Eliza Hewlett, having been forcibly separated from her fiancé just as they were about to set sail for America, has made her way from New York to St Louis, to take up employment as assistant to Dr Karl Feigenbaum. She met the German doctor on the voyage out and has refused his offer to marry her.
Dr Feigenbaum left the house early, undeterred by the heavy snow that had begun to fall during the night – indeed it seemed his sortie was inspired by it. Over breakfast Eliza had tried to dissuade him from going out, but he paid no attention.
‘Just a few flurries, my dear. Nothing like the amount we used to get in Bavaria. I am delighted that our first Christmas in St Louis will be a white one.’ He rubbed his hands together and smiled at her, his eyes lit up like an excited child’s. She tried not to think about his use of the words "our" and "first".
Two hours later he returned, riding on a brewery dray cart pulled by a pair of Clydesdale horses. Eliza looked out of the window as they approached and saw him sitting beside the driver, his scarf blowing behind him like a Medieval pennant, the bottoms of his trouser legs sodden and his nose as red as a cherry. His grey beard was flecked with snow, giving him the appearance of Santa Klaus. On the flatbed of the cart behind them was the most enormous fir tree she had ever seen. The doctor and the drayman grappled it off the cart with some difficulty and dragged it into the parlour, leaving a trail of broken branches and pine needles in their wake.
Frau Bauer had evidently been forewarned, as she appeared from the kitchen bearing trays of gingerbread men and brightly painted salt dough stars, each one with silk ribbon inserted ready to hang on the tree.
‘Ah! You have baked the lebkuchen, Marta’ said the doctor.
‘There’s stollen too and the glühwein. Everything’s ready,’ the housekeeper replied.
‘We shall have a proper German Christmas’ he said, ‘especially for Eliza.’
The drayman left, rewarded with several pieces of stollen. As the three of them set about dressing the tree, Eliza realised it was now more than six months since she had been parted from Jack. She couldn’t help wondering what he would be doing now? Did he and Mary Ellen have a Christmas tree in Middlesbrough? Would they be standing there in their own parlour, draping tinsel around it and lighting candles? Then it dawned on her that by now Mary Ellen must have had her baby. She paused, a stick of candy cane in her hand and gazed out of the window watching the snow falling, as her eyes glazed over with tears. She didn’t want to think about Jack holding that baby in his arms, cradling it, looking into its eyes, maybe even loving it? Who could fail to love an innocent baby? Even a sailor’s bastard conceived in a Bristol alleyway.
‘Are you all right, my dear?’ said Dr Feigenbaum. ‘You’re looking pale. Why don’t you sit down and rest for a few minutes? I’ve been working you too hard. You must be tired. Marta and I can finish this.’
She shook her head. ‘I’m quite well, Doctor, thank you.’
She didn’t want to sit down. She didn’t want time to think. Grabbing some candy canes from the box on the table, she set about hanging them on the tree, making herself work out the optimal spacing between each, varying the colours of the striped paper wrapping in an even distribution – anything to stop herself thinking about Jack and his new family back in England. And anything to stop herself thinking about the baby she longed to have herself and probably never would. Her hand moved over the sunken contours of her damaged face – no one would want her now. No one except the doctor and she could never contemplate marrying him.
When they were done, Dr Feigenbaum crossed to the sideboard and poured three glasses of the warm glühwein, handing one each to her and Frau Bauer. The housekeeper looked shocked.
‘I couldn’t possibly, Herr Doctor. It wouldn’t be right.’
‘It’s Christmas, Marta. I think we can make an exception.’
He smiled at Eliza and raised his glass and she realised that he had only included Marta to legitimise the situation and prevent any awkwardness between them.
‘To Christmas!’ he said, adding, ‘And to friendship.’ He moved around the tree closer to Eliza. ‘And to the future, here in America. In St Louis.’
She looked at him in alarm. She didn’t want to drink a toast to the idea of remaining here. She wanted to sail back across the Atlantic. Back to Jack. Back to the life they were supposed to have together. Her eyes welled up, her throat closed and she struggled to swallow.
‘Drink!’ he said, his voice uncharacteristically fierce. ‘Drink and be happy!’
Thank you for joining our party
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