Parkdale Toy Shop
“Just do your best. When I saw the mess, I thought to myself, there’s only one person who can fix it.”
The shop manager points to the auburn-haired girl and smiles.
Jessie puts two fingers to her forehead in a salute. “I’m on it,” she replies.
And she is, even though she’d rather be in bed. She’s not just tired (she’s always tired these days) but she woke up this morning with a sore throat and throbbing headache.
“You look a bit peaky,” her father had said at breakfast.
“I’m fine,” she had replied brightly, swallowing buttered and honeyed toast that scratched her throat.
Because she’s a real trooper, she’s the bravest of soldiers.
And now, in the mess of the middle aisle, in the midst of mess, Jessie shivers. She sit down, cross-legged amongst Barbies interfering with Shopkins. Doc McStuffins getting into Paws Patrol faces.
The manager’s head pops around the corner. “How you getting on, love?”
Jessie blinks up at him. “Winning,” she lies. She gestures at the mess of unsorted merchandise and says, “always looks worst when you’re half-way through, you know?”
“We open in five minutes,” the manager says, tapping his wrist to indicate a watch he’s not wearing. “Do your best.”
Jessie nods until the manager retreats back around the corner and then she holds her head, wondering at the throb, considering whether to just call it a day and burst into tears right here on the ground, a boxed Poppy collectible in her lap.
Re-stocking and tidying shop shelves should not be a grand intellectual challenge and most days, Jessie enjoys it. She has a talent for finding order in chaos. Three days a week she combines the half-hour before school with a free first period to work for the toy shop manager.
As if she’s a real teenager (oh, she is, she’s real enough) who needs a part-time job. She’s had jobs at the shopping centre as well, selling shoes, stock-checking books, and of course she works for Miss Brown at Rainbow Nursery School as well.
She is a dynamo, to fit all of that in with her own school responsibilities. And of course, she happens to be an agent with the Parkdale Parenting Association.
Jessie must have more hours in her day, to fit all of that. She must have a treasure chest where she keeps all that time, stretching out the day like magic.
“I’m opening up now.” The manager’s voice from the door and Jessie hears the clicks as he turns the key.
“Nearly done,” Jessie calls back, doing nothing for the scratching in her throat. She is surrounded by mostly pink plastic. But she can sort it in a jiffy, if she just puts her mind to it. Her too-warm, exhausted mind.
Why does she work so hard? Is it an act, to fit in with her agent persona?
No. Agent Jessie and normal Jessie is pretty much the same person. Like most agents, Parkdale goes for realism when they can, realistic players in a seemingly fantastic situation.
Why does she work so hard? Does she need the money?
No. It’s laughable, to compare the money she makes stocking shelves or wiping toddler bottoms with her agent compensation.
But her PPA income is locked away in a trust, until she is “of age” (a funny idea in Parkdale, and Jessie’s original birth certificate would peg her at 26 years). They can’t have their agents driving Mercedes and showing off diamond earrings.
So the funds are funneled away, washed and tax-free, kept for that rainy day when they’re out of the game. Until then, yes, teen agents need their pocket money for downloading music, for clothes and make-up and hair-cuts and all the rest of that teenage stardust.
“Oh, Jessie.” The manager’s voice makes her jump, makes her groan.
“Getting there,” she says. She rattles a box of washable crayons. “I’m just a bit slow this morning.”
“You don’t look well,’ the manager says. He looks down at her with a concerned expression, frown lines wrinkling his face.
Those likes are his choice. He’s hardly the only one, but it still surprises Jessie sometimes, to notice an adult actually getting older in Parkdale.
“Maybe you should be at home,” says the manager.
Jessie dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand. A trembling wave.
When her father heard her coughing last night, he had a similar assessment.
“You’re making yourself ill,” he had told her in the kitchen, “racing around like this.”
“It’s just a tickle,” Jessie had replied. “I’ll make some tea. Want some?”
. “See, always doing things for other people.” Her father had gently stroked hair out of Jessie’s face and kissed her forehead. “I’m worried about you, honey.”
“Don’t,” Jessie had replied. “No need.”
Her father had looked into her eyes. “It’s my job.” Matter-of-fact. Matter-of-dad.
Except really, Jessie is quite old enough to look after herself.
She’s had the same curfew for a decade, the same rule about keeping the bedroom door open if there’s a boy in her bedroom. Like Luke. Like some others. Doing homework.
