The Sunday Times Magazine
We're doing it for the kids. The door to Gap Kids wafts the vocals of Kylie and Robbie onto the main stretch of the shopping complex with every swing. Lucy Webb’s sticky hands are suctioned to the glass like Garfield’s paws to a rear windscreen. She appears younger than her four-and-something years. A veil of dry skin covers her crown like cradle cap. The remains of a lolly form a snail trail from her chin to her jumper, jeans and jelly shoes. “Lucy do it,” says her mother, Debbie, gently. “Lucy open the door. Lucy do it.”
As the child can’t control a lolly, it’s unlikely she can shift a thick glass door, but — “Lucy do it,” Debbie says, going for the hat-trick.
With the heat and pressure almost melting the child’s digits into the glass, Debbie Webb gives up and puts her full weight forward. Her reflection makes her wince. Fourteen stone she was the last time she stepped on a set of scales. It must have been over a year ago.
A tiny queue of shoppers wait to file into the store. For them, this tiny playlet isn’t about littleLucy’s dexterity — it’s the portrait of a mother acting out the role of performing parent, with those forced to witness it cast in the role of the cornered punter.
The scenario is repeated later at the Disney Store. The family unit almost complete, with the arrival of Tony. Robert, their 14-year-old, is back at home.
“Pay the lady,” Debbie tells her daughter.
They are first in the queue at the counter. Lucy is purchasing a Wizard of Oz headband with fascinator attached, the glittering green of the Emerald City.
“She wants to pay you,” Tony tells the cashier, smiling.
“You want to pay me?” the cashier asks the child.
“Pay the lady.” Debbie taps her offspring.
“Pay the lady,” she repeats, again going for the hat-trick.
The queue thickens as Lucy counts out the coins on the counter, with her father lifting her.
“She’s learning to count,” he proudly informs those gathering, and the cashier dramatically lists the value of every coin as it hatches from the child’s mittened paw.
Where Lucy failed in her Herculean task at Gap, she succeeds here as a veritable Pythagoras. Aahs and oohs chorus from those present, all of whom know what it means to be a proud performing parent playing to the crowd. Lucy wants the whole Dorothy Gale get-up of gingham pinafore and ruby slippers but — “You never know what Father Christmas will bring you,” her mother tells her, tightening the grip on her daughter’s hand.
She daren’t let go as they push their way through the throng towards the exit. Since the birth of their last born, Debbie has fine-tuned her knowledge of every high-profile child’s murder in her own lifetime: from Saddleworth Moor to Soham. It’s almost forensic the manner in which she followed reports of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in Portugal. Closer to home, during their summer holiday in Cornwall, along the coast at Hayle, the accidental death of the girl the press christened “Angelic Abbie” had the Webbs hooked.
“You think of the McCanns and that little Abbie’s parents at this time of the year.”
That was Debbie, sotto voce, to Tony who was thinking a similar thing. This happened often. The pair had been together since they were teenagers; little more than their Robert’s age.
“I think of Abbie, I suppose, because we were on holiday in the same place. Y’know, but for the grace of God an’ all that.”
The sand had taken the little girl under. Holidaymakers dug for an hour. Lucy spots something. Something she wants Santa to bring her. Debbie follows the child for fear of letting her go. There is a clearing. Tony, catching his daughter’s giggly laugh, pulls out his Christmas present from his wife’s bag. They’ve not bought each other gifts this year. Instead they’ve plumped for something for the whole family: a digital camcorder.
“Can I have this one?” pleads Lucy, picking up an Alice band with pink velour bunny ears. Tony thinks of Elmer Fudd and laughs. That darn wabbit!
“Oh, Lucy, love. I can’t queue up again,” Debbie whines, exhausted. “You can’t have both of ’em.”
Tony crowns his daughter with the headband. She poses and preens for the camera.
“I prefer the Wizard of Oz one to that,” says Debbie, feeling prudish, uncomfortable.
And as a concerned aside to her husband: “It’s a bit Playboy, Tone.”
She follows the thought and it lands at Playboy clubs and the pyjama-clad owner of the bunnies’ palatial hutch in Los Angeles. Hugh Hefner — that was it. She’d read about him somewhere — OK! Grazia, Heat… ?
Tony still thinks Bugs Bunny. Debbie’s now thinking: the little girls they’d seen on holidays, thrust on a stage for karaoke by pushy parents. Girls closer to a foetus than a 15-year-old — in mini-skirts, boob tubes; Wedgwood-blue powder hooding their eyes; the gushing red of pomegranate and corporate leatherette scooping their mouths into a cupid’s bow. That darn wabbit couldn’t be further from Debbie Webb’s mind. She’s thinking of the girl in the States that won the beauty pageants, found dead in the basement of the family home. Colorado? She almost says it out loud. But goes with — “Take it off!” Her tone, close to stern, surprising her husband and daughter. “It’s too old for her.”
“Let me just film her, love — she likes it.”
Tony hasn’t stopped filming his daughter since buying the camera: her Pocahontas eyes, her Little Mermaid smile. They aren’t pushy parents wanting their child to perform. It’s just that, well, if a child can count or open a glass door they might have a greater talent. Perhaps one day she would hitch her wagon to a star and win Britain’s Got Talent aged 10, looking and sounding uncannily like George Formby. But for now little Lucy Webb, dwarfed by furry bunny ears, is swaying to a song that permeates the store, attempting to sing along as her father mouths the words: “They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no, no, no…”
If Lucy hadn’t a song in her heart, a chorus in her vocabulary, she only has to take a tumblenow, at this moment, dragging a line-up of vacuum-packed Tin Man figurines with her, and Dad will have it all on film. The tears and tantrums that follow might just be worth the news that she could be in for an airing on You’ve Been Framed. Failing that he could e-mail the film to friends or upload it to the web, Facebook, YouTube. Such is the brilliance of the world in which Lucy Webb is experiencing her infancy.
A photograph can travel from a mobile phone to a webpage, where the world and his wife, mistress, partner, boyfriend, can view it. Snap-shots and still lives: the drunken mate mooning as the milk train arrives… a murder by a gang of happy slappers… a girl in bunny ears at the wonderful world of Disney, Christmas Eve.
Debbie didn’t want to be doing this on Christmas Eve. This year, the first proper Christmas in the new home. She planned a fleeting visit to Bluewater for last minute “bits”. Then Tony arrived home at lunch time, putting his cab to sleep in the garage for Christmas. Debbie wanted time on her own to shop, get in the spirit. She loved Christmas as a kid. She was an only child. Her parents made it special. Her dad was gone. Her mum too. Since reaching 40, she couldn’t rally the enthusiasm, despite having young children and a husband who remained loyal to her, and a house in the nation’s first new town of the 21st century; the country’s very first “wired” community, where the broadband speed left even that of South Korea at the starting line.
Tony has taken Lucy for chips at Ed’s Easy Diner. Debbie is at Starbucks. The concession is parked up off the main hall; the absence of walls and a facade, casual chairs and a bar, remind her of the time they were stranded at Malaga airport, the year before Robert was born. Band Aid provides the backing track, and two white girls with orange skin, too young to remember the original, giggle and sing along. Debbie waits as the man mixes up a couple of frappuccinos and flirts with them.
“It’s too cold for fraps,” he says, pouring crushed ice into a jug.
The duo are dressed for summer: short tops revealing puffy muffin bellies; the curlicues of tattoos entwined on the lower back. A dispatch from the future plants itself in Debbie’s thoughts; Lucy — a tattooed, Tangoed teenager undressed for winter.
It’s a fearsome prospect — but, God willing, a long way down the line. Thank God I didn’t buy them bunny ears. The thought returns her to the present as she orders a latte with skimmed milk. Ideally she’d go for a slice of rocky road or the Sicilian lemon fairy cake. The presence of the slinky young girls puts her off. Anyway, she hates eating in public. She sinks into a vacant two-seater, placing carriers at her side. She slips her arm though the loops of her handbag.
Tony returns with Lucy. Clots of ketchup around the child’s mouth thin into veiny lines over her cheeks. The old lolly stains have hardened on her clothes.
“Look at the state of her,” Debbie says in hushed tones, as Tony sighs and drops into the chair opposite.
“I know. She’s still finishing her chips. I was gonna wipe her face then.” He picks up a Starbucks napkin and begins to wipe her mouth. Lucy pulls away, and the sauce straightens into a red gash across her face.
“Oh, come here, I’ll do it. Lucy, come here.” Debbie gently pulls her daughter towards her.
“I’m not going to that place again. It’s not a patch on McDonald’s.”
Tony’s casing the place, casting an eye over all that is Starbucks, as though ready to criticise.
The community board lists classes for salsa dancing. The receptacle for the book drive, a box framed by a pelmet of cardboard snow, has little to offer, despite it being the season of goodwill: a dog-eared copy of The Highway Code, a biography of Darius, and Ben Elton’s back-catalogue in pristine condition.
“I know they wouldn’t have a McDonald’s here. What with lots of kids hanging around.”
“They hang around anyway.” Debbie spits on another napkin and wipes her daughter’s face. “They congregate outside the pictures. They pile into Topman. There’s always groups of young boys at Foot Locker. You’re frightened to go in.”
Tony continues, oblivious: “I just think, I mean look at that — crème-brûlée latte. I mean, that just sums it up. Everything that’s wrong with this country. Nothing’s what it’s supposed to be any more. Everything has to be merged into something else, so then it’s new.”
“It sounds quite nice. Christmassy,” Debbie cuts in.
“Why can’t anything be what it’s supposed to be any more? Eh? A coffee. A burger. That’s what I like about McDonald’s — at least you know what you’re getting.”
“Well, you don’t. Because they keep telling us there’s additives, trans-fats and all that. They say there’s hardly any real meat. I remember when they first started and I loved the milk shakes, but everyone used to tell me they was full of lard. I still drunk them.”
The couple laugh.
Tony says: “Of course you still drunk ’em. When we first started going together, that’s all we did — pictures and McDonald’s.”
“Well, it was such a novelty then, wasn’t it? Everyone wanted McDonald’s. The gherkin in the cheeseburger,” says Debbie, lifting a cleaned-up Lucy onto her lap.
Her husband is staring across at the two girls noisily hoovering the dregs from their frappuccinos.
“Tone? That was new then. No one ever had a gherkin in a cheeseburger. The Wimpy never did it. Wallies, me dad used to call them. I used to think they looked like green (whispered) turds.” The couple laugh again.
Tony moves nearer to his wife. “My dad would never have tried a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
But, oh, weren’t they lovely.”
“They still are… I swear I could eat one now.”
Tony never watches his weight. He has a stomach. He’s a long way off the puny kid Debbie dated when they were teenagers. He’s tried the five-a-day fruit and vegetables, but it lasted as long as his wife’s diets. At least once a week he sits in his cab reading a paper a fare has left behind, pulling a Big Mac from its cardboard clamshell. It’s an act of defiance — and not just for him. In the past year the fast-food giant has notched up 320,000 customers a day: the equivalent of the population of a city — a city the size of Cardiff. This is a Fast Food Nation and not the government, not Morgan Spurlock, not Ben Elton back there in the book bin, can change that.
“Finish your chips,” Tony tells his daughter, and she hurriedly jumps from her mother’s lap, slips between her father’s legs and dips into a carton containing the remainder of her meal.
“Shall we make a move when she’s finished?” asks Debbie.
“Yeah. Let her finish, though. Hurry up, Luce.”
“I’m are.” The child slipped into using this phrase at two, and continues to run with it even though she’s close to school age.
“I am!” her parents chorus.
“She does it on purpose,” says Debbie.
“I suppose I’ll have a lot of clearing up to do when I get back, what with Luke being round there with Robert.”
“They’ll be on the computer.”
“That’s what worries me. God knows what they get up to. Robert’s impressionable and Luke’s a bit too worldly for 14. Mind you, all kids nowadays think the world owes them a living.”
All kids nowadays think the world owes them a living. Barely have the words left Debbie’s lips than she realises she’s reached the age where she has become her mother. These lines are the legacy from her parents and probably their parents too. The tone of voice, the facial expression, the lines, the very lines. She has become her mother.
“You’re right. But I think Robert needs some sense knocked into him.” There it is again. The tone, the facial expression, the body language and the lines, the very lines. Tony has become his father. How else do they play it? This is new territory for them. Not just being the parents of a teenager, being privy to the world children occupy. It’s a world away from that in which gherkins in cheeseburger brought change. Choice fills the world of Lucy Webb to the brim. The crème-brûlée- latte culture is hers for the taking. It surrounds her. The choice of food, drinks, sweets to begin with. It’s akin to Willy Wonka’s factory — which she loves as much as the Emerald City — where greed propels Augustus Gloop into the stratosphere and turns Veruca Salt into a blueberry the size of Bluewater. And even here at Bluewater the names of children are equally fantastic. The names of the children whose lives are documented daily, caught on camera, posted on the web, encased in a key ring, a fridge magnet. A child smiles beneath a set of bunny ears in a heart-shaped, padded frame exhibited in a plaster alcove, from where it will witness the final years of infancy, the clumsy sofa sex of adolescence, maybe even adulthood.
