The doctor runs a finger up the baby’s bare foot and receives a wriggle and a giggle in response.
“Aren’t you silly,” the doctor says.
She strokes the soft hair on the baby’s head.
“Aren’t you handsome,” says the doctor. She makes kissy noises and adds, “Good enough to eat.”
The baby reaches for her, ready to be held, confident that he will be bounced and jiggled and adored. Like always, like every day. What’s new?
The doctor puts her instruments away, methodical, careful.
She picks up the baby, holds him so they’re face to face, grins at him, tells him what she’s told a thousand baby boys, and returns him to the mother.
And this could be anywhere. This could be just another day.
“Fit as a fiddle,” says Dr Sucette.
“Wonderful,” Cecelia replies. She smiles, kisses the baby’s head. And then she looks to her teenage daughter. A glance, a fleetingly raised eyebrow.
Are you going to ask or should I?
Rachel sits forward in her chair. She perches, hands pressing on her knees. She looks almost plain in her school uniform.
A teenage girl. She’s missing history for this, she’ll need a note from her mother.
An excuse for missing a class she’s already sat through, so many times. Double-digits. And to learn about what? Growing up in a much different time, 1950s, when English schoolchildren were told about the sacrifices made, the lives lost, just moments, blinding flashes before.
Those kids could hardly forget, couldn’t question the veracity of their teachers stories. Sweets were still rationed. They had to wait, they couldn’t ask for the world.
Rachel can compare that with the abundance she is surrounded by, a supply and choice that can sometimes feel smothering.
These days, English children are cursed with depression, with anxiety, with body-image traumas. The boys are having panic attacks and the girls are picking at themselves, leaving scars on both sides.
What’s wrong with England’s kids? And is this why Parkdale, despite the lack of ration books or blacked-out windows. feels so traditional, so sentimental?
In a way, Parkdale is the most generous, the most extravagant place in existence. Because if you make a mistake, if you do anything under the sun and you’re still breathing, it’s okay – in Parkdale, you can start again.
Rachel gives her mother a nod. She’ll ask the question.
“We’re used to Scott being seven,” Rachel says.
Sucette applies sanitizer to her hands and rubs them together. She doesn’t reply.
“He was settled,” says Rachel. “At school and stuff.” She smiles at her brother. “And if he’s older, he can help me out.”
Dr Sucette says, “Well, now he’s a baby.”
“Right,” Rachel says. She glances at her mother.
Cecelia bounces Scott lightly on her knee. “We’re wondering if you could change him back.”
Sucette walks back behind her desk, sits down and steeples her fingers under her chin. “Why would I do that?”
And maybe that’s that. They should just leave. Because this conversation is surely about to turn ugly.
Mother and daughter look at each other.
It’s the mother who pushes, maybe because she’s the one holding the baby.
“He was settled at seven,” says Cecelia. “We put a lot of work into…bonding with him. I know he was a surprise addition…” She laughs lightly at that, as if Scott was a scratch card win, out of the blue. “But we’re a family now, and everything at home, it’s for a seven year old.” She puts her hands around the baby’s waist, drums her fingers on his stomach.
Sucette says nothing.
“He’s got friends at school,” Cecelia says, anxiety building in her voice. “He’s settled.” But now she’s repeating herself.
Dr Sucette puts her hands flat down on her desk. “We tried older. Remember? He stole my equipment and went rogue.”
“It worked out,” Rachel says softly.
“Pardon me?” says the doctor, staring at Rachel.
“He did a pretty good job,” says the teenager. She’s read the reports and she can’t help smiling. She holds up her hands – stop, don’t shoot – “Sorry, but he did.”
Sucette slowly shakes her head. She looks disappointed, and then she looks furious. “He did a sloppy job, and he got lucky. Because he’s not trained, and because he decided he can do what he wants.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Rachel says, “He was just trying to help. Things have gotten so busy.”
“He loves his family,” Cecelia adds.
“Maybe things will stay busy,” the doctor says. “Last thing I need is an untrained kid…” She shakes her head again, quickly this time. “You know what? I don’t need anyone stealing from me. Simple as that.”
