Friday 31 December 2010

Alison Alloway: A holiday memory of Christmas' past

It's fitting to end the year with a story from Alison Alloway.

She has always been a supporter of CairnsBlog from it's very early beginnings and has previously scribed for the Saturday SoapBlog about her misadventures with MediCare. In the early days of CairnsBlog, Alison recounted stories from her childhood past when in 1961, Princess Alexandra, the Queen's cousin, visited Far North Queensland.

Every Christmas, Alison's gorgeous Cascara (Indian laburnum) flowers and is one of the prettiest flowering trees here in the tropics.

Today she writes again with memories , this time of her Christmas days living with a violent father and a real hard case of a little sister, some 50 years ago. Alison says she has no photos from her childhood.

Looking back, Alison says it was such a different world. People drowned kittens and puppies in backyards, dogs were always kept outdoors, domestic violence was rife, women were still dying from backyard abortions here in the North, men who returned from WW2 struggling with post traumatic stress syndrome, rapes were seldom reported, homosexuals were openly ostracized and no one ever mentioned lesbians. Divorce was rare and frowned upon, Ditto working women, and no-one gave a thought about the environment. Lastly, but not least, aboriginal people were treated with contempt and violence.

How can people ever say it was the "good" old days?

Here's Alison's Christmas with Case.

Christmas 1962.

Menzies was Prime Minister. Frank Nicklin was Premier of Queensland.

Big sister Nerida was sixteen. Gwennyth was ten. I (Allie) was seven. Case was five. Deirdre (DeeDee) was two and baby, beautiful baby, the idol of all, was almost one. Yes, we were a big family.

In 1962 our family comprised six daughters, mum and dad and grandad, all living under the one roof. Children were disciplined with belts, hands or whatever came within reach. We all wore hand me downs, and walked the long distance to school in plastic shoes, envying the kids who rode their horses
past us.

Few families had cars and even fewer had television sets.

Fathers were the head of the family, and none, more so than in our own family, where dad's bad temper and heavy hand were feared by us all. Money was scarcer than it is today and presents were only received on birthdays or at Christmas. No child dared tell their parents what to buy. Christmas was looked forward to with great excitement by all of us kids. For weeks we speculated on what “Santa” would bring us, alternating with bouts of guilt that we had spent our few hard earned shillings on buying by-jingos and cobblers for ourselves instead of buying presents for Mum and Dad.

“You’ve spent all your money on yourself, Allie!” Gwen sneered. “You’re nothing but a little fat, selfish, greedy pig!”

My eyes filled with tears of guilt and self-loathing as Gwen proudly displayed the presents she had bought for mum, dad, grandad and baby, with her shillings. Gwen was always more thoughtful, more caring, more generous and more virtuous than I. And she let me know it.

5.30am, Christmas Day, saw snowy haired Case leaning over pinching mum's cheeks to wake her up. "Mum...Mum," she whispered excitedly. "See what Santa brunged me." Mum opened one eye and sat bolt upright in bed at the sight of Case, festooned in flowery brassieres and panties.

"Santa didn't give you those," mum admonished wearily, trying to grab them. "Yes he did, he did," argued Case. "He brunged these to me."

It seemed Case had been the first to waken and had walked around the house helping herself to whatever she fancied in everyones pillow cases. Exasperated and cranky, mum had to field off Case's endless questions. "How do you know Santa brunged the melodica for Gwen? And how do you know Santa brunged the bras for Nerida?"

"I just know," yelled mum, bending down to box Case around the ears. Case wouldn’t let the matter die. “Santa did brung that bra for me,” she whispered angrily while Gwen and I were making our beds. “No he didn’t,” Gwen answered, “because you don’t have any billies!”
Case was instantly on the defensive. “I do too have billies,” she answered indignantly. “Look!” She opened up her pjama top and displayed two small flat freckle like nipples. “Billies!” she said proudly. Gwen rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Case, they’re not big like Nerida’s!” “Santa doesn’t know that,” persisted Case. Gwen gave up and threw a pillow at Case.

