An ice cream seller’s life is turned upside-down by a mysterious woman and child who he meets scavenging on the beach.
‘I’m telling you Barnaby, if Dr Who comes for me, I’m going. No question.’
‘But you wouldn’t leave me behind, would you, mummy?’
I’d seen them earlier today, the woman and her child. They’d been scuffling and scavenging among the rocks and pebbles on the beach. I knew what they were looking for. Jurassic coast, they call this stretch of the south of England. People come to Lyme Regis for the fossils scragged out from the cliffs and shuffled up on the beach by weather and tide.
Now here they were, middle of the day, queuing up at my ice cream van.
‘Of course not, Nubby. The good thing about Dr Who is that I can come back whenever I want. I can come back before I’ve gone just to remind myself to go.’
‘So how do I know you haven’t been already?’ The woman gave him a knowing smile.
Running an ice cream van in Lyme Regis is an odd occupation. Lively as a box of frogs for half the year, unemployed for the other. The key attraction, of course, is the single women. Now I’m not suggesting that there’s something irresistibly erotic about a Whippy 99 with an extra flake, but there’s something charged about being on holiday. That, and the anonymity. What happens in Lyme Regis stays in Lyme Regis.
The beach was a sea of mottled pinks and browns, lobsters, beached whales and bronzed goddesses. Identikit middle class holidaymakers – grockles, we called them – who descended on Lyme in a swarm of suntan lotion and designer beachwear, and departed as if struck by a plague, leaving only their money and their dreams.
‘Mummy, what happens if one time you come back and you haven’t had a nice time and you tell yourself not to go? If you didn’t go, you couldn’t come back.’
This one was special. She was determined but distracted, clearly having these flights of fancy with her child all the time. He was bright but thoughtful, his swimming trunks too small and his t-shirt bought for him to grow into.
‘I’d still go. Every time you say no to an adventure, a dream dies.’
‘What can I do you for, miss?’ I tried turning on the twinkle in my eye to catch hers.
‘Can I have an orange lolly, mummy?’
‘One orange lolly. And I’ll have a 99.’
‘I’ll make it an adventure for you.’
‘Just the ice cream, please.’
I knew what was coming up, even as I swirled the synthetic foam into the crisp cone. There was no way she could have had a purse anywhere in that swimming costume that hugged and caressed her in a manner that I could only dream of.
‘That’ll be two pound twenty-five, miss.’
‘Oh, I… I think I’ve left my purse on the beach. Barnaby, can you wait here while I go and get it?’
‘No problem, miss. I’ll lend you the money. Take the ice creams, have a nice afternoon on the beach, come over when you’re about to leave.’ Crafty, Jeff, crafty.
‘No, I couldn’t possibly. Wait here, Nubby.’
‘Miss, you’re holding up the queue. Believe me, it would be a pleasure to wait for you later.’
She looked me hard in the eye. Something made me shudder. Something in her look gave me the feeling as if I’d kicked a cobra. Surprised a tiger. Poked a shark.
‘I don’t have good feelings towards money-lenders,’ she said quietly, and turned.
I watched her go with equal amounts of low-key regret and lust. She worked that swimsuit well.
As I was about to serve the next crisp-burned tourist, I saw her head jerk sideways. A black car with blacked out windows was idling onto Marine Parade, alongside the beach. She looked around and those eyes had narrowed. She was planning her options and they seemed to be limited.
She snapped round and held her hand to the side of her head, as if trying to hide. Her steps quickened as she hurried back to her son and my van. Breathless, she pushed her way to the front of the queue.
‘Darling, I need you to take me to the hospital. It’s happened again.’
‘Do you mind, love, we’re just being served.’
‘I’m sorry, but my husband needs to close the van. Now, darling.’
I had no idea what she was talking about, but her eyes bored into mine with a strange combination of threat and pleading.
‘I want my ice cream.’
‘And I want the hospital. I’m terribly sorry, there’s another van along the beach.’
‘What’s happening, mummy?’
