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As teenagers Poppy Carlisle and Serena Gorringe were the only witnesses to a high-profile murder. Amid heated public debate, the two seemingly glamorous teens were dubbed "The Ice Cream Girls" by the press and were dealt with by the courts-Poppy headed to prison after being convicted for murder and Serena was set free.
Years later, after having led very different lives, Poppy is keen to set the record straight about what really happened. The ...
As teenagers Poppy Carlisle and Serena Gorringe were the only witnesses to a high-profile murder. Amid heated public debate, the two seemingly glamorous teens were dubbed "The Ice Cream Girls" by the press and were dealt with by the courts-Poppy headed to prison after being convicted for murder and Serena was set free.
Years later, after having led very different lives, Poppy is keen to set the record straight about what really happened. The only problem is she has no one to turn to and no clue where to begin her hunt for Serena.
Meanwhile, Serena is married with children and wants no one in her present to find out about her past. Constantly looking over her shoulder, Serena knows she should come clean to her husband, however, she can't seem to find the words.
With Poppy determined to salvage what's left of her reputation, Serena may not have a choice in reopening a can of worms that may threaten both their lives...again.
"A thought-provoking and moving tale about murder, betrayal and life-shattering secrets."—Kimberla Lawson Roby, New York Times bestselling author of Secret Obsession on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"I truly enjoyed this suspenseful story filled with tragedy, but ending with major triumph. There were so many moments when I held my breath - the scenes were so vivid, I felt as if I was right there experiencing all of their pain and mind control. It was a story that I didn't want to put down, and I completely loved the ending. This is a writer that I will be sure to follow."—Victoria Christopher Murray, bestselling author on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"The plot is brilliantly constructed to turn full circle, yet it never seems contrived. The dialogue crackles with tension, with not a syllable out of place. Alice Sebold impressed me with her imaginative realism in the memorable The Lovely Bones; in my view Dorothy Koomson 's imagination and empathy for her characters, trapped into the chilling fall-out of tragic events, is even stronger."—www.bookbag.co.uk on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"The first book of the year that's got out hearts racing, our minds boggling and us page-turning like there's no tomorrow. Flirty, frothy chick-lit this isn't - instead, grab a box of tissues and prepare not to surface out into the real world for a day or two..."—Heat on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"Koomson takes the story to the darkest of places, creating a masterpiece of manipulation, that builds layer by chilling layer to an outstanding climax that will make you - and your goosebumps - shudder."—Daily Record on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"Goodnight, Beautiful was Cosmo's favourite book of 2008, so we were beyond excited when Dorothy Koomson's latest novel landed on our desk. Another moving and thought-provoking read, this lives up to expectations."—Cosmopolitan on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"A fast paced, gritty and exhilarating read."—Hot Stars on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"A shocking tale of brutality and betrayal, shattered childhood and hidden truths that the reader, like Poppy and Serena, will strive to understand - and come to realise that sometimes the most powerful secrets are taken to the grave."—Take a Break on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"Gritty and realistic, it mixes crime, drama and romance - the best women's fiction of the year so far."—Candis on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
"The Ice Cream Girls is one of the most cleverly crafted novels that I have read for a long time... This is a psychological thriller that gripped me from page one and kept me hooked until the very last page. A compelling and often breathtaking read with a unique storyline and fantastic characters - I can't recommend this highly enough."—www.bookrabbit.com on THE ICE CREAM GIRLS
AS COLD AS ICE CREAM?
—Daily News Chronicle, October 1989
Serena Gorringe, one half of the so-called Ice Cream Girls duo accused of killing popular teacher Marcus Halnsley, is expected to take the witness stand today in her murder trial.
Gorringe, 18, is the older of the two and is widely thought to have been the driving force behind the pair’s cold-blooded plot to seduce, torture and murder her former History teacher.
Although Gorringe and her accomplice, Poppy Carlisle, originally went to the police after the murder claiming there had been an accident in which Halnsley was stabbed, evidence at the scene suggested he had been subjected to torture before he died, from a stab wound to the heart.
Both Gorringe, pictured eating ice cream and wearing a string bikini, right, and Carlisle deny torture and murder. They also both deny being the assailant who ultimately delivered the fatal blow to Mr. Halnsley.
Serena Gorringe, I love you.”
Oh my God! It’s going to happen. It’s really going to happen. After nearly fifteen years of wanting this, hoping for this, praying for this, it’s going to happen. He’s going to propose.
Or maybe he isn’t. Maybe I’m having one of my “moments” where I’ve so completely immersed myself in a fantasy, it seems real.
I glance around, searching for proof in my surroundings that I’m not making it all up. We’re at a table for two outside our favorite Brighton restaurant—a small, family-run Mexican cantina that sits on the edge of the beach. It’s a clear, warm night and the sky is teeming with stars. The rhythmic ssshush-ing of the dark sea mingles gently with the loud music spilling from inside the restaurant, while the smell of spicy food fuses deliciously with the salty air. To my left, Brighton pier is adorned with hundreds upon hundreds of lights, and to my right Worthing Pier’s lights seem more demure than its more famous cousin’s but are still pretty. This is such a perfect setting for a proposal, it can’t possibly be real, I must be dreaming.
I focus on Evan again. He is down on bended knee, staring at me with a serious expression on his face. This is no fantasy. It can’t be. Because in all my imaginings, Evan has never been prostrate in front of me. It’s so far removed from his normal behavior I’ve never been able to conjure up what he would look like doing it. Big gestures with him are so few and far between that this one is like seeing a unicorn walking down Brighton seafront—I would only believe it if I saw it. So this must be real, because I am seeing it.
“Serena Gorringe, I love you,” he repeats, and I know this is definitely real. Only the real-life Evan would know that I would have flitted off into one of my “crazy worlds” as he calls them, as soon as he got down on one knee and started speaking. Only the real-life Evan would know that I’d need to go into one of my crazy worlds to double-check this was actually happening. And only the real-life Evan would know that when I returned to this reality, he would have to continue by starting again.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” He reaches out and takes my left hand in both of his large hands, holds on to me tenderly but securely. “I don’t normally say things like this, so when I tell you that you’ve made my life so much more than it would have been and I never want our time together to end, you know I mean it. So, would you do me the honor of marrying me?”
“We’re already married,” I reply.
My husband’s face softens from his serious expression into a huge, warming smile. “Again,” he says. “Will you marry me, again?”
I slide slowly and gently into silence to savor this moment. His proposal. I was robbed of one the last time around. But this, this proves he wants to be with me forever. Yes, he’s already committed to it by marrying me, but he actually wants to do it. Last time it was all rather ambiguous and necessary when we decided to do it.
We’d been lying fully clothed, side by side on the bed in his small London flat, staring at the ceiling. I’d just told him that the morning-after pill I’d taken after the condom split hadn’t worked and I was pregnant. A missed period and three tests had told me so. I’d waited until we were horizontal to break the news because I suspected he’d fall over. “Oh, OK,” he’d said, before sighing a deep, slightly mournful sigh of resignation and defeat. I’d sighed, too, knowing what he meant, how he felt. It wasn’t terrible news, it wasn’t even bad news, it was just life-changing and unexpected. I wasn’t ready, I was sure he wasn’t, either. But here we were, ready or not. A baby was on its way.
“We should probably get married,” I’d stated.
“To stop our parents freaking out,” he’d replied. “Because they would,” I’d said.
“Freak out. Yeah.”
Evan didn’t realize that when I said “should probably,” I meant “have to.” If it was just about me, I wouldn’t have cared, I wouldn’t have minded not getting married. But after what had happened to our family a few years earlier, what I had put my parents through, I could not do this to them as well—I could not add “unmarried mother” to my list of crimes… I had to show them that I wasn’t who the world thought I was, I was a respectable girl and I could do things the right way. I had to get married.