They should go. Come back when things are cooler. Don’t force the issue, don’t slam any doors.
Cecelia stands up and the baby puts his arm around her neck, like a expert, like he’s been doing this for months.
“He made a mistake,” Rachel says. “It was a one-off, he’s not a bad kid. Please don’t be angry with him.”
“I’m not,” says Sucette. “Look at him, he’s not even a year old. I can’t be angry with that chubby face.” She looks Rachel in the eye. “If he were still a teenager, I’d want to throttle him.”
“I know you’re busy,” Cecelia says. “We’ll leave you in peace.”
Is she leaving this fight for another day? Or is she coming to terms with having a baby son? He’s cute enough, such a smiling, rosy-cheeked baby.
Rachel shakes her head. “Please,” she says to the doctor. “If you keep him like this, we might lose all the progress we made.” She gives Sucette a pleading look. “I don’t want him to forget everything.”
Like he’s forgotten about the stealing, the messy regression work on Toby and Heather. The baby’s sweetly innocent expression betrays no fear of the doctor. If he remembered any of that, he’d surely be shaking at the mere sight of her.
Sucette closes her eyes. Nobody speaks.
Even the baby must be reading the room, he doesn’t make a peep.
When Sucette opens her eyes, she says, “I don’t know if we can make him older. I’ll have to run more tests.”
She opens her arms and Cecelia hands Scott back to her.
The baby smiles at the doctor and she kisses his cheek. “Cheeky monkey,” she says softly.
“Should we stay?” Cecelia asks.
“I have a job for you,” Sucette tells Rachel.
“She needs to go back to school…” Cecelia begins and the she trails off.
“Rachel needs to show me whose side she’s on.”
The teenager blinks in surprise. “I’m on Parkdale’s side,” she says. “I’m not Jackie.”
“Matters are getting more complicated,” says Sucette.
“What do you mean?” Cecelia asks.
“I mean,” Sucette says, holding the baby in her arms, “That Rachel can do the job and I can run the tests, and then we’ll see where we stand.”
Rachel nods. “I’ll do it.”
Sucette smiles, showing off the brightest of teeth. “You don’t even know what it is.”
Rachel nods again. She looks at Scott. “I’ll do it.”
Sucette gives the baby another kiss. “Aren’t you lucky,” she tells the baby in a sweet voice, “having a big sister like Rachel.”
She stares at Rachel and says, “Let’s hope she doesn’t screw up.”
The suit is Yves Saint Laurent. It is midnight blue; if you said it was black, you’d be wrong.
Mark sits on the park bench and looks up from his phone.
It’s a beautiful day. Cool, but the sky is blue. The park isn’t too busy, a school day, the only children present are babies and toddlers, under close supervision.
A teenage girl with short hair walks along the path.
That can’t be her.
And yet there’s something about her expression, her aim that tells Mark, yes, they’re going to have a conversation.
No, it can’t be her.
Mark checks his Breitling watch. In thirty seconds, his contact will be late.
The girl stops at the bench and sits down beside him.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Rachel.” And then she says something that persuades Mark that yes, she’s the contact.
She offers her hand and Mark shakes it. Soft skin, and the gentlest hold, making Mark wonder for a strange second if the girl was expecting him to kiss her hand. Surely not.
Mark looks her up and down. A pretty girl, with a blond, elfish bob of hair. She looks immaculate in her school uniform, and while there’s something a little creepy about them sending this attractive schoolgirl, there’s nothing sexual about her manner. This is not a seduction, not an entrapment.
She sits down on the bench, her legs firmly together, white knee socks matching perfectly, shiny black bar shoes that seem meant for a younger girl, although Mark is hardly an expert on schoolgirl fashion.
Rachel looks out into the park and looks at him expectantly.
“I was expecting to see your boss,” Mark says. “That was the arrangement.”
“Can’t make it,” Rachel says. “Sends her apologies.”
