Mick and Maisie by Wendy Levy

Mick and Maisie by Wendy Levy

Winner (Adult Category)

“The trouble with grownups,” murmured Maisie.

“Mmmm,” Mick said vaguely, waving to a colleague by the Eco Fiesta plant stall from his spot in the queue for vegetarian kofta balls.

“The trouble with grownups,” Maisie repeated, then, warming to her theme, continued, “the trouble with grownups is that they won’t let you eat what you want.”

“Oh,” said Mick, focused now and ready for the onslaught. What would it be this time, he wondered, fairy floss for lunch or icecream or … he scanned the stalls set up around Queen’s Park, following his daughter’s gaze to the pale blue van directly opposite selling bubble tea. The display did look strangely enticing and he knew Maisie was getting ready to set up a good wail about it.

“Have you actually tried bubble tea?” he asked. “It’s a nice name but it looks like it would be disappointing, like those Bubble-O Bill icecreams,” he ventured

Maisie was indignant. “But we like Bubble-O Bill,” she said, “me and Jack loves Bubble-O Bill, we think it’s the best icecream in the whole wide world. Bubble O, Bubble O, Bubble O Bill. Bill Bubble, Bill Bubble, Bibble O Bubble!” she trumpeted.

Instantly Mick regretted mentioning the dreaded icecream. He had forgotten how much Maisie liked the horrible Bubble O Bills with their sickly flavour and fake bubblegum nose. But perhaps he was being unfair. Years ago he used to enjoy a pink lemonade By-Jingo ice block on a hot day, loved ripping open the paper wrapping, feeling the texture of the wooden stick and getting ice crystals stuck to his tongue. That was his childhood favourite, growing up in Townsville.

His colleague was coming this way. “Nerida,” he called gaily, thinking this could be a way to distract Maisie from bubble treats. “You remember Nerida, don’t you Maisie?” he encouraged.

“Oh yes, hello Merida,” said Maisie brightly, lifting her satin cheek for the requisite adult smooch. “Merida, do you like bubble tea?” she asked innocently, turning on one of her sweeter smiles.

“It’s Nerida darling, with an ‘N’, like ‘N’ for … for …”, Nerida cast around wildly for inspiration suitable for a six-year-old. “It’s with an ‘N’ like ‘N’ for Nemo,” she blurted, plucking the name of the famous clownfish out of the air like some kind of magic trick.

“Nemo, we like Nemo,” said Maisie. She began to slide her hands around like a fish darting through the water. A successful diversion, thought Mick, smiling gratefully at Nerida.

“We’re queuing for kofta balls,” he explained, somewhat unnecessarily. “The Eco Fiesta’s not the Eco Fiesta unless you have kofta balls,” he added lamely.

“It’s a long wait,” said Nerida, looking at the 30 or so hungry people lined up ahead of them under the shady trees. She surveyed the stalls. “I don’t think there is as much food this year – what happened to that other Indian place? That gluten-free place isn’t much of a substitute,” she said, frowning at a van parked beside the bubble tea stall.

Mick knew better than to disagree. In the office, Nerida was never backward in putting forward her views and her campaign against gluten-free food for the otherwise-healthy was a favourite theme. “If the goddess had wanted us to be gluten free, why did she give us glutes,” she would say, erroneously flexing her bicep as some kind of incontrovertible proof. Mick had been known to enjoy the occasional gluten-free snack, sometimes buying gluten-free bread when he could get the brand he liked. He had even gone so far as to say that he felt lighter, less bloated, when eating gluten-free, but never in Nerida’s presence, as it would just start her off about marketing and advertising and brainwashing and why healthy people did NOT need to take vitamins or supplements.

Maisie was tugging on his arm, pointing at a group walking into the park. “Look Dad, it’s Jack and Jonah,” she squealed. The two boys went to Maisie’s school – Jack was in Maisie’s class – and lived near the house Maisie shared with her mum. “Can I go and say hello?”

Mick nodded, waving to the boys’ parents, miming eating and pointing at the food van. They would catch up later, for now, his goal was kofta balls and there was no way he was relinquishing his place in the queue. About 25 people ahead of him now, he assessed, but many would order multiple serves for family and friends, holding things up. Two teenagers walked past carrying steaming bowls of kofta balls drizzled with fragrant tomato sauce and his mouth watered. Mmm-mmm, he could almost taste the savoury cauliflower morsels. Beats finger-lickin-chickin anytime.

