The Christmas Table by Suzanne Lambert

Lucy lifted her net curtains and watched the hail as it bounced off the ground and felt the familiar lump in her throat that threatened tears. No matter how heavy the hail was Lucy could still see across the road into her neighbour’s window. She could never understand how the young ones these days never put up net curtains and anyone could see straight in. Other houses had those blinds where it looked like the house was shut up completely. Net curtains were perfect Lucy thought. They looked so delicate and pretty but you could still see out of them and yet feel as though you had privacy. Today, Lucy pulled her pretty nets to one side so she could see properly into Jane and Michael’s house opposite, actually rather glad they had no nets. There they all were she sighed, before beginning to cry again. She no longer cared about trying not to cry these days, there was nobody to see her pain anyway. To be honest it was easier to give into the feelings of loneliness that would suddenly engulf her as she watched the family across the road. Lucy sat down on the chair and lifted the curtain a little more as she saw the young family laughing and chatting as they gathered round the table. The young ones were climbing onto their seats and Jane had the baby attached to her hip as usual while she stood stirring the pot on the oven hob. Michael came into the room and took the baby from her and sat him in his highchair. Together Michael and Jane brought the food to the table. The next bit was Lucy’s favourite bit to watch. There they all were a whole family around one table, a Christmas table, all laughing and joking, serving up food, eating and then after pudding pulling Christmas crackers to much hilarity. Oh look at the mess thought Lucy smiling. What she wouldn’t give to have such a mess in her tidy home.

Lucy remembered when her girls were little how noisy and busy the house always was. Three girls they had been blessed with. William would pretend to run away and hide saying he was always totally outnumbered and outvoted on every decision made. It was always said with a smile, he adored his daughters. Their table had been chaos at meal times. Lucy remembered how hot and bothered she got at mealtimes and how she would tell everyone that’s how she got to stay so slim. Somehow by the time she cajoled the girls into eating and managed to keep some sort of calm at the table she never managed to finish a meal herself. Nobody, least of all Lucy, could believe that she would have triplets. There was no multiple births on either side of the families. We got to be the lucky ones William told Lucy when they first found out. I can see the sweat beads and the fear in your eyes Lucy told him laughing. It had been chaos then suddenly they were grown up and Lucy couldn’t understand how it had happened so quickly.

It was the year the girls were three that had been the most special for Lucy. That year the girls really seemed to understand what Christmas was all about. Handmade Christmas baubles brought home from Nursery were hung on the tree and the noise and excitement was a joy to behold. The girls wanted to help dress the Christmas table that year. Somehow it took twice as long, Lucy remembered. Are they helping or hindering, William had said laughing. The table was a complete mess, plates all in the wrong place, tinsel draped across the tablecloth which was now crumpled and half hanging off the table. There was a sparkle of excitement in the girl’s eyes and Lucy told them it was the most beautiful Christmas table as William scooped them up in his arms telling them once again how clever and wonderful they were.

As the girls grew up they became closer and closer to each other. Lucy waited for the time when they would grow apart and go their own ways but it never happened. When they were teenagers Lucy worried about them wanting their own rooms. Instead they asked if a wall could be knocked down to make one huge bedroom that they could all share. They each had their own corner and each part of the room was decorated differently yet they were still together. Lucy remembered smiling one evening when she went into their room. Linda was lying reading with headphones on, Marian was lying with her eyes closed, foot tapping listening to music and Josephine was on the computer also with headphones on. In their own little worlds yet now and again catching each other’s eyes and smiling. Lucy thought, not for the first time, how completely and utterly blessed she had been. Of course, later that evening they all came stomping down the stairs, all hungry at the same time and Lucy had hurried into the kitchen. Only 15 minutes later there they all were around the table chatting about their day and Lucy simply watched and listened. What will happen when they grow up and want different things Lucy wondered? Will they stay as close as they are now she worried? Oh I hope so she whispered to herself.

The girls grew up and Marian was the first to fall in love with a boy called Nathan. Lucy and William were thrilled to find out what a lovely boy he was. He was fun, caring, respectful, everything they had wished for, except for one thing. He was Canadian and only here for two years until he gained the work experience he needed to return home. Lucy waited knowing what was going to happen and praying even harder it wouldn’t. Marian and Nathan were in love and Canada was going to be an incredible adventure for them. The wedding was absolutely wonderful and Lucy thought her knees were going to buckle as Marian walked down the aisle on William’s arm looking so very beautiful with Linda and Josephine behind her, both of them crying, their pretty little bouquets shaking. There were many tears that day but much laughter too as William stood and told the guests stories of Marian as a little girl and welcomed the Canadian side of the family. Lucy smiled through it all feeling as though her heart was being ripped out. She found it hard to imagine how it would feel with that empty space at the table. This is only the beginning she thought.

