“Hey, Santa! Where’s your red coat? …And your beard isn’t long enough.” The youngster’s mocking call rang across the concourse of Cape Town’s station, drawing attention to the hessian sack slung over my shoulder and thumping uncomfortably against my spine.
It was eight o’clock on Christmas Eve, and I was hurrying through the throng of revellers and last-minute shoppers to catch the 8:05 train to Newlands and my third-floor flat overlooking the brewery, and, beyond it, the famous cricket grounds. The sack which had drawn the lad’s attention contained a goose. A live goose. A gander, kicking its protest in a painful tattoo.
The sack which had drawn the lad’s attention contained a goose.
Luck is seldom my lady. Lottery winnings, and prizes in raffles elude me. But a few hours earlier I had won the bird in a Christmas raffle in the bar of Cape Town’s Cafe Royal, the city’s unofficial ‘Press Club’. Defying fate after a particularly bibulous and lengthy ‘lunch’, I had bought three raffle tickets, less in support of some charity long since forgotten, than in the hope of winning six bottles of Cutty Sark whisky.
Ganesh, the friendly Cape Malay barman who had persuaded me to part with three shillings – a not insignificant portion of a monthly salary of £10.17 – had said nothing about second and third prizes. Nor, when he leant across the bar to tell me that I had won a third prize goose, did he mention that it was alive. He added only that it was in a bag to be collected from the kitchen.
“Aye, a couple of hours in the oven and it will make you a fine Christmas feast,” said Jock Webster – a Scots Speed Graphic wizard who had overheard Ganesh’s announcement. It was encouraging, particularly coming from a colleague whose substantial waist suggested a comfortable acquaintance with good food.
The goose emerged in an irate storm of droppings and feathers.
[As well as gourmet pretences, Jock claimed to have fled to South Africa from his native Glasgow to escape English legal wrath as one of four university students who, on Christmas Day four years earlier, had ‘removed’ the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey and taken back to Scotland this ‘Stone of Destiny’, used in the coronation of early Scottish kings. This, much later, proved to have been one of many Walter-Mitty accomplishments. But I was then a naive young reporter, and still believed that journalists always told the truth…]
The horrifying discovery that this goose was far from ready for the oven came only when, after several more convivial glasses, I collected my prize before heading for a home-bound train.
As I pushed through the Christmas crowds; as I listened to the goose scrabbling under the seat where I had pushed its sack; and as I paused to listen to a Salvation Army band playing carols on the platform of Newlands station, I pondered the goose’s fate. And, still undecided when I reached my flat, opened the door onto the balcony, gingerly untied the neck of the sack and tipped out the goose, which emerged in an irate storm of droppings and feathers.
It reared up, hissed angrily, and banged its beak on the glass door – behind which I had retreated as the bird attempted to peck me. When it moved away, I quickly pushed a bowl of water and a stale half-loaf onto the balcony.
It could stay there until I made up my mind.
But geese have wings; and when I woke on Christmas morning the bird had flown. Literally.
My second encounter with feathered Christmas fare came decades later. Married now and with two young daughters, it had become something of a family ‘tradition’ to hold ‘open house’ for lunch on Boxing Day. It had begun when the head chef in the kitchens of the Mount Nelson – then Cape Town’s finest and only five-star hotel – presented me with a brace of dressed pheasants as a Christmas gift… though I can’t remember why. Roast pheasant – then a rarity, for the birds were imported from the UK – as the centre-piece of that meal, set the ‘tradition’.
And for several years. until my friendly chef took his skills to more lucrative Johannesburg, the Mount Nelson kitchen continued to supply our Boxing Day roasts. His successor was less obliging; and the ‘tradition’ seemed headed for the scrap-heap of the past… Until Cape Town’s major department store – a South African version of Harrods – opened a delicatessen section which promised a cornucopia of imported luxuries, including Scots smoked salmon, Beluga caviar, English cheddar and stilton, Dutch pickled herring, and imported British pheasant.
Early in December I placed my order, and watched as the saleslady carefully wrote: “1 side of smoked salmon, 1 pair of dressed pheasants. Deposit R30. Collecting Dec 24.”
And mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve – long liquid lunches as much a thing of the past as last-minute dashes for suburban trains by a now-middle-aged journo -I collected a neatly parcelled package from the delicatessen. Triumph. Until, at home in the kitchen, I unwrapped distinctive department store paper and opened the cardboard box it covered. The side of salmon – perfect. But what were those bright colours, dimmed only by the greaseproof paper? The plumage of a cock pheasant, that’s what…
There must have been a mistake. There was still time. I picked up the phone… dialled… was put through to the saleslady… and explained.
“But, Mr Schirmer, you asked for the birds to be dressed and they are. They’ve got their feathers on.”
Even with a large pot of boiling water to dip the birds in, plucking pheasants is not a happy way to spend a Christmas morning… And there’s an appropriate Spoonerism to describe it.