And where would she be right now, if Parkdale had never happened? If she’d never gotten the call, if they hadn’t made that amazing, impossible offer.
Do you want to do something amazing? Do you want to make a difference?
Where would Jessie be if she and her father hadn’t accepted, if they hadn’t signed on the line?
A jangling bell rings. Jessie sighs. Some people can’t wait. Let’s hope it’s a grown-up by themselves; everything is too loud today, and if Jessie’s completely honest, even her eyeballs hurt this morning. The alarm on her phone had woken her and she had peered at it, incredulous at the thought of having to get out of bed.
Better sort this mess out. Better make an effort.
Jessie gets to her feet and immediately feels dizzy, and she exhales heavily, gripping the middle shelf for support as her vision darkens, threatening to send her back to the floor.
Deep breath. Why did she get out of bed this morning? Her legs threaten to buckle.
Oh, bugger. Let’s sit back down again. Oh, crappers.
Jessie looks up in surprise at the familiar voice.
Her father stands above him in his navy business suit, holding a white paper bag.
“Time to go, honey. Where’s your coat?”
She frowns up at him. “Dad, I’m working.” And doesn’t she sound just like her teenage self right now.
“No arguing. I stopped at Boots, got you some medicine.” Her father holds up small plastic bag as if presenting evidence to the court. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
Jessie opens her mouth to protest. She’s not a little girl who needs her father to rescue her.
But when she looks down at herself, she shuts her mouth again. She knows how she looks, yes, it’s a mess, and if someone came upon Jessie right now, looking flustered with a Petite Sparkle Bell in one hand and a Cupcake Party Game in the other, her pigtails uneven and her blouse untucked (because there’s a limit to how neat you can be when you feel this rough), they might think this teenager has swallowed something special, left with the mind of a small child.
The manager appears, ready to double Jessie’s embarrassment. He shakes her red coat invitingly. “I’ll take care of this,” he says, waving at the pile of toys that if anything, Jessie has only made less organised.
Jessie scrambles back to her feet and is silently grateful for her father’s hands as he steadies her.
“I brought your gloves,” he says. “Silly girl, you left them at home. It’s snowing out there!”
It’s a gentle scold, but Jessie feels sensitive all the same.
“Not much,” she replies.
“Come on,” says her father.
She takes her coat and puts it on. “Drop me at school.”
“Hardly,” her father replies.
“I’ve got double-maths.”
“You’ve got double-bed.”
“Ha-ha,” and that sets off a cough that makes Jessie wince. “Ow.”
“Let’s go,” her father says. He pulls up the zip of Jessie’s coat as if she were incompetent. “Gloves,” he prompts, and Jessie takes them.
“I can do it myself,” she says, far more sulkily than she intended.
And then she can’t, all fingers and thumbs, and she’s exhausted.
“I’ll put them on later,” she says, and what a whine, and suddenly she’s desperate for her father to draw a line, to show her who’s boss.
“Honey,” he says gently, and Jessie lets him with the gloves, and Jessie has a chance to look back at the mess of toys and she almost laughs at the thought of trying to tidy them with her mittened hands.
But she swallows her giggle. After all, laughing probably hurts just as much as coughing.
“I can’t believe I let you leave the house this morning,” her father says. He takes her hand and she lets him walk her to the door.
“Sorry,” Jessie says to the manager. She’s deserting her post, she’s leaving a sinking ship. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
The manager grunts his disagreement as he opens the door, and the bell jingles as the cold air makes Jessie squint her eyes.
“Don’t bring her back until she’s better,” the manager tells her father.
“Thanks,” her father says. “I’ll let you know how she’s getting on.”
Jessie should feel offended, the two of them talking over her like she’s a small child. But instead all she can do is concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
Her father’s right. She can forget about maths, about part-time jobs. Just for a few minutes. Just for a rest, for a little lie-down. Until the burning behind her eyes subsides, until she can put 2 and 2 back together.
She’ll probably be all better by lunchtime.
Ten years. Six months from retirement. If she wants it, if she’s ready to move on.
Do you want to do something amazing? Do you want to make a difference?
Jessie had thought Parkdale’s sales pitch a little vague, a little lacking in pizzazz. She had shared her concern with Rachel, the two of them waiting for pick-up after a joint assignment, their targets squealing as they were pushed on the park swings.
“Think of the money,” Rachel had said, laughing. “It’s the bottom line that counts, not the tagline.”
Jessie had disagreed. “It needs some sparkle. How about, ‘Do you want to fix broken hearts?’.” She had grinned. “That’s more like it.”
