Fiction

Book extract: ‘The Ice Cream Makers’ by Ernest van der Kwast

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The Rotterdam-based writer Ernest van der Kwast’s breakthrough novel was Mama Tandoori, a bestseller in the Netherlands and Italy. Then came Giovanna’s Navel, and now his latest novel is The Ice-Cream Makers, set in northern Italy.

In the tradition of feel-good novels combining food and romantic locales we might fantasise about living in, The Ice-Cream Makers is described by its publisher (Scribe):

“In the far north of Italy lies the valley of the ice-cream makers — about a dozen villages where, for generations, people have specialised in making ice-cream. Master maker Giuseppe Talamini claims it was actually invented here. Every spring his family sets off for the ice-cream parlour in Rotterdam, returning to the mountains only in winter. Eldest son Giovanni Talamini decides to break with this tradition by pursuing a literary career. But then one day his younger brother, Luca, approaches him with a highly unusual request. Now Giovanni faces a dilemma — serve the family’s interests one last time or choose his own path in life, once and for all.” A chapter follows below.

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How My Father Lost His Heart to a Hammer-thrower Weighing Eighty-three Kilos

Shortly before his eightieth birthday, my father fell in love. It was love at first sight; love like a bolt from the blue, like lightning striking a tree. My mother phones to tell me. ‘Beppi has lost his mind,’ she says.

It happened during a live broadcast of the London Olympics. During the women’s hammer-throw final, to be precise. Since my father had a satellite dish installed on the roof, he’s had access to more than a thousand channels. He spends whole days in front of   the television — a beautiful flatscreen — and presses the button of the remote control at a consistently high tempo. Football games from Japan, Arctic nature documentaries, Spanish arthouse films, and reports on disasters in El Salvador, Tajikistan, and Fiji flash past. And then there are the programmes with women, of course: gorgeous, glorious women from all over the world. Buxom Brazilian presenters; near-naked Greek showgirls; news broadcasters whose bulletins, quite aside from the language (Macedonian? Slovenian?), are lost on him because of their full, glossy lips.

Usually there will only be some five or six seconds between the channels my father alights on. But sometimes he lingers, and spends a whole evening watching coverage of the Mexican elections or a documentary series about the tropical waters off Polynesia, green as a gem.

It was a Turkish sports channel that my father had stumbled across after pressing the button of the remote with his calloused thumb. The Egyptian soap that, in the space of five seconds, had homed in on just as many melodramatic women’s faces, had failed to beguile him. So Beppi pressed the button, which had once been black, then grey and was now white, practically transparent. And that’s when he was struck by lightning. There on the screen was his princess: creamy white skin, coral-red hair, and the biceps of a butcher. She entered the circle in the Olympic Stadium, grabbed the handle at the end of the chain, raised the ball over her left shoulder and turned — one, two, three, four, five times — before hurling the iron ball with all the strength she could muster. Like a meteor having survived entry into the atmosphere, it buzzed and fizzed through the steel-blue skies of London. On impact, it left a brown hole in a meticulously cut lawn.

My father dropped his remote. The lid at the back came off, and one battery rolled across the wooden floor. The Turkish commentator was full of praise for the throw, but his sing-song words were lost on my father. The repeat showed his broad-shouldered ballerina a second time. Her pirouette gathered speed and ended in a brief but surprisingly elegant curtsey.

He felt like he had been spinning around, too. Faster and faster. And now he was sitting here on his sofa, in love and in awe, as if he had been hit on the head by the four-kilo ball.

Her name was Betty Heidler, it turned out, and she was the world- record holder, having broken it by 112 centimetres a year ago at an international competition in Halle, Germany. It had been a warm day in May with hardly any wind, sunglasses and short sleeves everywhere. With a spring in her step the athlete proceeded to the circle with the green nets, and almost casually threw the hammer an astronomical distance. It didn’t leave a crater but bounced a couple of times, like the pebbles children throw across the water of the nearby Hufeisen Lake. In between the major competitions she worked for the police force, wearing a dark-blue uniform with four stars on both epaulettes, her red hair kept in a tight bun. Polizeihauptmeisterin Heidler.

In London, Betty Heidler threw a distance that was to earn her a bronze medal, but the measuring system malfunctioned, so her achievement couldn’t be determined right away. It took forty minutes before a decision was reached. These forty minutes were like a romantic film to my father. He swooned over the red-headed hammer- thrower who kept appearing on screen, sometimes close to tears. Her rival, the fleshy Chinese Zhang Wenxiu, had already embarked on a lap of honour, the red flag with the yellow stars wrapped around her broad shoulders.

‘No! Not the ten-ton Chinese!’ my father yelled.

The Turkish commentator was a bit more nuanced about it, but he too was of the opinion that Betty Heidler, not Zhang Wenxiu, deserved the bronze. Incidentally, the Chinese athlete really only weighed 113 kilos, but that was still a full thirty kilos more than the ginger hammer nymph.

‘Get rid of the flag,’ my father said. ‘You bloated old meatball!’

And when Betty Heidler appeared on screen, ‘Don’t cry, my little princess. Don’t be sad, dear, fleet-footed lady.’

the-webice-cream-makers

It was an epitheton ornans he was using, unwittingly dug up from the past, going back thirty-five years, to the time I went to grammar school and to everybody’s shock started expressing myself in the colourful adjectives of the blind poet. According to my father, it sowed the seeds for the distance between me and the rest of my family. Or as he likes to put it, ‘That’s where it all went wrong.’

