by Mari Phillips
I don't know why Jean invited me; she had plenty of company for the trip. Her three older brothers and two sisters. Maybe that was the problem. Too many of them, with their sibling hierarchy and rivalry. As her friend, we talked every day. Often about nothing, but everything in general. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, I remembered that one evening. We changed into something a little smarter for the last dinner. Glad rags with thermals for the sub-zero walk to the restaurant. The lights glittered like iced stars lining the noisy streets, clouds of breath suspended in the frosty air, with runny noses in need of handkerchiefs. People strolled arm in arm, huddled for warmth. Brave street musicians with fleecy ear flaps and fingerless gloves lifted voices and spirits. We walked ahead of the group. I was fed up with them, alternately bickering and bellowing about this and that, and probably me.
The restaurant buzzed, and tables filled fast, especially those clustered around the fire, its glowing logs and licking flames darting up the soot-streaked chimney breast. The service was slow, but we weren’t in a rush. We sipped tumblers of Glühwein while we studied the menu. I translated for them as they had a poor grasp of the language and conveyed their orders to the server, who stood with a fixed smile but wandering eyes. I relaxed momentarily and realised that the others had disappeared, leaving Jean and me alone. How rude.
‘They wanted to go for a walk… see the lake again.’ Jean apologised on their behalf.
‘Mm… we could have all gone together, afterwards,’ I said.
Jean didn't answer.
‘They don't like me, do they?’ A brave question to ask.
‘I’m sure that’s not…’
‘Don’t kid yourself, Jean. I can sense the tension. They barely speak to me. I shouldn't have come.’
‘But I couldn’t have done this trip without you. It wouldn't have been the same. Mum liked you - no, Mum loved you and this place, and that’s what matters. This trip is for her. The others didn’t give a shit about her; they just wanted a free trip.’
I pondered her statement. She was right. Jean’s mum had loved this place as much as I did. She’d asked us to scatter her ashes on the lake, and we fulfilled that last wish. Bugger the rest of them.
Plates of food appeared. Sauerbraten, Kartoffelklöße and Sauerkraut. We tucked into the steaming meat and potatoes. It was only as we spooned the last of the gravy that the errant siblings returned. No apologies or excuses, just a round of complaints about the service and the cold food. Jean threw me a glance, and we both stood.
‘We’ll see you in the morning,’ she said to them.
‘And hopefully never again’ I muttered under my breath.
‘The flight is 11am and pick up at 8.15am. Please try not to be late.’
We headed for the lake ourselves. To say our last goodbyes.
‘I just need to stop off at the hotel,’ Jean said. ‘One last thing, you wait here.’
She reappeared with a rucksack.
‘This is for us. I wasn't letting them have it all their own way.’
At the water’s edge, she opened the bag and produced a smaller urn.
‘Mum, this is just the two of us saying farewell, Jean and me. We love you. Bugger the rest of them!’