Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person . . . That’s me, by the way. I’m going to tell you a story about three months that upended my life. And you are not going to like me. You may even hate me – honestly, I hated myself at times. You’re going to think I’m a conniving, duplicitous, selfish monster. You’re going to think I’m the worst sister, mother, daughter, wife and friend in the whole wide world. But, believe me, there were pretty extenuating circumstances. Once I’ve explained it all to you – and no doubt been hospitalised for chronic gravel rash on the knees from grovelling – well, I’m hoping I can change your mind.
It started on my fiftieth birthday. I was standing on a beachside balcony peering back through the glass doors at my birthday shindig. I’ve watched the video of what came next a gazillion times through mortified fingers, so I can give you a blow-by-blow account of the day my life went tits-up. Hello, everyone! Thank you for coming to celebrate my Fuck it, I’m Fifty birthday bash!
The words were forming in my head but not quite reaching my mouth. This could have been something to do with the fact that I was completely intoxicated. In the lead-up to the event my friends had told me that it would be downright rude not to get drunk on my fiftieth. As instructed, I’d downed one bottle of vintage vino at home and then, upon arrival at my party half an hour later, more or less dunked my whole head in the punch bowl.
The function room of the Sea View Hotel was filled with a rolling boil of noise. The excited hum of voices was broken only by the cheery clatter of silverware and china from the buffet. Looking in at the party, I could see my mother’s mass of dyed blonde hair, swept back from her forehead and coiffed into a great, towering croquembouche atop her haughty head. Her slim, aquiline nose gave her a hawklike, predatory air. I knew that nose well, as I’d spent most of my adult life being looked at down it. Our family matriarch was seated at the top table, bookended by my two sisters, who were studiously avoiding each other while simultaneously competing for her attention. In sync, both stressed siblings made a grab for one of the exotic cocktails wobbling by on a tray held aloft by a weary waiter wearing a spray-on smile.
Also grabbing a passing cocktail was my husband, Harry. I’d always thought you had to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to get post-traumatic stress disorder, but it turns out you can also get it in a quiet cul-de-sac in suburbia, a lesson I’d learnt that very morning. The dark ocean behind me hissed as waves broke onto the rocks below. Thinking about Harry’s betrayal made me contemplate just diving off the balcony into the cool, inky water right there and then. But, resisting the urge to flee, I shoved open the balcony doors with a whoosh. A cold blast pushed against me, as if to force me back outside. The conversational murmur swelled for a moment before my ears became accustomed to the babble. I saw my guests through a haze. As if seeing a play unfolding before me, I watched people move around, altering their inflections as they found new friends or were reacquainted with old ones.
I seized another drink I didn’t need and downed it in one long gulp. On the stage, to my left, the microphone was set up, ready for the rock band and the toasts my kids had undoubtedly been press-ganged into delivering after dessert. But if anyone was going to deliver a speech at my fiftieth birthday party, by god, it was going to be me. Normally the thought of public speaking left me more terrified than a mouse in a python cage, but, emboldened by the booze I’d consumed, I suddenly found myself lurching up the stairs towards the mic to utter my rehearsed line of welcome, this time out loud.
‘Hello, everyone! Thanks for coming to my Fuck it, I’m Fifty birthday bash!’
I clocked my mother, whose high-rise hair teetered precariously as she shook her head in warning at me, her youngest daughter.
‘Oops. Sorry, Mum . . . We’re not allowed to use the F-word in our family. We have to say “fudge” instead, or it’s six cuts of the feather duster. But not tonight, Mother dear. Tonight I am fucking doing it my fucking way, thank you very fucking much.’
This outburst was so out of character that the undertone of conversation abated as surprised guests swivelled their heads in my slightly dishevelled direction.
‘And thank you for all the prezzies, too. Kind friends have been asking what I most wanted for a gift, you know, besides a one-way ticket to a tropical island in the arms of a poetry-quoting gymnast with a ten-inch tongue . . . And I joked that the only thing I didn’t want was a worm farm. Well, guess what my husband gave me? A worm farm. I hate worms. Although it appears that I’ve m . . . m . . . married one!’ I slurred tipsily.
