Tim lay underneath the table on a pile of cushions while Mimi pegged sheets together over the top to make a fort. Songbird blasted out from the speakers. He had a deal with Mimi that they could listen to it as long as they listened to the whole album, otherwise it got boring. He liked Songbird too. He liked how Mimi shouted out, ‘I love you I love you I love you,’ whenever that part came on.
Tuesday was swimming lesson day which was why Tim wasn’t at work and Mimi wasn’t in after-school care. It was his favourite day, apart from Thursday when he took her to gymnastics, but that was getting tricky because already Mimi wanted to quit and do circus, ever since she’d found out Alice had done that many years ago.
What Mimi loved most of all was rock climbing. She wanted to climb Mount Everest. She also liked making volcanoes erupt. On her fifth birthday he’d made a volcano cake with lots of red food colouring and candles that shot out sparks, and she was all for pouring baking soda and vinegar over it, so they’d had to put her plaster volcano alongside it so it didn’t spoil the real cake for everyone.
While he lay on the floor listening to music, he thought about the swimming teacher. Not in a serious way. He didn’t want to be with her. He wanted to be with Alice, or rather, he didn’t want to not be with Alice. The swimming teacher was a harmless distraction. Her name was Sandy and he didn’t know anything about her other than she looked great in a wetsuit and she was teaching his daughter how to save her own life if she ever got in over her head again.
‘Homework time, Daddy-o. Move over!’ said Mimi. She’d lifted the side of the sheet and was on all fours in front of him, waving her book. She climbed in and they read lying on their backs. Even though she got all the words right, she didn’t really know what they were. The teacher had sent home a notice saying, Don’t cover the pictures to try and trick them. This is how they learn to read. He tried it anyway, and Mimi hit his hand away.
She was reading it upside down to him and laughing when they got the text from Alice to say she was on her way. It was the rule. Not because they had anything to hide but because she didn’t want to take them by surprise, which meant, make sure the house is tidy. Mimi pulled all the pegs off and took them to the laundry while Tim folded the sheets back across their original creases. Mimi’s hair was still damp from the pool despite the bathing cap, so one of the cushions was damp too. He turned it over and put it on the big leather chair.
Tim turned the music down and put a big pot of water on to boil. The mince was already cooked. He turned it on low and gave it a stir. When Mimi came over, he moved the mince to the element at the back. She stood on her stool and leaned over, looking for the bubbles in the water so they’d know when it was time to put the spaghetti in.
‘Mimi, you’re too close.’ Her stool started to tip and he caught her and moved her back. ‘Lucky you didn’t fall in.’
‘The pot’s not big enough, silly.’
Tim put the spaghetti in so it didn’t splash and after five minutes he pulled out pieces for them to bite into, to test it.
‘What do you think?’ he asked her. He knew it was done.
‘Yup, it’s al dente,’ she said.
‘Bolognese again,’ said Alice, before kissing them both.
‘And garlic bread,’ said Mimi, doing a little jump, because it was her favourite.
Tim wondered if Sandy would be grateful if someone had cooked dinner for her to come home to at the end of a busy day at the pool, even though that someone also worked full time, but had arranged flexible hours so he could spend more time with his daughter.
Not that he would ever do anything about it, because he was staying married. He thought a lot about marriage. He’d grown up a lot since the honeymoon days. You needed to work hard on marriages. Things changed after children. Alice was working long hours. Something had to give. Still, there was no need to be ungrateful.
‘Hey, I’ve got an idea,’ he said, taking the garlic bread out of the oven. ‘You cook something you like and we’ll happily eat it.’
Mimi sat next to him, holding a spoon in her left hand so she could push the tips of the fork into it while she wound her spaghetti around. Once she’d realised Tim had been cutting her spaghetti to make it easier for her, she’d refused to eat it until he made it long again, and now she’d mastered it. Alice sat across from them poking around at hers before putting her fork down. She picked at a few lettuce leaves and sighed.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the food,’ she said. ‘I’m not very hungry.’
‘Shall I read you my story now Mummy?’ said Mimi and Alice nodded.
The dishes were all piled on the bench waiting for someone to do them. It used to be that whoever cooked didn’t have to clean up, but lately Tim had been doing that too.
