A Conversation for A Place to Call Home

Chapter 16

Post 1



The rain grew heavier during the night and the wind rose, making the trees sigh and groan. Jeannot woke and cried for a long time, before falling asleep in his mother's arms. As dawn lightened the sky, Danielle woke to find Michel missing. She sat still for a while, wondering if she could hear someone moving outside. The wind tossed the trees, making them sigh and moan. At last, she rose without waking Jeannot and walked to the edge of the hole in the wall of the old house. To her relief, she saw Michel with a torch.
“Just some deer among the trees.”
As soon as Jeannot woke, they had a breakfast of milk and bread. Danielle wrapped her coat round her and Jeannot and shivered.
“ Have you got money?” asked Michel.
She nodded. “And papers.”
They collected their belongings and loaded them into the lorry. Michel kicked the ashes of their fire across the floor of the house and outside into the bushes, where they disappeared among the leaves. He carried out one last reconnoitre into the woods, to ensure they weren't watched. “We can go.”
They drove almost in silence, except for Jeannot, who pointed out horses and bicycles and burbled on his mother’s knees.
As they drove south towards Clermont-sur-Garonne, the sky was full of grey clouds and wind blew leaves across the road. They drove down a long hill and at last saw the town, nestling alongside the river. In the dismal weather, everything looked grey. As they neared the town, Michel saw a police patrol checking vehicles on the main road.
“I’d rather avoid the checkpoint”, Michel said, turned off and parked in a side road. A few small houses lay between fields, where cows grazed in mud. “We’d better stop here and walk into town. When you’ve finished shopping, come back here. I hope I won’t be too long.” He kissed her and opened the door of the lorry.
Danielle looked at the scatter of houses, some of which were haphazard constructions of rough pieces of brick and tile . “What happens if you're delayed.? I don't think I can wait here. People will notice.”
Michel's face grew more thoughtful. “I suppose you're right. I might run into trouble, you never know.”
She streched up to him and kissed him again. Now they had lost their home, he and Jeannot seemed very dear to her. She didn't want them to part.
“If I'm late, go to the station and wait there. No-one notices people waiting at stations.”
Danielle nodded. “Very well.”
“I'll be back.” Michel jumped out of the lorry and walked away.

After Michel left, Danielle dressed Jeannot in a warm cardigan, because the wind was cold and a little rain fell. Then she persuaded him into the sling she had made, and started walking into the town centre. The outskirts of the town were drab and run down, but the spire of the church in the centre stood proud. Danielle looked down every road for signs of Vichy gendarmes, but saw only some men in a bus, who paid no attention to her. With Jeannot on her back and a bundle of other possessions, she probably looked like one of the countrywomen who came into town to sell their goods.
After a while, she found a market square, round a central hall which was framed by four brick arches. Wandering round, she looked at the produce. There were still vegetables to be had: potatoes, carrots, turnips and leeks. On the meat stall a few sausages hung from hooks, but the prices were high, and there was a long queue of women waiting. She joined the queue at a stall selling dairy produce and stood waiting in the rain, hoping she didn’t look too much like a refugee. Her hair was untidy and her skirt and cardigan were dirty after the night in the old cottage. Jeannot was getting wet in his sling and was crying. Having bought bread, milk, apples, some cooked sausage, and over-priced cheese she made her way back to the lorry.
For a while, she sat in the lorry, sharing a lunch with Jeannot and talking to him. From time to time, she looked out of the window and along the road, to see if Michel was returning. She also watched for activity from the houses along the road. A man came out of one house with a bucket, and a few cows ambled towards him, obviously expecting food. A woman stood at her front gate for a while, looking towards the lorry. This made Danielle nervous and she wondered if it was time for her to leave for the station. However, she kept telling herself that Michel would soon return. Besides, she had enough space in the back of the lorry to look out the brightly painted wooden train.. She spread out a coat, pushed the train along the floor and and tried to persuade him to copy her. He crawled up to the train and knocked it over.

Hours passed until the autumn evening began to darken. As Michel did not return, Danielle’s fears for him grew. He could have been picked up by the gendarmes. Perhaps they had managed to track him as far as Clermont, in which case she and Jeannot were at risk too. She wondered what the gendarmes would do to Michel and her mind filled with ideas of horrible torture. Perhaps aware of her distress, Jeannot started crying, so she picked him up and went for another walk along the road. She saw no sign of gendarmes but the fear grew that they might come looking for her. If something terrible had happened to Michel, where could she go? Besides, the people in the neighbouring houses might have been watching her and finding her behaviour odd. If she had been alone, she might have waited for him, despite the risk of being caught herself. However, she had Jeannot. She was clear that her first duty was to protect her son.

