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Authors: Claire Seeber

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BOOK: The Stepmother
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31 December 2014

9 p.m.

espite all the dancing
, the smiling at new faces, the shaking of hands and kissing of cheeks, I never shake my feeling of unease.

I try my best to feel like I am part of something in a way I haven’t been for a very long time. Or ever maybe. I really do try.

felt ready to face the bigger world officially, for the first time since we’d married at Berkhamsted Town Hall a month ago. Not a white wedding, more a foggy grey one – but definitely a whirlwind, winter one. I was so happy on the day – I thought my heart might burst. Frankie and I, we were part of a proper family now, I told myself, and it didn’t even matter when Marlena didn’t come.

I was happy, despite Scarlett scowling her way through the ceremony, chewing gum then drinking her one glass of champagne too fast at the French restaurant, meaning she felt so sick she had to sit outside with Matthew for a good twenty minutes. And Luke spent most of his time texting – his mother, he said, when I asked. When Matthew returned with Scarlett, dropping a kiss on my head, it was quite obvious she’d been crying.

Inside Frankie had just told me he was dropping out of Hull, that art wasn’t for him. He’d reapply to do music production the following September. It was for the best, he kept saying, and I found myself downing my own champagne pretty fast too.

Despite all of that, I kept telling myself it would be okay. It wasn’t just the two of us any more; it was all of us. And it’d be fine.

How wrong could I be?

10 p.m.

y ten o’clock – a bit tipsy
, as Nan would have said – I’ve managed to dash away any thoughts of being recognised. Matthew, chatting to his golf mates, grins at me, as Sylvia Jones from the cul-de-sac, pink cheeked from too much Prosecco, asks if I fancy a stab at Nordic walking. ‘Scandi stuff is what it’s all about! I do love IKEA, don’t you?’

I am relieved at how relaxed Frank seems, joking nearby with his mate George, whom he met recently at a local gig. They’ve chosen their playlist together carefully, no doubt frustrated by the limitations of old fogies who prefer Coldplay to Kurt Cobain. I look at him, and I think:
It will be all right.

Before I can go and say hello to them, the caterer signals from the kitchen door.

‘A delivery just came,’ she tells me. ‘The man said sorry it’s so late – the traffic was bad. I think it’s more fireworks.’

‘Oh they’ll be Matthew’s.’ I peer over her shoulder. ‘Just leave them with the other boxes, by the back doors. Thanks.’

‘Of course. Actually, though, it’s in your name…’

I feel eyes on me and am distracted by Scarlett’s cold stare. She is talking to a red-haired, eye-patched pirate, an awful lot of eyeliner on the visible eye, regarding me with a look I can’t read.

Bravely I go over.

‘Hello,’ I toast them with my half-full glass. ‘Are you from Peter Pan?’

The pirate peers down at herself as if she is surprised to see her costume. ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’

‘I went for Wizard of Oz, myself, which isn’t strictly fairy tale, of course,’ I confide. ‘But I didn’t think anyone would mind.’

‘It’s not fairy tale at all, is it – Oz? But it
your party.’ The woman is very serious. ‘So you can do what you like.’

Her tone throws me a little. I wait for Scarlett to introduce us, and when I realise she isn’t going to, I stick out my hand. ‘I’m Jeanie—’ I was going to say Jeanie Randall, but of course I’m not any more, and saying
Jeanie King,
especially standing next to Scarlett, still seems presumptuous. So I say, ‘I hope you’re enjoying yourself…?’


‘Sorry,’ I flounder on. ‘I don’t know your name…’

‘Alison.’ Finally the woman takes my hand, gingerly, as if it alarms her. ‘Alison Day.’

‘Very nice to meet you, Alison. I’m enjoying meeting all Matt’s friends at the moment.’ Another pause. I feel myself start to sweat slightly – but I plunge on anyway. ‘How do you know—?’

‘Through Kaye. And how’s Luke?’ Alison pulls a sad face at Scarlett. ‘Is he better?’

‘Better?’ Scarlett swings back on her giant heels, eyes darting round the room. ‘Er, yeah. He’s fine – he’s over there.’

‘I bet your mum’s missing you, if you’re both here.’

I take an involuntary step back.

‘Not really.’ Scarlett shrugs. ‘She’s out with Yass tonight.’

‘Typical Kaye.’ Alison’s single eye fixes on me. ‘Always the life and soul, eh? She loves a party herself, doesn’t she?’

‘Yeah, s’pose.’ Scarlett twiddles her glass round by the stem. ‘But Dad didn’t really go in for this sort of thing then, did he?’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ Alison says. ‘Your mum certainly knows how to throw a party.’

