“It wasn’t my fault. That’s what I kept telling them. I wasn’t trying to get rid of the dear, sweet little brats for selfish reasons, but we were starving. Because of them, I might add.”
Constantia raised her eyebrows. She was my liaison officer at the Fairytale Bureau, and she had welcomed me into her bare white office with a friendly hug. I had hoped she would understand my predicament, but her expression suggested she was having trouble.
“It’s true!” I protested, feeling a little shaky. “I’ve never seen kids eat that much! It was either them or me. You can call me cold-hearted if you like, even wicked, but I don’t see why I should starve to death for any child that’s not my own.” A momentary doubt assailed me. “Am I in trouble?”
Constantia sighed. “You’ve not quite got the hang of this yet, have you? It was a test. A Good Stepmother would happily starve for her children…”
“Oh.” I was a little nonplussed. I hadn’t been expecting tests. Constantia clicked her slender fingers, and a mug of tea appeared on the white and empty expanse of her desk. It steamed gently, and I wrapped my hands around it, grateful for the warmth. The office was always chilly.
“Besides,” I went on, feeling a little better, “I thought a kindly woodcutter would pick them up and take them home. That’s what’s supposed to happen in fairy stories. But the greedy little blighters kept coming back, and then there was that nasty business of them eating other people’s houses and pushing old ladies into their own ovens –” I paused for breath. Constantia nodded and smiled encouragingly as I took a gulp of tea. “All I’m saying is it wasn’t my fault. If you had to take care of a pair of compulsive eaters, you’d understand.”
“I do understand.” She leant back in her chair, and pushed her dark hair back from her face. “There’s a lot of support for you here in the Bureau. We wondered if you’d like to try again.”
“Try again?” I was puzzled. “I thought that was it?”
“Under the circumstances.” She held out her hand and a sheaf of papers appeared as suddenly as the tea had done. She flicked through them. “Taking into account the testimony of the woman in the gingerbread house, who assures us that she’s never seen children eat like that, we’ve decided to give you another chance. But,” two bright red spots appeared on her pale cheeks, “there’s a catch.”
I was instantly suspicious. “What sort of a catch?”
“The Boss,” she jerked her head towards the ceiling, “wants you to prove you can be a Good Stepmother, and he doesn’t want to waste any more time. The reputation of stepmothers everywhere depends on you doing a good job. So what we’ll do, to save time, is pop you into the body of a woman who’s about to become a stepmother, and see how you get on. None of that messing around with growing up. Does that sound all right?” Her brow furrowed. “It’s not just your reputation at stake, dear. It could be my job as well.”
I felt sorry for her at once. None of this was Constantia’s fault, any more than it was mine. And being reincarnated as an adult, with a husband on the hook, as it were, seemed like an easy option. I nodded. “What do I have to do?”
“Nothing,” she assured me. “We’ll take care of everything. All you have to do is lean back, and close your eyes…”
“Well?” Constantia’s voice was sharper this time, and she drummed her long red nails on the desk. They were the only hint of colour in the stark white room, and they fascinated me in their little dance. “What went wrong?”
No welcome hug this time, not even a cup of tea.
“It wasn’t my fault,” I muttered, not daring to meet her eyes. “It was an accident.”
“I was trying to make it up to the girl!”
“After driving her away in the first place?”
I took a deep breath. “I was trying to teach her a lesson,” I explained, knowing how false the excuse sounded. “She was a vain little madam, always staring into my mirror and announcing how beautiful she was. I mean, ‘fairest of them all‘? I’ve never heard such ego in a child!”
Constantia’s fingers had ceased their incessant movement. She cradled her head and closed her eyes for a moment. Lines of stress were engraved on her face. “So you poisoned her?”
“No, of course not!” I gasped at the suggestion. “I didn’t want to kill her, I just wanted to shake her up a bit. Make her realise there were more important things in the world than her face. So I slipped the woodcutter a bag of gold to take her out in the forest and scare her a bit. I thought she’d realise it was a joke! Ask him yourself, I had no idea she was going to run off like that.”
“We have asked him,” Constantia said, frowning. “Didn’t you realise he was very keen on amateur dramatics?”
