My vision was disrupted by the contrast of the laser-like sunlight and the dark shadows of the doorway. And by Mark, whose solidly comfortable figure I was standing behind in order to gain protection from the unpredictable.
For further security, I had a good hold on his rear jeans pocket. It was the only handhold available since his hands and arms were full of the paraphernalia essential to the afternoon. I knew he was a little perplexed at my trepidation. Everything here was familiar, comfortable for him.
I had anticipated his desire that I proceed through the door first (“ladies first!”), telling him in the car that my nerves would not handle such gentlemanly behaviour. I needed a buffer.
So my buffer greeted the shadow in the doorway, loosening my hold on his pocket as he leaned forward over the apparatus he was clutching to plant a kiss on an invisible cheek.
“Where’s…?” A soft voice, with a definite Australian accent.
Mark made a miniscule gesture with his elbow (all he could manage without dislodging his packages) and tipped his head in my direction. I peeped around him, momentarily blinded by a stab from the summer sun. My smile turned into a squint.
“This is Rachel.”
He dragged me forward as he stepped through the open door. I lost my grip and was disorientated by the transition from blinding light to cool dimness. I was pulled into a gentle, quick embrace which made my fears seem ridiculous.
“Welcome! Merry Christmas, Rachel! We’ve been looking forward soooo much to meeting you.”
I looked up to see Mark disappear into the recesses of the house. I suddenly felt like I was back in my first day at school when mom slipped away, leaving me marooned with a stranger.
“So how was the trip?”
I must have mumbled something, but I was preoccupied with feelings of resentment that I had been deserted.
“Come meet the family.”
This was the signal for the butterflies in my stomach to become hideously active. I suppressed a dry sob, immediately feeling stupid and hoping it passed unnoticed.
A gentle push from my soon-to-be mother-in-law guided me towards a door.
This door led to a chaotic, homely living space full of wrapped and unwrapped presents. The doorway was covered by a mesh screen doing its best to keep out the flies. I stepped out, and was immediately hit by heat and a dizzying scene of noise and festivity.
Children were running about with streamers, whistles, new toys. Hugs, laughter, drinks were being exchanged. A noisy game of cricket was being played. A barbeque was smoking under the care of several men. Then there was a semi-circle of chairs around the tables of food surrounded by chatting, busy women of varying ages.
I blushed deeply as I noticed my limp salad (the product of the “bring a plate” stipulation) in a plastic bowl dumped down amongst all the appetising displays arranged on Christmassy platters and protected by netting and plastic covers from the flies that constantly buzzed around the feast.
A wave of loneliness washed over me. I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. I was the aberration in a scene of happy, festive familial harmony.
My head spun as I scanned the melee for the one connection, the one familiar face in this unfamiliar crowd.
Then I felt an arm slip around my waist. An overwhelming relief permeated and calmed me as I recognised the familiar warmth. I closed my eyes and tucked myself more firmly into his arm.
Then I jumped as he yelled, “Hey, everyone!... Oi!”
The crowd and I froze, looking up at Mark’s outstretched arm in which he held an icy cold drink. While their faces reflected eager expectation – even excitement – mine reflected a mixture of dismay, shock and a strong desire to hide under the nearest table as all eyes followed the direction of his drink.
His drink-filled hand indicated me, as though in the act of proposing a toast. In a voice that projected across the backyard, he announced, “Meet Rachel.”
Cheers, raised drinks and calls of, “Hi, Rachel!” were the response. I waved weakly, smiled wanly.
The drink travelled in a toast towards the crowd, but Mark was looking at me and his voice was more intimate. “Rachel, this is my family. And this,” his hand swept over the momentarily disrupted festivities and his voiced resumed its public tone, “is our traditional Aussie Christmas Day.”
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