If you’re looking for stories that celebrate a whole host of different takes on Christmas, Cracker is for you. Julia Archer casts back to a very different kind of Christmas in 1974 in her story ‘Christmas Requiem’.
At two a.m. on Christmas morning the roof tore off with a drawn-out scream of ripping sheet iron. It drowned out the thunder and woke the children. Sick with terror, almost paralysed, Grant and I lifted the little boys from the mattress on the floor, pulled them into our bed and hugged them close.
All day the cyclone had been building, all day we had tuned our whole beings to the radio. All day small preparations—water stored in the bath, spare batteries bought, anything that could become a missile secured. All day we had become familiar with the cyclone siren and I think that all day, underneath jokes and bravado, panic had been rising in tandem with the wind.
In the living room the lights on the tree blinked red and green and yellow and blue among the stars and angels. Beneath the house, in the storeroom, two tricycles waited to be put under the tree when Dan and Josh were asleep.
By dusk the wind was violent, by ten it was spinning the empty Hill’s Hoist like the reel on a fishing rod. The electricity went off. Thunder rolled continuously, louder than any thunder we’d ever heard, and brilliant lightning flickered like a faulty fluorescent light.
The rain beat against the east side of the house, pouring through the louvre windows and flooding the floors. We had to move the sleeping children from their bedroom to ours. We shut pictures and ornaments in wardrobes, went to bed and tried to sleep, confident the cyclone would blow itself out by morning.
The builders’ shed across the road blew away at midnight, or at least we thought that was what screamed and crashed through our garden.
At two a.m. our roof was gone. Grant and I clung to our whimpering children and tried to think what to do while heavy debris thudded against our walls and the wind shrieked. The drums of a hundred symphony orchestras rolled and crashed, like a finale for the story of Darwin. The flimsy house on its long thin stilts rocked and shuddered in the wind as the onslaught of flying objects slowly smashed it to splinters. Then the windows in the children’s bedroom fell in with a crash that jolted us from paralysis to action.
Downstairs, under the house, was the concrete block storeroom. We carried Dan and Josh along the hall, opened the door into the living room, and were confronted by driving rain. Lightning bounced off the plaster ceiling now moulded over the floor and furniture. The outer walls and the kitchen had vanished. The debris of one wall lay over the front steps. Escape that way was cut off.
The house lurched and swayed, bombarded by heavy missiles. This was no longer a storm. It was warfare.
The back door was on the windward side, a steel door in a steel frame. We huddled against it, and Grant turned the handle, pushed against the door and waited long minutes to feel a lull in the wind, or a slight change in its direction. Then he thrust his shoulder hard, launched himself into the storm and was out on the landing with Josh cradled against his body. I followed, but the sturdy four-year-old in my arms howled with terror, grabbed the door frame and struggled. If the wind had gusted at that moment, Dan would have lost a hand …
Somehow we were at the foot of the stairs, lit all the way down by brilliant lightning. The cement block room was a pile of rubble.
‘The car!’ I shouted above the wind. ‘Get in the car!’
I tugged open the car door. The wind slammed it behind me and I fell face down on the floor in the back, Dan under my body. In the front Grant huddled over two-year-old Josh. In the face of death a primitive instinct had taken over—without thought, without reason—to shield our offspring with our own bodies. If a missile came through the windows we would die protecting the boys.
The car rocked and heaved in the wind but between the steel pillars of the house it could neither roll over nor blow away.
I began to realise I was still being pelted with rain and something else. I lifted my head and saw the back windscreen had exploded and rain and small gravel were coming in like shotgun pellets.
From under me an indignant voice said, ‘Put your head down, Mum! I’m getting wet!’
A strange noise joined the rolling thunder, the scream of the wind and the thud of flying wreckage hitting the house. I lifted my head and looked around. Each flash of lightning blinded me, leaving, in the following second of darkness, a clear photographic imprint on my retina. I saw the caravan at the house behind ours, securely roped this afternoon but now crumpled on top of a Land-cruiser, crushing the roof down onto the steering wheel so that the horn would blow continuously until it flattened the battery. At a distance of twenty metres the sound reached us only intermittently.
Despite the complaints from underneath, I did lift my head now and then to check the progressive disintegration outside. I assumed our house looked much the same as the house next door. No roof, partial walls. We briefly turned on our headlights and the lights of their car came on, too. We felt a rush of comfort. Someone else was alive out there.
Hours passed. Shadowy grey forms appeared that owed nothing to lightning. The wind had fallen dramatically, there were breaks between the drum-rolls and violent crashes of thunder and the lightning flickered less often. Cautiously we sat up. Nothing was flying through the air any more.
We stood high on the deck that had been our living room floor and looked around one hundred and eighty degrees.
The light grew and the scene was from Flanders or the Blitz or Vietnam. This couldn’t be Australia, these endless acres of shattered buildings, dangling power lines and wrecked cars, all in a vast muddy sea under low, racing, roiling grey clouds.
