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‘Push!’ she shrieked.
The door of the outhouse moved, as Michel pushed it from the inside.
‘Push!’ she screamed again.
Suddenly her end of the door jumped in her hands and slid upwards onto the second step of the house. She instinctively released it, and it bumped heavily down onto the top of the second step.
The corner of the door slid unwillingly across the step, wedging again when it hit the sill of the gaping house doorway. It was sufficient, however, to give space for Michel to squeeze out of his prison.
As he emerged, his mother collapsed.
‘Maman,’ he gasped, as she fell against the house wall.
Weak with relief, he stood for a second leaning against the outside of the sturdy little outhouse; then he stumbled towards her.
At first, he thought the effort had killed her. He burst into tears, as he tenderly laid her on top of the fallen door, the only clear spot. ‘Maman!’
It seemed an eternity before she opened her eyes, to observe her younger son on his knees before her, crying like a child.
It took a moment or two more to realise where she was and what had happened. She smiled weakly at him.
‘We did it!’ she whispered.
He smiled back at her.
Amid the total destruction of their home, he knew that nothing really counted except that they had each other.
‘Clever, clever Maman,’ he told her, as he pushed back the thin grey hair from her filthy, bleeding face.
They lay exhausted under the shadow of the teetering chimney for some time. Then Michel said, ‘I’ll try to get into the kitchen to get some food.’
‘Mais non!’ she responded forcefully. ‘You haven’t yet looked at it. See, the roof is broken in.’ She glanced above her. ‘And this wall is threatening to come down. We must move – very carefully, very softly.’
He raised himself on his elbow, and glanced around him.
He understood the danger immediately.
As, very cautiously, he got up and helped his mother to her feet, he was dumbfounded by the destruction which surrounded them. Aghast, he stared at it in disbelief.
He finally whispered to his trembling mother, ‘Maman, what are we going to do? What can we do?’
But she could not answer him. What had happened to victory, to liberation? she wondered in dazed amazement. Here was no victory: it was yet another defeat.
Chapter Four (#)
As Michel and his mother stood shakily in what had been the vegetable patch, their ears eased slightly and they became more aware of the high-pitched shriek of shells directed over their heads at the near distance, where heavy gunfire made a steady roar. Occasionally, through the general cacophony, they caught the distant screams and shouts of troops in hand-to-hand combat, while high in the sky planes dived purposefully towards the sound of battle. The horizon was flushed with fires.
Both of them were so covered with dust – faces, hair, hands, clothing all blackened – that they resembled statues carved from coal. In addition, amid the grime, Madame Benion’s face was marked by copious tears and drying blood from abrasions on her forehead and one cheek.
Barely able to stand upright, together they surveyed, aghast, the utter decimation of their farm. They imagined, from the flushed skyline, the further destruction still being wreaked on the hapless countryside.
Two dead Germans, one decapitated, lay nearby in a churned-up hen run. A burned-out tank stood, still smoking, amid the stark skeleton of the barn. Even the apple trees had been blasted practically out of existence. The stable, where their horse had lived, the pigsty and, worst of all, the hen coops, were piles of smouldering wood; and from them, as from the tank, came the nauseating odour of cooked meat and burned feathers, mixed with the smell of death from human corpses. Michel sniffed and reckoned that there were other dead nearby.
Nauseated, the Benions swayed unsteadily on their feet, overwhelmed by sickening terror. While shells continued to whistle over their heads and the heavy gunfire persisted on the horizon, they were unable to move further themselves.
From low in the sky, through the dust, they saw that a few German fighter planes were rising to challenge a further wave of Allied bombers.
Michel pushed his mother to the ground, close to the protection of the wall of the storeroom.
‘We could go back into the cave,’ he shouted into her ear. But she feared being shut into it again, and yelled passionately back, ‘Non! Non!’
As they lay with eyes closed, Michel realised that the naval guns from the coast now seemed to have altered their range to a setting to the south-east of this little homestead. Frequently shrapnel hissed to the ground, but the Benions barely heard it. The dogfights above them had also shifted further away.
Michel’s instinct was to flee, to get out of this frightful carnage. But where could they go?
Both of them were much too panic-stricken to consider that, amid the chaos, there might be wounded in need of help. Or if they did, they were past caring; the wounded were unlikely to be French.
As Madame Benion lay with her unscraped cheek close against the earth that had nourished her for most of her life, she found it unbelievable that she could be the innocent victim of this outrageous ferocity. She had never thought that the Allies would, perforce, destroy the French countryside as they tried to oust the German Army.
