When the family cat Poppy dies at the ripe old age of sixteen, I am eleven and the only one that seems to realise her soul has been reincarnated into the body of one of the bush pigeons that occupy the trees in our back paddock. It isn’t particularly hard to notice; one day a tree is empty, and the next day Poppy stops breathing not long after lunch. That afternoon we bury her under it, and in two mornings’ time the bird with the crest on its head appears. After the funeral, I see the bird everywhere, even on holiday in the bowels of Western Australia – or as my brother Alex has astutely nicknamed the region, “God’s gift to No-one.” There’s Poppy on a power line. There’s Poppy on the barbed wire fence. There’s Poppy on a rusty corrugated iron water tank, wondering why the hell we’ve bothered to come.
“Only two hours until we reach town,” my father says. “Start looking out for those golden arches.” I turn up the volume on my discman and pretend I can’t hear him. Looking out the car window at the fenced in horses and sheep that go on for miles without any houses at all, I wonder who feeds them and whether they’ve ever been anywhere else. There are no golden arches. My brother throws up and when we pull over to let him out the dust sneaks in everywhere like it’s hitching a ride.
When my boyfriend Simon dies I’m twenty-four and I go in to work the next day as planned, partly because I need the money but mostly because I don’t have anything better to do.
At work, nobody seems to care much that it’s Christmas Eve despite the hostile blue-green plastic tree, barely bedecked, that has set up camp in a corner of the store. I guess Santa doesn’t come to burger joints. Apparently neither do customers, at least tonight, and Shaz and Rachel are sitting on a counter-top drinking Asahis out of the bottle and chewing on some chunks of pineapple while Reece, trying to keep busy, chases the pigeons away from the scraps nobody’s bothered to clear off the tables outside.
“Rats of the sky,” he says, kicking out at one. “I wish I could club the fucking lot of them.” Another bird arrives late to the party in a panic, slamming its head into a glass window.
I’m not really sure why we’re open right now or why we’ve all decided to come in despite the fact that our boss does not believe in penalty rates. I scrape half-eaten buns and chewed up globs of meat from plates and run a cloth over the tables outside so it’s like nothing was ever there. I think about road workers and officers of the law doing the same thing with Simon the night before. I wonder what’s become of the Holden Commodore. His mum’s old car, the back seat still covered in golden dog hair even though their Labrador Jilly died years ago. His poor family, I think, another loss. I suppose it’s my loss as well – we first made whatever the adolescent equivalent of love is on that back seat.
Mum calls at a quarter to eleven.
“I’ve had a glass of wine, Ruthie,” she says, “Well actually I’ve had a couple. Your Aunty Averil’s on her way to pick you up.”
“Okay,” I say, and I can tell that she’s drunk because she sounds happy, even though she’s at her sister’s house.
“She’s had a few glasses of wine too actually,” she adds.
“Okay,” I say.
“Your father says he wants to skin Will’s cat,” she says, “It keeps screaming over his Mad Men DVD.”
“Okay,” I say, and hang up. I haven’t told anyone that Simon is dead yet.
Aunt Averil picks me up ten minutes late, her cheeks as rosy as Shaz and Rachel’s as they wait for their taxi by the curb, polishing off a few more Asahis. The chill of the air-conditioned car prickles my sweaty skin with goosebumps and I lean my forehead on the cool glass and watch them holding each other up, or maybe just holding each other.
“It’s going to be a jolly night tonight,” Rach had told me earlier, “We taped the carols on Channel Nine; we’re going to play the Troy Cassar-Daley drinking game.” I wonder what it’s like to move across the country and to spend the holidays alone. I wonder if it’s better.
We drive for at least half an hour before we hit what I guess counts as rural to people whose local Target is still Target and not Target Country . A few minutes later there’s an owl in the middle of the road and we swerve to miss it.
“Why the fuck do they sit out in the middle of the road?” Aunty Averil wonders aloud, then: “They probably like the heat coming off the bitumen.” She seems happy about having solved this problem for herself, like she wouldn’t have slept quite as deeply without an answer to everything. She reminds me sharply and suddenly of my Mum.
The greenish LED display on Aunty Averil’s car clock ticks past midnight. It’s hard to make out in the dark but we’ve both been watching for it.
“Happy Christmas Day, possum,” she says, weary now that the wine has worn out, and I echo it back even though everyone knows it doesn’t count really until you’ve been to bed and woken up first. It’s probably too late at this point in time to email my mother the latest revision of my Christmas wish-list. A shame, because sun-hats don’t buy themselves.
