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Finn Clarke has duel Canadian and British citizenship and juggles her time between the two countries. She has been short-listed in various competitions including Fish and The New Writer, and her stories have been published in magazines such as The Storyteller, Descant and carte blanche, as well as Britain’s ‘Save our Short Story’ anthology Endangered Species, edited by Val McDermid. Her first collection of short stories, Grim Tales of Hope, was published in December 2008 and she is currently writing a psychological thriller.

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Daddy's Little Girl

“Old friends?” We’d been traveling for an hour and it was the first thing her father had said to me. “Old friends?”

“Sure.” I tried to make it easier for the guy. “I can even remember her last words of friendship. Something like: ‘Fuck off you wanker, before I shove your camera up your fucking arse.’”

We laughed.

“She always did have a mouth on her.” His smile grew fond before trailing off. “But you will come back?” he asked. “You’ll see her through?”

“The thing you have to understand about me,” I told him, “is that I always see things through.”

I went back two days later—dropped the kids off at school then never went home. Ella was used to me taking off, and none of the others would be working or watching me at that time of day; all the stars were either still in bed or at the gym.

Spring had arrived for real, the air crisp and sunny with a pale watercolour sky, everything clear and in focus as I drove past—sycamore buds, road kill, daffs waving on the slopes above the hard shoulder. I hadn’t done landscapes for years but found myself looking for camera angles, tempted to stop and play with such perfect light. Now that I had caught up on sleep there finally seemed room in my brain for other ideas than just grabbing the next scoop. They were stupid arty-farty ideas, guaranteed not to bring in a penny, but they kept me occupied and it made for an easy drive. I didn’t snap out of it until I got there, dying for a coffee and wishing, too late, that I’d stopped at a service station before coming off the motorway. Somehow I doubted Jessie would be the perfect host.

John let me in, a weedy guy with a sandy beard, just like you’d imagine. He nodded hi, then went back upstairs and I went through to the kitchen.

Jessie was sitting in the same chair as before, huddled in the same old blanket, fire burning despite the warm day outside. The only sign of change was her clothes, the red jumper of Sunday replaced by a lemon yellow that did nothing for her skin. As I sat down she reached out a skinny arm and handed me a piece of lined paper.

“Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was dog-eared and scrawled but the message, once I’d picked it out, was clear.

“Hmm,” I said, handing it back. “Strong stuff.”

“I’m calling it Daddy’s Little Girl.”

“Yeah, I got the picture. How does the tune go?”

She hummed me a melody, beating out the counter rhythm on the arm of her chair. Even raw like that, it sounded good. There was an acoustic guitar in the far corner of the room, dusty from lack of use.

“Here,” I handed it over. “Try with this.”

She stared at me.

“Come on.” I was fairly sure I knew what I was doing. “You’re hardly shaking today—you could strum something basic. Or make it all staccato, what the fuck. It’s only me and what do I know?”

“True.” She took it with a grimace and settled it on her knees, fumbling at its weight.

Half an hour later she’d got the basics down pat and I’d got a fantastic set of photos: Jessie Payne working on a song; Jessie Payne thinking, trying things out, lost in concentration. Jessie Payne alive, doing something other than scrambling around on all fours with no clothes on. They wouldn’t sell of course, not in the same way as my usual stuff, but I still felt good about them. There’s something about having time to work, to think, to catch a person in the process, so that the shot shows them centred in their activity…I’d been taking snapshots for so long, snatching startled faces and five-second poses, that I’d forgotten how it felt to be a part of something more than grab and run.

I left soon after. Half an hour is a long time for a drying out junkie and a discordant twang on the guitar signaled her concentration slipping down the scale. She swore in frustration and threw the guitar to the ground with a force that made me glad it wasn’t aimed at me. I called for John, hoping that he wasn’t as weedy as he looked, and headed for the door. It was what he was paid for, after all, and I still hadn’t had my coffee.

I came up a couple more times that week, getting some good shots each visit. Not of the hissy fits so much—they were old hat—but the stuff that came afterwards, that normally went on behind closed doors. The pictures of her weeping like a baby, exhausted and all used up, despair etched deep into her face. The second lot, when her dad was there, were even better. He gave his permission gladly, thinking I was capturing moments of their growing bond. He didn’t understand that what I actually got was their fragility—of them both failing at the happy families game—giving themselves away with brittle movements, fumbled touches and wide nervous eyes.

These were proper photos, pictures that told a story, and if I hadn’t been a pap—if I’d been an ‘artist’ with a double-barreled name, Saatchi would have paid proper money to hang them on his wall. As it was, I knew they wouldn’t sell. I seemed to have got caught up in something outside my market and altogether different from my usual scoop. Sure, I’d got enough for a decent exclusive and would get a decent fee, but I’d lost my joy of that initial session—that sense of doing what I was meant to do. Instead, back in my dark room, surrounded by prints of Jessie Payne, I felt a growing sense of waste. Here she was, the real person behind the image, and no-one really gave a shit.

