General Fiction posted December 1, 2014


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
an Aussie bush Christmas-it's long, but you'll love it

Travellin'

by mfowler


Travelling at Christmas time always seemed to me, to be like eating Christmas pudding while you hold your nose. The wonder is still there, but you cut yourself off from the enjoyment.
 
When I was a kid back in the '50s that's just what my father liked to do. 'A nice drive in the countryside, get away from all the craziness of Christmas. Yep, Mabel, that's the go.'
 
In truth, my father couldn't stand Christmas; never had, even as a kid. His family were so poor that they couldn't afford the dirt on their feet. At least that's what he said. His father wouldn't even allow him to decorate the gum-tree sapling in the front yard with bits of rag and paper, because the Fowlers weren't 'show-offs'.
 
On December 21, 1958,  the Fowlers drove off in the Mayflower (a sort of, poor man's Rolls Royce) heading inland for destinations unknown. So rigid had my father's upbringing been, that he believed in pointing his nose to the wind, and following it. He was constantly experimenting with life, he told us. 'Never know what's out there,' he'd offer, but my mother could never get used to his folly.
 
As the Mayflower grumbled and boiled its way up through Cunningham's Gap to the Darling Downs, my sister and I gripped onto each other as the terrifying falls on the driver's side appeared with each hair-pin bend.  'Geeze kids, look at those wonderful views,' he said, craning his neck to see past obstructing trees.
 
'Eyes on the road, Albert, we want to survive the first hundred miles.' Dad ignored her cynical comments and continued to wonder at the beauty of all around him.
 
'Dad,' I ventured, 'do you think we'll be back for Christmas Eve? They're lighting up the big Christmas tree outside the Brisbane Town Hall. Archie Banks say it's really pretty. Donna and I want to see it.'
 
'Would be nice if the kids could enjoy a Christmas at home for a change, dear.' said Mum.
 
But, my father was way too busy not watching the road, and waving to strangers heading down the range, to hear a word of our pleas.
 
Having ascended the mighty hill that allowed Queenslanders to cross the Great Dividing Range, we stopped at a picnic spot at the top of the gap. It was located among sub-tropical rainforest which thrived along the ranges. 'Knock up some lunch, Mabel. I'll take the kids for a hike in the bush. Won't be long.' My mother gave him a stare cold enough to freeze bushfires, but he was oblivious to her angst, and dragged us off up a rough track.
 
'Listen, Markie, Donna. That's a whipbird. Ya gotta be lucky to see one of those birds. Listen. They sound like a drover crackin' his whip.' We stood in the dull heat of the bush and listened. Somewhere dark, and alone, a small bird made a sound that mimicked the whip crack. It's short rising whistle, followed by sharpish, drawn-out 'whi-i-t', cut the air with such clarity and beauty that we stood there agog.
 
Back at the picnic spot, my mother was fighting a losing battle against bush flies, the sort that won't take no for an answer. 'Oh, Albert, you won't be able to tell the Vegemite from the flies. You've been gone ages.' The sandwiches were covered in the flying beasties, so I settled for an orange.
 
As we drove west past Warwick, the temperature rose as the warm inland breezes pumped hot air through the car window. 'Could you shut the window, dear?' pleaded my mother.
 
'What for, Mabel? It's good for the kids to get fresh air.' Despite the fact that we were coughing and sneezing in the back seat from the dust and wheat debris that blew in from the freshly harvested fields, we chugged on towards what my father jokingly called, our country hotel.
 
That night we put up the small canvas tent that our uncle had lent us. We found a level spot by Waroo Creek. Dad built a fire and Mum cooked up snags and rustled up some packet potatoes in the billy for dinner. After our long drive in the heat, it was great to sit still in the cool of the evening under a pristine, starry sky. 'Watch that star falling,' Mum said suddenly, pointing enthusiastically to a silver streak falling like a dying skyrocket across the black.
 
'Ooooh!' said Donna enthusiastically, 'Is that Father Christmas on his way?'
 
'Could be. Could be.' I smiled to myself. I was well past believing in Father Christmas. I knew it was Jesus who magicked up our presents.
 
'Don't be putting silly notions in girl's head, Mabel. You know Father Christmas is just a silly myth.'
 
