Guest post by Tim Sterne.
'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house could be heard Aunty Lilian having a whinge about "those slutty pop singers" on Carols By Candlelight.
"They've ruined that hymn," she says. "Why not just sing it?"
She gives a brief demonstration of just singing it in her trilling soprano. The rest of us make noncommittal grunting noises and return our attention to the tiny TV set, upon which an alleged slutty pop singer is thrusting her pelvis to the disco beat of "Silent Night".
Aunty Lilian makes the same complaint every Christmas Eve. Prior to the introduction of television, she had descriptions of Melbourne-based carols events telegraphed to her in real time so she could complain about the melismatic depredations of the slutty (read: female) singers of the day. But that's Aunty Lilian's way: repeating the same conversational pablum year after year, like a primitive automaton with Mallee dust in its cogs.
Aunty Lilian isn't the only one with a bung replay setting. The whole town seems locked in an eternal cycle, reenacting the same rituals every year: closing the modest main drag so Santa can throw lollies from the back of a fire engine; curiously depressing Christmas Day church services; endless seasonal socialising with people you see every day anyway, because in a town this small you see practically everybody every day. As a city-bred child visiting for Christmas I enjoyed the sense of community, the stability of small town routine. As a teenager I find the place stultifying and cloistered. I dream of traffic lights, graffiti, and alleyway muggings. I dream of drinkable tap water, proper footpaths, and--
"What's Santa bringing you this year?" Carols has gone to an ad break and Aunty Lilian is looking at me with her kindly, wrinkled face.
"I... huh? Oh, I don't know." Santa? I'm seventeen with a nicotine addiction and a girlfriend who drinks cask wine for breakfast. I haven't believed in Santa for at least a year.
"I remember..." says Aunty Lilian, falling asleep then waking with a start. "I remember you and your brother playing in the front room with the train set Santa brought you. You were naked as babes!"
"That was a long time ago," I say. "Things change."
"They do." Her head droops again. "They certainly do."
By the time Carols ends Aunty Lilian is snoring in her chair and the rest of us are discussing the logistics of Ray Martin's hair, which looks the same as it did last year and the year before that. Some things never change.
Ouyen, pop. 1000, sits almost exactly one hundred kilometres south of Mildura and approximately six hundred kilometres north of anywhere I wish to be. Later at uni I will be delighted to learn that in 1931 the residents of Ouyen barricaded the main street and took up arms as rumours circulated that communists had overrun Sydney and were preparing to march to Melbourne via the middle of fucking nowhere. History is silent on what the Ouyen Falangists did when the expected revolutionary army failed to arrive. Probably they retired to the Victoria Hotel to discuss how bloody hot it was, because it is always hot in Ouyen, even in winter when people warm their houses by simply summoning memories of the months of baking summer heat.
We arrive the day before Christmas Eve. Aunty Lilian pecks my cheek and quiet, watchful Uncle Bill crushes my hand with his powerful carpenter's muscles. The clear, hot air buzzes with the sound of cicadas and enormous air conditioning units. A ute passes, the driver raising a hand in greeting.
"Jimmy McIlvaney," Uncle Bill says. "Used to have a farm out near Walpeup until a wheat silo collapsed on his missus. Then his baby was eaten by a possum. Oh, and in September he lost three toes to native wasps while signing his farm over to the bank."
"Go on," Dad says with affected disbelief.
"Then his dog got bitten by a snake," Uncle Bill says. "And his horse got gout."
"Go on," Dad says. I wonder if he is glad he left all those years ago. Dad is hardly an urban sophisticate, but I can't imagine him here, in a world so small and cruel.
Later I go for a walk, chain-smoking Peter Jacksons and dodging untethered dogs. The footpaths are compressed clay infused with gypsum which sparkles in the sunlight. I walk past the weighbridge and trackside silos and stand for a moment under a peppercorn tree. I stood here ten years ago with my grandfather, not long before he died. He taught me how to spit peppercorns with speed and accuracy - a country kid trick - but now when I try all I get is a foul taste of peppercorn and dribble down my chin.
I walk on to the Victoria Hotel and, without giving it much thought, push the weathered door and step inside. It is cool and quiet, only a handful of drinkers at the bar. I am suddenly conscious of my long hair and torn jeans but I step up to the bar and order a beer in my manliest voice. The barman doesn't ask for ID or so much as raise an eyebrow at my appearance. He pours my beers and starts talking to an elderly man at the bar. Like most conversations in Ouyen, this one concerns a farming accident.
