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Madame Barbara

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Though she did not believe him, she gradually steadied.

‘Wait here,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll see if I can find something to eat or drink. There may even be somebody hiding here.’

‘Germans?’

‘No. I mean Claude or Maurice or the Desrosiers.’

He looked along the tiny street for a house not too badly damaged. As he went towards one, his mother, memories of the First World War ever before her, shrieked, ‘Be careful. It may be mined!’

He nodded acknowledgement of the warning, as he paused at the doorless front entrance. Then tentatively he stepped inside.

Five bodies lay in the tiny living room. He knew them. Though the one window had imploded, it was not clear in the half-light how they had died, but the smell of faeces and decay was already strong. They must have been dead for some time.

It could have been concussion, he decided. From the dark stains around them, he adjudged that they had bled. Once more, he felt sick with primeval fear.

He took a large breath and then looked carefully round. Hesitantly, he stepped over the corpses of poor Madame Lefebvre, her father, who had been the village shoemaker, and the three grandchildren. Michel knew the house from many a visit and he went straight to a cupboard at the back of the room. In it, he found a very dry loaf, a jug of milk, which had soured, and some cheese. There was nothing else. He gazed in amazement at the milk, which had, in its heavy pottery jug, survived whatever explosion had killed the family.

He hesitated again. He was well acquainted with the family lying on the floor and would not, for the world, have stolen from them. Then he told himself not to be a fool; they would never have need of bread again. He picked up the loaf and blew the dust off it. The cheese had been in a covered dish and the milk had several layers of butter muslin draped over it; they were not so impregnated with the all-pervading dust.

Balancing the milk carefully, he took the food back to his mother. She was still standing in the middle of the street, a lost soul with nowhere to go.

Afraid of booby traps left by the Germans, they remained standing where they were. They gulped down the whey from the milk and ate the bread and cheese between them.

The food revived them. Desperate to find some safety, they had a hasty consultation, during which they had to continue to speak loudly to each other.

‘We should walk down to Bayeux,’ Michel said. ‘The other day, the postman mentioned that it was taken at the beginning of the invasion – undamaged. I can’t think of anywhere else to get help, can you? And we might find out where Uncle Léon and his boat are.’

Madame Benion agreed. Anything to get out of the hell so quickly created round them.

As they walked slowly along the road leading out of the village, they were greeted, with relief, by four other terrified survivors whom they knew by sight, all rather deaf, each with faltering tales of dead children, ruined homes and ruined farms.

As they proceeded, people emerged, by ones and twos, out of side lanes or from the trampled fields and devastated villages. They were few, most having fled earlier, and fewer still were children. All were bent on reaching Bayeux in an effort to get behind the Allied lines and not be caught again between the opposing armies.

Apart from personal safety, they sought medical help for wounded relations and friends, who were too badly hurt to be moved or who still lay amid the rubble. This made Michel feel guilty that he had not searched the village for wounded French before he left it. The silence had, however, convinced him that there was nobody there. He forgot his impaired hearing.

One demented man demanded that they all turn round and go to his village, in order to dig out his family from the ruins of their home. The frightened little group stopped to argue about this for a few minutes, and then agreed that it would be madness to tramp back through the battlefield again; perhaps be blown up by Allied fire if the Germans managed to mount a counteroffensive. It would be better to press on to Bayeux from whence medical help, ambulances and soldiers who understood land mines – les démineurs – might be sent into the countryside.

They met Allied infantry being moved up to the front in personnel carriers. The procession was closely followed by tanks and Jeeps with a vanguard of motorcyclists, who tried, not always successfully, to push refugees off the roads to make way for the advancing military.

The weary civilians found it difficult to walk on the verge of the road. They struggled through the long wet grass and, occasionally, flung themselves to the ground at the menacing sound of diving aircraft. Though they were equally afraid of mines lying in the undergrowth of the great hedges which often marked the edge of a property, the greenery did give an illusion of cover, when, in the hope of impeding the Allies’ advance, the few planes the Luftwaffe had available swept low overhead to machine-gun all and sundry.

The forlorn little group struggled grimly on, trying not to stumble into the roadside ditch, which had several inches of water in it.

They were twice hastily scattered, however, by a British tank pressing its way through the heavy, deep-rooted hedges and on to the road. They also met a foot patrol of English soldiers with red crosses on their sleeves, which eased its way through the hedgerows from a field behind them.

A little surprised to find civilians whom, they had imagined, would have earlier fled the area, the medics said briefly, in English, that they were checking for wounded. They enquired of the refugees if they had seen anyone, Allied or German, lying hurt; they did not mention French casualties.

Seeing the bewilderment of the refugees at being queried in English, Michel appointed himself interpreter.

Once the soldiers had managed to make themselves understood, they were told sadly in chorus that only the dead had been seen. There were, however, frantic inter-jections that there were French casualties in the villages, for whom the refugees hoped to find help.

The patrol leader, a lance corporal, obviously shaken by their stories, kindly promised to do his best to inform civilian authorities. ‘They’re probably out there somewhere already,’ he said rather helplessly.

‘This is the last call for lunch,’ he added, with an attempt at humour. ‘Most of the wounded has been took in – a few Jerries amongst them.’ And on being asked, he replied cheerfully with all the optimism of a nineteen-year-old that yes, he thought it was true that Bayeux was still standing, undamaged. He turned to his fidgeting patrol and chivvied the men forward. As the group began to move, some of them looked back at the refugees and shouted, ‘Good luck!’

The little group of villagers, trailing behind three people going slightly faster through a deserted hamlet, were horrified by a sudden explosion which blew up those ahead, spattering their remains on those following them. It was the first time that Michel had seen his tough, silent mother so distressed that she vomited.