My mother said nothing, arose and went to bed. Luckily, Donna was no wiser, as she had no idea what a myth was. Dad had forgotten about his outburst, and started telling us stories about bunyips living in billabongs nearby.
 
I spent a long, sleepless night in the back seat of the Mayflower. Every croaking frog, every slithering lizard or snake, and even the fish buck-jumping in the creek, sounded like bunyips coming to carry us off. I knew they were only  mythical monsters of the bush, but Dad had made them as real as Father Christmas seemed to Donna.
 
The next two days on the road were hotter, but Dad's relentless pursuit of enjoyment in the adventure began to win Donna and I over. Mum, on the other hand, stayed quiet, almost as if she were sulking. A flat tyre, an hour's holdup as we waited for a grazing flock of sheep to vacate the roadside, a near-miss when an emu scooted across the road in front of us, were all part of our great adventure Dad told us. 'What better way to spend Christmas holidays, hey everybody?' he'd say. But, only Donna and I could manage a smile at his enthusiasm.
 
On Christmas Eve, four days into the journey, it happened. 'Looks like we've run out of petrol, honey,' said Dad as he tapped the petrol gauge hopefully. 'I think we're somewhere south of Goondiwindi, and somewhere north of Bogabilla,' he continued knowingly.
 
Our mother, exasperated beyond belief by the latest inconvenience, screamed. Her scream raised a flock of galahs from their sleepy state on a nearby gum-tree. Their symphonic dissonance as they squawked off into the blue yonder, drowned the volley of swear words that came from my mother's mouth. 'You bloody useless excuse for a father, a husband, a man,' is all we heard clearly. I held my hands over little Donna's ears to protect her from our mother's curses.
 
'Maybe someone will come along and give us a hand?' He looked back along the ribbon of road as it disappeared into a shimmer of summer haze. Even he didn't believe his optimism this time. It was Christmas Eve after all. In 1958, no-one travelled in the bush on holidays; except us, of course.
 
After Mum calmed down, we pushed the Mayflower into the shade under some bushes and tried to get comfortable. My mother said nothing. The mood around our makeshift home was tense and no-one dared mention Christmas.
 
'What's for dinner, hun?' said Dad, as if we were snug in our Brisbane home, not stranded somewhere south of Goondiwindi, and somewhere north of Bogabilla, with little idea what we were going to do. Christmas seemed another year away.
 
Mum searched the boot and returned with a warm can of Golden Circle pineapple slices. She dumped it unceremoniously at Dad's feet. 'That's it. All that's left of the food. All that's left of us, Albert. When..if we get out of this mess, I'm taking the kids up to Cairns to stay with my mother.'
 
Dad was silent. A bush fly spun around his head like some crazy asteroid, but Mum's announcement made the fly's presence irrelevant.
 
Donna and I heard every word. My sister ran to Dad, clung to his legs, and sobbed uncontrollably.
 
Dad recovered enough to say. 'Oh, oh. What have I done?' Blind Freddy on a moonless night could see what he'd done wrong.
 
Mum let out a little shriek. 'Arthur, we're getting a divorce. This trip has been a nightmare. You've ruined Christmas. You never listen to me, and here we're lost... with a can of pineapple pieces to share.' She began to cry and Donna ran to cry in chorus with her.
 
Dad opened the can. 'Here son, Happy Christmas. I'm sorry. I thought we were enjoying the trip.' The sweet crunch of the fruit hardly sweetened the worst moment of my life, but it filled an empty spot just under my heart.
 
The heat of the day dissipated as the cruel afternoon sun dipped below the saltbush horizon. Not one of us spoke.
 
To the north, I could hear the sound of bleating sheep and a pall of dust became visible above the bushes. It was the huge flock of itinerant sheep that we'd seen earlier. Dad told me that the graziers send the flocks on long walks along the outback highways. There's always feed at the edges where scant rain and dew stimulate growth. It helps them all get enough feed for the summer.

A red dog suddenly ran past our little encampment in pursuit of three runaways. Not far behind was man on a horse whistling and calling instructions to the dog. When all was in hand, the rider stopped and called, 'Merry Christmas, folks. You look a little lost.'
 
'Hi mate,' said Dad, 'yes, we're out of petrol and food. Not a great Christmas.'
 
