فصل 11

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فصل 11

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Ice cream monsters

I haven’t written anything in this book for several months now. After the past few terrible months, I haven’t had the heart for it. In fact, I was going to stop there, to leave my story incomplete. But in the end I decided to carry on with it. It stops me from going completely crazy, writing it all down. And it helps to fill the long empty hours.

It’s all so very strange, looking back. Christmas is almost here now, and in some ways those events of early autumn seem so distant. Sometimes it’s as if I’m looking back through a telescope, but I’ve got the telescope the wrong way round. I can see myself, and yet I’m just a tiny dot in the distance.

At other times it’s as if the telescope’s the right way round and I’m looking directly into my face. Everything’s close up, and I can see all the changing emotions crossing my features. And that’s when I know that the memories will always be preserved in my mind, just as fresh and as strong as if it all happened yesterday. A living nightmare.

I suppose I’d gained rather a false sense of security about killing after two relatively easy murders. I certainly wasn’t anticipating any difficulties when I set out to meet Cathy’s ex, a couple of weeks after Terry died.

But I haven’t told you about that yet, have I? About what happened after I killed Terry. Well, to be honest, the answer is nothing; nothing happened. At least, not to me. Oh, a full-scale murder investigation took place, but nobody ever connected the mysterious Vienna Francis at the stables with me.

There was one very disappointing incident though. Actually, it was almost a repeat of what had happened with Diane after I’d returned from Cuba. The disappointment was Gemma, her reaction to Terry’s death. I can still hear her voice when she phoned to tell me about it -full of self-pity and anger. She actually blamed Terry for spoiling their daughter’s wedding by dying. How logical is that?

‘He always was a selfish man!’ she said. ‘He could never do anything right. Getting himself murdered like that within weeks of his daughter’s wedding! How can poor Kirsty get married with all this going on? The shame of it all. We’ll have to cancel all the arrangements! The poor girl will have to go to a funeral instead!’

As I put the phone down, I began to think my friends were very ungrateful indeed. Of course, they didn’t know they had anything to thank me for, but they could, at least, have been grateful to fate, if nothing else. The men who had made their lives a misery for so long had been removed. They were now both free to move forward. To grow. To find happiness. I’d done them both a big favour, and all they could do was moan about it.

Actually, do you know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of all those times I had dragged myself to the supermarket in search of something your daughters would eat. Then I’d return home, loaded down with heavy carrier bags and I’d spend another hour chopping, stirring and cooking. And were they grateful when I put those lovingly prepared meals down in front of them at the table? No, they were not. They said things like: ‘What’s this?’

‘This is disgusting!’

‘I don’t want to eat this, Daddy!’ The darling princesses.

Well, I felt there was more than a hint of princess behaviour in the way both Diane and Gemma had reacted to the death of their no-good husbands. So it was quite encouraging when Cathy phoned me to spill her heart out about the thoughtlessness of her ex.

Poor little Cathy, she’s always been the most vulnerable of the four of us. Often suffering from depression and dependent upon the unwilling Pete for financial support, she hardly ever saw her little son.

‘Pete says he can’t afford to give me any money anymore,’ she cried down the phone to me. ‘He says I should look for more work. And he knows I find the amount of work I already do completely exhausting. It’s a struggle to survive as it is. How can he expect me to stop getting depressed when he’s behaving like this?’

I offered Cathy a few words of comfort, asked just enough questions to find out roughly where Pete lived, and then set out almost immediately to carry out my plans for revenge. I was convinced that Cathy, at least, would be grateful to me. For one thing, although Cathy and Pete had been separated for over a year, they weren’t divorced. So if Pete died, Cathy would inherit his money. And her son would go back to living with her all the time. It all seemed very simple and straightforward as I left my flat on that sunny September morning. I had no idea what was about to happen to me. Of how very complex my life was about to become.

Pete was an engineer when I met him, living on the edge of Norwich in a village called Trowse. Trowse is a small place, very pretty. There’s a river, a couple of lakes, some woods, a bakery and a pub. Oh, and a boat club. Pete loved to sail. In Trowse, it’s possible to imagine you’re in the countryside when the city is only a kilometre or two away. Pete liked it because, as he said to me on that day we first met, ‘I’ve got the best of both worlds here. The stars above my garden and a supermarket around the corner.’

Anyway, as I’ve said, Trowse is a small place and, although I didn’t know the number of Pete’s house that morning when I set out to find him, I did know it was on the road leading to the lakes at Whitlingham Country Park. I was familiar with Whitlingham because I’d gone for a walk there in the summer with Cathy, her son Ben and her little dog Chalkie. And now I came to think of it, I could remember little Ben pointing out of the car window and saying, ‘There’s Daddy’s house! There’s Daddy’s house!’

Of course, after all this time, I couldn’t remember which house it had been, so I parked in the car park at Whitlingham Country Park and walked back along the road, casually looking at each house in search of clues.

Well, I found a clue all right. More than a clue. Evidence, solid evidence. Ben. I walked around a corner and there he was, in the front garden of one of the cottages. And as soon as he saw me, he tore open the garden gate and threw himself into my arms.

