An eighteenth birthday party takes an unexpected turn.
By Lorna Brand
Sound can be so evocative and at times provocative. It can transport you to a time, a place. It can conger up pictures in your mind and make all your other senses tingle out with your control as you feel it surge through your body. We never do sound justice when we try to describe it, we can allude to the volume or the pitch and can even give a sense of drama surrounding it but sometimes there is a sound that penetrates your whole being that will resonate forever within you but it is completely undecipherable and this is what I want to share with you today.
Last Summer I received an invitation in the post. The only post I normally get is bills, so to see a gold sparkling envelope lying amongst the junk and brown letters on my door mat gave me a moment of unexpected joy. The excitement didn’t last too long though. As I ripped the card free, a glut of tiny, pink, shiny, wine glass shaped confetti dropped all over my hall carpet which I am still finding everywhere. Annoyed already, I opened the invitation carefully, trying to catch the last of the shiny little surprises and my mood didn’t improve.
It was from my little cousin; she was turning eighteen and having a party. I know this doesn’t sound too bad but my cousin, Anna, is intolerable. She is the most spoiled, ungrateful brat ever to walk the earth. Anna has always been the baby of the family and as the youngest gets everything spoon fed to her. Anna is only five years younger than me but the gap has always felt bigger. While I was already living on my own and paying my own way, Anna was still whining at her parents for everything. I had been working since I was sixteen; granted it was only a weekend job, but Anna was about to be eighteen and the chances of her getting even a part time job was so remote, winning the lottery had better odds.
As you can probably tell, I have never had much time for the little princess. I did my best to get out of the party but my Auntie, who organized it, had thought of everything. I didn’t have somewhere close by to stay; she had hired a hotel. I didn’t have transport; she had planned for a double decker bus to gather us all up and bring us to the party; and then the hotel! Then, to top it all, I got the: ‘she went to YOUR eighteenth,’ argument from my mum, so I had no choice.
When the day came I was not surprised to find the party was not being held in a local function room like mine, but my Auntie had hired a grand dance hall just outside of town. We pulled up outside a gorgeous Art Deco building with soft lights shining up highlighting the curves and angles. A red carpet flanked with lit torches covered the pathway stretching out to guide us up the steps, the flames from the torches danced gently in the warm air. It was a venue fit for a spectacular wedding and far too over the top for an eighteenth. I followed the rest of my family and Anna’s friends up the stairs to meet my Cousin and Auntie greeting everyone as they came in to the foyer. It was ridiculous, I had to wait in the line to be welcomed in, but the beautiful entry set the tone for the rest of the building. The Art Deco tiled floor and roaring fire would not be out of place in a design magazine and gave me plenty to look at as I waited in that line.
Anna made a point of taking the presents from her guests at the first opportunity to put them on a table behind her, already laid out to receive them. She wasn’t particularly happy though as she gave each one a shake, a squeeze and a thorough going over before she unceremoniously dumped them, but if the wrapping was not up to scratch she wouldn’t even attempt to guess what was inside before dropping it with a hint of animosity, as she did with the gift that I gave her.
“So kind of you,” was all she said to me as she ushered me along.
The main hall was every bit a feast for the eyes. There was a big band playing on the high stage framed with rich purple theatre curtains. The large round tables that surrounded the wooden dance floor had a centre-piece display of full headed pink roses and were sprinkled with sparkling crystals. Each gold place setting had been meticulously set out with every table having little personalized ‘thank you’ gifts. However the main feature of the hall was it’s ceiling; it had a huge acoustic dome with a sun burst design right in the centre. The dome carried the sound of the band from the far side of the hall all the way to the front of the building without the band needing to use huge speakers, but if you stood under the dome it created a fantastic echo like being inside a bubble, everything was amplified. The sound in the hall was truly amazing, the music filled every corner effortlessly.
The whole setting was over the top, I don’t think I could afford all the little details even for my wedding but nothing was too much for precious little Anna. I wasn’t the only one that thought everything was a bit much; it was written all over our faces. My Auntie must have spent thousands and my bratty Cousin couldn’t give a damn; she was pouting and moaning about everything.
The down side to such an amazing sound system was that it didn’t discriminate. All sounds travelled particularly well, so if you stood on the fringes of the dome your conversation could be heard much louder than you anticipated at the other side. This was a concept that my stupid Cousin couldn’t quite grasp.
We had full table service and my Auntie had clearly put a lot of thought into the food with so many choices; salmon, steak, chicken, pasta, yet my Cousin as clear as a bell said that it all: “Looked disgusting,” and she would rather have pizza!
