Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus

Glenda Guest

The Order of Things

 

Christmas is just too much, especially in the inland heat. She clicks a tape into the deck, hangs a card on the string tacked to the sideboard and opens the Christmas Book to check the order of things. The pages are altered and overwritten, changed by generations of women, but through the tangle of browning ink and faded pencil the original plan can be read.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas circles the house just like the ones we used to know...

 She takes the chicken out of the fridge, to take the chill off before stuffing, and turns on the oven.

Chop the onions, turkey, chook heart and liver and mushrooms Cutting up the heart and liver makes her feel like a cannibal. Chicken, her mother calls her. My chick. Here, chick, chick, chick. They call her up from the yard and the chooks come running as well, looking for food. The bantams are her favourites. Small, dark and edgy, they feel like her family as they follow her around the farm. Push the chopped heart and liver to one side of the board and peel the onion. Tears drip. Onion layers, like him. Take off the brown skin and there's a paler one, then another and another, until at last there's nothing but a pile of layers with no centre.

The big knife reduces the onion to small pieces. Slice 6 ounces of mushrooms Mushroom fairy rings in the autumn, not now, not in December heat.

Hot enough to cook the chook on the tank stand, he says.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

Mother sings around home a lot. Especially at night. There is a fire in the grate in the other room when Mother is singing. Inland nights get cold she says and throws a mallee root onto the flames. Home is close the gate, better get home to feed the chooks, do the milking. Cook mushrooms with the onions and chopped chicken heart and liver. 

The can of chestnut puree is next. She holds it up, looks at the picture of a woman holding up a can of chestnut puree, then looks closer at the can held by the picture woman. Another woman holds a can of puree; waits to use it in stuffing for her Christmas dinner. A high, thready note like the strike of a tuning fork leads her to the next woman who smiles and waves the can at her. She holds tightly to the thread going down through silver- grey air until she steps into the next picture and is waved on again, and again and again. Reflective tin-ness surrounds her broken only by the rhythmic passing of can holding women who smile as they display the next can. On and on, reaching for the first. How many generations of cans? She looks down the thread, down a telescope the wrong way, trying to see who posed for the painting of the first label.

Am I on a can being looked at by a woman with bantamblack hair pulled up into a knot? Maybe my can will be opened, and when the contents are used, thrown to the darkness of the dustbin. The label is glued fast as she tears at it, looking for the underneath. The small can distorts her reflection, stretching her face around its surface. There I am. A bit out of shape. But there.

days be merry and bright

Stir the chestnut puree together with the pate. She stirs, and fragments of England and Europe fly out of the bowel. The spire of the Eiffel Tower shakes off a piece of the Union Jack. Irish cottages line the broad avenues of Berlin. Dutch tulips, Spanish onions, Scotch Thistle flower in the middle of a Barcelonan bull ring. The flowers grow more profuse as the matador's blade flashes red. She tries to blend a homogenous mix but pieces still separate. She whisks harder. A bubbling, cacophonous mass fills the kitchen and overflows through the door onto the verandah. She stands aside and waits, expecting collapse when it hits the heat of the inland December sun. Bing Crosby sings in Swedish and Russian, French and Swahili. Notes of the refrain hover over the bowl like crows trying to land. Each one settles onto the surface and sinks. Faster they land, faster they sink until there's a torrent of blackness pouring into the mass, taking the surrounding air with them until it's hard to breathe. She holds back the chairs and books, lamp stands and tables that are wanting to follow and works her way to the tape deck where she pushes the rewind button so that the notes are recalled, flying backwards into the form of the song, and the air again becomes sweet and dry and the heat of the kitchen is briefly welcome.

hear sleigh bells in the snow 

Fill the cavity of the bird with the stuffing She sews the opening with a bag needle threaded with fine string. As she opens the oven heat blasts into the already stifling kitchen and her perspiration sizzles angrily on the glass of the door.

She chirps along...Santa Claus is coming

If he makes it this year. Hasn't for as long as she can remember. As a nipper she sits on the verandah up before day break just in case. That's why, he says, waiting up for him just makes him not come.

