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A Special Gift

by Caroline Stevenson

My name’s Ralph – my first name will suffice for now – and until recently I was a patissier at one of Vienna’s most legendary cafés.  I’m not going to reveal the name of the Kaffeehaus in question. Not yet. I’m not going to put my upcoming business venture on the back foot before it’s even got going. That’s not what my grandfather would have wanted and I won’t put his inheritance to waste. But keep reading the newspapers and your patience will be rewarded soon enough, mark my words.

One thing I surely don’t need to reveal to you in this day and age, however, is that coffee houses are struggling to survive in 2030. Even in Vienna. The only faithful clientele they serve these days are those belonging to the final generation who still stubbornly refuse to go vegan. There’s no way you’ll see a UNESCO heritage establishment revert to a dairy-free Topfenstrudel. A number of establishments in the city have closed due to a lack of younger customers rather than be prepared to adapt to the tastes of a new age. There’s a lot of truth in that Austrian adage: in the event of Armageddon you should head to Vienna, because everything there happens at least fifteen years later. Occasionally a grandparent will treat their grandchild to a naughty treat at an old-fashioned café on the condition that Mummy and Daddy never find out, but otherwise you won’t see anyone under the age of seventy at such a place. Certainly not sober at least. There is the rare instance when a pissed twentysomething stumbles in, eats their body weight in Kaiserschmarren and heads home contented, convincing themselves when they wake up the next morning that the entire episode had just been one tasty, belch-inducing dream and nothing to feel remorseful over.  

I began working at the café in question last January, having just completed my training and wanting to get straight to work in the real world as soon as possible. To my good fortune, an employee had been sacked the week before because he had ventured to create a vegan dish on the premises without consulting the head patissière, Frau Matzek. Despite her five-foot-three frame, she still had a way of looking down on you which defied explanation. That is, until you had proved your worth.

I didn’t need her to like me, but her respect was paramount. And indeed, that was what I earned over the course of the year. I always arrived fifteen minutes before schedule and didn’t need to be told anything more than once. After five months, I was promoted to sous-chef patissier and with that level of responsibility the time flew by. No sooner had I completed the summer recipes than the dough for the café’s Christmas creations was already being rolled out. Given that the kitchen was underground and always warm, the ingredients being used were the main giveaway to the passing of the seasons. Judging by the customers on ground level, you could be forgiven for thinking the Kaffeehaus was frozen in time. Ninety percent of the customers descended upon the café daily and would pick the same table without fail, usually to peruse their favoured newspaper, appearing to be quite content in their own company. No “reserved” signs were necessary on any of the tables. The fact that the table in the far left corner belonged to the elderly lady with the bright red bouffant wig and mink fur coat was as indisputable as the law of gravity.  

On the evening of 23rd December after closing time, I had just cleared the decks and had turned off the lights, being the last to leave the kitchen as usual, when Frau Matzek peered round the door which led to the café.

“Ralph, can I have a word.” An order, not a request.

I followed her upstairs. She opened to the door to the vitrine where the cakes which would still be fit for consumption the following day were on display.

She brought out slices of four different cakes: the Apfelstrudel; the Sachertorte; the Esterhazy cake and the punch cake with the lurid pink icing. She laid their serving plates on the counter so that their edges formed the corners of a square and a circular space where the wooden surface of the counter was clearly visible was left in the middle. Then she returned her attention to me, scrutinising my face for any sign of disobedience.

“A man with your skills wouldn’t have sought work at a place like this unless he was devoted to the true art of patisserie with the authentic recipes. I hope I am not wrong in my estimation, or else I will see to it personally that you will never find work again.  What I am about to show you will oblige you to keep working here. If you want to leave, you must leave now, because afterwards it will be too late. Do we understand each other?”

My head gave a little nod, but my feet remained firmly planted to the ground with no intention of going anywhere.

“Good.”

She then reached into the front pocket of her apron and pulled out a small golden key which had the initial “B” carved into its handle. I’m probably giving you more information about this key than is wise at this stage, but hell, it’s Christmas, I must still be feeling generous in spirit. I didn’t ask which door that key opened. Not on that evening, anyway. You didn’t ask Frau Matzek questions. She imparted knowledge when she deemed you worthy of it, and not when asked.

“Now it can’t have escaped your attention that our regular customers are of a certain age, and we rely on them to keep us afloat. This place would have closed five years ago if a regular hadn’t left us a hefty sum of money in his will. And this is what gave me the idea for a new annual strategy.”

She placed the key within the centre of the four plates.

“You see, we can’t just twiddle our thumbs and wait for them to die of natural causes. Every so often, we need to speed up the course of nature to keep the business afloat. These regulars view this place as their home, but we can’t just get by on their tips alone. If you butter them up often enough, you can guarantee they will leave us money in their will. It happens every Christmas. The strategy. It can’t be more than once a year. We can’t go overboard.”

