The Ice Room is a novel bristling with passion and repression in equal measure. In the mid 1980s against a backdrop of impenetrable ice and snow, the novel evokes the menace in the loves of three people.
A man of considerable wealth and self-discipline ﬁnds himself in love with his best friend’s new wife, a brilliant but manipulative woman. On the slopes of the French ski resort Chapagny En Avoriaz their affair has devastating consequences.
Interweaving their evocative personal tales, the reader is seduced into a haunting realm, inhabited by the intriguing emotional and sexual lives of two men and the woman they both desire.
Paperback. 320 pages.
£6.99 Amazon UK
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Widely available online and from your local book store: ISBN978-1908867131
White Gables, Middlegate, London, England, 1994
‘Why do the rich live in such miserable places?’ he muttered, as he walked up the marble steps.
The steps were dirty, but not worn. They had been neglected and green moss, the type that clings to marble so readily, had crept along its contours, taken hold and rendered itself immovable. The steps led to a heavy, black door, cobwebbed and dirty from the melted snow kicked up by the perpetual traffic. The streets had been thick with it all winter. A concoction of ice, sand, pollution and human skin, made up a fine, silver sludge that ruined the shoes of the population, causing wet coughs as hacking and cloying as the city itself. The chill air had played
havoc with his asthma throughout winter and forced him to constantly clear his throat with a rasping, animalistic growl.
Pulling a white, cotton handkerchief from his jacket pocket, the rest of the contents spilled onto the ground. Coins, loose Murray Mints and a half chewed pencil made a bid for freedom, rolling down the steps and muddling themselves in the dust at the bottom.
He left the ruined mints, already sticky in the winter sun, to be licked by stray dogs and crushed by the endless trampling to come. With the offending handkerchief, he wiped the back of his neck and under his ever-dampening collar, leaving it grubby with the marks of his dusty fingers. At the same time he delved into another pocket in his navy cord trousers and pulled out a set of ringing, brass keys. They sent a spiral of reflected light about the place, which caught the man in the eye, blinding him momentarily. He inspected the set of brass keys. They were shiny and heavy and there were more than half a dozen, each with a frustratingly similar pattern about them.
He strained his memory for some remembrance of what the cleaner had said but after a few fruitless moments, he began to try each one in turn. Fifteen minutes of knocking and shouting at the door earlier had been unproductive but the cleaner, still the keeper of the spare set of keys, had been obliging. After some fumbling and difficulty, the fourth key proved to be true and, with satisfaction, he heard the lock click. The door opened to a house that had once been, without exception the personification of immaculate style. A house where each room, each
surface, each ornament, had been painstakingly decorated, chosen and polished. The house had been a private museum, meant only to please its master, but now it was an unpleasant place, full of grey stifling air and endless whispering shadows.
There was nothing about it to recommend and he felt his stomach turn as he remained at the open door. The building stood tall and white, along a road of other tall, white houses, but it was not stately like its companions. It was modern in design and the bulk of the structure had been built entirely in concrete. The roof slid from one side to the other, asymmetrically and gave the impression that at any moment it might
bow and break, imploding, in a ball of white dust and debris. It occupied a million-pound plot on a long, wide road of other plots, similar in value. On Popes Avenue many of the houses lay empty for much of the year, their owners, rich Arabs or powerful businessmen, using the address for kudos or convenience, but rarely as a first home. The buildings plundered the woodlands of Middlegate, slowly edging their way
into the coppice until the wood was only a thin strip of land, and the road could be seen from both sides.
Middlegate itself was a North London village filled with hair salons, wine bars and pollution blown in by a wind straight from the M25. With the sparseness of community activity, and the silence in many of the properties broken only by the scurrying of occasional cleaning staff, a soullessness lurked in Middlegate that was akin to a near-deserted ghost town. The words ‘White Gables’ peered clearly from the road in ornate gold lettering on a thick board sunk deep into the grass verge. A heavy cast-iron gate painted with thick, dripping, silver paint stretched out between two white columns to the right of the sign. It was permanently shut and locked with a thickly linked chain and padlock that was spotted with rust. The house was isolated from the other buildings in the avenue. It was set back from the road, had a good acre of lawn before it and was surrounded by thick rows of leylandii that were heavy with foliage. Only through the gates could a glimpse of the house within be seen, standing like a spectre someway up the drive.
