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Madame Barbara

Автор:
Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Madame wish the hotel?’ he enquired softly. He put his arm lightly round her to guide her to the taxi door.

‘Yes, please.’ Where else to go? What else to do?

She had allowed sixteen days for her visit to Normandy itself. She had planned that, after seeing George’s grave, she would have a walking holiday, exploring Calvados. She had never in her life had a real holiday and she had a vague hope that fresh air and good food would help to restore something of her pre-war energy.

But she had not allowed for this abject sense of loneliness, of desolation; and now, as far as she could judge, it seemed that most of Normandy had been wrecked – wrecked by armies sent to free it. The suffering it must have caused; it did not bear thinking about. To have visitors like her stare at it all must make the Normans feel that they were being reduced to a tourist attraction.

Now all she wanted to do was to lie down and be very quiet until she gained the strength to face, if she could, the rest of her empty life.

As the taxi driver cautiously shifted gears, she leaned her head back against the upholstery. Helplessly, she began to cry in earnest, deep rending sobs torn from her very heart.

Michel glanced back at her. He was tremendously disturbed by her obvious grief; she was too little, too pretty to suffer like this.

‘Madame, chère Madame, please don’t cry,’ he implored. He was weeping himself, for himself, for all the hurt people he carried in his taxi, and particularly for the nice young woman behind him.

She barely heard his plea, though she did try to muffle the noise she was making.

‘Please, please don’t cry, Madame.’ He paused while he aimed the vehicle carefully through the cemetery gates and onto the lane leading from it. Then he tried again.

‘Believe me, Madame, if I own this taxi, I marry you myself!’ He sighed. ‘Hélas, Monsieur Duval own it.’

There was a sudden cessation of the sobs, as the humour of the practical remark struck Barbara; the hard common sense of a presumably penniless young man anxious to help. She laughed through her tears, but after a second or two, she leaned forward and laid her head on her knee and commenced more quietly to weep again.

The taxi was carefully slowed, as the penniless one found that, with eyes clouded by tears, he could not see the road properly. He felt he too had reason to weep. Was not his own life shattered?

‘I stop,’ he announced. ‘We sit down on grass. We smoke, eh? We are better. Then nobody at the hotel stare at you.’

She did not answer.

He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Then he drew in to the side of the road. A drainage ditch ran alongside the asphalt; beyond it was a grassy bank, shadowed by a huge hedge.

He jumped down and opened the door for Barbara. ‘Come, Madame,’ he urged persuasively. ‘We rest. You become calm before we go to hotel, eh?’

Numbly, she allowed herself to be helped out. She looked uncertainly down at the ditch.

‘Jump,’ Michel instructed, gesturing towards the grass on the other side. He himself cleared the ditch as effortlessly as a circus performer, and held out his hand for her to grasp.

In her flat-heeled shoes, the ditch was no real problem. Barbara held his hand and jumped. As she landed, he put his arm quickly round her waist to steady her. It was instinctive on his part.

To her, it was an unexpected shock, not because he seemed presumptuous but it gave her a sense that somebody cared enough to do so, even if that person was a total stranger.

In and around the docks, where she had toiled through the war and even since peace had been declared, she had often hit out at men who, in her widowhood, felt she was fair game, and had importuned or otherwise harassed her with their coarse familiarity. Now, as she still shuddered with sobs for her husband, she felt the warmth of the slim, tired-looking stranger beside her, smelled the strong tobacco and male sweat of him, and she was honestly grateful for his sober, sensible presence.

He eased her round and sat her down on the grassy bank. Then he sat down cross-legged in front of her, so that he could look straight at her face. He fumbled under his jersey and brought out his precious packet of cigarettes and a box of matches.

‘Smoke?’

There were only three cigarettes left in the packet, and she hesitated; cigarettes were hard to obtain, and like gold in her particular English village.

He smiled and thrust the package closer to her. She heaved a sob, and then helped herself. He struck a match and held the light to her cigarette.

The lines on his face deepened and his brown eyes twinkled as he endeavoured to cheer her. ‘Cigarette good,’ he said firmly, as she inhaled the strong acrid smoke of a Gauloise.

She coughed, and smiled tremulously.

She watched him stick a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and light it. His face shone wet in the light of the tiny flame, and she realised with astonishment that he had really been crying. She wondered, with a feeling of profound compassion, if, in addition to the loss of his farm, he had lost someone in the war. Perhaps his fiancée? He had mentioned a fiancée’s parents on the way to the cemetery. He had not directly mentioned the lady herself.

Chapter Six (#)

For a while they sat in silence. As she smoked, Barbara’s sobs slowly decreased, became dryer and finally came to an end. Occasionally, she sighed shakily.

The persistent drizzle of the morning had stopped, though the sky was still overcast. Damp from the grassy bank on which they were sitting slowly seeped through their clothing. Neither of them, however, seemed inclined to move. A few trees, interspersed with huge hedges behind them, offered a protective canopy in the wrecked countryside.

Except for an occasional raindrop falling and the breeze rustling through the heavy foliage, it was very quiet. No traffic passed them. It was as if they were suspended in space, insulated for a few minutes from a world destroyed.

