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Authors: Carrie Adams

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BOOK: The Stepmother
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“Hardly. You never sit down.”

“I'm not sure washing-up counts.”

“It does with this lot,” said Jimmy, running his hands through his thick hair. “I've resorted to paper plates on weekends. Much easier.”

“It's very wasteful,” said Maddy, taking the words out of my mouth.

“Which is why Maddy washed them up, dried them on a washing line she built in the garden, then made monster masks with them.”

I blew my youngest a kiss. “I'm very proud of you,” I mouthed. She smiled and returned to chatting with her sisters about underwater handstands. Jimmy and I let their talk babble around us like water around two rocks, swirling, eddying, and doubling back on itself. We smiled at each other. Even though I knew what was coming next, I felt…I barely recognized the feeling—content?

As the girls scraped the last of the yogurt out of the cups, what I had been waiting for came to pass. The last-minute admission that there was some homework to do, Jimmy's protest that the girls had promised they didn't have any, and the surefire knowledge that I would be up for a couple of hours coloring in the map of Canada, or making a family tree, or sticking leaves in a scrapbook, or whatever parental torture the education system had concocted for the vicariously ambitious. Did I mind? Not a bit. I was happy to do it.

Jimmy came downstairs, having tucked the girls in and kissed them good night, then watched me spread out the contents of their book bags on the table.

“I'm sorry, Bea.”

“I like coloring,” I said. “I find it therapeutic.”

“That's lucky. You've been doing it for years.”

“Careful, or I'll make
color in the solar system.”

Jimmy looked at his watch. “Is that the time?”

I continued going through the file and pointed to the door.

“I'm teasing. Come on, I'll give you a hand. Astronomy was one of my few strong subjects.”

I was surprised. He opened the fridge door. “A glass of wine. It'll take half an hour if we both do it.” He pulled out a bottle and held it up questioningly. Alcohol wasn't really on my diet plan, but I nodded.

It was just over four years since Jimmy and I separated. Four years I had been living alone, two years officially divorced, and here he was, standing in my single-parent kitchen, in my single-parent terraced house, seeming very much at home. We sat down opposite each other and started. We talked about the girls mostly, a bit of stuff about his work. I told him about the sports day coming up and the vegetable patch I'd started in the garden. It was the sort of Sunday night we would have had if we were still married. Which meant one of two things. I had either got this very right. Or very, very wrong.

What Beast Is This?

, I
drop-off. It was one of those rare February mornings when the pale opaque clouds lifted their low-lying lid on London, and we were reminded of the potential of the vast blue skyscape above. There was a clarity in the air, which felt good. Or perhaps I was beginning to see things clearly. Either way, I was more positive about my future than I had been in a long time. We were supposed to be planning the swimming gala, but I can safely say that we were all looking forward to a good old chat. We had elected Carmen's house. It was nearest to the school. She always provided an incredible array of mini croissants—plain, chocolate, and, my favorite, almond paste. She had a posh coffee machine that produced real foam. I loved going to her house. The keeper of the clipboard, I was poised to make more of the lists that made my life worth living.

“Darling,” said Carmen, “latte?”

“Actually I'll take mine black, thanks.”

Carmen didn't say anything, but I'm pretty sure I saw her exchange
a rapid look with Lee, our resident fitness queen, who hails from the States and appears to have had her cycling shorts surgically attached. Then again, perhaps I was being paranoid. Hunger does that to me, and I had now been accompanied by hunger since Sunday. But I was doing so well that it was giving me a little buzz.

I sipped the hot black coffee and felt it swill around in my empty stomach. I was on a liquid diet. Slim-A-Soup. Coffee. Water. The occasional glass of V8 when the stomach juices went from choppy to storm force ten and needed quelling.

“Anyone do anything fun over the weekend?” asked Carmen, handing out the last custom-made coffee and sitting down.

Since no one had anything particularly interesting to say other than that they had performed the usual taxi and food service for our assorted children, I decided to tell my friends about Robert Duke. The Bea way. I built up the story with an exaggeration of pelmet-haired men with high waistbands and women with the hunting skills of a great white, and li'l ole me, sitting forlorn at the bar when Superman himself approached. I try to make my tales of tragic dating funny, though at the time they rarely are. I find a strange satisfaction in watching women I like walk away feeling that maybe their own monotony—sorry, monogamy—ain't such a bad thing, after all. I wouldn't want anyone to make the mistakes I did.

“So, after about five minutes, this dishy blond actually put his hand on my leg and leaned in close and personal and I was thinking, Wey hey, at last, I'm going to get some, when he slipped me his card and said…‘You're a great lady in bad shape. Wouldn't it be nice to be a bad lady in great shape!' Turned out he was a personal trainer fishing for business.”

Chins dutifully dropped.

“Bastard,” said Carmen.

