Madame barbara, p.1
Madame Barbara, page 1
To the memory of
Private Kenneth Andrew Pagett,
5th Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment,
killed in action in the battle for Caen,
From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.
About the Author
Also by Helen Forrester
About the Publisher
‘Permit me, Madame.’ The taxi driver lifted out of Barbara Bishop’s arms the ornate bunch of flowers she was carrying. He was careful not to crush the red, white and blue bow which held the stems together. ‘I’ll lay them beside you on the back seat.’ He spoke in French, but his gestures made the meaning clear.
Tired by her long journey from Liverpool, the young widow said mechanically, ‘Merci, Monsieur,’ and climbed into the cab.
She had been told by the English-speaking receptionist at the Bayeux hotel into which Messrs Thomas Cook had booked her that this precious vehicle was the only taxi remaining in Bayeux. He had gone on to say, with a sardonic grin, that the German Army had failed to find it when they had requisitioned every French vehicle to aid their retreat from Normandy.
‘When the Allied Army invaded Normandy in 1944, Madame, and, after the Battle for Caen, Germany was defeated, the German soldiers became desperate. They took cars, lorries, every bicycle they could find to help them get away.’ He threw up his hands. ‘We’re still very short of transport of any kind – even work horses.’
As Barbara Bishop climbed into the taxi, she noted with disdain that its interior still had a faint aroma of manure from the old racing stable in which the receptionist said it had been hidden since 1940. She wrinkled her nose; in England it was widely believed that the French were dirty – but a taxi smelling of manure …?
Its seats were upholstered in cracked black oilcloth, and the glass in one of its side windows had been replaced by a piece of roughly cut celluloid.
The taxi driver held Barbara’s flowers with decent reverence – were they not destined to be laid on a grave? As he waited for her to get in, he observed with interest a pair of remarkably pretty legs, and a neat little bottom clad in a plum-coloured corduroy skirt.
She was wearing heavy, plum-coloured shoes which matched her skirt, and nylon stockings. He noted the nylons and wondered if she had an American lover; even in this quiet spring of 1948, nearly three years after the war had finished, he knew of no other way that a young woman could obtain nylon stockings.
Lover or not, the smart little rear end was enough to make him sigh wistfully at his bachelor state. And her light brown hair looked so bright as it glinted in the sunlight; it had been carefully set in a bunch of curls and clasped at the back of her neck by a fine old-fashioned tortoiseshell hairslide.
This thin slip of womanhood did not look like most of the English widows he had recently driven to the local military cemeteries. Despite her long stride and the determined lift of her chin, she looked poorer, and the taxi driver wondered how she had afforded to make the journey from England. Most of the others had been obviously well-to-do, with hair professionally dressed and, on their left hands, huge diamond engagement rings as well as wedding rings. They had asked to see the graves of officers, and had been condescendingly polite to him.
He knew that type of English woman. Long before the war, he had sold eggs and fresh chickens from his father’s poultry farm to an older generation of just such women. They had been part of a large number of English retirees who had settled near the coast of Calvados. They had, of course, expected their orders to be delivered; women like that did not come to the market. So he had done the deliveries on his bicycle. Some of them lived permanently in Normandy, some only for the winter months. Not quite rich enough to live in Deauville or Trouville, they were, however, very aware of their status, particularly, he recollected with amusement, when dealing with peasants like himself.
Driven by an ambition to improve himself, he had, from the age of ten, patiently learned a great deal of English from them. They rarely spoke good French. He could, he thought with conceit, discuss in detail in the best of English the merits of a dressed chicken, even if, before knocking on their back doors, he had had to look up in his pocket dictionary the new words he wanted to try out on them.
During the first year of the war, when nothing much militarily had happened in France, the ladies had, nevertheless, quietly retreated back to England, taking their retired husbands and their horrid little dogs with them.
This young woman – Madame Barbara Bishop, according to the slip of paper the receptionist had given him when booking the taxi – had greeted him with friendly politeness, which had been a pleasant relief. She was, Reservations had said, going to the grave of an ordinary private.
Her wedding ring was a plain band; she wore no engagement ring. He presumed that wartime marriages in Britain, as in France, did not allow for much show in the shape of jewellery – unless one had suitable pieces already in the family.
Furthermore, unlike most of the other ladies, she was shorter than he; she could not literally look down on him. He was unable to place her exactly, but decided that she might be the daughter of a small shopkeeper.
