Chapter 8

Ice-cream Parlour


In my experience, the romantic notion of getting an ice-cream is far removed from the actual; the promised parlour atmosphere of Lady Mary’s Ice-cream Parlour was in fact uncivilised plastic tables and a numb feeding exercise for fat people. I never saw a deliriously happy family wearing their weekend best sat together in a quiet booth using their best manners to enjoy a rare ice-cream treat. No, I saw an endurance exercise for mothers.

What comes to mind is a photograph by Martin Parr, New Brighton (Young woman selling ice-cream). Kids in swimwear crowd a busy counter while a young teenage girl serves ice-cream. The photo is taken from behind the counter with the serving girl in the foreground, turned to the camera. Her face and body language tell the story: she is too busy, fed up and has a terrible teenage attitude. Behind the girl on the other side of the counter kids jostle for service, they are trying to pay, the line is too busy, ice-creams melt down their hands and arms. Anyone looking at the photo would not want to be there. The scene is somehow revolting.

Lady Mary’s Ice-cream Parlour was not located near a popular park, swimming pool or leisure facility, but in the middle of Halstead next to a barbecue shop amongst office buildings and across the road from a supermarket. At the weekend, along with three other sixteen-year-old teenage girls and the owners – a mother-son partnership – I served hordes of overweight sweaty parents and noisy children.

Children would scream, “I want ice-cream,” as if someone might think they were there for something else, and the frazzled sweaty mothers, in loose-fitting summer dresses worn to hide figures long ago stolen by childbirth or abused through excessive eating, pulled their children around by their arms, sometimes with husbands in tow. Children pressed their faces against the ice-cream cabinet glass and stared, their eyes and mouths wide like guppies, drooling at the multitude of ice-cream flavours, stabbing their snot-encrusted fingers into the glass to indicate their flavours of choice. The frustrated parents might peel their children from the glass, but like powerful adhesive stickers or magnets, the children would reaffix, mesmerised by my hand scooping the sweet sticky ice-cream balls onto their cone. I would pass the ice-cream to the parent, the ungrateful child would grab it from their hand without a thank you and shove it in their mouth, eyes glazing over as the sugar did its work.

The parlour was noisy. Everything was sticky. I was the teenager in Martin Parr’s photograph.

Before working at Lady Mary’s Ice-cream Parlour, ice-cream was my favourite food.

When I was a child, ice-cream was a sometimes-after-dinner treat with one strictly-enforced rule: we had to eat our dinner.

The passion of my hate for my most despised food, tinned peas, was as strong as my love for ice-cream. I would happily forgo any dessert but ice-cream, for its whipped sugary cream had an intoxicating hold on me, it took me to a place that soothed the misery of tinned peas.

While the rest of the family ate ice-cream in front of the television, I sat alone at the white laminate family dinner table, eyes locked on the twenty or so tinned peas on my plate while Joey, the blue family budgie, watched over me from his cage on the breakfast bar.

Oblivious to my struggles, my sisters sat in front of the television eating ice-cream while I listened to the television’s canned laughter and their spoons scraping bowls. From the kitchen doing dishes and shuffling things, Mum checked on me, making sure I was not deviously stuffing tinned peas into my mouth and spitting them in the toilet – I had been caught before. The tinned peas smelt like three-week-old dinner taken from the fridge then uncovered, and farts.

Getting me through the tinned peas was my focus on the ice-cream in the freezer four metres away. I liked chocolate flavours but would eat anything, even tropical or boysenberry, which Sam and I called “old people’s flavours.” And we had Ice Cap, a liquid chocolate that set hard atop the ice-cream.

“Shut up Marie. Who’s a pretty boy,” Breaking the silence and my concentration, Joey the blue family budgie would wolf whistle at an invisible pretty girl and peck at his reflection in his circular mirror making a high-pitched metallic scraping sound against the cage’s wire frame. “Shut up Marie,” Joey said, repeating one of his most-heard phrases.

Why Mum prepared tinned peas rather than fresh or frozen wasn’t because we were poor, it was because Dad preferred tinned peas.

Dad’s was a 1940s post-war childhood with twice brewed teabags and a mother who served tinned peas. It must have been with great affection Mum recreated Dad’s childhood with the long-life war-time flavour of tinned peas.

I did not want a post-war childhood. I hated tinned peas that turned to mush and tasted like rot and smelt like someone else’s burp breathed on me, which is why I had a 1:1 tinned peas and water swallowing technique.

After filling my mouth and not chewing – so as not to break the tinned peas’ thin legume surfaces and release the gag-inducing flavour – I counted backwards from ten and swallowed. This often requiring multiple countdown attempts.

The water-and-swallow technique had issues because a full mouth meant breathing through my nose and because smell is a significant component of taste, I could taste the tinned peas. Sitting there with a full mouth and bulging cheeks with small pieces of mashed potato floating amongst the tinned peas and water, I would look to the sky and at the edges of my mental strength will my brain to invoke the swallowing mechanism. It felt like mental abuse, like I was a quadriplegic and someone was yelling at me to walk, and my not walking was a stubborn choice or outright refusal.

Finally, my throat would relax and the mixture would flush down my oesophagus and into my gut, and with it came mental and physical relief.

