|Jack was at University. He had not troubled to return home for the holidays, as it was his final year, Mollie had no guests, and his life at Pretty Maids had never been the sociable merriment his fellows described.|
And so, instead, he turned his attention to the small pile of envelopes on his desk. The first was from the middle of his three younger brothers, Jim. The picture on the front was of a little village full of snow-topped cottages, with folk going about their daily lives, wrapped up snugly. It read:
Happy Christmas from Pretty Maids!
He did not display it on pride of place, but instead closed it, put it back in its envelope, and placed it back on his desk. He picked up the next envelope. The card inside depicted a frozen pond full of skaters. The message inside ran:
Season's greetings! It's a pity you're not coming home for Christmas!
Pity he wasn't coming home?! Pity, his hat! He knew only too well that Christmas at home would be all the merrier for his absence. Besides, he preferred to be alone, and people bugged him the most at Christmas. No, he was better off at university, and he hoped to find a job at a hospital very far from the New Forest, so that he had an excuse to move out. His youngest brother's card joined Jim's.
He picked up the third of the four cards. The scene was a young woman with a baby talking to an old woman at what looked like a post office, but could easily have been a sweet shop. He curled his lip. The baby's delight was sickeningly palpable.
Dear Jack, (it said)
We have had a spectacular year, and wish to pass on some of that happiness to you. Have a merry Christmas at university, and be sure to come home to spend Christmas with all of us next year.
Bob, Lydia, and baby Rolf.
Like he would be coming back! He would never set foot over the threshold of Pretty Maids again if he could help it! Goodness, no! He picked up the final card. Immediately, he was confronted with a picture of a small, fair-haired girl (for some reason, all Mollie's cards had to feature a sickening image of a small, fair-haired girl) talking to Father Christmas. It was so nauseatingly sweet that it made his stomach lurch, and so he opened the card swiftly to avoid looking any more at Angelica (he had christened he that, as it always seemed to be the same girl, and that was the most sickening name he could think of), wondering vaguely what fresh horrors awaited him inside. A photograph fell out into his lap, but he ignored it for now.
My dearest brother,
Merry Christmas from the Chalet School! I am staying over here to help Madame and Mademoiselle, and several girls are here too! We went on a walk to the Dripping Rock, and Josephine wanted to stay and look for a long time, because it was frozen, and she wanted to write a story about it, but the Robin was getting cold in her tiny little coat, so we had to take her back and give her some nice, hot milk to avoid her catching cold. Over the rest of the holiday, I hope to drum some manners into Josephine, for I am sure that her selfishness will not simply improve with time. Our father would have said that the rod will improve her greatly, and, of course, he is right, but I simply cannot see Madame agreeing. I have included a photograph of the dripping rock expedition. It was taken by Dr. Jem, to whom Madame is engaged. I hope to find you a post at his Sanatorium.
Lots of love,
your sister, Mollie.
He picked up the photograph. It was full of people he did not recognise, chiefly teenage girls. He did, however, recognise Madame - he had forgotten her Christian name, Meg or something - from her visit to Pretty Maids the previous year, standing tall and stately in the centre of the photograph. His sister stood next to her, carrying the irritatingly childish Robin, and...yes, there she was! Joey was standing side-on in the corner of the photograph, hands clasped behind her back and a mischievous smile in her face. She was not a tall girl, she was just thirteen, and so she took up little space on the photograph. He gently tore her away from the rest of the photograph, and propped her up on his desk. He wondered vaguely how his sister could so hate such a kind-hearted girl. He neither knew nor cared what the Dripping Rock was, and the girls and women in the photograph obscured it from view. But he had seen Joey's writer's imagination excited by many of the most boring landmarks they had encountered on their walks from Pretty Maids (instigated by his sister), and he held no doubt in his mind that she would be able to conjure up something magical from the sight. Meanwhile, however...
Mollie's card did not join those from his brothers. Instead, Jack tore it into tiny pieces, and threw those into the waste-paper basket. The remainder of the photograph was given the same treatment, and followed.
But, on his desk, one package still remained. It was too thick to be a card, and too small. He picked it up, and gently tore the wrapping off.
It was a small, brown notebook. He opened the first page, his curiosity aroused. There was a message written there.
Dear Dr. Jack,
I couldn't think what to get you for a present, because there's nothing glaringly obvious among your interests. However, I remembered how much you enjoyed the story I told you on our walks around the New Forest, and I realised that I never had time to finish it. I put Angelica, the Christmas-card-girl you told me about, into it. Enjoy the story, and sorry it's so late. I hope to see you again soon, so that we can be proper friends, and not just friends-by-letter.
With shaking hands, he turned the page. The story was there, exactly as she had told it on their walks. The only reason he had agreed to come on the walks at all was to find out what happened next to Maridia and her brother, Orlando. She had left him on a real cliff-hanger, too, with Orlando being turned into a tree by a witch, and Maridia locked in a bird-cage by the self-same witch. But that was not the point. The point was that she had taken the time to write this up, when she had many other friends, too - Marie, Frieda, Simone, and another one, with an unusual name - something like Marcia, or Marjorie - a cross between the two. He found tears forming in his eyes, and brushed them away in surprise. What the bloody hell?!
He looked over at the photograph of her. He loved that smile. Geoff had smiled that way, prior to his death, and Joey was Geoff all over again. Perhaps that explained the curious magnetism between the two of them.
Was this family, he wondered, doing people favours and expecting nothing in return? Joey would be getting something wonderful in the post next year - or for her birthday. He would have to find out when that was. May or June, probably, she seemed like such a Summer-y sort of child. Was this family, at last? Had he found the missing piece of the puzzle, the companion who could lift him out of the dreariness and constant sadness and anger? Had he found the sister his parents had not had time to bear? Was she an angel, sent from Heaven to bring warmth and light to all who saw her? It seemed likely, when she could make him smile.
He wondered vaguely whether he ought to get something to eat, and he got up, and his hand was on the door-handle before he decided that that could wait, and went and sat back down on his bed, took the notebook out of his pocket, where he had put it, and began to read.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Something slightly more light-hearted.