‘Daddy, this will be your second Christmas home from the war,’ Her eyes ever vigilant as another couple of rough miles roll by, the old Bedford lorry hauls little Virginia Livingstone and her father over the unsealed roads back to home near Mareeba.
‘Daddy, do you think little Jim will like our Christmas treats?’ The thin girl questions as she stares out her open window.
‘Not as much as you, I would imagine.’
‘He’s six months old now, and still can’t talk. Does that mean he can’t count either?’
‘I think you could be right. If he gets a bellyful, I’m sure he will be happy.’
‘It soon will be 1948, so I will have my eighth birthday and be in third grade at school. Little Jim won’t start school until 1948-49-50-51-52-53, 1953. I don’t know why mummy waited so long to give me a little brother.’
‘Well, your mother thought it would be easier to wait for when I got home from the war. You were probably quite a handful on your own.’
‘Oh, Father, I can look after myself. After all I am seven, you know. Mother and I did well enough on our own, and the bath stayed clean.’
‘It’s clean when you get in. I am the last to bathe.’
‘That’s only because I get in after little Jim. Nowadays mum is always scrubbing the bath after you get out.’
‘You can’t blame your dear old dad for that. It’s dirty work out in those fields. That tobacco won’t grow well on its own. It needs to be cut, cured and bailed.’
‘When will we be returning to Cairns next?’
‘Maybe not till March if we get a heavy monsoon. Although, Mr Biondi may have some more of his handsome furniture to deliver soon. It has been a good year for the area. A lot of New Australians are arriving eager to start enterprises. People around here are the happiest they have been in many years with an abundance for us all to share.’
‘Are we truly having a banquet for Christmas this year? Are the neighbours and the worker’s families coming?’
‘Yes, Virginia. Mr Crawford has sold me a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound pig, which he will spit roast for us all.’
‘A roast pig? Is that why we have those sacks of potatoes, pumpkins and onions?’
‘Yes, and in the afternoon when our bellies have shrunk, we will have steamed Christmas pudding and custard.’
‘Mm. I love Christmas and all the good things that we have. Do you think Santa will be generous this year?’
‘I think so. There is a lot of commotion with large numbers of people moving around the world but, I am sure he will be as giving as ever. When you go back to school next year, expect to see a few new faces. There are many in the region who have written to their families in Europe.’
‘How does Santa get around to all those kids?’
‘Well, I’d say he would have lots of friends and helpers like the elfin folk.’
‘Elves are magical and carry fairy dust. They must have made Santa’s flying sled.’
‘Sleigh. What’s a sleigh, dad?’
‘Santa drives a sleigh not a sled.’
‘Oh… what’s the difference?’
‘A sled slips down a slope, while a sleigh slips over snow pulled by horses.’
‘No, daddy. Santa uses reindeer not horses. Have you forgotten?’
‘If I remember rightly, he has eight big bucks out front pulling hard.’
‘Do you think it will rain for them on Christmas Eve?’
‘I doubt it, why?
‘Well, they are reindeer.’
‘Sorry my dear, they are not deer who run on rain. Rain that falls from the sky is spelt r-a-i-n. Reindeer is spelt r-e-i-n-d-e-e-r; they like to run on snow.’
‘Mum reckons snow is bitterly cold. What is bitterly cold?’
‘Remember when we had a snow cone in Cairns, and it froze your mouth?’
‘Is that bitterly cold?’
‘If you were covered head to toe it would be. That’s strange.’
‘What’s that daddy?’
Stanley removes his foot from the throttle and slows the truck to stop alongside a rather large rotund man in a white cotton singlet, red pants and high black boots that sits on the lowered tailgate of what appears to be a timber sleigh. In his puffy hand, a sizable handkerchief mops the drips of sweat from his brow. His thick bushy beard reminds Stanley of a husky’s pelt.
Stanley calls, ‘G’day, mate. Broken down?’
‘No,’ Comes the heat inflicted reply. ‘I am waiting for a new company. The usual squad has overheated. It is way too hot for them down here.’
‘Do you have water? We still have a bite left in our picnic basket.’
The big man takes another swab from around his ample neck. ‘Thank you for your generosity. I am not hungry, just the heat gets to me in this part of the country.’
‘The intensity of humidity is severe. Some say the monsoon will be early this year.’
‘Excuse me, are you Santa Claus?’
‘I think young lady that it is pronounced Santa Clous, as in house. Not Claws as in cat. What makes you think I am Santa?’
