‘Do you have any balloons?’
‘No balloons, little monkey. But I’ve got plenty of bubbles!’
‘Do you do magic tricks?’
‘Erm… Well, bubbles are magic!’
‘No, I mean magic tricks like a magician.’
‘Well… no, but…’
‘Can you make animal shapes out of bubbles?’
‘Oh, my dear, I think you’re thinking of a balloon artist again…’
‘When can I go inside the big bubble?’
‘In a little while, I have some very interesting and fun things to show you first!’
‘Like magic tricks?’
Daisy looked around the hall. This had to have been one of the most run-down places she had ever worked in. The walls were white but the paint was stripping off them to reveal a brown, rotten-coloured kind of wood underneath. There were clearly more than thirty children here, which clearly broke Daisy’s rule on her Facebook page: “25 children maximum”. The one questioning her was a boy of around six or seven. His name, Luke, was spelled out on his t-shirt atop the Disney castle, with lettering underneath which bragged that “I’ve been to Disneyland Paris 2021”.
Oh great. If you’re expecting a spectacular light show I’ve got some bad news for you, kid.
She had been in the middle of setting up in awkward silence when the boy had started talking to her. Normally she would have been professional and would have arrived a good half-hour before the parents of the child whose birthday it was, and everything would be ready to go by the time the children were all here. But today she was late. And if she was late once every twenty to thirty years, so what? People are late now and then. It would be fine. She’d set up and get the show running in no time.
I wish somebody would have played some music or something though.
Every sound of her setting up echoed around the hall as the kids and their parents watched. As though this was some weird and disappointing beginning part of her act. The clang of her placing the giant ring on the floor was muffled slightly by the genuinely intrigued oohs and aahs of the children as they watched. The rushing sound of the bubble water flowing into it was as loud as Niagara Falls. Not that Daisy would really know what a thing like that might sound like. The most “abroad” she’d ever been was going down from Scotland to Blackpool when she was about the same age as that questioning boy.
Yeah, no Eiffel Tower for me. Blackpool Tower did me just fine.
At least Milly was with her again. Her daughter had been assisting her at her shows for three years now. But having just turned thirteen, her face began showing flashes of embarrassment for having to stand there with her mother, handing her the various implements that would be used to wow the children.
‘Mum, are you nearly ready?’ Milly whispered.
‘Just another minute.’
Her back was stiff again today. It ached as she bent down to pour the bubble water but she hid her grimace well when she stood up again with a smile on her face.
‘Are you a clown?’ the boy asked.
Daisy forced another smile. ‘A clown? Why do you think I’m a clown?’
The brutally honest commentary of a young child came out then to slap Daisy in the face with indignity: ‘You look like one.’
Cheeky little shit!
‘Finley!’ a woman, probably the boy’s mum said. Then turning to Daisy with an apologetic look, she said: ‘I think he’s just talking about your colourful clothes.’
Milly, to the side, kept her face as hard and unmoving as stone.
Daisy swung her arms out to the sides in dramatic show. ‘Oh, these old things? I wear this every day because it helps the bubble magic to happen!’
“I wear this every day” was almost not even a lie. The striped rainbow dungarees had been worn at least once a week for more years now than Daisy dared to remember. Birthday after birthday, party after party. And even the odd appearance at school or a youth club. They had fit her perfectly when she first bought them. They were even a little baggy, if anything. But after years of eating too much and exercising none, the things were becoming a task to get on.
‘Now then, boys and girls,’ Daisy clapped her hands together and extended her smile. ‘My name is Little Miss Pop, and…’
‘Little?’ Finley questioned, with genuine confusion in his voice. ‘But you’re not little!’
Where on earth did this little bundle of joy come from??
‘I used to be, once upon a time,’ Daisy said, and by now surely the adults in the room would have noticed how forced that smile was. ‘I used to be…’
When she thought about it, really thought about it, she supposed it all started at school.
She was only five years old. Her teacher, Mrs Barber (wonderful lady, big wide face and wild curly hair) had organised a class talent show. Every child took part. The only rule was that there were no rules. You could stand in front of the class and sing a song, tell a single joke, play the glockenspiel or recite an entire Robert Burns poem. It was up to you.
Even as an adult, Daisy remembered the day of the talent show very well. She remembered Emily singing Row Row Row Your Boat, she remembered Adam telling his joke – what’s green, sticky and comes out your nose? Brussel sprouts!
It had made perfect sense at the time.
And when Mrs Barber had smiled at Daisy and asked her to come to the front of the classroom, she had done so with enthusiasm. From out of her pocket she had grabbed a large, red nose which squeaked when you pressed it, and a green wig which gave Daisy even wilder and curlier hair than her teacher.