Things got worse on Friday night. We’d finished eating, the kids had gone upstairs to their Facebooks or whatever they did these days, and we were lingering at the table over a bottle of wine when I told Ella I might stay away for the weekend.

“No,” she said.

“What?” She’d put up with my coming and going for so long, never saying a word, that I couldn’t quite believe my ears.

“Look,” she spat out the word. “Staying away all hours to shoot the stars is one thing. It’s your work. I don’t like it, but it goes with the job. But you’re not doing that any more. You’re not doing anything anymore as far as I can see, except wandering around like the cat that’s got the cream. The weekend is the kids’ time and you are not—” she stopped and I realised she was close to tears. “You are not…” She took a deep breath. “If you’re going to have an affair, you are not having it at the kids’ expense.”

I burst out laughing. When I’d finished, I held my hand out across the table. She slapped it away.

“Look, honey—”

“Don’t you honey me.” Her face had a tight, fragile look I hadn’t seen since the bankruptcy and I realised she was serious. For a moment I was furious—how could she think that of me? Then I realised how things must look from her perspective and the energy ran out of me. How could she not, given the way I’d been carrying on? What other woman would have given me half the leash?

“Ella.” I sighed, shook my head, and made up my mind. Some secrets could be kept too long. “Come on up to my darkroom.,” I said. “There’s pictures there I guess you need to see.”

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Ella wanted explanations and by the time she’d finished with me it was two in the morning.

“Nat,” she said, once I’d told her everything. “Nat, Nat, Nat…”

The sigh that followed was deep, but not completely discouraging and I watched her closely, trying to gauge which way she might turn. I was fairly sure she believed me, but whether kidnapping and blackmail would strike her as better than an affair or not was a close call.

“So?” I asked, when she didn’t say anything. “What d’you reckon?”

She shook her head and got up, manoeuvring herself out of the black leather la-z-boy I still hadn’t paid for.

“I reckon it’s time for bed.”

“Oh.” I hesitated, wondering whether to push my luck. “And tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” she pursed her lips and a look glinted in her eye. It was not a look to be messed with. “Tomorrow we are both going to see Jessie Payne.”

In the end we all went. We couldn’t leave the girls alone all day and dumping them on friends would have needed explanations. Besides, I reckoned they were of the age when seeing a strung out smack head would probably do them good. I knew Wainwright wouldn’t like it, but when it came to facing down him or Ella…well, no contest.

The girls were stroppy at first—Kitty sulking over a missed football practice, Lauren complaining she wanted to go shopping with her friends. Anything, they made clear, would have been better than wasting a day with their parents.

Once we were on the road though, and I’d filled them in on the details, their contempt turned to a fascinated disgust.

“Will she puke up while we’re there?” Kitty asked.

“Yuck.” Lauren hadn’t thought of that. “Gross.”

“If she does, I swear I’ll be sick, too. I mean—”

“If she’s too ill to see us, we’ll leave,” Ella cut in, using her ‘that’s enough’ tone.

Kitty thought about it, then said, “But won’t she want someone to stay with her? I mean, when I had that food poisoning, mum, I was really glad to have you around.”

Ella’s lips twitched. Praise indeed. I tried to remember when Kitty was ill.

“Jessie’s got a sort of nurse,” I told her, “and her dad. They’ll take care of her if she needs it.”

The thought of other people turned them shy, both of them quieting down as I pulled into the driveway and hanging back as we walked up to the door. Ella didn’t look too comfortable either and I realised just how much courage it was taking for her to be there.

I took her hand—this time she let me—and knocked on the door.

I’d been hoping Jessie’s dad would be away, that I’d only have to deal with the silent John—so of course it was Wainwright who answered, the welcome on his face freezing into astonishment as he saw the others.

“Mr. Wainwright.” I decided to brazen it out. “I’d like to introduce you to my wife—Ella Smith—and my two daughters. Lauren, Kitty, this is Jessie Payne’s dad.”

The girls muttered small hellos while Ella stuck her hand out.

“Mr. Wainwright.” She mustered a smile. “Thank you so much for letting us come.”


She shot me a look. “You didn’t ask him?”

I shrugged. Like that would have worked.

“I am so sorry.” She shook her head and turned to leave. “Come on, girls. Wrong place, wrong time.”

“M-u-m.” They both chorused their resistance, shyness forgotten as she tried to bundle them back into the car. Wainwright put his hand up, flustered.

“No. Wait.” He glanced back into the house then made up his mind. “You’ve had a long drive. At least come in for a cup of tea.”

Jessie was still in the same old chair, wearing a green jumper this time and faded blue jeans.

“Well, well, well,” she said as we trooped in. “What’s this then? The Nat Smith family workshop? Do you all have cameras, too?”

