:: white wine in the sun ::

Christmas has always been my favourite time of the year. Growing up in Australia, there have always been five constants in my Christmases – hot weather, Carols In The Domain on the TV the Saturday evening before the big day, the local fire brigade driving around town on Christmas Eve in one of their trucks with a bloke dressed up as Santa Claus sitting on top and tossing out lollies for the kids lining the kerbs of their streets, Melbourne's Carols By Candlelight, and my mum's excellent turkey cooked in my dad's kettle barbecue. In recent years there's also been the Doctor Who Christmas special on Boxing Day.

In this story, I've tried to reflect some of the Christmas traditions I've grown up with, while at the same time giving my readers who might not be from Australia a small insight into what Christmas is like Down Under. This fic is an outtake from Lanterns, taking place during Chapter 3, and has been named for a Tim Minchin song.

The very first thing I saw when I pulled my car into my parents’ driveway the Sunday afternoon before Christmas was a very green and absolutely massive pine tree tied to the roof of Zac’s ute, with what looked suspiciously like very long bungee cords lashing the tree’s trunk to the ute’s tray. Through the open window of my car I could hear Zac and Isaac arguing, with the core of their little disagreement seeming to be whose turn it was to drag the Christmas tree inside the house this year.

“I did it last year,” Zac was saying as I carefully popped open the driver’s side door. The absolute last thing I needed right now was for the door’s hinges to creak and draw attention to my arrival. “And Tay did it the year before that.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s my turn, though,” Isaac argued. “Technically it’s Josh’s turn this year.”

“Yeah but Josh is a lazy arse who never gets here until late arvo on Christmas Eve. And the tree’s here now which means it’s your turn, dearest brother.” Through the windscreen I saw Zac poke Isaac hard on his shoulder.

“You’re helping me,” Isaac said, turning to begin untying the ropes holding the tree in place. “You’re helping too, Taylor,” he said suddenly, and I swore quietly. “Don’t go thinking you can sneak off inside.”

“You sound like Dad,” I said as I got out of my car and elbowed the door closed behind me. “Where’d you get the tree from this year?”

“You know that place in Mayfield that sells Christmas trees and decorations?” Zac said as he untied the tree’s trunk from the tray of his ute, and I nodded. “Got it from there. Bloke who sold it to us said it should last the next four weeks.” I ducked around him and started undoing the knot in the other rope that was holding the tree in place on the roof. “Mum wants us to give the tree a quick hose down before we bring it inside, though. Doesn’t want pine needles and shit like that being tracked through the house.”

Between the three of us, we got the tree unloaded from the roof of the ute and carried through into the backyard. One thorough drenching from the garden hose later – during which Isaac sprayed both Zac and I with water more than he sprayed the tree – we propped the tree up in an empty bucket and set it in the shade to dry off, before heading inside the house.

As was usual for this time of year, sitting in the lounge room sorting out this year’s Christmas decorations were Avery and Zoë. Mum tended to rotate the colour scheme of the decorations that went on the tree and around the house year by year – this year’s colour scheme, I could see even from the lounge room doorway, was blue and silver – but there was one set of decorations that always went on the tree no matter what. Said decorations took the form of a set of nine colourful glass balls that had our names painted on them, and it was a little Christmas Day tradition in our family for each of us to hang our name on the tree. My particular decoration was a dark blue ball patterned with small white snowflakes and my name painted on it in silver, and because I was the tallest member of the family I tended to hang my name up the highest.

“So what’s up?” I asked as I crouched down on the floor next to Zoë. She was studiously untangling several strands of different-coloured tinsel, separating out the colours that would be used this year.

“The sky,” Zoë replied, and I flicked her right ear. She glanced over at me. “Why are you so wet?”

“Because Isaac thought it would be funny to drench me with water when he was hosing the tree down,” I replied. “He got Zac as well.”

“You’d better go and dry off before Mum sees you,” Avery said without looking up from sorting out the fairy lights that would be going on the tree. My sole response to this was to snap off a mock military salute and straighten up. Avery was right – if Mum saw that I was dripping water all over the lounge room floor, she’d belt me. It didn’t matter that I was nearly thirty and towered over my mother by a good foot, she was still more than capable of giving me a good clip around the ear.