Christmas dinner commenced at one o’clock and everyone was seated while mum retrieved the baking trays from our wood-fired stove in the kitchen. Dad sat at the end of the table and everyone noticed his red rimmed eyes and sour expression. We all knew this meant a hangover and not to make him angry.

Nerida was the last to be seated having spent the morning teasing her hair into a bee-hive and using a tin of Starlet hairspray on the finished hairdo. She had made up her face too so that it was shiny while black lines were drawn across her top eyelids and there were two black “beauty” spots beside her mouth. Nerida was very pretty and I thought she looked like a movie star. Nerida loved to sing and knew all of Connie Francis’s songs which she sang with gusto in the bathroom every night.

“Youse look like one of them tarts what lives in Sydney,” grandad said sternly. “Sydney is full of tarts.” “Tarts?” said Case. “I likes jam tarts.” "And I like jam tarts too,” I said.
“I like passionfruit ones meself,” said Gwen. “Quiet!” roared Dad at the end of the table. Everyone went silent. Mum came out of the kitchen carrying a tray of roast vegetables. “Oh what’s DeeDee got?” she asked, as we all looked in the direction where quiet little DeeDee sat on a cushion at the table. DeeDee was sitting with her eyes closed while her hands were under the tablecloth. Nerida lifted the tablecloth to find DeeDee clutching a little kitten by its neck.
“She still thinks no-one can see her when she closes her eyes,” Nerida laughed, as she retrieved the poor kitten and put it on the floor. We all looked fondly at DeeDee who was looking quite puzzled at being found out. Nerida playfully rumpled her snowy white hair.

We could easily have been a family in mourning this Christmas Day 1962. Yesterday, DeeDee was sitting inside a cardboard box playing at being a “radio” and regaling the world by humming the theme song from “Blue Hills” over and over, when Bill, the bottlo, bringing our Christmas soft drinks, drove fast up our driveway and right over the top of the radio.

Mum saw it all, as she stood at the kitchen sink. “Deirdreeeeeeee!” she shrieked, so loudly that people from four streets away heard her. Nerida however reached DeeDee first, and dragged her from under the bottlo’s truck. For a few seconds the “radio” was silent before issuing forth a mighty wail of shock.

“Should’a heard that radio change tune yesterday,” giggled Nerida. “Never heard ole Blue Hills go off the air so fast....”
We all started to laugh.

“QUIEEEETTT,” roared Dad again from the far end of the table. “Taters,” said Case, as Mum dished out roast potatoes. “You know I don’t like taters.” “Be quiet Case,” said mum softly, rolling her eyes in dad’s direction as a warning.

“Punkun! Poopy!” whined Case, as Mum then placed a small piece of roast pumpkin on her plate. “I don’t like punkun, you know I don’t like punkun.”

Dad leaned ominously forward across the table, eyeing off Case. We all knew the warning signs.
“Beans,” groaned Case, as mum dished up a few beans and placed them on Case’s plate. “Youse know I hate beans. Them poopy things. I don’t eats them!”

Fearfully, I stretched my leg across and nudged Case’s leg under the table, as another warning.
“What you doing Allie?” Case turned to me instantly questioning my gesture,while I turned white with fear. Dad’s face was like thunder.

Mum dished up some roasted carrot. Case shrieked. “Carrot? Noooh, not carrot. I won’t eat it!”
Dad thumped the table with his fist. “There’s starving kids in India would rip your arms off for
this good food!,” he bellowed, as we all sat still and silent. Case leaned forward in her chair. “No, they wouldn’t” she yelled back.

“Case!” mum hissed in shock and alarm, “Don’t back answer your father!” Dad glared at Case. “Your mother has been hard at work all morning cooking you a good meal. Little kids in India never get to eat anything like this. They would rip your arms off to have a mouthful of this good food.”

“No they wouldn’t!” yelled back Case. “They wouldn’t rip my arm off.”

