On the afternoon of Christmas every year, the people of Gabbadoon would all wander down to Frank Thorncraft’s farm for the Christmas Bonfire. Long tables would be set up, plates piled high with turkey and cold ham, with chicken sausages and bowls of bean salad. Everyone in town would come, bringing paper crowns and presents and stories of the year gone by.
And at eight o’clock, as the sun began to set and the bonfire was being lit, a figure would appear, dancing at the edge of the paddock, and the people of Gabbadoon would cheer. For this was the Mintie Man, with his gingerbread arms and legs made of musk sticks. His face was a big round friendly cake, with an icing smile and jellybean eyes, and he wore three hundred Minties all sewn together into a big old coat.
For as long as anyone could remember, the Mintie Man had arrived every year at the Christmas Bonfire. He’d stand at one end of the longest paddock, and all the children of Gabbadoon would line up on either side. Once everyone was in their place, Frank Thorncraft would ring the largest bell he owned, and the Mintie Man would run helter-skelter, pell-mell and fast as fussing down the field.
The children would chase him through the paddock, and first they’d pull his Mintie coat to pieces, and then his gingerbread arms and legs made of musk sticks, stuffing their faces with sugar and sweets and stickiness. There’d be some Christmases when the Mintie Man would make it all the way to end of the field, before giving a wink as the children tossed up his big friendly cake face and gobbled it away until there was nothing left of him but his chocolate heart, wrapped in gold foil.
But the children of Gabbadoon knew they mustn’t eat the Mintie Man’s chocolate heart. Frank Thorncraft would pick it up from the grass where it had fallen, and put it in a boat made of old wrapping paper. He’d take the paper boat with its golden chocolate cargo down to the billabong at the end of his farm and set it sail, pushing out into the still cold waters against the flickering blaze of the bonfire and the hubbub and bustle of all of Gabbadoon gathered in the dark to celebrate Christmas Night.
And the next year, the Mintie Man would return to Frank Thorncraft’s farm, as he did every Christmas in the town of Gabbadoon.
One year, not so long ago, a boy called Jack moved to Gabbadoon from the city. He was a spoiled, greedy little boy, and his parents would give him everything he wanted. He spent his days loudly telling anyone who’d listen that life in the city was much bigger and better and brighter than anything that Gabbadoon could offer, and as the year wore down so did the patience of all the other children in the town.
“When the Christmas Bonfire rolls around,” they said to themselves, “we’ll show him something he’d never see in his beloved big city.” So they put up with all Jack’s struts and boasting and they laughed to themselves as they imagined the look on his face when he first laid his eyes on the Mintie Man.
Christmas came, as it did every year, and with it came the Christmas Bonfire. The long tables were set up and laid with a feast of food, and Jack’s parents mingled and chatted with the people of Gabbadoon. Jack himself ran from table to table, stuffing his face with sausages and pies and rice, and when there was no food left he started, as usual, to complain.
“Where are the lollies? In the city, we have more lollies than you know what to do with, and they’re all as colourful and sweet and delicious as you can imagine. Where are they?” and no sooner had he spoken than a hush fell over the townspeople. The Mintie Man had appeared, lolloping and dancing along at the end of the field, his big cake face grinning as wide as could be and waving at all the children.
In a trice, the boys and girls had lined up in their places, and Jack lined up with them, swept along in the tide of children. The Mintie Man took his position, limbering up his limbs and readying himself for the mad dash across the field. Once everyone and everything was in place, Frank Thorncraft rang his biggest bell, and the chase was on.
Jack ran after the Mintie Man with all the other children, snatching and tearing at his coat. He stuffed his pockets with Minties and his mouth with gingerbread and musk sticks until he was full to bursting, but he still ran after the Mintie Man, crumbs flying from his mouth.
That year, the Mintie Man barely made it halfway through the field before he was all eaten up and his chocolate heart fell to the ground. Jack reached for it, but before he could grab it Frank Thorncraft was standing there, placing it in its many-coloured paper boat.
“Give me that,” said Jack. “It’s mine, I found it fair and square.”
Frank Thorncraft smiled. “It’s not for eating, young man.”
“But it’s chocolate, and I want it!” said Jack, stamping his feet in the dewy grass. Frank Thorncraft shook his head, and walked away towards the billabong. Jack watched him disappear into the darkness, and stole after him, hiding in the bushes and the long dark shadows cast by the roaring bonfire behind them.
He hid behind an old stringybark tree at the edge of the billabong, and he watched Frank Thorncraft push the paper boat out into the water before turning and walking back to the Christmas Bonfire. When he was sure that the old man had gone, Jack crept out and, snapping a branch from the tree, reached out and fished in the pool of water. He splashed and sploshed, he nearly fell in and drowned, but at last he hooked his branch on the paper boat and drew it back to shore.
With greedy, grasping hands, he tore the boat to shreds and ripped open the golden foil to reveal the Mintie Man’s chocolate heart, and without a second’s thought he stuffed it into his mouth.
And if it wasn’t the sweetest, richest, most perfect chocolate that Jack had ever tasted! It melted in his mouth and ran down his throat like a dream, the kind you’re sad to wake from, and soon as can be it was all gone. Jack licked his lips and he licked his fingers; he chewed the golden foil til his teeth ached, but there was no more chocolate heart to be had.
He staggered back to the bonfire, his stomach all a’churning and his face as green as a ghost’s, and all the other children slapped him on the back and asked him if the Mintie Man wasn’t better than anything they had in the city. And grudgingly, Jack had to admit they were right.
But he didn’t stay long at the Christmas Bonfire. He felt sick as can be, inside and out, and his parents took him home, where he stayed in bed with a bucket by his head for the next three days. After that, he and his parents moved away from Gabbadoon, saying that the country air was no good for them and that they’d be much happier back in the city.
And though they’d never admit it in public, no one in the town was sad to see them go.
One year later, at the next Christmas Bonfire, after the tables had been set up and laid out with food, the children all gathered around at eight o’clock, waiting for the Mintie Man to arrive with his big friendly cake face and his jellybean eyes.
But no one came. The clock struck nine, and then ten, and then eleven, and still nobody appeared in a coat made of Minties at the edge of the field. By midnight, as the bonfire flickered sadly in the dark, even old Frank Thorncraft was forced to admit that it didn’t seem likely that the Mintie Man would be visiting them that Christmas.
The children and their parents walked slowly home, hoping against hope that the Mintie Man would be back again next year.
Christmases came and went, and the Mintie Man was never seen again in Gabbadoon.
When he’s not telling stories about rural Australia, Patrick Magee is the most widespread of the New World vultures. You can follow him on Twitter or buy his novel As Baile: A Story.