The French for Christmas (2 page)

I nod. ‘You’re right. And you know what? Life sure as hell happens, but at least this year I can make sure Christmas won’t. Not for me at least. And for that I am truly grateful to you both.’

‘You sure you’ll be okay?’ Rose asks as she stands in the doorway to see me out. She hugs me. ‘Come straight back if you don’t want to be in the house alone.’

‘I’m fine. Got a busy weekend ahead of me. I’m off to France, dontcha know, and I’ve got some serious packing to do. Anyway, don’t worry; if I find myself at loose ends there’s always
The Playbook
!’

Rose and I are agreed that
‘The Silver Linings Playbook’
is our very favourite movie of all time. Currently at least: we reserve the right to replace it at some future point, just as it replaced
‘Dirty Dancing’
(Rose’s long-standing choice) and
‘It’s Complicated’
(mine, because of the scene with the
croque-monsieurs
as well as the one with Alec Baldwin and the webcam). But, for the time being, The Playbook, as we like to refer to it, is our favourite for the following three reasons:

1) Bradley Cooper is gorgeous.

2) The two main characters have both been made crazy by grief and anger and, for them as for me, this craziness feels more normal and more rational than the so-called sanity of everyone else in the world.

3) Bradley Cooper is gorgeous.

I suspect in Rose’s case only reasons (1) and (3) apply.

A late-fall fog hangs in the air as I walk back through the lamplit streets, my heels tapping on the London sidewalk with new purpose. Now, instead of dreading the blankness of the weekend that stretches before me, I’m looking forward to it. I have work to do: I need to book my crossing, do my packing, tidy the house. Plan my escape back to my beloved France. My heart lifts as I realise I can even swing by Paris on the way down. Am I ready for that walk down memory lane, I ask myself? And, to my surprise, I think maybe I am. I can’t wait to step back to a time before sadness and fear, when life was there for the taking.

It was thanks to my darling grandmother,
Mamie
Lucie, and her bequest to me of the notebook full of recipes and enough money for a ticket across the Atlantic, that the world suddenly opened up before me and became, as the saying goes, my
huître
. Memories flood back to me as I walk home through the damp streets: my first day at the cookery school, with its bright, spotlessly clean counters and sets of gleaming utensils at each station, the air smelling faintly—like the best restaurants do—of butter and the subtle undertones of dill and white wine from the fish dish that the students had been cooking that morning; an evening in a bar with my fellow students from the four corners of the world, an exciting mix of cultures, complexions, accents, all of us laughing as English Will did his impersonation of the chef, Monsieur Charles, tasting the bouillon and declaring it an ‘abomination’. We nicknamed him ‘Prince William’ because he did bear a passing resemblance to the second in line to the British throne with his blond good looks and polished manners. He had charisma, even then, and was always the star of the show.

And then there are those other, more private memories: Will’s eyes meeting mine above the rim of my wineglass, something clicking into place, a connection, a certainty; lying together, tangled in the sheets, in my tiny one-room apartment high up amongst the Parisian rooftops; Will standing on the bed to push open the roof light, craning his head and saying, ‘Hey! You can even see the Eiffel Tower from here!’ then holding me steady as I joined him on tiptoes on the shifting, lumpy mattress and we gazed out across a petrified forest of redundant chimney pots and TV antennas to where the lights of Paris’s most iconic landmark twinkled and winked at us. As if it was sharing in our joy and our exhilaration at having found each other in the city of love.

I reach the high street, my stream of thoughts interrupted by the necessity of crossing the busy stream of London traffic. On the other side I hesitate, choosing which route to take back to the house. Recently I’ve been taking the longer way round, sticking to the main streets and avoiding the cut-through where the bistro used to be. But tonight, in my newfound glow of positivity, I decide to be brave and so I turn the toes of my boots in the direction of the antique shops and quirkier boutiques.


Fabio’s Ristorante Italiano
’ the new sign reads, its red neon infusing the November fog with a garish chemical glow. ‘Book your Christmas lunch now!’ is scrawled on a chalkboard outside. ‘Special menu!’ I walk on, picking up the pace as I try not to remember how it used to be when the sign read ‘Brooke’s Bistro’ in old-gold lettering. I would set each table with soft linens and a little vase of fresh flowers, and write the daily menu of dishes made from whatever produce was fresh and in season on that same chalkboard.

