The Best Of Christmas PresentsLindsay Johannsen / Actions & Adventure
THE BEST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENTS
Copyright Lindsay Johannsen 2015
National Library Of Australia Cataloguing-in-publication data:
Author: Johannsen, Lindsay Andrew
Title: The Best Of Christmas Presents
Cover art bungled by the author.
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THE BEST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENTS
The rain had continued all night, a constant heavy pounding on the tarpaulin roof of our makeshift shelter. Jack threw aside his blankets then slid to the foot of his swag. From there he reached out and carefully pushed aside the flap. “So much for Christmas in Alice Springs,” he observed dryly, as he peered out into the grey morning light.
Christmas in Alice had certainly been the plan, but the rain had persisted and the country around us now had the appearance of an inland sea. There was no point in worrying about our situation, though. It was simply a matter of waiting for the rain to stop and the floodwaters to recede before attempting to dig out the bogged truck.
All in all, though, we were reasonably well off. The flood level was well below the floor of our old K5 International tip truck's tray in which we were now camped, and the big cotton-duck tarp we'd draped over a bush timber centre rail was keeping us dry – despite its having a couple of leaks. But the drips were just trickling down the tarp's inside slope before dropping to the floor and draining out through a bolt hole and were well away from where our swags were rolled out.
About now it would be helpful to you if I mention also that these events took place in late 1959, on the old Queensland road, decades before it was replaced by the Plenty Highway. In those days inland weather forecasting was almost nonexistent and radio communication could be tenuous at best. As a result we'd set off from the Jervois copper mines with no idea whatever that the Marshall River was already flowing and that we never were going to make it to Alice Springs for Christmas.
“I don’t like the look of this,” Jack had muttered before stepping down from the driver’s seat. I didn't know if he was referring to our situation or the massive wall of black cloud which could be seen off to the north west. Whatever the case, our general circumstances didn’t seem overly promising.
“…Probably left our run a bit late,” he'd added, understatement coming naturally to Jack when adversity was pressing. And this was typical December weather: a storm or two here and there with the occasional heavier fall.
And therein lay the reason for our current predicament; one of the more serious storms had come through here a week or so prior. It left pools of water on the road and the countryside all sodden and saturated.
The event brewing up in the north west was no isolated storm, however. This was one of those monster weather-system events that could last for days. It was still fifty or sixty kilometres away, however, and possibly farther, so we saw ourselves as having a pretty good chance of getting by in front of it – if we could extricate the truck in good time and then make a bit of speed.
I'd grabbed the shovel from the back and was about to start digging around the wheels when Jack reached in and switched off the ignition. And with the engine noise gone I'd become aware of this strange, quiet sort of … “sound”. It was barely audible yet had a bigness about it that seemed to be coming from everywhere.
And that’s when I realised: we were not far from the Marshall River crossing and the river was already flowing – or in flood to be more precise. You don't hear that particular sound unless the water is running a metre deep through the trees on the adjacent flood plain
“Gawd,” Jack had replied when I told him. “Can you hear it from here? That means we’re already too late to get across.” Old Jack was a bit deaf; sounds of this nature didn't register.
About then something else became evident: the approaching rain-front was much closer than we'd thought and would soon be on us. As a result we'd set about converting the tip tray into a weatherproof shelter with some urgency, first cutting a couple of fork-topped posts and wiring them one each end of the tray, then suspending a long rail between the two. Over this we'd draped Jack's big tarp, so making ourselves a crude tent. A flap at the rear provided access, though just now it was a window on our watery world.
Breakfast was bread and bully beef with a mug of cold tea. Jack had brewed a couple of billycans before the rain had set-in the previous evening. “A man needs his mug of tea,” he’d said, “even if it is cold.”
We then spent the rest of the morning yarning, drinking cold tea and eking out our remaining tobacco in rollies as thin as a bloke could make 'em. Later I was rummaging through my suitcase in the hope of finding a forgotten tin of tobacco when I came across some half forgotten "shoot 'em up" Western novels, following which we spent the rest of the day on-and-off re-reading them – some for the umpty-fifth time. Other options included snoozing, yarning or lifting the flap to check on the rising water and watching it drift by.
“What a way to spend Christmas Eve,” Jack muttered as we opened some more tins for supper – half a can each of cold Irish stew plus one of corn kernels, and a tin of two-fruits each for dessert.
“Me and Mum were supposed to go around to Sally’s place for a couple of beers,” he continued. “All the little-tackers were going to be there to help us put the presents under the tree. Mum said they all got together and made me something special for Christmas. I can’t imagine what it could be.
Suddenly his face lit up. “Hey! Maybe it's a batch of home brew!”
“Yeah, or some paper hats, ” I suggested. “So what was the best Christmas present you ever got,” I asked him – to keep the conversation going as much as anything.
“That’s easy,” Jack replied. “But it wasn’t when I was a kid. In fact I was in me early thirties, which is a couple of years back now. Me and Mum had been married for a while by this, and we’d been pretty busy, too; by then we had four kids; two girls then two boys.
“But I wasn't exactly executive material because I’d never had much schooling, in fact about the only thing I could do to earn a quid was dig ditches. I was fit mind you. I could dig ditches all day and still chop the wood when I got home. Not that I had to; Mum was pretty handy with an axe.
“It was a bit of a battle, though, trying to keep the young'ns all fat and smiling. Specially at Christmas time. But we always seemed to manage somehow – most times, anyway – only there was never much left over for goodies. Anyhow, one day it finally sinks into the bony skull that the way we’re going there won't be much of a future for us – you know, given my earning capacity, but I can't see a way out of it.
“Then one day I’m doing a job for old Spurio, see; at his new house; digging the drains and a hole for the septic tank. ‘Wassa matter you,’ Spurio says. ‘Why don’ta you getta some awork in the mica mine.
“‘Ay! More better, why don’ta you find you own show. The mica price she’sa good; you back she’sa strong; you worka hard, you make’a good money.’
“He gave me a few clues too. Showed me what to look for. Drew me a mud-map of the mica field; told me where I should set up a temporary camp. At Prosser’s Bore, he said. It was put down by the Government for the mica miners.
“Next thing is all the kids and our chooks and everything are on the back of the old Dodge and we’re on our way. Course the track wasn’t too good and we had a few adventures getting there with our baldy tyres and everything, but we made it to Prosser’s Bore all right – a couple hours before sundown; Christmas eve, nineteen fifty.
“First thing I did was cut a little mulga sapling for a Christmas tree, for the kids to put some decorations on, and a big star. Then we boiled the billy and had some tucker. And once the kids were asleep we dug out the Christmas stockings we'd put together and tied them on the ends of their cyclone stretchers.
“Course the little buggers were all up and rekindling the fire hours before daylight, so me and Mum had to get up too; not much choice in the matter. I could see straight away that the day was going to be stinking hot, so