Ice Cream

Ice Cream

by Helen Dunmore

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Award-winning and New York Times Notable author of The Siege and A Spell for Winter, Helen Dunmore encapsulates, in her brilliant story collection Ice Cream, “how a single moment can change the course of a life . . . [the stories are] rich with regret, turmoil, and strained optimism” (Entertainment Weekly).

Witty, stylish and evocative, Ice Cream is


Award-winning and New York Times Notable author of The Siege and A Spell for Winter, Helen Dunmore encapsulates, in her brilliant story collection Ice Cream, “how a single moment can change the course of a life . . . [the stories are] rich with regret, turmoil, and strained optimism” (Entertainment Weekly).

Witty, stylish and evocative, Ice Cream is Helen Dunmore’s astonishing new collection of stories, the first to be published in the United States. World-class storyteller Helen Dunmore explores friendship, regret and mysterious passions in stories crafted with subtlety, humor and a surprising tenderness. In each taut, agile tale, characters negotiate situations that are often both mundane and bizarre: a cafeteria cook confronts her Polish pen pal; a divorced mother gains insight from a parking meter; a beautiful, thin and famous woman succumbs to the lure of comfort food; a grieving husband says farewell to his wife; a boastful writer is put in his place in spectacular fashion; and in a chilling future, the government ruthlessly regulates conception and childbirth. In several stories a soulful, curious woman named Ulli takes up residence in the reader’s imagination—stumbling across a strangely charismatic collector of religious icons, contemplating a youthful pregnancy, and remembering a troubled lover.

In Ice Cream, Dunmore reveals both her poet’s ear for the concise and piercing potentialities of language and the novelist’s ambition of scope, proving her status as “a master of the shorter form” (The Sunday Telegraph).

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Set primarily in her native England, Dunmore's carefully observed stories demonstrate her ear for language and her eye for the telling moment; at times, though, these brief works can seem not so much concise as disappointingly slight. The best have an unexpected twist, the narrative equivalent of a 3-D postcard that, with a flick of the wrist, reveals the strange and sometimes disturbing truth lurking behind a familiar tableau. — Sarah Ferguson
Publishers Weekly
Having made her reputation on these shores with literary gothic novels (A Spell of Winter, etc.), British writer Dunmore last year demonstrated her versatility with The Siege, a novel of startling realism and clarity, set in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) during WWII. Her second short story collection (the first to be published here) further testifies to the wide range of her interests, imagination and narrative voice. The 17 stories are all quite short and have in common a remarkable ability to encapsulate character, situation and landscape in prose that shimmers with sensuous detail. The most chilling entry, "The Fag," is a variation on The Handmaid's Tale. In a repressive future society, a couple dares to defy the state's Genetic Code for conceiving children. "Emily's Ring" gathers horror as a young girl is doomed to a lifetime of guilt. Life in a small English village is illuminated in "Coosing," in which an abusive bully warns his wife not to apprise the intended victim of his bigotry. Other stories strike a lighter note. It's fun to watch the protagonist of the title story-a woman who's beautiful, thin and famous-succumb to the lure of comfort food. Other narratives portray food as a balm and benediction, or carry a hopeful message of connection, as in "My Polish Teacher's Tie." There's a touch of the surreal in "Mason's Mini-Break," which revolves around an encounter on the Yorkshire moors, and in a parking meter's message in "Be Vigilant, Rejoice, Eat Plenty." Dunmore's touch is light, but her stories slice through her readers' defenses like laser beams. Agent, Caradoc King, U.K. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Just as her novels transport readers from heat and sensuality (Talking to the Dead), to a sense of impending menace (Your Blue-Eyed Boy), to piercing cold and gnawing starvation in wartime Leningrad (The Siege), so do these stories offer up a panoply of emotion, atmosphere, and character. Food-both the inability to eat (owing to illness, pregnancy, or anorexia) and the appreciation of or longing for it-also figures prominently. In the delicious title story, a famous model celebrating her birthday fantasizes about the heady perfumes, tastes, and textures of ice cream while her personal trainer exhorts her to stick to her brutal diet regime. In two chilling stories, Dunmore shows that she can move easily between time periods. In "Emily's Ring," set during the Victorian age, an elder sister charged with chaperoning her siblings on a swimming expedition for their health is attracted to a fellow bather and loses sight of one of the youngsters. In the futuristic "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork," couples risk prison terms by purchasing genetically engineered embryos. Dunmore uses her formidable imagination and intelligence to create stories that provoke, unsettle, amuse, and glow. Highly recommended for public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Kingston, ON Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sly digs at society's failings alternate with roundhouse swats while beauty and mystery hover nearby, in a wide-ranging collection of 18 stories by acclaimed British novelist Dunmore (The Siege, 2002; etc.). The title piece, short and sweet, offers a flinty-eyed glimpse into the life of an über-model coming publicly undone, as she ignores the mantras of her personal trainer at a fête in her honor and succumbs to the creamy blandishments of her favorite, long-denied dessert. There's more heft to "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork," a futuristic tale of government-controlled pregnancy and neighborhood subversives-in this case, a couple who conceive the old-fashioned way and are forced to flee for their lives after being exposed. Dunmore also slightly warps reality in "Be Vigilant, Rejoice, Eat Plenty," which shows a parking meter dispensing good advice to a harried woman on her way to an appointment with her ex to argue about his dwindling support of their child. These stories pale, however, next to the normalcy and romantic subtlety of "My Polish Teacher's Tie," which involves a modest half-Polish school cafeteria worker and her pen pal, a poet and teacher from Poland who comes to England for a visit. Similarly engrossing are three pieces featuring a character named Ulli, a sort of Everywoman who experiences life on the edge and love in the afternoon spiked with swift, riveting turns. In "The Icon Room," Ulli's chance encounter with an unkempt, compelling lover of poetry leads her from a tearoom to another chamber throbbing with the color and intensity of icon paintings displayed floor to ceiling; she's so unnerved and enraptured that she is more than accepting of what follows. It doesn'talways happen, but whenever the commonplace and the sublime pair here, the result is absorbing.