A ripple of polite but puzzled laughter ran around the room. I felt myself sliding sideways, like a ship off the slips, and held on to the mic stand for anchorage. ‘Oops. God, I nearly went arse over tit there. That would have been attractive, flashing a fifty-year-old fallopian at you!’
This inspired a rowdy cheer from a few of the beer-sodden blokes at the back of the function room. I felt as if I were a cruise ship entertainment officer trying out edgy new material to keep the crowd in their seats, or an action hero who has just discovered her superpower and realised that she’s not merely a suburban housewife after all.
Through the fog of inebriation, I became dimly aware of a hand on the small of my back and registered, faintly, that it was my husband.
‘I think you’ve had a bit too much lady petrol, there, love,’ Harry joked into the mic.
‘And I think you’ve had a bit too much sex on the side in our marriage,’ I retorted.
Well, that’s one way to silence a crowd, I thought, as the entire room reeled and stared.
I looked up at my spouse. Harry had slicked his hair back for the occasion – a shellacked wave of sun-kissed locks. He’s always had great hair. It’s one of the reasons I first fell for the bronzed surfer boy, because he boasted the longest hair in high school. But it was about to stand on end now.
‘Father Gallagher married us,’ I clarified for the crowd. ‘We said our vows – for better or worse . . . Sadly, he didn’t ask you to clarify exactly how much worse, Harry. I mean, flossing your teeth in bed is bad enough, but having an affair?’ I swerved my head back towards the audience so fast I felt my blotto-ed brain crashing into the sides of my cranium. ‘For any guests who don’t live in this comfortably padded lunatic asylum known, euphemistically, as the “Insular Peninsular”, my Harry runs a service called “Hire a Hubby”. He does odd jobs for women all over the area . . . I just didn’t realise he was s . . . s . . . servicing them, literally. You’ve been wielding your toolbox here, there and everywhere, haven’t you, my’—I paused to punctuate my accusation with a small burp—‘love? You’re always telling me how the ladies love the tradies.’
There was a quick and nervous burst of laugher from somewhere, but most of the room remained awkwardly spellbound.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, love. Pay no attention to the silly, sozzled sausage!’ Harry instructed the gathering, with mock bonhomie. ‘Turning fifty has been a bit traumatic for the poor possum. She’s not exactly in her right mind . . .’
‘G . . . g . . . gosh, have I lost my mind?’ I stammered. ‘I guess it’s around here somewhere. I’ll find it when I tidy up, which I do every day, despite holding down a full-time job – as, clearly, you’re too busy fixing your girlfriend’s most intimate plumbing.’
‘That’s enough!’ Fury was radiating off Harry now like cheap aftershave. ‘Let’s go outside and get some fresh air. Still,’ Harry made one more stab at jocularity before bundling me offstage, ‘it wouldn’t be a fiftieth birthday if the party girl didn’t get bladdered and talk complete bollocks, right?’
‘Complete bollocks, is it?’ In quick succession, I kneed my husband in said area, then whisked a mobile phone from the pocket of my sequined cocktail frock. ‘I took a screenshot of a text message you received while you were in the shower this morning, right after our traditional birthday bonk. Shall I sh . . . sh . . . share it with our best friends and family?’ I swooned a little, then squeezed my eyes half-closed so as to focus on the screen. ‘From you: Hello, sexy. I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to be able to make our anniversary. Work has reared its ugly head. And, unfortunately, I can’t send your gift, as it’s attached to me.’
Although bent double in agony, Harry made a grab for the phone, but I rebuffed him, continuing, ‘And then, her reply to you: My heart is breaking! I was especially looking forward to unwrapping your gorgeous gift . . . What is the job that is keeping you from me? I have a job in mind too, with the word “blow” in front of it. P.S. Don’t forget to delete this in case Ruby starts prying.’
Silence was now bouncing off the walls. Even the waiters had stopped circulating and had turned to gawp at the slow-motion marital car crash unfolding on stage.
The shock on Harry’s face was intense. He appeared to be midway through an experiment to see how long a person could stay in a wind tunnel. ‘It’s just harmless banter . . .’ he spluttered.