Everyone’s already in bed when we pull into the driveway past Uncle Harry’s prized letterbox, a boulder with a chiseled slot.
“That ridiculous thing,” Averil had said last year, “Nobody has the heart to tell him it’s the neighbourhood joke.” Tree roots are growing under it now and it tips wonkily towards the earth.
Aunty Averil offers to heat up some of the leftover takeout Chinese in the fridge but I can tell her heart’s not in it. Upstairs in the spare bedroom that’s too white to feel like home I shed my sticky uniform and slip into the crisp sheets in my underwear. I’m grateful for the heaviness in my bones because I don’t want to think about Simon’s touch, or Christmas the way it used to be. When I dream it’s about the time in year nine when Adam Hall almost kissed me but didn’t. Images shift and meld and suddenly I am at the beach with my cousin Will. “Catch it,” he is calling, right beside me and far away, “Bash its head in!” I look down at the fish swimming in a rock pool at my feet. “Get it! Get it! Get it!” and I do, and I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it but there is blood on the rocks and then the fish stops flopping, and shouldn’t there be a more dignified word for the cessation of life?
When I wake up I’m hot with guilt and hot anyway. It’s 3.49 on Christmas morning and I wonder where Simon is right now and if it’s Christmas there; if it’s anywhere I could get to if I had some rough directions. I push open the window to let the air in and pick at the loosening fly-screen. One of Uncle Harry’s chickens has escaped the coop and I watch it make its way quite deliberately across the lawn. The yellow-green of grass under the solar lights make everything look like a fairytale, like a holiday story – though I don’t know of any that feature poultry. Somebody should make sure she’s safe, I think, and I slide on a pair of Si’s boxers and my mother’s horrid scratchy snowman shirt from Crazy Clark’s, re-distributed to me after my mother took a moral stand against Australia’s romanticism of a White Christmas.
“Give me prawns and cold meats any day of the week,” I remember her saying as I watched her clean out her closet, sitting cross-legged on my parents’ bed among on a pile of expensive lingerie still with the tags on. The sort of lingerie Dad used to buy her for birthdays, before he figured out that the old adage about giving a present you’d like to receive for yourself was a load of crap.
“But it’s not any day of the week, is it?” I had asked. “It’s Christmas Day.”
“Darling,” she had replied, “When you’re forty-eight, every day is any other day.”
I slip down the stairs and let the hard flecks of paint peeling off the white banister scrape against the palms of my hand. At the dining room table there’s a plate of gingerbread biscuits and a glass of milk. Always with the cookies and milk, every year, even though Alex is the youngest of the family at seventeen and stopped believing in Santa years ago; kind of around the same time my parents stopped believing in anything. I realise why we always have Christmas at Averil and Harry’s: you can sort of forget how empty a holiday is if you fill enough seats. I swallow down a few bites of cookie. There you go, Aunty Averil, I think, a real festive mystery.
Outside the air and the pale blue sky seem special somehow, that way everything only feels this one day a year. The chicken isn’t moving around the garden anymore but against all reason she’s standing in the middle of the lawn, watching. She’s waiting for me, I think, knowing at the same time that this makes no sense. Now that I’m closer I can see that she’s only recently past her gangly teenage phase, though she’s plumped up quite nicely for her age. There’s something sad in her eyes – something that seems a lot like knowledge. I think of the slabs of wet pink flesh we throw onto the grill at work and the white spray that fills the empty black plastic chicken containers in the wash, and I almost avoid her eyes though I suppose she’s had a good life here, for a chicken. She seems to want me to follow her, and I’m not really sure why but I do.
There’s something familiar in the way she looks back at me as I follow her around the yard in the opposite direction of the fenced-in hutches; something that makes me self-conscious of the snowman shirt. The staunch way she sort of sets her eyes on me, as if she’s trying to make out whether I’m thinking the same thoughts as her about the things we’re both seeing. It’s like she wouldn’t know how to feel about the garden hose reel, Alex’s solitary shoe sitting next to the mat at the back door or the giant red and white striped plastic candy-canes lining Aunty Averil’s flower beds, unless I tell her how I’m feeling about them first. I’ve seen that look recently – last week in the dairy section at Woolworths, picking up cartons of eggnog for Adam and Ethan’s Hannukah Party.
“Simon?” I ask. It’s implausible and self-indulgent but it’s also Christmas, and ’tis the season for faith – or so I think a television pastor once told me.