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
Product dimensions:
4.80(w) x 7.44(h) x 0.46(d)

Read an Excerpt

ice cream



Copyright © 2000 Helen Dunmore
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0802117333

Chapter One

I wear a uniform, blue overall and white cap with the school logo on it. Part-time catering staff, that's me, £3.89 per hour. I dish out tea and buns to the teachers twice a day, and I shovel chips on to the kids' trays at dinner-time. It's not a bad job. I like the kids.

The teachers pay for their tea and buns. It's one of those schemes teachers are good at. So much into a kitty, and that entitles them to cups of tea and buns for the rest of the term. Visitors pay, too, or it wouldn't be fair. Very keen on fairness, we are, here.

It was ten-forty-five when the Head got up to speak. He sees his staff together for ten minutes once a week, and as usual he had a pile of papers in front of him. I never listen to any of it as a rule, but as I was tipping up the teapot to drain I heard him mention Poland.

I am half-Polish. They don't know that here. My name's not Polish or anything. It was my mother, she came here after the war. I spoke Polish till I was six, Baby Polish full of rhymes Mum taught me. Then my father put a stop to it. "You'll get her all mixed up, now she's going to school. What use is Polish ever going to be to her?" I can't speak it now. I've got a tape, a tape of me speaking Polish with Mum. I listen, and I think I'm going to understand what we're saying, and then I don't.

`... long-term aim is to arrange a teacher exchange - several Polish teachers are looking for penfriends in English schools, to improve their written English ... so if you're interested, the information's all here ...'

He smiled, wagging the papers, and raised his eyebrows. I wrung out a cloth and wiped my surfaces. I was thinking fast. Thirteen minutes before I was due downstairs.