One mouthful down, I had to go slow and pace myself; I could not fail.

I had to have ice-cream.

“Shut up Marie,” said Joey.

Over the years, Mum got Joey out of his cage and he would semi-fly around the room; he struggled because she clipped his wings – a practice not considered animal cruelty in the nineteen-eighties. I expect Joey’s muscles weakened from living in a cramped cage.

When Mum got Joey out of the cage, mostly he waddled around the floor or sat on our shoulders and pecked our ears. Sometimes mum walked around with Joey on her shoulder, talking to him, teaching him words or phrases. She often talked to him from the kitchen; he was her companion living in his cage on the breakfast bar between the kitchen and dinner table.

Joey would help mum discipline me when I was talking too much.

“Shut up Marie,” Mum would say to me in frustration at the family dinner table, to stop me “babbling” and talking non-stop, and seven-year-old Joey would repeat her, “Shut up Marie.” My sisters and father would laugh.

When I was about nine years old Joey was out of his cage, wandering the floor investigating. He used to look at his reflection in shiny things, including the base of the white laminate family dinner table.

Standing leant over the table drawing, I must have stepped forward as Joey hopped under the table to view his reflection in the polished stainless steel table legs.

I remember my well-worn blue fluffy sheepskin slippers, the wool had matted and clumped into dreads. The leather bottoms were smooth and slippery.

Stepping forward I crushed Joey’s tiny body with the smooth sheepskin underside of my blue slippers. He felt like nothing under my foot so it took me a moment to comprehend. I don’t remember what happened in the following moments, but Mum took Joey straight to the vet and for a few days kept him warm in the hot-water cupboard, nursing him back to health.

About four days after the event when Mum was administering Joey’s medicine, Joey on his back in her hand, he struggled, then, “He just went all limp.”

Joey died in Mum’s hands.

I do not remember anything else, but as an adult I feel I should, and as a memory, it aches. I carry the situation around in my adult memory box of guilts with other things from the past I cannot change.

At Lady Mary’s Ice-cream Parlour, I was too young to understand the economics of business and never socially intuitive enough to understand appropriate behaviour. My friend Alice, her sister Jessica and brother-in-law Rick came to the ice-cream parlour. I had promised if she ever did, I would make the biggest ice-creams she had ever seen.

When cracks formed in Alice’s double scoop ice-cream cone, she told me to stop. Jessica saw the previous monstrosity and downsized to a single scoop ice-cream, chocolate dipped. I made Jessica’s as large as a regular double scoop before plunging the ice-cream into the melted chocolate dip.

After the first layer of chocolate dip set I went in for a second encasing, forming a 5-to-10-millimetre-thick layer.

Next was Rick’s ice-cream.

Rick was a muscle-car driving man with a handlebar moustache. Rick was not a pink ice-cream flavour kind of man; he did not eat strawberry, boysenberry, or marshmallow and coconut ice. No, Rick preferred man ice-cream flavours: chocolate mud, rocky road or rum and raisin.

Rick could choose two flavours. But he chose one: chocolate mud.

To maximise Rick’s portion, I compacted chocolate mud deep into the ice-cream cone before rolling two large ice-cream balls inside the cabinet. After selecting the strongest and densest of the two, I pressed the ice-cream ball onto the cone to form a solid and impressive foundation, feeling and hearing cracking indicating a dangerous threshold. Deciding not to risk further cone-integrity, with one ice-cream ball on the cone, the hardest part was to come: landing the second ice-cream ball on top of the first.
I looked up at Rick. His face was blank and his scary gang-affiliation eyes watched me. With his arms folded across his broad chest, I could see his tattoos. Rick said nothing. I knew this meant approval.

Engrossed in my work, I had failed to notice the hush befallen Lady Mary’s Ice-cream Parlour. Finally sensing the stillness, I looked up: everyone had turned toward me; children licked ice-creams slowly, women covered their mouths with a single hand expressing nervous dread, men mindlessly ate their ice-creams while leaning forward, and other staff stopped work and turned to me, their ice-cream scoops dripping on the floor.
I paused. I felt confident. These people were about to witness something special.

Lifting the second chocolate mud ice-cream ball from the cabinet, it teetered on my scoop. With skill which can only be described as natural talent because this technique cannot be learnt, I used a swinging momentum to land the second ice-cream ball atop the first and the two ice-cream balls met with an audible thud. I heard a grown man whimper.
My left bicep flexed under the weight and the ice-cream shaded my hand. Pushing through the muscle-straining pain I lifted the finished cone up and over the counter to Rick.

Being a staunch man, Rick said little but his eyes smiled, and that was all a Lady Mary’s Ice-cream Parlour girl needs for job satisfaction.

After the transaction one of the owners approached me. “That was a really big ice-cream,” Charlie observed.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I know them.” I smiled reassuringly.

It was only a part-time weekend job but it didn’t last. The ice-cream parlour closed down. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the location; Halstead is an inland city and there is no beach, no nearby swimming pool or event centre or anything close to the parlour where you might think, “Hey, let’s go for ice-cream.” Maybe the percentage mark-up on ice-creams wasn’t high enough and for some reason, they were losing profits.

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