There was something of a glitch with my last post for which I sincerely apologise. However, many of you found a way around it and still managed to read the post, well done and thank you! If you were unsuccessful you can see it again here! But now, moving on, it’s Christmas week, and getting into the festive spirit I hope you will have time to relax and read my two part Christmas story, as you probably know by now, I love writing these and I can’t wait to share the second half with you next week; but first part one!
It was going to be a lonely Christmas.
Annie stood on the third landing, her little hands clasping the old radiator as she leaned forwards to peer out through the warped handmade glass of the 100 year-old window. Here, at the back of the house, each window looked out across the garden, which in turn led to a small stretch of river, beyond which was the vastness of the Marais de Seudre; the marsh was a wetland of muddy savagery where nature’s primeval urge variously ebbed and flowed through the landscape’s arteries, oozing mud and life between long rides of bullrushes and reeds.
Annie’s eyes tightened as she looked up at the grey sky, through which an endless torrent of rain seemed to fall. It was a week before Christmas, and the old house felt cold and empty, despite the tepid warmth leaking into her fingers from the battered radiator. The building seemed tired, with a sloping staircase and a drunken balustrade, worn carpets through all the rooms, and paint peeling from various inclement shadowy spots where the marsh’s damp fingers had made inroads over the years. Annie and her mother had been in the house just two days, and already the girl missed the gleaming white modernism of the Paris apartment, a warm and cheerful sanctuary from the bustle of the city, a sanctuary that had been there for all of Annie’s ten years of life.
There was a shriek of annoyance from the bowels of the house and Annie turned away from the window and lithely ran down the stairs, down to the kitchen where she knew Isabella, her mother, was at war with cardboard removal-boxes and old fittings. She had a wise head on her small shoulders, and she was a girl who knew enough to know that all her help would be needed for the dark months of winter that still lay ahead.
After lunch, as Isabella stood shouting down a phone at a plumber, surrounded by an angry sea of boxes in various stages of disembowelment, the sun finally broke through the grey weather and Annie escaped into the garden, her sneakers squeaking in the long wet grass. Heading down across the moss-chequered lawn towards the river, squeezing between untidy bushes and unkempt flowerbeds, Annie found herself nearing the hedge that marked the eastern boundary of the property. Here, overgrown brambles and rosehips had intertwined with hazel and hornbeam to create a barrier almost impenetrable to anything but a wren or blackbird.
But then, twenty yards from the dark water’s edge, there was a break in the hedge and there in a gap stood an old wrought-iron gate, half open, allowing access between the garden and whatever lay next door. She peered through into what seemed to be an old orchard, where a dozen apple trees stood leafless under the winter sky. Beyond, in a copse of monkey-puzzle trees and pines, she saw the glistening roof of what must once have been a substantial building. Faintly, through the top branches, she could see the gleam of slates and copper fastenings, a sure sign of wealth and glamour from a bygone era.
She stood staring intently at the building, her shoes gathering moisture underfoot and her hair going damp in the halo of the rain’s aftermath. She rested her chin on the top bar of the gate, and she was so deep in thought she never saw the old man limping towards her in the shadow of the hedge.
A brush with a dead thistle gave away his approach, and Annie spun in alarm to face him as he stopped and looked at her, ten yards distant. He had an old trilby-style hat perched on a thin bald head, bright piercing blue eyes in a sun-cracked face, and a mouth that grinned in delight at her discomfiture. He was small in stature, no bigger than her mother she realised, and as he walked towards her, his grin changed into a welcoming smile. Annie felt strangely at ease with his presence.
“Hello,” he said in a soft voice, “you must be the new neighbours,” and he nodded at the direction of Annie’s house.
Annie had always been taught to let others do the talking, so she just smiled back uncertainly, and nodded. The old man waited, his head on one side, with the implication that a word should be forthcoming. Annie couldn’t resist for long, so she simply opened her mouth and said, “Yes, we are.”
“Oh good,” said the old man, with satisfaction, “and how long will you be staying?”
Annie was unsure how to answer, not knowing whether she should mention that the house was actually now her mother’s property by default of inheritance, or whether to pretend that they were simply another leasee, with a fixed ten-year term like others before. She knew all this from the long conversations she had had with her mother over the past three months since her grandmother, another ‘Annie’ in a long line of family names, had died in the old people’s home outside Versailles. It took her just seconds to make her decision, and she erred on the side of caution and simply said, “I think we’re here for a while.”
The old head continued to look at her, still friendly, and the eyes inquired for more information, no words seemingly necessary. Annie felt herself blush at her uncertainty, and then her good manners got the better of her.
“I’m going to start school in the village after Christmas,” she added, and the man watched her kindly as she stumbled with her thoughts.
Abruptly, he offered his hand, “I’m Christophe, my new little neighbour, what’s your name?”
Annie blushed a little further, “I’m Annie,” she muttered distantly, grasping the proffered hand that seemed warm and kind to the touch.