‘I might go out for a quick run if that’s okay,’ he said to Alice, who nodded. He stood outside the gate, gulping in the cold air then headed down the road and into the bush that surrounded the city. He thought about how long it had been since they’d gone mountain biking through there with Mimi strapped into the tiny yellow seat on the back of his bike. It was crazy being working parents trying to fit everything in. They needed a holiday. He’d look on Grabaseat when he got home and find somewhere warm where they could order drinks with paper umbrellas in them and hang-glide off the side of a mountain or something.
He didn’t stay out for long. He found Mimi in bed watching the circus video of Alice when she was fourteen, which they’d transferred onto Mimi’s iPad. Alice had contorted her body around a swathe of purple silk ribbon, and was hanging upside down, spinning. In another short piece she was clipped onto wires, wearing fairy wings she’d bought from the toy shop, whooshing around the rafters in the stadium. Mimi liked to watch the clips over and over. She had the exact same look of wonder that Alice had when she was about to do something exhilarating.
‘Mummy is so brave,’ she said.
‘Yes. She is.’
He was aware of a slight movement behind him and turned around. Alice stood in the doorway, staring at Mimi’s screen.
‘Come and look,’ Mimi said.
Alice smiled. ‘No, I’ll come back when you’re ready and say goodnight.’
They replayed the video because Tim wanted to see the look on Alice’s face again.
Mimi turned off her iPad and put it next to her bed. ‘Tell me a story from your mouth Daddy,’ she said. This time he based it on the Barbie dolls Mimi had stripped naked before wrapping them in ribbon and pinning them upside down on her noticeboard. There were many directions the story could go. He chose the fastest route which was to turn them into mountaineers. He kissed her, and she lay there quietly, with her eyes open watching the slow flow of her lava lamp, which is how she went to sleep.
The kitchen was clean and Alice was on the phone to her mother. She waved at him and grimaced, which was encouraging. He knew she’d be a while. He’d do his emails while he waited, at least the easy ones. He went out into hallway where the computer was squished into a small alcove, and turned it on.
None of them were easy. People only sent emails because they wanted something. Nobody ever sent one saying, Hey Tim we missed you this afternoon when you were doing your other full-time job hanging out with your daughter or, Hey Tim, thanks.
There was an email from Sandy. Mimi is ready to move on to the big pool. It’s been such a pleasure to teach her.
Mieke would have called it karma. He hadn’t been serious about Sandy though.
Alice had finished on the phone to her mother by the time he came back into the lounge. He was going to apologise for being mean about the bolognese. He’d tell her he loved her. He’d buy her an eternity ring to make her believe it. Convince her once and for all they should have another baby. He knew that underneath the humdrum of daily life was the Alice he fell in love with, the warm and naked Alice surrounded by strawberries, who’d given him the best memories of his life. They hadn’t had sex in weeks. They hadn’t had amazing sex since the day Mimi didn’t drown.
She was on the couch with her back to him and didn’t see him come in. She was still in her work clothes – a sexy pencil skirt that showed off her curves and the pale pink cashmere top with three-quarter sleeves she’d been excited about getting for half price. She was watching a movie on her iPad with her earphones on. She had cut her hair. He tiptoed over and blew softly on the back of her neck. She paused the show and took her earphones off.
‘Do you want something?’ she asked.
He wanted to say, ‘Yes, I want you.’ She wasn’t making it easy. Her finger hovered over the pause button and there was no warmth in her eyes. He wanted to tell her then, all about the affair with Mieke so she be could mad at him, smash something, react in some way, but he was frightened to in case she didn’t care.
He went to bed because he didn’t know what to do with himself. He knew their love was still there, buried somewhere. They’d found it before. They could go to therapy. If that didn’t work, they could borrow some money and build onto the house. They could have their own wings and Mimi could have a room in the middle. He refused to let his daughter come from a broken home.
He was still awake hours later when Alice came in. She got undressed in the bathroom so as not to disturb him, and undoubtedly would be getting into her pyjamas. He was wearing pyjamas too. He couldn’t remember when they started down that slippery slope, it felt like pyjamas was something they’d always done.
Their bedroom was dark. He could see, because his eyes were open, that she used her phone to find her way to the bed. She climbed in and positioned herself on the edge, curled away from him.
He wanted to have sex with her. The bed was so wide. When he put out his hand to touch her, it didn’t reach.