As they all set the Christmas table that year, Linda and Josephine insisted on setting a place for Marian and stuck a photograph of her to the chair she always sat in. The laptop was on Marion’s plate. What on earth? Lucy had said. Wait and see mum the girls told her. Skype it was called apparently, whatever that was. Marion called just before lunch and the potatoes almost got burned as everyone forgot about the oven they were so excited to see Marian on the screen. It’s just like you are actually here Linda and Josephine said. Lucy’s heart missed a beat. It’s nothing like it at all she thought as she looked at Marion’s face. All she wanted to do in that moment was put her arms around her daughter on Christmas Day and tell her how much she loved her. She said nothing, of course, nobody knew how she felt. Except William maybe who placed his hand on Lucy’s shoulder. Lucy shrugged it off quickly in case she cried. I’m fine she said smiling. I have a Christmas surprise for you all Marion said beaming from ear to ear. Now watch the screen she said and began to walk slowly backwards. There was a silence as they gathered nearer the laptop bending forward to make sure they could see. Suddenly they realised what they were looking at when Marion turned sideways. A tiny little bump. There were shrieks and screams you could hear all the way down the street that day as the girls jumped up and down around the room unable to contain their excitement then they all burst into tears together. Strangely enough, it was a quiet Christmas day after that and the girls found it hard to contain the pain of not being all together. A grandma, Lucy said quietly to William and I am not there to see it. We will go to Canada he said, all of us. I promise.

William kept his promise and June found the whole family travelling to Canada to see Marian, Nathan and their baby daughter Olivia Lucille. Well we had to name the first granddaughter after you mum, they told her. Lucy wondered how on earth she still found tears to cry. Honestly it seemed to be all she did at the moment. The scene at the airport when they all arrived was one many people watched as the girls threw themselves into each other’s arms only becoming quiet when they looked over and saw Nathan with the tiny bundle. They ooohed and aaaahed before finally Nathan walked over and placed Olivia Lucille in her grandmother’s arms. Lucy found herself unable to speak. The next three weeks flew over and the scene at the airport when they were leaving was a very different one to the arrival. Quiet and sombre. Many, many tears.

Josephine and Linda had loved Canada and Lucy waited knowing what was to come. When it happened though it still registered as a shock. The girls had always been together and it was too hard to be apart. They wanted to be round each other and loved the life in Canada. So many opportunities mum they told her. Lucy had never been braver in her life. She hugged them and said they must do whatever was right for them. Go ahead and live the dream darlings she told them. Have the life most people only dream of she said hugging them. William held her in his arms that night but Lucy didn’t and couldn’t cry. She was completely numb. There was Skype remember the girls told her, we can keep in touch daily and Lucy would have to be content with that she supposed.

The day the girls left for Canada they all sat around the table chatting excitedly and Lucy managed to hide the pain. They were all in the car ready to leave when the girls remembered one thing they had left behind and hurried back into the house. I think they want a moment before they leave said William to Lucy.

On the way home from the airport, William and Lucy never spoke, such was their pain. Lucy paused for a moment at the door before placing her key in the lock dreading the silence that would greet them. Cup of tea she said to William but he had already reached for the whisky bottle. I think we deserve one my darling, he said and handed her the glass. After another two glasses of the hard stuff, as William called it, Lucy said she thought they needed a cup of tea. Feeling sad but a little cheered she walked into the kitchen and saw the table. Her knees buckled and she cried out. William came running through and then he too saw it. On each of the three chairs there was a picture of their girls and a letter to mum and dad with many words of love and thanks for the incredibly wonderful parents they were and had always been. William and Lucy sat all night at the table not wanting to leave it, reading the girls letters over and over again until they knew the words by heart. The letters were also taped to the chairs beside each of their photos. Lucy looked at the laptop but knew it would be tomorrow before she heard from them. Goodnight girls she said as she kissed each of their photographs and went to bed.

Seven grandchildren there were now. Marian had three girls, Josephine and Linda had two boys each. The children were all close to each other and it sounded like the perfect life. Lucy and William spent as much time as they could in Canada and spoke almost every day on Skype. Eventually at some point the pain had eased and planning each trip back to Canada helped.

There were so many of them now in Canada it was always easier for Lucy and William to go there but today the girls were coming home. Just the three of them without their families as it was not a happy occasion. Today the girls were returning home to say goodbye to their father and support their mum. Lucy was numb once more and the tears had not yet surfaced. Lucy remembered very little of the service only aware of the girls holding her up and whispering comforting words through their tears. The girls stayed for a whole week but Lucy insisted on them returning to their families. Come with us mum they all pleaded but the pain was too raw. All Lucy wanted to do was be in her own home surrounded by all her memories. Together they all put a photograph of dad on his chair at the table and the girls broke down, once more pleading with mum to go home with them. Home thought Lucy. They think as Canada of home. Well she supposed it was now and she would simply have to get on with it. The next morning when she knew the girls were safely back in Canada, she would not call it home, she made herself a cup of tea and gave herself a good strong talking to. I have three healthy daughters living a wonderful, happy life. Seven grandchildren I adore and who I get to hug next time I visit. William left me financially sound so I can travel to Canada as much as I like and I am healthy. Come on girl get a grip there’s much to be grateful for. Lucy left the dining room refusing to look at the pictures on the chairs. It was simply too much. Photographs would never make up for actual people.

