A tall fella is shouting, face contorted in a sneer, towering over a lass who doesn’t answer. His finger wags and points, inches from her face. She doesn’t move. The engine whines, I can’t hear what he’s saying but imagine I can.
I bang on the horn and he jumps and turns, cocking his head like a daft mutt. For a second I think he might run towards me, haul me from the drivers’ seat and give me a battering. But the lass is walking away and he looks from me to her, gives me the finger, and scarpers.
My foot shunts the brake, a stabbing motion that only half connects with the pedal. The old van groans and sways, suspension squealing like a tired wean. Sweat gathers on my brow as we slow to a stop. The indicator ticks double time and I watch her walk away; a girl I don’t know, but somehow do.
“Ya bloody great bully,” I shout in his direction. The girl wilts like a parched bloom and a strange prickle of static courses though me, heat fizzing and reigniting a series of dusty memories.
I watch her. The kelp of her hair hangs loose, mousy and unkempt, obscuring her face as she leans into a non-existent wind. Her feet curl inward: hen-toed, afraid to venture out. Just a shadow of a lass, a certain stranger but there’s a voice in my head like an echo – I know you. Eyes burning, I blink to refocus. It must be the heat, because there’s a memory hovering in my wing mirror, summoned by her gait.
It’s a stoater of a day, a wee window of summer in Clydebank. Warmth in the sun and the air still as a tomb. A voice drones from the tranny: the midday news; Harold Wilson and the troops in Northern Ireland. The words float and drift in the stagnant air, unsettled like me. I take the keys from the ignition and lean back against the split leather of the driver’s seat, watching the heat haze and the lass.
There are worse things a man can do than sell ice-cream for a living. With a view of the Clyde, Radio Four, and a soft serve cone to hand, I might be the happiest creamy in Scotland. Through the tenements and estates of Faifley, Mealkirk to Burnside, Lennox to Abbeylands and the loop back to Auchnacraig. The van totters along, each street another seam in the quilt of towers, blocks, flats, and maisonettes.
I should go. But I don’t because I’m stuck watching the lass, my head whirling on rewind.
It’s 1950. I’m seven years old and sprinting like Roger Bannister. Skinny as a rail, knees and elbows pumping. “Faither, wait! I’ve pennies for a cone!”
The white van idles by the side of the road. People mill on the grass verge eating cones brimming with white ice-cream. He glances over, a tall figure filling the serving window, all Brylcreemed hair and white-toothed smile.
A group of teenage lassies stand in a huddle. “See you then, Stevie,” one calls to him. All eyes fix on the glint of my Faither’s smile. I shout out again and he turns, eyes flashing dark. I wave, fist clasped around Ma’s coins. “That’s no your boy is it, Stevie?” Same lass, thin but pretty, chin jutting toward him, hand on her hip.
“Sadie, I keep telling you. I’m all yours.” He smiles slowly then flicks his head toward me, winking quickly; an action that says get lost and don’t tell, all at the same time. The pennies fall from my hand and roll in the gutter as he slides the window shut and starts the engine. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” starts playing from the rooftop speaker and the van pulls away. Sadie and her friends are laughing and I start running. Ma is relying on me, is my last thought as my chin hits the pavement.
“I’m sorry, Mammy.”
She’s sitting on the front step peeling tatties, her bulk filling the doorway. “Aw, son, look at your chin.” She pulls me to her bosom, doughy arms holding me tight as she coos in my ear. “My wee Iain, Scotland’s last hope.” She strokes my hair and tells me she’ll fix it. The cut on my chin, the skint knees, the weather, the world. And I think maybe she could.
She rises heavily, prising herself up with the sides of the doorframe. “Don’t worry about the cone, son.”
But I do. I worry about the ice-cream I was to buy her, and the pennies rolled into the drain. I worry about the night when he won’t come home for his tea. Because in the wee hours I hear him. He says she’s ruined, she’s let herself go. And I wonder what it means, the letting go. Mammy never goes anywhere.
From the front door I watch her walk to the kitchen. Hen-toed steps on swollen feet that struggle to hold her weight, hair falling loose to hide her face. My lovely Mammy.
But it’s 1975, and I sit like an eejit in the same van watching a lass I don’t know. Shocked by the strange similarity: the stoop of her shoulders, bend of her head, the fall and wave of her hair. There it stops, because a breath of wind might drop this lass to her knees. Still, my eyes burn. She wears Mammy’s sadness, and it melts from every step, each movement an apology.
I know what I have to do.
The ignition turns over, gurgling and whooshing like a twin tub on spin cycle. The old van lurches forward and I drive, pulling up to the kerb just ahead of where she walks. Quick as a whippet I’m in the back, opening the serving window, grabbing a double wafer cone, positioning it ready. Two swirls; one side then the other. A swift splash of raspberry sauce and a flake set at a perfect angle.
“Here, hen, this is for you.” I offer the cone as she passes, the ice-cream glistening as it warms in the sun. She starts, face flashing behind the sea of hair.
“What for?” she says.
“For nothing.” I say, and that’s not strictly true.
“I’m fine, thank you.” she says, all hollowed cheeks and pale face, eyes shifting from the ice-cream to me.
“Please, take it.” I say. “Consider it a wee taste of happiness.”
And the phrase takes me back to the maisonette on the Mealkirk Road. Mammy on the washhouse step, eating ice-cream and talking about the war. The Blitz of ’41; the wasted shipyards and flattened town. Some things can’t be rebuilt, she’d say. The heart of the Clydebank broken and never mended.
My Faither was a trainee shipbuilder. After the Blitz, his plans to build boats for the allies were ruined, so he enlisted instead. I was knee high when he returned from war. Tarred with anger, unsettled and strange, he bought the van and made a route. But the trade in ice-cream didn’t suit him and soon neither did we. The war affected him she said. Some things can’t be rebuilt.
“Mammy, when will he be back?” We’re lying on their double bed and I’m curled into her side, all warm and soft. Scones and custard.
“He’ll no be back, son.”
I turn away, chest bound tight, looking at their photo, yellow in the streetlight. Him all smiles and slicked hair, an arm around her small waist, her long brown curls escaping from a white veil.
That night she cried without making a sound. After that we didn’t talk about him anymore. I bought her ice-cream every day.
I push the cone forward, it’s beginning to drip. “A taste of happiness. It’s what my Mammy used to say. God knows, she never had much.” The lass reaches out a thin arm. “Happiness that is, not the ice-cream. She’d plenty of that.”
She stops, arm hovering by the window, brow creased. Is she offended? Worse – does she feel sorry for me? Fat Mammy’s boy selling ice-cream from a rusty van. I wait, fiery tongues of humiliation gathering heat. But her face breaks open in a smile. She takes the ice-cream, pulls it to her mouth and runs her tongue along its surface, cutting a white road through the raspberry sauce.
“Thank you,” she says, and a blush of colour sparks in those sallow cheeks. The smile stabs my sore heart.
“You’re a lovely sight.” Her bright face falls but I catch it. “No, not like that!” I avert my eyes to the counter. “Don’t pay that man any mind.” She doesn’t answer, just stands there holding the cone, lips red with sauce.
My face is aglow as I slide the window closed. I breathe a long, slow breath then turn the ignition. As the van pulls away I start the speaker. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sounds across the estate and I sing along.