Simone is looking forward to her godson Oliver visiting. It’s a year since she’s seen him, at least in the real and not the online world, though Skype is a wonderful thing and though she more or less had to be dragged into such matters kicking and screaming, she wonders how she’d manage without it now. But though it’s by no means a bad substitute, it’s still a substitute. Oliver. Her best friend Rachel’s son, the late arrival, the “on the change” child, who’s ten now, and loves dinosaurs (and knows far more about them than Simone ever will) and has discovered he has a talent and liking for gymnastics, which has taken everyone by surprise, as they hadn’t thought him a sporty child. “He’s growing up so quickly,” Rachel sighed on the phone, “He told Michelle,” (his adoring, though sometimes long-suffering older sister) “off for calling him Olly the other day, and you know, though I always said I much preferred the full form of the name myself, I felt one of those pangs! But at least he’s still obsessed with raspberry ripple ice cream. Would eat it every meal if I’d let him!”
And now, at the last minute, or at any rate, the last hour before Oliver is due to arrive, she’s walking down to the convenience store on the corner, the one called Pennypinchers which always seems a strange kind of name, as if implying that the customers are mean, and anyway, their prices are dearer than the out of town supermarkets. Which is fair enough.
I hope they sell raspberry ripple ice cream, she thinks. I don’t think I’ve ever bought it there. But she has bought it, and used to think that if she and Oliver were blood relations, she’d say he took after her.
She might not have gone so far as to say she’d have eaten it at every meal, but it had certainly been one of her guilty pleasures, and definitely her favourite flavour of ice cream. Vanilla seemed too bland, sometimes, and chocolate too cloying, and rum and raisin never to taste of either rum or raisins. But raspberry ripple was another matter.
She had been curled up on the sofa, indulging in a bowl of it, relishing the cold, sweet fruitiness and the texture, initially hard, then yielding on her tongue and the agreeable chill on her throat. She had already determinedly told herself that she would not give in and have another bowl after that one, that would pass the boundary between self-indulgence and greed, and it smacked of comfort-eating when, after all, she had no need of it.
Simone is not the first person, and will not be the last, to realise the wisdom of the song that tells us you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. She pauses by the traffic lights, waits for the little man on the display to turn green. Was she always so fussy about only crossing when she was supposed to? Probably not. Oh, she never set a bad example to any children watching, or anything like that, but when nobody else was around and the nearest car seemed to be in the next town, she had crossed on red.
She is not exactly scared of traffic, and she still drives herself, though not as much as she used to, and not with any pleasure. But the pleasure seems to have been leached from a great many things now. She will put on a brave face for Oliver, of course. It wouldn't be fair not to, and she has grown used to putting on a brave face, not so much because she is brave, as because it stops awkward situations developing. Still, her smile when she thinks about Oliver is genuine. She wonders how many of his dinosaur models he will bring with him, and whether he will show off his new-found skills at somersaults and cartwheels on the corridor or in the garden.
She had been on the point of taking her bowl to the kitchen to wash it (she had never been fussy about household matters, but did like to wash things up straightaway), and the taste was still lingering agreeably in her mouth, when the phone rang. She wondered if it might be Clive, though he would be home within the next hour or two. But sometimes after twenty years of marriage, he still liked to surprise her with a phone-call when she wasn’t expecting one, and they talked about the most inconsequential things, and she felt better and warmer when she put the phone down and knew he would soon be with her. He would probably tease her about “being at the raspberry ripple” – he’d seen the carton in the freezer! – one of those routines that they went through without even thinking much about it.
It was not Clive. It was a woman’s voice. The kind of voice that is kind, but professionally kind, the voice of a person who is genuinely compassionate, but can’t let themselves got too emotionally involved every time, for their own self-preservation and in order to function. She said that she was called Larissa Sullivan (in passing, Simone thought that she had a cousin called Larissa, and it wasn’t a common name, and though this woman obviously wasn’t her cousin, it was the kind of thing that you remarked on to initiate a conversation. But somehow she knew, knew the minute she heard the professionally kind voice, that this was not a time for initiating polite conversations). Larissa Sullivan was speaking from the hospital in the next town. Though Simone thought she remembered every last nano-second of that conversation, she couldn’t quite remember what Larissa had said she was – family liaison co-ordinator or some made-up title like that. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs Warren,” she said, “Your husband has been involved in a car accident. He was brought to this hospital.”