“It’s not as if we weren’t going to get married at some point, anyway,” Evan had said, trying to rescue the situation by sounding positive.
“We might as well do it now.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” I’d replied. And six weeks later we were married and that was that. No romance, no story to tell and retell, there wasn’t even an engagement ring to show off.
Ever since then, I’ve had a niggling doubt about where we would be if we hadn’t been married at the wrong end of a shotgun. Without doubt, if he knew Serena Gorringe at the end of the eighties, if he knew the person who was all over the papers and who had been accused of something terrible, he would not have married me. But he did not know her. He met and got to know the real me. And I’ve always wondered if the real me was good enough. If the real me was the person he wanted to marry, instead of had to marry to satisfy ultratraditional parents.
“Last time, we didn’t get the chance to do it properly,” Evan says. “I want that for us this time. I promised myself on the day we did that we’d do it again properly. Since our first wedding, I’ve been putting money aside so we could do it. Big church, white dress, huge party, honeymoon—the lot. We can have everything that we couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to do before, including…” He reaches into the inside pocket of his favorite suit jacket and pulls out a small blue velvet box. He opens it up to show me and there, languishing on a silk bed, is a large, many-faceted, square-cut diamond on a silver band.
The air catches in my throat.
“An engagement ring. This time, an engagement ring as well as a real proposal.”
“Is that a real diamond?” I can barely form the words to speak in its presence let alone think about touching it.
“Of course. We can afford it now. And it’s on a platinum band, from the same place where we got our wedding rings.”
My hands fly up to my face as tears fill my eyes and swell in my throat. He’s thought about it, he’s planned it and has done it all because I am good enough: he does want to be with me. He does want to be married to me, just as much as I want to be married to him.
I’ve never wanted to be with someone as much as I want to be with Evan. What about you-know-who? whispers my conscience. It is the part of my conscience that lives in the past; it worships the past, clings to it, always determined to drag the past into the present. Wasn’t you-know-who the love of your life?
My conscience is wrong, of course. Evan is The One. He’s the only one.
Are you sure, Serena? mocks my conscience. Are you absolutely sure about that?
I’m sure, I’m one hundred percent sure. There really is no one but my husband for me. What I had with you-know-who wasn’t love, it wasn’t like what I have with Evan. It wasn’t even the same creature, how could it have been?
“Babe?” Evan says, in a way that suggests he has called me a few times.
“Sorry,” I say, “miles away.” Another life away.
“I’m getting a little nervous,” he says.
“You haven’t actually said yes.”
“Haven’t I?” I ask.
“No, you haven’t.”
He grins that grin of his. “Do you want me to ask you again?”
I nod eagerly. Just one more time, especially now that I know there’s a ring involved.
“OK,” he says with a slight, mock-exasperated shake of his head. “Serena Gorringe…” He pauses to slip the ring halfway up my finger, and I hold my breath, trying to remember every detail because I will re-create it for the kids, for my sisters, for my parents, for anyone who cares to listen. “Will you make me the happiest man on earth by marrying me and becoming Mrs. Gillmare all over again?” He pushes the ring into place beside my wedding band.
I almost forget to breathe as I examine the two rings. They slot together almost seamlessly, and they look like they were made for each other. Like nothing will ever tear them apart.
“Of course I will,” I say, and leap up as he struggles to his feet. “Of course I’ll marry you again.” I throw my arms around his neck and he grins at me before he scoops me into his arms and then dips me backward for a deep, show-stopping, movie-style kiss. Another unicorn-on-Brighton-seafront-type gesture. He is full of them tonight.
I immerse myself in it all. In the kiss, the proposal, the man. I’m only vaguely aware that we’ve had an audience and now the air around us is full of the sound of people clapping.
I’m going to hang on to this moment. I have to. I know how easily everything can be taken away. Life is fragile when you’re like me. Very few things are permanent. I live on a precipice of falling into my past, of people finding out what I have been accused of, how I was publicly branded, and being judged all over again. I live with the constant fear that someone or something is going to tip me over the edge.
But not tonight. Not right now. For the moment, I am the woman whom Dr. Evan Gillmare wants to spend the rest of his life with.
Right now, I am the happiest woman on earth and nothing bad could possibly happen to me.
I’m walking around my kitchen, opening cupboards and appliances, looking for the knives.
The dinner knives are safe but the sharp ones, the ones that can do serious damage, seem to be missing in action. Admittedly, that’s my fault: I hid them last night, and I can’t quite remember where. It wouldn’t be a problem if the house wasn’t minutes away from becoming a chaos of the usual morning family pandemonium. It wouldn’t even be a problem if Evan hadn’t made me promise not to do this again.
My fingers reach for the oven door for a third time and I yank it open really quickly, hoping that the knives will have materialized in there, the original hiding place, the favorite hiding place.
Every night, before bed, I used to collect all the sharp knives and place them on a baking tray and put them in the oven just in case someone broke in while we were asleep and decided to use our own cutlery against us. Then I started doing it before we settled down to watch TV in the evening, in case someone broke in the back door while we were lounging in the front room. And then it was just after washing up because it was easier. After a while, I realized that hiding the knives in the same place every night, night after night, might not be a good idea if we were being watched, so I started hiding them in all sorts of ingenious places, places that a burglar with ill intentions would never think to look. Turns out, I wouldn’t think to look there either because I’m constantly doing this: looking for the knives.
Evan, Verity, and Conrad used to be very nice about it, accepted it as one of my little quirks, even though they had to hack away at cheese and tear bread some days because Mom couldn’t find the knives. Then Evan discovered them in his gym bag—at the gym—and had a totally understandable breakdown. He came storming through the kitchen door and started shouting at me in front of the kids. “I could have been arrested for carrying multiple dangerous weapons, Sez!” he’d screamed. “And what do I tell them, I’ve got a crazy wife who hides the knives and then forgets where she’s put them?” I’d been so tempted to say, “Yes, because that’s the truth,” but decided not to push it. I had to leave him alone for his temper to subside and then tell him I was sorry. After that, he made me promise that if I insisted on hiding the knives, I’d write down where they were so it wouldn’t happen again.
Obviously I’d crossed my fingers behind my back when I agreed because, come on, that would defeat the whole point, wouldn’t it? I’ve been pretty good since then at remembering.
But, after last night, and the champagne and the celebration at home, my head is fuzzy, my senses are blunted, and I can’t remember much, least of all where I stashed the sharp stuff. Could’ve sworn it was the oven, would have put money on it.
I snatch the stainless-steel door open for a fourth time, just in case. No. Nada. Nothing. Damn it!
Something being shoved loudly through the letter box makes me jump. “Shhh,” I hiss at the door as I leap over the creaky floorboards, mapped out like uncracked paving stones in my mind, to collect the morning paper. “Do you want to get me in trouble?” I suspect Evan will take back the proposal, change his mind about wanting to marry me again, if he finds out that I can’t locate the knives again. It’s one of my many little foibles that bother him.
At five minutes past 11 a.m. on the seventh of November, a tall, muscular man with a shaved back-and-sides Afro threw a pint of orange juice in my face.
I had been curled up, as usual on non-lecture days, in the big squashy armchair at the back of the college bar, beside the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on to the college playing fields. I would sit in there, comforted by the smell of stale smoke, spilled alcohol, and musty carpet, and read.
Until that moment, I thought I was safe, I thought no one knew where I was or who I was. I thought my shame had been buried and I could cautiously, carefully, start again, two hundred miles from the scene of my alleged crime.
