The Christmas dinner had been a family tradition since forever. Amy remembered being three and running around with her cousins. Then, she was ten and shying away from her uncles’ praising her looks. “She’s going to be such a fine lady,” they’d say. When Amy had been sixteen, she learned to shut up whenever her aunts would say something malicious. After all, it was just a once a year thing; she could surely endure everything for just a few hours.
Now that Amy was twenty-three and working on her graduate degree, a Christmas dinner with the entire family seemed more of a headache than anything, especially with the whole pandemic going around. Amy’s poor grandmother lived in isolation, only with the neighbour coming over from time to time to help around the house. One of Amy’s aunts, Erin, had kept on complaining about just how dangerous that could be, but none of them made an actual effort to hire a live-in care worker.
Struggling to cut the onions for the potato salad she was going to put on the dinner table, Amy took a break every five seconds to wipe her eyes of stray tears. The onion was not the only thing making her cry, but she wasn’t going to admit that she missed her family. Amy’s parents were middle-class workers, breaking their spines to live comfortably at home. She also had two sisters. Diana, Amy’s older sister, had married French two years ago and now she lived in a three-bedroom flat in the middle of Paris, playing housewife for a guy with a family business. Lucy, the youngest of the three, was still in secondary school, studying for her exams diligently, making sure she would not be the one bringing shame upon their family.
Amy even missed her aunt Donna, who had always been a pain in everyone’s arses at every family dinner and reunion possible. She had married a filthy rich but terribly old man right before Amy was born, but he died ten years later. Aunt Donna was still living her best life at the moment, bringing everyone expensive presents and getting wine drunk. Even now, when Amy was struggling with the bloody onion, aunt Donna posted a picture on Facebook with her expensive... was it breakfast? And who even used Facebook anymore? Aunt Donna was trying her best to flex her money in front of her step sister, Sam, whose husband, George from Doncaster, had been constantly cheating ever since their twins were born. Amy didn’t know if Sam knew about her husband’s cheating, but the rest of the family clearly knew. Even Amy had found out about that from someone she didn’t even expect – her eleven-year-old boy cousin who was autistic and had all the chances to die of some HPV, since his divorced mother refused to vaccine him anymore. Amy remembered something about how uncle Robert, aunt Sabrina’s ex-husband, had told the family that Sabrina had been firmly convinced Tommy was autistic because of all the vaccines done to him.
Once finished with the potato salad, Amy put it in the fridge and checked the berry sponge cake in the oven one more time. It was almost ready, so she kept busy by tidying the kitchen and washing the dishes. The silver tinsel taped to the cupboard above the sink tickled her forehead when she leaned over to see what she was doing. By the time everything was clean in the kitchen, the sponge cake was done. Amy left it to cool down before she could sprinkle icing sugar over it.
If her kitchen smelled like fresh baked goodies, her small living room smelled like old decorations and the orange freshener she had just bought from Tesco’s. Maisie – Amy’s flatmate – had gone home for Christmas the week before, leaving Amy by herself. It wasn’t something she minded, but she would have appreciated some help putting up the plastic tree in the corner. That thing had been bought from a charity shop the year before, and it was so old, it shredded green needles everywhere. It was enough for her and her bright red Christmas balls. At least she had where to put the presents Amy had bought for her friends.
When six o’clock came closer, the girl put the food on the wooden coffee table in the living room and lit a white candle. The laptop was on a chair in front of her, open and awaiting the Zoom link her sister had promised to setting up. It was easier for her to sit on the floor.
Amy was already wearing her Christmas dress, a pretty, knitted green thing with tinsel stapled at the hems, and her hair had been curled since morning, after showering. All that was left was the link.
In the end, the link came and she clicked on it, nervous to see all those familiar faces again.
It was Lucy who Amy saw first, all cute at the dinner table in their family home, with their parents on either side of her. Diana popped in a few seconds later too, and her husband was at her side already, both looking too fancy for the occasion. One by one, the rest of the family entered their meeting room, and the number of participants went up to twenty-one. In a small corner on the screen, Amy’s grandmother was smiling at them all, dressed up in her usual ugly Christmas sweated she had knitted before she married. It was still in good condition just because the woman had only been wearing it once a year, at the Christmas dinner.
“I can’t see ye all,” the woman complained. Her voice gave away that she was sick – probably a mild cold from when she had insisted on going outside for a walk even though no one agreed with her.
“Is there really no one with you, mum?” aunt Erin asked. Her face was taking up the camera, leaving no space for her wife, or adopted children.
“Can someone hear me?” Jerry asked.
Somewhere, a child was crying, but it was either one of Sam’s children, or Alex’s new baby. Amy wouldn’t be surprised if he had another child; he was well-known by the family to sleep around and forget about protection.
“Who ye want to be with me, dummy girl?” Amy’s grandmother whined and sighed. “Ye wanna get me sick?” They all knew she was trying to make a scene to convince them to come over all the way to Cambridge, where she had moved two decades before.
“Mum, you’re already sick enough,” Amy’s mother reasoned, only making the old woman fuss more.
Amy could see George from Doncaster was nowhere in sight, as per usual.
“Look at Diana,” one of the women exclaimed, but Amy couldn’t tell who. “Girl, you’re gaining weight.” Ah, it was niece Bella – not Amy’s, but grandmother’s. She would always make comments about other people’s weight. Amy had learnt to avoid her at all costs, but online it was just not possible.
“Ca-can… Uhh, guys, can someone hear me?” Jerry asked again.
They could hear aunt Donna before they could see her, because she screamed “Merry Christmas” with all her being. She was already drunk, if her crazy laugh was anything to go by, and she was using a mobile device instead of a desktop, like anyone else in the meeting room. Amy guessed it was because she seemed to be at the beach, wearing a funky Christmas swim suit instead of an ugly sweater, like the rest of them. As usual, she was trying to be unlike anyone else, and Amy would laugh with her if she wasn’t jealous of all those money.
“If it isn’t Donna the drunkard,” someone who seemed to be Sam muttered, and it was barely audible, but Amy still heard it.
Amy’s grandmother was the only one who laughed with Donna, who occupied the title of favourite niece just because of the extravagant presents.
“Bloody hell, this box is shite,” Jerry cursed. They could all hear him, but they finally had an excuse to ignore him and his sexist war jokes. He had never been a soldier, but he thought he was funny.
They all started eating soon after that, digging in all they had in hand. Amy’s potato salad tasted better when it was made by her mother, but it was not like she could cross the country in a few minutes just to have some.
Aunt Donna kept on drinking her margaritas, and somehow, one of the older aunts would disconnect herself every five minutes or so.
Jerry was still being ignored.
After two hours of family drama and gossip, Amy closed the call with a smile on her face. It was more forced than she would have liked, but in the end, it was family, and it was something happening only once a year, on Christmas. To bring them all together, aunt Erin would say every time.
Another link came through two minutes later, and when Amy clicked on it, there were fewer faces on the screen – her parents, Lucy, Diana and her husband, aunt Donna and aunt Erin with her wife and children.
“Have ye see that Jerry twat?” Amy’s grandmother asked, picking up her laptop from where it had been on the dinner table, and moved to sit on the sofa.
Now it was the real thing starting.