Scarlett shoots her some kind of look, and she stops.

I don’t look down, but I know my chest will be flushing horribly.

‘Not this type of party though. She likes a bit more – glamour. I guess this must be your influence, then, er –
,’ Alison says. Why can’t I read her tone? ‘The fancy dress?’

‘Jeanie,’ I mumble. ‘It’s Jeanie actually.’

‘Sorry.’ She smiles now. ‘I’m terrible with names. And it’s hard when I was so used to Matthew and Kaye. So sudden…’

Scarlett’s lower lip trembles again.

‘Oh, pet.’ Alison pats her. ‘Don’t get upset. How’s Daisy by the way? So awful. Is she any better now?’

Scarlett lets out a stifled sort of sob, and then Alison looks really worried.

I think I remember hearing about Daisy – a pet dog who died recently.

‘Scarlett,’ I begin rather hopelessly, and then suddenly Matthew is by my side, thank God. Scarlett wipes her nose on the back of her shiny blue sleeve, reminding me how young she really is.

‘Matthew,’ Alison says coolly, offering a cheek to be kissed.

‘Alison.’ Matthew obliges. ‘No Sean tonight then?’

‘He’s in Dubai. On business.’

‘Really?’ Matthew is equally cool. ‘Strange time of year to leave you alone.’

‘Yes, well. He’s very busy.’ It is Alison’s turn to go pink. ‘And not
men aren’t to be trusted.’

‘I wasn’t suggesting you shouldn’t trust him, Alison. Please send him my best. I have to say, it was really him I was hoping to see tonight.’ Matthew smiles. ‘To talk business, I mean, of course.’

‘Of course.’ Alison manages a tight little smile herself.

‘Now, if you’ll excuse me’—Matthew puts an arm around both mine and Scarlett’s shoulders—‘I’m stealing my girls away. I’ve got a toast to make in a bit. Where’s Luke?’

‘Dancing with that stupid Joe.’ Scarlett scowls and slinks off to refill her glass – with the non-alcoholic punch I hope. Judging by the smell of whisky wafting around her, I am pretty sure she’s been at something stronger. I should tell Matthew. But if I do, how is that going to help things between me and her?

So I keep quiet.

Matthew guides me through the throng, past Luke and his schoolmates. We wave at them as a portly man with suspiciously black hair and too many ruffles for his fat cheeks greets Matthew cheerily.

‘Good do, King. Great vino. Fucking uncomfortable costume though.’ The man runs a fat finger round his sweaty neckband. ‘Only wore it cos the missus said I’d be rewarded later if I did, eh?’ He gives a horrible wink. ‘Fancy the shooting range soon?’

‘Perhaps.’ Matthew grins. ‘If my lovely wife will spare me for an hour. This is Detective Chief Inspector Peters, Jeanie, otherwise known as Kipper.’

‘Don’t ask.’ Sweaty Kipper winks lasciviously and I smile back.

‘I wasn’t going to,’ I assure him.
Did Matthew really think that was fun?

‘Good to see the kids doing so well. Enchanted, my dear.’ He bows over my hand, and I blush.

‘Nice to meet you, er – Kipper.’

They chat about clay-pigeon distances, while I watch Scarlett move over to the decks, loitering by Frankie and George. Frank gives her half a polite smile and carries on chatting. Still, she lingers there, staring into the crowd, sucking an ice cube provocatively as Frank puts on a remix of Little Richard’s ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’.

‘So was she being vile?’ Matthew kisses my forehead as Kipper is whisked away to do the twist by his tiny wife.

‘Who?’ I ask, surprised. He’s never acknowledged Scarlett’s behaviour before, but it’d be a relief, actually, if we could discuss it…

‘Old Ali Baba!’ Matt shakes his head. ‘She seems to be getting worse in her middle age, I’m afraid. A bit… bitter.’

‘Well she was a bit – unfriendly maybe. Who is she?’

‘Alison? Scarlett’s godmother unfortunately. Old school friend of Kaye’s.’

‘Oh I see. Of Kaye’s.’ Even saying her name makes me feel a bit funny. My warm glow of earlier has dissipated.

‘Husband Sean’s a decent bloke though. It was him I was hoping to see actually.’ Distractedly Matthew checks the time. ‘Whizz with figures. I wanted to tap him up about some stocks someone’s selling. Fancy a spin round the dance floor?’

ome time later
, when Matthew goes to sort out the fireworks, I notice Alison intercepting him by the patio doors. I don’t have my glasses on, so I can’t make out the conversation, which is animated. When I look for her later, she’s gone.

