by Jonathan Taylor
The square is full of bubbles. His daughter is dancing among them, as are twenty or so other children. The children swarm round the man making the bubbles, who’s using a bent coat-hanger on a stick as a wand. He dips the wand into a bucket of suds, then waves it in an arc above their heads, conjuring a cosmos of bubbles that swirls, spirals around them. They scatter outwards, the toddlers trying to catch the bubbles, the older children trying to pop them. Some bubbles sail far above their heads, over the shops and town hall, but most are gleefully exterminated.
Then the children are sucked inwards again, round the bubble man, mesmerised as he dips the coat-hanger in the bucket, and waves it over their heads. Again they scatter, dance, giggle.
His daughter is giggling too. She’s a head higher than most of the children, but is enjoying it as much as them. She lifts up one toddler, who’s tripped over, to help him catch a particularly huge bubble. It pops, of course, and both she and the toddler laugh—almost hysterically, it seems to her father. Until five minutes ago, she hadn’t laughed, or even smiled once, all afternoon. She’d hardly said a word—apart from to whinge that the film was crap, the popcorn too chewy, salty. Now she is laughing, chattering with strangers, full of energy rather than yawns and frowns.
He watches as bubbles eddy past her, reflecting, refracting her profile, trapping her image in their rainbows. He watches as they float skywards, taking their miniature versions of her with them, out of his reach.
‘It’s time to go,’ he yells at her. She doesn’t hear, or pretends not to. If they’re late back to her mother’s, he knows he’ll get another one of those bastard emails from the solicitor: Dear Mr Strawson…under the terms of the…your wife…custody…concerned…court order… and so on. ‘Fucking hell. Cassy, it’s time to go!’
She still doesn’t pay any attention. Some stuck-up-bitch-mother to his left frowns and tuts at him, his language. He ignores her. For fuck’s sake, he mutters.
All the children are weaving around one another in complex patterns, aiming for different bubbles. Cassy’s father circles the crowd, shoving past stuck-up-bitch-mother and a few other parents on the fringe, shadowing his daughter, ready to catch her. He passes close to bubble man, who stinks. His hair’s greasy, his coat shabby, his face streaked with filth. Probably hasn’t had a bath in weeks, Cassy’s father thinks—since he got off the boat from whatever Eastern European shithole he’s come from. Only his fingers stand out, sparklingly clean in comparison, owing to contact with the soapy water in the bucket.
Next to bubble man is a shoebox, with a cardboard sign propped up against it. The sign reads:
Pleese give genrusly to help pay for:
my home in Monnaco
& my socks.
Thank u very mutch,
Cristian aka The Pide Piper x.
Cassy’s father looks up from the sign at exactly the right moment: there’s his daughter, chasing a bubble, just a foot away from him. He lunges forward and grabs her arm—before she’s managed to reach the bubble—and pulls her out of the swirl of children and bubbles. ‘Hey!’ she says, looking down at his hand. ‘That hurts.’ He doesn’t let go
‘Come on. I’ve got to get you back to your mother.’
She frowns, her eyebrows dark against her face, as if it’s his fault they’ve got to go. As if any of it is his fault.
‘Look, Cassy, we’ve got to go. It’s not my bloody fault. You know what they’re like, your mother and Derek.’ He says the name like it’s swearing.
‘At least Derek’d let me stay here a while. At least Derek doesn’t take me to a film for five year olds. At least…’
‘It’s not my fault,’ he says, through clenched teeth.
He half turns, and starts pulling her after them. She staggers a bit, and trips over bubble man’s shoebox and sign. She wrenches her arm free—her father is surprised how strong she is these days—and kneels down, to right the sign.
She holds the sign in front of her and reads it out loud: Pleese give genrusly to help pay for…
Her forehead’s creased for a moment after she finishes reading it, and then she grins: ‘It’s a joke, isn’t it, Dad? He hasn’t got a house or Ferrari, has he? He’s joking because really he’s poor.’
‘That’s what he wants you to think.’
She stands up again, and faces her father. ‘I think we should give him some money,’ she says. ‘He’s poor and he’s fun.’ He thinks she’s about to add: unlike you, but she doesn’t.
‘You must be kid…’ but then trails off, realising she isn’t. She’s staring directly at him, into his eyes, for the first time since—well, for weeks. Her eyes are quivering like bubbles. She looks like his little girl again.
‘Please, Dad. It was fun. The nice man deserves it. He made me laugh.’
Cassy’s father reaches into his jeans pocket, pulls out his wallet. He knows there’s probably not much in there. Today’s cleared him out for a few days. He’s got about five pound left either for the Man in Space or food. He hasn’t decided which yet.
He opens up his wallet. She’s watching, peering inside. There’s the lone five pound note. He unclips the pocket for change. There are two coins—5p and 1p.
He hesitates. She’s still watching. He takes out the two coins, holds them out to her.
‘You can’t just give him that,’ she says. ‘That’s nothing.’ She reaches over, and pulls out the five pound note.
‘It was worth it,’ she says. ‘Much better than the film, and that cost more.’ She kneels down, and puts the note into bubble man’s shoebox. Her father’s mouth opens and closes.
Cassy stands up, turns her back on him, and flounces off. He glances down at the shoebox again, wondering if he can get away with reaching down to retrieve the note, without his daughter noticing. But he’s worried she’ll turn round, see him do it. So he runs after her, pushing people out of the way, swearing at them.
He catches up with her. She doesn’t look at him—doesn’t even thank him for giving all his cash to a stinking Romanian, gippo, pikey, whatever he is, doesn’t thank him for the afternoon, won’t kiss him goodbye when they get back to her mother’s place, will just slouch in, grunt something, and Derek’ll shut the door in his face, and then he won’t be able to go and whinge about fucking ex-wives, fucking stepfathers, fucking lawyers to whoever will listen at the Man in Space, will just be on his own.
Still, he could always call up a few of the EDL guys, tell them there’s a kiddy-fiddling Romanian pikey in town, and they can go and do him over. Stick his bubbles where the sun don’t shine. Make him eat his stupid sign, his own words: Ferrari, Monaco, socks. At least then the day won’t have been a total write-off.
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.