Francis Meyrick

Free Ice cream!

Posted on February 29, 2008

(this is another -true!- golden oldie, I wrote many years ago, about a summer job I had, driving an ice cream truck around Dublin…)


It went wrong of course, right from day one.
Well, quicker than that even. I was only there twenty minutes or so, before I committed a classic clanger.
Which was walking into the transport manager’s office, where the other drivers were sitting, and asking, innocently:
“Where’s the engine oil kept? “

He had asked: “Oil? Does it need it? “
And I of course (Muggins) had replied, perfectly innocently:

“Rather. It’s nearly off the dipstick! “

I can still remember the ripple that traveled around the room. The slight frisson, the distinct lowering of the temperature. If I had thought, before I opened my mouth, I might have realized that the oil being nearly off the dipstick on an expensive heavy truck engine, was no joking matter. That the previous driver, sitting in that same office, was now seriously embarrassed in front of his mates and his boss. That he didn’t like me very much. Then again, he was already hacked off with me, ‘cos I’d been in looking for a dustpan and brush, to clean up the cab before I drove it…
(it was a pigsty).
Not a good start. No way was I going to be voted ‘driver of the month’ by my new work mates…

* * *

It had all started by me wanting to earn some money during the summer vacation. I was a student, twenty one years old, naive and idealistic. Not living in the real world, you know the type.
I had achieved my Heavy Goods Vehicle driving License at some expense, at the O’Connell Bridge school of Motoring in Dublin. Driving an articulated lorry. A Japanese thing called a ‘Hino’. Quite good fun. It had its moments.
Thus one day I had been confidently thundering down a busy road in a built up area, with cars parked bumper to bumper on both sides. I remember I thought at the time I was doing all right. Not bad at all. Brilliant even.
I remember I was quite enjoying it. Then he (my friendly instructor) did something funny.
He sort of… crouched in his seat.
Hands went together. Then he leaned forward, staring hard in the nearside mirror. Sort of a fixed stare.
I guess we were doing about forty miles an hour or so.
Then, after a few seconds, he sank back. Exhaled. Breathed out. Peculiarly. Sort of a sigh.

“What’s up, doc? “, I asked in my usual cheerful, careless way. I can still remember his sad little look. (He was a nice man). The sad little look that said:
“My nerves. Please. “

He actually said:
“Two inches “.
Very quietly.
“From that blue Rolls Royce, sticking out. ”
“Oh? “, I said, naively.
It took some time for me to realize that at forty miles an hour, I would have ripped the side out of the car if I’d hit it, and that there was nothing he could have done about it. What a job he had, teaching gorms like me to drive a 32 ton truck.

Reversing an artic is the fun bit. Dynamite. We started practicing on this football pitch size car park. There were hardly any cars there, which was just as well. I kept nearly crunching his plastic cones. He was very nice. Just kept putting them further apart. Eventually it clicked, and suddenly I could reverse in anywhere, any time.
I passed my test (another story), and went off in search of a job. My first ever real job. I looked in the paper, and went to employment agents.
After a week of trudging in and out of every employment agent in Dublin, I was getting well demoralized. Certain friends had been telling me I was wasting my money taking HGV driving lessons, and although I was determined to prove them wrong, it was beginning to look as if they might be right.
Then one day, I had been into stacks of agents, and to two interviews, where I had been turned down. Not enough experience. Morale real low. Megga low. It was going towards five p.m., and I decided one more agent.
In I went, really posh place, plush carpets, plush ladies, all dolled up to the eyeballs. I could have guessed.
I received a horrified look. Wondered if maybe my fly was undone.
A job as a truck driver?!!!?

She was aghast. Horrified.
They didn’t cater for those trades. They specialized in high tec, skilled, ooh-la-la umpkins qualified, professional, career vacancies.
They never got enquiries for truck drivers.
Oh, sorry.
It was obviously a dirty word. I might as well have asked for a job as an assistant in a flea circus. Or brothel porter. I was out on the street in record time. In case I got the carpets dirty, I suppose. Something like under a minute. She did take my name and phone number, probably only to get rid of me, and that was it.
Oh well. Off to jolly old home we go.
I was getting depressed. All that money to get my HGV, and now that I had it, no b… wanted to know.
I had barely walked in the door, when the phone rang.
It was old posh ooh-la-la umpkins Madame on the blower.
Her of the plush carpets and the face under sixteen inches of rouge, lipstick and assorted condiments.

