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Authors: Claire Seeber

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BOOK: The Stepmother
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Eight
Jeanie
5 January 2015

10 a.m.

M
atthew’s gone
to Manchester for a business meeting. I’ve written various thank-you emails to people, done some final changes of address. Now I’m packing up the Christmas decorations, the drone of daytime TV in the background – and I’m thinking about work. Or worrying rather.

If I don’t get a job, what on earth will I do with myself? I’ve worked really hard all my life – too hard, often, crawling in and out of bed, completely exhausted, getting through the days. Two jobs when I was at college, juggling childcare when Frankie was little and I was alone…

I’ve certainly never had a choice before whether to work or not. And if I don’t, I will feel useless.

But after what happened in Seaborne last year, I feel useless anyway. Redundant and afraid. What I thought I had to offer no longer feels so tangible. Despite my new happiness with Matthew, I don’t know which way to turn. And I feel increasingly on edge.

O
n Sunday
I went for a January run, which meant I had about another four weeks of forcing myself round the local streets before not running again until next January. I was panting home, listening to a podcast of a show about Joplin’s life, when a white Range Rover pulled around the corner too fast, nearly taking me with it.

I jumped back quickly, banging my ankle on the kerb.

‘Hey!’ I called crossly, but the car disappeared round the corner, oblivious to pedestrians.

At home, the television was blaring away to itself.

‘Did you check the roast?’ I called, planning to slip straight upstairs before I was spotted for the red-faced sweaty mess I was.

‘Jeanie?’ I heard Matthew from somewhere deep in the house.

‘Just getting in the shower!’ I ran up the stairs. There was a strange exotic smell in the air: definitely not roast beef.

Matthew appeared silently above me on the landing.

‘Oh hi!’ I’d been rumbled. ‘Don’t look at me please!’

‘Why?’ He was shoving something into the back pocket of his jeans.

‘Oh nothing, just being silly.’ I sniffed. The smell was stronger up here. ‘What’s that smell? Like – roses, or something…’

‘I don’t know.’ Matthew’s jaw was very set as I drew level with him.

‘Has something happened?’ Fear shot through me.

‘Has Mum gone?’ Luke appeared in the hall below us. ‘My tablet’s in her car. I’ve got homework I need to look up.’

‘Mum?’ I was surprised to see Luke. I didn’t remember Matthew telling me they’d be here, but…

‘No, she’s gone.’ Matthew gave me a quick squeeze as he went down past me. ‘I need to check the potatoes, hon.’ Which meant he hadn’t checked them earlier. He didn’t like cooking – that was becoming evident, though I didn’t mind. It gave me something to do; I quite liked feeding everyone.

‘I thought she was still with you.’ Luke sounded plaintive. ‘I heard you up there.’

Upstairs?

‘Lucas, she’s gone, all right?’ Matthew disappeared into the kitchen, the door banging loudly behind him.

‘She said they had stuff to sort out.’ Luke looked up at me apologetically. ‘They were talking in the kitchen, so I didn’t want to disturb them – but then they went up. Dad gets a bit cross if I interrupt.’

‘Don’t worry, love.’ Something about his worried round face reminded me a bit of Smudge, the old dog we inherited as kids from Gloria along the stairwell when she moved back to Trinidad. That was before my mother gave up on us, pets and home for the last time.

‘Perhaps you could use Frankie’s iPad? It’s probably in the front room on the bookshelf.’ Too late I prayed Frankie hadn’t logged into anything like the Kardashian sex tape, as I’d caught him doing a few years back on our ancient PC in Hove. I didn’t want to be responsible for my stepson being corrupted in any way.

‘Thanks.’ Luke looked cheered. ‘I want to look up the ghost of Malum House.’

‘The ghost?’

‘Yeah.’ His round eyes brightened. ‘Hasn’t Dad told you? About the Grey Lady? She died in the old turret, and now she walks the corridors at night – and you can smell violets too.’

‘Oh wow!’ I said. ‘Violets, eh? No, I hadn’t heard about her. I’ll keep an eye out…’

‘I’ve heard her because I’m sympathetic,’ he said gravely, disappearing into the lounge. ‘But Dad says I’m imagining it.’