I had just changed out of my wet clothes into the shorts and T-shirt I had shoved into my backpack before leaving home that morning – it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that if Zac, Isaac and I were around water for any length of time, at least one of us would end up getting drenched – and was towelling my hair dry when there was a knock at my bedroom door. “Yeah, come in,” I called out, not even pausing in drying my hair as I spoke. The door’s hinges creaked, and I peered out from beneath my towel to see my mother stepping into my room. “Hey Mum.”

“Good afternoon Taylor,” she replied, and reached up to take the towel off my head. “Did you have a good trip up?”

“Yeah, it was all right. Traffic was a bitch though, I think everyone in Wollongong and Sydney must have had the same idea as me.” As soon as I was done speaking Mum smacked the back of my head. “Ow!”

“Don’t swear,” Mum said. “Now why are you all wet?”

“Isaac thought it would be bloody hilarious to hose Zac and I down more than he did the tree,” I replied.

“Of course he did.” Mum handed my towel back to me. “When you’re done in here, go and round up those two – I want you to get the tree set up.”

“On it,” I said, and went back to drying my hair.

It didn’t take me long to finish drying my hair, and not much longer than that to track down my wayward brothers. The two of them had found Joshua’s old slingshot in the garage and were using it to peg little rocks at the mynah birds that always found their way into the backyard, no matter what Dad did to deter them. “Oi you two!” I shouted down at them from the back verandah, and they looked up at me. “Mum wants the tree up now, come on!”

“Yeah hang on!” Zac yelled, before snatching the slingshot out of Isaac’s right hand and loading it with a pebble. He aimed the slingshot at the mynah that was perched on the netting over Zoë’s strawberry patch, and I watched him sight along his left arm before letting the pebble fly. The mynah let out an indignant-sounding squawk and took off, and Zac punched the air in triumph. “Gotcha you little bastard!”

“Okay Zac, stop playing overlord over the local population of flying rats and come help with the tree,” Isaac said, and he started walking up the yard toward the side gate.

The three of us had soon retrieved the Christmas tree and carted it inside the house, setting it up in a corner of the lounge room. Almost as soon as the tree was in the tree stand and had been secured so that it wouldn’t topple over Isaac and Zac both took off, leaving Mum, Avery, Zoë and I to put almost all of the decorations on. The very first thing that Zoë did as soon as the front door had closed behind our brothers was go over to the shelves of CDs that sat in the opposite corner of the lounge room. She stared at the neat rows of jewel cases for what seemed like ages before finally picking out a very familiar CD. I couldn’t resist raising an eyebrow at her as the opening notes of Merry Christmas Baby spilled out of the speakers placed to either side of the stereo, quickly followed by my fourteen-year-old vocals. “Really, Zo?” I asked.

“Oh come on, it’s a good CD!” Zoë protested. “And it’s my turn this year anyway, we had to listen to what Avery wanted last year.”

“You probably just want to listen to your girlfriend,” Avery teased.

“Christina Aguilera is not my girlfriend!” I retorted. This set both of my sisters off laughing, and I snatched up a handful of tinsel and threw it at them.

“That’s enough, you three,” Mum scolded. “I want to have the tree completely done by the time your father gets home, which will be in about two hours. Ree and Zo, the two of you can start with the decorations.”

It didn’t take us long to hang all of the decorations on the tree. Years of having a pine tree as our Christmas tree – itself a holdover from Dad’s childhood Christmases in the USA – had ensured plenty of decorating practice, particularly when it came to making sure the decorations didn’t fall off. Once all of the blue and silver balls were in place the tree turned into a makeshift Maypole as Avery and Zoë wound tinsel around it, dipping and weaving around each other in an effort not to get tangled up together. The lights were next, being my contribution to the decorating efforts (partly because I was tall enough to loop one end of the strand of lights around the top of the tree without needing to get up on tiptoes or use the coffee table as a stepladder). Finally, once the lights were in place and plugged into the power board tucked out of sight under the nearby sideboard, I picked up the all-important star from the coffee table and held it out to Zoë. The star this year was one that Mum had bought from Spotlight years ago, and that Zoë had turned into an art project soon afterward – formerly plain brown cardboard, it had been painted a deep blue and then spattered with silver paint. “Want to do the honours, Zo?” I asked her.

