Anna lay in bed with her eyes tightly shut, savouring a few extra moments of delicious anticipation.
A cascade of joyous images filled her mind. The towering beauty of a brightly decorated tree, gaily wrapped presents piled beneath it; her brothers’ laughter as they tried out their new toys; the special treats saved for her as the youngest.
She could almost smell the roasting turkey.
The faces changed as Anna’s mind wandered down the years. Her parents’ hair turned grey, but their smiles and their love never faltered. New faces appeared, as her brothers brought first their brides and then a new generation of children to share the celebration in front of the roaring log fire.
So many happy memories, all set against the starkly beautiful backdrop of snow covered moors.
Anna’s fingers twitched as she relived the Great Snowball Wars of years past. While the older folk dozed through the afternoon, Anna and her brothers and eventually her nieces and nephews waged heroic battles around the farmyard.
Family and snowballs. Love and laughter. Christmas!
Anna opened her eyes.
Above her bed, the fan revolved slowly, stirring the scorching air just enough to give the illusion of a cooling breeze.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. The raucous cackling of a kookaburra wafted through the open window, bringing with it the scent of the eucalyptus and the taste of baked dry earth.
Slipping on shorts and a cotton top, Anna stopped long enough to splash her face with lukewarm water before she headed outside. It was not yet seven o’clock, but the day was already hot. Even before she stepped into the glaring sunlight, Anna wiped the first beads of perspiration from her forehead.
“Merry Christmas” she called to the kookaburra, frowning down at her from his perch in the gum tree.
“And you too,” she added to the cattle dogs, as they followed her across the dusty yard.
On a farm, there’s always work to do, even on Christmas Day. Anna learned that lesson at her father’s knee on the Yorkshire moors. It was equally true on an Australian cattle property that was measured in square miles, instead of acres.
Picking up a bucket, she turned her face up to the vivid blue sky, her thoughts flying to that small farm half a world away.
“Merry Christmas”, she whispered to her family.
“Merry Christmas, Anna.”
Anna turned to smile up at the tall, handsome man. He was always the first to start work each day.
“Merry Christmas, Stephen.” Instinctively, she started forward, then stopped. A moment of awkwardness followed, until Stephen leaned forward to softly touch his lips to her cheek.
Both stepped back. There was safety in distance.
“I imagine this is very different from Christmas back in England.”
Anna looked out across the vast tree studded plain already shimmering in the heat.
“Just a bit.”
“I know you must be homesick. We’ll try to make it a happy one for you.”
Of one accord, they both turned back to their chores. As she worked, Anna thought about that platonic Christmas kiss. Those moments of awkwardness were becoming more frequent now.
From the very beginning, Anna had been drawn to Stephen. A surprising gentleness lay beneath an exterior roughened by years of toil in the blistering outback sun. His strength and honesty were as appealing as his face and sparkling hazel eyes.
Anna knew she wasn’t alone in her feelings. The attraction between them was becoming too strong to deny. But Stephen would never acknowledge it.
The sudden roar of an engine disrupted her thoughts. Stephen had just started the power generator, to recharge the batteries they’d drained last night.
During her first days here at the edge of the desert, Anna had been shocked by the incredible isolation. No mains power or television. The closest thing to a telephone was a radio transmitter. Drinking water was a precious commodity, drawn from deep under the earth. Then there was the heat, and the flies.
As for a social life… there wasn’t one. The next property was fifty miles away. The next town – more than one hundred.
Despite the isolation, Anna had never been lonely here; never felt like a stranger. The burnt red plain was a world away from her beloved moors, yet both places shared a wild beauty that resonated deep inside her soul.
She glanced across at the only other house for so many miles. Stephen’s sister Teri and her husband David were the rest of their tiny community. They were spending Christmas ‘back east’, enjoying a holiday at the beach, while awaiting the not too distant birth of their first child. Anna blessed the day she met the woman who was now her closest friend – in more ways than one.
“Daddy! Merry Christmas!”
Two small forms hurtled down the stairs from the homestead, heading for Stephen who had just emerged from the generator shed.
“Daddy!” More insistent now. “It’s time for presents!”
Anna’s heart ached with a deep longing, as Stephen gathered his children into his arms.
Several months and a thousand miles ago, she had first heard Stephen’s story from his sister.
As part of her working holiday ‘down under’, Anna was staying with her aunt, in Sydney. She had a job at a coffee shop and was enjoying the adventure of a lifetime. Then Teri arrived. The daughter of her Aunt’s old school chum, Teri was in the city for a checkup, having just discovered that she was pregnant. While she was there, she placed a newspaper advertisement on behalf of her distant brother.
Wanted: Jillaroo for outback property.
Housekeeper for single father.
Nanny for boy 5 and girl 4.
Good conditions – very remote location.
Back then, Anna didn’t even know what a ‘jillaroo’ was. Teri had explained, then agreed with Anna’s suggestion that she use the coffee shop to interview prospective applicants. In the days that followed, the two became firm friends, as Teri interviewed dozens of young women, none of whom were suitable. After a frustrating week, she made the suggestion that was to change Anna’s life.
