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Madame Barbara

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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As on the day before, she was hatless. Hats were another small thing that had vanished during the war – unless one was in the Services, where a hat was still part of a uniform. Her hair was elaborately swept up on either side of her face, to become curls on the top of her head. Similar curls were, as usual with her, confined at the nape of her neck by a precious tortoiseshell hair slide. This style tended to make her look taller than she was.

As Michel walked into the foyer, he noted her makeup, and found himself wondering exactly where she had obtained such powder and paint.

The paint reminded him how foolish he was to get involved with a foreign woman who had access to such luxuries as makeup. What chance had a poor French peasant against the irritatingly rich American soldiers still scattered around Europe – particularly the three who were staying in the same hotel? Then he pulled himself up. ‘I’m not in competition with anybody,’ he told himself firmly; ‘I’m simply taking a woman, for whom I feel sorry, to Caen because her husband died there.’

In spite of her swollen eyelids and the shabbiness of her dress, however, she looked to him as exotic and interesting as if she had come from some faraway oriental country, instead of from just across the English Channel. It seemed to him a pity that all he could offer her was a taxi ride – no nylons, no chocolates, no makeup, no handsome uniform by her side.

When he had told his mother and Anatole that he would be busy this Saturday, neither of them had queried it. If Barbara was seen in his taxi, it would be assumed that he was carrying yet another war widow to yet another grave. The most important point, he felt, was that old Duval should not notice a lady in his taxi on a day when the Americans were out of town, and, therefore, not easily available to say that he had their permission to help war widows.

The old taxi had only one seat in front, for the driver. At his side was a platform on which heavy luggage could be carried. Today, of course, it was empty. Barbara managed to smile quite cheerfully at him as he opened the door for her and saw her comfortably ensconced in the back seat.

He drove her along a main road which, he said, was newly repaired. There was not much traffic, and, occasionally, he would slow down to show her damage done to villages and farms in the great battle. It amazed her that the famous, huge bocages, dense thickets of bushes and young trees, had, in many places, withstood the onslaught of tanks, artillery and bombing, whereas walls and stone cottages had been pushed down and crushed.

They passed a quaint, moated farmhouse. With pride, he told her that it had, occasionally, been a meeting place for the Partisans.

He laughed, and then went on, ‘The owner pull up the drawbridge – difficult for the Boches to get in without noise.’

From that house, he told her he had, one night, taken a downed British airman and hidden him in one of his chicken coops. He laughed again, as he added, ‘How he complain of the smell! He nice guy. Very grateful to us. His papa big guy in England. I learn much English from him. I write to him sometimes – old friend now.’

He eased the taxi a little to the side, to allow a van to pass him. He waved to the driver.

‘Another old friend,’ he told his passenger. ‘He teach me to drive. He is engineer electrical – very clever fellow.’ Then he went on with his story, ‘Later, we keep the airman in the roof of our cottage for six weeks until my father take him to Port-en-Bessin.’

‘What happened when he arrived there?’ Barbara asked.

‘Uncle Léon put him in his boat – he is Master of a tramp coastal, you understand. Les Boches watch the fishing fleet very closely – difficult to do anything but fish. It is difficult to put someone on a fishing boat. Tramps not quite so much – Uncle Léon have regular route to Cherbourg and often carry cargo for the Germans. None of his cargo ever lost or stolen. He is very careful – so they trust him a little. However, he wait for the dark of the moon. Airman dress like me and use my seaman’s book, looks like crew. In Cherbourg, he land like the rest of crew going ashore. There he go to safe house. From there the British have system to get him to Britain.’

‘Did the British really work from Cherbourg?’

‘They come and go in Normandy, sometimes, je crois, by air – parachute. Spies. Information. Guns for the civilian Partisans and for the maquis. Regular service!’ His laugh was grim this time.

‘Who were the maquis?’

‘Many of them were very brave soldiers of our Army, Madame. They fight on throughout the war – civilians feed them; Germans kill many.’

‘Humph. I never heard about them.’ She reverted to his story of the airman. ‘It must have been very dangerous for your uncle – and for you, if it was your seaman’s book which he carried?’

‘Certain. Big, big danger that someone betray us. Germans have spies, French ones.’

She felt it would be indiscreet to comment on his being betrayed by his own people. She had read in British newspapers of the deadly revenge taken on such people, the minute the war was over – and even during the war, where the opportunity arose. ‘I was told the Partisans were in touch with Britain,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘When Germans first come to Normandy, they demand we give them our radios.’ He half turned and grinned at her. ‘Some families have more than one radio. We say we are very poor, say we have no radio. We keep ours. Lots of hiding places for small radio on a chicken farm. We have electric – keep chicks warm. We plug in the radio.

‘We listen to the BBC and tell news to our friends. Some Partisans very clever – build good radios themselves. Sometimes, Germans jam British broadcasts.’ He was silent as he negotiated a woman pushing an ancient wheelbarrow full of logs down the road. Then he said very soberly, ‘Sometimes the radio of the Freedom Fighter is traced – not all Germans are fools. Then the SS come – and always some are taken and tortured to say who help them. This cause – how you say? – a run of arrests and executions by the cursed SS. We not always know names of men helping us – difficult for Germans to squeeze names out of us. We are all very afraid – nearly all the time.’

Barbara shuddered. Hitler’s SS had been dreaded throughout Europe. The very thought of their ever getting into England had, on more than one occasion, made her flesh crawl.

The taxi was entering Caen, and she was immediately staggered by the vast amount of damage. Like the cemetery, it was overwhelming.

The road on which they were travelling was clear, but their route was lined on either side by huge piles of rubble, or what had once been basements, now filled with rainwater. In one great pile of debris, three young boys were dodging, slipping and sliding amid the wreckage, shouting ‘Bang-bang’ at each other as if they were fighting an imaginary battle.

Barbara saw here again a picture she had already seen in Liverpool – a duck swam placidly across one of the pools of water, and, from hollows between the broken stones and concrete, long sprays of pink willow, yellow ragwort and coarse grass waved in the breeze.

At the side of one of the roads there was a series of little stalls. One, she could see, was selling children’s clothing, another small trinkets, whether new or second-hand she could not judge. Two women pedestrians had stopped to examine the goods, and were being attended to by a woman in a black blouse and long black skirt. Other than this little group and the boys playing, the place looked deserted.
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