A Conversation for A Place to Call Home
Minorvogonpoet Started conversation Nov 17, 2020
Michel took his time, despite the rain. He had been to Clermont on business and knew the patron of a bar where a resistance group met. However, he walked as far as a garage from which he’d bought supplies in the past and spoke to the proprietor, in case anyone asked about his business in the town. He found the bar easily enough, in a narrow road not far from the river. It was a small, smoky place, with zinc tops to the tables and a few old men sitting in corners. He went in, bought a glass of the local red wine, sat at a table and lit a cigarette.
After a while, he concluded there was no sign of trouble, got up and walked over to the bar. When he gave a password, the landlord smiled and shook hands. He was a swarthy man, with a stubbly chin and fingers stained yellow by tobacco.
“The lads will be here at noon,” he said. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable.”
Michel bought another glass of wine returned to his seat and waited, but he thought about Danielle and Jeannot. She would be safe enough shopping, because no-one would suspect a woman with a young child of involvement with the resistance. However, if she arrived at the lorry a long time before he did, she might start getting worried. He rebuked himself for involving her in working for the resistance, before remembering that her father was the first recruit.
After a while two middle aged men in blue overalls and heavy boots walked in. They could easily have been working at the nearby docks. One spoke to the patron before they sat down. They were joined a few minutes later by a younger man. The patron walked over to the table with a tray laden with drinks, and gestured to Michel. He joined them at the table and offered cigarettes round the group.
After introductions had been made the patron asked “What brings you here?”
“We’ve been working for the resistance further north, my wife and I,” Michel explained. “But we were betrayed and had to leave in a hurry.”
“Do you know who betrayed you?”
Michel shook his head. There were several people who knew of their activities and any one of them could have been responsible. However, the image of his brother came into his mind. Surely Henri wouldn’t do such a thing. “I wondered if you knew of somewhere safe we could go. It’s not just me, it’s my wife and little boy.”
The men named several places where the family might go, but the patron took another puff of his cigarette and shook his head. “You need to be careful, I think there’s a crackdown under way.”
The men were smoking and talking when the door was flung open and a group of gendarmes rushed in, with rifles at the ready. Michel scrambled up from his table and made a dive for the shelter of the bar, and the patron crawled into the space behind him. They were attempting to creep towards the door into the living quarters when Michel heard shouting and a shot. A moment later, a gendarme grabbed hold of him and hauled him upright. For a moment, he thought of fighting back but realised it would be wiser to maintain that he was an innocent civilian caught up in the raid. As he was frogmarched towards the door of the bar, he saw one of the group lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Michel was almost thrown into the van which stood waiting outside the bar, along with the patron and two other men. As the van drove off Michel thought with a sudden wrench of Danielle and Jeannot waiting for him.
Michel had no idea where he was being taken as the van bumped along. The other members of the group sat or lay in silence, which Michel saw no reason to break. After several minutes, the van stopped and Michel was marched into a squat barracks of a building. From there he was led along drab corridors and pushed into a room. He heard a key being turned in the door. For a moment he lay still, then scrambled to his feet and felt himself carefully all over. Apart from a few bruises, he was unhurt. For the time being.
He walked round the cell, examining the lock on the door and knocking on the walls here and there. It was bare except for a bench and a bucket. The walls were painted white and one electric light hung in the centre. There was no window and no way of communicating with anyone outside. After a while, he sat on the bench and rehearsed his cover story. It was important to know it and ensure there were no inconsistencies.
These were the Vichy police, who were said to be more dangerous than the Gestapo, because they knew their area and the local people. He had heard stories of terrible torture but told himself not to let fear weaken him. He knew little about the resistance group he’d met and had papers showing he lived in Caillac, some way north. It might to be possible for him to convince the gendarmes that he’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Several hours passed before two men entered his cell and marched him down the corridor and into a small room with a desk and two chairs. A Vichy officer sat behind the desk. He was a slight man in a neat uniform, with light brown hair and a matching moustache. However, a big man with a thick neck and powerful hands stood close to the door. That was the trick, Michel thought – a quiet, polite man to ask questions and an enforcer. The officer told him to sit down and demanded to see his papers. Michel handed them over.
