a twelve-hour lunch and a cake iced with the Mae West quote “I'm no model lady. A model is just an imitation of the real thing.” It had been brilliant, but this time Faith wanted dancing. It was costing them a fortune, so I had offered to make the hors d'oeuvres. I pushed the file her way.

“Roast beef in mini Yorkshire puddings?”

I nodded. “With horseradish mousse.”

“Luke's favorite.”

I nodded again.

“Smoked mackerel pâté?”

“On rye,” I added. “Cut into little stars.”

“Oh, my God, Bea, this is amazing…Are you sure you want to do it all?”

“Nothing makes me happier than producing a hundred lobster profiteroles.”

“It's too much.”

“You're right, I'll use crabsticks.” Faith started to protest again. I stopped her. “You know I love doing it and, anyway, it's my present to Luke. Time is cheap. Time, I have.”

“Luke'll get so excited when he sees this.”

I grabbed the file playfully and hugged it. “This is my master list. I have a copy for you.”

“It's going to be such fun—the band is phenomenal. Are you bringing someone? You know you can.”

I shook my head.

“What about that date you went on?”

“Please don't remind me.” I'd been strong-armed into a blind date by Angie. The guy was a friend of her brother, who had D-I-V-O-RC-E'd a year previously. On paper, it looked possible: architect, father of two daughters, forty-six, accomplished cook and gardener. He sounded nice, I thought. The split, I was told, had been amicable, all things considered. It was the “all things considered” that should have rung the warning bells. But since I stand in a glass house of my own, I owed it to myself to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Maybe one day someone would return the favor. I should have turned on my heels the moment I saw his entirely tucked-in self. When he ordered a green salad with the dressing on the side, I should have run. I was on my best behavior the whole day long, but even I couldn't keep it up indefinitely.

“He was a mad anorexic,” I said to Faith, refilling our glasses. “The man wouldn't eat. He watched every mouthful I took. It was unnerving. He was obviously starving, so I kept offering him some, which gave him the excuse to launch into a lecture about heart disease being
the number-one killer. I made some joke about it being cheaper than divorce and that was basically that. So, no, Mr. Dressing-on-the-side will not be escorting me to Luke's fortieth. The girls are. They're very excited about it. My mother's taking them shopping for new outfits.”

“That's nice of her,” said Faith, in a way that let me know “nice” was exactly what it wasn't.

“Can't wait for that little outing,” I said.

“Don't go, then. Let her have the girls on her own.”

That conjured up such a horrendous sequence of disasters that I shuddered. “They'd come back looking like little czarinas.” I drank from my glass.

“She is something of a relic, your mother.”

My mother was born old. But old did not mean wise in this case. She claimed she was “traditional,” and though I tried to convince myself that she was not a bad person, she had turned “traditional” into an ugly word. I loved my mother, of course. But I didn't often like her. I'm pretty sure the feeling was mutual.

“I'm always amazed by how normal you turned out,” said Faith.

“Don't be fooled,” I said, but allowed myself to enjoy the compliment.

Faith laughed. “Did you know Maddy and Lulu asked me if they can be in charge of Charlie on the night of the party? Since I plan to be inebriated by eight, I said yes. I'm pretty sure they'd adopt him if they could.”

Amazing how quickly a good feeling can be replaced.

“When Jimmy brings them over to play, I can hear them in the garden, pretending he's their brother,” she went on. “It's the sweetest thing. Charlie calls them his sisters when he talks about them, which is all the time.” Faith watched me drain my glass. “I know what you're thinking, but you don't have to worry about me anymore. I'm completely happy with what I have. Really, Bea, one makes sense to me.”

I couldn't look at her. She didn't know what I was thinking. I waved to the bar staff, ordered a packet of posh crisps, tore it open, and seized a handful.

“So,” said Faith, picking out one, “this guy, he was telling you off about what you ate?”

“He had antiseptic gel in his pocket, Faith. It was nothing to do with me.”

