Our first Christmas tree

CHRISTMAS A
year is inconceivably long for a six-year-old. While school offers worldly insights, I still measure time in days, weeks at most. The four seasons are my calendar and I know summer and Christmas belong together, six weeks with no daily rush to brush teeth or find a missing ribbon; free from buckles, ties and fetters. By late November, stories of wise men, baby Jesus and a bright star enter our lessons and carols fill our classrooms. Thursday is the last day of school for the year and we are dismissed early. Mum makes a rare stop at the milk bar and gives us sixpence to buy lollies. We share these with neighbouring children who have hitched a ride home. At the road-side mailbox Nick and I grapple for the newspaper, bread and mail. We haul our weighty school bags into the house, disgorging mounds of books, pencils and locker flotsam. Uniforms are ceremoniously discarded before we leap from the veranda to begin a game of chasey that lasts all summer. After
three years of school Nick has a sense of end-of-year traditions, while I’m unused to planning my time. Restlessness drives me out into the dusk, where I ride my bike and contemplate the prospect of an endless summer.

* * * * *

Dawn seeps in through my window: a lone blackbird warbling from deep in the garden. As the twittering of sparrows rises, I remember there is no school, that stretching before me lie weeks of simple blessedness. This realisation is louder than any alarm clock and I slither out of bed. A warm breeze promises dry, sunny weather, so I don shorts, singlet and a shirt discarded from yesterday. Padding down the hallway, I pause to peer at the barometer. The needle agrees with my forecast, though I dare not tap for accuracy. The kitchen table is already set for
breakfast. I reach for newspaper from a small pile by the stove and slide a sheet free. Opening the firebox, I scrunch the page, poking it into sleepy embers, adding kindling and larger pieces as flames lick the wood. I slide the kettle onto the hot plate. The stove creaks as I stretch for a biscuit tin on the mantelpiece, and take two malto-milks, munching one while I pocket the other.

My feet slip into thongs at the back door, and I tiptoe out along the driveway. Bird song still rises from near the lemon tree, on the other side of a rose thicket. As I close my eyes to, drink its sweetness, it ceases suddenly, and the blackbird scuttles away in a flurry of alarm. A sleek, black cat emerges from the bushes. He has a furry white bandana across his snout and throat.

‘Pirate!’I snort in disgust, ignoring his invitation for a pat. I slip over the drive way gate into the yard, my thongs squeaking as I walk.
Beneath the big cypress tree Husso, our border collie farm dog, stands in greeting by his kennel, still chained from the day before. I ruffle his fur and bend to set him free. Together we cross to the wide gate. Paddocks warm in the bloom of dawn. Perched on the gate, I await the
sunrise. As cows file by on their way to the dairy, a haze of gold crosses the fields like an inrushing tide. Beyond the next fence lie rows of stubble where lizards scurry, and field mice and rabbits graze their last for the night. Husso’s tail thumps. He is eager for exercise.

We step forward into a lacy geometry of spider webs. The border collie darts and bounds well ahead of me. We meet at the next fence. Husso dives after quarry before snorting and bounding to the next. A sweet dampness rises on the warming currents and larks twitter invisibly in the infinite dome of blue. A startled rabbit scampers to the boxthorn warren and Husso gives chase, nosing at the burrow with his tail waving eagerly. But I’m not interested.

* * * * *

I’m not looking forward to another Christmas on the dining room couch after vacating my room for the comfort of my aunt and uncle. The couch is overly stuffed, and covered in cracked, green leather. It is cold and hard. With this prospect, I leap at news of an alternative. The first clue is dad balanced atop his foot ladder outside the bathroom door. He is rummaging through the uppermost cupboard of the linen press where rumours of mystery have defied my exploration. I expect him to hand me boxes of Christmas decorations so I’m surprised when he tosses down several woollen blankets, reeking of camphor.

I help him carry them out through the narrow passageway to the side veranda. Between us we  shake them over the lawn. I have never seen them before.

