It was my first Saturday in Australia and I was being taken to a party I didn’t want to go to.
It fact it didn’t sound as this was a party that anyone wanted to go to, because it seemed that every single person going to the party wasn’t speaking to at least one other person on the guest list. I knew this because I had been staying with Simone and her phone for four days now, and all four of those days had been packed full of phone calls from people complaining to Simone about how awkward it was going to be at the party on Saturday.
On Saturday morning, Simone was finally off the phone long enough to give me a complicated run down of who all these people were, why they all hated each other and how tense the atmosphere was going to be.
“We’re basically all getting together to show that even though Han and Dan have split up, it’s not going to affect the dynamics of the group and we can all still get together and have fun.”
“It only isn’t affecting the dynamics of the group because the dynamics of the group are already totally screwed,” mumbled Simone’s husband Dean from behind his screen. He didn’t want to go to the party either.
“Well,” I ventured bravely. “You don’t need me there messing up the dynamics even more. I think you should go without me, and I’ll find something else to do.”
“What?” Simone and Dean were so shocked that actually took their eyes off their screens and stared at me.
“I don’t know any of these people,” I said. “And it sounds like you’ve all got a lot of…” I searched for the right word “…history. So you go to your party and have fun with your friends and I’ll do something else.”
Simone was completely aghast. “We can’t abandon you on your first weekend in Australia.”
“You really can,” I said.
“But why? What would you do?” Simone asked as if there was absolutely nothing for a British backpacker to do on a sunny Saturday in Sydney.
“I’d go to the beach, or the zoo, or the aquarium…”
“You went to the beach yesterday,” said Dean.
“Yes,” I said. This was true. But going to the beach was one of the biggest reasons I’d come to Australia and I was planning to go to the beach as much as possible. It wasn’t like I was going to tick off “going to the beach” on day three and never bother going again. But I didn’t explain this to Dean because Simone was already wailing.
“But we want to take you to the zoo and the aquarium.”
Yeah. That was the original memo I got. Back in England when I’d been What’sApping Simone about my travel plans, she told me I had to stay for the whole weekend because she had grand plans to take me to the zoo and the aquarium. There had definitely been no mention of hanging out with a dysfunctional group of friends who in fact hated each other.
Don’t you want to meet our friends?” wailed Simone.
“Not really,” I said, trying to sound apologetic.
“Because you and your friends have been complaining about this party all week and it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”
“Our friends are great,” protested Simone. “They only hate each other. They’re all going to love you.”
“Really?” I said doubtfully, because introducing a random English stranger into a warzone didn’t sound like a successful recipe to me.
“For sure,” said Simone. “Anyway, we want you to come. Josh will be there.”
“Who’s Josh?” I asked, thinking that the party sounded bad enough without the addition of Simone trying to make me part of the screwed up group dynamics by setting me up with one of its members.
Simone lowered her voice. “Everyone in the group thinks Josh is autistic, but his Dad’s in denial. But if you were there we could be like “hey everyone this is Caz from England, she teaches autistic kids” and you could do a little diagnosis.”
Suddenly I wished Josh had been an adult they were trying to set me up with. That would be far easier to get out of.
“You do know that I’m not qualified to go to parties and give a lifelong diagnosis of autism to a child I’ve only just met?”
“Oh well, whatever, I’m sure you’ll work it out, whatever you say it will sound better coming from you. Oh and you need to teach Jess how to restrain Josh. She’s taking over the step-mum role and she can’t manage him. He keeps kicking off at the supermarket.”
Before I could even begin to explain Simone exactly how many things were wrong with every single thing that had just come out of her mouth, her attention was drawn to the five year old, who had been quietly and painstakingly writing row after row of lower case mmmms but had now got bored and was beating out a rhythm on the table with his pencil and rubber. When he clocked that his Mum had finally stopped talking and was looking at him, his face turned to anguish and he tried to return quietly to his writing, but the wrath of Simone had been stirred and she marched over to look at his work before launching into her usual unnecessary charade of rubbing most of it out, telling him it was “yuck” and that he wasn’t trying hard enough.
