Monday, July 13, 2020

Candy by Dave Wakely

Dave Wakely's character has to look after his estranged fifteen-year-old daughter for a few days.

"God, you're so useless!"

She stands before me, two skimpy candy-pink tops dangling from their hangers like the discarded skins of lurid reptiles, her ferocious glare expecting me to choose. Decisions, decisions... Luminous Lycra or acrylic machined-lace the colour of bubblegum.

I scratch my chin while her right foot counts out the seconds on the rough concrete floor.

Tap tap tap.

This is her second day with me after half-an-hour's notice, after what passes for an explanation from her mother. Just a text, neither predictive nor predictable. Hasn't her daughter told her? Abbreviations are sooo last year.

Moved in new house but hv chickenpox + R on business in Singapore. B not had it. Don't kno neighbours so cant ask. Yr office sed u r on study leave, so sending her over w driver. Shd be ok in 2 wks. Will xfer £s to yr a/c. Spk later. J.

Since she arrived, we might still be in my town but we're in her world now. Mine never smelt of fast food and unisex perfumes. The lighting was kinder, and it was quieter there. How's a man to think? More to the point, what would the man she now calls Daddy do? Would he even allow her in a place like this?

The tapping stops, and then comes the outburst.

"You're supposed to be GOOD at this!"

Her tantrum is, I understand, designed to drag me back into the moment. I've been lucky to escape so long. She lives for now, not for later, even if that's when most of her life is going to actually happen. At fifteen, hormones trump strategic thinking. Frankly, it's still a tussle at thirty-eight.

For twenty minutes now, I've lurked in the shop's darkest corner while Bonnie has ransacked the rails, the gum-chewing sales assistant eyeing me like I'm an old paedo lurking behind a playground fence. Above my head, a speaker booms like the daytime disco Bonnie probably wishes she was in. Eddie would cope with this so much better than me. He usually says I'm trying to be kind when I tell him I envy his deafness, but right now...

Still, it's her mother's money I'm spending, I remind myself, not mine. B nds new summer tops: put xtra £150 in yr a/c, this morning's text said. No sign-off - not even a J, let alone an x - but Jess has an encyclopaedia of reasons to hate me. My uselessness isn't news, just an echo sounding down the years. Whether I dress her daughter as a teenage hooker or a day-glo Edwardian vamp, it will be just another erratum slip tucked inside the bulging catalogue of my failures. I wonder if she ever reads them to Bonnie, bedtime stories with a pinch of deadly nightshade.

Bonnie was twenty-three months old when Jess finally realised the main reason I'd spent the afternoon on the balcony, our baby girl cradled in my arms. Not to revel in the sunshine and the miracle of my daughter's existence, but for the view of the man next door and the shadows flickering across his sunburnt-pink back as his muscles danced the lawnmower to and fro.

My life started then, or at least the life I lead now. I'd seen the pain in Jess's eyes when she gave birth, heard her screams, but I gave birth to myself - to the honest version - in the spare-room, on my own. No gas, no comforting hand, no drugs beyond the illicit. If Jess heard me cry, she didn't say.

Tap tap tap...

Bonnie's left foot jerks me back into the day once more.

"Hold them up against you," I tell her, buying time I've no urge to spend. At least not here, not now.

She holds first one hanger and then the other against her, arms signalling a bad-tempered semaphore. I admire her energy, but with every flourish of her elbows I get the message: I am rubbish, a desperate case. Eventually she pauses, the skimpier blouse's lacy material as transparent as her mood.

"The other one?" I ask. "Just for a few seconds?"

I watch her dial her loathing up another notch, glowering as she slams the second hanger against her collar-bones, letting the first fall to the floor.

I expected Till Girl to complain, but she just scrolls her head from left to right like a security camera, purple hair swishing as she scans first Bonnie and then me. Her lip-stud winks with every grind of her jaw, a twenty-first century beauty spot. Maybe, behind her carefully applied overlay of tedium, she's as baffled as me.

It's not just the fashions that I'm out of touch with: it's the girl. For twenty-four hours we've skirted each other, any moments in the same room an uneasy truce. I'm like a wary gardener, too daunted by the thorns to venture a nostril nearer to the rose.

