Ice Cream and Wombat
by Peter Ninnes
‘You didn’t think ice cream would be the end of you, did you?’ Wombat said. ‘At least, not like this.’ And then she went quiet, and let the ambulance people do their job.
Marcus left for Japan a week after his wife left forever. She wanted kids, his sperm count was through the floor, and he wasn’t interested in IVF. There were too many kids in the world anyway. Why add to the planet’s problems?
And she was sick of his pathetic jokes. She didn’t know they were Wombat’s. She’d never met Marcus’s older sister, baptised Wilma but dubbed Wombat by their grandpa at her first birthday party as his fading mind groped for words beginning with W.
Marcus had heard Wombat in his head every day for the last 29 years, giving advice, making wisecracks, or just being a nark. The last time Marcus saw Wilma, nearly three decades ago, she was setting off on her newly acquired two-wheeled birthday present to buy bread at the corner store on Military Road. When Marcus bawled that he wanted to go, too, his mother dissuaded him with a request to ‘See if you can count out nine candles for me while I ice Wilma’s cake.’
The cake sat uneaten on the kitchen bench. By the time Wilma’s bike was recovered from ten feet of water off the end of the Glenelg jetty, the ants had devoured every last crumb and licked the candles clean.
If Marcus’s wife had known about Wombat, she would have probably left sooner, or not married him at all.
Freed from his wife’s encumbrance, Marcus followed a manga-fuelled dream and left for Japan. He took an assistant language teacher job at a junior high school tucked in a narrow pine-and-elm-cloaked valley behind Ueda City. The pay was one-third of his former salary as a Clerk Level 8 in the Department of Human Services. Yet the schoolwork involved nothing more than sitting at the back of the English class and demonstrating the pronunciation of an English word whenever the Japanese classroom teacher requested. He was, in fact, a well-paid parrot.
The City provided a one-room apartment. The heat pounded through the ceiling in summer, and in winter the dishwater froze in the sink.
‘What have you got us in for here?’ Wombat asked, that first month when the humid air felt like a serial killer’s hand clamped on Marcus’s throat.
A Family Mart convenience store perched down the hill from the apartment, on a corner facing the beige four-storey school walls and below the nests of electricity and cable TV wires garnishing the concrete telegraph poles. Like a vacuum cleaner, it drew in school students and truck drivers and housewives and sundry salarymen and office workers. Marcus tried with almost no success to learn Japanese, but konbini, the Japanese-invented word for convenience store, stuck in his mind.
On his first visit to the konbini, late on Saturday afternoon at the end of his second week, Marcus discovered the ice cream freezer. Brightly coloured wrappers bearing gaudily incomprehensible script gazed up through the glass sliding doors. Studying the pictures on each wrapper, he avoided the pink one, which might have been strawberry except for the odd black bits embedded in it. He passed on the vomit-green wafer sandwich, and disregarded the frozen orange juice. He settled on a quirky little blue pouch with a white plastic neck and cap. The contents, according to the graphic, were white, suggesting the safety of vanilla.
‘It’s probably frozen tofu with fish eggs,’ Wombat said.
‘It’s only 108 yen, so it’s no big deal if it’s disgusting.’
‘The fetid taste will probably linger in your mouth for hours,’ Wombat said, but Marcus ignored her.
The grey-haired woman at the counter scanned the item, and Marcus handed over the coins. He held the ice cream up and pointed at the big blue English letters.
‘Is this called “Coolish”, or is it just not very cold?’ he asked the woman.
‘No English! No English!’ The woman abruptly locked the till, then disappeared through a door at the end of the counter. Marcus waited for a minute or so, but she didn’t reappear, so he left.
‘How many times have I told you not to scare the locals?’ Wombat sniggered.
‘She probably had to pee.’
He sat on the seat outside the konbini, next to a cylindrical graveyard for stinking cigarette butts. The sun had escaped behind the mountain, yet the heat still poured from the carpark blacktop like troops charging out of landing barges at Okinawa.
