The train had been going and going, but now it was settling to a stop. There were a number of girls who bounded off at this point, including a small slender young thing who looked rather younger than she was. The dark-haired girl looked into the crowd.
"Maman! Maman!" she cried.
An older lady heard her. "Odette!" she said.
Odette moved up to her and was embraced by warm, loving arms. "You've hardly changed a bit," Maman said.
"Oh, Maman," Odette said. "School was so awful, and I was so lonely and miserable without you,"
"Never mind, la petite," Maman said. She suddenly thought of Simone de Bersac's words, that Odette needed to find friends of her own age so she had good support when the worst would happen - and Aimee Mercier knew that this could come at any time, more than most. Her heart condition ensured that. "We shall be home very soon, and then we shall prepare for Noel,"
Mme Mercier ensured that Odette's things were taken to the car, where their chauffeur was waiting.
Home looked just as impressive as it ever did. Mme Mercier could tell that Odette was very excited to be back, as the girl spoke rapidly, and not all in French either. Odette seemingly couldn't wait to get inside, almost bolting out of the car and up to the house. Mme Mercier swiftly followed, after quickly speaking with the chauffeur.
Dejeuner was prepared by the time they were inside. Mme Mercier had ensured that, for the arrival of Odette, that the table be lain by many of Odette's favourite foods. This made Odette even more happy, and what made Odette happy pleased Mme Mercier to no end. It felt almost like old times. They would have their Joyeux Noel, from the nativity scene they would decorate to Midnight Mass and le Reveillon straight afterwards.
Mme Mercier did not know that it would not be such a Joyeux Noel.
Odette sprung into action that morning. It was Midnight Mass tonight, and she'd be with Maman, away from that horrible school and with Maman. For the first time in three months, everything was truly right with the world. And they were going to have a feast tonight.
She got up with an enthusiasm quite often unseen in fourteen year old girls (except perhaps at Noel), and was quite ready for petite dejeuner by the time it was ready. However, Maman wasn't. She waited for Maman for ages before Camille, one of the maids, bade her to start eating her food. Odette did so with a slight sense of dread in her heart. What had happened to Maman? Was she ill? Why wasn't she here?
Odette went up to Maman's room and knocked on the door. But only Michelle, who held the highest rank of the servants, answered.
"Your Maman's not very well at the moment," Michelle said. "The doctor has been called,"
"May I see her?" Odette asked.
"You may not," Michelle replied. "Not unless the doctor says otherwise,"
Oh, Maman! Maman! Of all of the days of the year to fall ill, why did it have to be this one? When everything should be happy and joyful, for the little Christ child had been born. This was not fair - they had been so happy... Everything had been right...
Odette fell to her knees and started praying desperately for Maman to get better, to be well, to be able to enjoy a Joyeux Noel, for everything to turn out well in the end...
There was a visitor at the door. It was probably the doctor. Odette swiftly went to the top of the staircase, hiding herself with ease. She had seen the doctor at her house only once before - it wasn't that long before she had learned that she was being sent away. Odette wasn't stupid, she could put two and two together. Maman wasn't well, perhaps hadn't been well for a long time...
Only it wasn't the doctor at all. It was that hateful Mme de Bersac who was the reason Odette had to go to that hateful school so far from Maman. She was led by Camille into the house.
Odette went into the nearest room, picked up a book off of the shelf, and sat down and opened it. But her thoughts lay only with one thing and one thing only. The door was answered a second time - that must be the doctor. What if Maman were - dying?
Just the thought was enough to send Odette into tears. She'd be all alone in the world then, No-one to hug, no-one to make her believe that everything would be all right, no-one who she could turn to when things weren't so good or to laugh with or to enjoy Noel with...
The book was forgotten on a side table before Mme Mercier came, Camille behind her. "There you are, Odette," she said. "Do not worry, the doctor is with your Maman right now. In the meantime, you're invited to spend Noel with my family,"
"No," Odette said, trying to hide her tears. "I do not want to spend Noel with you,"
"Your Maman has already said that you should come,"
Odette looked to Camille, as if to ask, "Is this true?" Camille gave her a short nod.
Simone's family had a lovely Noel by all accounts. The mood in the de Bersac house was only brought down by Odette having to be constantly badgered into partaking in the festivities. Odette was worse than Simone ever thought. She looked to be on the verge of tears whenever she shot a glance at her, although Odette glowered whenever she spotted Simone looking at her.
Simone was somewhat perturbed by this - surely the child couldn't hate her that much. But she had to do something about Odette's apparent unhappiness, and without reference to Odette's mother's heart condition - Mme Mercier had made it painfully clear to Simone that Odette was not to know about this.
Simone finally managed to corner Odette by herself. "What is the matter, Odette?"
"Nothing is the matter," Odette replied. "Leave me alone!"
"Come on, Odette. I can tell that you are seriously upset,"
"Leave me alone," Odette repeated. "I want Maman and I do not want you!"
"I know," Simone said, keeping her voice soft and steady. "But sometimes what we want isn't always the best for us - or the people around us. And your Maman needs to rest so that she can recover,"
It felt wrong, saying that last sentence. It felt rather misleading.
"But what if Maman were to..."
"It wouldn't be the end of the world, Odette. I have lost people, friends, family. I have grieved for those I loved. I still miss them at times, but that doesn't stop me from living. I have found new loves, new passions. I have made the best of what I've got, even when it was the hardest thing to do. I put on a brave face, as it were," she thought back to when Mlle Lepattre died, back to when Andre was fighting in the war... "There will come a time when you will have to be brave, Odette, in spite of all the odds. The one thing that helped me the most was having friends who supported me. You should be able to make some, I am sure,"
When Odette returned home there was post waiting for her - two pieces of post, even. Odette had never received so much as a letter before, but she was distracted - she could go and see Maman now.
Maman looked ill, all right - but from the moment Odette stepped in the room she was beaming. They shared a hug before Maman spotted the letters, and asked who had written to her.
It was from Ricki Fry. Ricki had been nice to her, she remembered. Ricki wrote about adapting to her new glasses ("I feel odd needing to have them on my face all of the time. I've already lost them once, that was fun.") and about her improved relationship with her father ("He's been really good recently, he's even allowed me into the ceramics room - fully supervised, of course.") Odette couldn't even imagine being on poor terms with a parent in the first place, but it was good that Ricki was having a nice time of it, anyway.
The other one was from a much more curious source - Con Maynard. Odette had barely interacted with Con, instead her sister Len had been doing most of the interaction. Con's letter was shorter and sweeter than Ricki's, saying vaguely that everything was going well at the Maynard's. Most of her letter was enquiring about Odette, and how her Christmas is going. On the reverse of the letter was a draft of some story - evidentially Con had just grabbed the nearest piece of paper to hand. She didn't know why, but this made Odette smile.
"It's two of the girls from my school, Maman," Odette said. "Both of them are nice,"
"I should hope so too!"
She would write back to Ricki and to Con. She didn't know what she would say, but she could at least write back 'Joyeax Noel.'