Pansy and the Christmas Tree

CP with angel

Last January, I saw the email call for submissions from Christmas Press for their 2017 anthology,  A Christmas Menagerie. 

I spent several afternoons devising a story based on memories my mother had told me, about a Christmas she had on the family dairy farm at Federal in the 1930s when she was a girl.

Pansy and the C T

Although I have made up the characters and the plot, there really was a cranky cow called Pansy who gave my mother a black eye when being milked.

All their cows had names. This photo isn’t Pansy, the cranky cow. When we were going through photos,  sorting out names and places, Mum told me it was Anzac, a nice cow born on Anzac Day.

cow.png

The surprise Christmas meal was also true, and I know that Mum and her family had sing-a-longs with friends for which my grandfather played the fiddle. They were Methodists, and music was essential to their lives.

We celebrate Christmas without her now, but I hope Mum would be pleased that a story she gave me so many elements for is now in print.

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Bimbilla

Reconciliation site photo

 Bimbilla: a story for children 

“You have to be joking,” Emma complained. Before her loomed the biggest sand dune ever. It was a steep, almost vertical climb of more metres than she could guess.

“Come on, don’t be a whinge! There’s the best beach just over the dunes…” her brothers Max and Jack were off and over the top, out of sight, before she could reply.

“Dad, can’t I stay in the car?”

“No, come on, it’s not so bad. I’ll give you a hand up…” Dragging Emma by the hand, Dr Williams kept on talking. “There’s a great view from the top of the dunes. The beach is very private and there’s a terrific Aboriginal midden here at Dark Point. Roped off of course, it must be preserved. You kids are not to play around in there. It is a special place. Amazing to see real evidence of the Worimi people living on the coast…”

Emma couldn’t care less about her father’s enthusiasm for Aboriginal sites, but as the daughter of the passionate geographer she had learnt that resistance was futile. She felt hot, uncomfortable and conned. “I could be relaxing on the Gold Coast,” she grumbled. Missing out on going to Movie World with Mum and her new husband was one thing, but trekking over sand dunes like a camel more than she could bear. Sand in her hair, up her nose, gritty in her mouth after the ascent, she longed for a sip of icy water from her backpack.  There were miles of dunes still before her, and the sea was still just a distant view. “I’ll catch you up, after I have a drink,” she said.

“Don’t be long,” called Dr Williams as he waved from the top of the next sand hill.

Emma pulled her phone from her pocket. There was no reception in this remote spot. “The end of the world,” she murmured. Trudging barefoot through the treeless sand she saw a pair of black cockatoos flying inland. “Wish I could go too,” she sighed to herself. Climbing the last peak of sand, she spotted the wiry figure of her father climbing the rocky outcrop of Dark Point, and a few surfers testing the waves on the southern side. The waves lapping the deserted cove on the northern side of the point where Emma stood were blood red, and an unexpected stench rose from the sea. Despite the hot sun, Emma shivered.

It was still a huge walk to the clear waters of the southern side. When at last she arrived, Emma dumped her backpack on the hard sand and ran into the clear cool swell.

“Dad, why was the water red on the other side?”

“Red weed. Smelly stuff. Comes in on the tide sometimes. But it’s good and clean on this side. No blue bottles either. Ready for lunch?”

Embarrassingly, Dad made a small campfire and boiled the billy. He had cast a fishing line but of course there were no bites. Instead he made damper and cooked sausages. The boys tore at their food with their teeth and spat the burnt bits in the sand. Emma ate her lunch and sat to one side out of the smoke.

“Why is it called Dark Point, Dad?” asked Emma.

“Not sure,” replied Dad. “But I have a guidebook from the local tourist centre,” he went on, rummaging in his pack. Leafing through the pages, he shook his head. “Doesn’t say. But it was a favourite place of the Worimi aborigines. They spoke the Kattang language. They fished and cooked seafood here…”

“Yuck, I hate fish,” said Jack. “I’d hunt kangaroo.”

“They would have done that as well,” Dad said. “But not the koala. Says here that was their totem, sacred to their tribe. Look, it has a list of some of their words… why-ree means hunting spear; a mosquito is a toe-peeng; koe-tee means friend; bimbilla is a pink cockle shell…”

Dad read the book to himself until he dozed off; Emma walked around the rocks looking for shells. Mauve pipi shells and creamy pelican’s feet, limpets and cone shells were easily found around the warm, shallow rock pools.  The boys swam and dug for pipis on the shoreline as the afternoon faded. The surfers were gone and the beach was empty except for them. It was sunset before they even talked about going home.

Struggling up the cooling shadowy sands Emma thought she could see the silhouette of a girl against the orange glow of the sky. Shading her eyes with her hand, she looked again but could see no one.

“Remember how we used to play hide and seek in the dunes?” asked Max. “Mum always found the best spots. You count Dad, and we’ll hide.” Max ran off before anyone could reply. Jack ran in the opposite direction. “Great, thought Emma, we’ll never get home.” But she had no choice but to hide. “At least I can go in the direction of the car,” she thought.

