Language Learning

Baz McAlister: I wonder if our family will ever be able to have a magical Christmas all together again

Baz McAlister with wife Mandy and son Gulliver

And now it’s a hollow, heartbreaking lie.

I left Northern Ireland in my teens, first to Scotland to study and work, and then much later to Australia, where I’ve been for the last 15 years, now a journalist with an Australian wife and half-Australian two-year-old son.

But it’s not home. It’ll never be home.

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Gulliver with his grandparents at Dunluce Castle

I make the pilgrimage home usually about once a year, and usually on Christmas- but in this turbulent new world, getting home is near-impossible, something I never expected to happen.

Home is the Causeway Coast, where my mum and dad, now in their 70s, cautiously watch the tourists creep back into their seaside village of Portballintrae from behind cloth masks. Home is tumbledown castles standing clifftop sentinel over little towns clinging to the wave-tossed coast; the welcoming smiles of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, just up the road. Home is a stroll on a chilly twilit beach, a glistening pint of Guinness at the Bayview’s bar, a wave at a neighbour through their lit window while passing.

But as rose-tinted as that sounds, I’m under no illusions: I know that carefree world doesn’t quite exist any more for all of you, either. A convivial pint at the bar sounds like something we used to do, in medieval times. A historical curiosity.

Down here, in Brisbane, the Pacific smells of nothing at all, and is almost suspiciously blue, as if it’s trying too hard to prove something. It moves wrong, all placid and still. I long for the sharp, stinging scent of the heaving grey Atlantic slapping at my nostrils as I round the corner to the Portballintrae seafront – the heavy, briny smell, tinged with the pungent tang of sun-dried wrack. Or the thick, misty wreath of smoke from coal or peat fires that hangs over the village as the chill creeps in, and the leaves turn brown and drop to tumble helter-skelter along the breezy streets.

I made the mistake of ignoring Van Morrison’s advice in Irish Heartbeat: I strayed too far from my own ones, and I can report that in 2020, out here, the world is indeed cold, and don’t care nothin’ for your soul.

With flights grounded and international travel now just a memory, Australia is once again a prison colony for the Irish. It’s a beautiful cell, but a cell all the same. The sun is out, the Queensland winter skies are clear blue, but I am not out under them: the last months have dulled my appetite for the outdoors. I am pacing the hallways of my house, pursued by a dull throb of worry for my folks, and for my sister, marooned in London; or I am spending evenings barricaded in my home office, working remotely, typing frenetic messages at my journalist colleagues over Google Hangouts as our deadlines loom, with only infrequent visits to my ghost town of a newsroom, most of the desks now empty, most of the lights off.

Everything I used to love is shuttered: gigs, theatre, stand-up comedy. In the uncertain future, if the virus ever abates, some of these industries might eventually stagger back as zombified forms of themselves, but will I be brave enough to go?

So I don’t go out, except for essentials: we’re lucky enough to have operational childcare here in Queensland, with diligent staff alert for any signs of infection.

So my little boy goes there, so he – an only child – can play with other kids, and his mum and I can still work. I am reminded of the weirdness when he runs to the daycare door, and freezes on the threshold, stock still, waiting for the OK from the staffer with the forehead thermometer – he’s conditioned to this.

I wonder how I will, one day, explain to him they don’t need to take his temperature any more. Then I wonder if I will ever have to explain that. Maybe this is just how things will be.

If we’re feeling brave, we walk one of the suburban bushland trails near our house, with a watchful eye out for red-bellied black snakes, or to the nearby playpark. I cross my fingers that we’ll have the park to ourselves, so that I won’t have to worry about keeping our distance – and then, when we do, I feel guilty for wishing away my wee man’s only chance to play with a temporary friend who’s more his age.

Then there are the fraught supply runs to the supermarket, where half of us skittish shoppers perform an awkward dance of social distancing in the aisles, and half of us blithely don’t, provoking sotto voce tuts and rolled eyes. And then, whenever our shiftworker paths cross, there are the increasingly weary conversations about the workday with my wife, a nurse, each of us too spent by our own brushes with the virus – me in the relentless horrors of the news pages, her in the trenches just shy of the frontline – to be much of a comfort to the other.

She’s in mental health nursing; the fallout from this pandemic is yet to hit her department, but it looms like a tsunami, one that will swamp us for years after Covid-19 is gone. This is our tiny world, now.

Some say this virus has given us all time – time alone, time indoors, time to think, time to breathe, time to learn a language or pick up a hobby, or time to take stock of a world that was moving far too fast. I say it has robbed us of time – it has robbed expats of time with distant family, it has robbed retirees of leisure time earned through a lifetime of hard work – time that could be spent cris-crossing the country on free railcards. It has robbed the young of stable education and of opportunity. And it has robbed some people of much more: of their livelihoods. Of their health. Of their lives.

As I write this, Queensland as a state is doing tolerably well. The borders are shut to the world, and to the bulk of the Australian population, too. Despite a few scares with Covid-positive interstaters lying on border declaration forms or gaming the system to enter through loopholes, we have been mercifully spared the chaos of the crisis down south in Victoria, where there are hundreds of new cases and a dozen deaths a day.

But there is no clear roadmap out of this. The whole world is on pause, heads on desks.

Multimillion-dollar airlines are toppling. International tourism is gutted. The skies are silent above my house, just miles from the international airport. Optimists say international flights might resume within a year. A year! The last time I saw my parents was at Christmas of 2018. They were overjoyed to finally meet their only grandchild. My wife and I proudly displayed young Gulliver, then eight months old, like Simba on Pride Rock as we all met at airport arrivals.

He bonded with Nannie and Grumpa instantly, in one of those enchanted moments where every shared smile and cuddle is etched on my memory forever. While he was over there, he got rosy-cheeked from the chill of walks in the pram in the dunes, he looked like a roly-poly Michelin Man in an oversize rainsuit and bobble hat, he learnt to pull himself up to his feet in the living room, and he became a true part of the family. I was home, and no matter what his passport says under ‘nationality’, he was home, too.

In my dreams, that bright yellow beacon of Belfast airport’s Tayto vending machine shines out through the gloom of a world gone mad, beckoning me back once more, as soon as I can manage, and those faces I love will be standing near it with their broad smiles not hidden by facemasks – hopefully.

Don’t hope on this side of the grave, says Seamus Heaney, but I have to hold on to that hope. “It takes a wee baby to make Christmas magical,” I overheard my mum say to a friend one day, back in that idyllic festive season in 2018.

I wonder if our family will ever be able to have a magical Christmas all together again. I can only hope so.

* Baz McAlister is a night editor at The Courier-Mail in Brisbane.

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