‘It’s the biggest ice cream in the world!’
You looked down at me and I received the offering reverentially. You knew you had me. Your eyes crinkled with mischief and, wrapping my free hand in yours, we walked towards the shingle. Wind whipped my unruly hair. Sea wind. Salty.
‘You can’t take it home with you!’
You knew I’d try. We had the same kind of stubborn in us, you and I.
Your feet outpaced mine.
‘Daddy!’ I stopped, my nose almost touching the carefully crafted frozen edifice. You watched my eyes expand with anticipation. The saliva that filled my mouth hid itself away. My hair refused to behave. The gusts played with it. Dancing strands. Tears dried on my cheeks and you knew you didn’t need to wipe them.
It was over in a moment. The wind snatched my prize and tossed it to the ground. There it lay. Shingle and ice. You knelt, your eyes meeting mine, and tried to stem the salty waves overflowing.
‘We’ll get another one, sweetheart.’
I knew though, that there are things we can’t replace.
Today, I sit typing this in my converted attic room, a warm blanket nurturing my feet, keeping the brutal December wind at bay – it finds its way into cracks that I didn’t know were there. Houses on hills are used to that. Mine is immune to the rain lashing its sides and beating against the window, overlooking fallow fields and the tantalising walled edge of the deer park. It knows that I will tolerate the buffeting, wrapping toes and gradually growing layers as the winter draws in, because I find it hard to give up the view. Houses on hills are known for their view. The horizon plays with perspective. The further out I look, the smaller it all seems. Even as things recede though, there are places that stand proud against the sky. These are my beacons.
A child of the 70s, I cut my writing teeth on an Olympia Portable Deluxe carefully extracted from its red-felt-lined box and placed on the small table in the front porch where I could type in the sun. It belonged to my mother. Cherished. The rounded indentations on the keys encouraged my small fingers to form words. My writing belonged to my father. I was born into a house of writing, the books lining the study walls never off-limits but always given the respect due to them. I was born into a house that wrote. Stories embossed on paper, each keystroke unleashing a hammer blow, leaving an indelible mark. Words had permanence. Sharing was a tactile act, accompanied by smudges of carbon paper, transmitted from hand to hand. We bore the marks on us too. It was unavoidable.
We talked about that day on the beach often. It became our litany as you sat by my side at night, keeping the monsters under the bed away.
‘Don’t think about what might be there. Let’s think about “The Biggest Ice Cream in the World”.’
‘I don’t like the noise.’
‘It’s just the wind, sweetheart, just the wind.’
I closed my eyes. Your voice rumbled and sometimes I thought I could hear the waves on the shingle. Sleep stole me. The monsters daren’t intrude. When I woke, you had always gone but I could still feel the ghost of your hand on mine.
It wasn’t until my daughter and I found our own litanies, that I truly appreciated what it meant to grow up in a house built of words. I missed the moment in the years in-between when my hand became the large one and the stories became mine. She had new monsters for me to chase.
‘Mummy, Tom told me that one day the Sun will become a red giant and swallow the world. Everything will be gone.’
‘Not for a long while though. Not for longer than anyone has ever lived.’
‘But I don’t want to be gone.’
I know now that the Biggest Ice Cream in the World was really just an ice cream. I can’t tell her that one day we won’t be gone. Instead, I weave tales to transport her, building a shell around us as we snuggle together, hiding from monsters I know are there.
We hunted monsters one spring, you and I, in a loch village in Scotland. Seven-year olds still believe they can slay them. I was no different as I scanned the water’s edge, waiting for the promised beast to raise its serpentine head above the wavelets as I skimmed Scottish stones across the rippled surface. I could never make them travel as far as your practiced hand. It wasn’t until decades later, when I absorbed the lexicon of geology into my own, that I truly understood the magic I had held and cast away from me. Lewisian gneiss. Garnet mica schist. The poetry of rocks was tantalisingly beyond the grasp of my small hands. The static undulations and complex folds entombed in the stones drew me to them, nonetheless. The ripples crossing the loch threw back a distorted reflection and I held a moment of time in my fist. I remember the independence of footsteps where the wavelets broke. That small girl never looked back though, and now as I do, I see that she was never truly alone. That wasn’t a summer of ice creams and shingle, but of buzzards lifting upwards from heather-hued Highland slopes, of pebbles and lochs, and a cottage near the water’s edge.