Whilst the other houses were clean and smartly painted, White Gables in contrast bled with thin, green streaks where the concrete had begun to crack and weep. Beneath the patches of remaining whiteness, the lawn was a tangled mess of grass that had seeded and seeded until it stood waist high, now flattened by the weight of frozen water. Slim, strangling bracken and brambles crept along the drive and thick grey moss had inched its way forward, covering the gravel that still crunched beneath the visitor’s feet. Rubbish that had blown in on the northerly wind remained caught in the corners and piled up into little heaps. The brightly coloured logos – Mars, Twix and Persil – had faded in the glare of a merciless sun. Foxes and cats, forever stealing bones from black dustbins, had left the remains of their spoils about the garden, along with the excrement produced by their pilfering.
It was his second visit to the house and the swift invasion of nature was all too apparent. The once spotless abode had taken barely ten years to disintegrate outwardly into a ruin. Now it was an unsuitable house for any human being to call home. Even Marcus Montifrant. Even a murderer. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, he was able to see within the body of the house. It was with a heavy heart that he moved inside, his footsteps echoing around a large open plan hall. He paused for a second to listen, as the reverberations echoed away, spiralling up into the high ceiling, but there was no other sound except the din of traffic on the North Circular that hummed mundanely. He did not register it, having, like most Londoners born and bred, long blanked it from his consciousness. The sweeping, marble floor and striking black, ebony staircase impressed themselves on the seeker’s senses as the first indications of a lavish interior.
The staircase was very wide and with the steps cut deeply, so much so that each step cast a heavy shadow over the one below. The wood was black and shiny even though it had remained unpolished for some time. A carpet of white and black fishbone ran up the middle, with the pattern growing smaller on each step, so it seemed that the staircase was pouring down from the gallery above, like a tin of black treacle, while the carpet climbed ever upwards. This unusual effect had often in the past made those climbing it feel unsteady, as if drowning in a sea of
monochrome. At the top, the staircase divided into two halves and began to encircle the upper reaches of the room, creating a gallery that ran all the way around. Where the two sides met again, they flowed down in another waterfall of stairs to fill the pool of marble below. This main room was oval and it had the appearance of the inside of an eggshell, sliced lengthways. The ceiling, which was high and imposing, curved upwards and in the centre a great chandelier of cascading crystal hung in a glittering display of hysteria. This light fitting was the only
sign of slight vulgarity in the house; everything else was perfectly tasteful. All the floors downstairs were in the same cold marble, highly polished and smoothed until the grains and imperfections looked like a network of grey veins.
High above the shining floors along the gallery, doors led off to other smaller rooms, all of which stood watching silently, closed along the edge of the great frame of black wood. The house was cold, and the housekeeper, who had found another engagement after eight months of no word or wage from her master, had been too much the professional. She left the place spotless so that the veil of dust that had eventually covered everything was more like a layer of Clingfilm protecting the cleanliness within.
The shine of the polished surfaces seemed just to be slightly dulled and waiting to reveal itself once more. Lingering in the hall, he noted a half-burnt candle that stood on the marble floor. The pool of melted wax surrounding the base had solidified on the cool stone. The molten wax, its path once creeping across the floor, had been suspended in its flow, lizard-like and clearly defined, with legs, clawed digits and perfect curling tongue. The wax, yellowing with dust, looked jaundiced against the perfect white of the marble, like pus seeping from an infected wound. It was clear it had been lit over and over, for little ridges piled on the puddle of wax. The thickness about the base was greater than at
the edges as if on each occasion it had borne flame for less and less time. It was peculiar to see a candle standing, a solitary soldier in the company of such splendour, positioned so close to the main entrance.
He circled it and pondered what use had been made of it. His imagination was a developed one, but he could make no sense of it as he moved on. He passed through the hall. It was empty of all interest, a cold shell full of echoing space and reflecting surfaces. The other rooms stood empty, and at first he lingered in each as he began his tour of the lower parts of the house. There had been something of the obsessive collector about the owner of White Gables. Each room had a strong theme, adhered to without exception, perfectly tasteful, but lacking in humanity. The house was cold and unliveable and required the friendliness of clutter to soften it.
Every chair, every ornament, every brush stroke of paint, was absolutely of its period and the finest of its kind. A handmade birthday card would have been disgusting to Marcus Montifrant.It would have been a slap in the face. The visitor avoided eye contact with the huge
nude by Dodd Proctor as he relieved himself in one of the downstairs toilets. The naked girl, stretched and leggy, with her wide blue eyes following him and her angel-like curls, was luring in innocent seduction. It was a strange place to have such a painting and he found it disturbing that a mirror had been placed directly above the porcelain lavatory so that the reflection of her face stared down at you.
Either sitting or standing it was impossible not to feel that she was watching you and the depiction of girlhood blossoming into woman was unsettling and strangely arousing as he urinated.