Stanley’s eyebrows jump his forehead.
‘Your sleigh doesn’t have any wheels, and it never snows here. My dad was only now telling me about snow. He said Santa’s sleigh glides over snow.’
The old man stares Stanley squarely in the eyes, and with a quick wink he replies, ‘You are a very clever little girl; we cannot fool you. My sleigh does not have any wheels to roll on, but it is far too hot for reindeer in this country. Because of the chaos around the world, I had to start a little early this year. Unfortunately, it is still daylight. So, I am stranded here waiting for a team of boomers.’
Stanley steps down from the truck. He walks around the front, removes one of his hessian waterbags, and approaches the larger-than-life character. ‘Here, this should be cool.’
The old man smiles with gratitude. His sausage fingers grip the stopper and remove it with ease. Swallow after swallow the bag half empties before the old man comes up for air. ‘Ah, that is good. It is something I do not carry.’
Virginia says, ‘You should.’ She looks to her father standing beside him. ‘Doesn’t matter where you go in Australia, you must carry water. Dad always carries a small drum in the back.’
‘Young madam, may I have the privilege as to know to whom I address?’
‘My name is Virginia Livingstone, and this is my father, Stanley.’
The old man’s thick eyebrow raises, and he extends his hand and pronounces, ‘Stanley Livingstone I presume?’
An embarrassed grin forms on Stanley’s face. ‘Yes, my father was an avid armchair explorer.’ Their hands meet.
‘I am much relieved. I thank you once again. What do you call this remarkable invention?’
‘A waterbag. You will find most vehicles out of the big cities sport one on their front. As you can see, we, Australians, don’t have much of an imagination when it comes to naming things.’
‘That Great Barrier Reef would never give any indication of that.’
Stanley coyly asks, ‘Have you been here long?’
‘No, I would not have been here at all except for the change of route. Normally I come down under in the cool of early morning. But I am afraid the heat was too much for the team, and here you find me.’
‘Excuse me Santa, what are Boomers?’
Santa’s face brightens. ‘Boomers, my dear Virginia, I thought you of all people would know what a Boomer is.’
Concentration tightens her face. She stares at her father but stands her ground. ‘Do you mean old man Kangaroo?’
‘Yes, six white boomers to haul me around this unusual land and back again.’
‘How do you fit all the presents in there? It looks rather small.’
‘Now Virginia,’ her father starts.
Quick to raise his chubby hand. ‘It is alright. More by good luck than good management sometimes. Not every child receives a gift.’ The old man understands the worried look that crosses her tender face. ‘There are naughty boys and girls who this year I will not present them with a gift. They have failed to listen to their parents. Now, they are on my blacklist. Though I do not recall your name being there, so you should not worry.’
‘It would be rude of me to ask about myself. Do you have anything for little Jim?’
Stanley is intrigued by the smiling eyes of the old man, who stretches backwards over a bulging velvet sack to retrieve a clip board.
He eyes Virginia to ask, ‘Where are we?’
Faster than a peregrine falcon Virginia responds, ‘In north Queensland, just inland from Cairns. Dad and I are on our way home to Dimbulah. You can’t miss it. It has a rail siding and all.’
‘I see… let me look.’ He licks his fingers and flicks through the pages. ‘Lilly, Lin, Lincoln, Little, Livermore, Livingstone. Yes, yes, I have a Livingstone on my round.’ His eyes focus on her small wanting face.
‘Make sure you bring one for mum and dad. They have worked so hard this year. Especially mum: she’s had to carry around my little baby brother for so long.’
‘What sort of present do you think she would like?’
‘An electric clothes washer. One day while she was stoking the sheets in the boiler, she slipped and nearly fell in.’
Shock runs Stanley’s face. Virginia smacks her hand at his reaction. ‘Oh daddy, you weren’t supposed to know.’
‘It’s alright my dear. I won’t say anything to your mother.’
‘I am not sure I could fit a ringer washing machine in my sleigh. Although I could leave some happiness. Do you think that will do?’
‘Oh yes, please. You should come for dinner. Mum would love to meet you.’
‘Oh-ho-ho. How I would dearly like that, although I find myself pressed for time. Besides, I would be in the way when you get home.’ From under snow laden brows, Santa’s eyes flick a foreboding glance towards Stanley.
‘But Santa, we have only just arrived, and you have not told us a story.’
‘Santa is not known for telling of stories,’ He replies to Virginia’s request.
‘Oh, please-pretty please.’