She nodded, but said no more on my failure to date. I used to tell everyone about future dates. But these days I kept my own counsel. Too many hopeful faces to disappoint when it flopped. Which it always did. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. That was a lie. I knew where I went wrong. I talked about my children too much. My children and Jimmy. It always came back to Jimmy.

“So how are you going to serve all the food?” asked Faith.

“I kept hold of the disposable party trays from the school picnic. One of the perks of organizing it was being able to pilfer some useful catering equipment.”


“And I'll make sure there's enough so that all Honor has to do is a main dish.”

A wicked smile crossed Faith's face. “Just so long as she isn't it.”

My ex-mother-in-law was an increasingly full-time naturist. The urge to get naked had come to her late in life. Her husband, Peter, had tried it out, but he didn't like his “bits and pieces” swinging about in the wind and had returned to the land of the fully clothed, where he had remained. After all, he had his fishing, and some people found that harder to live with than the occasional game of naked boules. They were a bit old for volleyball now. Having checked out the competition and come to the conclusion that the need to bare all had nothing to do with sex, he had agreed to support Honor in her latest craze. “More interesting than cross-stitch,” he had said to anyone who dared show disapproval. Peter and Honor had been married for nearly fifty years. He had fallen in love with her beauty, she with his promise of escape from the terraces of Leeds and a puritanical existence.

“It was just luck,” she said to me when I quizzed her on the success of her marriage, “that we survived as well as we have. Frankly, even with the best intentions, it could have gone either way.”

I don't think luck had anything to do with it. Unified in their commitment to their family, they were also fiercely independent. And when they discussed their plans, I got the sense they were asking each other out of courtesy, never for permission.

Peter, I suspect, is the true romantic in their union. On the eve of my marriage to his eldest son, he said, “The thing about marriage is it makes the good things twice as good and the bad things only half as bad.” Like a fool, I believed him. I believed them both.


I agreed to this, and I deliberately hadn't said anything to Faith about it, but the following evening I was off to a singles night for the over-forties. Can you imagine anything more depressing? What the hell was I thinking? Hadn't the mad anorexic been enough punishment for one year? My trouble was that beneath the excess flesh lies a basically enthusiastic person. She may be buried deeper than I'd like her to be, but she's still down there. Occasionally she makes her way to the surface, and I start accepting invitations with impunity. Needless to say, these moments coincide with a little lost poundage. But the pounds are back on and now all I want to do is dive, dive, dive. Damn that rooster and all who are packaged in him.

I would have canceled, except in this instance I couldn't. My friend Cathy had lost her husband to cancer. She wasn't looking for a date. She just wanted a night out when she could pretend she wasn't a widow and didn't have to talk white-blood-cell count. Her husband took a long time to die. She was bored with cancer. She was bored with death. Infidelity, gay husbands, physical abuse, and good old-fashioned itches were light relief in comparison. And that was why I had to go. If laughing meant laughing at me, I would accept that, because Cathy needed a laugh. I promised I wouldn't welsh on the night. But that was before I had to stand in my bedroom, staring at my wardrobe, trying to find something other than sweatpants and fake Ugg boots to wear. My sartorial mainstay.

“Okay, Bea,” I said to the clothes. “You can do this. Things haven't got that bad.” I flicked through a couple of hangers. There were dresses I hadn't worn since before Lulu was born. I'd always thought I'd get back to that slim person I used to be. Without mirrors, I managed to believe I'd never left. There were no mirrors in my house except the small ones above the basin in the bathroom and the downstairs privy. There is one attached to the inside door of Amber's wardrobe, but it's covered with cut-out photographs of Zac Efron, so even when I
open the doors to put away clean clothes, I'm saved from myself by Blu-Tack.

Tonight I wanted to make an effort. The ever-hopeful idiot at the core of me had allowed herself to imagine, miracle of miracles, that there was going to be a decent bloke at this over-forties, left-on-the-shit-pile-of-life get-together. I was going. My friend was going. We were both all right. Was it so wrong to hope?

BOOK: The Stepmother
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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