My Auntie tried to laugh it off but it was clear she wasn’t happy. If that’s all that had happened, then the evening would have been very different, but Anna moaned about everything, the lighting, song choices; to be honest there was so much complaining I can’t think of anything nice she did say. We all did our best to try and not show how shocked we were at her behaviour as my Auntie was getting more and more flustered.
Anna seemed to calm down after her second dress change of the night. Yep, I did say second! Anna had been in a big pink ball gown to great us, then changed for the meal into a tight white dress, and now she had put on a short, gold, glittery thing with only thin straps holding it up for dancing in.
The night had started to go OK. We were all up on the dance floor when my Auntie seized her moment. The music stopped and a spotlight came from nowhere shining on my Auntie as she wheeled in a three-tiered chocolate cake and brought it right up to Anna who happened to be standing next to me under the dome.
One of Anna’s friends, at my Aunties instruction, brought over a chair for Anna to stand on. Once she had been helped up, with the full might of the spot light shining down on her, Anna reminded me of a disco ball, not that I was brave enough to say so.
Auntie started off the singing and the whole hall was filled with everyone joining in ‘Happy Birthday’, much to Anna’s delight, she loves being centre of attention. Then, as we finished, Auntie produced a pretty little box from her clutch bag and presented it to Anna. The whole room fell silent as Auntie poured over Anna, giving a speech about how wonderful she was and how proud Auntie felt to have a daughter like her. It was quite sweet but I did wonder if she was talking about the same girl that was stood on the chair in front of us poised like an over-pampered poodle. Finally Auntie declared that she hoped Anna liked her present as she really deserved it.
Taking her cue, Anna ripped off the ribbon and lid from the box, throwing them to the ground as she grasped the contents. She pulled out a beautiful diamond tennis bracelet, holding it up in her fingers and tipping the bottom of the box over with her other hand to check that there was nothing else in it. At this moment we got a sense that things were about to go wrong.
Anna shouted: “Is this it!” at the top of her voice. Then: “Where are my car keys?” as she shook the bracelet in her mums direction.
The whole room went silent as all eyes moved to Auntie; her face was crimson and she was obviously mortified.
“We told you, you are not getting a car until you have passed your test!”
The situation may have been solvable at this stage but, as I have already mentioned, my cousin is not the brightest.
“You mean this is it? That’s not fair!” Anna screamed back, the sound bouncing off every wall.
Standing next to her was uncomfortably loud, not to mention awkward. Then she tossed the bracelet to the ground in front of me.
Auntie snapped. She was like a woman possessed as she grabbed hold of Anna’s arm, pulling her off her pedestal. Anna remained defiant as Auntie looked straight into her eyes and demanded an apology. It was as if no one else was in the room. Auntie was completely fixed on Anna.
“You have until I count to three to say you are sorry!”
“Or What?” Anna snarled back.
Everyone in the room was gob smacked. Anna had always been a brat but now she was so disrespectful and full of venom. No one knew what to say, or if they should say anything, but Auntie didn’t once take her eyes off Anna; she had reached her limit.
I don’t actually remember if she counted to three or not, but I do remember her opening her clutch bag and bringing out a flat backed wooden brush. Anna scoffed at the implied threat; she never took her mother seriously and was not about to. She clearly didn’t think her mum was going to make a scene in front of the family but, oh boy, was she wrong.
Auntie moved quickly towards the chair taking hold once more of Anna and holding her down over her knee. Anna struggled and screamed, fighting her all the way, shouting insults at her in hope of stopping the situation, but no one was going to come to her rescue. Auntie held both of Anna’s hands at the small of her back where her dress had scrunched right up. As Anna wriggled, Auntie raised the brush high in the air.
Suddenly the brush fell firmly on to Anna’s right bottom cheek, and that’s when I first heard it. The sound echoed under the dome, taking over every one of my senses. The sharp slap followed by Anna’s teary scream sent an electric shock through my body. Every hair stood on end. I didn’t know what to do or where to look.
I was standing closest to the action so if I moved everyone would see. I stayed rooted to the spot, spellbound. Auntie rhythmically and methodically brought the brush down repeatedly on to Anna’s little bum. The thin pants she was wearing gave no protection as she writhed in pain. Auntie took her time, seeming to be savouring the moment. Every smack delighted and horrified me in equal measure in an overload of sensations. The unique echo enhanced the sound and feeling as the slaps reverberated through the building. Anna lay across Auntie’s lap, screaming as her bum turned a deeper and deeper shade of red while the wood cracked down on her milky soft skin over and over again. Each strike wasn’t diminished by the next, but enhanced, until Anna had given up and accepted the situation by laying sobbing over her mums knee.
The sound of my cousin being soundly punished will never leave me. If I close my eyes it is as vivid and clear as it was that day, even if it is impossible to describe it has now fused itself to me in the most primordial way.
© Lorna Brand 2016