I've seen Bonnie grow, but in giant leaps rather than baby steps. Standing on the porch, face caught between smiling and blankness as I drove away in a borrowed car after six months of sleeping on an old sofa, stemming the draughts under the garage door with the boiler-suit I'd worn to half-finish painting her bedroom. Outside the divorce court three years later, beaming and waving as she held Roger's hand. "Daddy," she called out, till she was shushed into silence. "I'm right here, darling," I heard him say. Then at nine-and-a-half, when Jess's mum died and her father invited me to the funeral, still preferring me to Roger. Close enough to see her tug Jess's sleeve while she pointed at me, for Eddie to lip-read her mother calling me 'Uncle Desmond'. Since then, mostly snatches of conversation at weddings or old friends' parties before Jess or Roger could steer her away. Perfunctory paragraphs in Christmas cards, letters send via lawyers' offices.

As I wait for her scowl to turn vocal again, I remind myself that I am the adult here, even if I'm not the precise adult either of us might have chosen. She knows me as little as I know her, and taking a gay man shopping hadn't turned out as fabulously - and that would be the word, wouldn't it? - as she'd hoped. I turn to Till Girl, her face dead-pan.

"I need your help here," I tell her, shouting over the music. "This is Bonnie. She's fifteen years old..."

"I'm nearly sixteen," Bonnie interrupts with a shrill squeak of outrage.

"She was fifteen four months ago," I continue, hearing my voice coarsen into a bark. "Her mother's ill, so I'm looking after her. She needs a new top." I can feel my emotions bubbling like a percolator, finer manners sinking like silt. "One that doesn't make her look a total slut."

As the words leave my mouth, I hear the shame under the rage, feel the realisation that it isn't really Bonnie I'm angry with.

Till Girl flicks her tongue across her lip, a snake tasting the air. Contempt, or contemplation? One hand drops below the counter and the music abruptly dies. Bonnie is silent now too.

The girl steps round from behind the counter, nods once at me and strides to a rail by the changing-room. "What size, please?" she asks, her crystal vowels a surprise.

I motion Bonnie to reply.

"Six," she mutters, absorbed in staring at her feet.

Till Girl's fingers fly through a mass of hangers, pulling out a blue velvety creation with an asymmetric hem and sparkling embroidery.

"This suits your colouring more," she tells Bonnie firmly, "and the cut will make you look taller. Slimmer." There's a subtle emphasis on the second adjective. "And I think you're more like an eight."

She pushes open a changing room door and waits as Bonnie half-drags, half-stomps her way across the shop. As the door swings shut behind her, the girl raises one artfully-pencilled eyebrow at me and struts back to her counter.

A seemingly eternal silence later, Bonnie re-appears, tugging down the shorter side of her new hem. Till Girl knows her stuff: she looks taller and more graceful, almost adult. Differently dressed, she has the beginnings of a figure, shaded and outlined without anything being underlined or underwired.

"Well?" she says, more tremulous than truculent.

Till Girl beats me to it. "Quite sophisticated, actually. Yes, I like that," she says. There's an undertone of surprise. "What does your father think?"

"I think you look great," I say, before Bonnie can speak. Before she might deny my existence, or I might do the same. Even here where it would never matter, where it's already assumed, it seems an acknowledgement too far. "Not that my opinion matters, I suspect. I'm just the wallet carrier. Is there a younger man she might impress?"

Till Girl almost smiles, and turns her head towards the back of the store.

"Jamie!"

Her shout would stir a catacomb.

A boy of eighteen or nineteen shuffles out of the stock-room, all ear-tunnels, piercings and ink-black tattoos, halfway between Meccano and a badly-photocopied medieval map. He moves inside his baggy clothes like a man wrestling inside a duvet cover, the waistband of his unbelted jeans sitting below under-developed buttocks. There's a flash of gaudy yellow underpant, bright as cupcake icing, the only hint of sweetness he's allowed himself. "Trade Descriptions Act," Eddie always says when he sees a boy dressed like that. "If it's not for sale, don't put it in the window."

Till Girl does her security-camera head-swivel thing at Bonnie, and then back to the boy.

"Cool," he says, his voice as flat as Lincolnshire. "Wicked."

