The intense years punctuated lives with a totality which is difficult for the ignorant to understand, and the intervening calm became another type of pause. While we are in the moment we cannot escape the force of its presence, but after we extricate ourselves time alters our impression and dilutes its intensity. For some the nightmares return unexpectedly, unleashed by an unintentional word or question.
As each of the women became part of a different place and made different lives their letters to each other became less frequent. Each was always pleased to hear from her friend and glad that all was well. They never lost touch completely, even if a memory was the only thing left; there was comfort in the sense of place they had shared.
Eveline had taken over the running of her cousin’s farm house in the country side near Limoges and had made it into a chambres d’hotes. Her simple, classic country dishes satisfied and delighted the weary traveller, who was at liberty to make the garden their own and relax amongst the plethora of vegetation and free flowing flora.
Her style was quietly sociable with a slightly shy reserve; some might have described it as wary. She spoke to those whom she automatically trusted.
Her salad of tomatoes in its subtlety of olive oil, parsley and garlic, was a talking point. Its simplicity evoked a continuum of conversation around the table; one could almost feel the absent company in the empty chairs. She spoke of a fire in a church where people had been imprisoned and a woman separated from her child she could never reach again.
She could not stop her testament until she had regurgitated the whole, all the while standing quietly and with uncanny stillness. It seemed a necessary catharsis and yet one knew she would tell the tale again trying to make sense of the past and the repetition of history.
At breakfast the next morning she would say she had had bad dreams.
Simone had walked away with the others, carrying a suitcase, having abandoned the belongings she had put on the neighbour’s cart.
And as she continued along the road towards Paris even her valise became heavy and awkward. She sat down by the side of the road and searched for what she could do without, and having done so, left the sundry articles behind amongst the other items people had jettisoned for similar reasons. She walked on amongst the rejected shoes and bric a brac that were strewn intermittently about the route. The straggling line of a displaced population, leaving because that was the only thing to do, continuing its long progress.
If one was to visit those northern towns fifty years on, how clean and neat they would appear. Enterprise and new enthusiasm ribboning through the fields and former sights of battle. New roads carrying the new Europeans across the continents consuming the landscape in a different fashion. Only the ever watchful shades and nuances between the sight lines in the wide sky above you, a silent carrier of what had been done and said.
In a cellar somewhere removed in time and space from that first war, Martine thought of the lady in her drab dress and apron sweeping the ruins in the church. She had been trying to keep her concentration and not allow her nerves to overwhelm her. Waiting in this tiny hole for several hours, with nothing to eat or drink, had begun to disorientate and weaken resolve.
When they had come for them early that morning it was an inelegant arousal and the German officers had not allowed much time for preparation or the collection of luggage; that did not happen in these circumstances. In spite of being told at the outset what lay ahead in the event of discovery, the shock was palpable. The coldness of the assailant, and his intention to inflict violence and cruelty upon his victims, exuded like a foul sourness from every part of his being. The air was redolent with the decomposition of humanity and Martine felt numb.
She tried to will herself to die now, it would avoid what was to come, which in itself would result in being shot after hours of torture and interrogation. She heard the faint sound of what seemed like two gun shots somewhere to the right of her and above her head. As she looked upwards, in automatic response, she could make out the outline of a square grill in the wall where faint traces of light penetrated through the dirt. Footsteps faded on the ground, then the sound of different footsteps, closer and much louder approached.
Picardy seemed a long way away now. Simone and some of the others had taken shelter for the night in a farmer’s barn. By chance, in the form of miscellaneous trucks and discarded bicycles, they found themselves just north of Paris at Senlis.
The journey south had been circuitous and the need for avoidance techniques, and a degree of nonchalance when potential dangers presented themselves, a necessary requirement in such strained circumstances.
The days travelling had given her time to think, why Paris? She did not know anyone there. Would there be a possibility of melting into the crowd and becoming part of a wartime community under occupation?
Jacqui, a younger woman with whom she had struck up a good day to day relationship, knew people there and she seemed happy enough for Simone to accompany her. Having made the effort so far she might as well carry on she thought, there would be cafés and bars she could find work in, who knew? It would be summer soon and that meant life would feel easier to contemplate. It was extraordinary how a person adapted to this nomadic way of life and that some days just seemed like any other.
She lay against some wooden pallets, their shallow layer of straw providing some comfort, and fell asleep, the quiet chatter of the others around her soothing her into oblivion with its softly enunciated cadences.
When she awoke the next morning the rest of the group had already gone across to the house where the farmer had provided a simple breakfast of bread and coffee. She joined them and apologised hurriedly for being so late. The table made a focal point in the plain room, and her eyes glanced at the lofty ceiling towering above the assembled group; how welcome these functional surroundings were she thought. There was even some homemade cherry jam on offer; life in the countryside retained its rhythm and ritual come what may it seemed. She should write this all down for future generations.
When they finally got to Paris the group had diminished, many had decided not to go as far as that and had decided to try their luck on the outskirts. Jacqui had insisted that Simone stay with her and she would find a place for both of them. Her cousin, Monique, lived near Place de Clichy and there was bound to be room at her place for a while. She thought Simone might fit in well, in fact there might be the possibility of some work, depending on her tastes for excitement. Simone caught the whiff of something too dark here that might need to be carefully avoided.