“Can’t overegg the pudding,” I offered in agreement, thinking she’d at least raise one corner of her mouth in response, but she remained solemn as she commenced a sacred ritual. With a flick of her wrist, she spun the key on the counter. It gradually lost momentum, its outward-facing end rotating past the Sachertorte before reaching its final resting place pointing in the direction of the Esterhazy cake. I noticed the key had the number four etched onto its lower right hand corner and couldn’t help but think it was no coincidence that four varieties of cake had been placed together.

“So this year it’s the Esterhazy cake which gets four drops of our special aroma.” Reaching into her apron pocket once more, she lifted out a small vial. She pulled off the lid and the odour which emanated from it reminded me vaguely of rum, only with a bitter edge, and I didn’t need to put my nose closer to it to have a better sniff.

“It can’t always be the same cake every time, or else suspicions would be raised. Performing the strategy at Christmas is the perfect time of year – our customers are more susceptible to illness in the sub-zero January temperatures. No one has made the link yet between their winter deaths and their final piece of cake.”

She gave the open vial four taps, and four drops of the special aroma spilled onto the shiny Esterhazy icing. A slight fizzing sound could be heard when the drops landed, but curiously they didn’t tarnish the surface in any way and its ornate pattern remained unblemished. It was as if this special ingredient was destined to become part of this cake.

She studied my face again, perhaps expecting to see a shocked expression, but that wasn’t the sight that greeted her. I had always been a dedicated apprentice, keen to learn, and this evening was no exception. If anything, she could tell from the look on my face that I was fascinated.

“If the last thing I eat on this earth is one of your delicacies, then I should consider myself very fortunate, Frau Matzek.”

“Please, call me Cornelia” she replied, offering her hand.

How strange that I had spent a whole year in her company without realising just how like-minded she was, I thought to myself when shutting the café door behind me. I would have to tell her more about my grandfather one of these days, but when the timing was right. One of the key elements to success as a patissier was knowing when not to rush a winning formula.

The following morning, having completed all necessary duties in the kitchen, I came to the top deck of the establishment to observe the goings-on before the café closed early for the Holy Night. It’s always rewarding to see your creations being devoured, but this morning’s consumption offered an extra level of intrigue.

Grumpy Bernhard arrived at 11 on the dot, and the length of the frown lines on his face indicated at once that he would be having cake with his coffee that morning. I looked at the Esterhazy slice in the vitrine and then returned my gaze to Bernhard. So it was his turn this year.

The waiter would no doubt have lent the moment a grander sense of occasion if he had been aware of its significance, but he plonked the Esterhazy slice down in front of Bernhard in his habitual manner. Bernhard instantly gulped down a couple of mouthfuls, and nodded in approval at the taste. Clearly up to its usual standard. He then held up his newspaper and after turning over the front page, he burst into a small fit of coughing, though anyone who observed him regularly would have put his coughing down to the fact that the couple seated in the adjacent booth was getting on his nerves. They were an American couple whose brash voices ingratiated themselves on every set of ears within the entire premises. They were admiring the Christmas tree near the coat stand, under which lay a selection of mock gifts.

“You know in German, the word “Gift” means poison,” said the man in the booth to his wife.

 “You’re kidding?” she replied. “That’s dark. That must make Christmas a whole load of fun!”

They chuckled and sipped the last of their melange coffees contentedly, unaware of the foam gathering at the corners of their mouths.


Escape

by Connie Phlipot

Lights clicked on up and down the street as the damp darkness shuttered the outside light. Click, click, click of hooves on the pavement. The horses, scarlet and gold pointed caps on their ears, trotted at their fast, home-bound pace, back to their stable and warm, soothing pat down. And food.

The melange drinkers rolled up their newspapers and closed their laptops. The Prosecco and Grüner Veltliner drinkers replaced them at their tables.  The buzz of conversation cracked the afternoon quiet. Viennese accented German prevailed; a few American voices pierced the murmur of French and jingle of Roman laughter.

Joanna licked the last foamy bits of milk from her spoon. She saw her companion tighten his lips. He thought coffee should be unadorned, an aesthetic pleasure without milk or sugar. His disapproval used to bother her.  She had tried to drink coffee his way.  The bitterness filled her mouth with unhappiness, her throat burned as she tried to swallow it quickly. Now she smiled at him, knowing that tiny flecks of foam stuck to her lips. As she leaned over the table to grab a small paper napkin from a dispenser, a sharp object stabbed her hip.  She put her hand in her pocket and smiled again. The key, her savior, was still there.  Joanna put her hand on her companion’s wrist. He shrugged it off to look at his watch.  “Shall we go?”he  asked.  Joanna shook her head. She checked the time on her cell phone. Only 5 pm. “Let’s stay a little longer. It’s pleasant here. “

Clumping down the street, the horse tried to look at her team mate, her companion. Damn these blinders.  Sally would have to wait until they were free of these constraints. She glanced at the clock as they passed Wien Mitte.  Already 5:10. They were running late.  It would take at least 15 minutes to the stables even if the traffic were light.