‘They belonged to my mother,’ he explains. Granny Clarke died long before I arrived. ‘She brought them out with her from England when she
married grandad,’ he explains.

‘That’s why they look like kilts then,’ I suggest, admiring the tartan.

‘Not exactly. They’re travelling rugs.’

‘Why did you get them out, then?’

‘Well, your mother and I have an idea about where you can sleep over Christmas. We know it’s not fair that you give up your room for Aileen and Horrie each year and you don’t get much sleep on that couch, do you?’

‘No,’ I admit.

‘Well, we can hang these over the clothes line, see, and set them up as tents, with a bed beneath each one.’

‘That’s a great idea.’ I jiggle with excitement. I’ve never been in a tent before.

‘We thought you might like to try it out as an adventure. Pretend you are camping.’

‘But what do we sleep on?’

‘We’ve thought of that, too. I’ve bought two stretcher beds from the army disposals store. I thought we could use them for a camping, perhaps up in The Grampians sometime.’

‘But you only got two. Won’t you need four?’

He laughs, brushing my cheek with his hand. ‘We can’t all leave the farm at once, can we? I will go camping with you, and then Nick and
mum can have a turn. So, for now, you and Nick are to set up your beds beneath these blankets. And get some bedding from mum.’

I am speechless with delight. ‘Run and fetch some clothes pegs for me, will you?’ dad says, ‘and let’s see if this works.’

‘How many?’

‘I’m not sure … say, twelve.’

I scurry off to the laundry. There are two kinds of pegs so I grab the whole basket. ‘I didn’t know what kind of pegs you want.’ I explain, lowering them at his feet. In my absence dad’s thrown the blankets over both ropes of the clothesline.

‘But they don’t reach the floor,’ I point out.

‘Mmm.’ Dad crosses to the outer corner of the veranda and unties a cord, shaking the clothesline free over little pullies. It slackens off, and the blankets drop down. I dive between the first, looking up into the space inside.

‘Magic. A room from a blanket.’

Grinning, dad pulls the second one further along so there is a space between them. ‘I think we’ll need some bricks to anchor the edges and keep them open.’ I turn, heading off for the brick heap, but he stops me.
‘No, dear. I’ll get the bricks. You put the pegs away, please.’

I muster a flicker of enthusiasm.

After dad and Nick place their armloads of bricks on the veranda, Nick leaps forward, staking his claim on the furthest blanket.

‘I bags this one,’ he declares.

I haven’t given it a thought. However, looking along the veranda, I fail to see his advantage. In fact, he’s chosen the end nearest our parent’s window, and further south. That suits me. Less cold drafts and further away from mum and dad. Plus I’ll be nearer the side door.

‘Okay.’ I agree, trying to sound a little disappointed.

‘Now, I want to see how the stretcher-beds fit first,’ says dad, returning from insde the house with two long cardboard boxes. Nick reaches for one while dad unpacks the other. From lengths of wood, springs and folded canvas, two beds emerge, and I’m invited to be the guinea pig. I ease down cautiously, unsure whether the hinges will hold. But, as I lie right down, my face lights up.

‘It’s so comfortable, Nick. Try it out.’

Dad watches, beaming satisfaction. ‘Well, that works splendidly. Nick, slide yours along and see how it fits beneath the blanket.’ The bed seems well sheltered. ‘I’ll leave you kids to set up the rest, then. Now, ask mum for help with bedding. Don’t go plundering her best linen.’

Nick arranges his tent while I manoeuvre my bed into place, anchoring the walls with bricks. There is a yard or so of space between us and I have an idea. I run to the doll’s house and drag the door open. I push some musty plywood to one side. Behind them is a tiny chest of  drawers, ideal for my clothes. I lumber it back to the veranda piece by piece. There are spiders’ nests in the drawers, some still inhabited. After a good brush and wipe, they are ready.

Meanwhile, Nick has a small cardboard suitcase for his clothes, and slides this beneath his stretcher. Mum brings our linen in a clothes basket. For once, we need little encouragement to make our beds. She watches, delighted by our enthusiasm. I pin my tent-end closed behind the chest of drawers.

