Angry 35 year old mother, sucks joy out of everything, spends a lot of time on her phone
Simone’s husband. Great with technology, rubbish at real life, never seen without his screen
The 5 year old
Delightful little boy, gives the best hugs, always in trouble
The little sisters
3 and 1 years old. Not allowed to have fun
Dean’s Dad. Spitting image of Dean, but with grey hair, a jolly smile and no screen
Dean’s Mum. Loves cooking. Hates most people
Dean’s sister. Nothing is more important than her cat
Baffled visitor from the UK
Cat 1. Usually lives with Simone in Sydney. Much like her owner, she has endured a 10 hour car journey to spend Christmas with people she hates
Cat 2. Janine’s cat. Pampered and privileged
Cat 3. The resident cat. Usually enjoys a peaceful life at home with Noel and Noelene. Not impressed with any of the visitors
Simone’s sister. Currently not on speaking terms with Simone
Random octogenarian. Speaks only to Noelene, ignores everyone else. No idea where she came from
The activity takes place at the home of Noel and Noelene between 24th and 26th December 2017.
Christmas with Simone and her phone had been falsely advertised to me as a fun-filled family affair, a little bit like a festive episode of Neighbours. Unlike Eastenders, festive episodes of Neighbours were always happy back in the day, because Neighbours always used to finish for a Christmas break with all the loose ends happily tied up, the evil uncles locked up or knocked off and the remaining Neighbours all quickly cured from the drama, bereavements and tragedies of the year and gathered together for a game of cricket and a barbecue. I’d still been in England when I’d accepted Simone’s invitation to join her for Christmas, so had not yet learnt that Simone had turned into an angry sergeant major who shouted at her children, sucked the joy out of everything she did and had completely lost the ability to ever enjoy anything as nice as Christmas.
The plan was that Simone and Dean, the cat and the children would undertake a 10 hour car journey from their new home in Sydney to stay with Dean’s parents in the town near Melbourne where Simone and Dean had lived until very recently. Various friends and family members would be dropping in throughout the Christmas period, but there would definitely be time for me to fulfill my dream of swimming in the sea on Christmas Day. It was all going to be very jolly and Simone couldn’t wait for me to be a part of it.
“Won’t Dean’s parents mind?” I asked.
“Oh my God, are you kidding? They will love you.”
What Simone and her phone forgot to tell me was that whilst Dean’s parents might love me, they certainly didn’t love her. And that Christmas, just like every other time Simone got together with her in-laws would be fraught and awkward. It would start with a bit of muttering, a few door slams and snipes, then as the time went on, the tension would increase into a huge crescendo and finally break out in the mother of all arguments with Simone and Dean one side of the kitchen island and Dean’s parents the other side, sending insults backwards and forwards quicker than the ball at a Wimbledon final.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Thankfully I’d been smart enough to avoid the 10 hour car journey from Sydney which had occurred earlier in the week, and by the time I flew in on the morning of Christmas Eve, Simone and her mother-in-law had already spent three days together, winding each other up and were already at the stage where they couldn’t speak to each other without slipping in a scathing look and a dash of criticism.
Dean’s parents were the complete opposite of one another. Noel was skinny and jovial with a twinkle in his eye, declaring everything to be fun and wonderful, whilst Noelene floated around in a caftan, looking enormous, complaining it was too hot and silently observing everything that happened with an air of disapproval. They were out shopping when I first arrived at the house and when they returned, Noel threw his arms around me and said how wonderful it was that I’d come for Christmas, whilst Noelene drifted past me with a frosty “hi” and immediately started asking what the beetroot was doing out of the fridge and why the three year old had a different hairstyle to the one she’d given her this morning.
Dean’s sister arrived not long after me, throwing her arms around everyone and seeming very enthusiastic about Christmas. Simone and Noelene seemed to briefly reunite in disapproval as they exchanged a glance and shook their heads with sour faces at Janine’s cheerful arrival. I was thinking how nice it was to have a friendly female around, and that Janine must take after her Dad, not her Mum, when Simone took me aside and explained that Janine was on very strong medication and the current high she was displaying only meant that she’d be on the floor weeping with sorrow and calling us all horrible names before the hour was up.
