She’s easy to spot.
A woman in her twenties, standing in front of the information screen at the train station.
Hands clasped in front of her, peering up at the departure screen.
The station is busy but it has to be her. The adult in a dress only a little girl could love.
Her name is Heather, but Scott’s not allowed to know that. They’re strangers to each other, of course. He won’t tell her that a few minutes ago, she was a line on a computer screen. He won’t ask for her story. He doesn’t need the compromising feelings he had with the boy in the shoe shop.
He’ll ask Rachel about this later, the mixed feelings that make you wonder about the right thing to do. To lock the door or open it wide. He’ll ask Rachel about responsibility and freedom.
But that’s for later.
He stands beside her.
“Where you headed?” he asks.
Heather gives him a sharp glance. “Away,” she says shortly.
Scott laughs. “Fair enough.” He gives a teenage sniff. “Can’t blame you, this town’s rubbish.”
He points up at the screen. “Next one to Euston isn’t for thirty minutes.”
“I can read,” says Heather, and then she relents. “Sorry.”
“I’m having a bit of a bad day,” she says. And then she laughs, and Scott joins in.
He points at her outfit. “You been to a party?”
Heather stops laughing. “You could say that,” and the expression on her face makes Scott suddenly feel much younger, out of his depth.
The dress is pink with a fat bow around her waist. She has a pink jacket with white fur on the shoulders. The look is finished with thick white tights and matching ballet shoes.
The only thing spoiling the effect is her hair, which looks untidy.
Heather catches Scott’s look and says, “Decided pigtails weren’t working for me.”
Decided when? Half-way through a party? What did she think, recovering her wits and find herself dressed like a five year old?
Scott doesn’t want to ask for the story, but he barely needs to. The girl, the woman, she’s on the run, she’s ready to fly.
But he has a job to do. A job he’s asking for. A commitment to family.
Scott doesn’t see a purse or handbag. She’s running with nothing.
He asks her straight. “You got a ticket?”
Heather puts a hand to her blond hair and says, “There’s no barrier. I’ll just get on and hide in the loo when the inspector comes.”
“There’s barriers in London,” says Scott. He stuffs his hands into the pocket of his top and grips the black device. Can he select the right setting just by touch? He just needs her younger, he can adjust it later. “Don’t want you getting into trouble,” he says, aiming the device through the pocket’s cotton and pulling the trigger.
Heather laughs. “I’m in enough trouble, I’m not scared of some ticket guy.” She looks stern. “Besides, I’ll be happy to talk to the police once I’m out of this place.”
Scott looks at her and is sure that this isn’t true, that if Heather got away from Parkdale, she wouldn’t tell a soul what happened. She’d bin her childish outfit and when friends ask where she went, she’d make something up about a lost weekend in Wales, a crazy party and a walk of shame.
But she won’t tell them about Parkdale.
“Still,” says Scott. “I’ll buy you a ticket.”
The woman gives him a curious look. “Why?”
Scott shrugs. “Just seems like you need a favour.”
Look at her. Look at the strain on her face. She’s desperate to leave, even as she can feeling those niggling doubts, a sense that she shouldn’t be out by herself, that she’s being naughty.
She looks ready to accept and then she shakes her head, messing her hair further. “No thank you,” she says tightly. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen.” Scott sighs. “I’m not asking you out or anything like that. I just…my mum always makes sure I’ve got an extra twenty in cash, in case of emergencies, and…this seems like an emergency.”
Heather’s expression softens. “That’s sweet.”
But she’s not getting any smaller.
Scott sniffs the air. “You smell that?”
“Like a baking smell?”
Heather pauses and then shakes her head. She sniffs her wrist. “All I can smell is that stupid Disney Princess perfume they put on me.”
Scott spies brightly coloured hair-ties around Heather’s wrist. “Oh yeah?”
Heather gives a knowing nod. “Stay away from free samples in this town. I’m pretty sure that’s what got me all mixed up, and the next thing you know, I’m letting some guy I never met before dress me up like this.”
Scott shrugs. “You look okay.”
Heather rolls her eyes. “Hardly. And he can’t keep his hands off my hair, putting it in stupid pigtails like I’m four years old.”
“You got rid of those,” Scott observes.