Whether from shyness or lust, he rubs his palms on his thighs, a blush spreading through the few patches of bare skin left on his neck. Is this how straight teenagers flirt nowadays? It's like watching a wildlife documentary.

Bonnie's face is as pink as the clothes she would have chosen, but she's clearly persuaded.



Twenty minutes later - after she's convinced us both that her new look requires black metallic leggings and, two stores down, petrol-blue patent leather stilettos that of course she insists on wearing - we walk the mall's marble walkways, a stable-hand leading a prize filly into the dressage ring. Each time I hear a pause in her erratic clip-clopping, I take her hand for a second before she teeters, sparing her more the embarrassment of toppling than the pain of a twisted ankle.

I watch the eyes of teenage boys as we pass, scanning her like bar-code readers assessing some new exotic fruit. Whenever a woman Jess's age comes close, I try to read her expression as if I might read Jess's mind by proxy. As if I ever could.

Bonnie's eyes dart from window to window, feverish with the shopping bug. Each time we stop, it's not the display I dissect but our reflection. The young woman, dumped on an almost-stranger but bursting to be happy. The gangly man in the biker jacket and faded 501s, sullen as a teenager and anxious to be somewhere else. And the way they avoid each other's eyes, stranded in a no-man's-land between anger and apology.

We pause on the benches by the fountains in the open courtyard, faces splashed with spray, pretending that an icy slab of damp marble under our buttocks comes as some kind of respite. I take her picture on her phone so she can send it to Jess. My new look, her message says. Like it? B x. There's no reply.

As we drift back into silence, I watch her attention scampering from one boy to another, so blatantly she triggers more blushes than smiles. Maybe this is the kind of moment Jess and Roger would never allow her, a chance to make mistakes. Perhaps she's even enjoying being here, with me, just a little.

I police my own gaze more carefully. Here and there, middle-aged fathers sit with teenaged daughters, carrier bags at their feet and shoulders turned a fraction against each other, seeing the world at different angles. Maybe this is what teenage girls think fathers are for: for presents and treats, but not for company or conversation.

"I'm sorry I made you lose your temper," Bonnie says, looking down at her feet as she breaks our silence. She's shaken off one of her new shoes and there's the start of a blister on her heel, already rising a livid red.

"I'll buy you some plasters," I tell her. "Unless you want to put your trainers back on?" I pat the growing pile of carrier bags beside me.

"Thanks," she mumbles, shaking her head, "but I can afford Elastoplast, at least." She takes my proffered tissue and folds it over, wrapping it round her heel before she slips the shoe back on, trying not to wince. "And I know me being here isn't your fault. Just 'cos Mum's using you doesn't mean I should. It's not like you're responsible for me or anything."

I want to protest, though it would do no good. Jess didn't get herself pregnant: if I'm not responsible for her, who on earth is? Without me, Bonnie wouldn't be anywhere - wouldn't even be. But it's not what she means, and complaining won't help. Roger's her father now: I abdicated and I can't expect loyalty.

"It's ok, I'm sorry too. I know I'm kind of the last resort," I tell her. "Like being promised a trip to the zoo to see the tigers and winding up in the reptile house with some cold-blooded thing staring at you through the glass."

She looks as embarrassed as I feel. The fountains spray our faces with cold water as the silence grows again.

"How about I treat you to something?" she asks me, suddenly a child again. A fifteen-year-old girl wanting to impress. "Have you ever had bubble tea?"



The concession stall is a cartoon-coloured laboratory of bubbling liquids in luminous columns. Their high-buttoned uniforms as white as surgeons', Asian boys barely older than Bonnie strain alien concoctions into transparent beakers, inscrutable stewards in a Martian cocktail bar.

I scan the menu, pretending to understand. "Extra bottom, 50p," it declares. With Eddie, I could have pointed and laughed, but not now. I turn to Bonnie.

"Help me out here?"

"OK," she says, "are you more milky? Or more fruity?"

"I guess I'm more the fruity type," I say, stifling a snigger I can't quite prevent. "Apple, if that's possible?"

