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Authors: Claire Seeber

The Stepmother

BOOK: The Stepmother
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The Stepmother
a gripping psychological thriller with a killer twist
Claire Seeber
Contents

To ALL my family – every single last one of you, however step you may be!

Mirror, Mirror, here I stand

Who is the fairest in the land
?

Wilhelm Grimm,
Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Prologue

O
nce upon a time
there was a king who married a lady, and so she became his queen. Soon after their wedding the new queen gave birth to a beautiful daughter. The queen looked at her baby and saw that her hair was black as ebony, her skin as white as snow and her lips as red as the roses climbing around the window. The queen liked the pure and pristine snow best, so she named her baby Snow White.

Not long after the baby’s christening, the queen died of a mysterious ailment.

I wonder what that was.

(Though isn’t it true that some women – many women perhaps – don’t like other beautiful women – especially younger ones? Or is that a fairy tale too, probably made up by men?)

Anyway. I digress…

The king was sad and lonely on his own, as men of a certain age tend to be, and so, sometime not so long after the queen’s death, he married a most beautiful woman, who seemed quite nice. She became the new queen – and, of course, the young Snow White’s stepmother.

And we all know about stepmothers, eh?

Oh yes. We know all about them.

Don’t we?

One
Marlena

T
his is not the story
, is it?

It’s not
meant
to be the story – for either of us.

M
y breath sobs
out of me as I run off the train and down the platform, up the footbridge stairs, past people going calmly about their daily business: travellers who glance away like I am deranged.

I
am
a little deranged, in my desperation.

Down the other side, I stumble through the barriers, out into this unknown city.

Where the fuck is the taxi rank
?

I bundle myself into the first yellow cab I see, praying the whole time as it drives out of the city, so slowly – torturously slowly –

and into the countryside.

Who made all this countryside? I hate the countryside.

Out across the fields, into the small town, through the orchards, up to the hill. It’s the longest drive I’ve ever been on, it seems – it goes on and on…

And all the time I’m praying this is a dream.

All the time, I can’t quite catch my breath: it stops all jagged in my throat. I can’t believe it. I can’t, I won’t, I can’t.

They still have no answers when I get there, and so I put my head back and I do something I’ve never done before. I scream to the sky, to the heavens, to the world. I have always kept it in, my fear and rage, but now I scream it out.

And it doesn’t even touch the sides; not even remotely, not even a tiny little bit.

A
nd later
, when more becomes clear, I vow to sort this whole sorry mess out – to find the truth. Oh yes, I will. They can’t hide from me, oh no.

There is nowhere for this wickedness to hide.

Two
Jeanie
28 November 2014

T
he old house
is like a living thing. I felt it the first time I came here: as if the very cracks between the bricks were breathing quietly, as if the building were actually sentient. As I stand now before the great front door with its sturdy old locks, the keys for which I hold for the very first time, I struggle to believe it’s
my
home.

Grey bricked, square and squat, mullion windowed, the first parts of the house were built in Elizabethan times. It has been added to along the centuries and modernised: a new drive curving before it, wrought-iron gates to keep outsiders firmly out. But still its age seeps from the walls. Old creepers twine around the sills, climbing up the old brickwork; red and white roses round the thick wooden door. Built onto one side, a single pointed turret reaches desperately to the darkening sky, as thick cloud scuds across a shadowed new moon.

I will never forget my first sight of it. I remember most distinctly the first time I crossed the threshold, following nervously in Matthew’s wake. How in awe I was, and how my heart thumped.

Now, apparently, I am home.

Y
esterday afternoon
, at the estate agents squeezed between the old arcade and the chippie on the seafront corner, I detached my battered old ‘Virgo’ key ring – proudly presented to me by Frank on his tenth Christmas – and handed back the keys to 9 Marine Buildings with an almost-lump in my throat. Almost, but not quite.

Despite my nerves about what was coming next, I can’t say I was entirely sorry to say goodbye to the dingy hallway that always smelt of cat wee, despite my best attempts with air fresheners or potpourri. (Last year Frank was so desperate to mask the smell from a new girlfriend, his joss sticks almost burnt the whole place down.)

I definitely wouldn’t miss the patch of mould shaped like a polar bear above the bedroom window, or the shower that inevitably turned icy halfway through a hair wash – but for all its faults, it had been home for a long time. It was what we were used to, Frankie and I.

Sure, the second bedroom wasn’t big enough to swing a mouse. The balcony was small and never chic, despite valiant efforts with greenery and two stripy deckchairs – but just having it enabled me to sit and watch the sea, sometimes for hours that slipped by unmarked; the sea that I both feared and loved in equal measure.

But in my heart I’d left already. I closed the flat door more resolutely than I felt and knocked on Elsie’s. When she didn’t answer, I left the yucca and the peace lily on the landing, unsure if she’d gone to her niece’s – or if she found the idea of goodbye as painful as I did.

I shoved the last bits of mail in my bag – the redirection would kick in tomorrow – and closed the street door behind me for the final time.

The speed at which my life was changing felt surreal and astonishing – only this time in a good way. I just couldn’t quite believe it was true.

