AT the station, everyone waits holding bits of Christmas. It is thirty-nine degrees Celsius and sprouts, baubles and puddings sweat in the heat. Outside the ticket office, the plastic Jesus in the nativity melts into his manger. And I am about to take a frozen turkey on a two-hour train journey with my sister.

Claire arrives, laughs at me carrying the bird like an infant.

“Oh my God, congratulations on your brand new baby!” Then she wipes her brow. “Hot enough for ya?”

“The bird will cool you down,” I say. She places it on her hip and coos at it.

“Bird is the word.” We both smile. Teeth.

The turkey is so big it occupies its own seat, sits deadly between us. I think: Sister, you’re beautiful. She thinks the same but our sister-powers were shaken out of us early on and so we can’t read each other’s minds any more. I can’t even reach across to squeeze her hand because of the poultry barrier.

The train rushes into the valley where we grew up and the turkey lurches forward. Out the window, all around is green, green, silver-green of majestic eucalypt forest.

“Do you think there’ll be fires this year?”

“Hope not.” We both remember the last bad bush fires, back in ’97 when the valley blazed in a way that was almost Biblical. We drove home through the twisted and the black to our house, somehow spared.

“Mum’s not worried,” says Claire.

“Mum’s never worried.”

We lurch into the station and the turkey falls onto the floor, helpless on its back. The green carpeted seat is wet with turkey juice.

“The infant has wet itself,” says Claire.

We arrive at Mum’s and she’s hosing down the back fence, the barrier between her and the wilderness.

“Hi girls, I gotta finish this now, moderate fire warnings just came through.”

Inside, I check the sink for glasses as usual. There are three. I smell them: Water. Lime cordial. Whiskey. I dig my nails into Claire’s arm, whisper into the pink shell of her ear. “Fucking hell Claire, Mum’s fallen off the wagon.”

I let her go; she stumbles forward and whacks her hip on the bench.

“Ouch! Fuck, Jo!”

I hug her quickly and kiss her cheek. “Sorry, I just…”

Mum is wearing slippers on the roof and I wonder if she’s drunk. I place the offending glass on the bench. It catches the light and shoots rainbows across the room.

“Pretty,” Claire says. I’m jealous for the millionth time of her optimism.

Every night we would watch the show. Witness Mum’s drunken euphoria cascading into anger, the full force of it eventually directed at us. Then, when it was finally over, Claire would climb into bed with me and often reveal a creature: “I just found this kitten in the park, let’s keep it. Look at its soft fur!”

You have no idea how many times I have heard my sister say, “Look at my new mouse.”

A tiny bit of whiskey glows brown in the bottom of the glass. I think of Claire’s menagerie.

• • •

“Where’s your Xmas jumper?” your mum asks me.

We arrive at your parents’ house to fifteen people drinking hot chocolates from matching cups and wearing tasteful Christmas jumpers.

While you kiss your Aunty Irene, I put our bags down in your brother’s old room and lie on the bed next to the Eminem poster for four precious minutes before the forty-eight hours of back-to-back Christmas activities begin. Where’s the booze? I think, which startles me. But come on, it’s Christmas—where the fucking fuck is it? I feel some solidarity from Eminem at least, with his Valium dependency.

The first activity is making dough into stars, penguins, and cats and then piping on miniature details in icing. I subtly decorate my cat with a Palestinian flag in icing, which makes you smile. “At least your cat has a Xmas jumper on!” says your mum.

• • •

The door clatters behind us and Claire and I both start.

“This house makes me fucking jumpy.”

Claire nods and I can see the big heart of my baby sister in her mouth. Mum gets out a bottle of Shloer from the fridge. Shloer, grape juice in champagne-shaped bottles, fizzy water dressed up as almost-wine, she guzzles them all the live-long day.

Last time I visited I opened the cupboard and found six bottles of “wine” with pictures of smiling Muslim couples on them, toasting Mum. Eid Mubarak!

“They’re from Ahmed from my AA group,” she said.


Claire takes my hand. We both look down and I think how many times? How many times have we confronted our mother while staring at our feet, how many different shades of nail polish have I worn? Right now Claire is wearing pastel blue, which looks good, if a bit hypothermic.

I start because I always start: “We found the glass.”


“The glass in the sink.”

“Oh that! Oh girls. It was for the Christmas pudding! You have to stop being so paranoid.”

Claire goes to Mum, takes her hand.

“I’m not going to drink again.”

Mum strokes Claire’s hair. They walk out the back together and I’m left with nothing but the turkey for company.

“What do you think?” I ask the turkey. It doesn’t have an opinion.

I squeeze the turkey into the fridge. As I close the door, the Serenity Prayer wobbles in place underneath the fridge magnets. God, it begins, in gold-tipped letters. A pastel sunset is reflected in a lake. I stare at it and wonder: Our fridge used to be covered in Rothkos—Mum’s favourite. Did she trade in taste for sobriety?

I hold the glass up to the light, examining it for my mother’s lip prints. I can’t see any and my heart unclenches its hard-knuckled fist. I lick the whiskey out of the glass, my pink tongue snaking downward, wet and animal. Then I think: she could have rubbed off the lip prints. And the clench of doubt is back.

