Each year, someone volunteers to host Christmas and this year it was Tracy’s only sister. House in mid-renovation, two teenage children coming and going between her house and her ex-husband’s, two dogs in the back yard and a crowd of thirty to feed. Brave.
So off to the mountains mid-morning, before the heavy Christmas day traffic got started. We pulled up to the house on the high side of a valley that is not quite Selby and not quite somewhere else and there was my mother-in-law sweeping the drive, a Sisyphean task in the Dandenongs where it rains eucalypt bark. A kookaburra also welcomed us, sitting on the telephone wire that crosses the unmade road from one side of the valley to the other. He didn’t laugh but had his beak apart as if smiling widely. He was fat and jolly like Father Christmas. He hung around most of the day, perching himself on various trees, stumps and fences.
Lunch cranked into action around 2 p.m., in an informal buffet style so you could move around in between replenishing food or drinks and catch up with people in turn. A long table was in the dining room and one on the high front verandah overlooking the valley and another in the back patio at the bottom of four terraces of garden overgrown with tall trees high up, and at mid-height rhododendron and photinia with the occasional blackberry cane arching out threateningly, and understoreys of azalea and advent bells and weeds. The serving table was loaded with too much ham, beef, turkey, chicken, pickles, salads, and breads and like Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding it never seemed to diminish throughout the afternoon. Christmas pixies. Same with the drinks. There was more wine left at the end of the day than at eleven a.m. when I had fetched three bags of ice from BP Tecoma and sluiced it over two cases of Pinot Grigio in three large buckets shaped like old-fashioned baby baths.
Mid-afternoon there was a Christmas pudding the size of a Mallee root and a large pot of brandy custard and I forget what else. Probably a trifle in a bowl the size of the MCG. I was losing interest in food at that stage. I sat at a chair on the verandah trying to hold up my end of the conversation with some aunts. A cool breeze was moving across the valley and the tops of the eucalypts moved. Just the tops. The fat kookaburra dropped down to the garden and flew up again heavily with a piece of ham or beef in its beak. That kept him quiet for a while.
Late in the day, about six. I drove with my sister-in-law out of the depths of the fern gully and into the late afternoon sunshine. Her car was blocked in by several others at her house and I said I’ll collect your son from his Christmas Day job. She came too, just to direct me and escape the mess in the kitchen. We drove past the theme restaurants and the jam-and-cream cafes and the bed and breakfasts hiding behind coy hedges under towering mountain ash and up through the villages that hug the sides of the hills up towards Mount Dandenong.
It was quiet up there. The lunchers had gone back down the mountain and anyone who lived here would be inside their house full of Christmas cheer and slurring. Her son is seventeen, and he works shifts in a restaurant high up in the hills and she has to drive a sixty minute round trip to collect him, almost to Mount Dandenong. He is a kitchen hand. We drove up through Olinda and around a sweeping bend and pulled off the road into a drive and stopped on a gravel car park at the side of the restaurant and waited in the car with the last rays of Christmas Day in our faces and after a while he came out and we went back down the mountain to the house. There was a strong sharp acid smell of coffee and the kitchen was clean. Pixies.
We had coffee and drove home at nine o’clock across the top of the city and the boys fell asleep along the way, close to home, just when it got dark. We carried them inside.