16. One Helluva Christmas

  1. 01. Fiji…Again?
  2. 02. Fun & Games
  3. 03. Growing Indigenation
  4. 04. Coup de Grâce?
  5. 05. Friends Go Away
  6. 06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup
  7. 07. It’s Nice to be Needed
  8. 08. Walk Like A Man
  9. 09. Extreme Retirement
  10. 10. Get a Grip
  11. 11. Dangerous Cargo
  12. 12. Drinking in the Holiday Season
  13. 13. Fit for Purpose
  14. 14. Emotion Sickness
  15. 15. New Fiji’s Eve
  16. 16. One Helluva Christmas
  17. 17. Enough is Enough

The sunrise cut through the crack in the blackout curtains like a laser beam, illuminating the room just enough to leave me utterly perplexed as to where I was awakening or why I was there. Frank was nowhere to be found. For reasons that defy explanation, he had left his iPhone broadcasting WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio station:

“…an assailant stole a baby Jesus statue this morning from a nativity scene outside a Haverhill church and replaced it with a severed pig’s head…”

That’s right, I recalled, it was Christmas morning and I was in Fiji.

The hotel room door burst open, revealing Frank juggling two cups of coffee stacked in one hand with a card key and the Fiji Times in the other. “I’m not promising anything, here, this coffee may be awful. She got it out of one of those push-button machines. Four bucks. Each.” He handed me a cup. We each took a sip, grimaced and shuddered. “Is there any coffee in there? It’s just hot brown water!”

I nodded in agreement, adding a half-packet of instant coffee to my cup of hot brown water. “This will get us through our ablutions, but we’re going to have to go out for coffee.” That was just as well since it was just seven o’clock and we had nothing else to do until we met Clara for the ten o’clock Christmas service. We showered, dressed in our Christmas best, and hit the streets of Suva.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe very, very quiet streets. I could have unloaded an AK-47 in any direction without worry. Finding a cuppa joe on Christmas morning was going to prove difficult. As we wandered downtown, the silence was broken by a saxophone wailing carols in a Baptist Church, a hundred voices attending a service at this uncivilised hour festively howling along.

On reaching the main drag, Victoria Parade, I was relieved to find an Indian fast-food restaurant open – not that I was interested in a quick curry, but it signalled that it was legal, at least, to open on Christmas morning. Further along we resigned ourselves to the reality that the only establishment open and serving coffee was McDonald’s. Not exactly my idea of Christmas brekky, but what the hell. We were pleased to find free wi-fi and coffee refills, so settled in to catch up on caffeine, email, and the paper.

The Fiji Times, always a narrow volume, was particularly thin today. The newspaper headline screamed “Merry Christmas!” in four-inch bold typeface, as if the editor had been surprised by its advent. Its editorial policy remained to oppose the government’s view of things with sentences carefully worded to avoid offense. This was despite the relaxation of censorship since the October elections that were internationally hailed as “free and fair” and returned the benevolent dictator Bainimarama (a.k.a. The Commodore) to legitimate power as Prime Minister.

Several of the articles in today’s paper regarded property developments under consideration, including a thirty story tower. It reflected a confident business environment, possibly resultant of more stable and better governance. We decided to check out the proposed sites of a two nearby developments mentioned. In doing so we agreed that downtown Suva had spruced up a bit since our last visit. There were several construction sites, all silent this morning, but indicative of something of a building boom. Suva, it seemed, was about to “pop”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Sea Princess, a massive cruise ship familiar to me because it calls in at Melbourne’s Station Pier regularly, was in port. The surrounding streets began to fill with its largely Australian passengers, most looking somewhat confused and mildly disappointed. An elderly couple stopped us, the gent asking “Is there anything to see here?”

What could I say? “All of Suva lies before you!” was my cryptic answer. We walked on, leaving him scratching his head.

At ten minutes to ten we arrived at the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral of the Diocese of Polynesia. My interest in the Christmas service was more cultural than religious. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I have never belonged to an organised religion, I was raised Catholic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had planned to wait for Clara outside, but some enrobed church official, possibly a minister, approached with the apparent intent of speaking to us. As I always do on the rare occasions I enter a church, I inspected the supporting roof trusses carefully, and scanned the skies for threatening storms. All clear. We fled inside, seating ourselves towards the rear.

