Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Surprise! I'm back home in Perth!

Before I touched down here, only two people in Australia knew I was coming home. And one of them wasn't even here for my arrival.

I've been planning this surprise return for well over a year. It's quite a story actually.

The Origins of the Plan

When I left my first job at Hillingdon at the end of September 2006 I was really leaving without having a new job to go to. I was travelling for a couple of weeks (France, Belgium, Berlin, Prague - you may remember) and happy not to work for a little while given the terms of the Working Holiday Visa (stay for 24 months, work for 12). So I said to my agents, who were lining up jobs for me, that I had a fairly strict set of conditions I'd want for my next job.

But in the meantime I wasn't doing anything. I was a member of the gym still, and our house had Pay TV and free internet. I was getting calls for work but as none of the jobs met my criteria I passed on them. After a while with nothing to distract me I was starting to get a bit homesick. So I did what planners do - I planned something. I looked at the time I had left to work - about 40 weeks under this visa. That would take me to at least October or November if I did a bit of travelling too. Mum's birthday is 15 November.

So I decided, in about mid-October last year, that I'd turn up unannounced on the front door on mum's birthday. And hope she didn't have a heart attack.

There were two other reasons to head home for such a long time. The first was that, while home, I didn't want to just burn money. I wanted to work. Part of this is to maximise my prospects of applying for the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. Part of it was to catch up with my old colleagues too, who I always enjoyed working with. The second reason was the cost of airfares. Not surprisingly, they are exorbitant for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year, pretty much double the normal price. But the main reason as to surprise mum.

India with Chopper

I'd always fancied going to India on the way home. I mentioned I wanted to go to India to my good mate Chopper, and he said "I'll come along with you", so we made our plans from there. It was after we'd organised it that I said I'd be coming home from India. From there, total secrecy was needed. I know only too well that the grapevine in Perth is extensive and healthy. It also meant not telling anyone in London, for quite a while, so that it wouldn't get to the Perth grapevine.

At first I thought it would definitely be the end of my time in London. I wasn't 100% sure I could get a Highly Skilled Migrant Programme Visa and as I'd been feeling homesick I thought it would only get worse in the ensuing year. Setting my mind on a date certainly helped ease my homesickness while I was looking for work anyway.

What to say, what to say?

It wasn't long after the plan developed that people started asking me about how long I intended to stay. I guess the novelty of being "fresh off the boat" had worn off (f*ck I hate that term and the implied naiveté of it – especially as I first heard it from some 20 year old twinkie that was already married). Besides, people had nothing else to ask me about - like "how's work going?" for example. I developed a standard line. "I'm not going home for Christmas this year, but I'll be home for Christmas next year - if I don't my parents will kill me. The question is whether it's home for good or not. I haven't decided yet."

So if you heard that from me, yeah that was a very economical version of the truth (but not technically a lie). I already had this plan. Sorry.

As he last year has gone on, my parents – mum in particular – have been probing more and more about when I'll be home for Christmas. I needed a bone to throw them so they didn't pursue me too hard and make me bend the truth too much, or even lie to them. So when an opportunity to see Lionel Richie in Perth on 15 December presented itself, I nabbed a ticket. Not just to see the great man himself, but to say to my folks "I plan on going to a Lionel Richie concert in Perth on December 15, so I should be home by then."

It was perfect: not a lie, just enough details to quench their thirst for knowledge, and plausible (Lionel rocks). It worked, but every time they asked about my plans, I was desperately trying to suppress a smirk – at the thought of the look on mum's face when she opens the door on November 15.


There were some complications from the outset. My folks were coming over for the Rugby World Cup, from early September until at least the end of October. I knew I'd be wrapping things up here while they were in London or nearby. What was more, Dad was talking about staying away for mum's birthday rather than returning home. This would have been disastrous. I wrote a letter to him, addressed to his work, advising him that it was "very important" that he ensure mum is home for her birthday, because of a "birthday present" I have planned for her.

Obviously I was petrified my friends would think I'd betrayed them by not telling them my plans. In early December last year I headed up to Birmingham to visit Pete Rees, with good mates Jez Wilkie, Kev Gill, Rob Morgan coming too, and Eammon coming over from Ireland for it. While up there I drunkenly let out my plan. I was gutted that I'd let it slip and tried to cover it up afterwards. For some time afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about the gaffe.