With a roar, dad stood up, reached behind the door and grabbed out his strap. Quick as a flash, Case bounded out of her chair and raced down the back stairs, her little feet pounding away. Dad ran after her. We heard Case running away under the house, as dad came back upstairs breathing heavily. Case had managed to get away and we all knew Dad was now furious. No one “back answered” Dad. No-one.

In shocked silence we all sat while mum continued to dish up the roast beef and pork. Suddenly, we all heard Case from the bottom of the stairs.

“They wouldn’t have to rip me arms off Dad, because I’d give them the bloody awful food, that’s why. I’d give it to them.”

Mum made a choking sound and hurriedly put down the baking tray, and covering her face with her apron raced into the bathroom where we soon heard the shower and bathroom taps being turned on. Nerida noisily pushed back her chair, followed by Gwen whose chair fell over, as the two of them dashed away to their bedrooms. DeeDee silently climbed down from her chair and padded off to the bathroom after Mum.

Grandad started making awful throat noises and sucked in his false teeth. “Got something stuck in me throat,” he said, hurriedly leaving the table, and tap tapping with his walking stick out to his bedroom. That only left baby in her high chair and myself at the table with an enraged dad. I couldn’t easily get away as my chair was hemmed in between the table and the wall, so I was stuck and within an arms reach of a furious and hard hitting father. Dad was glaring right at me.

There was a loud snorting sound in Nerida’s bedroom, followed by a peel of loud giggles, then another snort. From Grandad’s bedroom came the unmistakable sound of Grandad laughing. “God bless ‘er!” grandad said loudly. “She’d give it to ‘em. Oh God bless ‘er, the little minx. Hee hee hee.”

Dad continued to glare at me.

Miserably, I stared at my plate and clenched my fists tight. I felt my face go white and my bottom jaw starting to quiver with fear. What a Christmas it was. How I wished then that I was my school friend, Angela, who lived in a nice house and had a bedroom all to herself, and not in a family which was noisy with sisters fighting, babies crying, a bad tempered father who was always yelling and hitting, and a smelly old grandfather. Oh, and Angela didn’t have an annoying little sister named Case because everyone said she was a “real hard case, that one!”
That was what I wanted that Christmas. To be Angela. I wished hard.

And if we can take a break here, from our Christmas table in 1962, and indulge in a Charles Dickens like interlude, because it is a Christmas story from the distant past, we can transport ourselves across town, to a better style of house and to a better style of dinner table, laid out with Royal Doulton china and real silver cutlery.

There was my friend Angela all dressed up for her Christmas dinner, in a pretty new dress, ordered from the David Jones catalogue while her Mother sat with puffy, red eyes at one end of the table, occasionally wiping tears from her eyes as she thought of Angela’s father who was with that woman down in Cairns. Angela was busy re-arranging all her china dolls on chairs around the table. “Gwen and Nerida fight,”she told her Mother. “so they can’t sit together at the table. Little DeeDee has to sit between them. And Allie has to sit at the end of the table next to her father because she is left-handed.”

Angela, poor lonely Angela, had named all her dolls after our terrible family, and was arranging us all as we sat at our table. Ah yes, the world of little girls is a very small one. How was I to know that the Gift of the Magi was mine, not Angela’s that Christmas?

Back to our Christmas dinner table, situated on our back verandah. There was no Royal Doulton china, only mis-matched crockery and old stainless steel cutlery. We were not wealthy.
I was staring miserably at baby, who was looking intently back at me and then Dad, with her ice blue eyes. Suddenly, baby picked up the plastic bowl of mashed potato, pumpkin and gravy Mum had left on the top of her high chair, and poured the mess over her head. Then she looked cross-eyed at Dad and I.

Dad shook his head and cleared his throat. He made some more clearing noises in his throat. His eyes softened, and the corners of his mouth turned up. Baby with her blue eyes, dark curly hair and pink cheeks was the apple of Dad’s eye. Baby looked cross-eyed again, sitting there with the mash pouring down her face.

