Compliments of the Season

The Icing on the Cake by Emma HynesIt’s 11 o’clock on Christmas night. Sure what else would I be doing only ruminating over the dinner? Not the prone turkey, mind. Or the untouched carrots. No. It’s the blobs of stuffing that have seeped, with their oily haloes, into my white linen tablecloth that have me tutting. It’ll take several washes to get those out. If they ever go.

I wonder if they know I’m still up, and thinking about them. Not the little apricot-infused balls of breadcrumbs, sage, onion and real butter, mind. Or the orange, honey-glazed fingers supposed to be eaten while hot. No. It’s the now empty chairs, pulled with haste, that have crept, with their spindly legs, into my white linen thoughts. That have me frowning. It didn’t take much to get them out, in the end. I did wonder at one point if they’d ever go.

Would they still be driving? Possibly. I can see the four of them curling their way north, splicing the darkness with beams that glance the snow on either side. Tucked up inside, watching the night passing from within. The fairylit homes. The coldness of the stars in the vast expanse above them. The high moon.

Would they still be talking about me? Probably. I can imagine their thoughts unfurling in the car air, slicing the lightness with words that graze the windows on either side. Tucked up inside, cursing the night that passed from within. My fairylit home. The heat of my words in the minimal space between us. The low point.

“Do they have to have those computers at the dinner table?”

Granted, it came out stronger than I had intended. But I’d had enough. Was it too much to ask?

“I knew this was a bad idea,” came the reply. My daughter Kate had said what I could not. But by then, it was too late.

She stood first, and announced that they were leaving. That they couldn’t take another minute of this.

“Of what?” I cried.

“If you need me to spell it out Mam, then I give up,” she said, and we all got to our feet, then.

“But it’s Christmas,” I replied, as she and her husband Gary gathered presents, coats, toys, their two children, and – thank God – computers, and bundled the lot down my hall while I stood by bowls of steaming sprouts and unpulled crackers.

“At least stay for dinner,” was the most I could add – was willing to add. I had said it loud enough for them to hear without my having to move.

Well, they didn’t even come back in to say goodbye. No. The door was slammed – and far too hard at that – but still, I waited. The engine, then, and that’s when I knew. That was it.

I paused for a moment, and looked across the table set for five. I couldn’t eat here now. And so I took my plate, and one of the large glasses of red wine I’d poured, and padded across to my armchair.

As I moved, and sat, and settled myself, the voice of Bing Crosby rang out across my now empty living room.

“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.”

It had snowed, there was that at least. But what had gone so wrong this year?

I looked around the room. At the finest tree I’d ever dressed. At the twinkling lights across the mantlepiece. At the open fire, and scented candles either side of the hearth – Christmas Spice. I’d had enough of that across their two-day-visit-cut-short. From all of them, at one point or another. And I realised I’d learned a lot. Mainly how Gary likes to do things. How no better way exists. How this is not up for debate.

“Now, I like a real tree better than anyone, Anne,” he’d said when they arrived, once he’d taken off his coat, and shaken snow all over the carpet. “But that’s too big, if you don’t mind me saying.”

I did.

“The fairylights over the fireplace are a lovely touch,” he told me later that day, over our Christmas Eve meal. “But a garland would’ve really set them off. Not that I’m criticising it or anything.”

He was.

Kate said nothing. To any of this. Neither did I. I didn’t want there to be any unpleasantness. That, I thought, was what she wanted too.

“Are you warm? I think it’s very warm,” said Gary, as we settled in for a night of television before both children went to bed.

I said nothing of the fact that he was wearing a fisherman’s sweater over a fleecy check shirt.

“I’m all for an open fire,” he added. “But… have you the heating on as well, Anne?”

I was grasping a hot mug of homemade mulled wine by then, and was shocked by the thought which accosted me as he finished speaking.

It remained in my head, of course. Nor did I answer his question. Instead, I stood up, placed my cup on the table, and left the room for the kitchen where I would dutifully turn off the heating. It was as I turned to return to them that I found Kate standing in the doorway.

“There you are, love,” I said. “Are you alright?”

She said nothing at first, but folded her arms and seemed to be shifting from one hip to the other. I waited.

“Not really,” came the eventual reply.

I was rooted to the spot. What was all this about? I had gone to great lengths to contain my feelings over what was now a twelve-hour period peppered with more insults and ignorance than any host could be expected to tolerate. I felt I had done well.

Before they came, I had committed myself to Christmas card perfection, and had thus far borne it out with a serenity that rivalled the pristine white icing on the extra large cake I’d made with them in mind. A smooth surface over which a knife now hovered.

“Oh?” I exclaimed, my surprise genuine.

“Mam, how do you think you’re making Gary feel?”

“I don’t follow.”

“You wouldn’t, would you.”

I was astounded. He was the one incapable of paying a compliment without instantly detracting from it with unchallenged little criticisms that had piled across the day and evening like small mince pies. Kate, it seemed, was now decorating the lot with a fine helping of cream that slowly but steadily seeped into every hollow remark he’d made.

“He only finished work last night, and he’s after driving us all down here this morning,” she continued. “Is it too much to ask that he has a nice Christmas?”

“But love, I was just turning off the heat. It’s what he – ”

“ – you don’t get it, do you Mam?”

I really didn’t.

“Can you just try, yeah?” she said. “If not for me, for the kids.”

Another order masked as a request. There was no response required. She just dropped her arms, and walked away from me.

