For my English speaking friends who can't read me in French...
This short story was written years ago. It came to me after listening to family anecdotes about WWII in France. It's not a Christmas story, unlike the French yarn that'll soon be published on this blog, but it's a story of childhood and war too. A few years ago a young English director was really motivated to turn it into a film but, unfortunately, it never came to fruition. I hope that one day it may still happen...
I wish you all a luminous and peaceful year and thank you, as ever, for your support!
A Story of War and Guilt
Lulled by the constant drone of conversation around her, Mathilde stared dreamily at her glass of champagne. The light bubbles were rising leisurely to the golden surface, and she thought that, with a bit of practice, boredom could easily be turned into a form of relaxation.
"… Heard the latest on warblogs?"
"Warblogs. The journals soldiers write on the Internet."
"Never heard of them."
"Well, they're being curtailed by the US Defence Department."
"I'm not surprised. Sounds like information heaven for the Bin Ladens of this world!"
"But sharing experiences must be a release for them…"
"The soldiers. They must see such dreadful things..."
"As if they didn't know what it would be like when they joined! I bet there wasn't such whinging in the days of Churchill. They just got on with it. Stiff upper-lips and heroes... Now, that was a proper war."
She woke up from her polite slumber. Something was jarring. How unlike her to notice. It was not the first time she'd heard such a conversation in her social circle, but suddenly, for some reason, it sounded different, simultaneously obscene and compelling. As carelessly uttered as it was received by the assembly, the last sentence dissolved in the ambient small talk. The discussion moved on to another subject, but Mathilde had been awoken from the matt blur of her indifference.
The man guilty of waking her was a few seats away on the other side of the table, his face partly hidden by a silver candelabrum. She leant sideways to catch sight of him and her hand brushed against the long satin ribbons at the front of her black dress. Distractedly she played with them – a telltale sign of her feeling rattled.
Surprisingly, perhaps, he was a young man. One of those whose self-righteous energy made her feel tired and slightly discouraged. She liked youth, in theory, but found it often irritably ignorant and self-assured. An attitude that made her generation feel old and redundant. Know-it-alls. And yet... Why this cult of youth? A conspiracy against experience. So many of her contemporaries bowed to the pressure, reading the right books, seeing the right films, and going under the knife (or syringe). But not her. She was in her seventies and people said she was still beautiful. It sounded like an allowance soon to be denied but that did not worry her. Deep down, age didn't matter to her. Nothing, in fact, could touch the central core of her self.
Her cool remoteness in a country prone to passion and enthusiasm had enchanted her English husband when they had met at the Sorbonne, in Paris, fifty years before. He always said that she had appeared to him as a haven of peace in a hot-blooded Latin environment. Some had felt judged by her silence but they were wrong: her aloofness was more indifferent than judgmental. She had been invariably pleasant and smiling during the numerous social functions to which her husband's position had taken her throughout the years.
At first she had even done her best to look interested in people and their trivial conversation, paying the right amount of lip service to her social duties. But in time she had given up forcing herself. Her natural distinction and her husband's money had allowed her not to bother. The world took her as she was: tolerant and even-tempered, although a bit cold – some said – but who's perfect? Her life was, as the expression goes, a long peaceful river. Not a ripple in sight.
Tonight, however, this arrogant young man had initiated an imperceptible turbulence beneath the calm surface. What to him was an abstraction he felt entitled to deem "proper", to her was "The war".
It was the Spring of 1944 in Brittany, and she was a girl of nine. Her family had been evacuated from Saint-Malo to the neighbouring village of Miniac-Morvan. They were living in a rented house, and the children were going to school with Mlle Dubois, a motherly middle-aged spinster. Mathilde was pretty and a bit spoilt; a daughter after three sons. Her dad was a doctor. He worshipped her.
