Authors: Fiona Valpy
I stand on tiptoe and break off a sprig of the mistletoe that hangs just above my head. Crossing the yard, I knock on Didier’s door.
He opens it straight away, a smile as warm as spring sunshine lighting up his face, his expression as full of promise and hope as my future suddenly seems.
I hold the green sprig above my copper curls.
‘If it’s not too late, Merry Christmas, Didier.’
He pulls me to him and wraps me in his arms.
‘It’s never too late, Evie,’ he smiles. ‘Merry Christmas.’
s I step
out of the plane it’s like opening an oven door: the smell of Africa engulfs me, tantalisingly exotic. It’s the scent of heat and dust, with undercurrents of something dark and wild, something untameable. The tarmac bounces the sun’s brutal rays back up at me and I follow the line of passengers wading through the thick air which shimmers with oily heat. A few small, white clouds are suspended in the vast, overarching sky, wider than any sky I’ve ever stood beneath before. As we wait outside the door of the terminal—although it’s more of a shed really—I watch the sun-bleached grass that lines the runway shimmer and shift in the haze of hot air, oil fumes and dust. I blink in the strong sunshine, fumbling in my purse for my sunglasses, my eyes unaccustomed to so much light and colour having come straight from a Massachusetts winter.
At last a key is located, the door unlocked, and we shuffle through the baggage reclaim and then emerge through the frosted glass door, beyond which the world’s newest country awaits.
My heart leaps as I spot his face in the crowd and he pushes forwards through the jostling throng to claim me before the taxi touts and hotel hustlers can. He folds me in his arms and I breathe in the smell of his skin, familiar and reassuring beneath the atmosphere of sweat and rotting garbage and car fumes that engulfs us. He takes my bag and we walk, hand in hand, to his rental jeep in the car park. We can’t stop looking at each other, grinning at each other, unable to believe we’re both really here.
‘How is everyone?’ he asks. ‘I never thought you’d be able to tear yourself away from the bistro to get here.’
I laugh. ‘I know; it wasn’t easy. But it’s in safe hands. Hélène’s taken to it like a duck to water; she’s a natural-born manager. I guess all her experience with organising weddings has really paid off. And Tess will look in at lunchtimes and lend a hand if it’s needed. But I trust the team completely. I know they’ll be fine. Anyway, it’s good practice for all of us. I’ll be running the first courses at Château Bellevue in two months’ time, so I need to be able to leave them to it sometimes. But now tell me everything. How’s the roll-out of the machines going?’
Didier laughs, running his fingers through his dark hair and raising his shoulders in a very French shrug. ‘It’s Africa, Evie, so of course there’ve been frustrating hold-ups along the way, but it’s going well. We’ve got the machines in three of the biggest hospitals now and we’re making progress in the clinics in the refugee camps in Jonglei province. I can’t wait to show you. And tomorrow you’ll see the feeding station for the children in the Juba camp. Everyone’s so excited to meet you. The children have been learning a special song for the official opening. One of them asked me if you’re the queen of America! I showed them your photo, and one of the bistro back in Boston so they’d be able to picture where the funding for the feeding station is coming from. They thought you looked like a queen because, they said, your hair is like a shining crown.’
We pull up in front of the hotel where we’ll be staying tonight before heading out to the camp tomorrow.
‘They all wanted me to bring you straight there, but I thought you’d be tired after all that travelling. And anyway, I want you to myself for one night at least, before you are claimed by two hundred children and their mothers...’
hundreds of photos from that week in South Sudan, taken to show the folks back home who have given their time and their money and their love to bring a little extra joy to children who need it. The
feeding station will help ensure some hungry bellies are filled, some babies given the nourishment they need, which can be so hard to come by in this troubled, turbulent land. Some of my favourite pictures are of the smiles, those eyes that have seen so much fear and pain shining, for this moment at least, with the light of pure joy.