I make it past, my heart rate quickening a bit, I note, but nothing too much more overwhelming than that. Progress. A small triumph.

But my sense of achievement falters and then sputters out like a candle drowning in its own wax as I reach my front door and grope in the bottom of my purse for the keys.


France!
’ I whisper to myself. ‘
Focus on that. Nothing else.

I push the door open, stepping into the hushed warmth of the hallway and the silent sadness of this space that should have been filled with my husband’s welcoming arms and the gurgling smiles of our baby daughter.

Should-a, would-a, could-a. All those might-have-beens. Some of the emptiest words there are.

I wipe my feet on the doormat before easing off my boots, and as I do, Rose’s comment comes back to me. ‘
And just when did the wind beneath his wings become the doormat beneath his feet
?’ A throwaway remark, but one that stings a little I have to admit. The truth hurts, as they say.

I set my boots neatly side by side beneath the coat hooks. As I straighten up, I can’t help brushing my fingers over the faded fabric of an old jacket of Will’s that he’s left behind, the elbows rubbed shiny with wear, un-needed in his newer, more glamorous life. Was it my fault he left? Was it my anger that drove him away? Or was it his own guilt?

The bistro had been a true partnership, each of us bringing our own particular skills to the business. I supplied the ideas for menus and he had the strength and the unflagging energy that the gruelling daily routine in the kitchen demanded. At first we worked side by side, Will as head chef while I did the baking, preparing our trademark home-made breads and pastries, and ran the front of house. The most popular dish on the lunch menu was always my wheaten soda bread (in homage to my Irish roots), spread thick with unsalted French butter and served with the soup of the day: true comfort food and the best and simplest kind of fusion
cuisine
.

Then, when I fell pregnant—a miracle, so soon after we decided to start trying, because the business was on solid foundations, its popularity starting to soar—I began to struggle to keep up with the schedule. I was exhausted, battling with the nausea as the morning sickness hit me hard. ‘Never mind,’ Will had reassured me. ‘You rest. We can afford the extra staff to cover your areas. Just do the lunchtime shifts, if you’re up to it.’

I thought I’d get my energy back after the first trimester. After all, that’s how it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Women glowing with pregnancy, radiating an abundance of serene energy as they morph into motherhood? Only not in my case. The nausea never really abated, which meant that being around food became a torture instead of the joy it used to be. First I went off coffee—even the smell of it made my stomach heave; the sight of a glass of wine brought acid surging into my throat; the sight of Will filleting mackerel made me gag; and the thought of whipping a bowl of cream had my insides lurching like a butter-churn. All of which is a bit of a handicap when you work in a restaurant.

I couldn’t bow out completely though. I cared too passionately about the bistro (my other baby!) so I’d drag myself in to help set up for lunch and dinner and chalk the
plat du jour
on the board, swallowing hard. Some days, when I felt a little stronger, I’d get back into the kitchen, adding my trademark touches to certain dishes, suggesting recipes to Will depending on what fresh produce we had that day. And back home I’d experiment with new recipes, digging into
Mamie
Lucie’s tattered notebook and deciphering her spidery handwriting, with frequent consultations of my French dictionary whenever I came across an ingredient or an instruction that I wasn’t sure of. Trying to contribute to the bistro’s menus as best I could.

And then came the day when, as I was arranging the vase of flowers for the front desk (one of the few chores that I still positively enjoyed), I felt that first tiny movement inside of me. Not the churning of my gut, but something else, deep inside my belly. A flutter, as delicate and persistent as the wings of a butterfly against a windowpane: my baby moving, kicking her tiny heels against the walls that confined her. I froze. Then placed my hand over the spot, willing her to do it again. And she did. As if she heard me ask the question, and she kicked back in reply.

And in that moment my heart was locked to hers with a strength so fierce that it took my breath away.

