KATE COLLINS – NORTH WEST
BEST SERVED COLD
New Brighton looked like a black and white silent film. The candy floss stands were abandoned and collecting cobwebs. The lights in the amusement arcade had flickered, faded and given up. Even the seagulls seemed pretty fed up with it all, as they contended with sheets of icy drizzle falling on another typically dreary Saturday afternoon. It was as if the world had been put onto mute- everything miniature and sucked into a soft, broad silence that dragged on and on for weeks. The only sound was a curious one: a melancholy, atonal rendition of Greensleeves murmured from the faltering speakers on top of Peter Bevan’s ice cream van.
Peter stood at the back of the vehicle, scanning the promenade for signs of life. The beach was desolate, littered with empty cans of own-brand energy drinks that stood erect in the sand like budget monoliths. It was a sorry sight. He sighed and turned to walk back to the driver’s seat, passing the gaudy pink lettering that read ‘Mind That Child!’ on the rear doors. Mind what child? He gave a huff of derision as he hauled himself up behind the steering wheel. Peter hadn’t served a child an ice cream in months. It was October. Who in their right mind gets a 99 Flake in October? He gave a forlorn glance to the stacks of wafer cones, going soft and stale in the back of the van. The little waffle obelisks had started to crumble and were now being enjoyed by a small, robust colony of ants. This was the ice cream man’s lot; June through August was the peak of sales (provided the English weather was cooperative.) Even then, his business was swiftly being stolen by these upmarket independent ice cream- or as they called it, ‘gelato’- sellers that boasted weird and eclectic flavours like ‘papaya.’ People in New Brighton could barely pronounce ‘papaya’, and yet they were lapping it up by the scoopful. And this doesn’t even come close to the problems introduced by the sudden surge in popularity for frozen yoghurt. In Peter’s opinion, whoever it was that invented frozen yoghurt deserved to spend eternity in the deepest pits of Hell suffering a brainfreeze so intense it was reminiscent of dental drilling.
He flicked off Greensleeves and stared at the rolling black waters of the Mersey, his vision inhibited due to the ever-driving rain. Feeling cynical, he flicked on Morecambe and Wise’s ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ so that it crooned out of the speakers and down the prom. With an unhealthy sounding ‘clunk’ he compromised with the van on a gear and was about to muster the energy to put his foot down, when the hearty ‘Bring me looove’ was interrupted by the harsh rap of knuckles on glass.
Oh, sod off, he thought, confident that this must be another group of bored, feckless teenagers coming to order ice cream with painfully forced innuendos- ‘is the ice cream defrosted, or is it… HARD?’ Hilarity ensues. God give me strength.
He went into the back of the van and slid open the window, ready to give his best surly expression, but stopped when he was met with the eager ruddy faces of a couple in their early twenties. The woman shouted through the rain, “ARE YOU SERVING ICE CREAM?”
Peter didn’t really know what to say, so he went with: “It’s OCTOBER.”
“YES WE KNOW, BUT WE HEARD NEW BRIGHTON DOES THE BEST ICE CREAM.” Poor souls. Peter internally gave thanks for the fact that no matter how hard times got, at least he wasn’t like these two: holidaying in New Brighton. He felt spurred on to offer them some words of condolence, but none came and so the very least he could do was give them what they wanted.
“IT’S NO GELATO.” He said. They laughed. The rain began to lessen to a finer mist, one which did not require them to yell.
That was when he spotted it. The man’s t-shirt. A dark green background with a stencil of a cow on it. The same cow that had been following Peter everywhere. The horrible, inescapable cow. The very cow that kept him awake at night with spiteful bovine nightmares. And, as always, above the cow were the words ‘The Cardboard Lovers.’ Peter’s face darkened.
“Nice t-shirt,” he said as he proceeded to construct the most vehemently made 99 Flake in the history of soft serve ice cream.
“Oh yes,” the man said, grinning. “Me and Judy have been Lovers fans for years. We met at a gig actually- it was one of those ‘at first sight’ things. They just started to play ‘Shines but Dimly’ when she spilt her drink all over my jeans!”
Peter seethed. He handed over his monstrous creation. The ice cream spilled over the sides of the cone like a still from a disaster movie, the moment the avalanche slid from the mountain. Thick, messy lashings of raspberry sauce in place of the blood of those killed in the event, a broken tree trunk of a crumbled Flake limply stuck into the snowy peaks. The man looked startled for a second, but then accepted it when he saw Peter’s narrowed eyes. Change was curtly passed from hand to hand and Peter shut the window without saying goodbye.
He gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his fingers drained of colour. The van lurched into motion and he jabbed at the stereo. The radio burst into life.
“Coming up: our Song of the Week- The Cardboard Lovers with ‘Means of Support.’ I tell you, these guys can do no wrong- critics are calling them the Beatles of our generation. Everyone bow down to Gaz Whileman, a lyrical genius who-” The radio stopped short as Peter attacked it with a nearby pot of hundreds and thousands. Gaz Whileman. Gaz Whileman isn’t even his real name! His name’s Ian! He lived with his mum until he was thirty for Christ’s sake! Gaz Whileman is an epidemic, like bird flu, only nastier and with a pretentious haircut. Gaz Whileman is the sort of idiot who puts a cow on his album cover and pretends that it’s a statement. What happened to the real musicians?
He could almost see Gaz’s smug, shiny pinched face staring at him through the rain.
“Sorry, Pete, mate… Musical differences, y’know.”
Peter sped along the prom, past the bowling alley and the Floral Pavillion. His teeth grinding to a powder as he imagined all the things he’d like to do to Gaz Whileman. He turned the van round a particularly sharp corner and hit the brakes when a sullen thunk came from behind. He turned slowly, his breath audible from his flared nostrils. His guitar had fallen out of the cupboard in the back and onto the floor. He stared at it. A custom Gibson in a deep blue, missing two strings and caked in a thick layer of dust. It reminded him of ‘The Sword in the Stone.’ That Gibson was his Excalibur. Now look at it. Now look at him.
It was on that sodden, humdrum Saturday afternoon in that monochromatic, washed up sea-side town that Peter Bevan made a choice. He rummaged around in the van and eventually found a scrunched up Cornetto wrapper and a black biro that had almost run out. He sat in silence for a good minute, just staring out of the windscreen, before leaning the wrapper on the dashboard and putting the pen to it. Once he had finished, he held it up at eye level and smiled.
‘Peter Bevan and the 99s.’