I killed my mother in August 1944 not long after I’d turned sixteen. For forty years I was little troubled by guilt. Guilt is something that many pretend to feel but few actually do, or, like Judas, they’d run to the nearest tree and hang themselves. Most of us find a way to justify the evil that we do so that we can carry on with our lives untroubled by spectres from our past. If the sound of my mother’s screams ever floated into my head as I bathed Beatrice or got Claude ready for school, then I drowned them out by singing the Marseillaise at the top of my voice. If I ever saw her outstretched arm in the filthy straw, I picked up baby Henri and whirled him round and round in the air until I saw it no more. When I looked at my husband and my three beautiful children how could I wish undone what was done when the fruits it had borne had brought me so much joy? I knew that if I had to relive that time I’d kill my mother all over again. And that’s how I felt until the day the letter came and I saw the photograph.
My parents ran a shoe shop in Digne-la-Foret, a small town some twelve kilometres south-east of Orléans. My father oversaw the purchase and sale of men’s shoes, my mother was in charge of the women’s. In the late 1930s, Digne-la-Foret, with a population of barely five thousand, was still a sleepy backwater. In spite of the outgrowth of new housing which disfigured its northern edge, and the increasing number of motor vehicles, one never forgot that Nature not man was in the ascendancy. Wherever one went the countryside was always present – a curtain of green hills hung at both ends of the high street and swathes of green peeked out between buildings and behind rooftops. If you followed any of the roads that branched off from the high street it wasn’t long before houses were replaced by allotments and the allotments in their turn replaced by farms and you were inhaling the strangely sweet smell of cow dung. The 10th Century Abbaye-St. Georges on the road south to Bourges and the 17th Century Chateaux on the road north to Orléans, were reminders that, while men and fashions came and went, the hills and valleys west of the Loire endured.
The houses in the pretty cobbled high street were painted in bright pastel colours and some, bent and arthritic with age, had occupied the same spot for more than four hundred years. Behind the high street there was a picturesque square across which the timbered town hall faced the stone facade of the court-house. The southern end of the square was dominated by the gothic façade of the Church of the Holy Trinity, famous for its macabre medieval carving of Jesus on the cross with the grisly cataract of blood streaming down His side. In the middle of the square there was a statue of Joan of Arc, the maid of Orléans, which showed her being burned at the stake by the British. Her hands were clasped in prayer and her eyes were raised to heaven as she awaited death with beatific calmness. A plaque described the execution and quoted the words attributed to her English executioner. After what he’d done, he said, he ‘greatly feared to be damned.’
Our shoe shop – Bonnard Shoes – was more or less in the middle of the high street at number 56, opposite Higot’s, the grocer’s. We lived in the apartment above the shop which was larger than one might have imagined looking at it from the outside and had more than enough hidey-holes and nooks and crannies for an imaginative little girl to play in. When I was seven I was allowed to sleep in the attic room at the top of a narrow staircase. It had a sharply sloping ceiling and from its lead glass window on a clear day I could see all the way to the Loire.
Mine had been a difficult birth, my mother bled profusely and afterwards she was told that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children. I was the lucky recipient of all the love she would have lavished on the three children she’d planned to have. She spoiled me terribly when I was a child and not just with material things – although there was little I was ever denied – but with physical affection. She was incredibly tactileand loved to kiss me and cradle me in her arms, to touch my face and stroke my hair. One of my earliest memories is of her face close to mine, right up close to mine; she was kissing my cheeks, my forehead, my eyelids, my nose, and I can distinctly remember that I didn’t want this game to stop, not ever.
I wasn’t a pretty child and I didn’t grow into an attractive adolescent. I had a broad face, snub nose and lank, mousey hair; my lips were thin – almost as if I had no lips at all – and no matter how much I pouted in front of my dressing-table mirror and painted them with my mother’s lipstick, I could never make them look like the cupid’s bows of the models in the fashion magazines. With the onset of puberty I grew quickly and was the tallest girl in my class at school, but rather than making me statuesque, my sudden growth spurt left me looking goose-necked and gawky, my shoulders rounded, my hands too big for the rest of my body.
My physical inadequacies were brought into even sharper relief by my mother’s extraordinary beauty. When the Second World War broke out she was still in her early thirties, still in the very prime of her life. She had luxuriant black hair and the dark eyes and high cheekbones of a Hollywood film star. She could look beautiful in any old dress or blouse she happened to pull from her wardrobe, whereas nothing, not even the expensive outfits I demanded and always got, ever seemed to fit properly or hang right on me. I envied her petite build (at eleven I was already taller than her), the way she moved about the shop with the natural grace of a ballet dancer, while I clumped noisily up and down, upsetting displays with my elbows, knocking shoes off the shelves onto customers’ heads, awkward in the new body I couldn’t seem to steer with any sensitivity. As well as her physical beauty, there was something else about her that I envied. It was a sort of calm detachment, a serene other-worldliness. It was as if she moved to a slower rhythm than the rest of us, as if she were walking through a dream. I didn’t realize what this strange, self-contained quality was until I came across a line in a novel many years later. It read, ‘The very beautiful inhabit a separate world of their own’. That was true of my mother. She lived in the rarefied world of the very beautiful.
But unlike many beautiful women, who constantly need to test the power of their beauty over men, she was not flirtatious. Men were always trying to flirt with her in the shop, they even tried when she was walking in the street with me, but they never made any headway with her. She was polite but firm and they quickly understood that her heart was closed to any man except my father. I know there were a great many observers in town who puzzled over what she saw in Jean Bonnard and considered their pairing something of a mismatch. My dad, with his deep-set grey eyes, ginger hair cut en brosse and toothbrush moustache, couldn’t have been called handsome by any stretch of the imagination. And with his rants against the Communists and his obsession with his racing pigeons, fishing and football, many found him far from charismatic. But my mother was devoted to him. They argued like all couples do, but the rows were quickly over and quickly forgotten. What I remember most from those days is the sound of laughter. My dad could make my mother laugh like no one else could – she’d still be laughing, tears running down her face, long after I’d forgotten what the joke had been. Sometimes, when he came back from Bar Imperial a little worse for wear, he’d pick her up like she was a child, throw her over his shoulder and carry her around the house pretending he was Quasimodo and she was Esmeralda. And as he lumbered around the lounge she’d reach out her hand to me and plead with me to save her and my dad would fall under my toddler’s punches and we’d collapse in a giggling heap on the floor.