And so the morning went on. I played with the kids, Dean played with his screen and Simone had to call most of the people who would be going to the party later so that they could discuss all the things that they wouldn’t be able to talk about in front of everyone else when they got to the party.
It was a bit of a rush to get ready for the party. The kids were all completely unaware that they were going to a party because nobody had bothered to tell them, and the parents were so busy having screen time that they lost track of the real time. So there was a lot of shouting and a few tears and by the time that Dean had gone out to the car to move the car seats around so that all six of us would fit in, he was feeling quite stressed. I didn’t realise I was going to be adding to his stress until he opened the car door and pointed at where he wanted me to sit.
He certainly had moved the car seat, but not the bits of food and crumbs that had been happily breeding under the car seat for however long the car seat had been there. The seat was littered with bits of ancient cracker, bits of biscuit, a few old McDonald fries, a third of a jam tart and was just generally not a place you would want to sit when you are wearing your white Desigual dress.
“I think I need to get a cloth,” I said.
“We haven’t got time for that, get in,” Dean replied.
“What’s wrong?” said Simone.
Simone greets everybody by asking them what’s wrong. Usually I tell her nothing’s wrong and give her an enthusiastic happy story about the latest games I’ve been playing with her children. Right now though I gave her question the literal answer it needed.
“This seat,” I said. “I need to clean it before I sit on it.”
“Caz, I am so sorry,” said Simone as she clocked the state of it, and she set about cleaning it with wet wipes whilst Dean sighed impatiently from the driver’s seat. We all had to be quiet on the journey because Simone needed to talk to Gem and Em before we arrived to find out if they were talking to each other yet. Apparently they weren’t.
Going to a party in Australia is different from going to a party in England. Australia, with its lovely weather, has sensibly set up lots of communal barbecue and picnic areas near all its beaches and parkland, and on sunny days and evenings there are always groups of happy Australians chatting merrily, drinking beer and tending to sausages.
Or in the case of Simone and Dean’s friends, standing around, pretending not to hate each other.
Three groups were quickly established – the guys were in charge of the meat and the beer, the girls busied themselves setting out salads and dishes filled with things they’d prepared earlier and all the children went off to play on the playground equipment. Simone’s three kids who had followed me around lovingly for the past four and a half days didn’t even give me a second glance now that there were other little people to play with, so I had to be brave and talk to some adults instead.
Everyone had a one syllable name. I spent much of the party thinking that one of the blokes was called Ann and wondered what it was short for, later I discovered his name was actually Ian but none of the Australians pronounced the first syllable – I wondered if his parents had realised that would happen when they christened him?
The only people who got referred to with more than one syllable were the people who hadn’t been invited to this party – a pretty amazing achievement to be so out of favour that they weren’t even welcome at a party where none of the guests liked each other. Gem and Em, who even I knew weren’t speaking to each other, found common ground as they slagged off someone called Melissa, whilst other people picked over the misdemeanors of people called Caitlin, Darren and Bianca. People didn’t seem to be talking to each other, more talking over each other, believing that if they talked a bit louder than everyone else who was talking, someone might listen.
My most favourite thing about the party was the food. Simone had stopped off at the supermarket on the way to the party, shouted at the children for daring to ask if they could go into the store with her, then disappeared for at least fifteen minutes. The rest of us had stayed in the car, Dean sighing and tapping the steering wheel, telling the kids to be quiet and swearing when he tried phoning Simone only to find her phone was engaged. Eventually she returned with a few packets of breadsticks and her phone clamped to her ear. Other people however had clearly been off the phone long enough this morning to create homemade dips and quiches and jelly slices. I hovered by the food table with my paper plate and cup, topping both of them up far more than anyone else did.
