It was the perfect evening to be outside: a summer sunset of purples and pinks colour wet lawns where sprinklers keep beat. The crickets stop chirping briefly as Sam and Grace walk up the concrete path hand in hand to her house.
‘You’re cute when you worry’ teased Grace.
Sam was unknowingly squeezing his girlfriend’s hand tighter. He was dreading this moment, but not because he had not seen his school principal for 7 years. Feeling his mobile vibrate he has a message but ignores it.
‘So…’ said Grace swinging Sam’s hand back and forth trying to loosen his grip. ‘So…’ he replied disinterested in her comment, he spots 3 garden gnomes on the veranda. They are doing the ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ pose; two of them have been put in compromising positions with the third gnome covering his mouth looking on in shock.
‘Mum, Dad I’m home!’ Grace sings announcing their arrival. They both were expecting a greeting as the smell of roast filled the air, but instead they have entered a family dinner in progress.
Around the kitchen table is Grace’s father: Principal Buddle, Grace’s mum: Mrs Buddle and her younger sister: Kate Buddle. The trio stop chewing, cutting, drinking, talking and look straight at Sam.
Mrs Buddle springs up and starts clearing space for the young couple.
‘I didn’t think you were coming, you didn’t call us, you didn’t answer you’re phone, you’re Mother rang you at least 10 times’ said an annoyed Principal Buddle. Mrs Buddle hastily moves more plates around ‘Kate has got exams you know, she needs to study tonight’. Kate looks down at her pumpkin and peas and makes a face of disgust at the thought of more study.
Mrs Buddle serves the roast chicken to the new visitors, smothers the potatoes in gravy, pours lime cordial then tells them to sit down.
Sam looks at the Principal slumped over his meal and recalled a time when he was menacing and authoritative. He remembered many times being called into the Principal’s office which meant he was going to be yelled at. The last time the Principal yelled was for a 3 week suspension after getting stoned and breaking into the school canteen. To keep his mind off the yelling Sam would read to himself a poster on the back wall. ‘Samuel Fox!’ Principal Buddle boomed from his office chair. ‘Are you going to be a pot-head for the rest of your life or are you going to be somebody, anybody?’ Blocking out the yelling he reads the poster: ‘Science Degree…Manchester University…Awarded on this day to Robert Buddle…’
The vibration of his phone in his pocket brings Sam back to the dinner table ‘Very nice to meet you again Principal Buddle’ he said trying to sound sober.
Kate laughs ‘Principal Buddle, good one’.
The Principal looks at his daughter’s boyfriend and swallows his dry potato. ‘There is no need to call me that’ he pauses then stabs the next dry potato with his fork.
‘Sam’s been real good to me’ Grace said rubbing his back ‘And I am sorry we’re late, it’s my fault. Had to work. Been real busy at Stevie Jay’s. Real busy.’
‘It’s called Steven Jays Marketing’ announced her Mum proudly, ‘I don’t like you calling it that Grace, it sounds inappropriate’.
‘Inappropriate?’ Kate smirked before adding ‘You said Stevie Jays sounded like a brothel’
Everyone ignores Kate’s comment. ‘You’re in Marketing, Grace. You have to give it the credit it deserves. If you say Stevie Jay’s people don’t know what you are talking about. Is that not right Sam?’ Mrs Buddle asks him.
Grace looks uncomfortably at him. ‘Well, to tell you the truth Mrs Buddle’ Sam said ‘you should never lie about where you work and what you do. No matter what that job is whether it be a manager at Steven Jays Marketing or say, I don’t know like just a secretary at Steven Jays Marketing for minimum wage.’ Sam pauses then copies Mrs Buddle with ‘Is that not right Grace?’
The Principal glared at Sam then his daughter.
‘I don’t think it matters either’ started Kate concentrating on her current mission of cutting her meat, its drier than the potatoes ‘I figured we have a seven day week and you have to work for five of them so you might as well do something you enjoy, not something that merely sounds good or pays well. I mean everyone goes on about my exams but it’s not the end of the world if I fail is it, as long as I find a job I enjoy for five days of the week, right?’
The silence was an answer of contest from the Principal and Mrs Buddle. Sam however, feels compelled to agree. ‘Here, here’ he chanted.
‘Who are you kidding’ Principal Buddle states calmly to Sam, he turns to his youngest daughter ‘Kate, Grace was dux of her year at St. Mary’s and that gave her the opportunity to pursue anything she wanted. And we backed her for any choices she made’.
‘Robert’ Mrs Buddle warned.
‘What?’ the Principal argues ‘I am merely letting Kate know that Grace could have chosen any job she would have loved for the five days of the week. She didn’t have to be a lawyer or a Doctor; she could have been a teacher, a policewoman, anything. But guess what she did wrong?’
‘Dad’ a defiant Grace said, she did not want this conversation to go any further ‘what I did wrong was let you push me too hard to be what you wanted me to be, not me’.
Principal Buddle wasn’t finished ‘She gives up her studies, blames us for pushing her too hard and now decides to destroy herself by being a nobody while dating druggy boys like this loser…’
‘Hey!’ protested Sam
‘And now she has got a shitty job as a secretary which she hates. And you know what the saddest part is?’ The Principal wasn’t looking for an answer ‘the saddest part is she is ruining her life but can’t even see it because she’s too busy getting high’.
‘What?’ Kate muffled her mouth full of chicken and gravy. Sam sat in disbelief, wishing he could slide under the table and slither out of the room. Mrs Buddle looked down in silence. Grace sits red faced but not beaten.
‘You ruined my life Dad; do you know how much I got teased at school because of you?’
The vibration of Sam’s mobile reminds him he has that message.
‘Grace, you think you’re doing this to get back at me because I was The Principal who ruined your life?’ he is not angry anymore but disappointed ‘But the sad truth is you’ll look back on all this and realise you did it to yourself’.
Grace started to sob, her dad had made his point but she always did this when he confronted her. As Principal Buddle got up from his chair, Sam could still see the authoritative and menacing Principal from his high-school days.
The Principal, looking at his lost little girl’s bloodshot eyes realises her downfall is gaining momentum ‘And you couldn’t even come to dinner tonight without getting stoned’. He had wasted so much energy trying to get through to her, but there was so much more he wanted to unleash. For the moment all he could do was let out a sigh and leave the room.
The silence was awkward.
‘I have study to do’ said Kate dragging her chair back she quickly left the room.
‘You’re father can’t help himself’ Mrs Buddle gritted through her teeth ‘he gets all angry like this then stews for while.’ She paused briefly ‘He is trying to help you Grace. He, we just want you to stop making these bad choices’ Mrs Buddle hoped her husband got through to her this time, at least Kate might not make the same mistakes.
‘Yeah, I know’ Grace added wiping her face ‘but Dad doesn’t have to be such a prick about it’.
Sam and Grace go outside to the front veranda, the crickets and sprinklers have finished their symphony, the purple and pink sky has been replaced with summer twilight, but the three gnomes are still in their threesome. Sam snaps open his phone and reads the text message.
‘Not tonight’ warns Grace knowing what the contents are.
As the young adults walk the cemented path back to their world, Grace promises herself and her Dad she is going to change, Sam reaches for her hand and whispers ‘I love you just the way you are’.