‘They’re your old nappy pins,’ she informs me.

‘Really? Well here’s the baby using them! There won’t be drafts in here,’ I declare, hooking a clothes hanger on the clothesline.

‘What’s that for?’ ‘My hair ribbons.’ ‘Of course.’

What difference one day can bring: from a gloomy dining room to the almost outdoors. My bedtime is earlier than usual and I have trouble getting comfortable and warm. After an hour, I fill a hot water bottle at the kitchen tap and tuck it between my sheets, and spread my dressing gown over the blankets for extra warmth. I ease back on the stretcher, still lacking confidence that it will hold me, and wary of Nick’s pranks. I doze as music drifts from the sitting room radio. Later, mum tiptoes out to check on us and wakes me with her torch. I relax
again as the side-door closes. God. I hope she doesn’t do that every night!

I hear Nick’s regular breathing and know he’s asleep. Beyond him are noises of the night. Some are quite distinct: the scuttle of black birds in the orchard, twittering starlings from their roost in the cane, and restless sparrows in the cotoneaster. Behind them, crickets drone. I wake much later to a blackbird’s song. Surely it’s not morning. Then other birds stir, twittering briefly before settling again, leaving the eternal
buzz of crickets and an occasional falling leaf or twig.

I sleep again till dawn, waking, confused to the sound of the anguished cry of a baby. At first I’m unfocused. Was it the end of a dream? But so real. Raising the tent flap, I stare out in disbelief. Pirate, the cat, slinks along the driveway, emitting an eerie human cry. The yowl is awful, distressing. I hiss at him curtly and he stops, peering round, his tail bristling. I move the flap again and he sees me and sits down, watching. Then he begins to groom himself. I shiver, easing back beneath the blankets to sleep again, waking well into morning. Sunlight streams through the blanket wall. I emerge still sleepy and reach for my hairbrush. Nick is already up. At the bathroom I realise my tent needs a towel
and I need breakfast. The night air has left me ravenous, intent on a bowl full of Weetbix, honey and milk. *

* * * * *

‘Dad?’ I call to him as he removes his boots on the back door step. ‘Do birds usually sing in the middle of the night?’

‘What time was that, dear?’ he peers at me over his shoulder.

‘I don’t know. Didn’t have a clock.’
‘Well…’ He disappears into the laundry to wash, and I take his cue to follow. ‘There’s a thing called the midnight awakening,’ he says, turning the tap at the hand-basin. ‘And it happens throughout the world, so I’m told.’ He scrubs his hands with a nailbrush and Solvol. ‘Between about midnight and one o’clock in the morning,’ he adds, cupping both hands to rinse his face.

‘And then what happens?’

‘Animals stir.’

‘And birds sing?’

‘Yes. I’ve heard blackbirds around that time.’

‘Why?’ ‘I’m not sure. Perhaps they wake each other by stretching, checking all is well,’ he suggests. ‘Is that what you heard?’

‘I think so. I heard a blackbird. It was lovely.’

He smiles. ‘You’ve heard something very special. Some people call it a blessing and others a curse.’

‘Why a curse?’
‘That’s supposed to be the time a soul is most likely to leave the body. And sometimes they don’t come back.’

He dries his hands, brightening. ‘You know, funny thing about blackbirds. You can almost set your watch by their song.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘You’ll notice they sing regularly, four times a day: at dusk, midnight, dawn and mid-afternoon.’ He dries his face on the roller towel. ‘I don’t know if it happens generally, though…but it certainly does here on our farm.’

Awed by this mystery I follow dad into the kitchen.