It is annoying – I am annoyed with myself – but I can’t quite regain the happy feeling I had earlier.

Perhaps I am still chasing the buzzy feeling I had when I met Matthew six months ago: the feeling I’d landed the jackpot.

And meeting Matthew had been a complete fluke.

Unusually I’d been in London for the weekend when my old friend Jill rang out of the blue, begging for company at a work do.

‘Corporate speed dating,’ she’d coaxed. ‘I emailed you about it before – remember? What’s not to like? Men with jobs

‘Great,’ I’d sighed. ‘Now they just need their own teeth and hair too.’

Jill and I had been friends since I’d done my PGCE, about five years after Frankie was born – and just after I’d met Simon. I’d pulled myself out of the hell that ensued and plodded on in education – but Jill had quickly given up teaching. Never loving it like I did, she cited lack of ‘prospects’ for her decision to work for a big City bank.

On this particular visit, I had noted her prospects appeared to be stressing her badly. She had terrible skin for the first time, and she was lonely since splitting with her husband a few years before – but she was also working all hours.

I only went to her party because she’d needed solidarity. I was lurking in the corner, drinking a warm margarita and watching Jill heroically tackle a hedge-fund manager with two chins and hairy ears, when Matthew honed in on me – to my enduring surprise and much to the hilarity of his laddish mates.

When he asked for my number, Jill was gallant about it, despite the fact it was her who’d noticed Matthew, prior to Two Chins. I felt bad though and tried to make amends by buying her a horrendously expensive ticket for
a few weeks later.

When Jill had heard we were getting married, she’d sent a nice card. But she couldn’t come to the New Year’s Eve party, she’d said.

ust before twelve
, Matthew makes a charming speech, welcoming Frankie and me to the family. He kisses my lips as the crowd toasts us; I flush as scarlet as my stepdaughter’s name, to Frankie and George’s whoops. Luke’s shy hug delights me. Maybe this is it now.

I look around for Scarlett to share the moment with us – but she is nowhere to be seen.

They are about to set off rockets to mark the New Year; George is making a big hash of fixing the fireworks into the flowerpots set out for them. Perhaps Scarlett is out there too?

But she isn’t.

I search all the rooms downstairs. No Scarlett.

Perhaps the alcohol has taken its toll. Perhaps she’s conked out somewhere.

I have a duty of care now, don’t I? I want to forge this relationship properly, to look out for her. And I’ve already ignored her possible drinking once…

I find Scarlett sitting on her bed in her pink turret room, which is still decorated for a much younger child. The girl is sprawled on her frilly double bed, all eyes and legs, glued to her phone.

She doesn’t look up – but she knows I am there.

‘Hi, lovey.’ I stay in the doorway, feeling suddenly shy. ‘Everything okay?’

‘Why wouldn’t it be?’ she asks, staring at her screen. The fluffy bathrobe over her little dress seems both babyish and incongruous as I look away from the silver frames of Kaye and Scarlett hugging on the beach in Ibiza, on a hill in the Lake District, on a boat somewhere with a very blue sky.

Of Kaye and Matthew, kissing on a sunlounger.

‘Well you weren’t there when Daddy—’

dad, you mean?’ She does look up now, her eyes narrowed.

‘Er, yes. Your dad. When – when Matthew made a little toast.’

‘I heard it.’ Scarlett’s voice is flat. ‘Then I came up here.’

‘That’s a shame.’

‘To get away
.’ She couldn’t be more pointed if she tried.

‘Oh I see.’ I am well used to dealing with teenagers, but she makes me feel anxious. Still, in for a penny, etc. ‘Luke’s downstairs, having a whale of a time. And I just thought – well it’d be nice for us all to be together, don’t you…?’

Do I sound like I’m telling her off? I take a small step into the room, and she looks at me like I’ve just violated something.

‘No one comes in here. Apart from…’ Her eyes are huge, her eyeliner melting below them. ‘Apart from me – and Luke – and

Outside her small window, a golden firework explodes in the dark velvet sky. Together we watch the brilliant sparks falling back to earth.

‘Happy New Year!’ I muster as much enthusiasm as I can. ‘I love that picture, by the way. Did you do it?’

I point at the small, framed painting of an old window, surrounded by snow, a red rose growing around the ebony frame. There is a dash of blood in the snow on the sill.

‘It’s total shit,’ Scarlett says flatly, without looking at either the picture or me. ‘I did it in Year 7. Can you tell my dad I want him?’

BOOK: The Stepmother
11.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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