Simone felt the world shift on its axis. She had heard people say this happened at a moment of crisis, and always been cynical. But she wasn’t now. In that split second that reminded her of the split second when you’ve tripped on a crooked paving slab but manage to convince yourself you’re not going to crash to the ground, she thought, well, these things happen, and no law to say they don’t happen to us. Michael across the road was in a car crash last year and he was on crutches for a while, but he’s absolutely fine now.
Larissa was still talking. And the words made sense in their grammar and vocabulary, but they made no sense at all, none whatsoever. Words like massive internal bleeding and words like we did our very best.
She heard herself agreeing to organ donation, knowing that it had been very important to Clive. Larissa asked her if she had anyone to sit with her, and she said “I’ll be fine,” knowing how utterly ridiculous that statement was, but knowing she didn’t want anyone to sit with her. She made phone calls, let people know, heard herself making the phone calls and letting people know, and that surface calmness was a sensation beyond bleakness and beyond despair.
She wished she could get the taste of the raspberry ripple ice cream out of her mouth. It had cloyed and it clung, and even after brushing her teeth, even after making herself eat a couple of slices of toast and drink a cup of coffee, the taste of raspberry ripple was still there, or she was sure it was.
She has never told anyone about it, not even Rachel, who is as close as a sister to her, not even her Auntie May, who has always been a much-loved mentor. Would she have told her Mum and Dad if they had still been alive, or her brother or sister, if she had one? She doesn’t know.
But since that day, even the texture of any kind of ice cream, even the sweet tang of fresh raspberries, have repelled her.
And now she is making her way to Pennypinchers to buy a carton of raspberry ripple ice cream, and even if she does not have to eat any herself, she will have to watch Oliver eating it, and have to smell the sweetness and the fruitiness, and have to put a spoon into the yielding frostiness.
She wants them not to sell it, or to be out of stock. She chides herself for such a wish, and in any case, it is not granted. It is even on special offer. Out of the habit of buying ice cream, she has not brought her insulated bag with her, but it doesn’t matter, she’ll be home in five minutes.
She puts it in her freezer, shuts the door, waits for Oliver to arrive. She manages to stop herself saying “How you’ve grown!” even though it’s true, knowing that such things are irritating. She discovers that he has not brought models of dinosaurs, but a book about them. Yes, he was not just growing, but growing up, though she is cheered to see he still has that childish ebullience as he cartwheels down the corridor. She has been careful to remove anything breakable that might be in his path.
He has never been a picky eater, and makes short work of the chicken salad she’s prepared for tea, though making no secret of the fact he prefers the chicken to the salad, and she doesn’t blame him. “Mum says I shouldn’t ask about afters,” he says. Last time he’d visited it had been Mummy. She stops herself reading too much into the statement in general. After all, Rachel has no clue, she has never told her, she was just reminding her son to be polite, and he was obeying, in his own way.
“Well that’s fine, because you haven’t asked,” Simone smiles. She takes a deep breath, makes her voice sound normal, casual even. “But do you like raspberry ripple ice cream?” Oliver’s cheeky, kind little face breaks into a radiant beam. “Auntie Simo, I LOVE raspberry ripple ice cream! Don’t you?”
And somehow, she just can’t say, I used to. She knows she has no choice. She gets out two bowls, and puts raspberry ripple ice cream in both of them. At first she wonders how she is going to face it, as Oliver tucks in with an expression that’s probably only ever seen on the face of a child eating ice cream. She puts some on the tip of her spoon and tries to think about something else. She manages to get it down, and puts a little more on her next spoonful, and does not try quite so hard to think about something else.
She tells herself that it is just fanciful and wishful thinking to imagine that she can hear Clive saying “And about time, too.”
But she knows assuredly it’s what he would have said!