‘Virginia,’ Her father interrupts.
‘Allow me, please. I do have a story if you have an ear.’
‘I have two.’ Her pointing fingers either side of her enthralled face.
‘May I offer you some tailgate?’ His hand gestures to Stanley.
As he begins, Virginia leans forward on her seat of the open truck door head on hands. ‘Many, many years ago, in a modest monastery in Patara near Myra, in a country of many names, you would now know as Turkey, lived a young priest by the name of Nicholas. He was known for his hands-on approach. While in the church he cared for his people’s spiritual welfare. In the village he shared their labour and eased their day-to-day suffering of communal living. He believed in Jesus and acted as he thought Jesus would.’
‘Now, Nicholas was highly respected for his unwavering dedication to others and the welfare of his fellow priests. Then one day his heart weighed heavily. The youngest of three sisters begged him for his help. Her father, a notorious gambler, had lost all their meagre possessions. Now, his debtors were threatening to take his three daughters for recompense through prostitution.’
‘What’s prostitution?’ Virginia’s flat voice asks.
‘A form of slavery. They were to be taken and sold as slaves to ruthless men. Now, Nicholas goes to the house of the man whose money is owed. He tells this man of a great storm of hostility from God. With wrath, he will raise the people to overthrow and kill the tyrant and his followers. Then he will leave their naked dead bodies to lie on the dusty streets of the village.’
‘What happened Santa? Did God smite them?’ Virginia inquires.
A grin as big as Queensland reveals itself from behind its white protection. ‘The evil man drops to Nicholas’s feet and pleads. What can he do to slay the wrath of God? A gesture of fifty gold coins would refrain God’s hand, Nicholas replies. The evil man protests: fifty gold coins is an outrage. Nicholas asks the tyrant if he makes it to the pearly gates, what is more important to him? His gold, or his soul? With deep regret the man fills a leather pouch with coins.’
Virginia and her father are both fixated.
‘The next morning, Nicholas finds the three sisters cowering in their neighbour’s house, scared of being taken. He supplies each with five gold coins and tells them to go straight to pay their father’s debts. They need not fear anymore.’ Over his puffy cheeks Santa takes pride in the looks of fascination staring back at him. ‘From there on, the generosity of the Christian church and Nichols became renowned for their forthright ability to give to those who struggle. I believe his ability over the wealthy to contribute to the poor is how he got his reputation. This reputation of mystique led to his power of immortality in folklore. His name is borne widely. To the Russians she is known as Babooska. The Italians also thought he was a ‘she’ and called her La Belara. It is interesting these two counties depict this, giving Christian entity as a woman. A natural assumption.’
Virginia waits with breathless anticipation. ‘To the French he is Pere Noel. In the Swiss Alps, German border region, they call him Kriss Kringle or the Christ child whose sled is drawn by goats.’
He takes out another swab of sweat from his brow. ‘The Germans also have another name for him, Ru-Claus, which means rough neck, because he would scare the living daylights out of children who cannot behave themselves. Today, however, they call him Santa Claus, which comes from the Dutch who named him Sinta Claus.’
He stops only long enough to swig water. ‘During the eighteen hundred with the arrival of the printing press this mythology got a makeover.’
Her eyes indulge the images described to her, as her father takes in the enthusiasm she holds for the words of this gentleman.
‘In 1881, Santa first appeared dressed in red and white with fur trim. In 1882, Clement Clarke-Moore gave us his classic tale of An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas. He was then known as a “right jolly elf” even if a little overweight.’ Santa coughs and rubs his belly. ‘They say he is able to go up and down chimneys with a simple nod of his head. Although modernised over the years, I prefer my reindeer rather than any of those noisy contraptions of today.’
Virginia inquires, ‘Why do we have Christmas in the middle of summer when it’s so hot?’
‘Ho-ho-ho, you must remember Virginia if it is hot and sweaty here, then it is freezing for all the countries at the far end of the northern hemisphere. Nicholas’ day of demise was the sixth of December. As his reputation spread with Christianity this became his day of remembrance. As years go by many of the homes Saint Nicholas visited generally were deep in snow. He was welcomed greatly by parents as he broke the boredom of children locked inside away from the deep freeze.’
Stanley looks up and down the road. All is quiet, not a crow to be heard. ‘Now, the reasons we celebrate Christmas on the twenty fifth of December are many. In days gone by, the European communities rejoiced Saturnalia. The Church did not like to see large scale drunkenness and wanted to replace this debauchery with something a little more family friendly. The most enforced reason came from the protestant reformation which demanded this date.’
