The French for Christmas

The French for Christmas
The French for Christmas
Fiona Valpy
Bookouture
Contents

P
ublished by Bookouture
, an imprint of StoryFire Ltd.

23 Sussex Road, Ickenham, UB10 8PN, United Kingdom.

www.bookouture.com

C
opyright © Fiona
Valpy 2014

F
iona Valpy
has asserted
her
right to be identified as the author of this work.

A
ll rights reserved
. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.

T
his book is
a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events other than those clearly in the public domain, are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-909490-63-5

Acknowledgments

W
hilst the setting
for this book is very close to home, every character and incident is purely fictitious: any resemblances to real people or real places—other than those that you can find named on a map—are purely coincidental. I owe a debt of gratitude to many lovely people who have inspired aspects of the story though…

A huge thank you to Beth Nielsen Chapman, singer/songwriter extraordinaire, for her kind permission to include the words from ‘Every December Sky’ here. If you haven’t discovered her songs already then I would urge you to check out her website for more details of her wonderful work:
http://bethnielsenchapman.com/

Heartfelt thanks to Paul Fenton for sparing so much of his precious time to tell me about the problems and challenges anaesthetists face when working in the developing world. Having worked in Africa, and having developed the Universal Anaesthetic Machine which is now being distributed worldwide by Gradian Health Systems, Paul provided key inspiration for this story. For more information about Gradian’s work and the Universal Anaesthetic Machine, please visit
http://www.gradianhealth.org

Thank you to my American family—the Thompsons (John and Carol, Rupert, Laura and Maya), the Hochmans (Juliet, Steve, Nate and Thomas), and the Somols (Jessica, Mark, Charlotte and Emma)—for those wonderfully memorable holidays on golden pond in both summer and winter. And special thanks to Juliet Thompson Hochman for being my American language consultant.

As ever, merci beaucoup to the team at Bookouture for all their help and support: Oliver Rhodes, Emily Ruston, Claire Bord, Kim Nash, Lorella Belli and Debbie Brunettin.

And love and thanks to my friends and family—especially Rupert, James and Alastair—who have supported and encouraged me in my writing, and who make Christmas Christmas.

F
or Friends and Family
,

who make Christmas merry and bright.

E
very December sky

Must lose its faith in leaves

And dream of the spring inside the trees.

How heavy the empty heart,

How light the heart that’s full

Sometimes I have to trust what I can’t know,

Sometimes I have to trust what I can’t know.

B
eth Nielsen Chapman

Deck the Halls

D
eck the halls
with boughs of holly,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

’Tis the season to be jolly,

Fa la la la la, la la la la
.

W
e’re sitting
at Rose’s kitchen table in the aftermath of the final book club meeting of the year, the last Friday in November. The others have all left, making their way home to their families, looking forward to their busy weekends. But I’m lingering in the bright warmth of Rose’s kitchen, pretending to make myself useful collecting up glasses and plates, reluctant to go back and push open the door to my own darkened house, knowing that its emptiness will ring loud in my ears. Avoiding the sad silence of the rooms where my grief lives behind their shut doors, decomposing quietly until it loses enough of its radioactive power to be handled safely. How many half-lives will that be, I wonder?

Rose’s husband, Max, pokes his head round the doorway. ‘Is it safe to come out yet?’ He’d been banished to his study for the evening, the book club being a girls-only affair, and now he’s come to claim his reward from the dishes of leftovers that clutter the kitchen table. He gives me a hug. ‘How’s my favourite Yankee redhead? And is there any of your quiche left, Evie? Oh, good,’ he sighs, taking a bite. ‘Delicious as ever.’

‘I know,’ Rose nods, breaking off the corner of the last slice left in the dish and savouring the rich mix of Comté cheese and smoked bacon. ‘You’ve given me the recipe, but it never tastes as good when I make it. Must be your French-Irish-American
je ne sais quoi
.’ She raises her glass with a flourish. ‘
Santé
! Or should that be
Slainte
?’

She pours some more wine into my glass and then tips the dregs into her own, raising it to the light so that it gleams with a soft ruby glow. Her expression is thoughtful. ‘When are you going to think about getting back in the saddle again, Evie? Your talent’s going to waste, you know. There must be restaurants out there that would snap you up. Or maybe you could try your hand at writing a few articles for one of the cookery magazines?’

‘Don’t push her, Rose.’ Max reaches over to pat my arm. ‘All in good time, after the year she’s had.’

I smile at him, thankful for his kindness. By now, most people have stopped being kind, or openly so at least. They’ve moved on with their own lives, leaving me stuck back here at the point where mine stopped. I feel like I’m watching them all disappearing off over the horizon without a backward glance as I stand forlornly, mired here in the quicksand of my grief, weighted down by my anger.

Not waving, but drowning.

‘I’ve promised myself I’ll get back onto it in the New Year. There’s no point now with December just round the corner. I’ll get through Christmas and then see.’ And, while I’m trying to keep my tone light and even, I confess I’m terrified at the prospect: I don’t know yet whether I’m going to stay on in London or move back to Boston. Such big decisions require energy and I’m fresh out of that right now. I hope I sound more upbeat than I feel, but Rose fixes me with her gimlet gaze, the one that she uses to such good effect, to see through the surface veneer of fake cheerfulness to the truth underneath.

