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‘I’ve still eleven full days here,’ she confided, ‘if I want to use them.’ She looked up at him suddenly, and said with more enthusiasm, ‘You know, I would really like to see Caen, because George died on a bridge across the river during the battle for Caen. His friend told me.’ She paused, and then said with bitterness, ‘I want to know what kind of a city was worth his death – and thousands of other English lads.’ Her face twisted in renewed pain.
He thought she was about to cry again, and did not answer her for a moment. Then he said reflectively, ‘Caen is still ruin, Madame. Streets are clear. A few people try to make new life.’
She replied absently, her mind deflected as she pictured narrow bridges choked with dead soldiers, ‘Is it very difficult for them to have to start again? Is it all destroyed?’
‘Yes, Madame, practically all of it is. They are without much help. You understand, the Government give plenty attention to the big ports – lots of votes. Very little thought to smaller cities like Caen – and nothing to small farmers like myself. Peasants’ votes are not in one place – we are spread out. So not much power.’
He was back to his earlier complaints. He shrugged, and sighed. Then he added more fairly, ‘Government must also repair all the roads, the railways, the airports of France – much bomb damage by Allies. But here we all wait – and hope. The railway train now come to us – that is something.’
Then, as a detail which might amuse her, he told her that the churches that William, King of England and Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Matilda, had built in Caen, in thanksgiving for the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, were still there, practically undamaged. ‘The Duke and Duchess thank God for victory and they build good. Those churches last nearly a thousand years – through many wars, many invasions.’ He grinned suddenly at her, as if the churches’ survival of the recent conflict was something of a joke.
He had recaptured her interest. ‘Really? How strange.’ She appreciated the irony of the survival of the churches after such a huge British bombardment during a reverse invasion.
He grinned. ‘British miss good chance to revenge on William – bomb them!’
There was a slight movement on the other side of the empty road, and Michel glanced across. On the verge opposite sat a rabbit, its nose quivering. Suddenly it vanished into the hedge.
He was diverted. Wildlife is returning, he reflected with a gleam of hope.
He looked again at the young woman opposite him, and said impetuously, ‘I take you to Caen tomorrow. Americans go to Paris for the weekend. We go, yes? Take a little lunch? Look around.’
‘How much would it cost? I owe you already for this trip. I had thought I would walk round the countryside. I’m a good walker and the distances are not very great. I can do twenty miles in a day – easy.’
She would be safe enough walking, he considered, but Caen was a bit too far to do in one day. Worst of all, he would probably never see her again and, even though her stay in Calvados was to be very brief, he longed to talk with her again.
He responded quickly. ‘I take you. No charge. You pay me for this trip to the cemetery, and I do tomorrow free. OK?’ While she considered his offer, he went on, ‘I went there just after battle finish. And I take Americans once or twice. I believe most roads now clear.’
And when I went there the first time what a shock I had, he thought, fury surging through him once more.
Chapter Seven (#)
From the moment he had first glimpsed the totality of the destruction which had hit his little poultry farm and that of the Fortiers, Michel had been worried to distraction about the fate of Suzanne.
He had had no direct news of her for nearly three months, though her parents had told him that they had had just a few letters from her before the invasion. He had promised himself then that he would, as soon as possible, go to see her, but his mother had not been able to manage the poultry farm alone, and he could not easily leave her. His first thought, once he was in Bayeux, was to try to get through to her employer, at the café where she worked, but he had no success. All lines were down.
He could not find her on any casualty list available to him in Bayeux, but he was told that, so soon after the Germans had retreated, the casualty lists were, sadly, far from complete. The Fortier family was listed as missing; Suzanne’s name was not included. This added to Michel’s fears that she might have been killed in Caen during the subsequent battle; it was said that one-third of the population had been killed and another third wounded.
Though the engagement had been arranged by their parents, Michel was fond of his lifelong friend who was to become his wife, and he racked his brains for further sources of enquiry.