Virginia’s eyes do not blink, but her face loosens, and her breathing deepens. The look of understanding is a great strength.
‘What you must most understand is, Santa really is what is best in people. He is what they should aspire too. Santa represents the giving that nurtures the human soul. He gives to the innocent, like children. He gives to those who need hope. He gives to the people who give of themselves.’ Her smile meets his.
‘Never forget he withholds his hand, and his visits from the guilty people who take from other pockets, or their precious hearts.’ She crosses one leg over the other.
‘But the one thing he never stops giving is his love. He may say to a little girl or a big boy to make amends with those you have made suffer, then your heart will be clear for you to give again.’
The innocence of childhood mesmerises Stanley. He cannot relieve his eyes from his beautiful daughter’s face.
Virginia questions, ‘Will you love me all the time?’
‘If you can behave yourself, think of me and my love for you will always be there.’
‘Sorry, Santa, I can’t. When dad was away at war, some nights I would be terrified by lightning, or when mum had a glass of wine. She would sit me down and tell me of heroic deeds my father would perform. She said that when I was scared or feeling lonely, I should think of him, and he would wrap his loving arms around me and protect me.’
Santa looks squarely into Stanley’s eyes and says, ‘It looks like I will never be number one. It takes good men and women to raise good children. You truly have a gem on your hands.’
A small tear edges closer to the corner of Stanley’s eye and without thought he whispers, ‘I am truly blessed. My wife is beautiful and the love for my daughter grows every day.’
‘Well, Virginia, I have never done this before.’ Rolling his large midriff, his arm stretches to the far side under his generous seat. ‘I know it is here. I put it there a long time ago just in case… Here it is.’ With unexpected agility Santa sits bolt upright. His closed hand stops in front of a young face brimming with anticipation. Her hands flutter like a bee’s wings.
One by one, his sausage fingers roll back to reveal pink paper pulled tight around something the size of a match box, bound by a gold ribbon bow three times its size.
‘Oh-h-h,’ she squeals and bounces on her horsehair seat. Her tiny hands meet her rouge face, fingers spread wide over her cheeks with bulging eyes bright.
‘Can I daddy? Can I?’
‘Yes, Virginia. There really is a Santa Claus.’
She delicately lifts the small gift from Santa’s large hand then places her precious package to her cheek to savour the moment.
‘Remember. You are not allowed to open it until Christmas day.’
‘My very own present from Santa. I will always remember to give, even if it’s not Christmas, Santa.’
‘Then you will always have my love, even if it is not as good as your father’s.’
Santa looks around and smiles. ‘Good-bye Mister Livingstone,’ He extends his hand.
‘Good-bye Santa. You truly are a saint. I have not felt this good since my return home.’ Stanley’s hand firms in the big man’s. ‘Please, keep the waterbag. I have another.’
‘Ho-ho-ho, the pleasure will be all mine. It will hang from the front of my sleigh. Never again shall I go thirsty visiting a hot continent.’
Virginia jumps down and runs to her father, her outstretched arms pleading to be picked up. She comes to rest on the tailgate facing Santa. She turns to her father and says, ‘We can’t go without giving Santa a hug.’ Glee flows from her excited face. She falls forward on straight legs with arms stretch wide, flump on Santa’s chest. His two large arms smother her close to him, his eyes filled with glint of joy.
‘That is the best hug. Mrs Claus herself would be jealous.’
‘Now, I can tell everyone that I hugged and received a special present from you.’
Stanley’s hands find his daughter’s underarm and lifts her to the ground. His hand comes to rest pressing her towards the cabin. The truck roars to life. Stanley looks to his daughter; her eyes shine gold reflecting the bow in her hands. Now his eyes focus on the sweating rotund man whose face reflects the same sentiment.
‘Merry Christmas, Santa, for you and the rest of the world.’
‘Good-bye Santa. Merry Christmas to Mrs Santa and all the elves.’ A vigorous hand waves.
‘Merry Christmas Australia.’
The hand brake is released and the truck rumbles down the road, Stanley’s eyes fixed in the small rear-view mirror. Did we just meet Santa Claus? All the way home nothing more than the quiet rattle of the small motor was heard. Not another soul to be seen.