Simone introduced me as the Awesome Caz from England who’d been keeping her sane and looking after her kids all week. Someone had brought their parents to the party, two cheerful people in their sixties who had no interest in the politics of this party, but instead chose to quiz me on UK politics, asking far more questions about Brexit and Theresa May and cumberland sausages than I knew the answer to. But I must have passed the test because they invited me to go and stay at their holiday cabin in the Blue Mountains any time I fancied.
One of the “friends” was called Kill, which I can only imagine was short for “If-looks-could”, judging by the thunderous expression she wore on her face for first hour of the party as she hovered on the edge of conversations, glaring angrily at everyone and everything. Once the parents were satisfied they’d quizzed me on all things British, they moved on to interrogate someone else, and Kill honed in on me.
“I’ve been to England,” she announced, somehow managing to make this sentence sound more like a threat than a statement.
“Oh?” I said, feeling a little bit scared that Kill was entering into conversation with me. I much preferred it when she was polishing off the watermelon and glaring at everyone.
“Yeah. I lived in Nuneaton for a year.”
“Did you like it?” I ventured. It didn’t seem the most obvious place for an Australian to live for a year.
“Yeah, I loved it.” The monotonous voice, the angry eyes and the frown did not convey the same positivity as the words.
“When did you go?”
“Two thousand and seven.”
“What did you do there?”
“You know what’s weird about England?” Kill suddenly became animated. “Yorkshire pudding, it’s like, not a pudding. And like, black pudding. That’s not a pudding either.”
“Don’t listen to her,” said one of the guys. “Kill talks crap. Of course Yorkshire pudding is a pudding. I’ve had it. My Mum used to make it all the time. It comes with custard, doesn’t it?”
“Actually…” I began, but Simone suddenly appeared from the other side of the park, took me by the arm and steered me away for what would be the only conversation she had with me for the duration of the party.
“You can’t talk to him,” she said.
I remembered. Dan, formerly of “Han and Dan” – the reason everyone had come to this party in the first place. This guy who thought Yorkshire pudding came with custard was the reason I was here and not at the aquarium.
Simone explained “He’s on the rebound. And Han is really really vulnerable. If she sees you talking to him, she might scratch your eyes out.”
“Right, we were just talking about…”
“Yeah, I know, but Han won’t see it like that.”
“Which one is Han?” I asked.
“Um, she’s not actually here,” said Simone.
Simone looked a little tearful. “She’s very upset. She can’t face it.”
“That’s a shame,” I said. “But if she’s not here, she won’t know who Dan’s been talking to.”
“Trust me,” said Simone. “Deb and Em will be ringing her up the minute this party ends and telling her absolutely everything that Dan did whilst he was here.”
“Right. Is there anyone else I’m not allowed to talk to?”
Simone didn’t notice the sarcasm in my voice. “No,” she said. “Oh actually, maybe not Dom? Bree’s a bit insecure about their relationship, but I don’t blame her after what happened in the mountains. I’ll tell you later. I need to find Kim, I haven’t spoken to her yet.”
I did a circuit of the playground and even went to the top of the climbing frame to talk to the five year old, but with so many other kids to play with, he didn’t even return my hello before he was off down the slide, caught up in a game, shouting commands at one of his friends. I returned to the blue cheese dip, which was by far the best thing about the party, but discovered some of the uninvited flies that had been buzzing around the food all day were now at different stages of swimming and drowning in it. Instead I spied an empty chair amongst the main group of “friends” and bravely decided to go and join in.
“So, are you like Simone’s au pair?” asked one of the friends.
“No,” I replied. “We went to uni together in 2001 when I was here on exchange.”
“Oh right, so why have you come back?”
I explained about giving up my job to come travelling and they all looked at me like I was mad.
“Aren’t you worried that you won’t ever get another job?” asked Bree.
“Not really, no,” I said.
“Well I would be,” said Deb.
Bec swotted away a fly from her plate. “At least in England you don’t have to worry about these,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“These black things. They’re called flies. You don’t get them in England, but they’re a real pain, especially at picnics.”
