‘What’s the matter?’
Maisie sat on the back door step, bottom lip out, arms crossed over her chest like a dam holding back the flood.
‘Doesn’t look like nothing,’ said Dad. ‘Budge up.’ He squeezed in beside her, the stone cold on his backside.
Sparrows hopped in the bird table they’d made together last year – a pole with an old tea tray hammered to the top. Maisie had added the important touches such as splodges of lilac paint and glittery star stickers that had peeled off after the first heavy rain. He should have bought some varnish for it, lacquered over the stickers, but being practical never was his thing.
‘Ali doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.’
Maisie and Ali had been friends since nursery, though half of that time seemed to involve them fighting.
‘Well,’ said Dad, ‘I’m sure it’ll blow over.’
Maisie shook her head.
‘You’ve fallen out a lot of times over the years, love – ‘
‘I hate her.’
‘Maisie – ‘
‘She said I’m ugly. That I’m fat. That I’ve got slitty eyes.’
There’d been name calling over the years – of course there had – but school had handled every instance so well, the unpleasantness all dissolved so quickly. Now that mean little cow Ali … After all the birthday parties and sleepovers. And Maisie always the kindest girl … His daughter’s pain hit him in the chest, leaving him gasping for breath.
He looked at his big little girl, at the grown-up body with the ten-year-old child trapped inside. Life would never be easy for her and he wouldn’t always be around to help. But he was here today.
Gently, he took her hand. ‘You’re a beautiful, gorgeous girl – outside and in. And Ali …’
‘Is made of poo and twigs.’
He laughed so loud, the sparrows shot in the air and away over the garden fence.
‘Well, I was going to say she hasn’t got a heart half so big as yours. But maybe she’s made of twigs and poo too. I’ll ask her mum.’ He squeezed Maisie’s hand. ‘Fancy an ice cream?’
She looked at him from under long, blonde lashes. ‘Ice cream sundae.’
He smiled, smudged the tears from under her eyes. ‘Okay. Ice cream sundae. Last one with their shoes on is a rotten egg.’