I was the only person who hadn’t arrived with a cat. Angry Bella had been brought all the way from Sydney by car and was still absolutely furious about it. Pampered, privileged Frank had travelled from Melbourne with Janine, the car loaded down with all Frank’s essentials – a scratching post, a favourite blanket, toys and treats, and a floor to ceiling indoor climbing frame which we spent a good two hours trying to assemble whilst resident cat Basil stalked about pretending he didn’t care in the slightest that a visiting cat had better toys than him.
Whilst the adults had all resigned themselves to at least trying to pretend to like each other for the duration of Christmas, the cats decided to be far more honest about it and made it very clear that none of them could stand the others. And so the house was divided into three different sections for the whole of Christmas and certain doors had to remain shut at all times so that each cat never had to encounter the other two. I think Christmas would have been much more successful if we had divided the adults up in the same way, with different people shut behind different doors so that no more eye rolling or scathing comments could take place.
With the arrival of me and Janine, it meant that all three of Simone’s children would be sharing a room tonight for the first time ever in their lives. This in itself is exciting enough when you are five, three or one, but add in the extra ingredient of sharing with your siblings for the first time ever on the exact same night that Santa is coming and you have three hugely excited children who are quite clearly not going to be going to sleep for many many hours.
Simone and Dean were completely enraged by this. They could have sat back with a few drinks, enjoyed the evening and accepted that this was a special night and the children were going to sing and chat and laugh in their rooms, because they were far too excited to sleep. Instead Simone and Dean took it in turns to go into the bedroom shouting horrible threats at the children and listing all the awful things that would happen to the children and their presents if they didn’t stop talking and go to sleep RIGHT NOW.
“It’s wonderful,” said Noel. “They’re so excited. They’ll treasure these memories. You can’t blame them for not sleeping. You didn’t when you were their age.”
Dean who had just sat back down with his screen after shouting at the children was so infuriated by this that he stood back up again and went and shouted at the children with so much force that they all started to cry. Then Simone, not bothering to get up from her chair, bellowed loudly that they had nothing to cry about and that they needed to stop crying now and go to sleep. The crying stopped for a bit, and then a bit later the one year old started to sing and then the talking and laughter began again.
“I can’t deal with this,” said Simone.
“Do you want me to go?” I asked. Hanging out with the children seemed far more inviting than sitting in a room full of angry adults.
Simone laughed. “You? You’re far too nice. As if you’d be able to discipline my children.”
“I wasn’t planning to discipline them,” I said. “I was thinking of using some of the sensory strategies I use at work. To help calm them down, seeing as they’re not in the right state of mind to go to sleep yet.”
Simone laughed as if this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. “Sensory strategies. Yeah right.”
And so the children stayed awake, being loud and excited, and the adults continued to shout and be far more annoyed about their children’s excitement than was necessary.
In between shouting, the adults were supposed to be wrapping presents. Simone and Dean had brought a ridiculous amount of presents for the children. There was already a huge sea of presents leaking out from under the tree, and several more bags full of toys and clothes that still needed to be wrapped. You’d think that on Christmas Eve, anyone who still had at least thirty more presents to wrap would be grateful for any help they could get, but not in this household, because Janine, who was neither a giver nor receiver of any of the presents that needed wrapping insisted on bows.
“If Caz hasn’t been taught how to do a bow properly, then she’s not wrapping any presents,” Janine warned.
I wasn’t ever so convinced that a one, three or five year old would be bothered if not all their presents came with a pretty ribbon, but I decided to humour the family tradition. Janine taught me how to cut the ribbon, wrap the ribbon, tie the ribbon, add extra ribbon and then curl the ribbon. It was a lot of effort. Noelene, Janine and Simone all scrutinized my first attempt disdainfully.
“She can carry on with the ribbon,” Noelene said as if I wasn’t there. “But we’ll hide all the ones she does at the back. We don’t want to get them in any of the photos.”
The rest of the family nodded, possibly the first time they’d reached a unanimous decision on anything in the whole of 2017.
But not for long. Because twinkly eyed Noel who’d spent the day remarking that everything was wonderful was about to rock the boat, by saying exactly what I’d been thinking.