Each evening, I listen to the sounds of night. They transport me like music, awakening me only when the birds stir. The blackbird’s song is most magical, too beautiful for such an ordinary-looking bird. It doesn’t always wake me outright, often slipping into my dreams. Pirate’s prowls are less regular and I greet his strangeness with my hiss of disgust. I rise early, bathing at the tap by the coral tree, and head for
sunrise with Husso.
*****

This evening we gathered round the piano, singing hymns, folksongs and carols to mum’s accompaniment. Now that we’re in bed, classical music drifts out from the radio. Sometimes dad plays records. It has always been so – my first memory ever. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and it’s been a week since school ended. Auntie Aileen, Uncle Horrie and grandad are expected before dinner. I hope they will be all right. It has been very warm, and the evening breezes fail to cool the house. This climate is quite unpredictable. We’re never sure if we will swelter over
Christmas dinner or welcome warm festivities on a cold, blustery day.

My excitement is poorly matched by Brahms this evening. Unable to sleep, I dress quietly and make my way round to the back gate, where my bike rests against the fence. Dusk has rendered it colourless, invisible but for chrome. Its handlebars and mudguards are rusty. Unlike Nick’s bike, mine has no gears or brake levers but, while it is a hand-me-down, I don’t mind at all. I’m grateful to have a bike. As I reach the driveway, the only sound is tyres crunching loudly in the stillness. I wake Husso as I circle the big cypress. His tail taps the kennel floor. Picking up speed I pass the machinery shed, and anticipate the gentle incline to the road. My tyres thrum across the cattlegrid, and I peer down the road for headlights. It is clear and, as I turn left, a warm westerly breeze blows loose strands of hair from my face.

I turn at a neighbour’s gateway and I retrace my path, labouring up a gentle rise to our farm. Racing down the driveway, I complete my first circuit. The kitchen light flicks on. I see mum’s silhouette at the sink. I pull over into deeper shadow by the windmill. I watch and wait. The
pump kicks into life at my side, startling me. I peer up at the windmill. The fan blades turn slowly. Once the light is off and the house slips back into darkness, I resume my ride, completing several more circuits. Halfway back on the last lap I pause, standing astride my bike and peering at the sky. Compared to the Bethlehem star on Christmas cards, our stars seem small and pale. I wonder how the wise men knew when to travel. And was it winter there, or summer? I must check the atlas tomorrow. Even without moonlight the cypress hedge contrasts clearly against the night sky, its golden tips mocking the stars. Pity dad hadn’t planted one in the garden. Then we’d have a real Christmas tree. The tops of cypresses resemble Christmas trees. Now there’s an idea. I ride the circuit again in order to think this through, before sidling up to my parking spot at the fence. I feel drowsy and welcome the thought of sleep.

* * * * *

Upon waking to Christmas Eve the first thing I remember is the cypress hedge. I dress purposefully. With hair done and bed made I slip over the gate and head down between the orchard and shed. I stoop beneath a skirt of branches and reach in, burrowing up through the thicket of
branches, and hauling myself onto a floor of sorts. I climb the nearest trunk. The branches are evenly spaced for easy steps. Soon my head pokes through the canopy and I look out, over to the rooftop of the house. But I don’t have time to waste on sightseeing. This treetop is storm-damaged and untidy, but the neighbouring ones look better. I clamber passed a few trunks and climb again. This tree has a perfect tip. I’m careful not to damage the tender branches as I slither back down, marking the trunk with a snapped twig, dangling low. I count seven trunks on my way out, and seven to the far end. I will ask for permission first though, and think of a container for the tree. And that raises another thought. What if mum doesn’t want a real tree in her dining room? I’ll ask her before I speak to dad. The best way to soften her up is with a cup of tea in bed.

Brushing off resinous leaves and twigs, I race to the house, and hurriedly stoke the fire. But I’ve left my run too late. The kettle barely steams
when mum appears, buttoning up her dressing gown.

‘Why are you up so early, snookums?’ she asks, her face crinkled with sleep.

‘I woke to the blackbird’s song and remembered it’s Christmas Eve. I went for a walk.’

‘Sounds nice. Are you excited about Christmas?’

‘Course! I’m looking forward to seeing grandad again.’

‘Have you written your Santa letter?’

‘Not yet. I’ve tried to be good, though.’ I smile wistfully, maintaining the ruse.

