The importance of ice cream, by Ben Warden
It’s 26 degrees. Sat out in the park. I’m sticky, despite the loose dress and sun hat I found in the sale. There is a breeze that drifts off the pond and I can’t complain about the weather, not really. We’ve been waiting for it to turn nice for months. I’m trying to concentrate on my book; a gruesome murder mystery with a gruff detective, who I imagine looks like my nephew. Maybe because he’s sarcastic and awkward around women.
My skin prickles. It seems to be getting warmer. Jim sits next to me. Twenty-seven years we’ve been married. He’s making that throat clearing noise that makes my skin crawl and shuffling his Sunday paper. There’s a wave of sadness with the heat, and I realise that it’s not the sun that’s making me sticky. As if 26 degrees wasn’t enough, it seems I’m having another one of my ‘personal summers’. I rest my book on the arm of the bench. The sun flares at the edge of my glasses and I take my hat off to fan myself. I have a desperate desire to take all my clothes off, but I imagine the park authorities would have something to say about that. Not to mention the fact that it would give several people quite a scare. I smile to myself and keep flapping the hat; left to right, right to left.
By the gates there are four girls. Two around nine-years-old and two about five. The older ones are asking the younger ones to hold hands. I can hear them saying that the road is dangerous and Carol wanted them to hold hands. The younger ones are being awkward, as younger ones can be. I can’t help but smile at them. If we were closer, I’d be asking the little ones what’s wrong and winking at the older girls to let them know that they’re doing a great job. It’s nice to see children taking responsibility. Ever since the London riots, Jim has ranted about how kids know their rights but not their responsibilities. I think he’s got a point, but it gets old when he’s holding court over dinner for the third time that week.
I like the buzz in the park. There’s the coo of pigeons, honk of geese; there’s the echoed chatter of strangers and background purr of water. It’s a restful buzz. One that doesn’t interfere, but let’s you know there’s life everywhere. Jim puts his hand on my leg and I brush it away because I’m warm enough already.
My head swivels, an instinct caused by a child’s cry. It freezes me for a mere moment, like it used to. Across the park I see them. He’s maybe three. He’s fallen just a foot or two and there’s shock on his face, mixed with expectation. He won’t react until his Mum looks at him. Then he’ll read her face and cry, or laugh. It all depends on her.
‘Don’t you miss that, Jim?’
‘There’s a little boy over there. He wouldn’t have cried if she hadn’t pulled that face at him. Do you remember when ours used to look at us like that?’
‘Uh huh,’ he mumbles over the broadsheet.
‘I do miss it. It’s odd now Mel’s left.’
‘Not just quiet, it’s still. It’s quiet here, but it’s not still.’
I look out across the lake and soak in all the bustle. Twenty-three years of having kids at home; all that energy gone in an instant.
‘It’s just funny to adjust.’
‘She’ll be back,’ he says, without raising his head.
‘I know, I know.’
I’m mostly trying to convince myself. I think she’s going to travel over the summer break, which would mean not seeing her until Christmas. I’ll miss her if she does, but it’s what I would have done at her age.
The heat is subsiding now, but I can still feel my cheeks burning. I think about getting a drink, or an ice-cream. The last time I had an ice-cream I was sat on the Wolds with Jim, Mel, Andy and Sarah. I can’t remember if it was three or four years ago, it might have been longer.
‘When did we come here last?’ I ask.
‘I think it might have been with the kids, when they were little. Maybe fifteen years. That’s mad. It’s funny how things change.’
‘I just mean—look at these Mums! Nurturing their kids, looking after each other, bringing life into the world. Endless energy. I just don’t have that anymore.’
I’m trying to find a way to explain it, but it’s not coming. I look around for inspiration.
‘It’s like the flowers, isn’t it? Everyone has their season. I suppose I have to realise that’s not who we are anymore.’
I take a breath. I can feel the anxiety, but my clammy skin reminds me it’s just a dip. I should probably get that drink, or that ice-cream.
‘Listen to me wittering on. ‘It’s like the flowers!’‘
I try to brush it off, but I can’t.
‘I mean they still need us. They ring and come home, but you become a support rather than—I don’t know. We’re not flowers now, we’re like bridges.’
I turn to him and he looks up from his paper.
He hasn’t listened to a word.
‘What are you on about? Bridges?’ He says, filling my silence.
‘Oh, Jim. I’m having a conversation with you!’
It’s then that the tears come. Just one or two. They’re not really mine, but it feels overwhelming.
‘Oh, Annie. You daft old bat. I’m sorry.’ He shoves the paper aside and looks straight at me. There’s a twinkle there. One that comes less often, but has never gone. ‘What is the matter with you at the moment?’
‘I’m sorry. It’s just this stupid change. I’m red hot and I can’t stop thinking about-‘
‘Come here,’ he says, giving me a hug. ‘Why don’t we get an ice-cream? When did we do that last, hey?’
I can’t help but smile at him.
‘I reckon it was probably sat on the Wolds with the kids. Gosh, that was a while ago.’