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Tales From the Past | ‘The Cream’ – Part 2

It was Friday and in the first week of the school holidays the place was alive with scruffy urchins charging around all over the place. We took a lot of cash within a few minutes from greedy, snotty nosed brats all fighting to be first in line. I say we but it was George who was doing all the work, chatting to me as he delivered the cream and showing a few basic techniques of how to cope with the equipment. There were two basic tools. One was a scoop and the other was a kind of flat spatula. The scoop handled the cornets and the flat thing dealt with the flat wafers or ‘sandwiches’ as they called them.

George was not only adept at handing the stuff out quickly and dealing with the change but he knew he was dealing with an ice cream which oozed of Italy, sunshine, cool glades, warm evenings and a softly sung serenade. It really was good stuff. As well as this George had a wonderful, fine line in ‘patter’ which he would turn on when the mothers appeared, as they did frequently with their little ones.

Most of them were curlered, headscarfed harridans and all as miserable as hell. After he’d chatted them up they were smiling, coy lumps, quite horrific when I think back to that, willingly handing over their money and buying twice as much when George turned on the charm.

‘Whey, hello, pet,’ he’d begin. ‘What’s ya fettle the day, hinnie?’

This was ‘Geordie speak’ for, ‘Good morning, madam. I hope you are well today.’

With another couple of lines like, ‘but you’re looking good today,’ or ‘it’s so good to see you again,’ a few of them began fluttering their eyes like school girls. I had to turn away. It was enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

After an hour or so we were cruising around one of the modern housing estates, mostly tower blocks and wreckage, built in the optimistic days of the late fifties when slum clearance had been a near religion for the local authority. We pulled up in the car park of one of them and waited. Although they’d only been built less than ten years earlier, the contempt in which the occupants held these places was evident to see. The great planning hope of the mid and late fifties had thrown up these brick and concrete towers up all over the place. All the previous housing in that area had been flattened under an army of bull-dozers and with it had gone the community spirit of the mean streets which they now replaced.

Without exception everyone who lived in these places hated them and treated them with complete disdain, to put it politely. They were not communities any longer. They were at best tall shelters. At worst they were only hovels, stacked one on top of another. Looking around the base of this one was a depressing sight. A couple of broken down cars without wheels, engines or anything else were lying dumped in one of the scruffy car parks. There were very few folk living in these places who could actually afford the comparative luxury of a car.

Litter bins were smashed and scattered around all over the footpaths and the scrub which had once been grass held a liberal layer of assorted rubbish. Graffiti covered anything accessable and the whole area had the run down depressed atmosphere which matched the older streets we had just come from.

George sat perched on the fixed stool by the open side window of the van, a fag sticking out of his mouth waiting for the rush from the block we’d just stopped under. He’d played his chimes for a few seconds longer than usual and then looked up. I followed his eyes as young faces appeared everywhere on all floors, pressed to the glass of the windows, and shouts began to be heard from every direction. Seconds later a stampede of kids, mothers and a few men rushed out of the entrance and virtually surrounded the van. Pushing and shoving they all tried to get to the front and a few mini fights broke out amongst the kids. A few slaps here and there from the mums soon stopped that.

We managed to serve all of them without any further problems, with me feeding George with cones, lollies or wafers and he dispatching each order and taking the money. It struck me at the time that it was such a ‘fluid’ process, a non-stop stream of confection going out through the window and the money coming back in. How I would cope by myself I didn’t know.

By early afternoon we’d sold well over half the load. That was the point where the local pub beckoned. This was still in the Scotswood area of the town where ‘real’ pubs were to be found. They’ve all gone now but at the time there was a pub on every street corner along that famous street, Scotswood Road, which was almost three miles long. Not the posing, designer joints you can find today but ‘proper’ pubs which were there for one reason, oblivion. Many a case of brain damage had happened over the years as game souls tried to have a half of beer in every one. Nobody ever succeded. Geordie ale was powerful stuff.

The pubs were named after the processes which the Scotswood Road overlooked. This had been an area of heavy industry so the names reflected all of that. ‘The Hammer’, ‘The Iron Billet’, ‘The Forge’, ‘The Furnace,’ and many more were emblazoned over their facades, and all of them were classic examples of early and late Victorian building. Every one of them were very well used by the local population who could drink and drink and drink. Geordies didn’t mess about. They had worked out their priorities for what they wanted. These pubs were full of as many chairs and tables as could be crammed in and with as big a bar as possible. The one which George took me into was no exception.