I spoke to her constantly from then on. I’d tell her about the day’s menu as I wrote it out and she’d drum her heels approvingly; I’d breathe deep the scent of the white trumpet-like lilies on the front desk as I passed, hoping their perfume would infuse my bloodstream so that she would be surrounded by it too; and I’d gently caress my ballooning belly, calling to Will to come and feel the butterfly movements as our daughter stretched and flexed and reached out to us from the dark warmth of her cocoon.

For me, though, the radiant stage never materialised. My back ached, and I grew even more exhausted as the months rolled slowly by. I longed for the day when our baby would be born, finally separate from me so that I could try to regain some kind of balance in my life, freed at last from the dense fog of sick exhaustion that smothered me throughout my pregnancy. And I’ll admit, I feel overwhelmed with guilt now, remembering this. I’d give anything to have her still moving in my belly. Unconsciously, I put a hand on the flat front of my jeans, my stomach concave between the sharply jutting hipbones. Empty. Realising, I jerk my hand away, as though from the scalding rim of a hot pan.

The silence in the house closes in around me like a soft blanket.

I prefer being alone these days. Because, strictly between you and me, ever since last Christmas Eve I’ve been living two lives. One involves silence and distance and pain and loss. It’s a lonely life, where my husband has left me, unable to bear the weight of my grief on top of his own; unable to soothe my anger and his guilt; unable to accept that I can’t move on when he can.

It’s reality.

My second life, which runs on a parallel track, is an imaginary one, and I escape into it whenever I can. Because it’s filled with light and noise and love. In it, Will is still here and our beautiful baby daughter is now nearly a year old; it’s a world where I am sleep-deprived (instead of in the constant state of medicinally induced hibernation that I sink into in my real life, popping a pill and retreating into blessed oblivion whenever I can); I walk up and down in the nursery when the rest of the world is asleep, holding her against my heart, stroking her back, soothing her and singing her lullabies, not minding that she won’t go back to sleep, because her every breath, her every cry, is proof she’s alive. In this other life, I deal cheerfully with dirty diapers, teething and tantrums, late night feeds and early morning wake-up calls; I plan her first Christmas—our first Christmas as a family—and her first birthday party; I chat to my sister, Tess, every day just like we used to do, offering her my sympathy and advice as her own pregnancy progresses, looking forward to the day when our children will be favourite cousins and spend magical summer holidays together at the lake house in New Hampshire.

You have to admit, it’s a much nicer life than the real one.

So, when I’m alone, I allow myself to go there sometimes, luxuriating in the fantasy. Because, don’t worry, I
do
know it’s a fantasy. I’ve not yet taken to playing with dolls and pushing an empty buggy through the streets, cooing to my imaginary baby. It’s my secret craziness, my own
Silver Linings Playbook
, where everything has turned out just fine in the end and Will and I are busy living in our own happy-ever-after.

Sad, isn’t it, my private parallel universe? A refuge for my broken heart; a refuge from my grief.

The hall clock chimes. Shocked out of my reverie, I look at my boots sitting there on the doormat, and then catch a glimpse of my face in the hallway mirror. My skin is too pale and the dark half-moon shadows beneath my eyes stand out stark against it. I run a hand through my hair, trying to smooth the copper curls which have gone a little frizzy, as usual, in the damp London air.

I go upstairs to the bathroom, the two his-and-hers sinks mocking me as I rummage in the cabinet for the foil pack of pills. The doctor prescribed these antidepressants when I got to the stage of being unable to haul my sorry carcass out of bed for several days at a stretch. They make me feel a little foggy, removed from reality, but then isn’t that the point? Under the unforgiving glare of the bathroom lights, my reflection seems too far away, as though it, too, has disconnected itself from me and my grief.

I guess you know you are really and truly alone when even your own reflection deserts you.

I sway a little, gripping the side of the sink to try to steady the faint giddiness as the pills kick in.


France
,’ I whisper to myself again. A faint glimmer of light at the end of a very long, very dark, very lonely tunnel.

Jingle Bells

A
day
or two ago

I thought I’d take a ride...

