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No Problemo

* Story contains bad language

No, not the cinema, not with the state his head's in today. And not swimming, think of Max getting dressed and undressed, doing buttons one by one, no thanks. Too wet for the park. So McDonald's it is. Max orders a Big Mac with small fries and a medium size root beer. Bill has a coffee in a polystyrene cup, too hot to drink, so he watches Max eroding the borders of his burger, tucking slips of lettuce back inside the bun.

'Nice is it?' Bill enquires. 'You enjoying that?' They could be father and son, a family portrait framed in the innumerable mirrors. 'Art deco, I suppose,' he says, taking in the polished surfaces, the potted palms, the metallic prints of cars and ocean liners. 'You ever been to New York? Empire State Building, fourteen hundred and seventy two feet. It's not the tallest building now, but it's still impressive.'

'It's not as tall as Mount Everest,' says Max, fishing skinny fries from the carton.

'Maybe not,' says Bill struggling to remember just how high Everest is, in feet or is that metres? He's not sure if Max is precocious or small for his age. He's asked Bridget how old he is at several points in their relationship, and each time he's forgotten. The boys' eyes are hidden underneath his Dallas Cowboys hat. They've talked about the Dallas Cowboys before, and the difference between American and English football. Bill has been to Texas - not Dallas itself, but to Houston, a thousand miles away. Texas is three times bigger than Britain. Just imagine.

Max is wondering to himself, if Bill's here now in the afternoon does that mean he's going out tonight with Bridget? If so, will Rachel be his babysitter? Will she bring Terminator 2? She said she would - next time if you go straight up to bed now and don't come down, and you don't tell your mum, you hear me? You don't tell her anything.

Max is the only person, the only one in his class, who hasn't seen the Terminator films. Except for Caspian, who doesn't even have a telly, whose family never wear shoes or have their hair cut, who can't eat anything but goat's milk and lentils. But Bridget won't listen. 'It's the violence,' she says, 'I won't have violence in my house. I don't want to know, Max, that's final.' Treating Max like a baby. But he isn't a baby. And he is not Caspian. He's the kind of kid who ought to see Terminator 2.

The coffee strips a layer from Bill's tongue. He suddenly feels ravenous, like some one who's never eaten. Max lifts the root beer briefly to his mouth, then takes another nibble from the brick-coloured bun. Nothing wrong with his appetite - he's just a slow eater. At Bridget's, they sit silently at either side of the table, watching him ponder his food. When Bill was a child, he ate separately, except on Sundays. He was brought up by his grandparents, amongst dark, Victorian heirlooms. Once he'd cleared his plate, he'd ask, please may I leave the table? May I? If he said 'can', he'd have to sit still until he remembered.

'So Mummy's having her hair done.'

'Viv's cutting it.'

The burger's much smaller now, chiselled into a rough octagon. Most of the other customers appear to be Chinese. Why should that be? He'd meditating on this issue when suddenly, without warning, lust surges through him. Bridget raw against the carpet, her flesh clenched to his. The lad could have come downstairs at any moment. He could have heard their meaty groans.

Bill steadies himself - but surely everyone can see his hand trembling as he picks up a fry that Max dropped. The pig-tailed kid wiping the tables, she knows where that hand's been.

'Viv,' he says thoughtfully, 'that's a palindrome. Her name reads the same forwards and backwards. Today's a palindrome. The tenth of November, 10/11/01. And how about this one? It was a cat I saw." He starts writing down letters and numbers, training mind over matter, the matter of his cock, primed in his pants.

He can't believe his luck in finding Bridget. She had no need, surely, to answer his advert, a woman soft and warm and sexy, she'd have no problems attracting a man. So what does she see in Bill? Five foot six, his hair falling out, his job at Yellow Pages secure but unrewarding. He makes her feel protected, so she says. But there was nothing safe about last night.

'Thankyou for the meal,' says Max. He's like a little goblin, perched on the edge of his plastic seat. That hat annoys Bill. Next time, he's going to make him take it off.

Two o'clock. Another hour to fill. 'What would you like to do next, Max? How about the museum? Would you like to see the mummies?'

Max shrugs, stuffing the wrappers back into the box.