The meeting broke up and the Head vanished in a knot of teachers wanting to talk to him. I lifted the counter-flap, tucked my hair under the cap, and walked across. Teachers are used to getting out of the way of catering staff without really seeing them.

`Excuse me,' I said, pushing forward, `excuse me,' and they did. Then I was in front of the Head. `Excuse me,' I said again, and he broke off what he was saying. I saw him thinking, trouble. The kids chucking chips again. He stitched a nice smile on his face and said, `Oh, er - Mrs, er - Carter. Is there a problem?'

`No,' I said, `I was just wondering, could I have that address?'


`The Polish one. You said there was a Polish teacher who wanted an English penfriend.'

`Oh. Ah, yes. Of course.' He paused, looking at me as if it might be a trick question. `Is it for yourself?'

`I'd like to write to a Polish teacher.'

`Oh,' he said. `Yes. Of course, Mrs Carter.'

I took the address and smiled at him.

When Steve's first letter came I saw he'd taken it for granted I was a teacher. The person he had in his head when he was writing to me was an English teacher, a real professional. This person earned more money than him and had travelled and seen places and done things he'd never been able to do. He was really called Stefan, but he said he was going to call himself Steve when he wrote to me.

Jade saw the letter. `What's that, Mum?'

`Just a letter. You can have the stamp if you want.'

In the second letter Steve told me that he wrote poetry.

`I have started a small literary magazine in our department. If you want, I am happy to send you some of our work.'

I told him about Jade. I told him about the songs my mother taught me in Polish, the ones I used to know but I'd forgotten. I didn't write anything about my job. Let him think what he wanted to think. I wasn't lying.

The first poem he sent me was about a bird in a coal mine. He sent me the English translation. This bird flew down the main shaft and got lost in the tunnels underground, then it sang and sang until it died. Everyone heard it singing, but no one could find it. I liked that poem. It made me think maybe I'd been missing something, because I hadn't read any poetry since I left school. I wrote back, `Send me the Polish, just so I can see it.' When the Polish came I tried it over in my head. It sounded a bit like the rhymes my mother used to sing.

At first we wrote every week, then it was twice. I used to write a bit every day then make myself wait until the middle of the week to send it. I wrote after Jade was in bed. Things would suddenly come to me. I'd write, `Oh, Steve, I've just remembered ...', or `... Do you see what I mean, Steve, or does it sound funny?' It made it seem more like talking to him when I used his name.

He wrote me another poem. It was about being half-Polish and half-English, and the things I'd told him about speaking Polish until I was six and then forgetting it all:

`Mother, I've lost the words you gave me. Call the police, tell them there's a reward ... I'll do anything ...'

He was going to put it in the literary magazine, `if you have no objection, Carla'. That was the way he wrote, always very polite. I said it was fine by me.

One day the Head stopped me and said, `Did you ever write to that chap? The Polish teacher?'

`Yes,' I said. Nothing more. Let him think I'd written once then not bothered. Luckily, Mrs Callendar came up to talk about OFSTED.

`Ah, yes, OFSTED. Speaking of visitors,' said the Head, raising his voice the way he does so that one minute he's talking to you and the next it's a public announcement, `I have news of progress on the Polish teachers' exchange. A teacher will be coming over from Katowice next month. His name is Stefan Jeziorny, and he will be staying with Mrs Kenward. We're most grateful to you for your hospitality, Valerie.'

Mrs Kenward flushed. The Head beamed at nobody. Stefan Jeziomy, I thought. I had clicked, even though I was so used to thinking of him as Steve. Why hadn't he said he was coming?

I dropped Jade off to tea with her friend. There was a letter waiting when I got home. I tore it open and read it with my coat still on. There was a bit about my last letter, and poetry, and then the news.

`You will know from your school, Carla, that I will come to England. I am hoping to make many contacts for the future, for other teachers who will also come to English schools. I hope, Carla, that you will introduce me to your colleagues. I will stay with an English Family who offer accommodation.'