Patiently, he had asked at the hospital in Bayeux, in case she had been brought in there. She was not listed. However, he was invited to visit a woman so traumatised that she had not yet been able to identify herself, in the hope that he might recognise her. The woman was so hurt that he was thankful that she was a stranger to him.
Suzanne’s parents would remain listed as missing, presumed dead, until such time as the Army could demine a path into their farm and confirm it. Michel argued that whoever put the Fortiers’ names on that list – probably another neighbour – must have known that Suzanne was not at home on the day her father’s farm was destroyed; otherwise her name would have been there along with those of her parents.
He reminded himself that Suzanne was an only child, so he could be the sole person from nearby who would immediately set in train a hunt for her. She had other relations, he knew, somewhere near Falaise, another place which had been devastated. If he had no luck in Caen, he would go there to ask the few survivors if they had news of her.
Meanwhile, he had to find at least temporary work, and a place in Bayeux where he and his mother could stay.
Once Maman had recovered a little, they had been billeted in a house with a small empty attic room to spare. There was no fireplace in it, and even in July the bare floor was cold to lie on. Their reluctant landlady, moved by their plight, had lent them a straw mattress, and an old duvet liable to spill feathers from every corner.
She allowed Madame Benion to use her kitchen occasionally, to make the thin fish soup which, together with bread – and cheese when they could get it – was all the food they could afford in a city where the price of everything was soaring.
Madame Benion applied to the hastily reorganised civilian authorities in Bayeux for the re-establishment of payment of her old age pension at her new address. Unfortunately, the steady fall in the value of the franc made it harder and harder for her to manage on it.
After much hasty hunting, Michel found a job in the kitchen of a hotel recently vacated by the retreating Germans. The desperate owner was trying to get it cleaned and in shape as fast as possible. So Michel scrubbed and disinfected with the same thoroughness that he had cleaned hen coops and brooders for his parents.
He was occasionally able to augment his and his mother’s diet by hoarding table scraps from the dining room of the hotel; he was supposed to throw all food scraps into a pig bin, but some were still edible. He was also allowed a meagre midday meal with the hotel staff, part of which he often took home for his mother.
In their attic room, water was their greatest problem, since the only source in the house was a pump in the ground-floor kitchen.
With a few of the precious francs hoarded in Michel’s Post Office savings book, which Madame Benion now carried stuffed inside the top of her corset, they bought a large bucket and a washbasin. Once or twice a day, Michel filled up the bucket in the house kitchen and carried it up to their eyrie under the eaves.
The whole telephone system appeared hopelessly damaged, but on the chance that at least some mail was getting through, Michel had, after moving into the attic room, written to Suzanne at her lodgings in Caen, to tell her his new address. The local post office had accepted the letter, but there had been no response to it or any subsequent ones.
On his enquiry for news of her from her parents at the beginning of April, they had told him that the few letters they had received since she left for Caen simply said that she was all right and was enjoying her work in the café. She had sent no message for him. Madame Fortier was very troubled. Had the young people quarrelled, she wondered.
They had not quarrelled, and Michel had been mystified by his fiancée’s silence. Despite his uneasiness, he made every possible excuse for her neglect of him. He never doubted her integrity; she was going to be his wife. She would surely write soon.
In view of warning movements of German troops in the month prior to the invasion, it occurred to Michel that she might, at the last possible moment, have come home to be with her parents. So he went back to the hôtel de ville and checked the casualty lists yet again.
The official there said flatly that the list was still incomplete. What else did Michel expect, he asked helplessly; there were still pockets of fighting all too near to Bayeux. And on no account, said the harassed man, should Michel try to get back to either the Fortiers’ or his own farm. There were already too many civilians killed or injured by exploding anti-personnel mines and live ammunition: three men dead – they had tried to collect the bodies of their families in order to bury them – and two who had had their feet blown off, a woman shockingly wounded in the face. And two young boys with no hands, poor kids.
