Strawberry Ice Cream

......"Will you kids please quiet down?" snapped Barry, taking a hand from the wheel and swiping away the beads of sweat from his forehead.
......"Don't be so grumpy, Barry," said Carol. "You've done nothing but complain for ages. We're hot too, you know." A shrill screech from the back of the car interrupted the beginnings of another bad-tempered exchange with her husband. "Robert," she cried, turning angrily, "Don't do that to your sister - and Jason, don't encourage him. You should know better at your age."
......The two boys subsided into sulky silence, while Holly, their younger sister, smiled smugly in triumph at having brought their mother's wrath on them.
......It had seemed a good idea at the time: to take the family for a drive out into the country with no particular destination in mind, to just follow where the road led. It would be a sort of mystery tour. Now Barry was deeply regretting his inspiration. It had not been part of his plan to be cooped-up in a baking oven of a car on the hottest day of the year miles from anywhere. The children were bored and fractious, his wife's mood was getting sourer by the minute, he was hot and sweaty and his clothes clung uncomfortably to him. All in all, he wished he were back home, stretched out in a shady part of the garden with several cold beers close at hand.
......"You're lost, aren't you?" said Carol in a challenging tone. "Go on, admit it, you haven't a clue where we are." He hadn't realised before just how grating her voice could be.
......"No, we're not lost," he replied through gritted teeth. "We've simply gone further out than I intended and I don't know this area very well. All we have to do is stick to this road and it'll take us back to civilisation soon enough. You just see."
......"Ugh," tutted Carol, turning her head disdainfully to gaze out of the window.
......Barry wished he felt as confident as he had tried to sound. It had all been so pleasant at first. Miles and miles of green, rolling fields and meadows, wooded hillsides and meandering streams as far as the eye could see, surmounted by an arching canopy of clear, blue sky. Nonetheless, the English countryside in all its glory had begun to pall after a time; the seemingly endless emptiness all around them and the peaceful quietness had become monotonous. The Hillards were city-dwellers, and they missed the sights and sounds of human habitation, its comforts and distractions. Most of all, they needed rest and refreshment.
......The trouble was, such comforts seemed non-existent in this part of the world. For the last hour, aside from the odd, distant isolated farmhouse, the unrelenting sunbaked rural landscape had been unbroken. Where were all the quaint, thatch-roofed villages, with their shaded greens and duck ponds? Wondered Barry, as another bead of sweat rolled off the end of his nose. Where were the cosy little cafes, offering cream teas and quenching cuppas? Where were the oak-beamed pubs, with their horse brasses and exotic beers with names like Old Thunderer and Ploughman's Porter? Barry's parched mouth tried hard to salivate as his mind conjured images of cool, foaming pints.
......"When are we going to stop, Daddy?" asked a peevish voice behind him. "I'm ever so thirsty and I'm bored too."
......"We'll stop soon, Holly, love. Just as soon as I find somewhere likely."
......"Oh yes, the great explorer will soon find us all somewhere nice," grunted Carol.
......"There's no need to be sarcastic, Carol. I'm doing my best."
......"That's a matter of opinion. Why couldn't we go to the seaside, like we always do?"
......"I just thought you might like a change, that's all. You're always telling me we never do anything different."
......"Well, being lost is certainly different; that's for sure."
......"We're not lost," replied Barry with barely suppressed fury.
......"Where are we then, eh?"
......Thankfully, he was saved from what was developing into a full-scale row. The twisting road they were travelling had been climbing steeply for some time. As he was about to vent his building frustration with his wife, they crested a rise to find themselves looking down into a small valley. Nestled in its bottom, like an oasis in a desert, was a tiny village.
......"There, I told you we'd find somewhere soon," exclaimed Barry, triumphantly.
......"Not before time, too," was the grudging comment from his side.
......He refrained from countering his wife's remark and concentrated on driving down into the valley. The descent was steep but not precipitously so; it wound steadily downwards through countryside as wide-open and unremarkable as previously. The difference was that now they had a definite destination, and all eyes in the car focussed on the approaching village almost as if it were some kind of Disneyland. Each mind was occupied in varying ways: the children's by visions of long, fizzy drinks, of exploration and brief freedom from parental control; Carol's by thoughts of browsing gift and craft shops full of charming handmade country wares. Barry thought only of escape from the stifling car and the oak-beamed pub his imagination had been taunting him with for so long.
......As they drew nearer though, each of their illusions began to fall apart. From a distance the village, though small, had appeared larger than it actually was. Now, as they rode into it, Barry realised with a sinking heart that it hardly constituted a village at all. It consisted merely of a few shabby little houses clinging to either side of the road, all of which looked deserted and neglected.