In June a mate, Danielle, and one of my best mates, Kate Fitz, came over for a couple of weeks at the same time. Towards the end of their stay we were talking about birthdays, and I asked Kate what she wanted (her birthday is the 23 rd of Nov or thereabouts). She said "I want you back home!" I could barely contain my laughter when I heard that – she didn't know she was going to get her birthday wish!

Then in September I was out with a mate from planning back home, Kareena, and mentioned that I'd just booked my trip to India. She shot back at me: "so it's straight back to Perth from there then?" For some reason I didn't bat it away with a denial. I meekly looked at my shoes and mumbled "I haven't decided that yet – I have a … uh … open ended ticket." I wasn't very convincing. I was petrified this gaffe too – the planning grapevine in Perth is worse than any I've come across.

The final nail in the coffin of my façade (still having trouble with mixed metaphors by the way) was when I caught up with Jez and our mate Steve. Finishing our beers at the Old Queens Head in Angel and walking to the train, they asked me my plans. I gave them the usual line of going home and not sure if I'm coming back.

Jez, having just returned from an always-the-same Perth (as he saw it), said to me "you can't go home for three months – you should go home for three days – nothing's changed." Steve perceptively said "you could go home for good actually – you're certainly travelling through Europe like you won't be back." And I had – and no-one else had mentioned it. At the start of the year I'd planned to knock off a whole lot of countries – many more than I actually did this year (15 incidentally, including UK and Australia).

The final complication was work. Putting in my notice at work was a bit of a stress (I needn't have worried though as my boss said "that's actually quite convenient as we were going to fill your position with a permanent staff member anyway"). But the bigger issue was the jobs I turned down.

About a month before I left I had an interview for a job at about the same pay as Luton, but in Hammersmith and Fulham (a far more central and appealing locality). What's more, the job was project managing a massive project for an Australian client (working on the Council's side though). I was offered the job. It would have looked fantastic on my CV, but my prospective boss said I'd need to be there for at least the next few months (returning home for a couple of weeks at Christmas). I couldn't take the job. When people asked why I knocked it back, I had to lie a little bit and say "the money was a big step down." Some planning mates, not knowing the real reason, thought I was crazy to do this.

Less than two weeks before I left I was offered another job, this time as a Senior Planner close to me but not in the city centre, for about 30% more than I'm on at the moment. Again, I had to knock them back. Geez I hope that job is there when I get back!

Making Arrangements

Obviously I wanted to tell my mates in London – I wanted to tell everyone because I was very excited about surprising my folks and everyone else back home. But the only people I actually had to give any notice to were: (a) my housemates and (b) the job I hoped to return to. I made some casual enquiries about work, but asked my boss to keep things as quiet as possible – I wanted to surprise my colleagues.

With my housemates, it was about July when I raised the issue with them – that I'd be heading home for Christmas and my usual line that I was still undecided whether I'd return. They pretty much said they'd kill me if I didn't return.

It was not without irony that, on the way to picking my folks up from the airport, I called into STA Travel in Covent Garden and booked my trip. I had a copy of my itinerary, which detailed my return to Perth, on me when mum and dad walked through the arrivals door at Heathrow.

With my parents lurking around during September, it wasn't until the start of October that I advertised to lease my room. Luckily the room went very quickly (to a lovely bloke, Rich), and I didn't have to worry about my parents coming over to "surprise" me at my house while we were showing someone around (my folks were in America at the time). It also worked out that my folks were leaving earlier than I was (the Friday beforehand, 26 October), so I'd have boxes, be moving out etc after they'd left. Mercifully, the surprise remained intact.

I allowed my mates in London to know that I was leaving only a couple of weeks beforehand. It was when we were watching Australia get bundled out of the Rugby World Cup that a let a couple of people know about it. On purpose this time.

The Election

The X Factor in all of this was the election. It was never going to change my plans, but I was hoping that the election would be held as close to my arrival as possible, so I'd miss all the campaigning. I was gunning for a November 17 vote, but I'm happy enough with a November 24 election.

