“On the Heights,” oil on canvas, by Charles Courtney Curran, 1909.

by Abi Stephenson

She didn’t have to love me. Biology didn’t force her hand the way it does for mothers. She didn’t gaze into the cradle at a miniature reflection, or see me crown between her thighs all bloody and self-made. I walked into her life looking like my mother; a fleshly reminder of her husband’s lust for another, and old enough for lust myself.

I preferred her to the French flight attendant who came before, even though Lou was beautiful and bought me expensive perfume I was too young to wear. Jane didn’t try to win me over, and it reassured me to sense that she wouldn’t care if she didn’t. She was much cooler than me in that way, with my need to be liked even by cold-callers and sales assistants. She was beautiful too, but in the way of women who get called handsome, not pretty. There was a suggestion of Princess Di about her hair and eyes, and her limbs were long and brown, even in winter. My mother supported my devotion to my father’s wife in that she never criticised or condemned it, but in our lives, Jane was a topic only ever introduced by me.

I was never jealous of my stepmother. I was furiously jealous of the girlfriends, of the love my father showed them, but I never begrudged Jane her portion. I saw how easy it would have been to fall for her—she never courted affection or praise and was the more irresistible for it. She smelt like the Kenzo perfume in the poppy bottle, with spicy notes of Silk Cut and something horsey underneath. The cocktail of fags, flowers and equestrian life made her seem both glamorous and practical—a woman who could shovel shit from a stable and drink champagne at sundown. I can’t stand your perfume, she said to me, when I was eighteen and trying to impress an unimpressible older man with YSL Paris. It makes me sneeze, she said, and roses are for old ladies anyway. When we went to Paris—Paris!—the unimpressible man told me to speak more quietly because I sounded brash and British and was drawing attention. When I crawled over to him in bed he sighed and said I was predictable; every time the lights went out I wanted sex and it was tedious. Jane told me later she thought he was a fussy old windbag. I loved her honesty, but not his.

The Silk Cuts caught up with her, and when the shadow first appeared on the scan, I took a month off work. I was 34 and she was a month off 60, which made it 18 years since we started loving each other. Jane had one biological child—a daughter—who was physically perfect but emotionally distant. Like a perfect sex-robot conjured up from a wet dream, she had dense fillers in her cheeks and lips, and perfect breasts under her Ralph Lauren riding tops. She lied about other things too, and Jane could not stand lies, even if she birthed the teller of them. My stepsister could not, or would not see the livers of other lives, and her solipsism left a wedge of daughterly space for me. Of course, I love her more than anything, Jane would say, but you’re every bit as much my daughter too. She told me things she didn’t share with her daughter, and when she was disappointed by her biological child, I determined to be compensation. Part of this came from a true and good place, but part of it came from an odious part that wanted to be loved best, most. Jane’s love was worth competing for. On the day I married my husband I gave her a bracelet engraved with the words “More than DNA,” and it glittered on her tanned wrist as she primped the flower girls and blew wreaths of smoke from the corner of her mouth.

At the beginning we had appetite for all of it. Over-photocopied hospital fact sheets called it The Battle, as if it were a military campaign and we could win or lose on our wits. That was the first of many smug cancer ubiquities that needled with their fake bravado. Months later Dad sidled up to me and said, sotto voce, if one more person says “ah, bless” to me I shall scream.

It was a teary, cinematic goodbye the night before The Surgery. But it’s positively vampiric!—Dad said, holding another fact sheet in his veiny hands which suddenly seemed old, too old to be dealing with these sorts of facts. I made my special spaghetti with asparagus, peas, lemon zest, olive oil, parmesan and garlic—it could be her last meal! I must rise to the occasion!—and she worried about her garlic breath funking up the operating theatre. Would a man consider the comfort of the people gutting him like a fish? My elderly aunt coiled some greasy strands around her fork and recalled an article about surgeons who sew their patients up with scalpels and gauze inside them. Jane rolled her eyes at me and took a gulp from her super-sized wine glass.