“There’s an awful lot of presents,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know why you need to get them this many things. They’re never going to be able to play with all these toys. It takes away the meaning of Christmas, piling all this stuff on them. They’d be just as happy with two or three nice presents each. You’re spoiling them. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said.”
A silence fell over the room, then Simone got up and stormed out of the room, closely followed by Dean. A door slammed and the shouting began.
“I’m sorry, but it needed to be said,” Noel announced to the rest of us, then he got up and left the room too, leaving me sitting at the table with Janine, Noelene and the offending still to be wrapped presents.
“It’s true,” said Janine, who had brought at least twenty individually wrapped presents for Frank the cat. “No kid needs this many presents.”
Simone and Dean didn’t emerge from their room again that night, and gradually the rest of us went to bed, apart from Noelene who said she had a few bits to do in the kitchen but was in fact still awake and tending to a platter of lobster salad when I woke and went to the loo at 2:37am.
Going to the loo was a difficult thing throughout my stay at Noel and Noelene’s because the part of the house where Angry Bella was allowed to roam free was the corridor outside my bedroom which led down to the toilet and bathroom. Day and night, Angry Bella stalked the corridor waiting for someone to vent her anger on and usually it was me. That first night when I got up to go to the loo, Angry Bella stood in front of the bathroom hissing at me, and blocking my way. I tried to coax her out of the way with gentle quiet whispers but Angry Bella was having none of it, and when I gave up and went to step over her, she lunged forward, wrapped her front paws around the back of my bare leg, whilst at the same time biting into the front of my leg with her mouth.
I obviously didn’t yelp quietly enough because Noelene was there in a flash. “What’s going on?” she demanded.
“Bella bit me,” I whispered and followed Noelene into the kitchen where lobster salad making was in full swing.
Together we inspected my leg, which was dripping with blood. I carefully wiped the blood away with wet kitchen roll and showed Noelene the impressive holes left in my leg by Angry Bella’s teeth and claws.
“Little bitch,” she said, and I hoped she was talking about the cat and not me.
We had a bit of a chat about the lobster, and all the other food Noelene was preparing. Noelene seemed quite pleased that I was taking an interest in her love of cooking, she even smiled on a couple of occasions and elaborated by telling me some cookery stories from Christmases long ago and just as I thought she might be mellowing a bit, she said quite abruptly:
“You better go back to bed. Make sure you don’t bleed on the bed sheets.”
I was relieved to see that Angry Bella was no longer blocking the entrance to the toilet so that I could finally visit the loo as originally planned. However I was less pleased to see that she had taken the opportunity to snuggle down onto my bed for a snooze.
“No way,” I whispered as bravely as possible, terrified that she was going to attack me again if I went anywhere near the bed. “You are not sleeping here. Get out.”
Angry Bella ignored me.
I turned on the light to show her I meant business. “Listen you angry cat,” I whispered. “This is my room. If you were a nice cat, we could share, but after what you’ve done to my leg, I can’t trust you. Get out.”
“What’s happening?” asked a voice and I turned to see Dean in his boxer shorts, looking as morose as ever.
“Bella’s in my room,” I whispered, thrilled that someone who wasn’t scared of the cat was awake and might help me. “I’m trying to get her to leave.”
“She’s fine,” said Dean. “She likes it in there.”
“No,” I said. “She just bit me.”
“She’d never do that.”
I showed him my leg and explained about the claws and the teeth and the blood.
“Ouch,” he said. “Are you sure it was her?”
“Sorry,” he said. “She’s probably a bit cross because she’s not allowed outside. She hasn’t attacked anyone for at least a couple of weeks.”
“Can you get her out?” I pleaded.
Dean sighed, but went into the room and manhandled Angry Bella out of the room whilst she hissed and scratched him. I shut the door gratefully and sank back into bed.
Christmas Day came, and with it a random octogenarian called Mary, who turned up and followed Noelene about the kitchen, telling her long complicated stories and anecdotes about other random people, whilst Noelene raced from sink to oven to hob to fridge, looking flustered, and seeming to be doing quite a good job of tuning out everything Mary said. It seemed Mary came every Christmas, but refused to acknowledge any member of the family apart from Noelene, and they in turn all completely ignored her, apart from the five year old who was randomly instructed to give Mary a kiss at the very end of the day even though there’d been no interaction between the two of them all day.