What I was really hoping for was that I'd be there to celebrate the election with two of my very good friends who are members of a political party. I'd hope they their local candidate would win, that their party would win, and that they'd invite me to join them at party HQ to celebrate! I delicately tried to find out what they were doing for the election, and all I got in return was a suggestion I chase up one of their mutual friends who lives in London.

Madness: The Last Ten Days

The second last week before I left was crazy. Starting with drinks on the Monday (housemate Amanda's birthday) and Tuesday (getting to know new housemate Rich), it escalated with a blind date on Wednesday. The lovely girl I met that night was a friend of Kev's. Not long into the night I mentioned I'd be going to India and then back home for the summer. From her reaction it was obvious Kev hadn't told her. Nice hospital handpass there Kev!

I was out on Thursday and Friday nights too. Again, fantastic fun, but I couldn't do anything to prepare for my travels those nights. On Saturday when I got home the removal boxes had already been delivered, and I set about running a couple of errands and hiding as much evidence of my imminent move as I could. Saturday night I headed out to Heather's birthday celebrations, where a found a few of my friends that still didn't know I was leaving. Some of them couldn't make it for my leaving drinks! So on short notice I had to say goodbye to them for a few months.

Mum arrived at my front door on Sunday morning, from France via Portsmouth . The afternoon was set aside to catch up and spend some time together. Mum surprised me a little bit when she asked to keep her luggage at my place while staying nearby. The reason was that she didn't want to lug the luggage upstairs by herself, which was fair enough. It meant I had to give her a key and expect her in my room regularly while I was at work in order to get clothes and things she's need from day to day. Of course, this meant not packing anything myself – especially the boxes – while she was using my room. I hadn't planned on this!

The remainder of the week it was a case of working, arriving in near home at about 5:45 by train, and meet up with mates who couldn't make it to my party for a quick drink between 6pm and 7pm . Then I would meet mum after work at about 7pm for dinner, answer her questions about India and coming home as honestly as I could without giving anything away, wait for her to get a bit tired after dinner, and walk her to her hotel.

An example of the conversation I'd have where I'd hide my intention. By this stage I'd handed in my notice to work…

Mum: "So you leave for India on…?"

Me: "Next Monday night"

Mum: "And you're away for two weeks – no, more than that. When do you get back?"

Me: "I leave India on the 14th, a Wednesday, but I'm not going to work the rest of that week. I think I'll need to wind down and relax, coming back to a developed country after visiting the mayhem of India."

Mum: "Yes that's understandable. What does work think of all that time off?"

Me: "They're fine about it."

After saying goodbye to mum at her hotel I would then go back to my place, frantically organising things for the move and reading my India guidebook. Add to that I had to visit the gym twice, and I also came down with a flu on the Tuesday for a couple of days. I didn't get time for packing my three different cases (backpack for India, boxes for the move and another suitcase full of things I'll be keeping behind).

One small glitch occurred in the last week of mum's stay. She mentioned in passing that my sister was wondering about my visa arrangements. I said there was no problem – it expires in May and I'd get another one by then if need be.

"What about your work? How much have you got left there?"

"Its not a problem – if I get back in March I'll have two months' work still left and that takes me up to May."

"Hang on – back in Perth in March?"

Bugger. I let it slip. I had to think quickly, not my strength. After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to blurt out "oh, yeah, I'm thinking about getting an around-the-world ticket and going back to the UK via South America or the US."

"Um, OK, so how long are you going to be back home?"

"Oh, I dunno, maybe three weeks."

I felt mum's heart sink a little as we walked. I'd done a little too much to dampen the speculation.

The Plot Thickens with Dad's Arrival

On Friday, the day my folks left to go home, dad arrived back in London at midday . Thankfully it was at Luton Airport – right near work – so I met him at the train station at 1:15pm (work were good enough to let me off at 1pm on the last day because of this). We headed back to West Hampstead and met up with mum for a late lunch, ahead of their rescheduled 8pm flight (which meant going to Paddington station at about 5:30 on a Friday, which isn't easy!). These arrangements also meant that I couldn't clean out my desk on the last day (dad would see all the stuff and ask questions) – I had to get as much done as possible ahead of time.

