Part Three 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.
Dad had his specs on and was reading the newspaper, to see if his shares had risen, while listening to the cricket commentary on the radio. The others had flopped in front of that boring ye olde traditional stuff on television, so I went into my bedroom. I checked my new tan in the mirror, then checked to see if the flat parcel was still there. I felt around inside the pillow slip but couldn’t feel anything. Where was it? I felt all around the area, my wooden bedhead, under the sheet, under the bed, down the back of the bed, but it was gone. My heart rose into my throat before plunging down into the pit of my stomach. Someone must have found it. When would they come forward to quiz me? I had been dreading the thought of my fingerprints being on the envelopes until I realised that my fingerprints were not on any police file. Then I grasped the next fact. They would dust the prints then check my actual fingers. Sprung so soon when it was only an hour before the bonfire, one hour before the evidence would have been incinerated. I collapsed onto my bed.
Eventually I got up from my bed and walked slowly out into the backyard, around the dusty cactus rockery, and towards Dad to help him chuck stuff on the accumulating bonfire pile. He had finished with his newspaper and was already twisting it into wicks and setting up sticks to encourage a good blaze under our discarded remnants of Christmas. That was a good metaphor and I mentally made a note. Everyone was told to stay inside as Dad lit a match and the bonfire flames licked at paper plates, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, cellophane, plastic cartons, plastic cutlery, bonbon hats, tooters, streamers, tangled decorations and a disposable cooking apron which twisted and writhed and finally melted in the red-hot flames. A steady column of acrid black smoke rose into the sky.
In the intense heat, a molten puddle began to form, and in this inferno I thought I saw a text book shrivel into ashes. A donation from Roslyn? The high temperature would have kept us back, but we were never allowed to toast crumpets or marshmallows on sticks because Dad said the air was too toxic. I hoped our neighbours had their windows closed and I thought of Mr Bad Neighbour’s gravelly voice. If everyone burned off, I reckon the air would turn to ash and breathing would be difficult. The sun would be blocked, the rivers would turn to sludge, the trees would lose their leaves and the temperature would rise.
Shocked at my own imagination, I turned to the old mango tree growing in the opposite corner of the garden near the paling fence. Suddenly I wanted to stop the burning. It was my favourite tree and it was getting ash on its leaves. I was turning to run for the garden hose when Bitzy ran passed me. Instantly I saw what he had in his mouth but as I reached down, he veered away and headed towards the bonfire. Two awful things happening at once. It was hopeless to try and stop the blaze now, so I concentrated my efforts on Bitzy. I shouted to Dad. “Stop Bitzy! He’s got my book in his mouth!” With one sweeping gesture, Dad reached down and took the parcel out of the dog’s mouth, holding it above his head. Bitzy did a wide arch and ran back toward the house and his water bowl.
“Thanks, Dad,” I gasped, “it’s too important to be scorched.” He raised an eyebrow. I didn’t stick around to offer an explanation. The house was cool after the extra heat outside and I welcomed the quietness of my bedroom. I pushed aside Philip’s swap cards and sat down at my small student desk. With coloured pencils, scissors and glue I made a paper angel, wrote on one outstretched wing, then folded it across the body. I glued the angel to the packet and before I could think any more about it, I ran out of my room, flung open the front door, raced down the patio steps, along the crazy paving to the front gate and headed towards Mr Bad Neighbour’s dumb, er, distinctive letterbox.
I slipped the flat parcel into the posting window of the Swiss Chalet and turned away. I ran slap bang into Mr Bad Neighbour. He steadied me with one wrinkled hand. In the other he held a Christmas-looking parcel. “Here.” His face was pale, his voice was wheezy. “Save me a trip. This is for you and your family.” I stuttered my thanks, which he waved away saying “It’s only shortbread.” I smiled. “That’s my favourite.” He nodded. “Mine, too.” This was getting a bit embarrassing for me, so I muttered another thank you and stepped around him, racing back home quick sticks.
It wasn’t until I was sipping leftover eggnog and munching shortbread biscuits that I realised Mr Bad Neighbour did not appear from his front gate. He must have come down the street. There was a ting sound as Mum hung up the phone. She came bustling down the hallway full of gossip. “Well, guess what, my lovelies?” I shrugged and the others just waited for her announcement. “Mr Bad Neighbour has been delivering tins of shortbread to all the homes in the street. Francesca says you could have knocked her down with a feather she was so surprised.” Dad said “Well, that’s nice of the bloke. Maybe he’s not as bad as we think.” Mum tapped her chin and said “You know his health is bad.”