Through the leafless tree crowns we could see the ocean two kilometres away. A few robotic survivors wandered through the ruined suburbs. Somewhere in that direction, towards the sea, my parents and teenage brother lived, or had lived, until last night.
Grant said, quite matter of factly, ‘I’m going to walk over to Rapid Creek and see how your mum and dad and Johnny are.’
‘Okay,’ I said, matching his casual tone. ‘I’ll look for something for the boys to eat.’
The Christmas tree—so light, so buoyant—lay where it had fallen, wind-teased tinsel flickering in the occasional blaze of the sun as it rose between clouds. On the driveway the refrigerator sprawled on its back, disembowelled, its heavy door carried away on the wind.
The tricycles were propped against each other like two drunks who hadn’t made it home the night before, handlebar ribbons snapping in the wind.
I looked for any kind of food in the kitchen debris around the car. A packet of sodden mince pies! A perfect instant breakfast. But I needed more than that to keep the boys content in the little sanctuary of the car. I found Lego presents in soggy bright paper to distract them from wanting to venture out into the muddy wasteland of splintered timber, broken glass, twisted roofing iron, nails and smashed furniture. The sign from a baby clinic lay at my feet. The clinic was two kilometres away.
Power lines writhed over the flooded ground. Helpless, stranded in the little world of my personal disaster, I could only hope someone else would get the message out. Electricity must not be restored to the Northern suburbs.
Grant appeared in the distance, walking home with his eyes on the ground, absorbed in where he put his feet. Occasionally he looked up to the bare treetops where sheets of twisted roofing iron rocked menacingly. I tried and failed to read his body language but then he saw me and smiled.
‘The family are all fine. Not even a scratch! They spent the night in their car too. Everyone is supposed to go to Johnny’s high school. All the relief supplies are being taken there.’
‘We’ve got some food! Look in the refrigerator.’
‘Of course! Where else do you keep the food?’ He glanced into the white metal box that had landed neatly behind the car. Despite its ten foot plunge, two waterlogged cooked chickens and a cooked leg of lamb were still inside.
‘Look!’ He pulled out two large bottles of soft drink and we both laughed. We were like survivors of a shipwreck combing the shore.
The neighbours, who had gone missing before daylight, suddenly appeared. Grant asked, ‘Where are you going to stay?’
They pointed back over their shoulders. ‘At the primary school. There’s a lot of people there.’
‘Where are you going to get food from, then?’
‘Oh, the Red Cross will bring it.’
My emotions were fragile. I broke up at visions of elderly, plump Red Cross ladies in floral frocks floating down from the sky on parachutes with casserole dishes in their hands.
Overnight our suburb had become a marina and our house a waterfront property. We assumed there was as much jagged wreckage hidden under the water of the street as there was jutting out. We dragged the refrigerator off the drive, started the car, and bumped slowly down the road. We passed the shopping mall, people pouring out the broken glass doors behind trolleys loaded high with looted goods.
‘Come on! There’s plenty more inside,’ a man called out generously from behind the lolly-pink blanket folded on top of his booty.
What amazing presence of mind! Having barely escaped death, their first thoughts were that power to the alarms was off, the windows broken and the police otherwise occupied. It gave me a whole new understanding of Seize the day. And seize anything else you can get your hands on, too.
On the main road a front-end loader was clearing a single track for traffic. A police car passed us with three flat tyres. We reached the high school, a sturdy red brick stronghold on a vast spread of green sports fields. From every direction people were streaming towards it or sitting in groups on the grass so that it almost looked like a carnival. There were many times more people than the one thousand students who normally filled it. Trucks were delivering the contents of warehouses onto the lawns.
It was almost impossible to take in what we learned now. The whole city was destroyed.
There was no question of us sitting on the grass in a family group waiting to be rescued. My mother was not that kind of a person. We found her in the domestic science kitchen with a dozen others, firing up the bottled gas stoves, roasting chickens and boiling vats of rice.
With the poise of someone who survived disasters on a weekly basis, she pointed at my teenage brother and said, ‘Johnny will look after the boys. You come and help.’
Thousands of dazed people were sitting on the grass, the stairs, the verandahs, the school desks, the floors. It was Christmas Day and the world was on holiday. Did anyone know what had happened to us? We were four thousand kilometres from help. How would we go on, with no water, no phones, no power, no sanitation? The home of every policeman, every doctor, every emergency worker had been destroyed. As they struggled to save lives and restore the city, their own families camped out in the ruins, stripped of everything.
Grant joined the crew digging latrines. A stranger with some air of authority sent me out to the lawns to identify any cartons that could be called medical supplies and move them upstairs to the medical centre, once known as the high school library.
Imagine a Coles supermarket and a Big W scattered at random from the sky. As I picked out Lactogen and Huggies and sunburn cream, some small Aboriginal boys who knew me wandered over to talk. ‘Come and meet our families.’ When they learned what I had to do, the medical cartons began to disappear upstairs to the library faster than I could identify them.