On the train, for the first time, Dad asked me a direct question:

"Now after India you're not planning on slipping home are you?"

I froze. I couldn't look him in the eye and lie to him. I looked away, out the window and said "no, there's no way I can afford it – I need to be earning money right now." I was utterly unconvincing, and felt myself smile a bit in the corner of my mouth.

There was a long pause: an interrogating pause. The sort of pause I suspect only a lawyer or father is capable of (dad's both). After an age, I tried clumsily to change the subject.

But more was to come. Infront of mum later in the day when we were having coffee, dad said to me "so is Chop coming back home with you after India?"

The devil!

I deliberately interpreted "home" to be the UK, and replied "he was going to be joining me in London next year but now he's thinking about starting a business which would mean staying put."

Not to be dissuaded, Dad had to give it one last try. In the cab on the way to Paddington dad said to me (again infront of mum) "so what are you going to do about your room while you're away?"

I replied (again looking out the window), "I think I'll be right for two weeks." I almost burst into laughter when mum echoed my comments, saying that dad was silly for thinking otherwise.

I spent the rest of the time heading to the airport and saying goodbye to them, and at each opportunity I said "only 7 weeks, only 7 weeks!"

But I knew that wouldn't be enough. Once dad has his mind set on something he doesn't easily change it. What's worse, when he has a theory – especially when he thinks it's based on privileged information – he will espouse it to anyone who'll listen and many who won't. When I left my parents at Heathrow, I was totally stressed that the surprise was blown.

Drinks Blah Blah Blah

Thankfully I could get home from Heathrow at a reasonable time and start preparing food for the get-together I had planned for the next day (I was making some pizzas, from scratch).

I knew my mates would never forgive me if I didn't have some leaving drinks. Actually my best mates wouldn't forgive me because of the "drinks", rather than the "leaving." But Facebook – the best way to arrange these sorts of things – is hideously voyeuristic. There was no way on earth I could post an event called "Ross' leaving drinks" on the net and keep it quiet. So I posted another event, called "Drinks Blah Blah Blah" which downplayed the importance of the drinks, but was still "organised" enough not to be considered stock-standard Saturday night drinks. Those people who seemed to equivocate on attending I contacted directly and told them the reason.

For everyone else, it was a "reverse surprise party", where people come along and then figure out the reason for the party when they get there.

A couple of my best mates over here – Jez and Kev – couldn't make my drinks, and knew the reason for it, so we contrived to meet the Sunday night for some quiet leaving drinks. And then a few loud ones.

The Last Leg: India and home

On the Monday night I got on the plane to India. It had been an utterly mad weekend. Monday had been a bit sad. It was quiet in the house and the weather was good for once, and I was thinking about what I was leaving behind.

On landing in India , with Chop held up meeting up with me (more on that in the India entry to come), I found myself travelling by myself. I was therefore quite disarmed when mum called me out of the blue when I was in Agra, still by myself. The whole family was on the phone and I found myself bombarded by questions about when I was coming home. Despite the cacophony and mayhem of India, and - in Agra - the worst touts in Asia , I wasn't prepared for this! I managed but was again unconvincing, and I kept fretting. In fact, I was starting to get paranoid.

Also in India I received a message from Nicole, a former colleague, mentioning she'd heard a rumour I was coming back. By this stage, with a week to go and at my wits end, it was all about damage minimisation. I owned up to her and begged her not to tell anyone, which she thankfully did (thanks Nic).

Once Home

So I touched down at about 3:30pm on Thursday. I figured that it would be enough time to get me to mum and dad's place before they go out for dinner or whatever. While in transit in Singapore I managed to text mum (it was 9am on the day of her birthday) and describe things without lying to her:

"Morning and happy birthday! I've left India and in transit, about to get on the plane. Have a great day and I'll talk to you late when I get a chance."

In the subsequent conversation I managed to get from mum that she'd be home at 6:30 and then heading out to dinner. Excellent, now I knew when to surprise her. My plan was to stay at the airport until 6:10 and then get a cab home, ensuring I'd arrive after 6:30 .

But there were two more twists to come.