The Sun lowers into the western sky yet the day is still bright. Stanley brings the truck to a halt next to the doctor’s Chevrolet Fleetmaster. He tells Virginia to unpack their bags and take her dirty things to the wash house. He knows she will struggle with the weight. He leaps the three steps that lead to the main entrance of his timber home. He thrusts aside the insect screen door to enter the cool shade of what appears to be an empty house.
‘Delores, Delores! Where are you?’ The call of concern bounces off tongue and groove walls.
‘In the bedroom’, returns a tight voice.
In the bedroom Stanley finds his wife. Her concern floods the room, her eyes red. The Doctor is bent over the cot his forehead furrowed.
‘What’s happened?’ He embraces his wife, his body offering comfort.
‘Yesterday, he was laughing, this morning he just cried and cried. No matter what I do to relieve his discomfort he only gets worse.’
The doctor looks up and says, ‘Your timing is good. I would advise you to turn around and go back to the Cairns base hospital. They are better equipped. I will ring through to the doctor in charge at the children’s ward and advise him of your expected arrival and the baby’s condition. Mrs Livingstone, wrap him in a light sheet and keep him cool, but out of the breeze. Keep his fluids up and don’t worry, there will be someone waiting.’
Stanley closes the door behind the doctor, and as he exits, asks, ‘Is it serious?’
‘Maybe. I wouldn’t send you to Cairns unless I thought it was necessary. The problem is I can’t diagnose the illness from the symptoms. It could simply be one of the new Australians who have brought a new bug with them. His fever is high, but I don’t think he is in immediate danger. I have limited resources here, so I am playing it safe.’
‘Thank you, Doctor Huell.’ Stanley takes the doctor’s hand in his own. ‘We’ll leave straight away and see if we can get down the Macalister’s before dark.’
‘Good luck, Mr Livingstone, and dare I say it, Merry Christmas.’
Stanley’s disbelieving face ponders his reality. Virginia drops her father’s duffle bag at his feet and sighs heavily. ‘Is everything alright dad?’ Stanley nods to Dr Huell and replies, ‘There has been a change of plans. Can you take your bag into your bedroom and replace your old clothes for fresh ones? We are heading back to Cairns.’
Before she questions why, Stanley is off to park the truck in one of the rear sheds near young tobacco plants and informs the foreman of the circumstances. Next to the house, he opens the weatherboard garage to his late father in-law’s Vauxhall 12/6. He quickly checks the oil, water, tyres, and fuel. To his relief it starts first kick. After a little warming he parks it outside the front door.
He enters the master bedroom. ‘Are you alright my dear?’ He asks of Delores.
‘Yes. Do you think we can make it before dark?
‘No. I have never managed that trip in less than three hours, but I am hoping we will be down the other side of the Macalister range by dark. The road between here and Kuranda is fair. If we can dodge the kangaroos, we should get a good run. Have you packed enough clothing?’
‘I have packed for us all in the travel case. It fits neatly in the boot. I have also packed a hamper and fuelled a lantern. Bubby is ready. Where is Virginia?’
‘Here, Mum. I have packed my port and Golly is ready to go.’
‘Have you got clean knickers?’
The wind slowly hustles from the north to carry heavy moisture from the gulf. ‘Kuranda. We are making good time. I expect the same from here to the Macalister range. Lady Luck seems to be riding with us.’
The mighty Baron River with its deep, dark turbulent current hauls the heavy rainfall down to the Pacific Ocean. A single lane timber bridge spans between the wide rocky banks. Two timber tracks are fixed to the formed logs that bear the weight of traffic. Without safety rails it is any easy mistake to plunge into the swirling depths of darkness below.
Stanley absently minded remarks, ‘Last time we crossed the river on our way down, we followed an old chap on his dray. He got about halfway over and lost a wheel. Lucky, it collapsed on the deck. The old fella was carrying cut wood. We managed a stay up and with the truck’s jack managed get the wheel back on. Otherwise, we would still be here. How’s Jim?’
‘It’s the first time he has slept all day.’
Like a gunshot the punctured tyre expels its air. ‘Jesus,’ Stanley pulls hard on the steering wheel and slams down on the brakes. With forceful persuasion he keeps the timber spoked wheels of the Vauxhall on worn tracks.
‘What’s happened daddy?’ Comes a frightened voice from the rear.
‘It’s okay,’ His eyes observe the colour slowly return to his wife’s face.
‘Bugger, there is a van at the other end. He’ll just have to wait a little longer.’
