“There !!” she pointed at the horizon, and the collective gaze turned towards the concrete road in the distance, shaded by mango trees. In a couple of seconds, they could make out a faint outline – a white tricycle being driven by a man hunched over the handles as if carrying a great weight. A collective cry of ‘hooray’ went up in the air as everyone threw away their tools. Their bodies were exhausted after a long hard day under the mid-June sun, but the mere sight of that glorious, magical vehicle evaporated all the tiredness from the slender bodies.
“Hey !!” one of the captains shouted, “the round is not over yet. And he isn’t going anywhere.” He realized the mistake instantly, but it was already too late. The spotter walked up to him and shouted at the top of her lungs, “Go to hell !!!” Another collective hurrah went up, and everyone except for the captain raced off to see who would reach the vehicle first.
The driver, a blue-eyed man in his 50s, had seen the crowd running towards him from afar. He smiled gently and pulled on the brakes. Steering the tricycle like an expert, he went off-road into the field. It was an open expanse of soil riddled with lumps and small stones, and a weaker man might have crashed the unstable tricycle at any instant. But this was a man who had sold ice cream for a living all his life and had perfect his craft. The floor could be lava, and he would still have driven the tricycle like a brand-new Porsche cruising on the expressway. The running crowd, now washed in ecstasy, tumbled over each other as they saw him pedaling in their direction.
The girl who spotted him first was also the first to reach, just as he braked for the last time and the tricycle came to a standstill. “Orange” she spoke with a heavy breath and collapsed on the ground just as he handed her the stick. But before he could look after her, the wave of incomers crashed onto him.
‘Strawberry’, ‘Mango’, ‘Coconut’, ‘Litchi’, ‘Blueberry’, ‘Peach’, ‘Almonds’, ‘Milk’, shouts rang from all corners of the congregation.
“Calm down, calm down.” The driver tried to hold the raiders at bay. He handled out the sticks rapidly, forgetting to check their price and the faces he was handing them to. But before he could fulfill all the demands, there was a new series of shouts. ‘I asked for mango’, ‘Why did you give me litchi?’, and so on. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He apologized and quickly corrected the orders, but in the process forgot the few calculations he had made. Meanwhile, his customers, blissful and ignorant, sat on the bare earth near the white cycle under the setting orange sun and started eating everything with their dirty hands and soiled faces.
“Wow. This one tastes better than the one we had last time” One of the young girls blurted while she stuffed her mouth with icy coldness. Some heads nodded in approval, others were either too busy eating or suffering from brain freeze.
“You are a new guy.” The captain gave him a thorough look and spoke gravely. He had reached late, having walked all the distance. The others paid him no heed.
“Yes. I took a detour from my usual route today. I just wanted to explore the area a little, and then luckily I found you guys.” For all the charming smile of the driver, the young captain still looked at him with distrust. “Where is the regular guy?”
“I don’t know, young sir. Maybe he got sick. Maybe be left the area for good.”
“Why would he leave the area? He has been coming here as far back as I can remember.” The young boy squinted his eyes. “And why are you wearing his clothes?”
“Oh that. Don’t you know? All of us wear the same dress. Have you ever seen an ice cream man wearing anything else?” The man spoke in his most charming voice, knowing full well that the kid has only ever seen one ice cream man.
The boy had something more to say, but another one interrupted him. “Oh, shut up. Just take one and eat, will you?”
“Yes. We need to go back to the game”, another girl spoke.
The boy sighed, “Give me a strawberry.” The driver handed him a vanilla stick with a smile. “I am afraid you were late. All strawberry is gone. This is the only one I have left.”
The boy knew he was being cheated but dared not raise his voice while everyone else stared at him. He paid up and went to a mound in the far corner to eat alone. The driver went around the group, not bothering to count the money he had collected. It was his best sale in a long time, and he was already thinking about the bottle of beer he was going to get today.
Putting all the money in a safe box, he adjusted the cap, “It was great meeting you beautiful people.” He waved at the kids. “Do you guys play here every day?”
The kids spoke over each other, trying to tell him about their game and playtime. But one spoke over the din, “Thank you for coming today.” The others fell silent. “Your ice creams are better than what we got from the previous guy.”
“Oh, really?” They all nodded in unison.
“In that case, I think I’ll start coming here more often.”
“Will you always bring the ice creams you bought today?” the little girl asked.
“Yes, my dear. Always.”
“Yay!! Come here every day then.”
The young captain spoke again. “But what about the previous guy? He is the one…”
“Hahaha.” The man laughed heartily. “Don’t worry young sir. I will talk to him. I’m sure he will understand.”
“Yes. Yes. Come here every day. Your ice-creams are the best.” The girl smiled and waved him goodbye as she ran back with the others to their game.
The man stood there for some time, feeling the cool breeze as he stroked his grey beard. He turned to find the young captain still there, giving him a funny look. The man winked at the boy and took out a strawberry stick from his front pant pocket and gave it to him. The kid took it, his eyes turned into black pools of awe as his jaw hit the floor. Moments later, he smiled graciously at the man and went back to play.
The man started pedaling back home. Today, instead of the sad whaler tune which his dad had taught him, he whistled an old English tune he had once heard. It never failed to make him happy, & so he rarely ever whistled it – afraid the magic might disappear with repeated use.
It was at his usual water hole last week that he had first heard of this place. More than two dozen kids coming to play every day at the same time and place. The guy who sold them ice-creams was sitting alongside him, and in a drunken stupor, he bragged to his friends about how he was overcharging the unsuspecting kids and all the fugazi around it.
‘That was the poor lad’s mistake’, he thought while expertly navigating the treacherous climb on the main road, ‘In the cutthroat world of ice-cream business, you never tell others how you make your gravy.’
He never considered himself an envious or angry person. His sole reason to enter the ice-cream world was to bring smiles to the faces of these small angels. And for more than two decades, he had been good at his job – delivering profits & spreading joy. But after five consecutive loss-making seasons, and amid the growing competition, the management had told him in a no-nonsense manner that they would fire him if he can’t deliver profits.
Even that wouldn’t have forced him to make such a drastic move if he was still a bachelor. But now he had a wife, two kids – and if he lost this job, she would leave him. And the one thing he loved more than ice cream was his kids. So, when he heard the drunken young Turk boasting at the bar that day, he knew what he had to do.
About half an hour after leaving the field, he reached a secluded area in the middle of the woods. At the next milestone, he diverted from the main road and went onto a beaten path into the jungle. It was getting darker, and he turned on the small halogen lamp in front of his tricycle. About an hour later, he reached the place.
The body was still there, hidden behind the bushes. He quickly took out the gasoline and gave the dead carcass a look. There was a huge gash on the head, and some wild animal had eaten part of the face. Turning away in disgust, he poured the gas and lighted the body up. It burned brightly for a long time – the heat burned up his face while sweat dripped down his white dress – but he never averted the icy gaze. After it had turned into ashes, he collected them in a small box and put them in the ice cream box.
Two hours later, he was back on the main road. ‘Shit, I forgot to pick up the beer.’ He remembered and turned the cycle in one smooth motion, like a man who has sold ice cream for a living all his life.