The heat and humidity of a New York City summer can be unbearable, but what makes it worse is a noise that arrives every day, two blocks away, 31 floors below my window. Yes, it’s that loud that I can hear it even from the top of my building, and it drives me mad.
It happens every day at lunchtime: the same ice-cream van, and all I can hear is that damned jingle playing the same tune over and over. In my youth, it was Greensleeves; now, it’s something I don’t even recognize, but it’s certainly something that jolly little men called Mr Tonibell or Mr Softee or Mr Whippee don’t mind hearing a million times over.
Every time I hear it, however, I want to run out and punch their lights out (why could they never spell their names properly, anyway? That was another thing that always bugged me. Even as a child, I was a grammar pedant).
I have a weird relationship with ice-cream. I know that my first was in the Kardomah café in South Wales in Cardiff, the closest city to Newport, where I spent my early childhood.
A trip to Cardiff was a big event. Mum used to buy coffee from the Kardomah and, having chosen her beans, would wait to have them ground to dust while my brother Nigel and I ate the vanilla ice cream dome from a small steel tray and with a tiny metal spoon. I can still taste that metal and feel the joy of the wafer as it sculpted the perfect shape to a melting pulp. I remember the sadness of loss, swirling the last of the warm, liquid yellow, that meant it was time to go home.
Ice-cream was a big treat, but it came with its stresses. My parents couldn’t always afford to buy it, especially at the seaside, where everything was extortionate. On the rare occasions when they could, I craved the choc-ice but had to make do with an Orange Maid lollipop. When I had my first choc-ice, it was a bit of a letdown, anyway.
First, the chocolate melted, and the crisp exterior was quickly ruined by the ice cream seeping through the cracks. Before you were halfway through, your fingers were juggling chocolate, cream, sweat and sand – and, often, tears, when you dropped the whole thing onto the beach when the soggy mess slipped from your grasp.
My hands would be left with a combination of brown and yellow warm muck which, for a someone who even at a young age had OCD about cleanliness, ruined the whole experience.
As a child who used to constantly come in from the garden, holding out my grubby hands and moaning “Dirt, dirt” and demanding that I be washed, the whole choc-ice thing was never going to work for me.
I didn’t have money to spend on ice-cream during my school years. I could just about stretch to a Tip Top – a long piece of flavored ice that was wrapped in such strong polythene, you had to bite the top off to get at the stick, often resulting in the whole thing then leaping out of its packaging and onto the pavement.
My mum made me very healthy packed lunches: a mcvities.co.uk Penguin chocolate biscuit was her only nod to junk food) and I used to look on with envy at my friends who could not only buy chips from the Ranch fish shop in Bridgend (where we had moved), but follow it up with a mountainous swirl of white ice cream on a lollipop. How I craved that disgusting brick sculpture.
The doyen of ice-cream, though, was the 99 – an ice cream cone with a flake of chocolate stuck in the top; or, even better, two flakes. I bought my first one out of my student grant when I went to university (there were books as well, but I remember this as being the first moment I realized what it felt like to have your own money and do what you liked with it). They had to be cadbury.co.uk flakes, too.
What I liked about cones was that they were easy constructions. All the melting goo would seep nicely through the structure and you would never have to get your hands dirty. But they don’t make cones like they used to. In my youth, they were the size of buckets; then, along came posh people like Häagen-Dazs with their sugar cones, designer clothed cones et al, wiping out another chunk of my childhood.
I actually like Häagen-Dazs, but heck, it’s expensive. And sometimes, it’s too soft. I like my ice cream just so: not so hard that it looks as impenetrable as Iceland at Christmas; nor so soft that I might as well have bought it in a can and drunk it.
In fact, so fussy have I become about ice cream that I bought myself an ice cream maker. If anything stayed still long enough, I froze it. But now it lies in the back of a cupboard because, surely, the thing about ice cream is that it’s supposed to be a treat, not a chore: something that someone does for you. Your only task is to enjoy it – and not in that ghastly way that American TV characters do by diving into it head first every time a crisis beckons.
Like everything else, though, it melts into nothingness; it’s actually the one food that is the perfect metaphor for life. It looks promising and appetising at the start, but you don’t have to dig very far below the surface to know that it doesn’t take much for it to disappear.
But hey, folks, that’s okay. There will always be more ice-cream. Just as there will always be more life.
Now, excuse me while I go practice my Greensleeves jingle.
Miss Jackee has a job to do.