Ice Cream Sunday by Jupiter Jones
The day it happened, her mood was as black as the sky was blue. But it was exactly the kind of weather everyone else had been waiting for and on the spur of the moment, they headed for the coast. Car boots hastily crammed with picnics, windbreaks, sunhats, inflatable whales, kites, flip-flops, and folding chairs. Tarmac arteries clogged to a standstill as carparks and overspill-carparks filled to capacity. Local traders put out their tat and rubbed their hands. The sands were washed and ready. Soft just below the seawall, flat and brown further out, flat as far as the eye can see, then flattish but imprinted with rippled ridges of fossilised waves. And beyond that, impossibly far out, a flat sea glinting in the sun.
The temperature soared, but an onshore breeze made everyone except their mothers sure that no sun-lotion was necessary. By the afternoon the mothers were proved right. Grandads with shirtsleeves rolled up were leathering nicely but younger men in tee-shirts had arms like crabsticks, and boys with their tops off were partially cooked and would be sore later. Girls sported strap-marks: bikini tops, halter necks, spaghetti straps. Matrons with wider straps to bear the downward force of hefty bosoms, they too would later lie in bathtubs marvelling at the milky whiteness of breasts against the brownness of arms, as if only the breasts were their own and the arms were, well, someone else’s.
From the shuttered cool of her hotel room she watched all this; she watched the day and its joy. She was supposed to be joyful, blissful even, but there she was, kicking her heels, neglected and resentful; that half-dead feeling that so easily turns to recklessness or malice. Outside, on the promenade below, a cavalcade of girls in ice cream-coloured dresses, flirting, licking candyfloss and sucking slush puppies; boys strutting and winking under kiss-me-quick hats. Transistor radios shat out pop, and in the distance, she could hear the whoop and blare of Pleasureland, the ching-ching-ching of penny arcades, the raucous blather of gulls. She rang room service for a plate of crab sandwiches and passed the time writing her research paper.
When the sun was dipping towards the horizon, deckchairs were packed away, inflatables and windbreaks pushed any old how into the hot boots of hot cars for the return journey, the sea came inching in over the rippled sand and over the flat, erasing moats and castles. Then the old ladies of the town began patting their hair, selecting earbobs, spraying cologne in preparation for their passeggiata. Feeling more neglected than ever, feeling destructive, she put on a new linen dress the colour of raspberry sorbet and walked along the sea front.
He was leaning against the side of an ice cream kiosk; the shutter down, the door padlocked. A wire mesh bin nearby was packed with a thousand discarded wrappers: fab, zoom, screwball, orange-maid, cider-lolly, funny-feet, chocopotamus, twicer, and crazy-joe-cola. Below the bin, a line of ants prepared to feast. Paper wrappings are reasonably hygienic, she conceded, but still, the sight made her feel sticky. Hokey-pokey penny a lick: her research was on the spread of disease attributed to contaminated ice and insanitary practices of nineteenth-century street vendors. The man took a squashed packet of Marlboroughs from his shirt pocket and extracted one. He was skinny with a mouth like a frog; thin lipped with a slight downward curve; an upside-down smile. Certainly not her type. He looked her up and down as she walked past. He looked far more than was polite, and she turned away, as if she hadn’t noticed him; as if.
She lengthened her stride but slowed her pace as though walking a line. This necessitates a slight swivel of the hips, something like Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane on the station platform in Some Like it Hot. But this Sugar didn’t have the voluptuous arse. It would broaden later in middle age, but then, although well-dressed, well-groomed, she knew she was not much to look at; a bit gawky, a bit prim, perhaps already passed her prime. She sauntered as far as the pier, and along to the halfway point, a little timbered piazza where the local men were beginning to cluster with rods and bait. She hesitated, thinking of going on to the cafe at the end of the pier where they sold tea and instant coffee in thick Pyrex cups and saucers. But they were probably wiping down tables, turning signs from open to closed. She leant over the cast-iron railings watching the brown sea creep over the brown sand while the men with the rods grumbled about how the trippers were somehow responsible for the scarcity of dabs.
The pier railings were encrusted with layers of paint finishing in the palest mint green. In some parts it was flaking away, rust underneath forcing it up and off, other places it bubbled as if with an eruption of acne. She wondered if the pier would ever be painted again, if it was still loved, as if love rather than economics called the shots. She picked at the railings with her fingernail and like mille-feuille pastry, a piece lifted off, a little piece of history, of Victoriana, of seaside architecture, a piece of the day.
Then she turned and sauntered back past the glazed gazebo shelters with ornate curlicued benches and graffiti; a plethora of initials, pairs joined by + and encircled by hearts. And names of people proclaiming they woz here. She could see the attraction. An act of vandalism, a little bit of damage to alleviate feelings of insignificance. If she had a pocketknife, she could have left her mark. Her initials, the date. Proof of life, to make herself visible, to make the day count for something. She walked back to the promenade. He was still there.
As the distance between them decreased she felt foolish. That inconsequential foolishness of passing a stranger twice; perhaps having already nodded in greeting or acknowledgement, perhaps not; but there exists the faintest sliver of acquaintance, a sense of obligation, a feeling of having to account for yourself; that you perhaps turned back the way you came because you were lost, or mistaken, or had a change of heart? Perhaps you suddenly remembered you were really supposed to be somewhere else? He smiled.
‘Do you have a light?’
‘I don’t –’
‘But you came back.’
‘Well, I –’
‘Come for a drink with me?’
She hesitated. She really should have said no. Thanks, but no. But she hesitated and he elbowed himself upright and took her hand.
She couldn’t take him in all at once. Fettered by shyness, her gaze inched along from the hand holding hers; it was tanned and calloused; a working hand. His shirt sleeves were rolled up and she had estimated that he was younger than her by perhaps five, maybe ten years, but the shirt was incongruous. An old man’s shirt in a pale flannel with a faint stripe. A shirt that had been worn and washed over many years. She wondered if the women in his family were frugal and resourceful, if they turned collars and cuffs the way her grandmother used to, the way that no-one does anymore. He was wiry, with the strength of a coil, and scarcely taller than her. His hair was longish, over his collar, mid-brown and thin. Jeans, of course, and boots despite the heat. He was unremarkable after all. One quick drink, she told herself.
‘You’re not from here are you?’ he said.
‘No, just staying a few days.’ And she couldn’t bring herself to tell him why she was there, how special it was supposed to be.
‘Where are you staying?’
‘Oh, very swish! One of my cousins works there, in the kitchens.’
As they walked, he told her his name was Marco, and that his uncle had the concession from the town council for all the ice cream kiosks, and because one of his uncle’s part-time girls hadn’t turned up for work, he had been co-opted, and had spent all day handing out ice creams and lollies, taking payment, counting change. His uncle had driven round every couple of hours, harvesting cash from each kiosk, delivering more stock from his lock-up, and reluctantly agreeing to serve customers for five minutes while Marco stood out of sight to piss into an empty pop bottle. He spat.
‘It is woman’s work, serving people all day, bending into the freezer and smiling, and apologising for only having what we have, and not having the pineapple mivvi, and the people are so rude, speak to me like I am nobody, and waiting while spoilt babies are lifted up to point at the picture of what they like, then they change their minds and they cry if they don’t get what they want, as if it would be my fault, such brats, and the parents treating them like little princes, no matter that the queue is getting longer. And old people; always the ice cream sandwich for the old people, which is tricky with the little packets of wafers, and unwrapping the ice cream, and they want that I should do it for them. I tell you, it is woman’s work, and they are deaf when I say how much money, and the money is in their purse which is in their bag and must be passed to them while they faff and the queue is longer like a snake, and dirty children with no pleases and thankyous, and the money, always so sticky from sweaty hands –’
She pulled away and he laughed.
‘I have washed. My hands are clean. But my uncle, he is a bastard sod of a man, expecting me to cover his arse because some silly part-time little girl says she wants work and then when the sun shines and there is work to do, she says no, she will spend the day with her boyfriend.’
For the first time, she looked him in the eye and his eyes were small and dark, deeply set and difficult to read.
‘So, you are too macho for the ice cream trade?’
‘Now you are laughing at me.’
She said she wasn’t. She worried that she had somehow offended him. She was accustomed to taking care not to seem too opinionated, too forthright; her self-censorship was habitual. But sometimes, still, she got it wrong. She thought he was angry, over-sensitive, but then he grinned and skipped in front of her, took her by the shoulders and kissed her with his thin-lipped frog mouth tasting of Tizer and Marlboroughs.
‘I am not an ice cream man. I am in rubber. I am a tyre fitter for my other uncle who has a garage, but Sunday is my day off.’