But the splash of liquid on my face, hair, and books told me otherwise. Told me to run before things got worse. People had spat at me in the street before, had written me hate mail, had crossed the road to avoid me, had threatened me with violence, and now it was starting up again. I leapt out of the chair and grabbed my belongings—my textbooks, room keys, and purse—spread like a pack of splayed cards on the table, and ran. Not before I said, “Sorry. Thank you. I’m sorry.” Not before I let him know that I wasn’t enjoying myself, I hadn’t forgotten, I hadn’t really left it all behind.
“Wait!” I heard him call as I crossed the threshold. But I did not wait. I did not want to make it easy for him to finish off what he started.
Down the corridor, around the corner, out into the wide, paved courtyard, I ran. “Please. Miss. Wait,” he called again but I sprinted on, heading for the safety of my room. I could hear his footsteps behind me, gaining on me, and I pushed myself harder, desperate to get to my room, desperate to shut and lock the door, to climb into bed and hide under the covers until he got bored and left me alone.
At the door to my dorm room, I worked as fast as I could to type in the five-digit code but as I hit the last digit, his hand came down on my forearm, stopping me from turning the handle.
I tried to scream, but it was swollen and bloated from my run and stuck in my throat, then became firmly lodged into place by the fear of what was about to come.
“My God, you can run,” he said, his chest heaving. “Are you OK?” He pointed over his shoulder. “I’m so sorry about back there.” He paused to catch his breath a little more. “Whoa! Mad run! I thought… I’m sorry. I was coming over to see if you wanted a drink. I think of you as my reading partner because I always see you in there reading like I do. Thought I’d make contact. Turned into the wrong kind of contact, if you know what I mean.”
“You didn’t do it on purpose?” I replied.
“Why would I do it on purpose?” he asked. “What sort of sick person would do that on purpose?”
“You don’t know who I am?” I searched his face for an answer that might be different from the one coming out of his mouth.
“Should I?” he asked with raised eyebrows.
“You don’t know who I am,” I stated, relaxing into that sentence, enjoying exactly what it meant: safety, anonymity.
“Tell me who you are, then, if I should know.”
“I’m nobody,” I said.
“Ri-ght,” he said carefully. “So, are we cool? You’re OK?” I nodded at him. “I’m OK.”
“Good. I can go back to my reading and not worry that I’ve traumatized you, yeah?”
I nodded again. “Yeah.”
“Good. That’s good.” He took a couple of steps away then said, “What’s your name?”
“Oh, um, well… um…”
“You don’t know your own name?”
“I was just trying to work out if I should tell you my real name.”
“OK, Serena, I’ll see you, then.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you.”
He’d walked a little distance away when he called over his shoulder: “Oh, by the way, I’m Evan.”
“Bye, Evan,” I called. Under my breath I added, “And thank you. Thank you so, so much.”
I tug the paper out of the door, knowing I should be grateful that the paperboy managed to get it into the door this time. Mostly he stands at the gate and chucks it in the general direction of the door.
I go back to the kitchen, flicking through the paper even though Evan hates it when I do that. He likes to come to it fresh, without all the pages messed up by my fingers. On some level, that’s probably why I do it: he tells me not to do something, asks me not to do something, and my brain tells me it wants to do nothing else but that thing. I can’t help it. It’s the same reason I’ve never been any good at diets—tell me I can’t have a food and I want nothing but that food.
I’m halfway through the paper, flicking through the pages, when my eyes are dragged to the headline of the small imageless square at the bottom of page five: SWEET TASTE OF FREEDOM FOR THE ICE CREAM GIRL. I lift the paper closer to my nose to be sure, to double-check I am really reading those words.
I stop in my tracks as ice-cold fingers with razor-blade fingernails begin clawing at my heart, lungs, and stomach. This is what it feels like when the past creeps up unawares, when it will not stay dead and buried as it should be.
I read the words that go with the headline, and the tearing and ripping at my insides intensifies. This is what a heart attack feels like: what happens when the muscle is overwhelmed by the secrets it carries and wants to let them out, hurting you in the process.
I read those words again and again and again. Life is all about scales, checks, and balances, I sometimes think: every time something good happens, something awful will come along to even it out. I finally got my yearned-for proposal, so now she is back to haunt me.
Creak! of the top step sounds through the house, signaling the imminent arrival of someone I love and who does not know.
I can’t be caught reading this. Even though there’s no picture, there are two words that connect me to this, that would give me away and would unleash hell upon our small, ordinary lives.
I scrunch the paper in my hands and then run to the bin, hit the pedal, and shove it in, down where it will not do any damage, down, down out of sight. I’ll have to tell Evan the paperboy didn’t deliver it or something. I’ll have to go back on my promise to never lie, not to others, not to myself. But if it’s a choice between a small white lie or the end of everything, I have to lie. Show me a person who wouldn’t and I’ll show you someone who has never lived through hell.
The sound of the footsteps tell me it’s Evan. I pick up the stainless-steel kettle, dash to the sink, and manage to turn on the tap before he wanders into the kitchen.
“Morning, wife-to-be-again,” he says. I’m sure he’s smiling but I cannot turn to check, I cannot face him until I have composed myself, rearranged my expression so he can’t tell something is wrong.
“Morning, you,” I say, bright and breezy. There is an extra forced note of happiness in my voice, but if he notices, he doesn’t mention it. “Ready for another day at the office?”
He sucks in his breath. “Ooooh, not quite. Coffee, toast, smoothie. Then I might consider it.” I hear him rub the slight paunch that appears whenever he sits down or slouches. “Actually, I could murder cheese on toast.”
Murder. The word echoes and pulsates in my mind and in the deepest recesses of my chest. Murder, murder, murder.
“Really thin slices of cheese. Dash of Worcester sauce.”
“You know where the toaster is,” I say, playing for time. Knives. Where are the knives? Where?
“Yes?” I reply.
“Look at me, please.”
I take an extra deep breath and turn to face my husband. He is a year older than me, on his way to forty, but with very few wrinkles to show for it, because, I often tell him, he’s lived an easy life. His eyes are fringed by long black lashes, while his mouth is almost always ready with a smile. He has smooth, dark brown skin and has been through more hairstyles than me until settling on a close-cut shave all over. Once, Conrad convinced him to get an “E” shaved into the back of his head. Our son, seven at the time, had thought it pretty cool, while I’d been amazed Evan had done it. He was actually going to keep it until I reminded him that most people don’t expect their family doctor to be walking adverts for dance drugs. The pair of them had looked at me as if I had named the drug ecstasy just to stop Evan from being really cool and “down with the kids.”
“Yes, how can I help you?” I ask him.
“Where are the knives?”
“I need to make cheese on toast; where are the knives?”
“They’re um…” I stop speaking in the hope something else will take over and speak for me, that God will send an angel to put the right words in my mouth.
“You don’t know, do you?” he says, as he observes me. I imagine that several patients who have tried to pull a fast one have wilted under the pressure of that look.
I sigh. Shake my head. All the while praying that something will come to me. Or something will happen to rescue me. “They’re…”
Creak! at the top of the stairs interrupts me. “Oh, is that the kids?” I say happily.
Evan’s right eyebrow rises at me. “Saved by the creak, huh?” he says.
Con wanders into the kitchen, rubbing one eye and tugging at the bottom of his red and blue pajama top. My eight-year-old is usually a bundle of energy, constantly needing reminding to slow down. To look at him now, you’d be forgiven for thinking he spends most of his time asleep or slumped in front of the television.
“Vee woke me up,” he complains as he rests his head on my stomach. “She’s singing. She’s always singing, Mom. Make her stop.”
“I’ll try, sweetie,” I say, running my hand over the smooth bristles of his shaved hair. It’s good to hold him, to be able to anchor myself in the present with him. He is real. He is here. The soft shape of him, his slender limbs and lean body tell me this is my life, this is who I am. I am here, everything else is not.
“Your mother was just about to tell me where the knives are,” Evan informs our son.
