Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan! I had a great post lined up for today but I haven’t managed to take all the photos, I’ve been having far too much fun with the family. So for once I told myself it was ok. We’ve been walking and running and cycling. We’ve eaten delicious meals and cooked so much food. We’ve sat around a roaring fire chatting. We’ve been gardening, a little bizarre at the end of December but the weather is gorgeous. We haven’t done anything remotely glamorous or travelled any distance but we have had such a good time, all of us, together, just enjoying my favourite holiday of the year. So I changed plans and I am giving you the final part to my Christmas story. I really hope you enjoy it.
But most of all I hope you have had a very happy Christmas, a wonderful holidays and thank you once again from the bottom of my heart for following along and your friendship. I wish everyone everywhere a very happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. XXX
A SHORT CHRISTMAS STORY – PART II
It was two days before Annie managed to get back to the old man’s house. Isabella had not noticed her absence the evening Annie had fainted, but had listened to the story of her encounter with Christophe with quiet interest, even though Annie left out the parts concerning the woman in the painting and the fainting episode itself. Annie remembered coming round on a hard floor, from which she had been gently lifted by Christophe, before finding herself sitting on the bench again, staring at the portrait across from her on the whitewashed wall.
Christophe had seen the direction of her glance and glanced across to where she was looking.
“Ah, you like your namesake, I see, Annie,” and he had smiled gently and patted her hand.
Annie was startled, and had muttered, “My namesake? I don’t understand?”, and she had looked at him with her head cocked uncertainly like a small sparrow.
“The woman in the painting,” Christophe had said slowly, “She was called Annie too. I painted that picture for her husband, as a present, in 1961. He and I were friends from boyhood.”
There was a pause, and then Christophe’s soft voice continued softly, “He never came to collect it; he was killed in a war faraway and never came back” and his voice had trailed off. Annie had sensed a great, enormous sadness, reached for Christophe’s hand, and she’d squeezed it gently, as kindly and sincerely as a 10 year-old could when faced with one of life’s most enormous truths.
It hadn’t seemed the right time to ask more questions, and five minutes later she’d found herself walking gingerly through the gateway in the hedge, waving goodbye to Christophe with a promise to visit again soon; a small wooden fruit-box full of apples balanced on her other arm. She’d turned for the house, hoping her mother had not missed her, aware that dusk had been starting to creep across the Marais, sending dark fingers of shadow into the gnarled corners of the garden.
For two days though, something, she knew not what, had curbed her enthusiasm for the painting; it was as if there was a bone in her memory that needed mending, but she did not have the will to do anything about it. She had felt lightheaded with the memory of the woman, gazing mournfully out of the picture to a husband she would never see again.
And then that morning, her mother had looked up from her coffee and said something quite clearly and so suddenly that Annie had started with alarm.
“Annie, that man next door,” and Isabella had put down the coffee and rubbed her hands together with enthusiasm, “do you think he could come for apéros on Christmas Eve, and perhaps meet us properly; what do you think? Is it too late, perhaps a little too forward?”
The end of the question curled off into the air with a hint of loneliness, and Annie had a glimpse of what life once might have been, but now was not. But despite the taint of melancholy she’d felt a little flip of excitement, for it would be fun to have someone else here for an hour or two. The past few days had just been a blur of monotony; of unpacking, carrying, stacking and burning boxes in the huge fire-place in the salon. There were just the two of them, and Annie had wished in the darkness each night that there was someone else to talk to.
They had nothing planned for Christmas Eve; no oysters lay on ice in the kitchen, and no great triumphal piece of fish slept in the fridge. Isabella’s only concession to the Christmas period was a capon hanging in the larder, a decanter of cognac alongside a small decorated Christmas tree in the salon, and two bottles of champagne in the fridge. Isabella might have been a woman without most of the good things in life, but as she said brightly to her daughter, ”Annie, a girl should always have champagne.”
