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Once An Ice Maiden

Rating: PG-13

What I love about skating: I love the sharp slicing sound of my skates across the ice. That moment in the early morning when the rink is waiting for me, clear as polished glass. The lines and spins and curves and squiggles that I've written with my feet at the end of the hour. The speed, the power, the control. The feeling that I can take off and no-one can reach me.

What I hate about skating: the way Mum drags me out of bed for the early sessions and there's no time for breakfast. The way she hangs over the rail and shouts at me: That's no triple twist. You should be spinning on the spot like you could drill into the ice. And don't forget your arms. S-t-r-e-t-c-h your arms! The way her face goes blue and my teacher - who never gets a bloody word in - panics that she's going to have a heart attack. She never does. She goes back home and lies on the couch and eats sweets and never mind if her ankles swell up. Coming off the rink in a sweat and having to yawn through a whole day of school. Waiting to see Dave.

What I love about Dave: I love the way he smells and the way he holds me. And I love it when he presses me up against the wall and pushes his thing into me and it's hot and hard and makes me feel like I'm floating in the dark. When I skate, the lights are so bright, everything glitters and sparkles so, my eyes hurt. The dark is a treat for me. And I love to watch him crawl out from underneath a car in his overalls, with their black oil stains and smears of axle grease. I love the dirt and the darkness, the wicked wicked contrast to the all white snow queen I'm supposed to be.

Mum doesn't know about Dave; at least she doesn't know the detail. She doesn't know that I slip out nights sometimes to meet him. Or sag off school. At school they're always complaining I'm never there. They think it's the skating competitions because I keep producing the same note. Mum says when I get through to the national heats I can tell them where to stuff their GCSEs.

It's the regional heats first. In Blackpool. I've got to practise, practise, practise every day until my legs feel as if they've been pulled about and chewed up like gum.

'Growing pains,' says Mum. 'All the girls get them.'

Competing in Blackpool was as far as Mum went. You'd never think she'd been a skater to look at her now; she's carrying so much weight she wobbles. But she has the medals and silver cups to prove it: hers and mine shut away in a little safe. I don't know why she bothers - they're only EPNS - but she makes a great elaborate to-do of unlocking the combination and opening it up for visitors as if there's the crown jewels inside.

I've been dreading these regional heats. I know I've been lazy. I've spent too much time on the freestyle and not enough on the figures. I'm getting cramp in my calves and I've started my period. I feel heavy and slow and not a bit like a snowflake or a piece of crystal or anything that would dazzle the judges. I want to lie under the covers and hibernate, but Mum is right there behind me. She shoves me through the turnstile and her arms are folded and her feet are planted like roots and there's no way I can slip past her, escape.

We have a bit of a warm-up and it's awful. Right in the middle of it I trip over and gash my face. Mum yells at my clumsiness and takes me into the first aid room, a cupboard really, with two plastic seats. She doesn't bandage me up. She gets out her make-up box and plasters my face with pan-stick until you can't see the gash- or even me- at all. I'm just a peach-toned blank on which she draws two eyes and a big red mouth. Then we go back into the ante-room where everyone is shivering and sweating under their armpits at the same time.

When my number is called, I circle into the centre of the rink pretending to be ever-so-relaxed, hoping my movements will just flow. Only it's a bit of a disaster because someone has messed up the music and I have a false start. And then another. Some things are good, my triple spins and double eights are perfect. When I go into my big dramatic leap in the freestyle I really feel, for a few seconds, as if I am soaring above the clouds and landing soft as a feather. And actually my finale is pretty good and I can see tears running down Mum's face when I come off, she's that proud of me.

But it isn't enough and I know it isn't enough. When they call out the results at the end I've missed it by three marks. I won't be going to London. I've not made it to the finals. I bury my face in Mum's coat, like a big woolly pillow, and all my pan-stick comes off. The long red slash looks as though someone has tried to scratch my eyes out. There's a lot of tears backstage as there always is, while the kids who've got through are either playing dead cool or jumping up and down like their knickers are full of ants.

Lots of parents are shouting and Mum is shouting louder than any of them. 'It's an absolute disgrace,' she yells. 'That business with the music. Who's in charge I want to know.'

'Please, mum, don't.'

The more she complains, the frostier they get, the staff and the organisers. They tell her to put it in writing and then back away, in case in her fury she topples over and squashes them flat.

I pretend I'm not with her. I'm imagining me and Dave in the cinema with our arms wrapped around each other and a big tub of warm popcorn. I think how nice it will be to sleep in the mornings and sit at the kitchen table with a bowl of breakfast cereal. I picture my wardrobe full of simple skirts and baggy jeans instead of little felt boleros and wisps of brocade and lace. And I wonder how it might feel to have legs without aches and toes without chilblains.

'There's always next year,' says Mum.

My fingers are numbly unlacing my boots. 'Do I have to?'

She is quite amazed. 'I know you've had a bit of a disappointment, pet, but skating's your life. What else would you do?'

