Rory’s parents’ house, Queensland, Australia, 19th November 2005.
BANG! Another balloon popped, right behind me. I swear the little turds were doing it on purpose. I hate balloons popping. I don’t mind the noise; it’s the surprise I can’t stand. A swarm of ankle-biters ran outside, screeching and giggling, hyped up on fairy bread and green cordial. Don’t get me wrong—I like kids. Two or three of them playing innocently together is one of this world’s more uplifting sights, but any more than that and they turn into bloody gremlins.
It was Rory’s nephew’s fourth birthday party. All the Zanzibar clan was there—at least all those who had migrated across the Tasman. I was there in a professional capacity: birthday clown. I had been out of work for a few months, so Rory convinced his sister to hire me for the afternoon. Four hundred dollars she paid me! Rory had told her I was the best party clown in the city. If, by “best party clown in the city”, he meant I knew a guy from whom I could borrow a clown outfit, then yes, I was the best party clown in the city.
Two hours into the party, the doorbell rang; since everyone else was in the backyard for the egg and spoon races, I answered the door. Two men stood on the doorstep. One wore black—boots, jeans, shirt, jacket—and the other had on a red tracksuit (and it was thirty-three degrees outside). The one in red looked me up and down.
“You guys here for the party?” I asked.
The guy in black smiled. “That’s right,” he said, in a gruff English accent.
“Come on in,” I said. “You’re just in time for the pinata. Everyone’s out the back.”
The two men walked in. The guy in black nodded to the guy in red, and the guy in red went into the lounge room and started looking around.
“Everyone is out back?” said the guy in black.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Is he okay?”
“Don’t worry about Ned,” said the guy in black. “Is it this way?”
“Yeah, just through here,” I said, ushering him through the kitchen toward the back door. “There are sausage rolls there if you’re hungry.”
He stopped at the table and stared. “What are those?”
“Here,” he said, pointing to a plate on the table. “Are these biscuits?”
“Yeah, they’re Tim Tams. You never had a Tim Tam before?”
He shook his head, studying the chocolate rectangles.
“Help yourself,” I said.
He tried one.
“Pretty good, huh?”
“A little heavy on the chocolate,” he said.
The guy in red entered from the hall and stood beside me.
“Red Ned,” said the guy in black, handing him the remaining half of his biscuit, “try a Tim Tam.”
Red Ned ate the biscuit, more out of obedience than hunger, it seemed. Outside, a dozen ravenous squeals went up as the busted pinata crashed to the ground, lollies gushing from its belly. Face-painted little jackals pounced on the wounded animal and tore it to pieces.
“Where is Rory Zanzibar?” asked the guy in black, looking outside.
I looked at the guy, and at his friend. They seemed far less jovial than might be expected for a child’s birthday party.
“I got your name,” I said. “Ned, right? But I didn’t catch your name.”
The guy in black looked me in the eye without expression.
“Are you a friend of Rory’s?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
We stared at each other for an awkward minute, although he didn’t seem to notice the awkwardness.
The sliding glass door whooshed open, letting in a gush of heat and a swarm of kids, who raced past our knees and gathered around the kitchen table. The adults also entered; some of them said hello and nodded to the new guests, but attention was mainly directed to the table. The man in black and I watched each other. Rory came in and slapped me on the shoulder.
“How ya doing, buddy?” he said, making his way through to the kitchen. He took a ten-inch knife from the top drawer behind the counter.
“There’s someone here to see you,” I said, motioning toward the man in black.
The man in black looked at Rory. His eyes widened and his cheek twitched. Rory stared back at him.
“Can I help you, friend?” he said.
Jill, Rory’s sister, walked between us into the kitchen, humming to herself. She took a dinosaur shaped birthday cake from the fridge and went back to the table.
“You’re Rory Zanzibar?” said the guy in black, in a hollow voice.
“Who wants to know?” said Rory.
“Miles, oh, I mean Zooby,” said Jill (Zooby was my clown name), “would you pass me those candles there on the bench?”
I passed the Jill the candles.
“You’re a hard man to find,” said the man in black. “I looked all over New Zealand for you. You changed your name five times. Then changed it back to Rory. That was impressive.”
“Well, now you found me,” said Rory, adjusting his grip on the knife handle.
“Hey, Miles!” said Rory’s brother, as he put his arm around my shoulder.
“Oh, hi Keith,” I said, keeping an eye on the situation near the kitchen.
“I didn’t realise it was you under that makeup,” he said. “Ha! Jill just told me you were the clown. I said, ‘What? No way!’ You’re doing a great job.”
“Oh, thanks Keith.”
“Good on ya,” he said, slapped me on the back, and then joined the crowd gathered at the table.
The man in black reached inside his jacket. “Do you remember Terry Ward?” he said to Rory.
Rory’s eyes narrowed. He stepped out from behind the kitchen bench, holding the knife at his side. “Terry Ward?” he whispered. “Let me see…” With his index finger, he tapped his chest in two places and above his left eye (I recently learned these were the corresponding spots he shot Terry Ward).
The guy in black trembled with fury but said nothing. He took a deep breath, and then his face went blank. From his jacket he took out a small blowtorch. He and Rory glared at each other. Red Ned reached into his own tracksuit jacket and kept his hand there, while he watched me.
“Come on, boys,” said Jill, walking between us and searching the kitchen bench. “It’s time for the cake. Now where did I put the matches? Careful with that knife, Rory.”
Finding nothing, she left the kitchen.
“Hey, you fellas,” called Rory’s dad. “You’re holding up the party. Get over here so we can sing Happy Birthday.”
“Does anyone have a lighter?” asked Jill. “Hold on, my sensitive little prince, we’ll find one.”
Sensitive little prince? The man in black, Red Ned and I turned in mild repulsion at hearing Jill’s pet name for her son. Rory had obviously heard her use it before. The man in black walked toward the table, confusion on his face.
“Whose birthday is it?” he said.
“Mine,” piped Jill’s boy, from his prominent place right in front of the birthday cake.
“But… the cake says, ‘Happy Birthday Linda’.”
“Yes,” said Jill. “It’s little Linda’s birthday today.”
“Wait,” said the man in black, with a shake of his head. “You named your son Linda?”
Jill stood erect and answered abruptly, “Yes, I did. Linda is a family name. It was my grandmother’s name.”
“If it bothers you that Linda is traditionally a woman’s name, then you need to join the twenty-first century. These days girls can be named Charlie or Sam or Alex, so who’s to say a boy can’t be called Linda.”
Everyone looked at the man in black. His mouth hung open, but he said nothing. After a moment, he blinked, and then reached across the table. The little blue flame at the tip of his blowtorch hovered over the candles until they glowed red. He removed the torch; flames flickered upon four blue striped candles. Those around the table applauded and began singing Happy Birthday. The man in black left the house, followed by Red Ned, who gave me a nasty parting glance. Rory watched them until the front door closed behind them. He was lost in thought; he didn’t even hear the calls for him to come and cut the cake; Jill had to come and take the knife from his hand.
Later, I heard some of Rory’s family discussing the man in black. Being religious folk, some of them thought he might have been an angel, the way he mysteriously appeared, just to light the birthday candles, and then left. I knew he wasn’t an angel. Angels don’t need blowtorches.
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