A Christmas Tale.
By Patrick Brigham
Once more the languor of a Balkan Christmas was upon me, and the torpor of inactivity has dulled the mind with a diet of turkey and sticky sweets; punctuated by the ever present TV set which spews out the accumulated detritus of fifty years of Hollywood’s seasonal obsessions.
Within the remit of my little expatriate world, it was well known that the Balkan God had been practically dead up until 1989. Now his re -awakening is not one of spirituality, but the mockery of commercialism. That, and the winging family, drove me - not to despair - but to write. But what could I write about?
I made several vain attempts to start the muse working, but without a computer and many false starts, it all ended up as a pile of disjointed paragraphs scrawled on crumpled paper, which I then tossed into an ever filling wastepaper basket. Irritated by the usual family interruptions, my attempts at fiction became more absurd and desperate, but never the less I tried.
Great Aunt Florrie sat amidst her accumulated collection of antique furniture, which gleamed and smelt of beeswax polish. As one might do when visiting an antique shop, one needed time to navigate a precarious route between the Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture, her inheritance from more than thirty years close observance of family duty, and the ever mounting mortality of ever aging relations. During her life she had frequently admired various antiques - bric-a-brac, objects of virtue, items big and small - and their proud owners had often said to her, ‘When I die, I will leave that to you in my will.’ And true to their word, they always had.
Now; the last of her decrepit generation, she sat comfortably within her Aladdin’s Cave, enjoying the history of a large family, which in turn had collected furniture and keepsakes from all around the world. Brass topped tables from Turkey with little brass cups and a brass coffee pot, little side tables shaped like an old threepenny bit - octagonal and inlayed in ivory from India - nodoubt given to her by some long forgotten District Commissioner. Faded sepia photographs of Victorians who stared at you from round black ebony frames, little pieces of porcelain and glass standing on the worn red velvet shelves of a sparkling book case bureau. And next to it a marble mantelpiece adorned by a French sevrais ormolu gilded clock surrounded by silver framed photographs of smiling 20th century and brilliantined men with their families and dogs sitting posed on verandah’s somewhere in India, Africa or even Birchington-on-sea.
She smiled at me and said ‘Dear, it has been so long since I have seen you, I expect you have been very busy traveling around the world in your job.’ The brass faced sun and moon long case grandfather clock chimed five times, the mechanism whirred, and she looked up at the clock face not waiting for my reply. She said ‘Is that the time? We had better have our tea now dear; I’ve got a Christmas cake especially for your visit today. I don’t usually bother on my own, not these days.’
She opened out a pretty gate legged table, lifted the flaps, and carefully pulled out the candy twist legs. From the drawer she removed an embroidered table cloth, and then went over to the sideboard to get the Spode cups, saucers, and tea plates. She rattled around in the sideboard and finally counted out four silver tea spoons - one for each of us, one for the sugar, and one for the jam - two small silver knives and forks, and a silver cake slice. She put them on the table, and then bumping into various objects en route, she made her way to the kitchen of her crowded Kensington terrace house. I looked around the room which I had not seen for some years, and glanced at the fading wallpaper, and the ornate ceiling.
The whole house needed some attention. I had noticed from the outside, when I arrived, a bad structural crack running over the front bay window, and sitting there I also saw that there was some movement in the flank wall. You could just see a stepped crack appearing, which also ran across the ceiling. It was here that a large glass chandelier hung, with twenty candle-bulbs. From the kitchen her thin reedy voice shouted. ‘China or Indian dear, the tea I mean?’ I could hear the water bubbling in the electric kettle. ‘Indian, please Auntie.’ I shouted back, and remembered the holidays I had spent here with her when she had been younger and more mobile. It had been a time when London was more genteel, more English, and now Kensington was full of foreigners, which was how I often felt about myself these days.
Aunt Florrie came to the door of the kitchen carrying a large mahogany tray, on which I could see a big silver teapot and a Fortnum and Masons Christmas cake. Getting up I said ‘Let me take that auntie,’ as I collided with various tables and chairs ‘it looks very heavy to me.’ I grasped the handles of the butler’s tray, and placed it on the table next to the buttoned back chaise longue on which she had been sitting. The crustless thin slices of bread and butter sat uniformly on a crown derby plate, placed carefully on a paper lace mat. ‘Shall I pour the tea auntie,’ and without waiting I said ‘and I had better cut the cake too, this sugar icing looks very thick to me.’ She smiled at me again, and then shuffled towards her seat on which she had placed her crochet. It lay on top of an old copy of The Lady magazine.
She switched on a nearby table lamp, announcing the fact that darkness had begun to descend on a wintry London. Through the window I noticed that the street lights had begun to automatically switch themselves on, and so I got up and went to the window to pull the thick draped curtains. What happened then I will never forget!