Mark sighs. He was told to be in this exact place, GPS pin-pointed, at this exact time. And instead of answers, he’s going to get the run-around by an intermediary.
“Do you have what I asked for?” Mark asks, his eyes on her leather brown satchel. “What we agreed?”
“I think so,” the girl replies. “I mean, I’m not an expert at that stuff.” She smiles at him. “I’m just the messenger.”
“I guessed,” says Mark. “But you’ve been briefed.” The slightest lift at the end of this sentence. It’s a statement that needs confirming.
“Bit of a rush this morning,” Rachel replies, “but yeah, I know the basics.” She pats her bag. “Normally they’d send Katie for something like this, but she’s not well.”
Mark replies blandly, “Nothing serious, I hope.”
Rachel shrugs. “Something’s going around, everybody’s getting it.”
Rachel laughs. “Healthy as a horse.” She puts fingers to her neck, stroking back as if the short hair is recent. As if she’s forgotten, for just a moment, that she’d had it cut.
She is a pretty girl, Mark sees that, she would look different out of her uniform. Her eyes sparkle with…perhaps amusement, perhaps calculation. Either way, he had better not underestimate her. Delivery girl or not, she is intelligent.
“Do you know what we do here?” Rachel asks, her expression neutral.
Mark watches her fidget with the brass coloured buckle of her satchel.
“I’ve got a fair idea,” lies Mark. “Enough to know it’s worth a lot of money.”
“But we’re not in it for the money,” the girl says with wide eyes and a plaintive tone. “We’re the good guys,” and for a moment she could be ten years old, fresh out of Sunday school.
“Good to know,” Mark says. He’s here because he found a gap, a hole in their systems, browsing codes like he does most days until he finds something that a less scrupulous person might take advantage of.
He calls them up, and lets them know the good news. He can plug the hole, he can keep them safe. And when it comes to the price, he isn’t greedy. He just wants what’s fair, reason to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Just 4%. It’s hardly protection money, it’s not a racket. And really, would you refuse to pay? Would you take that chance, when someone else is surely on the verge of discovering what Mark has, just around the corner, someone who isn’t honest, who isn’t professional.
“I’m a good guy, too,” says Mark. For the sake of it. In case the girl is nervous.
“I should hope so,” Rachel says primly. And then her grin returns, and for a moment it’s Mark who is afraid, which is ridiculous crazy because she’s just a girl and it’s the town that’s vulnerable, not him.
“Speaking of money,” says Mark, to get matters back on track.
Rachel nods. “Definitely.” She grins at him, sideways, perhaps a flirtation, and Mark imagines that working better with hair that fell in front of her face. Yeah, she’s not used to her new hair cut.
She puts the satchel on her lap and says, “You can take a look, make sure it’s all there.”
The satchel looks light, but it’s not filled with bricks of cash. Just once piece of paper will do the trick. A sequence of numbers.
Rachel fumbles with the buckle, fingers and thumbs, and Mark is ready to pull it away from her – let the grown-up take care of it – when she suddenly looks up and grins.
“Hi!” Her sweet tone is back.
Mark follows her eyes and finds a little boy in a puffy blue coat and holding the remains of a chocolate cone standing in front of them.
“Hi, cheeky chops,” Rachel says.
The boy shakes his head and grins. “Norra cheeky chops!” he declares.
“Cheeky something,” Rachel counters. “You got ice-cream all over your cheeky face.”
From the boy’s expression, Mark can tell that he adores Rachel.
The boy makes star-fish hands, dropping the rest of his cone in the process. But he doesn’t seem to care, just looks hungrily at Rachel, eager for a hug, willing to be consumed by the teenager.
“That was not good listening.”
Mark looks up at a woman, presumably the boy’s mother as she catches up.
“I think he wanted to say hi,” says the woman. She pulls a packet of wet wipes from her handbag. “Let’s clean you up.” She looks down. “Look, you made a mess on the path.”
“Weh Scott?” the cheeky something asks. He’s seemingly not concerned with the state of the path.
Rachel smiles at him. “With his mummy.”