......"What a dump!" Carol ejaculated, echoing his thoughts as he slowly steered the car past each obviously long-empty house. "It's like a ghost town."
......This was far from the ideal that she'd seen pictured in glossy magazines: thatch-roofed whitewashed cottages with roses climbing all over them and friendly country people with welcoming smiles. All she saw was overgrown gardens, peeling paintwork, broken windows and no sign of human life anywhere.
......"I wonder where everybody went?" mused Barry. "It looks like it must have been nice at one time. The houses are well built, even though they're run down. It wouldn't take much to get them back as they were."
......Barry drove on, each house they past as forlorn and deserted as the last. "It's weird!" he said, "It's as if everybody just decided to up and go one day and never come back. I wonder why?"
......"I don't know," answered Carol, "But it's obvious we can't stop here."
......There was a chorus of 'Oh Mum's' from the back as the children protested. The word 'ghost' had aroused their interest; they were entertaining ideas of investigating the empty houses and frightening each other silly.
......"I don't care," responded their mother, impatiently, "We're definitely not stopping here. It's spooky."
......By now they were approaching the last of the houses and Barry was about to resignedly put his foot down and leave them behind when his attention was drawn to the last building on the left. It was set back further from the road than the rest and he might have missed it were he not driving so slowly.
"Hang on a minute, what's that?"
......The building was different from the others. It was less dilapidated for one thing, though it had seen better days. It had a large multi-paned window at the front and a sign above its door proclaimed it to be more than simply a residence. The sign read: MARTHA'S ICE CREAM PARLOUR.
......"Wow!" exclaimed Barry, stopping the car. "I haven't seen one of those since I was a kid - a good old-fashioned ice cream parlour. Amazing! You don't see them any more. What a strange place to have one, though."
......"Yes," agreed Carol, "Why have something like that out here in the back of beyond? It's not as though there's any more shops or anything; they couldn't have done much trade. Who'd want to stop for ice cream here?"
......"We would!" was the unified reply from behind her, "We'd love an ice cream."
......"Oh, I'm sorry kids, but I'm sure it can't be open. Nothing else is around here."
......As if to prove her wrong, at that moment the white-painted door of the parlour opened and out stepped the fattest woman any of them had ever seen. Her vast round body was wrapped in an enormous flowery apron, her head was a mass of dark curly hair surrounding a huge red face which broke into a big cheery smile as she gazed back at the five pairs of eyes staring from the car.
......"Well, that must be Martha," said Barry, wondering how she had managed to get her bulk through the door. "So this place isn't entirely dead after all. What do you think," he continued, turning to Carol, "Shall we give it a try?"
......Before his wife could answer there was an eager cry of, "Yes Mum, let's," from the combined voices in the back seat.
......"I guess that decides it. Come on, you lot, it's ice cream time."
......Without further encouragement, everyone piled out of the car and headed towards the parlour and the waiting, smiling fat woman. Barry followed on behind his family, feeling the heat of the scorching sun and remembering when, as a child, his parents often took him to a little place much like this one that served every kind of ice cream you could imagine. There was vanilla, raspberry, chocolate, lemon, orange, coconut, pistachio and countless more; to his young mind, the list had seemed endless. They had been happy times, long before the responsibilities of adulthood. It was hard to suppress the slight ache he felt inside.
......As they approached the woman they took to be Martha, her smile grew broader, and in a high, girlish voice she greeted them with, "Why, hello my dears. You all look very hot; it seems to me you need a nice, cool ice cream. Am I right?" Her question appeared to be directed mostly to little Holly, who, with the open wonder of a child, was goggling wide-eyed at the woman's immense girth. "Come in, come in, my dears. Come in to my little parlour." With that, she placed a hand the size of a shovel on the top of Holly's head and led the way inside.
......By the time Barry caught up with his family, they were all clustered in front of a longish display counter, his children's faces pressed up against its glass front. It was like stepping back in time: the white painted walls and wooden beams, the little white-clothed tables, the ranks of neatly labelled tubs behind the glass counter. Here however, childhood image and actuality parted company. For, in his memory the tubs had all been filled with mouth-watering ice creams of every colour and consistency. All the tubs behind this counter, save one, were empty.
......"Ah, you look a little disappointed, my dears," said Martha, observing their reaction to the lack of variety. " Yes, there was a day when I could have offered you any kind of ice cream you could dream of - all made by my very own little hands, I might mention. Sad to say though, my dears, I don't get many visitors any more, and it's not worth my effort to make all the delights I used to. There's just not the demand there was."
