Searing heat, cricket on the sand, wrapping paper sticking to sweaty skin, icy cold beer, and cold cuts of meat with salad for Christmas lunch and dinner? Here is a snapshot of an Australian Christmas on one street in a Melbourne beachside suburb during the week leading up to December twenty-five. A short story collection of unexpected gifts.
- Title: An Unexpected Gift: Christmas in Australia: Five Short Stories
- Author: KJ
- Release date: 1 November 2020
- Publisher: Indie author
- Genre and Tropes: Christmas, Short stories, Contemporary Romance, Christmas, Summer, New love, Old love, Unexpected love, Coming out, Coming home, Australia, Melbourne.
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I nose my car into the gap behind stall number forty-four. My stall. I’m on the city side of the Laskin Beach boardwalk, so I score a parking spot.
Yesterday, I’d raced up to Bargain Buy to grab something for lunch, pleading with Soma, the stall-holder next to me who makes exquisite beaded jewellery, to look after my stall. She’d laughed and flapped her hand at me to get going. We watch each other’s stuff all the time. It’s the market way.
With my sandwich and lemonade in hand, I’d walked past a softly awkward scene between the shy butch store manager and a stunning full-figured woman, who I assumed was a customer since she was attached to a laden trolley. I immediately wanted to paint her. They were so wrapped up in each other’s eyes and smiles that a naked Santa could have rappelled down through the ceiling and sung ‘Oh, Holy Night’ into a karaoke machine and they wouldn’t have known. I didn’t catch what they were saying, but everything about them said ‘new’ and ‘fascination’ and ‘thrill’ and ‘want’. I want that type of want.
Coming out to my parents as a full-time artist is going to be awful. Coming out to my parents as a lesbian is…much too terrifying. Not only am I disappointing them by not using my degree properly, I am—quote—dabbling in frivolity because the arts are a waste of time and simply a money pit—unquote. I can only imagine what adding ‘lesbian’ to that bottomless pit of disappointment will do. Knowing my mother, she’ll state categorically that I can’t be a lesbian because I’ve never had a girlfriend and therefore how on earth can I possibly have that much self-awareness? I know I am the biggest coward in the world. Look at yesterday’s manager and the customer. Right there in the centre of the shopping mall. Declaring themselves with their smiles.
I give my driver’s door a bit of a shove. Twenty-three years of age is a hell of a time to decide to choose art as a career, and gallivant about offering free legal advice to anyone who might need it. I’ll have to coordinate the moment when I inform my parents about my new path in life with the arrival of the removal van. I lug the two floor and three table-top easels into my sun shelter, lay them on the concrete, and hustle back for my folios. I have more prints with me today. The A4 high-quality reproductions of my paintings have sold well this week, so I figure that today will follow suit. At least I hope so. I set all my displays, making sure that the originals are draped in plastic—the salty film that settles on everything by the end of the day is unbelievably damaging, hence plastic, then I rack my prints, and hang my gorgeous banner that I made at OfficeMax. Alexandria Sandonis Art. I still get a buzz.
“Hey! Alexandria Sandonis is in the house!” yells a cheeky voice. I whip my head around, long brown ponytail swinging, and grin across the empty boardwalk to the stalls on the other side— basically four metres away. Zed—yes, like the last letter of the alphabet—leans her slim frame casually against her table, the digital camera loose in her hand, and the strap wrapped around her wrist. She’s dressed in another version of the exact same outfit as the previous ten days that the market’s been operating; tank top, cargo shorts, and sandals. Her sunglasses are perched in the nest of her messy short blonde hair, and I catch the glint of the two silver chains that drape about her neck. Zed is in her mid-thirties. I think. It’s hard to tell. She’s mischievous and irreverent and remarkably flirty. The skin near her blue eyes crinkles when she smiles. The lines of muscle and tendons in her forearms hold my attention whenever she wanders over to chat. Her greeting makes my stomach swoop and swirl in happiness. I have a ten-day-old crush.
“Morning, Zed. You going to have a good day?” I call back, then pluck at my shirt and flap it away from my body, cooling the sweat prickles. She watches.
“Absolutely. You too, hey? Want a hand with your tinsel?” She laughs as I glare at her. Yesterday I’d had the genius idea of hanging tinsel from the top of my shade tent. I’m a five feet three petite sprite. How on earth was I going to get three metres of tinsel hung that high up in the air, even with assistance? Anyway, it didn’t happen, but it did create hilarity for Zed, Soma, and a number of other stall holders.
“Sorry. Christmas joy and cheer is cancelled at this stall today.” I plant my hands on my hips to underline the statement. Zed tilts her laptop, adjusts her card payment device, and shifts her weight to the other foot, all without breaking eye contact.
“That’s a shame, Alex. I really like your joy and cheer.” Then she lifts a corner of her mouth in a little smile and winks. I blush.
After a quick check on my stall, and an even quicker check on my customer-service face in my phone camera—bright brown eyes, a touch of make-up that hopefully won’t slide off in the midday heat—I’m ready for another market day on Laskin Beach boardwalk.
And what a great day it is! The locals are relaxed. The tourists are excited and hilarious. Those that stop to browse make the time for small talk, which is nice. At lunchtime, I meet Linda and Grant, in their matching golf shirts and shorts, as they stop at my stall. They tell me that they’re from New York and express their astonishment at how vibrant Melbourne is; the strangeness of having Christmas in summer and their general bemusement at road rules, accent, and vocabulary. My laughter joins theirs. They buy one of my originals, which is incredible so I thrust out the card machine that I’ve leased for the duration of the market and they send one thousand dollars zipping into my account. It’s breathtaking. I am selling my art and the idea that I could do this for a living settles happily in my heart.
The piece that Linda and Grant have bought is of the old wooden rollercoaster—the kind without loops but with twists and turns and clinks and clanks—inside the fun park at the end of the beach. Even now, the screams from the people in the old-fashioned two-seater carriages as they complete their climb and fall over the rise into the first curve drift in the breeze to compete with the bossy screeching of the seagulls who undulate in the air over people’s lunches. To catch sight of the ride’s white wooden framing, I have to look across the boardwalk and past the far stalls. Zed’s stall, particularly. She uses the rollercoaster as the backdrop for her photographs. The sky today is a cerulean blue, and with the stark white wooden slats supporting the silver track, I imagine her portraits will be even more stunning. I’ve seen the thumbnails she sends to the customers immediately after their photo is taken. She’s very talented. Nearly every person, especially the couples, buy the full-size print, watch it land in their Dropbox or wherever and then complete the transaction.
I lower my gaze and, in between the gaps of people in the crowd flowing past, I watch her. She’s focused and unaware of my observation. Until she’s not. Her gaze catches mine and my reward is another cheeky grin and a wave. Talk about rollercoaster twists and turns.
I start to break down my stall at six o’clock. The customers have wandered off home or to a nearby restaurant, and even though the market operates until eight because of daylight saving, the soft, muted light of the evening is too dim to showcase my work. It’s fine, though. It’s been another fun day.