While the kettle murmurs, I reach for the teapot and biscuit tin; mum arranges our cups and saucers. As I wait for my tea to cool I watch her. ‘How can you drink your tea so hot? Mine’s scalding. I can barely hold the cup by its handle.’

‘I don’t know, dear. I’ve always liked it that way. Narnie is the same.’

Narnie is my grandmother. I’ve only met her twice and it’s clear she doesn’t like children. Mum sips again and takes a bite of her biscuit. ‘Here, have one.’ She offers me the tin. ‘Are you sleeping well out on the veranda?’

‘It’s the best bedroom I’ve ever had.’ I take a biscuit. ‘So much goes on at night that I didn’t know about, and the bird songs are lovely.’

‘Yes, they are, but they’re a nuisance, too, raking through my ajugas.’ She sips her tea.

‘Mum, I’ve been thinking about a Christmas tree,’ I begin.

‘Oh?’

‘You know how we’ve always had a pretend one? Well, what about a real one?’

She smiles. ‘How do you mean real, dear?’

‘Well, what if I cut the top off one of the cypresses in the hedge, and bring it inside for a Christmas tree? Just for a change?’

‘What does dad say?’

‘Haven’t asked him yet. No point if you’re not happy with it.’

‘What would you stand it up in?’

‘I’m not sure. Perhaps your copper kettle, with the firewood?’

‘That’s a bit big. What about a cream bucket from the dairy? Then you can rest your tree against the wall near the heater.’

I like the idea. ‘Okay, I’ll ask dad. So it’s okay to bring a tree in?’

‘Yes. But you can’t do it on your own, Jo.’ I don’t want to share my idea with Nick. ‘But I’ve already selected a tree and I know how to use the saw. It won’t fall on me because of all the other branches.’

‘Well. I’d be happier if Nick helps.’

I’m crest fallen but relieved, too. I suspect the job will be harder than it looks. ‘Okay,’ I concede. ‘I’ll ask dad first though, and about the bucket.’

‘Very good!’ mum chuckles. ‘You sound organised.’

I drain my cup and carry the dishes to the sink. ‘I’ll ask him at breakfast and leave Nick to his beauty sleep, now.’
‘Yes,’ mum sighs. ‘He’s not an early riser, is he?’

*****

At breakfast I put my proposal to dad.

His frown isn’t promising. ‘How much do you plan to lop off?’ he asks, pouring milk over his cereal.

I show himby extending my right arm high, and add, ‘Tall as you when you’re standing.’

‘And you say the tree is about mid-way along the hedge?’
‘Yes. I’ve marked it.’

‘How will you get it down once it’s cut?’
‘Well, mum suggested I get Nick to help. We can tie it to a rope and pull it down.’

‘mm,’ he considers. ‘That should work.’ He frowns again. ‘Still, I’d like to be there when you begin.’

When Nick appears I put the idea to him and he’s keen.

‘What’d dad say?’ he asks.

‘He wants to be there when we cut it, and bring it down with a rope. He says it’s okay, though.’ I hand him a slice of toast and place another in the rack.

‘Beauty! It’ll be good to have a real tree.’

He presses the toast with his fingertips, moulding it into the plate. ‘Better not do it every year though or we’ll run out of trees.’

*****

With a coil of
rope over my shoulder I guide Nick along the passage way up in the hedge. He hasn’t been here before and says the leaf-strewn corridor is
amazing. Upon reaching the marker I call out so that dad knows where we are.

‘Hoy!’ he calls back.

Nick remains below with the saw, while I climb up to tie the rope, just above where he is to cut. As I toss the rope towards dad, the hedge shudders. The last loop of rope catches on a branch. Dad brings it down with a toss of his boot.

‘Okay, I’ve got it,’ he calls.

I make way for Nick. He hooks the saw over his thumb, clambering up and showering me with twigs and leaves.

‘You there?’ he calls to dad.
‘Towards the clothesline,’ dad replies. ‘Yep. I can see you.’

