The very first time I met Sherry I knew I wasn’t going to like her. And I could tell she didn’t like me either.
There she was, hanging onto my father’s arm, smiling her big wide lipsticky smile, her long scarlet fingernails digging into his coat sleeve. And my dad was grinning like an idiot.
‘Sherry, this is Madeleine,’ he said, introducing me. ‘I hope you two ladies will become real friends.’
He looked at her, kind of hopefully. He seemed to think it was important that we liked each other. Maybe he thought we’d want to play together or share girlish confidences.
I was only five at the time but I knew, looking at her cold green eyes, that I would rather tell the secrets of my heart to a snake. And she and I would never play games. Not the sort my father hoped for.
‘There’s a bit of an age difference, Sugar Pie!’ said Sherry, lighting a cigarette. ‘Or haven’t you noticed? But I’m sure Madeline and I will be just like sisters. Won’t we, Maddy? ‘
I didn’t answer but when I heard her call my father she called my father Sugar-Pie, I knew what was going to happen.
I was going to get a stepmother, like Hansel and Gretel and Snow White and all the other unfortunate girls of my literary acquaintance, whose fathers had married again and pushed their daughters onto the back-burner of their affections.
I was right. First, Dad bought her a big diamond ring which she flashed about whenever she could.
One day when she didn’t know I was in the room, she was examining it proudly and telling her fat friend Lizette that poor old George was a sweet guy and there was more where this came from if she played her cards right. So I knew she didn’t really love him at all, although he was crazy about her.
The night before they were to be married. he read me a story in bed. Just as he had done every night,
‘I hope you’ll grow to love Sherry as much as I do, chicken,’ he said. ‘I can see things aren’t so good between you right now. But she’s under a lot of stress arranging the wedding. Soon, she’ll be just like a mother to you, you’ll see.’
‘I don’t want a mother,’ I mumbled. ‘I’ve got you.’
‘Every little girl needs a mother,’ he said gently.
At their wedding, Sherry was dressed in layers of white lace, looking like The Snow Queen, with her hair piled on top of her head and wearing a sparkly tiara. Dad said she looked like a princess. Lizette was the bridesmaid and I was the flower girl, both of us dressed in bright pink taffeta. The whole event was horrible and the wedding photographs of me show a rigid stick of unhappiness and resentment glaring at the camera.
‘Goodness, Madam got out of bed on the wrong side, didn’t she?’ asked Sherry when she looked at the pictures afterwards. ‘It wouldn’t have hurt you to smile, Maddy.’
She often called me Madam, which Dad thought was humorous but which I knew was not. Sometimes she called me ‘You little madam,’ in a tight, angry voice , but she was always jokey and friendly towards me when my father was around.
Poor Daddy! He really thought his two ‘girls’ were getting on well, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Although Sherry had said she didn’t want to be my mother, she loved being my boss.
‘Make your bed, tidy you room, put away your clothes.’ That was okay.
But, ‘Wash the dishes, hang up the laundry, take out the garbage, sweep the path?’ Without so much as a please or thank you? Slavery was supposed to be abolished long ago, but no one had told Sherry that. None of my other school friends was expected to do so much around the house.
Sherry claimed to have had a fabulous job as a jewellery designer before she married Dad but she never went back to work. She was quite happy lying in bed until midday, or spending the mornings at the shops with Lizette and coming home with shiny bags full of new gear. All for herself.
I knew she bought most of my stuff at the charity shop on the High Street but she said I grew so fast it wasn’t worth buying new clothes.
When I turned six I desperately wanted a Princess Barbie for my birthday, like my best friend Alice had, but Sherry bought me new shoes and told my Dad that’s what I’d asked for. And when I turned seven I begged her for a CD player of my own.
‘All my friends have one,’ I said.
‘Listening to trashy boy bands isn’t a good idea. You need to pay more attention to your school work. You’re not exactly the sharpest knife in the box, are you, Madam?’
Sharpest knife! If I’d had one I’d have stuck it straight into her big wobbly chest right then.
Dad seemed to think that everything Sherry did was perfect. I could tell by the goofy way he looked at her. Like Bruno, our boxer, who spent his life gazing longingly up into Sherry’s face and wagging his tail, hoping for some attention, even though she kept him outside and never allowed him into the house.
At some point she started treating Dad like that too. She took to going out at night with Lizette, saying they were having a girl’s night out. I didn’t mind, because it meant that I had Dad all to myself, but I could tell he didn’t really want to spend his evenings playing computer games with me.
And I knew she wasn’t going anywhere with Lizette because she came home late one night in a car driven by a man. I saw him open her door and then they stood kissing for ages, like in the movies, before she looked up and saw me peeking out of my window.