I think she was happy with her life then, happy with her husband and her daughter, happy to be the joint proprietor of Bonnard shoes. The latter gave her a certain standing among the other women in town since the shop was one of the most successful in Digne-la-Foret. And although my father liked to boast about his business acumen when he was in his cups at Bar Imperial it was well known about town that it was my mother who handled the accounts and placed the orders and chased the debts, and she was held to be at least equally responsible for the success of the business.
Encouraged by this, she played a modest role in the life of the town. She sat on the church committee which organized the summer fete and the annual Easter procession of the wooden Christ from the Church of the Holy Trinity to the neighbouring town of Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire. She was on the committee which raised money for the refurbishment of the north transept of the church in 1936. For several years she was a member of the board of governors of Digne-la-Foret’s Elementary school and was instrumental in getting a speed limit imposed on the roads leading into and out of the town after a little boy was knocked off his bike and killed in the summer of 1938.
I was still only twelve when the Germans invaded France in May 1940. I think we’d planned to escape the fighting and join the thousands of other refugees heading south, but the war moved faster than my father’s laborious planning. We were lucky therefore that the actual fighting passed us by completely. The French army withdrew down the Limoges road to our west and the Clermont-Ferrand road to our East, and a few days later the German tanks advanced victoriously along the very same roads. History decided not to give Digne-la-Foret even a walk-on part in the war.
In a little over a month it was all over and we found ourselves living under German occupation. You have to understand that we despised the Germans even before the war, even before Hitler came to power. We’d hated the Germans for generations and generations. We habitually talked about them in a way that wouldn’t be understood or tolerated today. To us the Germans were synonymous with everything disgusting, everything inhuman, everything vile. To be defeated by them with such ease and then to be occupied by them, was almost too much to bear.
In late June the Germans set up their administration in Digne-la-Foret’s town hall and there was a ceremony in the square which sought to legitimize the illegitimate, to decriminalize their brutality with speeches and proclamations. There was a march past by a detachment of German soldiers accompanied by a military band. With the broiling summer sun, the stirring music, the flags, it could almost have been a summer fete except that the townsfolk were in mourning for their moribund country. That day was the only time I ever saw my father cry. As he stood on the pavement and watched the German soldiers march down the high street to the strains of Deutscheland Uber Alles I saw him blinking rapidly and the corners of his mouth twitching as if tugged by invisible strings. My mother, wide-eyed and pale, clung to his arm and tried to console him, but at that moment even she couldn’t ameliorate the pain.
You have to live under occupation to fully understand what it’s like, the strangled sense of helplessness, the gnawing shame. I was only a child, but even I felt the misery of our new condition. Nothing seemed to belong to us anymore – the streets, the shops, the farms, the fields, the very sun in the sky were mortgaged to an alien government. Humiliation and defeat hung over everything like a cloud of poison gas, tainting every mouthful of food, contaminating our sleep, infecting our dreams.
To the north of us near Gien the Germans set up a base for front line units to rest, re-train and re-equip. The 17th Century Chateaux outside town was turned into a Wehrmacht HQ and, to the south, the French Airforce base at Bourges was taken over by the Luftwaffe. As a consequence, Germans soldiers and airmen became a common sight in Digne-la-Foret. I’m sure there were many who were quiet, many who were even respectful of the French, of the French nation and of French culture, but my eyes didn’t see them. I only saw the ones who fulfilled my worst expectations, who conformed to my stereotype of the barbarian Hun. I saw the ones who sat outside Bar Imperial swilling beer and singing German songs at the tops of their voices; the ones who tore up and down the roads in self-important cavalcades; the ones who pulled down our French road signs and replaced them with German ones.
Of the Germans who came into the shop I only saw the ones who were loud, rude, and half-drunk: the Wehrmacht private, surrounded by his mates, who kicked off the shoes he tried with a cry of ‘Merde!’; the monocled officer who lectured my dad on the innate inferiority of French goods to those produced in Germany; the Luftwaffe aircrew who refused to pay the full price for the shoes they carried away with them. I saw the Germans who ogled my mother with undisguised lust, who elbowed each other and made crude remarks as she went back and forth in the shop pretending neither to see nor hear them. My father patiently knelt at their feet amongst the shoe boxes and tissue paper, never losing his temper, never raising his voice no matter how sorely he was provoked, hiding his anger, hiding his pain behind a facade of servile politeness. And as I watched them abuse him, my heart would pound in my chest and I’d long to drive my scissors into their sweaty porcine faces.
In time, however, we learned to bear the occupation, we learned to endure our humiliation. In the same way one learns to ignore the uncomfortable rubbing of ill-fitting shoes on a long walk we learned to ignore the chafing blister of our subjugation and limped on – that’s what human beings do after all, isn’t it? Through famines, floods, fires, and plagues the survivors keep limping on, keep on living. We don’t have any other choice. And it’s important not to exaggerate our suffering – we weren’t Jews, we weren’t subjected to a second victimhood after the loss of our country. And Digne-la-Foret wasn’t Oradour-sur-Glane or Lidice. We were well aware that dreadful as things were, they could have been far worse. Apart from the everyday reminders of our defeat and occupation, the truth was that life carried on as it had before in many ways – I went to school, my parents worked in the shop, we went to church on Sundays, we listened to the wireless in the evenings, we went to the Wednesday market, we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, Easter, Christmas and New Year.