‘Righto.’ Then Nick calls down to me. ‘Jo, you might wanna move away in case I drop the saw.’

Sawing makes the whole hedge tremble, and then there’s a crack as the trunk gives way, tilting of its own accord. Nick cuts through the last of it and pushes. It slides down, over the branches as he warns dad.

‘Got it!’

‘Yaay!’ I crow, clambering out along the corridor. Hopping down, I brush the litter from my clothes. Our tree has survived unscathed.

‘It’s a good Christmas tree,’ says dad, holding it upright. ‘Now, what’s this about a cream bucket?’

Grinning, he waves us forward, stopping briefly to rest the tip of the tree top against Husso’s kennel. We scoop gravel into the copper bucket and carry the tree between us as far as the back door. I head in and Nick follows, waddling through the kitchen. The tree clips the light and sets it bobbing maniacally. I place the bucket on the hearth and help Nick ease the trunk into place. He turns it round looking for the best side, but it stands too far out from the wall.

Mum watches from the doorway. ‘I’ll get my secateurs and you can trim the back.’

As Nick prunes I gather the clippings and we stand back to admire our work. ‘At last,’ I declare. ‘A real Christmas tree.’

‘Looks great,’ Nick agrees.

‘You’ll have to get on with the decorations,’ mum reminds us. Dad’s left the box on the dining room table. Mum worries through the contents. ‘Do be careful with these little glass ornaments, wont you?’

‘We’ll set them aside and do them last,’ says Nick.

After lunch I decorate the tree while Nick drapes paper chains and tinsel streamers across the ceiling. By afternoon teatime the room is ready, remarkably transformed from a dull green space to spangled colour. I polish the copper bucket and we drape remaining tinsel along the backboard of the chiffonier before arranging our presents there. Empty pillowcases hang either side of the sitting room fireplace and I set my letter to Santa on the mantel piece among a crowd of Christmas cards.

Our excitement builds as we await our guests. Nick rides up and down the driveway, watching for traffic while I help mum, darting to the window now and then for the first sign of Uncle Horrie’s car. It’s almost six when his pale green Zephyr eases over the cattle grid. Nick escorts them down the driveway as I race to the front door. Our uncle has driven all the way from Melbourne after a short day’s work. He
emerges relieved, and full of complaints about traffic and road works. Auntie Aileen eases herself from the passenger side, clutching her handbag.

She wheezes with asthma. ‘Not to worry,’ she assures us. ‘Just pollen and dust.’

We reach for grandad, ensuring he has his walking sticks and hat, and mum welcomes the weary travellers inside. Dad pours them tall glasses of cider as we help with the luggage. Dinner is a squeeze around the kitchen table and, when Nick and I have washed up, we join the carol singing round the piano.

‘Jo,’ Nick whispers. ‘There’s a whole stack of presents under the Christmas tree.

*****

While grandad heads for bed, I pour over a large atlas.

Dad peers down. ‘What are you looking for?’
‘Bethlehem. I want to know if it is summer in Bethlehem.’

He kneels down beside me, flicking pages over. ‘Here’s a better map of the holy land,’ he says, studying it briefly before tapping with his
finger. ‘There’s Israel and there is Bethlehem.’

Delighted, I study the map. ‘But how can you tell if it’s winter or summer?’

He grins, pleased at where this is heading. ‘You have to find the equator. Israel’s near the Mediterranean Sea, so let’s turn to a map of the world.’ He selects a rather squat-looking map of the globe.

‘Now, where’s Africa?’ he asks. With his help I locate the continent and run my finger up the coast to the equator.

I’m stunned to find it crossing the belly of the continent, much further south than I had expected. ‘That’s it, isn’t it?’ I tap a blue line excitedly.

‘Yes! You’ve found it. Now, if the Equator is there, and we know it’s summer all round the world to the south of it, and winter to the north, then what’s happening in Israel?’

‘It must be winter. The equator’s way south of there.’ ‘That’s right.’ He gives me a quick hug.