Heather gives a satisfied nod. “Damn right, first thing I did, pulled those stupid hair ties out. I’m not a child,” she says, and the words sound at once true and absurd, coming from a grown woman dressed in such a juvenile outfit. “Anyway, the guy’s calling me his little princess and instead of telling him where to go, I’m giggling like I’m mentally handicapped or something.” She shudders. “Mad.”
“Huh,” Scott says, “Yeah, that’s pretty weird.”
Heather nods. “And the thing is, he wasn’t even trying anything…you know, sexual. He just kept treating me like a little girl, really just like he was my father.” She looks down at her hands and mutters, “I suppose he was a damn sight nicer than my real dad ever was.”
An arriving train is announced on the PA system and Heather turns to watch the train pull into the opposite platform.
“But you came to your senses,” says Scott. He takes the chance to pull out the device. There’s a flickering red light beside the chosen setting.
“Yeah,” says Heather, watching passengers get off the train and walk through the station concourse. None of them give Heather or her outfit a second glance. Nothing special in this town, not for the locals.
“He was reading me a story,” Heather says with derision. “Some ridiculous tale about a pigeon who wanted to drive a bus.” She bares her teeth. “I thought it was hilarious at the time. Anyway, so there I am, calling the guy ‘Daddy’ and there’s fireworks going off in my head every time he calls me ‘princess’, and then…oh yeah, he gets a call on his phone, gets this big serious look on his face and goes upstairs to have some big conversation with someone.”
Scott tries again with the device. The same, flickering red light. The command wasn’t sent. No wonder the woman isn’t smelling anything. Is it low-charge, has the setting been blocked? Scott can’t tell.
“It felt like ages although it was maybe just five minutes, but I started to feel…like my old self. And I was scared, and my first impulse, would you believe, was to go running to the guy upstairs!” She shakes her head and laughs. “But thank God I was together enough to just get out of the house. I walked for a bit, kept my head down and didn’t talk to anyone, and I found the train station.”
Scott holds the device in his pocket. The useless device. The job was to make her smaller, shrink into that puddle of clothing. A risk to do it so publically but what was the alternative, wait until she got on the train?
He would wait until her shoes fell off, a slight regression, and then take her to the toilets so she could finish her journey in privacy.
But the device is jammed, on purpose or by accident. Maybe he broke it. Maybe he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.
The crowd of passengers thins and Heather looks at the station clock and groans. “He’s probably looking for me. Maybe I should just take the next train, I don’t care where it’s going as long as it’s away from here.”
“No!” Scott blurts, and Heather looks at him in surprise.
She narrows her eyes at him. “Why not?”
Scott feels his face go red. “I just mean, you shouldn’t just rush off to anywhere. If you live in London, you should go there.” He keeps his hands stuffed in his pocket and fiddles urgently with the device settings.
Heather shakes her head. “You look so nervous, all of a sudden.”
“I’m fine,” Scott protests, “Just don’t want to see you make-”
“You just don’t want me to leave,” Heather says. She jabs a finger at him. “You’re part of it.”
Scott fumbles with the device. “Part of what?”
“You’re trying to trick me, distract me until that guy finds me.” She looks wildly around the station and then she pushes Scott away. “Stay away from me, I’m serious, just stay-”
And then she frowns. Heather sniffs the air, reminding Scott for a moment of a fuzzy pink rabbit.
“You all right?” asks Scott.
A mask of confusion covers Heather’s face and then she says, almost as if offended, “Smells like a bakery or something.”
“Oh yeah,” says Scott, making a show of raising his head and inhaling through his nose. “See what you mean.”
And Scott has time to consider what setting has actually worked on the device, he has a moment wonder, before Heather produces a big yawn and then belatedly covers her mouth.
“Sorry,” she says, sounding a little different, a little less confident.
“That’s okay,” Scott replies. He tries a wink. “Quite the princess, aren’t you.”
Heather blinks slowly and looks at him. “Huh?”
“Using your manners,” says Scott. “And you’ve got your special princess dress on.” He rubs his chin thoughtfully and says, “I think maybe you’re on your way to a special princess party.” He tilts his head at her. “Did I get that right?”
Heather frowns. “No, I said I was leaving.”