“Comin’ to pay?”
The girl nods. “I hope so.” She puts her fingers to her missing hair again. “Working on it.”
“Wanna-” The boy begins but then breaks off, stumbling towards Rachel and planting his hands, one on her knee and the other on Mark’s leg.
“Shit,” Mark says, he can’t help it, seeing the boy’s messy fingers leave their stain on his precious trousers.
There’s no sympathy from Rachel, who glares at him before turning her attention to the little boy. “Okay, poppet?”
The cheeky, messy boy nods, he’s indestructible, he’s made of rubber and just bounces back. He only frowns when the woman wipes at his hands with the wet wipe.
“There,” she says. “You need these too!” she says to Rachel and Mark.
Mark take a wipe and dabs at his trousers. Forget it, this needs dry-cleaning, and he’s going to spend the train journey home hating the sticky-fingered brat.
“Thanks,” Rachel says the woman, and she takes Mark’s wipe and balls it in her hand.
“Come on,” the woman says, and takes the little boy’s hand, and she’s ready to go, and then she turns to Rachel, ready to chat, and Mark exhales impatiently. Come on.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, Rachel?”
The teenager replies immediately, “Dentist.”
And Mark catches the woman’s look. And what are you doing, sitting with a strange man on a park bench?
“And I had to deliver something,” Rachel adds. She pats her satchel. “For Dr. Sucette.”
“Oh,” says the woman. Her expression changes. She sniffs. “Fair do’s.”
Rachel flutters her fingers at the little boy. “See ya later.”
The boy waves back and the he’s gone, tugged along by the woman.
“Well,” Rachel says after she watches them leave. “Let’s get down to business.”
For the second time, Mark feels a thrill of apprehension. That there’s something dark beside him, there’s a shadow of a doubt.
“You should be in school,” says Mark. Why does he say that, why does he poke his nose in? To assert his authority?
“Yeah,” says Rachel. And she laughs. “I really should.” She looks him up and down. “I like your suit, by the way.” She points at the stain on his trousers. “Sorry about that.”
Mark shrugs, as if he didn’t care, as if he didn’t feel like fine clothes could act like a suit of armour. “That kid looked like the president of your fan club.”
The girl laughs harder. “You really don’t know what we do here, do you.”
Mark is ready to roll his eyes. Everyone, every company, thinks it’s so special, so snowflake-unique.
“I don’t have to know.” He points at the satchel. “I just have to know my business.”
Rachel nods. “Okey-dokes.”
She flicks the buckles of the bag with her thumbs, pressing down with a practiced motion, no more clumsiness, and she opens the bag. “All this fuss over a piece of a paper,” she says softly.
“No fuss,” Mark says, avoiding the urge to grab it out of her ignorant hands. “I’m in the business of putting people’s minds at ease.”
“Cool,” says Rachel, and she holds the paper in her hand, a single, folded sheet of A4. “I thought with that fancy suit and those shiny shoes, and…” she gives an appreciative nod…”that bad-ass watch, that you were a spy or something.” She blinks at him. “Something racey. Something full of surprises.”
Mark narrows his eyes. “I don’t do surprises. That’s why I stay in business.”
Huh,” Rachel says. “I kind of like surprises.”
Mark looks at that bad-ass watch of his and sighs. He’s got plenty of time, he always gives himself a buffer for…yeah, surprises. But he’s sick of this town wasting it. How about he gives them a surprise? How about he doubles his price?
“Huh,” says Rachel again when she unfolds the piece of paper.
“You don’t need to look at that,” Mark says, impatience fuelling a growl. “It’ll be gibberish to you.”
Rachel shakes her head. “It’s blank.”
Mark feels a rush of rage. Stupid girl. She’s playing an absurd trick on him, she’s about as original as a boy tripping with his ice-cream.
The town wouldn’t try a scam like this, they know what would happen if they didn’t pay up.
He leans over to check the paper, and Rachel’s wrong. It’s not blank. There’s something on it, something like sand, glittering, and it’s isolated, a tidy mound of powder until the girl puts her mouth to the edge of the paper and blows, sending the glittering powder into Mark’s face.