I was reassigned to the endless task of stemming thawed blood from the mountain of frozen chickens in the kitchen. Mop and mop and mop, fill the bucket, empty the bucket. Mop and mop. Fill the bucket. Empty the bucket. Around the clock. A distinct camaraderie developed between the police and those civilians who were part of the effort to survive and recover. We felt special, a small elite.
On the day after Christmas Grant reported to his office at the Forestry Department. My dad had a morning wash beside his neighbour’s swimming pool and hitch-hiked to his city office. Word came to us at the high school that Alan Stretton, head of the Natural Disasters Organisation, had arrived on the first incoming RAAF plane. Under the Major General’s leadership, Darwin began to crackle. The spontaneous survival efforts were given new energy.
But what do you do with fifty-nine thousand people living in the world’s largest garbage dump? The message went out: evacuation. We knew Stretton was right. We were keeping the kitchen open around the clock to feed the thousands camped at the school. The cooks stood in bloody water oozing from a mountain of chickens still waiting to become roast dinners.
The injured, and then women and children, then men, would be flown south. But rumours came back from the airport of violent scenes where men who were not injured fought to join the first flights.
What was our family going to do? Other rumours were also circulating, of senior public servants and company managers who had fled the city without a word. It had become a badge of honour and a duty to stay at your post. My dad was thriving on the challenge, feeding on the adrenaline like oxygen. He and Grant would stay but what about the rest of us?
‘The little boys and Johnny will go to your sister in Brisbane,’ my parents told me.
‘My boys don’t know her! They are really shaken up by what’s happened. They need their mother!’
‘They’ll be far better off in Brisbane,’ Grant said. ‘This is no place for children but I need you here. There is a lot you can salvage at the house.’
Dan and Josh’s tears changed nothing. I wrote my sister’s name and address on handkerchiefs and knotted them around little sun-browned wrists. If they got separated from Johnny someone would know where they should be sent. I knelt in the school carpark and hugged them and we cried and a bus took them to the airport.
The high school was being emptied. New volunteers took over the kitchen to feed those who were left. There were rumours of looters roaming the suburbs. It was time to go back to the house.
Someone told us the ABC was coming back on air.
I walked four kilometres back home. After living in a crush of bodies I was completely alone. I found the little transistor radio, opened it and the sun dried it out. I switched it on just as thirty-four hours of radio silence was broken with the haunting, defiant, jaunty theme of the television drama Rush and the tears poured down my face. It was music to tell us Darwin was back in business. Darwin would grieve but not be broken. Darwin would live again as a community.
I began to find our remaining clothes, books and photos. I dragged sopping things from smashed cupboards and spread them out in the hot sun. Frantic with thirst I raided neighbours’ homes for bottled water. My lips cracked and my skin burned and peeled in the shadeless wasteland.
In the late afternoon I walked back to the school where someone fed me and someone else treated me for sunburn. My dad, a born raconteur, told stories of his day as official minder of the international press. Grant had been official minder of twelve gangs with chainsaws clearing trees from roads. I missed my kids desperately. I couldn’t believe someone else was giving them their tea and putting them to sleep in strange beds.
The radio told us fifty-nine people had died in the cyclone.
Next day at the house roaming packs of starving dogs menaced me.
‘I’m really scared,’ I told Grant when he came home from the chainsaw gang.
‘I’ll get the shotgun from the office and we’ll drive out along a quiet bush track and I’ll show you how to shoot.’
I dried books and papers and photos and clothes and packed them in boxes that I hammered together from kitchen cupboards. Somehow I sent Grant off to work each day in clean clothes. Downtown in the city some phone lines got connected and my sister rang my dad at the Media office. The boys were very quiet, she said. They clung to each other, they cried easily, and jumped at loud noises.
‘Don’t get upset,’ Grant told me. ‘In a day or so they’ll settle down. And as soon as we can, we’ll have them back. I promise.’
I looked at the acres and acres of nothing but ruins. How soon is soon? And why is doing your job all that matters? Why does our family always have to be the heroes, always rise to the occasion? And is there only one way of dying, one way a cyclone can kill you, kill your family, your marriage?
A truck from Grant’s office came to the house and took away the boxes I had manufactured and packed, and put them into storage.
‘Now,’ said my dad, ‘You’ll move in with us, in what’s left of our house.’
‘We’ll get by until the rebuilding starts,’ my mother added.
I sat in our car, in what had been my garden, with the loaded shotgun between the bucket seats. I pulled the road maps out of the glove box. I measured the distance to Brisbane. I calculated how much petrol I would need and how much it would cost. I climbed out of the car, picked up the two tricycles and tied them upright on the roof rack. The ribbons on the handlebars snapped crisply in the wind.
Tonight, when they looked for me, I would be in Katherine.
To find out more about Cracker please click here.