Veruca, Augustus, Chelsey, Kelsey, Liberty, Bethany… Debbie is so glad they kept the kids’ names simple: Robert and Lucy. Tony can’t believe it sometimes, what he hears with his cab perched at traffic lights in south London, as the schools are piling out. “Kaneesia, Taneesia, Valeeshia.” And one day, pausing at a pedestrian crossing to let a scrawny, dishevelled black girl across the road as her friends shouted: “Perrier!” They called her Perrier. Long before Perrier, the moment it begun for Debbie, this embrace of the exotic, the different, the individual by way of a child’s name — was at Butlins at Bognor Regis, the season of the great storm, ra-ra skirts and “the only way is up… baby!” Her and Tony away with her family for the week. A mother yelled across the forecourt to a child whose swimsuit was slipping from the tight opening in a rolled towel, like faeces easing from the sphincter of a puppy: “Chemise! Chemise! Get here now. Chemise!”
Chemise hit the ground running the seasonthat staffordshire bull terriers were big, and beckoned by their owners with names like Tyson, Reebok, Nike. After the pets, the kids too, in that next generation became part of that modern hybrid where a brand name becomes a boy’s name or a girl’s name, a crème brûlée becomes a coffee, a logo becomes a tattoo. And if not a logo then… Hello Kitty.
As Debbie and Tony evacuate their seats, a not-so-young mother settles down with her brood. Debbie catches sight of the tattoo on the woman’s forearm: the round face, the bow in the hair: Hello Kitty. The thing is, it isn’t coloured in. The white skin between the lines of the cartoon’s body, the face and the hair bow, like images waiting for a pencil’s nib in those colour-by-number pictures free with a kiddie’s “Happy” Meal. She recognises the woman as the mother of a girl from Robert’s school: Shannon Keaton who, as their son informs them, is a bully, and spells her name in texts, e-mails, exams, on toilet walls and Perspex bus shelters: $h@nn%n.
By planting these lavish monikers on their offspring, the masses were taking the pretentious approach to branding baby, identified with the upper classes and the aristocracy. But whereas the Plums, the Petronellas and the Nigellas were names that opened doors, the Kaneesias and the $h@nn%n$ would have them slammed in their faces, as each name summed up a postcode, an accent, tattooed parents. Meanwhile, those further up the social scale, spotting this trend coming, returned to the more traditional Maud, Daisy and Emily. Not out of snobbery, and not for themselves, of course. No, they said: we’re doing it for the kids.
“Don’t gulp it down,” says Debbie, handing her daughter a carton of orange juice. The three of them are heading to the car park, as the skyline darkens to slate grey, bringing Christmas closer. Cars are nose-to-tail heading out of Level 2 Blue at the rear of M&S. Tony traces the tail-lights beyond the huge crystallised mesh that forms the outline of a reindeer and a sleigh, glistening on the drive into the megalithic shopping complex.
“Don’t gulp it down,” he echoes.
The couple pride themselves on having some discipline over their kids. Sometimes Debbie worries that, especially with Robert, she protects her son from the world, and her husband threatens him with it. But how exactly should they play it? They could point to Abbie, back there in Cornwall and warn that even sand can kill, so beware of the beach. Perhaps mention the molester or the murderer who might be lingering at the top of the street. And if not murder then mother nature: tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. When should they tell Lucy that the UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe? Should Dad tell her, as she mops up the ketchup and cheese from her burger lunch, that British children are getting fatter faster than anywhere else in western Europe? What do they say? How do they break the news to their kids?
As Debbie has said time and time again to Tony, in twilight chats when hot flushes, insomnia and worry keep her awake: “Our mums and dads only had to tell us about the birds and the bees. We’ve got to tell them so much more.”
“Finish that before you get in the car, Luce,” says Tony. “I don’t want you making the car sticky.”
“I’m are,” his daughter shouts back, handing him the empty carton and climbing onto the back seat. “Sssh!” Debbie fastens the seat belt around Lucy, ensuring that her daughter is safe. And for the moment, she is.