The Pig’s Arms welcomes our new contributor – Nan
It was a hot, dry, dusty Christmas day. My mother, as usual, rose early and caught a chook before it left its night perch. She carried the squawking bird to the wood heap. Dangling its head onto a supporting log, she decapitated it with one blow of the blade of the axe left leaning in readiness against the side of the fowl house.
From her pinny pocket, she took a ball of already-doubled and rolled-up binder twine that she plied in a draw string fashion around the legs of the headless bird to hang it from the clothesline to bleed. The washed axe accommodated back in its place around the corner of the wash house door, she returned to the kitchen.
The wood stove was burning and the water pots boiling.
“Come and stir this pudding.”
I peeped through the orange, tan and cream stripe basket weave curtain hanging across our bedroom door.
“I can’t find any Christmas present.”
“Well, help me get this pudding on and we’ll look together while it cooks.”
I climbed to kneel on the cushioned, old green chair my mother usually sat on, took the huge enamel spoon and whipped the sugar, butter and boiled water into a frenzy. I struggled and sweated in my nightdress. Mum added ingredients.
“Here’s your porridge,” she changed the subject. “I’ll finish stirring and get the right consistency.”
Carefully melded into the calico cloth that was draped over the tin colander, our austere plum pudding was contained by a tie of string from the huge John Martin’s parcel that came in the post last week. Plopped into the boiling-hot black pot of water, it would be carefully watched and simmered through the morning.
“What’s the time, Mum?” I ventured through a mouthful of the porridge my Cornish father fondly labelled “burgoo”.
“Shoosh!” Mum warned. “You’ll wake everyone up. I want to get this bird dressed and stuffed. You bring in the empty wood bucket. Put it here.” She motioned towards the cooking table under the north window and dived out of the opened south-facing doorway. When she came back in again, she had the hen she hoped had not laid yesterday’s one and only egg.
Choose a fat, lazy one was a well-known doctrine; it was said the under carriage of a layer was scrawny and wrinkled.
Hot water was poured over the whole feathery mess to soften it for plucking. The porridge downed, one found it easier to withstand that irksome smell. I worked with small and nimble fingers to pull the few remaining feathers off the skin. My mother approached with the butcher’s knife to gouge out the few stubs of feathers left, the last blueys in the tough spots like the backbone and upper legs. She severed the neck from the body, the legs at their first joint, and cut away the wing ends.
Paper the fowl had been laid out on for the operation and the feathers went in the tin wood bucket. They were set on fire and Mother turned the bird’s carcass above the flames to singe off the long hairs remaining on its skin. More paper was spread on the table. The anus end of the hapless hen was cut open to reveal liver, lights and intestines. The chosen parts were extracted and put into a saucepan to make Mum’s special soup for tea.
I put my hands through wet bread in a crockery bowl, mashing the bread and adding the egg with chopped onion and herbs selected from the bottles and packets of condiments collected in the back of the safe. The bird was stuffed with the mixture and trussed with string. Wrapped in the brown paper bag the rolled oats came in, it was placed into the roasting dish, in a swamp of melted mutton fat off last Sunday’s roast.
The sun as it rose glowed into the south-east verandah corner of the porch. Mum took the wood bucket out with the milking bucket, disappearing towards the shed south of the house. I ran after her. Darkie, the Jersey cow, grazed step by step closer to the house and Flossie, the red Kelpie, barked her approval. Small and rotund, my parent crouched on her stool, her head into the flank of the cow to keep its right leg back and herself comfortable. She rinsed the four teats with a wet rag, readjusted her stool and reached to begin to milk and strip the udder dry. I waited nearby for the first contribution of about a gallon of the warm milk to take inside to make a junket.
A murky pall of cloud cover obscured the sunrise. The fowls, their feathers blown upwards and fanned into a barrier, stood against a breeze of increasing strength that swirled dust from the clothesline path. They were pushed into a quiet spot near the wood heap. An egg might be laid there. Voices sounded from the kitchen doorway.
“MUM! Marrrrrm?” yelled my two sisters. “The baby’s crying!”
