In the summer, the roads are filled with the shrieks and screams of
children playing, the thud of balls on tarmac and the patter-slap of
soles slapping the pavement. As the moon hangs pale in the sky and the
sun grazes the horizon, the voices bounce off the walls between the
terraced houses, echoing in shrill scales and tinny abuse, the throaty
edge of tearfulness and the backdrop of bubbling laughter. Old games
of hopscotch and skipping and tag and stick-in-the-mud. Rooted to the
spot in a stylised X, waiting for rescue, unsticking. Please Mr
Crocodile, may I cross the water. The girls in red and multi-colours
get across first and touch the far wall and run squealing back to
safety. The grinning reptile mask plastered over the face of their
chaser, arms outstretched to catch. Kiss chase, running a bit too
slowly and hiding behind insubstantial bushes, veering into front
gardens and clanging gates behind them. Arms pulled at the sockets as
small hands grab saplings to swing round, quick turn. Out of the road
as the cars crawl past, huffing drivers blaring their horns, red-faced
at the wheel. Scattering kids like grain.
In the background, the chime of the ice cream van. Jerky notes a fraction off key, hotwiring tongue to brain to desire to need. Mummy mummy can I have some change? Fumbling in pockets for loose coins, over a pound now for a 99 with flake. Mmmm, calippo to push up and crush and drink the icy deposits, strawberry splits with vanilla running into hot palms. Chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles, choc-ices leaving brown smears on cheeks and chin, wiped on t-shirts and skirts and shins, fast-melting Twisters. And always the music floating over the roofs, snaking along the thoroughfares, announching an imminent arrival, an indisputable presence. Always on the same route, fading away as it turns into other streets before the triumphant blare of return. Children clutching coins in hand, chattering in pairs, sweating and clinging to eachother in the flushes of an adrenaline high. Blood rushing to their heads as the exertion wears off and limbs tremble, panting for the cool sweetness, sugar craving.
It trundles into sight, white and blue with the sliding glass window open, old-style microphones creaking out the tune. Sticky-back plastic chart of the products plastered to the side, prices written on and scrubbed out in fat black marker. Sunsets and spangles and stars in design chaos, buy me buy me. And lurking in the back of the van the crowning glory, the machine. All grubby chrome and dirty white handles, trailing turgid drips of cream. Vibrating softly aginst the burr of the engine. Boxes of Cadbury's flakes stacked high, nozzles primed for action. And the heavy hand resting on the pumps as the ice cream man looms into sight, round face beaming as the children stream up to the counter. Handbreak on and out the back in his white apron spotted with sauce. The faces look up, money pushed over the ledge and requests demanded in imperious tones. The line trails the vehicle, children pressing up against the sides to study the menu, choice of thirty lollies, mini-milks to cornettos. But here the 99 is king. He palms the cone delicately, wafer cupped and uncrushed, swamped in rolls of finger. The splutter from the tubes as he pulls levers and twirls and feeds the machine, milking it into delicate curves and loops into the cut-off tip. Crowned with the flake, pushed deep to the root of the cone.
When I was younger I used to anticipate the arrival of the ice cream van, track its rounds. Ears straining for the sound of the chimes, taut with anxiety if they came too late. And the dreadful disappointment of autumn when he didn't come at all, the long wait of winter and the thrill of the last notes of spring, the first notes tinkling from the speakers, spilling into the still air. I would run to the man with my money hot in my moist palm, thrust them upwards, away. And he'd grin down, teeth white and shiny in his beet face, pores round and gaping and exuding the reek of sweating onions. He didn't smell of sweets and candyfloss, as we imagined, the jovial candyman. We laughed at him behind his back as we revered him to his face. His face rears large in memory, the straight nose and fatty lips, dark black stubble pushing through, visible under the skin of his jaw. I remember his eyes as being small and piggy, but perhaps that was a question of perspective, seen too often from below. His hands were dexterous and strong, wiry hair coiling round the backs of his fingers, palms smooth like the belly of a fish.
I went to buy a 99 the other day, from a static van parked by the river. Wheels bolted into grips in the road. The price had jumped up, more than doubled, and I went away again. Sometimes when I sit in the garden in the evening I hear the jingle seeping through, the same tuneless song played over and over again as the van trails the streets. I only catch a few bars before it fades into the night and the walls echo emptiness.