Thursday, December 25, 2008

Here to take us out tonight is our favourite ending of the year

Many years ago in Ayrshire, I was sitting outside Black Mamas chip shop at the bus stop when an old lady in a hat with an ostrich feather that was just unnecessary told me that conversation was dead. Sadly for any music hall comedy buffs, I didn't ignore her, the usual punch line, but agreed, and then got the bus home. She sticks in my head not just for the ostrich feather but her desire to spread her most passionate opinion with the world, or at least one small pasty part of it. Today, she stuck in my mind even more because conversation over Xmas was strangely absent today. Normally we head down such conversational culdesacs as hows work, hows school, and sometimes just for a change, hows the food, but there was no real effort or emphasis on anything at Xmas dinner - it was a weary scenario, with none of the over the top chatty set pieces that I've come to dread. And of course, since no-one made the effort, I had a much better time. In the corner of the party sat a red headed step dad, nice guy, rolls his own, usually a little too certain of his facts. However, even he was muted, since someone had given him a book and he wouldn't engage in any party based activities as the book was endlessly fascinating. An old man at the party at one stage went to lift a table, part of the get this place cleaned up and get everyone out effort, and this is a genuinely old man who every Xmas gets a new ache or liver spot, with a big ruddy red drinkers face, and he was straining to lift this table onto some bricks, while the step Dad sat nursing his indifference to everyone through the form of less than great endorsed by David Letterman literature. Right at the end of the brick vs table conundrum, a conundrum which has puzzled man since the first rudimentary creation of tables, superdad, having checked everyone was looking, got up and suddenly started becoming some sort of table guru. He gets away with a lot like this, and at one point he was reading his book while his daughter plaintively tried to show him a present she had got. It's one of the reasons why Xmas dinner is a struggle, there's just too much disconnect in my head. I see these peoples so few times, I can't judge mood, I can't judge states of mind, and I can't judge where everyone sits with their relationships. I realise that they do the same with me, they know nothing about me, and by the time they've worked out just what the kid in the Zaire retro top is all about, we're in the car on the way home and I'm having an afternoon nap in the hammock with Michael Parkinsons book somehow having made it from the table to my lawn next to a discarded bottle of water. The irony of the king of chat staring up at me smiling from the lawn on a day when I couldn't wait for the chat to end is not lost on me...

I'm always reminded at times like this of a sterling piece of advice given to me by a long lost attendee of a North West Coast BBQ in about 1984 as I sat on a concrete step shivering in the fading Penguin Sunshine. I'm sure given it was 1984, he had a big handlebar moustache and a jumper of questionable taste. He told me the key to any BBQ was to sort out the food and make sure there was plenty of meat of the men and plenty of coleslaw for the poofs. It was a theory that had it's holes, sure, he excluded all women and children from the equation, and he was a borderline psychopath anyway two steps away from renaming himself Barry Pudding and running amok in the streets, but I understood the basis of what he was saying. Get the food right and the party takes care of itself. However, when the food is eaten, it still leaves a void that is either filled with drinking or back yard cricket. My back yard cricket skills have long since faded along with my eyesight, but as an observational tool to work out where everyone sits, it's invaluable. There's a classic middle kid of four who's perpetually in need of attention. Not that I blame him, he was the last kid in a dying marriage and as a result his Dad used to take the two older kids away for trips and leave him behind. The two older kids are now independent, especially the older girl who turned up in her low cut pyjamas yesterday, a disconcerting declaration of independence for someone trying to eat some store bought pudding to be confrontation. It's not surprising that middle kid brings to any party his latest accomplishment, be it a prize book or a certificate, and also that he is the one sitting patiently waiting for his presents at the end of the gift giving. I tend to find Tasmanian gift giving a little strange, as proportions are different - I know my people have a reputation for meanness, but no one I know, if they get a Xmas card with cash in it would be looking at less then 20 pounds - and everyone ends up with a lolly snake and a five buck note from most of the aunties. Not to mention the Xmas I got two comics I'd already read. His patience at being the overlooked child snaps during back yard cricket, or maybe it's because one of the aunties bought him a Caramello Koala. He gets out to his littlest sister to make her feel better, but then has the bat taken off him, and he's trying to point out he was doing it just to make her day, and after he is universally dismissed by common opinion, he goes away in a huff. Trouble is, no one chases him, a perpetual philosophical question, if someone storms off in a huff and no one plaintively asks them back is it really a huff. He is forced, eventually, to come back and field, because no one has noticed he has gone, seemingly except for me and I'm hardly important to the party atmosphere as it is. He slopes against a wooden rampart as the action goes on around him, as the tennis ball goes near and around him, and even though it's over a relatively minor dispute, I feel bad for him and the world he is in. As for me, I've never had to worry about any kind of insecurity in my family place. The nearest we came to family dischord was when we had to go and get Mum from outside Mitre 10 when she left during Wilessee one night when her and Dad were fighting and she stormed out. Such ruminations on the nature of family though are disrupted by an immediate need to snag a tennis ball from the mouth of a slobbering white dog, a burden that falls on me because one of the spritely elderly women in the slips cordon has fallen over in a tomato garden, and my battle with the jaws of slobber are a welcome distraction from the fact that the only thing hurt is her dignity...