I arrived in Perth at 3:35 and was through customs by about 4:10pm. With two hours to kill, I got myself some food and an Iced Coffee, and nursed it while I read at the airport for about an hour. When I couldn't credibly occupy a table without anything to eat any longer, I got a coffee and a muffin. While waiting, I thought I saw someone who I knew – quite a good friend actually – at the departure gate. I panicked. All my stuff (backpack, small backpack, a large package containing cricket bats) was next to my table and too voluminous to easily move. All I could do was hide myself as well as I could manage, propping my hand against my temple and donning my hat while reading. I didn't risk another look at her and didn't even look around for another 45 minutes, by which time she was gone.

The final obstacle came after my cab ride (wearing a black hat, sunnies and a leather jacket – I felt like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future when he tries to dress inconspicuous), when I arrived home at 6:35. With a heap of anticipation I noticed that there were no cars in the drive. I knocked, camera in hand, ready for a photo when mum opens the door. Noone was home! After all that! I waited for about 45 minutes. Then I texted mum, saying I wanted to catch her on a landline – when would she be home?

The answer: 10:30pm . They'd already left for dinner. After a bit of gentle persuasion, I still couldn't get mum to tell me where she was for dinner "so I could call her on a landline."

Luckily my old key to the house still worked. I slipped in, let the dog in, put my pack and cricket bats down, and called her mobile. After a birthday call to mum, I'd found that she was at the Hyde Park Hotel. I said as little as possible, but I was petrified. I was sitting in the study at my folks' place, and the dog was there. If the dog yapped (a very likely prospect as I was refusing to throw its tennis ball), it was all over. The jig was up.

Mercifully the dog stayed quiet. On hanging up with mum I called a cab and finally got to the Hydey at about 8:50pm, to surprise the lot of them. Mission accomplished!

Other Surprises

Sorry but after the big surprise the others are … well … "others".

I'd already teed up a time to come in and chat with my boss on Friday morning, and asked her to keep it quiet. I wanted to rock in that morning, late-ish, surprise everyone, and then join the boys (and girls if they wanted) at a nearby pub for lunch and watching the cricket.

Friday night was always going to be difficult. I had to find where my mates would be that night without contacting them. Especially with Chop still out of the country (he got in from India after me). My sister found out where Kate Fitz was out that night and we met up for a few drinks.

Saturday the plan was always to travel around the grounds for my old cricket club and see how everyone's doing. They had a quiz night on that night, which was a shame. Great for the club but I'd rather spend the night chatting to people and catching up than listening to questions and answering them all correctly. Still we managed to win second prize at the quiz night (first was lunch with Liz Constable, which we didn't want).


So anyway, there you have it. I'm back. I start work on 26 November, and I'm spending the week before that going the beach, catching up with friends, organising myself here and resting up a little bit.

I can't finish without saying a MASSIVE thanks to Chop for keeping it quiet all this time. Cheers mate, it must have been hard! And also to everyone in the UK who found out a little ahead of time – thanks so much for staying quiet!

And also I must thank Sandra at DPI, the only other person in Perth I told of my return!

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Demolishing Nando's: The Bird Had it Coming

I'd done this 29 times before in the last 18 months, and I think it was finally time to share my strategy for demolishing a Nando's meal. My 30th Nando's in the UK, at Balham in south London, the day before I headed to India.

For those of you that don't yet know, when I arrived in the UK I was invited by a couple of good mates, Sammy Devine and Brett Peachey, to join their Nando's challenge. Their challenge, already underway, was to see how many Nando's restaurants they could go to in the UK. The rule was that you had to eat chicken. Anyway, when I joined them they were already on 21 and 22 each.

Nando's is different here to Australia. It's more like a restaurant, where a Maitre'd greets you at the door and asks whether you're eating in, shows you to a table, and asks you to order at the till when ready. You get all-you-can-drink coke, and they have a basin for you to wash your hands after the meal.

I'm pretty sure the reason for this classiness is related to planning laws in the UK. Restaurants are treated differently (and much more leniently) than take-aways. It's fair to say that most Nando's in Australia would fall on the borderline between the two (there's a drive-thru one in Tuart Hill). Here in the UK they have to be one or the other. So for clarity's sake they've gone with the more lenient (and less objectionable) restaurant. They also differentiate themselves from Burger King, KFC, and the even dodgier imitations of KFC in doing so.

