It’s not like anyone around here celebrates Christmas. John across the road doesn’t even put up a tree and Cameron next door has a few decorations on a pot plant. But the kids always want it to be a big Christmassy kind of thing. I just couldn’t be bothering with the lights so we usually don’t. And I never have any money at the end of the year. CentreLink gives you an extra cheque early and then you have to get all the way to January before the next one. It’s a tough stretch.
Lorrie’s kid Mylah is so much like her mother it really gives me the shits sometimes. She’s 14 and looks like a younger Lorrie and acts just like her too. Example. I’m sitting in the kitchen reading the TV guide and Mylah comes in and says ‘morning’ with a big grin on her face. It’s 2.30pm in the afternoon. She’s got blonde hair in a pony tail. Swishes it around like a horse. Her face is thin and spotty. I say to her – “It’s ‘afternoon’ you mean”. She says no, she means morning because she says ‘morning’ instead of ‘hello’. You could see how that kind of thing would really piss you off after awhile. But she’s a pretty good kid. Kind of funny. Like her mum. So I just nod and she smiles at me.
Mylah pulls out a chair at the kitchen table, sits down and fidgets, picking at her finger nails. I put the guide down. What? She tells me she and her step brother Bryce want us to go into the Star FM Xmas Lights Competition. I say no straight off but she breathes in deep, leans back in the chair as she puts her hands flat on the table. She’s ready with an argument. The prize is $5,000 she says for the best overall lights, and all you have to do is have a good design. The winner gets announced on the radio. I tell her, look, there’s no way we could win against those St. Hubert’s Island people who just go fucking ape with all sorts of lights and reindeers and dummies made up like Jesus H. Christ. One year they even had a Santa that went up and down on a parachute. You can’t win against that.
Mylah smiles again. There’s a $2,000 prize for the best in your neighbourhood which means you only have to beat people in your street. Round Mt. Ettalong there’s nothing much really. John across the road usually just has Sigma sedan parts in the yard. Cameron next door hasn’t been feeling that great and hasn’t been seen for awhile. Maybe we could do a clean sweep? We’d need money for the lights. Mylah has the whole thing planned out. Go-Lo in Umina has a special on lights, like $19.99 for 500 lights on a string. All we’d need is a couple of strings and lights and we’d be a dead cert. I start thinking of what we’d do with $2k. Pay off some debts, get the kids down to Sydney to see their mothers, maybe go on a holiday to Movie World – and the whole idea of the competition becomes very appealing indeed. Alright. I’ll stop by Go-Lo have a look and no promises and… but she’s already bouncing around the kitchen clapping her hands and screaming. It’s great to see kids like that – you know, happy for a change, instead of crying or punching holes in the wall and shit.
I should have known that Mylah wanting to put up lights wasn’t what it appeared to be. Like they say on Law & Order, she had an “ulterior motive”. She kept bugging me. Kevin, when are we putting up the lights? Kevin, did you get the lights? We’ve only got three weeks left Kevin.
What happened was I was up at Lassiter’s and twosies turned into twelvsies. Then I had a winning mystery trifecta and $550 in the hand and I was walking down West Street. Go-Lo was open and then I remembered the chrissie lights so I went in and they had all these lights. So I just kind of went crazy and bought up a whole lot and came home. Soon as I woke up Mylah was on me to put them up. So. I’m up a ladder hammering up the chrissie lights with a vicious hangover and a can of UDL on the go to try and soften the blow.
Mylah and Bryce are down on the ground yelling at me. Put one there Kevin, put another one over there Kevin. Even Bryce calls me Kevin now and he is my own kid. Mylah has a diagram on a piece of paper with her lighting design but it’s pretty hard to follow. Eventually I just start putting up the strings of lights up anywhere and eventually the whole front of the house is festooned with twinklers.
I get down pretty pleased but Mylah and Bryce aren’t looking so happy. “What’s up?” I say. “It looks good and it’ll be even better at night. Believe me.”
Bryce shrugs and goes off down to the creek. Mylah sits on the front step. She looks like she’s going to cry.
“What’s up sweetie?”
She folds her arms across her stomach and leans forward. I rub her back.
“Do you think if we’re a winner Mum will hear it on the radio?”
“I don’t know.” Honesty is the best policy with kids. “I don’t know if they even have Star FM in Sydney.”
