Leaning with swollen hands onto a white linen tablecloth, Greta lowered herself into a chair and surveyed the festive display, dishes nestled amongst real holly and fir branches. She reached for a square of stollen, the tissue-thin skin of her fingertips sinking into the plump dough. The scent of almonds and dried fruit took her back to childhood Christmas Eves. She stretched towards the plate again.
‘Hands off, Mum,’ Emma chided. Greta had allowed her eldest daughter into the dining room to help lay the table. Emma’s siblings, Edward and Freya, couldn’t be trusted to get it right. They’d piled special China plates high with marzipan logs, walnut stars, Spekulatius and Lebkuchen. A nutcracker stood sentry over a bowl of almonds and Brazil nuts. A host of silver angels chimed as they circled a ring of red candles burning in the Engelgeläute centrepiece, casting a pattern of dancing angel ghosts onto the magnolia walls of the room.
Greta sighed loudly as she examined the plates at the end of the table. ‘Who brings chocolate mini rolls on Christmas Eve? In purple plastic wrappers?’
Emma placed a hand on her arm, ‘We all work, Mum. You know that. Everyone’s here and everyone brought something, that’s the important thing.’
‘I don’t know why I bother sending out a list. Last year, Julia arrived with a multipack of Hula Hoops.’
‘Try to understand, Mum. We all rely on after school clubs and ready meals now. We’ve only been on holiday for a few days; we don’t have weeks to prepare like you used to.’
‘I loved advent,’ Greta said. ‘Rotkohl boiling purple with juniper berries and cloves. And the smell of burnt sugar when we made brandy snaps.’ She remembered using a broom handle to shape them into rigid little tubes, then piping in fresh cream. She loved the contrast of the sweet biscuit crunch and the sour tang of cream filling.
Emma smiled, ‘Your poor mutti must have spent all month in the kitchen.’
‘We helped of course. We used to cut dates open and push in little pellets of marzipan to replace the stones, then we drew crosses with a knife and topped them off with a glacé cherry.’
‘I remember making sweets too,’ said Emma. ‘My favourite job was rolling truffles, getting my palms sticky, then covering them in cocoa powder.’
‘Covering the kitchen floor, you mean,’ said Greta.
They heard piano music and singing from the living room, the familiar tune of Oh Tannenbaum.
‘That’s Charlie playing,’ Emma said. ‘Come and listen, Mum. He’s really improved.’
‘I’ll come in a minute. You go,’ said Greta. She gazed into the flames of the candles arranged on the table, now deemed too dangerous for the tree. Greta and her brother had always been careful to clip them into the branches securely. Nobody had talked about health and safety back then. After decorating the room on Christmas Eve, they had to wait upstairs until a tinkling bell announced the arrival of the angels, then they would descend to find the room glowing with candlelight, presents piled high. She remembered stretching past the candles to unhook chocolate rings from the foliage. She would wriggle the cotton string back and forth to slice through the chocolate, scattering hundreds and thousands over a thick Turkish carpet as she ate.
Emma had suggested they ban candles from the living room when her children were born, and Greta still missed seeing the dark corners illuminated by the soft red glow. A crashing noise from the next room made her jump. Maybe Emma had been right. The children were clumsy with excitement and greed.
Emma reappeared in the dining room and closed the door behind her, saying ‘Shh!’ with one finger to her lips. Greta heard a scolding whisper and two identical whines of defense from the corridor. It sounded like Edward and Julia’s twins, Sam and Jake, but she couldn’t make out the words. She nudged the door open by a crack; enough to eavesdrop but not to be seen.
Greta recognised the hissed voice of her daughter-in-law, Julia, ‘Those are NOT the words of the carol, and you know it.’
‘We did carols at school, Mum. Nobody else has to do them in the holidays,’ a whiney voice replied. Greta thought it was Sam.
‘Yeah, it’s all we did for weeks,’ said Jake.
‘Nah, we did the nativity play too, remember. That was alright,’ Sam replied. ‘It was funny when the donkey wet itself.’
Behind the kitchen door, Greta held Emma’s eyes and tried to suppress a snort.
‘That’s enough, Sam,’ said Julia. ‘You’re lucky that your Grandma wasn’t in the room. She’d have a fit if she heard you.’
Emma raised her eyebrows and waggled a finger at Greta, who leaned over and whispered, ‘I’m not that bad, I just want everything to be perfect.’
Greta’s parents had been strict. If she was cheeky, she was sent to her room immediately. She knew the sourness of soap in the mouth and the low rumble of hunger. One Christmas she’d got into trouble for stealing a slice from a log of marzipan. The memory still felt fresh and shameful; the heat in her cheeks, the embarrassment of being caught, knife in hand, sweet in mouth. Her parents threatened to replace presents with a lump of coal, but they didn’t have the heart to follow through.
