“Do not despise the day of small things”

On days of frustration, beware
the futile fury that burns
when queues are as long as red tape
and parking spaces are few.

On days when nothing’s achieved, beware
the muted rage that despises the stranger
for taking your place in a lane or a line,
that resents the day for passing.

On these dog days of shopping malls,
keep your eye upon the prize.
A broken heart He won’t despise,
and the day has grace for us all.

Sow a seed and water soil;
give thanks for sun and everyone:
the ones that drive you out of self,
that thwart your ticked To-Dos.

Brave the crowd at Centrelink;
Futility destroys the proud.
Remember now, you are not king.
Crown mercy in this day.

No Ghosts This Year: A Story of Advent #1

img_0539-2hen holidays came, it would be okay. But for now Philip just had the long waiting days. The sun deceives us, he thought, into believing it’s holidays before it is. Last weekend he had made the mistake of sitting out on the verandah with his book, like he used to do with his sister in that first glorious week of holidays at home, and nice as it had been for those hours of warmth loosening his tautened face, once over it only made more agonising that gap between now and the time when holidays properly began. Now he was stuck in that odd limbo period in which teachers pretended that the work they were doing now still mattered but when things like reports and awards had not yet arrived to make the year’s struggle seem somehow worthwhile. They were too old for colouring-in (and he probably would have found it babyish to do now, though he remembered with a certain fondness the focus that shading carefully within the lines had brought him), yet they were too young for work experience or introductions to VCE, too young for anything that was truly important.

What was this now? An odd form of torture designed to keep parents from having to pay for extra child care before Christmas? The days were flusteringly hot and the rooms not air-conditioned. Today he had come in from lunchtime sweaty and irritable. His hair, he knew for a fact, was sticking up all over the place because of the ridiculous hats they had to wear in the summer months. And now he was seated at a large square of tables at the centre of the music room where everyone could see everyone else and there was no hiding while he tried to flatten his hair with his hand so he didn’t look like some strange antennaed alien while they did their listening journal for the afternoon – this one a recording of a highly inappropriate carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. If only it was the bleak widwinter, he thought. My hair wouldn’t stick up like this in winter.

Wha-at can I bri-ing him, poor as I aaaam?

“The singer,” he wrote, “sounds like a strangled cat, and the words are about as appropriate for Australia as the American national anthem.”

He was quite proud of that. He hoped his teacher would find it funny.

Across the table, Laura was looking over at him. He smiled at her, and pressed his hair down in case it was standing up again. Laura seemed to be laughing. Perhaps she found the song funny too. He could share with her what he’d written after class. It might make her laugh more. But Laura wasn’t looking at him now. She was writing in her listening diary.

I-if I were a she-epherd, I would bring a laaamb…

His feet felt fidgety and his pants were sweaty. The room stank a bit, and he was starting to have that feeling he sometimes did, that dislocated feeling, like he was watching himself, not participating in his own body. He had asked his dad once if he had ever felt like he didn’t really exist. Dad had said, “Yes,” and he’d felt that instant rush of relief that comes from being understood, only then Dad had continued by saying, “That was how we used to talk in the 70s,” and Philip had suddenly fallen from a state of being known to one of total disconnection. His father’s words had fallen flat on him. Was he talking about nothing more than what was trendy back when everyone was on LSD? He’d read about those days in a book once. He was fairly sure his dad had never taken LSD but the words had no other meaning to him than that. No, there was no understanding after all.

I-if I were a wi-ise ma-an, I would do my paaart… 

He held his hair down some more. Laura looked at him again and smiled.

Inspired by the smile, he wrote, “The writer has no idea how to rhyme. He’s obviously only just learnt how to write poetry in primary school. My little brother could write better poetry than that.”

Why had he written that? He didn’t have a little brother. Still, it was effective writing. He kept it in.

But what I ca-an I gi-ive hi-im…

Behind him some boys were laughing. Mark’s voice he recognised, Mark who had taken a specky on his back at the gym last week and feigned repentance and concern for him while the teachers were around only to mock him for his distress when the boys were alone in the change rooms at lunch.

“That’s gay,” someone said – probably Mark. It was the kind of thing he said.

“It’s talking about Jesus,” Laura called back.