“Will you take the job?”
“Me?” Anna was stunned by the proposal.
“Please, Anna. You would be wonderful with the kids. And you’ll see a part of the country most visitors never get to see.”
“I don’t know Teri. What if your brother doesn’t think I’m suitable.”
“He will. You’ll be much better than any of those others. You grew up on a farm. You’ll love it.”
“But it’s such a long way away – from everywhere.”
“I know. But I’ll be there.” Teri’s voice trailed off. “That’s part of it too. It would be good for me to have you there too.”
Anna understood what her friend was saying. Delighted as she and her husband were about her pregnancy, Teri was a little afraid. Particularly after what had happened to Stephen’s wife. Not only did her brother need a jillaroo, Teri needed a friend.
Anna took two days to think it over, then she quit her job and joined Teri on a series of ever smaller aircraft until she landed here, in the back of beyond, caring for two motherless children, and their deeply wounded father.
At their first meeting, Stephen had been almost brutal in his honesty. A jillaroo’s job wasn’t easy. She would be expected to tackle a mixture of household and outdoor duties on a huge cattle property that was a long way from anywhere and everyone. The isolation was very hard to take.
Stephen had deep reservations about his sister’s choice. Even Australian-born jillaroos usually stayed no more than a year. He didn’t believe an English girl could last even that long.
“I can and I will!” Anna had exclaimed.
He smiled when he saw her determination. Then his face hardened, as he gave her one last chance to back out.
The outback, he said, is a dangerous place. A simple accident had taken his wife. She died while waiting for an air ambulance to bring help from the nearest hospital, hundreds of miles away.
Did Anna still want the job?
Did she? Anna had looked at the deep lines tragedy had etched around Stephen’s eyes. Yes, she did. Now, some six months later, she was even more certain.
The reason was right in front of her. Stephen and the children.
Ben was such a sad little boy. He had some vague memories of his ‘Mummy’, but his sadness was mostly a reflection of his father’s. Stephen tried so hard to shield his children from his own bottomless grief, but it hadn’t worked.
Zoe didn’t remember her mother, only a series of jillaroos and nannies, none of whom stayed very long. Her love for her father was total, but Anna knew that something important was missing in the little girl’s life. Her Aunt had tried to help, but with a baby of her own on the way, Teri couldn’t fill that gap in Zoe’s life.
Anna had stepped into that empty place, for both children. As for their father…
“Merry Christmas,” Ben’s face was glowing as he firmly planted a wet kiss on her cheek.
“Merry Christmas, darling,” Anna gathered both of the youngsters into her bear hug. Looking over their heads, she found Stephen’s face. He was smiling too. The smile touched her deeply. She had come to this place at her friend’s request, but she stayed for an entirely different reason. Her love for the children was matched by her feelings for their father.
Anna broke eye contact with Stephen as she bent to kiss the top of his daughter’s head.
Her secret dreams would never be realised. Stephen carried too much guilt over his wife’s death. His very being was rooted in this cruel and beautiful place, and despite the tragedy, he could no more leave, than he could ask her to stay.
“Presents, now!” Zoe’s voice disrupted Anna’s thoughts. She allowed the little girl to drag her back towards the house.
The Christmas tree was brightly decorated, with presents piled around its base. But it was unlike any Anna had ever seen before.
The outback has no pine trees. Stephen had carefully cut a branch from one of the mulga trees that dotted the harsh landscape. Bright tinsel and coloured glass ornaments hung between silver branches. Snow-white cotton wool lay on leaves more blue than green.
The very idea of snow fascinated Zoe. Anna spent hours trying to explain how ice could fall from the sky. The thought was magic to a wide-eye little girl who could barely remember the rain that fell so infrequently.
Now, as the children tore into the mountain of gifts, Anna waited for Zoe to find one special item.
“Anna – it’s snow!” The little girl cried, as she unwrapped the gift that had been sent from Anna’s home on the other side of the world.
“Look Daddy! Snow.” Zoe shook the ball and held it up for her father to see the tiny white flakes float to the bottom. The little girl giggled, while her father and brother exchanged smiles.
Anna made a mental note to write to her mother about the success of the gift, a souvenir of some long-ago trip to the English seaside.
During the past weeks, she had learned a lesson in long distance shopping. In this remote part of the world, Christmas gifts were bought with a catalogue and radio phone.
For weeks now, strange packages had been arriving with the weekly mail deliveries. Alongside the boxes of groceries, newspapers and farm supplies, the mail truck had left strange brown packages in the small shed that served as mailbox. Competition to make the dusty ten mile journey to collect them had been fierce.
Anna wasn’t left out of the giving. From the children, books, and precious hand drawn cards that she would treasure. Teri and David had left their gifts under the tree. The box of scented soaps was a rare concession to the feminine treats that were seldom found this far from the cities. Anna hadn’t spoken about her feelings for Stephen, but Teri wasn’t blind. She must have guessed.