And Scott’s played it wrong. Too early, too obvious, trying to smash his way in with trigger words.
“Right,” he says quickly, “Sorry, I remember now.”
“And don’t call me that word,” the woman says, “It’s silly.” She purses her lips and says, “My name’s Heather.”
“Yeah,” says Scott. “I know.” And because he’s out of tricks, he tries the same one more time. “Princess Heather.”
She’ll slap him. She’ll scream. She’ll run for the next train and leave him with a broken device and no excuses when Parkdale asks how he managed to mess things up so grandly.
And then he watches as Heather strokes the skirt of her dress with a thoughtful expression and then asks shyly, “Do you really think I look like a princess?”
Scott nods seriously. “Of course.” He looks her up and down. “I mean, you’re so pink and sparkly, and you got that big bow behind you.” He takes a chance, tugging on it playfully. “Will you come unwrapped if I pull on this, are you like a birthday present?”
He gets the response he’s waiting for, Heather giggling and shaking her head. “No-oh,” she says in a sing-song voice, and all at once, like magic, like the most carefully designed science, Scott has the woman in the palm of his hand.
How different she looks now, even in her adult body. Her expression is relaxed and trusting, she steps from one foot to the other, Scott half-expects Heather to offer a cartwheel. Her body language is open and energised, a world away from the closed-off person just a few moments ago.
Time to leave the station. Time to get her home to Daddy.
“I’m hungry,” Heather announces abruptly, clearly expecting Scott to solve the problem.
He nods. “Do you like chocolate bars?”
Heather’s eyes widen and she nods eagerly.
“Really?” Scott asks. “You sure?”
The woman giggles. “Uh-huh!” She grins at Scott. “Chocolate’s my fav’rite. I like chocolate cake and I like chocolate spread on toast.”
“Chocolate ice-cream?” asks Scott.
Heather nods. Also a favourite, apparently.
“Let’s see what we can find.”
Heather doesn’t protest when Scott takes her hand and leads her through the crowd of travellers.
At a vending machine, he lets a carefully-directed Heather press the buttons so she can win a Kit-Kat, smiling when the woman jumps up and down in triumph when the chocolate bar falls into the collection tray.
Scott helps Heather with the wrapper, such fiddly and naughty paper and foil, and it’s only when the woman has two fingers of Kit-Kat in her mouth that he points to her reflection in the vending machine glass and says, “You know, there’s one thing that’s not so princessy about you, Princess Heather.”
“Huh?” the woman mumbles around the chocolate, staring at herself.
“Look,” Scott says, stroking the woman’s long hair. “You need a princess hair-do but it’s all messy.”
Heather considers the idea and finally says, “I took it out.”
“What?” asks Scott, remembering the hair-ties on Heather’s wrist.
She gives herself a chocolate-smeared smile. “Daddy calls ’em my princess piggy-tails.”
Scott makes an ‘o’ of understanding with his lips. “Right, so you need Daddy to make you a perfect princess.”
Heather nods. “Daddy!”
“I suppose we better get you home to Daddy then, hmm?”
The woman grins, swinging her hips and flaring the skirt of her dress.
“Let’s go then,” Scott says. He crumples up the Kit-Kat wrapper and puts it in Heather’s hand. “Put the rubbish in the bin.” He watches Heather skip over to the bin and drop the wrapper inside.
Once she’s skipped back, hand in hand, Scott and Heather leave the train station.
He looks in each direction. “Which way, Princess Heather?”
Scott sighs inwardly as soon as the words leave his mouth. He knows what’s coming, he knows the flaw in his plan, but now Heather knows it as well, as she looks into the street and says haltingly, “I don’t know the way.”
Is it the thought of returning to the man, or just not knowing her address, that creates the lines of anxiety on Heather’s face? Is her new father a good guy? It’s a question agents aren’t supposed to ask. It doesn’t help. It does the opposite.
So Scott leaves the thought alone and instead, he wishes for better magic, for the ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat and get Heather’s adult mind back just long enough to tell him the way back to the house.
He wonders if a fully trained agent could manage that trick. But it doesn’t matter; he certainly can’t.
He gives Heather a reassuring smile, but it’s going to take more than that. The sun is going down, the air is getting cooler, and Heather looks at Scott expectantly.