Roslyn and I looked at each other over the top of Philip’s chlorinated head. I knew from the gleam which flared in Roslyn’s eyes that she was the one who had given Bitzy the envelope parcel. She must have had her fingers crossed that the dog wouldn’t make it to the bonfire. She said “Just another Christmas miracle, I guess.” I wanted to wink at her but it seemed too corny. And how could I tell her what I had felt in the split second beside the bonfire? It was like I saw the world being choked by our own careless actions. When I go back to school next year, I know I am going to be really interested in geography and social studies and definitely telling people to think about where all their rubbish goes. Into the ground or into the air, I am sure it is going to cause long term damage one way or the other.
It was about half an hour before bedtime and Bitzy growled in his sleep, Philip picked at his flaky nose, and Mum and Dad were being mushy, hugging on the couch in front of the television with the sound turned off. We’d had a good laugh about the time Dad put the dining table directly under the ceiling fan and turned it on full blast when Mum had just finished laying the table decorations. Red, green and silver flew everywhere! Roslyn and I sat on the floor reading really old Blinky Bill comics. I bumped shoulders and said “Thanks for being a good sister, Ros.” She grinned. “Oh, I just have to be patient. You always work things out in the end.” She sounded a bit like Mum and I groaned theatrically. Holding up a bowl, I said “Care for one of Uncle Mark’s nuts?”
All in all, it was a pretty good Christmas. But that was months ago, and you know what? Since then Mr Bad Neighbour has not held a loud party. In fact, he doesn’t have parties any more. He also stopped smoking and takes healing art classes in the church hall. His speciality is angels and he is considering launching a business called Angels of Forgiveness or some such soppiness like that. I certainly hope he never talks about my note or mentions the archangel called Gabriel because that just happens to be my first name.
You know what Gabriel wrote on the inside of that angel’s wing? It was a quote he’d heard on Christmas Day And it goes something like this “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” Colossians 3:13
Part Two 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.
This may have been a threat but I reckon Mr Bad Neighbour wouldn’t take it further because he was mostly in the wrong, most of the time. I’ll never forget him taking a kick a Bitzy just for walking past his front gate. What he didn’t know was that he was surrounded by neighbours who pretended to ignore him while keeping a dossier and thinking “He’s a bit suss. He’ll trip himself up sooner or later.” Of course, they hoped he’d trip and fall straight into prison. There’s a slim chance that could happen. But, in the meantime, they politely pretend he didn’t exist.
I hung up the receiver and it clattered into the cradle in such a way that I hoped hurt his eardrums. As I turned, I saw a pile of white envelopes someone had dumped in the cane basket beside the telephone which usually held keys and junk. I brushed aside tiny plastic charms from the Christmas bonbons we had at school on the last day and started to shuffle through the bundle like a pack of cards. I recognised some of the handwriting and was pleased to see an overseas stamp. My brain stopped my hand. My eyes locked on the address in a long window-faced envelope. It wasn’t addressed to my parents. It wasn’t addressed to me. It was addressed to the man nextdoor. We had received Mr Bad Neighbour’s post by mistake.
Tentatively, I recommenced shuffling the white business envelopes and was amazed to see that three others had his name and address on them. I read a bank return address, a doctor’s return address, a government office return address and an investment corporation return of address. There was no way of knowing if they held good news or requests for payment. Maybe the doctor’s one said he had an incurable disease. “Oh no,” I thought, “that could mean he’s highly contagious.” I shuddered. My next thought was to toss the envelopes back on the pile and let Mum or Dad sort them out. They’d probably seen this happen before, especially at Christmastime when the post office had relief staff sorting the mail. Mum might even slip a striped candy cane in with the bundle. She would think it was a nice gesture but I preferred to think it was hinting at Scrooge, or more likely the Grinch.
My mind seesawed but my hand stayed firmly clamped. There were many things I could do with these four envelopes and they were all illegal. I couldn’t open them, I couldn’t bin them, I thought about re-posting them so they took longer to get back to him, and finally the nastiest option. I could drop them in the soapy kitchen sink, maybe walk on them, then popping them into his letterbox. He’d never know. Or would he? The postman may have realised his error and would be prepared to testify in court that he put them in our letterbox, unsullied.
The more I mulled over ways to annoy Mr Bad Neighbour by delaying or partially destroying his mail, the less grip I had on reality. The right thing to do had slowly evaporated and I knew there was no way I would simply put his mail straight into his stupid Swiss Chalet letterbox with its plastic Rudolph on the roof. I wanted to get back at him for pushing over my bicycle, puncturing my football, telling Mum I trod on his flower bed looking for snails. Well, it was for a school science project.
Re-posting mail at this time of year meant long delivery delays, quite possibly he wouldn’t get the four envelopes until the New Year and by then he may have advanced lung cancer. The rational part of my mind said “Surely the doctors have already booked his hospital bed?” No, there was nothing for it. My finger prints were all over them, they had to be destroyed. It wouldn’t be my fault they accidentally fell into the bonfire we always had in the back corner of the garden on Boxing Day afternoon. Mum liked to clear up and burn the rubbish left over from our festivities. Occasionally items, unwanted or otherwise, were accidentally broken or scrunched up or drooled on by Bitzy, so what did a handful of paper matter?
