Juliet Sellars won first prize in the Du Maurier Festival competition May 2012 for this dark and mysterious short story set in Daphne Du Maurier’s native Cornwall

The Ice Cream Van

The ice cream van stood alone on the cliff edge, small, white and vulnerable, buffeted every now and again by sharp gusts of wind. Autumn rain poured down, blurring the van against the bruised sky, creating deep, muddy puddles below the wheels. Posters of ice creams, faded from summers gone by, were stuck crookedly on its side. The paint was chipped along the window edges showing dull metal beneath; fat raindrops fought for space on the glass. Condensation raced down the steamy inside, softening the outline of the large ice cream man as he moved around the van. The tyres squelched softly.

Inside, the ice cream man sighed and sat down heavily on a small stool, his large bottom enveloping the worn velvet seat. He picked up a newspaper and began thumbing through it as he hummed along to the radio. He looked at his finger, smudged with ink, and wiped it nonchalantly on his jeans. A distant rumble made him look up. He cocked his head to one side listening and leant forward to rub the damp window with the cuff of his sleeve.

Through the misted glass, he watched a small dark car slowly wend its way down the narrow winding road, headlights playing hide and seek. After a few minutes, it reached the bottom of the hill, pulled into the lay-by and stopped. The engine idled, grumbling quietly. The windscreen wipers slapped back and forth, squeaking and juddering. The car lights pointed out to sea, blinking through the wetness.  The ice cream man folded his arms and waited.

Far below, hidden by a steep mossy embankment, a dog barked, its strained yap full of anticipation. A lone surfer, encased in slick black rubber, sat astride his board several metres from the shore, legs dangling in the deep grey sea-weedy water. He looked out to the distant swells and waited. The surfer turned as he heard the dog’s bark carried fleetingly on the wind then silence. He whistled soundlessly back and the dog, small brown and wiry, tore out from its hiding place, galloping across the damp sand, leaving tiny birdlike paw prints and gritty sprays in its wake. The dog barked excitedly all the way to the water’s edge then stopped, surprised by the intensity of the crashing waves and the coldness of the water. He backed up, growling. The surfer smiled at his neurotic friend, turned his board around and began paddling back to shore. He glanced up at the cliff top.

A sharp knock on the side-window made the ice cream man jump. He swore loudly and clutched his chest melodramatically. He stood up and smoothed down his over-washed checked shirt before unhooking the window catch and sliding it open on its sticky runners. Tinny pop music and warm sweat escaped into the damp air as he leant forward, hooking his chubby fingers over the counter’s edge, his large belly lifting up and over like kneaded dough. Wind whipped at his hair as he looked out.

Inside the car there was silence. The driver clenched his teeth, causing a small muscle in his jaw to flicker. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands, knuckles white. The passenger stared through the fogged up windscreen. Her heart pounded but she kept her breath slow and calculated. She twisted a large opal ring on her middle finger, round and round, and shuffled uncomfortably in her seat. She noticed an annoying tickling on the back of her neck where the t-shirt label was badly stitched and reached up to re-adjust it.

The driver tutted loudly and looked at her with irritation; she lowered her arm self-consciously and he looked away. An iPhone lit up in the well between them and beeped. She quickly reached for it but his hand fell on hers, gripping it tightly, his eyes burning into her with anger and despair. As his hold tightened, she let out a stifled cry and dropped the phone. She watched him as he picked it up and slowly read the screen, eyebrows knitted, index finger sliding over the glass, scrolling down the text. He looked up and let the phone fall to his lap.

The surfer wiped the tiny speckles of rain off his phone and put it back in his pocket. He gave an involuntary shiver and snuggled deeper into his down jacket. His wetsuit was discarded on the sand inside out and twisted like police tape at a murder scene. He kicked it angrily towards the open sports bag and looked down at his whimpering dog. The dog looked back at him with pleading eyes. He was shaking with cold, his fur spiked into wet tufts, sand covering his body like a dusting of icing sugar.

The surfer bent down and took a dirty towel out of his bag. He shook it vigorously and squatted in front of the dog, throwing the towel gently over its body and rubbing the small, shaking form. He felt his pocket vibrate and dropped the towel, leaving the dog shrouded in wet, wrinkled cloth. He took the phone out of his pocket and quickly entered his pin code, leaving damp fingerprints on the screen. He tapped once and studied the new message.

The ice cream man leant further out of the window. Instantly, the rain wet the top of his head and the wind blew into his face making his eyes sting. He looked slowly around the car park but saw no one. He heaved himself back inside the van, frowning, lips pursed. He squinted through the rear window towards the parked car but could see only the two shadowy figures inside. He scratched his chin then reached forward to slide the heavy window closed, muttering under his breath. He listened to the seagulls overhead, calling hoarsely to one another, waiting for customers just as he was.