There were only a few bods in the place which somehow made it seem even bigger. There’s always something ‘comfortable’ about a near empty pub, well, there is to me anyway. This one had that unique ‘hoppy’ smell from the beer and with the light on behind the bar, it seemed to exude a kind of slow party atmosphere. I had the feeling of expectation just walking into the place that it was almost waiting for the whole community to arrive, crowds of drinkers wanting to slosh gallons of ale down their throats, and it was just lying sleepy and content until that happened. But that’s me. I always was a bit odd. But this was almost 2.30pm and the bulk of the drinkers had been and gone. So much for reverie.

Anyway, there we were walking in and one of a small group of three across at the bar hailed George as he waddled towards them.

‘George, y’old bugger! How’s ya fettle?’

‘A’reet man!’ George answered. ‘So far so good!’

One of the bar staff was working her way through the aftermath of the lunchtime drinking session, collecting empties and wiping the tables down as she cleared them but she slowly ambled round behind the bar to take our order. Built like a tank and listing to one side as she walked, she wore a flowered apron tied round her vast bulk with her hair covered in a headscarf. She leaned over the bar and grinned directly at George, a wide, tooth gapped grin.

‘Right pet,’ she said. ‘What can ah get yih then?’

‘Mee usual!’ George said cheerily. ‘An’ one fer me mate here!’

Always generous was old George. She pulled the pints and slid them across the bar.

‘There y’are, hinny,’ she said, still grinning.

‘Thanks love,’ George said, ‘That’s grand!’

He handed over the first pint to me and then took the other for himself.

‘Eeh, look at that!’ he said, holding his pint up to the light. ‘Did y’eva see such a sight?’

Before I had the chance to make any kind of response he brought it up to his lips, sniffed it in full admiration, said, ‘Forst today!’ and then dispatched half of it in one easy gulp.

I sipped mine, in a comparitively gentile fashion but then saw George stiffen as he put his glass down on the table. I followed his eyes to the door and saw a figure in a long, white coat walk into the bar. It was one of the opposition. One of the ‘brickies’. The grin on the face was fixed, the manner offensive and all of it in Georges’ direction.

While we were offering real ice cream there were one or two national companies selling solid stuff, wrapped in paper and tasteless, hence the ‘brick’ reference. They all had the notion they had the right to sell anything, anywhere and all of them were very ‘pushy’ about it. This one was no exception. His name was Billy Harris and it was the first time I had come across him. It wasn’t the last.

‘Well, well well,’ Billy said, walking up to the bar. ‘Look who it isn’t! It’s that famous fella himself! George the ‘Parlour’ man!’

George just stood there without saying a word but his hands clenched into fists at that last remark. I slid my pint to the back of the bar wondering if things might just become a bit ‘active’. But George relaxed, turned his back on Billy and leaned against the bar, sipping his pint, staring straight ahead. It was common knowledge that George had always wanted to set up his own ice cream parlour but so far hadn’t got round to it. A distinct lack of money had a lot to do with it. Billy kept taunting him. He ambled over and leaned on the other end of the bar.

‘Nothin’ t’say,eh?’ said Billy. ‘Must be aal that plannin’ f’the business aal bet.’

‘That’s it,’ George said. ‘Then ye’ll be out o’business, not that y’ve got much of a one selling bricks instead o’cream, like.’

Billy bridled at that. He didn’t like the ‘brick’ reference at all.

‘Now, now,’ the barmaid said. ‘That’s enough you two. I divn’t want any fightin’ in here.’

‘It’s a’reet, pet,’ George smiled, ‘Just give Billy somethin’ to take away the brick dust, like a bucket o’watta to stick he’s heed in.’

It was Billy’s turn to clench fists but a large warning finger from the barmaid was enough to stop him saying anything else.

Later that afternoon we were driving round the edge of one of the new estates to the next point on George’s patch. We pulled onto another half derelict car park area and there was one of the opposition. It was the same company Billy worked for, another one of the ‘brickies’.

George didn’t bat an eyelid but drove straight up to the other van and rolled in as close as he could to the serving side, coming within a couple of inches of it. These vans only served their stuff from one side and George had successfully blocked it with our vehicle. We could serve from both sides and the other fella knew it. He jumped out of his van and ran round to the front of ours, red in the face with fury and shouting. George just sat there, ignored him completely, reached over and flicked the chimes on, drowning him out with their noise.

