Short Story: Christmas with a Difference

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

This short story was written following the first trip to outback South Australia in 1960.

Several years ago, I spent Xmas in the South Australian outback - 500 miles north-west of Adelaide - in the sheep country.

There had been no rain for three or four months, which is not unusual in an area with only a 7" rainfall, but an almost constant north wind had winnowed the mulga flats into red dust, and a naked sun had baked the gibbers as hot as fire coals. The gibbers are small smooth stones, sometimes red, sometimes nearly black that cover miles of country and look as though they've been turned up like potatoes.

The green grasses of the south are missing here, even in spring. The surface feed is various succulents, each small plant growing singly.

These had already disappeared, the hungry flocks had eaten the salt and blue bush down to bare stalks, they'd stood on their hind legs and chewed a neat ceiling on every bullock bush, and were nosing now in the dry dust for last season's seeds. The feed situation was desperate.

They still had water – bore water. No creeks flow north of Port August - there are plenty of water-courses, where the occasional flood from the summer thunderstorm, that produces most of the 7inches of rainfall, rushes madly, until it disappears into the crab-holes, and so replenishes the great artesian basin.

But every day, starting before daylight, stockmen rode many miles on their motor-bikes around the waters - that is the troughs at the bores, to make sure that the cocks had not jammed and no dying beast had fouled the water.

For the flocks were dying, and the native animals and birds, the kangaroos and the emus and the galahs, were dying even quicker. That is one of the remarkable things about the outback. The sheep, aliens first, but born and bred now for generations in a country where they sometimes have to walk five miles out to feed, and back again to water, have developed an astonishing hardiness.

But for nearly a fortnight, the temperature had not dropped below 115 degrees - for three days before Xmas it was I20 degrees - Xmas day a 128 degrees.

The homestead where I was staying was set in front of a bald hill, that served as a windbreak. Down in the hollow was a couple of myall trees - those squat umbrella-like trees that give a thick shade - God's gift to the outback. Here and there across miles of gibber country was a scattered stretch of mulga.

By Xmas day, all kinds of strange bedfellows sheltered under and in the myalls. Hawks and crows and eagles, and the small birds that are their prey, lay and panted, beaks gaping, feathers spread for relief and taking no notice of each other or the humans who stared - all concerned with only one thing - to stay alive in this oven.

The birds even began to invade the homestead verandah, seeking and clawing for the bit of shade. The station wife put basins of water out for them and what food she could spare.

Inside the house the fight was on, too. My friends had two small children - a baby and a toddler - they were prostrate. On the transceiver, the parents had received instructions as to what to do - keep the babies constantly bathed and keep them drinking. They had been doing it for days. All that Xmas day they had them in and out of the bath - thankful indeed that their bore was a good one.

There was no thought of cooking a Xmas dinner. There was no poultry - the last of the fowls had fluffed their wings and died two days ago. But there was cold mutton, cooked in the farcical cool of the evening, and there was lettuce and tomato that the mailman had brought at the beginning of the week. There was a large beautifully decorated Xmas cake - made a couple of months earlier - but no pudding. My hostess liked to make her Xmas pudding only a day before, but the heat had beaten her.

Some aboriginal stockmen were used on this station and they had been joined this Xmas morning by a few wild ones from an outlying area. One of these wild ones had a reputation as a rainmaker. When they came to the door for rations, my friend pointed to the sky that had blackened, as it had on several afternoons, and, as often, withdrawn its promise in the evening.

"What weather going to be, Jacky?"

But Jacky was taking no chances on that reputation. He shrugged.

"You got 'im wireless - ask 'im."

An hour later the rain started. The great tantalising cloud suddenly swelled like a black balloon, the skin stretched and broke. Tons of water tumbled down on the iron roof. 85 points fell in 20 minutes.

Strangely enough, a quarter of a mile beyond the house, it was not raining. From the verandah the duststorm could be seen still blowing. We were looking through a wall of water.

There was sudden movement of bird and beast. From the windswept dryness everything that could fly or run or crawl, came flying or running or crawling.

In ten minutes the phone started to ring. "It’s raining! It's raining! Is it raining for you, too?"

The phone pealed ten times in the hour. Though from this homestead the point where the rain ended could be seen, it had actually stretched behind over a wide area.

As my hostess slipped cotton dresses over her children - the first clothes they'd worn for days - she began to rue the lack of a Xmas pudding - after all, it was Xmas. A rummage in the store room produced several tins or plum duff. That evening there was brandy sauce and great rejoicing.

We talked about all the other rains - the last one … on August 29th - the 25 points on March the first - the really good downpour on February the third.

This year, when I returned, my friends chided me. “It’s a long time since you were here,” they said. “Not since the Xmas of the Rain."

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Scanned manuscript - first page.

Christmas with a Difference - page 1

Scanned manuscript - second page.

Christmas with a Difference - page 2

Scanned manuscript - third page.

Christmas with a Difference - page 3

Scanned manuscript - final page.

Christmas with a Difference - page 4