At weekends I caught the bus into Orléans with my friends Veronique and Isabel where we window-shopped and went to the cinema and drank coffee at the outdoor cafés. We wore make-up and smoked cigarettes in a desperate attempt to try to look older and attract boys just like adolescent girls in free cities like London and New York. If we didn’t take the bus into Orléans, we cycled to the water meadows beside the Loire and sat under the willow trees and flicked through fashion magazines or looked at the pornographic playing cards Isabel used to sneak from her older brother George’s room (that’s when I saw a photograph of a man’s erect sex for the first time and, although horrified at its size, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind for weeks). Yes, there were food shortages and rationing as the war went on, but if you had money and knew the right people – as my mother and father did – then there was a way around every problem.
And then in April 1942 my dad died in the night of an aneurysm and our whole world was suddenly thrown off its axis. My mother’s grief verged on the pathological, and in the days following his burial in the new cemetery on the outskirts of town, I sometimes dreaded that I’d lose her too. If she hadn’t had a daughter I think she would have loaded her pockets with rocks and thrown herself into the Loire. When the initial grief at his loss had lessened, I remember my most dominant feeling was fear. Our protector had gone. In the midst of a world at war my mother and I were suddenly alone. I felt like an animal whose burrow has been dug out by the hunters, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to the blows of their shovels. Gradually, however, my mother regained control of herself; she was able to talk without breaking down and she began to eat properly again. Her pallor, the widow’s black she wore for three months, only served to make her look even more beautiful than she had before. She said we would carry on with the shop, that’s what Dad would have wanted, and reaching across the dining table she placed her hand on top of mine and squeezed hard.
Over time our life settled into a new routine. I gave up school and worked in the shop full-time. We opened every day at nine – ten on Saturdays – and served customers until two when she would turn the sign on the door around so that it read ‘closed’ and we’d retreat upstairs to our apartment to have lunch. At four we’d open the shop again and serve customers until we closed for the day at seven. My mother would work in the office whose window looked out onto the high street below, trying to reduce the mountain of paperwork that the business generated. We’d eat together around nine then sit in the lounge and listen to the wireless. My mother would carry on with the quilt she seemed to have been making for years until exhaustion finally overwhelmed her and she took herself off to bed.
In the years after the war that was how I tried to remember her, not as I’d found her in Froissard’s garage, but as she was then.I tried to picture her sitting on the sofa in a floral dress, her legs tucked up under her like a little girl, her dark hair framing her face as she unconsciously hummed along to the music or smiled at the comedians’ jokes. I tried to recall her tiny white hands patiently feeding the needle through the cloth and weaving it back again, sewing tiny delicate French wildflowers into the quilt. The quilt that she’d never live to finish.
For a while I enjoyed my new responsibility, it made me feel grown up and important. But I soon tired of the long hours and the tedium, and what had been a comfort in the months following my dad’s death now began to irk. I was fifteen and being called by the siren voices of my biology which were too powerful to resist. I wanted to get out of the house at every opportunity, to get away from my mother and her petty concerns with the cash register and the wording of the new advertisement she was considering putting in the paper. At lunchtime I’d walk up to the square and meet Veronique, Isabel and other kids I knew from school at the Joan of Arc statue. We’d stand around and chat and smoke, bemoaning our bad luck to have been born in a God-forsaken hole like Digne-la-Foret that didn’t have a cinema or a decent café, and we’d dream of escaping to Paris and living a life of glamour and adventure.
I found it harder and harder to stay in during the evenings too. The sound of my mother’s one-finger typing drove me to distraction and I’d begun to find the banter of the radio comedians inane, the chansons of Leo Marjane and Lucienne Delyle saccharine and mawkish (I was sure that if I heard Mon Amant de Saint-Jean one more time I’d go mad). So at night I started going to the cinema in Orléans with Veronique and Isabel and – if we were feeling particularly brave – we’d try to sneak into a dance hall. We often met boys when we were out, but while they flirted with Veronique and Isabel they never showed any interest in me. Sometimes I felt guilty for leaving my mother on her own and resolved to stay in with her more, but one evening of shop talk, the torturous clack-clack of her typewriter, and the sleepy crooning of Trenet and Chevalier, was enough to make me rip up my good intentions.
And then in the summer of 1943 I fell in love. I fell in love. What heartache, what suffering, lies behind those four little words! Many adults ridicule first love but it can burn with a fierceness that makes many a mature love look transactional and routine. It can burn, in fact, with such blinding, all-consuming intensity that the virgin lover might struggle to control it, and then it can prove as dangerous as a loaded pistol in the hands of a child…
Luc Boisin was sixteen when he arrived in Digne-la-Foret from Orléans in the July of 1943. His mother had sent him to live with his father who ran a motor repair shop behind the high street. Luc had been in trouble with the police in Orléans for petty thieving and acts of vandalism and when he’d been expelled from yet another school his mother had washed her hands of him. He clearly had no intention of changing his ways in Digne-la-Foret and quickly established himself as the leader of the town’s teenage delinquents and was in trouble with the local police within weeks of arriving.
Luc had unkempt curly hair, dark mischievous eyes, and a roguish grin. His gnarled hands were always stained with oil from tinkering with car engines and stripping down motorbikes, covered in nicks and cuts from fighting and climbing into, or hurriedly escaping from, places he shouldn’t have been. He was a would-be tough-guy, rarely to be seen without a cigarette in his hand or dangling from the corner of his mouth; he was crude and cocky, a preening, pugnacious show-off and I absolutely adored him. When I first saw him I felt a desire, a covetousness, that was like physical pain.