They were further very shocked and frightened at the sight of small, loose groups of British commandos casually looting the remains of homes, and shooting out windows or booting open shut doors. One soldier came out of a wrecked church, brandishing joyfully a glittering cross from the altar. A stranded car formed a great entertainment to the invaders as they reduced it to wreckage. A terrified horse was used as a target. When the frightened owner protested, he was shoved roughly to one side.

Since there were no officers with any of these groups, Michel assumed that they were deserters. He felt that since they had nothing to lose, they were probably much more dangerous than the more orderly units they had seen.

The tiny band of refugees, unanimous in their fear of the plunderers, edged in and out of nearby lanes or scattered through the hedgerows to avoid such menaces, and when they had passed, whispered to each other that they had never expected this of the Allies. ‘Worse than the godforsaken Bodies,’ one man said.

‘Every army has some criminals in it,’ replied an exhausted elderly man with almost saintly acceptance. ‘Saw it in the Great War.’

That evening, filthy, blood-bespattered, foodless and footsore, they walked into Bayeux, which looked blessedly normal after what they had seen en route, though there were crowds of civilians as well as military personnel in the streets.

While shocked passers-by, both troops and civilians, stared at them, Madame Benion looked at her son and mourned, ‘Whatever shall we do?’

Michel had been thinking about this, as they struggled through the ruined countryside, and he replied, ‘Find a church. The priests will surely be helping refugees. There must be some kind of help for people like us. Or the hôtel de ville?’

His mother was reeling with exhaustion. ‘Find a church,’ she muttered. She had a real distrust of French officialdom in the shape of a town hall with which she was unacquainted.

And now, as he smoked his second Gauloise and waited for Barbara Bishop, Michel was again thankful for the monks into whose hands they had literally fallen, too weary and hungry to go another step.

His mother had been put to bed in a narrow cell, where she had remained for a week until her skin had begun to heal. Her grief at the loss of her home was beyond healing.

Chapter Five (#)

When Barbara looked down at the neat white cross which indicated the last resting place of Private George Bishop, 6th Batt., East Lancashire Regiment, died 27 July 1944, aged 28 years, she felt the same stunned emptiness she had endured when she had first heard of his loss through the War Office.

The gardener watched her from a discreet distance. One never knew how these women, whether mothers or wives, might react. He had had some who had flung themselves onto the wet grass and had lain there, crying for hours. Others had had hysterics and screamed so hard you could have heard them in Tessel. Still others came and went without a word, their expressions frozen into grim endurance.

Fathers occasionally came alone, to stand uneasily before a cross, tears running silently down their cheeks. Frequently, they wore their own medals, won in the First World War, as if to identify themselves as sharing the suffering of their boy who lay beneath the sod.

Barbara made no noise, though tears ran down her face.

When she felt steadier, she kneeled down on the damp lawn and carefully laid the flowers in front of the cross, tucking them close round its base, as if tucking a baby up in bed.

She felt she should say a prayer, but if God tolerated the horrors represented by this single white cross, He must be insane and would not understand her prayer or her dire need for comforting. There was no point in praying.

Given different times, she thought with a burst of anger at fools who made war, George could have been watching a football match with the Germans on the other side of this carefully groomed cemetery. What was it about men that allowed them to be led by the nose into ghastly cruelty against each other? It didn’t make sense.

These days, nothing made sense. The war was over, but George would not return; at home on Merseyside, each cold and hungry day seemed worse than the previous one. And this French countryside of shattered, deserted villages and towns had shocked her beyond measure. In the glory of a successful invasion, and the Allies having at last beaten the Germans, she realised that few people in England had given a thought to the suffering French civilians who had been caught in the middle.

She looked again at the cross before her. Is this how her mother had felt when her seaman husband had drowned in the Atlantic in 1941, his freighter sent to perdition by Germans, may they rot in hell? Mam had looked like a ghost for over two years. Even now, she was not the same woman who had kissed him goodbye before his last voyage; she had aged immeasurably.

The hopeless tears increased, running down Barbara’s face to drip onto her flowered scarf.

She had not felt so alone in her entire life.

From his seat on the step of the taxi, the driver observed her a little anxiously. Her face had blenched as if she might faint. Then he saw that Jules was watching her, ready to go to her if needed.

A solitary ray of sunshine lit up her shaking shoulders, her white, set face bent over the flowers, her hands clasped in her lap, as she finally sat back on her heels and bowed her head in helpless submission to forces beyond her control.

Death is truly the end, thought the apprehensive driver. There is nothing you can do to reverse it. As he frequently did, he silently cursed the name of Adolf Hitler and all his German brood.

After about five minutes, Barbara crossed herself mechanically, and then stumbled to her feet. She stood looking down at the flower-bedecked grave for a moment, heaved a mighty sigh, and said to it in a tremulous voice, ‘Goodbye, luvvie. Goodbye, my dearest.’

She raised her eyes and saw Jules staring at her as he stood diffidently by the gate at the edge of the lawn. He smiled gently. Like a priest, he saw daily so much sorrow.

She forced herself to gather her wits together. ‘Thanks, Monsieur Jules,’ she said heavily in faltering French. ‘Thanks for keeping the grave so well.’

She turned slowly back to the taxi. Realising that many of George’s friends must be buried around him, she picked her way carefully between the crosses, anxious not to step on anyone.

Before she reached the taxi, she paused and gave one last, long look back. Then she slowly turned away.

She took a handkerchief out of her sleeve and carefully wiped her face clean of tears. With dead eyes, she observed the patient driver hastily rise from his seat on the step of the taxi. She did not say anything as she approached him.
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