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Title: A small white Christmas tree
Name: Turkington, Joan
My Story: It was Christmas Day, 1974, and the 6 am news bulletin had just ended. I was sitting on the edge of the divan with the telephone receiver clutched tightly in my hand, anxiously waiting for the number to answer. As I sat there, perched tensely on the edge of the divan, I found myself staring at the small white artificial Christmas tree which stood at the other end of the room. Was it only last night that it had looked so bright and gay with its multi-coloured baubles and red, green, silver and cerise tinsel decorations twinkling as the light caught their every movement, while at the very top glittered a bright red star? “Oh why don’t they answer?” I could hear the phone ringing at the other end of the line. It seemed like an eternity since I had dialled. What had the radio announcer said on the news broadcast? Had I heard correctly? “A cyclone had hit Darwin in the early hours of the morning.” Was that what he had said? My hand ached from holding the receiver so tightly. As I waited for the phone to answer, the small white Christmas tree seemed to be mocking me with its bright, gaily coloured decorations. “Merry Christmas!” we had wished each other last night. “Merry …?” Surely someone must SOON answer the phone! I had to know if there were any avenues open to find out the extent of the damage in Darwin! (Oh, how much longer must I wait before someone would answer the phone?) The small white Christmas tree stood there – to me, an unemotional symbol of all that was empty and meaningless. Suddenly I HATED it, as I sat there waiting … “Darwin had been hit by a cyclone. It is not yet known what damage was caused, but it is thought to have been extensive.” Was that what the radio announcer had said? “Hello … police station here.” At last they had answered! “I … er… I … could you please tell me if there is any way that I can contact Darwin? I have to know if my son and his wife and children are safe.” “Sorry, madam. There is no communication whatsoever with Darwin at the present time.” “Thank you.” I said, as I slowly replaced the receiver. He had sounded so impersonal. Didn’t he realise that I was desperate? But how could he know? I hadn’t told him so! “What now?” I asked myself. Perhaps the local radio stations might have some way of getting through ….. Or the local newspaper? “No, sorry. There is no possible way of getting any information at this time.” Meanwhile, the small white Christmas tree stood silently at the other end of the room. I sat and stared at it. We had been to a Christmas party the night before, and had returned home just before midnight. Christmas presents were all carefully arranged around the small white Christmas tree, and some members of the family wanted to open theirs, as the suspense of trying to guess what was in the parcels was becoming too much of a strain. However, it is a standing rule in our home that presents must not be opened before Christmas morning, so we had all sat there waiting and watching the clock. On the last stroke of twelve, there was a mad scramble, as with fun and laughter, we began handing out and receiving our ‘very interesting looking’ Christmas presents, some of which had come from as far away as Alice Springs and, yes …. DARWIN! Was that only a few short hours ago? It seemed like an eternity. The presents now lay half wrapped under the small white Christmas tree, waiting for the respective owners to claim them. Pinned to the curtain behind the tree were the Christmas cards which we had received. There were not nearly as many this year due, no doubt, to the increase in postage, so one of our daughters had added a few of last year’s cards … “just to make it look good!” she had said. As I sat there staring at the small white Christmas tree, I thought of other Christmases when the children were small. Our youngest was fourteen now, so Santa Claus was a thing of the past. Once upon a time, Christmas morning meant pop-guns and dolls in prams, and toy pianos tinkling at the crack of dawn when the ‘oldies’ wanted to sleep. Sometimes a toy drum would add to the early morning concerto! Was that all so long ago? How do the words of that song go? ‘Was it only yesterday that they were small’? The small white Christmas tree seemed to hold me spellbound as I sat there wondering what to do next. It seemed to dominate the whole room. The rest of the family were still fast asleep and I felt so alone as I sat there in the quiet of the early morn. Some mystical force had awakened me about 4.45 am. I had had an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong with my only son and his wife. The feeling had been so strong that it was uncanny. I had wanted to waken my husband to tell him of my foreboding, but common sense told me that he would only tell me ‘not to be silly, and to go back to sleep’, so that was what I had done. But I was awake again at 6 am so had tuned into the radio news. Suddenly I knew why I had awakened earlier! My son, daughter-in-law and their three little sons were in danger, and there wasn’t a thing that I could do, except sit and stare at the small white Christmas tree! The thought passed through my mind that perhaps I should wake my husband to tell him the news, but I decided against it. After all, there was nothing he could do. There was nothing that ANYONE could do except wait … and wait. So, while the rest of the family slept on, quite oblivious to the fate that had befallen Darwin, I sat and stared at the small white Christmas tree, and remembered those other Christmases, and other Christmas trees. Sometimes the Christmas tree had just been a branch taken from a pine tree in the garden and set in a bucket of sand. Others had been green, artificial Christmas trees. But this one was WHITE … and small … only about three feet high! I don’t know for how long I had been sitting there when my husband came along and asked me why I was sitting there at that hour. I looked up at him and said all in one breath, “It came over the news at six o’clock that Darwin had been hit by a cyclone this morning, and I can’t find out what damage has been done, or whether lives have been lost!” Even as I told him all this, I felt that it was just some kind of make believe. It couldn’t be true … it just COULD NOT be true that our son and daughter-in-law and their three sons could have been involved in anything so horrifying as a cyclone that could put a whole city out of communication with the rest of Australia! But it was all too true. So, with thousands of others throughout Australia, we waited … and waited for news of our loved ones! Many conflicting reports began to filter through. Lives had been lost, but numbers were not known. All through Christmas Day we waited for some word … then all through Boxing Day. I tried ringing the Red Cross, but they could tell me nothing. During the day I kept myself occupied by helping with the radio appeal which was being conducted for the relief of the people of Darwin. For hours I helped sort second-hand clothing until I thought I would drop from fatigue. Eventually the day would end and I would return home to where the small white Christmas tree stood silently on guard over the presents which had been forgotten for the time being. It was 10.30 pm on Boxing Day evening when we received the wonderful news that our daughter-in-law and her three little sons were safe and well in Sydney, and that our son was safe too, but because he was working in an essential service, he had to remain in Darwin. The relief was just too much for me, and for the first time in all that trying ordeal, I gave way to tears, and wept for joy, relief and gratitude, all mixed in together! The next day, as I sat looking at the small white Christmas tree, it suddenly occurred to me that the little tree had not been mocking me. It just seemed to me now that the small white Christmas tree had been trying to tell me to have faith … that cyclones may come, and cyclones may go, but the small white Christmas tree represented all those other Christmases which we had shared as a happy family, and through the grace of God, had been spared to do so again, even though some members of our family may be at the other end of our vast continent.
Use and Restrictions: Cyclone Tracy Story Project Agreement
Subject: Cyclone Tracy, 1974
Place: Darwin
File type: application/pdf
Appears in Collections:Territory Times Gone By
Cyclone Tracy

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