Con lifts his head and rests his chin on my solar plexus so he can gaze up at me with eyes that are almost identical to Evan’s. When he was a baby, people used to comment on the size of his eyes and the length of his lashes wherever we went. They are beautiful and large and open. Honest. “Did you lose them again, Mom? Is Dad going to shout at you?”
“Noooo, Dad’s not going to shout at me because I didn’t lose them,” I say with a defiant look at my husband.
“So, where are they?” Evan counters.
Another creak! sounds at the top of the stairs, this time followed by the skipping sounds of Verity coming to join us.
She has been unusually chipper these days, skipping, singing, cheerily doing her kitchen chores, and even offering to help Con with his. I suspect there’s a boy involved, which does not make me feel good. Or happy. I’m waiting for the right time to broach the matter with her because she is too young for boys. She’s not allowed to wear makeup, to stay out late, to go away with her friends, to have an email address that we don’t have access to, to have a mobile phone number she can give to friends. But still, somehow…
The three of us watch her coming through the kitchen doorway, tall and slender, hair pulled back into three connected ponytails that go from her forehead to the nape of her neck, wearing her pink robe and nothing on her feet.
“What?” She stops just over the threshold. “What have I done now?” she asks, aggrieved. “Nothing, that’s what. So why are you all staring at me like I’ve done something?”
“You haven’t done a thing, sweetheart,” Evan says. “We were just marveling at how your arrival has stopped your mother from telling us where the knives are.”
Verity’s large brown eyes swing dramatically to me. “Oh, Mom, you didn’t!”
“Didn’t what?” I ask.
“Forget where you put the knives, a-gain!”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So, where are they?” Evan asks.
“Oh my God!” Verity suddenly screeches. “What is that!
We are trying to recover from the first screech when she continues, “On your finger, Mom! What is that?” Verity’s shrieks are up in the realms of dog whistles, and really quite painful to someone who is tired, hungover, and under a serious amount of pressure.
“Oh, my engagement ring. Do you like it?” I hold out my hand for her to take a closer look. “Your father asked me to marry him again last night and I said yes.”
“I was thinking we could do it on the twenty-fifth of June,” Evan says.
“Ah, so only one anniversary to remember? Yeah, good one,” I say to him. “I’ll still expect two cards and two presents, you cheapskate.”
“Wait, you’re actually going to get married? With a ceremony and everything?”
“Of course,” Evan and I say at the same time.
“It’s going to be huge,” Evan continues. “Wedding dress, coordinated bridesmaids outfits, big cars… the lot.”
Verity rolls her eyes. “Why can’t you just be like other people’s parents? They don’t do this sort of thing.”
“Other people’s parents clearly don’t love each other as much as we do,” I explain, hoping she leaves it there, she doesn’t go over into the dark side of teenage stroppiness because she will be opening up a whole world of trouble for herself.
“You’ll just show me up in front of everyone,” she says. “Why can’t this family just be normal for once?”
I feel Evan bristle a second or two after me.
“And that’s the end of Verity Gillmare’s performance of ‘Sulky Teen,’ ” I say. “We’re going to get nice, polite Verity back now. And she’s going to apologize for all the things she’s just said.” I smile at my daughter. She knows that I’ve just stopped her from having her iPod taken away for a week, or having limited access to the computer. Evan has a zero-tolerance policy on backchat and rudeness, and I do not want the day to start with a battle between them. I just want this day to go back to being the lovely day after I was proposed to.
Verity stares down at her bare feet and starts to wriggle her toes as the atmosphere in the kitchen grows ever thicker and more tense. Conrad has stopped breathing while his little heart is racing against my body. He’s scared that if Verity is banned from television, has her computer taken away, or is sent to bed as soon as she comes home from school, it’ll mean the same for him; he’ll be a victim of the fallout she caused.
“Sorry,” she mumbles.
“What was that? Did the little mouse speak? I can’t hear her if she did,” I joke. “Come on, little mouse, squeak up.”
Despite herself, she smiles a little as she looks up and says, “Sorry, Mom, sorry, Dad.”
“Good girl,” I say. “Now come on, all of you, sit down. We need breakfast and then to get this show on the road.”
“Knives?” Evan asks.
“Living room magazine rack,” I say without hesitation. That was the problem all along, of course. I was thinking too much.
Almost imperceptibly, Evan’s mouth and left eyebrow twitch.
He is thinking that Con could have found them, played with them, hurt himself.
“Before you say anything, the magazine rack is on top of the cupboard in the spare bedroom.”
“Of course,” he says, and shakes his head in despair. “Where else would they be? I’ll go get them, shall I?”
“Right, so what do you want for breakfast?” I ask. “Your dad will probably drop you off today on his way in.” I cannot leave the house to do my normal things for fear of someone seeing me and remembering. Those sorts of incidental news items in the paper are the things that jog people’s minds, make them realize that you don’t just “have one of those faces,” they really do remember you from somewhere. And that somewhere is a place you’d rather they forgot. “And you can buy your lunches today, but no sugary or sweet stuff.”
“Mom, it’s Saturday,” Conrad says.
Saturday? That’s news to me. “Oh,” I say.
“You did know that, didn’t you?” Verity asks, her voice and attitude incredulous and concerned.
“Course I did, just trying to keep you on your toes.” I give Con a quick squeeze. “Come on, sweetheart, sit down at the table while I start breakfast. Dad’s doing Saturday morning surgery.”
I turn back to the sink and try to calm myself. Forgetting the day of the week is normal after the heavy session of last night. Everyone knows I can’t drink very much. So this… this memory lapse means nothing. It’s not like before. That was then, this is now, and this is nothing like then. All of us forget things every now and again.
All of us do it.
—Daily News Chronicle, October 1989
Poppy Carlisle, one of the teenagers currently known as The Ice Cream Girls, is to give evidence today at her trial for her part in the murder of teacher Marcus Halnsley.
Carlisle, 18, who gained her nickname after she appeared scantily clad, smiling and eating ice cream with her co-defendant Serena Gorringe, denies killing her former lover, Mr. Halnsley. She and Gorringe allege there had been an accident following a fight that left Mr. Halnsley with what they thought was a fatal wound. However, police revealed evidence that Mr. Halnsley had several cuts to his torso, possibly the result of torture, and that he ultimately died from being stabbed in the heart.
Although Carlisle’s fingerprints were found on the knife, she denies murder and is expected to claim that Gorringe returned to Mr. Halnsley’s house and killed him in order to frame her.
The sky isn’t a square of patchwork quilt. Sometimes with two or three black bars running down it, sometimes with wire mesh upon it. The sky is vast and deep and capable of smothering me.
For a very long time I thought the sky was that square of patchwork quilt because it was all I could see from most of the prison cells I’ve lived in.
Even when I went outside for exercise periods, to go from one part of the prison to another, to go to court for appeals, I would stop just to look up, and I would see how big it was. But at the same time, I would know it was just an illusion, a trick my mind was playing on me because I was allowed outside and everything had to look bigger because it seemed so small in the confines of my room.
Now the sky is a canopy that stops the planet from falling against the sun and the moon. Now, today, I know the sky is immense and colossal, and I could drown in it. I’d forgotten how big the world is. And how blue the sky is. And how bright the daytime is.
I take my first steps outside Portslade station, on the outskirts of Brighton, and marvel at how crowded the world is. Titanic sky, gigantic world, dazzling sunlight, swarming streets.
No one else notices these things of course, it is all second nature to them.