Stanley unloads the boot to gain access the tools. In the very bottom he locates the jack. Two nuts retain the spare wheel to the side of the car. The Smith’s jack secures on the car’s side but leaves little room to manoeuvre. He rolls away the flattened wheel to the front vehicle. An almighty thud of steel meeting timber sounds behind. Hesitant he slowly turns to find the car nose down and the horrified faces of its passengers.
‘Are you alright he calls?’
‘Yes, we are,’ Replies the angry voice of Delores. ‘Virginia jumped over to the front seat and somehow released the handbrake.’
The look on his face chastises his little girl. He grumbles about the extra effort. The expletives he keeps to himself.
‘I’m sorry, daddy. I didn’t mean to,’ She withdraws to slump into the rear corner.
They pass the waiting van. Stanley calls, ‘Sorry mate, some mug left a wire spike back there.’
‘I thought you were going to need my help on that second lift.’
Stanley waves and put his foot down on the throttle. ‘Only when you are in a rush… it only happens in a rush.’
With the twilight at their backs Stanley slows his pace to avoid wandering kangaroos and cattle. ‘I am afraid we won’t get to the Macalister’s before dark and those heavy clouds are rolling in fast.’ He mumbles to himself, ‘That’s all we need: bloody rain.’
The drenched road holds hidden potholes. Dull brown illumination projects from the island headlights ahead of a misted wind screen. The Macalister range drops sharply. The black shiny surface of bitumen switches back and forth around rock outcrops. Round and round the sharp turns have washed gravel edges. Tall trees up to a hundred feet below have arms stretched to catch all who fall.
‘My dear, is there any tea left?’
‘It may still be warm.’
‘Can you add some sugar? It may keep my mind sharp. You would think a car coming from England would have a quality windscreen wiper.’
The dull brown light reflects off every wet perplexing surface. The darkness behind every raindrop is a waiting chasm. The sharp corners fade heated brakes. More and more, Stanley applies pressure. Along the short straight he drops another gear. The little motor revs in protest, the lights a little brighter. Crash in the middle of the road lands a large eucalyptus branch. Pulling hard on the wheel he presses the brakes more. Crack, crack goes the passenger wheels over the outer branches. The car runs wide into the corner. Virginia slides to the rear seat. Stanley pulls hard on the wheel pressing both feet on the brakes. Hard rubber shudders and slips on the rain-soaked road surface.
Delores screams, ‘No, God no!’
The little motor falls silent, its wheels no longer turning, barely six feet from a timber laden lorry without light.
‘Are you okay in the back?’
‘Yes, daddy. It wasn’t that fun,’ Virginia says happy not to be the centre of tension.
‘Let’s save that for another day,’ Comes Delores’ voice, as one hand slips from under an irritable child to rest on her husband’s shoulder.
A skin-soaked Stanley returns to inform his wife that the lorry has lost all power and the driver is on his own, and hesitant to reverse. Delores places baby on the driver’s seat rummaging behind to retrieve her kerosene lantern.
Handing him the lamp she asks, ‘We must get through. Can I help?’
‘No. Stay dry in here with Jim. We will find a way.’
Two hours pass when inside the cabin Delores’ eyes are blinded by her sleeping children, Little Jim still restless with fever.
The Blitz’s motor coughs to life followed by grinding gears. Inch by inch it retracts; locked wheels slip on gravel surface closer to the edge. From behind, a lantern waves wildly. The truck comes to a halt. The lantern lays the road bare on its approach to the Vauxhall. Stanley closes the door behind. He smiles to his wife, then blows out the flame on the kerosine wick.
Large gums, beech, and oak give way to open pasture. Stanley relaxes in his seat, happy for the mountains to be behind. The first concrete causeway is under inches of rushing torrent. By the third, Stanley’s naked feet gauge the collective downpour. He worries about what lies ahead.
One by one the stars reveal their light. Turning south the highway allows for a little reluctant speed.
‘Look dear. Streetlights. We’re there.’ He opens the window and says, ‘I think I can hear the ocean. What is the time?’
Turning her wrist, she replies, ‘I think it is after eleven. Poor Jim has not taken anything the whole trip. His fever still burns.’
Along the waterfront the Vauxhall hums. Ahead, the lights of a tall building lures stressed seekers. Stanley runs to deliver his wife and sick baby to the door where a doctor is called.
Virginia wakes to the clang of enamel bedpans. She lies on her back on a polished timber pew. Her head cradle on her father’s lap, his hand stroking her hair, ‘Good morning daddy, where’s mummy?’
