The illuminated, joyful atmosphere of the house seemed inviting – a family sitting around a table, cheerfully chatting about their business, having a meal together after unwrapping presents that were left by Santa underneath the Christmas tree. The block of flats they lived in, located in a small, Polish village, was full of similar families, eating the Christmas supper and sharing opłatek- a white wafer that symbolises peace and good wishes.
It was a merry gathering, with all of the family members laughing and smiling. There were eight of them, two little kids, brother and sister, and their parents, aunt Zuzia and uncle Stanisław, aunt Cecylia and Grandma, who was sitting on a wheelchair parked in the corner of the room. Her age reflected in her weak condition but she wasn’t isolated from the table: Cecylia talked to her, passing her some food from the table, although without any reaction from Grandma.
Tomek, a boy of seven years, started teasing his little sister, Ania, about the unfinished food on her plate. Their mother, Maria, shushed them as she was attempting to listen to her husband, Andrzej, rant about his annoying new boss at work.
‘Stop crying, nothing bad happened, you can finish the food later. Now, go and play with Tomek and let the adults talk,’ she exclaimed, reassuring her husband with a nod that she was listening to him.
Aunt Zuzia offered to go play with the children and uncle Stanisław pulled his chair closer to Andrzej’s chair, joining in on his work conversation, finally giving him the attention he craved and reacting dramatically to everything he said. Hence, the living room was busy, the Christmas tree heavily decorated, the first star appearing outside the window, but no one noticed, engaging in heartwarming discussion and finishing off the food on their plates. Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
Cecylia jumped on her chair, the unexpected sound disturbing her stream of thoughts. The room went silent. All conversations stopped.
‘Was anyone else supposed to join?’ asked Stanisław, confused. The family was complete, there was no one else invited and it was getting late. Maria rose from her place, ready to open the door. The children started shouting over each other and the family members asking: ‘Who could this be?’
‘I know who this is’ said Tomek, proudly. ‘It’s the stranger that visits on Christmas Eve, we have to invite him in, that’s the tradition.’ He was right, there was an old Polish tradition that said that in case an unexpected guest shows up at the door on Christmas Eve, there needs to be one additional plate on the table. Although the family had abandoned the tradition a long time ago, they were now dying with curiosity.
The door screeched, revealing a guest standing behind it. Maria looked at the person standing on the doorstep sceptically. It was a middle aged, short man with brown, messy hair. His shiny black eyes smiled at her. He looked very sympathetic and animated, dressed in a long winter coat and holding a colourful hat with festive patterns on it.
‘I’m back!’ He announced jovially.
‘I think you got the wrong flat,’ she responded, starting to close the door on him.
‘Maria, don’t you dare say you don’t remember me.’ She froze. How did this stranger know her name? The rest of the family started whispering in the background; Andrzej entered the corridor and made an inviting gesture with his hand. The stranger smiled and Maria shrugged her shoulders. The rest of her family didn’t seem to mind letting a potential murderer into their home.
Zuzia ran to the kitchen and grabbed an additional chair. The guest had started talking to Andrzej and Stanisław, seemingly enjoying himself. Maria sighed, still in awe of her family’s stupidity. As the stranger turned to exchange words with Zuzia, Andrzej whispered to Stanisław:
‘It’s so weird how he started talking about my office job from ten years ago. I have no clue who this man is and somehow, he knows. Maybe he thinks I’m someone else and it’s just a coincidence that we work in a similar industry.’ Stanisław nodded in response.
The stranger sat on a chair and stared lovingly at the warm plate of pierogi that Zuzia put in front of him.
‘A kind soul, as always. This is what I remember you as, Zuzia’ he commented, reaching for the fork and devouring the food. She blushed unwillingly, confused by his words. Cecylia was attentively watching him eat, exchanging looks between Grandma and the guest, back and forth. He seemed to not mind the strange looks he was getting, convinced that everyone on the table remembered him as well as he remembered them.
He finished his meal, smiled at the children playing with their new presents on the floor and raised from his chair.
‘Cecylia, thank you for taking care of her.’ He approached Grandma and kissed her on the cheek. Cecylia could swear that she smiled lightly, as if touched by a distant memory.
‘It’s getting late, thank you for having me.’ He turned around and as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared. The room was filled with confusion. Andrzej was discussing the peculiar event with Stanisław and Zuzia; Maria and Cecylia were trying to calm down the excited children who were theorising about the mysterious man that had graced them with his presence.
Grandma was still smiling, a tear rolling down her cheek.