Authors: Malcolm Pryce
He was reading a letter and looked up at the noise of our approach. He folded the letter and put it back in the envelope but instead of putting it away he laid it carefully down on the counter. He had the air of someone who wanted to talk about its contents, but would prefer to be asked rather than bring the subject up himself.
I nodded towards the letter. ‘Good news?’
‘Very good actually, Mr Knight, since you ask. Usual is it?’
Without waiting for the answer he turned to the ice cream dispenser, held a cornet under the Mr Whippy nozzle and laid a gentle hand on the tiller.
‘Is it a girlfriend?’
‘You know very well my vocation forbids such pleasures. Since you enquire, I can tell you my letter is from a publishing firm in London who have expressed interest in my treatise on the role of ice cream as analgesic of the soul.’
‘You’ve written a book?’
‘My life’s work; not finished, of course.’
‘What’s it called?’ asked Calamity.
The Primal Ice Cream
‘What’s it about?’ I asked.
‘It is difficult to sum up in a few words, but it concerns the nature of vanilla as the spiritual keyhole to paradise.’
There was a slight pause in which we strove to formulate the obvious reply, but there wasn’t one.
‘Got any good flavours coming up?’ said Calamity.
Sospan brightened. ‘Autumn season starts in September, it’s going to be a humdinger. I think you’ll be impressed. Lot of cutting-edge stuff, flavours that haven’t been seen before in ice cream.’
‘I expect it’s still all under wraps for now,’ I said.
Sospan considered. ‘Well, seeing it’s you, Mr Knight, and Calamity, I might just give you a little peek.’ He pulled a notebook from the breast pocket of his white ice man’s coat and flipped it open. ‘You’ll like these.’ He put on a pair of reading glasses and read from his notes. ‘Rose water.’
‘Mmm,’ said Calamity, ‘that sounds good.’
‘Although I’m not sure whether to call it that or something more evocative such as Scheherazade.’
‘I think Rose water is better, if you call it that other name no one round here will know what it is,’ said Calamity.
‘Does it matter? They can always taste it, can’t they?’
‘But they’ll say, hey, tastes a bit like roses.’
Sospan looked a trifle flustered. One of the continuing struggles of his life was the disconnect that seemed to exist between his role, as he saw it, and the way the townspeople viewed it. To Sospan, to classify his vocation as dispensing ice cream was like saying the priest who administered the sacrament handed out biscuits.
‘Tell us another one,’ I said.
This time he read the puzzled expressions on our faces and continued quickly, ‘That’s a sacred tree, much prized in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It was the only tree in Hiroshima to survive the atom bomb.’
‘I’m not sure about that one,’ said Calamity.
Sospan consulted his notes again. ‘Then we’ve got Sea Cucumber, Ambergris, Spanish Fly, and Potato.’
Calamity looked glum. ‘Potato sounds a bit boring.’
Sospan acquired that look of infinite patience that the artist who paddles in the wilder experimental shores learns to assume. ‘I tell you what,’ he said, ‘try this: it’s the centrepiece of the autumn collection. I have high hopes for it; it intertwines a variety of approachable themes that even the day-trippers can enjoy while at the same time it contains within it notes of complexity that will satisfy the educated palette.’ He pulled out a tub from the fridge that was marked only with a code as if the exact identity must remain a secret for a while. He scooped out two small testing samples and laid them on mini wafers like canapés. We popped the morsels into our mouths and savoured. It was very fishy and sharp, even seaweedy.
‘I haven’t decided on a name yet,’ he explained, ‘but I was thinking of Mermaid’s Boudoir.’
‘It’s very fishy,’ said Calamity. ‘What’s in it?’
‘Fish milt,’ said Sospan with evident pride at his ingenuity.
‘Fish what?’ said Calamity.
The ice-cream man turned pink. ‘Well . . . not sure if I should . . . you know . . .’
‘It’s OK, Sospan, she’s seventeen now, she’s grown-up.’