I shrugged. 'I could work in a shop.'

Her eyes go hard and her voice cracks. 'You'll miss it,' she says. 'You'll miss the giddiness, the exhilaration, swooping about like a great bird, like a swan ... you'll miss ...' Her face is paddling in tears again and of course I know what it's really about. She's driving me to the rink twice a day and making me scanty circular skirts and yelling at me to use my arms because she wants to live it all over. It isn't enough for her to have Dad and her job and and her house and her forty five inch waist. I have to be her as well. Her. Only with better chances.

The letter comes as a complete shock. We're none of us expecting it. I don't even find out about it till I get home from school with piles of science homework there's no way I can do because it's much too difficult for me.

'You've been talent-spotted,' cries Mum, waving this sheet of headed notepaper at me. 'When you were at Blackpool. They want you to audition for a show.'


Mum's face looks as though it will split in two; she's off the wall with excitement.

'You'll be touring all over. You'll be touring in Europe.'

Dave says he doesn't mind, but I know I'm going to miss him rotten. Dad doesn't want me to go, he says I'm too young. School dont think I should go neither.

'Sod the lot of them,' says Mum, taking unpaid time off work. 'This is your big break, girl.'

The show starts in Germany, in Munich. Munich is scrubbed and shining like a soap powder advert, it's not a bit like Blackpool, and there are wonderful stone buildings with fairy-tale turrets. We've a room in a hostel on the outskirts, where there are so many other nationalities that it's like the tower of Babel at mealtimes. Mum's happy though because she feels like a normal size person here. While I'm rehearsing she sits in this coffee shop where there are lots of German ladies eating slices of cake with layers and layers of cream. And in the evening she waits for me in the bar with a large glass of golden frothy beer in front of her.

It's supposed to be a family show, based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but with all sorts of extra turns to keep the punters interested. I'm in the chorus. I have a satin fur trimmed cape to wear and black fishnet tights. Of course I have thick flesh coloured ones on underneath to keep warm, but the look is very sexy and I've sent Dave a photo. He's pinned it up in the garage and says that all the blokes are telling him how lucky he is to have hands-on experience of my thighs.

Every evening, before the performance, we find a bouquet of white roses propped up in our dressing room with the message: 'for the little ice maidens'. There are a dozen of us so we get one rose each and try to guess who they've come from. Chances are it's only some old pervert in the stalls with his dick hanging out, but we prefer to imagine someone romantic and mysterious.

Then one night Mum comes by to collect me and she's acting all coy. There's a tall shadowy man behind her she says she met in the bar. He's wearing a beautiful pale grey three piece suit with a white rosebud pinned in his lapel. He's very thin with a high forehead and narrow lips that he keeps licking. He's not exactly anyone's Prince Charming, but he's so clearly loaded that when he offers to take me out to dinner I say yes.

Mum comes too of course. She's squeezed herself into a new dress and her breasts are sitting at the top of it like a bolster on a shelf. He doesn't say much, he lets Mum do the talking, but all the time I'm eating my soup, slicing up my veal, he's watching me. Licking his lips and watching me. Then he takes us to a nightclub. We're let in through heavy chenille curtains and the fat chairs and banquettes are upholstered in velvet so everything is soft and sensuous to the touch. The waiters call him mein herr and greet him as if he's very well known. He sits down opposite us and orders long drinks in pretty colours, but even though there's somebody singing and another person playing the piano he ignores them. He keeps looking at me.

I tell Mum I don't know if I want us to go out with him again, but he's there the next night and the one after.

'He's very important,' she says. 'He has lots of contacts in the business. He owns that nightclub you know. We should both be nice to him.'

When I spot him in the audience, sitting up front, I think I'll tease him just a bit. I glide as close as I can to the edge of the rink, with my cape streaming out behind me, and do the splits in my fishnet tights - right by his face. I get a thrill from his thrill and from the power of the music and the beam of the lights. The stage effects are brilliant: we perform in snowstorms and in swirls of mist and right at the end there's a bonfire burning real flames on the ice and all the audience gasp at the wonder of it. The magic.

There's a note attached to my white rose, asking me to meet him alone.

I'm tempted. Apart from sneaking out with Dave, I never get a chance to do anything alone. She's always there, living my life.

So I tell him yes.

He takes me to his nightclub. But this time we go into a little dark room at the back. There's a table set for two, with a vase full of white roses and candles lit in brass candlesticks. The corners are full of spooky shadows and there's such a hush - we can't even hear the piano next door - that I get shivers up my spine. But I don't know if the shivers are because he's so quiet and polite that he scares me - or whether it's because I'm afraid Mum will find out.

It doesn't take her long. She comes storming in just as we've finished eating and I'm leaning back in my chair, surrounded by the fragrance of roses and candlewax, and he is blotting his thin sinister mouth with a napkin. A waiter is coming towards us with two brandies on a tray. Mum seizes one and drinks it down. The other, she deliberately spills on mein herr's expensive grey suit. She calls him some dreadful names in English and then, I think, in German, though I wonder how she managed to learn them so quickly. I thought we hadn't got much beyond laughing at words like ausfahrt.

