November 5, 1952. Anyu held the heavy carved church door open for us to precede her out into the dark of a lightly snowing evening. She retied her scarf snug under her chin and pulled on her knitted gloves. She fussed with our jackets collars, pulling them up to sit jaunty against our cheeks. Ildiko hopped from one boot-shod foot to another, trying to keep warm. I gazed in silence at the Cathedral square, its cobllestoned dark perimeter lit up by lamps which gave the illusion of dandelion seed-heads against the gloom. Snow coasted in fine specks as we negotiated the cathedral steps to the square. The snow squeaked under our boots. It was as if both we and the night held our breath this eve of Saint Nicholas.
It had been our family custom to attend Mass on the eve of Saint Nicholas. The priest had made a lovely sermon of the story of the three little boys the Bishop had brought back to life and of the story of the dowry he had provided for the three daughters of a poor man. He told about Bishop Nicholas being an intermediary with God for the safety of sailors on the sea, and on behalf of the poor. It was a story long familiar with yearly repetition, and as usual we had sat solemn and silent hearing yet another retelling.
The half-hour walk on the way home to our apartment took us through the ancient part of our town.
In some of the small side streets we stopped to look at candle-lit windows where children’s shoes were lined up, well shined, in anticipation of a visitation by Saint Nicholas sometime during the night.
Ildiko and I skipped from one house to another, thinking of the children inside who were, the same as us, eagerly waiting to creep to their window at first light to see what had been deposited innside the shoes – whether chocolate coins for children who had been good during the previous year, or a lump of coal and a switch of broom for the bad ones.
The closer we were to our home destination the more subdued I became. I was not at all certain that I had been a consistently good child the previous year. I had taken any and all occasions to torture Ildiko, spoke back to Anyu, argued with everyone, actively resisted practising the violin and had sneaked around spying on any adults who visited our home.
Meanwhile, as my doubts were starting to weigh heavily on me, Ildiko positively glowed with goodness and virtue, her face alight with a confident expression reserved for the truly wholesome and self-satisfied child. As soon as we arrived home, no sooner had she unlaced her boots, but she went to fetch the shoe-shining kit Apu kept in the bottom of the hall armoire.
“Hurry up and take your boots off, Gabi,” she ordered. “Dry them off well. Then I’ll show you how to use the shoe paste and brushes.”
I fooled around struggling out of my coat and mitts, and ran off in my wet boots into the kitchen to snag a cookie or two. Busy stuffing my face with a Speculaa and munching away, I began unlacing my boots and drying them off with a cloth.
Ildiko sat on the settee, poked her finger inside a flannel bit and started to smear her boots with an ox-blood coloured paste which smelled really pungent. She showed me how to wrap my forefinger into the flannel and how to scoop the right amount of paste for my one boot. By this time, she was busy swiping her own boot with the shoe brush, sending up that nice aroma of wax and tar. I was smearing my boots carefully with the stuff.
“Make sure you work the paste into the lines of sewing in the leather,” Ildiko instructed in her best school teacherish tones. “If you don’t do a good job, Saint Nicholas will leave you coal and broom inside them. Which he should, anyway, because you are usually so awful to everyone.”
What did I know, anyway? I was a six year old brat. Ildiko, the golden child, was only eight herself. But she seemed so sure of herself. She buffed her boots with the brush in confident strokes, and then segued to bring up a high shine on the dark red leather. She passed the implements down to me so I could bring my boots to a semblance of decency, but was critical of how streaky my buffing job had been.
We took our boots into the salon. In the window seat, Anyu had set up two taper candles in candlesticks. We placed our boots, shined and laces looped, beside the candles.
“After you dress in your pajamas,” Anyu said, ” you can come and light the candles before you say your goodnight prayers.”
We scurried off to wash our teeth and change into night wear. When we returned to the salon, Anyu had dimmed any overhead lights. She lit the tapes and Ildiko and I knelt in front of the window, hands clasped. We said our prayers, quietly, privately.
I prayed and hoped Saint nicholas might not find me altogether horrible and maybe a little bit deserving of a scrap of chocolate. I fervently wished my lot would not be to find an iridescent dusty lump of coal, and a desiccated scrap of broom inside my shoe the following morning. If that would be my lot, I’d never hear the end of how bad I was from Ildiko, for the rest of my life, even.