Miss Brown said sshh and the lesson regained some barely-maintained control. Philip didn’t write anything more about the song. He didn’t want to sound like Mark. He gave the song three stars, closed his exercise book, and rested his head on his hand to press down his hair more. He hoped no-one could see.

As class finished and they left the room, he slowed down so that he walked through the door at the same time as Laura.

“Did you have fun playing with your hair?” she asked. 

He said nothing. His hands felt clammy.

“Good song, hey, Savage?” said Mark behind him. “You loved it, didn’t you?”

Philip slowed and slowed until he sank into the exiting mass coming through the door. The holidays could not come a moment too soon. More and more outside of himself, he watched as a small and insignificant child hid inside a mind that no-one could penetrate if they tried. The day, at least, was over.

Damascus Road Prayers: Advent 1


He rose up like a shoot before Him, a shoot from the parched earth;
something spoken secretly occurred openly today.
(St Ephraim the Syrian, Nativity Hymns 1)

TV screens bear children’s prayers to a jolly man in red.
My wish list is as full as my cupboard; my spirit is silent today.
From department store dreams and desires filling reams,
O Son of Man, release us.
Shadows cast by desert palms long ago predicted
that only the thirsty will come to the well,
only the helpless will kneel.
Read history with alien desperation:
strangers in their homes know better than we
who never need long for Christmas.