S
ending
up a little prayer of thanks for having survived the Parisian traffic, I swing the car into the underground parking lot at Sèvres-Babylone, stretch across the passenger seat to grab the ticket that the machine spits out, and manoeuvre gingerly into one of the narrow spaces. I sit for a moment in the sudden silence as the cooling motor ticks quietly and breathe out a big sigh of relief. As an American driving a British right-hand drive stick-shift car on the wrong side of the road (or, in fact, really the right side in
every
sense), I congratulate myself on having gotten this far safely, with only one near miss by a kamikaze taxi driver on the
périphérique
and just three aggressive blasts of the horn from French drivers sitting behind me at the stoplights a nanosecond after they turn green. Thank goodness for my GPS, whose endlessly patient and polite British tones have steered me here.

Emerging into the grey light of a Paris afternoon, I pause for a moment, orienting myself. When I first arrived in the city all those years ago, fresh off the plane from Boston and as green as the taste of a Key Lime Pie, it was a terrifying and bewildering city. But it soon became friendlier as I got the hang of the metro and worked out the geography of the place. The River Seine, the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre provided useful landmarks for newbies like me.

The
Bon Marché
beckons me, its name written boldly on the skyline in a thousand light bulbs, a vast emporium offering beautiful clothes and the best grocery store in the world bar none. I hitch my overnight bag onto my shoulder and stride out. I’ll check in at the little hotel I’ve found, just off the Rue du Bac, and then head out again for a wander down my own personal Memory Lane...

I step out of the front door of the hotel, tentatively at first, but growing in confidence as more and more familiar places come back to me. I call in at the old-fashioned
Salon de Thé
–come–ice cream parlour with its red and gold storefront, for a cup of
tisane
, served in a thick white cup with a little almond cake—a
Calisson d’Aix
—nestling on the saucer beside it. Then I stroll up the Rue du Bac, pausing often to gaze at the window displays in the little shops that line the street, at antiques and jewellery, furniture and flowers. The fish shop and the butcher’s both stop me in my tracks for a good few minutes as I gaze at the bountiful displays of unfamiliar cuts of meat and strange creatures from the deep. Elegant Parisians, the men as smartly turned out and immaculately coiffed as the women, hurry in and out of the shops, small, wax-paper-wrapped packages of tempting morsels for dinner stowed into their designer purses (carried by the males as well as females). As I cross the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the streetlamps come on and car headlights stream by in a dizzying rip-tide of motion. I continue walking until I reach the river and cross the
quai
so that I can lean against the parapet and watch the Seine flow by. Brightly lit
bateaux mouches
churn the water into choppy chaos as they pass. The wind is brisker here, slicing through my jacket like a knife, so I pull the zipper up to my chin and turn and follow along beside the river, picking up the pace. It feels invigorating, despite the chill, to stretch my journey-stiffened limbs and breathe the cold air deep into my lungs. A faint scent of French fries and hot sugar wafts on the breeze: there must be a snack food stall up ahead.

As I round a corner, suddenly I find myself in a floodlit square. And Christmas ambushes me yet again!

It’s a Breton market, colourful stalls selling laces and linens, crêpes and cider, waffles and
vin chaud
, and handcrafted wooden toys. Christmas lights are strung from stall to stall and French carols play from speakers hung amongst the twinkling fairy lights in the trees, filling the vanilla-and-spice-scented air with angelic music and the sound of sleigh bells. Families stroll and laugh, eating and drinking, and poring over the wares on offer. Buying toys for their children and lace-covered lavender bags for their grandmothers.

And, out of nowhere, my sadness comes crashing down around my ears.

I turn on my heel, stumbling against a woman pushing a baby in a stroller, apologising, panicking as the happy, festive crowd hems me in. I can’t breathe. The smell of deep-fried food makes me sick to my stomach. I push my way to the sidewalk, step into the road looking the wrong way and jump out of my skin as a car horn blares loudly. The driver swerves, his wing mirror catching my elbow with a dull thud as he sweeps by.

A woman grabs me and pulls back to the safety of the sidewalk.


Madame? Etes-vous blessée?
’ she enquires, concerned. People turn and stare, the woman with the stroller amongst them.

Am I hurt? Yes, I guess you could say I’m hurt. But the pain in my elbow—I flex it gingerly: bruised, but not broken, luckily—is nothing compared to the pounding in my head and the desperate empty ache in my heart.

