Christmas in Australia doesn’t look much like a Nat King Cole song. Sandcastles rather than snowmen, surfing instead of sleigh-rides, and a lot of overdressed Santas handing melted chocolates out to kids. There are mangoes involved, lots of them, and a box of cherries that I have to hide or else I’ll eat myself ill.
It’s hot outside, the sort of hot that comes laden with moisture, searing heat by day and cracking thunderstorms on dusk; the sort of hot that makes you want to sit very, very still beneath the ceiling fan and maybe even doze. The birds are up by five each day, and you can’t walk the streets at night without passing through pockets of air swollen with the scent of sun-warmed gardenias.
For Christmas lunch we’ll eat turkey and baked ham, but we’ll eat them outside at a long table beneath the jacaranda tree. There’ll be citronella burning to keep the mosquitoes at bay, and when we’re finished the kids will demolish a watermelon and run back and forth beneath the sprinkler until they’re soaking wet. The crickets will start to chirrup in the underbrush as evening comes, and we’ll listen to Christmas songs about snow and sleds and little robin red breasts, as the pair of kookaburras who let us share their backyard eye hidden snakes from the bough of the silvery gum.
The heat can be oppressive here; it can seem inescapable; but I don’t mind. Inside my house there’s a doorway to another world. Not at the back of the wardrobe (I know because I’ve checked). My doorway sits atop my desk and the ritual to pass through it goes like this: I close the office door behind me—carefully, quietly, so that nobody knows I’ve gone and asks me to play Pacman again (not that I don’t love playing Pacman, only I’m the reigning champion and I don’t play soft and it isn’t kind to beat one’s children every time); I draw the curtains on my view of hot tin roofs and backyard swimming pools; I fire up my computer and I begin to read.
This year my doorway takes me to London in 1940. It’s cooler there, and dangerous. The bombs have begun to fall and no one knows yet the fierce battle that lies ahead. In the small room of a boarding house in Notting Hill, a girl called Dolly is about to cross paths with a pair of strangers who will change her life. A terrible thing is going to happen and a shocking secret will be kept for decades.
Listen. The air raid siren has just sounded; the landlady is drumming on her saucepan, ordering everyone to the shelter; the drone of bombers comes closer and Dolly runs towards her fate . . .
You can go there, too, next year, but in the meantime I hope your own magic doorway takes you somewhere wonderful this Christmas.