The voices moved back into the living room and Emma stood up. ‘We’re all ready. Shall I bang the gong?’ she asked. The gong was a relic from a bigger house with four floors, a spiral staircase and ceilings high enough for a 12-foot spruce. Greta agreed and Emma sounded the gong, causing the crowd to rush in. The adults squeezed around the table first, conversations in full flow. The kids gathered at the bottom of the table; Emma’s blonde pair, Charlie and Emily; then Freya’s freckled trio, Beatrice, Len and Amy. The twins slunk in last, cramming onto a bench next to each other and avoiding eye contact with anyone else. Greta sat up straight and brushed a dusting of icing sugar from her chin.
Elbows jostled and faces lit up as they traded details of the past year. Emma, Freya and Julia discussed jobs and holidays, hobbies and school. Greta noticed a competitive tension amongst the women when they gathered like this. She was proud of her grandchildren’s achievements, but the chattering din made it difficult to take in news of Charlie’s grade two results or Emily’s role on the school council. She tucked a white puff of hair behind her ears and leaned forward to catch the words, but they kept flitting away like doves. She could no longer hear the chinking angels, but saw them circling still, a faithful flock.
Plate after plate was sent in her direction and her glass of Gluehwein was kept full. She ignored bowls of salad, nuts and satsumas, but accepted the fruit cake and sugared stars. Her late husband would have given her a warning look by now. She’d gained two dress sizes since he passed away. She understood that she was supposed to feel ashamed of her body; she ought to hate the dimpled, white skin of her thighs, the baggy breasts and the way her stomach bulged over her waistband. Honestly though (and with an enjoyable surge of rebellion) she felt none of that. Her body had done her proud. Apart from anything else, it had birthed and reared three of the adults around the table.
The happy hum of voices was interrupted by a sudden cry from the other end of the table. ‘I said more goddamn cream! I don’t want those stupid satsumas. I asked for more cream!’ Shouting at her brother Len opposite, Amy took a satsuma from the bowl and threw it at him. Her aim was poor, and the orange missile caught the rim of her Dad’s glass and knocked it over. Time seemed to slow down as the claret liquid sloshed from the glass onto the table, where it crept across the white linen like a bloodstain.
All eyes were drawn to Amy. Nine-years-old and the youngest of three children, she was proficient at fighting for her fair share of food. She seemed to be doing well already that evening; her plate was piled high with Apfelkuchen, already topped by an iceberg of whipped cream. Her lips carried the tell-tale brown liner of chocolate.
Her parents exchanged an embarrassed glance. Sam and Jake nudged each other and grinned, then one of them sniggered. The others all looked over to Greta.
She knew that they expected her to reprimand Amy and she wondered about the right tone to take. Rules on discipline were different now. She’d got it wrong a few times with her own children; a slap on the leg, a sharp tug on the arm. She tried to be softer with her grandchildren, and she found it surprisingly easy when free from the responsibility of pushing and pulling them into good people.
The angels brought Greta back to her dining room, with an insistent chink, chink, chink. All eyes were still on her.
‘We didn’t always have cream and marzipan,’ she said. ‘You probably don’t know, but we suffered years of hardship in Germany after the war. My mutti queued for hours for a loaf of bread or a kilo of potatoes. Our cellar always smelt of vinegar because we had to pickle vegetables to preserve them. After school, we were sent to the woods to forage for nettles and mushrooms.’
No-one spoke as her eyes roamed the mounds of untouched food and the scattered, half-eaten treats. During those tough few years, she wouldn’t have been allowed to leave anything on her plate, not that she ever wanted to. She still recalled being kept awake in bed at night by the gnawing ache of hunger.
There was a muffled yelp from the twins’ end of the table and she wondered which had pinched the other.
‘Go on then, pass the cream to the poor girl’, she announced.
Amy grinned and picked up her spoon. The adults exhaled and sat back in their chairs. Only the twins looked disappointed. Conversation resumed, the angels turned quietly, and she stretched over the nuts to take the last Zimtsterne biscuit. She shut her eyes and ate slowly, savouring the ground almonds and the warmth of cinnamon spice.
Kate Coghlan writes short stories and is redrafting a novel. She is studying an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is Editor of Publications at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, and volunteers as a Non-Executive Director for Goalball UK. Kate lives near Cambridge with her husband, children, and many pets. Her work appears in Personal Bests Journal, issue 4, and on the Dulwich Festival website.