Seconds later we had a mini crowd round us from the flats, all clammering for service and all round our serving hatch on the other side. The ‘brickie’ was furious but there was nothing he could do. As we dished out the cream and the rest and he sloped off, climbed into his van and drove away, vanquished by George yet again.

‘Happens aal the time!’ George grinned. ‘They nivva lorn!’

For the rest of that week George took me through all the scams and tricks he and the other lads used and by the end of it I felt ready to get started on my own. There had been a lot to remember but some of the points George made were fascinating.

‘Nivva poach on a mate’s patch,’ George warned. ‘That’s the worst thing ye can dee.’

I nodded obediently as this Sage of the Cream continued with the lesson.

‘Y’ve got t’know ya territory,’ he continued. ‘In some places ye can only sell tanner cornets but in others ninepenny ones. It’s the same cornet ivvery time but some folk have more money so y’make ’em pay, it’s as simple as that!’

This was well before decimalisation so a ‘tanner’, a sixpenny silver piece, would be two and a half pence in today’s currency and a ‘ninepenny one’ would be just under four pence. I doubt whether you would get much change, if any, out of three pounds these days for the same two ice creams!

There was a great deal more wisdom from George, much more, and I absorbed it as best I could. On the following Monday morning I was about to be released to the surrounding area of Newcastle as a purveyor of the ‘cream’. I turned up, as usual and wondered what would happen. The instructions I received were short and sharp. Albert Antonio emerged from the creamery, threw a set of keys to me and pointed at a van parked next to the parlour.

‘Don’t bend it!’ he snapped, turning on his heel and stomping back inside the creamery.

‘He has such a way with words,’ I said as George ambled over, grinning at me.

‘Ye get used to it, kidda,’ he said. ‘Divn’t take any notice. He’s had a bad night by the look of it.’

‘Bad night?’ I asked.

‘Aye, bad night,’ George said again. ‘Seems that he lost a packet at the casino again.’

‘Again?’ I asked.

‘What ye don’t realise,’ George explained, ‘is that Albert isn’t like you and me. When we’ve finished for the day he begins. He gets his heed doon for a couple of hours then he’s off to the clubs, gamblin’. Every night he’s out and about, spendin’ the takin’s of the day, gamblin’. And if that’s not enough his owlder brother, Mario is goin’ round the place in the opposite direction, grazin’ through aal the pubs and clubs gettin’ completely paralytic, rat-arsed pissed. Ivery neet’s the same. That’s why this is such a piss-pot of a business. If they didn’t do it they could have built a chain of parlours aal ower the region. Instead o’fritterin’ the whole bloody lot away, stupid owld sods, the pair o’them!’

‘That’s probably why Albert’s such a bad tempered old bugger,’ I offered.

‘Got it in one, kidda!’ George smiled. ‘Howway then. Time to hit the trail!’

I climbed into the driving seat, started up and pulled into line behind the rest of them. One by one Karl doled out the daily supply to all the others with me pulling into place in front of the double doors, last.

‘Ah,’ he grunted. ‘The new boy, eh?’

I had the good sense to say nothing at all. I took the simple attitude which George had demonstrated so well before. I just smiled and nodded. Karl stared at me as he reeled off the daily supply, pushing it over to me across the squeaking rollers of the conveyor belt. I loaded the consignment, shut the back door of the van and walked round to the driver’s door. I could almost feel Karl’s eyes on me as I climbed up into the van but then I was off, on my own, looking for my own ‘patch’. As I drove away Maria stepped out from the parlour, licking her lips, smoothing her thigh with one hand and pouting slightly, giving me a big wink as I passed her. I didn’t like the look of that at all.

The old, converted Bedford vans which we drove around in those days were proven work horses which just kept going and going. That’s why they’d been used by a number of similar businesses for years. Based on a thing called a ‘Doormobile’, they had aluminium bodies designed and built for street trading, whether ice cream or not. They were reliable, economical and easy to maintain. When you consider that they were forever stopping and starting all day long it’s a miracle they didn’t need more care.

But there were occasions when ‘maintainance’ became necesary. It was rare for any one of us to drive more than a mile or so between stops for selling the cream, and the starter motors sometimes gave trouble when we moved on to the next pitch. Without going into too much mechanical detail the starters would jam, particularly in summer weather, when they overheated. Two basic tools were always carried on board just in case this kind of breakdown happened.