Then Stephen handed Anna a small box.
Her hands weren’t quite shaking as she opened it. Inside, a fine gold chain lay nestled against dark velvet. Gently she lifted it. A miniature gold lizard hung from the chain.
“Do you remember?” Stephen asked.
“How could I forget?”
On her second day here, Anna had been scared out of her wits as a two foot long lizard ran almost under her feet. The goanna was totally harmless, but the incident had become a joke between the two of them.
“I thought the goanna would scare you away, even if nothing else did.”
“Well, it didn’t. I’m a lot stronger then you thought.”
“Yes, you are. And I’m very glad of it.” Was there another message in Stephen’s voice?
“Thank-you. It’s beautiful.”
Anna impulsively threw her arms around Stephen’s neck, and kissed him. If she held him for a few seconds longer than was absolutely necessary, she was sure he didn’t notice.
Her gift to him was a book, purchased after an exchange of letters with an antique book shop in the distant capital city.
” ‘Under the Southern Cross – The exploration of the Great South Land.’ “, Stephen read, gently turning the brittle pages of the old volume over in his hands.
“It’s not a first edition, or anything,” Anna hastened to add. “But..”
“It’s wonderful. Thank-you.” Was it her imagination, or did his lips linger a second longer than before on her cheek?
“Can we go to the river now?” Having exhausted the mountain of gifts, Ben was already looking forward to the next big event of the day. The river was miles away. The water was warm and dirty brown, but Ben and Zoe had never seen the ocean, or even a swimming pool. For them, the river was an island of pleasure in the searing heat of the day.
“We sure can, Son.” Stephen was on his feet. “But first, Anna probably needs your help to organise the picnic things.”
“Picnic!” Both children raced from the room, Anna following close behind, to stop their enthusiasm turning the kitchen into a total disaster area.
Soon the picnic baskets were overflowing with treats for an outdoor feast in the shade of the giant gum trees on the river bank. With the temperature already climbing into the high thirties, roast turkey wasn’t on the menu. Instead, the baskets bulged with cold ham, salads, watermelons and other tropical fruit.
Stephen was waiting by the four wheel drive car, as Anna and the kids carried their precious burdens out of the house. Something in his face reminded Anna of her father’s quiet joy each year as her Mother brought the Christmas turkey to the table.
She ran her eyes over his handsome features. His eyes sparkled with some secret mischief.
The bundles safely stowed, Stephen turned to his children. “Now?”
“Yes! Now Daddy,” they cried in unison.
“Now, what?” Anna was perplexed. Stephen disappeared back into the house, while the giggling children avoided her eyes.
A few moments later, Stephen emerged, carrying a large ice-box, which he gently placed at Anna’s feet.
Stephen smiled without a word, while Ben and Zoe giggled even louder. Totally perplexed, Anna bent down and lifted the lid.
A round object lay in the icebox. Slightly bigger than a tennis ball, it was white and glistened wetly in the sunshine. It was…
“Yay!” Zoe cheered.
“Throw it!” urged her brother.
Dumbfounded, Anna looked at Stephen. His smile told her this hadn’t been all the children’s doing.
“The freezer. We’ve been working on it for a while.”
Anna understood. It must have taken weeks to scrape enough frost and thin ice from the freezer to mould…
“I’ll bet it’s the only snowball in the whole country!” Ben asserted proudly.
“I’m sure it is.” Anna fought back tears as she bent to hug the small boy, then his sister.
“You can throw it, just like you do in England.” Ben was determined that everything should be done properly. “Who are you going to throw it at?”
Anna looked at the eager young faces. If she threw it at one, the other would be disappointed. Their father perhaps?
“Quickly,” Stephen urged, “before it melts.”
As Anna reached into the ice-box, she had a better idea.
With a flick of her wrist, she sent the snowball soaring straight into the sky directly above their heads. Already starting to melt, the snowball began to disintegrate.
Flakes fell away from the main snowball, and were caught by the faint traces of wind. Then gravity claimed them, and they fell back to earth.
“It’s snowing!” Ben cried. The excited children stuck out their tongues, darting from place to place, trying to catch the icy flakes, in the way Anna had described to them.
Those they missed fell to the red earth, soaked up immediately by the parched ground.
Anna felt tears prick her eyes, but she was no longer homesick for the wintery moors of her birthplace.
Family and snowballs. Love and laughter, through all the years to come.
She looked at Stephen. He nodded, and opened his arms to her.
A Bush Christmas
Published as “Let Nothing You Dismay” by The People’s Friend – December 2002
Artwork by Andy Walker courtesy of The People’s Friend
I hoped for, but didn’t get a white Christmas my first year in England. I still find it strange that Christmas here does not involve swimming and a bar-b-que. When I finally did see some snow in the back garden, it was very pretty. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the snow without the cold…
© Janet Gover 2002