As he checked each room, his unease increasing and his pace quickening, the dark corners and leaning shadows began to unnerve him and the oppression within the house became overtly stifling. The rooms had begun to whisper and when the last was shut up and he once more stood in the wide, open hall it took him a few moments to catch his breath and reason with himself. He sat on the bottom step of one of the wide ebony staircases, pulled his inhaler from his pocket and breathed the Ventolin deep into his lungs.
‘Upstairs now,’ he urged himself with creaking bones. ‘Come on.’
The tune to ‘Ebony and Ivory’ flitted into his mind and he hummed it aloud as he climbed the staircase. Each note was patterned with a slight wheezing, but it helped ease his breathing and nerves. He was a calm man by nature, but his natural disposition had been shaken by the events of the last decade. He dreamt of her, he felt her presence like an alluring shadow, forever urging him on, her whisper soft but
persistent, as if they played an interminable game of hide-and-seek.
Upstairs the balcony stretched from each wall like an incomplete spider’s web. It seemed to creak and groan with every move he made, as though the weight of his steps invoked some moaning pain from within the floorboards. Each door opened with a smooth, expensive air, heavy with the weight of money to expose the lifeless rooms. He felt a strange crawling in his consciousness as the house creaked
and groaned about him and the rooms whispered as if those who resided within conversed restlessly only to fall silent when the doors were fully opened. More than once he felt the need to press his handkerchief to his forehead to wipe the moisture from his brow.
Inside, the rooms were silent and musty, with a sweet stench like sour milk where the air had been static long enough to take on scent. It leapt forward, bounding into his nostrils and made him sneeze. As he opened door after door, he felt his heart sink and the grain of hope that still remained, buried in his being, began to fade and burn out like the glowing remains of a sparkler. The unbroken rays of sunlight that came through the cracks in the fastened shutters only picked up the disturbed dust, turning it amber gold until it settled again.
He checked the bathroom carefully. Not a drop of condensation on those pristine marble floors, not a hair on the perfect ceramic basin but as he looked at his weary, ancient face in the oval mirror, he saw something reflected there. A yellow tinge in the water of the toilet bowl. It was clear and pale, not the golden stench of stale urine, but fresh.
‘Well, well,’ he said out loud. ‘You haven’t left after all.’
Quickly he scouted through the rest of the house, but it was the last door, the door to Montifrant’s bedroom that instilled some real hope in him. The door was not open, but as he placed his hand on the glass handle he noticed something different about it from the others – it felt clammy. The hairs on his neck were tingling as he pulled the door handle and for a second he felt resistance. The room was noticeably
colder than the rest of the house and he could see the condensation of his breath billowing out in smoky clouds of white before him. He instinctively felt beneath his jacket. A little handgun was sitting neatly in its holster there and he pulled it out quickly, his hands shaking a little as he slipped the safetycatch off with practiced movement.
‘Anyone here?’ he said clearly, his voice spinning around the space in the room.
There was no reply, except for the slight echo of his voice and the constant groan of the house. He waited for a few moments, listening intently and then stepped further into the room. Although it was cold and dark, as though he had just walked into a larder, he broke out into a sweat. He had the sense that something had entered this room, distorted it and made it horrible. He flicked the light switch, but nothing happened. The room remained in darkness, the bulb dead. He made his way cautiously towards the window where a shutter was blocking out the daylight. Fumbling to find the catch, he flicked it up allowing the shutter to open, rattling noisily and flooding the room with blinding sunlight. For a moment the man was left blinking and rubbing his eyes as his pupils adjusted to the brightness.
When his vision had cleared, he saw an unmade bed in the middle of the room. At first there was nothing else unusual except the bitter
cold temperature. With his arm and the handgun stretched out before him, he began circling the bed and there, on the other side he paused, his eyes widening.
‘Well, well,’ he said again, with a look of grim triumph upon his face.
The body was stretched out face down, one cheek pressed against the wooden floorboards. The exposed eye, entirely open, was staring with a
blank but intent expression that he had seen many times before on the faces of the dead. There was a dampness about the hair and it stuck to the scalp as if it had been moulded like clay. The body was naked, feet and hands bare with the arms tucked neatly beside it and the palms face up. He noted that this man must have been dead or unconscious before he hit the ground, as it seemed he had not tried to break his own fall. The mouth was a little open and smiling, showing white, straight teeth and the soft pinkness of tongue and lips. The face was contented
and almost peaceful.
‘Hello Marcus,’ the man said.
It was a handsome face that stared back at him. Even in death, with his vacant eyes he was still somehow full of expression. The man felt an
overwhelming desire to spit at the body that lay at his feet, but instead he swallowed hard and knelt so that he could speak directly into the wide glazed eyes.
‘Where is she?’ he demanded. ‘Where is she, you bastard?’