The ice-cream van’s discordant song drifted through the tenements but any sighting had so far proved elusive. So much so, in fact, Henry was beginning to wonder if the song was a figment of his heat-addled imagination. But then his wife, Cassanndra, had also heard it and she looked in bad need of refreshment. And then there was his two year-old daughter, Maya, sprawled out on a picnic mat in their little park in North London.
Where all cultures come to clash and intersect, Henry thought to himself. And the streets are paid with slavery and debt.
‘Ice cream,’ said Maya, as though her father was keeping them all to himself.
‘I know, I know,’ he said, trying to placate her. But no matter how much he and his family all kept hankering for ice-cream, the van didn’t sound like it was getting any closer. If anything, it sounded like it was getting further away.
A stream of kids ran across the park and their shirts were so bright, it looked as if someone had spilt a packet of brightly coloured sweets upon the bare earth. Barbecued chicken mixed with the smell of skunk (courtesy of the lads smoking by the war memorial) and apart from the criss-cross smear of contrails up above, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Heat waves shimmered and appeared to melt the pines behind the church whilst Henry could hear the sound of rushing water and the boisterous shouts of teenagers far away.
‘Wait,’ said Cass. ‘Can you hear that? Some idiot has burst the water mains again.’
‘Cool,’ replied Henry, but his wife’s tutting reminded him she no longer found his sense of humour so funny or attractive. ‘Erm, I mean, sorry, what?’ he said, performing a mock outrage before shaking his head. ‘I don’t know eh? What a waste.’
Cass cast him a withered look through her sunglasses. ‘I should call the police.’
‘No, don’t!’ Henry was staring longingly at the torrent as it gushed up twenty feet into the air but murmured something about the lads smoking by the memorial instead.
‘So we don’t want them thinking we grassed them up. Get it? Grass?’
Henry flapped warm air through his white shirt, which was now see-through, then looked down at his daughter. Who didn’t look tired at all. ‘Surely she’ll sleep tonight though, eh?’
Cass shrugged. Maya had been getting night terrors ever since they’d moved in two weeks ago and her shrieks were upsetting the neighbours through their thin partition walls. It was fair to say the couple were going through a painful learning process in coming to terms with what a grand a month bought you so close to Central London.
A heated shoe-box in a crack den, thought Henry privately. He didn’t dare ask what Cass thought but judging by the new layers of frost to their relationship, he felt he already had a good idea.
The kids sprinted back across the park. Henry watched them burn energy at a rate that felt far beyond him until they reached a copse of hidden woodland, and then they were gone. Behind the Rosebowl, or so he thought. The strange white and blue building with its name printed down its western side.
But when he walked around its manicured paths and gardens, there was no sign of any kids playing anywhere. Nor where they in the park.
There was a dead crow, lying amidst the leaves and judging by the heat and lack of stench, it could have only just died recently. Blue and purple petals were scattered around its head and behind it, a carving of a stick man had been cut into the bark of one of the trees.
Henry figured the kids must be back in the park by now, but when he turned back, all he saw was a man on a mobility scooter, shouting at his pack of fighting dogs.
‘Come on,’ said Cass as he drew back to their mat. She was gathering their empty water bottles and food wrappers whilst Maya was wiping her brow with the hem of her mum’s skirt. ‘This van’s taking the piss. And I need to get ready for work.’
‘OK, cool. But let me stay here with Maya.’ The heat had wrung the life out of him and he knew it wouldn’t be any cooler back in the flat. Warm air rose up to collect in the upper reaches of their property – another unexpected bonus they’d only just discovered – and now it was summer, it was unbearably clammy during the afternoon and evening.
Cass didn’t argue. Just gave him Maya and then trudged back towards the block. Henry looked down at his daughter and delighted in the way she smiled back up him. ‘So,’ he said, half-jokingly, ‘fancy taking a dip with Daddy around the park?’
Maya didn’t fancy. More to the point, she still wanted ice cream. The sun had dipped behind the pines and the gang of boys smoking weed had long disappeared. All that remained of their presence were the usual collection of cans and stray butts and papers and Henry realised that apart from him and his daughter, the park was completely empty. Even the man in the mobility scooter had disappeared.
The kids are in the Rosebowl then, have to be.
But when he studied its entrance, like always, he became preoccupied with the question of how anyone could enter the damn thing.
For the Rosebowl was a small and ultra-modern looking prefab with rounded walls that not only wrapped the copse around it, but also seemed to meddle with time and space. Of course, that wasn’t true in the literal sense, yet Henry had his doubts. A hidden passage that ran from the road to its entrance ran parallel with the park’s perimeter fence and its gate was obscured by thick foliage and was always locked. He wasn’t sure who had built the structure, or when, but great care had been taken to sink it into a corner of the park behind a trellis of vines and creepers and beneath a tree of infra-red CCTV cameras.
He didn’t like to admit it to himself, but the place had become something of an obsession and he’d spent countless hours in the two weeks since they’d moved in walking around its perimeter, smoking cigarettes and eating ice creams, but only when he could get his hands on them. The way you could walk along parallel to the Rosebowl’s entrance and not realise you’d just passed it was unnerving. Especially now there were actual children inside. It seemed the Rosebowl was a futuristic club house to which you had to have the secret codes.
Suddenly he saw something move behind one of the portal windows. A small head. Then another. Some kind of assembly was taking place behind the glass. Henry couldn’t decipher their faces but he could hear them singing a tuneless song. Some kind of incantation or chanting
‘Funny kind of register,’ he said to himself.
The sound of the ice cream van broke his thoughts.
‘Ice cream, ice cream,’ cried Maya, louder than she ever had before.
‘OK, come on,’ he said, still disturbed by what he could hear from within the walls of the Rosebowl and now glad of the diversion. ‘And then we’ll go straight back home, OK?’
‘You’re tense,’ said Cass later that evening.
Henry just stared back at her.
Cass hadn’t gone to work after all. Her team leader at her zero-hours contract at the call centre had rung and cancelled her shift as she was getting out the shower. When Henry walked in through the front door eating an ice-cream with his daughter – and with nothing to offer her – she had given it to him with both barrels. Henry had then retreated back into the park for an hour or so. Texted Cass to say he was clearing his head.
‘Really,’ he replied, sitting down on the sofa next to her but sounding like he was very far away. ‘I can’t think why.’
‘There’s no need to be sarcastic, Henry. I’ve said I’m sorry.’
He sighed. ‘Look Cass, I’m not even bothered about that anymore.’
‘Yeah, seriously. I’m actually more bothered by the school if you must know.’
‘Yeah the free school or whatever,’ he said, shrugging off the names as if they were irrelevant.
‘It’s an academy,’ said Cass slowly, ‘it says it on the sign.’
‘OK, fine. But seeing as you know so much about schools, enlighten me as to what they do in there all day.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, unable to believe such a trivial thing was causing so much concern. But Henry didn’t expand or elaborate. Didn’t seem to know how. ‘Hey, hey,’ said Cass, facing him straight on the couch. ‘What’s the problem Henry? Henry, you’re scaring me. I don’t understand!’
For a long time, it seemed Henry was more interested with what was going on with his phone than anything his wife was saying. ‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually before suddenly sitting up as though he was now strong enough to remember. ‘I’d just like to know what kind of academy gets their kids to hold hands in a circle at sundown.’ It was only then he made eye contact. ‘Then gets them to start chanting.’