‘So it is cold in Bethlehem tonight.’
‘Mmm.’ he agrees. ‘Hardly the time of year for shepherds to wander the hills.’ I close the Atlas thoughtfully, replacing it on the shelf. My curiosity is sated, but a glimpse of Christmas cards raises more questions.

*****

I wake late on Christmas morning and Nick is already up. I dress hurriedly. Breakfast is in full swing and everyone looks refreshed.

‘Where’s Nick?’ I ask.

‘In the sitting room, seeing what Santa has brought,’ says mum.

I dart in. He’s already opened his presents and is unpacking pieces of a train set. I study the engine.

‘What a beauty.’

My pillowcase bulges with gifts. First is a bag of liquorice all-sorts. Usually I dislike them but scoff one down to ease my hunger. I unwrap a long box carefully so as not to tear the paper. Pieces of wood tumble out, a head with a button nose, painted face and a mop of hair. Puzzling
bags of metal loops, string, hands and feet all leave me rather disappointed.

‘It’s a puppet,’ Nick guesses. ‘A string puppet, like Pinocchio!’

‘Ah!’ Now the pieces make sense. I set it aside and reach for another gift. It is a nurse’s uniform with a short white veil, matching apron and a red cloak. I have already decided I want to be a nurse when I grow up and this gift is most welcome. The remaining gifts are less intriguing: socks, hankies and a necklace with a bluebird pendant. My attention returns to Nick. Before him lie a steam engine, two carriages, a guards van and an oil tanker. Like me he’s opened his liquorice allsorts, and has placed his socks and hankies in a neat pile beside the wrappings.

‘So, what did Santa bring you two?’ mum asks from the doorway. ‘I see he’s eaten both the biscuits.’

‘And drunk all the milk,’ I add.

‘What’s he left you dear?’ Mum peers at the floor beside me, pretending to be surprised. ‘Oh, it’s a marionette.’

‘A what?’ ‘A string puppet. Looks like Pinocchio, doesn’t it?’

‘I think so,’ I reply.

Last summer we saw a puppet show in Melbourne. Mum called them The Tin Tookies. I was so intrigued at how the characters mimicked
human movement.

Mum reaches down. ‘Here, let me help you sort out that tangle.’

Grandad comes in. He has already shed his coat.

‘It’s going to be a warm Christmas, Lola.’ He eases back into his favourite chair and rests his walking stick against the cupboards. ‘Now, what
have you two been up to?’

Nick hands him a piece of his train-set. ‘Aren’t they beauties, grandad?’

‘They certainly are,’ he agrees, turning the engine over and admiring its detail. ‘They even have doors that open and close.’

‘There’s just one problem, though,’ says Nick.

‘And what would that be?’

‘There are no tracks for it run on.’

‘Oh. Yes, I see.’ Grandad scans the floor looking quite concerned. ‘Must have been a clerical error. Perhaps Santa was so busy getting things ready that he missed them. Don’t worry, Nick. I’m sure he’ll sort it out.’ His gives us knowing smile.

Mum helps me assemble the puppet, finally holding the crosspiece aloft. Pinocchio hangs suspended by a string from the top of his back. Two
other strings hold the sides of his head.

They puzzle me. ‘What are these for, mum?’

‘To turn his head from side to side, I think.’

‘Ah. Of course.’ I take hold of the control piece. It is difficult to co-ordinate and the puppet folds to the floor. Lifting him again, I move his feet, one at a time, and then his hands. Finally he takes a few faltering steps.

The others arrive. ‘I’ll be Santa,’ dad announces, his arms laden with gifts. He reads the first tag aloud in a Santery voice. ‘To dear Joanna with all our love from mum and dad.’

As I reach for the present it sinks in my arms, so heavy.