But the lemon pasta was the first of many premature goodbyes. Because she survived that surgery—I told you you could do it!!—and I saw her wide smile again under the fluorescent strips of the ICU. My stepsister didn’t come, but the ugly bit of me was glad she didn’t. Space opened up again. The spare daughter could rush to the rescue, getting grim dopamine hits from being needed, from being there when others had failed. But there were more goodbyes, and each time into the breach I had to say it again—I love you! So much! You can do this! See you afterwards!—just in case. But later we barely said anything, embarrassed to haul out the old lines again. I know, we didn’t say, blinking out our feelings in noiseless semaphore.

It started to get like when you say goodbye to an acquaintance in the supermarket, only to bump into them again by the tinned tuna. What’s worse is she knew it: the false sunsets were driving us crazy. The photocopies didn’t mention that—the social awkwardness of dying slowly. Like slapping your thighs, I’m off! only to have one more glass of wine and outstaying your host’s will to entertain you. As she grew weaker, every time her eyes closed, I would think: now? only for her to blink herself awake and demand a glass of water or phone charger. I’m so frightened I’m going to find her dead, Dad said, but she never is. She burrowed into a nest of opiates and banal TV, spending hours watching My 600lb life and the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Not absorbing the best operas or teaching her stepdaughter how to live without her, but watching a half-tonne man cry as his thigh folds were sponged of something like cream cheese.

She once worked for a vet, and liked to scandalise us mid-dinner with tales of expunged anal glands and fungating abscesses. I’d ask her for ointments for my rashes or dry patches—even though I had my own—because I wanted her to go to the medicine cupboard and dig out the fluorescent orange tube with a picture of horse on the box. I’d fake horror, and she would tsk at my city ways. I wanted to show I was her daughter and that she had jurisdiction over my body too—that she was free to boss me just as my mother did. At university I Googled my sore throat symptoms and discovered I likely had stage 4 throat cancer. Sobbing, I begged her to come over, and she shone a torch down my throat and said—you’re a bloody idiot, and what’s more, you’re a fool. We dined out on that story for years, but recently it’s felt like a hypochondriac’s reverse premonition—what wasn’t in my throat was hiding in hers.

We sat in a circle by a fake skeleton and a loud COULD IT BE SEPSIS? poster. The bored hospital consultant used lay terms for Jane’s body, and I knew it would enrage her. She’s worked with a vet—she’s basically a doctor! I said, smiling in what I hoped was a conspiratorial and charming way. Partly to get the doctor to use the correct terminology, partly because keeping it funny and light for everyone is what thoughtful women do.

I mean, of course she isn’t actually, obviously, like you … I know there’s very rigorous training … I trailed off, deflated by what I imagined she saw in me.

I see, said the consultant, in a way that seemed patronising to me, but almost certainly my husband wouldn’t agree. What do you do? She said, leaning in towards Jane like an indulgent teacher.

I teach horses, said Jane, prone, dying and at a complete disadvantage.

The painkillers are muddling her, I said, because if Jane read as a fool they wouldn’t treat her like the queen she was back in the real world, away from the smell of bleach and rubber sheets. I had given her syringes of liquid Oxycodone on the way, and she swallowed them like a grateful baby. She who bossed me most of my adult life, sat gurning in a wheelchair. She teaches horse-riding, Dad and I said in unison, not the horses themselves. We laughed loudly to oil the gears of a conversation no one wanted to have.

Jane and I shared so many secrets. Years earlier she called about some photographs she found. They were at the bottom of the guest room wardrobe where I’d stashed my belongings between house shares. We thought we were so powerful and womanly, the girls and I who posed for the creepy guy with the camera and the black drape backdrop. Jacinta’s mum suggested him—she was an artist, and we wanted to be arty. I told him I worried my ribs stuck out too much when I arched my back in what I imagined was a sexual way. He said he liked that particularly. We were sixteen, and after the “shoot” in his basement he asked me to come back and model for him on my own, which I declined, quite breezily, thinking nothing but that I’d rather not. I’d forgotten all about the pictures until she called, when I was old enough to feel maternal toward the naked teens who thought they had the upper hand.