“We do have those in England,” I said.
“No,” Bec said. “Like these black things. You get bees and wasps, but not flies.”
“We do,” I said.
Bec shook her head. “No,” she said. “I went to Europe for six months, I never saw any.”
“When were you there?” I asked.
“Like October to March,” said Bec.
“I guess they’re around more in the summer,” I said.
“How convenient,” said Bec sarcastically, clearly not believing me at all. She addressed the rest of the group. “And do you know, in England they put carpet in their bathrooms. I mean, what’s that all about?”
“Why would you do that?” asked Deb, turning to give me an accusing glare.
“To warm your feet up when you have to pee in the middle of the night, because it’s so frigging cold in England,” said Jess.
“Some bathrooms don’t have carpet,” I said. “Maybe in older houses they do, but a lot of bathrooms have tiles or lino.”
“Yes,” I replied wearily, thinking I much preferred the politics inquisition from the parents. At least they were cheerful and willing to believe everything I said, even though I was far less clued up on Brexit than I was on flies and carpets.
“So my brother told me about how in London there are different pavements depending on how fast you walk,” said Jess. “And like slow people can get fined for walking on the fast people’s pavement.”
“How does that even work?” asked Deb. “Like, how do you know how fast you’re allowed to walk?”
“It’s probably like at the swimming pool,” said Bree. “The lifeguard tells you if you’re swimming too slow for the lane you’re in.”
I was rescued by the cheerful parents. “Caz,” they cried. “We need help. Tell us. That Maggie Thatcher. Is she dead yet?”
“Yes,” I said in relief, and stood up to go and join them without even a backwards glance at the group I was leaving. I found that quizzing the cheerful parents about their lives and Australia stopped them from asking me any more political questions that I couldn’t answer.
Eventually it was time to go. People fussed around putting lids back on things and Bec gave an unnecessary “what the f*** did you just call it?” when I referred to the cling film as “cling film” instead of “glad wrap”. Kill, who still looked furious, said it had been lovely to meet me, gave me her number and told me I should definitely go and stay with her when she went to her parents’ holiday home in Queensland this summer, whilst Bree and Jess threw their arms around me and said the next time I was in town we should all get together for a girls’ night.
Back in the car, Simone declared that the entire afternoon had been a complete success and she’d had a wonderful time. “I told you that everyone would love you,” she told me, and I wondered which parallel universe her party had been held on.
“You’ll definitely have to come back for Bec’s birthday,” said Simone. “You’re part of the group now. Too bad Josh wasn’t there. Apparently Tanya wouldn’t let him come. We’ll have to find another time for you to diagnose him.”
“Mummy,” said the five year old. “Tonight, when we get home can we…”
“Shush,” said Simone. “I’ve got to phone Deb.”
“You’ve just seen her,” said Dean in exasperation.
“I know, but I didn’t get to talk to her properly because… hi Deb…. oh my God I know… and did you see her face when Gem asked about the table decorations?”
And so it went on. The rest of the car journey involved Simone calling up all the people we’d just seen so that they could privately dissect every part of the afternoon, whilst I daydreamed about how next Saturday I would be far away from Simone and her phone, and never have to see any of her friends ever again.
That evening we didn’t do a lot. The party had been exhausting, apparently, so Simone and her phone and Dean and his screen just wanted to flop on the couch and not speak to each other – no different to any other night at their house. I had a look at my own phone and discovered I had a new friend request on Facebook – from someone called Bec Cotter.
“No way,” I said in disbelief, clicking on the photo for a better look, and there she was, Bec from the party, wearing a silly hat and posing with her two children.
I hovered over the “decline” button, but then stopped.
Perhaps I’d leave her hanging for a while. Just in case I ever did have to see her again.
And maybe a little later down the line when I went back to England, I could take photos of English flies swarming about in uncarpeted British bathrooms and post them all onto her timeline.