The Birthday Party

The birthday party was held at a brand new, ultra-mod, two storied function centre cum holiday house in an orange orchard on the banks of the brown river. It was already night when we arrived, driving down a bumpy unsealed road through dark green trees then turning off at the sign-posted drive and parking at the back of a line of other cars. There were sounds of revelry within but the gate at the top of the stairs was locked and even after we climbed over it no-one heard us knocking; it was only when someone came out to leave that we were let in to that house full of strangers. After a little while the birthday girl, who was turning thirty, came up the stairs from down below and we gave her the black rabbit with the floppy ears that was her present; she decided to call her Misty. C, who had organised, perhaps even paid for, this extravaganza, joined us a little bit later. He is Portuguese but the birthday girl’s family, farming folk from the other side of the Blue Mountains, were of Ukrainian extraction. Or to the casual eye just typical rural Aussies: taciturn, self-possessed, sceptical, slow. Other guests were inner-city urban types like us. Most people had already eaten so we browsed among the remains of what looked like a hastily convened picnic at which most of the parcels of food had not been properly unwrapped. The cake, even before it was cut, was a ruin; there was no ceremony but I did get a piece to eat. Chocolate. Exceedingly rich and sweet. The evening after that was a blur, I’m not sure why – it didn’t seem like a heavy drinking party. I remember sitting outside under the tall gas heaters like Daleks sipping red wine and smoking C’s B & Hs. One of the farm boys went on and on about how much he loved dancing at nightclubs, how there was nothing wrong with boys pairing up with boys; not that I’m gay, he said. Another, who was married to the birthday girl’s best friend, told me about his job in construction and how much he loved their boy, who was there, a seven year old with wounded eyes. There were kids swinging in the hammock at the end of the verandah or running in out and of the adults’ legs playing chasing games. All sorts of suggestive things went on in the spa bath, which was outside, adjoining the verandah. Later there was a major fight in one of the bedrooms, it was the construction guy and his wife, she was screaming, he was yelling, the kid was in there with them . . . the husband left but I didn’t see him go; much later, after hours of tears and remonstrations, the wife and kid followed and then M and I, who had been sleeping on the floor in the sitting room, trying to make love quietly so that the guy on the couch wouldn’t hear us, crawled into the bed they’d vacated and got some decent pre-dawn sleep. In the morning, before anyone else was up, we went and bathed in the spa. The house was surrounded by mist, you could hear but not see horses passing along the other bank of the river while will-o-wisps rose spookily from the grey water and clumps of weed floated downstream like predators that the ducks, nevertheless, ignored. C said the house belonged to a Sicilian and I looked immediately at the shovel and mysterious pile of orange dirt on the green grass below and thought of bodies. When the others got up and we had washed and cleaned up we walked through the orchard and picked some of the fruit; we went along down the river bank to a wooden slatted fence and stood there staring gravely at some alpaca, who stared gravely back at us; one with a punk haircut. Later there was another flare up, I’m not sure what it was about, between a woman guest and one of the birthday girl’s sisters: sudden malice abroad in the clearing morning. Just before we left I talked to the ninety-three year old grandfather. He told me a dirty joke and suggested, if I want to make a living out of writing, I should put lots of sex in my books. Half  his heart was dead, he said, since an attack aged seventy-two. His eyes almost white with age and the pouches beneath them swollen as if from bee-stings. The oranges had thin hard horny skin that was difficult to peel and their flesh was juicy and sharp. Driving away I thought I would like to return to the Sicilian’s orchard when the orange trees were in blossom but knew I never would; that, unless on film or on the TV news, I would never see that place again in my life.

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