I could see my sisters working their elbows like oars to get through the sea of people to the stage, signalling to their respective husbands to Do something!
‘I wasn’t going to s . . . s . . . say anything till after the party – well, obviously that worked well, didn’t it? So, who is it? She’s listed in your phone under “Stiff Nipples – Air Conditioning”. You talk of an “anniversary”. So how long’s this s . . . s . . . sordid little liaison been going on? And how does this two-faced bitch even know my name? . . . Oh, god.’ Once more I realised I’d been caught with my synapses down. ‘It’s one of my friends, isn’t it?’ I turned back to face the audience and started jabbing my finger accusingly around the room. ‘Which one of you so-called pals has wrecked my marriage? I just wanna know so I can’—I racked my befuddled brain for an appropriately awful revenge—‘pack your tampon tubes with live funnel-web spiders. Is it one of the Yummy Mummies?’ I demanded of my dumbstruck husband. ‘I bet it bloody is! You’re all so sanctimonious, aren’t you? Swigging your kale juice at the school sports day, constantly going on body-cleansing retreats . . . yet unable to survive without collagen injections and wine o’clock. But if it’s a s . . . s . . . s . . . school mum,’ I beseeched my husband, ‘how the hell do you tell them apart, with their identical floaty Camilla dresses, bolt-on boobs and botox?’
I had a vague awareness that I might be drunker than I had realised, and that it would probably be prudent to shut up, but then I thought, Hey, it’s my fucking fiftieth. Why interrupt my journey into self-annihilation? I bent down from the stage to snatch a glass from a surprised guest and drained it in one go. The booze re-ignited my recklessness.
‘Well, if it’s one of the school mums, Harry, I’m disappointed in you. I really am. How could you be attracted to any woman who’d name her kids “Sage”, “Moon”, “Melody” or “Apple” because they think they’re so “unique” and “gifted”? Guess what, ladies? Your kids are not going to be special. They’re going to be average – just like all of you.’ Certain guests were now shrinking from my words as if they were body blows. ‘All those lectures about what your lactose-intolerant brats could and couldn’t eat on a sleepover . . . Only spoilt middle-class kids are lactose intolerant. Nobody working class has ever bloody well heard of it!’
I could not believe what was coming out of my mouth. I was the nice sister – the one who remembered the birthdays of extended family members and sent gifts proxy-signed from the three of us. The one who volunteers to pick up pals from the airport, mind their disgusting pets or watch their untalented offspring’s pathetic attempts at creative dance or comedy improv. I give money to buskers even when they’re singing that awful ‘Blurred Lines’ song. I apologise when someone’s supermarket trolley bumps into mine. This drunken diatribe was as out of character as the US Republican Party signing up to a climate change agreement.
My sisters had reached the steps leading up to the stage and were waving at their husbands to hurry up. Harry tried once more to forcibly steer me away from the mic. In the tussle, my dress shed a shower of sequins, which made me even madder. I’m only five foot three but, fuelled by fury, I shoved my husband so violently he crashed backwards into the drum kit and fell to the floor in a cacophonous rattle. ‘Now you really can call yourself a sex cymbal,’ I scoffed. This bonsai ball of Aussie sass who was impersonating me then lifted the mic off the stand so she could prowl around the stage in order to scrutinise the startled female guests more closely.
‘So, who is it, Harry? Oh, god, it’s one of the women from book club, isn’t it? Though they’re not so s . . . s . . . s . . . special either. They watch movie adaptations of the assigned novels. D’you know that? Most of their reading material’s limited to Instagram captions – oh, and your phone sexts, clearly.’
Who was I? I felt estranged from myself, but the imposter pressed on, rashly.
‘But, wait . . . It’s much more likely to be one of the smug yoga crowd. Those girls are so bendy. Shit. It’s Jaynie, isn’t it? My so-called “best friend”. Oh, god, Harry. Do you have any idea how many years you need to practise the downward dog to be able to kiss your own arse like that?’
A crisp, steely voice cut across the room. ‘Ruby, sit down! You’re making a spectacle of yourself.’
