Legends of Myself 52

Posted on December 28, 2012


MANDARIN ORANGE CRATEContinued from Legends of Myself 51

52. Port Essington, 1958:  Christmas

When Christmastime came, with snow on the boardwalks and holidays in the offing, the school put on a Christmas show.  I have a sense of an enlarged audience in our little schoolroom.  I suppose parents and community members were invited too, a necessity with such a minuscule student body, a major proportion of whom were already in the production.

The show was typical folk theatre mingled with Christmas fare, carol singing and the like.  The act I best remember was a shadow show behind a bedsheet, where our white-coated doctor, after sawing his patient open, proceeds to extract all kinds of unlikely objects from inside him and throw them over the curtain.  Stuffed toys.  Tools.  Forks and spindles.  Every object got its own chortle.  It’s especially funny if it’s the first time you’ve seen it, of course, but I wasn’t the only one laughing.

I don’t think it was the same night, but sometime in the season, the school also hosted a dance.  It was the community that put it on rather than the schoolteacher, I suspect, although, since it happened downstairs from him, he and his wife were probably there.

I discovered then that Port Essington had its own band, and while at this distance I can’t comment on the quality of the musicianship, or even name the kind of music they might have been playing or the instruments they were playing it on (I seem to remember a fiddle) on that occasion I pronounced them wonderful.

There was no radio in Essington.  If anyone had thought then to use their electric generators to power anything but light bulbs, record-players, for instance, my Uncle Gus and Auntie Irene weren’t yet among them.  There is a family photograph extant that shows Gus with a guitar (I think) and Irene with an accordion, but I don’t remember either of them making music while I lived with them, or at any other time.  So the live music at that schoolhouse dance was a revelation to me.  I suppose it was my first appreciation of what a live band could bring.  Most of the details of the schoolhouse dance have faded, but the sense of the fun being had remains strong.  I have an image of Uncle Gus, slightly tipsy, a smile stretching his cheeks, going up for another dance, both adults and children having a massive good time.

mixed nutsChristmas also came home that year, of course.  It featured Mandarin oranges in wooden boxes and bowls of nuts on the table in the parlour, some of which we could crack open with our fingers—peanuts, hazelnuts—some which didn’t always break easily enough to rely on fingers alone—walnuts, for instance—and others for which fingers were useless—Brazil nuts.  We knew the latter by another name which, thankfully, has fallen out of fashion along with similar mentions in children’s counting rhymes.  Eeny meeny miny moe, it’s tiger toes we’re catching these days, and no toes at all that we’re unkindly cracking with our nutcrackers.

toy steam engineThat Christmas was also the first and one of the few times that it ever affected me being the poor relative in a household.  I don’t remember at all what I might have received for my gift, but it wasn’t anything like what my cousin Art received, which I was deeply jealous of.

My uncle and aunt brought us all into a back room behind the kitchen to demonstrate it, Uncle Gus doing the honours.  The gift was a fully operational steam engine powered by little waxy fuel pellets, which, once they were lit and the little door closed and the water heated in the steam chamber, started the piston moving and a wheel turning.  It was arranged so that it could power whatever project you thought of.

As soon as I saw that little steam engine, moving slowly at first, then gaining power, chugging along, chugging along, a deep feeling of envy possessed me.  Getting access to toys that work (much rarer in that day before computers) is one of the reasons little boys are so anxious to grow up into big boys.  Here was a toy that worked legitimately, without a key, without a battery.  It was the real thing.

Envy is a sin, some folk tell us.  Well, if that is so, then I sinned deeply that Christmas day in 1958.  It was not my usual vice.  Things and objects and toys mattered to me, but not excessively so.  But the chug-chug of my cousin Artie’s magnificent little toy was enough to turn my soul rainforest green and I was discontented, poor me, that season long ago in Essington.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 53

Posted in: autobiography