The sun was low, the sky as blue as the sea. I sat on the couch, puffing, and she said, "Did you know surfing has been accepted as an Olympic sport?"
I tied up a blue balloon. "No, I didn't," I said.
"Did you know Simon Bridges only got 6 per cent in an opinion poll for preferred Prime Minister?"
"Poor old Simon," I said, and picked up a pink balloon. "He came here. Played him at ping-pong downstairs, remember? I crushed - "
"I remember," she said. "Did you know that a 15-year-old girl left England to fight for Isis and now wants to regain her citizenship so she can have her baby in England but the government said no she can't? And fair enough, too."
There is no more severe judge of character than a 12-year-old. I said, "How do you know all this?"
"Social studies test."
I went back to the balloons. The guests were due at 3.30pm. Her mum was out getting the cake, as well as snacks, juice, goodie bags. I put away the breakfast dishes, and cut flowers from the garden. The pool was filling fast. She came out onto the upstairs deck. "Clues!" she called down. "Clues, for the treasure hunt."
"In a minute," I said. The newspaper was still in the letterbox. I didn't want to open it and look at my stupid face. It stared out, old and winsome, above my first column for Canvas. I'd written about splitting up, and laid it on way too thick – I felt "brittle, anxious", I was "alone". I'd tried to rein it in, make it less phoney, but lacked the skill or the class, and the whole thing read like a plaintive tale of woe. And so every now and then I checked my phone and read emails and texts and DMs from nice people offering their sympathy and concern. I wrote back to everyone apologising for giving the wrong impression, no sympathy was required or deserved.
"Clues, Dad," she said.
We worked on the treasure hunt together. One clue was to be left on the trampoline, another in the dolly house, another under her pillow – the usual places, the classic destinations. I wrote and drew the clues on paper, and she bound them in colourful sticky tape. We ate lunch on the deck, in bright sunshine.
The messages kept coming in, from Queenstown and Fiji, Nelson and Waiheke, from a knight of the realm, a girl I used to fancy, family, old friends, strangers. "Just another one of those he's-bad-news guys..." There was an invite to go sailing and drink rum or black tea (why not both?), an invite from an 86-year-old to go out to dinner with two other guests in their 80s. So many nice people, but also a text from a former MP: "Piece of shit ... Good job." Meanwhile another column in that day's paper, a satire on the angry right-wing, began attracting angry right-wing emails. So much dislike, but at least it was honestly earned.
Her mum arrived and the party began to take immediate shape. Everything was set. She got dressed, brushed her hair, performed tremendous dance moves. The balloons hung above the dining table from lengths of pink wool taped to the ceiling, just like they've done on every birthday since she was 5, when we bought the house with tangelo trees out the back and a rubber tree out the front. The rubber tree got cut down a few years ago. It had got out of control; it was bad news.
And then the guests, a room full of sweet, happy 12-year-old girls, most from her class, three she's known forever, all avid little innocents with their ponytails and social studies knowledge. They came bearing gifts. "Oh thank you so much Abbie! This is so cool! Oh thank you so much Eleanor! This is so pretty! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you ..." The games, the swim in the pool, the walk to a restaurant to eat pizza and drink fizz. Meanwhile, more nice people emailing and texting, and the same replies, the same mess.
Back home, the candles were lit and the pink, sticky cake was cut. The mums arrived, a sullen dad. "Thank you for coming Zahra! Thank you for coming Tessa!" What a wonderful day. Our beautiful daughter, happy and golden, on her last birthday before she turns teenage. We sat around for a while and then she got her things. I waved from the front deck. The balloons swung in the breeze. I got back to my 86-year-old friend and his dinner invitation: "Count me in! I'll be there."