'I know what we can do. Where's the best ice cream in town?'

Max wonders if this could be a trick question. In town, ice cream's expensive. There's plenty in the freezer. You can wait till we get home.

Again. 'What's your favourite ice cream?'

Max goes for the unattainable. 'Baskin Robbins.'

'Where do you get that from?'

'Millie's. In the Arndale Centre.' Where he has often tried to linger on the way to buy new shoes.

Outside, it's started drizzling. The leaden street slides past them, like a dream. This is one of those wintery days when the sun never makes an appearance, and the sky seems lit by a thirty-watt bulb. Absent-mindedly, Max takes Bill's hand, then he lets go. Something stuck in his shoe is biting at his toe. He squashes his foot around, so it doesn't hurt so much. One lace is trailing in the puddles.

'Do you know,' says Bill, 'half a million people live in Manchester. Where do you suppose all these people are going? You know, Manchester hardly existed two hundred years ago. Max, have you ever tasted brown bread ice cream? Sounds funny, doesn't it? Actually it tastes delicious. We'll make some one day. When you come to my house. And vanilla - what's called vanilla ice cream very rarely is, these days. Vanilla's the pod of a plant that grows in Madagascar. If you ever have vanilla ice cream, check the label. and see if it's real. If it says 'vanilla flavouring', it isn't real vanilla ice cream. It's artificial, made out of chemicals.'

Rachel's got to come. She's bringing Terminator. It's really going to happen. Max gives a little skip as they pass through the glass doors into the warmth of the Arndale.

Max isn't so bad. He's a bright little chap, slightly introverted maybe. That's to be expected from an only child. Bridget shouldn't worry. Bill knows from his own experience, a certain kind of child thrives in solitude. He probably does a lot of reading. A bit of a dreamer.

What about the father? Bridget's saying nothing. No birthday card, no calls, no Sunday visits. If he makes her feel protected, why won't she tell the truth? She knows all his secrets, for what that's worth. And he's broadminded. She must know that by now.

'What's it going to be?' They've reached the flashing lights at Millie's stall. 'A double? What would you like?'

Max doesn't hesitate. 'Bilberries and cream. With almond and pistachio.'

A sophisticated choice, though, personally, Bill wouldn't match nut flavours with a fruit. He observes the surgical manner with which the Baskin Robbins girl slips a plastic bag over her hand.

'Pistachios,' he says, 'are very good in baked apples. It's funny, isn't it, how food that's the same colour always seems to go together. Now what shall I have? What do you think Jamoca is?'

'I need the toilet.'

'Yes yes, well hurry.' He watches the girl probing the big pastel tubs with her scoop. 'Be quick or your ice cream'll melt.'

When Bill was a child he was not allowed ice cream. Now he's grown up, he can eat what he likes, but only the best, not the dense Walls bricks he used to dream about, the penny scoops and forbidden raspberry ripples. It's Hagen-Daz now, or Loseley's with acacia honey; Marks and Spencer cappuccino, Thornton's double chocolate, or, if he's slumming, frozen Bounties - not forgetting the home made varieties he's promised to show Max. That's something they can do. They can make ice cream together.

The tiny piece of grit drops onto the floor from his sock, and is gone. This is Max's first time in the Men's. Usually, he goes with Bridget to the Ladies. He's finished, but he stays where he is for a while, flexing one bare foot in the air, and listening to the gruff sounds beyond the door.

Terminator comes back as a good guy. He promises not to kill people, just thrown them around until they've learnt their lesson. That's not VIOLENCE. Who says that it's VIOLENT? Bridget never listens. Terminator belongs to this boy, and this boy can get him to do what he wants because, one day, this boy's going to save the world.

His machine brain whirrs into action as he goes through the routine of pulling up his pants, tying his laces, pretending to wash at the basin. His jaw stiffens. Back on the mall, he breathes deeply, feeling his muscles swell like balloons. He growls to himself in his Terminator voice. This way, guys.

Suddenly, Bill feels uneasy. She said something, whispering through the car window. Don't let him go to the toilet on his own. It isn't safe, she said. There's all kind of perverts. Bill's vision jumps like a damaged video. The subdued indoor noise of the Arndale runs dimly through his head. He starts running, greenish purple ice cream dripping down his sleeve.

