Just imagine coming back to your house after a week’s holiday in Cornwall with no expectations other than putting on the kettle and making a cup of tea. You open the front door and in a heartbeat everything changes.
This was not a burglary, but an illicit gathering of 200 teenagers, a Facebook party that spiralled out of control.
That’s what happened when my partner John and I, and our two youngest children Maya and Felix, arrived back one mid-August afternoon.
Mother Clare Empson re-lives the horror of coming home and discovering that her son had had a 200-people Facebook party, leaving the family home in tatters
Our 16-year-old son Jake was standing in the kitchen with an expression of woe meets full-blown terror. The overhead pendant light was on the floor in bits.
A cupboard door was hanging off its hinges. A haphazard clean-up meant the rest of the kitchen didn’t look too bad at first glance. But my husband has a nose for such things.
‘You’ve had a party,’ he said, in a Grim Reaper kind of voice.
The rest of the house told its story. Let’s start with the playroom where blood was spattered across the carpet, the sofa was littered with cigarette burns, a drum kit smashed to pieces. The staircase carpet, once beige, was the colour of concrete, our white walls covered in greasy smudges.
‘Someone’s been sleeping in my room,’ called my daughter. She produced an eaten apple core for proof (with hindsight something of a relief when I consider what she might have found).
Each room revealed evidence of habitation, including our bathroom with its half-drunk glass of prosecco perched on the edge of the bath.
She had gone on holiday to Cornwall with the rest of the family supposedly leaving eldest Jake, 16, to stay at a friend’s house nearby
There was worse to come. We have a decrepit tennis court, not much good for tennis, but fantastic, apparently, for smashing bottles. It was a sea of broken green and brown glass, like an art installation. It took months to clear up.
A picture was emerging — random, mindless hooliganism in a deserted farmhouse in the West Country. Our son’s go-kart had been tossed in the air until it crash-landed into three unfixable pieces (we saw video footage on Facebook) and two bikes were missing. The hedges revealed bin liners full of cans and bottles.
Our 16-year-old son Jake was standing in the kitchen with an expression of woe meets full-blown terror. The overhead pendant light was on the floor in bits
With your eldest child, the teenage years come as a shock. We had dropped Jake at the station the previous day believing he was heading home for a friend’s party.
What we didn’t know was the party was at our house — he broke in through the cat flap (since removed) — and that it had been flagged on social media for a week. We were expecting him to stay at a friend’s house, so he didn’t have a key to ours.
John and I were reeling. We couldn’t believe Jake was capable of such deceit. Jake was in tears, saying sorry over and over and how it was the worst night of his life. (The jury is out on that one).
He’d invited 50 people, but word had spread, friends had brought friends, and with no adults to intervene it was impossible to turn them away. He spent the night trying to persuade people to come downstairs, but no one listened.
At their home in Dorset they found cigarette burns all over the sofa, a smashed light hanging off its hinges, blood on the playroom floor, smashed bottles all over the tennis court and more
They drank out of — and smashed — our glasses. They smoked inside (we have a thatched roof). They stayed up all night and crashed out all over the house. Everyone brought booze, speakers were lugged in for the sound system, parents who dropped off were assured there were adults at home (if they even bothered to ask). Taxi drivers who called to pick up hordes of teens also expressed no interest in why there were 200 kids on the rampage.
Once we were past the shock we were relieved no one had been hurt. We live in the wilds of Dorset — what if someone had needed a trip to A&E? And where did that blood come from? We never found out. Worryingly, a Gurkha knife, a memento from John’s late father, had gone missing — but we eventually found it behind the TV.
Jake was in tears, saying sorry over and over and how it was the worst night of his life
We confiscated Jake’s phone which was buzzing with Snapchat messages — ‘best night of my life’ read one, ‘sick party, bro,’ said another — and grounded him.
The damages would come out of his pocket, we said. We pressed him for an explanation to make sense of what he had done, but all he could say was, ‘I’m so sorry.’
Having been victims of a Facebook party, one of the most chilling things you can overhear is the words, ‘so and so’s got an empty house.’ But more worrying was the thought of what might happen next time.
What followed was a decision that amazed our friends. We decided to allow Jake and his mates to have a gathering at our house provided we were there. When you live in the sticks, there are so few safe places for teens to hang out. This was an experiment — we’d try being the safe place — and we set rules.
We capped the numbers to ten, provided a case of beer, and said everyone could stay the night provided the party was limited to the playroom. Smoking was banished to outside, noise was capped at 1am. And we all got through it unscathed.
Bringing out croissants and tea the next morning for a bunch of kids who seemed remarkably bright eyed, I knew we could do it again. Over the next two years Jake’s friends often stayed over after a party. And here’s the thing, it was a privilege getting to know these kids, who were consistently polite, kind, funny, intelligent.
We’re on the second wave of teen gatherings now with my 17-year-old daughter. Her friends, too, have been respectful of the house and our rules. I have no regrets about turning our house into a teenage party zone and, when the 11-year-old hits GCSE age, we will all know the drill.
- Clare Empson’s debut novel Him, is published by Orion. Her second novel, Mine, is out as an e-book and will be published in paperback in March 2020.