I have especially written a new Over the Top with Jim story for Christmas. I wrote it for Our Lady of Sacred Heart parish in Sydney.
You can’t read it anywhere else except here!
It’s called The Christmas Visitor.
The Christmas Visitor by Hugh Lunn
It was the day before Christmas and Fred had made so many Christmas cakes, plum puddings, shortbread and fruit mince pies that he was down to his last 70lb bag of sugar.
Normally, the Store Room outside his kitchen in the “Lunns for Buns” cake shop at Annerley Junction was crammed with large hessian bags of flour and the more tightly-woven, and smaller, sugar bags.
But now there was only one sugar bag left, the size of a fat pillow, standing all by itself in the corner.
It was Jackie’s and my job to carry the 70 lb bags of sugar into the kitchen where Fred was cooking because the 110lb bags of flour were too heavy for us. Only Fred was strong enough to move them.
Jackie and I grabbed each ear of the last sugar bag but it was so light it bounced up into the air raining sugar down on us… and my little sister Sheryl screamed “Rat” “Rat” – and my other sister Gay leapt up on the bench in her tap shoes.
This dirty great big rat had chewed his way into the back of the bag and had gradually eaten out the middle and — just like white-ants do to timber — left the outer layer untouched so that the sugar bag was a hollow mask.
Dad was angry but reflective. He stood with his thumbs hooked through his apron strings and said: “Christmas is only good for women and kids.”
Olive poked her head in the door to see what the commotion was all about and soon took charge. As she always did.
Olive was a big woman who was afraid of nothing, nothing at all.
She first told Gay to get down off the kitchen bench. Then she ordered us kids to clean up the mess. “What are you going to do about it Fred?” she said accusingly. “We’ve got to kill that rat.”
Fred was unmoved. He stopped sweeping and leaned on the broom and said: “I can’t come at killing things; I leave that to them that enjoys it…. Anyway, Duck, there are two things you’ll always have in this world: cockroaches and rats.”
This was the cue for Gay to show off. Just that week, I’d been doing my homework at the kitchen table and the question was: “Name a domestic animal” and Gay had said: “a rat”.
Well didn’t the nuns give me what-for when I gave that answer the next day!
So now Gay was gloating: “See Hughie. I was right. Dad agrees with me, a rat is a domestic animal.”
Olive was unimpressed: “Alright, Know-all Not,” she said to Gay, “use your muscle instead of your mouth and put some elbow grease into cleaning up.”
Then she ordered Jackie home to fetch his Stella air rifle, and sent Sheryl next door to buy a rat trap from Mr Mewings the grocer.
Olive then turned on Fred.
She’d been up at the bank, and discovered that a cheque from one of our customers, Mr Harry, had bounced.
“You’ve got to stop accepting dud cheques Fred, or we’ll go out backwards,” Olive said.
Fred shook his head, and said: “If someone reached out and twisted my nose, I’d wait to see if they did it again … to see if they meant to do it the first time. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
We had all gathered back in the kitchen when, out of the blue, my classmate Jim Egoroff arrived. “How have you been going these couple of last days, Mr and Mrs Lunn?” Jim said.
Jackie explained our problem, and handed Jim our shanghai which was already loaded with a Queensland nut. Jackie shouldered his air rifle and handed me our Bowie knife: “Hughie, this is for you. If we only wound him, you leap on him, and finish him off.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, so was I glad that Sheryl had bought an enormous rat trap, like a wooden chopping block with a giant spring that snapped shut like a guillotine.
Olive baited the trap with an old trick her wood-cutter ancestors used at Nerang: “You take the white kernel of a Queensland nut; tie it onto the trap with string so the rat can’t steal it, and then drip vanilla essence onto the nut. It will entice any rat within shouting distance.”
But — seeing as the rat had already eaten 60 lbs out of a 70 lb bag of sugar — Jim Egoroff was skeptical.
Jim was an inventor as well as a Russian, and so he quickly came up with his own plan.
“Mrs Lunn,” Jim said, “this is honestly honestly true, I have of invented a fools proof rat catcher. All you need is a mirror and the Tarzan’s Grip. You place the mirror in the corner. You squirt the Tarzan’s Grip on the floor. The rat will see his reflection and think it is an opponent and attack … and get stuck in the Tarzan’s Grip!”
I spoke up: “What a stupid idea, Jim. Only a Russian would think of that.”
Jim turned slowly and looked at me, squinting with distain: “Christmas is a time of forgiveness,” he said. “But the only people worth forgiving are those who don’t deserve it. So I forgive you Lunn.”
Soon everyone was arguing about whose method would be best when, of all people, Fred spoke up: “Why don’t we put the Queensland nut and the vanilla essence in your old budgie cage, Hughie, put it under the shop with the cage door held open by a length of Christmas tinsel. You kids lie in wait, and when the rat goes in to eat, you let go the tinsel, and you’ll have him!”
Fred had come up trumps. Olive was impressed. She beamed at him proudly and her blue eyes looked even more beautiful.
“Now THAT’S showing gumption!” she said. “Your brains are worth bottling Freddie.”
So the five of us kids put Fred’s plan into action: we lay on flattened cardboard boxes on the dirt under the shop, and waited for the rat to show up.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Mum and Dad cleaned up the shop for our holiday at Kingscliffe.
All was quiet, and pretty soon Gay and Sheryl were squabbling, and Jackie and Jim were taking turns firing the air gun at cockroaches. In no time at all we were out in the yard playing “hit the tin” with the kids from Marshall’s Shoe Emporium.
It was only when the sun had finally set on Christmas Eve that Olive yelled out from the back landing, that it was time to shut the shop. We were all ready to head home when suddenly Sheryl piped up:
“What about the rat?”
We’d forgotten all about him.
Downstairs, under the shop, was the budgie cage. The door had dropped shut, and at the bottom of the cage, surrounded by red and green Christmas tinsel, munching on a vanilla-flavoured Queensland nut, was the fattest rat you’d ever see.
He stopped eating and looked up at us and you’d have to say, he had a guilty look behind his whitened whiskers.
Jim was the first to speak: “Without word of a lie, this must be the Christmas Rat!”
We had between us a shanghai, a rifle, a guillotine trap, a Bowie knife, and a tube of Tarzan’s Grip, but not one of us could bear to kill him.
Not even Olive.
Fred lifted up the cage door and our Christmas Visitor crawled out and staggered away, his full belly dragging in the dirt.
Fred turned to Olive and said: “You see, Duck, everyone deserves a second chance.”
Copyright Hugh Lunn
My previous Christmas story from the 1950s – “Christmas in the Cake-shop” – was broadcast on ABC Radio’s Macca’s Australia All Over and then was published in my book More Over the Top with Jim -AKA – Fred and Olive’s Blessed Lino.