“Do you like apples?” asked Christophe, and he turned towards the trees. “I have so many this autumn I have no idea what to do with them. I used to make cider with them, a while ago, but now they seem to rot in my barn. He continued, “Come on, and I’ll give you a box for you and your parents,” and he turned and headed off across the orchard to the building through the trees.
Annie hesitated for a minute, and then followed him. She ran a little to catch up and said matter-of-factly, “My father’s dead, I’m afraid, but my mother and I would love some,” and she watched as Christophe turned to stare kindly at her as they walked.
“I’m sorry to hear that, my dear,” he said quite clearly. And he took her hand in a matter-of-fact manner before he asked the next question, “When did he die?”
“I was three when he died,” she said, and she felt sad suddenly and stopped walking. It must have shown, for Christophe also stopped, and gave her hand a squeeze. They had passed through the orchard, and he looked at her steadily, standing on the edge of a gravel drive closer to the house. Looking past him, she saw the house was old, and in need of repair. There were patches on the roof and wooden beams and window frames hung a little tipsily on what must have once been a magnificent facade.
He pulled her kindly into motion after him again and they set off again towards the main front door; with a bark of welcome a dog came bounding out, wagging its tail furiously. It was a small black Labrador with a set of grey hair around its muzzle. They stopped to let the dog come bounding up to them, and it set itself at Annie with such a great jump of greeting that out of nowhere it knocked her backwards with some sudden alacrity. Her heels tripped over the side of the drive on a rock and she tumbled flatly backwards to the ground, striking her head on a fallen branch from a tree. Her senses sung, and before she really understood what was happening, Christophe was kneeling there beside her, the pale blue eyes hovering over her with concern as he struggled to raise her head and shoulders.
“Oh my goodness,” he cried with some alarm, and the dog stayed mournfully out of reach, tail no longer wagging, aware it had done wrong.
“Oh my dear girl,” said the old man, and he helped Annie to her feet, peering at the back of her head as he did so, “are you alright?” he asked concernedly, trying with all his might to give her some comfort.
Annie nodded, instantly aware that it hurt her to do so, and she stumbled a little in alarm.
“Come, give me your arm, let’s get inside and sit you down. I’ll go and get your mother if you want, but let me have a look at your head again,” and the pair limped across the gravel with the old dog following. Reaching the ancient stone steps that stood between the weathered sandstone pillars, they entered the house through a giant wooden door that opened with a groan into a room that stretched the full width of the ground floor.
Annie gasped out loud; the whitewashed walls were filled with a riot of colour. There were pictures and canvases everywhere, some small, and others huge, towering over her. The interior was nothing how she had imagined it to be, and instead of an old fusty elegance of tradition, the space was surprisingly modern, with clean lines and white-washed wooden flooring; this was the room of a man who loved colour, form and design.
She noticed with a start that Christophe was looking at her with a grin, and he led her to a small bench, sitting her gently down. He looked into her face, holding her hands, and said simply, “You didn’t expect this, did you?” and he wafted an arm at the walls behind him, “No one does,” he added a little proudly.
Annie sat there, her head throbbing, amazed and delighted at the images that crowded about her. This was art, wonderful real art, she decided. It was like a Parisian art museum, something her mother liked to drag her along to.
Christophe stood up, and said, “I’ll go and get a bowl of warm water and a cloth to clean that graze; you sit here for second, and then we’ll take you home with some apples,” and he disappeared down a passageway, his shoes gently tapping along the old oak floor.
Annie sat there, looking all around; in front of her there was a rider on a magnificent grey horse jumping a log deep in the forest, and alongside hung a distant view of the church spire of some seaside town against a glorious sunset. By the stairs there was a powerful oil painting of a young elegant woman, reclining gracefully against the bonnet of a stately car. There were other pictures, sculptures and some precariously delicate furniture, but there was something odd about the woman and the car, and standing up Annie crossed the floor towards it.
The woman was looking at something off to one side of the frame, and Annie could not put her finger on what was bothering her. The picture was big, larger than life-size, and the woman was beautiful, fair haired and wearing a dress that bared her shoulders. Annie felt her gaze drawn towards the car, and then back to the woman, and then as she got closer the angle changed and the face came to life before her. Instantly the hair on Annie’s neck stood on end as she looked up at the young woman’s beautiful face, and she gasped in shock, her head prickling suddenly with huge premonition and recognition. The painting was of her mother – this was Isabella. A younger version, but with the same huge eyes and proud lips, and with blond coils of hair that were so familiar. It was all so real, and yet it could not be, for this was a painting from a distant age, from years long gone.
Annie stood there, her heart pounding fiercely, and reached out to touch the woman’s face. It was her mother, exactly as she must have looked fifteen years ago. It could only have been her, but then, so obviously, it could not. Annie’s cheeks flamed with unease. What was happening? Why was her mother here, in this house? The room spun a little and her head hurt again and before she knew it everything went black and she tumbled to the floor, dead faint before she even reached it, and the crash of her demise brought the old man running down the passageway with his bowl of warm water.
To be continued…