It had been one of the merrier moments in another day of gloom, and Annie wondered how her beautiful mother felt, having struggled without a husband for seven years, and no other family to help apart from the old lady in the chair in the home, nodding her life away for a decade in the late Versailles sunlight.
Annie had never delved deeply, for she knew a girl of her age would learn about things at the right time, but she understood enough to know that whatever money her mother made had gone towards the care and comfort of the old woman, a sacrifice that had meant few luxuries in the small white apartment save for schoolbooks and the very best of everything that they could actually could afford with what money was left over. The income from the tenants that had stayed in the old family house here, a million miles away from Paris in the Marais, had helped enormously too, of course. But all of this led in turn to something else, a daily realisation that Isabella was now the owner of a family house that neither had ever lived in. They were in a village where people knew her mother by name, and treated her with respect, but had never even met her before. Everyone in the village said how nice it was to have la famille Hierot back in the old house, but it was a sentiment that bewildered Annie a little.
It seemed strange to Isabella also, but with her own mother dead and the house available at the end of a another lease, it had seemed a good time to leave the city, to retreat a little to a life less hurried, to a place where little Annie could learn about another side of life and where Isabella, perhaps, at nearly 54 years of age, might meet someone who would not keep their distance from the tragedy that she wore about her like a cloak of protection. It had seemed a good time to move on, so they had.
Annie came to the door of the big house deep in the Marais and saw there was a light on inside. It was lunchtime, and she hoped that Christophe would be there for just that reason. Reaching up, she swung gently on the great brass knocker, and it tapped timidly on the huge door. Immediately there was a cacophony of barking the other side and she realised with a smile the Labrador was on watch. A long minute later, just as the barking was easing off and she was thinking about knocking again, the door opened steadily, and she saw Christophe standing there, a napkin tucked into a worn grey sweater and that dazzling smile of welcome lighting up the porch.
“Little Annie,” he beamed, and then he welcomed her inside as though she was a long lost friend.
It was six o’clock on Christmas Eve when Annie opened the door for Christophe, welcoming him into their home. Her mother was still upstairs and had told Annie to keep watch for a second or two for everything was late; the electrician had been in the house until it was dark, resurrecting lights after installing a modern fusebox to replace the bakelite contraption from a century before. Annie dutifully kissed the old man on each cheek, watching as Christophe keenly looked about him. He stopped under the ancient chandelier in the hallway, and looking up he seemed to grin at some thought before he set off without a word for the salon; and as Annie watched, bemused, he unerringly turned left into the old graceful room without hesitation.
She followed him in to find him standing at the left-hand ‘great’ window, a stretch of glass that looked out onto the street garden. He was pulling the right-hand curtain to one side and as she watched quite spellbound, she saw a little torch appear in his hand and shine up the sideboard. She moved closer, wondering what on earth he was doing, the fire in the huge fireplace flickering long red shadows about the alcove the window stood in.
Sensing her, he turned around, grinning like a schoolboy, and beckoned her to look up in the torchlight.
“See that, Annie?” and she could faintly make out some letters, scratched on the wood perhaps ten feet up, close to the ceiling. “Those are my initials, and also those of Philippe Hierot, the friend I told you about.”
Annie stood stock still, her face suddenly aflame with the realisation she was standing next to someone who had known her grandfather, a person she had never met and also a father Isabella had never known; it was almost a repetition of Annie’s own life. Her jaw dropped, anf her eyes moistened uncontrollably with the enormity of it all as Christophe continued; “We scratched those intials up there in 1943; my family and I were living here with the Hierots as some German officers had moved into our house,” and his voice lowered into a tone of suitable sadness for memories suddenly brought to life. Annie felt instantly that there were echoes in the room, giggles of small children, the strident voices of an occupying army, and she imagined faint whispers of snatched love. She felt the world grow large about her, the room became quite still, and the universe seemed to slowly tilt to one side.
She saw Christophe was looking at her in concern, “Are you all right, cherie,” he asked with alarm, and she nodded, breaking the spell, wondering what to say.