“It happens every Christmas,” Sally said, her teeth shut tight, only the pulling away of her lips indicating she was speaking. Jacko swung his head.  He had felt she was speaking.  He probably knew exactly what she said. They had been working together for years.  Was it five or six or ten? Each morning roused from their sleep when it was still dark. After their oats, Mr. Markovic brushed them, speaking softly in his language. Sally regretted that she never really learned it, despite hearing it for years.  It didn’t matter.  Mr. Markovic never issued commands.  He just brushed them thoroughly, washed off mud splashes from their legs, shined their hooves. Then he placed the caps on their ears, blinder on their eyes and a bag on their ass. Jacko used to stamp his feet at this last indignity, but after time he knew it made no difference and he only tossed his head and curled his lips sardonically at Sally.

A few years ago, the management had tried an experiment they called cross coupling. All couples were split up and assigned new partners for several weeks, then rotated to other new partners. Only after six months were Sally and Jacko together again. The horses exchanged whinnying remarks about the failure of the experiment. Passengers complained that the horses weren’t in synch— one would speed up, the other lag behind. Carriage drivers were more upset. They spoke of jealousy within teams.  One young mare bit her partner on the butt because she thought he got more attention from the clients. The management reversed the policy and Sally and Jacko had been together ever since. Even when Sally’s nostrils were stuffed and her withers ached and she longed to stay in the stable watching the trams roll up and down Rennweg and dreaming of an Alpine summer pastureland. But Jacko looked longingly at her, his eyelashes fluttering over his eyes as deep and brown as a mud puddle and she knew she had to help him.  Help each other, to tell the truth.  To navigate the horde of tourists that swelled each year to an army of impatient, oblivious people.

They shared everything.  Good times like the first days of spring when it was finally light when they woke and the sweet breeze off the mountains ruffled their hair.  Bad times, when the sleet turned the cobblestones into a treacherous path and the passengers sniffled and sneezed on them.  Until yesterday.

The pale girl, the last ride of the day, whispered in Sally’s ear. “Help me. 6 pm tomorrow. At your stable.” Sally looked at Jacko.  He seemed not to have heard. The girl pulled a key from her pocket— an old fashioned key with with the letter B on it.  Sally had seen a key like that before.  It unlocked the padlock on the summer pasture.

“ Yes, it always happens at Christmas.” Sally felt Jacko echoing her thoughts. “We run behind schedule and then everyone is grumpy.”

Joanna order a Gemischter Satz, her companion an herbal tea. He pulled out his phone and bent over it, his eyes squinting as if he were in the U Bahn occupying himself on the long commute to Oberlaa. Joanna looked out the window at the pulsating Christmas lights.

“I have to pop in here a moment,” Joanna said after they left the cafe and were heading to the S-Bahn. “You can wait here.  I’ll just be a minute.” He didn’t even nod assent as he took out his phone to check messages again.  Joanna stepped into a courtyard, looking back to make sure he couldn’t see her, then ran through the maze she had memorized to the horses’ stables.

Sally and Jacko had just arrived, the steam still rising from their hot bodies.  How had she got here, that pale little girl? Sally thought.

“Come,” Joanna said, placing her hand on Sally’s mane. “ I have the key. To the pasture where it’s always summer. I can ride you bareback.  We’ll be there in no time.”

“Why? Why now?”

“It’s time,” Joanna answered. “It’s the time when we have to escape. To be by ourselves.”

“But I can’t leave.” Sally looked at Jacko  swinging his head from side to side and pawing the ground.  He knew something was wrong, though he couldn’t hear the girl. 

Joanna jumped on Sally’s back. And they were gone.

About Connie Phlipot

Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus.  She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe. 


I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

by Matthew Groeger

Yvonne has scattered candles around the cafe. Lights off. There used to be a chandelier. We’re sat in a circle around two pushed-together tables. There are seven of us, which means that fourteen are playing. Mariah Carey is singing that all she wants for Christmas is me.

Claudia gets Karl and the group giggles.

They call it naughty angel here, but I like the sibilance of Secret Santa. No one can remember how it started, who had the idea first. We were young and alternative. We smoked dope and dismissed Christmas as a consumerist scam. We were above regressive societal structures. ‘You know what we should do?’

The gift of love.

Lisa holds the key to my front door in the air. She is beaming. The key is huge, a ridiculous, medieval thing with a B for Braithwaite in the middle. Justin had it commissioned when we bought the flat. Our key always goes in the first two rounds.

