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Madame Barbara

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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They swung round a corner into a narrow lane. At the end of it, an open ironwork gate faced them, and, beyond that, what at first looked like a sea of white and green.

As they drove through the gateway, the sea resolved into masses and masses of white crosses set in neat rows amid green lawns, stretching, it seemed to Barbara, into infinity.

She caught her breath. So many! Her mild amusement at the taxi driver’s disapproval of American extravagance was forgotten in the shock of being suddenly surrounded by the evidence of so much death. Surely, it could not be?

But the evidence lay there, crying out in its silence.

She was appalled.

Just inside the gate, the taxi came to a halt. Michel opened Barbara’s door and took her hand to help her alight. Her normal self-confidence left her. She was so shaken by the scene before her that she was grateful for the man’s firm grip; though he smelled at least it was the smell of a man – a man such as she was used to, who worked hard.

‘I get the flowers for Madame,’ he said gently.

She looked at him a little helplessly, and then she pointed to her dropped handbag and asked him if he could reach in and rescue it for her.

‘Mais oui, Madame.’

The cloth bag was covered with dust and not a few hayseeds, blown in when they had passed the hay wain. Michel carefully brushed it as clean as he could, before handing it to her.

He smiled. ‘Very pretty bag, Madame.’

‘Thank you,’ she answered, and then, looking a little rueful, she muttered absently, ‘I made it myself. It’s still difficult to buy things.’

He made a wry face. He, too, knew about the shortages of everything. He leaned into the taxi to retrieve the flowers for her.

As he handed the bouquet to her, he saw that despite her casual remarks about her handbag she had gone as white as her lilies. Her dark blue eyes were wide with fright.

Pauvre petite! So little, so sweet, and, at this moment, looking so helpless. He wanted to take her in his arms to comfort her and tell her that all would be well, that she could be sure that Jules, the gardener, was very kind and that he looked after the graves with great care.

In the silence of the cemetery, his voice sounded harsh, as, instead, he cleared his throat and enquired hastily, ‘Number of the grave, Madame?’

She told him.

He took her arm. ‘I walk with you. Then wait by taxi.’

She was shaking, and simply nodded acceptance. Fearing she might faint, he held her arm firmly and guided her further along the little lane on which the taxi stood. ‘Germans that side, Allies this side,’ he explained.

She nodded again. They walked across the grass for a minute or two. From a little fenced enclosure at the back of the cemetery, a figure emerged.

‘He is Jules – the gardener,’ Michel told her.

She was pressing her arm against the driver’s guiding hand, as if she never wanted him to let go, but she showed some sign of animation by saying, ‘Oh, yes. I remember the name. I wrote to the Head Gardener of this cemetery. He replied that the cemetery was, at last, open for visitors. His letter was so kind. So I knitted a pullover – out of wool from old pullovers – and sent it to him as a thank you present for, for …’ Her voice broke for a moment, then she went on more firmly, ‘for looking after George.’

The taxi driver showed surprise. ‘He like that. Nobody thank gardener before – certainement.’

As Jules approached, she smiled at him as bravely as she could. The driver repeated the number of the grave to him.

‘Come, Madame.’

She unlinked her arm, and, hugging her flowers, her chin up, her face suddenly old and grim, she walked forward – like St Joan going into the fire, the driver told his brother, Anatole, sometime later.

Chapter Two (#)

All the modest hopes of George and Barbara had come to naught. Without George, his young widow considered, life was not worth living. She wished passionately that she had a child to console her, but they had deferred having a family until the end of the war.

From the day the war began, Barbara and her mother, Phyllis Williams, had fought a stalwart battle to save their home and their means of livelihood until peace should be declared. It had been a hard, very long struggle, and, on top of that, to be bereaved was difficult to bear.

They owned a small bed-and-breakfast establishment abutting the seashore on the Wirral peninsula. It was about eight miles from Liverpool, on the other side of the River Mersey, and not far from the estuary of the River Dee. They had worked for years to build it up as a nice place for commercial travellers to stay overnight, and for people in search of a family holiday during the summer.

Their home was an old farmhouse, lovingly restored by its original owner. Barbara and her mother ran the business while her father went to sea. He had been torpedoed in 1941.

For the sake of her daughter, Phyllis wept for her husband in secret and dealt firmly with the other problems the war had brought her.

‘We’ve got to eat, luvvie,’ she had told twenty-two-year-old Barbara, who had been devastated by her father’s death. And with considerable courage, like other Merseyside bereaved women, mother and daughter continued to try to live as normal lives as possible. It was not easy.

As far as Barbara was concerned, the battle had seemed worth it once she had met George.

She had actually seen him once or twice in the village, a rather ponderous youth a couple of years older than herself.