My epithets used to drive him mad: the long-maned girls I flirted with, the cloud-wrapped buildings my mother wasn’t fond of, the wine-purple cherry ice-cream he made. And now he had used one himself for his creamy-armed hammer-thrower.

The broadcaster switched to an advert for hairspray. A bride came into view sporting a hairdo that looked like it would stay in place for at least a week.

‘Betty, come back!’ my father shouted at the flatscreen, on which the spray was misted across the chestnut curls of the smiling bride in high definition and slow motion. His thumb moved of its own accord –the calloused old thumb, the thumb which for years had hooked itself around the metal handle of the spatolone, the large ladle with which the ice is scooped out of the cylinders of the Cattabriga.

‘Oh, Betty,’ my father said with a sigh, echoing the many men who had once uttered the same name with yearning. Betty Garrett, Betty Hutton, Betty Grable — enchanting actresses, now almost forgotten names.

The film starring the hammer-thrower resumed. She was sitting on a bench on the tartan inside the arena and staring into the middle distance, looking disconsolate. Meanwhile, the commentator nattered on. Every now and then, my father thought he recognised the names of athletes, but they may well have been Turkish words. He knew the satellite had plenty of other channels that broadcast the competition: in Danish, in German, in Italian, in Dutch. But the remote was on the floor and he didn’t want to start zapping. He didn’t want to miss a second.

Was that a tear? A silver droplet under her left eye? As if she and my father were in a film, he had to say something to her, comfort her. My mother, meanwhile, was standing in the doorway of the small room where the giant television hung on the wall like a painting. She’d heard her husband talking and called out from her kitchen: ‘Beppi? What is it?’

My father’s name is Giuseppe Battista Talamini, but my mother has called him Beppi her whole life.

‘I love you,’ my father said.

It had been twenty, thirty, maybe even forty years since my mother had heard these words from my father’s lips.

‘What was that you said?’

‘I love you,’ my father replied softly. ‘I think you’re beautiful.’ My mother was silent. Betty Heidler still had tears in her eyes.

‘Your freckles, your powerful arms … I want to kiss your muscles.’ ‘What is it? Aren’t you feeling well?’

Then it slowly dawned on her. The first part of his answer was aimed at the screen, the second at his wife in the doorway: ‘You’re the love of my life … Get lost!’

At long last the chair of the jury, a woman with a wide band around her sleeve, shook Betty Heidler’s hand. Slowly, like ice-cream melting, a smile stole over the athlete’s face. An embrace followed. But by the time that happened, my mother was already back in the kitchen, where a solitary pan of mince was simmering on the stove. Tomorrow was Saturday: pasticcio, glasses filled with light red wine, the afternoon spreading like a stain. It was an open secret that lasagne, like tiramisu, tastes better when you let it rest overnight.

Shouts of joy could be heard from the television room. ‘Yes! She’s won — Betty’s got bronze!’ my father exclaimed. ‘Yes! Yes!’ When he started jumping up and down, happy as a child, my mother phoned me. In spring and summer she always calls me when something’s up. That’s when my brother Luca is at work. It’s an image my memory conjures up without even trying: when I hear my mother’s voice down the line, I picture Luca behind the ice-cream in Rotterdam. I’m at work too, but I’m usually in a position to answer the phone.

‘Where are you?’ my mother asks. It’s invariably the first thing she asks.

‘I’m in Fermoy, in Ireland.’

There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line. My mother, aged seventy-four, is still not used to mobile phones. She has never actually held one herself. In her kitchen in Venas di Cadore, in the mountains, it never ceases to amaze her that we can communicate anywhere, anytime. Sometimes she’ll phone me when I’m at the other end of the world and I’ll answer with a sleepy voice, ‘I’m in Brisbane, in Australia.’ I use the silence to focus on the luminescent hands of my watch on the bedside table. The fact that I’m always somewhere else is something she had to get used to long before the advent of the mobile phone.

I have a home, but it doesn’t feel like one. There are no plants, there’s no carton of milk in the fridge. No newspaper is delivered in the morning. It has curtains and towels, but no fruit bowl. In her short poem ‘Today’, the Israeli poet Nurit Zarchi writes: ‘Tired, I want to sit on the edge of the world, to go on strike. / But I continue onward so noone will see / the short distance between me and the homeless.’ The actual distance between me and my family is short, almost insignificant, but big because of the other distance. There are days when the measuring system malfunctions.

‘What’s the weather like in Ireland?’

My mother is obsessed with the weather. Back in the day, when she was still working at the ice-cream parlour in Rotterdam, she’d open the newspaper to the page with the weather. And she’d eavesdrop on conversations at the supermarket checkout if they were about showers and frost. Now she’s retired and many miles from the ice-cream parlour, but she still can’t help asking everybody about the weather. The weather today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week. It doesn’t matter where — it could always make its way to Rotterdam. She reckons the sky above the Netherlands is a vortex where everything gathers, but especially rain, wind, and frost. The beat of a butterfly wing in Brazil is bound to cause a hail storm of biblical proportions above the ice-cream parlour.

‘Sunny,’ I reply. ‘Persistently calm and summery weather, with the odd patch of fog in the morning.’ Before adding, ‘No cloud-wrapped buildings.’

She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s smiling. My mother has less of an issue with my choice for a different life. Just like she is obsessive about the weather, I love poetry, and my father loves tools. My brother is the only one still making ice-cream.

This is an edited extract from The Ice-Cream Makers by Ernest van der Kwast, published by Scribe. You can buy the book here.

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