......"I was going to ask you about that," interrupted Barry, "We couldn't help noticing that there doesn't seem to be anybody living here any more, though it looks a nice little village. What happened - where did everybody go?"
......"Yes, it's true, my dear. Thriving it was - thriving. A lovely place. They all used to come in here to taste my delights. Couldn't get enough, they couldn't. Then, bit by bit, one by one, they all drifted away," she looked a little sad, "I really can't say where they went, I really can't. Perhaps the quiet of the countryside got too much for them; who can say?"
......"So, there's just you here now?"
......"That's right, my dear, just little old me."
......"But how do you make a living?"
......"Oh, there's always someone passing through on their way to somewhere else. Just like you, my dears. Now, enough of all that. You came into Martha's for ice cream, and ice cream you shall have." She indicated the one tub with any contents. "As you can see, there's one delight I still make ... did I tell you I make all my own ice cream? I did? Oh, silly me, I'm so forgetful. Well anyway, this is my very own speciality - strawberry. Do you like strawberry? Course you do; everybody likes strawberry ice cream."
......"Yes, we all like strawberry," answered Carol.
......"Good, good, good. Now, sit yourselves down, my dears, and I'll bring you all a nice big helping. You really look as if you need cooling down. It's such a hot day, isn't it?"
......They dutifully trouped to a table and arranged themselves around it while Martha busied herself behind the counter.
......They had only a short expectant wait before Martha came bustling towards them remarkably rapidly for someone of her bulk, In her ample hands she bore a large tray, on which were five immense, brimming bowls. Placing a bowl and a spoon in front of each of them, she said, "There you are, my dears. I guarantee that will be the best ice cream you'll have ever tasted. Go on tuck in, tuck in ... and don't worry, there's plenty more where that came from."
......The two boys picked up their spoons and immediately dug greedily into their bowl; Holly followed suit a little more demurely but with the same obvious relish. Carol hesitated, calculating the amount of calories in the huge serving before her. Barry too, was concerned for his already expanding waistline, but Martha hovered over them with a proprietorial manner, rather like a massive mother hen; loath to upset her, he dipped his spoon into his overflowing bowl. When finally Carol began to sample her own ice cream, Martha gave a huge, satisfied beam.
......"That's it, my dears, enjoy, enjoy," she said, with evident pleasure, "I do so like to see people appreciate my delights. I'll leave you to it for now, but I won't be far away when you want some more. Enjoy, enjoy." With that, she waddled off and disappeared into a room behind the counter.
......She had no need to exhort them to enjoy. The ice cream was the most delicious any of them had ever eaten. The children were already well down their bowls; Carol and Barry had begun more tentatively, but were soon spooning it into their mouths with the same vigour.
......"It's funny, but it doesn't taste like strawberry," whispered Carol to Barry. She did not know why she was whispering; only that she felt a strange reluctance to let Martha hear her say anything derogatory about her 'delight'.
......"You're right," agreed Barry, in the same low tone, "I'm not sure what it tastes of - in fact, I don't think I've ever tasted anything like it before - but isn't it good?" To emphasise his remark, he scooped up another huge spoonful and stuck it in his mouth.
......The ice cream looked liked strawberry, in that it was a dark pink colour, but there the comparison ended. It had a sharp, almost metallic smell, not unpleasant, but unexpected and not one that could be associated with fruit. It was thick, creamy and substantial, unlike the whipped and airy mass-produced confections they were used to. As for the taste: it defied description. It was tangy, yet sweet, with a rich, luxurious flavour that lingered in the mouth, tingled on the tongue and left one wanting more. The texture was smooth and velvety; it slid down the throat in cool, luscious waves. Though Barry had never encountered a taste so exquisite and delectable, he thought he detected a hint of something he half recognised, an underlying tantalising, savour of something he could not bring to mind. He just could not put his finger on it.
......As he watched his family wolfing down the ice cream without regard to delicacy or manners he felt slightly embarrassed, until he realised he was behaving in exactly the same way. He was shovelling the pink, flavourful substance into his mouth with the same greedy gusto as the others. He no longer thirsted for beer, he wanted only more and more of the ambrosial ice cream.
......The children were the first to finish their bowls; Carol was about to scoop up the last spoonful when she looked up in surprise to discover Martha standing over them with another tray containing five more bowls. How the huge woman had approached their table so silently she did not know; she must have been too absorbed in eating to hear her.
......Martha beamed broadly down on them. "Ah, my dears," she said, "You don't have to tell me you enjoyed my little delight; I can tell, it's written all over your faces. Now, I'm sure you could manage a little more, couldn't you?" Without waiting for an answer, she took their empty bowls and replaced them with fresh ones overflowing with dark pink coolness.