It was growing cold in the lorry and, at last, she decided she would have to leave and go to the station, as Michel had said. She trusted his view that she would be safe there, as no-one would notice a woman with a child. Jeannot had fallen asleep and she managed to put him in the sling without waking him. Then she collected her bag of possessions, climbed out of the lorry and set off for the station.
She had a strong sense of being alone and friendless in a part of France she didn’t know. However, she found the station with no difficulty. There were people of all sorts milling around outside: a few workmen, women with children and country folk who were travelling home, having sold their produce. Three Vichy gendarmes stood near the gates, which alarmed her. She told herself she looked as if she was going on an everyday journey, but she felt close to tears. It didn't help that her coat was flecked with mud, where she had lain on leaves during the night.
When the policemen asked for her papers, she presented them without comment. It was better not to draw attention to herself. The officer glanced at the identity document and nodded. She walked onto the concourse and found that Michel had been right. There were groups of people queuing at the ticket office and others waiting near the barriers for trains to arrive. However, it occurred to her that, if anyone asked where she was going, it would seem odd that she didn't have a ticket.
After a while, she decided to join the queue for tickets and buy ones for Megére. She knew it was the next town to the west, so not so far away that it would be difficult to return. Moreover, she associated the town with Yvonne and the home where they cared for Jewish children. She stood in the queue looking out her purse, but Jeannot wriggled in his sling and gave a yell. She had a feeling all the women on the station were staring at her and judging her a poor mother. The ticket clerk looked grey faced and bleary eyed, as if he had not slept, but he gave her the tickets without question. As soon as she could, she sat on a bench, set Jeannot down on the floor and watched him crawl. However, she was worried the floor was dirty, covered in cigarette butts and pieces of paper. She had left the toy train in the lorry, but she still had a battered teddy bear, once Jeannot's favourite toy and make it dance in front of him, so he chortled and made grabs for it. He soon tired of the game, so she looked out the remaining food she had bought, and fed him bits of bread, cheese and apple.
Danielle was relieved when Jeannot fell asleep in her arms but she couldn't sleep herself. She watched as the crowd of people coming and going lessened, until there were only a few stragglers left. That made her more visible and, a few times she thought the policemen glanced in her direction. An old woman, whose sagging face and ill-fitting clothes suggested she had once been fat, came and sat on the same bench.
She nodded at Jeannot “He's sweet.”
“Thank you”
“Are you going far?
Danielle realised with a jolt that she needed a cover story that explained why she was spending the night on the station. “To Toulouse. My sister and I were supposed to meet here and travel together but she's not arrived.”
The old woman nodded. “There's so many families torn up by this war. My husband was killed in a bombing raid on Bordeaux.”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Danielle, thinking of Michel and wondering again what had become of him. Another thought followed, a hint of an escape route. “Did you have to cross the demarcation line?” .
The old woman shook her head. “ We lived this side of the line. He had a permit, because he had work there. Now, I wish he hadn't.”
Danielle had an image of a whole country where people were on the move, fleeing from fighting and persecution, or looking for members of their families and friends. In a strange way the thought was reassuring, as it would be difficult for anyone to find her in such a motley crowd.

Danielle slept in fits and starts, woken by trains building up steam or whistling as they departed. In the light of a cold morning, she was woken by Jeannot crying. However much she cuddled and reassured him, she knew a railway station was no place for a young child. It was difficult even to keep him clean, though she found a horse trough where she could wash him. From time to time, she peered towards the entrances to the station. However, there was no sign of Michel, and she knew the longer she waited, the more likely he had been imprisoned or even killed.
As Danielle gave Jeannot a breakfast of bread and milk, she became aware of a disturbance on the station. Groups of Vichy gendarmes were moving through the station, talking to passengers and urging them towards the exits.
A young gendarme approached her. “You must leave the station, madame.” .
“What’s happening?”
“We’re expecting a consignment of deportees.”
Shocked, Danielle gasped, then tried to hide her reaction with a cough. She had heard that Jews were being rounded up and taken north to a camp near Paris. From there, they were sent east but no-one knew where.
“You must leave the station.”
“I was hoping to catch a train,” said Danielle and realised how petty that sounded, in comparison with the horror of the deportations.
“You can come back once the deportees have gone.”
He had spoken courteously, so Danielle thanked him and joined a group of passengers who were filing obediently out of the station. As she did so, she noticed a train with a line of cattle trucks waiting at one of the platforms. That would be for the deportees.
Outside the station, several buses had drawn up, surrounded by a group of Vichy police. As Danielle watched, people streamed out: men, women and children. Many carried a suitcase or a bundle of clothes and they walked heads down, with little conversation. A woman fell and one of the soldiers hit her with a rifle butt. As Danielle watched, she searched the faces, dreading to see her father or her cousins. After they had gone south, they could have come to Clermont or its surrounding area. She felt with a sudden force the fragility of hope. These people must have hoped they could live quietly in the Free Zone but, little by little, they had been stripped of their freedoms and now they were being sent away to an uncertain destination. She was suddenly overcome by fear for Jeannot. She and her son could easily be in the queue. The people were herded into the station and Danielle could see them no more, although she heard the clang of wagons moving and the locomotive making steam.

As she stood outside the station Jeannot started wriggling and screaming in his sling. She realised she must have been holding him too tight in her agitation. She set him down onto the concrete and held his hand while he tried to toddle towards a pigeon strutting nearby. The pigeon flew away and Jeannot sat down on the dirty ground. Danielle fished in her bag for an apple, cut it up and handed him a piece. All the time, she thought of the children she’d seen passing and wondered about their fate. She was overcome by the conviction that she must do everything in her power to protect her son. The fate of the deportees made her feel the station was unsafe and she felt reluctant to stay there any longer. Her hope that Michel would return was ebbing away, although she was reluctant to abandon it altogether. At last, she decided it was time to leave.

Chapter 16

Post 2

Dmitri Gheorgheni - Post Editor

smiley - applause Confusion and difficult choices.

Chapter 16

Post 3


Thanks for reading and commenting, Dmitri.

Chapter 16

Post 4


smiley - applause awful times indeed.

Chapter 16

Post 5

paulh, hiding under my bed

Wars and persecution of the powerless.

Fine writing. Sausages and heese and apples. Makes me hungry. smiley - smiley

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