‘Play the music,’ Daisy whispered to Mrs Barber when she got to the front.
‘Oh! Yes, of course!’
Her teacher leaned across the desk and pressed down the play button on the cassette player. With a straight face, Daisy closed her eyes, extended her hands out in front of her, and waited for the music to begin.
It came through lightly but clearly. A piano version of Flight of the Bumblebee. As the notes came tumbling out of the speakers, Daisy moved her fingers with them. She’d practised it so many times in the mirror that she had gotten very good at making it look like she was really playing an invisible piano. Her classmates loved it. They were howling with laughter, many of them had actual tears streaming down their faces. But nobody was laughing harder than Mrs Barber, who had gone red in the face.
As the music became more intense, Daisy began stepping from side to side as though the piano was gigantic. Eventually, she had to run from one side of the classroom to the other while her fingers continued to wiggle and press the invisible keys. All the while, she kept her face as serious and focused as a professional pianist reciting at the Royal Albert Hall.
She won that talent contest. She could never recall what the prize was, but the happier memory was just that she’d entertained her classmates and her teacher. Mrs Barber’s words that day stuck with her for years to come.
‘You’re a natural entertainer, Daisy. A natural.’
‘Here’s your coffee, Daisy.’
Jack smiled warmly as he placed the latte on Daisy’s table. She didn’t smile back; instead, her eyes widened in surprise.
‘Jack! You work in the cafe now?’
She was in her favourite bookshop. An independent place called Michael’s Booksellers. It had grown considerably over the years, starting out selling nothing but tattered second-hand books and eventually becoming a fully-fledged, registered bookshop that sold new copies of all the latest by every author from Stephen King to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sometimes they even had a relatively well-known writer in to sign copies of their new novel.
Daisy loved it all the more when they opened the cafe last year. Now, each time she walked into the shop she could smell that deeply satisfying aroma of new books blended with fresh coffee. The smell of pure joy.
She’d met Jack about two years previously. He was around the same age as Daisy, which she’d often forget in a futile attempt to unremember her own age. He’d usually be found stacking new books onto shelves or reorganising and tidying them. It was Jack who had recommended books to Daisy that she probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. Books like The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (it’s so emotional, Daisy, but it’ll stay with you forever!) or The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (it’s popular for a reason, Daisy, you’ll love it!). And now that the cafe was here, Daisy often found herself purchasing Jack’s new recommendation and taking it straight over to a seat by the window and finishing a quarter, sometimes half, sometimes even more of the book right there with her coffee.
‘Yeah,’ Jack said presently. ‘I’m doing a bit in here and a bit in the main bookshop now. Fancied myself a barista but they won’t let me use the machine until I’m trained. What are you reading?’
Daisy flipped the cover round so that Jack could read it:
Things Fall Apart
Jack’s eyes, as they always did when reading the title of Daisy’s novels, sparkled.
‘Ooh, you finally picked it up! Amazing book. Pretty short too, you’ll finish it in one sitting.’
‘Hmm, maybe not,’ Daisy answered, glancing at her watch. ‘I’ve got to get going soon.’
‘Oh, are you working today?’ Jack’s eyes lost all of their sparkle here. He spoke almost in a whisper. And Daisy could detect a tone of embarrassment in his voice too, because they both knew how silly a question it was. Why else would she be wearing the rainbow dungarees? Perhaps they were the everyday apparel for Little Miss Pop, but for Daisy they were getting to the point of humiliation.
Not waiting for the awkward and obvious answer, Jack asked another question. ‘Is Milly coming with you today?’
‘Well, yeah,’ Daisy said. The “well” at the beginning being the clue that Jack apparently needed in order to know that something wasn’t quite right.
‘What’s up?’ Jack asked.
‘Well…’ (damn, there’s that “well” again!). ‘She’s got a thing on with her friends. At the beach. She’ll still be able to go but she’ll be a bit late after helping me at the show.’
And she’s mad at me for it. Of course she is. She’s thirteen years old now and she’s growing out of this stuff. Just like I maybe should have at that age.
‘I see…’ Jack said. Daisy thought he always said that whenever he had something to say but thought he shouldn’t say it.
Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three…
Forty-four kids this time! She really needed to put a message on the Facebook page. It wouldn’t be fair to ask parents to turn away some of the kids, so a message reminding parents of the limits would have to be enough. It made the part of the act where Daisy put the kids one by one into the big bubble last for far too long.
One kid kept bursting the bubble as Daisy was lifting it up and around their body. Another was too scared and shy to come into the circle. Another tried to blow an additional bubble inside the bigger one.
When it was all done, Daisy worked for thirty minutes longer than she should have.
The next time she was at the bookshop’s cafe with a latte and a copy of Pride and Prejudice, Daisy could see Jack assisting customers who were browsing books, and she began to daydream.