My queue – my profits – dispersed with irritated mutters. The car stopped on the road and two men, incongruous in their dark suits, stepped out. The woman snatched up her child and ran round the van. Before I knew what was happening, she had jumped in and was hiding beneath the dashboard.
‘Drive. Please. Just drive.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘You have to help me. Just drive.’
The two men were now running across the beach, stumbling on the rocks and sand. One tripped into a tourist and pushed him angrily to the sand.
‘They won’t shoot while we’re on a beach.’
They were closer now, and she flashed me a demanding look of desperation. The two men were nearly on us now. The knight-errant in me reared his improbable head and I launched myself at the driver’s seat.
The engine fired first time and I chugged along the prom, chimes clanging to warn pedestrians. By instinct more than intelligence, I drove past the black car in the opposite direction and tried to think fast.
Trying to escape in an ice-cream van is not the thing of which great movies are made. I switched off the chimes and we turned up Broad Street.
‘What are they after?’
‘They’ll have worked out where my things are on the beach by now. Shit.’
‘You hijack my van, I’ve got people following me with guns, you’re sat there nearly naked and you don’t want to talk about it?’
‘It’s a swimming costume. Have you never seen one before?’
I gave up trying to get any more out of her and we snaked through the streets in silence.
‘Where can I drop you off?’
‘I’m Alison. You’re Jeff.’
‘How do you…’ I was about to add ‘know’, but realised that she was looking at my seller’s licence, hanging from the window.
‘Mummy, is this man Dr Who?’
She looked at me again. Those eyes, those eyes.
‘Yes, kid. I’m going to be the next Doctor and this is the new design of Tardis.’
‘But it’s smaller on the inside than it is on the outside.’
‘That’s because it’s full of ice cream. Isn’t that better?’
‘I never got my ice cream, mummy. Can I have one now?’
I pulled the van over to the side of the road and climbed into the back.
‘What do you want, kid?’
‘The kid has a name. Barnaby. Or Nubby.’
‘What do you want, Nubby?’
Out of habit I threw open the hatch on the side of the van. Standing there were two men in dark suits.
‘It’s not hard to track down an ice cream van. We can make this easy for you, Mr Cooper, or we can make it difficult.’
I slammed the hatch shut again and leapt into the driver’s seat, gunning the engine like it was a Formula One car, not a knackered old diesel with a dodgy exhaust.
‘What’s going on? Why don’t you call the police?’ I shouted over the complaining engine. ‘And how do they know my name?’
‘Mummy, this doesn’t sound like the Tardis.’
‘Call the police!’
‘It’s not as simple as that.’
The streets of Lyme Regis are tortuous and baffling to an outsider. Few streets cross at right angles and the old buildings cause unpredictable narrowings of the road. By a combination of middle of the road driving and choice of side roads, I was staying ahead of the black car and I avoided the only traffic light in the town.
Cobb Road runs down from the edge of town towards the coast and the famous Cobb, that curving defence against the sea. There Meryl Streep had stood in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a black hood hiding her hair, as Jeremy Irons beseeched her to return. Now an ice cream salesman, a woman in a swimsuit and a Dr Who-obsessed child drove towards the harbour wall that had provided that iconic image.
And then a brainwave hit mine. I cut sharp right into Ozone Terrace. To the end and around the corner, and we were walled into a smaller road. I stopped the van.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I need time to think. If we just keep driving, we’ll run out of fuel. This gets through diesel like a priest gets through communion wine.’
One of the men got out of the car. I gunned the engine and started to pull off. He jumped back into the car and I stopped again. Stalemate.
‘So how did you get in this mess?’
‘I’m not going to tell you in front of him.’
‘I need a wee. There’s toilets there, mummy.’
‘You can’t get out, Nubby.’
‘Out of the window. He’s not peeing in the back of this van. Can’t you talk to them?’
‘Did they look like they wanted conversation?’
There was silence in the van for a short while. The black car nudged up behind the van with an insistent bump. I tried to think.
‘What would you do if you weren’t an ice cream salesman? If you could start again?’
‘Do you mind? I’m trying to think.’
