Columns

Christmas on the edge

Village Green

OUR first proper home after we married was a tiny, pock-marked, white ant-riddled cottage, perched on an impenetrable limestone ridge on the edge of the Mallee, known officially as the Head Teacher’s Residence.

Attached to this shaky old structure was the single schoolroom. It was here we enjoyed our first years of teaching, at State School No. 4041 Wheatlands.

As the end of that first year approached, we were reminded, on a fairly regular basis:

“We’d better start practicin’ for our school concert.” We were told the concert consisted mainly of carols and “some other stuff”.

A local young pianist of some talent provided the music. She had taken it upon herself to teach the children some beautiful Australian Christmas carols. We followed this up with some bush ballads.

We decided to extend the Australian content.

We had toyed with the idea of performing a little play.

We searched the shelves of the educational bookseller in Bendigo but found nothing suitable: all too ‘English’ or too ‘soppy’ for these down-to-earth Mallee kids.

I had been reading The Magic Pudding to the whole school – all eight of them. (You try holding the interest of kids from Prep to Grade 6 with the one book.) The book was highly successful – perhaps we could do a dramatisation of The Pudding?

Being a published author by this time and recognising my moral responsibility, I wrote to Norman Lindsay seeking his permission. I included a number of children’s drawings of his characters with the letter and received a charming response, granting permission.

We built the script on the blackboard with the kids all collaborating, cast the play from the steps and stairs that was the total enrolment of the school – Bunyip Bluegum, Sid Sawnoff and the rest of them – and began rehearsals.

All seemed to be going well, but by the time we were approaching performance I realised the Grade 5 girl cast as Bunyip Bluegum was not coping with Bunyip’s convoluted dialogue. At the last minute I made a drastic decision. I would have to play Bunyip Bluegum! So I donned the magical koala ears – crafted by a skilled parent from rabbit fur and wire – and gave it a run.

Problem: I didn’t know the lines! So we built a cardboard gum tree and hid the original Grade 5 girl inside as ‘prompt’.

The performance was a wild success. The combination of me with rabbit skin ears and the Grade 5 girl bellowing the lines ahead of me from inside the tree, with me following limply behind, brought the house (or rather the corrugated iron hall) down.

The following year we had to eclipse our previous effort. So we decided to write our own play – and we’d make it a musical!

Once again we constructed the story and dialogue on the blackboard, titling it Christmas at Boggy Creek.

This time we could craft the characters to the children who would be playing them.

(The Grade 4 girl who was the village postmistress who opened everyone’s mail, actually became a real postal clerk and remained so through her working life.)

We incorporated several bush ballads with lyrics tweaked to fit our story. The plot explained how it was discovered that Santa Claus was not visiting Boggy Creek that year – so something must be done. Skulduggery was discovered, but justice prevailed, the local bushranger turned from villain into hero and the ‘real’ Santa Claus appeared on stage with his bulging bag and proceeded to hand out presents – purchased by the Mothers’ Club – to every school child and preschooler in the hall.

We knew it would be a hard act to follow; but by the following February the teacher had moved on and the school had been closed due to diminishing enrolment. A neighbouring farmer bought the limestone ridge, and demolished school and residence. The site has long since reverted to wheat crops.

Footnote: A writer friend, who viewed the performance, suggested I send the script to the ABC. So I did what I thought was a creditable radio version and posted it off. It came back in due course, suggesting the work was mainly visual. Could I rewrite it for TV? This 40-minute version went to air the following Christmas with a fine professional cast, marking the beginning of my future new career.

Better ‘very’ late than never

LATE again! It’s always been a bit of a running theme at our place, despite my best efforts.

When our kids started high school they discovered that there was a Late Book in the Head’s antechamber. All entries had to be signed off by an appropriate adult. Their school was located far from here, and excuses that were standard fare in Warrandyte were decidedly novel in suburbia.

My eye ran down the page of preceding entries.

“Dentist … headache … optometrist … dentist …”

We soon changed that.

“A tree fell across our drive, and we had to wait for somebody to come with a chainsaw,” was a reason for missing the school bus on more than one occasion. I suppose I could’ve phoned somebody to ferry the kids to the bus stop but we were invariably cutting it fine and of course we didn’t find the fallen tree until we were leaving. No, we were just late. Sometimes very late.

“I slept in because I was out all night on a platypus survey.” An excuse to be used only sparingly, admittedly, but one of undeniable originality.

“I slept in because Mum’s car was being repaired and we had to get the bus home.”

That took some explaining. In those days there was no bus along Research Road after 7 p.m. so after a late finish at school we ended up having to walk several kilometres from the bridge. I seem to recall a black moonless night, too dark to see roadside puddles.

By the time we’d trudged up the last hill it was very late and we were wet through with squelching shoes. I did consider hiring a car, but doing without seemed so much more adventurous. And it was educational. I can vouch for that.

“One of our budgies started attacking the other budgies. We had to get another aviary so we could separate them. It took ages to catch her, and there was blood and feathers everywhere. I had to go and put a clean shirt on.” I remember some amusement at work as well when I phoned in late with that story.

“We got snowed in and missed our flight home.” Entirely true, Your Honour. On the last morning of a long weekend getaway, we awoke to find our car covered by a foot of snow and the only road out impassable. It took hours for the snowplough to get through. I didn’t realise that nobody at work had believed me until I took my photo album along a couple of weeks later. “Oh, you really DID get snowed in!” they exclaimed, looking amazed. I was a bit miffed by that. We seem to have excuses enough through natural causes – I can’t recall ever having to invent one.

“We had to find the baby Tawny Frogmouth and put it in a safe place.” It had fallen out of its nest. The parents fed it and looked after it at night, but we couldn’t leave it flapping helplessly on the ground during the day or the neighbour’s cats would have made short work of it. As it got stronger over succeeding weeks, the little beggar got harder and harder to find.

“We were in Queensland competing in Nationals and the beaches got shut down for two days because of sharks.

After that everything was running behind schedule …”

Well that was all over the TV news, with spectacular aerial footage of packs of sharks hunting a thick black cloud of sardine-like tiddlers along the shoreline. Nobody could argue with that.

But the excuse that I’ve had to use most frequently over recent years – an excuse that everybody understands, even those unfortunate enough to be buried in the wilds of suburbia – has just struck again.

“My computer won’t work – Windows keeps crashing! Damn!’

It’s obviously time to go right to the top for help.

“Dear Santa …”