A Conversation for A Place to Call Home

Chapter 20

Post 1



Michel was not the man to stand still and mourn for long. His distress quickly turned into anger, with the gendarmes who had rounded him and the others up. Although he’d only had a beating, he knew the members of the resistance group faced worse. The whole system for governing nominally free France was rotten, with the Vichy authorities doing the Nazi’s dirty work for them. It might be true that the Nazis were in charge, but Petain's people seemed all too keen to do their bidding. Michel vowed to fight back.
El Capitaine had told him about a small group of maquis fighters gathered in a quarry in the hills between Clermont and Caillac. He had given Michel the phone number of a man whom he called Pedro, who was a contact for the group. Michel knew of old, disused limestone quarries up in the hills, which he could imagine using as a place for a group to gather. He resolved to ring Pedro. First, he stopped at a cattle trough, where there was a tap and washed his face, as he didn’t want the cuts and bruises on his face to attract attention. He walked back to the place where he'd left his lorry and was relieved to find it still there. He felt sure that a resistance group would be glad of a roadworthy lorry.
It took him a while to find a working phone, and the call was answered by a woman, who asked him to wait. After a while, a man claiming to be Pedro answered, in a strong Spanish accent. “Come to the shop in Laval in the afternoon,”
Michel drove first to the deserted house, where he had spent the night with Danielle and Jeannot. He half expected to find them there, but nothing moved except the wind through the trees. He fetched some of the food which Danielle had left in the lorry and sat on the pile of leaves where they had spent the night. He had eaten much since the previous evening, so he was glad to find bread and cooked sausage, as well as water. As he ate, he thought of Danielle and Jeannot. He thought of Danielle's blue eyes, her lips, her hair and the smile with which she greeted him. He had no idea where they had gone and the thought that he'd lost his wife and child brought tears to his eyes. His distress gave way to a new, steely determination to seek some kind of revenge.
Once he had checked that there was no evidence that anyone else had been in the old cottage, he drove on. He crossed a limestone ridge and descended to the village of Laval, which consisted of a few old stone houses round a church. There seemed to be no-one around, so he parked the lorry near the church and walked across the road to the only shop. He pushed through a bead curtain into a dark space, where an old woman, dressed in black, was sitting knitting. The shop was poorly stocked, with only a few packets of cigarettes, some bottles of wine and spirits and a few tins of food.
“I've come to see Pedro,” said Michel.
The old woman nodded and disappeared through a doorway. A moment later, a small man appeared. He had dark hair and eyes, and his skin had the weathered look of a man who spent much of his time outdoors.
Pedro offered his hand. “If you're a friend, welcome. ”
“I'm Michel Lacombe.”
“You need a nom de guerre. We all have them.”
“How about Le Mecanicien?”
Pedro nodded.
With Pedro directing, they drove through series of limestone ridges, covered with woods and garrigue. Increasingly, he was familiar with the countryside, and he sometimes saw a farmhouse set between fields of pasture and orchards, which made him think of Henri. The memory filled him with anger. Michel felt sure that, if their positions had been reversed, he would have wanted to help his brother.
It was late afternoon before he found a rough track, where limestone dust made the trees grey. Pedro suggested they stopped the lorry a little way away and walked. Ahead he could see a quarry, the white walls stretching up in a rough oval. On the summit, small oak trees grew. Mounds of limestone blocks were piled towards the far end of the oval and a wooden hut stood amongst them. This looked like the place. It would be easy to defend, with a narrow entrance and steep walls.
Michel collected the remaining food from the lorry, guessing the group would be glad of any contributions. As he walked into the quarry with Pedro, he expected to be challenged but no-one was moving. However it was clear people used this place: a decrepit lorry and a couple of mopeds were parked beside the hut. Pedro walked briskly across the quarry towards the hut. As he reached it, the door swung open and a big, bald man stepped out, rifle in hand.
He saw Pedro and grinned, but then looked Michel up and down.
Pedro grinned. “This is Legrand”
Michel shook hands, gave his nom de guerre, then asked. “Don’t you keep a lookout on the quarry?”
Pedro shrugged. “There’s not much enthusiasm for guard duty. Nothing much happens here.”
Michel was about to say discipline ought to be tightened, when he realised he didn’t want to alienate this group of men as soon as he arrived. It would be better to take things slowly. Instead he lay his bag at Legrand’s feet and opened it. “I’ve brought a few things that might be useful for you.”
Legrand picked out the packets of cigarettes and smiled. “Thanks. There are five of us here, and finding fuel and food is difficult.”
“I might be able to help. I know this area and I’m ex-army”
Pedro nodded. “I thought you might be. I fought with the Republicans against Franco. That’s where I met El Capitaine.”
Legrand smiled. “I'm ex-army too. Glad to have you here.”
Pedro opened the door to the hut. Three men sat on rough benches round a rough table, with a pile of playing cards and a bottle of wine in the centre. A couple looked like teenagers, while one was grey haired and lined. Introductions were made. The old man was a Polish Jew who had fought in the First World War, whom Pedro called Zindo.
“How do we know you’re not a spy?” Zindo demanded.
Michel sat down and told the group the history of his involvement with the Army and the Resistance, although he avoided names.
Zindo nodded. “You’re welcome.”
The conversation went backwards and forwards across the group. They talked about their homes and families, about encounters with the police and the poor quality of their weapons. Their chief boast was that they had some explosives, left by the quarry owners. As they discussed the shortage of heavy weapons and ammunition, Michel grew doubtful. What could a small, poorly armed group of men like this do against the German army?
After a while, another man entered. He was fair haired and long limbed and, as soon as he spoke to Pedro, Michel recognised his accent
“Do you come from Alsace?” he asked. “You have the same accent as my wife.”
The fair haired man nodded. “They call me l’Alsatian.”
He explained he had been on a trip into the villages to find food. “It's difficult. We don't want to steal, because that makes the locals hate us. But we haven't got much money.”
“We need to make friends with the local farmers,” Michel said. “I know some of them. Perhaps we can do odd jobs for them.” As he thought of Henri, his anger flared. “Though I wouldn't recommend working for my brother.”
By the next morning, Michel had volunteered to guard the entrance to the site. Equipped with an old rifle, he stood amongst the trees and looked out for passers by. The location reminded him of the last night he'd spent with Danielle and Jeannot. They had been the centre of his life and had now been wrenched out, leaving him with a pain that was almost physical. The grief turned to anger and the idea of wreaking some kind of revenge against Henri occurred to him. For a while, he turned ideas over in his mind. In the end, he decided revenge offered nothing but the continuation of a feud. It would be better if he concentrated on working with these men to deliver some kind of blow against the Germans and their French collaborators. Even this little group could carry out acts of sabotage. He concluded it was good to be active, even if the actions were small and local.

Chapter 20

Post 2

Dmitri Gheorgheni - Post Editor

smiley - applause This reminds me of the east, too - there were a lot of people in a lot of woods. (In Lithuania, they were often literally underground...)

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