G
etting in the shower
, I couldn’t quite place the reason for the heavy weight in my stomach – but I did feel most uncomfortable at the idea of Kaye being in the house when I was out.

It was daft though. Obviously she’d lived here for a while before the divorce, and I’d always known that. They’d bought the house together when Matthew got his promotion to partner, the job he had now. She’d redesigned the interiors using some swanky architect – and then got bored, apparently, leaving Matthew to decide on everything.

When I moved to Berkhamsted, Marlena said, ‘God, don’t you think it’ll be strange to live in another woman’s trappings? Redecorate why don’t you?’

But I put that comment down to therapist rubbish. Frankly I was used to rented places, and I didn’t give it much thought.

I had more important things on my mind.

At lunch Scarlett was in a strange mood, more garrulous than usual, rattling on about things I didn’t understand to do with her maternal grandma up in Cambridge and her mother’s friends. She’d stop mid-subject and ask what I thought about her grandpa’s dog or the new car her aunt had just got. I tried to enjoy being included – but of course I could have no opinion, really, on anything she said. My conversation was punctuated with, ‘Oh goodness,’ or, ‘I don’t know, I’m sure that’s very nice though.’

After that Scarlett turned her attentions to Frankie, telling him about some nightclub she and her mate Gemma had been to last week, until Matthew raised an eyebrow and she realised the story wasn’t appropriate. Luke plodded through his beef, glancing up every now and then to cast me his hangdog look, as if to apologise.

I thought Scarlett seemed younger again, picking at her food, twisting her hair round and round her finger, silver glitter nail varnish chipping away as she gazed at Frank.

In response Frankie was polite but quiet – strained, even, as he concentrated on eating.

I steered us on to a new, safer subject: favourite films. This was a topic beloved of Frankie ever since his film studies A level.

‘Hitchcock’s my favourite.’ He was typically enthusiastic now. ‘He’s a proper master of his craft.’

‘But –
Psycho
?’ Matthew pulled a face. ‘That’s a horrible film, isn’t it?’

‘It’s brilliant,’ said Frank. ‘But I prefer
Vertigo
. Or
Rebecca
. God, the atmosphere he creates in that.’

‘I really hate
The Birds
.’ I shuddered. ‘I mean, it’s a great film – but I do actually hate birds.’ Something to do, I suspected, with Uncle Rog’s manic mynah bird who’d tormented me and Marlena as kids, swearing at us, pecking at our heads and hands – until Rog’s starving Alsatian tore it apart one day.

‘All beaks and claws and…’ I shuddered again and fetched the apple crumble.

‘We’re thinking about getting a dog,’ Scarlett was saying as I returned.

Matthew pulled a face. ‘Is that really a good idea?’

‘Dad-
dy
,’ she said in her best cross voice, and he sighed.

‘Well you’ll have to keep it at your mother’s this time.’

‘Blimey, is it raining inside?’ Frankie said, wiping drips off his face. We all looked up.

‘Shit!’ Matthew leapt to his feet. Water was cascading through the ceiling. We ran upstairs to find my mistake.

Apparently I hadn’t turned the shower off properly when I got back from my run – though I could have sworn I did.

I was quite sure I did.

‘It’s buggered, hon,’ Matthew said later, after he’d cleaned up and I’d apologised profusely. ‘The grout’s so wet at the base it’s not safe to use. Use the spare bathroom for now.’


W
hat exactly
did
happen
to that puppy?’ I asked Matthew tentatively later, half watching a boring costume drama.

‘What puppy?’ He was half asleep, drowsy with food and wine.

‘The one Miss Trunchbull complained about.’

‘Oh. It got out. It got run over.’

‘How awful.’ I thought of Smudge and how distraught I was when he died. ‘Did you get a new one?’

‘No.’ He reached over for the wine. ‘That’s the only pet they ever had. That and Luke’s hamster he had aged six, who lasted about two weeks. Two animal tragedies was enough.’

11 a.m.

I
call
the plumber about the leaking shower, and then I lug the Christmas box into the spare room that
isn’t
locked, trailing tinsel behind me.

