IT WASN'T quite Shane MacGowan's Christmas in the drunk tank from Fairytale of New York.
But the first Christmas I spent away from my mother and father 20-something years ago had enough edge to ensure that I'd want to see them on each possible one thereafter.
I can't remember why they had decided to go away or even where they'd gone. But they weren't there. My recently married sister was also away.
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I didn't think I'd care. For me, Christmas as a surly uni student usually consisted of: dad collecting me too early from whatever hovel
I lived in; me unwrapping a new album by the Police, nursing a sore head until figuring the only thing that would help was the old man's beer; and grunting while elderly spinster aunts of whose lineage I remain uncertain said how much I'd grown and that if my hair got any longer they would have to put a bow in it.
Anyway, nobody was around this particular year. Which meant that I was left to fend for myself with the other occupants of the dive where I lived.
I say "occupants" because you could never really be sure who actually lived, day to day, in this particular ramshackle six-bedroom terrace. I remember a bodybuilder who had a habit of trying to steal everyone else's girlfriend. And there was somebody's girlfriend who had a habit of trying to steal everyone else's boyfriend.
At least one bloke was running from the law - tricky given that one of the women there had a penchant for cops.
Regardless, the festive season had gotten off to a ripper start when my old school mate Mickey, a waiter-musician rarely seen in daylight, staggered through the front door close to dawn one day, dragging a four-metre freshly cut conifer and a hacksaw. A few of us peered bleary-eyed through the lounge room door and watched, less bemused than bored, as he wrestled with the mammoth tree, swearing as the thing scratched him and shed needles all over the floor.
Soon, realising it was way too big to stand upright, he propped it so the base stood in the middle of the carpet in the entrance and its tip rested in the corner of the ceiling behind the front door.
"Merry Christmas, you miserable bunch of f---s," he said, before wandering upstairs clutching a $2 bottle of port and a strange woman, much older than him, later identified only as a "dancer".
The next day - Christmas Eve - Mickey and three others got up early because they had, for some days, been planning a daytrip to the country. They'd been talking about the unseasonal heavy rains and the best places to "hunt". Because I had to attend the Christmas party for my part-time job in a chemical factory, I couldn't go. But I considered their planned outing to be highly unusual because even though they were motivated by the possibility of ingesting large volumes of psychedelic mushrooms, it none the less involved them a) leaving the house in daylight and b) connecting with a world outside the lounge room.
I returned tired and a little worse for wear that evening. From outside, I could hear the music blaring. The house sounded as if it was hosting a hyena convention.
When I slid my key into the lock, everything suddenly went quiet. And then, as I forced myself in sideways through the door - which was jammed half-way shut by the Christmas tree - something suddenly went WHUMP-SNAP! One of the occupants had thrown a set rat trap at my head. I hyperventilated while the contraption hung limply in my hair.
Pandemonium ensued as the occupants then chased each other up and down the internal stairs, screaming, laughing madly and, when not throwing loaded rat traps at each other, kicking around a frozen turkey.
Their country outing had been a mixed success. When their "hunt" proved fruitless (thankfully, because these boys didn't need crazy drugs to be crazy), they had adjourned to a country pub for "Christmas drinks". Sounds civilised. But trouble quickly erupted in the bar when the tequila ran out or the barman refused to serve them or something. Dave - a medical student and by far the most retiring member of the household - somehow ended up being the one arrested. Full of seasonal spirit and goodwill, the others promptly deserted, stopping only to pick up "Christmas supplies" (tequila, frozen turkey, rat traps) at the shops.
Uncomfortable with abandoning a mate to Christmas in the drunk tank, I asked Mickey if we shouldn't, perhaps, try to bail Dave.
"Nah. Do him good. Anyway, he wants to get rid of the tree."
The doorbell rang.
It was the bloke from around the corner wondering if any of us knew who'd cut down the conifer in his front yard.
I went to bed. At least I went to go to bed. But two people I'd never met were in it. So I went to mum and dad's place, where I slept in my boyhood bedroom, its walls still covered in surfing posters and its bookshelves still holding my collection of MAD magazines, old school books and Christmas presents past.
That was my first Christmas without the folks. Fortunately, I had many more with them and each one got better as I had my own kids, whom they lavished with love and, of course, way too many gifts.
I'm not much on the crass commercialism of Christmas or the way it impels people who can't afford it to spend. But these days, having developed a minor capacity for the type of empathy and spiritual contemplation that was so absent when I was younger, being with family is more important than ever.
Now the family home is gone. So, too, are mum and dad. Poignant recollections have filled my first orphan's Christmas. So has the gathering sense that it all goes by so quickly. One day soon I'll be picking my son up on Christmas Day …
Oh, yes, a postscript: I moved out of that house in the dead of the next bitter winter, as the Christmas tree, which had been wedged behind the door until August, was fed slowly, centimetre by centimetre, into the fire grate to ward off the cold.