I think I wrote this story in 2015 some time. I sent it to the London Magazine a few months after writing it, and they politely rejected it.
I bought the ice-cream van as a last resort. The night of my decision was spent on London Bridge during the coldest winter I remember. I had balanced along the railings of the bridge, surveyed the buildings on Tooley Street. Behind those yellowing bricks was a range of restaurants: Absolutely Starving, the deli where I first tasted pesto, and Pret A Manger, where I realised I had no money to get lunch in Central London. The memories were paper napkins. As I rummaged through them all, my only desire was to throw them in boxes and dump them in the river. I was trying to drown my mind away so that when I committed suicide I would have no regrets. Of course, that was the reason for me walking along the rail of the Bridge: to die. I chose this particular spot because it was the most uneventful of the other bridges: Tower Bridge was a distraction because of its magnanimity and Chelsea Bridge too beautiful, to name two. I sat down on the cold bar and waited for the right moment to lean forward and fall. The water was scary at that time of night. It didn’t even look like a river, but every so often the waves would catch a piece of the moon and roll it across its surface. Unfortunately, I thought for too long. My legs returned to the pavement on the other side, and my body moved back home on its own. In the living room of my flat now, I recalled a conversation I had with my therapist in which she told me to “do something new” in order to break up the despairing monotony I had to navigate every day. There was an ice cream van on my road up for sale. The driver claimed he did it because of bad business. The next morning the ice-cream van was mine.
At first we did nothing together. I sat in the driver’s seat and began to people-watch from the window. Then I would go in the back and take a nap. I made sure to avoid the old owner whenever I did this: surely he would think I was wasting his previous profession and my own time. Eventually I grew brave enough to clean it, then I painted it and gave it a wax. I never stocked it with ice-cream. Instead we drove around London, going far out to the outskirts with the forests and the deer, and then back home again for bedtime. It was lots of fun. The van became my friend.
One night I drove to Peckham for some sight-seeing. It was dark and cold, so the usual racket of hoodies was indoors. We parked at the old site of the North Peckham Estate, the place which listed a rollcall of urban martyrs of the system. I remembered that ugly grey building that used to loom over Peckham, stacked high like a tornado but never able to reach the sky. Instead it utilised destructive power, tearing apart families and lives, discarding clothes riddled with bullet holes and knife slits; revealing the deep scarlet of blood as it flowed down concrete steps, mixed with cocaine-urine, and soaked the earth beneath. And then it was gone, razed to the ground in a gale of bulldozers and yellow equipment and men in fluorescent jackets and white helmets. Upon its revival it became something more hopeful, but the ground was still dirty. The van and I stayed around the estate for hours, cruising by parks and memorials, spray-painted murals of stab victims, and wine bottles. We stopped because a woman came in front of the headlights. She was white and blonde and a little wild-looking, but there was something alien about her that made me pull down the window. She spoke in an affected tongue. There was money on her breath. Attached to her ears were a pair of small diamond studs; the coat she wore looked like real fur. She was an immigrant from a posh area, most likely lost her way in some insane circumstance.
“Can I come in?” she said.
“You what?” I said.
“I need to come in,” she said.
“Why?” I said. “There’s nothing for you here, miss.”
“I need to come in,” she said. Her voice was starting to get annoying. I almost closed the window when she shoved her handbag in the space between the glass and the top. I stopped winding the window.
“Just look in the bag,” she said. “And tell me that I don’t need to get in there.”
The bag was rather plain. Black patent leather; a gold zip; the designer logo was an elegant crown embroidered with gold thread. I had to turn on the car light to actually see the contents. She may have expected me to jump or scream or even to drive away from her and call the police, but my emotions were spent. It could have been anything in there: pair of knickers, some matches, a box of tic tacs. I told her to get in and cared little for her puzzled expression. Then the three of us: me, her and the ice-cream van, drove somewhere else.
“Where do you want me to take you?” I asked her.
“I just don’t know,” she said, still staring at me like I was crazy. “Did you see what I had in there?”
“Yeah I did. I had a friend who used to feed her dog chicken feet.”
