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Madame Barbara

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Myself? My family?’ He swallowed. He was not used to being asked personal questions by strangers, and his experiences had been so traumatic that he found it difficult to talk about them. Then he said slowly, almost reluctantly, ‘We are three. Mama, my big brother, Anatole – he is very sick – and me, Michel Benion. We live now in Bayeux; my two married sisters in Rouen – Rouen is enormous ruin. Sisters and their husbands is alive.’ His tone dropped, as he added sadly, ‘One little nephew killed.

‘Mama, Anatole and me, we wait for our poultry farm to be clear of anti-tank traps and mines. We cannot work the land – not walk on it – until it is clear. One neighbour go to his home and – boom-boom – he is dead.’

Barbara was interested. The sad story took her mind off her own misery. She murmured in English, ‘It must have been terrifying. I’m so sorry about the little boy.’

Encouraged by her sympathy, Michel went on, ‘Anatole, my brother, come home from Germany very sick. He was slave in Germany, Madame. Can you believe it, nowadays? A slave. No pay. Hardly any food.’

‘I do believe you. I have heard about such things – and I saw a list outside the hôtel de ville – a long list of those transported who had died in Germany.’ She sighed, and then enquired politely, ‘I hope your brother is getting better? Relever?’

‘Merci, Madame. He cough very bad.’

She quailed, as the driver again took one hand off the steering wheel to pat his chest.

‘La tuberculose,’ he explained. ‘He is long time without help. Incroyablement, he try to walk back to Normandy. The Americans find him with civilian refugees from East Germany – they flee from the Russians.’

Barbara nodded sympathetically. ‘Poor man. Tuberculosis, you say?’

‘Oui, Madame.’

The driver swerved to avoid a stout woman in a black skirt, who was riding a bicycle slowly towards him down the middle of the road.

‘People still have bicycles,’ Barbara remarked, as she resignedly settled down to a rough ride.

‘Ah, yes, Madame. There are a few. A bicycle is easy to hide. Not like a bus or a lorry. But the Germans, they take lots of them. This taxi is hid inland. The stable has much bocage round it – how you say?’ He saw her smile slightly.

‘A thicket round it?’ she suggested. Her voice faltered as she added, ‘My husband wrote in his letters about bocage – thickets and hedges. He said there were a lot of them. And it was hard to get through them.’

‘Yes, Madame. Very difficult for tanks and soldiers to fight through.’

She smiled wanly.

He was pleased to see the smile. He had forgotten his irritation at the traffic.

They were out of the city now, and bowling along a straight road which seemed to stretch to the horizon. It was lined on either side by Lombardy poplars. Between the tall trees, weathered stumps indicated haphazard cutting of some of them, and Barbara leaned forward and asked, ‘Were the trees cut for firewood in the war?’

At first, the driver did not quite understand her, so she repeated the question slowly and pointed to some stumps as they passed them.

‘Mais non, Madame. The Resistance cut the trees and lay them across the road. They block the roads to make the German retreat more difficult – Germans are caught and killed by invasion instead of safe retreat.’

He gestured with one hand, and added, ‘No good. Tanks and big lorries go across the fields. Naturellement, this winter we burn the trunks – firewood – a bad winter.’ He sighed at the memory. ‘Very, very bad winter, Madame.’

Barbara leaned back to rest her head. ‘It was awfully bad in England as well.’ Her voice sounded weary. ‘The very worst winter I ever remember. No coal, no electricity, hardly any gas. Even bread was rationed this winter – and potatoes.’

‘Yes, Madame. Also here. Bread ration. Sometimes no bread in bakeries.’

‘My stars!’ Barbara exclaimed, shocked by his remark. ‘At least we get our ration.’

‘English are lucky. Farms not fought over.’

‘They don’t feel very lucky.’

‘Very difficult for everybody,’ Michel responded diplomatically.

They were passing what seemed to have been a village. Only broken walls remained. Already weeds were growing between the stones. The driver gestured towards it and said laconically, ‘Here they fight backwards and forwards. Nothing left.’

In the rear-view mirror, he saw the slight movement of her head in acknowledgment of his remark. He went on, ‘Our farm like this village. It is within ten kilometres of the coast.’ He slowed the taxi and turned his head towards her, old rage resurfacing as he said bitterly, ‘So much is our farm fought over, and the one next to it, that there is nothing left – nothing. No house, no horse, no hens, no hen coops or brooders, no barn, no pigs, no cow – no people.

‘Father die in 1941. Until the invasion, Mama and I work on the farm to keep it somehow until peace come. What peace, Madame?’

He had really caught Barbara’s attention. This was information about the French side of the war that she had rarely seen reported in England, except for a line or two as back-page news.

He went on, ‘When the invasion of the Allies begin, Mama and me – we hide in la cave. We are very afraid. House is destroy. La cave is very, very old storehouse – very strong, only little window. When the armies move away, we escape – walk to Bayeux.

