Road to Nowra
Ulladulla. © Dean Sewell
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Of all our national celebrations Christmas is probably the most unpredictable and perhaps the most inclusive (even non-Christians and atheists get caught up in it). I think that this is because it has moved from being a Christian festival to being the Festival of Family. I have always had trouble with Christmas.
The Christmas feast of my childhood was roast chicken and stuffing. Chickens were an expensive, special-occasion food back then, before they became degraded into mass-consumption factory takeaway. Many families bought a live chicken and killed and plucked it themselves. It was accompanied by roasted vegetables, rich gravy, homemade Christmas pudding and whipped cream with coins and fortune-telling trinkets cooked inside the pudding (the coins having been hygienically boiled before being put in the pudding; you never know, they could’ve been “in a Chinaman’s pocket”), nuts, raisins, some beer perhaps for the guests, only one glass, or maybe two, and Schweppes soft drinks too bitter for children but we tried anyway, a homemade Christmas cake, and the rituals of the decorated fir tree, gift-giving (the gifts for me usually utilitarian – a briefcase, fountain pen – those sort of things; I wanted frivolous toys – a costume trunk and magic kits), and Santa Claus. Some time in the 1970s or 1980s it became the Occasion for Bombshell Announcements, such as coming out, or an engagement to someone of another religion. When I announced one Christmas that I was “going to be a writer” (instead of going into the family business), it was about as shocking for my family as if I’d said, “Hey, guess what? I’m gay.” My father was fond of Mark Twain and considered I wasn’t Mark Twain and unlikely to be Mark Twain.
I remember vividly the day in my early 30s when I decided family Christmas was over for me. It came with the realisation that my family and I didn’t like each other very much – that is, my parents, my brothers, didn’t particularly like me. Well, at least, they didn’t enjoy my company. I don’t blame them.
It was the day that I told the most ridiculous lie I have ever told.
I was living in Canberra at the time and rented a car to drive home to Nowra, NSW. The rented car was brand new and on the way down I remember thinking that the whole car, including the engine, smelt new. I speculated on whether some of the smell was the paint on the new engine burning off.
I was within 10 kilometres of home when I stopped the car, feeling ill from anxiety and realised I couldn’t face family Christmas ever again.
I rang home; my father answered and I told him that the paint burning off the new engine of the new car had made me sick. I heard him relay the message to my mother: “He says he is sick from engine paint.” He seemed unsurprised by this excuse from a pain-in-the-arse, atheist, socialist would-be writer. And so I drove back to Canberra.
After I stopped going to family Christmas, I began having Christmas deep in the rugged bushland in the mountains 70 kilometres behind where I grew up – almost home, my heartlands, I suppose: my living family at the eastern boundary of the mountains, my convict forebears at the western boundary back in the 19th century. I would go with a friend, way off-trail to some bubbling creek, and have a camp-fire meal, drink wine, dance, sing, make love. Be sad.
I wrote a short story about one of these bush Christmases. My story tells of a guy turning 40 with a younger woman friend. They go into the bush for Christmas, and she cooks a remarkable meal on the camp fire.
… She made a low, slow fire, just right, and rested the camp cooking dishes on the coals ...
She squatted there at the fire. She first put potatoes wrapped in foil on the coals. Then she put on the rabbit pieces after smearing them with mustard and wrapping them in foil and muttering “lapin moutarde”, laughing to herself. She wormed the rabbit down into the coals with a flat stick. Then she crossed herself. She put the corncobs on to boil, candied the carrots with sugar sachets from the motel, put on the beans. She then heated the lobster bisque, throwing in a dash of her Bloody Mary mix – she was going through a Bloody Mary phase – again saying something to herself that he didn’t catch.
Maybe a gypsy incantation.
Knees wide, stick in her hand, she’d slipped into a squatting posture that belonged to the primitive way of doing things – a few thousand years ago when we cooked on camp fires ... It was warm and there were bush flies that worried her and she kept brushing them away with her hand, cursing at them.
“Piss off, you bastards,” she said.
“I’ve made peace with the flies,” he said.
“Sooner or later in the Australian bush you have to stop shooing the flies and let them be.”
“I’m not going to let them be,” she said. “I’m going to give them a bad time.”
She put the imported English plum pudding on to be warmed and mixed careful custard.
She squatted there at the smoking fire, stirring and moving things as needed, throwing on a piece of wood at the back at the right time for some quick heat, waving the flies from her face.
He opened a bottle of 1968 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz ...
She presented the meal with perfect timing, everything right, at the right time, nothing burnt, no ash or grit in the food.
He complimented her.
“Thank you – but you aren’t the only person in Australia who can cook on a camp fire, Hemingway.” Then, after a minute or so, she laughed, and said, “Actually it was the first time I’ve cooked a meal on a camp fire.”
Later they made love, nude on a rock slab, he on top, pinning her arms to stop her waving away the summer flies that were crawling over their faces. She knew what he was doing and didn’t say a word. She came, he came.
After he asked her if the rock slab had hurt.
She replied, “The question you should ask, Hemingway, is ‘did it hurt enough?’”
He smiled. She was good.
Belle and I had a few good bush Christmases and other sorts of Christmases together.
Recently, I received a story written by Will Glasgow (a writer I do not know), in which his male character and a woman friend go into the bush to re-enact my Christmas-in-the-bush story, in particular, the making of love on the rock slab. In his story it does not go well. They have a rough first day. He cooks a more contemporary Christmas meal.
“So it wasn’t our greatest day,” he says, at the camp fire near the rock slab, adding eggplant to the garlic and pancetta already in the cast-iron pan.
“No, Todd. It wasn’t.”
“But the night looks like it will be an improvement – this smells delicious.” He splashes some more olive oil into the pan and stirs … now the stars shone magnificently above; now a white mist had filled the gorge below.
In the story they get around to making love on the rock slab. During the love making, she calls out, “Ow! The rock’s hurting me – it’s grazing my back.”
“It’s OK,” he says.
“No, it’s not OK. Get off me.”
How do I handle Christmas these days?
My friends have for some time, now and then, organised waifs-and-strays Christmas dinners. I am sure others do this.
Last Christmas, at a grand heritage house at Jamberoo, not far from Nowra, three of us, waifs and strays, had a leg of lamb and roasted vegetables cooked by young Sam Dettmann, a political wizard whose parents – my friends – were away, and Goodnight Island oysters from my remarkable oysterman at Greenwell Point. My contribution was to open the oysters. The other guest was Alli Woolf, a young wizard of a writer who is out of touch with her family and who had to work that day at the Sydney Zoo. She arrived in the evening smelling of wild animals.
Because Alli is a vegetarian Sam cooked for her a whole pumpkin stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, porcini mushrooms and fresh herbs from the garden. She also tasted the lamb without comment.
We were a good pretend family for the night.