The big boy has to solve this problem, otherwise the adult little girl is going to unleash a flood of tears, and then passers-by will decide that enough’s enough, they’ll stop and ask questions, and anyone with the slightest background knowledge will uncover the truth: a new teenage boy trying his luck with a stolen device.
What would a real agent do?
A real agent wouldn’t find himself in this situation. He would have real instructions, full training. He wouldn’t be holding a woman’s hand outside the train station, not knowing whether to go left or right, without a clue.
What would Rachel do?
In a scrape, in trouble, Scott knows that Rachel would improvise, she would look for clues and hints.
“Hmm.” He keeps his expression cheerful, confident, as he reaches into the pockets of Heather’s coat, thinking of Paddington Bear’s tag and imagining a scrap of paper with a home address on it.
He looks in the lining of the coat, wondering about a sewn-in label.
And he won’t ask Heather to try and remember, he won’t play memory games with a woman who has just been mentally regressed. That way lies new questions, that way lies potential disaster.
Before Heather has a chance to consider their situation fully, before she can open her mouth to announce, red-faced and fearful, My daddy doesn’t know where I am! Scott uses his thumb to wipe at the chocolate smear around her lips and says, “I just remembered!”
Heather turns her face away from Scott’s fingers and offers a pout before asking, “What?”
“We need to visit someone before I take you home.”
Heather stands firm. “I want Daddy.”
Scott smiles. “Thing is, I know someone who’s very good at making princess piggy-tails, and then you could get home and be a perfect princess as soon as Daddy opens the door.”
Heather touches her hair and twists her lips. “I want Daddy,” she says again.
“Right,” says Scott, “But I bet Daddy doesn’t know you took off your hair-ties, does he?”
“You did that at the train station.”
Heather brightens. “I was goin’ on a train,” she says.
“But I got you a Kit-Kat instead,” Scott says quickly, “Remember that? You love chocolate, don’t you, Princess Heather”
The woman grins and nods. “I like chocolate toast the best.”
“So we don’t want Daddy to think you didn’t like your pigtails. We don’t want to make Daddy sad, do we.”
Heather shakes her head forcefully.
“So let’s visit my friend, she knows all about princesses. She’ll even brush your hair and get it all pretty again and then we can go and show Daddy. How’s that sound?”
Heather puts the tip of her forefinger in her mouth with a thoughtful expression.
Scott waits for the woman to turn the idea over in her reduced mind.
Finally, Heather removes the finger from her mouth and asks, “Does she have a bwush?”
“Yes, definitely,” Scott says, swallowing his laugh at the woman’s lisp.
“Daddy has a bwush.”
“Cool,” Scott replies. “And so does my friend.”
He holds out his hand. “Ready, Princess Heather?”
Scott sees the triggered smile tug at the woman’s lips and then Heather nods. “Okay.”
He takes her hand and they start walking up the street.
“I’m not a girl,” says Heather as she skips along the pavement, tugging on his hand. “I’m a prwincess.”
Scott smiles. “Gotcha.”
And it’s easy, suddenly, it’s just holding a hand and listening to a little girl’s nonsense. It’s making reassuring sounds when someone tells you about chocolate toast and pigeons driving buses and princess piggy-tails, and then abruptly, a change of topic, Heather remembering something from her recent past, and she stops to look at herself in a shop window.
“We don’t have time for shopping,” Scott says, giving her a gentle pull.
“I’m not a pwesent,” says Heather, admiring her reflection.
“Don’t pull my bow,” she says coyly, and it looks flirtatious when puts her hand behind her back, ready to defend herself from being opened.
“I promise,” Scott says.
And he sees the change, when it goes from easy to difficult, he sees it on Heather’s face.
She peers at herself, a tall vision in pink. She looks down at her dress. “I look pretty,” she whispers, but suddenly she doesn’t seem convinced. She spins around and looks at the other people, the ones her size, she compares and her face screws up before she bunches her fists at her side and cries, ” You’re tryin’ to twick me!”
Scott makes a hushing gesture with his hands. “No, no way.”
She folds her arms. “Trick.” At least she says it softly, she’s still doing as she’s told, but for how much longer?
“I’m not a baby,” she whispers.
