Tales From the Past | ‘The Cream’ – Part 1

Altogether there were six full time, hard nosed, territorially manic, purveyors of ‘The Cream’. They were known only as ‘Limbo’, ‘Squidge’, ‘Drib’ (which was a shortened version of ‘Dribble’ ), ‘Hole’, and that took a while to figure out, ‘Ding-Dong’ and George.

George was the true professional. Over forty years of hard experience had given him an easy going style. He had defended, expanded and consolidated his territory made easier by the ‘cream’ he was selling. These were the days of ‘real ice cream’ from great metal tubs, not the encroaching, foaming, aerated ‘fizz’ which had just become popular or the ‘bricks’ which had arrived before. No. He delivered ‘real ice cream’ and he did it with style, great style.

Oh, yes. George had great style. But George didn’t care about any of this. All he wanted was an easy life, a few pints at the end of the day and a good game of ‘doms’, dominoes to you and I, in the local pub after a day of dispensing ‘cool delights’ to all and sundry. He would have been even happier if he’d had his own parlour. Not that the others had any less going for them. Far from it. They were all highly individual ‘individuals’, but George always seemed to have the edge, every time.

All of these oddballs were a bunch of absolute nut-cases who sold ice cream around the streets of the North East of England, Geordieland. And not just in the Summer. They sold the stuff all the year round and made a fortune doing so. Things may have changed since then. I’m talking about the sixties when I was a student and the days when selling ice cream on the streets was more akin to warfare than anything else.

The nicknames of the full time drivers had been earned after years of faithful service. They were, when you got to know them, as accurate a set of descriptions as anyone could have. ‘Limbo’ was Lenny Robson, a great, gangling, bean pole of a character who could get round, under, behind or through any barrier, enforced or not, to get to his ‘public’. Many a time Albert Antonio, who ran the business, had to withstand the Local Education Officer’s haranguing, usually backed up by a very bored Policeman. This was always about the numerous occasions when Limbo had turned up right in the middle of a few school playgrounds. He would happily sell, to any small sprog who had the pennies, a mixture of assorted lollies, ice cream and anything else he had on board that day.

‘Squidge’ was a lesser mortal but only in height. Better known as Sam Hoskins, he took great delight in poaching any other ice cream van’s territory, as long as it wasn’t an Antonio van and, as far as anyone knew, had never been caught doing so. Even so, that was a dangerous occupation. Territory is ‘all’ in the ice cream game. I found that out for myself. He could squeeze himself onto anybody’s patch and then disappear before they turned up. He had a sixth sense for knowing the routes of the competition and would use that to the full when things were not going too well with his own.

Derek Armstrong was ‘Drib’. This came from his terrible habit of leaving the lid off his tub. You have to remember that this was during a time when large, metal, circular, insulated tubs of ice cream were loaded onto the vans direct from big freezers. There were very few of the ‘turn a tap and out it comes’ variety around in those days. During the summer season this didn’t help his sales at all. The stuff became very sloppy and you could find kids walking around with the stuff dripping off their elbows as they tried to lick it up.

Then there was Arthur Holden, or ‘Hole’. He could whip up a cornet which looked huge but it was in fact partially hollow. This was his contribution to the ice cream trade and as a result of his dexterous hands he would only use about half of the amount he should have done. The consequence of this was that he made twice as much profit than anyone else but it didn’t always get back to the boss.

‘Ding-Dong’ or Harry Patterson, was probably the most ‘hearing impaired’ ice cream salesman known to man. He would switch on his chimes and just sit back and let them run and run. He didn’t give a stuff about the understanding that you shouldn’t let them ring after 7.00pm. Not for him. He’d even been known to climb into his van, straight from the pub, and well after closing time, chiming his way home.

That left George. George was just George, a true professional. From the top of his balding head, down over his enormous paunch to his solid flat feet, he was a true magician with ice cream. The customers loved him. What they didn’t know was how much they weren’t getting. George was a genius at creating a mouthwatering ice cream mountain which looked incredible but was completely hollow, much more so than the Hole ever did.

His takings were always the highest at the end of the day. The management loved him. He was the star of the business. What they didn’t know was that he could tease a barrel of ice cream twice as far as anyone else, even after pocketing well over a third of the overall profit. He became my guide, teacher and mentor for a whole week before I was allowed loose in, and around, the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne.

I met them all in 1962 in the middle of a five year stint at college. Broke and desperate I’d been trying all the usual venues around Newcastle for holiday work and drawn a complete and total blank. Every other student in the Universe had beaten me to it. Nothing left. But then, by sheer chance, ‘Good Old Yellow Pages’ came to my rescue.

Well, the directory didn’t have that particular ‘handle’ in those days. I think it was just the ‘Business Directory’, but the result was the same. I’d picked up a dishevelled copy in the common room of the college, promptly dropped the bloody thing and it happened to fall open at ‘Ice Cream Manufacturers and Suppliers’.