Marcus broke the seal on the pouch, placed the tube in his mouth, and sucked. Nothing happened. He peered into the tube. A lump of ice blocked the opening. He squeezed the pouch, and the tiny frozen cylinder popped out. It sailed through the air, striking the face of a young Japanese man about to go through the konbini’s automatic doors. It dropped onto the Family Mart logo on his shirt, rolled down his left breast, and tumbled onto the cement, where it promptly turned into a pale puddle.
Marcus was too surprised to say a word. The man looked at him. He glanced down at the wet spot on his shirt, and his fringe fell down in front of his left eye. He shimmied towards Marcus, like a model on a catwalk.
‘Now you’re in for it,’ said Wombat. ‘He’s going to punch you.’
Marcus slid along the seat, putting some distance between himself and the man, but getting closer to the cigarette butts than he preferred. The man eased himself onto the seat next to him, took a small cloth from his pocket, and dabbed his shirt.
‘You have to be careful with those Coolish ice creams,’ he said, flicking the hair out of his eyes. ‘It’s best to wait a few minutes for the plug to melt before you suck on them.’
‘You speak English?’
‘Sure, a little.’
‘What are you doing working in a konbini?’
‘I’m still at college. I’m just a baito.’
‘He’s going to bite you,’ Wombat warned.
‘A part-timer worker,’ the man explained. ‘My name’s Akino, see?’ He pointed at the English letters on the name badge on the right side of his shirt. ‘It means “autumn field”.’
‘Marcus.’ Akino took Marcus’s proffered hand.
‘Wow!’ said Wombat. ‘So soft and warm. And he’s holding it a bit longer than you expected. Ah, now he’s let it go. Too bad. You’ll have to find an excuse to shake his hand again next time you see him.’
‘I work here from 5 to 11 on Saturday and Sunday evenings,’ Akino said, his fringe inching down his forehead again. ‘Come and see me and we can practice speaking English together, because no one else around here has a clue.’
‘You’re in!’ Wombat chortled.
‘Sure,’ Marcus said. ‘I can’t read Japanese so maybe you can tell me what all the stuff in the store is.’
Every Saturday and Sunday, Marcus went to the konbini at about 6:00 pm. Wombat would goad him as he headed for that wonderful blue, green and white sign. ‘You’re going to the konbini again? How many times is that this week?’
‘There’s nothing else to do around here.’
‘You should be careful of corner stores. They’re dangerous places.’
‘So, tell me, what happened to you?’ Marcus asked, for the ten-thousandth time. As usual, Wombat shut up when Marcus raised that topic.
The village ended one hundred metres beyond the carpark. Mountain slopes coated in vegetation cut across the hazy blue sky.
Akino was happy to talk whenever he didn’t have any customers to serve. Akino would show Marcus various items in the store, and make suggestions for what he should eat. Marcus would stay about an hour, and all he ever bought was an ice cream. He preferred to stick to his porridge, sandwiches and pasta diet, rather than switch to all the weird stuff on the konbini’s ready-made meals shelf.
The first time he paid Akino for an ice cream — a large tub of vanilla called a Supa Cup — he only had a 1,000-yen note. When Akino passed him the change, Akino’s left hand reached under Marcus’ outstretched hand. As Akino pushed the coins into Marcus’ palm, Akino gently squeezed Marcus’ hand between both of his.
‘Eight hundred and forty-two yen in change,’ he said.
‘Oh my God!’ said Wombat. ‘Never again will you have the correct change when you pay for your ice cream!’
They chatted about all sorts of matters. Akino lived down the hill in Ueda City. His boyfriend was a businessman. ‘He’s in security and retail,’ he said. ‘He always picks me up from work.’
Marcus, who went to bed at 9:30, didn’t meet the boyfriend for a long time. After purchasing his ice cream and experiencing the warmth of Akino’s hands, Marcus would wander back up the hill to his apartment.
Eventually the elm leaves turned yellow, and Marcus noticed the occasional maple forming spot fires of red and orange across the mountain slopes. All through October and November, he experienced the ecstasy of autumn coloured confections: orange ice, raspberry ice over vanilla ice cream, and the wonderful cardboard packets of iced peach balls.