For God’s sake hide these, she said, you’ll give your poor Dad a heart attack if he sees them. She didn’t ask any more questions—never did—and it was nice to have a secret together. I started smoking very late, and we hid that from Dad too, sneaking fag breaks together after mussels and white wine by the sea. Cemented by our vice, and aren’t the slightly drunk talks over cigarettes always the best ones? What a blessing they seem now, the Jean-Luc Godard films that made me think smoking was so chic. I wouldn’t swap those chats—that solidarity, that connection—even though it probably killed her, even though it may yet kill me.

We had other secrets too. In her mid-forties she fell pregnant, and they sat me down to tell me—baffled, apologetic. As if I were the parent and they the lustful teen tearaways. By the time they realised what her breasts were saying she was already quite far gone. There was no question of keeping it—his prostate drugs could cause birth defects, they said, and they were far too old anyway. He had to go abroad for work, but The Appointment couldn’t be delayed. When he offered to stay, she refused, because anyone could see an offer was useless when what was needed was a declaration that brooked no argument. She told me the surgeon was cross and said he’d never do one that far gone again. That night I put on a CD by an indie band I liked, and realised too late that the first track was “All my Bastard Children are Gone.” They weren’t married then. From then on, she was loyal to me over anyone—more loyal than I deserved for one night of pizza and quiet company.

She’s not old, I wanted to say to the handsome surgeon who directed everything to me. She’s not old, cancer has made her old, if you’re thinking that it’s her time it’s not, it’s not her time. He didn’t speak in the way you’d speak if you thought it was a tragedy, what was happening to her insides. Possibly because she had grey hair, possibly because the wheelchair, possibly because she had aged thirty years in six months. J-Lo is only ten years younger than her, did you know that? He probably only graduated last year and would talk about his day with the other junior doctors over beer pong. The expensive lipstick I smeared on her lips—it will make you feel better, Vogue said so!—looked like nothing so much as salmon-coloured denial as we talked about metastasizing things. I hated him but couldn’t stop thinking about his arms, his hands, even as my husband was parking the car, even as Jane slipped away beside me. I flirted with him over her x-rays, over the talk of stents and time left on the earth. It was an automatic function that I couldn’t seem to override.

“You’re the very best part of our family,” I wrote in their final anniversary card, because Dad was only able to write “Dear Jane. Happy Anniversary! Love, Me” in his. My husband came to the bedside too, and I wanted him to hold my hand but didn’t want to ask, and anyway, asked and received is never as good as offered. We sat, the four of us, eating a cake the hospice chef baked especially, and which I greeted with a pantomime of oohs and ahhhs. It was a child’s cake really, with hundreds and thousands, and Jane had to force it down what was left of her throat. I looked at my husband looking at her and wondered at which anniversary our marriage would end—who would die first, and in what way?

Death and so much waiting made an inventor of me, because when we had nearly run out of road I started coming up with plans; impossible, taboo plans. Like a desperate, incompetent entrepreneur, fucked-up ideas came to me at random moments. Could we do a life-swap gameshow for the suicidal and terminally ill? You don’t want your life? No problem! Give it to someone who’s desperately trying not to lose it! Or perhaps we could preserve bits of her body to stop the appalling waste of beauty. Her perfect breasts—so much fuller and more impressive than mine, and her slim, unwrinkled tummy—we could spare them from the fire and graft them onto me. Or we could do a trade with death and swap my ancient aunt, who was miserable and hated life and in any case, said she wished it was her who was dying. Perhaps a “baby on board” style bumper sticker but that you could wear, like a flag that would say “my wife/stepmother is dying in a hospice” so people weren’t shitty to you in the supermarket.

We need screenwash, Dad said quietly, after we found out it had come back in her bones. Remind me to get screenwash. It was raining outside, and once we got into the hospice I could see she had given up. On the side table there was a “fun activities” form, and I grabbed it and said, Jane, pssst, be nice to me or I’ll sign you up for a face mask making and socialising afternoon. But even though she laughed, she had shark eyes. She had called it a day—was packing up her ball and heading home. We told each other how much we loved each other, Dad watching on, crying silently. Later he told me he was getting too deaf and hadn’t heard what we said, but he knew, he knew.