Christmas Day also brought Simone’s sister Sarah, who was currently not on speaking terms with either Simone or Dean, but presumably had been when she accepted the invitation to come to Christmas dinner. Her relationships with Noelene and Janine seemed equally terse, Mary was a non-starter and Noel, like the cats, seemed to have assigned himself a separate part of the house to spend his time in, which meant the only adult left who didn’t mind having a chat with Sarah was me. Sarah quizzed me about my travels and on all things British, and it must have looked as if we were having far too much of a good time, because we were ordered to sit at different ends of the table at lunch time where Sarah was rendered speechless by the fact that nobody at her end of the table was on speaking terms with her.
Simone managed to burn all of the vegetables, and Noelene scraped them into the bin, whilst issuing Simone with a silent deathly stare. Simone’s only job of the day had been to tend to the vegetables, but she had been on her phone at the same time and had got distracted. Although to be fair to Simone, the only vegetables she ever allows into her own kitchen are those frozen bags of mixed peas, carrots and corn, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that she didn’t know what to do when faced with pumpkin, sweet potato and real live carrots.
There was still plenty of food, and although Simone had denied us all the chance to have our five vegetables a day, Noelene had provided five different animals – lobster, stuffed pork and glazed ham, beef sausages, lamb and duck.
I realised fairly early on in the day that my dream of swimming in the sea on Christmas Day was not going to be fulfilled. Just as Simone’s assurances that “Christmas is going to be awesome” and “Oh my God, Dean’s parents are going to love you” had so far turned out to be false, it seemed that “Of course you can go swimming, Dean’s parents live right by the beach, we can easily take you down there for a swim” was also a lie, because Dean’s parents actually lived a 40 minute car drive from the nearest beach, and it was clear that driving Caz to the seaside was not top of anyone’s To Do list today, especially not with all those presents to open.
So on a boiling hot Australia day, instead of enjoying the sunshine or the local beautiful surroundings, eleven people sat inside, sweaty bodies sticking to leather seats, taking part in the present opening ceremony. My best presents were from Janine, who despite not having met me when she bought my presents, had thought very carefully about my backpacking needs and bought me little boxes of cereal, sachets of jam and hot chocolate, little bottles of shampoo, a torch…. and a keyring with a photo of Frank the cat on it. At the other end of the scale, Sarah hadn’t considered my backpacking needs at all and gave me a large candle in a beautiful but very heavy glass jar that would take up most of the stripy suitcase.
Noel and Simone hadn’t spoken since his outburst about the quantity of presents last night, so we had that elephant in the room as well as the eleven sweaty bodies and all of the presents. We started to open the presents at 1:30pm and were still going at 7pm. Most of the presents were for the children. Dean and his screen took photos of each and every present being opened, and then as soon as the child clocked excitement at what was inside, Simone would shout “Don’t take it out of the box. We’ve got to drive that back to Sydney. You can’t play with it here.”
That’s right. We spent five and a half hours watching the children open presents that had travelled for 10 hours to be opened on Christmas Day, only to discover that the children weren’t allowed to investigate or play with any of the toys because they all needed to stay in their boxes so that they could be packed neatly back into the car for the 10 hour drive back to Sydney.
After the present opening I tried to escape to my room for a bit of time and space by myself. I had been trying to keep my bedroom door shut, initially because the one year old liked to go through all my stuff, but now after last night’s drama with Angry Bella, I wanted to keep her out as well. However Dean kept opening my door every time he went past, because he believed that my room was Angry Bella’s favourite place to sleep and didn’t want to deny her every opportunity to hang out on my bed.
On this occasion, I went into my room to discover that Angry Bella had been sick everywhere. So instead of time and space by myself in the room, I had time and space by myself in the laundry room, washing cat sick off of all my possessions which had been taken out of the stripy suitcase and distributed around the room by the one year old, making them easily accessible for the cat to be sick on.
Simone was mortified and came to help, whilst Mary and Noelene had a loud conversation about how inconsiderate it was of the British visitor to want to do her laundry on Christmas Day. Dean stared at his screen, oblivious to the fact that his obsession with opening my door had caused all this trouble in the first place.