For a moment I stood there looking into the street, watching someone attempting to park their car in the snow, and then looked at the heavily restored houses opposite. Someone had ostentatiously erected a Christmas tree in their front garden, which was covered by hundreds of white glittering lights. Then it happened!
As I pulled the curtains I heard a slight cracking noise, so I naturally turned to see where the noise had come from. As I did the cracking noise turned into a roar, and before me the room seemed to disintegrate into a cloud of dust and plasterwork, pressing me closely and painfully into the bay window.
Aunt Florrie had her back towards me, and I could just see her head through the dust as a large four poster bed crashed through the ceiling, its passage lit by the blazing glass chandelier. This was followed by two large six draw drop handled walnut chests, a French armoire, and a large marble statue of Gladstone ………….
This is complete rubbish. No one will ever believe this! I had better start again, and write a new story.
It was Christmas and the gray haired man wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and contemplated his life so far. He was confused. But why? After all, he was one of the most powerful men in the world.
However power was not everything, particularly when it came to family life. His wife Tensing was not only uncontrollably ambitious, but had been pushy throughout their entire marriage. Their daughter Fulham was spoilt, and he strongly suspected a little promiscuous. His love for her had been demonstrated by his relentless indulgence, and her love for him, by her total self indulgence. The family power struggle was reaching its peak within the metamorphosis of his marriage, and the visible signs of discontent were now more difficult to contain. This was despite his professional advisors and the public relations experts who daily surrounded both him and his family. Had he come all this way, only to concede that his loneliness now far exceeded his sense of political adventure; the adrenaline on which he existed?
In the background the TV set blandly kept him in touch with international events - with the help of CNN - but on it right now the pundits were discussing domestic issues and the country’s constant obsession with popularity ratings. His were dwindling. But, it was the all too frequent discussion about his private life - and almost historical business deals - which were beginning to irritate him. Was there no part of his life that the media had access to? How anodyne did he have to be, in political office, in order not to attract adverse publicity?
On the glass topped coffee table next to his leather buttoned back chair, there was a copy of Readers Digest, and a Freeman’s catalog - left there nodoubt by his wife Tensing. He pushed them to one side, and then out of a heavily ornate silver box he removed some cigarettes, a packet of Rizla cigarette papers, and a small ball of crumpled kitchen foil - which he undid - revealing an innocuous small brown lump.
First he removed four cigarette papers, which he stuck together in a stepped fashion, seeming to form one large paper. Next he broke open one of the cigarettes, which he sprinkled onto the paper. He then picked up the brown substance, and removing a small gas lighter from the box, he started to burn it. The smell was quite noxious, and he smiled with expectation. He then crumbled some of the warm brown substance onto the tobacco, and then assembled the whole thing into a large cigarette. He twisted one end of the now tightly packed cigarette, so it looked like a fuse. Finally, he ripped off a piece of the cigarette packet, which he rolled up like a tube, and inserted it into the remaining open end.
He tidied up the table top, leaving the long cigarette in the ashtray, and then sat back in his club chair, watching - once more - the hourly announcement of his declining popularity. He put the cigarette in his mouth feeling the hard cardboard tip between his lips, and with his soft manicured hand, he squeezed the firm paper tube. He then lit the cigarette carefully, and sat back in his chair awaiting the effect to manifest itself; the craved for feeling of peace and well-being. But, it never happened.
As he puffed on the rocket shaped cigarette, he carefully blew the highly scented smoke out of his mouth, making sure that he did not inhale any of it, because he knew that it was wrong …………..
I can’t go on! No one will believe this either. Better start again.
I don’t know why I particularly noticed her; after all she was only one of many old and poor people who were shuffling through the snow that day. I think it may have been her shoes which I noticed, they were made of plastic. On her feet she appeared to be wearing short white socks, which only partially covered her thin bare legs as she trudged to the tram stop.
She hugged herself, as the cold wind blew. It seemed determined to find a circuitous route through her threadbare coat, chilling her thin body with its callous breath. The fat woman looked at her through her thick glasses. She was perched inside her kiosk, her fur hat pulled down to cover her ears, her nicotine stained hands holding a dirty coffee cup. The old lady cleared her throat, and with refined deference, she inquired the price of a tram ticket.
The gruff and uncouth mouth spat out the answer, flecks of white cheese hanging precariously to her chin. ‘Two Leva each, Maminka.’ The old lady was already clutching a ten Leva note, which she then held out in her trembling hand.
‘You will have to have five tickets, I’ve got no change,’ said the round red Slavic face, snatching the crumpled note. She grinned as she handed over the five white tickets. Her rotting teeth bit hard into a frankfurter sausage.
‘Please I only need two,’ the old lady said, ‘I am going to the cemetery to visit my husbands grave, I always do that at Christmas.’