The next year she lies in bed, eyes tightly clenched. You must have been naughty. You know Santa don't come to naughty kids.

Miss Perfect for the next twelve months. But it doesn't make any difference. So she gives up.

Every night after dinner he sits there reading from the bible. In the name of the father,son and holy ghost, amen. She likes the sonority of the reading, not listening to the words but rocking on the rhythm. His voice changes when he reads, becomes part of the wordscape. From her perch on the rail under the kitchen table she watches him with half closed lids that hide round ginger-brown eyes, waiting for the change when he slams the book shut.

he knows when you've been bad or good He knows when you've been bad or good He knows when you've been bad or good He knows when you've been bad or good He knows 

You're a really bad girl.

Why did you do that, eh. Why.

Why.

Listen to me when I speak to you.

Stop that blasted humming

You'll be punished god

will

punish

you there'll be no Santa this Christmas not for you anyway bad bad sit still stop humming stop singing stop.

so be good for goodness sake she echoes as the tape player hiccups and slows.

Washing carrots in the sink. She likes chopping carrots, likes the smooth shape, the rhythm of the down-up down-up - the machine made between her hands and the flashing knife that takes control, biting into the pale browny-white of the wooden board slicing the root into smooth, equal rings. you are my sunshine, my only sunshine she sings with mother, the refrain taking control of the knife. you make me happy, when skies are grey. Add two teaspoons of honey and a knob of butter to the carrots when they are just cooked. Makes them something special - concentrates the taste somehow.

 
Peel potatoes. Throw them into the saucepan of water. Plant potatoes. Dig in mulch and manure. Change the dirt into rich soil. Cut the seed potatoes into pieces. Make sure there is at least one eye to each piece. Plant in rows of mounded earth. Wait for sunshine and rain to grow them. Dig the new potatoes. Lift the connecting stems dangling with the small brown roots. Like all goodness has arrived in one spot. Scrub the tiny potatoes and boil them in lots of water with salt then toss them in melted butter and rosemary.

Fit for a king Mother says.

Make the custard. beat eggs, sugar, vanilla together She likes this combining of ordinary things into something else. Add warmed milk and stir until thickened. Something rich and strange from such basic elements. Stirring with the big spoon makes her feel like a witch at her cauldron. Like the hag in Hansel and Gretel. Or the Wicked Witch of the West. She likes being the witch galloping around the yard on a broomstick with chooks and bantams rushing around squawking and geese hissing and flapping at her. The cape found in the dress up box flies behind with a satisfying rush and flap. Make sure you're not doing this when your dad gets home, he'll cut up the cape if he sees it.

He likes cutting things up. Cuts up the chook at the table. Cuts off the head first. Come and hold it girl, so I cut clean.

the ones I used to know...

 
She sings herself out of the kitchen into the dining room, takes table linen from the drawer and sets up the ironing board. iron cloth just before covering table, to avoid unsightly creases. In the Book this is crossed out by her mother but she still follows it, feeling connected to the brown, spidery writing.

iron on the wrong side, on a towel so the pattern stands out The heat of the iron on the old damask makes the pattern rise above the fabric, expanding into a lacy white cloud that hovers several feet below ceiling level. Notes from the tape deck spin out, spiralling up to the cloud and down into the gaps left lying on the ironing board. The rhythm of the song changes and she spreads as she joins it, black hair feathering as, note by note, she follows the spiral upwards. She expands and opens to the hanging pattern as prickles of notes surge though the spaces and attach to each other by their tails. She, cloud, notes, she cloud notes shecloudnotes swirl together and together around the room, until the tape deck stops and the lace cloud settles back into the gaps, the cloth not quite the same as before. She shakes the linen onto the table and flicks off a note I'm that has stuck in the pattern.

 
Three places at the table set with green placemats with scalloped edges and a motif of a wintery santa at one end. Him at the end with his back to the door looking into the kitchen. Carving the chook into wings and drumsticks, dark meat and breast. Breast or bum end for you girl? Whadaya want this year eh?

Mother at the other end with the view out the door and window across the brown yard, past the three bar gate, over the salt lake to the horizon.