She is steaming like a roly-poly pudding but mein herr is perfectly dignified. He even offers to put us in a taxi back to the hostel. She says furiously that we will walk, though it's drizzling a bit and I only have a little see-through cardigan.

She's gripping my arm so tightly it hurts. 'I hope you didn't let him touch you,' she hisses.

I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of hearing he hadn't tried. 'Of course I didn't!'

'I don't know what your Dad would do if he found out you wasn't a virgin.'

Funny how Dad only gets a look-in when she wants to lay down the law. I keep my mouth shut.

I've been sleeping in in the mornings, I've been that tired lately. Mum comes in from her breakfast - tea and doughnuts: she still has sprinkles of sugar down her front - and sits down heavily on my bed.

'I've told them you're quitting,' she says. 'It's time to go home.'

I'm only half awake. I think I'm dreaming. 'But this is my big break. You said so.'

'It's tacky,' she tells me now. 'It's a tacky show for a tacky audience. Anyway, summer's over, you've got to go back to school.'

'I thought I'd left!'

She's turned everything upside down. This show is not a chance in a lifetime; it's just a holiday job, something to increase my experience. I can't leave school until I'm 16. I have to go back to lessons again, to practice drills and competitions. I've got to get into the national finals. Otherwise I'll be nothing but a chorus girl forever and nobody will want me anyway after I'm twenty five.

It's been a little oasis of excitement in my life: Germany, and now I'm back down to earth. I'm back to boring early morning exercises and pointless school work. It might never have happened. Once I was special and now I'm nobody again. And there isn't even Dave. Dave is seeing someone else.

'There's other fish in the sea,' says Mum.

Not for me there isn't. All the time I'm skating, working on my loops and jumps and figures, practising to the same piece of music until I can do it in my sleep - wake me up at 3 in the morning and I won't put a foot wrong - all this time I'm planning on how to get Dave back.

I go to the garage and I'm all dressed in white, so he can't touch me, not even to say hello, in case he leaves a mark. And I make sure my skirt is very short and my heels are very high so he can't miss the rippling of the muscles in my legs. And perhaps he'll remember how it felt to have them curved tight around him on cold nights in the back entry. There won't be any other girls he knows who can grip as tight as I can. His mates stand around to watch. They've still got my photograph pinned up by the office telephone. He can feel their envy. He acts cool.

'Hi there.' He reaches out briefly, realises how dirty his hand is and lets it fall back against his overalls. If you were mine again, my eyes tell him, you could crush me in this white outfit, you could smother me with black grease and hot kisses and I wouldn't mind a bit.

I get him back.

They've come round again, the regional heats. This time I get through. Mum, Dad and Dave come to watch; they are all pleased for me.

Only I won't be going down to London for the finals.

Mum is measuring me up for my costume when I tell her. She's been showing me pictures she cut out of a magazine. She's talking about ostrich feather trimmings. or may be a little bit of fake fur, and I remember the cape I had in Germany. As soon as she gets out her tape measure and tries to pull it tight around my waist I know the game is up.

'You're going to have to lose some weight, my girl.' As if she ever loses weight.

'I can't, Mum,' I say. 'I'm pregnant.'

The shock freezes her. 'You're not!'

'I am.'

It's obvious when I lift my jumper, the way my tummy swells and my breasts have exploded. There's nobody ever won any national skating competition when they've been six months' pregnant.

Mum seems to crumple inwards as if she's a big balloon and someone is letting the air out. 'You've ruined everything,' she wheezes. 'All your chances.'

Well that's not the way I see it. The way I see it I chose Dave. I love the skating but in the end I love Dave more. 'I can still do it a bit for fun,' I say.

'Fun?' she repeats, mystified. Because of course you don't skate for fun. You skate for the thrill, for the wild terror, and because there's someone on the sidelines shouting at you and stretching you like a piece of elastic. Until the elastic snaps.

She's still wielding the tape measure, writing down feet and inches, muttering to herself. 'Why d'you think I gave it up?' she shouts suddenly. 'Why?'

'Because you didn't get no further than Blackpool?' I suggest.

She shakes her head and her face is grim. 'Don't matter what people say. You're getting married in white.'

The wedding dress she makes me is gorgeous, though I look like a snowball in it: layers of white tulle cascading down to the floor. It's hanging in the wardrobe in the spare room now, with all my skating outfits since I was seven. We've decided to keep hold of everything for Kelly.

She was born last Tuesday: Tuesday's child is full of grace. She has blue eyes and Dave's black hair and mighty lungs. Although we're married we haven't got our own place yet so I spend quite a bit of time on Mum's couch. We sit next to each other and Kelly lies across my lap and kicks her strong legs and arches her little foot. And Mum and I are both thinking the same thing.