Each day a new bed would be empty where there once was a supine person and a crying family cluster. A sick stranger would arrive, and a fresh lot of grievers at the foot of the bed. What happened to the woman on the far right? I said. Dead, said Jane calmly, turning the page of a BRITNEY: INSIDE MY MELTDOWN article in OK magazine. One day she beckoned me closer to her bedside. She had stopped talking, mostly, so this was new. This is it, I thought, this is where she tells me how to live without her. I strained to hear, her voice raspy and competing with the beeps of white machines. Do you see those people, she whispered, you see those ones across the way? She took a deep breath. I nodded. On the other side, with the older lady? I nodded again. She took another shuddering breath. Yeah, well have you ever seen so many grown adults drink so much orange squash? She fell back against the pillow and rolled her eyes.

Perhaps it was in defiance of the fairytale convention—our love for each other. As girls, Jane and I had read so many stories about poisoned apples and wicked women spurning men’s children. Where were the love stories like ours? The more the world expected us not to, the closer and more attached we became. She was more of a mother to me than my father was a father, and he knew it. Was I more of a daughter? You’re the only one she’ll listen to, he’d say when she was depressed or drinking too much, but he was never jealous. He watched on, beaming, as his women grew around one another. Aged together. Two women forcing their way past biology, past childhood stories, past men.

I’ll look after your babies, Jane had said, when she was well. I can’t wait to be their grandmother. I thought of my almost-half-sibling, and wondered if she did the same. Around the time she became ill, my husband and I decided to “try,” even though the word conjured up images of strained, desperate, fruitless sex. And it was so, because every month my period came, and I made no grandbabies for Jane. Someone in the marketing department had decided to put fun facts on each sanitary towel wrapper: “did you know you can save someone’s life by putting a tampon in a gunshot wound?” the pink writing queried, as I stared at my knickers. But I couldn’t save anybody’s life, let alone start one from scratch.

I was holding a tin of tuna when he called me. Brine or oil? I had thought an important distinction, right before Dad said,

“She’s gone.”

And let the line go dead. That morning hundreds of perfectly round jellyfish had washed up on the beach, like someone had detonated a huge bomb underwater and the ocean had purged every creature within. I walked along the water’s edge for miles, but the piles of jellyfish never petered out.

It was Dad’s birthday the day we went to register Jane’s death. “Oh! Happy Birthday!” said the registrar brightly when he gave his date of birth. All the rooms and hallways at the registry office were painted bubblegum pink, and in the building across the road a blow-up sex doll sat in the window, stunned, open-mouthed.

At the funeral a man no one recognised turned up with a single red rose. He had driven a long way and slept in his car the night before, according to someone. He wrote “What a girl, wow, what a girl! Love always, ‘The Boxer’” in the remembrance book. Jane’s sister thought he must have been a school boyfriend. The night before, I unpacked her hospice bag and found the lipstick I’d bought her. It still had all the hatched grooves in it from her cracked lips—her earthly echo preserved in the petal-pink wax. During the plague, they said peddlers sold trousers “left empty” by their inhabitants. Jane’s clothes still hung in the wardrobe, her glasses sat, smudged, on the bedside table.

I am stuck on a single question as the wicker coffin floats by on a sea of shoulders, as I give the eulogy, as I wash down stale quiche and sandwiches, as I make small talk, as I put the kettle on, as I go upstairs, as I put on her left-empty tshirt and supermarket knickers to go to sleep. Do I use the balmy lipstick, and have the comfort of her lips on mine? Or do I save it, like a pencil rubbing, with her grooves there for ever? It smells like fresh, untainted apples.

omega man

Abi Stephenson is a producer of cultural events, literary pop-ups, festivals and smart-thinking animations. For over a decade she was one of the curators of the high-profile events programme at the Royal Society of Arts in London. She also edited and produced the award-winning RSA Animates and RSA Shorts series. She was a senior bookseller and events manager for many years, and has a first class Philosophy and English degree from the University of Sussex.