One was a large screwdriver and the other a hammer. If the motor jammed you had to pull the cover off the engine, this was accessable from inside the van, place the screwdriver tip on the end of the starter motor and smack the top of the screwdriver with the hammer. That would always free the starter and you were mobile again, simple as that. Not very subtle but effective.

There were times when that didn’t work and that would leave only one alternative. The motors jammed because they were hot so, obviously, they had to be cooled down. Rather than use some of the precious cream to do it you had to apply a ‘personal’ touch. You might well have seen the driver of one of these vans in those days kneeling down between the front seats and pointing something down into the engine. No? Well, it’s enough to say that a trickle of ‘water’ would usually dribble out from under the van whenever this happened!

That first day by myself wasn’t the huge success I would have liked. Without having a defined ‘patch’ of my own it was difficult to find somewhere without poaching any other vans territory. Not that I knew where any of their routes might be. I toured around for a while, stopped here and there, letting the chimes go every time but didn’t get a hell of a lot of paying punters.

It’s not just stopping anywhere, as I began to find out, it’s knowing where to stop and not having the problem of being moved on by the law for creating a hazard, parking illegally or creating a crowd, an ‘obstruction’, on a busy street. Not that I had that problem. I was lucky to have a couple of snotty nosed kids without any money more often than not.

Cruising round one of the estates I stopped a couple of times but without any great activity happening. Moving on to another point I pulled round a corner and found one of the opposition sitting there facing me. It was a ‘Fantini Brothers’ van, another ‘real ice cream’ vendor like Albert but still a heavy competitor. I would have driven passed but the driver waved me down, grinning. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a confrontation after all. He climbed out of his van and walked over to me, still grinning.

‘How do!’ he said. ‘Your new round here, aren’t you?’

I nodded.

‘Thought so,’ he said. ‘I know aal the Antonio drivers. Thought I hadn’t seen you before. How’s it goin’?’

I relaxed immediately. This wasn’t going to be a stand up row. He seemed to be genuinely interested. How wrong can you be?

‘Not so good,’ I confessed. ‘I’ve just started and haven’t found a decent patch yet.’

‘Ahh, that happens to aal of us in the first week or so,’ he said, still grinning. ‘Tell you what. Why don’t you try down by the main road. There’s loads of punters down there. I don’t think anyone’s coverin’ that at the moment.’

This was manner from heaven. The opposition giving me tips about where to work! I gave him my thanks and drove off to find it. He waved me off, still grinning. I found the road he’d described and stopped along it, behind it, either side of it and then at, both ends of it without one single person coming out to see me. I couldn’t understand why it was so quiet. Lunchtime came around and I found the pub which George had first taken me to. By the time I arrived he’d been there for a while and some of the others lads were in there as well.

‘How’s business, kidda?’ George grinned as I sat down.

‘Bloody awful,’ I moaned. ‘Haven’t managed to collect more than a couple of quid all morning.’

‘Ahh, nivva mind, hinny!’ George sympathsized. ‘Forst days arallways the same. Give it a couple o’days. Ye’ll see!’

The others sat around smiling in the same way. They’d all had that kind of start themselves.

‘Where’ve y’been then?’ Drib asked.

I gave him a quick desciption of where and they all fell about laughing. I didn’t see the joke.

‘All right, all right,’ I said. ‘What’s so bloody funny?’

‘Three of those places, and the main road you were working,’ George said, chuckling, ‘were cleared by the council four weeks ago for rehousin’! No wonder you didn’t get anyone! There’s neebody there anymore!’

Feeling like a total pratt is not a pleasant experience but I had to see the funny side, eventually. The rest of the day didn’t improve but tomorrow was another day. I wondered if I’d come across the driver from the Fantini business again. I hoped not for his sake.

The only real bonus of driving Albert Antonio’s vans was that we could use them after the working day to get ourselves home and back again each morning. He didn’t have the garage space to keep them near the Parlour and the area had a few ‘characters’ who would have been happy to nick anything off them, mirrors, hub caps, wheels, anything. Albert was happier to have the vans well away from the area rather than have a fleet which would have been half derelict within hours if they’d been parked outside his place.

The only trouble about that was that the van I was driving became a magnet for the kids in the area where I was living. I spent most of my time every early evening chasing kids away from the damned thing, all of them thinking that it was heaving with goodies which might be ‘available’ if only they could get inside it. There wasn’t a day that went by over the whole time I was working for Albert when I didn’t have to spend at least three hours a night ‘defending’ the van from marauding kids.

To be continued…/

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