“I know,” says Scott. “I need your help with something actually. A special princess job.”
Heather blinks and then shakes her head. “I don’t want it.”
Scott frowns. “It’s very important. But I need someone who knows their colours. So you’ll have to be a big girl.” He gives her a look. “Do you know your colours, Heather?”
Heather glares at him. “Of course.”
Scott looks sceptical. “Show me.”
The woman makes an impatient huffing sound. “Pink,” she says, pointing to her dress. “White,” she says, pointing down at her tights.
Scott smiles. “Good girl.” He puts a finger to his chin. “What colour are your eyes?”
Heather grins. “Blue!” she shouts with confidence.
“Clever girl,” Scott says sweetly. He takes her hand and she doesn’t resist. “Clever princess,” he whispers, making her giggle.
“And what colour is your pretty hair, Princess Heather?”
“Umm…” Heather looks down at her hair that’s in dire need of a brush. “Yellow?”
“Blond,” Scott supplies.
Heather nods her agreement. “I got blond hair.”
“Like Cinderella,” says Scott.
And he’s won her back, surely, let’s get going, but it’s one more mistake as Heather insists on turning to examiner her reflection in the face of this new evidence. Does she look like Cinderella?
The image she sees seems to re-open the doubts that Scott has just tried to cover up.
She makes her huffing sound, and she stamps her foot in confusion. “I’m not a princess!” she cries out. “I look silly,” and her tone is pleading, and perhaps she’ll take anything from Scott now, any trick to take her back into a childish fantasy.
And Scott has nothing. Is it supposed to be so hard? What doesn’t he know?
No training. No tricks. Just a device he’s already used. Can he use it again? He selects the same settings as before and pulls the trigger, pointing the device through his pocket.
Nothing. He doesn’t bother asking about the smell, he can tell by touch that the device isn’t working.
Dead batteries or jammed remotely by Dr Sucette, it hardly matters. Heather’s regression is up to Scott, and he is clearly not up to the task.
I’ll buy you a train ticket, he almost says. I just want to go home. I’ll be seven again, I’ll be done with this. And I’ll be good and wait for Rachel to get back each night, I’ll wait up and listen to her stories. I’ll be a good little brother, because I’m no good at being fourteen, I’m no good at taking charge.
He feels a tugging on his hand.
He looks at Heather. At her surprised expression. She’s looking at the window.
“Look,” she says softly. And then she turns around and points. “Bus.”
Scott almost shrugs with indifference. And then he takes hold of the crumbs of an idea, one that Heather is perhaps trying to feed him.
It’s a small bus, not like a red London double-decker, but it’s a bus all the same. It qualifies.
He looks at Heather. “I wonder if the pigeon’s on the bus.”
Heather bites her lip and then says, “I hope he’s not driving!”
And there it is.
What would Rachel do?
Work with what you have.
Rachel has her body, her tempting, tantalising figure. She seduces, she confuses.
Scott has his knowledge from his seven year old days, all his time at school. His story-time.
He knows the pigeon story backwards because he’s demanded that Cecelia read it to him a bed time, over and over, just one more, just one more.
“Please let me drive the bus,” he says to Heather.
“No,” she says with a smile.
The bus drives on and they walk along the pavement, eager to keep it in sight.
“I’ll be careful,” says Scott in a wheedling voice.
“You’re not allowed,” Heather replies in a grand voice. “You’re just a pigeon.”
Scott groans. “I’ll be careful.”
“I’ll be your best friend.”
They turn the corner, on their way to the nursery school where if Scott’s luck finally holds, Miss Brown will still be there, ready to take proper charge of a little princess, fully prepared to brush hair and make pretty princess piggy-tails.
He makes a show of patting his pockets with his spare hand.
“I’ll give you five pounds.”
The bus makes another turn and they lose sight of it. But the story is still alive in their imaginations.
They arrive at the gate
“I bet your daddy would let me,” Scott says
Heather shakes her head violently. She’s quite certain that he wouldn’t.
They walk up the path and Scott rings the doorbell.
“Aw,” Scott says sulkily, “I never get to do anything.”
The door opens and one of Parkdale’s senior figures looks down at them.
“There you are,” Miss Brown says. “We were wondering where you’d got to.”
