I am a cruel uncle. Still a child at heart–Generation Y has a lot to answer for–I delight in taunting my nephew and nieces about things I can get away with that they’d get in trouble for.
This was perfectly illustrated earlier this year when I pointed out to my eldest niece that I could break things in my mother-in-law’s house, blame the breakages on her and everyone would take my side.
“You’d get in so much trouble,” I said, laughing.
“Nuh-uh!” she said. A couple minutes earlier she’d been more strident in her ‘nuh-uh!’s, but her confidence had been shaken as I’d listed all the things adult could get away with that children could not.
“Yuh-huh,” I said. “I could pick up a plate, smash it on the floor and when Grams came to see what happened I’d tell her you did it–and she’d believe me. You can say you didn’t as much as you like but nobody’s going to believe a little kid like you.”
Then we got into a competition to see who could stick their tongue out for the longest–which, I won by the way, in spite of her cheating a lot.
I also explained to her that part of the fun of being an adult was getting to eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted.
“Your mom bought you ice cream, right?” I said. “What flavour was that again?”
“See, I could go into the freezer right now and eat your ice cream. All of it. I wouldn’t even use a spoon: I’d dip my hands in and just shovel it into my mouth. And do you know the funny thing? I don’t even like peanut butter. I’d shovel it into my mouth and spit it all into the sink.
“And do you know what I’d do then?”
Rapt, by this point she was beyond words. She shook her head, watching me carefully for any sudden movements toward the freezer.
“Then I’d go out and I’d buy one hundred cartons of ice cream. I’d buy more ice cream than you’ve seen in your life, bring it back here and eat it in all front of you–and you wouldn’t get any. I’d eat it all right in front of you, smacking my lips, saying ‘Mm-mm, this ice cream sure is good. It’s such a pity Kayla can’t have any.’”
She wasn’t at all happy with me, but in spite of the taunting she wasn’t bored and she didn’t leave, to go off and get into trouble on her own. Maybe I’m not such a bad uncle after all.
It’s only in these brief interactions with children–who suffer under different sets of rules to us and see the lives of adults as grand wild west adventures across open lands–that I realise, you know what? I could spend all my money on ice cream and eat myself sick. Hell, I could probably eat myself sick on a single small tub: three or four quid’s worth of ice cream sloshing about in my stomach, too much for this old man to take.
And I could go wild in a toy shop as well, I could buy all the toys I ever wanted and loads more besides. Some of us Generation Y-ers have done that, eBay shopping in our mid-twenties to track down the Transformers and My Little Ponies that eluded us in our youth, playing old video games on emulators, tracking down fondly remembered books once borrowed from mobile libraries.
Older, more body conscious, worried about calorie consumption and staying in shape, we tend not to go crazy in the supermarket ice cream aisle. A four pack of Feast lollies was once an unimaginable luxury; now we’d rather spend ice cream cash on asparagus or free range eggs. Give our shopping budget to the Kaylas in the world and they’d buy anything but a balanced diet–unless pizza on one side of the scale and Dairylea Lunchables were on the other. “It’s junk food,” we say, and we end up treating ourselves less often than we were bought treats as children. A bag of Maltesers once a month–if that. Our childhood selves would be disgusted.
With so much ice cream available now, I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to be a kid taken somewhere with more than a few elementary flavours on sale. Things were different back and ice cream came in one of only a handful of flavours. In one of my favourite pieces of Terry Pratchett’s writing, the kids in Good Omens discuss the many different flavours of ice cream available in America:
* * *
“Do you know,” he said, “my cousin said that in America there’s shops that sell thirty-nine different flavors of ice cream?”
This even silenced Adam, briefly.
“There aren’t thirty-nine flavors of ice cream,” said Pepper. “There aren’t thirty-nine flavors in the whole world.”
“There could be, if you mixed them up,” said Wensleydale, blinking owlishly. “You know. Strawberry and chocolate. Chocolate and vanilla.” He sought for more English flavors. “Strawberry and vanilla and chocolate,” he added, lamely.
* * *
That was us, all of us: all the Generation Y British kids who grew up reading the Beano, watching Knightmare and hoping, when the ice cream van rolled around, that mum could afford to buy us a Feast.