‘Too bad,’ said the woman, slamming her window shut. ‘Who the hell did she think she was, talking like a lady; talking to her in that way?’
Grinding down the road between the cobbled stones, the old yellow tram rocked as it crossed another track, metalically squeaking as it attempted - very reluctantly - to stop in the square. When it had finally come to a halt, the workers climbed down the steps, pushed past the old lady and made for their shops and offices. They would toast the health of Father Frost later that day, with a half liter bottle of Rakia, which they drank most nights to blot out the relentless frustration of their lives.
Slowly she climbed the steps, put one of her tickets into the broken ticket punch and then settled herself by the folding door. Through the window there loomed the heroic statue of the communist worker; it stood arrogantly before the backdrop of the forest, the Vitosha Mountains glistening in the distance through the mist.
It had all been so different in the old days. She could remember waving a bunch of flowers, as the Russian troops drove over Eagles Bridge in their tanks, having fought their way from the Danube. Things had been different then. They all believed that finally their dreams would all come true and everything which they had held so sacred; and for so long, would at last transform their world into a socialist utopia. One that would last forever.
The Jew had been right, and the intellectuals had realized that Marx was their only salvation, from the war raddled country which the Nazi’s had left behind them. But since the silk revolution everything had changed. People like her - the old guard and the conservatives - had become objects of scorn. Now everywhere she looked there were foreign businessmen, and the only Marx that people spoke of these days, was a new shop that some English company would open in the City center.
The yellow tram swiftly ran down the hill towards the town, past the drab empty shops, past the newspaper stalls and the Gypsy’s who sold sunflower seeds. She looked at the faces of the people as they shoved their way through the crowds, frantically going nowhere, or mindlessly queuing. Where was her dream now? What had happened to all those dedicated Communists? What had happened to their spirit? Had everyone forgotten all her rousing speeches?
The cemetery was about a kilometer from the tram stop, a journey which she had taken for almost forty years. She remembered the tears which she had shed in the early years, as she walked the well trodden path to her husbands grave; clutching a single flower, trying to visualize his face.
Now the only thing she took with her, were her memories. Memories of the strong handsome man she had buried so long ago. Soon she would see his familiar face staring so passionately at her, from the sepia photograph attached to his grave; the same one she had on the wall of her little room.
It had been a difficult walk for her, age making even the simplest task an ordeal. But having stopped and rested a number of times, she finally came to the gates of the municipal cemetery. The man was sitting in his hut, hoping that the gas bottle would last another week. She tapped gently on the window and watched as he turned and smiled at her, his plastic cap pressed firmly on his head, a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, the double breasted greatcoat buttoned up to the collar.
‘Ah! It’s you madam, I wondered if you would come again this year. May I extend the season’s greetings to you, and say how pleased I am to see you.’
She smiled at him, an old friend – ‘Thank you Vassil, and the same to you and your family.’
‘There is only me now Madam, I buried my wife last year; I am now on my own comrade Petricova. I am on my own.’
‘I am sorry to hear that Vassil, but we are all getting so old, you know,’ she offered by way of consolation.
‘I buried her over there under the linden tree, so I could be near her; so I could talk to her when I was not busy.’ He paused, ‘but, I expect you would like to visit the great man, comrade - your husband the comrade professor. I’ll open the gates for you Madam. I do hope we meet again next year. Goodbye comrade Petricova.’
The trip home was cold and wretched, the tram crowded, and full of rude and angry people who pushed, shoved and blew sour breath into her face. Were these the perfect citizens who she had once so fervourantly and profoundly believed in? Could these people possibly be the result of her much loved ideal; a socialist democratic state. The self doubt only served to make her feel more useless, and her old body shook with fatigue, in years spent in the service of others.
The biting wind blew through a broken window, and the tram returned once more to the square from where she had come. With great care, she slowly extracted herself from the tram, the closing doors only missing her by centimeters. The driver smiled to herself and thought ‘Who does she think she is? She is nothing now.’
The children were playing in the street, and a little girl playfully threatened to throw a snowball at her, but kissed her instead. ‘Where have you been Maitche, you have been gone such a long time. There is a Christmas card for you; I think it is from America.’
Home once more, the proud and passionate face of her husband stared impassively once more from the otherwise bare wall, as she lay on her iron bed, watching the dead screen of her old Russian TV set; exhausted by her mornings travels. Picking up the envelope, she carefully inspected the stamp, and saw that it had come from her daughter in San Francisco.
She slowly opened the envelope, savoring the suspense and enjoying the moment. She looked at the silver bell on the front of the card, and words which said Happy Christmas from the USA. She remembered the words of the old man at the cemetery, and smiled to herself. Feeling the warmth creeping back into her hands and feet, at last she opened up the card.
Now this, I do believe - Happy Christmas!