“If you pick me up so I can reach the top,” Zoë replied. “Either that or find me something to stand on.”

I ended up fetching a dining chair from the kitchen for Zoë to stand on, and she soon had the star balanced in place atop the tree. Once Zoë had climbed down from her makeshift stepladder she, Avery and I stepped back from the tree and looked it over. It looked pretty damn good, and once the sun went down and the fairy lights were switched on it would look even better.

“Not bad,” Avery commented. “Not bad at all. It just needs some presents under it now.”

“Which will have to wait until Christmas morning,” Mum reminded my sister. “Now come on, get all of this mess cleaned up – your father will be home any moment.”

“Yes’m,” I said, snapping off a mock military salute before prodding my sisters into doing as we’d been told.

The next day, Christmas Eve, was second in insanity only to Christmas Day itself. By now my parents had Christmas Eve down to a fine art, one they had perfected nearly twenty years earlier. Among other things, it usually involved a mad dash around Westfield Kotara to gather up the last bits and pieces that were needed for Christmas lunch. My favourite part of Christmas Eve, though, had nothing to do with battling the crowds at the shops – it had everything to do, however, with the Merewether Fire Brigade and a little annual tradition that had been going for as long as I had been able to remember.

The fun began at around three o’clock that afternoon. I was in the kitchen keeping an eye on the oven, which had Mum’s Christmas cake baking away inside, when I heard it – the distant sound of sirens coming from the general direction of Princeton Avenue, which wasn’t all that far from my parents’ back fence. That was my cue to call my sisters downstairs. “Ree, Zo, the truck’s almost here!” I yelled out, and immediately proceeded to hunt around in the kitchen cupboards for a clean mixing bowl. Shortly after I had found a bright red plastic mixing bowl tucked away in the cupboard above the stove a series of loud, almost rhythmic thumps sounded on the stairs, heralding my sisters’ arrival in the lounge room. I gave the oven one quick glance, reasoning that the cake wasn’t going to catch on fire for the short amount of time I’d be outside with my sisters, and handed the mixing bowl to Zoë.

“Where is it now?” Avery asked as the three of us headed out into the front yard.

“Over on Princeton,” I replied. We’d made our way down the front steps and out onto the grass by now, and were walking up the yard to the kerb. “It should be here pretty soon.”

As we stepped up to the kerb, I could see that most of the other families living in my parents’ street had had much the same idea as us. Lining the street in each direction that I could see, in front of most of the houses, were more kids, some of them so young they had their parents, grandparents or an older sibling supervising. Every single kid held a container of some sort – clean and empty ice cream tubs, shoeboxes, even mixing bowls like my sisters – and in accordance with the most important unspoken rule of Christmas Eve were each keeping to the confines of their front yards. What was particularly unusual was that apart from the distant siren and traffic wending its way through the streets of Newcastle, the street was completely silent. It was as if nobody present dared to tarnish the sanctity of this particular tradition.

It wasn’t long before I saw it – a bright red fire truck that had two uniformed firefighters and someone dressed as Santa Claus sitting on the top. A third firefighter was at the wheel. The two firefighters on top were tossing out handfuls of wrapped lollies into each front yard, sending every kid on our side of the street into a frenzy. The second the firefighters’ handfuls of lollies hit the grass in our front yard my sisters were off, scrambling around the yard for their little haul of treasure. One thing was for sure – this would keep my siblings, niece and nephews happy tomorrow, not to mention the reams of cousins that were scheduled to descend on the house for Christmas lunch.

Mum and Dad arrived home from the shops just as Avery, Zoë and I were tipping the mixing bowl full of lollies into an empty glass jar that had once held homemade blackberry jam, a souvenir from the Newcastle Regional Show in years gone by. “Firies been by already?” Mum asked once all of the lollies were in their new home.

I sealed the jar and locked the lid in place before answering Mum. “Yeah, about five or so minutes ago. This should keep the hordes happy tomorrow.”

“Good.” Mum then proceeded to study me, her deep brown eyes fixed on my face. “How are you feeling?” she asked, her tone so serious I froze halfway through putting the mixing bowl back in its cupboard. “And tell me honestly.”

