A Christmas Story
[First published in the November 2014 edition of Touchdown magazine]
For ages afterwards, Jess and me played this game that we called ‘Entertaining Angels.’ Jess would put on every white thing we owned, and then he’d wear Dad’s big Drizabone coat over that. Jess would be the stranger, and I’d be the entertainer. The entertainer would play or sing or tell poems until the stranger was impressed enough to stand up, throw off his coat, and reveal himself: the angel unawares. We played that over and over until the afternoon Crane came and laughed at us. “It's not entertaining them, you dorks,” he said. “It means inviting people to your house and looking after them and stuff.”
My cheeks went hot, but I shrugged. “We knew that. It's just more fun this way.”
We never played the game again, though, and I don’t know if the saying about angels is true or not because I only saw an angel unaware once.
It happened on Christmas Eve of the worst Christmas, which was nothing like other Christmases before.
Other Christmases were fun. Better. The pickers would join us for lunch around three tables pushed together. One of the men would dress up as Santa and we’d pretend we didn’t know it was him. We’d eat chicken and pudding and no salads because no one stopped to check that we were eating vegies. We’d feel fat afterwards but then someone would bring out a cricket bat and we’d stumble outside, groaning and sweating, to hit the ball around before collapsing in the shade.
But on the worst Christmas, there were no pickers spilling out of caravans at dawn because there were no tomatoes to pick. No tomatoes to pick meant none to sell, and Mum’s shopping list got really short.
At breakfast three days before Christmas, Dad said, “You know it’s gonna be a simple Christmas this year, right? Don’t expect too much.”
“Aw, Dad,” Jess said, grinning and punching him in the arm. “You say that every year!”
Dad did say that every year. But his face was different now – not a silly face pretending to be serious, but a sad face pretending to be happy.
I wanted to explain things to Jess, but then the phone rang, and Dad got up to get it. Mum hovered at the kitchen bench waiting, and when Dad got off the phone, he looked pleased.
“There’s a picking job going up north, love,” he said. “If I drive through the night, I can get there for starting.”
Mum smiled, a wobbly sort of smile.
“But it’s Christmas, like, soon,” said Jess.
“I know, little man,” Dad said, ruffling Jess’s hair, “but I need this job.”
So the very worst thing about the worst Christmas was that Dad wouldn’t be here. Instead, he’d be staying in some smelly shearer’s quarters on a station up north where it’s all red dirt and sweat. He’d be picking someone else’s fruit, because there wasn’t any here, not anymore.
I realised I wouldn’t have to explain anything to Jess after all.
We waved Dad off at sunset, clinging to the ute door while he climbed inside.
“I hate that I didn’t get that engine finished,” Dad said to Mum, leaning through the open window. “Don’t like you being without a car for five days, not way out here.”
“It’s alright,” Mum said brightly. “We’ve got a few bits and pieces. Anyway, I don’t like being in town so close to Christmas.”
Jess jumped suddenly. “We didn’t get to pick a Christmas tree!”
“Sorry, mate,” Dad said, and I could tell he meant it.
On normal Christmases, we open one present each on Christmas Eve before bed. This Christmas Eve, there was only a sprinkle of gifts in front of the empty fireplace: one from Mum and Dad and one each from Aunty Sarah, who always sends pyjamas. We didn’t even look at them as we kissed Mum goodnight.
“You can open Aunty Sarah’s present if you want, boys,” Mum said, sounding kind of hopeful.
“Nah, it’s fine,” I said, shrugging one shoulder.
“Yeah, fine,” Jess said, and he bit his bottom lip.
Jess and I lay awake in our beds for ages, but not because we were excited. I tried not to think about Dad not being here and us not being with him, so then it was the only thing I could think about.
I must’ve gone off to sleep, though, because a noise bumped me awake. I blinked and the glowing blur of my clock straightened into numbers.
Coulda been a bird, I thought.
Coulda been a possum.
Coulda been anything.
I lay still, listening. Above Jess’s slow breathing, above the weird night noises of the trees, above the creak of the house, relaxing after the blistering heat of day, I heard voices.
I climbed out of bed and tripped over Jess’s cricket bat.
“Ow!” I said into the darkness.
Jess woke up and rolled over. “Merry Cushmas,” he mumbled into his pillow.
“Shut up,” I said. Then, more kindly, “It’s not Christmas yet.”
This woke Jess up completely. He clambered out of bed to stand next to me. I opened the bedroom door carefully, and we padded down the hall into the dim-lit living room.
Mum was standing at the open back door, and a bit of the darkness was trying to come inside. There was a man there, too, a skinny man with pointed elbows and dirty jeans.
“I don’t know,” Mum was saying. “Normally I would, but…”
“We wouldn’t ask yas if it wasn’t an emergency,” the man said, running a hand through his hair.
