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Madame Barbara

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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He had to shout to make her hear. ‘I’m going to try the door once more.’

She followed him trustfully as he returned to the recalcitrant door.

He felt for the smallest log he had picked out. With this in hand, he shouted, ‘Push.’

They gave a concerted shove, and the door opened as much as it had before. Michel quickly pushed the log into the gap to wedge it open. On this more sheltered side of the cave he could now see light a little more clearly than through the tiny window. ‘It must be nearly mid-morning,’ he decided.

He then picked up another log of uneven width. This he handed to his mother, and told her what to do. Making her stand back, he swung the mallet as hard as he could, in a blow to hit the door at the edge of the opening. Then he flung his weight against it. His mother swiftly dropped the second log into the slightly further opened aperture as a rattle of debris came from outside.

Michel paused for breath.

After a moment, he cautiously stretched himself across the door as far as he could reach and ran his fingers down the open edge of it. He could feel that the wooden obstruction now lay wedged against the bottom of the door.

Several more tries failed to shift the door further.

Furious with frustration, he turned from his mother so that she should not see the intensity of his despair and strode again to the window. His mouth tight as he boiled with anger, he seized the bar across the middle of the window and shook it.

In a split second, he found himself thrown back by his own impetus, flat against the apple grinder, the bar still in his hand. From the window a small slither of debris fell to the floor.

He stared in astonishment at the bar, and then he began to laugh hysterically.

Startled, his mother eased herself round the grinder.

Bewildered, she could not understand what had happened. Then her son shook the bar at her. ‘It came out,’ he shouted. ‘But the window’s still too small to get through! It’s so absurd.’ He continued his manic laugh.

When she understood, her own mind began to clear. She went to look up at the aperture. ‘It’s too small for me – in my clothes.’

She continued to stare at it, ‘Anyway, it’s too high for me to reach.’

The laughter behind her died away. She heard Michel drop the iron bar. He came to stand beside her and looked down at her. She was indeed small, like a young girl, a wisp of a woman, just bones from lack of adequate food.

She said, ‘If I could reach, I could get through – without my skirts.’

He made her repeat the remark, not sure that he had heard correctly. ‘Could you?’

‘I believe so,’ she said slowly. ‘I should go face down and feet first, because I don’t want to drop on my head on the other side.’

He rubbed his ears in the hope of persuading them to clear, so that he could hear better. Then he said loudly, ‘I don’t think you would have much of a drop, Maman. The potato patch slopes slightly up towards the window – and it would be soft.’

She made a wry face. ‘I would still need to be face down because my old body won’t bend backwards much in order to ease myself down the wall. I don’t think even a young girl could do it face up.’

Despite the dire need to get out of their prison, this cold assessment of what a lifetime of toil had done to her body distressed Michel beyond measure. Maman was like a little tree constantly exposed to an east wind – she was indeed permanently bent forward.

Though she said with determination that she was prepared to try to ease through the window naked, and go for help, she was shy at appearing unclothed even before her son, never mind any foreign soldiers who might be around.

‘I could push your clothes through after you,’ suggested Michel. Then loath to put her through such an ordeal, he said, ‘We could first try shouting for help. There might be somebody out there after all.’

They shouted and yelled at the tops of their tired voices. To no purpose.

Michel then tried to move the windowsill. It had, after nearly a thousand years, crumbled partially under the constant vibration of the attack, and had thus loosened the bar. The sill was badly cracked, but little more of it could be moved out of its stony, foot-long depth. Michel cursed his forefathers for building so soundly.

Women can be so brave, thought Michel now as he smoked peacefully in the sunshine at the cemetery while he waited for Barbara Bishop.

He remembered suddenly a story of the first day of the British invasion. A young French girl had run down to the beach, through the heavy fire and the general carnage, and had waded out into the sea to drag wounded soldiers to the shore before they drowned. She had stayed there, a lone woman, doing her best to reduce the suffering. She must eventually have been killed, he decided, but nobody knew for certain. Without doubt, alive or dead, women rarely got any credit for their bravery.

He and his mother had lifted the bench, on which they had been sitting for most of their incarceration, to a spot under the window. While Michel looked the other way, Madame Benion shyly divested herself of everything except her black stockings and shoes and her shift.

Michel had never seen his mother naked, so it was with embarrassment that he made several efforts to lift her into the window aperture; it was difficult, while facing him, for her to slide in feet first, though she kept her legs straight and held her arms high over her head, like a diver preparing to plunge.