As the first snows sprinkled the summit of Mt Eboshi, he returned once again to the sweet creamy joys of Supa Cups. He luxuriated in the wondrous Chocowave, with its great squiggle of hard chocolate winding through its vanilla core, and flirted with his first love, the Coolish vanilla, or ‘banira’, as Akino pronounced it.
‘But you should also try “Yukimi”,’ Akino said. ‘It means, “Looking at snow”, and we’ve got plenty to look at here, right?’ The dry powdered mochi rice dough on the outside stuck in his teeth and the smooth ice cream interior melted on his tongue, like a vanilla French kiss. In the dead of winter, when the customers shuffled into the konbini below a pile of coats and hats and gloves, the company brought out the limited-edition Yukimi, encased in chocolate mochi dough and hiding a secret, concupiscent centre of rich chocolate sauce.
‘That’s one way to get through this wretched Japanese winter,’ Wombat said, ‘even though it’s all sticking in your arteries.’
The snow piled on the side of the main road began to melt. The Kami River swelled and snatched at the fresh green shoots on the over-hanging willows and tore at the re-emerging moss on its concrete banks. Marcus took the plunge into the floating world of green tea ice cream.
‘You’re becoming Japanese now,’ Akino said, smiling as he squeezed Marcus’ hands. Marcus worked his way through the earthy wafer sandwich, the excesses of the matcha Super Cup, the dry desire of the Coolish green tea variety, and the prurient Panapp green tea cup with real pieces of green jelly. By the time summer arrived again, he’d become deeply obsessed with blueberry cheesecake bars, melon bars, and the strawberry and vanilla cup with chocolate sauce and bits of lolly, whose lid boasted that it contained no fruit, forbidden or otherwise.
Yet his was not a fanatical existence. He bought only one ice cream at a time, and only on Saturdays and Sundays. The cold on his lips contrasted deliciously with the lingering touch of Akino’s warm hands.
‘You’re a picture of moderation,’ Wombat said.
‘Of course,’ Marcus replied. ‘Because, you know, when I go, you go.’
By the middle of June, the other teachers laboured beneath piles of exam papers reaching halfway to the ceiling. Marcus had nothing to do except sit at his desk in the staff room playing World of Warcraft. One Wednesday, he left school at 4:15. The air was like a bowl of warm soup, trapped in the valley under a sadistic sun. Marcus changed his routine and stopped at the konbini.
‘Your boyfriend doesn’t work Wednesdays,’ Wombat said.
‘He’s not my boyfriend.’
The older woman, who’d fled the first time he’d visited the store, handed over his change with the same frigid demeanour. But by now he’d memorised all the ice cream names. As he went out the door, he rubbed the Coolish ice cream pouch on his sweaty forehead, and stroked it across his cheeks. He ran the lid across his lips, before twisting it off with his teeth. He was about to spit the lid in the bin, when a large black car with tinted windows pulled up. A squat, t-shirted man, with tattoos encasing his bare arms, leapt out of the front passenger seat. He pointed at Marcus and shouted something incomprehensible.
Marcus barely had time to wonder if this was Akino’s ‘security and retail’ boyfriend when Wombat screamed, ‘;Run! Don’t let him drag you into the car! They’ll do terrible things and take photos. You’ll end up in the freezer!’
Wombat’s revelation and the angry man gave Marcus such a shock that his chest heaved, and he swallowed the Coolish cap. It stuck in his throat. Marcus gagged, and sat down on the seat. Odd noises erupted from his mouth.
The man stopped shouting and stared at Marcus. He pulled out his phone, spoke briefly, then jumped back into the car. The door slammed, and the vehicle sped off, down the hill towards the big city.
Marcus slumped to the ground. An ambulance arrived. Wombat said something he didn’t catch. The inside of Marcus’ head turned deep red, like the jelly in a Panapp raspberry cup. He drifted up above the carpark. Tears welled in his eyes as he looked down to see Wilma riding her bike, a loaf of bread in a string bag swinging from the handlebars. She disappeared as the valley turned a brilliant white. Marcus thought he’d entered a pure land sculpted entirely from Coolish vanilla ice.
Copyright © 2019 by Peter Ninnes