My dead father is selling ice cream in the park. He's selling at 1968 prices, and like you'd expect word has got around. There's a huge queue snaking through the park, ending up at his van. It's so long I can see people looking worried, hear sirens wailing in the distance.
I'm in the queue myself, along with my dog, Sam. Sam's restless, tugging at his lead , sniffing at the legs of people around me. I don't think he wants to be here, but I can't lose my spot, not now, not when we're only about twenty places from the front.
I suppose he's upset because Susie and I had another argument. I ran out on her again. I don't know why that keeps happening, but we can't seem to help ourselves. I can still hear her crying, the sound of the mug she threw breaking on the door I'd just slammed. She'd been yelling at me for hours. Well, it felt like hours. She kept telling me I was distant, a cold fish, saying how it was all my father's fault. I yelled back, saying Dad had been an ice cream man, not a bloody fishmonger.
'I know,' she screamed. 'Maybe that explains it. Maybe he kept you in the deep freeze with the rest of his stock. You're frozen, Johnny. Deep-bloody-frozen. I don't think you're ever going to thaw!'
That was when she threw the mug.
I hear water running, look down, and see Sam is peeing up against some guy's trouser leg. The guy's just looking, doesn't seem to mind.
I guess this must be a dream or something.
We're about eighteen places back now. If I lean to the right, I can just see Dad standing at the hatch of his van, working the queue, serving ice-cream like crazy. It's weird to see him again. I mean, he's been dead for years. I forget how many.
I don't have a clue what I'm going to say to him when I finally get to the front. It's not as if we talked much to each other when he was alive. Most of the time we just argued: not as bad as Susie and me, but close. I'll probably keep it formal, stick to business - ask him for a 99 with strawberry syrup, and maybe a Sky-Ray for Sam. Sam likes ice. In winter, he licks frozen puddles.
Sixteen people now. I can hear Dad cracking jokes with his customers, and a little kid just walked back along the queue, sucking a Jublee. I don't think I've seen one of those in over twenty years. He was telling the woman beside him - his mother, could be his sister - what a great day he's having. He told her he feels lucky.
Lucky! Now there's a word that takes me back.
My mates always called me Lucky when I was a kid. Lucky Thompson, they called me, because I had an ice cream man for a dad. They thought that was the bee's knees, they thought I had everything. I played up to it like you do when you're a kid, telling them I could have the stuff for breakfast, dinner and tea if I wanted. But the truth was I didn't really care for ice cream. It was always there if I wanted it, but I hardly ever did. Eating ice cream made me even more aware of what it was I really wanted - and that was for my dad to be something a bit more important than just an ice cream man.
I was a bit of a shit as a kid, I suppose.
Let's face facts, we didn't get on, Dad and me. We were a disappointment to each other, and by the time I was old enough to realise that not everything had been his fault, it was too late. I was married, he was dead. He had a stroke while he was working, and fell head-first into one of his freezers. Mom always said his brain blew itself apart.
I missed him, once he wasn't there. Joni Mitchell got it right. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? But now, somehow, Dad's back, and here I am just a dozen people away from him, thinking I should admit how I got it wrong, wanting to say that being important isn't the point, I know that now. Being whole is.
I'd tell Susie the same if I could, but whenever I try it just comes out as anger. She must know how I hate my life, how I've hated it for years. What she sees as coldness is just a cover, like the frozen skin on top of one of Sam's puddles.
Of course, I know Susie and I have got problems. I'm not cold, whatever she says. But can't she see the only reason I'm working now is for her, for the kids? To keep the house up and running? Doesn't she realise that? Christ, it's not as if I want this job, not any more.
I played the game, the one Dad never even tried to play. I got the degree, the second degree, the suit and the city job - and Jesus, for what? A 90 minute commute each way, twelve hour shifts moving money-numbers around. The decisions I take sometimes make small countries fall over. That's what I used to want. That's what I worked for. And now it all seems less than nothing.
I used to think I might be a writer one day, but no. That wasn't sensible, was it? The thing to do was settle down, knuckle down, do the right thing, make the numbers grow. The teachers said I was bright. They were wrong. Dad was brighter than me, I see that now. He enjoyed his job, getting out in the van, making friends with the kids, and when he wasn't working he had his painting. So what if nobody ever bought his pictures? That wasn't the point.