......"Oh, I'm not sure we can ..." began Carol.
......"Nonsense, course you can. I get so few customers these days and I do so like to see people appreciate my little concoctions."
......"Well, all right then," said Carol, not wanting to disappoint the massive smiling woman. "I suppose a little more won't harm. But tell me, I was wondering - just what do you put into it? It's so lovely."
......"Ah, I can't tell you that, my dear, I really can't. It's my little secret. It really wouldn't do to tell everybody, now would it? If I did that, then no one would come to Martha's ever again. Then where would I be?" So saying, she ponderously turned and returned to the room behind the counter.
......Carol turned back to the table to find the rest already gluttonously gorging themselves. With a shrug, she picked up her spoon and sank it into her new bowl. After finishing the first bowl, she thought she was too full to eat any more; now, all of sudden, she found if anything her appetite had increased, and she began to eat with as much ferocity as the others.
......The family continued eating mainly in silence, too absorbed in the sensations their taste buds were providing for conversation. Soon the second bowls were emptied and once more Martha magically appeared and despite their protests replenished them with new ones. When those were emptied, even though they felt Martha would continue serving them for the rest of the day, they had to call a halt. They were simply too sated to manage another mouthful. The children went off to play and explore, while Carol and Barry sat back, deliciously cooled and satisfied.
......"Well, I never thought I could enjoy something as much as I did that ice cream," commented Barry. Whatever the secret recipe is, it's a winner. You'd think she'd market it, wouldn't you? She'd make a fortune."
......"Yes, it's funny that she should be stuck out her all on her own. She can't get many people passing through."
......"Yes, weird, isn't it? Still, she seems happy enough. Anyway, love, I think it's about time we were making tracks. We've a fair way to go before we get back home." Barry had been studying a map he had taken into the parlour with him and found that if they continued on the road they had been travelling, they would eventually reach a motorway that would take them in the right direction.
......"Yes, you're right, I'll go call the kids while you pay."
......She left the parlour, calling out goodbye to Martha, who seemed to be busy in the back room again. Though Barry too called several times, he could not attract the large woman's attention either. Shrugging, he took some money from his wallet placed it on the table, shouted a last goodbye, and followed his wife.
......Outside, it was still baking hot and the car was stifling as he climbed in beside the waiting Carol. "All set?" he asked.
......"Yes, all that ice cream must have made the kids sleepy, they were curled up in the back when I came out. I know how they feel, I could nod off myself."
......Barry sympathised, he too felt half-asleep and had to force himself to concentrate as he started the car and steered it along the winding road. He really shouldn't have eaten so much but wasn't that ice cream gorgeous? He still had that haunting taste in his mouth. What did it remind him of?
......They had travelled several miles and signs pointing to the motorway were beginning to appear when Carol, who had been dozing, turned to check on the children.
......"Barry! Stop the car!"
......"Stop the car. Holly! Where's Holly?"
......"What? What do you mean?"
......"Holly's not here!"
......Barry braked the car and looked round. The two boys stirred groggily and stared bleary-eyed at their parents.
......"Where's your sister? Where is she?"
......"She ... she went into the back of the ice cream place with the fat woman," said Robert, "I ... I thought you knew."
......"Yes," confirmed Jason, "It was when we went outside, the fat woman came out and asked her if she wanted to watch her make some ice cream. She said you'd told her it was alright. They went in the back door."
......"How could you be so stupid?" demanded Barry, "You told me they were all in the back."
......"I thought they were. I saw them stretched out - you know how she likes to curl up small in the corner when she sleeps in the car - I just assumed she was there. We'll have to go back. Anyway, she'll be all right with Martha, she's probably stuffing herself with ice cream."
......Angrily, Barry manoeuvred the car around in the narrow road. Driving as fast as he dared, he drove back the way they had come.
......They pulled up outside the ice cream parlour with a screech of brakes. Barry said, "You stay here and watch the boys, we don't want them straying too. I'll get Holly."
......He dashed into the parlour, expecting to see his daughter sat at a table waiting for him. The tables were empty. Without troubling to announce himself, he hurried behind the counter and entered the back room.
......Slumped in a chair, asleep or unconscious, was Holly. Her left arm was resting on a low wooden table, into it was inserted a long, thin plastic tube. The tube led to a large stainless steel bowl. At the table, her back to him, stood Martha. Humming happily to herself, she was industriously stirring the dark pink contents of the bowl with a long wooden spoon.

Copyright Scorpio Tales 2001. All rights reserved.

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