Of all the children in Miniac, she had befriended a girl called Odette, whose father, a widower, was a cobbler. Odette was different from anyone Mathilde had ever known. The oldest of five children, she had the crushing responsibility of bringing up her brothers and sisters. Blond and pale, quiet and obedient, her humble drab clothes always meticulously clean, she seemed intent, above all, on blending in. But her meagre ambition was not to be granted. Some well-intentioned ladies of the parish, most eager to impress each other and "Monsieur le curé", had imposed on her the burden of their Christian benevolence in the shape of hideous home-knitted brownish-yellow cardigans. Odette was poor and an orphan, a deserving charity case. Everyone knew it and few ever let her forget it.
When Mathilde, looking lost, had arrived in the new school, Odette, shy by nature, had acted against her usual reserve. She had come to Mathilde in the playground and had invited her to join the other children in a game. From that day their friendship had been sealed. Odette was completely devoted to Mathilde, and Mathilde, having soon regained her self-assurance, had taken Odette under her protective wing. Their relationship, balanced between the innocence of childhood and the budding awareness of social differences, was a fine mixture of love, admiration and condescension.
Friendships, in those days, were very intense, for they brought reassurance and warmth in an otherwise hostile environment. These were confusing and chaotic times. The war had been going on for five years and Mathilde was too young to remember life being any different. The Germans, whose occupation of France had meant constant fear and deprivation, were starting to fret under the repeated attacks of the American planes. There were talks of a landing somewhere, and the ranks of the Résistance had never been so full. The adults said that the wind was turning. The German army, in a last ditch attempt to reinforce their reign of terror, had become even more cruel to French civilians. Only hope and faith in the Allies kept life bearable. Thankfully the Germans, too occupied by overseas threats, didn't often show their faces in the village. Life, therefore, could appear almost normal.
One cloudless and mild afternoon, Mlle Dubois had decided to take the children for an exploration of the countryside, a live "leçon de choses". The pupils were so excited by this exceptional outing that they found walking in line behind the teacher extremely difficult. The open fields were calling appealingly and the fragrances of spring were exhilarating.
Mathilde had tied one of her pink ribbons in Odette's pale hair. The beaming smile her friend had given her in return had made her feel wonderful about herself.
At last the teacher stopped on a long road that stretched towards the coast. It was bordered on each side by tall willowy trees and a shallow ditch. She instructed the children to find on the grassy verges as many different plants as possible, which they would identify and classify back at school. She added very seriously that they should not (and she stressed the "not") stray away from the cover of the trees. It was a question of life and death, she said.
They all went off in pairs. Little dresses and short trousers, frolicking, laughing and gathering sunny dandelions and delicate daisies. Odette, as usual, was carrying the box for samples, while Mathilde was running around.
Suddenly, the games stopped.
From the blue horizon a sound, a roar, disturbed the peace.
From the blue horizon a sound, a roar, disturbed the peace.
"Don't panic children!" the teacher shouted. "Dive to the ground! Get down NOW!"
Always obedient, Odette had remained with the group. Mathilde, on the other hand, had gone off further down the road, behind the line of trees and the ditch, and she was out of reach: rules and regulations didn't apply to her; she knew better. Ecstatic and inebriated by the sights and smells of the new season, she didn't hear the distant rumbling nor the teacher's urgent cry.
Odette dropped the sample box, spilling its content on the road, and ran to find her friend. She was calling frantically and her face looked very scared. Seeing her in the distance, bright red and waving her cardigan frenetically above her head, Mathilde laughed. But when Odette reached her, she heard the groan of the engine and, at last, understood.
Huge, dark and lethal. Death from the sky. The plane dived abruptly. It was German. Paralysed with fear, the girls stood in the open.
The gigantic bird was upon them; its cold shadow had eclipsed the sun.
Odette pushed Mathilde into the ditch. The explosions of the gunshots sounded like fireworks, magical and terrifying, and the noise from the engine was deafening. The impacts on the dry grass were like hail, only louder, heavier.
Then everything went dark: the sounds and images stopped.
When Mathilde recovered her senses, the teacher was sobbing noisily, holding her to her bosom. There was blood on her new school tunic; what would Maman say? Of Odette, she saw only a pink ribbon caught in a bush on the edge of the ditch. Her little friend was dead.