Before he could say another word, the rider said, 'Listen, we're about to set up camp for the night, bed down the woollies in the far paddock, and have a Christmas Eve, bush style. We'd like youse to join us. More the merrier. Name's, Dave.'
 
'The Fowlers.' Even Mum came good at the invitation.
 
'Sounds good, Dave. You really are a saviour, tonight. I was at wit's end.'
 
The campsite was on a relatively flat space beside the road. The sheep were herded into paddock opposite, through a temporary gate in the barbed wire. The three drovers, their kelpie dogs, and the Fowlers sat around a campfire drinking sweet tea, enjoying ham sandwiches (with chutney, yummy), and waiting for the damper to cook in the coals. The night was warm and the sky as wide as the world.
 
'Look Mummy, the star again,' she said pointing at the flashing trail.
 
'That's Father Christmas delivering a saddle to young Tommy up at Cobar,' said Dave. I giggled.
 
Dad was about to set things right in Donna's head, but thought better of it when he saw our mother's stare. 'Don't worry, sweetie. Father Christmas dropped this off before he went to Cobar.' He produced three packages from the car boot. One was a beautiful baby doll with golden locks, for Donna. There was a Meccano set for me, and for Mum, a bottle of Magica perfume.
 
Mum jumped up off the log on which she was perched, and smacked a kiss on my startled father's cheek. 'Oh, Albert. How did you know I loved this stuff? Must have cost a fortune...Hey, I thought you didn't like Christmas.'
 
The drovers clapped and laughed at her enthusiasm. The red dog bayed in assent, and Donna and I began playing with our new treasures by the flickering light of the campfire.
 
'Aw, I knew you didn't want to come away, not really. You've been a bit peaky lately, but you seemed OK. I wanted you all to have some sort of Christmas, so I bought these for us. This seemed a good time to cheer us up.' Everyone laughed, and the men and Mum began to sing carols by starlight. I had no idea that my father could sing, but his rendition of Away in a Manger made old Dave shed a tear. The trip really was beginning to feel like a great adventure.
 
'I've got a present for you, all of you,' said Mum. Our interest grew. 'I know it's not quite time, but in six months, we're having an addition to our family.'
 
'Does that mean Grandma is coming to live with us in Brisbane?' I asked.
 
'No, Markie. Your mother's having a baby.'
 
They all sang For She's a Jolly Good Fellow as if no-one could hear them out there, and Dad couldn't stop smiling. He kissed Mum, right on the lips...in front of us. The sheep baa-ed in the darkness nearby, as if they knew what had just happened.
 
The following Christmas, the Fowlers stayed at home, and young Johnny gurgled and burped as we opened our presents in front of the tree. Our outback Christmas had been adventurous, and ultimately joyous. Mum and Dad never mentioned divorce ever again.
 
We had an open invitation to visit Wooloorooloo station near Bogabilla. Dave and the boys said they'd love to show us city slickers what country life's all about. Mum said, not at Christmas. Dad said that he was happy to do whatever Mum said.
 
The three of us children agreed, and got on with the celebrations.
 

 


Christmas Story contest entry

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Cunningham's Gap: A gap in the range where Queenslanders can climb from the coastal plain to the flat lands to the west. In the 1950's, a Mayflower (a stylish, square shaped, 4 cylinder sedan) would never have got up that road without boiling over a few times.
Great Dividing Range: Much as the Rockies creates a long narrow plain along America's west coast, this range separates a narrow coastal plain from the country to the west. Most of Australia's population lives on the eastern seaboard. Brisbane is the capital of Queensland and is separated from the inland and the outback by the range
whip bird: shy bush bird with a distinctive cry. You'd never forget it.
bush flies: big buggers which bite and love human sweat
bunyip: legendary monster (from indigenous mythology) which inhabited billabongs (lagoons) and was invoked to scare little children on camping trips. One of these took teh swagman in 'Waltzing Matilda'.
Vegemite: an Australian iconic food. It's a black spreadable paste, made mainly from salt, yeast and mystery ingredients. In the '50s, it was almost a staple food in a kid's diet. Still a great favourite, but it really is an acquired taste
damper:a kind of bush bread made with salt, flower, and water. It would be tossed into the coals of a campfire till the smell told you it was ready. Can be delicious.
Meccano Set: a popular construction set made for boys back in the 50-60s
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