Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Surprise, surprise!

You have to be careful with surprise parties.

I went to one once where the couple had had an argument. We could hear them outside the front door shouting loudly at each other. We were inside, in the darkness, champagne and glasses at the ready. The key turned loudly and jerkily in the lock and I clearly remember the bright idea of throwing a surprise party for them dying inside me like a lit candle stub being dropped into cold water. When the door opened, the lights went on and they both had that kind of look where the smile seems to go on forever but takes a wild assymetric downward turn where it should curve happily back up. And stays that way for several long and excruciating seconds. But sometimes in life, it's too late to turn back now. So the champagne popped, the crackers cracked, the music blasted and we all got drunk. What else could we do? Sit around quietly and engage in small talk?

But my sister's surprise party wasn't like that at all. (In fact, I'm not even sure why I mentioned the above incident. Maybe I needed to get it out of my system. I've never discussed it before. The couple divorced soon after. I felt guilty. I planned the surprise and I'm sure it was a contributing factor, tipping them over the edge.)

So Saturday night we were crammed into my sister's house. Soon she arrived home, walked in the door with my bro'-in-law and we screamed Happy Fiftieth Birthday. She looked genuinely surprised but I'm sure she had an inkling. The street was full of cars (some hadn't parked so discreetly) and the smoke from the barbecue on the balcony overlooking the valley must have been sending signals across several suburbs. And how good did it smell! My sister's children had everything ready (no idea where they hid it all to keep it from their mother, it just all materialised in an hour or two).

Nephew was grilling away to his heart's content out on the balcony - sausages, chicken kebabs, marinated fish fillets, lamb kebabs, prawns. The three nieces had produced mammoth platters - tomato, basil and bocconcini stacks; a chunky potato salad (the version which has quartered hard-boiled eggs and spring onions); breads, dips, crackers; a casserole full of baked tomatoes stuffed with rice; a pasta salad and a green salad prettily dotted with fetta cubes. Several others had brought along more casseroles, while we provided a curry of broadbeans, mustard greens and silverbeet (out of the garden).

Oldest niece is six months pregnant - at an earlier family occasion at which she announced her surprise pregnancy, she had also mentioned that her partner had been a little shocked, perhaps not all that keen; to which I had replied, laughing: 'That's all right, he'll come round, they always do!' Next time I'll just shut the hell up. They broke up soon after. She'll raise the baby alone. On the plus side, she is looking radiant, seems happy and it appears they had been heading for a split anyway.

Happy families. There's always some drama going on.

Back to the party, and I'm on my second stuffed tomato and third chicken kebab sitting outside on the balcony. It must have been about eight o'clock, eight thirty. The sun was going down and there was now quite a breeze coming through. Slowly, one by one, everyone moved inside. Soon it was just me and my son and my other brother-in-law, the cowshed/mud brick home one. 'Are you cold?' he said, sipping his red wine. 'Nah, I'm fine, it's just a breeze. What about you?' 'Warm as toast!' At that point of the conversation my son retired to the warmth behind the picture window glass and it was down to Brian and me. I love the way, just out of nothing and nowhere, we turn life into little games. 'You must be cold,' taunted Brian. He lives in South Gippsland, where the wind blows off the Antartic ice shelf. 'I'm all right,' I insisted, snapping a tail off another succulent barbecued prawn and scoffing it after dipping it in thousand island dressing. 'Then why are your fingers turning white?' he came back.

'OK, Brian,' I said. 'You win.' I went inside. He followed, laughing.

It was toasty warm as desserts and coffee came out. All the usual things, there was a pavlova with strawberries and blueberries, mum's trifle, an apple and rhubarb crumble, ice-cream and the highlight, a chocolate iced mudcake with more thick chocolate shavings on top. That was the birthday cake.

Canisha, eight tomorrow, had a large bowl of ice-cream with the chocolate shavings on top. And then a second.

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