She had met him again when he was on leave, handsome in his Army uniform, at a Red Cross dance held in the church hall. He had, he told her, not been much at home since leaving school; at first he had been learning his trade as an apprentice to a stone mason, working on repairs to Chester Cathedral. Then once he had his journeyman’s papers, he had found a place working on the new Church of England Cathedral in Liverpool. He loved his work; he was devoted to his cathedral. But cathedral building can be put on hold until wars are finished, so George had been called up.

After Barbara and George’s marriage in 1942, the newlyweds and Phyllis Williams had all three cherished hopes of living together in the bed-and-breakfast after the war was over. The women would continue to run it, and George looked forward to returning to his full-time work as stone mason on the unfinished cathedral.

Phyllis Williams had been very pleased to acquire such a well-placed, sensible young man as a son-in-law. Suddenly, the need to keep the bed-and-breakfast going had acquired new meaning for her; it would be a great place for grandchildren, and the three of them would be quite comfortable financially.

Both women had been crushed and bewildered by George’s death. But other people were dependent upon their business, and both women worked mechanically to keep the shabby farmhouse open.

‘It’s the small nightmares wot keeps driving you crazy,’ Phyllis would lament. ‘Some of them is the last straw.’ And they would both blow their noses, and do their best.

Phyllis, however, became very worried about her widowed daughter as she watched her decline into a dull, disinterested woman, who rarely went out socially. It wasn’t that Barbara did not do her share of the work of their little business; she did more than enough, and she knitted and sewed industriously to help eke out their sparse clothes-rationing coupons.

‘You know, Ada, there’s no life in her; and she’s too young to give up like she is,’ Phyllis had said anxiously to George’s mother. Ada was herself a widow who did not have much life in her either, except when talking about her garden, when her face would occasionally light up.

‘You know and I know, Ada, that you just have to put the war behind you and start again.’

Ada Bishop sighed deeply. Phyllis Williams was the bravest little soul she knew.

‘Perhaps, in the back of her mind, she hopes he’ll turn up again; it’s been known to happen,’ suggested Ada. ‘You don’t always think quite sensible when you’re young, do you? I know he’ll never come home. But she may still hope.’

‘You don’t always think sensible even when you’re older,’ replied Phyllis, with a wry smile. It had been hard for her to accept that her own husband had been torpedoed in Liverpool Bay in 1941, and would never return. But a lot of seamen never had a grave other than the sea. Then she said, with sudden inspiration at the thought of a grave, ‘Perhaps she’d see different if she could look at George’s grave! She’d really know then.’

The mothers agreed. They persuaded Barbara that she should take a break and go to Normandy.

So, after some argument, a listless Barbara had drawn on her wartime savings – it had been easy to save in wartime, because there was very little to buy – and had gone to see Thomas Cook.

Until catching the ferry at Dover and her subsequent arrival in Bayeux, she had felt fairly calm about the visit; in fact, she had regarded it as an unusual, but welcome break, taken to please Ada and Phyllis.

Now, thin and workworn, Barbara faced her loss as bravely as she could. She was physically exhausted, despairing in her own loneliness and that of her overworked half-fed mother, bedevilled by the continued strict rationing – and by the cold, the everlasting cold which Britain had endured in that hopeless winter of 1947–48, the lack of gas and electricity – and food. Would there ever be any let-up, she wondered. There seemed to be absolutely nothing to look forward to.

While travelling to France, she had dwelled on the miserable condition of her home. It had been, in 1939, such a pretty seaside bed-and-breakfast establishment, with an excellent reputation.

The declaration of war had put an end to that. The house and garden had been ruined a few days before the war actually began.

Children and their mothers were evacuated from Liverpool and billeted upon them. She and Phyllis, with three extra mothers in the kitchen, had been thrown into chaos. They had accepted, however, that these refugees from the heavy bombing that was daily anticipated had to be housed. They did their best to cope.

She shuddered when she remembered the day she had discovered that all their beds had bugs in them and the pillows had lice, brought in by evacuees from some of the worst slums in Britain.

Mercifully, the evacuees had decided they hated living in what they regarded as countryside, where there was not even a decent fish-and-chip shop, and had returned home to Liverpool, as yet unbombed.

Phyllis Williams and Barbara had had to burn the pillows, boil the bedding, and ask the Town Council to get the entire house stoved for them. It stank for days afterwards.

They painstakingly went through the bedrooms again, armed with a local store’s last tins of Keating’s powder. To their relief they found no more invaders. The kitchen and all the floors in the house were scrubbed and polished.

The front garden was a mess, tramped over by both children and adults.

Barbara wanted to weep. Originally, she had herself planted the garden and it had become her hobby. Looking back, she thought how stupid it was to weep over a small garden; she had wept many more bitter tears since then.

Her mother, made of sterner stuff, said, ‘We’ll get a lad to dig it over, and seed it with grass. And we’ll put a couple of flowerpots on either side of the front door.’
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