"How are you with things that burst in your mouth?" she asks, all wide-eyed curiosity, and I wonder if she's trying to provoke me, testing my boundaries, or if being fifteen is still as innocent as I dimly remember. The students I teach are older: nineteen, twenty... women, not girls, though their counterparts are still more boys than men.

"I'll try anything once," I say. Her face stays straight.

My offer to pay refused, I perch on a ridiculously tall barstool while she places our order, passing over her little sequinned purse from her backpack when she remembers her new outfit has no pockets. I watch how she keeps it hidden below the counter-line, too girly now for her chic ensemble, for the suddenly mature Bonnie. Young enough to blush and giggle, but old enough to play the scene to suit the audience.

She passes me a see-through cup filled with something bile green. There are viscous black lumps clumped at its base and a thick purple straw sticking out like a drainpipe. Hers is a shade of lilac only chemicals could conjure, but she slurps at it happily. We swivel on our seats, our feet dangling in mid-air, two satellite dishes scanning the ether for different channels.

"Go on," she teases. "Try it."

I lower my head and suck. The glowing gunge fills my mouth, cold and thickly chewy. I give silent thanks that I've mastered my gag reflex, and swallow with what little elegance I can muster.

"So, how does it taste?" she asks, apparently blind to my discomfort. Preoccupied with not throwing up, my manners go AWOL.

"Like it looks," I mutter, scrambling for tissues to wipe stray globules from my chin. "Dragon sperm."

I watch her roll her beaker across her cheek, either hiding a blush or cooling one, and wonder if I've gone too far. There's a pause before she replies, but no coyness in the question.

"You recognise the flavour?" Her eyes signal a smile that's yet to reach her lips.

"I've had... similar."

It's taken twenty-four hours, but finally I've made her laugh.

"You're much more fun than Roger," she tells me. "Or Mum. And it's ok - leave it if you don't want it."



The concrete park bench feels warmer than the mall's marble, although the landscaping's manicured scrubland is no more sincere. In the dogwoods behind us, I can hear the underground pump that sends the curiously tidy stream trickling down through the artificial hills.

She wants me to choose a place for lunch, but where would she enjoy? I can hardly take her to The Taverners and spend an hour explaining the difference between bears and otters, cubs and twinks. That menu would mean as much to her as the bubble tea bar did to me. What have we got in common? She has my nose, my eyes, but it's only genetics. What do we share beyond a woman neither of us seem to love anymore and a weakness for letting our eyes wander over the bodies of men we don't know? Bubble tea might be thicker than water, but blood?

I ask a question that I probably shouldn't.

"So, what kind of boys do you like?"

She looks a little flustered. I'm probably creeping her out more than earning her interest, but my mouth keeps moving.

"I mean, what kind of boy do you dream of being with, one day?"

I wonder if I'm blushing now.

"Intelligent," she tells me. "Clever. Someone that reads. Proper books, not comics."

Hardly the answer I expected, but heart-warming: maybe Eddie might like her after all. I won't tell him she asked me yesterday why I 'went for' a deaf guy, like he was something sub-standard I'd settled for. As if I'd told myself that was what I deserved. She didn't say it quite like that - although he did, once. "Just checking," he said afterwards. "Making sure." I wonder what she'd make of him, proof-reading in his brother's spare room to escape a girl he's pre-judged as shrill and vacant, if she got to know him. Maybe she'd see what I love, if she took the time to look.

"Someone who cares about more than money and deals and profits and all that," she says. "Not like Roger." I feel an eyebrow rise and I struggle to keep it level. "Or like Mum. Thinking a turtleneck jumper or a squirt of scent covers everything. Even when it gives her away." My eyebrow drifts aloft like a balloon slipping from a child's hand.

"Last time she farmed me out, she said she had a migraine..."

Bonnie pauses, her face wondering if she should tell me.

"When I got home, I sat on the sofa with her. The cushions smelt of cologne. I recognised it." She's looking down at her hands, her fingers knotting and unknotting. "It wasn't Roger's." She unclasps her hands and they lie in her lap, palms upturned. "Not that he's any better. Coming home late reeking of breath mints, a plaster over a love bite and some crap about cutting himself shaving."

She looks almost like she's going to cry. I slip my arm round her shoulder and she nestles her head into my chest. I can't think of a thing to say.