She climbed the dune and slipped under the loose wire that fenced off the midden. With the gentlest footsteps she walked into the centre -the words of her father’s lecture about the sanctity of the midden seemed to demand it. The sand was lumpy with shells and other shapes the girl could not name; she lay in a hollow that seemed to be carved to her exact shape. It was as if the dune and the girl had never been separate. Emma had an extraordinary sense of belonging. She felt that she could sleep in this perfect resting place until sunrise.

She could hear the voices of the boys as they were found. Dad was calling, but the loudest sound was the pounding of her heart. The chilly evening breeze cut through the thin fabric of her shirt. Something grated her hip. She wriggled around and pulled out a large pink cockle shell, crusted with sand and bleached with age. “Bimbilla,” she whispered. Suddenly, cold fingers touched her arm, and as she began to cry out, a cold palm clasped tightly over her mouth.

“Quiet. Don’t move. Bimbilla hides too. We will hide from the white ghosts together.”

Emma pushed against the cold limbs encircling her and sprang up from the sand, racing out from the midden. She snagged her shorts on the wire and a deep gash spurted blood from her calf. “Dad, here! Help,” she cried. “Someone got me…”

In his concern for the cut and annoyance at having no first aid kit, her father didn’t listen to Emma’s words. “Were you in the midden?” he asked. You know that it is off limits…” As she was helped back to the car she slipped the cockle shell, still gripped by tight in her fingers, into the pocket of her shorts.

That night, disinfected and bandaged, after a long talk on the phone with mum, Emma lay in bed listening to music and doodling in her scrapbook. Dad brought her a hot drink. “At least I won’t have to climb sand mountains tomorrow,” she thought. She pulled the pink cockle shell out from under her pillow, and sketched the cream-coloured convex ridges of the shell, on the white page, darkening them to pink at the edges until they looked like pale fingers cupped together.

“We will hide together,” echoed the voice, but Emma turned up the music and lay back on the pillow, closing her eyes for sleep.

The dreams Emma remembered in the morning were as clear as a video being shown in her head. An Aboriginal girl woman with a pale skinned baby wrapped in a wallaby skin, waving to a white fisherman in a boat in the bay. “Bimbilla,” sings the woman, rocking the infant on one arm, scooping fish from smoking ashes with a cockle shell. Emma sees the same baby, grown to a ginger-headed girl, dancing and laughing on the beach with her mother, collecting oysters from the rocks, singing around the glowing fire.

Emma took up her scrapbook and drew the figures, the rocky point, the sea.

“OK Princess?” asked Dad. I’ll only be gone an hour. Mrs O’Keefe is next door, she’ll hear if you shout…”

“Go on, Dad, I don’t need Mrs O’Keefe,” said Emma. “ I’ll be fine.”

“Bimbilla,” she whispered. “Bimbilla, I’m not afraid of you now. Be my koe-tee.”

From behind the bedroom door a slim, tanned and freckled girl with tangled ginger hair stepped quietly into the room. “Bimbilla’s good at hiding,” she laughed.

Emma showed the girl the scrapbook drawings, and soon they were covering pages with drawings of turtles, fish, birds and people with distinctive dotted patterns.

“Why were you hiding, Bimbilla?” asked Emma gently.

“The white ghosts come,” said Bimbilla. “They come, they push, they drag, they shout, they take Worimi to the rocks. They push them over. All gone.”

“But you hid?”

Bimbilla nodded. “Hiding in the sand. The white ghosts did not find Bimbilla.”

The sound of the car in the drive made Emma jump. “Hide again, Bimbilla, hide now!” she whispered urgently.

Emma got up and limped to meet her father at the door.

“Feeling better? That’s good, he smiled.

Emma didn’t have much chance to talk again with Bimbilla until evening. They drew pictures and laughed together until sleep claimed them. Again Emma dreamt of the beach and the rocky point, the dark-skinned people laughing and splashing in the shallows, eating fish cooked in ashes, pulling a surprised goanna from the scrub by the tail.

Next day Max was mad to go back to Dark Point. “Son, I don’t think Emma is up to it,” said Dad.

“Yes I am, it will be fine,” said Emma. “My leg is much better.” Dad raised his eyebrows in surprise, but quickly packed sandwiches and fruit for lunch.

Driving down the long coastal road, between natural hedges of ti-tree kept trim by the sea winds, Emma clutched the pink cockle shell tightly in her hand. “Nearly home, Bimbilla,” she whispered. Willy wagtails twitched on the side of the road, and the stirred the tops of the trees.

After lunch Emma walked by herself to the midden and tucked the pink shell back into the sand. “You are home again now, Bimbilla, my koe-tee. I’m sorry about the white ghosts,” she said. Looking down to the cove north of the rocky point, Emma could see clear, clean water, with no trace of red in the dancing waves.

“Bimbilla” © Julie Thorndyke

First published in:

Secrets : stories selected by Stephen Matthews.
Charnwood, A.C.T. : Ginninderra Press, 2006.