Pageant Part 9

Excited though everyone was about the pageant – the first that would not consist of a mawkishly sentimental song which they would all have to pretend to enjoy – the real feature on which everyone’s anticipation was focused was the fact that Grant and Sue would be there together.
“I bet she thinks he’s changed.”
“Not likely.”
“She’s dreaming.”
“A leopard doesn’t change its stripes.”
“It doesn’t change its spots. Zebras have stripes.”
“Don’t bloody tell me about zebras. What have they got to do with it?”
And on it went, as cars drove to the hall and children on back-seats flinched and squirmed in their awkward and overheated costumes. And on it went, in muffled whispers and behind darting eyes, as families stepped from their cars and walked into the hall. And it carried on as they took children back-stage, and on into the stalls and into the rows of seats, punctuated by, “Excuse me,” and, “Which number are you?” and, “That’s my seat. Get out.”
It only stopped when the curtain stirred and on the stage stood a boy with a white robe and rat-tail whose parents had, until this moment, been convinced was playing an angel not a…what was he?
“Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls.”
A pause. Had he forgotten his lines? His little sister squirmed empathetically. His dad turned to his mother and said, “I didn’t know he had lines.”
“Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls,” he repeated. “Welcome to the Christmas play. The title of tonight’s play is, ‘A Scandalous Baby’.”
His mother applauded. His sister turned to the mother and said, “What’s scandalous?” Her father said, “Shut up and listen.”
“Our story starts in…”
A whisper from backstage. “Bethlehem.”
Another pause.
Another whisper: “Bethlehem.”
Then a nod of recognition.
“Our story stars in Bethlehem…where…an unexpectedly virgin is giving a baby…”
Another whisper: “Where a virgin is unexpectedly giving birth…”
A nod. “Yep. That.” Another pause.
“Come with us…”
Another nod. “Come with us to…a stable where a baby is being born.”
The curtain rose. Behind the curtain was a scene familiar to everyone who had ever been to a Christmas pageant before: a mock-agricultural setting more reminiscent of the Manchester section of a department store than the Middle East in the first century, with boys and girls in tea-towels, sheets and bathrobes, and an appropriate number dressed in cotton-wool and brown blankets with face paint suggesting the animals they were representing. In the middle of the stage, gloriously tall, was a tree, with a star on top, moving suspiciously like there was a boy behind it.
“Braydon,” whispered Grant.
Some of the boys and girls on the stage started whispering. They hesitated at times, as though their lines had only recently been learnt, but there was something unmistakeable about those lines, a quality seen all too often behind curtains, on lawns and in supermarket aisles. To Grant and Sue, the room stank of town gossip.
“I’m sorry,” said a boy, dressed slightly differently to the others, with a large, messily-written name-tag that seemed to say, “Inn-kePPer”. “We don’t have room here for your sort,” he added, disdainfully.
And so a boy and girl carrying a baby doll and with two children dressed as a donkey beside them moved clumsily around the stage, the donkey trying to avoid bumping into actors and props on the way, with little space available to differentiate between unwelcoming inn and the stable in which they finally settled.
Meanwhile, Braydon was beginning to feel quietly triumphant. He had worked out that there was a way that he could move his right leg out first, leaving his left leg securely on the platform for stability. Then, once his right leg was carefully placed against the wall, he could use that and the harness to hold himself in place while he lifted his left leg. He had already done it once without anyone noticing. Was now the time to fly? It was difficult to tell, paying as he was no attention whatsoever to the rest of the action. He replaced his knees on the platform. They were becoming a little sore.
On the stage, Joseph and Mary had successfully found a manger in which to give birth (Mary also having mustered up the courage to no longer need her mother with her), and so it was time for the shepherds to emerge. Patrick, previously First Haystack Angel, emerged as First Shepherd, with Ben and Lachlan in tow as his sheep, to the joyful applause of family.
“Go Patty!” called out his father.
The First Shepherd squinted in the direction of his father. It was difficult to see if he was happy or angry. He momentarily forgot to walk forward. Second and Third Shepherd stalled for that moment behind him. Their sheep bumped into one another.
Hearing the action pause beneath him, Braydon wondered if now was the time to fly, while on the left-hand side of the stage Kassie too was preparing for her moment. Kassie, unlike Braydon, being a little unwilling to fly, though her part seemed to call for it, Kim and Craig had had to settle for an arrangement of clouds which would appear at Stage Left and above which Kassie would slowly rise from a seated position to say Gabriel’s lines. What with the delay, however, with the sheep, the stage-hand who was supposed to help Kassie get set up behind the cloud hovered to the side, unaware that his assistance was needed. Kassie paused. Should she come out anyway, cloud or no cloud? What would happen if Gabriel didn’t herald the arrival of Jesus? What if her father never saw her say her lines?
“Jack,” whispered Craig.
Jack the stage-hand looked over at his teacher.
“Kassie’s cloud,” said Craig.
“Oh,” said Jack, running over to collect it.
The silence on stage continued. Braydon fancied it invited him to fly.
“You ready, Kassie?” said Craig.
Kassie nodded.
Braydon shifted.
Jack carried the cloud over to Kassie. Kassie hid behind it. Slowly the cloud moved forward and Kassie with it. Braydon stretched out his right leg.
The First Shepherd moved towards the cloud.
The Second and Third Shepherds began to move, but the sheep were tangled up in the tree. The tree shook.
Braydon positioned his right leg on the tree.
“Okay, Kass,” said Craig.
Kassie breathed. What was her line again?
Held in place by his right leg, Braydon began to lift his other leg towards the wall.
Second Shepherd tugged at his sheep. The base of the tree rotated a little to the right.
“Do not be afraid,” said Kassie.
Sue’s heart stirred.
The top of the tree stirred.
“I bring tidings of great joy.”
That’s my girl, thought Grant.
It’s time, thought Braydon.
He stretched out his left leg.
Third Shepherd pulled at his sheep. The sheep would not move. The manger shook slightly. Tayla, holding onto the manger, moved slightly with it.
“Today in the town of…David…a saviour…”
Go, thought Braydon.
“Come on,” muttered Third Shepherd to his sheep. “What are you doing, Danny?”
“…has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.”
What a lot of lines Kassie had to learn, thought Sue. Braydon at least was behaving himself.
Then Tayla screamed.

