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Christmas and NYE: one great big ugly belly-flop?  (Image by Pat Campbell.  Source: Fairfax Media/The Canberra Times)

Christmas and NYE: one great big ugly belly-flop? (Image by Pat Campbell. Source: Fairfax Media/The Canberra Times)

Here’s something I want to shout from my shimmering tin roof-top so I can feel the relief as the words leave my body, as my heart begins to beat again, as my brain clicks back into gear, as my whole being finds its beautiful natural shape.  IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER.

Christmas, you vacuous tart, you slobbering drunk, you’re dune and dusted.  And New Year’s Eve, good riddance to you, too.  Normal, predictable, boring days: I’m all yours, come have your wicked way with me.  These are the words I want to scream until I’m giddy with life, even if they edge me that much closer to a padded cell.

No, I’m not a fan of year’s end.

As November, that month of calm before the storm, trips over itself into December, everything good and reasonable goes belly up.  Political leaders prepare YouTube Christmas messages, hoping they’ll come across as our favourite uncle but really they’re the uncle we want to forget. Supermarkets and malls play surreptitious carols in the background as we stock up on food as though the end is nigh.  In mainstreets and malls, under harrowing heat and while being dive-bombed by blowflies, shopkeepers have their shop-fronts spray-painted white to give the impression of snow but really it just looks as though the sign-writer had a stroke.

At work, after slaving away at deadlines that are as meaningful as a blow-up Santa tethered to the letterbox, we wear reindeer antlers on our heads and in the tearoom stand anxiously as ‘gifts’ are handed around – nice, another bottle of salad-dressing well past its use-by date.

At home, we drag the plastic tree from the back of the spare cupboard, plonk it in the corner of the loungeroom, and wait for the lights to flash miraculously so we can stare at them until we pass out of an evening.  On the twenty-fifth, that hollowest of days, some of us go to church, hoping that by murdering a Thomas Tallis hymn all the evil things we’ve considered and done will be washed away and we can exit the building as happy as fat Elvis.

Later, we’ll gorge on turkey or seafood (if we want to be that little bit more ‘Australian’), we ram into our gobs fruitcake and custard, we drink booze till we pick fights about things that only matter now that we’ve received yet another seven-pack of…


Keep reading at the Canberra Times, which – rather bravely – published this piece on 8 January 2014.

Death’s been good to me. Up until relatively recently at least.  I’ve lost grandparents – as if somehow I’ve simply misplaced them – but that happens to all of us, doesn’t it, the loss, not the misplacement.  Then, strike, first one, then another, two wonderful people, a cousin and a friend, both women, strong women, no nonsense, no bullshit, and now they’re gone.

My cousin, my extraordinary cousin, she was a poet, a good poet, eminent say some – they made a movie out of one of her books so that might qualify her as eminent.  But she’d hate that word.  ‘Oh cuz,’ she’d say, ‘don’t go down that road.’  She was the oldest of cousins, and I am the youngest, so I have only a few memories of her when we were growing up, family get-togethers at Christmas.  Some of the parents called her precocious; I was scared of her.  As an adult, however, I plucked up the courage to email her, and she replied with the best words I’d ever heard: ‘Cuz, if you’re looking for a friend for life you’ve got one in me.  I really am a very simple person.’  A friend for life.  But now she’s gone.  (She would never have wanted her end to define her, so you’ll get no details from me.)  I can’t stop thinking about her.  To some – many – she was indeed a poet.  To me, she was the guide to my family, my nut-case family, because from her position she could see so much.

My friend, my extraordinary friend.  She was an actor.  Whenever she was on stage I couldn’t see her, so completely did she dissolve into the characters she played.  Strange how now I’m thinking about this, my friend reminds me of my cousin, because both of them were small in stature, but strong, fierce, yes, they could both be fierce.  And hilariously funny, and sweet.  My friend: she married a good man, a kind man, a man with a motorbike.  One Saturday night, late, after midnight, she posted on Facebook: ‘Trying to work out whether or not to put on another load of washing.  That’s how exciting my life is!’  The next morning she and her good-man husband went off for a Sunday bike ride on the back roads into the country.  They didn’t come back alive.  So now my friend is gone, and I can’t stop thinking about her.  She was mad on pets, completely mad, so that every time one of my own animals is sick and I’m trying to decide whether or not a trip to the vet is warranted, I hear her say, ‘I can’t believe you have to think about this!  It’s your duty to spend every cent on your little guys if you need to!’

I love angels, in fact, if the truth be known, I’m obsessed.  But I don’t believe in them; I’m not sure I believe in an after-life of any kind.  Somehow, however, in some way, my cousin and my friend aren’t entirely gone. Yes, I think about them so much.  I hear them speak to me.  Wise words from my cousin, wise and blunt – ‘Compare yourself to no one, cuz, compare yourself to no one’ – and adoring words from my friend – ‘Oh Millie is the most beautiful dog, you know that, Nigel, don’t you?’ as if I’m blind to the luck around me.

And no doubt I am.

Last month, with Christmas building up on the horizon like storm clouds, I came home to discover that where my letterbox had been for years was a hole; and leading away from the hole was a trail of dirt – it may as well have been blood.  My humble brown-metal letterbox had been stolen, possibly murdered.

That night, I lay in bed and made myself breathe slowly, deeply.  But just as I started falling asleep, a question detonated in my head.  Had I not only lost my letterbox but actual mail too?

Mail to me, you see, is like gold bullion.  After months, often years, of working on a writing project, a short story say, putting it aside, then working on it some more, there comes a time when it must be sent away.  It’s like flinging a pigeon into the air.  With any luck it’ll come home in the form of a letter saying ‘we want to publish you’.  But how could this happen when I no longer had a letterbox?

The next morning, I started my writing session by typing out a note.  Dear Postie, some drunk bastard [the culprit had to be drunk otherwise the world no longer made sense] has stolen my letterbox.  I’ll try knocking up a new one over the weekend.  But in the meantime, if I have any mail, could I humbly ask you to leave one of those cheery red calling cards at my front door so I can collect my mail from the post office? Thanks heaps. I stuck the note to a piece of cardboard.  I stuck the cardboard to a tomato stake.  I stuck the stake into Ground Zero.

Work colleagues said I looked like I’d been in a car accident.  I told them what had happened.  Knowing me to be a bit of an anti-handyman, they lovingly gave me some advice – about football-field-sized hardware stores, about the difference between concrete and cement, about the pros and cons of various letterbox styles.  Privately I mourned the publication acceptance letters that may have gone astray forever.

That evening, I rode home slowly via the shops – I’d drown my sorrows in pizza.

Then I turned into my driveway.  But what’s this?

Something was lying beside the hole, beside the sign.  I leapt off my treadly and had a close look.  I picked it up, I cradled it in my arms, I almost gave it mouth-to-mouth.  Yes, my beloved letterbox was back.  It even had mail – not acceptance letters (how I wish I could report otherwise), just bills.  But handwritten on a bill was this: Dear Nigel, I found your letterbox up the end of Marsden Street, Postie Warren.

Marsden Street was such a long way away.

The next day, I dug out the hole, hammered in my letterbox, and secured it with the quick-set cement I’d bought from a football-field-sized hardware store.  Then a friendly old neighbour from across the street came over.  He said, ‘It was the funniest sight, the postie carrying your letterbox on the back of his bike.  My grandkids stood at the window, saying, Quick Grandpa, look!  Mate, you’re a lucky man.’

‘Yes,’ I said, smiling at my neighbour and then looking up to a cloudless soon-to-be-summer sky, ‘I’m a lucky man.’

Happy Christmas, Postie Warren.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, December 15 2007)

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The past