The surfer typed quickly, biting his bottom lip in concentration. After a few seconds, he stopped thumbs poised and looked around him. All his worldly goods lay scattered over the sand: dog, bag, wetsuit, surfboard. He would have to leave two of them behind. He scanned the cliff top and pressed ‘send’.  He put the phone back in his pocket and sighed. He tucked his toe under the wetsuit and lifted it awkwardly. Its arms and legs were stiff and uncooperative; he hopped a few times to regain his balance. He flung it against the surfboard, where it stuck momentarily before sliding slowly down to the sand. The surfboard wobbled slightly but remained defiant, standing proudly, bright yellow and tacky with wax. He grabbed the long shoulder strap on the bag and hauled it up and over his head, feeling it pressing cruelly against his heart. He leant down and scooped up the dog, tucking it under his arm, squeezing it hard. The dog let out a squeak of protest and looked up at him. The surfer kissed the dog on its wet nose.

He set off in the direction of the footpath, glancing over his shoulder at his board. It stared back at him, a luminous tombstone in the fading light. As he walked, he began typing again, using his free hand, the dog licking occasionally at his salty skin. He came to the foot of the cliff then veered to his left to climb a steeper, narrower path, a short cut, worn in the soft earth by single footprints.

She tried to open the passenger door but it was locked. She turned towards her husband, slumped in his seat, and whispered his name. She rested both hands on his forearm and he looked up. She squeezed gently, feeling her way through the soft layers of wool to the hard flesh beneath.

“Please, Jack…”

Empty, exhausted, he looked down at her soft, pale hands. The opal ring on her right hand glinted up at him, winking mockingly. On her other hand, he could see the indentation around her fourth finger, the band of skin slightly lighter in colour. He felt his throat tighten and a stab of pain so intense that he nearly cried out. He knew then, there was nothing he could do or say to stop her. He had no fight left. He put his right hand on top of hers and rested his fingertip gently on the place where their marriage had broken.

The ice cream man flipped over the last page of his crumpled newspaper. An engine revved outside; he looked out in time to see the small dark car tearing out of the lay-by. He rolled his eyes and swore.  He turned up the volume on the radio; ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials was playing. He laughed and began to slowly pack the chocolate flakes, ice cream cones and napkins away under the counter. There was a faint knock. He was startled but didn’t move; it was probably just the wind again. The second knock was louder and more persistent; it came from the driver’s door.  He frowned and straightened up, rubbing the small of his back. He moved to the front of the van. Leaning over the stained fabric seat, he grabbed the door handle, his face reddening from the exertion. The door flew open, caught by the wind, and slammed against the front wing. A woman stood there in the rain, shivering, crying, her t-shirt and jeans wet through, her canvas sneakers half-hidden in a deep puddle. She was clutching a mobile phone to her chest and saying something the ice cream man couldn’t hear. She looked so vulnerable, his heart melted. He slid awkwardly over the seat and stepped down onto the muddy ground.

She watched him get out of the van, looking at her with genuine concern. What could she say? Help me, I’ve ruined my life, what do I do? She took a step towards him.

“I’m lost” she said.

The surfer reached the top of the cliff, panting in time with the scurrying dog. He lifted the heavy bag off his shoulder and gave a sigh of relief. He wiped his face and looked around the empty car park. The dog began tugging playfully at his trouser leg and he gently nudged it away. He unzipped his jacket pocket and took out his mobile phone. He checked the car park once more. He tapped the keys, held the phone to his ear and waited. It rang six times and went to voicemail. He ended the call and pressed ‘redial’. Voicemail.

“Noooo! Come on, come on, pick up.”

The dog looked up at him anxiously, unused to his tone.

The surfer tapped the number again, pacing impatiently back and forth. Six rings. Voicemail. He growled at the phone and jogged across the car park and into the middle of the road. He stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the brow of the hill, shielding his eyes from the rain.

The dog had followed him and was barking at his feet.

“Lie down, Monty!” he shouted, annoyed, pointing in the direction of his bag.

The dog hung his head and sloped off miserably. He slumped onto the bag, defeated.

The surfer looked at his watch and walked slowly back across the car park. He stopped at the cliff edge and looked along the coastline towards Polzeath. He thought of all the times he’d surfed there and smiled faintly. He leant forward, looking for the small tip of his yellow board; it peeped into view. He realised the rain had stopped and glanced over at the dog already asleep, nose twitching in dream. The surfer pressed ‘redial’. He heard only one faint ring before letting out a guttural shout of defiance and hurling the phone, with all his strength, into the elements.

The surfer stood alone on the cliff edge, small, white and vulnerable, buffeted every now again by sharp gusts of wind. Below his feet were the freshly made tyre tracks of the ice cream van.