“Look, miss, you came in here. You’re now in the ice-cream van of a six foot black man with an afro. It’s eleven at night. Think of a plan quick ‘cos I don’t fancy being stopped by the police.”
“Do you have any cigarettes or anything?”
She looked disappointed that I had Marlboros. “Did you think I had cigars in there?” I said. She didn’t reply.
I decided to avoid any place where the police would be angry. That quickly ruled out Rye Lane, Camberwell, Walworth Road and Elephant and Castle. It was a shame, too, because I had planned to visit those sides before the woman came into the van. The area was rapidly changing: the bulky estates on which I had spent my youth had turned to rubble. I remembered running from various so-called gang members; jumping over walls and not even thinking how high they were until I was safely on the ground. I used to buy beef patties and lie down in the park. We would run to the top of the flats and look at the whole of London below us; insignificant emperors of a concrete jungle. And the jungle had been rapidly conquered by glass and metal. Baby gros and Dax hair crème and shea butter formulas and Nivea products, and Avirex jackets and Nike trainers and Adidas jumpers, afro combs and black tangled earphones and old Sony Ericsson chargers had been buried, along with the memories, beneath the fallen estate. It was being revived as a new creature, with terraces and balconies and a ridiculous price tag. The old residents were in Slough or something.
“I wish you would tell me where to go,” I said.
“I think I might try to get to France,” she said.
“Or tomorrow morning. Very early. I can book a Eurostar on the day, I think. If not you’ll have to take me as close to Dover as you can.”
“Miss, I almost killed myself two months ago.”
“Yeah. So if you don’t want me to tip this van over I suggest you narrow your scope.”
“You must be used to black people driving you around innit?”
To get to St Pancras without going through Elephant would be a chore, but I wanted to do it anyway. This was the most excitement I’d had for a long time.
“So whose hand is it?” I asked. She started when I said this, then her face flooded with relief, as if she finally had confirmation that I wasn’t completely out my mind.
“My husband’s.” she wound down her window then and threw her cigarette outside. “I’m telling you, he was abusive. I might look posh and as if I don’t know anything, but I do. We weren’t from around here. We had good jobs, both of us, and then he lost his and had to do something else. He went into recruitment, but not the good type. And then I had to leave my job because I got depressed. I’m a solicitor. Our lives were miserable here. I never wanted to move to Peckham.”
“What did he do?” I said.
“Started out subtle at first. He wanted to control the money because we had so little coming in, so obviously that made sense to me. Then I wanted to go out with my friends and he told me that we can’t afford it; and I was stuck inside feeling ugly and unwanted. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen anyone; a girlfriend, a family member. I felt alone, so alone that I don’t think I even felt when he started hitting me. Well it’s all over now.”
“So he’s dead?”
She didn’t answer and I was very worried about that. We said nothing more but all the while I kept thinking about how boring she was. Why is there always a story with these people? And why must they be so articulate in everything? From my peripheral vision I could see a wisp of beauty there; her hair was moving along to the breeze coming through the window like an underwater flower. It made her look like a mermaid, in the midst of all that grey cigarette smoke, and the wateriness of her eyes that kept glancing at me, glassy and nervous. Her hair was very fine, like the strings of a harp. But her skin was blotchy and red, which I assumed was down to nights of drinking wine as her husband marched around the house, throwing bottles at her head and stamping her like purple grapes beneath his feet. At one point I stopped the van and stared at her. She didn’t flinch or anything, and she didn’t tell me to let her out. She stared back. It was then I realised that we were probably around the same age, but time and tiredness had taken away most of her youth.
“How old were you when you got married?” I said.
“Nineteen. It was really something, actually. A typical debutante wedding—his parents had been looking for someone to marry him for a long time; and then his dad knew my dad; his mum thought I was a lovely young woman from the first time she met me, and then we became friends and whatnot.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. It was what it was. The story of two families who wanted to be more important than they were, who existed in a delusional bubble where parents cared about surnames and what trades or careers certain men went into, and where the socialites and aristocrats went to party, all for the sake of climbing up the social ladder. The kind of people who want to continue debutante balls and gilded tea parties because it makes them feel like they’re a part of something. I suppose those types of communities idolise the Middletons. It’s all very stifling.”