Herself on the side with her back to the window, able to look at them both and see the chook house behind her own reflection of shiny feather-black hair and round bright eyes in the mirror over the side board.

Turn the page.

 
polish the silver as you lay it. A small, hot breeze scatters Christmas cards to the floor, and she turns up the volume on the tape deck. Her mother always polishes the silver, keeps it shining all the time. Be careful with the knives, pet. Your Dad likes them sharp. Lots of elbow grease to keep away the tarnish. Wish mother was here to do it. She wants her to be here. She pushes away edges of black veil that hang to the waist, over the good black dress.

A fine layer of dust blows through the house, tickling her beaky nose to make her sneeze, and into the tape deck so that it slows a little, fighting its way through the unexpected brake.

She can't find the silver cleaner so she fills the sink with hot water, adds detergent and throws in the cutlery. Knives forks spoons fill the sink in a jumble which she sullenly scrubs and places in the draining board.

Mind your fingers on the knives.

The teatowel becomes black with tarnish as she wipes each piece, rubbing between the tines of each fork, digging her finger nail into the slot between the knife blade and the handle. Each piece is laid on a clean teatowel and covered with another, ready for the table.

you'd better not pout I'm telling you why

baste the chicken every twenty minutes Heat pours from the oven as she opens the door and spoons sizzling fat over the browning bird. A splodge of hot fat hits her arm.

You better not shout, you better not cry Only babies cry. What are you crying about. Tears don't do anything. You should be more careful, careful. Don't cry, baby, my chick.

better watch out I'm telling you why Hot wind bangs at the windows and doors, pushing fine sand and dust through cracks and tossing the hanging decorations. In the dining room she shakes dust off the placemats and lays the nearly clean cutlery. As she places a knife on the table it nicks her little finger and a spot of blood makes a dark mark on the green mat. She moves the knife slightly to cover it.

She takes tall crystal glasses from the back of the sideboard and carries them to the kitchen sink. Wash crystal glasses one at a time and dry with a linen cloth so lint pieces don't stick. Those glasses are your father's pride and joy. Wash gently and dry. Carry one in each hand to the table. Three glasses. Two trips. Be careful.

better watch out better watch out better watch out better watch out the tape deck sticks as she carefully carries the glasses to the table. She holds high the third glass, so that it trembles slightly in the hot wind, then throws it at the tape deck where it shatters with a high, keening note, and knife sharp shards of fine crystal take flight in lines of pain to bury themselves in her leg. m y y r d ys b m rry The flying glass picks up the notes and throws them in disarray, fragmenting the song until it is not to be recognised.
  In the kitchen the oven glows red.

Always take care around the kitchen love turn saucepan handles in don't take anything out of the oven with a wet cloth or you'll steam yourself check the oven carefully so things don't catch fire make sure the hotplates are off don't put teatowels on the stove top take care take care.

The oven door opens. The pan slides out, spewing hot fat, and the chicken hits the floor running. dark as a bantam chick Notes of music, lost by being single, find the chicken and cling to it, trying to form a melody jus...li...I... ow but lose their grip and are thrown off the frantic bird. The oven breathes in, draws a mouthful of Christmas cards. Edges brown and curl as rivulets of heat run across the pages, burst with red and fly back into the room. Rushes of wind push them into the cupboards and onto the Christmas Book which blackens and chars as it is sucked into the tornado of knives, forks and black notes.

Notes find her and their tails needle into her skin. They attach and overlap, transforming into a coat of black feathers. Her feet make claws to hold her to the rail under the table as she resists the swirling wind and as she clings there the Christmas Book spins out of the vortex and hits her on the chest above the heart, leaving a white ghosting of text on the coat of glossy black.

Unable to breathe, she tries to shake the notes away but they pile layer upon layer, weighing her down until she becomes a pile of smokey, acrid feathers. The flames lick up the walls and the feather-pile shrinks to ash, to a black smudge, to an egg shaped hole that the running chicken, rampant in red and gold streamers, recognises and settles over with brooding in mind.

 

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TEXT
Vol 2 No 1 April 1998
http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
Text@mailbox.gu.edu.au