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29 July 2021


A short story of heart places, love, strong arms and Christmas magic, from Jonica Newby’s “Beyond Climate Grief.”

Written by Jonica Newby

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Christmas 2019

Twenty years ago, I bought a little cottage in a coastal village called Gerroa. It’s two hours’ drive south of Sydney and I love it with a passion as deep and real as any human love. Every time I crest the final hill before the wide sweep of Seven Mile Beach opens its arms in front of me, I have that little internal gasp, There you are, endorphins fizzing as it greets me – aware on the edge of my consciousness of the thousands of generations before me who have also loved this exact place.

Around the time I bought it, my mother was dealing with the heartbreaking decision to sell my grandparents’ farm in Western Australia and I distinctly remember saying to her, “Mum, don’t worry. Sell it. You will find another place to love.”

A couple of years later, she found it. I could hear it in her voice – a heady lilt of infatuation I recognised when she described the place, with its broad lake stretching to a forested mountain backdrop, its hinterland waterways you could explore by boat, its towering eucalypt forests, its beaches, and its community. Soon, she’d bought a little house on a hill right on the edge of town, with shining views and a deck where you could see the moon dancing with its own reflection on the lake at night.

In the intervening years, between 2000 and now, my heart places expanded further to the south, down that glorious jade and sapphire coast to meet hers in the town of Mallacoota.

On the afternoon of Friday, 20 December, my partner Robyn and I take the familiar drive from Sydney to our beach cottage. My soul can’t help but do a little happy dance as we hit the road for a tradition that is so embedded in us, we barely notice how much we take it for granted.

Christmas to me – and many Australians this time of year – is bare feet and barbecues. Burnt faces and bad hats. It’s salt in my hair and the sun on my skin. It’s icy poles, and sausage rolls, sunscreen and sand. Laughter and squabbles and family and friends. It’s prawn feasts and Mediterranean delights and sunset walks along a beach.

Somehow, those of us not directly scorched by The Beast are indulging in a bit of magical thinking right now. Despite the last few weeks, despite the choking air, despite the evidence of our own eyes, in some secret compartment of our brains as we head off for our holiday we think everything will be OK. As if normal summer will suddenly reassert itself at Christmas.

Then I crest the final hill to Gerroa and the sweep of the beach appears and I falter. I can barely see it through the thick grey pall. This is parallel-universe Gerroa. I hadn’t realised until this moment I’d been hanging on to magical hope.

We unpack with uneasy resignation and open a bottle of wine for whatever happens next. By the next day, South Australia has erupted in flames. Family vineyards that took generations to build are wiped out.

Over 80 more homes lost. A lone koala sits by a firefighter amidst the blackened vines.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has arrived back in Australia. He says something about being like a plumber who has to choose between a job and his family and everyone is a bit confused. Then he tells us all that he feels gratified Australians want him to comfort them at this difficult time.

“No we don’t!” I shout grumpily at the TV. “We want you to suffer with us! Those firefighters aren’t getting a holiday.”

In the 40-degree heat, the monstrous Gospers Mountain fire has billowed up again and more homes are being consumed in New South Wales. The southern highlands town of Balmoral is engulfed in fire. Victoria has had its hottest December day on record and megafires in Gippsland have started shooting into the stratosphere and roaring through farms and towns and over towards the Alps.

Chernobyl Guy still hasn’t flipped. “We don’t want kneejerk reactions,” he says. “The Coalition won’t be intimidated by people taking advantage of the disaster.”

I want to scream, “Look around you! Change plans! Lead!” I’m not alone. Just after monster flames ravage Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, a grim-faced man holds a placard reading Not Anxious. Angry.

Saturday afternoon, a roiling cloud of orange and black rolls towards us from the south and in 15 minutes our cottage is covered in ash. Quick, close the windows! A new fire has ignited just south of Nowra.

I reach for my phone to consult the Fires Near Me app. From this day on I will be anxiously reaching for the phone by the hour, by the minute, as new alerts light up everywhere and switch to emergency red.

Over the course of that pre-Christmas weekend, hundreds of houses are incinerated with a flame-blasting roar in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. And my senses learn a new skill. If I’m woken at 3 a.m. by the taste of smoke in my throat, my internal organs know homes are being lost.

On Monday, the day before Christmas Eve, I give up on making the short walk to the water. The air is so thick we can barely see, barely breathe. We keep the doors shut and try to keep this evil atmosphere from getting inside.