• • •

On Christmas Eve I peel potatoes with your mum. Her hand is deep inside the turkey. She stuffs it with mince, rosemary, lard, garlic.

“Do you have all the traditional Xmas food in Australia,” she begins to ask. “Like turkey and what not?”

“Yes.” My hands are wrinkled from the starchy, freezing potato water.

“Strange, that! Must be hot to make a roast. You could just put all the ingredients out in the sun and wait for them to cook, really, couldn’t you?”

Maggie, I think, you don’t know the half of it.

• • •

On Christmas Eve the firetail finches travel together in fours and call out Fire! in their way: weep-weep ip weep-weep ip. They smell it long before the news starts broadcasting severe warnings.

“God grant me the serenity,” Mum says.

Claire and I hose the roof and fill the guttering with water. We sit out the back, fan ourselves with rolled-up copies of the TV guide and knock back the last of Ahmed’s “wine.” I wonder if the bush is about to burst into flames around us.

The last time we had to evacuate, Claire nearly died because she went back for a baby roo. I drove us to Sydney because Mum was too trashed and screamed at Claire for most of the way. Claire took off her nighty to wrap up the freezing joey, imitating a kangaroo pouch.

We wait but the evacuation notice doesn’t come.

• • •

We all sit down to Christmas dinner together. Outside it begins to snow, like a postcard Christmas. Like a snow globe. Your mum takes the turkey out of the oven. Ta-da!

Your dad carves the enormous bird, an excuse for him to use a small electric chainsaw.

You squeeze my thigh under the table and whisper, “I love you,” as you pour gravy on my potatoes.

Later, your dad makes everyone troop outside to look at the Christmas lights he has strung up. He flicks the switch but nothing happens. We all watch our breath condense white in the early darkness. Inside, your dad’s getting angry, struggling with the manual and the plug. Outside, everyone shares their anecdotes about the difficulties of Christmas lights.

Your mum hums ding dong merrily on high brittlely until she can take it no longer: “Want some help?”

"No!” he yells at her.

Finally the lights do their little epileptic dance and everyone claps. He comes outside and they blink off again.

“It’s because they’re fucking solar.” He looks accusingly at your mum. “You’re the one who suggested it Maggie, better for the environment, but not if they don’t fucking work. Fucking green swindle!”

“Don’t worry, Gray. I’ll just pop to ASDA in the morning.”

He cuts his eyes at her and growls. “Don’t be stupid. Christmas is over in the morning, Maggie, isn’t it?”

We all go back inside, except for your dad. Still raging about the green swindle, he rips the lights down, bulbs smashing on the ground, the strings of broken lights wrapping themselves around his leg so he has to furiously kick his foot to get free.

• • •

On Christmas morning I wake up to the smell of smoke. It’s here. The world is on fire. I run into Claire’s room but she’s already up, her bed still warm from her body. I can see out the window that the backyard is full of smoke. I go into the bathroom and stand under the shower to soak my nighty. I wrench open the linen cupboard and three bottles of wine and a bottle of whiskey tumble out.

I stand against the door of the cupboard and allow myself ten seconds to dig my fingernails into my palms to recuperate. Then I grab my old Scooby Doo sheets and Claire’s butterfly ones and soak them through.

I drip through the house. “Claaaire? Muuum?”

I open the back door, sling Scooby Doo round my shoulders, cape style. I rub my eyes and can’t believe what’s happening is not a bushfire.

• • •

After pudding, it’s time for whiskey and your ten-year-old cousin’s choice of DVD: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I pretend I’ve never seen it before. Predictably, when Chevy Chase starts the hijinks with the Christmas lights your dad’s face goes dark with fury.

“I think we should turn it off now,” you say.

The ten-year-old is oblivious. “But this is the best bit!”

Then Chevy Chase falls off the roof covered in strings of hundreds of Christmas lights.

You yell at the boy: “Turn that fucking film off.”

For the first time our families resemble each other. I drink my whiskey and then I drink yours.

“Steady on babe,” you whisper.

“Fuck you,” I whisper back, because you scared him, because my heart is caving in with how much I miss Claire and Mum.

• • •

Mum has made an open fire and thrown the turkey on top of it.

“Apparently it wouldn’t fit in the oven,” Claire explains. I drape the wet butterflies over her shoulders.

The turkey is raw-flesh pink and charcoal black. I can hear its bones breaking in the heat. The flesh has melted off the carcass in some places.

Mum grins, manic-drunk, and the flames flicker in her eyes. Gone to the land of the damned.

I go inside, get the bottle of whiskey that fell out of the cupboard. I rip the Serenity Prayer off the fridge.

“Where’s that from?”

“Mum’s secret booze stash.”

I crack the whiskey open, take a massive 8:00 a.m. Christmas morning slug and pass it round. Scrunch the Serenity Prayer and chuck it on the fire.

Claire takes my hand and we stand there like princesses in our sheet capes.

“Jo, look.” Claire uncurls her hand and shows me a pink-bellied, blue-tongued baby lizard—a tiny miracle of Christmas, sitting in the palm of my sister’s hand.


© 2015 Rosa Valerie Campbell. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, June 2015.


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