“Ha, hahahaha!” dad guffawed. “Mother, come and look at your mad daughter here!” he called out to mum. “Mad as a cut snake,” he said proudly. Mum hurried back from the bathroom, wiping her eyes with her apron. “Oh gee,” she said, “I had something stuck in my throat just then.” DeeDee followed, and sat up at her chair again. “Me froat,” she explained, pointing to the top of her head. Grandad soon followed, tap tapping out to the back verandah with his walking cane.

“Had something stuck right in me throat,” he said, sitting down again. Gwen came back next, but didn’t say anything. Mum helped clean up baby who was now laughing and trying to talk. Dad was definitely in a far better mood. Baby had saved the day. Last out of the bedroom was Nerida. Dad looked up and yelled out, “Holy Jeeezuz, look what the bloody cat dragged in, will youse? It’s the creature from the black swamp herself!”

“Shaarrrup!” mumbled Nerida as she slunk past us on her way to the bathroom. Her bee-hive was one knotty mess sticking out all over her head, while her face was a dirty mess of black sludge. Dad laughed. He was definitely in a better mood.

Christmas Dinner was a much more jolly and relaxed dinner after that. Nerida returned with her hair done up in a pony tail and her face scrubbed clean. “Youse look like a nice girl now,” said Grandad approvingly.

Case knew better than to return. At one moment during the dinner as I leaned forward to help myself to another piece of cake, I could just make our Case’s little face, peering in at us from one of the branches of the nearest mango tree. Case knew better than to return. At one moment during the dinner as I leaned forward to help myself to another piece of cake, I could just make our Case’s little pixie face, peering in at us from one of the branches of the nearest mango tree.
Dinner and the washing up over, mum retreated to bed to read to DeeDee and baby a Walt Disney comic.

Dad and grandad had adjourned to the front verandah and were consuming some large bottles of beer. Nerida was busy sewing herself a new dress on Mum’s Singer treadle sewing machine. From time to time, Mum would call out in a voice meant to be heard by all of us girls, “I’m not sewing it for you Nerida. If you want new dresses to go to dances to meet boys, you will have to learn to make ‘em yourself!” Gwen was down the back shed practising on her new melodica. I headed down stairs to the mango trees to play with my new bride doll. As soon as I arrived, Case looked out from the branches. “Youse got any lollies Allie?” she asked.

I had the pockets of my shorts bulging with licorice allsorts and chocolates, but I wasn’t going to give any up. “You didn’t eat your dinner,” I replied, trying to sound like Mum, “so you can’t have any lollies!” Case pulled a face. “Youse a bar-maid Allie!”

I was shocked. Barmaid was our worst swear-word. Nervously, I looked back upstairs. If our Mother heard that, she would come flying down the stairs, teeth clenched and strap flying. But Mum was likely to be fast asleep, I reasoned. “Youse a bar-maid Case.”

“Youse biggern I am, so youse the bigger bar-maid,” Case sneered. Angrily, I eyed the trunk of the mango tree, but decided I was just too full of Christmas cake, Plum pudding, ice-cream, jelly, lollies, mince tarts plus the hot dinner to shinny up the tree and give Case a good biffing. I decided to ignore her and play with my bride doll instead. I had bought Gwen’s old teddy bear down to play the part of the groom so I could stage a wedding ceremony. “I’m going to be a bride when I grow up,” I told Case importantly, motioning my bride doll who looked
beautiful in her full bridal regalia. I put my bride doll and Gwen’s teddy together and walked them along, humming the “Bridal March.” ‘Da dum da de.’

“What?” sneered Case. “And marry a ugly ole teddy bear?” I was incensed. This sort of thing always happened when I wanted to play. Case always ruined the make-believe part with some smarty pants comment that mum and dad and all the adults always said proved she was “a real hard case”.

I didn’t understand what they meant, but as I glared angrily at Case that afternoon in the branches of the mango tree, I felt a glimmer of understanding and a hint of the storms to come, having a little sister who saw the world very differently from myself.

1 comment:

Leigh Dall'Osto said...

The mark of a well written story, for me, is the moment when you realise that you have a picture in your mind of all of the events as they unfold in print. Nice one Allison.......can't wait for the Easter instalment.