The cottage held treasure. You knew as soon as we walked into the small study at the front of the house. Books! The owners had children slightly older than me. I dismissed you easily as I catalogued the large bookcase that covered the rear wall. It was the summer of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and of a dog called Max, tar-black and devoted to me, or so I thought. I drank in the stories and poured them out again in imagined worlds, certain that the mysterious lady of Mirror Bay would appear one morning floating across the loch.
One night, waiting for the ferry that brought us home, rain lashing around me, a kind man helped me put on my gloves. You watched us. I thought I could do it better. He smelt of whisky, oak-barrelled, aged. It was a scent of home, made strange by the Scottish wind.
Whisky and Old Spice. The scent still lingers.
The man on the boat had soft eyes and a Scottish lilt but he cared about my hands even if his own were shaking.
“Someone drove their car off the ferry into the loch.”
Your tone was matter-of-fact. You didn’t shield me. Country people understand impermanence. Perhaps I wondered why anyone would do that, or how sad they must have been. Now, I would consider their family, left behind to remake a thing that was broken. All I remember though, is the wind and the rain and the kind Scottish eyes smiling at me.
I still watch buzzards from my window, soaring above the arable land, calling to each other in the wind as they ride the updrafts. I tell myself that they find joy in flight but I can’t really understand them. We are all strangers.
The night the monsters came, wind lashed the windows, firing raindrops at them like bullets. I had never learnt to tame my hair. Strands stuck to my cheeks, channelling salty rivulets that I had carried across miles and years from that windy shoreline. You told me they didn’t exist. You lifted the covers and peered into the darkness for me. That night, I stood in a doorway, afraid to look back. I never realised that the monsters were coming for you.
My house on the hill is only a mile away from that doorway as the crow flies. In other ways, it’s a lifetime. I can no longer remember what it felt like before, when that house was my home and I trusted its walls to keep out the storm. It has been remade. The bricks are fragile.
Staring at the horizon now, I can see a young girl standing on the bottom step, peering round the corner. She can smell the chilli her mother is busy cooking in the galley kitchen at the back of the house. A hint of a smile touches her face as she looks at her father in his chair by the fire. Something in his expression though, tells her that this isn’t his idea of a crazy joke. Her mum drops the spoon.
“Call the doctor! Now!”
As she turns the dial on the now old-fashioned phone, her fingers are suddenly much larger than those that tapped out phrases on the old mechanical typewriter, she repeats in her head the words she will say when the phone is answered. The phone isn’t answered. Her fat fingers have failed to dial true and she is met only with the incessant monotone of a dead call. A hand takes the phone away and she is relieved. It isn’t her responsibility anymore. She shrinks back and becomes a child again. Only she will never be a child again.
I can’t place the moment when I began to see this in the third person. For years, I lived in first person. Screen memories. My smile. His face. The scent of onions. A dial tone. It was the 1980s and, in those days, children remade themselves, block by block, piece by piece, brick by brick. I remade myself with bricks formed from words that I had inherited from someone who no longer had use for them. The old typewriter has now been replaced with a modern laptop, somehow though the light touch of fingertip to symbol feels like I am giving words away too cheaply. I miss the solidity. The sense of permanence. In the second decade of the new millennium, I am still patching old holes with new bricks.
Gazing out across the hills from my window, I convince myself if I look back hard enough, I can see the sea, denying the impossibility. I know though, that somewhere on a windy coastline, alone in the dark, the Biggest Ice Cream in the World lies half-buried on a shingle shore, and I hold the echo of your palm in mine.