Barbara took out her handkerchief again and carefully dried her face, while Michel watched her through the tobacco smoke. She looked ruefully at her handkerchief, pink-stained with smudged makeup.

‘I must look awful,’ she said apologetically.

‘But no,’ he reassured her. He smiled slightly and continued to look at her gravely. His eyes, sad now, reminded her suddenly of her golden retriever at home, who, if anyone cried, would lay his head on the sufferer’s knee and gaze up at her in similar compassionate communion. Throughout the war, Simba had had to do a lot of comforting of both her mother and herself. He had done his best with Ada, George’s mam, too, when she came to sit in their kitchen and have a cup of tea and stare emptily into the fire.

Now, she had a stranger seated before her, trying to do the same thing, to comfort her and – she had a sudden flash of insight – to be himself comforted.

The persistence of his gaze compelled her to look back at him and smile a little. She wondered what else he had been through to cause the multitude of lines on his face, the patient resignation in his attitude, as if there were no reason to hurry back to the cold real world, plenty of time simply to sit and recover what one could of one’s sanity. Apparently impatient American morticians could wait.

At the remembrance of the Americans waiting for their taxi in the American cemetery, Barbara felt compelled to move.

‘Oh, dear me, I forgot. You have to collect your Americans.’

Michel leaned forward slightly and put his hand on her arm to restrain her. ‘There is much time, chére Madame. Rest a little longer. The Americans work as long as there is light – perhaps two more hours. And they are not far distant.’

He drew on his cigarette. ‘They stay in your hotel. I collect them en route. OK for Madame?’

‘Me? I don’t mind. They look like nice fellows. I saw them at breakfast this morning.’

She smiled at him, woebegone, her cigarette smouldering between her fingers, and he continued to sit quietly with her, to give her time to regain her equilibrium.

The Americans are generous, he thought. He had, however, grave doubts about how they might behave with an unescorted young woman; Americans seemed to have pockets full of nylons and piles of chocolate bars with which to seduce unwary females. It distressed him to think that his pretty passenger was herself wearing a pair of nylon stockings. That she might have bought them on the black market, which flourished as merrily in the port of Liverpool as it did in France, did not occur to him. Nevertheless, despite her obvious fall from grace, he would be in the taxi to protect her, and would see her safely into the hotel foyer.

He was not in the least afraid of three very tall, out-of-condition Yanks. Though he himself was so thin and had a hunched left shoulder, he had a long reach, which he found very useful when defending himself. Was he not a very effective kick-boxer, a master of old-fashioned savate, so quick on his feet as to be respected by all? The Americans did not seem to be aware of this particular art, and knowledge of it gave him considerable confidence when he met them in the streets of Bayeux, rather drunk – and where did they get enough to be drunk on, he’d like to know? The Boches had not left much worth drinking. Fortunately, Michel had never got into a real fight with them; sheer weight would very likely have overcome any skill he had.

While enduring the humiliation of the German occupation, it had been essential not to draw attention to oneself and to accept every obscenity without a word of response. It was a relief nowadays to feel that you did not have to salute or otherwise show respect to the Americans when some of them were drunk or abusive.

With regard to Barbara, such a respectable woman, he finally decided, could have come by her nylons legitimately; someone in the family might have brought them home as a gift. He hoped he was right.

He found her gentle, particularly now that she had lost her look of self-confidence and was crushed by grief. She appeared to have no pretensions and to treat him as an equal. The way she had given that choking, good-natured laugh at his remark about not being able to marry her suggested that a ready sense of humour might lie beneath her tear-soaked exterior; under other circumstances, he sensed she would be great fun.

He thought of her in her hotel bedroom, crying silently all night. He wanted to prevent this, if he could, by easing her into a better mood before he let her go. She was much too nice to be left to weep.

In the back of his mind he considered that probably the most comforting thing he could do for her would be to accompany her to bed. But he did not want to offend a foreign lady; and there was, of course, the practicality of the fury of Monsieur le Patron, if Michel were found in one of his hotel bedrooms.

Also, Englishwomen were notoriously faithful; she might feel she must be faithful to her dead husband.

He was astonished that he cared enough that he wanted to be careful what he said or did. What did it matter? She would be gone in a few days’ time, and he would be driving other widows with the same polite indifference that he had driven previous ones. Except that this little lady was different.

He sensed that to a man like himself she could give real pleasure. He felt free to consider this point, since his own love life was, after all, absolutely nonexistent at present; so he could honestly let his thoughts stray.

Finally, as he regretfully stubbed out his cigarette, he had an inspiration about taking her mind off her sorrow. He asked her if she had seen any other parts of Normandy. ‘Not all of it is damage,’ he assured her.

She gave a shivery sigh. ‘Yesterday I walked down to Arromanches, to see where some of the British troops landed. I saw the remains of the floating harbour we built.’

He was astonished. ‘A long walk, Madame!’

‘Not really. I found a little café there and had an omelette, and rested – and then walked back. It was late by the time I returned, of course.’

‘Bravo!’ He was impressed.

She gave a little shrug; she had hiked before the war, and the hard toil she had endured during the war had made her muscles strong. Even the steady physical work she did in her mother’s bed-and-breakfast provided daily exercise.
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