‘I’m okay.
Merci
.’ I catch my breath, trying to blank out the jumble of images in my mind, of brightly painted wooden toys, soft linens, a drawer full of tiny knitted bootees in pastel colours, a brand-new stroller, never used, leaning against the wall in the hallway at home.

I manage to cross the street without getting myself killed and walk quickly back to the hotel. ‘
Stupid, stupid!
’ I berate myself. Thinking it was that easy for you to escape. Thinking you could outrun the sadness. Thinking a few hours in Paris would cure the heartache and let you forget.

Still trembling, I collect my keys from the front desk of the hotel and climb the four flights of narrow stairs to my room. Up here, under the charcoal grey slates of the mansard roof, there’s a view across the rooftops to where the tip of the Eiffel Tower winks and glitters with its brilliant show of lights. Just as it did all those years ago. Only now it’s laughing
at
me, not
with
me. I cross quickly to the window and pull the curtains together, shutting it out. Then head to the bathroom, run water into a glass, swallow a couple of pills fast to dull the pain that’s too much to bear.

Paris was a mistake. Too many memories. Too much risk of running headlong into Christmas just when you least expect it. I lie down on the bed in the darkened room, waiting for the fog of blessed, chemically induced numbness to descend. Tomorrow I’ll leave early, as soon as the worst of the rush-hour traffic has died down. Heading west and then south, to the blissful isolation of the deepest French countryside where I’ll be in control. No cars (my throbbing elbow is already turning a deep purple-black), no babies in strollers, and—most importantly of all—categorically no Christmas.

I
’ve never been
to the
Sud-Ouest
before, which is a pretty big omission given that one-quarter of my roots extend into the bedrock of this particular corner of France.

Mamie
Lucie used to tell me stories of her childhood in the Périgord, the region which lies just to the east of Rose and Max’s holiday home, as we cooked together in her kitchen. As I stood on a chair at the kitchen table, an oversized apron tied around my middle to prevent too much flour getting onto my clothes while I rolled out a ball of sweet shortcrust pastry, she would reminisce about the rich farmland that surrounded her parents’ home, the fields of sunflowers turning their obedient faces to follow the summer sun; orchards where red-black cherries and dark purple plums ripened, each in their own season; plantations of walnut and hazel trees, as old as her own grandparents, whose rich brown kernels were gathered each fall; vineyards where trellised vines spread their arms wide in the sunshine, drinking it in to sweeten their clusters of ripening grapes in time for the wine harvest. It was from her that I learned about the importance of cooking with the best seasonal produce. In the depths of the New England winter, my mother, rebelling no doubt, would casually throw green beans from Kenya and raspberries from Chile into her basket at Shaw’s, with little regard for either flavour or cost. And
Mamie
Lucie would tut and shake her head, and produce a pumpkin pie, or a
Tarte Tatin
made with crisp McIntosh apples from Vermont, or a dish of roasted root vegetables infused with garlic and rosemary that would make our taste buds perform cartwheels of joy, the ingredients bought from the local farmers’ market.

In the first few days of December each year—so right about now in fact—there’d be a special cookery session. ‘Evie, Tess,
allons-y
! It’s time to do our baking for Saint Nicolas.’ We’d get out the big cream mixing bowl, its glaze crackled with age, and our rolling pins (an old, heavy oak one for
Mamie
Lucie and smaller, more manageable beech-wood ones that she’d bought for my sister and me), and mix together the butter, sugar and spices to make the cookies for the saint’s feast day on the sixth of the month. First we’d make the star-shaped
bredeles
and Tess and I would decorate them with brown hazelnuts and sugared orange peel, and then we’d prepare the dough for the gingerbread men.
Mamie
Lucie’s special recipe, which was passed down to her by her own mother—who was originally from Alsace in the north of France, where celebrating the feast of Saint Nicolas is almost a bigger deal than Christmas itself—included adding little nuggets of succulent crystallised ginger which exploded with flavour as we bit into the finished cookies that had been drizzled with white sugar frosting.