He looked closer at her, and then saw the question in her face, for he kindly asked, “What? Is something the matter?”
She could not contain it any longer, the question came surging out, her words running over in her haste to understand.
“You, you -“ and she paused with the thought of it, and then she breathlessly said “You knew my grandfather!” into the kind face, and instantly the pale blue eyes in front of her widened in shock, and Christophe’s face froze in astonishment.
“What?” he blurted back in answer, “You’re an Hierot?? Why did you never… why, oh my goodness…. who are your parents?” and at that moment there was a noise by the door to the salon and Isabella came into the room, her neat figure in a black dress and her swept-up fair hair aflame in the glow from the fire.
Christophe swivelled towards the door, his mouth still agape with another question that died on his lips as he saw Isabella standing there, stock still as she realised that something momentous was happening before her. She saw the old man, and Annie, standing there, eyes wide, and the curtain over the window swung to one side.
There was a huge long moment of silence, punctuated by the pop of a log in the fire, and Christophe simply stared, and stared, and stared some more, until Isabella could no longer contain her curiosity, and simply said, “Hello?”
At the sound of her voice, Christophe jumped a little like a startled rabbit and seemed to draw himself inwards in wonderment, as though he had suddenly understood a great secret of life. Then there was a long exhalation of breath and he finally made a noise of reply, and took one step towards the woman before him, standing straighter as he did so.
“You,” he said steadily, and he moved another step closer to Isabella, who stayed where she was, feeling strangely comfortable at what was happening, “you are Annie’s daughter!” and the voice quavered slightly at the truth of it.
Behind him, Annie watched intently as she realised that her whole family’s history was about to be revealed, a thousand questions were going to be answered, and her body quivered in excitement.
But her reaction was nothing compared to Isabella, who hearing her mother’s name spoken with such accuracy and authority, stayed rooted to the spot on the old worn carpet in total shock, her insides churning with the sudden burst of wonderment that suddenly enveloped her.
“You knew my mother?” Isabella asked, and instantly realised how normal that must have been, for her mother had lived in the house 60 years previously; of course she would have known her neighbours. Christophe stood there, nodding slowly, and Isabella gave a little cry of sympathy and crossed to the old man quickly, kissing him tenderly on each cheek as she simply said “I’m Isabella.” His arms hung by his sides, his hands clenching and unclenching, and then she stepped back.
Christophe was trembling, Annie could see he was in the great depths of some reverie, and she started forward and took his hand, breaking the spell. She pulled him gently to a chair, “Christophe, sit down, here.” The old man sat down with a start, and a thump, and Isabella snapped out of her own spell and came to kneel beside the chair.
The old man stared at Isabella without speaking and she muttered something about a glass of cognac to her daughter without taking her eyes off the Christophe’s face.
It took Annie a minute to pour the drink; it was the first time she had ever touched a decanter, and in the time she poured the cognac not a word was spoken. When she turned around, she saw Isabella and Christophe were deep in an embrace of sympathy, a gesture that seemed to gather all the intervening years of time that they had missed and surrounded them with a cloak of dark star-lit time.
Slowly Isabella leaned away from the old man and repeated her question, “You really knew my mother? And my father?”
Christophe nodded, afraid to speak.
There was so much to say, so much lost ground to cover. Isabella threw two logs onto the fire, poured herself a drink and then she and Annie sat each side of Christophe and waited until he was ready to tell them about a time long ago.
Childhood friends since they’d been old enough to walk, Christophe and his family had gone back through the orchard to their big house when the war had ended in 1945, a five year period of hardship that had forged an unbreakable bond between the two boys. In the light from the fire, Christophe showed Annie and Isabella the small scar on his wrist from the day the two boys had undertaken a blood-brother oath under a long-gone pear-tree in the orchard, their exchange of blood aided by the use of a well worn penknife. The story continued through the 1950’s with shared years at university, where Philippe had studied to become a lawyer, and Christophe had progressed through several years of a fine-art course. In 1956 Philippe had suddenly left his chosen profession, appalled at the stories of outrage and violence coming out of the developing war in Algeria, and instead had signed on to become a reporter for Paris Match, a publication still in its infancy but growing alarmingly in circulation. He’d spent the next three years on assignment in north Africa, returning home to his parents and Christophe when he could; it was a pattern that included a winter break in 1957 when he appeared in the village with a beautiful young woman called Annie, a daughter from a famous military family whose father he had met as the war straddled the Atlas mountains of north Africa in a cloud of smoke.