Nerida was talking to him. He tuned in, caught the end of her saying: “and then I said to her, okay, let’s give it a go.”

“Er, good for you,” Mick said, hoping he had struck the right note. “Um, what happened then?”

But Nerida had been distracted from her story by a woman waving to her from beside the spectacular grey-green Bizmarck palms. “There’s Jazz now,” she said. “I’ll be back in a minute – get me some balls if you get to the front of the queue,” she said, winking furiously.

It was an old joke, but a goodie, so Mick sniggered, and idly watched Nerida spirit away. She was nice, Nerida, he thought, and not bad looking either. She had that autumn leaf coloured hair, a bit frizzy like Nicole Kidman in her early films. Or maybe in that recent one, Lion, where she played an adoptive mum. If he got together with Nerida, she would be like an adoptive mum for Maisie, or maybe more like a stepmother, come to think of it. Whoa, where did that thought come from? Him and Nerida. She’d be a wicked stepmum, hey! She and Maisie got on well together, no problems there.

Maybe he should ask her out, he pondered. It had been an age since he had been on anything like a date, unless you could count that boozy night when Lainie was here from Broome. But no, he wouldn’t count that night, because they both laughed it off in the morning and said ‘what were we thinking’ and ‘we must have been out of our minds.’ So Lainie was out and anyway, Broome was too far away. He was staying in Townsville as long as Maisie was here. If her mum moved, it might be a different story, but she wouldn’t move, she was settled in her job and house and relationship and a new baby on the way to boot. Maisie would be staying in Townsville and so would he, and in any case, everything he needed was here and why would he want to go anywhere else?

So Nerida then. She wasn’t a bit like Maisie’s mum, the complete opposite really, except they were both doing well in their careers and didn’t take too much shit from anyone. Would it matter that he and Nerida worked together? he wondered. Well, don’t see why, we don’t report to each other, we’re in different teams and roles, water management and finance and never the twain shall meet, except down the pub after work on pay day. You have to meet your partner somewhere and why not the office, where you spend half your life? Come to think of it, he’d met Maisie’s mum through work, not actually at work, at the footy with some mutual work friends. That had been fine – for a while, anyway. They got on even better now they had called it quits.

He’d ask Nerida out. A movie maybe, or a coffee and the markets. Nothing too heavy, nothing that couldn’t be seen as just a friendly gesture if he got cold feet.

Maisie raced across the soft grass to him, laughing and breathless from a game of chasey with Jack and Jonah and their gang. “Hi Dad, this is fun, Dad,” she said, swirling around and then pelting crazily back into the fray. Mick moved up three in the queue, enjoying a bit more shade now. There were about 15 to go, he reckoned, well more really, as one was Sam Boag and he would order up big.

He looked at Maisie as she chased with the other kids around the spiky Bismarck palms, dodging a couple with a pram. They’ll have to slow down a bit with all these people around, he thought, and made to call to her, but Jack’s parents were onto it, grabbing the ringleaders and reminding them to take care. Maisie looked happy and healthy and he loved seeing her that way, her dark hair – same colour as his – waving out behind, escaping from the ponytail he’d brushed it into that morning. Saturdays and Sundays on ‘his’ weekends were the best, better than the Wednesday after-school rush when he finished work early so he could bring her to his place for the night. Then she was often worn out and sometimes a bit grumpy, whereas weekends were good for them both. Lazy starts with toasty eggy breakfasts, then out to The Strand or a park, the beach or Riverway pool, where they would float on their backs and tell each other stories about the clouds.

Maybe Nerida would like to come for a swim with them, he thought. Wonder what she looks like in her togs? Would she have a bikini, or one of those neck-to-knee sunsmart jobs that had singlehandedly destroyed his summer viewing pleasure? Red lycra or navy maybe. They would have icecreams and Maisie would insist on a Bubble-O-Bill.