Boxing Day started with a trip to the leisure centre. The night before Simone had told me that she and Dean were feeling super stressed and were going to calm themselves with an early morning sauna, and did I want to join them. Well, getting up early to go and sweat with two angry people in an unbearably hot room that smells of wood is not my idea of a great way to spend my time, but then Simone uttered the magic word “swimming” and I was all ears. At the leisure centre Simone and Dean disappeared off into the sauna and I swam lengths of the pool, then got super excited at the announcement that the slides and flumes were open, and had a wonderful time testing them all out. I could have stayed there all day, but before long Dean was ordering me out of the pool, looking like his sauna hadn’t de-stressed him one iota, and we were soon in the car travelling back to Noel and Noelene’s.
“It’s a shame we didn’t bring the kids,” I commented. “They would have loved the slides.”
“Yeah, but nuh,” said Simone. “We need to make the most of the free babysitting whilst we can.”
We got back to the house, to find Janine loading everything into her car, in floods of tears.
“Goodbye Caz,” she said, throwing her arms around me. “It was lovely to meet you. Please come and stay with me and Frank in Melbourne. We’ll go out to tea. I’ll take you dancing. Come whenever you like.”
“Thanks,” I said, as Janine pointedly walked past Dean and Simone, got in the car and drove angrily away.
“What’s going on?” Dean asked his parents as we went back into the house. “Janine just left without saying goodbye. I thought she was here til New Year.”
“I think you better ask your wife,” said Noelene with sheer venom in her voice.
“What am I supposed to have done?” asked Simone, clearly baffled.
“Well if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you,” retorted Noelene, and stormed into her bedroom.
Dean used his screen to phone Janine, who shouted a load of nonsensical angry words at him and then hung up. Then Dean and Simone started having an argument about what Simone had or hadn’t done to drive Janine away, and I played with the children.
Boxing Day was already shaping up to be better than Christmas Day because as well as my early morning swim and slide ride, the agenda for the day was “taking Caz to the beach”. I couldn’t wait. Unfortunately we were having lunch first, and would have to be back in time for tea, because no-one’s allowed to mess up Noelene’s mealtime arrangements, but nevertheless I was excited.
“Can you get the children dressed?” asked Dean. He was too busy arguing with Simone and having his calls blocked by Janine to do it himself.
“Sure,” I said. “Does it matter what they wear?”
“Just clothes,” replied Dean crossly.
So I helped the children choose which clothes they wanted to wear for a day at the beach. Then Noelene appeared, took one look at the two girls in their shorts and T-shirts, and demanded:
“Who dressed the girls?”
“Well they can’t wear those clothes. They’re what I call the play clothes. Totally inappropriate for today. Come on girls. Nanna will help you put the right clothes on. Silly Caz didn’t know what she was doing.”
The children were quickly re-dressed in what Noelene apparently called the non-play clothes, which looked fairly similar to the play clothes I had dressed them in earlier.
Lunch was a terse affair. I’m not sure that anyone actually knew why Janine had left, but it seemed everyone was cross about it, apart from Basil the resident cat who could now reclaim the main part of the house again now that Frank had gone, and me who was beside myself with excitement at going to the beach this afternoon. I’d already put my bikini on underneath my own “play clothes” in anticipation.
And then it happened. Simone and Noelene were in the kitchen, getting in each other’s way, trying to pack up the lunch things when Noelene announced:
“Right, that’s it, we’re leaving. I can’t stand this any longer.”
“You don’t have to go,” snapped Simone. “We’re taking Caz to the beach. You can stay here. This is your home.”
“Well it might do you good to remember that, young lady.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Quick as a flash, both husbands jumped up and ran to the sides of their wives. The singles snarling match had just become the doubles championship.
No stone was left unturned. Everything and anything in the whole nine years that Simone and Dean had known each other could be grabbed and hurled as ammunition.
“You were always comparing me to his last girlfriend. It was like you wished he was still with her.”
“I did wish he was still with her. You were still carrying on with another boy when you met Dean.”
“It was complicated.”
“It’s not complicated. You pick one or the other, or you walk away.”