Christophe, Philippe and Annie; they made a fine trio of debonaire youngsters that had set the countryside alight in Christophe’s open Citroen, making pilgrimages to Paris and Biarritz when there was opportunity, and making the most of whatever time they could have together. Christophe was always followed by a string of girlfriends, and so those few short sweet years were a time of light and love, overshadowed by the dark clouds of Algeria, to which Philippe returned again and again.
Then, in 1961, a year after marrying Annie in a wedding that lasted for a week, he went once more to North Africa to write about the war and he never came home. The week he went missing there was a series of bombs in the country, many of them placed by young women specifically recruited for the task. Dozens of people went missing, and some of the carnage was so appalling that there were no precise records for many of the dead, making it impossible for some to get definitive answers to their many questions.
Annie had sat bereft in mourning in the house by the marsh, while Philippe’s parents did their utmost to find out exactly what had happened to their son, masking their grief as best as they could. That year, 1961, stood like a cold stone in Christophe’s heart, and the long hot summer passed slowly as Christophe’s big open car stayed locked in the garage of the big house. Instead, Christophe and Annie walked for miles each afternoon, each alone in thought but companionable in grief. Then in August, word came that a petty thief had been arrested in Tangiers, and amongst the possessions that the police found in the robber’s small dark house was a wallet that had once belonged to Philippe Hierot. It was returned to the family by post, with an official letter of notice, and when Phillipe’s father opened it they could all see the leather was deeply stained with dried blood.
There was a crackle from the dying fire at this point in the story, and Isabella wiped away a tear and went to fetch more wood as Annie busied herself with the adults’ drinks and then went to get a glass of juice for herself from the kitchen. She paused in the doorway as she returned, sad with the history unfolding by the fire, but curious and happy to find out so much about her grandparents. As she stood there, she heard her mother ask a question, and she paused, hidden in the darkness of the doorway, watching the two figures, both now standing at the fire. Listening, she could make no sense of what her mother was saying.
“But he died in 1962, Christophe, you must be mistaken, surely?” and there seemed to be a dreamlike quality to the words.
“No, my dear, he died in 1961, the spring of that year,” Christophe replied firmly in a small voice, and there was a pause and a hush as the room held its breath. Annie felt the hair on her neck rise in a glow of supernatural unease. She heard her mother snort a little with irritation, and knew the sound only too well. Something was tugging at Annie’s brain, the bone in her memory was pricking her consciousness.
“Christophe, my mother knew when my father died, why would she have got it wrong?” there was more than a hint of irritation in her voice now, and Annie knew well how her mother reacted to misunderstanding.
Christophe was replying again in a low voice, but then Annie’s consciousness burst into life and she suddenly remembered; she pushed into the room and broke the moment of confusion apart with a statement of absolute clarity.
“Christophe,” she stammered, “the painting – you said you painted it in 1961, I’m right, aren’t I?” and she stood proud, as sure of her facts as a young girl can be.
Christophe turned to her, his profile outlined clearly in the firelight, and he nodded, his head agreeing without trusting the words.
“Did you paint it before he went away, or after he was missing,” Annie continued, her brow was furrowed with other thoughts as she stared determinedly at Christophe.
“I painted it just after he had gone, maybe February or March; it was so cold that year and I remember showing it to Annie over Easter. It was just weeks later that Philippe went missing,” and he raised the glass of cognac to his lips and took a small sip, his head shaking a little with the effort of remembrance and some premonition of what he knew was about to happen.