The next morning, before I could tell on her, she told Dad she’d met her old boss at the movies and he’d insisted on giving her a lift home and wasn’t that a coincidence? And my stupid father said, how nice of him.
All the other nights that man brought her home after that, she never told my father but I saw them. Kissing and hugging and all that stuff. Luckily, one night I had my dad’s mobile and they were standing under the street light so I got a pretty good photo. I never knew when it might come in useful.
Then Dad started getting sick. He had trouble breathing and his legs ached, but he was a real scaredy- cat about going to the doctor and Sherry said she’d give him some homeopathic medicine that would fix him.
‘I’ve always thought doctors were a waste of money,’ she said.
I watched her mix a tiny pinch of white powder with some green stuff in a little bottle and she watched while he drank it every morning.
‘Tastes bitter,’ he said, pulling a face.
‘My mother swore by this,’ she said. ‘It’s a herbal remedy that will cure just about anything.’
Well, he took her horrible medicine for ages but it didn’t help. He just got worse and finally he went to see Dr Murphy who said he couldn’t find anything wrong and it must be stress and he needed a holiday.
So the two of them left me with Auntie Laura and went off to Cornwall for a week but when they came back, Dad could hardly walk.
He was lying on the sofa one afternoon and I suppose it wasn’t a good time to mention it, but my eighth birthday was coming up and I really, really wanted a Play Station. Every kid I knew had one except me. So I asked him for one.
But Sherry went ballistic.
‘How can you even talk about presents for yourself when your poor father is so ill?’ she shouted. ‘Haven’t you any consideration? Do you expect him to get out of his sick bed and run down to the shops to buy you a Play Station? You self-centred little madam!’ ‘Tell you what, chicken,’ my Dad whispered. ‘I can see you’re getting to be a big girl now. You can have my old computer, if you like. Move it into your room and have fun on the Internet.’
‘Gee, thanks Daddy,’ I said. ‘You’re the best.’
I’d be the only kid in my form with her own personal desk- top computer!
The Internet was a lot of fun.
By the time my birthday came around, Dad was lying in bed all day, groaning with pain. Sometimes he gasped for breath and other times he had a sore stomach. I hated to see Sherry make him drink that nasty medicine she mixed for him.
I kept saying, ‘Dad, why don’t you call the doctor again?’ and he finally agreed to let Dr Murphy come round late Saturday afternoon.
That morning Sherry went out while Dad was asleep, and I noticed the two little bottles in the bathroom cupboard. The green one said ‘Body Balancing Essence’ and the one with white powder inside, said ‘Hamilton Manufacturing Jewellers. CH 3 CN. Handle with Care.’
And that’s when I knew something was wrong. Why should she be mixing powder from a jeweller into Dad’s medicine?
I was glad that I hadn’t wasted my time time on the computer just playing games. I’d discovered some time ago that there’s nothing you can’t find on the Internet if you know how to look. It turned out that those letters were a formula for something called Acetonitrile which jewelers used to clean some metals, and it was poisonous. And if you were being given little doses of it over a long time, it could kill you.
So I printed out the information and collected the bottle with the white powder from the bathroom cupboard. When Sherry came home, I followed her into the kitchen and put the little bottle on the table.
‘I know what this is,’ I said. ‘I looked on Wikipedia and the CH 3 CN stands for some sort of Cyanide. You’ve been poisoning Daddy and you’re trying to murder him.’
‘Don’t talk rubbish,’ she said. ‘Where would I get cyanide from?’
‘Jewelry- makers use it on the metal,’ I said. ‘It says so on Wikipedia. And you used to make jewelry.’
She went white and I thought she might faint.
‘So…’ I said. ‘You’ve got to stop making Daddy drink this stuff or I’ll tell Dr Murphy on you.’
She took a deep breath and hesitated. But there wasn’t much choice, was there?
‘And I want you to leave. I’m going to keep this bottle in a secret place and if you don’t go by next Wednesday I’ll tell the police.’
‘You think the police would listen to a stupid kid like you?’
‘Yes, ‘cos I have photos of you kissing that horrible man every time you pretend you’re going to the movies with Lizette.’
‘Okay.’ She tossed her head. ‘Fine by me. I wasn’t planning on staying around anyway, you two must be the most boring people on this planet.’
‘Before you go, you’ve got to buy me that Play Station. Or I’ll tell on you.’
‘Okay,’ she whispered. Boy, if looks could kill.
‘And an iPod too,’ I said. ‘Or I’ll tell.’
That’s called striking while the iron is hot. We learned idioms last week.
Dad was going to get better and I wasn’t going to have a step mother any more. That’s called a win-win situation and I think that’s also an idiom.
About the author
I am a South African writer with a Dark side
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