It happens sometimes that you accidentally star in a little public performance of your very own comedy, tragedy, or melodrama.
You’re running for your morning bus, briefcase swinging jauntily, when you trip and tumble playground-style to the footpath. You’re trapped in the heavy-breathing silence of a crowded elevator when your lover says something infuriating (What did you just say?), or your child asks a rather delicate question, or your mother calls on your mobile to shriek dire warnings. You’re shuffling past a row of knees in the cinema, caught in the spotlight of the previews, when you tip your popcorn into a stranger’s lap. You’re having one of those days of accumulating misery when you argue violently with someone in a position of power: a bank teller, a dry cleaner, a three-year-old.
You either ignore your silently grinning spectators, glower at them, or shrug humorously. If you’re a flamboyant type, you might even give a little bow! It doesn’t really matter much what you do, because you have no control over your role in the amusing little anecdotes they’re already busy composing; if it suits them, they will rob you of even more dignity.
It happened to three women one cold June night in Sydney. (Actually, it had been happening to them all their lives, but this time their performance was especially spectacular.)
The setting was a busy seafood restaurant endorsed as “full of surprises” by Sydney’s Good Food Guide, and their audience excluded only those suffering from excessive good manners. Everyone else witnessed the entire show with complete, bug-eyed enjoyment.
Within hours this little incident was being described and reenacted for the pleasure of baby-sitters, roommates, and partners waiting at home. By early the next day at least a dozen versions of the story were doing the rounds of office cubicles and coffee shops, pubs and preschools. Some were funny, others disapproving; many were censored, a few were spiced up.
Of course, no two were the same.
The Birthday Brawl
Last night? Eventful.
No mate, not that sort of eventful. The blind date was a disaster.
It wasn’t too soon after Sarah, I told you, I’m ready to get back out there. The problem was her voice. It’s like trying to hear someone on a bad line.
I’m not being picky, I can’t hear the woman! There’s a limit to how many times you can ask someone to repeat themselves before it gets bloody awkward. All night I was leaning halfway across the table, squinting my ears, making wild guesses at what she was whispering. At one point, I chuckled appreciatively at what I thought was a punch line and the poor girl looked horrified.
She could be really nice. She just needs someone with better ears. Preferably bionic ones.
But forget about the date. I’m sure she has. Actually, I’m sure she hasn’t because as I say, it was…eventful.
The restaurant was jam-packed and we had a table right next to three women. At first I didn’t even register them because I was busy perfecting my lip-reading skills. The first time I even looked over was when one girl got her handbag strap tangled around her chair.
Yep. Nice-looking. Although, I did have a preference for—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, at first these three girls were having a great time, roaring with laughter, getting louder and louder. Each time they laughed, my date and I smiled sadly at each other.
About eleven o’clock, we cheered up because the end was in sight. We got the dessert menu and she used sign language to suggest we share the blueberry cheesecake. Obviously I didn’t completely ruin her night by mentioning my missing sweet tooth. What is it with women and sharing desserts? It makes them so happy.
But we never got to order because that’s when the action started. The lights in the restaurant went off and three waitresses appeared, each of them lugging these three huge bloody…
…birthday cakes if you don’t mind!
And I said to Thomas, Well for heaven’s sakes! Three cakes! One for each girl! All ablaze with those noisy sparklers, which I personally think are a fire hazard. So then they sang “Happy Birthday”—three times! Thomas thought it was ridiculous. Each “Happy Birthday” got louder and more boisterous and by the end of it everyone in the restaurant was singing.
Except for Thomas of course. He’d been upset about the noise from the three girls all night. He even complained to the waitress! They seemed like nice, high-spirited young people to me. Well, they did in the beginning, anyway. The pregnant one smiled very nicely at me when she went to the Ladies.
They all had very generous portions of their cake! Not dieting, obviously! And they all helped themselves to spoonfuls of each other’s. That was nice, I thought.
Well, I kept a little eye on them. They had me intrigued for some reason. I noticed that after their cake they each took a turn reading something out loud. They looked like letters to me. Well, I don’t know what in the world those letters were about, but it was only a few seconds later that the yelling started!
Goodness me! What a terrible tiff! Everyone was staring. Thomas was appalled.
One girl scraped back her chair and stood right up and I’ve never seen anyone so angry! Her face was all blotchy bright red and she was shaking a fork and screaming, yes, screaming.
Well, I don’t know if I can say this part.
Well, all right. Come close and I’ll whisper it to you.
She was screaming, “You have both…
…fucking ruined my life!”
And I think to myself what the f*ck is going on here?
I’d just been telling Sam that I was going to score a massive tip from Table Six because they were all having such a good time and they were all pretty drunk.
Even the pregnant girl had a glass of champagne, which is pretty bad, isn’t it? Don’t you have a retarded baby or something if you drink while you’re pregnant?
The thing I can’t believe is how she could do that to her own sister. I mean I get pretty mad with my sister but this—wow! Her own triplet even!
Did I tell you they were triplets?
They were all out together celebrating their thirty-fourth birthdays. I never met triplets before and they were pretty friendly, so I was asking them questions about what it was like. The two blond ones were identical. It freaked me out! I kept staring at them once I knew. It was like Spot the Difference. Weird.
One of them said it was fantastic being a triplet. She just loved it! The other one said it was terrible! It made her feel like a mutant or something. And the third one said it was just nothing, no big deal, no different from being in any other family.
And then they all started arguing about what it was like to be a triplet. But in a friendly, funny way.
That’s why I couldn’t believe it when I heard them start fighting. Like really fighting, as if they absolutely despised each other. It was sort of embarrassing, you know? Like they were doing something really private in public.
Sam told me to distract them with their coffees. So I was trying to keep my face normal, walking up to their table, and that’s when it happened.
I tell you. It gave me such a shock the coffees were wobbling in my hands.
You know those two old fossils that come every second Thursday? You know, the fat woman always has the crème brûlée? She’s got the skinny husband with something right up his arse. Anyway, my hand was shaking so much I sent cappuccino froth flying over the guy’s bald head! O.K., O.K.! Gimme a break, I’m trying to set the scene for you!
One of the girls stood up at the table and she’s yelling at her sisters, right? And all the time she’s yelling she’s sort of poking at the air with her fondue fork.
They shared the special fondue for their entrée, you see. Actually, now I think about it, it was my fault the fondue fork was still sitting there on the table.
Wow. I hope they can’t sue me or anything. Ha.
So this girl, she’s got the fork and she’s yelling like a complete maniac. And then she throws the fondue fork at her. Can you believe it?
And the fork gets stuck in the pregnant one’s stomach!
She’s just sitting there looking down at her big belly and there’s this fork sticking right out of her. It looked just completely bizarre.
The girl who threw it is standing there with her hand sort of held out, frozen, in midair. Like she was trying to stop a glass from falling or something and then realized it was too late.
And then—get this—she faints.
No—not the pregnant one. The one who threw the fork.
She just sort of crumples and falls—really heavy—onto the floor and on the way down she bangs her chin, like bang, really hard, on the edge of the table.
So she’s lying on the floor, completely out of it.
The pregnant one, she’s just sitting there looking at the fork sticking out of her stomach and she’s not making a sound. She’s just staring at it in this sort of dreamy way and then she touches her stomach with her finger and holds it up and it’s covered in blood! Totally gross!
The restaurant is silent, like so silent, it’s loud. Everybody is just sitting there looking at them.
So the third sister. She sort of sighs and shakes her head as if it’s no big deal and leans down under the table and picks up her handbag and pulls out…
…her mobile and rang for an ambulance for the two of them.
Then she rang me on the way to the hospital. I mean really. What a complete debacle.
They’re over thirty now, for heaven’s sakes, and they’re behaving like children. Throwing things at each other in public places! It’s disgraceful. And on their birthday of all days!
I think they all need to see a really sensible psychiatrist. I really do.
Remember that restaurant in the city, when they were little? Remember? The manager asked us to leave after Lyn threw her glass of lemonade at Catriona. What a fiasco! I’ve never been so humiliated in my life. Not to mention the perfectly good bottle of Shiraz we left behind. Cat needed four stitches that day.
I blame you, Frank.
No. It makes perfect sense.
Well, if you like, you can share the blame equally with Christine.
Christine, Frank, was the name of the woman who broke up our marriage. Now that is a perfect indication of how much your mind was involved in that sordid little incident.
I have not strayed from the point, Frank! Our broken marriage clearly damaged our daughters. Today’s incident is not normal! Even for multiples!
I was seeing the accountant when I got the call. I was speechless!
I could hardly say, oh, please excuse me, Nigel, my daughter just broke her jaw after fainting from the shock of throwing a fondue fork at her pregnant sister!
You should have seen them when I arrived here at the hospital. They were giggling! Treating the whole thing as a hilarious joke. They make me so cross.
I just don’t understand them at all.
Don’t pretend you understand them any better than me, Frank. You don’t talk to them. You flirt with them.
They all smelled unpleasantly of garlic, too. They had some sort of seafood fondue for their entrée apparently. I mean, really, what a strange choice! It doesn’t sound edible.
I think they have a drinking problem too.
I fail to see the humor in this, Frank. The baby could have been hurt. It could have died.
Our daughter could have murdered our grandchild!
Dear God, we could have been on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.
No, I do not think I’m being the slightest bit dramatic.
Well yes, obviously, that’s what I’d like to know too. It was the very first thing I said to them when I got here:
“What in the world started it?”
You could argue that it started thirty-four years ago when twenty-year-old Frank Kettle, a tall, fair, hyperactive ex–altar boy, fell madly in lust with Maxine Leonard, a long-legged languid redhead just a few days short of her nineteenth birthday.
He was pumping with fresh testosterone. She knew better but did it anyway. In the backseat of Frank’s dad’s Holden. Twice. The first time involved a lot of head-bumping and grunting and breathless shifts of position, while Johnny O’Keefe bellowed at them from the car radio. The second time was slower and gentler and rather nice. Elvis soothingly suggested they love him tender. In each case, however, the terrible result was the same. One of Frank’s exuberant little sperm cells slammed head-on with one of Maxine’s rather less thrilled eggs, interrupting what should have been an uneventful journey to nonexistence.
Over the following days, while Maxine was chastely dating more suitable boys and Frank was pursuing a curvy brunette, two freshly fertilized eggs were busily bumping their way along Maxine’s fallopian tubes toward the haven of her horrified young uterus.
At the exact moment Maxine allowed the very suitable Charlie Edwards to hold back her long red hair while she puffed out her cheeks and blew out nineteen candles, one egg fizzed with so much friction it split right in two. The other single egg burrowed its way comfortably in between the two new identical eggs.
Guests at Maxine’s birthday party thought they’d never seen her look so beautiful—slender, glowing, almost incandescent! Who could have guessed she’d been impregnated with some Catholic boy’s triplets?
Frank and Maxine were married, of course. In their wedding photos, they both have the blank-eyed, sedated look of recent trauma victims.
Seven months later, their triplet daughters came kicking and howling into the world. Maxine, who had never even held a baby before, was presented with three; it was the most despair-filled moment of her young life.
Well, that would be Gemma’s preference for how it started. Cat would argue that if she was going to begin with their conception, then why not go back through their entire family tree? Why not go back to the apes? Why not start with the Big Bang? I guess I did really, Gemma would chortle, Mum and Dad’s big bang. Oh funn-y, Cat would say. Let’s look at it logically, Lyn would interrupt. Quite clearly, it started the night of the spaghetti.
And Lyn, quite naturally, would be right.
It was a Wednesday night six weeks before Christmas. A nothing sort of night. An unassuming midweek night that should have vanished from their memories by Friday. “What did we do Wednesday?” “I don’t know. Watch TV?”
That’s what they were doing. They were eating spaghetti and drinking red wine in front of the television. Cat was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with her back up against the sofa, her plate on her lap. Her husband, Dan, was sitting on the edge of the sofa, hunched over his dinner on the coffee table. It was the way they always ate dinner.
Dan had cooked the spaghetti, so it was hearty and bland. Cat was the more accomplished cook. Dan’s approach to cooking was somehow too functional. He stirred his ingredients like concrete mix, one arm wrapped around the bowl, the other stirring the gluggy mix so vigorously you could see his biceps working. “So what? Gets the job done.”