A TAKEN SEAT AT AN EMPTY TABLE
by AMALIA COSTA (United Kingdom)
Issue 2.1 April 2020
My job is trifle.
My job is potatoes.
My job is drinks.
My job is table.
Plate, knife, fork, spoon, glass, napkin, cracker.
Repeat sixteen times.
They file in at about eleven, all beaming and flushed from the London chill, milling in through the door and planting kisses on cheeks and presents in arms, while Mum whisks about the kitchen. She darts her head into the living room from time to time with a "dinner will be ready in ten minutes" expression on her face.
My brother, my sister, and I circle the dining room, kitchen, and living room in an elegantly frantic waltz; three rooms, three siblings. Three minutes per room seems to be the perfect average before we switch duties. We're a good team. We hardly see each other.
Directing people to the table is a task that requires a tactful yet dynamic hand; Bappou Tony and Bappou Costa have both, by this point, sunk into their respective favourite spots on our sofa, and the slightest suggestion of moving elicits uproars from both of them, laden with Cypriot expletives, that warn us that they're not to be trifled with. They're harmless, really. Old bones, old ways, Yiayia Anna winks conspiratorially at us ladies as they eventually grumble their way to the table.
I soon realise my mistake. So does everyone else, but no one says anything. England has smoothed our edges, clipped our tongues. We act just like the Englishmen do with their families now. Like we're strangers.
The space looms, a fray in the rope of cramped relatives braided haphazardly around the table. From time to time I glimpse an aunt or uncle, trapped between neighbouring elbows, gaze wistfully at the empty chair, then lower their eyes as if in shame. It's my fault. I always set for sixteen.
Mum's smile is a corkscrew. It twinges in my chest. I fix my eyes ahead on the million streaks of feathery sleet that marble the glass pane of the back door. Boxed in and blurry is the world now, framed by a string of cheap Christmas lights and wilting red tinsel Blu-tacked to the door in the shape of a heart. The murmur of small talk commences.
We act like we're pleasantly thrust together by circumstance instead of a family bound by flesh and blood and grief and love. Polite, superficial questions are passed around the table along with the parsnips.
Before long, a lull arises.
Mum's eyes begin to strain at the corners. Dad pops into the kitchen to connect his music to the Bluetooth speaker "for a bit of background," he says. We let out a collective sound of vague assent. I catch my reflection in the doorframe. I still have my smile on, one that all of us borrow from Mum when she requires a deputy. Warm, accommodating. A hostess smile. Now it sits clumsily on my lips, so I dab it off with a napkin and rearrange my face.
"Last Christmas" bleeds into the room from the kitchen, tinny and distant. Suddenly, Bappou Tony strikes up an inflammatory discussion about Brexit with Bappou Costa at the other end of the table, and we're helpless to stop it. Ever the diplomat, my father's father waits patiently for his bethero's passionate monologue to end so that he can inform him that they are, in fact, both on the same side. Bappou Tony sits quietly for a minute, then tosses his hands in the air dismissively and barks for more potatoes.
My brother and sister both catch my eye. He's much worse than last year, our faces write to each other while we eat. What did we expect?
A consummate diva, my mother's father, always looking for an excuse to play his trusty harmonica, or to sing Cypriot folk songs in his booming voice. A flighty temper he has too, so we didn't notice his mood swings until he began forgetting our names. A complete contrast to my Yiayia Rita, grounded and constant as only a sole sister to five brothers could have been. As only a wife to my grandfather could have been. Was.
She is sitting in the empty chair, opposite her daughter whose smile is a corkscrew. Which twinges in my chest.
I never thought they looked alike. They do now.
My aunt Maria timidly shifts halfway onto the chair to better hear my uncle Odysseus. She shuffles from side to side and side to side and side to side. I feel like screaming to her, "Just sit on the chair for goodness sake." She concedes defeat after a while and slides back onto her original seat. She turns to my sister cheerfully and strikes up a separate conversation. Anna's much closer in proximity to her, thank the Lord.
I chastise myself for my silent tantrum. What would Yiayia say?
She would have made Charlotta, a traditional trifle from our ancestral village, from candied orange peel. It's impossible to make it well. I cringe at the thought of how my paltry effort will be received.
Dinner is soon over. We carry armfuls of plates to the kitchen, piling them in the sink. The others file back to the living room. Greasy, bloated remains are scraped into the food bin while I hoist the enormous glass bowl delicately from the fridge with my forearms.
"Thank you ayabi mou," Mum says, wiping her hands on a towel.
She is silent. She turns to me and smiles our shared hostess smile. The one that doesn't reach the eyes.
"It'll get easier," I offer, feeling stupid. The trifle feels heavier by the minute.
The smile is gone. She looks so much younger. She looks so much older too.
She looks like my Yiayia.
"Call everyone in for dessert before it curdles, ayabi mou," she says gently.
My job is trifle. My job is trivial.
I put on my smile.
Amalia Costa, 18, is from North London in the UK. She studies English Literature at the University of Nottingham and she likes writing about family, culture, womanhood, and the magic in the everyday.