“Poor thing,” said Holly, my fellow nonworking mother of three.

“Good line, though,” said Lee.

“What did you do?”

“I told him to get down and give me fifty to prove his mettle. For thirty quid an hour I wanted to know what I was getting,” I said.

“What happened?”

“He only managed twenty-seven,” I said, shrugging. “So I said, ‘Honey, I may be desperate for an overhaul, but I don't think you're man enough for the job.' Next thing I knew he had his hand around some other lady's gluts, telling her how hard he could work them!”

“You should have reported him,” said Lee, who, despite having lived in this country for years, still hadn't grasped the nation's sense of humor. Everyone laughed again.

Then Carmen said, “Is that why you're taking your coffee black?”

I sighed heavily. “He succeeded in sending me screaming to McDonald's. However, my mother's coming to town.”

“Oh, no,” said my friends.

I nodded sadly. “Oh, yes!”


things about my divorce was that, due to serious financial constraints, I had moved into a tiny terraced house in Kentish Town. The drive to school wasn't too bad, but the best thing was that my mother couldn't come to stay. I would have taken the sofa, I often spend the night there accidentally, but she couldn't lower herself to our standards and preferred instead—oh, I shiver just thinking about the place—the Sloane Club. My world is so different from that of the Sloane Club that on the few occasions I find myself there, I'm startled all over again that such a place, such people, still exist. Apparently we're losing forty thousand species a year, a hundred and twenty a day. If there was ever a candidate for extinction, surely it was the Sloane Club member, with their coiffed hair, giant pearls, booming voices, and thick tweeds. But my mother loves it. She and I are chalk and cheese. I wonder whether I am only chalky because she isn't. I would have liked to ask my father, but he died before I realized I didn't have all the answers. I miss him now, though, and more than ever since I've been alone. I miss having a male in my life. I'd like to ask him whether Jimmy was a bad man or just a man. I'd like to ask him whether he'd been tempted to stray. I'd like to ask him whether sometimes he'd lie in bed and watch the outline of his sleeping spouse and hate her with a passion that scared him. I'd like to ask him whether my brother and I made a difference to his life. Whether we were worth the sacrifice.

My mother never remarried, more's the pity. She likes autonomy too
much. I nearly didn't get divorced, because I couldn't face her inevitable “told you so.” She never liked Jimmy. He didn't come from “good stock.” What does that mean? His dad, Peter, began life climbing telegraph poles and ended regional manager at BT. Isn't that the sort of strong stock you want infusing your family soup? Isn't that a good base from which to start? My mother has never worked a day in her life.

Waiting in the car for the kids outside the school gate, early again, I put my fingertips to my forehead and felt the panes in my glass house creak. I had to get back to work. Thankfully, my moment of introspection was cut short by four fists hammering on the window.

“Mummy!” Maddy was always so delighted to see me that thoughts of work vanished. They piled into the car.

“I made these in cooking,” said Lulu, holding forth a mass of twisted pastry in a wad of paper towels.

“Wow,” I said. “What is it?”

“Cheese puffs for the party. Now you won't have to make everything.” Lulu is a peach. Always thinking about others. She has many more traits of an eldest child than Amber. Amber is more like a typical youngest and Maddy, well, she's just cute.

“Brilliant. Thank you. Luke will be over the moon.”

I handed around homemade hummus-and-pita-bread sandwiches, carrot sticks, and juice boxes. We always had to wait for Amber. The class times were staggered, so this corner of north London didn't come to a standstill, but she still managed to be the last. That girl sauntered through life to her own metronome.

Today, however, she surprised me by running out first. Amazing how the promise of Granny's cash could focus a clotheshorse's mind. Shopping trips to Harrods were quite the norm for some girls in Amber's class, but not for Amber. She was buzzing with excitement. We set off a happy foursome, and I allowed myself to banish the dread I'd been feeling all day.

My mother is a thin, statuesque woman. Where I get my stunted height from, I don't know. Another one for Dad, I guess. I think she wonders herself. I have often caught her looking at me with an expression that, as a child, I never understood. I do now. I sometimes find myself gazing at Amber with something like it. How could such a crea
ture have come out of my womb? At fourteen she is taller than me. Her legs are longer than mine. Her hair is a deep dark red that reminds me of Rossetti's palette. That I created her mystifies me. It's almost the way my mother looks at me, but not quite. As I watch my offspring, I generally celebrate the miracle of the gene pool. My mother distrusts it. I do not do her justice. Whatever I do. So I gave up trying a long time ago.

“Mother,” I said. Mother! Who says “Mother” these days, other than aged Hollywood types who still live with theirs? We kissed awkwardly.

“Hello, Belinda.” She looked me up and down.

I would have liked to tell her about my diet, about my marches around the park while the girls were at school, that I'd already lost two pounds, but her expression silenced me. Instead, the sound of my name on her lips conjured up an image of a giant chocolate-chip cookie. I could have murdered for one now.

