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The Stepmother
Author: Claire Seeber

 

Prologue

 

 

Once 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

 

 

This is not the story, is it?

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

 

* * *

 

My 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.

 

* * *

 

And 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

 

 

The 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.

 

* * *

 

Yesterday 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.

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