“Painting? What painting?” demanded Isabella, and she swung to face Christophe, her face also illuminated by the firelight behind her.
Annie interrupted, “The picture in Christophe’s house, mama, I told you about it when I…..” and her voice trailed away into silence as she took in the two outlined profiles and suddenly became terribly aware of something so monumentally possible, and so impossibly important, that the glass of juice dropped from her hand onto the carpet with a thud.
Annie’s mouth opened in a murmur, “Oh my goodness,” and Isabella swung to her with alarm at the sound of the glass falling and the surprise she could hear in her daughter’s words.
“Annie, sweetheart,” and she took a pace forward. “What’s happened? You’ve gone as white as a sheet; are you alright?”
Annie stood there, nodding slowly, mentally adding and subtracting as best as she could, and even as she did so she saw Christophe cross to the chair and sit down, rubbing his eyes. Annie shivered with growing excitement as her sums made sense. Slowly she crossed to him, and trembling, picked up his hand.
“Christophe,” she said gently, and the old face turned slowly upward towards her with growing acceptance, “Am I right in thinking you have something more to tell us?”, and she leaned downwards and whispered in the old man’s ear. Isabella saw Christophe spasm, as if in shock, and she started with alarm. But then, as she moved forward, Christophe’s tremulous voice broke the moment.
“Oh dear sweet girl, you’re a smart one, aren’t you?” and Annie grinned down at him, her eyes enormous with excitement and she squeezed the old hand tighter, in awe of the speed with which her life was changing.
Isabella could contain herself no longer, and moving closer said, “I don’t understand, what on earth is going on?”
Annie and Christophe looked at each other, and he said in a barely audible voice, “You tell her, my clever little girl, and then hold me tight while she screams,” and he grinned a little lopsidedly.
“Tell me what?” demanded Isabella, her hands on her hips in perplexity.
“Mama,” Annie spoke up, “Mama…… mama, this,” and she stopped and turned to Christophe with uncertainty over the enormity of what she was about to say. He squeezed her hand, colour returning to his face as he grew in strength and he nodded for her to go on.
“Mama,” said Annie again, a little more sure of everything now, and looking up at her mother she said quite suddenly and clearly, “Mama, this…this is your father,” and in the pin-quiet silence that followed she squeezed Christophe’s hand as hard as she could.
There was a bluster of noise from Isabella, and her face grew taut with annoyance. “My father??? Don’t be so stupid. If that’s my father then my mother……..” and her voice trailed off into a mutter of disbelief as suddenly so many things became apparent and her eyes grew as wide as a spreading ring of water; in a split second 53 years of her life suddenly made so much sense, from the old house in the Marais that had never been visited, but was always let to tenants, to a birth certificate she had never been able to find, and to a mother who could shutter up like a grey Sunday shop when questioned about a father called Philippe Hierot. The snapshots of memory blurred as they spun through her mind.
Weak with the shock and the weight of the moment’s gravity, Isabella slumped back into her chair, her eyes glistening with sudden grief, for she had suddenly lost a father she thought she knew, but had never known. Thoughts spun wildly as a carousel in her brain, and suddenly she burst into tears, her body shaking. In the midst of the turmoil, she felt an old hand touch and grasp hers, and another under her chin, lifting her face up. It was Christophe, looking into her face with a steady gaze, the mark of a man at last content with his lot, and then he smiled, and she felt unfamiliarly unafraid, though still cold with the shock of it all; her extremities burned like fire as her body reacted.
She felt so very crumpled in her new place in life, and pulled away from Christophe, still not trusting totally.
“I don’t understand,” she said in a small voice, aware that Annie was there, watching with the intentness that only the young can give. “How?” and her speech trailed to a stop.
Christophe stooped forward and took his daughter’s hand with assurance and kinship, and told them all.