They did finally manage the manoeuvre; and with further agony of mind he watched her face mirror the pain of her naked flesh sliding through such a rough wall.

There was a moment, when she was far enough through to have her legs dangling out of the other side, that he feared she was wedged. She used her hands, however, to push herself onward; and she cried out as the skin on her stomach and on her bottom was badly scraped by the cruel stones of the long narrow aperture through which she had to force herself.

She finally flipped out of the space, and he heard her call that she had fallen without breaking anything and would rest for a little while. He anxiously pushed her clothes out to her.

It was surprisingly quiet outside, and Madame Benion, so brave as long as her son could see her, crouched at the foot of the wall and cried bitterly. She was bleeding from numerous scratches and grazings. Her stockings were torn and her knees, elbows and buttocks were bruised and raw.

As she finally drew on her petticoat and skirt and put on her black blouse, once more catching her hand on a piece of glass still embedded in the serge of her skirt, she wondered what she had done in her life to deserve such misery. As she dressed she looked anxiously around her.

Through smoke and dust driven by the wind, she could see that her house was a ruin, as were the barn, the hen houses and brooders and their runs. Where the apple trees had been was a series of stumps.

Then she became aware of the bodies in various uniforms – or rather, shreds and pieces of them – of a smoking tank not too far away, of something that looked like meat spread near it. She shuddered.

She wondered if there was anybody out there still alive.

‘Are you all right, Maman?’ came an anxious enquiry from the hole in the wall.

She took a large breath and made herself shout cheerfully, ‘Yes.’ Then she added, ‘First, I’m going to look to see what’s wedging the door.’

‘Bless you, Maman.’ Michel began to feel a little relieved.

Heaps of rubble and a teetering kitchen chimney above it made the door difficult to approach.

Very cautiously, Madame Benion mounted the pile of debris. It slipped and slithered under her. She froze.

Yet the problem was so simple. It looked as if the unlocked back door had been swung off its hinges by a blast. It lay across the garden path, one corner firmly pressed against the door of the outhouse, the other corner against the stone back doorstep. Though there was a scattering of debris on it, it was not deeply buried.

Very carefully Madame Benion turned her head. She was looking for something she could use as a walking stick to help to balance herself. Nothing offered.

While the sound of battle growled on in the distance and flashes in the sky told of continuing aerial combat, she stood contemplating the problem. Then she kneeled down and crawled slowly across the pile, testing every stone before she put down knee or hand to go forward. Her thick long skirt, though an impediment, was painstakingly heaved forward each time she moved a knee, and it saved her already lacerated skin from further serious cuts. She was, however, crying with pain by the time she found a steady footing on the door itself.

Michel heard her and tried again to push the cave door open. The fallen house door wobbled under her.

‘Wait,’ she said sharply, and then as he obviously did not hear her clearly enough, she shrieked almost hysterically, ‘Wait, can’t you?’

Subdued, he waited.

She swiftly began to clear the debris. Whatever was not heavy, she threw as far as she could, so as not to disturb the pile over which she had climbed. On the other side of her, a sliver of pathway was bare before the commencement of a further pile of treacherous stones and broken beams; it might just give sufficient room to push the door to that side, she decided.

Some of the stones from the house walls were heavy, and these she laid carefully onto the slithery piles, hoping that she would not set off a cascade of debris back onto the door.

Finally, she had cleared everything up to the outhouse door. She was so exhausted that she prayed to the dear Virgin that she would not die before she got her beloved Michel out.

Swaying on her feet, she now very carefully considered how to move the door. Finally, she staggered the length of it to the outhouse.

‘Michel,’ she shouted.

‘Yes, Maman.’

‘Be ready – when I shout – to push hard and squeeze right through. Use the mallet, if necessary.’

‘Exactly what are you going to do?’

She explained how the unhinged house door was the wedge. Her voice was hoarse from dust, from exhaustion, from simply having to shout.

‘Don’t touch your door for a moment. Let it shut entirely to give me leeway. I’m going to try to lift the corner of the back door – it’s pressed against the rise of the back doorstep – so that it will clear the step. Once I shout, you do everything you can to get your door ajar.’

The first time she tried, she could not lift the corner. The damp, muddy grass seemed to suck the heavy wood down. She paused for a moment, and then with every scrap of strength she had she gave a frantic heave.
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