This way. Maybe not. Trouble is, every shop Max walks by looks the same. Clothes, jewellery, shoes, bags and clothes, jewellery, shoes. But you always go past Millie's, whichever way you walk. Don't worry. No problemo.

Bill's not even sure what Max is wearing. The hat, that's all, the hat that hides his face. He's just looking for some kind of kid-sized hole in the crowd. A hole with a hat. He rushes through the toilets, pushing at the metal doors, calling out his name. All kinds of perverts. He could have been abducted. And who would be to blame? She'd never forgive him.

Bill made her feel protected. She put her trust in Bill. He asked her once, 'Shouldn't we be using something?' but she ignored him, rutting drunkenly in the darkness, not speaking, like he could have been anybody. He asked her again, and she said, 'I'm safe, aren't you?'

Bill's feet are slipping on the pale tiles. Somewhere a piano's playing Strangers in the Night.

'Here,' he says, 'have this,' ramming Max's cornet at a toddler in a pushchair. He starts shoving his way up the downwards escalator.

He has vanished by the time Max reaches Millie's. If he doesn't turn up, Max will have to find the Lost Children. There'll be an embarrassing announcement. There was one running now, in a teacherly voice. WILL THE MOTHER OF TYLER PARKER PLEASE COME TO THE INFORMATION DESK WHERE HER LITTLE GIRL IS WAITING. Max would rather die. He'd rather spend eight hours in Dolcis looking for new shoes. He circles Millie's stall again. If he tries hard enough, he's bound to conjure up the bald man in a coat. He has to do it. The alternative just isn't bearable.

Forget Terminator. He'd give up anything, just to be home. He keeps thinking about the way the cat always cries at the living room door. Unless you push it wide open, she doesn't believe she can come through. And the way she catches spiders, crunching them like twiglets.

An old lady's bending over him, asking if he's lost.

'No,' he says, 'not exactly,' trying to think of a way to explain.

Only a few minutes have passed, but it's like Bill's been searching for hours. He's cold with sweat. His head aches from the bitter, shadowless lighting. He's leaning against a metal banister, high above the place his search began, so afraid he can't even name his fears. The pianist has switched to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and he thinks he can hear the sound of running water. Then his own name is being called from below.

Max supposes he'll be shouted at. Which won't be fair, but will soon be over. Bill is definitely looking very angry, travelling slowly down the escalator to where Max is still standing with the old lady. His face, gone red, looks squashed and round. After thanking the old lady, he sweeps the cap from Max's head, and stares at him hard before speaking.

'So what do you think you've been up to?'

Something gets in the way of Max's voice, like the sharp piece of grit that was once in his shoe.

'Never mind. We'll forget about it. I won't tell your mother. Just don't ever wander off again.'

Bill's very quiet on the way home, in his big, silent car with the electronic windows. Max watches the intricate dials, still not sure how deeply he's in trouble. Things can't be that bad, if he's allowed to sit up front.

'Mum's one of those things,' he ventures.

'Sorry?'

'The same backwards and forwards. So's "dad".'

'You're right,' says Bill, 'a palindrome,' keeping his gaze steady, his hands just barely touching the controls.

Max sinks a little deeper into the seat. Eased by the car's motion, his limbs are softening. He's almost asleep.

'I wonder what Mummy's done to her hair,' Bill ponders. 'She might surprise us.'

Max is starting to dream now. Behind his lids, he can see the darkness flowing.

'We won't say anything about that little mishap. I think you're learnt your lesson..'

Bilberries and cream. Pistachio. Maple fudge and almond. Max is sharing his ice cream with the Terminator. Terminator glugs with laughter. Not so bad, eh Max! But you better keep it a secret!

Bill glances at the sleeping child. How young Max is, much younger than Bill could ever imagine. He's looking into another man's eyes, through that face. Yet the pulse beating in the flesh is Bridget. He can even trace her in the way the boy's nose twitches in his dream, a nose whose shape is nothing like her own. To tell the truth, Max is an ugly little sod. A snub nosed hobgoblin. But he's not a bad little chap on the whole. They should do this again. Now they're getting used to one another. Make it a habit.