Though George liked to describe himself as “A non-avid user of social media”, as the weeks had gone by, he found the isolating nature of the lockdown had induced him into consulting, much more often than usual, his rarely-viewed Facebook stream. He had always quite liked to see the light-hearted posts featuring pets, birthday greetings and food treats, of the few family members and colleagues he was “friends” with. Only lockdown could have brought an end to the posts of walks, holidays and crowded dinner tables he was also quite partial to.
But the depressing effect of the COVID lockdown had prompted in George a most uncharacteristic habit: he had taken, surreptitiously, to typing in names of colleagues he would not normally pay the slightest attention to. And the search on “Jernej Kovačić Brussels” had turned out to be most interesting.
At first he couldn’t tell if Jernej’s posts had been from the past – those Facebook “See your memories” features often confused George. But the photos on Jernej’s page certainly looked recent. Of a bar. Some sort of music show, or cabaret. A stage, burgundy-coloured curtains, lights. Not the best photos, as if he’d been taking them without wanting to be seen. Not many people in the bar either. A barman, or two. An old guy. A jolly woman, the landlady? A girl with a baby, of all things. Photos of two beer glasses and three bottles of Corona on a table, posted with comments, with some sort of in-joke: ‘It feels so good to get Coron-ed when you need it!’
Lost in thought, George was recalling how one spying session had led to another. He was making just enough “um” and “uh, ha” sounds to give Luicja the impression he was following her ever-so-interesting stories. Then, as George was mulling over the Facebook finds, thinking “Yes, and then….” Patricia popped her head out from the kitchen and called out:
“Food’s ready folks, take your seats for a not-to-be-missed Christmas 2020 gastronomic extravaganza!” and the three of them were immediately drawn towards a table decked with a marvellous array of sizzling zakouskis, cold meats and condiments.
Patricia had decided some weeks before that, this Christmas, she was really going to ‘pull out all the stops’, as George liked to call it when his wife made a special effort in the kitchen. Patricia was going to hear nothing of bought-in boxes of frozen zakouskis, supermarket jars of onion confit and plastic tubs of tiramisu.
“All will be made by my own fair hand” she had announced at Advent, in an attempt to lift George, whose spirits had slowly shrunk under the relentless build-up of extra télétravail tasks, consumed by the looming darkness of the ever-shortening days. During all their years of marriage, Patricia had never found herself so implicated in George’s work. Every morning she would witness his walk from the breakfast bar, to the bathroom, the quick clean of the teeth, before leaving for his desk, in the office they had created in the corner of one the spare bedrooms. She heard all his calls, all his discussions, all his meetings, all his frustrations, if not at full, piercing volume, then as muffled, grumpy voices behind the bedroom door.
Now the winter had set in, Patricia no longer had the option of going out to potter in the garden. The three times weekly escape to her restful yoga sessions had been blocked since March. Her lunches, before, a quiet salad and a fruit juice with a book or magazine for company, were now taken up with ERA affairs – who said what, who wanted this or that, who did what, or didn’t.
What distressed Patricia most was that George’s daily lunchtime updates never seemed to mention why he or she at the ERA did this or that, especially when George was at his busiest, which seemed like most of the time. She particularly resented it when Lecomte called George to come into the office for late sessions, when the finance Ministers would apparently argue long into the night. Patricia didn’t dare ask what all this furious activity was for and limited herself to listening, patiently. “The doctors give out the COVID health warnings and the rest is decided by political expedient” George would pronounce if asked.
It was hard for Patricia to see George investing himself, day in day out, in a financial recovery plan, which didn’t seem to take into account that life for so many was never going to be the same again. Even the gratification of seeing her devoted husband striding up the drive to the house on his walk back from the station was denied her. Invariably, now, George would slip away late from his screen, decline his favourite glass of Margaux wine, and slump down in the sofa. This was not the George she knew.
In the weeks before Christmas, Patricia had begun to have doubts about George’s welfare. Throughout their 27 years of marriage, Patricia had always tried to give George the impression she was listening to everything he said. That was easier said than done. After all, George could drone on at times, especially about the goings-on at his beloved Société Géologique Belge, which he would rather pompously describe as “A place where one can discover the history of our planet and, thus, its place in the cosmos”.
In the lead-up to Christmas, Patricia had grown accustomed to hearing George trot out some theory or other about the movement of the sun and the date of Christmas in the yearly calendar, theories so typical of George’s earnest yet wistful character. This year George had been unusually silent. Until the weekend before Christmas, sitting at this desk computer, he had suddenly announced: “Well, stone the crows! Why didn’t I realise? Of course! Silly me!”