‘I saw a corpse last year,’ added Calamity as further illustration of her maturity.
Sospan rubbed his neck with the palm of one hand. ‘It’s, you know, well . . .’
I tried to help him out. ‘When daddy fish and mummy fish want to start a little shoal . . .’
‘Yes?’ said Calamity.
‘Daddy fish sprays something on to mummy fish’s eggs,’ said Sospan.
‘Oh that,’ said Calamity, as if it was a substance one encountered every day.
‘They eat a lot of it in Russia. You needn’t pull a face, it’s quite a delicacy.’
‘Your new flavours are certainly . . . brave,’ I said.
‘I know what you are trying to say, the people round here will hate them. Of course they will, do you think I don’t know that? Do you think a man could remain sane making ice cream for the people of Aberystwyth all his life? What do they care about art? All they want is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Not just in their cornet but in everything. Louie, I’m not doing this for them, it’s for me. For my self-respect, to assuage the yearning . . .’
‘But if no one eats it, won’t it upset you?’
‘The only people who I need to care about are the reviewers for
The Iceman Cometh
. I don’t need to make a lot, just a few scoops, that’s all.’
‘Any others on your list.’
‘Just one, Tempura.’
‘Mmm!’ We both chorused bogus enthusiasm to soothe his wounded pride.
‘How do they collect the fish milt?’ asked Calamity.
Fortunately, before he could reveal this particular trade secret we were distracted by the sharp cry of a gull swooping low over the kiosk. It was followed by a short intense bray of joy, and the smell of donkey wafted across signalling the arrival of my father, Eeyore, leading the donkeys on the morning’s first traverse. In contrast to the rest of the townspeople that hot August morning he was wearing a suit, with bits of straw stuck to it. He greeted us with a sprightly cheer that belied his age and slung the halters loosely on to the emergency-exit door bar at the back of the kiosk. Sospan put down a washing-up bowl of water for the donkeys and they lapped happily. There were seven that morning: Escobar, Spinnaker, Uncle Ho, Squirrel, Invincitatus, Anwen and Piper. There were no riders. Eeyore had long ago relinquished all pretence that the job of the donkey man had anything to do with giving rides to children. Partly because he did not like the modern variety of children very much, and partly because the job had a deeper significance. Or so he thought. Years ago, Eeyore had been a cop. When he retired, a community grateful for all the crooks he had removed from their midst presented him not with a gold watch but a different sort of time-keeper: a pendulum made of donkeys. And every day he led the caravan of mute and obliging beasts along the perimeter of the town with a rhythm that was as reassuring and predictable as the bright star that traces across the screen of an oscilloscope on a heart monitor.
Each pulse across the dark green dial proved that Aberystwyth was still hale and the fathomless oceans that lay before the cradle and beyond the grave were being held in check by the thin brown line of beasts measuring out their metronomic dung-beat.
He ran a gentle hand of greeting down Calamity’s cheeks and said, ‘What’s up?’
‘We’re looking for a ghost called Gethsemane from Abercuawg,’ she answered indiscreetly.
Eeyore’s face darkened. ‘You shouldn’t joke about such things.’
Sospan tut-tutted in rebuke.
Calamity looked from face to face in search of an explanation. ‘We shouldn’t?’
‘Gethsemane Walters,’ said Eeyore. ‘That was a terrible case.’
‘You mean,’ said Calamity, ‘you’ve heard of her?’
‘Happened in 1955. I remember it well because I was courting Louie’s mum at the time, before we moved to Llandudno. The little girl was eight or nine years old, I think. Disappeared when they were building the dam.’
Calamity stared at him, eyes wide and shining. ‘So what happened to her? Did someone do her in?’
Eeyore pulled a face as if such bluntness was inappropriate. He sighed. ‘They convicted a boy for it, young chap called Goldilocks. I was never convinced about it to tell the truth, he was no angel, used to hang out with the mob who worked at the slaughterhouse, but it never felt right to me. He was due to hang that autumn but he escaped. Hasn’t been seen since. They never found Gethsemane’s body.’
