Maxine Levy opened her bathroom cabinet and looked at the box sitting on the middle shelf; it was tucked between a tube of thrush cream and an empty bottle of bubble bath. She reached inside, checked the sell by date, removed the small white stick and threw the box into the bin. She crouched over the toilet; knickers and tights pulled under her knees, legs wobbling and placed the stick in the direction of the oncoming urine stream. As she waited for the first drops to fall the phone rang. “For fucks sake!” She let the test drop to the floor, straddled her way to the bedroom, under wear stretched across like a French skipping rope and picked up the phone.
“You sound out of breath,” said Corinne. “Have I interrupted something? Don’t forget to pop into Waitrose on your way, pick up some kosher wine and some macaroons and Ben wants those peanut butter biscuits.”
“You should have left by now. It’ll be dark by the time you get here.”
“No I mean I’m late.”
“Can you get pretzels and pickled cucumbers while you’re at it?” She stopped. “What are you saying?”
Maxine could see through to the bathroom; the white stick lying like a corpse on the tiled floor. “I’m late…for my period.”
“Have you taken a test? Please God it’s not another false alarm.”
“You interrupted me. I’ll have to do one later.” She looked at her watch. “David should be back any minute and then we’ll set off. And Corinne?”
“Don’t tell Mum.”
Light shone from the dining room of Sandra Levy’s gable fronted house. A nine branched candelabra sat illuminated at the window.
“We’re so late,” said Maxine, as she and David raced up the gravelled garden path. “She’s going to kill me.”
The front door swung open.
“Happy Hanukkah. Glad you could make it,” said Sandra, hands on hips, “we nearly started without you.”
Maxine held up the shopping bag and smiled. “Happy Hanukkah, Mummy.”
They stepped inside the hall, took off their coats and scarves and hung them on the stand. Maxine glimpsed at herself in the mirror and tried to flatten her thick brown hair before leading David into the dining room where Corinne, Ben and sons Oliver and Samuel waited at the candelabra.
“Just in time,” said Corinne, “Samuel’s going to light the candles.”
“Hi darling,” said Maxine, placing her hand on Samuel’s shoulder and remembering for a moment his sweetness as a baby; his shock of curly brown hair and soft cheeks now splattered with acne.
“Hi Auntie,” he said.
Sandra leant in towards David. “Did you know the candle stick is called the Menorah?”
“You told him that last year,” said Maxine.
“And you light the middle candle, the Shamash, first?”
Oliver, the elder of the two, groaned and moved his fringe away from his eyes. “And we’re supposed to light it the moment it gets dark.”
“Auntie was a bit busy,” said Corinne. “Give her a kiss, Oliver.”
Maxine could feel Oliver’s fluffy damp skin on her cheek as he puckered his lips and opened them like a fish. He took a step back. “Can we light the bloody candle? Samuel’s taper’s dripping.”
“Yes, we’re ready, let’s light,” said Ben. He placed his copal on top of his head, conveniently hiding the loss of hair on his crown. “You got one, David?”
“Ah, no,” said David, his cheeks reddening slightly.
Sandra raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Oy vey. Will you make sure he has a copal next time, Maxine?”
“Barukh atah Adonai…,” recited Ben.
Samuel held his wrist to keep his hand steady and lit the middle candle. He flicked the taper with a flourish, picked it up carefully and lit the first candle.
“Amen,” they all said.
Sandra turned and swept her hand over the dinner table nodding with self-admiration at the napkins expertly folded into swans and the Star of David shaped mats that made an appearance each year. “Sit down everyone.”
“The table looks beautiful,” said Maxine.
“Now you know who you get your artistic slant from. Not your father, that’s for certain, I don’t think he ever laid a table in his life.”
“You sit down Mummy,” said Corinne. “I’ll get the nosh.”
Maxine watched as Corinne pushed the western style swing doors open with her narrow hips and disappeared into the kitchen.
“It’s not fair, Dad, why can’t we have a Christmas tree,” said Samuel plonking himself next to his father. “Everyone at school has a Christmas tree.”
Ben laughed and snorted at the same time. “Who has a Christmas tree?”
“Loads of people. Even Daniel Goldstein in my class is getting a tree.”
Corinne swung through the doors with plates of potato latkes and sugary donuts balanced high. “So we’ll get a tree, maybe a small fake one you can put in your bedroom.”
“They’re pathetic. I want a real one.”
“You know what we say at Hanukkah, David?” said Ben, “they lost, we won, let’s eat!” He raised his glass. “Happy Hanukkah everyone.”
“Happy Hanukkah,” they all replied.
Maxine took a sip of her wine, then a bite of the greasy latke and thought of all the years she’d been celebrating this day; as a child when her father was still there, the early days of Corinne’s relationship with Ben, after she’d met him on a blind date at Blooms in Golders Green, much to her mother’s delight, and now in the last four years with David, much to her Mother’s dismay.
“Maxine, he’s a nice man but think about your children. Do you want them to grow up in a mixed marriage?”
“I start the game of Dreidel tonight,” shouted Samuel, interrupting Maxine’s thoughts. He wiped his sugar covered mouth with his sleeve, reached under the chair and brought out a four sided wooden spinning top. A brightly coloured Hebrew letter was painted on each side. “The youngest one starts the game first.”
“You may not be the youngest for very long,” said Corinne. “Isn’t that right Max?”
“You’re pregnant?” screeched Sandra.
“Mazeltov!” said Ben, standing up with his glass held high.
“Stop,” said Maxine. She frowned at Corinne. “We don’t know …yet.”
“Sorry,” said Ben, sitting back down with a thump.
“Sorry,” said Corinne. “I only meant you were trying, for a baby.”
“You’d better get a move on,” said Sandra. “It gets hard for a woman over 35.”
“Just got to keep practising, David, you lucky man,” said Ben. He took a large bite of latke then wiped a dribble of oily saliva from his chin.
David grinned and nodded his head.
Corinne waved her hands to gain attention. “Ok, everybody put some pennies on the table then we play Dreidel. Remember, whatever we win this year, we give to charity.”
“That’s so unfair,” said Oliver. “I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore.”
“Time for biscuits I think,” said Maxine. She stood and walked briskly to the kitchen. She opened the cupboard, took out a plate and put the peanut butter biscuits in a neat circle around its edge, aware of the chatter that continued in the dining room.
“I’ve been sent two Christmas cards,” she heard her mother say. “One from the Curry Cabin on the Finchley road and one from Saga home insurance. Please God they don’t expect one back.” There was a roar of laughter from Ben.
Maxine continued to concentrate on making an inner circle of biscuits. As she laid the final one and chewed on a lone peanut, she felt a sharp pain in her groin and a warm, sticky, familiar wetness descend. She clung on to the side and took a deep disappointed breath.