“Cookies and cream, vanilla, wild berry, ginger and chocolate, lemon sorbet…”
I stand behind the ice cream display cabinet, gently flexing my ice scoop; it has this little curved metal blade inside the cup to make it easier to cut through the ice cream, and when you squeeze the handle, the blade whizzes along the concave metal. I am waiting for a 4-year-old kid’s mother to finish reading him the labels. I know that he won’t be allowed to choose anyway. He will want chocolate. But his mother will advise against it, because she knows he will drip it all over himself, as 4-year-olds will, and stain his clean white T-shirt. But despite this knowledge she still reads all the choices out to him. Because she is an enlightened mother. Not a dictator. I glance up to the sea of faces queuing behind the mother and her child. A mixture of hopeful and happy, sweaty and impatient and exhausted and resigned. Some of the kids are screaming. I can’t hear them above the drone of the coffee machine and ice cream freezer combined, but I can see their open mouths, sweaty hair plastered to their foreheads, flustered mothers desperate for release. The heat must be pushing 41 degrees back here, the warm air extracting from the freezer blowing onto my bare legs. I wonder why they don’t stay in the cooling shade under a tree, or better still, home, where it is quiet and calm. Of course I am glad they don’t. After all, my livelihood depends on their desperation to do something nice with their kids. And, in turn, it puts food in my kids’ mouths. Once again I am grateful that the last place you’d find my kids would be in an ice cream queue. Years of left-over congealed ice cream for afters will do that to you. For some reason it was always the strawberry ice cream that got left. Gummy, sugary strings of fructose, too pink to be true.
Florian’s mum has settled on vanilla, as I knew she would, Florian is miserable as I knew he would be. I feel for him. It’s the equivalent of reading someone a list of delectable sex options: “cunnilingus with a side of breast massage” or “doggy style with a bit of hearty slapping” only to be then told “Actually, no, we’re doing missionary. Again.” I make sure the scoop for Florian is extra large so that at least some of it will drip on his T-shirt and he won’t want his dinner. Hoping that in some subliminal way, the mother will learn from this experience and let him choose next time. She seems almost surprised when I say “90 cents please” as though it has only just occurred to her that she might have to pay. Delaying the queue behind her by another precious 20 seconds. Panic-stricken, she scrabbles in her oversize bag, as if I were a child-welfare officer asking to see her parental license to prove she is a fit mother. Lucky for her, and all the other parents here, temporary memory loss isn’t a criterion for being a good parent.
“Next please!” I shout with gritted grin. Gaily keeping up the mythology of an ice cream parlour being all about the fun and ice cream being all about summer joy.
Next up is little Lucy. After I hand her a cone of strawberry, she changes her mind, and also realises something is missing. She wants vanilla after all, with hundreds and thousands AND chocolate sauce on top. The mother smiles apologetically as though her daughter were a force of nature that it would be pure folly to refuse. Little does she know that we have a special cone-stack reserved for these special customers. The box of 400 cones that one of the part-timers accidentally dropped one hot day in the storeroom, that are slightly cracked, not visible to the eye, but that will crumble with the slightest pressure. 3-year-olds don’t have the fine motor skills needed to navigate this crumbly delicate. I take back the rejected ice cream and carefully balance a hollow scoop of vanilla onto the fragile cone, before throwing on a smattering of sprinkles and then covering it in sauce. If the scoop doesn’t just fall clear off the cone as soon as she walks out onto the pavement, she will lick it to reveal a chasm of air underneath, with nothing but broken dry cone to comfort her. Next time, I can guarantee, she will smile and ask for a normal scoop. I consider my job here purely educational. I am doing these parents a favour. I’m the ice cream parlour equivalent of super nanny. Without me, these children would grow up to be raging monsters. Without me, these parents would be snivelling wrecks by the end of the summer. I am sure.
While serving the next customers I mull over the marketing possibilities of my “ice cream therapy” diet where you feed your kids ice cream every day for a year and see what happens. It worked for me. My kids crave sausages and carrot sticks the way other kids crave sugar, and I can walk by the most enticing ice cream stall in any park, head held high, without any screaming toddlers dragging behind me.
The next mother in the queue wants to be chummy. She thinks I want to be her friend and talk to her just because I smile at her while trapped behind a counter, the hot blast of air on my legs and nothing else to do but serve her. She leans in and says conspiratorially “So, what’s YOUR favourite flavour?” Anyone who has ever worked in gastro before knows, really knows, NEVER to ask this question, or at least not to go ahead and order what is recommended as a result. That the answer really depends on what old stock you have mouldering away in the kitchen or storeroom. My “favourite” flavour is inevitably going to be that ice cream flavour that someone forgot about in the back of the walk-in; one of the great creations we had come up with one late drunken staff meeting with a name like “gherkin and forest spice” or “plum and cumin” or “nougat goats milk”, that we are desperate to sell today before the use-by date is over. I tell her that we are the ONLY ice cream parlour to even serve that flavour, which is true, but doesn’t necessarily recommend it. She will smile and feel smug and feel she has got a better deal than all those “normal” customers ordering chocolate and vanilla. I smile back, flexing my ice scoop some more.