“I’ve got my mobile.” Kitty wasn’t too strong on sarcasm. She got it out as she spoke, to show Jessie.

“No photos,” I said.

“Dad.” She turned to me with that stubborn look I knew too well. “You take photos.”

“What I do—”

“You tell him, kiddo,” Jessie interrupted. “Why should he get all the fun?” She lifted her skinny arms into a model’s pose. “Come on—let’s see if you’ve got any of your old man’s talent.”

“Dad’s got talent?” Kitty looked at me uncertainly and Jessie burst out laughing, a harsh staccato that quickly turned to a hacking cough.

“He’s only one of the best,” she said when she’d recovered. She turned to sip some water from a glass on the mantelpiece and Kitty shot me another look, this time impressed. When Jessie struck her pose again, Kitty walked forward, lifting her phone obediently.

Lauren edged closer to me and glanced up— shorthand for ‘what about me?’ Jessie caught the movement and gestured for her to come and join them. Then, when they were lined up before her she stared at them both, her eyes flicking from one to the other, narrowing in concentration.

My guts clenched in fear as I realised what she was doing. She was remembering what I’d told her—and now she was going to give me away.

“Right.” I said. I didn’t know what to follow it with—anything to break the moment—but before I could say more Jessie turned her gaze on me.

“Wrong,” she countered. Her eyes seemed calmer today, I noticed, more in control. “Relax, Nat. No worries.” She smiled and winked, suddenly almost pretty. “No worries at all.”

Turning back to Lauren, she picked up the guitar now leaning against her chair, and held it out. “Can you play?”

Lauren shrugged. “No.”

“Come on, then.” Jessie jerked her head to invite her closer. “I’ll teach you.”

We watched for a few minutes as they settled in, then when things seemed to be going smoothly, Wainwright remembered his invitation. “Tea!” he exclaimed as though it were a big deal, and rubbed his hands together. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

“Nat can do that,” Ella suggested, throwing me a look. “I was wondering, Mr. Wainwright, if you and I could have a talk?”

“Oh,” he said. “Sure. That is, I’ll just…” He looked at me, checking my reaction. I smiled back.

“Go ahead,” I said. “No worries,” And suddenly I felt almost giddy with lightness, at knowing she was back there by my side. “No worries at all.”

After that it became a regular thing. I never left the girls with Jessie for long and never alone, but she was generally patient with them, letting them pester her for songs and anecdotes and showing them chords on the guitar. When she’d had enough, Ella would take them off to Chipping Sodbury, while I sat down and listened to her rambles. Or sometimes, increasingly, I took the girls and Ella stayed. She and Ella seemed to get on fine. In fact, Jessie seemed to be getting on fine, her body gaining a little strength, her eyes beginning to sparkle instead of glitter. Meanwhile, I was clicking away in the background, capturing it all, building up far more photos than I’d ever sell.

“You should write a book about her,” Ella said after we’d got back one night, the girls in bed, us following on their heels.


“Why not? You can write, can’t you?”

“I can’t even spell.”

“Well, I could do that for you.”

I looked at her. “What are you saying?”

She hesitated then met my eyes. “I’m saying, Nat, that maybe it’s time to move on. You’ve got a book’s worth of pictures from this thing—and those pictures tell a story, you know they do. A story worth telling. Why not add the words and make it happen?”

“Jeez.” I didn’t know what to say. Half of me was thinking it was impossible, that people like me didn’t do things like that, the other half was taking off. I imagined the words to Daddy’s Little Girl surrounded by the photos I’d taken when she first played it. We could put Thomas Wainwright and her together on the cover—that was it, the title—Daddy’s Little Girl: A father’s fight to save his child. I could even co-write it with Jessie—my observations, her turn of phrase—she was the artist, after all. It would give her something to do whilst regenerating a few brain cells. Shit, if the tabloids could do it, how hard could it be?

“You’re a genius,” I told her.

She sighed. “Fifteen years of marriage and you’ve only just noticed.”

I kissed her. “You realise you’re never going to get away from me now.”

This time her sigh ran deeper. “I don’t want to, Nat. Not really.” She kissed me back. “We’ve had some hard times, eh? We’ve been stretched so thin…” She broke off.

“Maybe they’re behind us now?” I suggested, pulling her close. “Maybe it’s just good times ahead, happy ever after.”

“I hope so, Nat,” She brought her hands round my back and turned her face up for another kiss. “I really do.”

The kiss turned into something more and I kicked the bedroom door shut, suddenly wide awake. Things hadn’t been like this for far too long.

Sure I wanted happy ever after. So did Jessie. So did her father. So did the whole fucking world. But for tonight I’d take what I got and be happy with it, trusting that if we all muddled along, making the most of what we’d got—somehow, sometime, things would work out.



Daddy's Little Girl by Finn Clarke 1 2 3
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