After I’d dropped the keys off at the estate agents, I drove towards Shoreham for my last night on the south coast. In Judy’s dingy first-floor flat we sat below a curling print of someone French’s lilies, toasting new beginnings with warm Sauvignon Blanc. It took quite a bit of ‘jokey’ sniping that wasn’t very jokey for me to gather I’d upset her. Hanging in the cramped hallway, my wedding dress had apparently become a red rag to a bull. I wished I’d left it in the car – but I’d been scared it was too tempting for local thieves.

‘Fantastic pulling grounds, weddings.’ Judy sloshed wine into her half-full glass then moved to top up mine with the end of the bottle. ‘I could be meeting my own Mr Right if you’d asked me.’

‘But there won’t be any Mr Rights there.’ I covered my glass with my hand so the dregs trickled between my fingers. Only Frankie and Marlena were coming – and the twins of course. ‘There’s no party or anything, Jude, really. It’s not like that.’

It was the truth. It
was
going to be tiny – and private. Just our immediate families – of which there wasn’t much, for either of us; the families that we were going to integrate, bring together, in my imagination, like the Brady Bunch – only much smaller.

‘Your prince has come then, eh? Let’s just hope he’s a bit more charming than the last one,’ Judy slurred, draining her glass too quickly. ‘Let’s hope
he
doesn’t sell anything to the press. Or that he hasn’t got a mad wife in the attic. God, imagine that!’

‘I don’t think it’s like that.’ My smile was becoming fixed. Matthew did have an ex-wife – that much was true – but as far as I knew, she wasn’t mad or living in the attic.

I’d been teaching
Jane Eyre
again for A level this term, covering for a teacher on maternity leave at a comprehensive out by Stenning, only slinking beneath the wire because my old head of department was there now and, desperate to fill the post at the last minute, took pity and hired me.

No, there were no parallels between the fiery little governess and my life. None at all.

It was definitely time to hit the saggy sofa bed before Judy got started on all men being bastards and the bottle of mouldering dessert wine she’d produced from somewhere. She didn’t need me to rub my good fortune in – or to remind her of all the trauma I’d already been through that made this new adventure all the more special and extraordinary.

And I definitely didn’t need to start thinking about what I hadn’t
quite
told Matthew yet. I could deal with that later.

Couldn’t I?

I
woke early
, sore and stiff from the cheap sofa bed, and crept out of Judy’s with indecent haste, leaving a thank-you note and a rather sour taste in my mouth about our friendship.

I’m not sure it’s one that will withstand the move. It’s been floundering since my sudden, forced departure from Seaborne last year. I suppose I was just grateful Judy didn’t turn her back like many of my other colleagues. (Let’s just say there was definitely no whip-round when I left.)

Frankly I took friendship where I could get it during those awful months. Judy had cleaved to me a few years before at Seaborne, after I’d taken pity on her isolation when the staffroom hadn’t warmed to her Tory views. We shared an occasional warm cider after I left, although I suspected it was largely because the depths to which I’d fallen made her feel better about her own life.

I pulled the door quietly behind me.

Outside I felt the air, damp and salty, on my face. I paused for a moment, savouring it, listening to the seagulls cry like kittens. The sea was only at the end of the road, and I contemplated the walk down to the beach for a last look – but the day was grey, and glancing at my watch, I thought,
I’ve got somewhere new to be
. Frankie’s train was getting in at 11 a.m.

I turned away from the sea and got into the car, and despite my resolution, it felt very final.

To a soundtrack of Joplin and Joni, I took the M23, my tummy rolling with nerves and excitement. Still, there was more than a tinge of sadness, despite what happened here eighteen months ago. Brighton had been our sanctuary for the past twelve years, ever since Simon meted out his punishment. I’d miss it badly.

But it was time to push those thoughts away; it was time to start afresh. Not everyone gets this second chance at happiness, I reminded myself firmly and cranked up Janis’s top notes.

At Berkhamsted Frank’s train was delayed, so I sat outside the station, nursing a coffee and contemplating this new place we were coming to. Such a neat and tidy town compared to the tangy sprawl of the south-coast town that burst with gay bars and hen parties, the busy little Lanes and the neon fairground on the Pier. Berkhamsted, on the other hand, is not Bohemian, cool or chavvy in any way: it is proper, grown-up suburbia.

As I watched from my seat, neat little families poured out of 4 x 4s and a clutch of affluent older couples in beige headed to Waitrose. Across the street, yummy mummies ran in and out of the coffee shops in Uggs and fake fur, glued to smartphones. It was all so nice: we might just end up being the sore thumb, my son and I.

The truth was I didn’t want attention any more; no more whispers and sniggers, no more covert looks across the street.

But what is nice anyway? Nice is so often only on the surface in my experience. The debris usually lies beneath.

Frank’s arrival curtailed my musings. He didn’t see me as he loped out of the station in his skinny jeans and scuffed Converse, an old parka falling off his narrow shoulders, and I watched him with joy.

‘Oh gosh, I’ve missed you.’ I hugged my son hard, shocked at how tall he was – taller even than when he’d left for Hull three months earlier, breaking my heart as he left the nest entirely empty: only me left.