‘What the Hell!’ I thought and made a list of the handful of names and numbers listed. Curiously, they were mostly Italian but I wasn’t in the mood to be ‘picky’ so I dialled my way through the list with the little change I had left. Number four on the list was the first one who didn’t say ‘NO!’ Albert Antonio turned out to be a Fagin-like Italian with Geordie overtones, one hell of a mixture, and totally suspicious of anything and anyone he came into contact with. He was dark haired, yet almost bald, and the most miserable sod I had ever come across up till then.

He eyed me carefully as we talked, checking my driving licence and spitting questions the whole time. Had I done this kind of work before? Any accidents? Had I worked for any of the competition? How long could I be available to him? Another dozen or so questions were shot in my direction which I answered as best I could.

At the end of a fast ten minute grilling I had a job! Basic minimum, of course, cash in hand, starting tomorrow and I’d be working with George, whoever he was, until I knew the ropes. This was more than I had hoped for. The ‘cash in hand’ reference was the bonus. No tax. Either way, as a student I wasn’t bothered about all that. Who was in those days? All I was concerned about was surviving over the holidays and earning enough to keep myself going.

With everything apparently settled Albert abruptly left with a final, ‘Be here at 10.30 in the morning!’. I just stood there, feeling a little confused, wondering if there was anything else to do next or should I simply leave? But then George happened next. He rolled in, almost immediately, all twenty rolling stones of him, filling and overflowing the chair next to me. A great bunch of fingers reached towards me.

‘Wheey, helloh, Kidda! Amm George! Welcome aboard!’ A broad ‘Geordie’ accent. That was the beginning of seven weeks of total lunacy which I will never forget. I was now part of the Summer conscription, three in total, who were always students or some of the great unemployed who were taken on to swell the ranks of ‘Antonio’s Great Ice Cream Experience!’ The other two, a chap in his mid thirties and another student of about my age had been taken on as serfs in the ice cream parlour. Unlucky them. I’d been given the chance of driving around the streets selling the ‘cream’ whereas they were stuck inside with that unbelievable collection of headcases known as the Antonio Family all day long!

George was my guide through this brave new world. He had been around ice cream since he was fourteen years old. He’d known Albert’s father, Luigi, founder of the business and he’d been just as barmy as his son, Albert, who now had the best ice cream on Tyneside. He had medals to prove it. The proof of this was emblazoned over all the vans he ran. ‘Winner of the Rose of Ice Cream 19…’ At least sixteen emblems were studded on each one of the idiosyncratic vehicles which made up the ‘Antonio Fleet’. Albert was a very proud Geordie/Italian. The Rose awards were merely a new version of the wars of previous times which I was unfortunate enough to become involved with all too soon.

But that was Albert and this was George. George took me ‘on board’ completely. Looking back I wonder now if he felt sorry for me, though God knows why. He was only just over five feet tall and I towered a good foot over him. Nevertheless he felt a good deal larger than I did at that time. Approaching his mid sixties, ruddy faced, rotund to a wonderful extent and with a spectacular vocabulary which veered from unadulterated Anglo-Saxon to unashamed pure filth, he was a force to be reckoned with. As a specialist of the first order George showed me ‘the ropes’, the basic rules of the trade.

The first day was a classic. I arrived at around 10.15 in the morning, knowing I was early but wanting to be seen to be keen. George was already there, leaning against the window of the Ice Cream Parlour looking over to the large double doors of the Creamery next door. This was the ‘Holy of Holy’s’. Nobody but NOBODY was ever allowed inside when ‘The Cream’ was being prepared. It was a recipe which had been handed down through the generations, probably Mafia based, and jealously guarded from all but the immediate family. I would find out who they were quite soon. George grinned and winked as I shambled over.

‘He’s in there,’ he said

‘Who is?’ I asked.

‘Albert.’ George whispered, putting up a pudgy hand to lower the level. ‘He’s mixing the daily supply!’

I stood next to George, fascinated by what might lie behind the large doors, listening to the faint swishing noise which oozed from the crack between them. Albert, within and engaged in a mysterious and ancient rite, was ‘Mixing the Cream’.

We stood there for a while with me wondering when I’d be given the keys to a van. I didn’t see a complicated scenario ahead of me. The ice cream would be loaded into the van with a few bits and pieces, I would then drive off with the whole town to choose from. Easy. It didn’t happen quite that way. After a couple of minutes the Creamery doors opened just enough to allow Albert Antonio to slide out. He pointed directly at me and spoke.

‘You go with George until you know the ropes.’

That was one of the longest sentences I ever heard him say during the whole time I was with the business. All other communications were usually much shorter and much more ‘colourful’.

All novices to the trade always started with George. There was no one else who had as much experience as George. He winked again and thumbed me in the direction of his van, pointing at a bucket on the ground next to him at the same time. This just happened to be full of soapy water with a large, damp rag hanging over the side. It didn’t take a college degree to work out what he meant.

