Translated from the German by Nóra Butler
It was proper Christmas at last, Christmas like it used to be. Snow half a metre deep, light and fluffy; even the streets of the small city on the edge of the mountains were coated with a few centimetres of it. The air smelled of baked apples, biscuits, sparklers and mulled wine. The world was at peace, as if swaddled in wool.
The company had invited its business associates, clients, suppliers, officials and managerial staff to its annual Christmas party. It was to be held in a decent establishment, very decent in fact, the kind of place whose gastronomic reputation was surpassed only by that of its wine cellar.
It was a large company; the ‘intimate get-together’ amounted to almost forty people. They ate homemade goose liver pâté and drank and feasted and toasted one another’s health. When the second course—some kind of sorrel-based concoction—was cleared away, specially chosen helpful young ladies from the accounts department handed out gifts: cut-glass goblets with the company logo subtly engraved into the base. The guests kept eating and drinking, occasionally listening for a few seconds to the four musicians delivering lightly jazzed-up renditions of Christmas carols, and congratulating one another on a successful business year. Just as the sorbet was brought out the boss gave a short speech—nothing too long, humorous as always—and the guests applauded, clinked glasses, and wished each other the very happiest of Christmases in advance. Those who were staying at home for the holidays arranged to go skiing on St Stephen’s Day or to meet up at the lakes over the New Year. They all saluted the deer that had provided the venison, praised the huntsman and doffed their caps to the chef and to the local wine cellar that had been awarded four stars a month previously. During the next course a small, extremely successful whip-around was held in aid of mountain farmers in need, the Sicilian dessert wine found more takers than the Austrian—until, that is, the admin assistant grabbed a bottle of the latter and valiantly interceded on its behalf, Austria being, after all, from a purely linguistic point of view considerably closer to us than Africa—and they discovered the Austrian to be a truly unusual and exquisite wine, even if they had been reluctant to believe so at first. No wonder, of course, Austrian wine of all things, but they allowed themselves to be swayed; the first sip hit the spot—top-notch stuff, if a little unfamiliar—and they went back for more and were finally convinced. And the senior executive wished them a peaceful and a prosperous Christmas and various bottles of moonshine from the nearby valleys were cracked open and then there were some sparklers—but nothing fancy or our clients might think that we’re skimping on the discounts and our suppliers might worry that we’re pushing down the prices, isn’t that right?—and along with the fireworks they were served a local sparkling wine. So that we might round off the evening on home turf, said the senior executive, who then, in view of his age, excused himself from the remainder of the festivities and wished the younger people an enjoyable evening and a safe trip home. It had turned out to be a wonderful Christmas party. Just as it did every year.
By the time they left the nightclub a few hours later they were down to twenty, and they roared at each other as they said their goodbyes, and then kissed each other farewell—left cheek, right cheek—and said what a great evening it had turned out to be.
By the time they left the late bar, labourers on the early shift were already setting off to work in icy, spluttering cars. They were down to ten now and they danced to music from the admin assistant’s car radio. After half an hour in the car park they hugged and kissed and said goodbye.
And then they were down to five. Plus two bottles of champagne and glasses. It really was a great Christmas party.
And the stars glittered and here, out on the very edge of the city, the snow was still white and soft and warm. They wandered around and drank champagne. The head of advertising threw snowballs, bigger and bigger snowballs that were eventually the size of a snowman’s head, while the admin assistant allowed himself to be bombarded and the young lady from the accounts department, propped up by the distributor and the man from the board of management, reeled off a list of recipes for gingerbread, vanilla pastries, almond rolls, butter cookies, cinnamon stars, aniseed delights, pine nut buns, advent slices, punch and Stollen…
And then the man from the board of management lit a sparkler, and then another one, and they stuck seven sparklers into a lump of snow as big as a football and lit them and launched the flickering football-sized mass into the air and watched and cheered as it flew into the dark sky in a broad arc, snarling and sputtering and spitting fire, before landing on the ground and fizzling out.
‘Again,’ said the young lady from accounts, and the man from the board of management smiled.
‘Later,’ he said and put the rest of the sparklers away.
‘But soon,’ said the young lady from accounts.
The man from the board of management smiled.
‘In an hour’s time the shops will be open and then I’ll have a taxi bring us out a whole pile of sparklers,’ said the distributor. ‘A kilo, a hundred packets, the full range.’
