When Mrs Stepney moved in with her latest fancy man, the one called Jeff, she began to bring her new stepdaughter when she came for her monthly hair appointment.
“This is Cynthia,” she said, as I settled her in front of the mirror.
“Hello!” I smiled at her.
She was a very pale child, about ten years old, with a face as yet unformed. She did not seem to hear me, but just stared into the mirror.
“She doesn’t say much,” commented Mrs Stepney.
After that, Mrs Stepney always brought Cynthia. She would stand in front of the mirror, staring at her stepmother’s reflection. Sometimes I tried to catch her eye and smile, but she would not respond. Her gaze never faltered. It was as if she was bewitched by Mrs Stepney’s face.
I had been doing Mrs Stepney’s hair for many years and I knew her love-life as well as I knew her hair. I had listened to her adventures with Steve, and Desmond, and what’s-his-name with the Bentley, and Bruce with the villa in Tuscany…and so on. And, as usual, I had followed the Jeff affair month by month, from the first dinner date to the weekend in Bournemouth through the Caribbean holiday to the large diamond engagement ring. Nowadays it was all Jeff this and Jeff that…
“Jeff really likes my hair swept back…
“Jeff so admires my bone structure, especially the left profile. Oh sorry, did I jerk my head?
“Jeff says I carry my age really well…”
He was right. I suppose Mrs Stepney must have been at least fifty, and possibly much older for she had grandchildren, but she didn’t look even middle-aged and she certainly had fine bone structure along with facial features in perfect proportion and a flawless complexion. A face to die for. Not that she didn’t work at it: her appearance was even more of an obsession than her men.
However, in the next few months I began to notice a subtle change in her appearance. Tiny wrinkles were forming at the corners of her mouth and dark circles beneath her eyes. And then, putting a towel round her neck one day, I saw how her chin was starting to sag. Mrs Stepney was beginning to show her age.
“Do you think that’s a wrinkle, Tracey?” and she bent forward to the mirror to examine her face.
I concentrated on my scissors.
“Tracey, I think you ought to get a new mirror, I am sure this one’s losing its surface. It makes me look as if I’ve got age spots.”
Indeed it did, for she did have age spots, and as the months passed the ageing became more pronounced. Lines formed at the sides of her mouth, her eyes became hooded, and the perfectly-applied make-up could no longer conceal the wrinkles. Mrs Stepney was getting old.
Throughout all those months, as Cynthia stood at the side of her stepmother and stared at her reflection, I began to notice a change in her too. She was growing taller and beginning to show signs of developing breasts. But that was not all. One day after the blow dry, standing behind Mrs Stepney’s head to assess the effect in the mirror, I saw, looking back at me, next to her stepmother, a new face. Cynthia’s features had lost that incomplete look of the half-grown-up girl and had become, suddenly, beautiful.
“Cynthia’s growing up, isn’t she?” I blurted out.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Mrs Stepney’s face looked haunted.
“She’s only eleven. Still a child.”
“But she’s going to be a very pretty young lady, aren’t you Cynthia?”
Cynthia said nothing and continued to stare at her stepmother in the mirror; but a slight smile flickered at the edges of her mouth and, seeing it, Mrs Stepney began to cry. Slowly, painfully, a single tear squeezed from the corner of her left eye and trickled down that deteriorating face.
I was mortified to think that I had upset a loyal client and I fussed around her, removing the towel, brushing the hair off her shoulders, bringing her coat.
I really feared that I had seriously upset Mrs Stepney, for on the day of her next appointment she didn’t show up, which was most unlike her. Then Tiffany, my shampoo girl, came rushing in from her lunch break.
“You’ll never guess what’s happened, Trace. You know Mrs Stepney and that Cynthia she brings with her? Well, Cynthia’s disappeared. My mate Samantha what works in Boots lives in the same road and there’s like yellow tape and police and even telly cameras outside the house. They say she’s been abducted!” and Tiffany beamed with excitement.
We followed the news story as it unfolded during the next two weeks and felt quite famous. It began with “searching for missing schoolgirl…” led on to “suspect held in missing schoolgirl mystery” to “suspect released” and “no new leads…” I heard much of it from my clients: Mrs Dawson’s husband had volunteered for the search party; Mrs Higginbotham had left a teddy bear on the huge pile of flowers outside Cynthia’s school. Several clients told me how they had always thought Wayne Tickman, the ‘suspect’ (a local window-cleaner who had cleaned Mrs Stepney’s windows on the day of the disappearance) was “one of them pervs.” But gradually the story lost its newsworthiness and holiday destinations took over as the talking point in the salon.
And then Mrs Stepney came back. Next month, at her usual time, there she was, large as life, in front of the mirror. I wasn’t sure what to say to her. “Are you all right, Mrs Stepney?” somehow didn’t feel appropriate and so I busied myself mixing the colour.
But Mrs Stepney was quite happy to talk.
“Oh Tracy, if you knew what a terrible time I’ve had since Cynthia disappeared!” and she dabbed carefully at the corner of her eye with a tissue. “Jeff’s been a nightmare to live with, poor dear, and we had to cancel the cruise.”
“It must be awful, Mrs Stepney. We’re all so sorry!”
“Thank you, Tracey, you’re so kind, but we must live with what God has ordained for us, as I tell Jeff, and she wasn’t my real daughter, was she?” and she began to leaf through a magazine.
I was shocked. I’m not sure what I was expecting a bereaved stepmother to behave like, but it wasn’t like this. Then, as I draped the towel round her shoulders, I looked at her face in the mirror and was even more shocked. Where was the haggard old woman I had last seen? I looked again. No, I wasn’t mistaken. Mrs Stepney had re-found her beauty. Gone were the wrinkles and blemishes; gone was the sagging chin and hooded brows; her skin shone with health and she was, once again, a beautiful woman.
It seemed that Mrs Stepney had noticed too.
“What do you think, Tracey? I was going to go in for a face-lift, but I’m not sure that I need it,” and she smiled at herself in the mirror. “I think I’ll spend the money on that cruise. Poor Jeff doesn’t want to go in case there’s any news-he lives by the phone, poor dear- but my nerves have been so bad a bit of fun will do me good, don’t you think?”
However, Mrs Stepney never went on her cruise. It was the very next day that Tiffany brought the next dose of gruesome news.
“Trace, you’ll never guess what’s happened! They’ve gone and arrested Mrs Stepney!”
“What! What for, for God’s sake?”
“For murder! They’re saying on Facebook she murdered Cynthia and put her in the deep freeze. Oh Tracey! To think that I used to shampoo her!” and she burst into tears.
Of course, we never saw Mrs Stepney again in the salon, and even on TV all we saw was a woman under a blanket getting into a police van. We heard the gory details when she was brought to trial some months later. What I particularly remember was that the girl’s face had been so terribly mutilated that she was hardly recognisable.
Now I’m over the shock I’m not sure what to think about the whole affair. Of course she did a terrible thing, but I do hope they cut Mrs Stepney’s layers carefully while she’s in prison; I took a pride in them and she does like to look nice. I suppose it’s silly to be superstitious, but I replaced that salon mirror.
(c) Betty Hasler