Out of the mouths of babes.
“Mavid!” shouted the baby.
David had long since given up trying to persuade his niece that his name started with D For Dog; she’d figure it out eventually, he assumed.
Her parents, in contrast, dutifully corrected the child each and every time that she blurted out his nearly-name. Their persistence was staggering. He supposed that was what parents were for: they were the only ones who could muster the patience to deal with such infant intractability. For anyone else, the novelty of grappling with a toddler’s mispronunciations wore off quickly.
As did the novelty of watching said toddler wade gleefully through a pit full of plastic balls: while exploration of the concepts of “spherical” and “rolling” was still excitingly fresh to Daniella, its charm had long since faded for David. He sipped desultorily at his mochachino and wondered what the hell Susan was doing in the toilet for all this time. He suspected she’d actually gone for a sneaky ciggy. Or two.
That wouldn’t have been so bad if he could have just chilled out, watching the primary colours of the plastic balls mixing like pixels: but his attempts to do so were constantly frustrated by Daniella’s adoring cries of “Mavid! Mavid!” Having been left in loco parentis, he couldn’t simply ignore her: but there was little that he could actually do in response except utter vaguely reassuring noises – checking in with the mother-ship, he thought – and smile encouragement at her upturned, beaming face.
She grinned, glad to have snared his attention, and then returned to flapping ineffectually at the balls. Another, slightly smaller, girl seemed to be making a beeline for Daniella: he waited, in a spirit of intellectual curiosity, to see how their trajectories would resolve. A collision seemed inevitable. But once the children had come within a foot of each other, they froze.
After a tense couple of seconds, Daniella defrosted and shouted “Mavid!”, snapping him out of his reverie – smile and nod – and headed off on a divergent path through the ball pit. His vision floated back to the middle distance, willing the vivid colours of the balls and the sounds of childish glee to dissolve into a faraway fiesta.
But then came the cry again: “Mavid!”
He looked up, his mouth already cracking into a rictus: but Daniella seemed busily occupied at the far side of the ball pit, her back to him. Instead, the other little girl was staring up at him with gigantic, cornflower-blue eyes. Damn it, he was hearing things now. Uncertain, he nodded acknowledgment at her, much as he might have done at a colleague in a long and narrow corridor at work. He felt stupid, but she seemed satisfied, turning away and grabbing a ball in each of her chubby hands.
Back to the middle distance. A pair of tidy legs scissored across his field of vision, but their owner had rounded the corner before David had evaluated her entirety. For a moment, he contemplated the possibility of building a (necessarily abbreviated) sexual fantasy around the glimpse; then, acutely aware of his proximity to the ball pit full of children, felt like a pervert; then he decided that there was nothing to be ashamed of and decided to embark on it anyway – but then there it was again. “Mavid!”
Irritated, his righteousness evaporating into embarrassment, he looked up. But it wasn’t Daniella this time, either. Nor was it the girl with the cornflower eyes. This time, it was a little tousle-headed boy, leaning with one arm on the side of the ball pit, half-bent over in childish enthusiasm. Damn it! What had he said, to make David think it was his name? And where the hell was Susan? This time, he didn’t smile: he just stared sternly at the boy.
The boy stared solemnly back.
Then his face cracked into a grin, he jumped up and pointed. And shouted: “Mavid!”
There was no mistaking it. David sighed. Obviously, the Mavid meme had spread from Daniella to the other kids in the pit. They probably didn’t have any idea what they were saying. Daniella herself was throwing handfuls of the plastic balls at the netting along the far side of the pit. He sighed. “Yes, Mavid,” he said to the boy. “Mavid!” the boy replied. Then the little blue-eyed girl turned round. “Mavid!” she cried. And Daniella, suddenly watchful, also turned and shouted: “Mavid!”
Startled, he grinned weakly, nodded: but then the other children were turning, pointing, shouting: “Mavid! Mavid! Mavid!” until the ball pit was full of tiny, smiling faces calling out, calling to him. “Mavid! Mavid! Mavid! Mavid!”
Involuntarily, he stepped back, tripped over the step behind him, gathered himself up, and still the children were shouting: “Mavid! Mavid! Mavid!”
“Now, children –” he started, then felt ridiculous, as if he was impersonating a vintage television presenter – “now, just, just STOP THAT!”
Silence. For a few seconds. Then, with the inevitability of toppling dominoes, one, then another, then another of the children started to cry: not grizzling, but lusty-lunged, full-spectrum bawling. Parents scurried to scoop up their offspring – where had they been a moment ago, eh? – throwing him baleful looks as they went. “Maaaaviiiid,” sobbed the blue-eyed girl, “Maaaaaaaaviiiiiiid.”
“What the bloody hell have you done?” demanded Susan, who had reappeared with the kind of exquisite timing reserved exclusively for the discovery of fraternal incompetence. “Nothing,” David protested weakly, but it was to her angrily tensed back as she waded into the pit, the plastic balls breaking like rainbow surf around her calves. “Fuck,” he said to himself, feeling guilty despite himself at his Anglo-Saxon coarseness.
“For God’s sake, David,” snapped Susan as she returned, before her face snapped instantaneously back into unlined calm, cooing to the stiff and wailing figure of Daniella in her arms. He trailed after her, pushing the buggy, ashamed. Panicked by a bunch of toddlers, he thought. Hopeless. He was glad to beat a hasty retreat; he didn’t dare ask Susan, but they seemed to be heading for the exit, the commotion fading behind them.
As Susan fastened Daniella, now peaceful, into her car seat, David pushed his hands into his pockets, silently watched the crocodile of newly arrived families wandering towards the entrance. And then a small boy twisted bonelessly in his pushchair, stared at David with round, glistening eyes. Smiled, and shouted triumphantly: “Mavid!” ##