Her eyes follow her father’s stare across from them. Delores sits leaning over a bed, stroking her sick child. Her ashen face is holding tears at bay. Two beds up a young boy’s face brightens with excitement calls, ‘Merry Christmas everyone,’ A sentiment not shared by the adults.
‘Mr Livingstone,’ A first year nurse approaches, ‘Sister asked me to convey that you can find suitable lodging at Charleston House two blocks north on McKenzie St. Apparently it is very modern, only being renovated some seven years ago. Dr Everett said he will return mid-morning and conduct necessary tests himself. Is there anything else I can do?’
‘Any chance of a cup of tea for my wife and I?’
‘I’ll check the kitchen for you and arrange an extra breakfast for your daughter.’
‘Thank you for your kindness.’ He smiles at Delores, walking up to her and rubs her shoulders. His sick child contrasts stark to the bleached white sheets. His red puffy face holds beads of sweat.
Delores takes his hand and smiles. ‘He’s keeping his fluids down.’
He bends to whisper in her ear, his voice confident, ‘I’m sure he can hold his own, like his grandfather.’
Lunch comes, lunch goes. With a puffy red face, the infant cries volumes of frustration. Doting Delores mops his tiny forehead while feeding him teaspoons of honeyed water. Dr Everett arrives one arm bearing many files, his eyes wandering over the anxious family in wait. In times like these he wishes he worked with the elderly.
‘Mrs Livingstone, I have run the blood tests. The good news is it is not a tropical disease. A nurse will arrive soon to administer a small number of aspirin to help with the symptoms. At this point in time, I think he will need to sweat it out.’ He notices the cup and spoon at the bedside and states, ‘Let the nurse know how much liquid he intakes. It is very important he stays hydrated. I will come back before I leave.’ He nods goodbye to check up on a young boy five beds down, his leg in traction.
Delores says, ‘Why don’t you take Virginia for a walk along the beach and see if you can find a few shells for her bedroom?’
Slowly, Stanley’s eyes peel from the floor to the love of his life and states, ‘I’ve missed all of this, raising children.’ In his mind, visions of the war flash. He thinks, I know what it is like to wait for battle. I know not to ponder who will be next die, but your own child? ‘Come on, Virginia. Let us go and see what we can see by the seashore.’ He takes her tiny hand and finds the door to freedom. She must have learnt patience from her mother.
By 5.30 PM, Stanley replaces his fob watch into his waistcoat pocket and calls. Virginia is nearly four hundred yards away across the exposed tidal flats. She returns running, her face bright with discovery of the sea life.
‘Daddy, daddy. I think this one is still alive,’ Her tiny hand grasps a brown conical shell.
‘Well, leave that one. You have almost filled this pale. Your Grandfather was clever to carry such things.’
Entering the children’s ward through the side door, Stanley is struck by the mobile folding screens around his baby’s bed. The quick snatch of Virginia’s hand jolts his anxious face. With a couple of quick steps, he lifts his child into the visitor’s pew and commands, ‘Stay here.’
Thrusting aside the concealing screen, he finds the doctor and a nurse hovering over a crying baby. Delores’ eyes plea for help. She cannot console her suffering child. A hanky aggravates her slightly swollen red nose. ‘If he won’t stop crying, he’ll explode any minute now,’ she says, tears pouring.
Stanley embraces his wife to sooth her worry. ‘It’s all right. He’s a tough little bugger like your father, and like you, he will survive.’
‘Ho-ho, Merry Christmas everybody,’ Shatters the ward. Through the main entrance enters a big, white bearded fellow accompanied by the Sister and the Matron. Santa, larger than life, has the instant attention of all girls and boys, their long faces suddenly smiling. Starting at the far end, Virginia’s eyes watch his every movement. Santa goes from bed to bed, doling out small gifts and lollies, many a wrapping lay shredded on the floor.
Santa eventually finds his last recipient, all alone, her back stiff sitting high on a wood seat. ‘Ho-ho, little one, what would you like from Santa this year?’
Virginia’s eyes start their critical examination from the floor up. His big black boots, red pants, black belt, scruffy white beard stained with Christmas gravy. Her eyes meet his and reflect on rimless spectacles.
‘No, thank you. You may give that dolly to a little girl who needs it. I got my present yesterday from the real Santa Claus.’
Santa leans closer, the attack of whiskey on his breath. ‘What makes you think I am not the real Santa?’
‘For a start, you would have remembered me. After all, Father did leave you that waterbag.’