“You’re going to find it strange out there,” my parole officer had said. “You haven’t been to an open prison and had the chance to get out for a little while, like most people in your situation, so it’s… it’s going to be tough.” He was a surprisingly pleasant man in his early fifties with a kindly nature. What he was saying without uttering the exact words was, “Everyone is surprised that you, Poppy Carlisle, are getting out.” I would not admit my crime because I did not do it, I would not show remorse because I did not do it, and I would not beg any longer for someone to believe me. But, for whatever reason, they agreed to my parole at the last minute, so the prison did not have time to put me through the usual procedures. I would be released into the big wide world as I was—unprepared and unaware. “Here’s my card, call me any time if you need help with finding work, or need a reference, or even if you’re struggling. Any time,” he said. He believed I was innocent, I was sure of it, but he couldn’t say so officially, so he was trying to help in any way he could. Nice, but ultimately pointless.
Where have all these people come from? I ask myself as I wander past the level crossing beside the station and head for the sea. I’d love to head down to the beach, dip my toes in the water, feel the pebbles under my feet, but I need to do this other thing now. Any longer, any delays, and I might bottle it.
People think that prisons are overcrowded, but this is overcrowded. This is like being trapped inside a swarm of insects. Everyone so close and big and moving, moving, moving. When you’re banged up, you expect to feel as if there are too many people encroaching on your space and you accept that you have no choice in the matter. Out here, people have chosen this. They’ve chosen this life.
“Sorry,” a woman says as she bumps into me. Immediately my hackles rise and I curl a fist, just in case… “Really sorry,” she adds absently then rushes on without a second glance.
The house I’m looking for is near the station and even though I haven’t been there for nearly two decades, I could find it with my eyes closed. Well, I thought I could. This street, Boundary Road, was here, but most of the shops weren’t back then. There certainly wasn’t a computer games shop, or an organic bakery-slash-café. Nor all these people. At the bottom of the main street, I turn toward Brighton, toward Hove. It seems weird, being surrounded by all these buildings and cars and pavements. I’ve seen them all on the TV, of course, but they’re different in the flesh. Bigger, smaller, more solid, less real, all of those things, all at once.
A woman my age, or thereabouts, walks toward me. She has the same mud-black hair as me, and hers is in a short, cropped style like mine; she is my height and about my weight. She even has similar soft features as me. She is the real-life version of the reflection I saw in the train window every time we went through a tunnel. I watch her come toward me, and then pass me without even noticing me. I, on the other hand, stop on the pavement to turn to watch her.
I bet she chose her crop because she liked it, not because her life didn’t allow her to shampoo, condition, and look after long, shoulder-length locks. I bet her makeup came from a shop where the assistant helped her choose the right shade, rather than a clear plastic bag that was embossed with HMP Trembry Hall and also contained cigarettes, stamps, and phone cards. I bet she’s that thin because she’s chosen it, not because years of prison food have drastically cut her weight. I bet that flimsy pink jacket she’s wearing was picked because it’s pretty and suits her, not because it has to last several years and it’s one of the limited number of outfits she’s allowed. I bet those black shiny shoes with heels like spikes pinch her feet and make her miserable, but she wears them because they’re gorgeous and she can. She isn’t forbidden them because they’re impractical and could be turned into a weapon.
I do not belong in this world anymore, I realize as I stop staring at the woman who could be me in another life, and start to walk on. I do not know how to be here, with all these things. All these things that were like science fiction on TV are now real and lifelike. And unsettling.
I make my way up to Surry Hills Street, and suddenly the nerves are at me again. They nibbled at me all last night as I waited for morning, and they started to take bigger bites at my last breakfast, which prison folk have told me I had to choke down to make sure I never went back. As I took my first steps into the outside world the nerves sank their teeth right into my core and began ripping at my chest and stomach. I’d had to stand very still and let them feast on me as I looked around, at the gray-yellow bricks behind me, the steady gray road ahead of me, wondering if I should turn around and knock on the gate and ask them to let me back in.
Once I decided there was no going back I’d wrestled the nerves into submission, then concentrated on getting myself across London and down to the coast.
Now that I am here, my mission has been achieved, the nerves are back, jabbing and biting into every square inch of my body.
I stop outside number thirty-four, stare at the sage-green door with its shiny brass knocker and black and white rectangular doorbell.
I am terrified of what is behind the green door. About what will happen when I knock and the door is opened. I am terrified, but I have to do this.
There are thirteen steps from the pavement to the door. I raise the knocker and hit it.
It takes sixty-seven seconds for the door to be answered.
And it takes one second for the look of recognition to appear.
“Poppy,” she says.
“Hello, Mom,” I reply.
They all gasp when I push aside the pink velvet curtain and step out into the viewing area.
Everyone—the saleswoman, her assistant, and a couple of other brides-to-be—except Verity, who wouldn’t dare be that expressive. She simply glances down after studying me for a few seconds, but I spotted the pride and delight in her eyes. She can’t hide those sorts of things from me—from everyone else, maybe, but not me.
“You look…” The saleswoman’s voice fades away. “There aren’t words,” she finishes. Then, somehow, finds them. “White is so gorgeous against dark skin, don’t you think?”
Her assistant nods in agreement. Although still looking down, I see Verity’s fresh, young face scrunch up as she goes, “Huh?!” in her head. She’s so young, I remind myself. She doesn’t know that people say that sort of thing all the time. I like that she’s innocent, untouched, and still able to be surprised by the world at large. I’d like my thirteen-year-old to stay that way for as long as possible, if I’m honest. Book smart, street stupid. But then, being street stupid is how people are able to take advantage of you.
She’s come around to the idea of us getting “married” again: after a few days of sulking she decided that it wasn’t so bad, especially since she could choose her own dress.
In the wall of mirrors in the bridal wear boutique, I am reflected back at myself ten times. I’ve never seen myself so completely before. No matter where I look, there I am. My tall, slender frame, my straight black hair pulled back into a low ponytail at the base of my neck, my makeup-free face. There I am. It’s unnerving. Especially as I can also see the blood dripping off my hands, off my fingertips onto the beautiful top layer of satin silk. Everywhere it drips it leaves a little rosette of red, creating more and more flowers, until the slim-fitting skirt that is gathered at the back is like a field of snow, topped with poppies. Each one is a pure and unrelenting red; each one a stain on my soul. Poppies are a sign of remembrance, aren’t they? And this blood on my hands is saying that: remember me. It’s as if he is standing beside me dripping his blood onto my hands so it trickles onto the dress, while his deep, slightly grave voice is whispering through the smile on his face, “Never forget, Serena. Always remember me.”
I wonder if the saleswoman will mind if I rip this thing to shreds to get it off me? I wonder if Evan will mind if I say I don’t want to jinx my life any more by getting married again?
For nearly two years Evan and I were on nodding terms after he threw his drink on me. We’d see each other in the bar on Friday nights, in the corridors, in the pubs in town, sometimes just in the street. We’d nod and mutter hello at each other as we passed, never finding the need to stop and talk. Then, one day, he stopped when we passed each other on the main street.
“I’m leaving in a couple of days,” he said, to get me to stop.
“Leaving?” I replied, surprised that he’d initiated conversation.
“Yeah, I’ve finished college. I’m going to medical school in London.”
“Right,” I said. “Well, good luck.”
We stood in an awkward silence for a few seconds. He hadn’t thought it through when he spoke to me, hadn’t formulated an escape plan when he opened his mouth, and now we were both stuck, like flies on flypaper, desperate to get away but unable to free ourselves.
“So…,” he said.
“So…,” I countered.
I linked my hands together and started to pick at my left thumbnail with my right one. Just walk away, a voice inside my head said. I can’t, another voice replied. That would be rude.
So’s murder, the first voice said.
My head snapped up to look at him, our gazes collided, and a spark ignited between us.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve been trying to work out for ages if I like you or not.”
“Right,” I replied.
He shook his head. “I don’t think I do.”
“OK,” I said, thinking, That’s a good thing, because as sure as eggs are eggs I don’t like you, either… apart from a minute ago.
“Shame really,” he said. “Because I think we’d really hit it off if we got together.”