‘Don’t say it, Mum,’ he grinned.

‘What?’

‘All grown up!’

So I didn’t – I just grinned at him. But it did cross my mind that day, yet again: would I have given into Matthew with such abandon if Frankie hadn’t packed and gone north?

Now he released himself from my hold and swung his rucksack up, and I noticed a new tattoo poking from his jacket sleeve. ‘New ink?’ I teased, and he swiped my hair.

‘Yeah, something like that.’

In the car he told me about his new mates, about his halls and then finally that he wasn’t convinced he was doing the right course. ‘I’m thinking of changing to music production,’ he said. ‘More me.’

And despite his chatter, as we neared Malum House, my stomach turned over again. I was looking forward to showing Frankie his new home. The prospect of giving him something more than we’d ever dreamt of was tantalising – but I was suddenly terrified.

What if they didn’t get on?

Sure, they’d been all right the few times Matthew visited Brighton; they got on fine, that was true. They chatted about football, and a bit about music, though their tastes differ vastly. But – what if…

Matthew flung the door open wide before I even knocked, soothing my nerves, all smiles, damp dark hair and faded old jeans. He’d been waiting for us with fresh coffee and croissants in the big white kitchen. Leading us in, it was obvious he wanted us to both feel at home, kissing me and giving Frankie a jovial back slap.

‘Welcome to Malum House,’ he said, his hazel gaze on me. My stomach flipped over – with excitement this time.

‘Nice.’ Frank took his cup to the French windows. ‘Cool view. What’s Malum when it’s at home?’

‘The house was built on the site of Malum Farm’s old orchards, in the seventeenth century.’

‘Oh right; well old, then.’ Frankie nodded sagely.

It was Matthew’s turn to grin. ‘Malum’s the old Latin for “apple”.’

‘I see,’ said Frank. Then he grinned and admitted, ‘I never did Latin actually. One year of Spanish just about did me.’

‘Well I don’t think many of us did Latin.’ Matthew was kind.

Whilst Frank was in the bathroom, Matthew scooped me to him, kissing me with vigour. When I came up for air, I felt oddly shy, and I pushed my head into the neck of his cashmere jumper. He wrapped his arms tightly around me.

‘I can’t believe I’m actually here,’ I whispered. ‘It feels like a dream.’

‘I can believe it,’ he murmured into my hair, ‘and I thank God you’re not going anywhere again.’

‘Really?’ It was like I needed to pinch myself. No man had ever made me feel like this before. Not even…

Not even the devil still haunting me now.

‘Really, hon.’ Matthew kissed the top of my head. ‘You are so good, Jeanie. You are going to be the saving of me – I know it.’

And I revelled in it for now. For now, I would let myself revel in this unusual, addictive and exotic feeling. Because I knew, for all my high hopes, I knew it probably couldn’t be sustained. But I wouldn’t think of that now…

When Frankie slouched back into the room and swallowed a croissant practically whole, Matthew released me and suggested a tour of the house. ‘We ought to show Frank his new home, eh, Jeanie?’

‘Cool.’ Frankie eyed another croissant, and I propelled him gently towards his rucksack.

‘Do you want to see your room?’ I asked.

‘I’ve given you the end bedroom on the first floor, looks out onto this—’ Matthew gestured at the great sweep of lawn that led down to woodland on the other side of the high wall. There was no way over that wall.

I was surprised by a sharp feeling, like a weight on my chest.
Come on, Jeanie!
I couldn’t crave the openness and enormity of the sea already, less than two hours in. Could I?

Don’t fuck this one up, for Christ’s sake!
Marlena’s voice was in my ear.
This is your big chance.

‘Sounds good to me.’ Frank hitched up his jeans as we watched Matthew open the ‘secret’ kitchen door with a flourish, showing off the twisty hidden stairwell.

‘The Cavaliers hid their allies in this stairwell during the Civil War.’ Matthew was ahead of us. ‘I saved it from Kaye’s terrible architect when we did the extension. There’s a priest hole behind it from Elizabeth I’s reign – when the Catholics were persecuted. They’d have torn it all out if Kaye had had her way.’ I couldn’t see his face, but I sensed the roll of his eyes. ‘It’s listed now, so it’s safe.’

‘Awesome, man.’ Frankie loped behind his stepfather-to-be. ‘Can you get in the priest hole?’

‘No, it’s bricked up now – but it’s there behind the wall.’

And they were up and out of the stairwell.

Alone, I paused in the dimness. I ran my hand across the cold, bumpy wall, salvaged from the demanding ex-wife who was so rarely mentioned. I wondered whom exactly it was who hid behind the bricks. Did they listen in terror to Elizabeth’s soldiers or Cromwell’s Roundheads tramping through the house, ready to pull them apart? They must have feared for their lives.

The wall was very cold beneath my fingers, and I realised I was holding my breath, my ears straining for sound.

I
t sounds silly
, but once or twice, I’m sure I’ve heard voices, late at night, whispering in the hallways and on the landings, when there’s been no one here but Matthew and I.

And it’s strange, because I don’t feel like the house is hostile – but it has unnerved me.

BOOK: The Stepmother
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