Let me set the scene for you.
We are in the Austrian Lake District, 2013, Christmas Eve. The last embers of light are painting the stark mountain peaks in deep orange and purple light; studded in between, like deep green jewels, lie beautiful ice-covered lakes.
Imagine as we zoom in, we find a small country house nestled in amongst the snow-covered trees, brightly lit windows and a smoke puffing chimney speak of Christmas cheers; however, all is not well in our little kingdom.
There is only five of us, Mum, my husband, my brother, his wife and myself. We buried Dad less than two months ago, and my stepson M, my husbands beloved eldest son, had passed away shortly before that. Despite their misgivings, I managed to convince the family that meeting here would be the right thing to do.
Up to now, we have managed well, lit the Christmas tree and exchanged presents in good cheer, but now, gathered around the dining table, everybody seems to have lost their appetite. Nobody wants to mention the elephant in the room. We feel bereft, miserable, raw inside, missing them. Stuck with our own thoughts, awkward silence descends. I feel doubtful now, “Surely Dad you would have wanted us to meet here?”
In an effort to save the evening, I start spinning them a story of far away, long-forgotten lands, cultures where people celebrate their dead by inviting them to their dinner table. Though doubtful, the family starts playing along, plates for Dad and M are set out, and they instantly complain about the absence of “pigs in blankets” and the beer being too cold. More drinks are poured, and through us they start telling their stories, soon my godmother and mum’s childhood friend join too.
As the atmosphere lifts, we wander down memory lane; we tell tales about our loved ones, there is laughter and many a tear, two more plates are laid out for our Bristol friends, who passed six months ago, oh how we miss them; we quickly, before they start moaning too, serve them their favourite beetroot and cheddar on cocktail sticks.
I see rosy cheeks and smiley faces now, and as the festivity draws to a close, we start clearing up counting the plates.
“Who would have thought we’d manage eleven around our table this year?”
As I turn off the lights, I swear I can hear Dad “ Leave me that box of chocolates before you shut the door on your way out” giggling, I do so.
I sleep better than I have in weeks.
The next morning I silently creep outside, wrapped in my dad’s massive winter jacket, to watch the sunrise. To my surprise, I find my brother already there, crunching through the snow. I quietly fall in with him, matching his long stride when he suddenly stops and points. I catch my breath, there on the snow-covered rose bush has sprung a single deep red rose.