Go to Part 10

Pageant Part 8

There were two more rehearsals before the day of the pageant. The children whose parts had been changed and who had new lines to learn were willing to go along with the secrecy demanded of them by Kim because they felt sufficiently special now that they had been promoted from entirely superfluous extras to speaking roles. Few of the children knew the full impact of the lines they were learning and few, therefore, felt any need to tell their parents. Kim and Craig’s plan to challenge town gossip one final time was allowed to flourish unnoticed.
Braydon, on the other hand, was slowly tiring of his part as the star. Central though it was to the set, and much though the audience’s eyes would be drawn to him, there was little to maintain their interest or his once the initial novelty had worn off. At first the sensation of being elevated by the improvised harness gave him the feeling that he imagined his father must feel on the occasions that he flew. Yet the sensation soon left him as, dangling static above the tree, he found that he could do very little apart from simply stay there.
Slowly, however, he began to experiment with the potential of his position. If, he reasoned, he actually could fly, then he could simultaneously make his father proud of him and prove to all and sundry that not only his father but in fact all the men in the family were capable of flight. Granted, his previous attempts at flight had been unsuccessful, but surely that was because his father had not been there to give him the courage or inspiration he needed. Now, finding himself able to swing a little within his position above the tree, he slowly and surreptitiously tried to stretch further. If he could find something, for instance, against which to push his feet, which, although positioned awkwardly behind him, were still free, then perhaps he could give himself a good “run-up” for taking flight. And so, while everyone else slowly rehearsed their lines (“Virgin birth? So typical of that family. Always making excuses…”), Braydon experimented with ways of swinging slowly backwards, stretching out his feet, finding just how far they could go without drawing attention to himself.
You see, the star costume worked like this. The harness went around Braydon’s chest. It held him up while his arms were stretched out in the upper points of the star. He hovered above the tree, held up by the harness, but his knees were also positioned on a platform behind the tree. His feet were resting behind him. The wall was a little less than a metre behind. It was possible, courtesy of the harness, for Braydon to remain positioned above the tree while moving his feet slightly. His legs, however, were not long. The men of the family were only medium in height, and Braydon was a late bloomer. Free though his legs were, it was a difficult process to move them backwards while keeping the star – a kind of awkwardly constricting shield – remaining above the tree.
Braydon, however, did not tend to take these kinds of factors too much to heart. He rarely thought of most factors beyond the most immediately apparent. Besides, he only needed to stay in place above the tree while he figured out how to swing. Then, once the dimensions of the space around him had been mentally calculated, it would be the perfect opportunity to fly. Anyway, the harness would keep him safe. Relative to other choices Braydon had made in his short life thus far, this was one of the more carefully managed and safe. What risk assessment Braydon conducted, limited though it was, far exceeded any he had ever done before this moment.
And, by the night of the performance, he was fairly sure he had it all figured out.
Go to Part 9

Pageant Part 7

“They drive me up the wall,” said Kim, when they were back at her house.
“Tell me about it,” said Craig. “They’re worse than the kids.”
This was not the first time that town friction had almost ruined something Kim had tried to do. The Book Week parade earlier in the year had very nearly turned into a civil war when two girls turned up to school dressed as Katniss Everdeen and their mothers had instantly remembered the exact same thing happening when they themselves had both come dressed as Princess Jasmine. Mother #1, convinced that Mother #2 had stolen the costume idea just as she had done twenty years earlier, had felt no compunction about proclaiming this accusation to much of the school community, only to have Girl #2’s teacher say diplomatically (if a little untruthfully) that she had given Girl #2 the idea of coming as Katniss. It had been a near miss, and Kim would be forever grateful to her colleague for stepping in at that key moment.
But the fractured dynamics of the town had worn Kim down progressively. Each time she attempted to do something to shake up the town in a positive way it fought back, as though determined to remain set in its grumpy and bickering ways.
Craig, too, had very nearly had enough. Having grown up with it, he was more immune to it than Kim. But even he had his limits. Most of the fights he dealt with the schoolyard these days had more to do with the kids’ parents than the kids themselves.
It was Kim’s idea to rewrite the script that night. At first Craig complained that he was tired and just wanted to go home. He also reminded Kim that she was the one who only earlier that night had wanted to do anything to avoid having to rework the script. Kim, however, reminded him that they still hadn’t set a date for the wedding and that he shouldn’t be so sure it would happen at all, and thus managed in the end to get the two of them sitting at the dining table, computer in front of them, and with a new script rapidly emerging.
It all began with a crowd bickering. The crowd could be easily cast. They had already done away with one angel sitting on a haystack. They could probably do away with them all and reinstate all fired haystack angels as bickering crowd members.
“There goes Mary,” said Villager #1, as Kim typed his words. “Looks like she’s going to pop any day now.”
“Who does she think she’s kidding?” said Villager #2. “Virgin birth? You’ve got to be joking.”
Many in the town did not sleep well that night.
Jordan slept badly for fear that the full extent of his words to First Shepherd might come to light.
Tayla slept badly for fear that she would lose her best friend.
Sue slept badly, her mind playing over conversations with Grant both five years ago and that day, with fears of the past resurfacing and with uncertainty over just how much had changed.
Kassie slept badly over fear of what Braydon might do. Braydon seldom slept anyway, so that night was no different to usual.
It was Grant, however, who slept the least. He spent most of the night on his knees.
Go to Part 8