Bearing in mind the hopeless state of his own little poultry farm and others nearby, all well-nigh reduced to a mud heap, Michel accepted the stricture without comment. He did not need to be reminded of the dangers of explosives; he had seen, on his way to Bayeux, a whole family blown up by a heavy explosion, triggered by their passing. Only the good God knew what they had accidentally trodden on.
He was fairly certain that Suzanne’s parents were indeed dead, and both he and his mother grieved for them; they had been good friends.
Feeling that they might just possibly have escaped, however, he had again enquired assiduously amongst other refugees who had straggled into Bayeux, many of whom knew each other at least by sight. He invariably heard the same sad story that a great many of the population of that area were believed dead or wounded. He continued to pray that his wife-to-be had not been with them.
If she had returned to her home just before the attack, he comforted himself, the first thing she would have done would have been to run across to see him – and she had not.
For some days more, as he worked in the Bayeux hotel, he continued to watch the casualty lists, while the battle to take Caen continued.
He soon learned that peasants were regarded as of little account unless the authorities wanted to get food delivered to the stricken city.
One day, before Anatole’s return, he had, in bitter terms, expressed his anger to his mother about the destruction of Calvados.
‘We’ve suffered so much from the occupation. We risked our lives – including you, Maman. A good many died horribly for it – and now we are being killed or hurt or ruined in the name of peace. It’s crazy,’ he said in furious frustration.
Madame Benion had been resting on the mattress laid on the floor of their attic. Her deep exhaustion since the destruction of her home was still apparent.
She said wearily, ‘It’s true and it grieves me – and I worry daily about Anatole. Where is he? What did the Germans do with him when they took him away? What’s happening to him now?’
Michel replied slowly, doubt apparent in his tone, ‘They said he would be put to work in Germany.’
‘Well, why hasn’t he ever written?’
To this Michel had no answer. He thought bitterly that it was probable that his brother was dead, but kept this to himself.
‘I don’t know why he doesn’t write, Maman. Maybe German mail is disrupted by the bombing of their cities. I’m more worried about Suzanne – she doesn’t write either. It’s obvious that the Boches are defending Caen with everything they have. The bombardment’s constant.’
Madame Benion agreed. ‘It is. The noise is maddening. My head aches and my ears ring.’ She turned restlessly on the mattress. ‘I’m sure that some kind of build-up is going on. General Montgomery himself is here in Bayeux. I heard the news when I went out to try to buy some potatoes.’
It was as if Michel had not heard her. He said, ‘Maybe Suzanne doesn’t know where we are – never received any of my letters. I hope to God she’s found some safe shelter.’
‘All we can do is wait, Michel. And pray.’
‘I don’t care what happens; I’m going to try to get into Caen, Maman. Some people have done it.’
His mother shot up from her recumbent position.
‘No,’ she stormed. ‘How can you think of such a thing? If you’re killed and Anatole is missing, I have no one, no one except your sisters – and only the good God knows what is happening to them in Rouen. Suppose you are stuck there, in Caen, and can’t get out? Mon Dieu, it’s not even that safe here,’ she glanced at the sloping ceiling, and added wryly, ‘particularly in an attic. It’ll be much worse in Caen.’
As if to confirm the latter, there was a roar of planes overhead, followed by explosions in the near distance.
She was right. He knew it. Her own survival depended largely on him, not on her two married daughters in Rouen, which was itself being pulverised by the Allies.
Poor Maman, she was still so shaky from what she had been through. She must rest a little longer, before even thinking of finding work herself. Meanwhile, he must earn for her; she would starve on her miserable pension. The fact that he was himself worn out, very distressed by all that was happening to them, he accepted as a burden which, somehow, must be borne.
In a city crowded with desperate refugees, she had, anyway, almost no hope of getting work herself; she had aged dreadfully in the last few weeks, due to grief over the loss of her home and, he considered with a tinge of jealousy, the constant worry about Anatole.
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