“OK. How do you know that?”
He shrugged. “I just get that feeling. You seem like the sort of girl I could take home to meet my mother.”
“Why does that sound like an insult?” I said.
“It’s not. You just seem nice, that’s all. Bit of a laugh, good personality, nothing offensive about you. My parents would love you.”
“Well, it’s good to know some random boy’s parents would love me. I can rest really easy now that I know that.”
He smiled and something lustlike somersaulted in my stomach, then danced lightly up and down my spine.
“Do you want to give it a try?” he asked me.
“What, meeting your parents? No, thank you. I’m sure they’re perfectly lovely, but blind parent-dates aren’t my thing.”
“I meant going out together. Do you want to give going out with me a go?”
“No, not really,” I replied.
Evan looked taken aback, and marginally offended. “Why not?”
“Just not that interested in going out with anyone.”
“Probably the worst breakup of all time,” I said.
“And I’m sort of staying away from all that for a while. A long, long while.”
“And, just so you know for the next girl you ask out, saying that you’re not sure if you like her and then saying you think your parents would like her probably won’t pass for sweet talk. Some women might like it, but most of them would be offended.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. But you’re sure I can’t change your mind? Not even for the sake of my poor parents, who think I’m never going to make them grandparents?”
I laughed as I shook my head. “Especially not for them.”
“OK, well, if you change your mind, you can always…”
“Knock on the door of every medical school in London and ask for Evan?”
He laughed a smooth, throaty laugh that sent tingling sensations up and down my spine again. “I’ll see you, Serena,” he said, a smile still on his face.
“I’ll see ya.”
“And every time I think about missed opportunities, I’ll think of you.”
“OK,” I replied, and this time I had no problems walking away.
“Why are you getting married again, Mom?” Verity asks as we head back home in the car. She is sitting up front and could easily pass for being my younger sister, she is that grown-up looking. Often, I try to remember what it was like to be thirteen, to try to tap into what she might be feeling and thinking, but my memory, fuzzy and haphazard at the best of times, lets me down. I cannot remember how I felt about anything, how I felt about my parents, what big secrets I was determined to hide. I remember what it was like to be an older teenager, though, and sometimes I have to stop myself from tarring Verity with the brush of those experiences.
But then, don’t most teenagers grow up more quickly these days? Shouldn’t I be extra vigilant now because she might fast-forward to being me a little bit earlier? This is the battle I have with myself, trying to balance protecting her as a mother should, and protecting her as this mother knows from experience.
I take time to consider her question as I pull out of the roundabout onto the A26, the road back from Uckfield to Brighton. Why are we getting married again? “Because we can, I suppose.”
“Don’t most people just renew their vows and have a party? Why are you almost pretending that you’re not even married?”
“Because we’re not,” I say jokingly.
I feel Verity’s eyes widen, I hear her heart almost leap out of her chest as she gasps. “You’re lying!” she screeches, almost bursting an eardrum. Somewhere nearby dogs are whining. “Tell me you’re lying!”
“I’m not lying, I’m joking,” I say to end Vee’s sonic mode before it brings on a migraine. “I’m joking, I’m joking.” I want to ask her what would be the big deal if we weren’t actually married, but that’s a conversation I should not get started with a teenager. Especially not a teenager.
“I suppose we’re getting married big this time because we couldn’t do it on this scale before,” I say. “We couldn’t afford to. We were so young, but we really wanted to get married, so we did it. I suppose it was an unspoken thing between us that at some point in the future we’d do the big one.” I’d love to tell her the whole truth, but how can I tell her that we only got married because I’d gotten pregnant? How can I tell her that and not expect in, say, two years’ time for her to come to me asking for my blessing to move in with her older, tattooed, long-haired boyfriend who plays drums in a band and who is expecting her to leave school and get a job so she can support his “art” while they live in a glorified house in Kemptown? And how can I not expect, when I protest, her to throw, “Well, you were pregnant before you got married and only got married because you had to” back in my face?
When it comes to my teenage daughter, I am a hypocrite and I don’t pretend to be anything other than that. I continue, “And, besides, you get to attend,” even though you were technically at the last one, “and so does Con. We have the chance to get married with all our family there. So, in that sense, we are actually doing it for the first time. You know?”
From the corner of my eye, I see her nod.
I check the rearview mirror and my blind spot before I signal and pull out into the right-hand lane. I hit the accelerator to get past the blue Micra proudly displaying a green “P” on its rump and keeping a steady ten miles below the speed limit. New drivers like that make me nervous. I always suspect they’re going to do something crazy for no other reason than that they don’t know any better, so I always speed past them and get away as soon as possible.
I check the rearview mirror again to make sure there’s nothing too close behind me as I go to pull back into the left-hand lane when I see the blue lamp of a police car. As always, even after all these years, anxiety spikes in my chest cavity. I cannot help it, the police make me nervous. Always.
The light flashes on suddenly, and I have to tear my eyes away from it in the rearview mirror to concentrate on the road ahead.
“They’re coming for you, Mom,” Vee says, copying what her dad says every time we see the police. If Con were here, he’d say it, too. None of them have ever noticed that I never laugh, I never even smile. I tug at the corner of my mouth and say nothing, allow the joke to wash over me and pretend I don’t know that the police may very well be coming for me.
I hold on to the steering wheel for dear life, and concentrate on the road and pulling safely back into the left-hand lane. It’s all right, they’re not here for me, I think to calm myself, even though the siren is whipping up the anxiety that darts around my chest like a bird that’s accidentally flown through an open window and can’t find its way out again. They’ve got an emergency to get to; a real criminal to arrest.
The police car surges forward, but instead of speeding off down the road, it keeps level with our car. Oh God.
I risk a look across and the policeman in the passenger seat points to the side of the road. Pull over, he’s indicating. At the first safe spot, pull over.
“Mom,” Vee hisses in alarm, her eyes probably wide like saucers.
“I know,” I say, sounding calm and in control. Not at all as if I’m contemplating putting my foot down and making a run for it.
I look over again, hoping that he’s made a mistake.
The finger is still pointing to the side of the road, still ordering me to pull over. His face is a little more set, a little more angry now, the shape of his mouth an unimpressed line, his eyes hard, unamused pebbles in his face.
I can almost feel the handcuffs closing around my wrists again; the smell of a jail cell is not one you can ever forget.
I hit the left indicator and start to look for a place to pull over. Once I do, once he comes striding over to me and asks for my license and then types my name into his computer or says it over the radio, the truth will come out. He’ll find out who I really am. And so will Vee.
Where am I?
I have been waking up every hour or so all night and each time I think the same thing. Where am I? It’s the quiet that wakes me. Drags me from sleep, wondering what is wrong, what is amiss, what has happened to stop the world from being so loud.
My eyes would dart around the room, looking for familiar shapes—the sink in the corner, the metal toilet, my locker, my notice board, the window high up on the wall—and each time I didn’t see them, my heart would flutter and panic. Then the memory would settle on my mind that I was out, I was free, there was no need to panic. I’ve been doing that all night. Maybe not even every hour, probably more often. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to prison when I first got there, but now the world feels weird not having all the noise and the creak of metal, the permanent chill that hangs in the air. Cotton sheets, a thick mattress, curtains on the windows, carpet under foot, all luxuries I’ve practically forgotten, exist for everyday people.
It was so loud.
Everything seemed so loud. Even from the hospital bed where they put me on suicide watch, everything seemed noisy. And now, in my single cell, which I got because I was as notorious inside as I was outside, it was so loud. Every second crammed to its brim with noise, even in the dead of night it did not stop.