Guess what?
You’re right…
“Well, we normally NEVER EVER get enquiries for truck drivers… “
(of course not, madam, your place is far too upmarket. I know that)
“…but we’ve literally just had this phone call. A company wanting a driver to start straight away… “
(how stupid can some people get? Fancy phoning her exalted cuisine looking for a lorry driver… like striding into the Hilton Hotel and ordering ‘bangers and mash’).
Here’s the number to phone…
It appeared that whatever the establishment’s reluctance to sully itself with the likes of working class professions, it was not amiss to sullying itself with working class loot when the opportunity arose.
So I got my first job.
Funny really, I phoned up, and this guy said: “Got a license? ” ( “yes! ” – proudly). “Can you start tomorrow? “
( “Yes? “). That was the end of the interview.

There I was, first day at work.
Minor faux pas first: cleaning out filthy cab.
Megga faux pas shortly afterwards:
“Where’s the oil kept? “

I loaded up with boxes and boxes of ice creams, and received directions to deliver wholesale to shops and supermarkets on a list. I would be driving a Bedford, with three separate refrigerated compartments.
Ice creams? Yummy…
We tanked diesel at a garage just outside the gates of the industrial estate, where the company I shall call ‘Shady Glen Ice Cream’ had an account.

Oh, the innocence of youth!

I was glad to trundle out of the gates, and be on my way at last. I wonder how many relieved looks followed me out.
So next thing I arrived at the garage.
“Fill ‘er up, please! “
Makes you feel great, spending other people’s money. Sounds much better than: “Ten bob’s worth, please, mister! ”
He topped up some enormous amount ( “Phew! Glad I’m not footing that bill “), and picked up a pad.
Addressing me carelessly, he asked:
“What will I make it out for? “
“Pardon? “
“How much will I put on the bill? “
“Sorry, I don’t understand. “
He pursed his lips.
“How – much – will – I – put – on – the – bill?!? “
I still didn’t understand.
“Why.. whatever’s on the pump “, I said, pointing rather weakly at the metered display on the installation.
(you know, just in case he hadn’t figgered out yet that the meter tells you how much money the diesel has cost).
He lowered the pad slowly, and looked at me pityingly.
“You’re new here, aren’t you? “
“Uh-huh, first day. “
“Well, the boys have an… uh, arrangement with us. “

(an arrangement??)

Slowly, very slowly, the penny started to drop. With one of those dull, clanking, hollow sounds.
“Oh “, I said.
He tried to be helpful.
“Will I make it out the usual? “

(the usual?)

Resolution was setting in. You know, better late than never.
“Just what’s on the pump “, I said, distinctly cooler now.
He looked at me shrewdly.
“The boys are going to love you… “
I was on the point of telling him I couldn’t give a … what the boys thought, but then I remembered that I was already in trouble. Wisely I kept my mouth shut.
From then on in, every time I filled up at that garage, the atmosphere was, well… sub-zero.
And he was, of course, quite right, the boys loved me

The fiddle didn’t come out immediately, of course. I debated telling the transport manager. I didn’t. I think I should have. But. First day there… I felt… embarrassed. However, as the weeks went by, it registered in the transport manager’s brain, that one and the same truck was suddenly running considerably cheaper.
He started asking questions. Pointedly. To me. Did I have a super light foot? I shrugged my shoulders. My face told him probably all he wanted to know.
Certain guys got into a lot of trouble, although none were fired. I was not – in ice cream parlance – flavor of the month.
I learned one thing. It was truly astonishing how often you would be asked the same question: “How much will I put on the bill? ” I found it insulting. The implied question is: “How much are you going to fiddle? “
The assumption is: “You fiddle “.
Widespread. Even driving a car, I have filled up and been asked: “Company car? ”
“Yes? “
“How much will I put on the bill? “
Or else: “What will I make it out for? “
If you buy groceries as well as petrol: “Will I put it all down as petrol? “
This from people who don’t even know you…

I compared notes on my first day at work with a friend of mine. He was an ex monk, who was now reading ‘religious studies’ somewhere. Nice chap. Absolutely hopelessly confused about the ways of the world.