‘Great idea,’ said the admin assistant, grinning over at the distributor and nodding. Then he jabbed the man from the board of management in the ribs. ‘Better give him first say,’ he said without moving his lips, ‘it’s in the company’s best interests, after all.’
And then there they were, the flying chairs.
The man from the board of management was the first to see them, uttering a soft ohh as he did so.
There it stood, a lone fairground amusement, dark, some distance away, in the middle of a field that had been earmarked for development. In the middle of the snow it stood, as if abandoned after a hasty departure, forgotten, lost, surrounded by the snowy traces of a funfair that had moved on elsewhere, because of the snow perhaps. Only the chair-o-plane remained.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said the young lady from accounts.
‘Desolate,’ said the head of advertising.
‘Maybe it’s for sale,’ said the admin assistant, ‘for the garden maybe. It would be great for parties. And for kids.’
‘If it still works,’ said the man from the board of management.
‘New motor, new gear box, cough up a bit for the insurance,’ said the admin assistant, ‘and away you go.’
‘Licence?’ said the distributor.
‘Doubt it,’ said the admin assistant, ‘and easily got if so.’
And then off he ran shouting ‘Come on!’ and raced cross-country over the fields to the chairs, clouds of snow rising in his wake.
‘Perfect powder snow, even down here,’ said the distributor, and then he said ‘shall we?’ to the young lady from accounts, and they ran after the admin assistant, holding hands like small children. After a few metres the distributor caught his left foot in the snow and stumbled and fell, as did the young lady from accounts, just after, and very nearly on top of him.
‘We didn’t really need to run,’ said the distributor after he had wiped the snow off his face, laughing and coughing and catching his breath, before sitting up and starting to brush the snow off his coat.
‘I know,’ said the young lady from accounts, ‘but still.’
‘And now suddenly we’re twenty years younger,’ said the distributor, and dug his hand into the snow searching for the champagne bottle.
‘But I don’t want go back to nursery school,’ said the young lady from accounts.
‘Doesn’t apply to everybody,’ said the distributor, ‘only to us older kids.’
And then along came the head of advertising and the man from the board of
management, and they sat themselves down in the snow beside the young lady from accounts and the distributor, and the man from the board of management produced the champagne bottle from his coat pocket and opened it.
‘He wants to buy it,’ said the man from the board of management.
‘Who wants to buy what?’ said the head of advertising.
‘The admin assistant wants to buy that thing. I know what he’s like. Once he gets something into his head he has to have it.’
‘The usual story,’ said the distributor, ‘and then he comes to me and tells me that my prices are monstrous.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ said the man from the board of management and raised his glass.
‘And to us,’ said the head of advertising.
And they clinked glasses and drank.
‘Are you coming?’ the admin assistant called over from the chairs.
‘Looks like we’ll have to,’ said the man from the board of management, ‘if the boss deems it so.’
And they laughed.
When they were all gathered at the fairground ride the man from the board of management topped up their glasses and tossed the empty champagne bottle in a high arc into the snow.
‘And a-one,’ he shouted.
‘And a-two,’ said the admin assistant, uncorking the second bottle, ‘here’s to us, long life and happiness.’
And they raised their glasses and drank to that.
‘It’s not bad, this thing,’ said the admin assistant after he had put down his glass. ‘I’ve just had a look at it. Proper craftsmanship, that painting up there. Forest sprites, nude fairies. Fifty years old, at least. It would really be a lovely thing to have in the garden.’
‘If they’re prepared to sell it to you,’ said the distributor.
‘Just a question of coming up with the right price, as always…’ said the admin assistant.
‘You really want to buy it?’ said the head of advertising.
‘Why not?’ said the admin assistant. ‘It would make the perfect Christmas present. Original, practical, and anyway I’ve nothing else bought.’
‘Fair point,’ said the distributor.
‘You could have it gift wrapped,’ said the man from the board of management.
‘We need to try it out first,’ said the admin assistant. ‘Do a dry run.’ And over he went to one of the four hanging chair-o-planes, wiped the snow from the seat, lifted the safety chain, squeezed himself in under it, sat down and started to gently swing back and forth. ‘ You see,’ he said, ‘quite comfortable,’ he said.