‘The girl’s mother was Ffanci Llangollen the singer,’ said Sospan. ‘She was pretty big in the forties. That was her stage name of course.’
‘That’s right,’ said Eeyore. ‘She used to run the village school. After Gethsemane went missing she left town, and set off to look for her. Far as I know, she is still looking – comes back from time to time. But the really strange thing about the case, as I remember, came the following year. On Ffanci Llangollen’s birthday a spiritualist sent her a tape recording she had made at a séance, apparently it was the voice of Gethsemane. Of course, that’s a bit hard to believe but Ffanci swore it was her and the father killed himself on account of it. Said now he knew for sure she was in heaven there was nothing worth living for.’
‘Where’s the tape now?’ I asked.
‘Stolen,’ said Eeyore. ‘They reckon it was the work of snuff philatelists.’
We bought two vanilla cornets and walked along the beach in the direction of the Pier. There was no breeze and the surface of the sea was the colour and lustre of mother-of-pearl; it was so hot the air zinged. The heat was tangible, audible . . . it quivered and made the air tingle as if it had been struck by a giant tuning fork.
‘Boy!’ said Calamity. ‘If we were in a movie we would be walking across the desert and they would be playing that violin sound they always play, the one that goes Eeeeeeeeeeee!’
‘That’s right, and then one of us would look directly at the sun and they’d play an organ chord to show that we were going to die out there and be left as bleached bones with rattlesnakes living in the breast cage.’
‘Rattlesnakes die in the direct sun, they have to keep in the shade. That’s why you have to check your boots before you put them on.’
‘I know that, it’s the movie makers who get it wrong.’
‘It’s best to move about at night. If you want to shelter in a cave during the day you throw a rock in to see if there are any rattlers in there.’
I stopped for a second; it was surprisingly difficult walking across the carpet of pebbles. Calamity paused and looked up at me. Her face was washed with honey by the early morning sun. I smiled.
She had been thirteen when we first met, with spiky hair and jeans and a scruffy parka coat, chocolate-rimmed mouth set into a permanent downturn of sullenness. You don’t need to be much of an amateur psychologist to know that the sullen resentment and aggression is mostly just a defence to hide the confusion which swirls beneath the waters of the teenage heart. It seldom goes deep. Within hours of becoming my junior partner a smile had begun to tug at the corners of her mouth which she struggled to suppress with no more success than a man on a park bench trying to read his newspaper in a gale. Like most kids she takes life at face value. This can be a disadvantage in a crime fighter but this is counter-balanced by the certainty which it gives her. Her heart is not gnawed by doubt. She has the bright unsullied soul of a puppy, and the same propensity to make innocent mistakes. But there is also an air of street wisdom about her, a suggestion of savvy that contrasts with the dizzy confusion bubbling inside her young heart. In many ways she is the daughter I never had. Only once during our years fighting crime together has the fire that dances in her eyes been dimmed. It was when she returned after her ill-fated attempt to set up on her own. We were looking into the murder of a department store Santa at the time, and unusually for us it turned out to be a case with international ramifications. Calamity ended up liaising with the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency in Los Angeles. They made a fuss of her and suggested the possibility of a preferred associative relationship, whatever that is. So Calamity made a go of it on her own. She thought the business from the Pinkertons would see her through. I was sceptical: how much business does a West Coast American operation do in Aberystwyth? But, at the same time, I was worried that my objections sprang from the selfish desire to hold on to her. I didn’t want to see her go but I felt at the time I had no right to stand in her way; if you love someone, they say, let them go. It took me a while to understand that this motto, though widely quoted, is not true. If you love someone, you’d be nuts to let them go. The whole venture only lasted a couple of weeks, just long enough for the tumbleweed of fate to pile up outside her door. I don’t think she even had a client. It was painful to watch, but I could see it taught her an important lesson about life, the one that says: in this world, people like the Pinkertons never call twice.