But my very favourite moment of all wasn’t captured on camera.
I was holding a tiny baby girl in the camp, cradling her in my arms as she guzzled hungrily from her bottle, when Didier came into the tent. He hunkered down in front of us, watching my face, and I raised my eyes to his. ‘Just getting in a little practice,’ I said to him, keeping my expression serious, being careful not to give away the happiness that was bubbling through my veins and threatening to overflow, at any moment, in a messy combination of laughter and tears. ‘Because,’ I went on, ‘I guess in, oh, about seven months’ time, I’m going to be needing it.’
There was a moment’s pause as I looked back down at the perfect curve of the infant’s cheek, brushed by her lashes as, sated finally, her eyes began to close.
And then Didier put a hand on my arm. ‘Evie, do you mean...?’ He couldn’t finish the sentence for the big lump of hope that had lodged itself in his throat. And then his eyes lit up, realisation dawning like a sunrise in winter.
He looked searchingly into my face. ‘But how are you feeling? Have you been okay?’
‘I’m good. A little tired, but the nausea hasn’t been nearly as bad this time. The doctor says she’s going to keep a close watch on things, but everything’s looking fine; I should be okay to travel for a few months more.’
Then he gathered me into his arms. And as we held each other tight, I whispered, so as not to wake the baby sleeping in my arms, ‘Let’s tell everyone on Christmas Eve, once your parents have arrived in Boston. When we’re all there. The whole family, together...’
you so much for reading
The French for Christmas
. I hope that Evie’s journey has entertained, moved and inspired you. If you, or someone close to you, has been affected by stillbirth or miscarriage, there is a further message for you at the end of this book.
a time for giving and, in buying this book, you have helped make a difference. I have pledged to donate 10% of any royalties I receive from sales of
The French for Christmas
to the charity
Médecins Sans Frontières
Doctors Without Borders
) in support of their work all over the world, providing care and medical aid where it’s needed most. Please visit my website
for more details and updates. And you can find out more about Médecins Sans Frontières at
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HE FRENCH FOR
-after get lost in translation?
ina has lost
her perfect job, her boyfriend and her favourite aunt all within the space of a few months. So when she inherits her aunt’s ramshackle French house, Gina decides to pack her bags for the Bordeaux countryside – swapping English weather for blue skies, sunshine, great wine and a fresh start.
hat she hasn’t factored
in is a hole in the roof, the
embarrassing language faux pas, and discovering family secrets that she was never supposed to know.
a long way from home, Gina will have to rely on new found friends, her own hard work – and Cédric – her charming, mysterious and
handsome new stonemason.
ut whilst desire
needs no translation, love is a different matter. Can Gina overcome the language barrier to make her French dream come true?
HE FRENCH FOR
. The perfect venue. One little hitch…
the grey skies of home behind to transform a crumbling French Château into a boutique wedding venue is a huge leap of faith for Sara. She and fiancé Gavin sink their life savings into the beautiful Château Bellevue – set under blue skies and surrounded by vineyards in the heart of Bordeaux.
fter months of hard work
, the dream starts to become a reality – until Gavin walks out halfway through their first season. Overnight, Sara is left very much alone with the prospect of losing everything.
ith her own heart breaking
, Sara has five weddings before the end of the season to turn the business around and rescue her dreams. With the help of the locals and a little French
, can she save Château Bellevue before the summer is over?
hilst the vast
majority of pregnancies in developed countries end in the safe and joyful arrival of a healthy baby, stillbirth is the sad outcome in a small proportion of cases. If this has happened to you, or to someone close to you, then I’m so sorry: you have my deepest sympathy and I send you a hug of condolence. I hope you have the loving support of friends and family to help you and that you can find the time and space you need to grieve. And I hope too that, like Evie, when the time is right you will find the strength and the courage to live your life with joy, on behalf of the child you’ve lost.
More support, advice and information, as well as lists of other organisations that can offer support, are available here: