Short Story | The Ice Cream Man by Molly East

Of course there’s a first time for everything: first words, first kisses, the first bike ride without stabilisers, the first nativity play at school. We often forget about the last times, though. Within our lives, we will all hear a loved one’s voice for the last time. We’ll play with our favourite childhood toy for the last time. Our children will play in the street with the neighbouring kids for the last time before they consider themselves ‘too old’ or ‘too cool’ for such games. Unlike lasts, we celebrate firsts. We anticipate firsts. We remember firsts. We share firsts. The difference with lasts is: we rarely see them coming. Sometimes we don’t even notice that they have happened. Often, we don’t know that it’s the last time until it’s already out of our hands.

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Pete looked up from the driver’s seat of his van in silence, all of the Lancashire sky above him. He watched mindlessly as planes sliced through the liquid light, sometimes hiding behind the breadth of the clouds, sometimes not. He wound his window down with the dated crank to his right and perched his arm on the open frame. His tattoos had faded slightly, though their inherent permanence often felt reminiscent of some kind of incurable disease.

To the passer-by, Pete’s arm looked somewhat at one with the van; if not part of the vehicle, then at the least a closely related counterpart, or a fitting piece of decor. It’s jaded exterior wore a multitude of similarly dwindling tattoos. They promised neon green Calypsos, ice pops for small change, FRESHLY WHIPPED SOFT ICE CREAM, hundreds and thousands and ninety nines. Each week he’d make a mental note to revamp his old van, every note consisting of imaginary bullet point lists. The lists detailed tasks that ranged from an imperative lick of paint to brand new product pictures, or novelty alloys and modern LED lighting. Each week these mental notes met their fate amongst a rubbish heap of abandoned intentions, strewn with plans of action and years of forethought.

Several minutes passed before the engine belched sounds of life and Pete and his van crept steadily onto the road and towards his usual route, a rolling box in shades of babydoll pink and anaemic blue. He trailed his sacred path without the slightest deviation, knowing more than anyone what hostilities can arise when a man strays from the realms of what is deemed his territory. Man and van sliced through scenes of suburbia like a sort of vandalism, teetering conspicuously on a tight-rope line between gaudy and endearing. Still, business was steady and Pete broke even more often than not. He remembered vividly a time when a van like his wouldn’t have looked so out of place. He grew up in this neighbourhood and here he had chosen to stay, having never cared much for city living. Pete decided quite early in life that he preferred to be closer to the ground than to the sky. He pushed a button haphazardly, his fingers thick and boisterous, and the speakers atop his van attempted a spluttering melody. The tune was tired, then it turned sour, and Pete was forced to halt and fiddle with some wiring, the skin on his face all loops and furrows that sharpened with concentration.

At first, Pete was taken aback by the way his hometown had transformed in his absence. He remembered his first paper round at Ali’s newsagents and had taken quite a blow when he found that it no longer existed, a block of new-build two-bed flats freshly erected in its place. The local fish and chip shop had morphed into a Ladbrokes, and the club where he first dabbled with drugs was now a poncey gastropub. The children’s home he once lived in had been extended and renovated. He moved around the town like a man uninvited, or unwelcome. His surroundings seemed to him like an old recording of a TV programme, with adverts that are no longer relevant, promoting offers that are no longer available and anticipating the premiere of shows that had long since played and rerun.

Pete spent much time flirting with the idea of some utopic kind of fresh start. But it was never more than that; idle flirting with the notion of choices and options, it was always ‘I could’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘I might’. That he’d never leave his hometown was a blatant truth. He felt increasingly drawn to it’s centre, as though at the mercy of some intense magnetic pull, gloriously free but also inexplicably trapped. He squirmed beneath the pressures of subsistence and livelihood, though that had much less to do with ethics than reputation. Pete’s renown hung from his neck like a rusted chain and it jerked him back with every attempt at change. Those he once called friends were now firmly hidden behind barriers made of cufflinks and booster seats, their lives far too nuclear for the prospect of intrusion by a tainted man.

The closest Pete had to family was Jack S, who acquired the capital S so that the carers wouldn’t confuse him with Jack M. Pete and Jack S shared a bedroom growing up, though their companionship didn’t stretch much further than joint sprees of arson and the odd angst-driven rampage through the care home they grew up in. Several desperation-infused pints of lager drove Pete one night to give Jack S a call, and off the back of that he landed part-time cleaning shifts at the local swimming baths. Pete felt grateful for Jack S’ aid, even if his employment was hoisted by pity. But a part-time cleaning wage leaves little to the imagination, and so Pete bought a pre-owned ice cream van and worked for himself on the side. From that point onwards, he went about his work like it was ritual, partly because it sustained him, but also because it did much more than that.

sThe thin, jerky jingle of Pete’s van simmered before being lost to the engine’s murmur as he made his first stop at the mouth of a cul-de-sac of council homes. He knew his regular customers better than the freckles on his own hands, and he could relay their usual orders, too, on a good day. Wendy and Dave were usually the first to appear, their house being the closest to the corner on which Pete parked. They asked for two 99s in waffle cones and a small tub for their Jack Russell, before initiating the customary pantomime in which Dave insisted on paying for the latter, whilst Pete persistently declined. Lynn from up the road ordered a lager and lime. She would usually be wearing pyjamas, or a dressing gown, and whatever pair of shoes were closest to the door when she heard him coming. Her ex-husband used to buy a white chocolate Magnum. Pete was pleased to hear that Lynn’s eldest, Sarah, had recently given birth to a baby boy. Whilst Pete smiled, Lynn relished and beamed, her fat thumb swiping excitedly through a gallery of pictures. Two brothers from number three made their regular appearance too, and with them came two shit-eating grins that told they had been lucky enough to scrounge fifty pence each from their grandma. They bought screwballs.

Pete moved on to the next street on his orbit and rested his van in front of a public library, with wood in its windows and chains on its gates; the library where he met Amy. Not that they went there to read, that was never their thing. They’d sit on its grass with groups of friends through the warmest months of their adolescence, all grazed knees and bottled cider, and cigarettes stolen from older siblings and ten pound bags of low grade weed, and clipper lighters hijacked so that they’d emit a larger flame. Until there was somewhere else to go, they went to the library.

A few minutes passed before Pete detected a sheepish greeting from the side window of his ice cream van, and he had to lean slightly out of it to see the soul who spoke it. He was met with the round face of a little girl of no older than five. He noticed first the thick blotch of snot around her nose and then the vigour with which she gripped her pound coin. Before he was able to ask her what she would like she started to cry, and it went on like that for what felt like a while, Pete staring, the little girl howling. He grabbed a sherbert-dipped cone with a sense of urgency and loaded it with whipped ice cream before drenching it in three different types of sauce. It was a frantic attempt at resolution, with the sauce resembling something under which Pete wished he could bury his head. By the time he got to the toppings the curdling mess was flowing down his hands like mercury, yet he continued, and the ice cream quickly turned into a brand new type of disaster. Pete leaned towards the girl and forced the monster he created into her tiny hands, before retreating to his seat and fleeing the scene, hands sticky with syrup and hair slick with sweat.

As Pete joined the traffic of a main road he grew overwhelmed with thoughts of Amy. He had become a man submerged in churned up echoes of the past, of pert breasted youth, of days spent in bed with curtains that shut out the daylight, of arguments that blazed and then blazed even more in reconciliation. If he closed his eyes tight enough he could still picture how red her hair would look when spread across white pillows, or how hauntingly blue her eyes looked when she cried. Everything he did was for Amy. When Pete started his round, a different type of round, it was to sustain him and Amy, less in the ways of money than of personal supply. They smoked and swallowed and snorted Pete’s profit from the comfort of a friend’s flat in a high-rise tower block, a slight upgrade from the library grounds. From here they would embark on sporadic escapades to meet punters in Pete’s Volkswagen Lupo, with Amy completing exchanges from the passenger seat window as his personal decoy. She spoke with a voice so sweet that it made people blush, but none more so than Pete.

No sooner was Pete on the main road than a small dog ran through the gap between Pete’s van and the car in front, reaping havoc in the roads. Pete was dragged up from the pits of recollection with a startling tenacity, braking just in time for the dog to pass unscathed, only for it to be met with the bumper of an oncoming car on the opposing road side. The dog was limp for a few seconds and then it scarpered and Pete wasn’t sure if it was ok, but the dog was now so far out of sight that he had no choice but to move on and let the flow of the traffic resume. The sugary sound of the music coming from his van felt wrong then, so much so that Pete sighed with satisfaction when he set it to mute. The force with which the van braked had spilled half of Pete’s stock onto the floor so that all he could think of now was the mess he would have to clean up, until a little while up the road he clocked the dog’s weeping owners, and the mess didn’t seem much of a grievance after all. He made several stops after the dog incident before he felt truly calm, or at least somewhat calmer, all the while serving twisters and double chocolate cones with shaking, sticky hands and a voice to match.

Life felt so easy when Pete was with Amy. His sense of self felt so sure back then; so void of doubt. Nowadays, his skin felt like an ill-fitting suit, with creases he couldn’t straighten out, and stains that wouldn’t budge. One of Pete and Amy’s friends threw a party one night in their parents’ home and Pete had just scored a load of ecstasy; tiny round pills with Playboy bunnies pressed into one side. Pete remembered how innocuous they looked back then, the wholesome pinkness of the things, the familiar little logo. The whole party took those tablets like they were nothing more than sweets. The house oozed and boomed with music and euphoria, bodies were tangled and intertwined across couches, people danced until daylight and then closed the blinds and curtains and danced some more. Eventually, the drugs wore off and reality ensued with Richter scale magnitude. Someone had taken too much and choked on their own vomit, their body now defunct and flaccid at the bottom of the stairs.

Pete’s van turned a corner and he found himself on the last street of his circuit, a lacklustre stretch of red-brick semis with more concrete driveways than front gardens, and upturned wheelie bins with their contents splashed across the floor. It hadn’t taken the police long to trace the killer pills back to Pete. The rest of his connivance unravelled like clockwork and he was taken into custody within a matter of days. Before they tried him for manslaughter they tried him for murder, and although he escaped prosecution for either, both charges may as well have been seared and sewn into his flesh. Amy sobbed in the courtroom when they gave him ten years. Pete hadn’t known she was pregnant, but by then her bump was showing, and she rested her elbows upon it as she held her head in her hands. She never came to visit.

Throughout the time Pete served in prison, he dreamt tirelessly of his child. He didn’t know, at first, how he could better himself, but he took up reading for a start. With letter after handwritten letter he attempted to sustain Amy and his relationship as though force feeding it through a rubber tube, or breathing oxygen into lungs that had long since deceased and began to rot. Guilt vibrated relentlessly through his body like plucked elastic. He pleaded and begged to see his child, to no avail. Amy must have thought it was safer that way. Perhaps she met someone else. The prospect of visitation grew further and further out of reach, Pete’s attempts at contact only made things worse, any relief that could come from the conclusion of his sentence fizzled into oblivion.

Pete neared the house at the end of the street and parked beside its garden path, a spot he parked in many times over the years, in his trusty old Lupo. He’d been chased down the garden path a handful of times after sneaking into the bedroom window on the left. Amy’s parents never did approve of him, even then. You could get into that bedroom from the roof of the shed, if you pushed up off the guttering and found your footing on the thin sill of the window pane. When he first started his work as an ice cream man, he came here on a whim. He still remembers the first time he saw a young boy run down that path, a young boy with claret red hair and eyes that poked and prodded his soul, and a nose as wide as his, and a voice as sweet as his mother’s. He still remembers the boy’s mother, who recognised him from the door frame, who softened when he thought she’d rage, and watched. And that’s how they would pause sometimes, at opposite ends of the same path. For years it went on like that; never more than that.

#Pete turned off the engine and moved through to the back, having decided to make a start at clearing the swirling, sickly cocktail of mess on the van floor. A handful of customers came and went before Pete resigned himself to the fact that the red-headed young man and his mother wouldn’t be making an appearance that day. He found his seat and prepared to set off again, but not before noticing a newly erected SOLD sign. The bold red lettering taunted him from it’s post, so much so that he couldn’t bear to look for long. He climbed steadily out of the van and walked the rest of the way home, leaving the van and its keys behind.

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