Sanna never liked polishing the silver. She would have preferred to iron the white damask tablecloth the new Mrs Joubert brought over from home. She told Sanna her mother had given it to her as a parting present. Sanna listens to the huffs and puffs of the iron in the next room. She puts aside the last spoon and continues with the forks. Forks are tricky. You have to work the cloth carefully around the tines; the task is too much for her impatient chubby fingers. She takes a deep breath, trying to keep her cool. A cinnamony smell penetrates her nostrils. She looks at the big pot of stewing dried fruit, bubbling happily on the stove. It could also be the half-moon cookies Missus has put in the oven.
Rubbing Silvo into the cutlery, Sanna thinks of going home this afternoon; of her sister’s house in Worcester; the kitchen there buzzing with activities; her nieces and nephews, eagerly awaiting the next morning. She takes a sip of coffee Mrs Joubert has made for her before ironing. She still cannot get used to the idea of having anything served to her, especially not by the Missus – or Zosia, as she insists on being called. Old Mrs Joubert would never even have thought of it. But this one, this one was not born and bred here; she is different with her strange European ways. Sanna likes her.
In the other room, Zosia glides the iron over the intricate patterns of the white tablecloth. She breathes in the damp, warm smell of ironing. Her mother taught her to do it, insisting early on that she must know how to take care of herself. Housework always makes Zosia feel close to her. In this house, having Sanna to do most of it for her is difficult to get used to, but she understands the necessity of providing her with a job. When the tablecloth is ready, Zosia walks to the dining room holding it up between her outstretched arms. She places it carefully on the table and smoothes it around the edges with her hands. She puts the red placemats she bought for the occasion on top. She can already see how beautiful the silver will look on them.
‘Sanna, how are you coming along?’ Zosia calls into the kitchen.
‘Almost ready,’ Sanna replies, polishing the last knife.
Zosia puts long red candles on the table, then takes out some plates and glasses from the side cupboard. As Sanna comes through with the cutlery a few minutes later, Zosia is busy placing red and silver cone-shaped napkins into the neatly arranged soup plates.
Sanna sees the three placemats and is perplexed, but remains silent in her inscrutable way. Zosia smiles at her raised eyebrows and, bending over the table to put another wineglass into place, explains: ‘We have a tradition in Poland. On Christmas Eve, we always set the table for one extra person, just in case somebody stops by.’
Sanna shakes her head slowly, placing the cutlery next to the plates. ‘The most important Christmas meal on the 24th; twelve different dishes; no meat, just fish; waiting for the first star in the sky to appear before sitting down to dinner; opening presents on Christmas Eve; setting the table for a guest who never comes…’ In her head, Sanna repeats the list of strange customs Zosia has told her about in the last few days.
Seeing the dubious look on Sanna’s face, Zosia continues, arranging a few fir twigs around the tall candles. ‘There is a German saying, Andere Länder, andere Sitten. Other countries, other customs. I won’t be cooking twelve dishes for Johan and me tonight though,’ she reassures Sanna. ‘But there won’t be any meat, and we’ll have to cheat about the first star. We’ll starve if we wait for one to appear in this summer sky,’ Zosia looks outside. ‘In Europe we have snow for Christmas,’ she says and turns back to Sanna, ‘What is your sister cooking for your family?’
‘Chicken.’ Sanna does not say more. The single word fills her memory with smells and sounds of home and she looks at the grandfather’s clock in the dining room. Zosia catches the furtive glance. ‘You must be eager to go. Please, could you just vacuum the lounge and put the fresh linen on I have laid out on our bed.’ Before Sanna turns away, she adds, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘I will make a small salad for us for lunch, and make sure that Johan remembers about taking you to the station on time.’
The ancient Hoover reminds Sanna of the old Mrs Joubert, always insisting on having the house vacuumed daily. She never said ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ She passed away at the beginning of the year. After the funeral Johan decided to move back home with his outlandish wife whom he had married overseas without inviting the family. His mother never forgave him for it.
Sanna tucks the duvet in underneath the mattress and smoothes over the bed before putting the pillows in place. She hears Zosia call that lunch is ready. In the kitchen, she picks up her plate and takes it to her room in the back of the house where she always eats alone.
‘I wish she’d join us,’ Zosia tells her husband sitting at the kitchen table.
‘Years of conditioning. And you know how shy she is; give her time.’
Zosia sighs impatiently.
In her room, Sanna enjoys the salad. Her little suitcase is packed and ready to go. An extra bag leans on it. With the unexpectedly generous Christmas bonus she has bought some treats for her family.
Sanna wants to wash up the dishes after lunch, but Zosia tells her to leave them. ‘I can do it, no problem, and Johan is ready to take you to the station.’
‘Thank you,’ Sanna says and before she turns to go adds a shy ‘Merry Christmas’.
‘And merry Christmas to you, too. Enjoy your holiday, Sanna. We’ll see you after New Year.’ Zosia walks up to her and gives her a cautious hug. Sanna does not know how to react. She rushes out of the kitchen.
At the station, the bus is late. Johan insists on staying until it arrives, but Sanna tells him not to worry and to go back home. Half an hour later it is announced that the bus to Worcester has broken down and no other will be going there until the next day.
Back at the house, Johan helps Zosia with the preparations for their first Christmas dinner together. For the first time in years he is excited about the festive season. Overseas there was nobody really to share the occasion with before they met, and he never felt like coming back home to his mother’s overbearing presence and suffocating piety. He’d left on a job contract the moment an opportunity arose. Meeting Zosia on one of his business trips to Berlin where she was working at the time was like discovering a new continent.
All day long Johan has been watching her rituals for the festivities, which felt refreshingly like a safety net and not a wet bag. He has been delegated to set up the Christmas tree and get fresh Cape salmon from town. Zosia insisted on a local fish and recipe for tonight. He happily obliged.
While she is busy with the last touches on the dinner, Johan goes into the dining room to admire the decorations on the table and choose a wine to go with the Cape salmon. They both look up at the sound of the door bell.
‘Who could…?’ Johan strides over to the intercom, followed by Zosia, wiping both hands on her apron.
‘Beggars?’ she asks.
‘No, it’s Sanna!’ Johan buzzes the gate open for their housekeeper. Flustered, she explains about the bus. While Johan considers other options for getting Sanna safe home for Christmas, Zosia comes up with a simple solution.
‘You must stay with us for dinner, Sanna. Please, we would love to have you. And first thing tomorrow morning, we can both take you to your family in Worcester.’
‘But…’ Sanna is at a loss for words.
‘No buts, please, come. You can tell me how the salmon turned out. And for once, the extra plate at the Christmas table won’t remain empty.’ She smiles reassuringly and ushers Sanna through to the dining room, taking her luggage from her.
A while later Zosia is busy dishing out the food in the kitchen and Johan opens a bottle of wine. Sanna sits alone at the decorated Christmas table and does not know what to do with her fidgeting hands. With the left one she raises her fork, turns it, and watches the candlelight reflect off its polished tines. She puts it down again. Then with her right hand she picks up the spoon and inspects her image in its concave surface. Upside down, her head looks small, her torso elongated. She likes the slimmer version of herself. She turns the spoon and sees her still distorted face, but now the right way up, staring back. Her mouth is bigger than all her other features. She twitches her lips, opens them slightly and smiles. Slowly, from ear to ear.
‘Dinner is served,’ Zosia enters with the salmon from the kitchen.
First published as “’N SILWER LEPEL” in By on 20 December 2008.