“You’re too good,” Rachel had replied, and it had taken a moment for Jessie to understand that this wasn’t meant as a compliment.
“So what’s your great idea?”
Rachel had walked around the swings so she was crouched in front of her little boy, making a hungry face as he swung closer, widening her eyes and rubbing her stomach, and the boy had squealed with excitement.
“I don’t care,” Rachel had said. She had swiped at the boys feet with curled fingers, making him shriek and pull his legs away. “But seriously, forget about better and focus on greed.”
Jessie wasn’t bad, but she had played along anyway. She thought it over and licked her lips in triumph. Yeah. Bang. There’s the money.
She had looked down at Rachel and grinned. “Do you want to live forever?”
No applause. Rachel had taken the boy’s swing with one hand, raising it high, showing her strength, not letting go until the kid begged, and then letting him swing.
She had looked away and it was Rachel, not the boy, who had looked squeamish.
“No one’s immortal here,” Rachel had said softly, finally, her words almost lost in the air. “They’re just postponing, saving up some crap for later. Whatever’s waiting for you first time around, it’ll catch up eventually. If you’re confused about that, just ask Carly’s mother.”
So why are you here? Jessie had wanted to ask. But she already knew the answer. Everyone knew about Rachel.
* * *
Jessie opens her eyes.
Easy. All better.
What time is it? She fumbles for her phone but it’s missing from her bedside table. Instead, there’s a old toy in its place. A plastic coconut with a straw and umbrella, standing beside a plastic Finding Nemo cup that Jessie uses with her sleepover targets.
She picks up the coconut. Where did that come from? Jessie hasn’t seen it in ages, in years. It has a voice and Jessie grins. She never did the voice. That was her father’s job.
Still, she’s too old for made-up voices. She’s much too old for things like that. When it comes down to it, these days Jessie is the one who does the voices.
The bedroom curtains are closed. She swings out of bed and walks to the window.
Ow. Still too bright. The sun tells her it’s still morning. She slept for an hour perhaps.
She doesn’t remember getting undressed and her face warms at the idea of her father helping her into rainbow cloud-print pyjamas she hasn’t worn since leaving primary school.
How do the two-piece pyjamas still fit? They don’t, not really, judging by the bare skin at the ends of her arms and legs, her exposed stomach. She inspects herself in the mirror and groans at how flat her chest looks.
What’s her father thinking, dressing her like she’s ten, eleven years old?
She turns around and gives her bed a look of disdain. Enough bed. Enough lying around.
She shakes her head, and there, her headache is still there, better but not gone. And she’s a little warm, too. She should take off these childish pajamas, take a cool shower, get ready to return to school.
Jessie can handle missing double-maths, working through problems she’s seem ten times before, but there’s something fresh this afternoon. The English teacher took pity on those repeating agents, swapped dusty King Lear for The Taming of the Shrew.
It’s all under control. So why does her skin feel tender when she pulls the waistband of her pyjama bottoms down past her narrow hips, why does she start to shiver and groan and pull them back up again?
Because she’s not well, like Dad said.
She smiles at the thought of him. He’s probably in the living room and she feels a sting of guilt. He’ll be working from home, so he can look after his sick daughter.
Let’s fix that. He doesn’t need to waste time like this. He got her home, and now Jessie can take care of herself.
She walks to the door way and finds a pair of slippers.
She walks bare-footed downstairs and finds her father with his laptop at the dining room table.
“Hey you, back in bed.” He’s wearing a red jumper over his shirt. It looks soft, it looks good for cuddles.
A funny thing to think about.
“I’m not tired,” says Jessie, even as her jaw tightens with a yawn that threatens to leave her undone.
“You need to rest, honey, you’re not well.”
“I feel better,” Jessie says, approaching her father and glancing at his laptop screen. Double-maths, she thinks fleeting, glancing at the rows of figures.
Dad snakes his arm around her waist and pulls her close.
“That’s because you’ve been resting, honey bee, and because you took your medicine. But if you start getting all wild again, you’ll feel bad.”
What an idea, what a tone.
All wild? Talking down to her like she’s a target. Using a childish nickname she hasn’t heard in years. Does he think she’s eight years old?
She lets him stroke her back and she watches the steam rise from his mug.
“I fancy a tea,” Jessie says. “I feel a bit bleh.”