They were both dreadfully hungry and their thirst was acute. They simply lay paralysed, barely able to keep sane, as they shook with fear, fear of the conflict still being waged overhead, fear of being attacked by equally scared, furious German soldiers that might still be around.
As they tried to gather themselves together, a further scarifying realisation broke in upon them – that without home or land they might as well be dead. Unless their disorganised Government helped them, they had no future except starvation, even if they survived this terrible battle.
In the colossal racket of the night it had been impossible to communicate properly; they had simply clung together and prayed. Now, in the warm sunlight, their throats dry and dusty, they mouthed words at each other. Both turned instinctively to look towards where the well should be, but there remained only mud and a trace of its round wall. They glanced back at each other in despair.
As they became steadier, the depth of their loss was further borne in on them. Everything that, as a family they had worked to create through generations was gone, obliterated. The Germans had been unmerciful predators; but this complete loss, when freedom was so near, seemed to both to be the cruellest blow of all.
Michel’s brave little mother again wept helplessly, the tears making more white streaks through the dust on her cheeks.
Michel thought his heart would break.
As they surveyed the ruin of their lives the terrifying naval guns suddenly ceased firing, though flights of Allied planes continued to sweep overhead.
Michel did not care whether the planes were bombers or fighters, German or Allied. Instead, he was certain that the price of freedom from the Germans was likely to be starvation.
Madame Benion refused to be left alone while he stumbled over nearby rubble to assess more carefully whether any small structure had survived. Without much hope he called his watchdog, but there was no response.
For the moment, Michel decided not to walk right round their little property to see more exactly if anything whatever could be salvaged. It was a decision, he later realised, that had saved his life; the authorities had subsequently told him that the whole place was sown with unexploded munitions, and mines planted by the Germans as they retreated.
He did climb a part of a wall, despite his mother’s protestations that it would collapse under him. He wanted to look further down the hill towards the home of his fiancée’s parents to see how it had fared. He was not quite certain that the family had stuck with their decision not to evacuate their home, though Monsieur Fortier had, a couple of days before, again discussed leaving.
The remains of the walls of their home were barely visible. It was clear that their holdings had been equally badly damaged. Michel had been thankful that his Suzanne was working in Caen; he had, as yet, no idea of the havoc about to be wreaked upon that ancient city.
His mother was tugging anxiously at his trouser leg, so he jumped down. The Fortiers would have to look after themselves.
Now, as he stood beside his taxi parked in the lane which crossed the cemetery, he silently finished his kick-boxing exercises, which he did daily; waiting in cemeteries was the only period of his busy day during which he was not otherwise occupied. As he did them, he cursed the Boches and his own erratic governments of France. He heaped maledictions upon the political manoeuvring of a United States Government fearfully obsessed with anything savouring of socialism, who used the Marshall Plan to their own advantage, so that it did not help humble French peasants, who might be communistically inclined.
He remembered how he and his mother had dragged themselves through the drying mud to what had been the lane, and had then picked their way down what had been a reasonable gravel road to the village, to seek water and temporary shelter.
On the way, stumbling over the churned-up road, they met small groups of soldiers in British uniform. Though the soldiers looked filthy and exhausted, Michel feared that he would be stopped and questioned. The Britons, however, ignored them; a small male civilian and a weeping old woman, who were obviously as dishevelled as they were, held no terrors for fighting men driven nearly insane by the appalling noise and chaos of battle.
Michel was certain that nearly all of the inhabitants had fled the tiny village a day or two before. Like the road leading to it, it was in ruins and now appeared deserted. Not a groan, not a whimper; not a twitter of a bird, not a dog’s bark. Only the distant roar of battle.
A terrified dusty cat cringed in silence in the corner of a broken wall. Traumatised, it stared unblinkingly at Michel.
Michel pulled off his dirty beret and scratched his equally dirt-laden head. He shouted, and then tried to listen intently.
Though he still could not hear very well, he mouthed to his mother, ‘Everyone must have left.’ He barely stopped to wonder what had happened to the villagers’ animals, which they must have left behind. He was sure that his own livestock, even his watchdog, tethered near the hen coops, was dead.
A teetering wall crashed suddenly. Madame Benion jumped with fright. She looked as if she would faint.
Michel hugged her closer. ‘Courage, Maman. It seems the Allies are advancing – those soldiers were British. We may find support troops of some kind, who will give us water.’
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