This story is now published as part of the anthology ‘Loyal and True’.
I never wanted to go to my grandma’s on Christmas night but I always had fun when I got there.
Mum said that all the time, “You’ll have fun when you get there”.
She was right most of the time but it still cheesed me off whenever she said it.
My grandma lived in a large old Italianate Victorian house on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy.
It stood out then as it does today because it has two concrete fountains in the front yard [you don’t see that everyday] and because it is the only house in a long row of old double story shops.
When you are a kid you don’t want to be dragged away from your new toys even if there is the promise of a party or other kids [mostly cousins] to play with and some serious cakes.
My aunties would all try and outdo each other when it came to heart stopping cream cakes.
My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
My mum was an excellent cook but my aunties were not far behind and one aunty in particular enjoyed that I complimented her on her cakes. She saw it as a victory over my mum and I saw it as a chance to get more cakes! A bit of flattery went a long way with my aunties and in my day cream cakes were a luxury only to be seen at Christmas, birthdays and the occasional other special occasion, so I was not going to miss out.
As I said, my grandma’s house was huge with a long hallway running down the centre of the house. The backyard was not huge but it did have it’s own bluestone stables, as well as back gates that led to a side street!
All of these things spelled ‘kid heaven’.
I had heaps of cousins about half of which were a few years older and the rest were around my age. We all got on reasonably well so there was always fun to be had.
My grandma was pretty old and I don’t think she knew what a vacuum cleaner was so once us kids got going the house looked and smelled like a speakeasy, only with us it was dust not smoke.
Even now if I go into a dusty room it takes me back instantly to that house.
My cousin Phil and I were about eight months apart in age and we got on well so I looked forward to seeing him. Unfortunately he suffered from asthma and all the running around combined with the dust was too much for Phil.
My mum suggested that I sit with him somewhere quiet out of the mayhem. I didn’t mind, I liked the guy and I felt for him partly because in those days asthma was seen as a wimpy disease; at least amongst us kids it was.
It happened every Christmas and it got to the point that I would learn a few stories [mostly provided by my dad] so I had something to take Phil’s mind off the fact that he might not be able to take another breath.
It hadn’t happened yet but one of my aunties and one of my cousins would die suddenly from this affliction and my dad’s life was significantly shortened by asthma and the panoply of experimental drugs they gave him over the years.
I tried to come up with new stories each year but Phil would always ask for one particular story.
It involved the devil.
I doubt that it was the way I told it, although I had plenty of practice, but he loved this story.
We were at different Catholic schools and it was the early 1960s so the devil got plenty of ink in our little world.
The story went a bit like this.
The Devil and the Drover.
Once upon a time there was a drover who had a big heard of cattle that he had to drive across the outback. They needed to be at a certain town by a certain time but he was not worried because he had done this run many, many times.
As he was slowly moving his herd across the outback he met a strange man. The drover wondered how this man had arrived out here in the desert.
The ‘man’ introduced himself as ‘the devil’.
The drover thought he was kidding but it might explain why he did not seem to mind the heat.
The devil told the drover that he could have anything he wanted and all he had to do was to give him his soul.
The drover thought about it [who wouldn’t?] but eventually he said no thanks.
The devil was very angry and stole several of the drover’s cattle and took them down a big hole which presumably, led to hell.
As you can imagine the drover was not very happy, in fact he was pissed!
The devil thought he had the best of him but he didn’t count on how tough and resourceful a drover can be.
The drover rode to the nearest town and spent all the money he had on a wagon filled with blocks of ice. He drove the wagon back to where the devil had stolen his cattle and he parked the wagon on the edge of the hole and started to unload the ice.
They were big blocks and the drover threw them one by one into the hole.
When the wagon was about half empty the devil popped up out of the hole that led to Hell and started to shout at the drover.
“Stop dropping ice into that hole, you are putting the fire out!”
“Give me back my cattle”, the drover replied with passion of his own.
The devil refused so the drover went back to emptying the contents of the wagon into the hole which led directly to hell.
The devil was furious but he had to give in as it was very difficult to restart the fires of hell once they had gone out.
The drover got his cattle back and he made it to market just in time to collect his fee.
The next time the drover did that run he took the long way around.
No sense tempting fate.