Unaware of the fast analysis of her social standing, Barbara seated herself. She laid her black, heavily embroidered handbag on her lap.
He enquired, this time in English, ‘Madame is comfortable?’ He smiled at her. But if he hoped to encourage her to flirt with him, he was unsuccessful.
Barbara Bishop looked up at the lined nut-brown face of her driver with little interest.
He had a thin face, its outline, by English standards, a surprisingly aristocratic one. Norman forebears, she supposed idly
‘Madame is comfortable?’ he repeated.
She nodded wearily and replied, ‘Oui. Merci bien.’ She was dulled by grief, drained by a long night of useless weeping, while her whole body still ached from years of work too heavy for her small frame. Until last night she had not cried for months; life without George had become a dull ache which she lived with as best she could.
The driver closed the taxi door and went round to the door on the other side. He opened it and laid the flowers carefully beside his passenger on the seat, with the ends of the stems nearest to her. In that position, she could easily grab them if they threatened to slip onto the floor when he started up the ancient vehicle.
During the three months he had been doing it, he had become quite experienced at driving young widows and weeping mothers to cemeteries, and he prided himself on knowing all the possible small snags that could occur, like expensive wreaths slipping off the seat as the taxi bumped its way over hastily repaired roads.
As he laid down the flowers, he glanced at this widow and smiled again. As with most of the women he drove, his passenger was interesting in her foreignness. She was, he noted, wearing a flowered scarf draped around her neck over a shabby pink tweed jacket. So unlike a perfidious French woman in black skirt and white blouse, he thought, his mouth tightening with long-suppressed rage.
As he climbed into the driver’s seat, he asked in English if this were her first visit to Normandy.
‘Yes,’ she answered with a sigh.
He nodded as he started the taxi and put it in gear. It shuddered in protest and then, as he feared it would, when he pressed the gas pedal, it suddenly bolted forward like a startled horse.
She caught the flowers before they fell, but her handbag slid off her lap and onto the dusty floor.
‘Oh dear!’ she exclaimed. The black embroidered handbag was precious; she had fashioned this one herself from remnants of an old overcoat bought in a second-hand shop; the body of the coat had yielded a plain, black skirt, very useful in a tightly rationed country. She had spent several late evenings embroidering the bag with scraps of knitting wool and was proud of the design of roses on its sides.
As the taxi shot out into the main street of Bayeux, narrowly missing a heavily laden hay wain, she clutched an old-fashioned safety bar by the door rather than attempt to retrieve the handbag.
The hay wain’s horse reared, and the beret-crowned wagoner shouted angrily at the taxi driver.
The taxi’s bald tyres shrieked as the vehicle skidded round the back of the cart and into the outside lane.
The taxi driver muttered furiously to himself. Then, as he passed the cart, taking with him wisps of hay from its protruding load, he leaned out of the open window and shouted what was obviously an epithet at the wagoner.
In the cracked side mirror, his passenger caught a glimpse of the wagoner shaking a fist after them.
As the taxi driver sped down the almost empty street, he turned to reassure her. ‘Pardon, Madame. These farmers think the road is for horses only. Germans steal all mechanical vehicles to facilitate their retreat, you understand?’ He chuckled as he went on, ‘The owner of this taxi hide it in an old racing stable – long time no horses – beautiful horses sent to America for safety, just before the Germans arrive. Lots of straw and horse shit left behind in the stable – Germans never look under it.’
She merely nodded at the driver’s remark while, agitated by his poor driving, she continued to clutch the safety bar with one hand, and with the other held on to the bouquet. She had no desire to take the erratic driver’s attention away from the street.
Despite the noise of the ancient engine, she had caught the gist of his remark about farmers – his English was surprisingly good, she thought. She herself had little French beyond the schoolgirl version taught her in her last year at school and the contents of the phrase book which she had studied earnestly for some weeks before embarking on her journey. She was, however, far from stupid, and in the few days she had been travelling in France she had begun bravely to use the words she knew, though she pronounced them very badly. She had gratefully accepted correction by persons with whom she attempted to communicate, whether their remarks sounded good-natured or irate.
Barbara saw that the driver was watching her through his rear-view mirror, and she again nodded polite agreement with his remark regarding farmers and their horses. Though there were quite a number of carts, vans and even small carriages being pulled by horses through the streets of Bayeux, there were only a couple of cars and a small delivery van to be seen. Even bicycles were few and far between. She had, at first, assumed that an acute shortage of petrol was the cause of the unexpected return to horsepower in the streets, but it was apparently not the basic cause.