‘Ah, yes, and speaking of Christmas, what are your plans? Max and I would be delighted if you would come and spend the day with us. I promise not to make you cook a thing.’

Max looks a little crestfallen. ‘Or, well, maybe just one of your pies if you felt like it?’ he suggests. ‘I’ve never really liked Christmas pudding and your blueberry one is my absolute favourite. Or what’s that upside-down apple thing with the caramel?’


Tarte Tatin
?’

‘That’s the one. Delicious!’

‘Back off, Max,’ Rose warns with a protective snarl. ‘She doesn’t have to cook anything.’

I sigh, reluctant to think about Christmas at all. All those memories of last year, coming home from the hospital on Christmas Eve to a houseful of shattered dreams; Will unable to bring himself to look at the shadows of pain and grief etched onto my face as he set my overnight case down carefully on the bed, treading cautiously, as if we might both break into a thousand pieces at any sudden move. He’d closed the door softly behind him and left me to unpack. I was still sitting there, the case unopened beside me, when he came back to check on me an hour later.

I wasn’t angry with him then, only stunned and shocked with grief.

The anger came later.

‘That’s really kind. I just don’t know... I’m still wondering whether I shouldn’t go back to the States. Though it feels kind of cowardly to run away.’

In fact the real reason I’m even thinking twice about it is because I can’t face my mother’s determined cheerfulness, her efforts to involve me in the childbirth charity she’s now fundraising for, which is typical of her way of coping; she’s always been a doer, strong enough to face anything head-on and find a way to move forward. She won’t be able to understand why I can’t do the same.

That, and the fact that my sister Tess is seven months pregnant: the exact same stage I was at Christmas last year. None of us is saying it, but I know they’re holding their breath, praying that her baby will make it through, even though there’s no earthly reason why it shouldn’t.

But then there was no earthly reason why my baby’s heart stopped beating. Just one of those things, they said...

I try to summon a smile for Rose and Max and their invitation. ‘I don’t know; it’s just that Will’s face is going to be everywhere here with this new TV series. Last week I had to do a body-swerve in the supermarket when I came face-to-face with a copy of the
Radio Times
.’

The magazine trumpeted “Will Brooke’s Delicious December Dining”, his face beaming out at me from the front cover. Flustered by a surge of conflicting emotions, I’d steered my trolley into a festive stack (already!) of tins of Danish butter cookies, sending them clattering across the floor. I still feel guilty about leaving them there, their fragile contents no doubt reduced to piles of crumbs. I’d stumbled out of the shop and sat shaking in my car, my hands fumbling as I tried to fit the key into the ignition.

Rose takes my hand, her expression one of tender concern. Uh-oh, something’s up: she’s not usually the sentimental type. I brace myself.

‘Evie, I don’t know if you’ve seen this?’ She pulls a gossip magazine out from under a pile of glossier ones. I shake my head. ‘I thought not. Well, I think you do need to see it before anyone else mentions it.’ She turns to a two-page spread, where Will’s face beams out at me again. “Will Power!” shouts the headline. “Celebrity chef Will Brooke talks about his tragic loss and new beginnings as he launches his series of festive cookery programmes.” Rose sits back, allowing me time to scan the article and digest what’s on the page. It’s mostly pictures of him in his apron, wielding a kitchen knife and presenting a steaming pot pie—my grandmother’s recipe, I note, with my cranberry glaze which, though I do say so myself, looks very attractive. But the final picture is a less posed one, a fuzzy shot of him snapped in the street with his arm around the shoulder of a pretty blonde. “Something’s cooking: we can reveal Will’s mystery girl is Stephanie Wallis, an assistant on the new show.”

My stomach knots as I take in the photo and the chatty text beneath it. And then I read, “Brave Will is trying to put the tragedy of losing the baby behind him and focus on his future. As he so rightly says, the show must go on!”

I fold the magazine shut, feeling nauseous, and place it very carefully on the table in front of me. Rose and Max are sitting on either side, watching me intently, and Rose puts a hand on my arm again. Her touch brings me to. I turn to look at her, trying to summon a scornful smile at this ridiculous article in this trashy magazine. But my face won’t behave the way I want it to. Of its own accord, it crumples and collapses. And Rose pulls me to her as I begin to sob uncontrollably. ‘At last,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘I was wondering if you were
ever
going to cry.’

It’s true, it’s the first time I’ve cried in a long, long while; I thought I’d gotten pretty good at covering my true feelings, but this has caught me unawares. So it takes me a bit of time to regain control and be able to take the Kleenex Max is offering me and blow my nose. I look at Rose’s face and see that she, too, has tears in her eyes.