Swearing for the second time since he met Rachel, Mark flinches, shutting his eyes, jerking his head back, but it’s everywhere, he can feel it coating his skin.
A voice, so calm, so confident, whispers in his ear. “Sweetie, you may as well open your eyes.”
Mark does as he’s told. As he’s suggested. Was it a choice, or did his eyes open on command?
That doesn’t matter, as soon as he sees Rachel. As soon as he finds her smile.
What a pretty girl. Her hair is just right, perfect, it shouldn’t be a breath longer, the blonde shines in the sunlight.
She winks at him, and Mark giggles.
A strange thing to do, an extraordinary noise to produce, given the circumstances, given the dire straits.
But the news is good after all. Despite the ice-cream on his trousers, despite the material that flew into his face, threatening to blind him, to leave him senseless, despite the lack, the complete absence of numbers, everything is…good?
Mark gazes at Rachel. Is he waiting for her to tell him?
She strokes his cheek. “I can tell,” she says amiably, “that you’re going to be good for me.” She nods. “You’re going to be good as gold.”
Mark nods too, he can’t help it, and why should he? Rachel is correct. Gold is right on the money.
“Okay,” Rachel says. “Let’s go.” She folds the piece of paper, the blank sheet of everything, and puts it back in her satchel and then puts her arms through the bag loops and wears it on her back.
She stands up and reaches for Mark’s hand.
He acquiesces; Rachel’s hand feels smooth and warm, a reassuring hold.
He’s curious. “Where are we going?”
His other plans, his own true self, gone like the sparkling dust. But he always has questions.
“Home, silly,” Rachel says.
Mark wrinkles his nose. “Where?”
“My house.” She squeezes his hand gently. “You came here for something, remember.”
Mark nods. Yes, he came here for something.
They start walking, and before Mark can ask the next question, Rachel supplies an answer, as if she is psychic.
“You came here for numbers,” says Rachel.
Yes, that rings a bell. Mark frowns, concentrating, but he comes up with nothing extra, no details to add colour or context to the news.
“The numbers are at home,” Rachel says, swinging Mark’s hand as they walk.
Mark smiles at the motion and the new information. He’s certain of so little right now, but he definitely loves numbers.
Yes, he’s mostly lost. If Rachel let go, if she disappeared behind a tree, if she pushed him to the ground and ran off, he’d be left stranded, feeling like a little boy who’s lost his mother.
But he’s not worried. None of that will happen. They’re going home, they’re getting his numbers. Rachel said so.
Feeling buoyant, feeling far more confident and relaxed than he has a right to, Mark grins at the brown satchel that jiggles lightly on Rachel’s back.
No numbers in there, just sparkles, just something that was terrible and then nice.
They walk through the park and then down the street, and there’s nothing strange about holding Rachel’s hand, nothing uncomfortable or embarrassing about waiting for her say-so before crossing the road.
More streets, and Mark passes the time telling Rachel about his job, all about numbers.
And then they’re standing outside a large brick building and Rachel looks into a small screen beside the door as if she’s looking for numbers of her own.
“This isn’t a house,” Mark points out.
Because it isn’t.
“Trust me,” Rachel says with a laugh. “I know where I live.”
Mark does trust Rachel. So he holds the two ideas in his head as they walk through the main entrance, as they pass through reception and a waiting room.
This doesn’t look like a house. Mark trusts Rachel. So this must be a house.
They pass what looks like a doctor’s office. There’s a woman in a white coat, playing with a baby.
She looks out at them, gives a wave, says, “Any trouble?”
Rachel shakes her head, tugs on Mark’s hand. “Like flicking a switch,” she says.
Mark agrees. That’s exactly what it was like.
“Come on,” says Rachel, “forget about them.”
And so Mark does.
Through the next door, Rachel’s fingers poke at a number-pad and the door swings open with a hiss, and yes, as Mark looks around him, the door closing with a matching sound, Rachel’s right.