“Your father’s in there! He can get him up out of bed!”
“He’s asleep still!”
Christmas Day that year had brought father’s shearing week to an early close. All the clothes discarded from last night’s bathing were swinging on the line, done while Mum waited for Dad to arrive home, although in the middle of the week.
“Gilham, get out of bed and fix the baby! I’ll be there in a minute!” Mum continued to strip the last milk out of the cow’s udder. “He can feed the calf and pigs!” she murmured, carrying the bucket of new milk housewards.
The dust made visibility poor. I held my nightie collar close and went inside. The north wind belted down the hill behind the house and started the chimney rattling.
“I’ll get some wire and tie that chimney down!” Dad exclaimed.
“Eat your porridge and eggs first!” Mum dared.
Dad sank gratefully into Father’s chair at the head of the table, nearest the fire and offered his first spoonful to the baby propped in the white cane pram.
“Burgoo! Good old burgee,” he grinned at his son.
Mum put the frying pan on the middle of the black cast-iron Metters stove top, stoked the fire and added more boiling water to the bubbling pudding. The frying eggs and toast smoking over the hot coals shone an extra patina of red on her face.
I had changed out of my nightdress into the cotton frock left on my bed the night before. My sisters settled to play with the sewing kit and doll’s set Father Christmas left for them. I still hadn’t found my gifts so Mother left the dishes to set our room straight, folding clothes, putting toys away and smoothing our beds. I grabbed at my fallen quilt. My new painting book and stocking full of goodies fell from the tangled folds.
A sudden noise sent us tearing to the stove where large and small quantities of black soot were now descending from the heaven-held flat iron chimney flue.
“Wait up!” Mum yelled as she recognised Dad had thrown a stranglehold of wires over the creaking, groaning chimney piece. She grabbed at her precious pots of hot water. “I’ll just get the water off the stove top to do the dishes!”
“I’ll fix it this time!” Dad yelled back.
“What are you doing?” Mum screeched.
Dad yelled again. “I’ll need your help!”
“Here, sweep up that soot while I go out there. Mind the hot water pots on the table!”
Mum hurriedly left us as she went outside and took hold of the guy wires to keep them taut. Some time later, she reappeared in the doorway with a huge bundle of the clean clothes off the clothes line. She threw the burden onto her bed covering of the beautiful white Marcella quilt she took great care of all the years of her marriage.
The gale brought on a heavy cloud cover. Large summer raindrops pounded onto the galvanised iron roof. You could barely hear the bubbling of the pudding simmering on the heated stove top, or the sizzling of the fats around the browning poultry in the oven. Crisping potatoes, carrots, pumpkin and onions were crammed in the roasting dish.
By midday, the chimney’s creaking had desisted. The dust settled and the last of the soot was swept onto the ashes of the fowl-singeing bucket.
A change of wind direction came in from the west. It brought with it a cool breath of fresh air along with much needed water for the tank supplying the household water, the farm pastures, and animals’ trough. The Yorkshire pudding batter was poured into the fatty gravy in the roaster and the dish returned to the smouldering oven. The roasted fowl waited steaming in its bag to be carved onto dinner plates. The roasted vegies were dished up onto an enamel plate.
The white Christmas cloth enhanced the old wooden table as we fought to set cutlery and bring edibles out of the food safe, to be ready for the feast. The baby had been fed again and put to sleep, following his daily bathing.
Mum was relieved to unbind the chook from its string. She rolled the pudding out of its calico moulding, an effort in itself to achieve.
Again, I knelt on the cushioned chair, this time at the side of the stove, mixing gravy with creamed flour in the baking dish and pudding sauce in a milk saucepan. Mum went to and fro, watching me with a sharp eye.
Another well-prepared meal was about to be served. We set out the crisp clean glasses for the bubbly lemonade, a yearly delight especially purchased for the day for here was Christmas.
Previously published in: Women’s Voices. A Newspaper for Women in the South. A Project of Southern Women’s Community Health Centre, Noarlunga, S. Aust./15th Edition December 1998. Category. Geraniums Writing Group.