Dad tightens his grip, and for a moment Jessie is sure that he’ll pull her onto his lap. Instead, he just says, “You need to be in your bed. I put a cup of water on your beside table.”
“You can soup for lunch. Tomato, your favorite.”
Tomato soup and cheese on toast. This sounds more like a snow day than a sick day.
Jessie squirms out of his reach and walks over to the window. The snow is having a go, it’s doing its best, but the flakes won’t stay white, they’re melting once they reach the ground.
Not enough for a snowman. Not even enough for a single, solitary snowball. Jessie glares at the insufficient weather and says, “I’ve got so much on, Dad. And you don’t have time to be at home looking after me.” She wipes her nose with her sleeve. “I really can look after myself.”
She hears Dad’s chair moving back and her father makes a groaning sound as he stands up, as if he’s ancient, as if he’s 40.
Perhaps her father will pick her up and carry her back to her bedroom. Perhaps he’ll put her back to bed and read her a story. ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ or ‘Guess How Much I Love You’.
Or maybe he’ll just tickle her until she cries for mercy, and then tickle her some more.
Both those possibilities seem unlikely. And yet, not impossible.
Her father doesn’t pick her up. He sighs. “Running around in bare feet.”
Jessie turns around and looks up at him. “I wasn’t running.”
Her father dismisses her with a pointing finger. “Back to bed.”
“I can’t find my phone.”
“No phone until you’re feeling better.”
Jessie laughs and then frowns as her throat burns. “Ow. I need my phone, what if I get a job?”
Dad shakes his head. “You’re on sick leave.”
Jessie is ready to laugh again. “No such thing.” She wipes at her face, why can’t her body decide if it’s too warm or too hot? “You know how busy everyone is, Dad, I can’t just sit on the substitute’s bench because I’ve got a sore throat.”
“It’s done,” says her father, his voice steady, as the matter is an immovable object. “I spoke to your manager.”
Jessie knows that he’s not talking about the guy in the toy shop.
Hands on her hips, Jessie replies angrily, “You had no right. You’re not in charge of my job.”
Dad raises an eyebrow. “You sure about that, honey bee?”
I’m not a honey bee, she wants to say. She’d like to scream it in his face.
Instead she softens her tone and says, “I just…I’m nearly finished, Dad, you know that.” Her hands dangle at her sides. This conversation would be better in her school uniform, anything other than these rainbow cloud pyjamas. She doesn’t look cute, she looks like an unlucky sister wearing badly-fitting hand-me-downs, and she walks away from the window.
Her father follows her, ready to stand in her way, to herd her back upstairs. But he doesn’t get it; after a decade, he still doesn’t understand Parkdale.
“They’ll just stick it onto the end of my contract,” says Jessie softly. “I have a date in my calendar when I finally have a real choice, stay or go. I want to choose and now…we agreed at the start, this would only work if you let me run my side, and I thought you got that but now you’re…” Jessie blinks, on the verge of frustrated tears. “Now you’re poking your nose in,” she finishes hotly.
“I get that you’re frustrated, Jessie.” Dad is a rock, he is a mountain.
“No, you don’t,” she replies.
Dad puts his hands on her shoulders. “You’re making this into something huge and it’s not. I respect what you do here, always have, but you’re my daughter and you’ve done too much and made yourself ill, so I’m stepping in.” He looks into her face. “I’m stepping in, Jessie.”
“You want to be so tired and ill that you make a bad mistake with one of those kids?” Dad asks. “Or you want to get more and more ill so you end up in the hospital?”
“No,” Jessie whispers. She looks down at her feet.
“Well, then,” replies her father. As if everything is settled, case closed.
Dad walks into the kitchen and returns with a small bottle and a spoon.
“Medicine time,” he says, measuring out a spoonful of pink liquid.
“Where did you get that?” asks Jessie. She peers at the spoon.
“Boots,” Dad replies. “Now open wide, kiddo, I’m not playing. Once you’re feeling better, once you’re more like yourself, we can talk all this through, I promise.”
Jessie opens her mouth and swallows the medicine. It’s sticky, and like so many things in this town, it tastes of strawberries.
“Good girl,” says her father briskly.
Jessie pulls down the pyjama top that keeps wanting to expose her stomach and says, “These are old, Dad, they don’t fit me anymore.”
“I think you look sweet,” her father replies.
Jessie rolls her eyes. “Rainbows aren’t really my thing these days.”
“Go to bed,” says Dad firmly. He tilts his head at her. “You need me to tuck you in?”