He told them of a car-crash that autumn in 1961, a sudden plunge off the road into a canal along the Marais, and a young woman suddenly beset with fresh grief, for her husband’s aching parents, and the burden of a house and an inheritance she had no urge to take up. He told them of a mutual grief, a dull fire of despair out of which an ember of feeling had grown, glowing so strong over two months that it swept all before it and coalesced into a surge of companionship that inadvertently blossomed into that truest of loves, the rich passion that people share through all of the dark places.
And there the story might have ended, except that love took its true course and Annie fell pregnant, a product of love that might have endured but for one thing – the village.
It was Annie who realised first, who took the decision herself, to get out before the gossip started and her belly swelled with indiscreetness. She left in February of 1962, carrying Isabella in her womb. The train to Paris has taken six hours, and she had wept the entire length of the journey, knowing that the letter she had left behind was a poor excuse for a departure. Afraid, desperate, imagining herself in a state of sin which would have shamed her own family, she had slunk into the metropolis of Paris and disappeared without trace, mourning for a husband, a family, and a man she loved, but could never have. She found a lawyer to arrange the house and its leases, and she had rebuffed all of Christophe’s attempts at contact. Over the years, his grief and sadness had manifested itself in his art, and despite a failed marriage he had enjoyed some considerable commercial and critical success. Nothing though, ever compensated for the loss of his true love.
The old man stopped in the telling of the story and leaned forward to touch Isabella’s face with great tenderness, “For 54 years I knew you existed, but did not know your name.” Christophe sighed, the deep quavering reath of a man high on emotion and overcome with discovery. Isabella looked at him with growing understanding, and Annie felt her little eyes moisten with something she could not place.
“I,” and he paused, stroking a hand that Isabella finally stretched out towards him, “I’m sorry for the part I have played in this,” and his voice sidled away into silence. Annie waited, watching her mother closely, and then she exhaled with relief as she saw Isabella lean forward and clutch her new-found father, and it was only then that she let herself smile.
The moment of contentment was rudely interrupted thirty long seconds later, by a bang at the front door as someone swung the iron ring against the oak planks in some determination. Isabella and Christophe drew apart, faces streaming with tears, and Isabella smiled lopsidedly and said, “I must go – there is someone at the door,” and she got to her feet.
“Oh my goodness!” said Christophe, looking stricken with guilt as he rose up too, “That’s my fault, I’m sorry, I left a note in at home saying where I was so they could find me.”
“Find you?” exclaimed Isabella and Annie simultaneously, “Who is finding you?”
But there was no reply for Christophe was already in the hallway, heading for the door at a rush, and as Isabella and Annie reached the hall, he was by the door, flinging it open.
There, in the darkness, stood a middle-aged woman with dark hair, a pretty face and a small, petite body. Behind her were two teenagers, a boy and a girl, wearing friendly but uncertain smiles.
Isabella stayed where she was, glued to the spot in disbelief at the invasion and the turn of events; everything was fast becoming too much for her to comprehend clearly. But then Christophe took matters into his own hands, and reaching out to the woman in the doorway, he drew her face towards him for a kiss on each cheek, exclaiming in a loud voice, “Annie, my love, come in and I’ll introduce you,” and he bent slightly and gathered up the two children and brought them into the light through the doorway too.
The two women faced each other across the hallway table, not understanding what was going on, and each slightly bemused at the interruption to their respective Christmas Eves; Isabella was even more confused with the introduction of another ‘Annie’ into the equation. But then that all began to change with Christophe’s next words.
“Isabella, this is my daughter Annie, and Annie this is Isabella,” and he grinned at their discomfort, watching for realisation. But it was little Annie who realised, for she was the clever one, and the thought blew into her head like a bright white Christmas snowstorm.
“OH!!” she lurched towards the table in excitement, and the the two women turned to face her in some small alarm, “OH MY GOODNESS!” she continued loudly.
“You’re sisters!!!” she exclaimed in a huge innocent voice, as the two women stared at each other in amazement, the next thought possessed her and without pause she turned to the two children and blurted, “And you’re my cousins!!”, and shrieking a little with excitement she bounded towards them.
It was going to be a truly, monumentally, magnificent Christmas.