‘We need to give you a push,’ said the head of advertising, and she put down her glass of champagne, stepped over to the ride, and began pushing the admin assistant on the swing.
‘More, more,’ he said, ‘higher,’ as he hung on to the chain with his free hand.
By this point the head of advertising had grabbed the seat and started running around in a circle, causing the chains to swing faster and faster.
‘Let go!’ called the admin assistant.
The head of advertising released the seat, jumped a step away and tumbled backwards into the snow, losing her glass as she did so.
‘Waaaheeeeeeeeeey!’ shouted the admin assistant as he whirled around in his chair. ‘You have to try it,’ he said, barely recovered from the excitement, ‘it’s brilliant, I haven’t done this in years. More champagne!’
The man from the board of management rushed over and topped him up.
‘Hop on,’ said the admin assistant.
The man from the board of management squeezed himself into another of the chair-o-planes and rocked himself back and forth a bit. When the young lady from accounts appeared behind him to give him a push he said: ‘Better not. I get dizzy terribly quickly. On escalators, during flights. Never mind a chair-o-plane.’
‘Coward,’ said the admin assistant.
‘Cowardice is the privilege of old age,’ said the man from the board of management.
‘Now he’s turning all philosophical,’ said the distributor.
‘Philosophy,’ said the head of advertising, settling down into another of the seats, ‘is for those who have the time for it.’ She pushed her feet against the snow to set herself moving and swung back and forth. ‘And time,’ she said, ‘is something we have plenty of tonight.’
‘Except that it will soon be day,’ said the distributor.
‘No. As long as I am sitting here on this swing, it’s still last night,’ said the head of advertising. ‘It’s still the Christmas party.’
‘Well then, let’s sing some Christmas carols,’ said the admin assistant, ‘and you give me another push there, please, my dear Miss Isolde.’
Isolde, the young lady from accounts, stepped in behind the admin assistant’s chair-o-plane and gave him a push.
‘Well? Carols?’ said the admin assistant.
‘Who, me?’ said the young lady from accounts.
‘Everybody,’ said the admin assistant ‘We have to sing one, all of us together. Some Christmas party this would be otherwise!’
‘Don’t know any,’ said the head of advertising.
‘You’re fired,’ said the admin assistant.
‘I don’t work for you,’ said the head of advertising.
‘Contract cancelled. Appointment rescinded. Carol!’
‘Too bloody right,’ said the head of advertising and swayed gently in her hanging chair.
‘Silent Night,’ said the distributor.
‘Good. Off you go,’ said the admin assistant.
‘I don’t know the words,’ said the distributor.
‘Fired,’ said the admin assistant.
‘Oh how merrily,’ said the man from the board of management.
‘Oh how merrily, oh how joyfully…’ sang the man from the board of management.
‘Other way around, other way around,’ said the distributor.
‘Really?’ said the admin assistant.
‘Yes,’ said the young lady from accounts and gave him another push.
‘Oh how joyfully, oh how merrily…’ sang the man from the board of management, and then stopped.
‘Christmas comes with its grace divine,’ sang the head of advertising. ‘That’s all I know.’
‘Fall on your knees,’ said the young lady from accounts.
‘Fall on whose knees?’ said the distributor.
‘Fall on your knees…’ said the young lady.
‘Fall on your knees … and then?’ said the admin assistant, ‘and do please join us on these swings, Isolde.’
‘Yes,’ said the young lady from accounts, taking a seat on the ride, ‘…O hear the angels voices,’ she continued, ‘O night divine, o night when Christ was born…’
‘That sounds pretty classical,’ said the admin assistant. ‘Sing it!’
And the young lady from accounts started to sing the song and the man from the board of management and the head of advertising and the distributor all chimed in. And finally the admin assistant joined them.
‘Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O night divine, the night when Christ was born; O night, O holy night, O night divine! O night, O holy night, O night divine!’
Loudly they sang, so loud that, despite the soft snow, their voices carried across the fields and into the silence, only occasionally interrupted by the sound of a passing car far away on the main road, harmonising by now as the distributor dropped a third: ‘Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morrrrrn…’
Behind them, behind the mountains, the sun was rising. And then small, perfectly formed snowflakes danced down from the heavens, lost, solitary snowflakes. And the young lady from the accounts tried to catch them.
‘Passed the test,’ said the admin assistant. ‘I’ll take it.’