“This happens every Christmas!” Yvonne is laughing to hide her anger. She sips her Champagne and I worry that she’ll crush the delicate glass. “You’ve got to be in the first three to have any chance.” She pours herself another then refills others. “Lucky bitch!”

Everyone looks at me nervously, trying to hide their collective disappointment. They aren’t going to sleep with my husband this year.

“Don’t give her any sympathy!” Yvonne is not letting this go. “It’s been three years since I got him.” The honesty cloaked as a joke diffuses the situation and we all laugh.

It’s not my key I’m interested in.

The chairs are painful and cold because Yvonne switched out the old, comfortable ones for designer ones. There used to be a grand piano in the corner but there’s a Bluetooth jukebox now. Dean Martin is ordering the clouds to snow, and because it’s Vienna in December the clouds oblige.

The group starts drumming on the table as the bowl is handed to Matthias. We like to think we’re progressive for letting Matthias and Karl join the group, but it’s really only the men who have their sensibilities challenged. Karl is bisexual so we decided that he should be the one to stay home. Matthias gets Chris. ‘Oooohs’ from the other women. “Be gentle with him” Michelle grins. Matthias winks.

Justin loved the year he got Matthias. Sex is sex. Adoration is adoration.

It’s all a scam, of course. We could write our partners’ names on pieces of paper and draw them from a hat. That would be random. But we stick with keys because it’s classier or more traditional or whatever lie we tell ourselves. The unspoken truth is we use keys because it gives everyone the chance to get Justin and our comically oversized key. A key which he had specially made. He thinks I don’t know. He thinks I’m an idiot. The über-key tells Justin that whoever opens our door later tonight chose him. He asks if he was picked first. Again? He acts surprised.

This whole thing was his idea in the first place. Of course I remember.

A prepubescent Michael Jackson saw his mother kissing Santa Claus. There used to be historical pictures of the neighbourhood on the walls, but Yvonne prefers modern art.

I know he moves the hall mirror in front of the bed. He lights scented candles and has a basket of oils and sex toys which he lets poke out ever-so-slightly from under the bed. He thinks I don’t know about the Viagra in his sock drawer.

The atmosphere dies down after Justin is off the table. Lisa is caressing our key, her grip delicate but vicelike. It is her first time. Kirsty MacColl tells Shane MacGowan that he is a cheap lousy faggot.

It’s my turn. No one is paying much attention. No one cares who I get, and no one thinks I do either. I find his key immediately. It’s unremarkable, but I can recall every notch and ridge as I run my thumb along it. I have to catch my breath. I pull out the key and pretend not to know whose it is.

“Would you mind hoovering up after you’re done?” Yvonne tells the same joke, or a variation of it, every year. I’ve had Frank eleven times in fifteen years and not a single person has picked up on this statistical anomaly.

I remember the exact moment Justin proposed it. We were sat in this very café, when Yvonne’s parents still ran it and it still turned a profit. I was clinging to Justin’s arm and my heart sank when suggested it. I couldn’t bear the thought of sharing him. We had only been together for a year, but he was already bored. I wanted to cry. But we all agreed. I agreed. Only Frank said he didn’t want to. Yvonne laughed at him. Frank was already balding in his early twenties and Yvonne told him that he wouldn’t get many more opportunities like this. Better to get laid by chance than because you’re the heir to a huge fortune.

A fortune keeping this disaster of a café afloat.

Yvonne pulls a key from the bowl without looking up from her phone. She is already regretting the uncomfortable stockings she is wearing. Her best-case-scenario lingerie. She downs her champagne. Poor Christoph.

In my head I’m already walking to his flat, alone, for another Christmas. I see the relief on his face that I found his normal key. I feel his hands.

Baby it’s cold outside, sing Dean Martin and Tom Jones and Michael Bublé. I forget the woman.

I got Frank by accident, the first year. I cried on the way to his flat, but he was sweet about it. The second year I got him by accident again. We slept together. The third time I engineered it.

 “That’s us for another year, ladies.” Yvonne stands up and picks up her key with a sigh. “Lisa gets a five-minute head start.” I see Justin lying on our bed in anticipation, oiled muscles and a Santa hat over his crotch.

Nine years ago, I missed Frank because someone before me got him. Eight years ago, I told him not to use a condom.

Yvonne turns off George Michael before he can say what he gave me last Christmas. The rest of us blow out the candles. We head into the night, snow falling, waving goodbye and hugging. Good lucks and have funs and don’t do anything I wouldn’t dos. Ubers pull up and others wave at taxis.

Our son was a week late and our daughter was almost a month premature, so their birthdays don’t look suspicious. Justin jokes that it’s a shame they don’t look more like him.

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