Mark turns seven in a few weeks and with the perverse logic of a child he is determined to have a party.
It is early November. We have lived on Norfolk Island for almost a year and our new life is not going well. Just 8 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, Norfolk Island is a tiny volcanic outcrop perched in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. It is literally in the middle of nowhere.
David is unhappy at work, I am unhappy at home and Mark is unhappy at school. Only two-year old Andrew seems unaffected by his new surroundings. Mark is rejected by the local children in much the same way as their mothers reject me. Like children everywhere they are spectacularly inconsistent. One day they include him in their games, the next they bully him. Then the next they ignore him.
I feel powerless to help.
Mark imagines a day filled with friends and surprise presents. As far as I know he has only one friend, another recent arrival also ostracized by the local children. But he will not be dissuaded. We draw up a list of children to invite. Some names are familiar to me. Many I have never heard of. I suspect that, in the way children do, he has invited everyone in his class. Will they come? The school year is almost over and he has not been invited to a single birthday party.
Our preparations forge ahead with as much optimism as I can muster. The boys and I make endless trips to the shops stocking up on party food and prizes. I make a birthday cake in the shape of a medieval castle. The night before the party we stay up late wrapping ‘pass the parcel’ and in the morning David and Mark lay treasure troves of sweets for a lolly hunt in the garden.
Mark has handed out the invitations at school and the date for the RSVP’s has come and gone without a single reply. I have not spoken to any of the other mothers. I hardly know them. I try to convince myself that the lack of replies is normal for Norfolk Island. More than once before we have been ambushed by the Islanders' different ways of doing things.
As the time of the party approaches I begin to imagine Mark’s excitement turning to disappointment. I cannot see how we can escape disaster. No one knows where we live. Our address wasn’t on the invitations. Norfolk has no street addresses. The maps given to tourists all have names printed on the landmarks and roads with wonderfully descriptive titles like Little Green Lane and Bloody Bridge but there isn’t a single street sign or house number on the entire Island. In such a small community the locals don’t need them. Everyone navigates by directions. I have become very good at giving directions. I know exactly how many left and right hand turns there are between the main street in town and our house. I even know the distance between the main road and the turn-off leading to our driveway. I had planned to give out directions as the mothers telephoned me with their RSVP’s.
The party is due to start at two p.m. I watch the last few minutes tick away. I will wait until ten or quarter past before covering the food and beginning to clear things away.
Exactly at two, a lone child on a bicycle comes struggling up our long driveway. After a couple of minutes a mother arrives with a car full of energetic boys, and now following in quick succession mother after mother with carloads of six and seven year olds. By ten past two every single child has arrived.
A huge grin is stamped across Mark’s face. He is soon surrounded by piles of torn wrapping paper and half-opened presents. The children tumble around the garden laughing and playing. They run races on a circuit around the house. Andrew is given a lap’s head start and is still passed by everyone else. He wins the wooden spoon and displays it proudly.
David organises boot throwing competitions, lolly hunts, egg and spoon races and obstacle courses. He and Mark have set up a croquet course complete with croquet mallets and balls where the children compete to be the first through the hoops. I have boiled one of the eggs so Andrew has some chance in the egg and spoon race. He drops his egg at the first turn. Some of the girls also drop their eggs; with more spectacular results. I realise I should have boiled all the eggs.
Many of the parents stay for a while, to help out and chat. They talk to us about children, Island families and the weather. Some remember the couple who built our house and now live in Australia. There is much speculation about why they left so soon after the house was completed and, in conspiratorial whispers, why they paid the builders with suitcases full of cash.
For perhaps the only time in our year on Norfolk, we feel included and warmly accepted as part of the community. It is a wonderful afternoon.
How did they all find out where we lived? Mark gave the lone cyclist directions at school. Nearly every one else already knew. We may not have known these other families but, in such a small community, they knew us. The few families who didn’t know where we lived simply asked those who did.
Postscript: Norfolk Island is the home of many of the descendants of Fletcher Christian and his fellow 'Bounty' mutineers. Although the mutineers first settled on Pitcairn Island, in 1856 the entire population of Pitcairn relocated to Norfolk. Some returned to Pitcairn a year or so later but most stayed and built their lives on Norfolk. We lived on Norfolk Island for a year in 1993.
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