This cathedral is a polymorphous piece of architecture, the altar encased by a rather traditional, stately stone structure, but with the pews facing it covered by an open-air timber shed of the sort commonly found in the tropics. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cathedral also included a half-dozen stones that were marked as having been extracted from great English cathedrals, including Winchester Cathedral and Coventry Cathedral, amongst others. I made a mental note that, should I ever visit one of those cathedrals, there was a fair chance that an important part of its support structure might be missing, serving an entirely different purpose in the South Pacific.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe church official persisted in his pursuit, cornering us next to a nativity scene with a massively out-of-proportion baby Jesus.

“Bula, Merry Christmas, Welcome! I am Reverend Josh. You are visiting with us today? From where?” he interrogated, grasping my hand in a double-fisted handshake that I sensed would not be terminated until he got his answer.

“Melbourne. Um, we are friends visiting Clara McGill.”

The Reverend’s eyes lit up as he raised his hands in a “God be praised!” sort of way. “Ah, Reverend Clara! Excellent, then you are even more welcome! Will Reverend Clara be joining us, too?”

I had forgotten that Clara was a Uniting Church minister, as it was not something she wore on her sleeve, so to speak. “Well, yes, we expect, uh, Reverend Clara presently.”

Reverend Josh clapped his hands. “Excellent! We had most of the congregation at last night’s service, so I do not expect a big turnout this morning.” he continued, managing our expectations. “So you may want to move up towards the front…” he finished, dropping an arm across my shoulder, shepherding us forward none too subtlety.

Clara arrived with Lucy and Shirley. The hierarchy of the diocese scrambled to greet her, each referring to her as Reverend Clara, she obviously held in high esteem. In turn she introduced us to the Reverend This, Vicar That, and somebody with the odd title “Enabler”. Between introductions Clara whispered “I’ve been a minister for decades, and I’ve been called ‘Reverend’ more in the past year than in all the previous put together.”

Eventually the congregation present numbered about forty. We five visitors, not one ever a member of the Anglican Church, settled in for the show, belting out “O Come All Ye Faithful” with the others to kick things off.

I must confess to loving Christmas carols. It is a love that does not readily fit into my personality more generally. First, as you might have already determined, I am not a particularly spiritual individual. Second, from a strictly musical point of view, I consider many carols to be dreadfully simple and dreary. Third, I do not have a great singing voice. If a song is played in the right key for me I can carry a tune, yet I am musician enough to know that nobody should be forced to hear me sing. And finally, as a pianist, few things irritate me more than somebody else singing along.

But give me a Christmas carol and I will belt it out for you. I’ll even hand out the lyrics and demand everyone else participate. Perhaps my attraction arises from the forgiveness implicit in Christmas carols – to sing a carol is both to sin and confess simultaneously — a perfect absolution.

The service included no fewer than a dozen tunes to sing, several of them with verses in a Fijian dialect, conveniently spelt out phonetically in the hymnal. I had to assume that “Mai vakarokoroko”, repeated three times, meant “O come, let us adore him”, but for all I knew it meant “Would you like fries with that?” Regardless, I had a blast.

The sermon was a somewhat repetitive dissertation on the difficulty of reconciling the “many rooms in my Father’s house” bit with the “no room at the inn” dilemma. Surely, the bursting Mary gave Joseph an earful when he admitted he hadn’t booked in advance. Who could blame her? The sermon’s upshot was that even hoteliers who make pregnant women sleep in stables could get into heaven if they booked early.

Meanwhile, Aydell, confident that The Father didn’t exist much less have a big enough house, was cooking up a storm back at the apartment. After church our sextet reconvened there, several of us enjoying a dip in the pool before Christmas lunch.

The lunch conversation turned to the often fraught subject of god’s existence and, if god existed, god’s nature. Loving? Vengeful? Aloof? Or just moody? Happily the chatter remained completely civil despite a wide variety of divergent views being expressed, sometimes passionately. Aydell’s lunch preparations helped, as they were wonderful, which, it was suggested, lent some credibility to Aydell’s views. No vengeful god would allow a non-believer to make such an excellent dinner.

It was one helluva Christmas.


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