person standing in front of a train
Short Story
Helen Carroll  

“December” by Marina Millenari

A WhatsApp message. Words I knew I would read someday, but I didn’t think that day would come anytime soon. A small message, only a few words, but they pierce through my soul as if they were cold daggers. I feel my hands losing their grip on the phone, while everything around me gets dark, but I try to stay clear-headed. I squeeze my phone and turn off the screen. I take a deep breath trying to convince myself that what I’ve just read isn’t real, but I know it is.

I look out the window: the sun is setting behind the clouds, but for me it is as if the whole world is being sucked into an endless night. Even if my legs are shaking, I stand up and try to balance myself on my heels. I put on my jacket, take my suitcase and bag and leave the house to go to work.

As I step outside, the cold hits me. I knew that winters in Ireland are much colder than what I am used to, but this cold is different. It’s as if December has gotten even colder since I’ve read that message.

The bus goes past the shopping centre. There is a bustle of happy people Christmas shopping, who get on and off the bus carrying dozens of colourful bags in their arms. I smile, but it’s as if there is a thick glass wall between me and them. They run from shop to shop, looking for gifts for their loved ones, but all this just reminds me that this year there will be one less gift to think about.

I’ve always liked the Christmas atmosphere: cheerfulness despite the cold weather, cleaning the house with Elvis songs in the background, unwrapping gifts, big parties with all the relatives… Christmas was one of the few things that made winter more bearable for me, but the atmosphere that once seemed so cheerful and joyful hasn’t been the same for a couple of years now.

I arrive at the airport, trying to look as normal as possible. Today I only have to operate a Brussels-Charleroi and back, so I won’t be going home too late. I put aside my sad thoughts for a moment and walk towards the crew room. Luckily I got a good crew: the cabin supervisor is a nice Portuguese girl and at the front of the plane with her there is an Irish girl I just met, but she seems quite friendly. I am at the back with an Italian boy of Moroccan origin. We talk for a while, and I discover that his father works in a pizzeria in Rome, less than a kilometre from my house. Just when I wanted to avoid thinking about my home at all costs…

I smile, joke with colleagues, prepare tea and coffee for the passengers and try to stay focused on my work as much as possible, but no one knows that actually I am struggling with all my strength not to succumb to the cold, not to get carried away by that frozen demon who is just waiting for me to collapse at any moment.

“Merry Christmas, happy holidays!” During this period, people travel to spend the holidays in another country, or to go home to their families. I’ll be back to my family too, in a few weeks, but I really wish this was a Merry Christmas for me. I keep smiling, saying goodbye to the passengers and wishing them happy holidays, but somehow it’s as if I was wishing it to myself too.

Once we land after the return flight, after all the passengers have disembarked, we take a quick look around to make sure no one has forgotten anything important on board, and then we’re free to go home. Today I worked with nice people who did not make my day heavy at all, yet I still feel cold, and certainly not because we are already in mid-December.

Alone, in my room, I can finally let my feelings free. I don’t care about my makeup anymore, so I am free to curl up on my bed and cry, as all the thoughts I had tried to repress during the day come rushing back to me in a freezing storm. When I get home for Christmas there will be even more empty chairs, and I still can’t believe I’ll never see again who should have sat there.

I thought I had already lived my worst Christmas two years ago, when my grandmother passed away. We had seen her happy and healthy when we celebrated my grandfather’s birthday, and suddenly a few days later, she was gone. For the first time in my life, I felt a huge part of Christmas day was missing: we had to make one less nameplate for Christmas lunch, and it was incredibly sad and strange to see the table without the inevitable blue pot full of artichoke broth (although I have always preferred the chicken broth that my grandmother made for us grandchildren), the pancakes made with leftover batter, the homemade cakes, and the trays full of traditional biscuits from Abruzzo.

This year, everything will change again. My other grandmother went to Heaven after a long illness, and we all knew this day would come, sooner or later. Still, I feel like it has come too soon, too abruptly. I can’t believe this year Christmas is going to get even sadder. I remember that until a few years ago we used to have so many relatives in our house for Christmas that we had to pull out a second table to make space for everybody. This year there will be no need for it: we will be so few that only one table will be enough. Most likely, fewer gifts will be exchanged, fewer relatives will be visiting us, as they no longer have a reason to come, and a lot more sadness will be in the air.

During past Christmases, I used to bring two portions of lunch upstairs, because my grandmother couldn’t go up and down the stairs easily anymore, and my aunt stayed with her. I will always remember the year she gave me and my sisters a packet of chocolate bars for each one of us, probably thinking it was Easter (she always gave us chocolate bars for Easter because she said that chocolate Easter eggs cost too much and they don’t have enough chocolate). When my sisters and I were young, she used to call us every afternoon at five, to go upstairs and have milk and biscuits, and then she would talk with me for hours about school, my plans for the future, or how extremely quiet and intelligent I had been as a toddler. I get lost in the memories, and the more I go deep, the more I realise I won’t be living any of those moments ever again.

It truly seems that winter takes everything away: nothing is born or grows, but everything dies. Christmas used to be one of my favourite things about winter, but now it too has been wrapped in an aura of sadness. It feels like I am stuck under a thick layer of snow, unable to move, feel anything or react in any way. December has never been so cold.

Marina Millenari was born in Rome, Italy. She learned to read when she was 4, and when she was 11 she decided to write a book. A couple of years ago she started working as a flight attendant, based in Seville, Spain, first, but then she got transferred to Dublin. On her blog, The Voice I’ve Never Had, she posts her short stories and poems. Marina has been a member of Cupán Fae for about a year now.

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