How well I remember that window of twenty minutes in my childhood when our mother was in a good mood. Not the pretend good mood she used for birthdays and the occasional Christmas, and which Brother and I could see through as easily as if it was a broken window (like the one he smashed with grandfather’s air-rifle once, as a bet with the gardener), but an actual, proper good mood. A good mood like we experienced when we went round to a friend’s house and were allowed, by the friend’s Mum (Mum?! such informality!) to eat Heinz tinned spaghetti for lunch, instead of the brown wholewheat spaghetti with lumpy, virtually inedible bolognaise sauce, which no-one was allowed to leave unfinished, and which was standard fare at our house.
We had stopped off in a small town on the way to Cornwall for our annual festival of misery: Camping in August. Our mother bought an ice-cream for Brother and me, but there were no fights; no “You can have an ice-cream as long as it’s in a flavour you hate”; no “And none of that disgusting Mr Whippy muck which isn’t even ice-cream”. Just, “Would you like an ice-cream?” Smile.
“Would you like an ice-cream?” Smile. What on earth could that mean?
Brother and I looked at each other; waiting for the catch; waiting to be shouted at for saying the wrong thing; for choosing a flavour which was morally reprehensible.
I had initially gone for vanilla, a flavour which I knew might win some fleeting maternal approval, while Brother, always infinitely more daring than I, had initially gone for the infinitely more daring and morally corrupt chocolate, probably because he had a death wish or something and was always seeing what latest madness he could get away with.
“Oh, why don’t you choose something different?” she suggested.
As always, it was Brother who went first. “Mint chocolate chip, please,” he confidently asked. God, how did he do it? Had ever a phrase been uttered in the English language which contained such bravery, such wanton disregard for personal safety? I waited for the familiar smack to the side of the head; the instant eruption of Brother’s anger and his floods of tears and my subsequent wish to be invisible or dead; the “Right, back in the car!” or similar.
Instead, she said, “Of course.”
I was eventually cajoled into asking for rum and raisin, a flavour which I had long wanted to try, and the flavour which, as an adult, I will always choose, whenever the need to pick a flavour of ice-cream arises.
We sat and ate our ice-creams in nervous silence, wolfing them down before mother realized the terrible mistake she had made; before she had a chance to confiscate them; before she had a chance to find a health food shop and buy something brown and wholefood to counteract the deleterious effect of those ice-creams.
Years later, when she had given up all pretence of actually liking us and had sent us to board in a loveless and austere boarding school at the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, so that she could get a really good, uninterrupted suntan in Dubai for four years, she would take us to Baskin Robins for a treat (during the two holidays a year, when, for a total of seven weeks, Brother and I were allowed to share in the endless sun of the ex-patriot lifestyle before being sent back to the rainswept misery of Colditz). Baskin Robbins was an ice-cream parlour which didn’t do morally acceptable flavours at all, and was our first experience of the dizzyingly delightful vulgarity of American culture. All the other displaced British nationals went there, and our being allowed to go was a case of when in Rome, do as the ex-pats do rather than any personality volte face on the part of Mother.
By this time, Brother and my roles had undergone something of a reversal: he was dutiful and obliging; I was an adolescent nightmare. I always went for either peanut butter and chocolate, as it was the second most decadent, immoral and unchristian ice-cream flavour they had, or bubblegum, because it looked like it had the least nutritional value of anything in the known universe (and because it was pink).
Years later, I bought my oldest son his first holiday ice-cream, when he was four-years-old: a Mr Whippy double cone. We sat on a bench, while Son attempted to eat his ice-cream, about 65% of which melted and dribbled all over his arms, his t-shirt, his shorts, and his skinny, four-year-old legs. I looked at this vision of childhood gluttony, ecstatic at the exuberant, extravagant, wasteful stickiness of it all.
Later on, when no-one was looking, I bought one for myself.
It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.