Pageant Part 6

Perhaps a word needs to be said here to clarify the past. Difficult though it always is to untangle the truth from everything that everyone else has said, it needs to be recorded that, though Grant had seemed to all intents and purposes to become what is commonly called a nut, he and Sue had never divorced. This may seem strange, given their five-year separation, but that is how it stood. Is it enough simply to say that they were Catholic – at least, Sue was – and that divorce never crossed either of their minds? Perhaps. Or perhaps there are deeper reasons which we cannot see or understand. Perhaps Sue simply never knew what his address was and so could never send divorce papers to him. Perhaps she did not want to disrupt the children more than the separation had already done. Perhaps she believed that one day he might become “normal” again. As always, it is difficult to say. The town had a variety of explanations, ranging from Sue being in denial to her having secretly pursued Grant into the desert and murdered him. Most, however, simply did not know, and the absence of knowledge drove them mad.
What, however, had happened to Grant? The town insisted he had become a religious nut, but many of them said that of the local priest or of anyone whose religious beliefs extended beyond Christmas and Easter. Grant’s religious convictions, moreover, were more fringe than the term “religious nut” might suggest. If he communicated with deities, they were usually ones with unpronounceable names that rhymed with Chakra. Most of his beliefs could be summarised by collating all the works in the “New Age” section of a bookstore and then throwing them into a blender and seeing what came out the other side.
All this, however, made little sense when set against the man who now kicked rocks out the back with his son and listened to Christmas carols in his car. The townspeople saw the difference through their curtains and it annoyed them. Sue saw the difference through the back window and it made her wonder.
The decision to make Braydon the star on the Christmas tree was met with approval by everyone except for Kassie who quietly insisted that, even when bound up in a costume that was as close to a straightjacket as could be legally placed upon a student, her brother could still cause trouble. But Braydon was happy enough with the decision, couched as it was by Craig in such flattering language that even he believed it was an honour rather than a punishment. And so it was agreed that Patrick, who had previously been playing the somewhat redundant part of an angel sitting on a haystack, would take the place of the First Shepherd and Braydon would become the star on the tree. Everyone was happy except Kassie.
“He’ll be stupid on the night,” she forewarned. “Just wait.”
History, of course, would prove Kassie right, but in the meantime expediency made everyone else deaf to her warnings. As far as Kim and Craig were concerned, Braydon had been contained. His role would have sufficient attention drawn to it for the father’s visit to be justified, but the scope for trouble seemed to them to be dramatically reduced.
An unexpected problem, however, came when parents arrived to pick up their children at the end of the night. When Grant had dropped off Kassie and Braydon at the start of the night, he had been early and no other parents were around. At the end of the night it was different.
At first, most parents simply nodded at him or said, “Grant. Haven’t seen you in a while.” Some were vaguely polite. But when Tayla’s mother, who had been holding her daughter’s hand through the rehearsal, came out of the hall toilets to see Grant leaving the hall with his children, she called out to him, “I hope you can control your son better now.”
Grant turned around. “I’m sorry?” he said.
“You know he punched Jordan?” She indicated Joseph, whose black eye was still slightly visible beneath the red-and-white-checked tea-towel.
Grant looked at Braydon. “Is that true?”
Braydon stared at the ground. “Only because he was wanker.”
“Braydon,” said Grant. “Don’t swear. It’s not necessary.”
“Well, it wasn’t necessary for him to call you a useless shithead.”
Joseph shuffled his feet.
“Come on, Jordan,” said his mother. “I think it’s time to go.”
Tayla’s mother didn’t move.
“He just said what everyone else was thinking,” she said.
Grant paused, then said, “I see.”
“Come on, Jordan,” said his mother.
Jordan seemed stuck to the floor.
“We’ve sorted out what happened, Mr McKenna,” said Kim, hurriedly. “Your…Braydon’s mother has…already been spoken to. And Braydon understands what he did wrong, don’t you, Braydon?”
Braydon was also stuck to the floor.
“Braydon?” said Grant.
“Yep,” said Braydon.
A pause.
“Well,” said Tayla’s mother. “I bloody hope so.”
She took Tayla’s hand. Tayla looked tentatively for Kassie who, at least before tonight, had been her best friend. But Kassie had run to hide behind the stage.
Go to Part 7