I watched my only child go down the hall then, and turn for the sitting room. And I found that I could not follow. That I was smoothing my hands on my Christmas apron. Straightening the advent calendar on the wall next to where I stood. Wiping non-existent crumbs from the worktop, and checking for the third time that I had, in fact, turned off the heating. When I eventually did return to them, I would barely make it as far as the door.

“Oh, Anne, you couldn’t pop a bit of water in this, could you?” Gary, from my armchair now, holding out his mug to me. “Nothing says Christmas like mulled wine, but this is a bit on the strong side.”

A downward movement of the poised knife. A shadow on the surface of my iced perfection. There was a high risk of contact now.

I looked at Kate with her what-are-you-waiting-for expression. Then, at my two grandchildren who were absorbed by games on each of their small screens. The volume on both was up and not only vied with one another, but the beautiful music and moving pencil-sketch images emanating from the television in the corner of the room. It was The Snowman. And it was completely escaping their notice.

There was tick-jick-whizzing and plink-clank-hissing and Gary in my chair with his mug and Kate with her face.

I looked away from them all then, and turned my attention to the TV.

I watched as the little boy excitedly jumped out of bed, threw open the front door and ran out into the snow only to find that all that remained of his friend was a hat and some pieces of coal. His solitary footsteps in the white, the redundant scarf in his hands as he fell to his knees.

“Actually,” Gary said then, “best to water down the lot rather than just mine, yeah? That’d mean you wouldn’t have to keep going in and out.”

It took me a moment to absorb what he was saying. The boy was getting smaller. More lost to the white with each passing note.


I looked at Gary then. He was waving his mug at me now. But I had understood him perfectly. I was to go back into the kitchen and dilute the large, steaming pot of mulled wine I’d made. Wine that was sitting on a low heat. Wine that there was nothing wrong with. Wine that was for everyone. Just because he likes it that way.

There were no invasive thoughts now. Only the memory of my encounter with Kate. My recollection of what she had said. It was that alone which saw me politely smile and take his mug, leave the room once more, and do what I had been – not asked – but, told.

I stood by the kettle as it boiled. She did not arrive at the door this time. As I waited, I thought of how she had spoken to me. How she speaks to me. Acknowledged that it isn’t anything new. That it’s wrong. That nobody has ever challenged her, not least myself, about the right way to speak to her mother. That she is mine, yet she is actually no better than Gary. That their children will be the same – if they ever take their noses out of those confounded screens.

As I grasped the handle and poured the scalding water into the pot, I watched through the steam as it lightened the dark red. As it disturbed my sliced oranges and cloves and cinnamon sticks. As it made this Christmas Eve tradition of mine not worth having.

Had I raised her this way? I wondered then. Was it because of this that she had married an awful man and was bringing up two of the rudest children that I had ever encountered? As I stirred, I knew that these were terrible thoughts, but that recognising them as such did not make them any less true. Any less painful.

When the job was done, I emptied Gary’s full mug down the sink and filled it with the weaker mixture. I gathered myself as best I could then, and walked back down the hall flanked by walls that somehow felt closer to me now. When I entered the sitting room, I carefully presented the hot mug for him to take.

He didn’t thank me. Nor did Kate, to make up for his lack of manners. She was on her phone.

I returned to my place at the dining table and watched as he sat in my armchair, legs crossed, and took a sip. He swallowed. Hesitated. Then, made a noise. It was a sound that said it wasn’t quite right, but that it would do.

Tick-jick-whizz-plink-clank-hiss television sounds Gary with his ‘hmph’ Kate with her phone me on the hard chair drinking the cold remnants of my full-bodied traditional Christmas Eve mulled wine.

Christmas morning brought nothing new. Not even the arrival of Santa Claus could save it. The afternoon was the same. It was inevitable, now that I am alone and thinking of it from my reclaimed armchair, that the increasing proximity of the slick blade could only ever have resulted in the piercing, and consequent destruction, of my impeccable veneer.

I had never expected to be eating my Christmas dinner alone this year, but eat it I did, not long after they had departed. I rose only to place my empty plate back on the table and refill my glass. On returning to my armchair, I took the bottle. And here you find me.

At 11 o’clock. Ruminating over the dinner. The empty chairs. The oily haloes. If they know they’re being thought about. If I’m being thought about. If they’re still driving. Talking about me. Cursing the night. My fairylit home. The heat of my words.

But what of theirs? Are they thinking of those?

And what of the low points? Of which there was not one but several. For which they never, but should, feel responsible.

Now that I am sitting back into my chair, I realise that it was not just the icing that gave way with the eventual piercing of the knife. The facade that had appeared so solid and reliable, so seemingly one-dimensional, over which they’d all spent years hovering, on their terms, had finally caved.

I find that I feel angry. That I could cry over my beautiful, uneaten meal and their lack of gratitude. Over my treatment at their hands. Yes, I could. But I also recognise that there is something more worthy of my consideration, alone in my Christmas room. Yes. What is more important is that the long-hidden layers beneath have finally been exposed. What I feared the most has at last occurred. And I have survived.

And in the light, I see that they are not ugly, these layers. That they do not need to be concealed. Should not be concealed. For they are rich, and textured. Valid, and deserving. They are true. And they are mine.

I look around me. At the beauty, and the peace, and at all I have created. At the clock – almost an hour of Christmas Day remains.

Bing has moved on. It’s O Holy Night now, and I am listening as he sings. Of the thrill which hope can bring. Of being weary, yet still able to rejoice. Of the promise of a new morning. Of something glorious.

I pause.

And then, I take a deep breath, before allowing myself the pleasure of a long exhale.

Emma Hynes
Twitter: @EmmaHynesWriter
Instagram: @EmmaHynesWriter
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