What is this new form of summer? It’s not ours.

Tuesday, 24 December – Christmas Eve

It’s a Norwegian thing, but today is my Christmas. This is the day my Viking grandparents celebrated. We’d dress up in the cool of early evening – far more sensible in hot Australia than a lunch event, we’d tell each other smugly – and gather at the foot of our glittering Christmas tree. An hour for presents and champagne, then a traditional late supper of exquisite silver-plattered cold-cuts and seafood; everything bathed in sparkles. So as I lie half-awake on a dreamy Christmas Eve morning, my fantasy brain is half expecting the normal sprinkle of Christmas magic.

Then I get up, sweep the steady fall of ash from around the doors of the cottage, and silly ideas evaporate.

Robyn and I are spending Christmas Eve alone for the first time in years, and I had been looking forward to it. I have a three-course meal planned. Prawn cocktails (of course prawns – it wouldn’t be an Aussie Christmas otherwise!) followed by marinated eye fillet with a rocket, feta, pine nut and baby tomato salad, finishing with a small Christmas pudding and home-made vanilla custard – 90 per cent of which I haven’t even bought ingredients for, let alone prepared.

But a trip to the beach that morning leaves me listless. It’s eerie still. People are quiet, subdued, or just missing. I guess they are hiding inside. I’ve never seen this mood in summer, especially at Christmas. Even the sun doesn’t look normal. It’s prophecy-red, or completely obscured by smoke. What’s coming? What’s ahead?

I’m half inclined not to bother with my Christmas plan, but in the early afternoon I rouse myself to shop. A trip to the little seafood market on the fishermen’s harbour in Kiama, a drop into our local supermarket, and then at 4 p.m. – right on the dot of closing, I have 20 minutes to buy Robyn a Christmas present. That’s our little invented tradition. Instead of buying anything substantial, we have to buy presents for each other at the last minute on Christmas Eve, with a maximum spend of $50. It’s made for some hilarious and wonderful presents over the years – including, one memorable year, a fluffy husky in a can!

Rain was forecast, but sadly there’s no sign of it as I walk through the light new layer of ash on the doorstep and head inside to wrap my present and cook. What’s the point of this, I ask myself as I beat the custard into submission (in between fingerfuls of taste-testing because – you know – it’s pretty delicious); how are we going to switch off and be happy?

Somehow, a fragile little bubble of Christmas magic starts to form. The Fires Near Me app has nothing new. All the food is ready. Around 6.30 we dress up because – well, tradition. It’s a bit too smoky outside to sit on the deck, but not so smoky we can’t have the glass doors open. So we can see most of the way down our beloved sweep of beach as the light softly fades. Champagne is opened, and the Christmas bubble begins to glow. Our presents are fun, joyful, beautiful. A lovely glass necklace for me, a new shirt and a sign that says, ‘Today I will be an optimist and ignore all the stupid people’ for Robyn.

I put on a ridiculous Christmas music hit list, and we sit and listen, and eat and it’s delicious. Miraculously, our bubble is holding – we are in the moment, laughing and chatting as if normal life has resumed.

This is life, I will think later. Like the box of chocolates moment, I shared with my new friends from Nymboida. It’s these bubbles of grace in the middle of adversity that will pull most of us through. We all know this is part of the real answer to the deeper question – how do I live a good and happy life under the weight of fearsome knowledge? To recognise and emotionally hold these moments of tenderness. They shore up the courage for everything else.

At one point that evening, I say to Robyn, ‘I’ve got something special for you. I’m putting on a song that will say everything you would want to say to a long-term partner. And you have to dance to it!’ I eye him sternly.

He looks half terrified, half amused. I pop over to my music selection and Missy’s voice launches into ‘Don’t Look Down’. Robyn laughs and puts out his arms to dance. As the song soars into ‘hold me’ the tears start running down both our faces. So we duck our heads and let the tears fall and laugh as we dance.

Missy is right. Songs can say things ordinary words can’t.

At ten o’clock, as if the elves have finally turned up, we have our Christmas Eve miracle.

‘What’s that sound?’ asks Robyn. We walk to the back door, which is still open. There, on our little patch of garden, it is finally, gloriously, raining.

‘I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas…’ Robyn sings softly. We grin like children and, just as the song says, we put our arms around each other and hold on.

We stand there for ages, watching the rain.

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