What is the timeless attraction to adolescent girls of the ‘bad boy’? There were scores of neat, smart boys who went to church every Sunday, hair neatly parted, faces scrubbed, who would have married a plain girl like me set to inherit a solid business. But I wasn’t attracted to them. I fell in love with Luc Boisin.
Whenever I saw him at local dances or in the town square, surrounded by his gang of acolytes, I felt sick with longing. I couldn’t imagine a boy more desirable, a face more perfect. To me, he was Shakespeare’s Romeo come to life, whizzing around town on a backfiring motorbike with a rabbit he’d poached down his jacket; he was Adonis piggy-backing his friend Alphonse so that he could drape a brassiere over Joan of Arc’s head. To me, his physical beauty was something divine and I worshipped him like a God. One day I even picked up one of his discarded cigarettes so that in the privacy of my attic room our lips – no matter how indirectly – might come into contact.
Of course he had no interest in me, he scarcely even registered my existence. Luc was only interested in pretty girls. But I fought down my shyness and talked to him whenever I could (trying to show my left profile which I’d determined was better than my right, sticking out my breasts which I’d decided were my most attractive feature). He’d talk to me but without much enthusiasm. He was much more animated when he conversed with Veronique or Isabel, particularly Veronique who had lively green eyes and straw blonde hair. I knew he thought I was too plain to waste his time on. I’d seen him making faces to his cronies when he thought I wasn’t looking. I knew his nickname for me was ‘potato-face’. I was a ‘dog’, I was the sort of girl that even if a boy managed to go all the way with her, he’d be too ashamed to boast about it to his friends.
Is there anything worse in life than wanting something you can’t have? Night after night alone in my bedroom I wept scalding tears of self-pity. With the logic of a true shopkeeper’s daughter I squirmed at the injustice of it all. Veronique hadn’t done anything for her pretty face, she hadn’t worked for it, she hadn’t earned it, it had just been given to her by a lucky accident of nature. Surely it was wrong to be given so much credit, so much advantage for something that you’d done nothing for? And even though I knew it was ridiculous to imagine that Luc’s feelings for me would ever change, I carried on loving him with all my heart and indulged in endless fantasies in which he took me in his arms and kissed me and told me how much he loved me.
As well as Luc’s half-smoked cigarette, I also salvaged one of his broken shoelaces and begged a lock of his hair from Joel whose father was the local barber. I kept these three relics of my wayward Saint in a small wooden box which I hid at the back of my underwear drawer. Late at night in my room I’d set these items out on my dressing table, and placing a candle beside them, I’d offer up prayers – both Catholic and pagan – asking for Luc Boisin to return my love. And although nothing happened, although I remained nothing more to him than the gawky, potato-faced girl on the edge of his crowd, I never gave up hope. If anything, the colder his neglect, the fiercer my love for him burned.
In September 1943 the Germans began to expand the airbase at Bourges as part of their effort to impede Allied aircraft on their way to bomb the Ruhr and there were noticeably more Luftwaffe airmen and ground crew in Digne-la-Foret. To this day I still don’t know how my mother met Klaus Joppel. I only found out that she’d taken a German lover when Isabel told me that George, who played the trumpet in a dance band in Orléans, had seen her smooching with a Luftwaffe officer on the dance floor. I remember we were in Orléans queuing outside the cinema to see La Voile Bleue. ‘George reckoned the kraut’s hands were everywhere,’ Isabel said, her newly painted eyebrows raised in consternation, ‘and he said he saw them leave together in the kraut’s car.’ I was so mortified I didn’t know what to say, and I sat through the film without seeing or hearing anything.
O, the righteous anger of the young! When I got back home I tore into my mother without mercy, calling her all the sluts and whores under the sun. She’d betrayed my father I screamed at her, the spittle flying from my mouth, she’d betrayed her country, she’d betrayed France with some filthy German pig. The krauts had to rape decent French women, I yelled, they had to hold them down and take them by force, but she just gave it up like a street walker!
She didn’t slap my face as I deserved. She didn’t deny the affair, she didn’t remonstrate, she didn’t try to defend herself or justify what she’d done. She didn’t really say anything. She just stood there in the kitchen with a calm, inscrutable expression on her face, absorbing my verbal blows like a punching-bag. And I screamed and sobbed about France and my poor dead father and Honour and Shame until, completely exhausted, I could scream no more. I ran to my room, slamming the door behind me, and throwing myself down on my bed, wept into my pillow. The bitch, I sobbed, the whore! What betrayal, what unforgiveable betrayal! And the betrayal which cut the deepest was her betrayal of me! Wasn’t I enough for her to love? Why did she need this man, why did she need this filthy German when she had me? Or was I too ugly to be loved by anyone?
I would have left home if I’d had somewhere else to go but there was nowhere. And so, reluctantly, I carried on living under her roof and working in the shop while she – in spite of my protestations, pleas and threats – refused to end the affair. I determined to make her life as miserable as I could and I brought the same dedication, the same purity of purpose to hating her as I had to loving Luc. I extinguished the memory of every kindness she’d done me, I eradicated from my mind our previous closeness, and when I looked at her I made myself imagine her obscenely posed with her German lover like a couple from George’s pornographic playing cards. I only spoke to her when I absolutely had to, I never took meals with her and spent as little time as I could in the house. I was always ready with an insult, a snide remark or a dirty look. I was good at hating. I was a natural.
After being seen at the dance hall in Orléans my mother tried to be more discreet, but she had little luck. They spent the night together in an obscure hotel in Tours unaware that the concierge was the countryside-hating son of the farmer Bertaux. They were seen leaving a restaurant in Nemours – some twenty miles away – by Madame Picard, the sister of the Church of the Holy Trinity’s senior priest. Returning early one morning from a night out together, the German’s car had broken down just outside the town. My mother stood glumly by the roadside while thick smoke billowed from the engine and Joppel struggled to fix the problem. Inevitably, she was seen by a whole parade of townspeople setting out on their morning errands.