“But you’re a hen,” I protest, and for some reason I am brimming with indignation, as though there is a line and this – not anything else – is the crossing of it. There doesn’t seem much point in debating the matter though, not with a chicken. Not with the chicken that is looking at me with Simon’s eyes and telling me with the smile hidden in the back of the throat, “Everything once, Roo.” I don’t really know what to say to a chicken with my boyfriend’s eyes.
“What’s dying like?” I venture mildly.
He – she – looks at me, just looks, and I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting. I suppose it was a rude question to ask, but maybe it’s just not the sort of thing you can answer. There are so many more questions – was there a light, what do you remember from before, had you fallen out of love with me before that other car rolled the Commodore the way you used to roll your dice in Monopoly when you were losing, is there a God and what does he look like, what about Heaven and Hell, have we been wrong this whole time, does being a good person even matter, what am I meant to do now, do you even care that you’ve left me with nothing? – but I leave them to simmer inside me. I’ll find most of them out eventually and the rest I don’t really want to know.
There’s not a lot to really do on Christmas morning before the sun’s properly out and when your boyfriend’s a chicken so I just sit there on the dewey grass with Simon in my lap and talk to her about sun-hats and the upcoming funeral his – her – mother is currently planning with the same energy she threw into his 21st birthday party at the local leagues club.
I tell her about what it’s like to go on by myself.
“We didn’t account for this,” I tell her, “We had it all figured out, you and I – didn’t we?” She doesn’t say anything but I can tell she agrees with me, that she is sympathetic. I suddenly feel horribly guilty.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to make this all about me. Your death.” Uncomfortable silence.
“I always do that, don’t I?” No reply. I don’t really need one.
I don’t tell her that I almost don’t feel like going on at all, only because it’s Christmas and it doesn’t feel like something you should say to someone on Christmas.
I feel guilty putting her back in the coop and I can tell she has bigger plans but I don’t think I’m a big enough person to carry them out for her or for anyone. I don’t look back as I slip back upstairs, slip under sheets again. Lying in bed it seems as though I should feel something bigger than cold and tired, but I don’t and sleep comes easily.
Suddenly Uncle Harry’s yelling something about Grandma being on the phone for you Ellen and where’d I put that cup of coffee and William, leave Alex be, he’ll wake up when he’s ready. The morning seems real now but sort of like it’s missing something that was still there in the night, like going to bed with moisturiser on your skin and waking up with it all soaked in.
I go back downstairs and everything’s different with the sun up.
“Morning, Ruth!” booms Uncle Harry, “Up at last are we? Get a load of this new GPS system! Santa’s been kind to me this year!”
As suspected, Santa has not brought me a sun-hat.
The day’s slow to fill up, much slower at least than when we were children in our sun-shirts and swimmers, chasing each other around the backyard with the long white-green Grandfather’s Beard growing on the wrinkled banana tree in the orchard and taking it in turns to play Santa Claus before leaping into the pool. Now we all think about going back to bed but none of us say it. We make requisite phone calls instead, trying on the matching hibiscus shirts Aunty Jean (who never quite manages to dress herself) has sent us and sucking the caramel toffees from the reindeer tin off of their wrappers with tongues fuzzy from eating too much at breakfast.
“Well,” Mum says at some point, “Here we all are again.” I want to tell her about Simon but I don’t. I want to ask her if she has ever regretted giving me the snowman shirt but I don’t do that either.
Dinner is late and we tell each other that it’s so we have time to empty our stomachs, but it’s really so we all have something to keep holding on to. On the table, Mum’s seafood and cranberry sauce and Alex’s signature potato casserole – the one that he only makes when Mum has bribed him – are on show like there’s someone more important than us here to notice them. Maybe it’s because of Dad’s heart surgery and the fact that we aren’t quite done being so glad that he’s still around, but there’s a fat bird in the centre of the table instead of cold cuts like last year.
“How about this, then,” asks Aunty Averil with aplomb and plum jam. She’s good at this, I properly realise for the first time, and I guess this more than anything else is the reason we never have Christmas at home. She presides over the table with obvious pride and peers at me like she’s looking for support; for some kind of confirmation. “It has been a long time since your Uncle’s let us have one of his precious birds, hasn’t it, Ruthie?” She turns her eyes, Mum’s eyes, my eyes, on Uncle Harry. “Did it take you long this morning, love?”
“Nah,” he says, “Quick and easy.”