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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Chocolate, Coffee and Tears
by Gemma Amor

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My daughter is the prettiest girl you ever saw. She is nine years old and has golden hair, green eyes and freckles everywhere. She looks just like her mum.

I only see her two times a month. Me and her mum did not work out, and now she lives with her mum and step-dad and I am allowed to see her every two weekends. Her name is Jenny.

Her favourite food in all the world is chocolate, and so every time we meet it is in my favourite coffee shop in town, where they make hot chocolates with cream towers on top so tall you sometimes cannot see over them. They leave brown smudges all over her face and I have to spit on my sleeve and mop her up, while she wriggles and belches and looks happy. The staff all love her and give her extra marshmallows. She is nearly always sick afterwards and then cannot manage her tea and my ex-wife Julie shouts at me for spoiling her appetite.

I only see her four days a month - how else am I going to spoil her?

She is growing up so fast that every time we sit down and I light my cigarette she always opens her mouth with something that makes me choke on my coffee. She has a boyfriend now, apparently, a boy in her form at school called Giles. When I was nine I thought that all girls were stupid and smelt and I know that girls thought the same about us. It worries me that she talks openly about kissing and which pop star she fancies and what make-up mum bought for her. I never let her wear any when she is with me. I want her to look like she is nine, not dolled up and old before her age. We have hot chocolate, or go to the cinema, or play frisbee in the back garden, or run around the zoo pulling funny faces at the marmosets.

There is one girl who works in the café and always looks sad when I turn up with Jenny; like she knows what is happening. Maybe she can see how unhappy I get when the few hours we have together are over and her mum is back to pick her up, arms folded and tapping her foot. I always order another coffee after I have waved my Jenny off; and smoke too many cigarettes. Sometimes I try to read the newspaper or a magazine left lying around but I can never get into it, and usually end up frowning out of the window and letting the coffee get cold.

One of these days Jenny will come to meet me for hot chocolate and she won't be nine years old any more; she will be a beautiful teenager with questions, and the whole truth about her mum and me will come out, and she won't want to see me anymore. The truth is that I cheated on Julie, twice, and now I am paying for it. I watch my little girl getting taller and bolder and wish more than anything that I could take her away from all the bitterness her mother will make her eat when she is old enough. Leaving my Jenny, when she was three years old and had no idea what was going on, was the worst thing I have ever done in my life.

And what will happen when her mum does tell her everything? Because she won't miss out any of the gory details, and my girl will suddenly feel like she no longer knows me; and I would not blame her at all.

Next week it is her birthday, and I have bought her a giant jewellery box with a little mechanical ballerina inside, who spins round in time to tinkly music when you lift the lid. I might buy her a trinket to put inside it as well. I won't be able to see her on the day so today we are going to have another birthday for her; just Jenny and me and no-one else. We are going to have hot chocolate - the biggest one I can buy, and I hope it spoils her tea something rotten - and then we will go bowling. And when she is gone I will try not to think about how long it will be until I see her again.

I am sitting in my usual seat in the café, next to the lady who always looks grumpy with her grumpy son strapped into his buggy next to her. I sit here because I get a good view out of the window in the direction Jenny walks in from after her mum drops her off. You can also see the counter from here, and Jenny likes to look at the pastries and pull funny faces at the staff. They always pull faces back, twisting their lips or sticking their fingers in their nostrils and blowing out their cheeks, each face more disgusting than the last until my girl is almost crying with laughter.

When my girl sees her jewellery box she is so happy that I have to try hard not to blub like a baby and make her ashamed of me. Her great big eyes are wide as she pokes about in all the little compartments and trays, telling me what she is going to put in each part, and ruffling the tiny ballerina's tutu with her sparkly painted fingernail. "Do you know what the music is, Dad?" she asks, sucking hot chocolate up through a straw and stroking the jewellery box like it was a dog or a cat.

"No, Jenny. Do you?"

She nods, of course she knows, she knows everything. She goes to school and crams it into that pretty head of hers and reels it off to anyone that listens. I call her my little sponge, because that's what she is, soaking up anything anyone tells her.

"It's Beethoven, Dad. It's called the Moonlight Sonata and I can play the first thirteen bars of it on the piano"

I laugh and tell her to stop showing off and drink her hot chocolate. I stroke her hair and wipe off the chocolate that has smeared across her cheeks with my napkin. Sometimes you can love someone so much you want to hug them hard until they get sucked into you, making one person.

When she walks off I notice that she is taller than she was last month. She is going to grow up slim, and blonde, and tanned. My girl is going to be famous, I guarantee it.

My girl's face is all over every newspaper and magazine you could imagine. She is facing the camera straight on and it is a wonder the photographer did not faint in the dazzle of her smile. She has pearly white teeth and olive, glittering skin. Everyone knows her name - "Did you hear about Jenny McBride?" they say, opening their papers and reading the double page spread that sets out her whole life, including what happened with me and her mum, with pictures of her as a baby with creases of fat on her arms and a smile that could knock you out.

The picture was taken just after her fifteenth birthday, and was her first proper modelling job. I always said to her that modelling was good for money but did she really want to do it for life? Truth is, I felt almost jealous at all those other men looking at her. "Of course not, Dad," she said, punching me on the arm. "Modelling is fun, but I want to be an actress. Do you think I can?"

I pull her into a giant hug and kiss the top of her sweet smelling head. "You can do anything you set out to do, Jenny my Jenny."

The picture was taken just before she went missing.

My girl is famous. "Did you hear about Jenny McBride?" people say, waving their newspapers at each other and turning up their TV's when the news comes on. Tonight I am on the TV too, me and Julie, and the camera is close on my face. Julie is not looking her best, with mascara streaked all over her face and great bags of misery under her eyes. One small part of me thinks that I should wipe the black stuff away so that she can see properly. Instead I sit and hold her hand and she clutches it so hard it feels like my fingers are all broken. This is the first time that I have ever used a microphone, and it makes my voice sound all tinny and robotic. Every few seconds there is a pop and a flash of light, and someone shouts out my name.

"Mr McBride!" they shout, waving tape recorders and gadgets at me and Julie. "When is the funeral, Mr McBride?"

"Did you hear about Jenny McBride?" the people all say. They shake their heads, blow out their cheeks and tell each other how terrible it is; and her so young too.

My girl Jenny is famous. And I will never see her again.

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