What did surprise me though was unexpected poignancy. Normally, as I've documented, these are straight forward affairs with party hats and flippant jokes extracted from Chickenfeed crackers. However, on this occasion, someone, it wasn't me, I was still trying to get the joke about the chicken and the walrus, someone else pointed out that behind us was a photo montage. I have one of myself on my own wall that my Mum made a few years ago, as she put it, from thousands of photos I ruined by pulling a stupid face. I never look at it because I hate seeing photos of myself and my big stupid face, and that's not even with a pout or a tortured glance. Luckily this photo montage contains no photos of me, but it does contain a photo history of this family who luckily are more receptive to the wants of a flashing Kodak than me. However, in the corner of this hand crafted montage of memories is a picture of the aforementioned ruddy faced drinker in a suit when he was 20enty, all hopeful promise and unmarked facial features. Even though conversation moved away from the photo, when I looked over, the old man was still looking at the photo - it's just me though, he probably wasn't that arsed, he's not arsed by many things that aren't beer, Essendon or cricket - but I did think his face betrayed the slightest regret that those days of smart suits and tea dances are long gone. The first person I ever knew who had regret in her life was this girl called Claire-Leonie, who despite one day calling me ugly and me saying that was rich coming from a future Ayrshire hooker (discourse of the playground can get to that) was unremarkable except one day around the bubblers she said to me, wasn't 1987 brilliant. Now, this was 1989, and she was only just into single figures of her life, but I remember thinking, yeah, it was, things were so much better then. I spend a lot of my time these days in nostalgic conversations from people who have let things slide far too much to repair their lives, and it's always something that gets me right in the throat...no wait, that's a chicken bone. The photo montage is the intellectual high point of the conversation, and it soon descends back into god we hope the kids do something cute soon. I'm really thrown by how little effort has gone into this year and how soon it is over. The main conversational starters of years past leave even earlier than normal with barely a can of beer drunk. I can't help but feel something has happened, some incident I will never no about - Xmas was never this freelance round here, never so unconversational or unstructured. Perhaps the nostalgia for Xmas past is all the keeps us coming back, a routine, a tradition, something that once had meaning and is now lost. Or maybe no one could be arsed this year. What I will take from this Xmas though is my Dad trying to prop up the conversation with one of his my school is terrible anecdotes, and being helpless to stop him, even though he's boring the arse off everyone. Sometimes silence, like the hair of blue eye shadow girl, is much better golden...