She blushed, because in that split second after he said rubber but before he said tyres, she thought kinky rubber, and she could see by his smirk that he knew it, and he knew because it was a line that had worked before. Other girls, other women had thought the same, blushed the same.
‘And you, what do you do, posh Hotel Excelsior lady?’
She told him that she was a historian, and she said it like that, not ‘an historian’ and that she was writing about street vendors implicated in the spread of diseases. That in the nineteenth century, ice cream men were suspected of spreading tuberculosis.
‘Well they probably didn’t,’ she said quickly, not wanting to bad-mouth his presumptive forebears. ‘But they almost certainly did spread other diseases like cholera and typhoid.’ (as if that made it any better) ‘Then a law was passed in 1899 banning penny lickers – that’s the little glass dishes the street vendors served ices in, before cones were invented. Those old Hokey-pokey men just gave the lickers a quick wipe over with a damp cloth between customers; they were pretty rank.’
‘Hokey pokey men?’
‘Yeah, from their shout: Gelati! O che pocco!
And he corrected her pronunciation:
‘O che pocco. So, my uncle, he is a filthy Hokey-pokey man, I will tell him this. And Grandpappy Joe also.’
‘Hokey-pokey, penny a lick.’ All afternoon it had been in her head, like an earworm: Hokey-pokey-penny-a-lick.
He took her hand and turned it over; was he looking for the thin white line around her finger that would indicate a wedding band? Then he licked the inside of her arm from the crook of her elbow to her wrist, over the heel of her hand, up her palm, lifeline, loveline, and his tongue slipped between her fingers.
Presently, he led her up a side street, beyond the postcard-and-trinket shops, past a launderette to a dingy bar; the sort that doesn’t try to attract trippers. They sat in a nicotine-yellow corner below a glass case containing a stuffed hammer-head shark that had seen better days, and old glass floats in rope nets, and a chalked notice refusing credit. They drank and teased one another while the light outside faded and the sea crept under the pier and dabs came swimming, some of the little ones were caught, and the fishermen grumbled just the same, and uncles counted out their days’ takings on kitchen tables, and for once, were satisfied.
When the bar closed, he took her down to the sands and they walked, slowly, slowly.
‘So, what is a historian from London doing here, in this ramshackle dump of a town?’
‘A holiday,’ she lied.
‘On your own?’
She was a very bad liar, so she kissed him.
Beyond the pier was an expanse of dunes, soft and shifting beneath their feet, and there they lay under a sequined sky with legs entwined and his calloused hands unzipped her raspberry dress. She traced her fingers down the lean length of his body, she could see almost nothing, but imagined him tanned to his low-slung jeans, pale below. At one point, she cried out and he stifled her noise with a hand over her mouth and shushed into her ear, her neck, knowing they were not the only ones coupling in the dunes, so they fucked silently.
Afterwards, he reached for his shirt and the cigarettes in the pocket, flipped one between his lips, but still he had no light. So they went back towards the town, past the yacht club and the boating lake and then on, between the rows of white stucco facades, all shuttered up, as if their eyes were closed. She walked along the promenade in bare feet, and the pavement still held the heat of the day.
‘Mind you don’t step in anything. You will need to give your feet a wash before you slip into your clean Hotel Excelsior bedsheets.’ He lifted her hand to his downturned frog mouth, kissed her wrist.
‘Yes, I will wash.’
They parted on the corner, he was heading to the all-night cafe, then home, wherever that was. He could have said he was working tomorrow; he could have asked her to meet him afterwards. He didn’t even look around as he walked away, but raised one arm; a salute, a farewell.
She put her shoes back on before she ran up the steps and rang the bell for the hotel night porter to let her in. The place was rather grand with its marble tiled floors, enormous gilt framed mirrors and liveried staff.
‘Ah, Missus Stephens,’ said the porter, ‘I hope you had a pleasant walk. A little stroll along the sea front is the very thing when one cannot sleep on these hot sticky nights. And I have just, not ten minutes since, welcomed your husband back. He said the golf tournament at the Royal Birkdale went well, very well indeed, he was more than a bit tipsy. And . . . well . . . goodnight Missus Stephens.’
She thanked him and made her way upstairs, fingering in her pocket a fragment of the pier balustrade, rusted iron flake on one side, palest mint-green on the other.
- end -