"... was out putting up new fencing," the old man says, "and sure enough the bloody wire snapped and went whoosh across his front, quick as you like, and Barry looks down and his nipple is lying on the ground! Severed the bloody thing perfectly. Barry was about to bend down to pick up when some bloody ants grabbed the bloody thing and carried it back to their bloody nest!"
"Go on," the barman says.
"Reckon those bloody ants ate well that night!" The old man gives a hoarse laugh.
"Go on," the barman says.
I sip my beer, feeling conspicuous even as the other patrons make a point of not noticing me. I consider staying for a second drink, but I don't want to push my luck. I walk back to the shade of the peppercorn tree. Overhead a broad streak of cirrus cloud drifts south, which seems eminently sensible to me.
Uncle Bill crushes my hand with all the compliments of the season. The kitchen is alive with clatter and women's voices. Traditional gender roles are upheld: the men walk around with glasses of sherry and talk about crop failures and amputations; the women do everything else. I set the table, then it's present opening time. Santa brings me a video game. He must have received my letter.
It's thirty-five degrees and climbing outside, so of course we are having hot roast meat - ham, pork and turkey - plus roast potatoes and assorted veg. Bonbons are opened, paper hats donned, shitty jokes told.
"Made in China," somebody says, examining the fine print on their bonbon joke.
"Isn't everything these days?" somebody else adds. My brother Rob and I exchange looks. We know what's coming.
"Well, they're better than the Aborigines. At least the Asians will work.
"... and he was as black as the ace of spades! Almost purple. Gave me quite a start. He had the loveliest smile though."
"I don't mind them driving a taxi or something like that, but I wouldn't see an Indian doctor."
"Vick's chest rub doesn't smell the way it used to. Probably made in China now."
"It's political correctness gone mad..."
The torrent of casual bigotry is staunched only by the arrival of dessert. Heaving platters of pavlova, cake and pudding, bowls of trifle and jelly studded with cherries.
"Diet starts tomorrow," Aunty Lilian says. Rob and I roll our eyes. It's another of her classic lines. The room falls silent as we tuck in. "We must be hungry," Aunty Lilian says, right on cue. Rob makes satirical "Mmm!" noises and I laugh. The routine is so rigid that even our sibling in-jokes roll out at the same time every year.
After lunch the adults nap while Rob and I walk to the school to play basketball. We will do it all again at dinner time, with the addition of further relatives and family friends. The same dishes as last year, the same conversations, the same stories. A performance, really, rather than a celebration. A hollow tradition.
The ball clips the backboard and falls swish through the hoop. I light a cigarette and vow that this is my last Christmas in Ouyen.
In the twilight I sit at the outdoor table, drinking a VB and plucking the acoustic guitar I insisted on bringing. I'm not playing anything in particular, just adding random bright chords to the still night air.
I feel bad for feeling bad. Not long ago I was happy with holiday routine and banal conversations and seasonally inappropriate food. I was loved and I loved in return. I was fed and given presents and asked predictable questions about school and Santa. Simple.
Now I am all drive: sex, booze, friends, music, experience - even if gained through brash stupidity, of which there is plenty in my future. I want the new. The old, the routine, that which in my arrogance I perceive to be the unthinking, rubs against me like sandpaper against raw skin.
I strum a few random chords.
Aunty Lilian opens the sliding door and steps out. She still has her apron on and a tea towel flung over her shoulder.
"Do you still play piano?" It was Aunty Lilian's dream that Rob and I would become professional pianists, a la Richard Clayderman.
"A little." I don't know how to explain the disparity between who she wishes I would be and who I actually am.
"When are you going to come up for a visit?"
"I'm here now."
"I mean on your own. Or with Rob. Like when you were little."
"We're not little anymore."
"No, I suppose not." Aunty Lilian looks at me, appraising. I wonder she is really like, behind the cliches and social niceties she wields in place of conversation. I wonder what she thinks about.
"Well," she says, "the offer is there." She dries her hands on the tea towel and goes inside.
I strum a few chords and look at the stars. One thing about this place, the sky is bigger, brighter than I've ever seen at home.