He reads the next. ‘To dear Nicholas with much love from mum and dad.’
As I ease sticky tape from the paper, Nick gives a hoot of delight. ‘Train tracks!’ I glance at grandad, and really begin to wonder about Santa Claus. I’ve unwrapped two beautiful story books. There is a jaunty little girl with her dog on the cover of The Wizard of Oz. I open the book carefully and inhale its smell. Beautiful illustrations are scattered throughout the text, some most intriguing. Pinocchio is my second book and there is a picture of him on the cover. While the text is still well beyond me, I am absolutely thrilled with them and leap to my feet, throwing my arms around mum and then dad with such joy they are clearly moved.

‘Now, you two,’ mum reminds us. ‘It’s time to get ready for church.’ Nick and I groan in unison. We collect our wrappings and carry the
bounty to our tents.

*****

We are not the last to arrive for the Christmas Day service. While the organist plays an arrangement of Christmas carols, I sit enthralled by the beautifully decorated tree standing near the chancel. There is a pile of gifts at its feet for the children who don’t have the nice homes like us. Looking round I spy some of my school friends and wave quickly as the organ music swells, announcing the beginning of the service.
After the second hymn, the minister begins his Christmas sermon. I listen attentively while my gaze wanders the walls, pausing to admire the iridescent, tall, stained-glass windows, and the arches that stretch far above to the ceiling. After the next hymn there is a prize giving. At my turn I hurry forward, accepting a book from my Sunday school teacher. I scuttle back to my seat holding an illustrated version of Heidi. Inside the cover is a sticker with my name and class written on it. After church we play in the shady grounds. The grownups gather to share news, the men stirring gravel beneath their feet. I can see grandad needs to sit down and I walk with him to our car, parked in the deep shade of a row of leafy elms.

*****

At two o’clock we gather around the dining room table. Nick and I carry have carried in the last of the serving dishes. Although the day is hot, we have a traditional meal of crisp, roasted vegetables, sweet garden peas, chicken, ham, gravy and sauces. Dad pours sparkling cider for everyone while Nick places the angel chimes in the centre of the table. We are hushed, watching as he lights the four candles with a taper. Heat rises from the flames, turning a carousel from which four angels hang. As they fly round, each takes a turn striking tiny bells that make an exquisite tinkling sound.

After saying grace, dad takes up a regal knife and fork and begins to carve the meat, passing plates around to where mum serves vegetables. Mine has two crispy chicken wings and a slither of ham glazed in gravy. As I nibble the bones, I watch the chimes spinning round and round, and wonder what it feels like to be driven and unable to stop. For a moment the tinkling assumes a menacing quality. I break the dark thought. ‘Mum, why do we call tomorrow Boxing Day?’

‘It’s when everyone tidies up and puts everything away in boxes after Christmas.’

‘Oh.’ I’m disappointed, expecting it meant more. There is Christmas pudding for dessert, with preserved apricots and a delicious, creamy custard that mum calls angel’s food. It tastes so delicate and smooth that I have no reason to doubt its name at all. We complete the feast with nuts and dried fruit, and pull bonbons. Later, with the table cleared and the candles extinguished, it’s time for dad to play Santa
again. Soon the room is filled with festive wrappings and chatter. Nick and I excuse ourselves to start the mammoth wash up. Our aunt
and uncle come to help, filling the kitchen table with china, silver ware and cooking utensils. Mum lies down for her snooze and soon we all find somewhere to relax. Suddenly a most beautiful sound fills the house, much like the pipe organ from church. But this is no hymn.

Draping my puppet over a chair, I dart into the sitting room. The sound confronts me like a wave, its fullness washing over me, passing through me, with a tinkling sweetness that fills the room with shards of sound. There is a new record cover on the radiogram with an inscription in mum’s handwriting. On the front is a detailed photograph of a pipe organ, with the words Bach, Preludes and Fugues. I peer over at dad. He sits inert, eyes closed, with an ecstatic expression on his
face.

Yes, dad. This is the kind of gravity we both understand.

I ease myself to the floor and lie back, floating with the music. Majestic chords build massive shapes of sound that transform from ocean waves to complex architecture. The melody thins, twining now and rising, and I imagine intricate gothic cathedrals filled with celebration. This Bach speaks my language, and his fugue watermarks the underside of my skin.

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