I felt terrible. He sounded different, not like Steve. Not just polite any more, but all stiff, and a bit hurt. He must have thought I'd known about his visit from the other teachers, and I hadn't wanted to invite him to stay with me. But what was worse was that he was going to expect to meet me. Or not me, exactly, but the person he'd been writing to, who didn't really exist. `I have been corresponding with a colleague of yours, Carla Carter,' he'd say to the other teachers. Then he'd wait for someone to say, `Yes, of course, Carla's here, she's expecting you.'

Colleagues don't wear blue overalls and white caps and work for £3.89 an hour. Somebody'd remember me asking the Head for his address, and there'd be a whisper running all round, followed by a horrible silence. They'd all look round at the serving-hatch and there I'd be, the big teapot in my hand and a plate of buns in front of me. And Steve'd look too. He'd still be smiling, because that's what you do in a foreign place when you don't know what's going on.

He'd think I was trying to make a fool of him, making him believe I was a teacher. Me, Carla Carter, part-time catering assistant, writing to him about poetry.

I could be off sick. I could swap with Jeannie. She could do the teachers' breaks. Or I could say Jade was ill.

No. That wouldn't work. Steve had my name, and my address. I sat down and spread out his letter again, then I went to the drawer and got all his other letters. I'd never had letters like that before and I was never going to again, not after Steve knew who I really was.

I didn't write, and Steve didn't write again either. I couldn't decide if it was because he was hurt, or because he knew he'd be seeing me soon anyway. The fuss Valerie Kenward made about having him to stay, you'd think the Pope was coming for a fortnight. I never liked her. Always holding up the queue saying she's on a diet, and then taking the biggest bun.

`If you're that bothered,' I said, `he can come and stay in my flat, with me and Jade.' But I said it to myself, in my head. I knew he'd want to be with the other teachers.

I couldn't stop looking for letters. And then there was the poetry book I'd bought. It seemed a shame to bin it. It might come in for Jade, I thought.

A week went by, eight days, ten. Each morning I woke up and I knew something was wrong before I could remember what it was. It got worse every day until I thought, Sod it, I'm not going to worry any more.

The next morning-break the buns were stale. Valerie Kenward poked them, one after another. `We ought to get our money back,' she said. But she still took one, and waited while I filled the teapot from the urn.

`How's it going?' Susie Douglas asked her.

`Hard work!' stage-whispered Valerie, rolling her eyes.

`He's not got much conversation, then?'

`Are you joking? All he wants to talk about is poetry. It's hell for the kids, he doesn't mean to be funny but they can't keep a straight face. It's the way he talks. Philippa had to leave the room at supper-time, and I can't say I blame her.'

You wouldn't, I thought. If ever anyone brought up their kids to be pleased with themselves, it's Valerie Kenward.

`And even when it's quite a well-known writer like Shakespeare or Shelley, you can't make out what he's on about. It's the accent.'

`He is Polish. I mean, how many Polish poets could you pronounce?' asked Susie.

`And his ties!' went on Valerie. `You've never seen anything like them.'

I looked past both of them. I'd have noticed him before, if I hadn't been so busy. He was sitting stiffly upright, smiling in the way people smile when they don't quite understand what's going on. The Head was wagging a sheaf of papers in front of him, and talking very loudly, as if he was deaf. Steve. Stefan Jeziorny. He was wearing a brown suit with padded shoulders. It looked too big for him. His tie was wider than normal ties, and it was red with bold green squiggles on it. It was a terribly hopeful tie. His shoes had a fantastic shine on them. His face looked much too open, much too alive, as if a child Jade's age had got into an adult's body.

`Isn't that tea made yet?' asked Valerie.

I looked at her. `No,' I said. `It's not. Excuse me,' and I lifted the counter-flap and ducked past her while her mouth was still open. I walked up to where Steve was sitting. He looked round at me the way a child does when he doesn't know anyone at a party, hoping for rescue.