The funeral was terribly sad. Death then, all dark and resigned, was even more dismal than it is now. The hearse, dragged along the uneven road by two heavy farm horses dressed in black, was followed by a procession of villagers. Mathilde, as Odette's best friend, had been given the privilege of holding one of the two black ribbons at the back of the cart.
In the cemetery it started raining. The very small coffin soon disappeared into the ground. Fistfuls of earth were thrown on it: "Earth to Earth..." Looking down into the hole, Mathilde felt dizzy. Her father took her hand and led her away from the tomb to join a line of neighbours and friends, each waiting their turn to offer the bereaved family their "sincere condolences". The sounds were muffled; whispers and smothered weeping. The funeral expenses had been paid by Mathilde's parents, and the poor grief-stricken cobbler thanked them warmly, his unshaved face all shadowed as if stained with shoe polish and tears.
It was nobody's fault but the Boches'. Sad, sad, casualty of war.
Mathilde was still playing with the ribbons of her dress. The party in the dining room was going on. None of the guests could have imagined her train of thoughts... when suddenly an exclamation.
"Such a tragic mess!"
Like a bombshell, the sentence exploded in the civilised and well-fed blandness of the conversation. Who had spoken it? The voice had sounded so desperate and tense – an absolute social blunder. It seemed to have come from just behind her. She turned. No one. For a minute, the room went quiet, and they all stared at her. She felt her tranquil facade was no longer intact. What were they all gazing at so intently? She tried to pull herself together and smile, her habitual social screen, but only managed a grimace.
There was blood on her school tunic... She had seen only a pink ribbon floating in the light wind... It was the Boches' fault... There was blood...
Soon the conversation around her had resumed its swing, her lapse of sanity forgotten. Superficiality has no memory. But she was in turmoil, feeling oppressed as if there was a weight on her chest. She couldn't breathe so well.
This weight on her, so heavy... and hair on her face, in her mouth, blond hair... No! And a pale face, even paler than usual, with big gaping holes in place of the kind blue eyes... And a warm liquid on her hands... Panic. She pushes the bundle away. The body has no reaction and falls to the side, like a rag doll, in a grotesque position.
"Come on Odette! The others will laugh! Get up!"
Panic becomes horror. She screams.
"Get up Odette! Now! Stop being so silly!"
The discarded charity cardigan lies on the ground, all red. The blank face stares at Mathilde as she shakes the body. The dull hair sticks to the clammy skin.
"No! Odette! Don't be dead! Oh, please God!"
Around the table the conversation had resumed and no-one noticed the alteration of Mathilde's face. Crumbled the soothing beauty, vanished the balanced coolness... The old woman in the black dress was tearing at her ribbons with a neurotic frenzy.
Guilty. She was guilty of straying away, of endangering her life and that of her friend. Guilty of forgetting and forgiving herself; guilty of a lifetime of hypocrisy and indifference. Guilty of having been alive for so long. All these years spent pretending, being adored and respected, without a thought for those less fortunate than herself, for Odette who had given all she had. Odette who had died for her. All these decades of indulgence, futility and blindness. Age, for the first time, felt intolerable.
When the flood of guilt became too strong, she felt suffocated. She could no longer distinguish her surroundings, but was vaguely aware of a commotion around her. She collapsed.
The children were kept away from the scene. Mlle Dubois screamed and rushed down into the ditch. She pushed Mathilde aside and held Odette in her arms. She was sobbing. After a while, she laid Odette's limp body carefully on the grass, wiped for ever the unbearably glazed look from her eyes, and hid her vacant face under her shapeless charity cardigan. She then turned to Mathilde who was standing by, petrified:
"You killed her! You, selfish child! You killed her!"
Mathilde tried to smile but she felt sick and fainted. When she regained consciousness, the teacher was cuddling her. A pink ribbon in a bush was gleaming in the sun. The war was soon to be over.
© V. David-Martin, 2007