In the early spring of 1944 with French spirits rising at Germany’s defeats in the East and the thought of approaching liberation, we awoke to find the shop-front covered in sordid graffiti and Nazi swastikas. Bonnard Shoes had been altered to read Bonnard Whore.
We went out into the street and surveyed the damage.
‘You can wash it off!’ I spat at her, and turning on my heel, went back inside.
And wash it off she did. She got the step ladder from the back of the shop and a bucket of hot, soapy water, and spent the next hour cleaning the window and the shop’s green paint work until not a single trace of the writing was left. I watched her as she patiently wet her cloth, climbed the steps and cleaned in small smooth circles, then painstakingly descended, moved the ladder a few inches and began on a new area of the glass. She worked unhurriedly, as if she had all the time in the world, climbing and descending with that imperturbable poise, that other-worldly serenity with which I was so familiar. She didn’t look in the least ashamed or embarrassed by the disgusting name she’d been called so publicly, nor did she assume the role of the tough little woman standing up to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. There was no self-conscious fortitude about her, no self-pity, no false jollity in the face of adversity. She simply cleaned the windows just as she would have cleaned them had she woken up to find them streaky after a downpour of dirty rain. She didn’t look at me as she carried the ladder back into the shop and I hated her even more for somehow turning this defeat into a victory.
My mother, however, wasn’t the only person at this time leading a double life. Luc Boisin also had a secret, but, unlike her, he couldn’t wait to divulge his. Swearing us to a silence he clearly couldn’t keep himself, he announced that he’d joined the French Resistance in Orléans. He told us that he was providing them with intelligence about the comings and goings at the Chateaux and the traffic in and out of the airbase at Bourges, and that he’d been part of a group that had derailed a train carrying munitions to the German coastal defences. When this failed to inspire the satisfactory degree of awe among us, he told us that he’d killed a German soldier returning to the camp at Gien, and grabbing Alphonse from behind, he’d pretended to slit his throat with his index finger.
The truth, as I suspected, was far less dramatic. Luc had begun working as a plongeur in a bar in Orléans. Late one night, one of the waiters had discreetly pointed out a group of taciturn, craggy-faced men at a corner table.
‘See those guys?’ he’d said.
‘Resistance,’ he’d whispered.
It turned out that the bar was used by members of the Orléans Resistance as a meeting place. Luc was desperate to join, and in the hope of coming to their attention he volunteered to wait table at these meetings which could be boozy affairs lasting all night. The landlord of the bar, after threatening to gut him like a fish if he opened his mouth, finally consented.
Luc idolized these grim monomaniacs with their sullen silences, their weather-beaten features and the small Beretta pistols they wore tucked in the waistband of their trousers. To them, however, Luc was just a kid, and a rather stupid one at that. They didn’t trust a fantasist like him to carry out the simplest intelligence task. They poked fun at him and nicknamed him Mickey Mouse because his voice, although broken, still sometimes slipped into a higher pitch when he was excited. When he pleaded to be allowed to join them on a mission they just laughed. But Luc put up with their rough treatment, he didn’t skulk off like a beaten dog. He wanted to be part of the great struggle that was going on around him too much. He continued to hang around his heroes, to laugh at their jokes whether they were funny or not, to shine their shoes, to run across town to buy them bread or tobacco whenever they snapped their fingers. Luc was determined to prove himself to them somehow. He was determined to become a fully-fledged member of the Resistance with his own ‘nom de guerre’ and his own little Beretta pistol before the war ended and his chance had gone for good.
So, while I hovered at the fringes of Luc’s crowd hoping to win his approval, Luc was suffering the same indignities in the sleazy bar in Orléans, hoping to win the approval of the local godfathers of France’s secret army. And we were both equally unsuccessful. With his tough-guy posing, his silly boasting and bare-faced lying, Luc was considered too immature. With my moon face and thin lips, my drab hair and big hands, I was considered too ugly.
In the summer of 1944, however, these personal struggles shrank into insignificance as the Allies switched their full attention to France in preparation for D-Day, and their mighty air armadas pounded strategic targets in the German occupied zone. The German airbase at Bourges and the camp at Gien were bombed again and again, by night and by day. One night the Chateaux simply disappeared from the face of the earth and all that was left were smoking ruins. Although Digne-la-Foret wasn’t directly targeted several stray bombs hit the town. A stick of bombs fell across Bertaux’s fields setting fire to a barn and killing five of his cows. A five hundred pound bomb fell in the graveyard behind the Church of the Holy Trinity shattering ancient tombs and disinterring corpses. The next day as I was walking past, the churchwarden, who was inspecting the damage, saw me and called out, ‘This awful war won’t even let the dead rest in peace!’ A bomb landed in the town square, peppering the statue of Joan of Arc with shrapnel, chipping the hands she raised in prayer and disfiguring the serene perfection of her face. Joel’s father lost an eye when a bomb blew in the window of his barber’s shop while he was cutting the hair of a senior Luftwaffe officer. Incredibly, the German walked away unharmed, his only wound a tiny nick made in his cheek by the barber’s scissors.
Early on the sixth of June 1944 the Allies began to land in Normandy, an invasion that came so many years after our defeat by the Germans and cost so much French blood that it felt in some ways like a new conquest rather than a liberation. Two months later, towards the end of August, we awoke to find that the skeleton German administration in the town hall had left. In the shop a few days later I noticed that the rims of my mother’s eyes were red from weeping, but it was only when Bertaux’s daughter, who was buying shoes for a wedding, announced that the Germans had evacuated the airbase at Bourges that I understood why. I sidled up to her as she rang up Mademoiselle Bertaux’s purchase on the till and said sotto voce, ‘Have you been weeping over your poor little Hun? Did he have to go running back to the Fatherland with his arse on fire?’ She ignored me as she wrote the purchase down in her sales book. I brought my lips close to her ear and whispered, ‘I hope there’s still time for him to get killed.’ She looked at me then, not with the rage I’d hoped to provoke, but almost as if she felt sorry for me.