‘And what if it won’t run?’ said the distributor.
‘Push-start,’ said the admin assistant, ‘ then I’ll just give it a push-start.’
‘There must be a switch somewhere to turn it on,’ said the head of advertising.
‘You’re right,’ said the admin assistant. ‘Switch it on.’
‘Switch it on!’ called the young lady from accounts.
‘Switch it on,’ said the distributor.
‘I’m on it,’ said the man from the board of management, as he lifted the security chain and tried to slip out under it.
‘Get a move on,’ said the admin assistant.
‘I am,’ said the man from the board of management, and he fell in the snow, laughed, heaved himself up, brushed himself down, and went off to have a look.
‘Do you really think they’d leave it hooked up to a power source, this thing?’ he said. ‘They’re not crazy.’
‘I want a go on the flying chairs!’ said the young lady from accounts.
‘Just wait a minute,’ said the man from the board of management, ‘how am I supposed to know where to find the switch on a chair-o-plane?’
‘At the box office,’ said the distributor.
‘The box office,’ said the man from the board of management, ‘that’s over on the other side.’ He walked around behind the swings. ‘I think I have it,’ he shouted.
‘Switch it on,’ said the admin assistant.
‘And what about me?’ said the man from the board of management.
‘Just jump on,’ said the admin assistant.
Then the man from the board of management pressed a big red switch and the whole thing lit up.
‘Hurray!’ shouted the admin assistant, the distributor and the head of advertising.
‘It’s so beautiful,’ said the young lady from accounts, unable to take her eyes off the flying chairs with their bright coloured lights.
‘You’re right,’ said the admin assistant, giving his chair an emphatic swing, ‘now I know I want it. Worth every penny.’
‘Careful,’ said the man from the board of management, ‘here it goes now.’
And then he pulled back a long lever beside the box office, grabbing it with both hands to shift it, and the ride emitted some noises: rusty, metal sounds from deep within it, first intermittently, then in rapid succession, and from somewhere came the sound of organ music, slow at first, then faster and faster, and the whole thing started to turn, backwards at first.
‘It works!’ shouted the man from the board of management and skipped on the spot with pride and satisfaction.
‘Bravo, bravissimo,’ shouted the head of advertising and clapped her hands. ‘Now we’re ready to go.’
‘All aboard,’ said the admin assistant, ‘roll up, roll up, free rides for all.’
And the man from the board of management ran alongside a moving chair and managed, with remarkable agility, to jump into it. And as he did so he let out a loud whoop of excitement.
The chair-o-plane kept playing music and spun faster and faster until it had reached its maximum speed and the five flew through the air in their swinging chairs, dangling their feet beneath them. And then they launched off each other and ran into each other and pushed off each other and launched off each other again. And laughed and screeched and cheered. By now it had started to really snow, huge white flakes danced along with the swinging chairs.
‘Stop. I don’t feel well,’ said the admin assistant suddenly. ‘Somebody turn it off, I really don’t feel well.’
But nobody heard him, they just laughed and shrieked.
And then the admin assistant felt worse and worse and threw up and the slipstream blew the snowflakes and his stomach contents straight onto the dress of the young lady from accounts. She screamed, first from astonishment and then from disgust, then finally she started to cry, before she too got sick.
‘Stop this thing!’ shouted the man from the board of management.
‘Switch it off!’ roared the distributor.
‘Please,’ said the admin assistant, ‘make it stop.’
And the head of advertising said nothing at first, and then said: ‘But who? Who’s supposed to switch it off?’
And the flying chairs kept spinning, spinning, spinning and the snow fell heavier and heavier and the main road far away beyond the fields grew more and more distant and the organ music chimed louder and louder. ‘Stop!’ screamed the distributor as his pulse raced and he grabbed at his throat and gasped for air. And every time he passed the lever with which he had switched on the merry-go-round, the man from the board of management reached out wildly, twisted sideways across his seat, stretched his arms out further and further and flailed his legs and shook his head. ‘It’s no good,’ he kept saying, ‘it’s no good. But it has to…’ And the flying chairs kept turning, faster and faster. And the head of advertising started to sing a children’s song, singing louder and louder until she was screaming. And the flying chairs kept turning.
Four hours later workmen arrived to dismantle the chair-o-plane. Two of the five were dead; the others were taken to the psychiatric hospital.