Half an hour later and I’d finished. The van gleamed from end to end and we were ready for the next task, loading up. A few minutes dragged by while we waited but then the other drivers of the vans appeared one by one. The secret mixing ceremony continued. George gave them all a quick introduction to ‘the new boy’, me, and they nodded and grinned in my direction. Then the ‘click-clack’ of high heels was heard and from round the corner appeared a vision to test the sanity of any man.

The shoes were bright red. The stockings, a pale blue, disappearing up inside a very, very tight and very, very short black leather skirt above which a shrunken, gold finished, tank top revealed a strip of pink flesh. Above this, straining against the gold fabric were an amazingly large and upright pair of breasts. All this was topped with a brown suede jacket and the head which stuck out from the top was heavily made up. Mauve lipstick, heavy mascara and white eye liner surrounded piggy little eyes and an enormous dyed blonde ‘bee-hive’ wobbled about on the top. This was Maria, daughter of Albert, and an absolute bitch.

All eyes followed her to the door behind which the magic potion for the day was being prepared. She opened it and walked in slamming it behind her. The roar of an engine broke the spell. We all scattered as a bright yellow sports car screamed up to us, skidding to a halt by the door. Karl had arrived. Karl with a ‘K’, as he would often remind us, Albert’s son, although we all viewed him as ‘a person of questionable birth’. He never let us down on that. Just like his sister he always lived up to our opinions.

A minute or so later the double doors to the ‘shrine of cream’ opened slowly. Albert Antonio, proprietor of the whole business walked out, hunched and sweating, rubbing his face with a large handkerchief. He glowered at all of us and then turned back into the shrine. That was the signal to move. We all climbed into the vans and, without a word being spoken, engines running, we arranged ourselves into an orderly line, George and I first, to take on board the days supply. George backed the van up to the doors and then went round to check off the load. I followed him.

Albert had appeared again and with Karl helping, the two of them were manhandling the tubs of ice cream along a primitive, metal-rollered, conveyor belt. Behind this was an assortment of boxes. Another rumpled figure stood at the door to the shrine, leaning against the door frame This was Albert’s brother Mario. I don’t think I ever saw him sober. He just stood there, hand in pockets, watery eyed, an expression of mild euphoria across his face, watching Albert and Karl working up a sweat as they heaved the daily supply down the conveyor belt. Then Karl stepped forward, a clipboard in his hand and a sneer on his face. He began reading off the first batch of daily ‘supplies’.

‘Tub, cream, one. Wafers, box, one. Cornets, box, one. Cornets caramel, box, one. Lolls, boxes, two. Chocs, box, one. Sugar cones, box, one. Float, fiver.’

He looked up immediately and then snapped, ‘Come on, then. We haven’t got all friggin day!’

Albert glowered again at both of us. George smiled a huge smile, signed for all of it and kept the smile fixed on his face while we lumped the whole lot into the back of the van. Not until we climbed into the front seats, George starting the engine and driving off, did the smile disappear. He then said only two succinct words. They were, ‘Fxckin’ Bastxrds!’

‘That bad?’ I dared to ask.

‘Worse than that, kidda!’ George replied. ‘If any one of ’em was on fire aah wouldn’t piss on them to put them oot! Albert’s just a bad tempered owld sod, just like his father. Karl’s somethin’ else. Pure evil. Watch y’sell with him.’

‘What about the other one?’ I asked.

‘Mario?’ George asked.

‘I suppose so,’ I replied. ‘The one who just stood watching all the time.’

‘Aye, that’s Mario,’ explained George. ‘He’s Albert’s owlder brother. Bone idle and completely pissed most of the time. He was the apple of ‘is father’s eye. Couldn’t do any wrong. Albert hates his guts but the business is half his so there’s nothin’ Albert can do about it.’

‘And who’s the female? The one who swanned in earlier’ I asked.

‘D’ye mean Maria, the daughter?’ George asked. ‘Aal tits and hair?’

‘That’s the one,’ I said.

‘She’s nee betta than the rest,’ George sighed. ‘She’s ownly intristed in one thing, if y’see what ahh mean.’

I didn’t. George took a deep breath and explained.

‘Anythin in troosars,’ he said. ‘An’ she’s not picky aboot anythin’ she can find inside anyones troosars either. She’s crackers. A total nympho. Watch y’sell there an all.’

A few minutes later we were driving into George’s territory, just off the Scotswood Road and well before all the old terraces had been demolished. Rank after rank, they used to run off at right angles above that famous stretch of Geordie folk law. The streets which ran up the hill from the road were back to back with a rear lane running between them just wide enough to allow a single vehicle to drive down providing, of course, that it wasn’t a Monday, the traditional washing day. Then all the back lanes would be criss-crossed with lines of wet clothes and it was a brave man who dared to drive through that lot.

To be continued…/

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