She knows how I feel because she was there, through the whole terrible ordeal. This must be conjuring up painful memories for her as well. She was the one who came to the hospital when I called her because Will was up in Manchester and too busy with the filming of an episode of
On Your Marks, Get Set, Cook!
which, he was hoping, would lead to bigger and better things. Admittedly it was my own fault too. I told him not to rush back. After all, by then there was nothing he could do; there was no heartbeat; the baby was gone. And the hospital said they’d leave it for a day or two before they induced my labour. I should just go home and take a few days to let it sink in; there was no rush. So, when I told him this, Will said, ‘Okay, if you’re absolutely sure, Evie. I’ll be home tomorrow night anyway. And if you’ve got Rose there with you for the time being...’ How was either of us to know the contractions would start spontaneously that night, too late for him to get a train or hire a car? So that, by the time he arrived at the hospital, all that was left for him to do was to hold our child, just that once, and then bring me home. Back to a house that felt as empty and sad as I did myself.

‘Sorry, Evie,’ Rose says.

‘That’s okay. You had to show me the article. Better that I know what’s out there. But, you know, I’m just not sure I can do it.’ I start to cry again, blotting my eyes with the soggy paper. ‘I have to get away. I can’t stay here with all this,’ I wave a hand at the magazine, ‘but I can’t go home to America either. I want to cancel Christmas and crawl away into a cave somewhere where I can be on my own. I just can’t face the fun and the glitz and the Delicious Dining and the Festive Feasts. You’re so kind to invite me to join you, but it’d ruin it for all of you, tiptoeing around me in case something sets me off again. I have to get away. But there’s nowhere for me to go.’ My voice shakes with fear and wretchedness, and fury at Will and his mystery girl, and—okay, okay, I admit it—self-pity.

Rose and Max exchange a glance and he nods. ‘We thought that might be the case.’ Rose pats my hand again. ‘So we’ve come up with a Plan B. Why don’t you go and spend Christmas in the house in France? You can take yourself off there for some peace and some space and have a complete break. It’s not so far to go that you’ll be stuck if you change your mind and want to come back to London and spend Christmas with us after all, but you’ll be able to escape the media circus there. And you know how you love French cuisine. Who knows, it might do you good to get back to your roots. Maybe you could even start researching an article or two.’

I shake my head. I’ve definitely lost my cooking mojo and, right now, the last thing I want to think about is facing up to the collapse of my career, let alone the rest of my life.

Max pats my other hand. ‘You don’t have to force yourself to do anything, Evie. Just take some time out. Plonk yourself down there with a few bottles of the local wine and perhaps an occasional quiche.’ Max reaches out his hand for the remainder of the last slice and raises it in a jaunty salute, ‘Use it as a time to recharge your batteries. Things might look clearer from a distance. And at the very least you’ll be spared the shopping frenzy and the continuous tacky Christmas music, and the conspicuous consumption and the completely crap weather that we’ll be bombarded with here. In fact, come to think of it, it sounds quite tempting. Perhaps I’ll come and join you.’ The pastry crust crumbles as he sinks his teeth into it, scattering golden crumbs down his shirt front.

‘Over my dead body, Max Morgan!’ retorts Rose. ‘I know you’d far rather be in France with your favourite American than back here in grey London with your stressed-out harridan of a wife and your children arguing with you about which film to watch on the telly, but you’re staying here.’

‘Ah, well, since you put it like that... And a very merry Christmas to you too, my darling!’ Max kisses her fondly on the top of her head as he carries the now empty quiche dish over to the sink.

I sit and think, Rose’s offer sinking in slowly. It does sound tempting. And escaping would be a neat solution to my woes. I glance at the gossip magazine again. In fact... ‘How soon could I go?’

Rose follows my gaze and then beams at me. ‘Why, as soon as you like! The house is sitting empty; it’s yours for as long as you want it.’

I wipe the mascara from under my eyes and blow my nose again. ‘Could I maybe go next week? Plan on spending the whole of December there?’

‘Of course you can my darling... and with not a Festive Feast in sight!’

I manage to summon a watery grin and pick up the magazine again. ‘Oh, well, at least he gives me a mention. I read aloud: “Will and his ex-wife opened the highly successful Brooke’s Bistro five years ago but sold the business last year as Will’s career took off. ‘My wife, Evie, was the wind beneath my wings,’ explains Will, ‘but sadly we’ve grown apart.’” I sigh, hoping for sympathy. I should have known better.

Rose guffaws. ‘And just when did the wind beneath his wings turn into the doormat beneath his feet, might I ask? Honestly, Evie, you were always the true talent in the partnership and Will knows that. I give him a year. He’ll soon realise how much he needs you and your recipes once the honeymoon period wears off. And by that time I hope you’ll have realised it yourself and be back in the kitchen, getting the recognition you deserve in your own right. And then he’ll be sorry.’ Her expression softens as I wipe another tear away. ‘Come on love, you just need a bit more time, that’s all. Life happens, you know? Of course you’re battered and bruised right now, who wouldn’t be? But I promise you, you will come out the other side of this and be stronger than before. I’m so glad you’re going to France. It’ll be the perfect break, a chance to get some perspective on what you want to do next.’

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