Anyway, back to the chicken. My order is almost always the same: half-chicken combo, with all-you-can-drink soft drink. The chicken is extra hot. With the combo you get two side dishes. I go for chips and spicy rice. The reasons for these choices are many. Firstly, chips rock. They are great at soaking up excess sauce or, as is often the case, any booze still in my belly from the night before.

Secondly, the rice is similarly good for soaking up sauce and is nice and greasy also so it goes down well after a big night.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the rice comes in a little bowl of its own. As soon as I get the meal I pour the rice over the main plate, emptying the bowl. The reasons for this will become clear.

Before sitting down I fill my drink (usually diet coke), get my cutlery (and many napkins, as I'm a messy bugger), and my sauce to put over the chips. I started out going for extra hot, but on the advice of Sammy and Peach I sometimes now go for medium now. Not as hot obviously, but a bit more creamy which is interesting.

So I sit down and wait - usually about ten minutes - for my meal. Usually I'm by myself (to hide my shame), and have a paper with me to read. When they seat me I usually ask for somewhere I can spread out and read a paper ( i.e. a table for four), unless there's not one available.

Then the food comes. I pour on the extra sauce over the chips. Usually liberally. As mentioned, I put the rice onto the main plate, leaving the little bowl empty. And I start by eating most of the rice - that is, eating the rice that's easy to pick up, but leaving maybe 10% or so behind. This isn't laziness (in any internal battle between sloth and gluttony, gluttony wins hands down every time), as you'll see later.

So with most of the rice gone, I step it up a notch and head for the chips. They're in trouble. I scoff them down, again maybe leaving one or two behind, usually the chips left under the chicken itself.

You'll notice, incidentally, that my strategy for eating the meal goes from eating the food I least like first to the food I most like last. It's a habit I've had for ages. It means I always finish my meals!

And so to the chicken. With a half chicken there's white meat and grey meat. I start by pulling as much as I can off the bones and cutting it up (both white and grey meat). It'll sit there for a while though, soaking in it's own sauce as well as the additional sauce left over from the chips. I might have a couple of cheeky bits of meat while cutting it up but most of it will not be eaten at this stage. The only meat I won't take off the bone will be the drumstick and wing.

It can get a little messy, even though I do all this with a knife and fork. Goodness me, I'm not a grot!

Then I usually head for the drumstick. And by now I'm using my hands. Obvious really for a drumstick, especially if you're going to suck every last morsel of meat from it. Which I am.

Now the genius of the spicy rice really comes into its own. The empty bowl is used as a receptacle for bones I've finished with. I think the more comprehensively you go through a chicken carcass, the more important it is to separate the bones from the food still to be eaten.

When you want to get every last morsel of meat, you often get down to individual rib bones. You don't want them hanging around with your still-to-be-eaten chicken, you need it to be separate.

Once you move to using your hands for Nando's, there's no going back. You can't pretend you're dainty after getting stuck in like some sort of barbarian; it's like unscrambling an egg. So I dive in - almost literally. Next stop in the meal are the other bones (except the wing), which will still have some meat on them. Like the drumstick, I use my fingers, although this does get quite messy because these bones are not as easy to strip. But luckily I'm patient (see above comment about contests between sloth and gluttony).

When those bones are picked clean - which can take some time - I move on to the meat I've left on my plate, cut away from the bone. Now soaked in the sauces (rather than just basted with them), I scoff them down. First the grey meat, then the white. Bloody fantastic.

At the end of this all that's left is the wing. Super crispy, heaps of sauce basted on it. I go for the end bit first, the crispiest but the least meat. Then I snaffle the other end, which has more meat on it but is juicy rather than crispy. Finally - my favourite part of the whole bird - the middle piece of the wing.

Once I'm done there the rice and chips become relevant. What's left on the plate is a mix o of sauce, rice, the odd chip, and morsels of chicken (usually thrown off the bone by the violence of my attack on the carcass). The chicken alone would be too difficult to scoop up, but with a bit of rice and a chip or two, I can get every last bit of the chicken off my plate!

That's it! Thirty Nando's, mostly done just like that! You didn't realise there was so much to it did you?