"So I'd like a proper man. Classy. Faithful."

She's almost mumbling now.

"Not like someone you'd find in a shopping mall then," I say.

Her smile is half-embarrassment and all charm.



The canal-side bookshop café's an oasis after the mall, tables far enough apart for your conversation to be your own. Away from the neon and the noise, Bonnie's quieter too. We take a balcony table with a view out over the water, a gaggle of Uni students messing about in punts. She chooses mushroom risotto - no meat, Jess's texts had reminded me, she's veggie now, apparently - although she seems to live on Haribo and Diet Coke.

She has a sweet tooth and the world is her candy store, eyes still darting from one man to another with the indiscretion of youth. Mine too, pretending to soak in the view but drawn more honestly to the rowers. One of them wears only cut-off jeans, torso already lobster-pink and shiny with sweat. He must have been in the water, thick hairs flattened against his legs, droplets catching the sunlight in his dense black beard. He could be a satyr from an old Greek vase: all he needs is a horn to blow.

I barely register when Bonnie asks if I'd mind if she reads the paper, although I notice it's a broadsheet she brings back from the rack, unfolded to the crossword and pen in hand. "The waiter guy said it was ok," she says. "Although he doesn't think I'll manage it."

I look occasionally as she starts to fill it in, resting the paper on the table's edge as she either writes in an answer or stares into space, temples lined in concentration as she grasps for solutions. My cheesecake devoured, my attention drifts back to the other temptations. I don't even notice when she gets up to go to the loo.

It takes a second or two before I realise the insistent throb in my pocket is my mobile - another command from Jess, no doubt. But I'm wrong: it's a message on Grindr.

"Well, this is kind of sweet ☺"

There's no profile photo, just a name - Huxley92. Checking Bonnie's not back yet, I send a simple "?"

"Her watching me watching you watching him."

I'm scanning the room, trying to work out whose eyes are on me, whose fingers are tapping away.

"Behind the counter. Goatee. Glasses. Reading Brave New World. Or pretending to ;-)

As I turn my head, he smiles casually, paperback propped against a serviette dispenser. I recognise him now. Graham, a former colleague of Eddie's. Cheeky, Eddie says, and flirty with it, although it's only ever just words. We met at some Department evening, me joking with Eddie that every time I turned round I caught Graham pretending not to be looking at me. "Oh, you're his type," Eddie told me, laughing. "Scruffy." Then a pause that could have been shorter. "And gorgeous with it." He planted a theatrical kiss on my cheek, making sure Graham saw him pinch my arse.

"She's my daughter," I type back. "It's complicated."

"Sure is! Still, she has taste. You too, dude. Eddie's always said so."

"Thx. I think."

"She's coming back now, btw - you want coffees?"

I nod, grinning sheepishly, before I'm distracted by a noise outside. The rower has capsized his boat and he's spluttering in the water, spitting out the rancid taste of city centre canal. As Bonnie sits back down, Graham's right behind her, bringing two large lattes. We each get a shot glass full of Smarties.

"Enjoy," he says, as he glances over Bonnie's shoulder. Her crossword puzzle is complete, her handwriting all the more girlish for the pink pen she's been using.

"Oooh, cryptic," Graham tells her. "I'm impressed. Where did you learn that?" He's looking at me as he speaks, and I could swear there was a wink. "This hip dude here?" Yep, definitely a wink.

"It must just be genetic," she says, cool and coy.

As I sip my coffee, I realise my phone is still on the table and Bonnie's been reading it out of the corner of her eye. I play it deadpan, face as inscrutable as an exam invigilator till she looks up at me. I nudge my glass of Smarties across the table.

"You have these. My eyes are bigger than my appetite."

She nudges them aside and smiles back. "Well drink up, then. We've got more window-shopping to do."

She giggles as she reaches across the table to take my hand. Her mother's laugh, perhaps, but her father's sense of humour.

2 comments:

  1. I liked the bit about the bubble tea. Felt like a man and his platonic woman friend ... rather than a daughter. But a fun trip to the mall, with side benefits.

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  2. I think the author did a good job of making both father and daughter likable, I found it very easy to root for them to work together to make sense of their individual complicated situations. A nice, uplifting tale.

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