Jessie rolls her eyes. “I think I can manage.” And already, somehow, she feels a little better, her skin losing its tenderness, a numbing of her raw throat, but a tiredness to go along with it.
She walks upstairs, climbs into bed, and falls asleep.
When Jessie wakes up, there’s good news – her pyjamas fit fine (if anything they’re a little big on her). There’s also bad news – her toy has gone.
Jessie pads downstairs and finds her father at the dining room table. She tugs on his sleeve. “Daddy, I forgot my coconut.”
Dad strokes Jessie’s hair. “You forgot it?”
She shakes her head. “I lost it.”
“Come on,” says her father. He takes her hand and leads her back upstairs.
“It’s right there, kiddo,” he says, and sure enough, Jessie’s toy is safe and sound, two orange plastic shoes peeking out from a fold in the duvet.
Jessie snuggles under the covers. “Thank you, Daddy,” she whispers, and smiles sleepily as her father strokes her hair.
“Sleep,” says her father.
And so she does.
* * *
“Daddy, I forgot what day it is.”
Her father looks down at her and sighs. “I’m going to glue those slippers onto your feet.”
“Daddy, I for-”
“It’s Wednesday.” Dad puts a hand to Jessie’s forehead. “You feel hot?”
Jessie shakes her head.
“No.” Jessie wrinkles her nose. “I got school, Daddy.” She thinks of Rainbow Nursery School, she thinks of helping Miss Brown.
“You’re not well, remember,” says her father. “Go to bed.”
Who’s in charge?
Jessie nods. “Yes, Daddy.”
* * *
“Daddy, I can hear the birds.”
Her father rubs at his face. “Jessie, I’m not playing, you need to be in bed.”
Jessie twists her lips. “But they’re too noisy.”
Dad open his mouth to say something and then closes it again. He closes the lid of his laptop and shrugs. “Okay, let’s both take a nap.”
Jessie giggles. “You don’t take naps!”
Dad stares at her with eyes that might be amused or furious, Jessie can’t quite tell, and then she’s in the air, Dad picks her up and carries her upstairs.
He puts her under the duvet and lies down beside her. “Okay, let’s see who can fall asleep the fastest. Close your eyes, honey.”
Jessie pokes at him.
“You’re not allowed.”
“Why not?” asks Dad. He yawns extravagantly. “I’m so sleeeepy.”
Jessie delivers a kick that her father seems not to notice.
“This bed’s only for children,” Jessie declares.
“Who says the bed’s only for children?”
Jessie positions her plastic toy on the pillow beside her father’s head. “Coconut. He’s staring at you.”
Dad opens his eyes and nods.”I see that. He’s got really big eyes.”
“He’s gonna watch you.”
“Maybe he’ll fall asleep too. Maybe he’ll win. It’s a competition.”
Jessie narrows her eyes. “What’s the prize?”
Dad strokes Jessie’s hair. “A big cuddle,” he says gently.
“Coconut wants ice-cream,” says Jessie. She picks up the toy and walks it along her father’s arm. “He’s hungry.”
“I see,” Dad says. “Okay, tell you what. I’m going to give you a treat, but it’s a stay-in-bed treat.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a close-your-eyes treat as well.”
Jessie does as she’s told, she knows the drill.
Her eyes are shut tight when her father returns from downstairs.
“I’m not asleep, Daddy,” she announces, to be helpful, to avoid confusion.
“Open wide,” says her dad.
Jessie does so, and she has a moment to think, What it if it’s just medicine, tricky Daddy, and then she opens her eyes in surprise.
She looks cross-eyed at the white stick protruding from her mouth and she clasps it with slender, perfect fingers.
“Uh-huh!” Jessie confirms, sucking on the lollipop and swallowing the sweet fruity flavour, sighing in relief as her sore throat disappears.
“There,” Dad says after a minute, and he gently takes the lollipop away. “Sleepy girl,” he says in a funny voice, and Jessie is poised to complain about the loss of her treat before she giggles at the sound of the coconut’s voice, a blast from the past, and she watches her father dance the coconut up the duvet and deliver a tapping kiss on her nose before Jessie’s eyes grown intensely heavy.
“Here,” says Daddy. “I’m putting your lollipop in your Finding Nemo cup. If you wake up and your throat hurts, just suck on your lollipop.”
“Uh-huh,” Jessie mumbles.
“Sleepy girl,” says her father. And a kiss on her cheek is enough magic to send Jessie to dreamland.