‘The Germans took all the motor vehicles?’ she asked in English, when the taxi seemed to be being safely driven in a straight line.
‘Yes, Madame.’ The driver cogitated for a moment, trying to collect for her benefit his knowledge of English. ‘The Germans fight very hard to defend themselves here in Calvados; they were brave men, the Germans. Finally, they see that Caen and Lisieux are – what you say? – finish.’ He let go of the wheel and threw up his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. ‘They lose faith in Adolf Hitler. He does not send them enough ammunition. Their generals are confused. They fight well. They despair, retreat fast – in our lorries, our cars, our bicycles, when they find them.’ His English was imperfect, but he did not appear to be short of vocabulary.
She nodded. The explanation confirmed what Reservations had told her.
The taxi began to veer towards the ditch and the driver hastily grabbed the steering wheel again.
Despite her alarm at his driving, it was a relief to Barbara to reply in English, ‘Didn’t they believe that Hitler was invincible?’
‘Non, Madame. That is big story. When Normandy is invaded by the Allies, he not agree with the plans of his generals. Support troops not come when needed. If he permit the German generals to fight as they plan, invasion very difficult for the Allies.’
‘It must have been terrifying, anyway, for the French civilians?’
‘Madame, it was most dreadful. After the Germans kill so many of us and they deport so many to Germany – 180,000 deportees die in Germany, 18,000 when the British bomb the railways and airports before they invade. Then, when invasion come, when we hope for freedom at last, so many more innocents die.’ His uneven shoulders were shrugged. ‘I do not know how many. I hear one-third of the people of Caen die. My fiancée’s parents die somewhere on their farm. They are not yet found. In addition, how many injured, only the good God knows. The bombardment was terrible. It never stop. Hospitals round here are still full.’
‘Myself? My family?’ He swallowed. He was not used to being asked personal questions by strangers, and his experiences had been so traumatic that he found it difficult to talk about them. Then he said slowly, almost reluctantly, ‘We are three. Mama, my big brother, Anatole – he is very sick – and me, Michel Benion. We live now in Bayeux; my two married sisters in Rouen – Rouen is enormous ruin. Sisters and their husbands is alive.’ His tone dropped, as he added sadly, ‘One little nephew killed.
‘Mama, Anatole and me, we wait for our poultry farm to be clear of anti-tank traps and mines. We cannot work the land – not walk on it – until it is clear. One neighbour go to his home and – boom-boom – he is dead.’
Barbara was interested. The sad story took her mind off her own misery. She murmured in English, ‘It must have been terrifying. I’m so sorry about the little boy.’
‘I do believe you. I have heard about such things – and I saw a list outside the hôtel de ville – a long list of those transported who had died in Germany.’ She sighed, and then enquired politely, ‘I hope your brother is getting better? Relever?’
‘Merci, Madame. He cough very bad.’
She quailed, as the driver again took one hand off the steering wheel to pat his chest.
‘La tuberculose,’ he explained. ‘He is long time without help. Incroyablement, he try to walk back to Normandy. The Americans find him with civilian refugees from East Germany – they flee from the Russians.’
Barbara nodded sympathetically. ‘Poor man. Tuberculosis, you say?’
The driver swerved to avoid a stout woman in a black skirt, who was riding a bicycle slowly towards him down the middle of the road.
‘People still have bicycles,’ Barbara remarked, as she resignedly settled down to a rough ride.
‘Ah, yes, Madame. There are a few. A bicycle is easy to hide. Not like a bus or a lorry. But the Germans, they take lots of them. This taxi is hid inland. The stable has much bocage round it – how you say?’ He saw her smile slightly.
‘A thicket round it?’ she suggested. Her voice faltered as she added, ‘My husband wrote in his letters about bocage – thickets and hedges. He said there were a lot of them. And it was hard to get through them.’
‘Yes, Madame. Very difficult for tanks and soldiers to fight through.’
She smiled wanly.
He was pleased to see the smile. He had forgotten his irritation at the traffic.
They were out of the city now, and bowling along a straight road which seemed to stretch to the horizon. It was lined on either side by Lombardy poplars. Between the tall trees, weathered stumps indicated haphazard cutting of some of them, and Barbara leaned forward and asked, ‘Were the trees cut for firewood in the war?’
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