He was a petrol pump attendant.
He told me how nervous he had been on HIS first day.
The manager had shown him how to operate the pumps, the till, and where the price lists were. Then he had left the small filling station to the cares of my nervous friend. He had waited with trembling knees and fluttering heart for his first customer.
Eventually… in she came. Old dear. In a Morris Minor.
As ancient a car as its fragile old owner.
Petrified he had walked out.
“Good morning, madam? Would you like some petrol? “
The old dear had smiled, lovingly.
(imagine the toughened old taxi driver, or the laconic tradesman: “No mate, don’t want no petrol. Pound of mince and three radishes! What do you think I’ve driven in here for, you big pudding! “)
Luckily, his first customer was just a dear, sweet old lady. Who smiled, and asked him to fill ‘er up.

My friend took out the fuel nozzle, turned the handle…
Whirrr…. clunk….
opened the bonnet,
removed the filler cap…
…and filled her up!
Good boy. Real pro.

After about twenty seconds, the tank overflowed.
My friend withdrew his head from under the bonnet.
The lovely old dear was still smiling broadly at him.
He smiled back, nervously, and stated the obvious:
“It’s full up now, Madam, but it doesn’t seem to have taken much? “
About twenty seven pence worth, to be precise.
(this was about twenty years ago)
She smiled serenely on.
“That’s funny “, she said.
“The gauge says nearly empty. “
She thought for a second.
“Mind you, the other man usually puts it in the back…? “
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
My friend ambled around and discovered another petrol cap. How odd. Two petrol tanks!
It was left to another customer, to point out gently that he had in fact neatly topped up the radiator with petrol.
Yes. Well.
We compared notes, my friend and I, and we agreed his first day’s performance was even worse than mine.

My job soon proved to have its up and down sides.
And insights.
For instance, we were encouraged to canvas shops to get them to stock our product. One of the things we were allowed to promise was a free freezer. That led to all sorts of things. Sometimes, unscrupulous shopkeepers would agree to stock our product, get a free freezer, and promptly stock it with the barest minimum of ice cream, and fill the rest with vegetables, fish, et cetera.
Not really part of the game. Occasionally a fridge had to be re-possessed. What fun.
Placing fridges was an art form. We were paid a good wage, plus commission. So you tried hard.
One of the standing jokes was a dear little old lady, who ran a tiny corner shop in a rather poor area of North West Dublin. The joke was that she had three fridges in her shop, from three different frozen food companies, all of which she honourably stocked exclusively with the appropriate brand. One of them was ours, and it was on my round.
Poor thing! It was only a tiny shop, you could hardly get in for the blessed fridges, and there she was, honestly and faithfully adhering to the rules that everybody else partly or mostly ignored. She didn’t sell enough to warrant filling three frozen food fridges, so she usually carried three fridges which were each two-thirds empty.
“Hey, Maggie, why don’t you kick back a fridge and make some more room? You can stick your Findus stuff in our fridge. I don’t mind. “
“Oh, no, Frank. I’m not allowed. “
Poor dear! They joked about her back at base.
It rankled with me. I liked Maggie. Nice lady. Always made me feel welcome.

Unlike the staff at a very large super market, which I shall call ‘Grumbelows’.
Now, there was a dreaded visit.
This particular supermarket was part of a chain. They were always in the paper. They paid the lowest wages in Dublin, and constantly hired and fired. There was a lot of bad feeling from the unions towards them.
Enter Frank.
I didn’t mind. I was a tolerant sort of guy. Took a lot to rub me up the wrong way. It didn’t take them long.
Their security men were also in charge of checking in deliveries. This task they performed with zero good humour, and an astonishing inclination towards abuse, pettiness, and sheer bloodymindedness.
Two of the guards especially would have been eminently at home goose stepping around ‘Stalag Luft’. I’m convinced they were Ireland’s answer to the Gestapo.
They wore green uniforms, peaked caps, lots of gold braid, and permanent scowls.
The thin one was nicknamed ‘Hitler’ by the delivery drivers, and the fat one was ‘Goering’.