“Ask what?” I said from my shadowy place at the end of the hall, my voice loud in the stillness.
Mum and the man looked at me, then Mum looked at the man. “Perhaps we can siphon the fuel from our old car. Let me find a torch.”
“Don’t bother,” said another voice, a lady’s voice, young and sharp and a bit wild. “I’m not gettin’ back in any car.”
A girl pushed into view in the doorway. She pressed past Mum and stumbled over to the couch. Even in the lamp-light I could see the big lump under her thin dress that said she was having a baby. She had a towel in her hands and she threw it on the couch before sitting down heavily, breathing loudly through her nose.
Mum and the man came in and stood staring.
“Sorry,” the girl said, “about your couch. I put down a towel.”
The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Come on, babe. We gotta try and get to a hospital. I’m gonna find some fuel and then--”
“I’m not getting in any damn car!” the girl roared.
But Mum didn’t get cranky. She just sat down next to her, putting her hand on the girl’s back and leaving it there.
“It’s alright, sweetie,” Mum said in the voice she uses when I’ve had a bad dream. “You don’t need to get in the car. We’ll do this here if we have to.”
The girl’s eyes were squeezed shut, and she was rocking back and forth. But she nodded.
“What I’m going to do,” Mum said gently, “is call an ambulance. They won’t be here for an hour and a half because we’re way out woop woop, but they can give us some advice and they might get here before it’s all over. Okay?”
The girl nodded again, this time with her eyes open, big and round.
Finally Mum noticed us standing there, just watching. She smiled – a busy, distracted smile, but a good one. I realised I had been holding my breath, and I let it out slowly.
“Can you boys go back to bed now?” she said.
“Why?” Jess asked, putting his stubborn face on.
“This young lady is going to have a baby,” Mum said cheerfully. “Probably tonight. And I think you should leave us to it.”
That was enough for me. I took a step or two backwards, pulling Jess. We ran down the hall and jumped back into bed.
Neither of us said anything for a moment. We just lay there in the dark.
“This is weird, right?” I said into the blackness.
“So weird,” said Jess.
After that I just lay still, listening to Jess’s breathing get slower. Eventually he started snoring.
Ages passed. Then, I heard a sound – a tiny wail floating down the hall.
A baby. The baby.
The clock said 12.18. I wondered if Mum would come in and talk to us about the baby and I tried to make myself stay awake, waiting.
Next thing, there was a hand on my shoulder and I opened my sleep-fuzzed eyes. The bedroom was filled with white dawn light, and Jess was shaking me awake, dancing like he was gonna burst.
“I didn’t dream it!” he said. “There really are people here! Come see!”
We ran out of our room and down the hall in just our pyjama shorts. When we came to the living room, we hung in the doorway for a moment, clinging to its safety.
Someone had pulled the sofa out to make a bed. The curtains were open and light was falling on the person in the bed – the girl from the night before, who almost silently had had a baby. Perched next to her was the man. His wispy hair was almost on end, and cradled in his skinny arms was a tiny pink thing.
The man looked up as we crept closer. “I’m Kev,” he said. He pointed to the girl. “That’s Lise.” He lifted his arms, holding the baby out towards us. “This,” he said, his white smile too perfect for his tired face, “is Angel. We’re gonna call her Angel.”
The baby was red and mucky like a new lamb, with slicked-down little hairs all over, darker and thicker on the top of her head.
Mum came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on the bottom of her apron. She put one arm around me and one arm around Jess, and smushed us together in one big squeeze.
“Isn’t she beautiful, boys?” she said.
Well, she wasn’t beautiful, not really. But she was sort of amazing, so I just said, “Yeah, she is.”
There were good smells coming from the kitchen, and I looked at Mum.
“Some sausages I was saving,” she smiled. “Go and check the chooks and we’ll have scrambled eggs, too.”
When I came back inside with seven eggs in the bucket, Jess was dancing around in front of the baby. He bent over the baby, stuck his fingers in his mouth, and made a monkey face.
“Look, Sam!” he said, grinning. “I’m entertaining Angel!”
We both laughed so hard at this that Mum had to rescue the eggs before I dropped them.
“I have no idea what’s so funny, boys, but come help me finish breakfast.” She bent and pressed a kiss to my forehead, and I let her.
“Oh, and by the way,” she said, “Merry Christmas!”
We had all forgotten, but now we remembered, and it really was Christmas.
And it should still have been the worst Christmas, because there were still only a few presents at the fireplace. There would still be no pavlova, because Mum was about to use all the eggs for breakfast. There were no pickers to play cricket with in the afternoon sun. And worst of all, Dad was somewhere far away, picking someone else’s fruit.
So nothing had changed, really. But in a way, everything had.
I guess babies – and maybe angels – tend to do that.