It was Christmas once more and Lucy was alone. The first two years after losing William, she had set the Christmas table as usual and decorated the Christmas tree with the baubles the girls brought home from Nursery all those years ago. This year Lucy had decided not to bother. She got half way through decorating the tree and struggled to finish it. It seemed so utterly pointless. She was loved, had a large family, yet she was alone, how did that happen? Her family loved, cherished and adored her yet she was sad and beyond lonely. There was that awful feeling in the pit of her stomach that said you’re not needed anymore and Lucy wanted so desperately to be needed. The girls had invited her to come and stay with them but she had been poorly lately and needed regular medication. There was a hospital appointment just before Christmas that she had waited months for and to be honest she was not sure she was up to the journey alone. Should I try to change the appointment, am I up to travelling? The thoughts when round and round her head then just to make matters worse when she was wondering whether after all she should go she sprained her ankle and was unable to walk. Well that’s that then she said feeling angry, defeated and just a little sorry for herself, I’m not meant to go.

Lucy lifted the nets again and watched Jane setting the table with Michael for Christmas dinner. They had certainly gone to town this year she thought, there were at least three tables that stretched all the way through the lounge diner and goodness knows how many seats. Jane had told her all the family were coming to her house this year. They were putting the crackers on the table now and it looked wonderfully festive. Lucy dropped the nets when she thought she saw Jane looking over. They will be thinking I’m such a nosy parker Lucy thought embarrassed. Lucy was very fond of Jane, Michael and the children. They popped in regularly and Lucy always made sure she had a treat for the little ones. The fridge was stocked with ice lollies and their favourite juice. They all loved Aunty Lucy.

Lucy walked over to the oven where she had forced herself to make a proper Christmas dinner. No matter what the girls said about her coming to live with them in Canada Lucy knew they were just being kind. After all no matter how close they were, the girls should have a life of their own and Lucy would not be a burden. The girls would have a wonderful family Christmas and she would see them soon. That’s just how it should be. She placed her dinner on the tray and refused to look at the empty table and the photographs as she passed. Christmas day, alone with a tray on her knee by the fire she thought. As she slowly ate her tears dropped one by one into the gravy as the pain of loneliness engulfed her.

Lucy jumped when there was a knock at the door. Who on earth can that be she thought? It could only be Jane. Lucy was highly embarrassed at the thought of being caught looking through her curtains. Yesterday Jane had turned up just as she was taking the photographs off the chairs in a fit of self-pity. Honestly, where is my head, Lucy thought, not being able to even remember where she had put the photographs? Not that she was going to put them back up when she found them. It was too ridiculous. Its people you needed on chairs not photographs she said angrily.

The knocking persisted and Lucy thought she would have to face it and answer the door. Jane felt sorry for her she knew that but Lucy wanted no part of anyone’s sympathy today. She wanted to be left alone with her thoughts and memories, then tonight they would all get together on Skype and Lucy would put on her happy face. The table was going to be sold after Christmas. Move on she told herself ignoring the knocking at the door which to be honest seemed to be getting quite frantic. Lucy sighed and placed her tray on the floor and went to answer the door.

Goodness said Jane, I was getting worried about you. I know it’s an imposition but I have so many people coming today and Michael as usual is being useless in the kitchen, please come and give me a hand with the children Lucy. I know you said you didn’t want to come over today but I’m passed desperate for help. Lucy smiled. Give me a minute to grab my keys and handbag she said. Together they crossed the road Jane chatting non-stop and Lucy praying with all her heart for this day to be over as quickly as possible.

Jane and Lucy walked into the dining room and Lucy wondered what on earth it could be that needed still doing then suddenly she noticed them. The photographs. Lucy had no idea what to say and was unable to speak anyway. Why on earth did Jane have her chair photographs? There was a movement behind her and Lucy’s heart jumped as Marian walked into the room and took the picture from the chair, threw it across the room laughing and took her place at the table. Then followed Josephine and Linda who both did the same. Still Lucy was rooted to the spot hardly able to breath when suddenly all the children came running into the room screaming “Grandma” fighting to be picked up and Lucy went down on her knees and began hugging them. Happy Christmas mum the girls all chorused at once.

It was the most incredible Christmas day and extremely noisy just as it should be. Oh William, the whole family around the table she whispered. It was the greatest gift she could possibly have received.

Six months later Lucy stood once more looking through her window which no longer had any nets hanging there. The house was empty except for the table and chairs in the dining room. The family that were moving in here loved it and asked if they could keep it. Oh yes, Lucy had told them, it is a table built for families after all.

Lucy checked her bag again for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. All her suitcases were packed. The girls had refused to take no for an answer at Christmas and she was going out to Canada to live with them. They had seen to all the paperwork and had been back and forwards to England sorting it all out. The girls all lived near to each other but Marian had the largest house and her husband had built an annexe for her. She would see her girls and grandchildren every single day yet they would still all have their independence.

There was a knock at the door, the taxi was here. Lucy patted her handbag with the photograph of William inside. “Come along” she said. “Didn’t think I would leave you behind surely? She turned and looked into the dining room for the last time.

“Goodbye table. Be happy” she whispered.