If you tried to crack a joke, this was regarded as a personal insult. You would end up straight back at the end of the queue. There would always be a dozen odd lorries there at the same time, and the system was farcical. They would want you there at eleven o’clock.
If you were NOT there, all hell broke loose when you did finally make it. If you WERE there on the dot of the appointed hour, only one thing was certain: you would not be unloaded until several hours later.
I arrived there one day, to be met by furious drivers. They were all refusing to deliver, because some of them had been abused by the guards! It must have been quite a ‘how do you do’, because one of the guys actually had tears in his eyes. The security men were simply used to going way over the top. Power corrupts, and all that.

The standard way they checked me in was by counting the boxes. Each cardboard box contained a fixed amount of ice lollies, or choc ices, or whatever. For instance, there were 26 choc ices to a box.
I would have to deliver maybe 40 or 50 boxes, which I would stack on a trolley. Push the trolley up to Herr Hitler, who would count them three times, aggressively, just to make sure I knew he was watching, you know.
Then I’d be invariably told to ‘hurry up!’, and occasionally you’d get a jab in the ribs to move you on your way.
You… you…

I soon joined the rest of the delivery drivers in hating the place. “Worst delivery in Dublin “, somebody said. The super market chain had so screwed down the price they paid suppliers such as ‘Shady Glen’, that these in turn were forced to seek economies. Thus it came about that it was the only place where I got nil commission on delivery.
That hurt! Endless delays, abuse, unpleasantness, and no money at the end of the day, other than my basic pay.
It was perhaps inevitable that I should seek a way of getting even. It was one of the other drivers who showed me a way of opening the boxes without breaking the seal.
If you were careful, you could open and close the box without trace of damage, and hey presto!, instead of 26 choc ices there were now only 24…
Soon, I was dining exclusively on ex Grumbelows choc ices. It was all quite marvellous. I could crawl past the security guards, with an abject, sullen look of humility, endure the counting of the boxes, the abuse and the bullying with servile pacifism, make my delivery, and roar off, contentedly making up the delay, the suffering, the lack of commission and the frustration by munching choc ices or whatever for the next three days. It was a long, hot summer, and I was driving my very own supply of
ice cream. Paradise!
Soon it wasn’t just two choc ices that were disappearing out of a box of 26. It was four. Or five. Out of forty boxes… potentially that was quite something!
Without realising it, I was on the slippery slope.

Time went by, and I got away with it all the time.
I never sold them on, as that would have been blatant fraud and theft. No, I just munched them happily.
Soon there was more than I could eat.
Grumbelows insisted that I arrange the display in the store. (saved them money). I also had to remove the empty boxes off the premises! (saved them money) These were then frequently methodically checked by a grim faced security guard as I left the premises, in case I was carrying off any of the stock I had just delivered! Of course, I had my own system, and no need to resort to such a clumsy method. There were times I had a job keeping my face straight, as old Hermann Goering bellowed: “YOU!!! Come here! YOU!! Put those boxes down. “
(he would ascertain laboriously that they were all empty)
Then: “YOU!!! Get a move on, you’re holding everybody up!! “
I kept a discarded box in the lorry, and it was always well stocked.
It was a short step to more romantic notions. The plight of Maggie, struggling in her little corner shop, with three two-thirds empty fridges (placed there by unscrupulous salesmen) rose before me.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, galloping through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, and his merry men…

Soon Maggie was doing very well out of ‘Shady Glen’.
For some strange reason, the production line kept being over-generous where she was concerned, and her boxes of choc ices typically contained rather more than the standard 26 items…
I thought this was great fun.
The slippery slope…

The weeks passed by, and I got more generous with Grumbelows’ property. Whereas at the start, Grumbelows were getting 24 choccies instead of 26, and Maggie was getting 28, 29,30… well, you know, human weakness and all that… never satisfied… after a while the ratio had altered to the detriment of Grumbelows.
I had some other Maggie-types I felt deserved a bit of help, and Grumbelows were the unwitting benefactor.
If the guards had been unusually snotty to me, the next delivery might have only 17 choccies instead of 24 in a box. Times forty boxes…
The slippery slope…
Disaster had to strike in the end, or try to, and it was
(phew) hellish close…
It came at me from both sides.
First of all, honest, dear little Maggie.