“I know that, I picked Dean.”
“Not that you think he’s good enough for you.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean? Of course I’m good enough for her.”
“Shut up Dean, of course he’s good enough for me. I love your son.”
“Oh so you do actually remember that he is my son.”
“You never let me forget it Noelene.”
As a special needs teacher, I’m used to quickly upping and leaving a room with hoards of children at a moment’s notice and ushering them to safety when an inappropriate behaviour arises, and this was an inappropriate behaviour if ever I saw one. The children were fascinated by the action unfolding in the kitchen and reluctantly followed me into the garden, to play although we could still hear every word that was shouted.
“You need to think about the way you talk to your children, you never show them that you love them, you’re always shouting at them.”
“How can you say we don’t love them? First you say we’ve bought them too many presents and now you say we don’t love them.”
“Love isn’t about buying an obscene amount of presents. I asked them this morning what they’d got for Christmas, they can’t even remember because you overwhelmed them with too many things and wouldn’t let them play with anything.”
“I remember I got a bike,” the five year old told me, looking a bit bewildered.
We played in the garden whilst Simone delivered a tearful monologue about how nobody can please Noelene or live up to her high standards, then Noelene burst into tears and said that everyone has to tread on eggshells around Simone because she’s so angry all the time, and bit by bit every part of family life was thrown into play – the burnt vegetables, today’s early morning sauna trip, something about a silk scarf that got lost in 2014 and an exciting new fact that I didn’t already know – earlier in the year Noel and Noelene had sold their family home and specifically come to live in the same street as Simone and Dean to be close to the grandchildren, then three weeks later Simone and Dean announced they were off to live in Sydney.
An hour and forty-five minutes went by. I know this because I’d been texting a friend as the argument began and I checked to see what time I’d sent it, so that I could work out how long the battle had lasted. Eventually it went quiet and the five year old volunteered to peer through the window and see if it was safe to re-enter.
“I can’t see anyone,” he whispered. “Do you think they’re all dead?”
“No,” I replied. “They’ve probably just gone into another room.”
“Oh.” The five year old seemed disappointed at such an anti-climax and raced around the house peering in the windows and reported that the only sign of any life he could see was Angry Bella sitting on my bed.
Eventually Simone appeared in the garden, looking tearstained and sorry for herself. “Caz we’re going for a walk,” she said.
Dean was at the front of the house. He kissed the top of my head and said “I’m really sorry you had to see that. Thanks for taking the kids out. We’ll take you to the beach tomorrow, I promise.” He then engaged in some rare fatherly activity and helped the five year old to ride his new bike whilst Simone and I walked behind.
“Are you okay?” I asked because someone needed to fill the silence and it clearly wasn’t going to be her.
“Yeah,” she said. “We just had to clear the air.”
“Is it resolved?”
“Caz, it will never be resolved. This happens every time we see them. It’s usually a lot worse. That was nothing.”
Nothing? That was nothing? I’d missed out on my Boxing Day Beach Trip for an hour and forty-five minutes of nothing?
“I’m so glad you’ve come for Christmas though. You are having a nice time aren’t you?”
“Well let’s see,” I said. “The cat has bitten me, scratched me and thrown up all over my things, everyone has ridiculed my attempts to put ribbons on presents, I got told off for dressing children in play clothes, even though all they’ve been doing today is playing, I haven’t been to the beach yet, I had to pretend I’m not allergic to lobster because I didn’t want to make Noelene cry, I’m terrified of going to the toilet in case the cat attacks me again, and when world war three broke out in the kitchen I had to evacuate before I’d put any sunscreen on which means I’ll probably wake up with terrible sunburn tomorrow. The jury’s still out, but this might actually rank as an even worse Christmas than the time I fell 240 metres down a ski slope and ended up on crutches.”
Simone had stopped walking and started to cry again, but this time she was crying with laughter. “Oh Caz, you are too funny,” she said. “You crack me up so much. I wish you lived with us all the time. It would be so much fun. Seriously, I keep telling you to write a blog. Everyone will love it.”
Yes Simone, they do! But what you don’t know, and will hopefully never know, is that it’s the stories about you that everyone loves best!!