I could work at this bookshop, you know. How great would that be? I could swap my rainbow dungarees for a nice, professional dress. “How are you doing Madam? You’re looking for a fantasy? I highly recommend The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon.” “Can I help you, Sir? Horror, you say? I finally got round to reading Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein recently, and it’s a classic for a reason!”.
I could even train in this cafe and start serving up coffees. It’d be nice.
It’d be nice, but she couldn’t quit her bubbles now. It had brought so much happiness to children for years and years. It was what she was good at. Sometimes it felt like it was what she was supposed to do. She was a natural, just like Mrs Barber said. Being a bubble artist was her life. Had been for a very long time. Would be for a long time to come.
But sometimes she wondered to herself… how long?
When Jack came over to say hello, she put the idea to him in the way that people do when they want the other person to think they’re joking, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll say “you know, that’s not such a bad idea…”.
‘You’re thinking about quitting the bubble business?’ he said with a friendly grin.
The words then flowed out of Daisy’s mouth with ease, as though they’d been locked up in there for a long time awaiting their chance to fly into the air of truth as soon as an opening came along.
She was sick of doing the same thing over and over. Tired of feeling older and uglier and fatter and more washed up with every performance. It wasn’t fair on Milly, who was supposed to be having fun and seeing friends and beginning to grow into the person she’d become as an adult. She could no longer allow herself to be chained to this idea that she was supposed to be Little Miss Pop. She did still love the kids and she did enjoy performing but she’d been doing it for so long and she was exhausted.
And Jack, the dear old fellow, understood perfectly. She knew he would. She’d written her inner monologue a long time ago with him in mind.
At the next party, another little boy was giving her a headache.
‘I want the bubbles now!’
‘Patience, little monkey!’ Daisy managed to smile.
‘Can I blow them myself? I don’t want you to blow them.’
I’ll blow you from this hall all the way to Japan if you don’t shut up, kid.
Daisy had been late for this one, too. She’d found herself in the same awkward position of setting up in the quiet hall as a group of about – fifty? Sixty? - children watched. Milly had come again and was sacrificing a trip to the cinema with her friends to be here.
The boy began chanting. ‘Hu-rry-up! Hu-rry-up!’
And some of the children actually joined in. The rotten ones. The ones who, if she could get away with it, Daisy would love to tie the shoelaces together of and shout “chocolate! All the chocolate you can eat at the back of the hall!”.
‘Now, children!’ Daisy called. ‘Little Miss Pop is going as fast as she can! Just be patient!’
‘You’re not little!’ the devil-boy said.
Devil-boy. That’s right. Probably the son of Satan himself.
Milly stood back in the corner, the embarrassment of being here becoming too much. For a horrifying moment, Daisy thought that her daughter was about to cry.
Cry, just like a child at the back. Goodness knows what set him off – another child stepped on his hand perhaps, or his parents had read him Charlotte’s Web and he’d just remembered how it had ended – but the hall was even noisier now.
And now to Daisy’s side, an unattended toddler had smacked his head off the tray of Daisy’s bubble implements, sending most of them crashing to the ground. Some of the kids roared with laughter at this and the hall was so loud now that Daisy wasn’t sure that she’d be heard over the noise of it.
Then the devil-boy said: ‘You’re boring!’
And that was too much for Daisy. Without stopping to think for a second she grabbed the nearest bucket of bubble water and turned it upside-down over the devil-boy’s head. He became wetter than a weeping fish having a bath in the rain and immediately started crying.
The other children – and Milly – thought it was hilarious. One girl, who had seen Little Miss Pop’s performance at multiple birthday parties over the last few months, remarked that it was the best show she’d ever seen.
One Year Later
She’d done it. She’d made it a whole year in her new job, and she was still loving every moment of it. She earned more money too, and was able to make things better for Milly. She’d traded her rainbow dungarees for a nice, professional dress. And she worked alongside her best friend, Jack, in a shop she was passionate about.
Several rainbow decorated cards could be found scattered on the bookshelves with recommendations by Daisy.
The Shining – Stephen King
Not just a horror story. An engaging family drama that will draw you in from the start. Better than the film.
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Not just the best Christmas book ever written, one of the greatest stories ever told. A timeless classic.
On Saturdays, she even ran a kids reading club. The devil-boy she’d drenched had come to it three times. He’d forgiven her, it seemed (perhaps the bubble water had extinguished the fires of hell within), and in return, she’d helped him discover a love for stories. All was well.
At the reading group one week, a girl accidentally called her Little Miss Pop.
‘My name's Daisy, sweetheart,’ she said.
‘Daisy? Like the flower?’ the girl replied. ‘It’s beautiful. It suits you perfectly.’