Mum had always been able to see right through me, so I saw no real point in lying to her. Instead of answering straight away, I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. “Worn out,” I replied. “It doesn’t help that we’ve just come off a few solid weeks of tour.”

“Do you think you need to see Dr. Ames about it?”

I shook my head. “I’ll be okay. Once Christmas is over I’ll be able to get some proper rest.”

“All right, so long as you’re sure.” She gave me a smile and reached up to ruffle my hair. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

I cracked a small smile at this, one Mum returned before leaving the kitchen, leaving me to my thoughts.

Christmas Day dawned cool, cloudy and wet – not exactly ideal conditions for a traditional Australian Christmas, but I knew those members of my immediate and extended family who would be arriving during the morning would make the best of it. We always did.

The weather that morning, I felt, was part of the reason I had slept so late. The other reason, possibly, might have been how late I’d stayed up with Avery and Joshua, the three of us spending three hours watching the Melbourne Carols By Candlelight on the downstairs TV (with most of that time spent heckling the various performers and making fun of their outfits, particularly Delta Goodrem who looked as if she had run a bandsaw through her mother’s colander and decided to wear it as a hat) before deciding a viewing of the Father Ted Christmas special was in order. In the end it had been almost two-thirty in the morning before we had managed to drag ourselves to bed.

That morning I was woken at what I believed to be some unholy hour by pelting feet outside my bedroom and Christmas music drifting through the walls. A quick glance at my watch sent me scrambling out of bed and hunting for something halfway decent to wear.

It was almost ten o’clock in the morning. I’d overslept by at least three hours.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” Avery commented as I came out of my room, running the fingers of one hand through my hair in order to force it into some semblance of neatness. She nodded toward the kitchen. “Kettle’s boiled if you want a cuppa” here she raised her own mug a little “and Dad put a plate in the oven for you. He decided to do a fry-up this year. Mum said that everyone’s popping round in half an hour, so I’d make with the coffee and breakfast if I were you.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, snapping off a mock salute as I spoke, and made a beeline for the kettle.

It didn’t take me very long to drink my coffee and to work my way through a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried bacon and grilled tomato. My plate and mug went into the sink once they had been rinsed, ready to be washed later on, and I headed back into my room to collect the presents I had bought and wrapped prior to coming up to Newcastle. It was a rule in our family that no Christmas presents went under the tree until Christmas morning, due to my brothers and sisters on more than one occasion having sneaked a peek at what was beneath the wrapping on their presents before the big day. At least three trips later I’d made my contribution to the already quite sizeable pile that had appeared beneath the tree that morning – and not a moment too soon, for as soon as I set the final present into place the front doorbell rang.

Soon enough, the house was filled almost to the hilt with people, all of them depositing a number of gifts beneath the Christmas tree as they arrived. The older adults had the sense to escape to the back deck as soon as their hands were empty of gifts, all save for one – Uncle David, Dad’s younger brother.

“Dave, I know you did this last year, but we need you to play Santa again,” Dad said. He had a pair of kitchen tongs in one hand and a box of matches in the other. “Rob can’t make it this year, he’s up in Cairns with the missus and her lot.”

Uncle David let out a very long-suffering sigh. “I hope the lazy bastard understands that he’s doing it next year, and the year after that.”

“I’m sure he does, Dave.” Here Dad produced a Santa hat from a pocket and handed it over to Uncle David. “Don’t let the anklebiters maul you now.”

“I’ll do my best,” I clearly heard Uncle David mutter mutinously. He jammed the hat down on his head and took up a post on the lounge next to the Christmas tree. Almost immediately he had a little army of children and teenagers crowded around his feet. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Avery grin a little evilly – the two of us, along with the rest of our siblings and all of the twenty-something cousins, had established a little sentry post behind all of the kids, safely out of reach of little grabbing hands and kicking feet. “All right, first present…” Uncle David reached down over the arm of the lounge and pulled up a small, neatly wrapped present. “This one is for Hayley, from Mum and Dad.”

By the time the final present had been distributed, Uncle David was looking rather shaken. I could sympathise – having been roped myself more than once into handing out Christmas presents to my own cousins and siblings, it was definitely something I dreaded having to do.