Mylah doesn’t say anything and just goes inside the house.
Fuck a duck.
The lights are so bright at night that John’s house is lit up. It’s so bright you could read a magazine. It’s so bright that the Volunteer Fire Fighters use outside our place as a prime spot for collecting donations from passing traffic. But Mylah isn’t happy. It’s just a bunch of lights she says. Although I tell her the front of the house looks like the universe at night she’s not convinced. What’s more the Star FM car hasn’t been around to interview us. During the Nights with Alice Cooper on Star 104.5 show they play interviews with people who’ve entered the comp. People from St. Hubert’s Island get a big play, going totally overboard with decorations, and some guy from around the corner in Umina gets a spot as well. But not us. Mylah is devastated.
They’ll come around, you’ll see, I say. It’s one week before Xmas but I realise at that point that we probably won’t get interviewed and probably won’t win either.
I get depressed about the whole situation and spend too many nights at Lassiter’s. The kids have a lot on this comp and it weighs on me. My spirits are lifted for a bit when I hear from John across the road that vandals have struck all over the Peninsula, thoughtlessly wrecking people’s Christmas decorations that they’ve worked so hard to put up for other people’s pleasure. That’s what John says to me anyway, but I’m secretly thinking, you fucking beauty, now maybe we have a chance, while I’m saying “oh, that’s terrible, if those vandals come around here” etc etc.
But nothing changes and Christmas comes and the winner is announced. It’s the guy around the corner in Umina who won for making his house look like an ocean liner. What that has to do with Christmas I don’t know. Maybe the tub was under the command of Captain Santa?
Mylah gets depressed and not even the paint and canvas set I bought at the Go-Lo spending spree cheers her up on Christmas morning. Bryce is happy enough with his Russell Crowe plastic Gladiator sword kit which he takes it down to the creek to attack some ducks – he’s a resilient kid – but Mylah is just like her mother in so many ways. She gets black and just sinks in there. I fucking hate Christmas.
Every time I thought about taking the lights down I’d get a pain somewhere and have to lie down on the couch. I just didn’t want to think about it. After New Year came and went Mylah never mentioned them either. The neighbours stopped complaining and the lights being on all the time just became a regular part of the neighbourhood.
They added a festive air to other events in the year. Bryce’s birthday in March seemed to have something a little extra thanks to the illumination and drinks sessions on the street could go on well into the night. You could see your drink perfectly well. Even though by April only about half of the original lights had survived it was an impressive sight and getting a cab back from the pub was easy – just go to the house with the lights on it I’d say and the cabbie would know where you meant.
Despite all this the bit that happened next was a genuine surprise. I came home from shopping one afternoon and a Star FM car was parked outside the house. A bloke from the station wanted to talk to me because we had set some sort of record for leaving up our chrissie lights longer than anyone else. It was great getting on the radio and then it all snowballed. The Central Coast Advocate ran a photo of us three with the lights and Mylah cheered up, and then fuck me dead if the story doesn’t run in The Daily Telegraph, the big Sydney newspaper. There’s a knock on the door and its doddery old Mr. Cameron who I was sure had maybe died but turns out was just on holiday at his sister’s and he has the Telegraph. I open the screen door and he shuffles in with the paper points at the photo and story on page 12 with his big shaky finger that looks more like a sausage than a finger. We all have a good laugh.
So it’s around the beginning of May. The phone rings one night at dinner time. I have a feeling I know who it is even before I pick it up. She barely says hi or anything. She just wants to talk to Mylah. Hey Mylah, it’s for you, I say, and you can tell from the look on her face she already knows who it is. It must have been the tone of my voice or something. She jumps up from the table and grabs the phone.
So I just sit there eating pizza with Bryce. I let him take the pieces with the most ham on them and keep the pineapple-rich slices for myself. Bryce is talking to me about soccer or something and I’m nodding and smiling at him but what I’m really doing is listening to the kid talk to her mother.
I can tell from what’s being said that they’re talking about me, about how I couldn’t be bothered taking down the lights and what a joke I am, but that’s all ok. It’s nice for a change that everyone is happy.
Vegemite Whiskers and other stories: the best of Australian Writing Vol. 1, John Dean, ed., Global Short Stories, 2011
Global Short Stories Anthology, John Dean, ed., Global Short Stories, 2011.
© Andrew Frost 2016