It was the second day of summer and Nathan’s tenth birthday, and his parents had a huge party. There were two bouncy castles, one Bob the Builder, the other Pirates of the Caribbean. The petting zoo had two areas – farmyard animals and reptiles. There was a swing ride for the older kids and, for the young ones, a carousel. A giant slide overshadowed the lot. Catering ensured they were all fed on couscous and smoked salmon, and for the sweet tooth there was mango, pawpaw and other, out-of-season, imported fruits.
Nathan’s mother, Charlotte, winced as she saw her sister Linda walking across the paddock with her brood lugging a large sports bag. Three of the kids were horsing their way across balancing paper plates and the father carried the fourth who was holding a long gift. Linda waved exposing unshaved armpits. Charlotte took a deep breath and braced herself with a fake smile. “Maria!” She hissed to her maid who was overseeing the catering and the timetable of activities. “Get ready to intercept.”
Maria nodded and stood to one side.
“Linda! David! Kids, how delightful you could all come!” She air kissed the adults and tried to pat the kids on the head, although cringed at the feel of their undoubtedly filthy heads.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, sis! Right, we knew you’d have lots of posh food, but I couldn’t resist bringing a few of the old favourites. Chocolate crackles, Honeyjoys and, of course, fairy bread.”
The kids put the plates on one of the food tables and looked pleadingly at their father. He nodded.
“Of you go, kids. Get out of here. Don’t break anything.”
“Or anyone!” Linda shouted after them as they rabbited off. She grinned at her sister, then noticed Maria picking up the plates. “Where are you taking them?”
“I’ll put all of this on our party crockery.”
“Nah, don’t worry. Easier to clean up this way, hey!”
Charlotte grimaced and nodded at Maria who reluctantly put the plates back on the table. Charlotte has spent years getting rid of her common Australian accent and the sound of her sister’s strine reminded her of everything she’d left behind. When she’d heard her sister was moving to England with the family last year, she’d been so excited, but it had been nothing but trouble. She just didn’t get it, how hard it was to keep up this lifestyle, to impress her husband’s work colleagues and keep her figure and instruct the staff.
Nathan ran up and threw himself into the arms of his aunt, so pleased to see her. She showered him with kisses. David held the small child down to hand over the gift to Nathan.
“There y’are, mate, happy birthday.” Nathan started to open it, but his mother gave him a disapproving look.
“Onto the pile, sweetie.”
Nathan’s eyes clouded over, but he took the gift and put it with the others. He came back and grabbed a Honeyjoy.
“Oh, no, sweetheart, wouldn’t you prefer a cucumber sarnie?”
Nathan gave his mother a disparaging look. He turned back to his aunt. “What is it?”
“That, my dear, used to be your mother’s favourite treat when she was your age. It’s called a Honeyjoy, and you must have one.”
Nathan took a nibble and his eyes lit up. He shoved the whole thing in his mouth, dumped the paper wrapper on the plate, grabbed a second and ran off. Charlotte sighed.
“He’s not supposed to have sugar. It makes him hyperactive.”
“It’s his birthday, sis, lighten up.”
Dave handed the baby to his wife and grabbed the bag. “I reckon it’s time for some good old backyard cricket.”
“Oh, please don’t make any holes in the lawn…” Charlotte called after Dave who was already disappearing to the grassy expanse behind the bouncy castles, bag in one hand and sweeping up Nathan on his way. She sighed again. Maria came over with a stern look on her face.
“Cake is supposed to be served in ten minutes. It can’t run late or there will be no time for the father son croquet tournament.”
The three ladies watched as more of the children and many of the fathers started to head to the game as it unfolded.
“Don’t worry, Char. Not everything has to run on time.”
Charlotte gave her sister an angry look, took Maria by the arm and walked inside to check on the cake.
Nine minutes later, Maria had the cake table clear and was ready to light the candles. Charlotte went to collect the partygoers, all of whom had abandoned the expensive attractions and were watching the game. She clucked her tongue and looked for her husband, disappointed to find him bowling.
“Tarquin? Can I see you for a moment?”
“Hold on, Char, two more bowls in the over.”
“But sweetheart, it’s time for the cake.”
“Hold on, I just…” he looked over to catch his wife giving him a ferocious death stare. “Ok, kids, time for cake.”
The kids groaned, but he pocketed the ball and they gradually made their way to the cake.
Maria lit the candles and just as they were starting to sing, the wind blew half of the out. Maria looked at Charlotte with fear and started to light the candles again. She stood, her substantial girth blocking the wind, but they only made it halfway through the second “Happy birthday” before three candles went again. Nathan’s face started to go red with anger, and he stamped his foot. As Maria tried to light the extinguished candles, four ore blew out. The crowd went silent and Nathan became more furious until he heard a strange giggle. It was Linda and her brats, giggling at the candles. Nathan was shocked, but quickly the giggles started to catch. By the time the candles were lit again, barely anyone could sing from their laughter. Linda hushed them, and they sang a super fast version of the song. By the end, seven of the candles were blown out. Nathan quickly blew out the remaining three and they all cheered. Charlotte grit her teeth into a smile and started to cut the cake.
“Presents!” Shouted Linda, and they ran to the table.
“Wait, no, the presents are for later…” the crowd rushed away from Charlotte, leaving her to cut the cake with a tight-faced Maria whilst the presents were opened.
“This is the best! Thanks, Aunt Linda, Uncle Dave!” Nathan ran around the party with his empty super-soaker water gun making machine gun sounds all the way. With the presents out of the way, the men headed back to the cricket game. Linda stood watching with a smile.
Charlotte marched up to Linda.
“I have told you many times that we do not allow Nathan to play with toys of guns in any fashion. It is bad enough that you bring your family,” she spat out the word. “arriving late and bringing more sugar than most of these kids have had in their lifetime, but then you spoil all of the fun, and my lawn, incidentally, with that tacky cricket set and now, a gun. I am going to have to ask you to leave. Now.”
Linda was shocked. “Oh, come on, sis, it’s not a gun, it’s a water gun, and he loves it. And don’t you remember how much we loved backyard cricket with dad?”
“Yes. In Seaford. In the seventies. This is not the seventies, and it is certainly not Seaford. Go, collect your belongings and go”
Linda looked at her sister, trying to imagine the person she once knew. She shook her head sadly, hitched the baby onto her hip and headed out to the cricket. There was a brief argument, but once Linda put her foot down, Dave sadly informed the group that they had to leave and packed up the set.
They headed back over the field to their car, Nathan walking sadly with them the whole way.
After the drove off, he stormed up to his mother, who was chatting with the other mothers, mocking her foolish sister and her family. The women, who already looked embarrassed at Charlotte’s rude behaviour, quickly moved away as Nathan shoved the gun into his mother’s arms. “I hate you. I hate this party, but I really hate you.”
Charlotte watched him head into the house. She looked around, but no one would meet her eye, and quickly the guests dispersed. Tarquin moved quietly around them apologising, and when the last one had left, he walked inside.
Maria came out of the house carrying a large box filled with party bags and wrapped pieces of cake, to find Charlotte standing alone amongst the ruins. Charlotte looked at the plastic gun in her hands, threw it onto the ground and jumped on it, over and over, until it was a mess of small pieces.