“Avery, can you give me a hand with the trifle please?” Mum called out as the kids thundered out of the lounge room. Uncle David had up and disappeared now, leaving a mess of wrapping paper in his wake.

“Coming, Mum!” Avery replied, and headed off into the kitchen. I followed her, making a quick detour to the refrigerator for a glass of water before heading out onto the back deck to join the rest of the adults.

With the rain having cleared up by now, the backyard was a veritable hive of activity. A bunch of kids were in and around the backyard pool, supervised by one of my older cousins. Others had climbed up into the treehouse, as evidenced by a number of bare feet that dangled from beneath the branches of the tree that held the structure. And still others were kicking a football back and forth across the yard, this particular group headed up by Joshua and Zac. Rather wisely I thought, the adults had all gathered on the deck, some of them already with glasses of white wine in hand.

“Isn’t someone supposed to be keeping an eye on the turkey?” one of my aunts asked.

We all looked over toward the kettle barbecue that sat on the deck, which I could only assume held the Christmas turkey. Whoever was meant to be keeping an eye on it and making sure it didn’t burn was missing in action. Dad immediately got up out of his seat and bent down over the railing of the deck. “Oi Rhys!” he yelled out.

One of Mum’s brothers, my Uncle Rhys, turned around and looked up at us. “What?” he asked. In one hand he held a red and blue football that had the Newcastle Knights team insignia emblazoned on it.

“I thought you were keeping an eye on the turkey!”

Uncle Rhys waved Dad off with a dismissive hand. “She’ll be right. Lunch isn’t for another couple of hours yet – I’ll come up after this lot get tired out and check it.”

“Well, all right,” Dad said, his tone dubious. “Just making sure you know that it’ll be on your head if the turkey gets burned.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know…”

No sooner had Dad sat back down, though, that I caught a fleeting glimpse of what looked like smoke coming out of the vent on top of the barbecue’s lid. Thinking it was just a trick of the light, I dismissed it – until, a few minutes later, I saw smoke begin coming out from beneath the lid itself.

“Dad, I think the turkey might be on fire,” I said in a low voice so as not to alarm anyone else.

Dad was up out of his seat straight away and hunting for something he could use to get the lid off of the barbecue. “Rhys you utter bastard, you get your sorry arse up here right fucking now!” he yelled down into the yard, not even bothering to tone down the language, as he finally found a rusty tent peg.

Uncle Rhys finally made his grand appearance at least two or three minutes after the barbecue had started smoking. The lid had been lifted off of it by now, and sat propped up against the side of the deck. Sitting inside the lower half of the barbecue was a very blackened and burned Christmas turkey.

“I’m going to go downstairs and get the spare turkey,” Dad said, his tone low and dangerous. “You can clean out the barbecue while I’m gone.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry – I thought Liz was keeping an eye on it,” Uncle Rhys protested.

“Well, we all know what thought did, don’t we? You’re just damn lucky Diana buys two turkeys each year.”

Avery poked her head out of the back door after Dad had gone through it in search of the backup turkey. “What the hell just happened?” she asked.

“Uncle Rhys burned the turkey,” I informed her as I got up out of my seat, empty glass in hand.

Avery shook her head and let out a low whistle. “Uncle Rhys, you’re a fuckwit,” she told our uncle. She stepped aside to allow me to re-enter the house. “You want a drink, Taylor?”

“I just had one,” I said, holding my empty glass up a little higher so that she could see it.

“Well then, you need another one,” Avery said decisively. “Come on – Aunt Cassie did up a whole lot of punch.”

“I don’t like punch, Avery – you should know this by now.”

And here Avery grinned. “Oh, you’ll like this one. It’s got a major kick to it.” She took my glass from me and led me through into the kitchen. “Mum, Uncle Rhys burned the turkey,” she told her mother.

“Yes Avery, I know,” Mum said. She and Avery had finished the trifle by now, and now Mum had moved on to making a pavlova. “And if he thinks he’s getting any trifle, cake or pavlova for dessert, he can think again.” Avery snickered at this. “What are you looking for now?”

“The punch,” Avery replied as she opened the fridge.

“Well be careful with it, your aunt made it a lot stronger this year than she does usually.”