Does she mean Heather or Scott? Perhaps both.
Heather seems immediately to warm to the woman. She chortles through her fingers. “Pigeons don’t dwive buses!”
“Clever girl,” says Miss Brown, guiding Heather inside.
“I’ll take care of her,” says Miss Brown. “And I’ll take the doctor’s device.”
As if it can hear her, the device buzzes in Scott’s pocket. A last gasp from a dying battery, maybe.
Or something else.
He passes it to her. “It stopped working,” he says. “I think it’s the battery.”
“You should get home,” Miss Brown says, “Your sister’s worried about you.”
Scott replies, “I was going to do three.”
“You should head home,” says Miss Brown again. And then she shuts the nursery school door.
Scott sniffs the air. It smells like a freshly baked cake.
He makes it home.
Much smaller. Much less certain.
Another door. A white door.
Scott knows his colours.
Scott can’t reach the doorbell. He knocks on it with his fist.
It doesn’t matter.
The door opens. Rachel must have been waiting, watching.
She stands there in her school uniform. She looks down at him. “Scott,” she says softly, and there are dark shadows under her eyes. “What did you do?”
An easy question. Perhaps the only one. It’s the one thing Scott has managed to keep straight on his journey home, walking in the dark on increasingly short legs, his sweatshirt becoming a tent around him, his trousers and shoes discarded on the pavement three streets ago.
He remembered his way home and he remembered what he did, and so he tells his big sister, smiling as she reaches down to pick him up.
“I hepped,” he says, and beams at her as she holds him against her chest.
“Silly boy,” Rachel says softly, kissing his face. “This is what happens when you break the rules. You get tiny.” She sniffs the air and apparently it no longer smells like cake.
“And you need a bath.”
Scott barely remembers the accident, the warm, tickling wetness that flowed down his legs. It’s ancient history, like his ability to count higher than five.
Proud of his remaining intelligence, Scott holds up two chubby fingers in front of his sister’s face. “I hepped two, Way-chel.”
He can’t name either of them but he can remember their faces; a rosy-cheeked little boy, giggling as he wets himself; and a grown woman with messy blond hair, desperate to look like a perfect princess for her daddy. He helped them both, surely. They were both so much happier by the end.
“I hepped ’em, Way,” Scott insists.
His sister closes the front door and carries him upstairs.
“By the skin of your teeth,” she says.
Scott looks into her eyes, and his own are wide with wonder.
“Oh, silly, you’re practically a toddler.” She goes into the bathroom and sits him down on the floor while she starts running water for a bath.
Her tone changes and she says, “We don’t take things that don’t belong to us, sweetie. That’s naughty.”
Scott looks at his hands, and he can remember the theft, but wasn’t it a game? He didn’t do it on purpose.
“And you certainly don’t steal from Dr Sucette,” says Rachel, her tone light but her eyes serious. She tests the water with her fingers. “I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But Scott knows. He know what he worked for, why he’s tried so hard all day to be a big boy. He points at his sister. “Get howwy-day!”
Rachel smiles thinly. “Well,” she says, checking the water and turning off the taps. “They better give me a day off tomorrow, because I’ll have you to look after.” She picks Scott up and puts him into the water.
Scott looks at her hopefully. “Buh-buhs?”
His sister gives him the sternest look she can manage. “No treats, let just get you clean and ready for bed.” She starts shampooing his hair. “You know if Katie thinks I put you up to that stunt at Sucette’s office, I’ll be joining you in nappies.”
Scott gets the picture and giggles. Before it’s time to rinse his hair and Scott has to close his eyes and mouth, he looks up at Rachel with a loving smile and says, “Pway tuh-mowoh?”
Rachel groans and then nods. “There’s so much going on right now, but you don’t have to worry about any of it. Of course I’ll play with you tomorrow.” She pours water over his head with the help of a Finding Dory cup. “What are big sisters for, hmm?” she asks, stroking his back with ticklish fingers, making the little boy shriek and splash.
And that’s enough for Scott. Maybe he’s not cut out to be an agent. Maybe his Parkdale career is over before it even began. Time will tell before the consequences of his adventure will play out.
But right now, he’s warm, right now he’s safe.
And best of all, Rachel will be here in the morning.