As I drop the box onto the bed, I see an earring on the carpet – a big silver hoop. It must be one of Scarlett’s, because it’s definitely not mine.

I sit for a minute to catch my breath, and it’s then that I spot the handwritten envelope with my name on it, leaning against the dresser mirror.
Jeanie…

Matthew
, I think joyfully. A love letter? He’s surprisingly romantic for a businessman. Tickets for something maybe, judging by the size and padding of the envelope. I remember my surprise on our third date – tickets to see Kings of Leon, after an early, expensive supper at Mark Hix’s place in Soho. I’d never heard of Mark Hix before, but I’d gathered this was a place you got taken if your partner wanted to impress you.

Am I meant to open the letter now?

I struggled with presents as a small child – probably because they were so rare. I got walloped if I got caught squeezing packages, and it wasn’t long before I learnt they were always disappointing. Something cheap and plastic, something out of hock, something that got stolen back or broken.

I hate surprises now – that’s the truth.

I pick the earring up and put it on the dresser, staring at the envelope.

I can’t resist it.

I take the envelope downstairs to the kitchen and switch the kettle on.

Feeling like George Smiley, I steam it open, grinning to myself. After I’ve read it, I’ll reseal it and pretend I never saw it.

Unfolding the A4 sheet, I see it’s a photocopy of something. A picture, a clue? I turn it over.

It’s a bad, grainy copy of…

Oh Christ.

I sit heavily on a kitchen stool, hands shaking.

It
can’t
be from Matthew.

I could make a guess at who it
was
from, except…

This time it is
inside
the house.

Panicking, I run upstairs, thinking I’ll replace it – and then of course I realise I can’t. If I leave it there, he’ll see it eventually and…

Obviously I need to get rid of it – but before I can think, I hear a car in the drive. I find the key to the dresser in my make-up box and shove the envelope into the drawer, along with the other mail that Miss Trunchbull gave me and the first card.

Out of breath, I lean against the dressing table as if that will stop the nightmare from starting again.

Someone here knows what happened last year.

‘Hi!’ Matthew shouts up the stairs. ‘Where’s my gorgeous girl?’

For a moment, I think he must mean Scarlett.

‘Jeanie?’

It’s with something like relief I realise he means me.

‘Up here, sweetie.’ I go out to greet him. I’ll get rid of the evidence later. For now I’ll just enjoy my husband’s company.

‘The trains are up the spout because of the snow, so my meeting’s cancelled,’ he says. ‘I’ll just work from home.’ But he doesn’t look like work’s on his mind as he kisses me and leads me back to bed.

That’s all right, isn’t it? It’s all right just to be with him – to keep the world out, for a tiny while longer at least.

Afterwards he holds me in his arms, and I find that I am crying. ‘What’s up?’ He looks worried.

I wipe my eyes and say, ‘Nothing.’ It is overwhelming, this feeling of love I have for him.

It terrifies me.

W
hen I take
a shower later in the spare bathroom, I run it so hot it burns my skin.

The bathroom is misty from the heat when I get out. As I stand dripping in front of the basin – circumspect about the taps really being off this time – condensation bobbles like strange wet growth on the mirror before me, obscuring my reflection.

And as I squint at myself, words form slowly in front of me, materialising out of the steam.

I blink at them: once, twice.

Go home
, they seem to say, followed by another word I can’t read.

But it’s nothing, really, I think. Just old words that someone’s written here in this unused bathroom. Still, I’m disquieted as I wipe them off.

It’s nothing.

Nine
Jeanie
17 January 2015

2.30 p.m.

I
’m studying
job-application forms that threaten to overwhelm me. But I must act. I’m also overwhelmed – after a lifetime of supporting Frankie and myself – by becoming what I can only describe as a kept woman.

I’m getting organised. I registered with a doctor two days ago, now I need to find a dentist for me and Frank, and then that’s us – all settled. As if it’s really home.

Like noticing a quiet scratching at the door, I start to become aware of something in the next room. I realise it’s Matthew’s voice, rising querulously – on the phone, I guess. It’s hard not to listen, though I do try not to – but he’s getting louder.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ he’s saying.