“Probably because Ellie’s not here to get drunk off just the fumes alone,” Avery remarked. She set my empty glass down on the sideboard and carefully slid the punch bowl out of the refrigerator, carrying it gingerly across to the bench and setting it down in a clear spot. “We’ll just have one glass for now,” she decided. “Do you want me to leave it out?”

“Just over on the table,” Mum said, pointing over at the kitchen table. “But put it back far enough that the kids can’t easily get at it.”

“On it,” Avery said with a mock salute. She ladled out our drinks first before picking the bowl up again and carrying it through to the kitchen table.

Dad came back upstairs with a second turkey just as Avery got the punch bowl into position. “Rhys, are you done with the barbecue yet?” he called out on his way back outside.

“Just about!”

The backup turkey was soon set up in the cleaned-out barbecue, and Dad gave Uncle Rhys a very stern talking-to before resuming his seat on the deck.

“You are going to sit right there on that chair” he indicated an uncomfortable-looking wooden stool placed a foot or so away from the barbecue “and you are not going to get up for anything except an emergency. And even then you’re going to ask someone to keep an eye on it. You let this one burn, and I daresay that your life won’t even be worth living. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” Uncle Rhys replied, and planted himself down on the stool to watch the turkey.

The rest of the time until lunch was served thankfully passed without incident. The backup turkey didn’t get burned. Nobody got smashed on the punch or on anything else alcoholic – tipsy, sure, but not knocked-on-their-arse drunk. And surprisingly nothing was broken, not even the glasses that Mum kept aside for special occasions.

It was two o’clock in the afternoon before Christmas lunch was set out on the long table on the back deck, with another table having been set up and designated as the kids’ table. The turkey, a leg of pork and dishes of roast vegetables jostled for space with Christmas crackers, seafood, jars of apple sauce and cranberry sauce, a ceramic jug of gravy, glass bowls filled with cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines, and shallow dishes filled with chocolates.

“We’re missing someone,” Uncle Rhys noted as we all took our seats and started passing food around the table. “Has anyone seen David since this morning?”

“I think he took off after he handed out presents,” Avery replied as she dished out a couple of pieces of pumpkin and sweet potato onto her plate and passed the dish down the line. “He’s probably hiding himself away in the garage again.”

As it turned out, Avery was right. Dad went down to the garage and retrieved Uncle David from where he had been hiding. I could immediately tell what he had been up to, having been in his current state myself on more than one occasion.

“David Christopher Hanson, have you completely lost your mind?” Mum raged at him. “What in God’s name were you thinking getting stoned on today of all days? There are children present!”

Uncle David cocked his head to one side and studied my aunt with one eye closed. “So it’s okay any other day then?” he asked after what had to be a lot of thought on his part.

“Walker, he’s your brother – bloody well do something about this,” Mum said. “I can’t deal with this right now.”

“David, mate, I think you should go for a walk,” Dad suggested. From his tone of voice I could tell it wasn’t a request. “I don’t give a damn where – you can go for a wander into Merewether for all I care. Just don’t come back here until you’re sobered up.”

“Fine,” Uncle David sighed. “I can see where I’m not wanted.” Before he left, though, he reached over my shoulder and grabbed a peach and a handful of cherries from their respective bowls. “Later, gators.”

Avery was the first person to make any sort of noise once Uncle David had disappeared. She began to sing in a low voice, “Santa was stoned at Christmas…how’d he get that high…and what’s he feeding them reindeers on…that makes the bastards fly…”

That was all it took to break the ice. Uncle Rhys began to chuckle first, and it wasn’t long before most of the other adults joined in. Mum had a look of supreme irritation on her face. “I’m glad you all think it’s so funny,” she said sourly.

“Oh come on Di, lighten up,” Aunt Cassie said between chuckles. “It’s Christmas Day, you can go off at him properly later on. Make him do the dishes all on his lonesome if you think it’ll make you feel better.”

“Oh, all right,” Mum relented.

That Christmas was one of the most chaotic and frenetic, and yet the most exciting that I had ever experienced. Even despite the ruined turkey, a stoned uncle, and reams of kids and teenagers almost constantly underfoot, I knew I would never have asked for it to be any other way.


Title credit:

White Wine In The Sun - Tim Minchin

Lyric credit:

Santa Was Stoned - Kevin Bloody Wilson