Wetherspoons at Gatwick was trying hard to be festive three days before Christmas but Eve was too tired to appreciate it. Her eyes felt sore and gritty as she screwed them up to peer vacantly at the departure screen. Prague flight delayed by 90 minutes. Hell, now she wouldn’t arrive before midnight and the trams would have finished by then.
She hadn’t wanted to spend Christmas in Prague but sadly it was the best alternative. Her beloved and only son Mark had recently married a young Czech girl who was adamant that they must spend their first Christmas together as a married couple in her own country. Eve let out a deep sigh for sadly, adamant and must described Alexa, her new daughter-in-law only too well. She had tried to tempt them with a traditional all singing and dancing Christmas in England but to no avail. In fact, Alexa’s response to her latest entreaty had been ‘Oh no, Eve he’s mine now.’ Boy had that stung.
She sent Mark a text about the delay and settled down in the spirit of endurance, ramming the headphones of her MP3 player into her ears and closing her tired eyes. She’d just have to get a taxi to their flat – it was no problem.
Her spirits lifted when the taxi passed Charles Bridge; the bridge was always beautiful at night and especially so in the festive season. She’d not been to their new flat but it was a delightful surprise. Enormous wooden doors, allowing entrance to the old four storey building, stood at both the front and the rear. Eve could picture carriages driving through those doors enabling the well-heeled residents of times gone by to alight at the magnificently ornate marble staircase. The flat itself was high-ceilinged with carved woodwork and stained glass in the skylight windows.
She hugged them both.
‘This is so charming’, she declared.
In the sitting room, a Christmas tree stood in the corner by the huge window. The tree was weighed down by an extravagant number of, in Eve’s opinion, rather gaudily decorated gold baubles. There were bowls of traditional Czech crescent shaped almond biscuits on the table. She bit into one expecting it to be hard and dry but it was soft and deliciously buttery.
Next day, Alexa was clear that she didn’t need or want any help with the preparations so Eve took the tram to the centre. They agreed to meet up in Wenseslas Square, in the afternoon, to have a look round the Christmas market.
The market took her breath away. Mark linked arms with his declared two favourite ladies as they wandered past stalls selling traditional carved wooden figures and homemade sweets. They bought mulled wine and hot pastries, eating them to a background of Christmas music and traditional dances. Then, Mark led them back to the main road where he treated them to a carriage ride. The light was fading and the beautiful city was at its most beguiling.
Next day was Christmas Eve and the most important day. Eve slept well, rose early and wandered, in an unexpectedly serene state, to the bathroom. Her screams caused both Mark and Alexa to rush to her side. Wordlessly, Eve pointed to the creature splashing frenetically in the half-filled bath tub – she had no words. Her horrified expression caused Mark to bend double helpless with laughter while Alexa looked disdainfully at her mother-in-law.
‘It’s Czech tradition to have carp for dinner on Christmas Eve and the fresher the better,’ she declared haughtily.
The carp wasn’t the first tradition to come Eve’s way but it was the cause of the first discontent between her young hosts. Dispatching said beast was clearly no easy task and was delegated to poor Mark. Tempers frayed and Alexa’s nagging reached a crescendo only abating once the deed was finally done.
The nagging continued throughout the day. Eve’s offer of help was firmly rejected yet Alexa, who was clearly overwhelmed, moaned, whined and belittled her son thus allowing the atmosphere to become increasingly tense.
Eve was puzzled to see the table laid for four guests.
‘I didn’t know we were expecting company,’ she declared in her brightest fashion.
‘We’re not.’ Alexa gave her a withering look. ‘Here, we believe that an odd number such as three will bring bad luck or even death,’ she added dramatically.
She then decided to invoke another tradition that no lights be lit in the flat until the first star came out allowing dinner to be served and was then disgruntled when the sky was found to be leaden and overcast.
They ate the traditional mushroom soup which Eve found surprisingly tasty then finally, and accompanied by a beaming Alexa smile, the festive carp appeared in pride of place at the table. As Eve lifted her plate to be served. Eve noticed, somewhat grotesquely, a round and shining fish scale left behind on her placemat. Deftly, and hoping that no one would notice, she flicked said article to the floor.
‘Eve, what are you doing?’ Alexa’s horrified voice echoed around the room. ‘The fish scale is to bring wealth for the next year and now’…. she looked round dramatically. ‘Bad fortune will follow.’ She lowered her beautiful brown eyes and shook her head. ‘Oh Mark’ she sighed.