It was then that it happened, in that hiatus between the fall of Paris and the arrival of the Americans and the Free French in Digne-la-Foret. A group of Resistance fighters from Orléans – four of the taciturn heroes that Luc Boisin worshipped – roared into town one morning in a brand new US army jeep flying a French flag and beeping their horn. I was on my way to get change for the shop and saw them judder to a halt outside the town hall. They were wearing their unofficial uniform of black leather coats and black berets. A crowd quickly gathered around them (how quickly the crowd gathers, like pigs at the sound of the stick in the swill bucket). The one in the front passenger seat, a stout man in his forties with a pock–marked face, stood on the jeep’s running board and announced that they were looking for collaborators. There was clapping and cheering and shout after shout of ‘Vive la France!’ It was, he cried, time to dish out ‘some justice’ and he pulled back his coat to show the crowd his Beretta pistol.
Perhaps they really believed they were going from village to village carrying out an important patriotic duty that day. Perhaps they knew their great adventure was coming to an end and they’d soon go back to being the farmer, the shopkeeper, the blacksmith and the postal worker they’d been before the war, and they wanted to revel in every last moment of these, their glory days. Maybe they understood that for this brief moment in time there was no government and no law in France, that they were free to do anything they wanted to anyone they chose. And, in truth, what man wouldn’t commit murder if all fear of punishment were removed?
The crowd readily gave up the names of their erstwhile friends and neighbours. Higot the grocer had done a great deal of business with the Germans at the Chateaux and had dined there on several occasions. Vuitard, the milliner, was a known Nazi sympathizer whose son, Laurent, had joined the Waffen SS and fought in Russia. Ducroix, the Orléans architect, who had a weekend cottage in the town, had helped the Germans design their coastal defences around Le Havre. Madame Tournier had had a baby by a German Reich administrator based in Tours. Mademoiselle Emma Dimes was a prostitute who’d catered exclusively to Germans from the airbase and had made a small fortune.
I saw Luc in the crowd, wildly excited by the unexpected appearance of his heroes in the town. He jumped up and down trying to catch their eye, desperate to find a way to be of use to them, but he couldn’t think of the name of a collaborator or if he did he was too slow and someone else shouted it out before him.
I knew my mother was in danger and I ran back to the shop at once. I saw her through the window, standing behind the display of summer shoes, lost in her own thoughts, her arms folded across her chest, her beautiful dark eyes staring out into the street but seeing nothing. When I burst in and told her what I’d seen she didn’t panic or look frightened, and not for the first time, I wondered whether her imperturbable exterior wasn’t ‘other-worldliness’ at all but plain stupidity. I found myself explaining the danger she was in to her as if she were a child. ‘If they find you they’ll do something horrible to you,’ I said. ‘They’ve been shaving the heads of women who’ve been with Germans in other towns. They said that in Romorantin they tarred and feathered one woman and made her parade through the streets with a sign around her neck. You’ve got to hide somewhere until they’ve gone!’
She still didn’t seem to fully understand. She seemed to want to say something to me but couldn’t find the words and in the end said nothing. Exasperated by her dithering, I took her by the arm and pulled her out of the shop after me and into the narrow side street which led to the open countryside and Bertaux’s farm. My idea was to hide her in one of the farm outbuildings until the Resistance fighters had gone, but once we were outside in the street, I began to feel horribly exposed. I sensed that if she were seen now, trying to escape, my mother’s punishment would be even harsher. I began to feel frightened for my own safety thinking that the mob might not care to discriminate too much between a mother and her daughter. Bertaux’s farm suddenly seemed too far away and I decided it was better to hide her somewhere nearby rather than risk staying out in the open any longer.
We came to a garage that belonged to Froissard the baker, and seeing that the door was unlocked, I dragged it open and shepherded her inside. Most of the space was taken up by an ancient Renault delivery van with Froissard’s Bakery painted on its sides. Its wheels had been removed and it rested on four stacks of bricks, slowly being cannibalized to keep his new truck going. Behind the van, along the far wall, was a workbench covered with the entrails of engine parts, greasy work tools and oily rags. To the left of the workbench there was a door which gave on to a courtyard and through its dusty window pane I could see the backs of houses and a courtyard in which there were pigs and chickens. A tethered goat bleated forlornly when it saw me. By the smell in the garage and the stale straw scattered thinly over the dirt floor I guessed this was where the animals were stabled at night. I told my mother to hide under the work bench in the corner behind the delivery van. If someone opened the door and glanced inside they wouldn’t see her there. She took a few steps towards the corner but when she saw the decades of filth and the cobwebs she stopped and turned back to me. ‘I can’t hide in there. It’s filthy. My dress will be ruined.’
‘Don’t worry about your dress!’ I barked at her with all the authority I could muster. ‘These men are dangerous. You have to hide!’ She looked at me, her brow furrowed, then reluctantly did as I said.
When I joined the crowd again its mood had changed. They’d marched to Vuitard’s hat shop but had found it locked up and no sign of the proprietor or his wife. The crowd had gone to Ducroix’s weekend cottage, the Resistance fighters at its head, Luc running along beside them like an excited puppy, trying to talk to them, trying to show the crowd that he knew these men and that they were his friends. On arriving at Ducroix’s cottage one of his neighbours told them that Ducroix hadn’t been there for several months. Luc picked up some rocks and started to throw them at the windows of the traitor’s house to impress his heroes but they shouted at him to stop it, and pushing him aside with growing irritation, made their way to Higot’s grocery shop. Here they found neither Higot nor his wife, but an elderly aunt of the Madame who told them that Monsieur Higot had been taken ill and was in hospital in Orléans where his wife was keeping vigil by his bedside. Madame Tournier they discovered had left with her Reich administrator. The house from which Mademoiselle Dimes had operated her brothel was now occupied by refugees from Normandy, and no one in the crowd could remember the address of the other property she owned.
