Our July competition was a challenge to you to write about the same event – a family gathering to celebrate a 21st birthday – from two different perspectives. We had, as always, a wide variety of entries that varied from the darkest takes on family dynamics to the sardonic to laugh-out-loud dysfunctional.
Write a tight little, right little tale of a fraught family gathering – twice! Once from one character’s perspective, and again from another’s. (You could even think of the two perspectives as making up a single story.)
Here’s the scenario:
A small party is being held to celebrate the 21st birthday of the beloved youngest child of a conventional family, in their home.
Write a scene in which you describe the setting, one or two family members, and what happens – through what they say and do. BUT write one version from the perspective of the girl, whose birthday it is. And then the same scenario, but from the perspective of a sardonic sibling, the black sheep of the family, recently returned from rehab. Keep each scene short, no longer than necessary, maximum 250 words per scene. Keep your descriptions tight. Often one or two telling details can be a lot more powerful than reams of description.
In honour of the occasion – half-way through the Olympics, I mean – we’ll herald the winner’s name with her national anthem, a gold medal, and a cute bunch of flowers. She is…
An excellent piece, which you’ll find here. Full of telling detail; quiet, understated showing; and a little epiphany at the end where the characters hit gold with an audible thunk.
The lounge with its brown velvet couches, orange mohair rugs and collection of ashtrays scattered on the coffee table looks like I never left. My old sports cups still gather dust on the bookshelf. And now my golden key sits on the dining room table, hand framed by Pa and I know he’s been working on it for weeks. Ma has the chipniks and dips out and the family is working the room, even Ouma has her spot on the laziboy. Henk hands me a shot glass.
I throw it back. Hell man, it burns my friggin throat but I grin and Henk slaps me on the back. ‘Nice one, my girl. Always a little toughie our Sissie. Lets move on, your turn Charles.’ He says it with a flourish, softening the ch and bowing as he pours a shot of tequila into the glass. Poised at the edge of the table about to flip the coin, Charlie looks at Henk and smiles. “Innit funny how we all play the same drinking games don’t matter where in the world we come from?” No-one answers but I notice ma and pa watching from the couches. Henk waves his hand over the glass like a magician, looking straight at Charles. ‘Let the games begin!’ Then I see Piet. Small and quiet in the corner he looks hard at Henk, his jaw tight and arms crossed. Suddenly he moves forward and holds his hand out to Charlie. ‘My turn, actually, Charlie old boy.”
The key. He’s made the key for her. I remember mine. No clue where it is now, probably sold it. Or maybe it’s in my old room? My memory is unreliable. Like me. If there’s one thing I can count on though, it’s ma and pa loving Sissie. One thing to steer my ship by. Keep me from slipping up. But they don’t have to worry – I am dead boring sober tonight. Because I love Sissie too. It’s hard not to, with all that goodness in her. I know they’re nervous but I aim to keep myself on the side. Not exactly necessary to the proceedings but essential to Sissie. Not even Henk can argue with that. Jeez that girl can drink. She hardly flinched when she downed that shooter. Runs in the family. Henk’s pouring more tequila, and giving Charlie the runaround…poor guy has no idea what he’s landed himself into. And what!! No man, not tonight. Man oh fucking man Henk did not just do that. Not at Sissie’s 21st. She’s looking at me but I don’t care. I don’t care about any of them. Just me and Henk again. In the same old battlefield. I get up and head for the shot glass.
And five excellent entries, all with some beautifully observed details, worthy bronze or even silver.
It looked magnificent. The flowers, the décor, the candles. Mum’s efforts were visible everywhere. Her eyes and throat burned. They were all seated already, waiting for her. Their glasses raised in unison, apart from one. “Darlene! Happy 21st!” Their voices rang out in unity, apart from one.
They rushed forward to embrace her, apart from one. She registered Dad’s Old Spice, Mum’s Red Door and the soft bristle of Wayne’s new beard. Their smiles were too wide, exclamations too hearty. They hovered around her, like bees around honey. The irony of the analogy struck her.
They ushered her to the head of the table. It was her first time there. On her plate was a huge package, wrapped in pink 21st wrapping paper. Wayne pulled out her chair for her, and ensured she was comfortable. The aroma of roast lamb wafted in from the kitchen, and she sniffed in appreciation.
“Smells wonderful, Mum!” Her tone was a mite too enthusiastic, or was it just to her own ears? She mustn’t feel like this. It was her special day, after all. She felt his eyes upon her, boring deep into her. She knew what he was thinking.
“Open your present, darling.” Mum’s voice broke the spell of his gaze. She turned her focus down, and began to unwrap the package, with care. “Oh, I think you can rip it today!” She looked up and caught Dad’s smile.