‘Carla!’ he shouted. ‘Carla! Carla! Carla!’

I hugged him automatically, and as I did so a shadow made me aware that he wasn’t alone. I looked up, straight into the deep brown eyes of a man I knew must be Pete.

‘Well,’ he said, smiling, ‘I think your name must be Carla.’ And he laughed.

Ten minutes later, the three of us were sitting on a blanket in the front garden, eating ice creams from Pete’s freezer. Little Ben was chatting away to me, describing a boat trip he and his father had gone on the previous day, and his strawberry ice cream was melting right down the front of his T-shirt. His hands were pink and so was his mouth. There were even pink spots on the blanket next to him.

‘Do you think my son’s turning into an ice cream?’ Pete asked me, and Ben laughed with delight.

‘Don’t be silly, Daddy!’ he said.

‘Or perhaps,’ said Pete, ‘he’s turning into an ice cream monster… ‘

Ben approved of this idea, and he leapt up, holding his ice cream out in front of him like a weapon. ‘Yes, Daddy, I’m an ice cream monster!’ he cried excitedly, and for the next few minutes he proceeded to chase his father around the garden.

As I watched them, it was impossible not to smile at the fun they were having. They looked so alike, with their curly brown hair and dark eyes. I never had been able to identify any of Cathy’s features or characteristics in little Ben, and now I knew why. He took after his father.

I expect you can already see the picture I’m beginning to paint for you. A pretty cottage, flowers in the garden, hardly any traffic to disturb the peace. Sunshine, strawberry ice cream and the sound of male laughter. Father and son. A contented unit, like you and the girls were whenever I wasn’t around.

You never thought I was very good with children, did you? It never occurred to you to consider whether the three of you made it easy for me to fit in, to become a true part of your happy unit. You made your decisions and you consulted me afterwards. Or rather, you made your decisions and then just announced them to me. Come to think of it, there was very little consultation involved at all.

That day in Pete’s garden, I felt included straight away. When they were both worn out from their ice cream monster game, father and son collapsed next to me on the blanket, laughing and struggling to get their breath. Ben took my hand, examining my arm carefully. ‘You’re very brown, Carla,’ he said. ‘Have you been on holiday?’

‘I have. To Cuba,’ I told him.

‘Where’s Cuba?’ Ben wanted to know. ‘Is it further away than London?’

Pete laughed, but I nodded seriously. ‘Yes, it’s much further away than London,’ I told him. ‘It’s very far away. Across the sea, near America.’

‘I’m going to go to Cuba one day!’ Ben announced, and then he got bored sitting on the blanket and ran off to chase a butterfly which was flying above the flowers.

When we were alone, Pete leant on one elbow to look at me. ‘Ben obviously likes you a lot,’ he said. ‘Have you spent much time with him?’

‘I’ve only met him three or four times,’ I said, thinking about it. ‘But I like him a lot too. He’s a lovely little boy.’ Pete smiled, watching his son. ‘Yes, he is,’ he agreed. ‘Which is something of a small miracle, considering some of the things that have happened during his short lifetime. Though, actually, I think Cathy’s periods of illness have probably made the two of us closer. We were together a lot while she was in hospital or resting.’

‘Did she go to hospital?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t know that.’

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘four times altogether during our marriage. She’s also tried to kill herself twice.’ He looked at me. ‘You didn’t know that either, did you?’

I shook my head. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I didn’t.’

He frowned, then shook his head. ‘I’m sorry’ he apologised. ‘This is an unpleasant subject for a very pleasant afternoon.’ He made himself smile. ‘You didn’t say what you were doing in Trowse.’

‘Oh,’ I replied casually, ‘just exploring. I haven’t lived in the area for that long.’

‘Oh?’ he said. ‘And what made you move here?’

I gave a him a bitter little smile. ‘Let’s just say it’s another unpleasant subject for a nice afternoon.’

He was quiet for a while, thinking, and then he said, ‘I understand; if you met Cathy on that course, then you must have recently split up with somebody’

I smiled. ‘Good guess.’

‘And you moved here to make a new start.’

‘Another good guess.’

‘Well,’ he said, taking my hand exactly the way Ben had just done, ‘I’m very glad you chose to move here, Carla. In fact, I think it was the perfect choice.’

I don’t expect you’ll be surprised to learn that I stayed for dinner. However, since you think I’m so bad with children, you might be surprised to hear that I put Ben to bed and read him a story. And that he insisted on kissing me good night.

After we’d eaten and Ben was asleep, Pete and I went back outside with our glasses of wine to sit on the blanket. It was dark, and the stars were just coming out. My original motives for seeking Pete out were long forgotten. At that moment, sitting close to Pete on the blanket under the stars, revenge was definitely the very last thing on my mind.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: if anything was on my mind just then, I suppose it was romance. Crazy, I know. After all, I’d only known Pete for a few hours. But somehow it wasn’t as crazy as you’d think. Because Pete wasn’t like Alec or Terry. He was young, attractive and above all nice. And I was hungry for nice, after you. And it’s very, very lonely having to be strong all the time, believe me. Always having to keep a part of me secret.

And yet, of course, there was a barrier in the way of Pete and me getting together. Cathy.

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