Authors: Alex Gerlis
‘You look so much like our daughter,’ he said, patting her affectionately on the wrist. ‘You have the same slim figure, the same beautiful long, dark hair, the same dark eyes. When my wife and I saw you for the first time yesterday – we both remarked on that!’
‘Where does your daughter live?’
The old man said nothing, but his eyes moistened as he held his hand over hers. The old man was kind, but there was something about him that unsettled her. As she lay down on the cold earth, a familiar yet unwelcome companion descended upon her. The memory. The old man alongside, she realised, reminded her of her father. He too worked on the railways. The same dark eyes that couldn’t hide the suffering. The same awkwardness. The reason why she was here now.
She tried so hard to forget her father, but now the dark memories were stirred, she knew she would be troubled for the rest of the night.
She slept in short, unsatisfactory bursts as she always did when her father came back to her. At one stage she woke with a start, aware that she must have cried out in her sleep. She looked round and noticed the old man’s eyes, glinting in the moonlight, staring at her. When she awoke in the morning she felt stiff and cold. As the group moved off, she fell in with the old man and his wife, but the kindness of the previous night had gone and he ignored her.
It was later that afternoon and the group had paused at the edge of the forest, through which they had been walking all day. The old man who was calling out to her was now slumped at the base of the tree and had aged ten years in the past ten minutes. His legs were twisted under him and his skin was as grey as the bark he was resting against. His wife knelt by his side, anxiously gripping his right arm with both her hands. He held his other arm out towards her, fingers urgently beckoning her to him.
‘Come here,’ he called out. His voice was rasping and angry. The rest of the group were moving off, leaving just her and Sylvie with the old man and his wife.
She looked down the forest path, where the rest of the group were now disappearing beyond the sunbeams. They knew that there was nothing they could do for the man and they were anxious to try and reach the town before nightfall. She could just make out Marcel, his short walking stick waving high above his head to encourage them along.
‘Leave him,’ Marcel had said. ‘I warned everyone not to drink from the ponds. This water can be like a poison. He took the risk. We must move on.’
She hesitated. If she lost contact with the group she could be stranded in the forest, but she had made the mistake of stopping to help when the man collapsed and it would seem odd if she abandoned him now.
She knelt down by his side. Around the tree was a carpet of bracken; green, brown and silver. His lips were turning blue and spittle flecked with blood was dribbling down the sides of his mouth. His eyes were heavily bloodshot and his breathing was painfully slow. He did not have long to go. She recognised the signs. She would soon be able to rejoin the group.
‘Closer.’ His voice was now little more than a harsh whisper.
With a shaking hand he pulled her head towards his. His breath was hot and smelled foul.
‘I heard you last night,’ he said. She pulled back, a puzzled look on her face.
He nodded, pulling her back towards him, glancing at his wife as he did so, checking that she could not hear. ‘I heard you cry out,’ he whispered. ‘I heard what you said.’
He waited to regain his breath, his whole body heaving as he did so. His reddened eyes blazed with fury.
‘This victory will be your greatest defeat.’
Later that afternoon she realised how soon you become inured to the sights and the smells of war. They have a tendency to creep up on you, allowing time for the mind to prepare itself for what it is about to experience. But not the sounds. The sounds of war may be no more shocking, but they have a tendency to arrive without warning, imposing themselves in the most brutal manner. You are never prepared for them.
So it was on that dusty afternoon at the end of May, where the Picardy countryside had begun to give hints of a nearby but unseen sea and where a small group of French civilians desperately trying to flee the war now found that they had walked right into it.
It took a few seconds for her and most of the others in the column to realise that the cracking sound a hundred yards or so ahead of them had been a gun shot. Maybe it was the shock of the strange metallic noise that seemed to echo in such an undulating manner in every direction, more likely was the fact that it was the first time most of them had ever heard a gunshot. In a split second, she reassembled in her mind what she had just seen and heard. Moments earlier, the tall figure of Marcel had been remonstrating with the German officer. She could barely make out what he was saying, although she did hear the word ‘civilians’ more than once, as he pointed in their direction with his walking stick. Then there was the cracking noise and now Marcel was still on the ground, the dusty light grey surface of the road turning a dark colour beneath him.
A wave of fear rolled through the small group that had been held up beyond the makeshift German checkpoint where the shooting had taken place.
I know the area
, Marcel had told them.
I can handle the Germans
Apart from the woman with four children and three elderly couples, the group was mainly women on their own. All fools, she thought. All allowing themselves to be herded like cattle. All part of the reason why France had become what it was.
She knew that she had made a terrible mistake. She could have headed in any direction, other than east. That would have been suicide. When she looked at where she had ended up now, she may as well have gone east. She realised now that, of course, south would have been best. Due west would have been safe too, not as safe as the south, but better. But to have come north was a disaster.
It was not as if she had been following the crowds. Half of France had been on the move and each person seemed to be heading in a different direction. She had made up her mind when she left home that she would head north and it wasn’t in her nature to change her mind. She had tried it a few weeks ago and this was why she was in so much trouble now. It was crazy though. They had passed through Abbeville when she was a girl on the way to the coast for the only happy family holiday that she could remember. It had been an idyllic day, no more than a few hours respite on a long journey, but for some reason this was where she had decided to head.
The German officer walked over to the man on the ground, the pistol still in his hand. With his boot he rolled the body over onto its back and then nodded to two of his men. They picked a leg each and dragged the corpse to the ditch by the side of the road. A long red smear appeared on it where his body had been. The officer inspected his boot and wiped it clean on the grass verge.