The voice went through me like a chainsaw. My attention was immediately drawn back to the top table. ‘Oh, hello, Mother. I didn’t recognise you without your cross. Mum’s always criticising her three daughters for juggling our kids and careers so badly . . . even though you haven’t got out of bed for a full day’s work since about, what, 1974, have you, Mother? She blames us for protecting our darling dad, you see, and hiding his affairs. Well, you can gloat now, Mum, because clearly I’ve married a man just like him.’
My mother retreated into stony indignation, wreathed in an air of outraged integrity.
‘Where are my darling kids? Zoe? Jake?’ Shielding my eyes against the lights, I located my gobsmacked offspring by the side of the stage. They were peering up at their normally sunny, funny mother with open-mouthed incredulity. ‘Thank god I’ve never given you what my mother gave me – the gift of self-loathing, insecurity and anxiety.’
The predatory look my mother sent my way could have secured her the title role in a Dracula movie. But I pushed on regardless, as another realisation hit me with the impact of an Exocet missile from Life’s Blindingly Obvious launch pad.
‘Jesus.’ I swivelled to stare at Harry, who was still noisily untangling himself from the snare drum. ‘This morning, you were thinking of her the whole time, weren’t you? That’s why you had your eyes closed! Oh, well, whoever you are, I’m sorry you’ve had to experience that. Harry’s never been that good in bed. I did once scream “Oh god! Oh god!” but that was only because I’d just seen a huge huntsman spider on the bedroom ceiling over his shoulder.’
With the help of my brothers-in-law, Harry had now scrambled back to his feet. ‘Start the bloody music!’ he called out in desperation.
‘My advice to your girlfriend?’ I tottered to the front of the stage and scrutinised the women below. ‘Don’t make the mistake of turning f . . . f . . . fifty. Stay young . . . Although, ironically, I should probably offer to pay you child support. I mean, you’ve just taken a fifty-one-year-old teenager off my hands. Our priest is here somewhere. Hello, Father Gallagher? Can you show yourself?’
‘Music! Goddamn it!’ Harry demanded, as the band fumbled into position.
‘Well, Father, wherever you are . . . My query is, can we get an annulment after twenty-eight years of marriage? My other question is, can a fifty-year-old woman with a varicose vein wear heels and date again? . . . Oh, fudge.’
My eyes landed upon my boss, a statuesque, thirty-something brunette with alabaster skin, who’d been mysteriously parachuted into the role of editor at the local paper despite a total lack of qualifications. I groped down the cerebral equivalent of the back of the sofa and remembered something else.
‘Bloody hell, Harry, you’re rooting Angela, aren’t you? You told me once you fancied her . . . Even though she has about as much personality as she has hair. She’s nearly bald, you know. It’s all extensions.’ What I lacked in clarity I now made up for by hiccupping heavily. When I recovered, I added, ‘I know you think you’re god’s gift, Ange, but truth is, you’ve passed your bore-by date. You light up a room by leaving it. Last week you held a meeting to discuss our overuse of paper clips. We have a desalination plant going rusty, holes in the s . . . s . . . shark net and a crack in the nuclear reactor, and our “editor” gets us to write about a kitten that looks like Hitler, a mum finding a gecko in her fridge and grass growing quickly after rain. These are the things that keep me awake at night, I can tell you.’
The alcohol in my system made the guests a little blurry; rather than a group of well-dressed suburbanites, they now appeared to be one giant, indistinct, gasping amoeba. A voice from far back in my cerebrum told me to maybe call it quits. I suspected I was about one drink away from waking up in an unfamiliar nation with nipple jewellery, but it was too late, because my mouth had already set off on another sortie down self-destruction street, despite it being clearly signposted TURN BACK, YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY.
‘And we all know about the kickbacks, Ange. Why else would you ask us to go easy on certain developers and local big shots? Plus, you shred paperwork faster than Trump’s accountant. The whole office knows you only got the job because of your big-boobed, playboy-pet look . . . So, did you crawl through Angela’s cat flap, Harry?’
‘For the love of god, Ruby, put down the bloody mic!’ Harry begged, as band members frantically plugged in their instruments.