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Holiday Blog: Drought Christmas

I wrote this almost forty years ago, in the late 70’s, during a drought that went on until 1983.

I lived in a shed at the time; read by candlelight and rose with the sun.

It sounds like a hard time, but it was the happiest I had ever known, a community that shared hardships as well as tomatoes. We had music evenings every full moon - you didn’t even need candles, just the firelight and the glow of the moon.

And we had Christmas together, like the one below.

Drought Christmas

Santa rides round the corner on a horse that's been fed on dust and blackberries for the past four years. It was white once. Now it's the colour of the paddocks. It noses the roses on the fence. Dorothy Perkins roses, a hundred years of rambling, small pink bunches that've stood half a dozen droughts.

Santa slides down and adjusts his stomach. The grey stubble behind his Santa beard glistens like the dead leaves on the hill above.

The kids have seen him coming. They run from the shade under the willows. They cluster round the sack like flies on a sweaty shirt. None of them try to recognise him, even the older ones, not publicly at any rate. Kids have a law that if you call Santa out you might miss the loot. These are drought kids. Those under five have never swum in a creek; had measured baths; have never played on a green lawn.

Me at the time of the drought

Santa hefts his sack and shuffles over to the willows. He's been dagging sheep all yesterday and then been in the pub long after closing last night. His back's giving out but he won't give up the shearing (or the whisky).

He plonks the sack near the trestles, laden with 'bring a plates’; brown rice salads next to vinaigrette macaroni à la Women's Weekly, wholemeal apricot slice next to date scones, and silverbeet salads (though the lettuces have browned in the heat). A sheep chars on a spit a few trees away, keeping its flies mostly to itself, a guzzle of men, tinnies in hand, stand around it intent on the rotation.

There are fewer flies than last year – no stock around; fewer animals left to die. Behind us the heat flickers off the tin roof as our friend Annie cajoles Santa's horse out of the garden, daisies nursed on dishwater and herbs with a crease of fat around their base.

The water comes from the well behind the house. It was filled in last century, but Annie cleaned it out two years ago when the creek ran dry: old fencing wire and hubcaps and corrugated iron; pumped it clear for two days till it ran pure. The water's cold and absurdly fresh, seeping out of the hard bare ground.

The kids are clustered round Santa now like sheep round a dam. Annie comes over.

'I got the sack full from Saint Vinnies. $20 the lot' she whispers. Pre-loved dolls are handed out and leggo sets minus parts but the kids don't mind; everyone's is in the same state; none of them watch television or wander through the tempting shelves of shopping centres; their expectations are different.

Someone hands Santa a beer. He drinks with one hand, offers presents with the other. Flies sit on his nose. His beard has a dusting like brown snow.

Later, Santa discusses stock prices - wethers are selling for less than the cost of a kilo of chops at the butchers, hence the sheep on a spit. Fruit prices are up – not that there's much fruit. I look at the sky through the window as we wash up and ask an older woman about the last drought, in the sixties. 'I mean rained sometimes, didn't it?'

She dries a plate and puts it on the bench. She shakes her head 'Not really.' she says 'Not much. But it wasn't as bad as this.'

She finishes the plates, dries her hands, leaves the water in the washing bowl for Annie to use as she thinks fit later. 'Cheer up.' she says 'It always rains at Christmas. Just a bit.'

The trouble with droughts is that you don't recognise them till you're well in them; they end gradually as the rain creeps back; till one day you realise you have both grass and water and the water table's full again.

Looking out through the kitchen window, at the paddocks like grey beard stubble, the shine of rocks glaring through, I wonder if I'd have come if I'd known it would be like this, so far from the dreams of neat rows of tomatoes, silver sprinklers, neat bush kitchen. As Annie says, if you've got dreams of growing veg and and bottling them in rustic kitchens, stay in the city where there's water, no neighbour's goats, or bushfire.

Annie brings out cups of tea. Santa drinks his black, in three swallows. He's taken off the wig and beard and top now, in his red pants and boots. The kids don't notice; they're down in the dry creek building dams with the hot rocks for the water that might come, some day. The men linger round the sheep carcass arguing pump maintenance; the women sit round the teapot inside discussing washing nappies without water. Drought throws you back into sexism; there isn't time to change your roles, or notice when you do.

Much later. Santa snores on the verandah, his stomach slipped across his knees. The cars gleam in the moonlight under the drooping casaurinas, utes with bales of hay in the back.

The moon is full, sailing like an yellow chook through the darkness. A wind buffets from the tableland, smelling of heat and sheep. Under the willows the last coals from the spit wink at us.

We sip orange wine, made before the drought, on the front verandah. The loungeroom's quiet. The kids are bedded down there, under sheets on assorted cushions, some to be bundled into cars or utes later; others'll stay for this night or the next. Santa wakes up, gropes for his beer beneath his seat, looks at us. He wants to argue, or complain. Santa has lived here all his life. 'But I'd leave tomorrow if I could.' (No one mentions that his brother wants him to come to Sydney to sell cars on Parramatta Road, and Santa slung off all last Easter in the pub about the fool of a brother who won't take things easy when he could.)

He looks at us belligerently. 'Why do you stay then?' No one answers. Someone laughs: 'It's too hot to move.' Santa subsides: 'We'll all have to go if this keeps up. The world'll be a desert'. Then he falls asleep again, the beer cradled on his stomach.

We stay on the verandah. The wind is cooler now. There is a scarf of grey on the horizon. It might be cloud. It might be mist. It's too hard to tell in the moonlight. It smells like rain. That might just be the coolness, or wishful thinking.

Someone is singing out the back. The music drifts across the verandah. The road glows white in the moonlight through the tunnel of trees; angopheras, heavy with blossom like honey. The hot smell of peaches rises from the flat, sweeter than the orange wine. These are reasons why we stay.

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