‘My uncle, Uncle Léon, sail out of Port-en-Bessin not too far away, you understand? We do not know, however, where the ships of the coast is gone. We hope news in Bayeux. Uncle will help us. You understand, Madame, the coast is in great disturbance. Where are our fishermen? Where are our little boats? Good question.’

She nodded to convey her understanding of the problem.

‘As we walk, advancing Allied troops say Bayeux is not damage …’ He took both hands off the wheel, to indicate with gestures a sense of turmoil.

Barbara held her breath until he hastily gripped the wheel again and continued to drive down the middle of the road.

‘In Bayeux, very small damage. Much chaos because many refugee arrive suddenly. Help will be there – but maybe not for many days. I must find work – to eat. Monks give us clean clothes, and I work two weeks in hotel kitchen in Bayeux. I cook and clean – German Army cooks not very clean. Then the British Army requisition it. They not like French cooking.’ He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘They bring their own cooks.

‘What I do? Our neighbours caught in the battle – we have not found them. We cannot go on to our land. Too dangerous.’ Yet again with his hands he expressed the enormousness of the damage, of the crowds of panic-stricken refugees swarming into the city.

Barbara swallowed as the taxi once more began to edge towards the ditch.

Michel quickly regrasped the wheel and did a theatrical turn towards the centre of the narrow road.

‘Le Maire – hôtel de ville – is, how you say, overwhelm? Later, the Government – they promise money, ’elp for Normandy. But ’elp is for cities, Madame, not for poor peasant.’ He sighed. ‘It is always so. Government not care for peasants. They clear some roads OK. But now we wait and we wait.’

‘I thought the Americans poured in help?’

‘Americans give to Britain, to Germany. At first, they not trust the French or our General de Gaulle – we are forty per cent Communists.’

Aware of Communism in the back streets of Liverpool, Barbara said in surprise, ‘But we have Communists too. The Americans are giving it to us.’

‘Communists in France are – how you say? – a force political. Americans now fear revolution – perhaps a Communist one – may happen in France, if they do not give us help. So now it is that Marshall Aid comes – but first for the railways, the roads, the air fields, all destroyed by Allied bombing; and then for Le Havre, for Rouen, Cherbourg – the cities.’

‘It must be very hard for your mother.’

‘Hard for all,’ he assured her gloomily.

Barbara changed the subject. She said slowly in English, ‘It was very kind of the American soldiers – the undertakers at the hotel – to permit you to take me to the cemetery. The hotel says they booked this taxi for four whole months. The reservations clerk said that you usually stay with the Americans at the cemeteries throughout the day while they work.’

The length of Barbara’s remark made it a little difficult for Michel to understand. He replied cautiously, ‘American Army very good, soldiers most kind, Madame. Lots of petrol! Certainement, they pay taxi four months – not like the Boches – he never pay for anything he can take, les sales Boches.’

Though he laughed, he sounded cynical, as he remembered how some German soldiers had demanded his best poultry breeding stock and had wrung their pretty necks in front of him. Then they had made his mother clean and pluck them ready for cooking. Cook some of the world’s best breeding stock? It was murder. His poor Chanticleer and his pretty, fertile wives. Hélas! How would he ever find the money to replace them?

As he mourned his dead hens, Michel edged the vehicle round a pothole filled with water, and then continued, ‘Taxi is the only transport to cemeteries, Madame. Now many people want to visit their dead. This is the only taxi in Bayeux. So I ask Americans, can I take civilians to the cemeteries, while they work? I promise to collect them from their American cemeteries exactly when they order. You understand taxi cannot be left for one moment unattended. Someone steal, dead cert.’ Michel was rapidly extending his vocabulary while working for the Americans.

‘They say OK. Take some lady to cemetery. Make a buck. So I drive American ladies, English ladies, one lady from Poland – widow of man who fight with British, je crois.’

He cleared his throat and spat out of the window. ‘Two German ladies come – they omit to tip me.’ He half turned his head towards her. He sounded mystified, as he added, ‘You know, they cry like everyone else.’

‘I am sure they did,’ Barbara agreed.

She felt fiercely that she did not care whether the Germans flooded the earth with their tears; they could never undo the ruination of her life by the taking of her George’s life.

Let the German widows cry. Let them suffer. She hoped their cities remained shattered, their factories empty, looted by both Americans and Russians, their farms fought over and desolate. Let them pay.

After a while, to take her mind off her own troubles, she asked the taxi driver, ‘What are the Americans doing here? Are they really undertakers? Aren’t all the dead buried yet?’

‘Ah, simple, Madame. They arrange for dead American soldiers to go home. Bury them in America.’

‘What a lovely idea!’

‘Very, very expensive, Madame.’ Michel obviously did not believe in such a waste of money, even if it resulted in work for himself.
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