The brave fighters of the Resistance were now in danger of looking ridiculous in front of the very people they’d come to impress. A searing midday heat only added to their discomfort. They were sweating as they made their way back to the town square, but they couldn’t remove their jackets or berets as they were part of their uniform and without their uniform they’d be nothing more than a farmer, a shopkeeper, a blacksmith and a postal worker.
The four men stood by the statue of Joan of Arc exchanging miserable looks with one another. No new names were being offered up by the crowd and many people, realizing they weren’t going to see anyone’s humiliation that day after all, began to wander away, some disappointed, others relieved. I saw Luc dragging his hand back and forth through his hair, biting the inside of his bottom lip, trying to think of something, trying to think of someone he could set them on, sensing that here was an opportunity to prove himself to them that would never come again. He fidgeted uncomfortably and the harder he tried to think of a name he could give them the blanker his mind became. The Resistance fighters, uncertain what to do, began to bicker amongst themselves. Someone in the crowd jeered, ‘What a farce!’ Someone else joked, ‘The French are back in charge all right!’ Sweaty and disgruntled, the four men decided to cut their losses and get out of this town and they edged towards their jeep. They’d swept into town like avenging Gods, now they were leaving like puny mortals. The blacksmith, averting his gaze from the crowd, climbed into the rear seat. Another few seconds and they would have been pulling away to look for victims in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire.
I pushed my way through the crowd towards Luc, and seizing his arm, brought my face close to his and whispered, ‘My mother! What about my mother? She’s hiding in Froissard’s garage! Tell them! Tell them!’
He flashed me a look of astonished gratitude then turned, and hurriedly elbowing his way to the jeep, he pulled and tugged at his heroes trying to get them to listen. I slunk away, melting into the chill shade of a side street where I couldn’t be seen. I could hear Luc’s voice above the others, high and wavering in his excitement. There was a pause while the Resistance men considered what he’d told them. Was this more bullshit from this bothersome kid or had he saved them from humiliation at the eleventh hour? When I heard a great cry go up from the crowd, like a pack of hounds when they hear the huntsman’s horn, I knew they’d decided to act on Luc’s information.
The crowd set off from the square once more, Luc excitedly leading the way to Froissard’s garage. The Resistance fighters’ faces had lost the pained anxiety they’d worn a few minutes before. Someone was going to suffer after all. Luc guided them through the cobbled side streets and they talked to him now like he was one of their own. For several yards the stocky, pock-marked one walked with his arm tight around Luc’s shoulder as if he were his best pal, and a little further on the postal worker playfully ruffled his hair. I saw the look of elation on Luc’s face, the unadulterated joy. This was what he’d wanted. More than the virginity of every girl in Digne-la-Foret, more than the virginity of every girl in France, he’d wanted the friendship of these men.
I followed at a safe distance but I was close enough to see Luc drag back the garage door and hear him shout, ‘There she is!’ As the crowd pressed inside I turned and hastened back the way I’d come. I’d only gone a few paces, however, when I heard my mother start to scream – shrill, ear-piercing screams of animal terror that made me cringe. I covered my ears with my hands but couldn’t block the screams out no matter how hard I pressed them against my head. And then they suddenly stopped, and cautiously, half expecting them to start again, I lowered my hands and hurried back to the shop. I’d almost arrived at the high street when the crack of a gunshot made me stop dead in my tracks. My heart racing wildly, I ducked into the shop, turned the sign to ‘closed’ and leant my feverish head against the cold glass.
A little while later the crowd passed by the shop on their way back to the town square. They were jubilant and excited, vying with one another to pat their black-uniformed champions on the back. I caught the beginning of a patriotic song and the end of a sick joke, and then they were gone. When I saw the Resistance fighters roar away in their jeep I left the shop and hurried back to Froissard’s garage.
My mother lay face down on the dirt floor, her right arm stretched out before her, her left arm, broken in the frenzied assault, bent outwards at an unnatural angle. The dress she’d been so worried about getting dirty was ripped down the spine, smeared with muddy scuff marks and flecked with flakes of straw like funereal confetti. One of her shoes had come off in the struggle and come to rest a few yards from her body, upright on its heel as if waiting to be put on. The thick curls at the nape of her neck were matted with blood and I glimpsed a ridge of white bone among the black hairs. I was grateful her face was turned away from me. I couldn’t have borne to see the look of reproach in her dead eyes. A lake of blood was spreading slowly across the floor towards me, selecting channels through the islands of straw, floating the lighter sticks and bearing them away on its syrupy tide.
I didn’t step back from the glutinous pool. I let it encircle my feet and stain the beige leather of my shoes. As I stood there I tried to fight back the pity, I tried to tell myself that she’d brought this on herself, that she’d betrayed my father, she’d betrayed France, that she’d been my sworn enemy, the object of my implacable hatred. But as I looked at her outstretched hand I remembered those childhood games where she’d been Esmeralda reaching out to me to save her, and I burst into tears.
When I heard Luc behind me I quickly dried my eyes so he wouldn’t see I’d been crying. He approached slowly as if he’d entered a church not a filthy garage and put his arms around me.
‘We only meant to shave her head,’ he said. ‘But she tried to escape (I knew he was lying). Everyone started punching and kicking her and someone – I don’t know who – hit her with a monkey wrench (I knew it had been him). She was so badly injured then that Phillipe had no choice but to put her out of her misery.’ I saw the man with the pockmarked face take out the little pistol that looked as harmless as a child’s toy, press it to the back of her head as she lay dying on the garage floor and pull the trigger.
