“Hello, Mr Gravatt. It’s Lucinda Klevey, Assistant Head at Chicago City Day.”

I knew exactly who Ms Klevey was. I also knew why she was calling. One of the mothers had tipped me off the previous evening.

“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we’ve got a bit a problem. I understand that Natasha is having a birthday party this weekend… and, maybe because you’re new you didn’t know… it was in the August newsletter… but you might have missed it because it was rather long…”

Ms Klevey wasn’t joking. Even by the standards of Chicago City Day School, who for all their environmental postering clearly don’t care too much for the rain forests, the August newsletter was of epic proportions.

“It’s in the third paragraph of the sixty fourth page, but I can understand if you missed it, and because you’re fairly new…” For ‘fairly new’ read ‘foreign’, in other words ‘not one of us’. Unravel this a little more and it might be possible to strip it back to ‘imperialist bastard’, but I’m conjecturing here and do accept that these are not words that Ms Klevey used, or would ever use, even if they exist as a subconscious subtext. “…But the school rule is that if anyone has a birthday party they should invite everyone in their class.”

By class, Ms Klevey meant the whole academic year. Thirty children.

I told Ms Klevey that I hadn’t read the rule. This was the truth. However, I was aware of the rule. My informant the previous evening had warned me that the parents at a function the previous evening (a function, it has to be said, for a completely different academic year) could talk of nothing other than Natasha’s exclusive party and how it broke the school rule.

I used to think the British were the rule-abiding nation until I came to America. While we have a respect for rules, there’s a part of us that believes they’re there to be broken. America, a country after all founded on a set of rules, seems to live by them. Britain, conversely, was founded on subservience to authority. While we have traditions and customs, passed down through the generations, that guide how we behave, America started with nothing more than a blank sheet of paper. On which they wrote a set of rules.

The difference is best illustrated, as most things in life, by football. English football (the beautiful game) flourished for five hundred years without rules. American football was the product of a meeting between the four major universities to agree the rules of the game. Rules were a Victorian afterthought to the English game, whereas anyone who has tried to watch American football will know that the game is almost incidental to the rules.

“We had tears at school today,” Ms Klevey continued, “… Some parents were really upset.”

“The parents were crying?”

I was momentarily distracted by the image of distraught bawling mothers, supporting themselves on the school railings, unable to accept that their precious child (on whom they transferred all their own frustrated hopes and ambitions) had been excluded.

Americans don’t like to be excluded. When George Bush said you’re either with us or you’re for the terrorists, he meant it. In America’s consensus society, there’s no room for the neutral. It’s undoubtedly a remarkable achievement that such a large and diverse group of people feel a strong sense of allegiance to a single flag. Americans are hardwired to conform, to be on the team, to be with the program, to get on with each other. Americans build porches on the front of their houses and sit there so they can talk to, and be with, passing strangers. Such sociability is a complete anathema to the English, who, if they could, would dig a moat around their suburban semi and permanently hoist the drawbridge.

I told Ms Klevey that Natasha, who doesn’t enjoy large groups, had only invited her seven closest friends (“…and anyway, do you seriously expect us to have thirty children for a sleep-over?”), those who had invited her over for play-dates. I pointed out that none of the hysterical excluded had actually invited Natasha over to their house in the past nine months and that it was, therefore, a bit rich that they should be making such a fuss about not being on the guest list of what was clearly becoming the social event of the school calendar.

“And anyway, I haven’t even been invited.”

I could almost hear Ms Klevey trying to mentally process why Natasha hadn’t invited her father to her tenth birthday party. I guess she might have decided at that moment to close the school to future English admissions on the grounds that they were clearly too dysfunctional. I didn’t feel any need to explain that, in fact, it was less that I hadn’t been invited, than I had chosen instead to travel just short of a thousand miles to watch an over-forties soccer match in Greenwich Connecticut that weekend. Ms Klevey, I was fairly sure, wouldn’t have understood how a minor league soccer match could take precedence over a daughter’s tenth birthday party.

But the thing Ms Klevey really couldn’t understand, or rather couldn’t accept, was the news that Natasha had already been to at least one other restricted entry birthday party.

“Are you sure? You must be mistaken. It can’t have been a party.” I said that, by my book, an event thrown to celebrate a birthday where guests brought presents was most definitely a party.

“Although”, I mused, “there was no alcohol or drugs, so it might not be a party like you or I know Ms Klevey, but we are talking about ten year old girls here. And this is America.”

Ms Klevey didn’t respond. She did, though, call back twenty-four hours later.

“Mr Gravatt, Lucinda Klevey here. Assistant Head of Chicago City Day”.

“Still only Assistant?” I wanted to say, but didn’t. British reserve.

“We’ve just had a staff meeting about Natasha’s party and we want clarification on something you said yesterday. You told me that there was another party where not everyone was invited. We think you must be mistaken.” The thought that one of their own had disobeyed a school rule was inconceivable. It was, to paraphrase Michael Stipe, the end of the world as they knew it.

Concerned that Natasha might be suffering some fall-out; I asked her about it that evening. She told me that some girls had been kicking up a fuss and a couple had been a little nasty. I asked her if it might be prudent to invite the other girls. She looked at me as if I was a wishy-washy liberal with no backbone and told me that she most certainly didn’t want to invite them.

“Good on you” I thought as I prepared myself for my next bout with Lucinda Klevey.

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