“What were you doing in the Bar du Midi?”asked the officer
“I’d come to Clermont to look at carburettors. I run a garage.”
“Yes, but why did you go to that bar?”
“It’s not far from the garage I was going to.” At least that was true.
The officer gazed at him and raised an eyebrow. “Are you a drinker?”
Michel shrugged. “It was raining.”
“I think you were there to meet the resistance group.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Then why were you sitting with the members of the group?”
“They were friendly. Asked me to join them.”
The officer nodded to the big man by the door, who walked over and stood behind him. “I don’t believe you. What do you know about the patron?”
“Just that the others called him Philippe.”
“What about his position in the resistance?”
“I know nothing about that.”
The officer nodded to the big man, who hit Michel hard across his face. He tasted blood in his mouth. The questions kept coming and, each time he denied knowledge of the resistance group, a blow followed. Michel reassured himself he was telling the truth. He knew nothing about the resistance activity of the group in Clermont. By the time they dragged him back to his cell, Michel was semi-conscious. However, he hung on to one fact. The officer hadn’t mentioned Caillac. If the gendarmes here knew nothing about his resistance activities there, he stood a chance of getting out of this place alive.
After a while, a guard brought him a bowl containing a kind of soup of potatoes, and a mug of water. Michel ate the soup with some difficulty, as his mouth was cut and a tooth loose. He lay down on the bench and tried to sleep but felt haunted by the events of the last few days. Sometimes he imagined Danielle and Jeannot walking round Clermont looking for him, and at other times his mind filled with images of the guard hitting him.
Nevertheless, he must have slept, because, when he woke, the cell was lit by a pale daylight. He sat on the bench for a while, but he was filled with apprehension about what might happen next, so he rose and walked round and round the cell. His face and body hurt but it felt better to keep moving. Images of Danielle and Jeannot waiting for him followed him. After a while, a guard unlocked the door and walked in. He dropped a bag on the floor. “You can go, and here’s your things.”
Michel resisted the temptation to demand an apology, but looked in the bag. Wallet, keys, identity cards, cigarettes, pocket watch, handkerchief. He nodded and followed the guard out of the building.
Although the sky was grey, it was morning and when he checked his watch, it indicated ten thirty. Later than he thought. He felt a sudden need to hurry to find Danielle and Jeannot and hoped they had spent the night in the lorry, or at the station as he had suggested. However, his face hurt and he was still muzzy headed from his beatings. He stood in front of the police building, trying to work out its location, then chose a direction to follow. After a few turns, he found the town centre and made his way to the road where he’d parked the lorry. It was still there and undamaged but Danielle and Jeannot had left. That, in itself, didn't concern him too much; they must have followed his advice and gone to the station.
He hurried to the station and was reassured to see people going in and out. There were a few Vichy police watching and he suddenly realised he looked like a suspect, his face bloody and bruised. Having washed his face with water from the horse trough, he walked up to the policeman at the entrance with as much confidence as he could muster. Then man gave a quick look at his identity card and then stared at him. “What happened to you?”
“I tried to stop a man stealing my lorry.”
The policeman nodded and waved him through.
Once in the station, Michel looked round. There were people queuing for tickets, others waiting at the barriers for trains and some sitting on benches. He walked up and down the queues, looking at women with children. There was no sign of Danielle and Jeannot. He walked round and round the station, peering at every person. In the end, he stopped still and stood, as a realisation dawned on him - they had left. Tears filled his eyes.
Dmitri Gheorgheni - Post Editor Posted Nov 17, 2020
Array Posted Nov 17, 2020
Array Posted Nov 17, 2020
Caiman raptor elk - Escaping the Array Posted Nov 17, 2020
My Renault is running fine without them.
Captivating story. Just read chapters 14-17 in one go.
Let's hope they find each other again.
paulh, hiding under my bed Posted Nov 18, 2020
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