‘Tell us about the Bad Butcher again,’ we’d implore as we cut the shapes from the cookie dough, nibbling on the raw scraps until our grandmother stopped us, saying we’d get a stomach ache.

‘Well, my darlings, a very, very long time ago and a very, very long way away, there lived a very, very bad butcher. One day, three little children wandered away from their mothers and got lost. Cold and hungry, they came to a butcher’s shop where they begged for shelter. But the bad butcher took them—
un, deux, trois
—and cut them up with his big, sharp knife and popped them into his brine pot.’ Our eyes would grow as big as saucers at this point in the story and Tess and I would shiver with delighted horror at the gruesome tale, safe in the knowledge of a happy ending.

‘But then, one winter’s day, seven long years later, Saint Nicolas came to the butcher’s shop and, in his turn, asked the man for shelter. “But of course; do come in,” said the butcher. “May I have something to eat as well?” asked the saint. “Certainly, Saint Nicolas! Would you like a little piece of this ham? Or perhaps this veal?” “No, thank you,” replied the saint. “I’d like the meat that you’ve been keeping in your brine pot these past seven years.” Upon hearing this, the bad butcher ran away, terrified. The saint placed his hand on the rim of the brine pot
et hop!—un, deux, trois—
the three children leapt out, as right as rain. And to this day, the saint comes back on the sixth of December every year and gives good little children gifts and cookies. But you’d better watch out for the bad butcher—
Le Père Fouettard—
who comes behind him, in shame, leaving nothing but bundles of twigs for children who have been naughty.’

After our baking session, we’d be allowed just one of the sweet, melting cookies—‘As long as you’ve been good little girls?’
Mamie
Lucie would ask, her eyes smiling with love behind her mock-stern expression. The rest would be saved for the Saint’s day when, next to our shoes which had been filled with candy, little baskets of gifts and the cookies would magically appear on the front porch, with labels inscribed to ‘Miss Evie Callahan’ and ‘Miss Tess Callahan’ tied to the handles with red-and-white ribbons. We were the envy of our school friends when we shared our spoils with them, having our Saint Nicolas treats to tide us over so fortuitously between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I must still have the recipes for the cookies in
Mamie
’s notebook, which I’ve brought with me on my road trip back to her homeland.

One of these days I’ll look them out.

Not this year. But one day...

Rose has shown me photographs of their French holiday home. It looks positively idyllic: an old stone farmhouse with a red-tiled roof. In the pictures, the sun is always shining and there are pots of red geraniums and a spectacular, sprawling vine covered in flame-coloured trumpet-like flowers which casts its shade onto a terrace behind the house. Of course, they’re usually here in the summer, so I’m not expecting it to be quite so lush at this time of year. But, I have to admit, my heart sinks a little as the GPS tells me I’m nearing my destination. To be honest, the landscape is, well, a bit bleak. Bare trees stand stark under a lead-grey sky and in the vineyards the vine stocks are grotesque, wizened stumps. Apart from the grass which grows in a thick carpet along the roadside, the only greenery is the parasitic mistletoe that hangs in the branches of the trees, dark lace pom-poms like ink blots against the sheet of winter clouds.

I try to recall what Rose told me when she was describing how to recognise their house. ‘You’ll see the little white signpost for
Les Pélérins
. It means “The Pilgrims”, because it’s on one of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela that wind through France and all the way across the northern coast of Spain. Look out for the cockleshell way-markers and you’ll know you’re getting near. Occasionally you still see pilgrims walking up the lane, though I doubt there’ll be any in the winter. It’s a tiny hamlet, just a handful of buildings. On the right-hand side is the cottage belonging to our neighbours Mathieu and Eliane—you’ll see a gateway to a château just beyond it. On the left-hand side there’s a cluster of buildings, two houses, some outbuildings and a big barn. Ours is the first house you come to when you drive into the courtyard, the one with two big oak trees beside it. The other one belongs to old Doctor Lebrun and his wife, Anne. The neighbours are all charming, but Mathieu and Eliane are ancient and the doctor and his wife must be well into their sixties now. So all in all it’s a good thing you’re not going for the hectic social life! Your arrival is going to lower the average age of the inhabitants of
Les Pélérins
by a long chalk.’

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