She obeyed, as she always had, and felt his contempt.
It looked perfect. Just as it always had been. Did nothing ever change around here? He remembered the sparseness of the Centre, yet it conveyed warmth and welcome. Here everything was just so, the colours, the décor, the yellowwood furniture, yet he felt the old discomfort of being the round peg in this square hole.
He experienced the familiar yearning for that feel-good feeling that he had had hundreds of times before the Centre. For fuck’s sake, how long would he still feel it? But they had warned him, that coming home often brought it up again. Well, they were right. And he knew the solution. But shit, was it hard!
Darlene looked beautiful. Her dark hair shimmered in the candlelight, her red dress a fire around her. They clustered around her, like wasps around a nest. He refused to stand up. She had always had all the attention anyway. Until he started spinning out of control, and man, did he get attention then! But it wasn’t the type she always got. He tasted the bitterness, and told himself to get a grip. Hadn’t he dealt with all this stuff during those months at the Centre?
They had said that he had made the necessary progress. Otherwise he wouldn’t be here today. He wished he wasn’t. The room seemed to close around him as he watched her open the gift. Shit, she was allowed to rip it! She obeyed. Like always. Their eyes met. He saw himself reflected there.
That’s sweet! A brand new Persian. Red Carpet treatment for the repentant returnee. How thoughtful.
Oops, ash all over those precious silk fibres.
Quick! Get rid of the evidence. Grind, grind, grind it in with stiletto heel.
But wait! … Silly me, I’m not wearing stilettos.
Remember? … ”Mummy says boys aren’t allowed to play dress up.”
And here’s the birthday girl.
Butter wouldn’t melt between her boobs, let alone in her mouth. We know what Mummy’s little angel has had in her mouth, don’t we?
Ssh! … Don’t tell. Wouldn’t want hunky, cropped hair, financier fiancée to know he’s not first up that alley.
Ooh, she’s learnt the art of air kissing. Sooo sophisticated.
Sit down dinner for …one, … two …. ten?
How disappointing for her, no hotel ballroom, no band. No proud Papa with microphone and a speech.
Well , thank God. Real champagne in the ice buckets. Right temp too.
Nothing like a bottle or three of Tatties to give the old todger the upward tilt.
Old? Pl… eease! I’m a babe in arms. Well, at least a babe. No arms here tonight going to want to hold me. … But what the fuck, … I’m family.
Sounds like a song.
“No arms here tonight gonna want to hold me,
But what the fuck, I’M FAMILEEE!”
Oh dear, they’re turning away from you, Clinton my boy, your genius fails to impress.
Quote another song, ”IT’S MY PARTY, AND I’LL CRY IF I WANT TO….”
Please make it work tonight.
Oh, God, he’s here. Just keep calm, Mummy said not to give him any excuse.
Check out the ridiculous gelled hair draped over his eyes. God, he’s such a queer.
Remember Daddy shouting, ”I’m not having a limp wristed, shirt lifter in my house!” That makes two of us.
If he dares to go near Jacco with his Sex, Lies and Videotape stories, I swear, I’ll slit his throat.
He wants to hug, think I’m going to vomit.
Yes! He’s found the Tattinger, everyone’s holding their breath, it’s going to …work, …. on our way, … ten minutes and counting.
Ah, look at Jacco, poor lamb, confused, doesn’t know how to respond. … Not long now.
….. “But what the fuck, I’M FAMILEE!”
That’s right, Daddy, get hold of him, no one should use expletives at a family gathering of this calibre.
…. AND I’LL CRY IF I WANT TO …”
Brilliant, … finally! Open bottle in his sweaty paws, one under each arm. Pathetic. No wonder Daddy’s having to prod him in the back to get him across the lawn. Taxi can’t wait forever.
Hope this hasn’t been too upsetting for Jacco. At least he now knows what we’ve had to put up with all these years. I’ll make it up to him, he’s got a special little surprise coming his way. …” Coming”, God, my girl, you’re a genius.
And just wait till he sees what Mummy did with the ballroom at Wanderers.
He looked good. Better than she remembered.
“Happy birthday.” His breath warm on her face.
“Thanks,” she smiled. She wanted to press her chest against his. “So what did you get me?”
“Oh. Um.” He looked at the large mahogany table piled high with presents.
“Don’t worry. We’ll think of something.”
She’d been right to wait.
“Daniel!” Belle’s mother was walking across the room, arms outstretched. “How long has it been?”
“Hello Mrs Henderson,” he said, kissing her tightly pulled back cheek. “I think the last time I was here was…”
“When I left for Kathmandu,” Belle said. “Two years ago.”