“Should I have?”
“Perhaps it would have been wise to find out.” She held out her hand, and the case report appeared as it had before. “Before you told him to…” She rustled through the pages. “Here it is. You said ‘take the kid out in the woods and scare the willies out of her. Go nuts.’”
I felt my face grow hot. “I might have said that,” I admitted. “But that was no reason for him to get so carried away, or to have been so convincing that she actually ran away!”
“But he was a thespian, or so he keeps telling us. That’s what actors do!”
I grudgingly conceded the point. “That explains the business with the knife,” I said. “But I still don’t see how it’s my fault. And the girl was a hussy, shacking up with a whole bunch of circus performers like that –”
“Dwarves, if you don’t want to be charged under the Fairytale Creatures Discrimination Act. And that’s not the point. She might have been a vain hussy, but that was still no reason to poison her.”
My head ached now. It felt like we were talking in circles. “I keep telling you,” I protested, “I had no intention of poisoning her. I was bringing her a peace offering. How was I to know? I mean, how stupid do you have to be to store your apples under a leaky bottle of rat poison? We went through three food tasters before we figured it out. Do you have any idea how much compensation food tasters’ wives are entitled to when they die in the line of duty?”
Constantia sunk her head in her hands, and groaned.
“I don’t know what you’re moaning about,” I told her. “My reputation’s being dragged through the mud all over the kingdom and I can’t defend myself because I’m dead, and all because of one simple mistake that anyone could have made. I think I deserve one more chance.”
“You want another go?” She shook her head doubtfully. “I don’t know, clearly you’re not cut out for this.”
Visions of never being able to retrieve my battered reputation swam before my eyes. And it wasn’t just me, hundreds of women like me would be tarred with the label of Wicked Stepmother forever if I didn’t sort it out.
“I can do this,” I insisted. “I swear I can. Just give me one more chance. I won’t mess it up this time.”
“Well,” Constantia’s hand hovered over the white telephone that had appeared on her desk. I noticed it didn’t have a dial. Then I wondered why I was noticing; the phone had appeared out of nowhere and the lack of dial was only mildly remarkable in comparison. I dragged my attention with some difficulty back to Constantia.
“In the interests of balance,” she was saying, “we do need a Good Stepmother.”
“I’ll be the best,” I promised. “I just need another chance.”
She picked up the phone and fired off a string of questions. When she put it down again she was smiling.
“The Boss says you can have one more chance, and one only. He’s getting tired of this whole Stepmother business. So get it right this time, or stepmothers will be branded as wicked from now until the end of time.”
I knew what to expect this time. I leant back and shut my eyes as Constantia laid her hands on my temples. There was a familiar sickening jolt in my stomach and roaring in my ears, as if I were being whisked at great speed down a long tunnel. I felt a sensation of being squished all over as I wriggled my way into my new body. I shook my head to settle my thoughts, feeling them crowding for room in my mind, and opened my eyes.
“I’m glad you’re awake, dear. We’re nearly home, and I can’t wait for you to meet my daughter.”
I explored my new memories. I had daughters as well, two of them. The man with the careworn face who looked anxiously at me was my husband of less than a day, carrying me home in a rattling carriage that smelt of straw and old leather. I smiled, feeling a warm glow of contentment. I had never had children of my own before, although I had always longed for them. That was why the Stepmother job had been so appealing, at least to start with. Of course, I would treat all three girls exactly the same. But still, my own children…
The carriage jerked to a halt. My new husband opened the door and courteously handed me down, his small wizened hand gripping mine tightly. I stood on the pavement, and looked through the tall iron gates, down the drive at my new home. It was a little dilapidated, not as grand as the last one, but few places would be. Once I got the holes in the roof fixed, I was sure it would be fine.
“Father!” The little girl running down the drive was pretty, in her own way, but she looked as if she had been playing in the fireplace. Her face and dress were smudged with soot, and her delicate feet were bare. “Father, you’re home!”
“I’ve missed you, my dear.” My husband knelt to gather her in his arms, but one hand still squeezed mine. He beamed at me. “Darling, I’d like you to meet your new stepdaughter. We call her Cinderella.”