As for me, escaping this Xmas lunch is now a perpetual ritual of itself. There are times I feel a bit bad about my desire to get back to sitting listening to Santogold on my own. They are very nice people, but they aren't my people - those people are in Scotland, obviously, where the disconnect between us grows each year - and I move on back home with a sense of relief. Across the road from me a family is celebrating Xmas and a stray green Xmas balloon sits on the road for a long time undisturbed like a Jessica Mauboy CD in a shop until eventually a tearing round the corner doof doof mobile flattens it leaving Santa with a ho ho hole in his cartoon drawn design. I go for a walk later just to get rid of the turkey and the sense that some of my prepared get out of jail anecdotes had been un-necessary. I walk past a house in Kingston that's gone to a lot of trouble. There's Xmas lights that flash and whirr particularly the flashing whirring reindeer that rather unfathomably appears to talk amidst the whirring and say something in French. Probably a faulty wire. I walk past the house and am glad they've gone to so much effort. I wish no harm on the season, but living away from my real family, it can never be a true celebration for me. As I go to walk away, out of the corner of my eye near the fence there's a shoe, which draws my attention immediately as it is attached to the rest of a very large man napping in front of everyone on his lawn. His house is full of Xmas cheer but his gut is full of Xmas beer, and he's slumped face down on the lawn, with just a tiny hint of what my gran would call tunnel showing out of his jeans (if you saw the train coming out the tunnel, put the kids to bed). There's the remains of an unlit and unlamented BBQ just behind him, some old copies of the Mercury and a well intentioned pile of charcoal off to the left just idly un-used. His wife came to the door, looked over and went back inside so quickly she was like a mirage in a meringue dress, and certainly he didn't realise the trouble he was in. As I went to move on away from the scene of the crime, he sat up, and there was I staring at him, so I tried to move on quite discreetly, but luckily like the eyes of a newborn he had not adjusted to his surroundings quite yet. Instead, he sat up just for a brief moment, squinted into the fading sunlight, pulled over a copy of the Mercury, put it under his mulletted head as a pillow, and went back to sleep. As his head rested peacefully on a story about Kim and Dave leaving Sea FM, I realised he had stumbled onto the true meaning of Xmas...

Sleep. Always sleep.

10 comments:

Georgie B said...

I can certainly understand how face-to-face conversation is a lost art.

Myself, I'm more comfortable nowadays to simply chatting via the e-mail, or on the extremely rare occasions, texting. Somehow, my conversation skills have eroded to the point of either simply delivering blistering one liners or simply griping about the lastest stupidity be foisted onto me by an indifferent work staff.

Bimbimbie said...

Sleep ... the welcome gift of Christmas the world over zzzzz

... what about sleep talking - I seem to recall one or two conversations from Christmas Pasts that I now think was such a happening.

Baino said...

Aww, sorry it wasn't the same as a family bash back home. We overindulged on the alcamahol but the food was slow and steady. Nobody passed out, nobody decked anyone and only my niece had a Twister Scram huff when my nephew belted her off his target. (they're kids). All in all a great time was had by all. So Miley, what's on for New Year's eve?

squib said...

Christmas was strange this year. It made me feel restless and wanting to jump on a ship like the Kranks

Hey beautiful writing AGAIN

Miles McClagan said...

I hadn't really thought of that you know, I mean I've been using e-mail for about 11, nearly 12 years now...my conversation has ended up being so basically flippant, I'm surprised I don't say LOL at the end of 1/2 of them...

I also think 1/2 of my Xmasses have had people sleep talking. I'm thinking now I dreamed Xmas dinner, and it's probably still the 24th...

There's not many family synth or keyboard wizards, a lot of people think they can play it, but not many can. I love the literal video of Take On Me on Youtube though. I guess I'm quite lucky, my family, mostly, is now Mums side, and they are all fairly normal. If Dads side was on...god, it'd be disturbia...

New Years Eve? Don't know, not a massive NYE fan, in Hobart it's violent and funless, but New Years Day, break out the lime spiders! It's party time!

Jannie said...

Do ye think ye'll be a-goin' to Scotland next December?

The train coming out the tunnel is a new one on me.

sparsely kate said...

Frakin' awesome! I loved reading this and the bit about the time you had to pick mum up from the front of mitre 10 because she stormed out while Willisee was on, oh that made me smile big.

You are a fabulous tale-teller with excellent observational skills! (good writers have to be)

Miles McClagan said...

No, conversely, the last Xmas I had in Scotland was the worst - snow, family fights...just a big problem, so I'd quite like my people, but maybe over here? That'd be better...

It certainly soured my relationship with the Willessee programme, imagine if that was a full on divorce childhood memory...plus I can't really look at a Mitre 10 again...

Mad Cat Lady said...

7:30 pm - New Years Eve - SBS - Half hour long old play called 'Dinner for One'. Watch it every year and try and drink along to the butler. Miss fireworks. Wipe myself out by 8pm every year and have to go to bed.

Miles McClagan said...

I think I saw that play once on SBS - it might also have been during a NYE I also went to bed early...isn't it followed by a Beckett appreciation night or something?