With a flurry of gossip and wafts of sweet-smelling food, the queue lurched forward. That was Sam Boag getting his tucker, Mick noted, as the older man staggered past, laden with kofta balls and dishes of curry. God, I hope the balls don’t all get eaten, he thought suddenly, remembering a time several years back when he and Maisie’s mum had queued in vain under the trees with Maisie in her pram. It had not been good that day, he recalled, even before they ran out of kofta balls. Maisie was teething and her mum was tired and in a bad mood and he was no better, snapping at some friends of Maisie’s mum who came to goo at the baby. Maisie’s mum – why did he keep thinking of her as Maisie’s mum now? He should call her by her name, Amber. It was a pretty name, he had liked it when they first met, liked the sound of it and the image it brought of a cool, smooth, marmalade-coloured stone, autumn leaf colour even, like Nerida’s hair.

Again the patient line of would-be eaters straggled forward and Nerida reappeared beside Mick in the queue. “Only five to go,” she said happily. “You’re a trouper, Mick, standing here all this time.”

Mick was encouraged. Okay, he thought, so is now a good time to ask her out? Well, in for a penny, let’s give it a go, he decided. “Er, Nerida, would you …” he began, but Nerida was talking as well and their voices clashed like cymbals on the afternoon air.

They laughed. ”You first,” Mick said, doffing a pretend hat.

“So I’ve teed up next weekend to move in with Jazz. She wants to meet you and Maisie in a minute, I’ve told her all about you,” Nerida said, pointing at the group she had been talking with beside the palms. “Like I was saying, we’ve been together six months now and her housemate is moving to Sydney and we both thought, well, why not give it a go.”

Moving, Jazz, together, six months? Nerida’s words were spinning through Mick’s head faster than Maisie was racing around the palms with her mates. “Oh, great, really great news, Nerida,” Mick stammered, blushing furiously. Damn and blast it, why did he get these things so wrong.

“Yes, I’m taking my stuff over there on Sunday,” she said, “it’s in North Ward, not far from you actually. What were you going to say?”

On the spot now, Mick rifled through his brain for something innocuous. “Um, well I, well, I thought you might like to come over for a playdate with me and Maisie – Jazz too, of course,” he said quickly. “She always likes to see you and it will give us a chance to get to know Jazz. If you like, I can give you a hand with shifting – I’ve still got that old trailer,” he offered.

“That’d be great, Mick,” Nerida said. They arrived at the head of the queue and ordered kofta for four. With that sixth sense that kids have when food is ready, Maisie charged over as they stepped away from the van with their booty. “Yum, Dad,” she said, “that looks really really yummy,” and she reached into the bowl and took a kofta ball to pop into her mouth. “Be careful, they’re hot,” Mick warned.

“Why don’t I get some bubble tea to cool off?” said Nerida, as they moved over to the picnic table where Jazz sat with Jack and Jonah’s parents. Mick gave in. “Sounds good,” he said.

Mick found a space at the table and started testing the kofta balls, with and without the sauce, so he could get a real taste of the flavours. He cleaned up his bowl, then sipped at the bubble tea Nerida had placed in front of him. “Hey, this isn’t so bad,” he thought. “Sweet and cool on a hot day, I could get into this. Although a beer would be nice.”

Maisie scoffed her meal and was heading back to her game, when she remembered the bubble tea. She raced back for a swig, drew a long noisy draught through the straw, then spat it straight out. “It’s gusting,” she said, affronted, “ab-so-loody gusting. Why did you make me drink it Dad? I think I’m going to be sick.”

Mick sat Maisie down, gave her water to flush out her mouth and looked into her sparkly eyes. She did look flushed, all the running around, no doubt. “Have you had enough, my girl? Shall we see what’s happening at home?”

To his surprise, there were no arguments. They gathered their gear and farewelled the group, Nerida saying she’d be in touch about next weekend. Then with Maisie’s warm little paw snuggled in his, they strolled through the gardens to Paxton Street and headed home, Maisie starting to skip along the way.

“So did you like the Eco Fiesta,” he asked his daughter.

“Sure Dad, I loved it to the moon and back,” she smiled, then paused mid-skip and looked up at him. “But Dad, what I don’t understand is, what I really don‘t know is ... the trouble with grownups is …”

“Yes, my girl?” Mick enquired.

Maisie pouted. “The trouble with grownups is that they never know when you want a hug.”

Mick held out his arms.

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