A Place to Call Home: Chapter 7

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A Place to Call Home is set in Vichy France during the Second World War. Danielle, who is Jewish, has married Michel, who isn't. Life is full of danger.

A Place to Call Home: Chapter 7

A Place to Call Home, by Minorvogonpoet

Danielle found living in the house behind the garage had some advantages. It was only a walk, or a short cycle ride into the centre of Caillac, which made shopping easier and enabled her to get to know her neighbours. They spent as much time as they could spare painting kitchen and living rooms white, making the place seem lighter. Michel erected a series of cupboards and shelves in the kitchen, turning it into a useful space. One day, he returned from a brocante sale with a radio, which he installed in the living room. They started gathering round to listen to the BBC, although it was illegal.

Danielle was pleased to see her father taking an interest in the garden. He helped her clear the ground of weeds, dug it over and planted vegetables in lines, keeping notes of what he had sown. However, there was something obsessional about his interest that worried her, and fumes from the garage were making him cough. She asked Michel not to smoke in the house, which made him withdraw into the garden, as he never smoked in the garage.

One day, Danielle returned from a shopping trip to the town and let herself into the kitchen from the side door. She knew Michel had gone to a charcoal business to mend a lorry, and was surprised to see an old Citroen parked outside the garage. Her perplexity increased when she heard voices from her father’s room. She stopped at the door and realised the conversation was in Yiddish, a language she scarcely knew.

After a moment’s hesitation, she knocked and opened the door. There was little space for more than a bed and chair, so the room looked crowded. Her father was sitting on the single bed, wearing a leather jacket. The only chair was occupied by a man who looked as if he had recently come in, because he hadn't taken off his coat. The two must have been talking, for the man sat leaning toward her father, with his mouth half open and a look of surprise in his eyes. Danielle was sure she hadn't seen him before.

Ferdinand smiled. 'Ah, Danielle, I don't think you've met Georges Bertrand. Georges, this is my daughter.'

As Georges rose, she noticed his right hand was missing, being replaced with a hook. He seemed about the same age as her father, with receding dark hair and a dark moustache. He offered his left hand and took hers with a firm grip. 'Delighted to meet you.' He had a slight accent she couldn't place.

'Georges is a travelling salesman. He's stopped here on his rounds,' said Ferdinand.

Danielle looked at Georges in surprise. She and Michel had equipped the house with furniture and cutlery they had scrounged from the farm or bought at brocante sales. She wasn't sure why her father would want a travelling salesman. 'What are you selling?'

Georges opened a battered case that had been propped against his chair. 'Kitchen utensils – whisks, tin openers, bottle openers, all sorts of useful things.'

Danielle picked up a whisk and looked at it. 'We don’t need these things, Father. We have enough utensils in the kitchen now.'

The two men exchanged a look and Ferdinand sighed. 'I didn't mean to involve you, Danielle. It could be dangerous. But you're a grown woman now. You can show her what else you've brought, Georges.'

Georges unzipped a pocket in the lining of the case which she hadn't noticed before and took out a sheaf of papers. There was a title in large type: 'Free France'. The printing was smudgy but the picture on the front page caught her attention. It showed a group of women and children standing behind a wire fence. In the background was a watchtower but what shocked her was the emaciation of the people, their faces hollow and their eyes desperate. Underneath the picture, there were columns of text and a headline 'Awaken, citizens'. The text explained the picture had been taken at a camp at a place called Gurs, near the Pyrenees. The people were Jews from Baden and the Palatinate, who had been deported there from their homes. 'This is what the Nazis are doing,' the text went on. 'Do we want our fair land of France defiled by such cruelty?'

Danielle thought for a moment and understood. 'So you're part of a resistance organisation. Do you want these papers distributed?'

'I thought I might be able to help,' said Ferdinand. 'I can pass them to people I know.'

'If you know you can trust them,' said Georges. 'There is a danger of informers. You could easily be reported to the gendarmes.'

'Could you put them in public places?' asked Danielle. 'Churches and schools?'

'If you do that, you need to vary your route, or you would run a risk of attracting attention.'

'I could do that,'said Danielle. 'I've got a bicycle. And I could hide them under shopping or something.'

'What about Michel?' asked Ferdinand. 'Would he approve? Can you trust him?'

'I'm sure I can trust him,' said Danielle. She knew Michel well enough by now to see him as a straightforward man, who said what he thought. He wouldn't be involved in betrayal or double dealing. Moreover she knew the defeat of the French army still rankled with him and he would like the chance to fight back.

'It's best to build up a network of contacts,' said Georges. 'Sound people out but do it carefully.'

Ferdinand took his little glasses off and laid them on the table. 'We'd be taking a risk. I don't want you to get hurt, Danielle.'

Danielle nodded. 'If you can take risks, I can too.'

Georges left a pile of the news sheets on the table, but Danielle could see others in his case, before he zipped it up. 'I had better be going. I've got other visits to make.' He kissed her hand in an old-fashioned gesture and shook hands with her father. For the first time, he smiled. 'It's good to see you again after this time, Ferdinand. I'd say you haven't changed but of course you have. But it seems we only survived one war to fight another.'

Ferdinand sighed. 'I'm not sure I can do much but you can rely on me to try.'

After showing Georges out, he returned to the living room and resumed his chair.

Danielle asked 'I've not met that man before. Is he what he seems to be?'

Her father smiled. 'Bertrand's not his real name. He's a Polish Jew in origin, but he's an old comrade of mine from the war. The last war. As brave as they come but a committed Communist.'

'I didn't think you were a Communist.'

Ferdinand wiped his glasses with his handkerchief and put them back on. 'I don't belong to any party but I certainly believe that society is unfair and we should work to make it fairer. And Georges has left me lots of papers to read. He's trying to convince me.' He smiled.

Danielle watched her father flicking through the papers on the table and was pleased to see he had found a cause in which he could believe. For a time, as the news from the war had grown worse, he had seemed to lose hope, distracting himself with gardening in order to stay sane. She wondered what she believed herself. Despite what she had told Father Corot, she remained unconvinced by Catholicism and she certainly wasn't a Marxist. Maybe her belief was not a worked out ideology, more a feeling that people should be treated fairly, regardless of class or religion. 'Perhaps I ought to read those too.'

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