`Hello,' I said. He jumped up, held out his hand. `How do you do?' he asked, as if he really wanted to know. I took his hand. It was sweaty, as I'd known it would be. He was tense as a guitar string.

`I'm Carla,' I said.

`Carla?' He couldn't hide anything. I saw it all swim in his eyes. Surprise. Uncertainty. What was he going to do? And then I saw it. Pleasure. A smile lit in his eyes and ran to his mouth.

`Carla! You are Carla Carter. My penfriend.'


Then he did something I still can't quite believe. He stood there holding on to my hand right in the middle of the staffroom, his big bright tie blazing, and he sang a song I knew. It went through me like a knife through butter. A Polish song. I knew it, I knew it. I knew the words and the tune. It was one of the songs my mother used to sing to me. I felt my lips move. There were words in my mouth, words I didn't understand. And then I was singing, stumbling after him all the way to the end of the verse.

`Good heavens. How very remarkable. I didn't realize you were Polish, Mrs ... er ...' said the Head as he bumbled round us flapping his papers.

`Nor did I,' I said. But I wasn't going to waste time on the Head. I wanted to talk about poetry. I smiled at Steve. His red tie with its bold green squiggles was much too wide and much too bright. It was a flag from another country, a better country than the ones either of us lived in. `I like your tie,' I said.

Chapter Two

There were two springs that year. The first was in London, where we lived, and where my mother was breaking down into a thousand pieces. But I didn't know that. I was thirteen, and although I guessed a lot, I wasn't capable of believing this could really be happening to the person who'd taught me everything about optimism since I was born. My father seemed to want to tell me something all the time, but I wouldn't let him. And then one night he said I was going to stay with my Aunt Birgit for three months. It was only May.

`But I'll miss school,' I said.

He rubbed his nose hard. `You can manage without school,' he said. "You'll have Agnes and Tommy.'

These were my cousins. I used to know them quite well, but I hadn't seen them since I was eleven, and as you know, everything happens between the ages of eleven and thirteen.

`You'll learn to speak Swedish,' he said, and then he said something more in Swedish which I didn't understand. He'd always spoken English with us, perfect English, by far the most perfect in the house.

The lilacs came out for the second time in Aunt Birgit's garden. Aunt Birgit and Uncle Mikael lived in a small town about three hours north of Stockholm, in a wooden house with a big wild garden. I loved the birchwood fence that enclosed it. It made me feel that for all the wildness, and the hundreds of miles of forest marching north and east, I was safe. The lilacs were tight-packed cones of flower-bud.

My cousin Agnes was six now, and even I could see how beautiful she was. She had big green eyes and silvery, feathery hair, but she hardly ever spoke. There was a playhouse in the garden, and she spent most of her time in there with her dolls and friends and secrets, whispering and laughing. She knew a few words of English, and I knew a bit of Swedish, but not enough to talk to her. Tommy was fifteen, two years older than me.

I loved Tommy. Of course I did, it was natural. We were the same kind of person. We liked fishing and biking and climbing trees and arguing about books we'd read and swimming naked in the river late in the evening when it was still light. Swedish people are different about their bodies. They don't care about being naked the way English people do. I didn't care either. We were both thin and dark and strong.

Excerpted from ice cream by HELEN DUNMORE Copyright © 2000 by Helen Dunmore
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Helen Dunmore has published seven novels, including The Siege, A Spell of Winter, and With Your Crooked Heart (Atlantic Monthly Press), and has been published in 15 countries. She is also a children’s novelist, short-story writer, prize-winning poet, and first-ever winner of England’s prestigious Orange Prize. She reviews fiction regularly for The Times (London) and poetry for The Observer and Poetry Review. She has also written for The Sunday Times, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail.

Dunmore has acted as a judge for the National Poetry Competition, the Somerset Maugham Awards, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Prize, The Forward Prize, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. She is a Fellow of England’s Royal Society of Literary and a member of the Society of Authors, Humanities and Social Sciences. She lives in Bristol, England with her family.

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