It may have been Aunt Zilla’s Christmas plum pudding and brandy custard, but I did not sleep well that night. Cousin Philip’s parents were on a grown-ups break so Philip stayed in my bedroom, snoring like a diesel train in a sleeping bag. First up, after I had wiped the envelopes down like they do in the movies, I secured them in some spare wrapping paper and sticky-taped the sides. Unsure if they would pass as useless overflow or a forgotten gift, I tucked them safely into my pillowcase. This made my pillow crackle all night and that didn’t help my sleep either. My mind replayed our Christmas Day family fun over and over, but instead of focusing on my great haul of goodies, and Dad whacking a six over the garage, it kept circling back to the hall telephone table.
Over Boxing Day breakfast, mainly leftover lychees, cheesy bread and dips, I casually asked Roslyn what she thought a person would be fined if they destroyed someone’s Christmas mail. She looked away from the sight of Philip spooning plum pudding and custard into his mouth and onto his chin. After swallowing a chunk of ham, slathered in mustard pickles, she said “Depends what was in the mail?” then took a big glug of orange juice before continuing. “If it was birthday money or bank cheques, it would probably mean a stint in the lockup.” This was not what I wanted to hear. “Er,” I groped for a reply. “What if it was an accident?” She laughed. “Then nobody would know, would they?” And I knew I had my answer.
I tried to keep the jubilant tone out of my voice, while tucking away the word “jubilant” to dazzle my next English teacher, and said “Better not work in the post office, I guess.” Roslyn gave me a funny look, as though she was going to ask if I’d got a holiday job. I quickly jumped to my feet. “Hey, Phil, wanna come to the pool with us tomorrow?” Philip nearly choked in his eagerness to accept the invitation. It was nice being a younger kid’s idol. “That would be great!” Roslyn raised her nose and said in a haughty voice “I wouldn’t come to that lukewarm pool if you paid me.” I pulled my Velcro wallet out of my board shorts. “I have moneeey.” I waggled two five dollar notes. “Ice creams are on me.” They both responded appropriately but I guessed Roslyn had worked out that Uncle Mark had been unfair and given me more than he had given her this Christmas. Should it matter? It did, and I felt bad about it. I made a mental note to buy her a packet of Smarties.
Philip’s holidaying parents left instructions while they were away; games of Scrabble were meant to be the kid’s calm Boxing Day entertainment. Yeah… At the chlorinated council swimming pool, I let Phil slide down the slippery slide into the blue water about a hundred times and eat too many jelly snakes which made him sick. Even when Roslyn forced him to wear a daggy t-shirt in the water, and he got a sunburned face which made him look like a drunk on Saturday night, he loved every minute of it. “You forgot to apply his sunscreen cream,” wailed Mum. “Don’t worry, Auntie June,” said Philip. “My skin will peel off soon enough.” She left the room still wailing but I couldn’t work out if it was because of Philip’s skin or because her own sister would skin her alive. Little did I know that I was minutes away from my own personal disaster.
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.”
Late last year at Brisbane GenreCon, I said hello to Darren Koziol, mastermind behind Australian comic books DarkOz. His display table was beside ours and I was lured over by the bright yet disturbing cover of the Retro Sci-Fi Tales Christmas Special #1 December 2019. I purchased a copy and three quirky Christmas cards were thrown into the deal.
After chatting to Darren and learning about his creative skills and the help he gives budding comic book creators, I expressed interest in ‘The Comic Book Manifesto: Making Comic Books In Australia’.
Even coming from a non-comic book person like me, I feel this booklet gets to the essence of creating artwork and design and offers inspiration for those interested in furthering their artistic abilities.
It’s a small volume which packs a punch; under the heading Influences & Individuality, Mike Speakman says ‘Seek out advice from your peers, listen to it all, but remember to put your own spin on things.’
It was a week before I managed to fully read my copy of this idiosyncratic Christmas Special but I loved the tall tales and clever retro illustrations. Inside, two wacky characters Bruno and Maggie feature in three comics—the one I particularly liked was ‘Space Elevator’. Original, creepy, humorous with a twist in the alien tale. Being retro, the slant was towards American-style comics but I was pleased to see ‘Great Australian Bight Bite’, short, sweet, deadly.
When I was a kid, the exaggerated reactions and cryptic comments from characters in comic books never really appealed. Like most people, I seem to remember Lee Falk’s ‘The Phantom’ in our daily newspaper alongside the funnies but I think for over ten years Charles Schulz and ‘Peanuts’ blitzed all else for me. Now I have greater respect for the patience, skill and hard work involved in comic book production.
Comic books have come a long way! Or have they? Happily the tradition lives on.
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