“I was planning to get married,” I said. I started the car again. Now we were nearing King’s Cross and I felt a bit sad. “Yeah, there was a girl I went out with from school, and we just stayed in contact. We kept bumping into each other every few months or so, or like whenever we reached a milestone in our lives we just happened to see each other. She got a great job advertising for Procter and Gamble, and I became a junior broker. I was actually working at the Gherkin. I bought a Versace tie for eighty quid, then I felt so guilty having so much money on my neck that I returned it the next week. But anyway, we didn’t come from any gilded court like yourself, and so it was hard to completely sever our ties with the past we had. Like, even though a handful of us made it out of the area and made something of ourselves, not everyone did. So she was invited to a party, just a normal hood party, and as what always happens at these parties, some guys came with guns to start a mess and she got caught in the crossfire. I think that’s when my life started falling apart.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Hmm. Five years ago. Hurts every day.”
I cut the engine. We were parked up now. The spires of St Pancras station was right above us, and then King’s Cross was on the other side. I noticed that there was a new feature to the place; some artist or whatever had built a giant birdcage with a swing trapped inside it, right in the middle of the concourse between St Pancras and King’s Cross. I assumed it was supposed to be a dare, after all during rush hour, that concourse has to be the most depressing sight in London, and so typical of the city. A whole bunch of grey suits and white faces, brushing against each other, ignoring the homeless, pretending they can’t hear or see the little lost kid crying on the side of the road, all but kicking buggies and mobility scooters out their way… who would dare to take a minute out of all that and go sit on a swing like a baby? It was so late now and so deserted and the swing was empty.
“Would you like to?” I said. The woman nodded, staring at the swing like it was a mountain of gold.
Her hair was no longer delicate. As she went back and forth towards the black sky, I could only see a shock of gold silk flapping about her head. She was laughing. Then I started laughing. And I forgot about the ice-cream van, and about Cherise, and about that stupid party that I told her not to go to, and about Andrew shouting at me in the office, and about the pavement and how tantalising it looked from my desk, so far below, cast behind the turquoise glass of the Gherkin, almost teasing, showing me the exit to my life but barring the way. Her bum was soft to the touch. She obviously didn’t mind me getting a feel as I pushed her, and when it was my turn to swing she did the same. Back and forth, under the black sky, her hair flapping in the wind; sticking to her sweaty, dripping forehead in the back of the ice-cream van, brushing against my face. I could hear the tyres creaking like the metal chains of the swing; I could hear her strangled groans, her gasps for breath, the kind of relieving pleasure after you’ve been underwater for a long time and finally come up for air. She was soft without clothing, and her damp back arched as she moved back and forth, back and forth.
“I had a feeling he wasn’t dead, you know,” I said. We were back in Peckham, almost at her house now. “You didn’t sound sure.”
“I wasn’t. I’m sure I did the most of it.”
“I’m not helping you do anything,” I said. “You asked me to drop you back so you can check. I’m not leaving this van, I’m not doing anything. You check if he’s still dead. If he’s not dead then finish him off; cut off his feet if you have to this time. I’m only waiting half an hour.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “Just half an hour, that’s all I need. Then can you please take me to Battersea? I know where to go from there. I won’t be going to France. I’m going to travel for a bit. I think I’ll go to New York. But I’ll need a few days to compose myself.”
“Okay,” I said. She left ice cream van. Then she returned. “You know what? Thanks for tonight. Thanks a lot. But I don’t want to get you in trouble. Please give me the bag… your DNA is on it.”
I almost started crying. It was so considerate of her, I just wasn’t expecting it.
“I suppose I’ll see you on the news, then?” I said. She actually smiled.
I waited for half an hour anyway, but she didn’t come back. In a way I was a bit sad, but there was something else there too. I was interested. That dark shadow that followed me everywhere I went seemed to be holding something, something purple, like a surprise box or a present that I couldn’t see yet. It was like there was something else happening now that I could think about, or read about. I tapped the ice-cream van appreciatively. I never saw the woman again, but I hope she made it to New York.