“Oh yes. I hope you found yourself in Kathmandu Belle,” Mrs Henderson quipped, leading them to the patio where the food and wine lay.
What I found that is virginity is overrated, thought Belle.
“Just keep her away from me is all I’m saying,” Shinazz, Belle’s eldest sister, growled as she stomped onto the patio from the garden. Belle’s dad was a few paces behind.
“Don’t expect the worst,” Mr. Henderson said trying to prevent his seltzer from spilling. “She’s made a lot of progress.”
“Oh spare me. Who did you bribe to get her out this time?”
“Don’t be stupid. And keep your voice down. It’s a surprise for Belle.”
“A surprise for me?” Belle’s voice came from behind.
Mr Henderson spun around. He shot Shinazz a withering look.
“Constance is coming,” Shinazz said triumphantly, arms folded.
Belle failed to notice Daniel’s face had gone as white as the moon.
Look at her, throwing herself at him, Constance thought, peering in the front door. Poor, sad Belle. This was going to be fun.
She watched her mother walk the couple out onto the patio. She made herself a gin and tonic and headed back inside.
“Oh my God! What are you doing here?”
“Nice to see you too mother,” Constance said, throwing her worn backpack onto the mahogany table that held the gifts. “So when did you stop the Botox?”
“Don’t be a bitch,” Mrs Henderson said, taking a step back and a sip at the same time. “How did you get here? You were supposed to wait for your father.”
“Is that Daniel?”
“You stay away from Daniel.”
“He looks good,” Constance said, taking off her jacket and giving her cleavage some air. “Better than I remember.”
“I meant it Constance. Don’t ruin today for Belle.”
“Relax mother,” Constance said, taking the clip out of her hair and setting it free with a shake. “So who knows am gonna be here?”
“Just keep her away from me is all I’m saying,” she heard Shinazz say.
“Well, I guess Shinazz does.” Constance smiled, moving towards the patio. This was really going to be fun.
“Surprise! Happy birthday Belle!” Constance gave her sister an exaggerated hug.
“Hey Daniel,” she said softly.
Twisting the lid off a diet Coke she wondered how long it would take for the colour to return to their faces.
There she is, in all her silky haired, even-toothed glory, charming that harridan from next door while pretending not to notice the hoary beast of a husband leering at her. She’s ever the socialite, my sister. I suppose I should go over there and give the ballie the older brother death stare but as it happens my mother is giving me one of her own special death stares. That is my cue to mingle. Why my mother would choose to unleash me upon the souls in the room is beyond me. Maybe she is hoping that it will dispel the stories about my being in rehab for sex addiction but she’s sadly mistaken, nothing stays secret in this family. I see Aunty Susie sneaking glances at me from across the room & then furiously typing on her BlackBerry, no doubt asking her BBM group for the recipe to cure VD. My spidey senses tell me that someone is staring intensely at the back of my neck, turning slightly; it’s my sexy 18 year old cousin Miri. My, my, the stories really have been flying. She’s blushing furiously. Unfortunately I’m not the only to have caught that lovely display, Uncle Joey glares at me and pulls Miri over to the cake table where Laila is standing at the ready next to that monstrosity of a 21st birthday cake. Mother and father are there as well, beaming proudly. In fact everyone’s at the table, except for the little brats, who I’ve not seen all evening. Where did the little buggers get off to?
“Laila! Laila!” exclaims Aunty Violet, our neighbour. She is nattering on about some engineer nephew of hers; I’m not really paying attention. I can see her perv of a husband, Lazarus (aka uncle lecherous) trying to look down my top. Thank god I’m wearing a camisole underneath. I can see Sam contemplating coming to my rescue but mother is giving him her special death stare. I don’t care what they say; I know he isn’t really a sex addict. There is Aunty Susie busy pounding away on her BlackBerry. I’m sure she’s skinnering about me to Liya. As if I care that she got a job at Investec. Urgh, there’s my idiot cousin Miri making calf eyes at Sam. She’s such a skank. Mother is pulling me over to the cake table. The cake is awesome. It’s gigantic, covered in macarons and has my name iced on in bold. Yay me! Everyone’s around the table now, except for Sam, lounging near the window. He’s still looking at Miri. They deserve each other. Perverts. There’s a loud crash, I see Sam’s eyes widen. There is cake everywhere. Mother is shrieking. The brats are giggling hysterically, shoving macarons into their greedy little mouths. Relatives everywhere, it’s pandemonium, someone is holding me around the waist, Miri has sidled up to Sam & aunty Susie is firing off texts on her phone. “I gotchu” says uncle lecherous, arm still clasped tightly around my waist.
The wordsmith has been slain. Moments of silence will not suffice. The irony is too deep.