WHOEVER WROTE “THE best things in life aren’t things” was right.
Back in the dark ages, when I was a journalist, I once asked Santa about the most unusual request he ever had. At the old Forge’s Department store in Footscray the resident Santa told me: “One little girl insisted she didn’t want a present. Instead, she wanted me to talk to her parents. ‘Mummy and Daddy are always fighting; please make them stop,’ she pleaded.”
The value of a gift is in the mind of the recipient and not on the price tag. Author Sarah Ban Breathnach believes people stress too much about measuring up to other people’s expectations. In her book from the 1990s, Simple Abundance – A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, she writes about the transformative power of love, as described by Margery Williams in her book The Velveteen Rabbit, published in 1922.
Williams’ mystical tale claims that becoming “Real” doesn’t happen overnight, either to toys or people. “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.”
I see parallels between people and places. Old buildings seem authentic because they have stood the test of time. They have endured. There is something reassuring about a place that remains virtually unchanged. It exudes graciousness and serenity. In Melbourne, the Royal Arcade has been spruced up for the holiday season. Its black-and-white floor tiles are gleaming. In the Block Arcade, nearby, there are tea-rooms and a traditional toy shop, both of which have been there for decades.
Another tradition continues in the Christmas windows of the Myer department store. This year’s theme seems special: there’s no reference to buying presents. The windows bring to life a children’s book, Little Dog and the Christmas Wish, by Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher, and has references to city icons like Flinders Street Station.
The book, and the windows, speak to the heart.
Some people, meanwhile, crave the thing that was taken from them in early life.
When I lived in an institution for children in Hungary, my mother was not permitted to visit me. Once, while playing in the yard, I saw her weeping on the other side of the fence that separated us. She passed me a small bag of lollies through a gap. As soon as she left, the other children grabbed it and ran off.
They weren’t just lollies to me, they were pieces of my mother. I didn’t know if she would ever return.
In the inner-city suburb of Albert Park, where I sell The Big Issue in the daytime, cafe owners probably think of me as The Sugar Bandit. I raid their containers and take about six packets for my coffee. They tolerate this goodnaturedly. One waitress, with a beatific smile, brought me an enormous plastic container filled with brown sugar. “It’s just easier this way,” she explained. Now, when she sees me coming, she brings out my “stash” as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
The Melbourne Central shopping precinct, where I do my night shift, is a minefield. On one side, there is a seriously Oompa Loompa chocolate shop. On the other, an old-fashioned confectionery store I have to pass on my way to buying more magazines to sell. Aggressive gobstoppers wink at me from giant glass containers.
While working one night, I badly needed a sugar fix. But the cupcakes in the nearest café were in lockdown, and I couldn’t leave my pitch because sales were slow and I had promised a regular customer two back issues. The craving became so bad I was worried I might mug the next person carrying a box of chocolates!
Then, suddenly, I heard somebody cry out in distress. It sounded like the young man who begs outside Melbourne Central Station. Hoping he wasn’t hurt, I went over to investigate. Apparently a well-dressed “man” had verbally abused him and kicked over the cap he had his coins in, making them fly out in all directions. The young fellow was crying on the ground, retrieving five-cent pieces.
After comforting him, I returned to my usual place next to the escalator. A short time later, the young man hobbled over to me, one of his bare feet trailing a sock. He handed me a chocolate truffle wrapped in green foil.
“I heard you like these,” he said. “Take it easy, okay?”
Some days are extra sweet.
» Mariann Biron is a Melbourne vendor and writer who has contributed to the past three Christmas editions of The Big Issue.
This article first appeared in Ed#500 of The Big Issue.