Furious
. He sounds furious. Perhaps it’s work?

‘You can’t keep doing this – it’s just impossible,’ I hear him say, and I put the radio on loudly so I can’t hear any more, because I feel like I’m snooping – though honestly I’d quite like to hear too.

I have a suspicion it’s Kaye on the other end of the line.

Originally I’d suggested – having read it in my book – that we all met, for civility’s sake. So we could all be cordial for the children.

But I wonder now if I’ll ever meet her, and I’m not sure I want to any more.

Half an hour later Scarlett arrives on the doorstep, angrier than I’ve ever seen her.

‘I don’t want to be here,’ I hear her say to Matthew. ‘I just want to go home.’

‘This is your home,’ he’s saying as he carries her overnight bag up to the top of the house. Up to her princess-in-the-tower room, where she has everything she’ll ever need: a flat-screen TV, an iMac, a walk-in wardrobe – albeit a small one – and more, I expect, because her father’s so frightened she won’t come back if she’s not happy. ‘You’ve got two homes, you lucky thing.’

‘I don’t want two homes,’ she says angrily as they turn the bend on the landing. ‘Why can’t you and Mum stop arguing and just make it up?’

‘Ask your mother that,’ I hear Matthew say levelly.

My stomach plummets as they disappear. I am left, mouth open, staring into the void.

Does he wish he was still with her then?

It is a shock. I’d never suspected that before, not really. I thought their marriage was long over, done and dusted. But – does this mean there’s something unresolved? Matthew’s quite reserved when it comes to talking about Kaye and his past. It’s a man thing, I remind myself; most men don’t reveal emotions easily or encourage discussion of their past.

Still, I don’t know enough, I realise now, with a thud.

Neither of us knows the first thing about each other: that is becoming evident.

I wipe my clammy palms on my jeans.

I remember the writing on the steamed-up mirror.

Impostor
, I think that last word might have been.

4 p.m.

M
atthew and Scarlett
haven’t come down yet, and I can’t concentrate on the silly application I’ve half answered, so I go up, sticking my head round the bend on the stairs to look up at her room.

Scarlett’s door is almost closed, but I can see from their feet that they’re both sitting on the bed.

‘Hi,’ I call brightly. ‘Shall we have tea soon?’

Matthew jumps up and opens the door. He looks unusually flushed. It’s very hot in the house, I suppose, the heating on full blast as ever.

‘Just coming,’ he says. ‘Thanks, love.’

I walk down alone.

When they arrive in the kitchen five minutes later, I suggest cheese toasties in front of
Doctor Who.

Scarlett looks at me as if I have small green antennae growing out of my head. No – worse. As if I have dog mess smeared all over my face.

‘I hate
Doctor Who
,’ she says flatly. ‘It’s for geeks and babies.’

Matthew kisses my forehead and rolls his eyes at me, opening the fridge for beer.

The kiss inspires me. ‘Fair enough,’ I say. ‘How about an episode of
The Voice
on catch up?’

‘I watch
The Voice
with my mum.’ Scarlett just stops herself at ‘you idiot’.

‘Okay. Well I’ll make the toasties then.’

‘I’m not hungry—’ she starts, and her father interrupts with a low warning.

‘Scarlett, you’ll be polite, thank you.’

She glares at us both, about to stomp back up to her room, when the front door opens and Frankie bundles in, bringing the chill with him.

‘Afternoon all,’ he says, and I am filled with love and gratitude for his generally cheerful demeanour. ‘What’s for tea? I’m Lee Marvin.’

‘You’re
what
?’ Matthew’s confused.

‘Starving!’

‘Cheese and ham toasties and banana smoothies?’ I suggest. ‘Or vanilla milkshakes?’

Frankie grins. ‘Are we back at nursery again?’ He winks at Scarlett. ‘She’s such a softie, my mum. That’s why I love her so. You’re not sliding off, are you?’

So Scarlett comes back down and eats a toastie with us and thaws out a little. Once or twice she even smiles at Frankie’s jokes.

But not at mine. Still. It’s a start.

The letter to ‘Jeanie’ crosses my mind, and then I manage to cast it out again.

BOOK: The Stepmother
5.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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