‘We didn’t mean to kill her. Honestly, we didn’t.’
I turned to him and buried my face in his chest.
‘She deserved it,’ I said. ‘She deserved worse.’
Luc told me that he’d been ‘given orders’ to bury the body in one of Bertaux’s fields. The Resistance wanted the evidence to disappear just in case the police started sniffing around. I was to say that my mother had run off with her Nazi boyfriend and I had no idea where she’d gone.
I helped Luc to bury my mother that night. We wrapped her in a yellow tarpaulin we found under the workbench and carried her to the deepest crater that the Allied bombs had made. We lay her in the bottom and painstakingly filled the crater with soil. We said no words over her grave, merely clapped the mud from our hands and walked slowly back to town. We knew things were different between us now. We knew that we’d just shared an experience more intimate than sex, an experience that would bind us together forever.
Luc did take part in the final year’s fighting. He was with the Orléans Resistance for a short time and then, after lying about his age, served as an infantryman in the Free French army. Amidst all the victory celebrations in May 1945, Luc Boisin and I were married. I was already devoted to him, but the circumstances of my mother’s death now yoked him to me. When he was with me he knew that what he did in the fetid gloom of that garage wasn’t murder. How could it be when the daughter of the woman he’d helped to kill loved him passionately and never reproached him? Yet when he was away from me he was not so sure, doubts began to creep into his mind and he began to remember those screams…and so he made sure that he was never away from me for long.
My mother was presumed dead by the authorities, lost in the chaos of the final year of war. I inherited the shop and that’s where Luc and I lived and worked (he served the men, I served the women) and brought up our three children until he was taken by lung cancer in the winter of 1978. He was a wonderful husband and a devoted father, hard working, thoughtful and kind. The part he’d played in the killing of my mother had a profound effect on him. He lost his adolescent wildness and always hated the sight of blood, refusing to hunt even though many of his friends were keen hunters. In spite of his extraordinary good looks I’m as sure as anyone ever can be that he was never unfaithful to me.
The only time we ever discussed the events of that August day was in 1967 when we heard the government was going to compulsorily purchase several of Bertaux’s fields – including the one in which we’d buried my mother’s body – in order to build a fast road between Gien and Bourges. Lying in bed that night Luc reassured me. ‘It will be all right,’ he’d whispered. ‘I never told you, but the Resistance ordered me to go back a few days after we’d buried her to pour lime on the body. There’ll be nothing left for them to find.’ Apart from that one occasion we never mentioned what happened in Froissard’s garage, but we both knew it was the iron hoop that fastened us together through more than thirty years of marriage.
The letter came in the summer of 1984. I remember I’d had a busy day – Beatrice, who ran the shop with me, was away on holiday, Armelle, my best assistant had unexpectedly handed in her notice and I’d been overcharged for an order of ladies’ leather boots. With so many distractions I didn’t get a chance to go through that morning’s post until I closed the shop at two and took it all upstairs with me to my office. Although it had been redecorated many times over the years it was the same room my mother had used as her office with its window (now UPVC and double-glazed) looking out onto the high street below. It was a hot August day and the high street was bustling with tourists and music was thumping from the sports bar opposite. A bare-topped youth on a red Ducati had pulled over to flirt with some girls at one of the outdoor tables, and I thought of Luc and smiled.
The blue envelope with its West German stamp immediately caught my attention and when I saw it was addressed to my mother I felt my stomach turn over. I opened it with trembling hands and found a two page letter written on matching blue note paper. It was from Klaus Joppel. The schoolboy French gave the impression it had been laboured over and that it had taken many rough drafts to produce this perfect copy. He wrote to say that his wife had recently died and he was a widower now. He’d thought about my mother many times since the war and was curious to know how the years had treated her. If it wasn’t too awkward could they perhaps meet one day? There was a photograph folded within the letter that showed a man in his seventies, bald and stooped, standing in an immaculate garden. In the background, through a thin summer mist, the Bavarian Alps were just visible. I shook my head slowly and smiled with weary cynicism. The shamelessness of men.
I almost missed the second photograph. It was still inside the envelope and I had to shake it free. For several moments I couldn’t make sense of what I was looking at. It was a photograph of my dad, surely? There were the small, deep-set grey eyes, the wiry ginger hair cut en brosse, the little toothbrush moustache. But my father was wearing a German Luftwaffe officer’s uniform, and the photograph was clearly signed in the bottom right-hand corner – ‘Klaus Joppel, Bourges, 1943’. And then I slowly began to understand. Klaus Joppel had been the spitting image of my dad. He’d resembled him so exactly that he could have been his identical twin…
I’m an elderly lady now. Beatrice runs the shop and lives in the flat with her second husband, Gilbert, and her two children, and I am back in the attic room where I wept my tears of love and hate all those years ago. My legs are not too good these days but I still make the pilgrimage to the cemetery after church every Sunday to put fresh flowers on my father’s grave and the grave of my dear departed husband, Luc. After that I walk on towards the roar of the Gien-Bourges road, cross the concrete footbridge and lay flowers against the base of a chain-link fence that runs along the edge of an electricity sub-station. It’s as close as I can get to the spot where Luc and I buried my mother.
Once, a Gabonese woman in a brightly coloured headscarf saw me there and stopped. ‘This is a dangerous stretch of road,’ she said, having to raise her voice to be heard above the droning of the cars. ‘Did you lose someone here?’
And I suddenly found myself fighting back tears. ‘Yes,’ I finally managed to say. ‘Yes, I did.’
I burned Klaus Joppel’s letter. I didn’t want to risk the children ever finding it. But I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the photograph. I have it still. Sometimes, alone in my room, I take it out and look at it and remember. I keep it in a little wooden box in my bedside cabinet, along with a decrepit cigarette butt, a broken shoelace and a bone-dry lock of hair.
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