“Hello, girls. Are you ready to shop till you drop?”

They jumped up and down in grateful excitement. Make that two giant chocolate-chip cookies and a butterscotch malt to wash them down.

“I thought I'd take Amber first to the grown-up section. We'll come and meet you after a little browsing and see what you found in the young ladies' department. My dear friend Sally has a large changing room waiting for us on the fourth floor. Whatever you think you like, send it there to her. Any
staff member will know her.” At a little clap of her hands, we sprang into line. I brought up the rear. I'm sure my children were confused by my reticence. But they didn't understand the code. I knew what my mother meant by “decent”—she meant white. I had to physically hold back—otherwise I got dangerous.

Maddy and Lulu had a ball, and I forced myself to focus on that. I couldn't give them this memorable treat. Nor could Jimmy, though he tries. He'd never stopped trying. That was almost the worst thing. Maybe if he'd given up his dream and got a job, we wouldn't have ended up where we did. “If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there'd be no room for cheesecake.” Stop it, Bea! I was on day five and doing well. No cheesecake, chocolate-chip cookie, or malted shake was going to pass my lips—I'd done too damn well.

Maddy passed me yet another bustling creation. I put it over my
arm with the rest and we set off to find the others on the fourth floor. One of the price tags fell out on the way. I winced. I fed my family for a whole week on half of that. My mother, I suspected, wasn't parting with her long-sat-upon money just for the sake of my ex-brother-in-law's fortieth birthday party, to which she was most definitely not invited, but because it was her seventieth that year and she was taking us to some fancy night at the English National Opera. The dresses would suffice for both events. But, really, she liked the idea of the girls turning up at the dreadful “common” ex-in-laws looking like girls, in her mind, should. Velvet and ribbons and netting and petticoats and a thin string of freshwater pearls to finish the look.

Trying on the dresses, my girls did as I had never done. They squealed in excitement at every increasingly frou-frou creation. They twirled and skipped and danced, to Sally's and my mother's delight, and for a moment I was happy that, unlike me at their age, they weren't tugging self-consciously at the hem or the bodice, standing pigeon-toed and uncomfortable, longing to be skinned.

“And now it's Amber's turn,” said my mother. She pulled back the curtain, and presented me with—

My jaw fell. Soft midnight blue satin clung to my daughter's alabaster skin and fell in a puddle on the floor. I had a sudden flashback to a happy family holiday in Wales when Amber was Maddy's age, maybe a little younger. We'd found a pool with a waterfall. Entirely free of inhibition, Amber had stood naked under the water and pretended she was a mermaid. Now, as she held her arms over her head, the dress created the same effect, though the cascading water had revealed less of her body than the satin did now. I swallowed hard. She spun around to the applause of her sisters, her hair fanning out, then falling about her neck like a scarf. The dress was practically backless.

“Oh, my,” said Sally.

“Stunning,” said my mother.

Over my dead body, thought I.

Amber could not take her eyes off her reflection. I knew what she was thinking. I'd always known what my eldest child was thinking, even when, like a psychic, I'd wanted to block out the noise.
West Side Story
had been one thing, but this—this Amber person who needed no
stage or costume, was real power. We stared at each other in the mirror. She knew me too. That was why she looked away and, with a glint in her eye, beamed at my mother.

I relaxed. There was no way my mother would allow it. But the moment we could at last stand like comrades, she failed me again. “There's no doubt about it,” she said, “you look magnificent. We'll need a stole, of course.”

What? No!

Amber hugged her. “Oh, Granny, thank you.”

Hey, I wanted to remonstrate, I wasn't saying, “No.” I was saying, “Not yet.” I was saying, “Wait a bit, it will all happen in due course and the sooner you start the sooner it will end and the rest of your life is a very long time.” I had to think fast. “It's beautiful, darling, but at least give us the fun of trying on a few more. Like the scene in
Pretty Woman
.” I hummed the opening bars.
Pretty Woman
was one of Amber's favorites.

“I do have some other wonderful gowns,” said Sally. “Let's see what we can find.”

Dresses came and went. Amber paraded around the room like a peacock in the kitten-heel shoes Sally had provided. She's like a young Kate Moss, I thought, in her childish briefs and white cotton bra. All leg and pout.

“And what about Mama?” said Sally, pulling another dress over Amber's head. “What is she going to wear to the ball?”

I waved my hands in protest, heat rising to my cheeks. “Today isn't about me. It's about my daughters.”

“Well, you have to wear something,” said my mother. She obviously didn't want my ex-in-laws thinking they'd got rid of bad rubbish, even if
thought that.

“I'll find something,” I said. “Hey, Amber, what about trying this red velvet one on again? The black isn't so interesting.”

BOOK: The Stepmother
7.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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