Still leaning, Santa’s head swivels to peer over his shoulder at Stanley’s embarrassed face behind the offended Matron.
Santa looks back and grins. ‘Ho-ho, little one. It is good to see your greed doesn’t smother your expectations, but will you be having a couple of boiled sugar lollies?’
‘Oh yes, please. May I have a couple for Mum and Dad?’
Santa and his elder’s assistances quietly withdraw.
Virginia drops off her chair and nears her father hand extended. ‘Here, these are for you and Mum. Dad, can I go out to the car? I have the real Santa’s present packed away.’
Yesterday’s encounter had completely slipped his mind.’ Yes, is it in the boot?’
‘No, I packed it in my handbag on the back seat.’
‘Well, mind the handbrake. We don’t want to fish you out of the sea.’
‘Yes, Dad.’ A small flush of shame covers her face.
Virginia twists the door handle, slides across the leather bench seat, and opens her handbag. Sparkles reflect like stars in her eyes, the gold ribbon bold in appearance. She ponders, Should I open it now or share with everyone? It is too small for Dad and not a fragrance for Mum. Maybe I give it to Little Jim? Santa has already given him one. Maybe I should give it back and ask for our Jim to get well. I would give up all my presents and Christmas to have Jim home and safe. Anything for Mum; she is so sad.
A Peewee lands on the door’s handle. He taps his beak against the glass above her head. Virginia’s sullen face looks up. He flaps his wings to stare at what lies in her handbag. Taps the window three times and flies away.
‘Okay, if you insist, Mr Peewee.’
She withdraws the red paper present by its gold band. Placing down her handbag, her attention is held tight by its magical glow. One by one she straightens the bow. Soon, she plucks at the clear adhesive tape. Her tiny fingers tear apart the tight paper that conceals sheer delight. Rip, rip, the red paper gives way to a wooden box of waterproof matches.
Virginia stares, her unbelieving eyes going dry. ‘Santa, Santa, why did you give me safety matches?’
A sudden gust of wind shakes the car. Her imagination from thin air hears. ‘Is that the sort of present I would give?’
Absently she replies, ‘No, Santa, no you would not.’
Gently her thumb presses the inner tray slowly open, not a match to be seen. Inside lays a folded slip of pink paper. She withdraws the slip discarding the box. Fold by fold she reveals a message: Merry Christmas my loved one. This box contains the love of Jesus. Make a wish and it will be yours.
In her hands she holds the slip tight, her eyes closing tight in prayer. ‘Please, Jesus. With the love of Santa, can you make my little brother well again? Promise I’ll always be a good girl.’ Her moist eyes open to the gold and crimson light of sunset that illuminates the car’s interior. Her beating heart enhances with the beauty abound. Mesmerised she holds fast and waits for the light to fade.
‘Thank you, Santa. Thank you, Jesus.’
A quick tug on the handle opens the door. She runs across the gravel and grass to leap the stairs. Her feet pound the timber veranda and then into the brick room. She opens her mouth to announce her holy gift.
Her mother stands crying over a small bundle wrapped in her arms. Her father behind wipes his face with a hanky soaked through. He faces Virginia, and says, ‘It’s a miracle. His fever has broken. He drinks once again.’
She claps her hands and skips to her father, arms stretched wide. ‘Hooray, hooray,’ She cries.
Stanley lifts and kisses her, turns, and shows gorgeous Little Jim sucking his mother’s breast. ‘Oh, mummy. I knew it would be alright,’ Her right fist still gripping that slip tight.
Midday on Boxing Day, they arrive home to discover to Virginia’s delight, a crowd of people waiting. In the cleared packing shed Christmas tinsel strands are high. Trestles and planks make a long table with all manner of seats. Children run between adults and outside a dressed pig turns slowly, its skin golden brown.
No sooner than the car doors open, Stanley and Delores find themselves jostled with questions on young Jim’s welfare and bids of welcome to this Christmas fair.
After they have eaten, Virginia can’t erase the smile held fast to her face, presents stacked beside her in a neat pile. Across the table, Mrs Biondi sits and observes. ‘Virginia, what did Santa bring for you?’
She clasps her hands, her feet swinging with joy. From her best dress’ pocket she pulls a pink slip of paper. She passes it to her mother.
To Mrs Biondi she replies, ‘The best gift that you can ever be given. A gift of love that was all mine; mine to give and share.’ She smiles to her father and says, ‘Daddy, it truly was Santa, and he has made this the most magical Christmas.’