“Frank “, she said to me one day.
“I’m ever so worried “.
“What’s wrong, Maggie? “, I asked, all concerned.
“Well, you know there’s only supposed to be 26 choc ices in a box? And 32 Ice lollies? And 20 Truffle trumps? And, and… ” She carried on in similar vein.
I indicated I was aware of the correct ratios.
“Well “, she said, completely innocently.
“I’ve noticed something funny. That last box of choc ices had 40 stuffed in it, and I got 39 Ice lollies, and 27 Truffle Trumps. Isn’t that odd? I think I’d better phone up about it… “

Argh! Ah-hah! Ummm…

“Oh, don’t do that Maggie, I’ll sort it out. It happens once in a blue moon. Machine goes doo-lally. I’ll keep an eye on it for you… ”
She was all reassured, poor thing.
I walked out, quaking.
Still, I couldn’t resist it. Summer was hot. Days long. Maggie was doing great business in ice cream. So were the other Maggie-types.
I arrived at Grumbelows again. It was hot. Boiling. I loaded my trolley with about twenty boxes. Got in the queue. Waited. Eventually arrived at a hot, flustered, perspiring Herr Goering.
First thing he said: “What’s happening there!? “
I followed his outstretched pencil. The bottom boxes, although beautifully sealed up, were in fact well denuded of product. 14 choccies instead of 24, and so on. The weight of the boxes above were causing the empty top half of the bottom boxes to cave in!
I think I have rarely thought so fast in my life.
Putting on my most agonised expression, I said:
“They’re beginning to melt! ” And before he could say anything, I pushed the trolley forward and legged it as hard as I could into the supermarket, and over to the fridges. He never followed.
It was a work of seconds to empty the boxes into the fridges, on top of the existing stock, just making it impossible to count how many items I had actually delivered just then. I had covered my tracks.
I needn’t have worried. No suspicions had been aroused.
Herr Goering had fallen for my story. On the way out he didn’t even look at me.
I couldn’t resist it. I walked out to the truck, and collected a choc ice. Walking back in, I presented it to him:
“Here, suck that! ”
I felt like adding: “Sucker! “, but I didn’t.
He accepted gratefully, bemused no doubt that a delivery man should be pleasant to him.

The relief was enormous, and I now only had another week or so before I returned to college. It would be the end of my job. The heady feeling of having escaped death narrowly, and the imminent end of a good summer, made me reckless.
I passed a large cycling party of French school children on holiday. Knapsacks, teachers, French flags…
As I passed them, I could hear them singing ‘Alouette’.
That did it. A scheme crossed my mind.

I braked, and climbed out, flagging down the lead cyclists. Obediently, they all slowed to a halt.
My French then was quite fluent, and I told them:
“Free Ice cream! “
I don’t think the ‘free’ registered, but when I opened the heavy lorry door, and pulled out boxes of lovely stuff, they were all very excited. The eyes all lit up with delight, and out came the money.

“No, no “, I said. “It’s free! “.
“Free?!? “
“Oh, yes, the Irish Government pay for ice cream for tourists. It’s a promotional thing. I just drive around and give the stuff away to foreigners. “
“C’est incroyable! “
“C’est pas possible! “

A teacher came forward, and I told him the same story, in French, straight faced. He looked perplexed. Two other teachers came over. Patiently, I explained the same story again. Still in French. They were dumbfounded.
One of them broke into English. Smart fellow. Maybe he could get an answer in a foreign language he couldn’t understand in French.
“Do you… work for the Tourist Board? “
Yes, of course, I decided. More or less.
“Well, not quite. We are subcontracted to the Irish Tourist Board. We work for them… “
They were satisfied. A promotional publicity campaign on behalf of Irish Tourism, sponsored by the Tourist Board.
And a French speaking lorry driver dishing it out. Perfect sense! We all nodded happily at each other.
“Oui, oui! “
No, Francis, that’s Japanese…

Somewhere, in a district or village of France, there are lots of families who have a brilliant souvenir of their Irish holiday. A photo showing sixty school children, seven teachers, all standing around a grinning, happy, Irish lorry driver who worked for the Irish Tourist Board and handed out free Ice Cream to foreigners.
Such NICE people, those Irish, dear! Fancy thinking of handing out free Ice Cream! Such a quaint idea!

In my dreamier moments, I fantasize about the same photo, blown up to poster size, proudly displayed on the wall of some French classroom.

Remember our nice holiday, children?

Sure we do!

Good old Grumbelows…


Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 23, 2009, 12:30 pm

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