I lay on my bed, with my eyes wide open, the blackness of my tenth lights-out in this room sitting on my chest, swirling in my throat, scoring at my eyes. I reached up to touch my eyes, just to reassure myself that they were open, because I could not always tell. Sometimes I would think I had fallen asleep, and that the darkness was a part of that. Sometimes I would think that if I had my eyes open and it was this black, I could close them and open them and everything would be back to normal. I would not be in this box, I would not be drowning in blackness.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” It was a loud keening, this time. My eyes had been drifting shut and they snapped open at the sound that was tearing through the landings and crawling through the sliver of space at the bottom and around the viewing hatches in the doors. This time keening, other times sobbing, other times the shouting of friendships separated by bang-up at the end of the day, other times the slam of prison vans, other times arguing, other times the sound of flesh on flesh, other times the dull swallowing of antidepressants. Always there was noise and always it went straight through you, stampeded to your core and reminded you where you were in case, for a brief moment, you managed to forget.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” the moaning continued.
I wanted to tell the silly cow to shut up. That we were all in the same boat. That just because she maybe had children she wasn’t going to see for a while, or maybe she was innocent, or maybe she’d gone to court not expecting to be sent straight here, didn’t mean that she was worse off than the rest of us. Didn’t mean she could cry and wail so loudly that everyone in the prison could hear her.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” she persisted, so loud and constant I had to raise my hands and slam them on my ears. I often did that when I heard someone telling how she’d hurt the person who was abusing her children, or abusing her, and now she wouldn’t be seeing her children outside of these walls for years, or someone saying that she’d just not paid a fine and now she was stuck here for six months and her other debts would be building up. I never wanted to hear that because I had only just begun my life here and I did not want to hear how other people had been wronged, too. And I did not want to hear this cry of a wounded animal. It was probably reality setting in. That hideous moment when they finally realized that even if they were innocent, or were going to appeal their sentence, they would be here for a long time. It’s a moment you never forget. And it makes you cry out in pain. Or turn inward, and think about doing yourself harm to make the reality an unreality.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” the noise went on. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” I pressed my hands harder over my ears, but I could still hear this woman, this wounded animal, whoever she was. And her noise was filling up my cell. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”
“OI! ICE CREAM GIRL!” bellowed a voice from somewhere. “SHUT UP! Some of us are trying to sleep.”
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” It was me. I was making that noise. I was the wounded animal. It was me who had been hit with reality. It was me showing the outside world inside these prison walls that I was in agony and I was scared and I was here forever.
It was me being so loud.
It was me. And I didn’t know how to stop.
Water falls on my skin like a hundred thousand little kisses, each one firm and warm and perfect.
I lather my arms for the third time and immerse myself further in the extravagance of a shower with temperature control and strength above a drizzle. It beats down on me like a relentless rain, the type that used to clean the windows in Trembry Hall, and I am reveling in it. I could spend the whole day in this stall, reacquainting myself with the finer points of washing. Sometimes we weren’t given access to the shower for three or four days; we had to make do with the sink in the corner, using our towels as flannels and washing over ourselves as quickly as possible to stop from freezing to death.
Staying in this shower, washing off the last twenty years inside, is helpful, too, because I don’t really know what I’m going to do next. I mean literally, after this shower, what do I do next? Every day for nearly twenty years has been structured, regimented, with a time for everything. Now I am free, I can do as I please. And I’m not sure how. In my head, in my wildest dreams, I had thought I would spend the day with Mom and Dad. We would sit down and talk, eat, drink, catch up on all the missing years. They’d even call my sister, Bella, and my brother, Logan, get them to come over, and we’d catch up as a family. In my reality, in the life I was actually living… I shuddered as I thought about how wrong I’d been.
When Mom opened the door yesterday, I expected a rush of emotion from one of us. I expected to want to throw my arms around her, to hold her close in the hope that she would do the same to me. I expected to want to bury my face in the soft crease of her neck and cry. Cry my aches inside out. Wash away the years with tears, have her dry them with sympathy and understanding and being my mother.
Instead, a barrier rose between us the second she opened the door.
“Poppy,” she’d said.
“Mom,” I said. The word was unfamiliar in my mouth, since I had not said it in so very long.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her eyes scanned behind me, and I realized she was checking to see if any of their neighbors were looking, and she was checking to see if the police were lurking somewhere ready to haul me back to prison. The barrier, wide and solid and invisible, rooted itself even more firmly into the ground and thickened. Not only did she think I had escaped, she also thought me to be stupid. If I had broken out, this would have been the first place the police would have looked, so why would I turn up here?
“They let me out. Remember? I wrote to you? Told you I was coming out? Asked if it was OK to stay with you until I got back on my feet?”
“I don’t think I got the letter,” she’d said but her expression read, “Did you really write to me or are you lying to me, which will lead to me being arrested for helping you?”
“It wasn’t returned to me, so I presumed you’d got it.”
“You should have called to double-check,” she said.
“I would have if, when you changed your number ten years ago, you’d given me the new one.”
The wrinkled skin on her neck and the smoother skin on her high cheekbones colored at that, while she dropped her gaze from looking just left of my head to down at her feet. She was hesitating, waiting… waiting, I realized, for me to leave. She would not ask me to, but she was hoping I would. I had nowhere else to go, except possibly under the arches down on Brighton seafront. “You’d better come in,” she eventually said.
I’d stepped inside, and experienced a rush of memories of tearing over this threshold as a child on a visit to my grandmother, barreling into the living room and almost knocking over Granny Morag I was so excited to see her. She was my favorite person in the world after my dad, and coming here was always the biggest treat on earth. When she had a fall fifteen years ago, my parents had moved in to take care of her, and then stayed after she died two years later.
“You can put your things upstairs,” she said, unable to disguise her disgust at the clear HMP Trembry Hall plastic bags and the tatty duffel bag I’d gotten from a prison volunteer that held all my worldly possessions. “You can stay in the room you used to sleep in.”
Her voice did not prepare me for what I found in “the room I used to sleep in.” It was exactly the same as I left my bedroom at the end of the eighties, when I was still a stupid teenager who wanted to be Madonna and thought she’d marry Don Johnson. Except it had been transported from London to here. Everything was exactly as I remembered leaving it: the single bed with the blue-sky-white-cloud pattern over brown nylon sheets; the hulking, mahogany veneer wardrobe that sat to the left of the window; the run-down white with gold edging dressing table that had a neat line of unicorns with colorful manes along the back edge under the mirror; my Madonna-inspired chunky silver crucifix that hung over the corner of the mirror, next to a picture of the lady herself, all in black, chains around her neck, a black bow tying back her shaggy hair. Even the posters—Madonna, Miami Vice, Michael Jackson, Prince, Adam Carrington from Dynasty—seemed to have been put up in exactly the same place.
This is what they would have done if I had died, I thought to myself as I moved slowly across the room and sat on the bed, looking around, trying to take it all in. This is what they have done because, in their minds, I did die. When the verdict was read out in court, and I was found guilty of murder, I died to them. I had been slipping away as the trial unfolded and they found out more and more things about me, more and more information that told them I was not their little girl anymore. And when the word “guilty” was proclaimed, I flatlined. I passed away. I was gone, but the little girl who had created this room could live on, and they could survive quite happily with these things because they belonged to the girl who wasn’t a slut, who wasn’t a liar, who wasn’t a murderer.
As I discovered more and more things that had been re-placed exactly as they had been twenty years ago—the LCD clock radio on the gold-edged white bedside table, my line of mix tapes on the shelf in the bedside table, my stainless steel digital watch hanging on the corner bedpost, I thought: This is what it feels like to be dead to someone.
Soft white towels that smell of flowers. They have to go on my ever-growing list of everyday extravagances. I wrap this giant one around me, breathing in the fragrance until I become high on the scent of the towels.