Monique’s apartment was situated in one of the myriad of streets that congregated around that busy quartier. Even in these times life went on and the proximity of clubs and bars meant that the occupying population was as well served as the indigenous inhabitants always had been. The apartment, on the second floor, was accessible by lift and stairs. The lift tended to be temperamental so it was advisable to use the stairs. A woman had been found badly beaten inside it recently which was an indication that life continued, but at a price.
Simone eventually found work at a laundry a few blocks away near Montmartre. Monique had quickly introduced Jacqui into a twilight world, to which she had taken to easily and without much hesitation. Simone had avoided being persuaded into following suit, preferring to take up a more neutral way of life. She never enquired much and saw Monique and Jacqui only briefly, usually on their way out in the evening. Sometimes she was aware of voices and laughter, people arriving and then leaving again hours later. Once there was the sound of arguments in the street, doors slamming and the scent of cigar smoke penetrating the room from the corridor.
One Saturday morning she was aware of a couple of men watching the block, gazing at the apartment windows, then walking away into the main boulevard again.
Her life was solitary for the most part, her routine at the laundry brought her into contact with a variety of people, some as out of place as she, but this was an out of place time so she did not appear that unusual. A conversation shared over a cigarette and a glass of wine, listening carefully and empathetically to the warp and weft of the everyday slog. Simone fitted in quietly, without drawing attention to herself, and lived her life as simply as she could.
The walk back to the apartment at her usual, leisurely pace took about half an hour. The late September afternoon made the way down from Montmartre a gentle and almost nostalgic event. It was as if time had turned back upon itself and life was as carefree as it had been a few years ago. The little picture house she passed, a slither of a place, was a popular venue and she had to dodge the people queuing to get in.
By the time she had turned into Rue Le Mercier she had almost forgotten the times in which she was living, and as she walked into the vestibule she greeted the concierge as usual, who looked up from her knitting and nodded without expression, as usual; Simone remembered where she was.
She could hear the low beat of the jazz and the soulful voice behind it as she reached the top of the stairs. She went in quietly, the door to the main room at the top of the corridor was open slightly and the smell of perfume, brandy and cigarettes permeated the place; she saw through the half opening and took in the scene. Monique, Jacqui and three men were in various states of undress, asleep and full of the good brandy they had been consuming. They lay spread upon the chairs and settee, dead to the world for the moment, a soft snore of a fart emanated from someone.
The door to one of the bedrooms opened and a woman came out to visit the bathroom. She pulled the straps of her silk petticoat up over her shoulders as she walked by and Simone noticed a bruise on her upper arm as she did so. The occupant of the bedroom shouted something indistinct at her from behind the door as it shut.
Simone went as quietly as she could to her own room where a couple lay entwined and asleep on the bed. She went to the little kitchen and made coffee, lighting her own cigarette and forgetting any sense of the nostalgia she had previously felt.
Much later, when the party broke up and its pleasure-makers had left, the men, quietly triumphant and sated with sex and alcohol, far too absorbed in themselves to notice any observer, Simone caught sight of one of them and recognised him as the man she had seen some weeks ago, looking up at the apartment. She listened to their footsteps clumsily descending the stairs and the sound of a car pulling away.
Monique was tidying up the residue of the debauched hours and saw Simone at the kitchen table. She placed the glasses in the sink and returned to collect more items in need of restoration which she would then replace, unsullied, in the cabinet.
The sounds of furniture being put back in its rightful place and the music ending were audible from the salon. Jacqui was attending to that. The door to the other bedroom was still shut, presumably the third woman was asleep.
“They pay, they call the tune,we comply. We see the bright lights and the pizzazz, and give them what they ask for. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not, but the alternative, well there isn’t one now, truthfully you’re better out of it.”
She sat down, asked Simone for a cigarette and stared into space.
The girl had been a pretty thing, blonde and slim. The dark, full nipples strikingly prominent. The vulnerability in her eyes stared out at one as she lay lifeless on the bed.
Her body was half covered by the sheet and there was a series of red marks on her face and neck, one of her breasts had been slashed underneath its nipple. There were layers of marks on her back, the result of being repeatedly beaten as she lay unable to escape her attacker. There were also bite marks on her right ear.
Jacqui had discovered the body and had made a phone call. Some men came and removed it. Who they were, or where they took the dead girl, was not clear and no questions were asked. It seemed that in the present climate, in certain contexts, this procedure was one that took place in an understated and silent manner. “Le silence” prevailed.
Simone left the apartment without notice and searched for work and accommodation elsewhere, always wary that the face of the man she had recognised at the apartment might appear again.
There were always men who would behave like that given half the chance, but somehow the circumstances which facilitated licence to procure and punish with such terminal consequences, erupted in profuse intensity in some quarters at that time. Calm, cold, eyeless and booted, they haunted the street corners and drank champagne in the star dust inns of the corrupt, entrapping their pretty things all the way.