George proceeded to ramble on about the 21st not only being the winter equinox or “The Day the Light starts to return” but also the day of a special positioning of Jupiter and Saturn right next to each other in the sky, which only happens once every 400 years. “You know what that means?” George had spluttered with that distinctive intonation of his, which made it so hard to tell if he was making a statement or asking a question.
Patricia could feel a fresh glow of enthusiasm in his voice and prepared herself to listen.
“Kepler was the last great astrologer and the first great astronomer in the world, and he worked out that the ‘Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn’ signalled a change in conditions on earth, a new configuration, the start of something different. How could I have missed its coming?” George then mumbled on about how the cycle repeats, how each conjunction differs depending on how close the planets are and how “Some even go as far as to say that the conjunction in zero AD was the Star of Bethlehem itself!”.
“Yes, dear” Patricia had replied, her few words full of warmth and support for her soul-mate, tinged only with certain hesitance arising from her thought: “What on earth has George got into this head, this time?”
But George’s ‘discovery’, Patricia was pleased to find, brought on a palpable change in his mood and she heard George muttering more than once in the days before Christmas phrases like “ka ka ka cosmic clock”, “na na na new beginning” and “la la la Light of the World”.
“Oh, how delicious” interrupted Lucija, as attention turned back to the tasty morsels on the Christmas Eve table. Patricia was an accomplished pastry cook. She had picked up the varied techniques of zakouski baking over her time in Belgium and had learnt to complement them with a wide range of British pies and pastries, masterfully made in miniature, to the delight of her guests and their palates.
“My favourites are Patricia’s mini sausage-and-onion pies,” cried George. “They knock the spots off anything Marks and Sparks can produce,” he added mirthfully, pouring Lucija and Patricia each a generous glass of Margaux and adding “And see how the pie lets this fine wine express itself to the full,” as he murmured on or the need of “international recognition” of British pastry cooking and a “médaille d’or” for Patricia’s “Very Best Pork Pie of the year!”
The evening pursued its course of culinary delights and administrative anecdotes, all under an invisible cloud of an unspoken emotion, fed by the thoughts in all their minds of “What are we going through?” and “When will all this be over?” The conversation had naturally moved on to matters like the fate of family and friends “Everyone thankfully safe” as Lucija put it, while all three carefully avoided the no-go subject of Dying and of Death.
When attention turned to the state of the economy and the ‘financially vulnerable’ George came out with the awkward comment that “The poor have become casualties thronging the intensive care wards of Europe’s money lending institutions,” in a frustrated attempt to bring some humour to the matter. In reply, all Lucija could do was add, meekly, “Yes, health policy does seem to have prevailed over economic policy in all this.”
Throughout the meal, superlatives had been uttered in abundance to describe the fishy delights of Patricia’s ‘baked hake and fricassée of cockles’ and its accompanying ‘dauphine of potatoes and gently steamed green vegetables’. By the time the dessert arrived, the mood had mollified even further and George took opportunity to bring out his finest bottle of Quintas das Carvahlas 1970 vintage port, to finish the meal with cheese and biscuits.
“I’ve never eaten cheese with port before” commented Lucija “and certainly never at end of meal”.
“I hear that often” retorted George, after all those years in Brussels, still peculiarly proud of his ‘difference anglaise’. “I know the French argue it’s better to use up the wine of the meal with the cheese before the dessert” he continued “but after the meal I reckon the cheese leaves a handy protective layer of calcium on your teeth and without cheese, well, let’s face it, you could never enjoy those ‘notes of ripe, musky berries’ in a fine glass of port!”
Lucija was constantly amused by George’s idiosyncratically English interludes and sat back in her chair to listen to his oral lucubration on the importance to the English of the port trade and how it was protected by “The Treaty of Windsor, 1386, the oldest surviving international Treaty, and all for the sake of a best Ruby!”
Once midnight passed and the conversation began to falter, George felt prompted to announce that “It must be time to hit the sack”. And so the last dishes were cleared from the table and Lucija bid “Good night, it was fantastic Christmas Eve, really, thank you so much” to George and Patricia.
In the bedroom, as the couple were changing for bed, Patricia couldn’t hold back from commenting, quietly, unless Lucija overheard, “What a lovely, honest, warm-hearted girl. How could you ever have found her frumpy?”
As George was emptying the pockets of his trousers on to the dresser, Patricia pricked up her ears when she heard the rattle of a large number coins. “Where did those come from?” she asked, “I’ll have them, they still may come in useful despite the lockdown!” George mumbled his assent and turned to remove his shirt.
Reaching over to the coins to sort them out into ‘silvers and coppers’ Patricia suddenly stopped. “George, look here” she exclaimed. “I think you’ve been done. A couple of these are not Euro coins, they’re tokens. Look, it says ‘Corona’ on them”. Perplexed, George paused from putting on his pyjama top, as Patricia asked: “Darling, where on earth did you pick those coins up?”