But there were places that sold more than three flavours of ice cream.
Occasionally–miraculously–we’d stumble upon one while on holiday and be presented with a freezer chest of ice cream flavours positively glowing like treasure in a weekend matinee. These were places that had chocolate and red (I hesitate to brand it as strawberry or cherry; to this day I’m not sure what flavour it was supposed to be) syrup on the counter, and nuts and sprinkles and ‘99 Flakes–but they also had something that far rarer: waffle cones. Compared to the common wafer variety waffle cones were special, not just because they tasted nicer than their cardboardy cousins, but also because they flared wider from top to bottom. You could jam more than just the one scoop of ice cream into a waffle cone, and at these mysterious ice cream oases, with so many flavours on hand it was hard choosing between them, you were encouraged to do exactly that.
It would be difficult for Kayla to understand my former ice cream hardships, given she has far more than thirty-nine flavours at her disposable. Likewise, pizza–one of her dinnertime favourites–had barely made a dent in the UK when I was a kid. The only pizzas I ate back then were those ghastly Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle ones, knocked down in price because they tasted so bad and therefore bought by my parents in large numbers. I can still remember the taste of the so-called ‘apple and custard’ pizza: a little Nutrisweet, a little stomach bile and a lot of Dettol. Cowabunga. dudes.
To make up for the paucity of the frozen foods section my mum baked pizzas for us, which she made by slitting open lengths of French bread, spreading them with Napolina tomato purée, placing on pieces of mushroom and bacon and sprinkling the whole lot with grated cheddar. The bitter tomato purée aside it was good, but it wasn’t pizza.
If these ice cream-selling dairies were particularly rare treats than sweet shops were as rare as those heavy elements created for fractions of a second by smashing atoms together in a physics lab.
Not the corner shop sweet shops attached to every newsagent across the land; not dedicated sweet shops, musty, old, seemingly built from glass jars inside which were bullseyes, sweet tobacco or rainbow-coloured chocolate gems; and not Woolworth’s pick ‘n’ mix either, but a blend of all three: a sweet shop with a floorspace befitting electrical appliances, selling every gum, choc and chew a tiny mind could dream of.
Packed into perspex containers, hanging from racks, stuck into hemispheres of green oasis like a sugary flower arrangement these were sweet superstores, shimming in every colour, their displays made to make your mouth water.
There were menageries of gummi creatures–worms as thick as your wrist, spiders as large as your hand–every old favourite and many new ones besides, and so much wonderful, fizzy sherbet you’d expect the DEA to burst in, making arrests in the mistaken belief this was a cocaine processing facility. There comes a point when, crammed with so many colours and plastic wrappers, sweet shops start looking like toy shops; upon entering meccas such as these kids forget every lesson they’ve learned about Stranger Danger, drop their parents’ hands and run wild. Gobstoppers and shrimps, popping candy and Dip Dabs, every flavour of Nerd, every flavour of Dweeb and–most exciting of all–Jelly Belly Beans, so rare playground rumours of their existence were often dismissed and scoffed at. Popcorn flavour jelly beans? Candy floss flavour? Eat more than one bean at the same time and end up with an entirely new flavour in your mouth? That’s rubbish. You’re lying. It doesn’t exist.
Once upon a time you couldn’t find Jelly Bellies over here. Like non-Turtle pizza and any flavour beyond those in neapolitan ice cream, they simply didn’t exist.
And now we’re so sensible, adults who’ve grown seasick in a ocean of treats. I taunted my niece but everything I said was a lie. She was right: I wouldn’t eat her ice cream, I wouldn’t buy a hundred more cartons of it and I wouldn’t get her into trouble. While no fan of asparagus I still have more sensible things to spend my money on than innumerable toothachey treats. It’s a sad world we inhabit now, where we’ll sometimes turn down ice cream because we’re full or because we don’t want to spoil our appetite, and though we could spend our wallets empty in sweet shops such as these we choose not to, because we’re boring old grown-ups.
But Kayla doesn’t need to know that. The next time I see her I’ll be sure to rub in how many sweets I could buy and scoff to her chagrin, and then, maybe the next time she visits a sweet shop I’d once have found unimaginable, she won’t take it for granted.