Eve fought the part of her that wanted to say ‘ Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop being such a drama queen.’
She held no truck with old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, they came thick and fast. It was true she had wondered about the bowl of garlic under the table.
‘For strength and protection’ Alexa declared. ‘And this..’ She lifted a pot of honey. ‘This is to guard us against evil’. She looked pointedly at Eve. ‘Perhaps it will make up for the fish scale’.
By now thoroughly bewildered, Eve looked at her son for reassurance. But Mark was a wise boy who judged it was better to upset his mother than his volatile bride. Besides, typical man, he’d not actually picked up on many of his wife’s barbed little comments.
The fried carp was accompanied by potato salad.
‘It’s very bad luck not to eat everything on your plate,’ Alexa informed them just as Eve was struggling with a mouthful of what appeared to be wallpaper paste mixed with fish bones. She smiled feebly.
‘I’ll do my best, dear.’
Thankfully, pudding was good. Vanocka turned out to be a gold coloured, sweet Christmas bread with raisins inside the brioche like folds. Hoping it was diplomatic to do so, Eve added a little honey in the spirit of warding off evil.
Once the meal was over, Alexa sank, in exhausted fashion, onto the settee whilst Eve and Mark tackled the take-your-breath-away mountain of washing up. At least it gave Eve a chance to speak to her son alone.
A bell rang before they had accomplished their mission of washing up completion.
‘Time for presents,’ Alexa trilled in her heavy accent and pointed to the Christmas tree.
At least Eve’s gift of a pretty silk scarf was well received.
Then, the rested Alexa got her second wind and organised yet more Czech traditions. She appeared with a bowl of water containing empty walnut shells each filled with a tiny lit candle.
‘If your candle reaches the other side of the dish you will have a long and healthy life. Should it sink that would be very bad luck.’
Eve knew, she just knew, that her chosen shell – unstable from the outset, would not make the other side.
Longing for a gin and tonic, Eve, nobly in her view, participated in the next game. Alexa, with her straight black hair and pale face looked strikingly like Snow White as she appeared with three shiny red apples. She grasped her apple by the stem.
‘Cut your apple in half, like this,’ she demonstrated.
‘What’s the pointy of this one,’ Mark had the temerity to enquire.
Accompanied by a dark look, Alexa informed them that if your apple core was star-shaped it meant that everyone will get together next year in health and happiness. But if it was a four-pointed cross this was a bad omen and someone at the table would fall ill or even die in the next twelve months.
‘That’s not a very cheerful thought, dear.’ Eve couldn’t resist the comment.
At last the time arrived when it was acceptable to go to bed. Eve sank into the cool, white and surprisingly crisp sheets. Christmas, if not exactly enjoyable had at least been different and Alexa had worked hard – she’d give her that.
Next day, however, things really kicked off. Alexa went ballistic at the sight of the carp poo and sundry scales which still lurked in the bath. Her anger was further fuelled when she discovered that Eve and Mark had failed to finish the washing up.
Eve could hear the row from her room.
‘I can’t do everything Mark, it’s just not fair.’ This was followed by tears and further recriminations. They were relentless, her voice rising between the audible sobs.
Eve listened through gritted teeth. Mark can you help with this? Mark can you? can you ? had been yesterday’s theme. Surely Alexa could see that her placid son had done his best.
By the time she reached the kitchen, Alexa, wild-eyed and screaming abuse, was hitting Mark in the chest
‘Whatever’s going on? Stop it, Alexandra; for goodness sake get a grip of yourself.’
Mother-in-laws, as she very well knew, should never, ever interfere and Alexa flounced off to her bedroom, accompanied by a furious torrent of Czech. The exasperated Mark took himself off for a walk whilst Eve tidied the kitchen. Mission accomplished, she tried reading her book but found it hard to concentrate. Where was Mark? He’d been gone a long time.
Eventually, a red-eyed Alexa appeared.
‘Where can Mark be?’ She enquired in a small voice
Mark, her sensitive son, distraught and distracted had apparently been run over by a tram and was now in the hospital with a head injury. The doctors were unable or unwilling to tell them whether he would suffer any long-term brain damage.
The two women who loved him held each other close and in the weeks that followed, despite Eve’s initial fears that Alexa would be put her own needs first; instead she witnessed a deep love and dedication. Yes, Alexa, he is yours now.