‘No, but if you could. I want to go to Paris and open a hat shop.’
‘Weird choice.’ I thought for a second. ‘I’d probably become a farmer in the south of France.’
‘We could do both.’
We? She said we?
Little Barnaby had finished his piss and was standing on the chair, willy out, pointing out of the front of the van. ‘I can see another Tardis, mummy,’ he said, as an ice cream van drove along Marine Parade, chimes clanging. ‘How can there be two?’
‘How many ice cream vans are there in this town?’, Alison asked.
‘I dunno. Ten, maybe?’
‘And are you all friends?’
‘We’re like brothers.’
‘Like Liam and Noel Gallacher?’
‘More like Reggie and Ronnie Kray.’
‘Hmm. I have an idea.’
An unlikely parade of ice cream vans made their way along the main street and out of Lyme down the Charmouth Road. No child would get his lolly on the beach today and the cafés along the beachside roads were suddenly engulfed with irritable parents and whining toddlers. Pickpockets wandered the sands with impunity helping themselves to piles left unattended while the queues snaked out.
The convoy performed a series of deft manoeuvres to keep the black car to the rear. Every time it tried to overtake, vans would double up, slow down, block and divert. Each van had its chimes jangling, providing a cacophony of Oranges and Lemons, London Bridge is Falling Down, and unidentifiable melodies that rang through the countryside in a tintinnabulation that would make Satan consider changing hell’s bells.
We were escorted all the way to Charmouth roundabout by this motley crew of mobile freezers. At the roundabout, the vans circled until at last the black car made its biggest mistake. Caught on the inside lane, one of the vans stopped suddenly and as if by telepathy, all the ice creams vans ground to a halt, trapping the black car. The van in front nudged back, the van behind nudged forwards, and there was no escape.
All the ice cream vans had stopped; all, that is, bar one. My ice cream van sped along the A35 Charmouth bypass. Alison laughed happily, but I wasn’t amused.
‘So… they came after you. They’re not going to stop now, are they? They’ll be after you again.’
Alison stopped laughing for a second.
‘Nubby, see if you can find an ice cream you like in the back. Doctor Who will stop the van for a second while you look.’
‘Is it safe to stop?’
‘Just for a second.’
I pulled over and Barnaby climbed into the back of the van.
‘Do you want a hand?’ I started to climb through. My progress was impeded by a short knife that Alison held in her hand.
‘I found this in your glove compartment. Shouldn’t leave these things around. Get out.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Now. I can’t hide with three of us. My boy comes first. You’re… collateral damage. Out.’
‘Mummy, can I have a Magnum?’
I did as I was told. She was in no mood for conversation.
My ice cream van, the one that had kept me in beer and women every year for the last 8 years, trundled off down the road with a celebratory chime of its bells.
No point in walking back to Lyme Regis. Presumably the thugs were still trapped on that roundabout. And the police would be there by now.
As I stood pondering my options, the van stopped at the brow of the hill. It stayed there for half a minute before reversing back towards me. I stood and waited. She wouldn’t go to this trouble to knife me.
The van pulled alongside me.
‘Who’s your favourite Doctor Who?’
‘Tom Baker. No-one else comes close.’
‘Correct answer. Get in.’
‘In’. It was hard to resist those eyes. Barnaby was sat cross-legged in the back of the van, his face smeared with chocolate and ice cream. Alison drove off.
‘Where are we going?’
‘I thought we’d head for the south of France. I can open a hat shop there. I checked your cash till. We have over five hundred pounds.’
I showed the roll of notes in my back pocket. ‘And another two hundred quid here. It was a good day. Up to a point. How can we get to the south of France in an ice cream van?’
I stood next to Alison. Barnaby had his hand in mine. The ice cream van was in flames at the foot of the cliff. Alison slid her hand into mine and pulled me away from the edge.
‘South of France here we come.’
‘But you’re still in your swimsuit.’
‘I’m very persuasive,’ she smiled.
Those eyes, those eyes. ‘And every time you say no to an adventure, a dream dies…’
‘Mummy, are we going to need another Tardis?