The snow began as I was driving home from Sunday dinner with Maria and her family. Really Christmas, I thought, and felt comforted. Maria’s family had welcomed me as an honoured guest. Probably, I’d thought, the first foreigner ever to enter their home. Certainly the first welcome foreigner.
The country is full of memorials to visits from unwelcome foreigners. Invaders. Not the sanitised war memorials of home, stately statues of anonymous soldiers from a long-ago war, and lists of long-forgotten names, safely corralled in church yards and on village greens. How do these people bear to see reminders of relations and friends shot on this very street, between those doorways, beside that bridge? To be reminded every time they pass, strolling or shopping or hurrying to work. Every time I saw the single flower, the simple plaque, I wanted to yell out against the violence recorded with such grave dignity.
Maria’s mother had installed me in the living room with Maria’s father. Then the women withdrew to the kitchen. My plea for permission to join them had been declined with kind laughter. Honoured guests were confined to the best room. I would have relinquished any amount of honour for the pleasure of the kitchen in the company of comfortable women.
The delicious meal was eaten in near silence as Maria, permitted to join us, tried to interpret my efforts to converse with her father, and his brief responses. But I found myself unexpectedly content. The only demand on me was to eat, enjoy and eat more. Spicy sausage and plump dumplings served with cabbage, potatoes, redcurrant jelly, gherkins, apricot conserve – all from the garden. Then dark coffee, with creamy cheesecake from the cow in the field beyond the stream and vodka flavoured with plums from the orchard.
It was dark when I left, reluctant to leave the warmth. But soon I was surrounded by snow in starshine. That glamorous magic of winter in a foreign land. Could I outpace the wolves lurking in the forest? Evade the witch in the wood? I sang as I drove along narrow, whitening roads.
The next day I was poorly. A heavy cold combined with the exhaustion of sixty hour working weeks. Not badly ill. But not well enough to haul myself into the office for the threatened party – for which a disproportionate amount had been extracted from my meagre salary as compulsory contribution to the Welfare Fund. I luxuriated in bed, relishing the malaise which had rescued me from the horror of feigning sociability over sickly desserts. Maria’s mother had packed me a bag of cookies and cake which would see me through the holiday. I had plenty of bread and cheese and vegetables, and was stocked up with coffee and milk. Months ago I had carried all the way from home a tin of ham, packets of Earl Grey tea and a supermarket ready to boil Christmas pudding in a lidded bowl. And I’d provided myself with a pile of books. Over-ready for a rest, I slept.
Oh, how I slept. Even though the foam ‘mattress’ on the floor was no more comfortable than usual. I slept.
Until hammering on the door shocked me into half wakefulness. In that state I wondered, or fantasised. Maria! She knew I was ill. She had come. But she didn’t. And she hadn’t.
Madam Director stood foursquare on the doormat. Her squat purple beret was patched to black with melting snow. She performed the conventional greeting of the season with her habitual insincerity, and thrust a soggy box into my hands. Before she could acknowledge that I had neither greeted nor thanked her, she had departed. Afraid, perhaps, of catching something from me. Or, having completed her duty to the stranger within the gates, hurrying to those homely rewards of virtue, comfort and warmth.
For the first time in my life, I recognised that I was, indeed, the stranger. Powerless recipient of the duty to remember me, bring me food; make sure, even, that I was still alive. Thus was I eligible for charitable visitation. A stranger. Alone. At Christmas. I felt sick.
I opened the box and felt more sick. Left over cakes from the party. Pink. Sickly. Crumbling. No doubt smoke-tainted from cigarette-obsessed revellers. I lacked both will and energy to tip the loathsome contents into the waste bin.
Next day was Christmas Eve and by eleven o’clock I felt well enough to go to Midnight Mass in the Cathedral. I was excited, walking through fresh snow sparkling in starlight, the enchantment for which I longed: for which I had come to this place. If only. I worked so hard. I tried so hard. I was so alone.
Everywhere. I was so alone.
In the absence of telephones, whether landline, mobile, smart or cell, I had only learnt of my father’s accident weeks after his return from hospital to be nursed by his wife. The letter had rested from its long journey, sojourning for days in Madam Director’s in-tray. When, eventually, she casually enquired why I had not yet collected my mail, I’d been hurrying to teach a class. Something about our Autumn equinox traditions, I think. I remember setting-up a bowl of water for ducking apples, and sitting in a circle round a pretend bonfire, pretending to toast marshmallows. All of us wearing woolly hats and gloves in the over-heated classroom. With the letter in my pocket and my mind lightyears away. Utter confusion.
Back in my flat, I had faced the absence of shame at the relief of knowing that I felt just that. Relief. Nothing else. No need even to contemplate that hideous journey, no embarrassed request for time off. He’d be fine. He didn’t need me. Of course not. I didn’t need him.
Then. Then I had wept.
In the Cathedral, I looked for a seat where I could be peaceful and observe unobserved. The great space was filled with constant movement and noise. Hundreds of people seeming impervious to the ancient drama performed by richly robed priests and angelically surpliced boys at the distant altar. The scent of alcohol competing with incense. Tortured saints painted on the walls closing in on me until I felt their pains myself. I ran out of the building and slithered home down the slippery path.
Christmas? Tidings of comfort and joy? For comfort I could sleep on that narrow mat. Fill my stomach with traditional pudding. But joy?
Christmas morning was bright and clear. I struggled up from the bed, forced myself to wash, and made my usual breakfast. It had never occurred to me to prepare a treat for a special day. I perched on the rock-like settee with one of my holiday books and wished myself Happy Christmas. There was no-one else to do it.
So my response to the rap at the door was merely an irritated complaint about being disturbed just when, at last, I was within reach of relaxation. Please. Not more pink cake!
Come with me, said Maria. We want you. At home. Will you kindly come and be comfortable with us? Please. Come for Christmas.
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