Part One of three parts over three days, this Christmas story is a semi-humorous collection of reminiscences from an adult when he was a teenager. He said it is a fictional recollection – but is it? I have retained the way it was imparted to me, with minimal alterations and formatting so readers may find it a bit unconventional. GBW.
Another stinking hot and humid morning, classic Queensland December weather. Another sweltering Christmas Day lunch was coming with its overload of perfumed aunts, sweaty uncles, sweaty sliced ham, burnt potatoes and sickly sweet desserts squabbled over by squealing cousins. One year, all the aunts brought pavlova, sunken in the middle and piled high with Golden Circle tinned fruit. The cream on top had started to curdle and Mum had given up trying to swish off the flies. This year Aunt Hilda brought the sweetest dessert, a huge glass bowl of rocky road trifle. I thought cousin Philip’s head was going to explode with excitement.
The entrée was always nice. Usually Jatz crackers, cheese cubes, carrot and celery sticks and maybe olives or cocktail onions. If Uncle Mark attended, it was guaranteed there would be salted peanuts, salted brazil nuts and salted cashew nuts. Not that he was particularly generous, it was just that he liked nuts with his chilled beer. He drank a lot of chilled beer, summer and winter actually.
Uncle Lucas said what he said every year. “The person who invented the festive punch bowl was a drongo. Talk about a foolish way to serve yourself a drink.” The main reason he didn’t like it was because Mum never poured alcohol into the bowl because of the little kids. But I had to agree. For a start, if chunks of pineapple are mixed into the lemonade and cordial swill, it is very hard to ladle the liquid into your glass without splashing. If my sister Roslyn, who hated stuff in her drinks––even those paper umbrellas––spied a slice of lemon or a glacé cherry floating around, she would spend half an hour trying to fish it out with a toothpick she’d pulled out of a boiled cheerio. Of course, the linen tablecloth got pretty sticky but our dog Bitzy enjoyed his snack. On the whole, he did very well out of Christmas lunch. He’s only sicked up once so far.
In fact, Bitzy was ready and salivating when we all trudged home from the universal Christmas Day morning church service. I think it was invented to delay the opening of presents under the tree. The best present I got was Cluedo and I kept asking everyone to play it with me. Anyway, we had to walk there and back because the almost-Christians always filled the carpark at Christmas. The first thing I noticed was that Bitzy had romped through most of the gifts under the tree. Probably bidding our cat a fond goodbye for the next couple of days. Fortunately there was no food in any of the presents so he didn’t do much damage, although the bows looked a bit wonky, and I could see a skinny Barbie arm waving for help through a snowman-wrapped box.
Snowmen, holly, red robins, can’t we move on? Even Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or St Nicholas wears a red hot thermal suit. In this temperature! Come on, those cards on the mantelpiece are weird, why would he get togged up, harness the reindeers and deliver pressies to kids in the outback wearing that outfit? And why does he fly over Bondi Beach or Ayers Rock? Most of us live in three-bedroomed houses in the suburbs. I vaguely thought of the song “Six White Boomers” about kangaroos instead of reindeer. Those reindeers are a worry, surely it’s not their only seasonal job. And what if Santa got a ute?
This got me thinking about the Sri Lankan family at one end of our street, and the Indigenous mob at the other end where me mate Gazza used to live. I will have to ask Dad if they exchange gifts and celebrate like we do with decorations and excessive food. Before school starts again next year, maybe I can ask Gazza. He’s been outback but hopefully will swing into town at the end of January around Australia Day celebrations. Well, maybe not, he burns the flag, so I’ll probably see him in February.
I tweaked the tinsel holding another load of gaudy cards and they bounced violently but didn’t fall off. Mum always wrote Christmas cards even though she said it was a chore and Dad said it was to keep in good with people. Our tree this year was a bare branch from a local gumtree, stuck in a flower pot and decorated with crafty things Roslyn and I made at school while the teachers took a break in the staff room. It was strung with twinkly coloured lights and looked good leaning forward, sort of humble, like Mary and Joseph in the cowshed. Sometimes Roslyn would make a little manger, padded with dry grass, and wrap one of her dolls in a facecloth to look like baby Jesus. She didn’t like it when I used my toy dinosaurs as lowly cattle.
In the lead up to Christmas, we always visited the local Christmas Lights display. Lights were plastered all over ordinary homes in ordinary streets, creating traffic chaos but giving everyone an eyeful of how much electricity there is to waste. Roslyn thought I was weird because I liked the plain twinkly lights in the trees, not the big bold brightly coloured ones that beamed from roof-lines in the shape of the nativity. This year a couple of families had lined their driveways in a successful imitation of an aircraft runway. I guess it was an incentive for Father Christmas to visit, reserved parking, no chimney fuss. I half expected to see a bale of hay for Rudolph and the team.
When I think of lights and decorations, I think of the time when Roslyn was a toddler, she popped a small glass Christmas tree decoration into her mouth and chomped it. Everyone went hysterical and she had to spit it out and rinse her mouth and get a lecture. It was only Uncle Mark who muttered “Damn glass manufacturers” which is probably why the world went plastic. In hindsight, it has proved to be just as dangerous.
Dad usually asked “Could we have a barbecue this year, love?” but Mum always vetoed the idea because “It’s Christmas, Merv, not Melbourne Cup Day.” He grumbled as he stirred the rich dark gravy he always made for the roasted leg of lamb. Which he always had the honour of carving right after we said grace. This meat was my favourite and I couldn’t understand why my best friend Redmond was a vegetarian when there was such a variety of food on the planet. I’d often ask “Why restrict yourself, Red?” and he’d snort and go and sit on another side of the shelter shed, muttering “carnivore” and filling his mouth with mung beans.
Anyway, on this after-lunch, over-heated Christmas afternoon, the phone rang. Due to the little kids still playing in the paddling pool, everyone lazily keeping an eye on them, their aluminium chairs sinking into the lawn as they digested the food they’d gutsed, I was the bunny. I raced towards the house, scaring a scrap-watching magpie, ran along the hallway and skidded to a stop in front of the telephone table.
“Hello,” I said and held my breath, wondering who it would be. A gravelly voice said “Would you stop making so much blasted noise.” I blinked. This was our nextdoor neighbour who always made the most noise in the street. Loud parties, squealing women, swearing men, breaking bottles, knocking over bins, and revving his Holden Monaro GTS twin exhaust pipes at one o’clock in the morning. I swallowed and composed the reply Mum had drilled into me. “Thank you for calling. I’ll let my parents know you rang.” His cleared his cigarette smoker’s throat. “You better, or else there’ll be trouble.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
© Gretchen Bernet-Ward 2020
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