I’d had a shower yesterday, but a quick one, feeling guilty for being in their house when they weren’t expecting me, feeling unnerved to be back in that room. I also wanted to go down and try to talk to my mother. If I left it too long to try to break through that barrier that had arisen between us it might become stronger, harder to traverse. By the time I had found something to wear that wasn’t so obviously from the eighties it told the world I had been “away” for some time and fit my now-thinned frame and wasn’t from my prison bags, and descended the stairs, Mom had gone. She left a terse note saying she and Dad were out for the rest of the day and all evening—it’d been planned for a while—and they’d see me in the morning. And PS, I could have the shepherd’s pie that had just finished cooking in the oven for my lunch and dinner if I was hungry.
The half-drunk cup of tea on the kitchen table, the half-folded laundry sitting in the washing basket by the washing machine, and the open door of the dishwasher all told me that she had left in a hurry. She was that desperate to escape from me, the dead daughter who was not meant to come back, she had left her housework unfinished.
I eventually found the plates, heaped on the shepherd’s pie, and then took my meal outside. The temperature had dropped dramatically since I had arrived, but I still settled myself at the mildew-covered white plastic table at the bottom of the garden and ate the too-hot food. Then I sat and smoked a pack of cigarettes, watching the sky, watching the climbing vines on the walls, listening to the neighbors going about their business, immersing myself in the outside world until my fingers and limbs were so cold and achy that I could hardly move them, and the only light left came from the rectangles of orange-yellow thrown out by the kitchen door and window.
Eventually I stubbed out my last cigarette and went inside to go to bed, deciding to change the sheets on the bed for cotton ones. Still achy and cold, I washed up my plate and cutlery and water glass, then climbed the stairs feeling a little more like Poppy Carlisle again and a little less like prisoner EX396798.
On the landing outside the bathroom, beside the huge picture window that lets light flood into the upstairs areas, I bump into him. Not literally, as he is leaving their bedroom and I am leaving the bathroom, but our worlds have converged at this point.
He looks old. There is no other word for it, no other way to describe him. Mom had looked older, but he looks as if time has paid particular attention to him.
His hair, although still neat and short, has thinned and disappeared on top; what is left is now almost completely white, with only a few darkish-gray spots here and there. His handsome face has been softened and lined, his eyes the color of bluebells are heavy and sad. Incredibly, painfully sad. A sadness that affects the set of his mouth and hollows out two wells in his cheeks. His body was always upright and strong—he was a muscular man who didn’t seem to be physically intimidated by anything or anyone—but now he seems to have shrunk; his shoulders hunch forward a frac-tion and his limbs seem less solid. The shell of him, the man who he was, is different, but he is still him, still Dad. Mom used to tell me that when I was just learning to talk and he would leave the room, I’d stare at the door for ages, waiting for him to come back. And when I heard a noise outside the room, I would, in my baby voice, call, “Daaaaaa!” Asking him to come back, asking him where he was and what he was doing without me. That was one of the few things she could accurately recall from my childhood, and I knew she was right because, in the entire world, the person I loved the most was my dad.
I have not seen him in twenty years, since the day of the verdict. In my heart, in my soul, I feel a tug, a desperate need to reach out and touch him. I want to feel his arm under my fingers so that I can confirm that he is real, I have not imagined him, and I am not going to lose him again when reality comes back to me. I smile at him, hesitantly, waiting for him to respond, react, notice me. While I was “away” he could pretend I was not around, but here, in front of him, he has to at least acknowledge me, even if it is just to tell me to put some clothes on. The smallest contact is all I need.
However, I am a ghost. I am insubstantial and unreal. He looks straight through me, his eyes focusing beyond me, and then he continues on his path to the stairs and moves down them, out of sight.
I thought I had felt it when I saw my old room, but really that feeling was nothing. This is what it’s like to be dead to someone. This is what it’s like to be a specter in your own life.
Can you step out of the car, please, madam?”
His voice is professional but clipped. I didn’t pull over soon enough and he’s not happy. Maybe he thinks I was being defiant instead of just plain terrified. How often do the police mistake terror and anxiety for criminal behavior? I wonder as I reach out for the door handle.
My hands work remarkably well, all things considered. I can tell Verity is on the verge of bursting into tears. She’s scared because I am, and she doesn’t like to get into trouble or to see someone else in trouble. And I am, clearly, in trouble. My legs don’t shake, my knees don’t knock, as I swing my jeans-covered legs out of the car and plant my feet on the concrete on the hard shoulder of the A26.
I’m only an inch shorter than the six-foot policeman and that surprises him for a minute.
“License?” he asks, his voice a little more clipped, I think, because I am not a small woman. As his eyes meet mine, I see a flashbulb of recognition pop in his eyes. He knows my face from somewhere, but he can’t quite place me. I lower my head and reach back into the car.
“Pass my bag, please, love,” I say to my daughter, who is trembling like a newborn foal.
She does as she’s told and from my purse I produce my license. It’s not a new, photographic one, which would give him more time to study my face, work out where he knows me from, if I am a fugitive on the run, but it does have my parents’ address. This is the one thing I never got around to changing in all this time. I am an idiot.
He slips it out of its plastic wallet and unfolds it. He doesn’t speak as he studies the green paper; only the buzz and whoosh of cars driving on by, going about their business, surrounds us. I think he is waiting for me to say something, to ask what the problem is, to confess to something.
Silence is the best way forward, I’ve found. I do not have to say anything, at least I didn’t the last few times I was arrested, and I’m going to exercise that right. Even if it makes me look guilty as sin, I’d rather not say anything that can’t be taken back. Silence can always be explained away, erased almost with a single word; the wrong words in the wrong combination at the wrong time can damn you to hell, or, at least, to prison.
The cars continue to whiz by and I find myself comforted by them, allowing myself to float on the sound of them as they hurry by.
“Do you know how fast you were driving, madam?” the police officer eventually asks because I haven’t thrown myself on my knees, begging for mercy, and I obviously have no intention of doing so.
“Um… no,” I reply. “I speeded up to overtake the blue Micra. But only for a few seconds.”
“You were traveling well over eighty-five miles per hour for at least ten minutes.”
I was? “Oh,” I reply. “I didn’t realize. I never speed. I always try to drive safely.”
He is still studying my license, still reading and rereading my name, trying to join up the dots in his mind. When all the dots are joined, when he gets to the end of the puzzle, the policeman’s face gives him away. It freezes in its inquisitive expression as everything falls into place and he connects the dot of my old name with the dot of my general description with the dot of my alleged crime. And there he has it: who the woman he’s just pulled over is.
He recovers quickly, hides his shock behind a professional mask again, but when he looks up at me from the license, his eyes are piercing. They want to slap handcuffs on me and cart me off to jail where he, and quite a lot of people, think I belong. He appears, in the short time I have known him, to be the kind of man who would not advocate throwing away the only key but melting it down, freezing it in liquid nitrogen, shattering it into a trillion pieces, and having those pieces scattered all across the world’s oceans just to make sure that they were never found, even accidentally, so one such as I could be released.
“Is this your license, madam?”
Excerpted from The Ice Cream Girls by Koomson, Dorothy Copyright © 2012 by Koomson, Dorothy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 28, 2012
Posted May 28, 2012
Posted June 8, 2014
Posted July 3, 2013
I'm not sure if I exactly recommend the book, simply because the subject matter is so disturbing and probably very realistic as to what happens in situations of teacher-student relationships. It gave me insights into why these things happen as well as what prison is like, to a degree, but it certainly wasn't a book that makes you want to go whistling through the rest of your day after you finish it. It is clearly a well-written and researched book though.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 1, 2013
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Posted April 1, 2013
Posted January 19, 2013
The topic could be disturbing for some as it deals with an intimate relationship between an adult teacher and two teenage girls. However, I liked the book and I think that it would create some great discussion in a book club setting.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2012
Posted February 13, 2013
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Posted August 15, 2014
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