It never occurred to me that Susie would have an affair. When I found out it came as such a shock. It hurt like hell and yes, I wanted to hurt her back. I wasn't Lucky Thompson any more. I was Cold-Fish Thompson with a wife who was getting warmed elsewhere, and all that money, the fancy cars, the stockbroker-belt house, what use was it?
Sam barks, and I see I'm at the hatch. It's my turn to be served.
'Hello Dad.' The words come out ashamed, as if I've just broken something.
'Still think it's important to be important, Johnny?'
'I don't know, Dad. I really don't.'
'Are you happy?'
'Do I look happy?'
'Son, you look like even a 99 with strawberry syrup wouldn't cheer you up.'
I grin. Well, half-grin.
'Maybe not, but I'll have one anyway. And can I have a Sky-Ray for Sam?'
'Sure,' my dad says. 'Sam eh? He looks a bit like Ben. Remember Ben? Now he was a dog.'
Yes, he was. On Saturdays, before Dad's shift, we'd sometimes take Ben for a long walk together, down across the waste ground as far as the canal. They've built another estate there now, and the canal was filled in years ago. I was sad to see it go.
'I'd forgotten,' I say.
'I know, son.'
Dad turns towards his main fridge, the one he fell into.
'How's Susie? The boys?'
I look down at my shoes. 'The boys are away at school. I think Susie and I are splitting up.'
'But you're rich, right? You're not selling ice-cream like me.'
'No Dad. I'm selling countries.'
Dad holds the Sky-Ray out to Sam and says 'Hup, Ben!'
Sam begs, and Dad tosses him the frozen lollipop. Sam catches it and crunches it.
'A fine dog. Why have him, though, Johnny? Dogs take up space, don't they? Cost money to keep, have to be walked.'
'Are you serious?' I say. 'Sam's great. Jesus, Dad, without Sam I'd...'
He's holding out my ice cream now, a large whippy, two chocolate flakes, a thick drool of strawberry running down the cornet. When we were kids we called it strawberry blood.
'You ever do anything about those stories of yours, son?'
My fingers are sticky and when I lick them I realise just how long it's been since I last tasted a 99. I think about my stories, the competitions I won while still at University. I even had an agent interested in me, but she told me the kind of stuff I wrote would never make me rich, only happy. I'd need a job, the agent said, something not too stressful, something I could drop at the end of the day. An ice-cream salesman, maybe...
'I grew out of it,' I say. 'It was just a phase.'
A shadow comes over us - me, Sam, Dad and his ice-cream van. The rainclouds nobody expected have rolled in and I look around and see it's just us and the empty park.
'I'm going to have to go soon,' Dad says.
He's warmer than I ever remembered him. Was he just unhappy about the way I was back then? Did I see sadness and worry as something else?
'Will I see you again?'
'You'll see me. I'm in your kids' eyes. I'm even in Susie's eyes, a little.'
He passes me another cornet.
'Take a look at them when you can make some time, son.'
'It's going to rain. Take Susie her ice-cream.'
'She'll think I've cracked.'
'That's the idea.'
I can feel him going and a sensation that's neither sadness nor joy washes through me. I want to say something special, but nothing comes.
'Bugger off home, son,' Dad says. 'Your family needs you.'
And he's gone. He doesn't fade away. He doesn't click or shimmer. He's just never been there. I'm standing in the middle of a deserted park, it's raining and I'm holding two 99s, both of them starting to drip. I start running home and Sam thinks it's a game. He skips and yelps around me. I don't stop until I reach the house.
When Susie answers the door her eyes are full of sadness.
'Ice-cream!' I say.
Behind her on the kitchen table is a box full of my old stories. She must have dug them out. I look at her, and in her face I think I can see something. A faint dream, perhaps. She looks like she used to when we were students together.
We sit opposite each other, the expensive Italian table between us. I reach out my hand and she takes it. When I ask her how she'd feel about taking the boys out of school she asks why. I say we won't be able to afford it. Her hand begins to lift from mine but I catch her.
'I want us to be closer,' I say. 'I want what's important.'
Susie doesn't let go. Her other hand raises her ice-cream to her mouth. She moves in slow-motion and licks.
'Strawberry blood,' she says.
'I'll have to resign,' I say. 'We'll have to sell the house...'
She has ice-cream on her nose and the cornet hides her lips but I can see from the change in her eyes that she's smiling.