One of the soldiers had come over to the group and spoke to them slowly in bad French. They were to come forward one by one, he shouted. They were to show their identity cards to the officer who had shot the man and after they had been searched, they would be allowed to carry on into the town.
The light had not started to fade yet and beyond the checkpoint she could see the outskirts of the town quite clearly. Plumes of dark smoke hung all over the town, all of them remarkably straight and narrow, as if the town lay beneath a forest of pine trees.
She couldn’t risk the checkpoint. Not with this identity card. The first Germans they had encountered had not paid much attention to people’s identities. They had seemed more intent on finding what loot they could lay their hands on. This checkpoint seemed to be more thorough. She had known that she would have to find another identity and assumed she would get the opportunity in the town. She had not counted on coming across the Germans so early, no one had. The last news she had heard was that they had not yet reached Calais. That is what Marcel had told them and now his feet were sticking out of the ditch in front of them, his blood now turning black on the surface of the road.
She edged towards the rear of the column, looking around her as she did so. She spotted her opportunity. The soldiers were distracted by dealing with the mother and her four children, all of whom were crying. No one was watching the group. She leaned over to Sylvie, who still clutching her by the waist and whispered that she was going to the toilet in the field. She would be back in a minute. The little girl’s eyes filled with tears. Reluctantly, she reached in her pocket and took out the bar of chocolate. It was the last of the bars that had filled her coat pockets and it was all she had left to eat. She pressed it into Sylvie’s palm, noticing that it was soft and had begun to melt.
‘If you are a good girl and keep very quiet, you can have all of this!’ She was trying hard to sound as gentle of possible. She looked around. No one was looking at her. Towards the front of the column she saw the smartly dressed lady in her mid-thirties who had told her she was a lawyer from Paris, heading for the family home in Normandy.
‘You see that nice lady there? The one with the smart brown coat? She will look after you. But don’t worry, I will be back soon.’
Still crouching down, she edged towards the ditch and then through a narrow gap in the hedge. The corn was high in the field and not far away, as if expertly painted onto the landscape, was a large wood which seemed to taper as it spread towards the town. She waited for a moment. She was certain that the Germans had not counted how many there were in their group so hopefully would not realise that one person had crept away. If they did come and look for her now, she was near enough to the hedge to be able to persuade them that she was just relieving herself.
It looked as if she had landed in an Impressionist painting: the golden yellow of the corn, the blue of the sky unbroken by cloud and ahead the dark green of the wood. A timely breeze had picked up and the corn was swaying slowly. It would disguise her moving through it to the wood. If she could make it there she would have a good chance of reaching the town under the cover of the trees and the fading light.
Abbeville, Northern France
It is what comes in the wake of an invading army that is the true measure of a conquest.
The tanks and crack troops of the Panzer Group that entered the small town of Abbeville in the last week of May 1940 were quickly followed by the Wehrmacht, the regular troops in their grey uniforms and a sense of mild inferiority which they happily took out on their new subjects. And then came the camp followers: the cooks, the medics, the prostitutes and the officials. Especially the officials. It was if the German Reich had been meticulously collecting minor officials for years and storing them in a cellar in Bavaria in the expectation that come the conquest of Europe, they would have an army of them to promote beyond their natural station and help ensure the efficiency of any occupation.
And it was one of these minor officials, who now clearly regarded himself as anything but minor, who was to be her undoing.
She had entered the town the night before, waiting for a black blanket to drape over the Picardy countryside before she felt it was safe enough to leave the cover of the wood and crawl into the first row of ruins. From there she had worked her way through the outskirts, crossing debris strewn roads and hurrying down streets where no building had been left unscathed. As a church bell struck ten, she had climbed into the attic above a row of abandoned shops and found a room where the window was more or less intact and there was large, dusty sofa. As the adrenaline of the escape from the checkpoint ebbed away she realised how hungry she was. Her last proper meal had been in a farmhouse the other side of Arras and since then she managed on overpriced bread, and fruit she had taken from obliging orchards. She had been saving the bar of chocolate for an emergency. The price of keeping the little girl quiet had been that emergency.
In the corner of the room was a filthy sink, with a long crack running diagonally through it. The single tap, high above the sink, was stiff to turn and when she managed to release it there was a shudder and a hiss, but no water. She had last drunk water in one of the villages they had passed through the day before. Now, her throat was dry and she felt light-headed. Not long before they arrived at the checkpoint outside Abbeville they had walked through a small forest, dotted with
. Marcel warned people against drinking the water and she knew that he was right: the surface of the little lake was still and scummy, but the old man who had given her the last of his water the night before insisted on drinking from an
. They had barely walked for another five minutes before he became violently sick.
His face appeared in her dreams that night, but only fleetingly although she couldn’t get his last words out of her mind: ‘This victory will be your greatest defeat
She dreaded to think what she must have said in her sleep to cause him to say that, but it was a good thing that he had decided to drink from the
It was a series of confused dreams that all seemed to end with her trying to catch a train or a bus that was always pulling away just as she reached it. In the final dream she found herself hiding in a warm bakery, the smell of freshly baked baguettes overwhelming.
She woke to find two boys standing in the doorway staring at her. She had no idea how old they were: certainly not teenagers, yet not so young that they could be described as children. But what mattered was what they had in their arms: baguettes, two each. The smell of them of had already filled the room.
‘What do you want?’ she asked sharply.
‘Somewhere to stay.’ It was the older boy, probably thirteen now that she thought about it, thinking back to her days on the children’s ward. He was trying to sound confident, but he was trembling. ‘Is this your place?’