It was the girl who brought me the news. It was, she said, no longer simply a rumour. The war was ending; the allies were approaching. I must be patient; it would not now be long.
‘They are less that fifty miles away,’ she, her name was Yvette, said.
The date was January 19th 1945.
‘So maybe tomorrow, or if not tomorrow then the day after.’
I was hiding in a false room, accessible only from the attic, the barn being too dangerous to use any longer. Two days previously Yvette’s brother Charles had spotted a man walking up the road. When he came near to the house the man stood in the snow and looked up at it. He wore a dark over-coat and a bowler hat and for some time stood quite still, watching. Then he turned on his heels and looked back up the road towards the river. He’d been smoking but now he took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it as if to throw it away before changing his mind and pinched it out with his fingers. He put the cigarette in his overcoat pocket and looked up the road again as if he was afraid of being watched. Charles had been on his way downstairs but something had made him pause at the landing window. The view across the snowy fields was very fine.
Charles shrunk into the shadows and waited. It was possible to see the road all the way down to the river and anyone coming up towards the farmhouse could be spotted long before they arrived. The snowfall increased but the man in the bowler hat remained where he was for a moment longer. Then as if making up his mind he began walking towards the barn. Charles moved swiftly downstairs and alerted his father. The family stood in the kitchen not knowing what they should do. Charles got his shotgun out but Jean-Claude placed a warning hand on his arm. I was in the padlocked barn and the first I knew of what was going on was when the man gave the door a sharp push. After two more attempts at forcing it open he gave up and began walking back up to the road in the direction of the village. The family waited not daring to move, watching through the darkened window until the man was just a blob of black against the blizzard. The snow seemed to lose its friendliness. Immediately, Jean-Claude and Charles came out to fetch me. They told me there was no alternative. I was still not fit to travel. The burns on my arm and face would make it impossible to blend into a crowd. It would be clear that I was an English airman who had been shot down. So from now on I would stay in the room that led from the attic.
Four months had passed since I baled out onto their land. The rest of the crew died on impact. Had it not been for Jean-Claude’s swift reaction I would have died too. He and Charles pulled me from the aircraft and carried me to the barn. I was biting my arm to stop myself from screaming until the doctor arrived and gave me a shot to relieve the pain. That night I had the first vague awareness of the girl, her pale face watchful and unflinchingly as she stood in the doorway. In spite of the agony of the burns, the loss of my crew and the fear of coming down on occupied territory I was struck by her appearance. She seemed all of a piece with the darkness, beautiful and still. I thought it at that moment and I think it still. I did not speak to her for some days.
I understood that for a long time Yvette had wanted to be of some use in the war effort. Charles and Jean-Claude were involved in the Resistance but she felt helpless and ineffectual. She prayed that she might have a use all of her own and my presence seemed almost like the fulfilment of some dangerous devotion.
Now with the end so near the Germans had become especially nervous about everyone’s movement within the village.
‘We have to be extra careful in these last moments,’ the girl warned me.
The blizzard had stopped and without the falling snow to act as an eraser all footprints would be visible. An unspoken agreement had been reached never to walk on virgin snow. The safest route was always the one that led to the church. It was easier to pass messages at Mass or in the confessional.
Collaborators were dotted around like land mines but it was the lone wolf, with no particular loyalty who was the real problem. Charles and Jean-Claude suspected the bowler-hatted man was one such person.
‘He is a bad man,’ the girl told me that morning. ‘He’s been back again. My brother knows him. He says the man will probably start a rumour about us so the whispers will get to the ears of the collaborators, and they will tell the Germans.’
‘I must leave,’ I said, feeling sick. ‘I can’t put you in any more danger.’
They were ordinary decent people, defenceless and yet possessing an unbreakable spirit. I was caught between my fear of the journey alone, across France and leaving Yvette. Yet every day I stayed here was an added risk for her family.
‘But it’s fine now,’ Yvette protested. ‘The allies are coming. We will be free in a day or so. You won’t have to go. We can be together forever then…’
She stopped and we stared at each other knowing that, between us, a line had been crossed. Her mother was boiling the eggs over the fire.
‘You must come downstairs when it is darker,’ Yvette said. ‘We will close the shutters. The end is in sight and my father wants to celebrate with you.’
‘And when they arrive,’ I said, ‘I want us to get married!’
The table had been set. There were plates piled with big thick slices of bread, a few small squares of butter and a round white goat’s cheese. Charles was grinning; even the normally sombre Jean-Claude was smiling. No explanation was forthcoming as to where such a feast had come from. The old woman took my hand and formally led me to the table where a place had been set for me. Yvette served me. It was the first time I had sat down with them as a normal family.
The first and the last time. When we heard the sound of the car there was just enough time for Jean-Claude to send me up to my hiding place and for the extra plate to be cleared away. Father and son went without protest. They were taken to the village to be with the other men who had been rounded up. In total there were thirty of them, the youngest was thirteen and the oldest sixty. Jean-Claude was the last to be killed; after he had watched his son being shot in the head.
The next morning the Germans fled and the English marched into the village. The dead were found in the cellar of an empty house in the next village. They were buried in simple coffins tied with black bands.
I was the only man under the age of thirty left. When the funeral began the snow started up again. It fell on the black trucks belonging to the army unit, and the priest’s hat, and the little procession. It fell slantwise, driven in on a westerly wind into the graveyard and it fell on the mounds of earth that had been freshly dug. It blew against the mourners who stood overcome with grief, and the women, young and old, who threw themselves on the coffins belonging to their sons, their husbands and their fathers.
The weeping was muffled, their breath rising in clouds in the cold white air. From a distance the mourners looked like a flock of dark birds.
The British unit stood at a respectful distance. I did not stand with them nor did I stand with the villagers. I stood alone with my guilt.
I felt I belonged nowhere. Someone, I can’t remember who it was, told me the men had had good lives and suffered only in their final hour. Soon after the funeral I left with the section of the army going back up towards the coast. I said my goodbyes to Yvette. She was distant, very formal. The calm certainty was still present only now it had turned inwards. The old woman held my hand in hers, crying silently.
Time cannot bleach out the memories of those few months I had spent with Yvette and her family. I had promised her that I would return and the following year I did. Yes, I kept my promise but perhaps I had returned too soon. It was spring, the apple blossom had come again, the meadows were filled with buttercups, the river flowed. The church was exactly as before, even the priest was the same one. I wandered around until I found the cemetery and paid my respects to those who had been slaughtered and afterwards followed the road that led to the farm.
I found the old woman as I had left her, wearing her faded apron, cooking over the fire. When she saw me she threw up her hands in greeting and began to cry. Then she picked up the kettle and set it to boil. Yes, she told me, she was still living at the farm, only now she was alone. Some time in the months after I left her, Yvette had been found drowned in the weir. Nobody could understand how this happened. She was a strong swimmer and knew the dangers of the weir. And in any case how could she have fallen into a river she knew so well?
Shocked I listened while the old woman talked, her grief rising and falling. She told me a plaque was being erected with the names of the murdered men of Bende. She told me how sorry she was to be the one to give me this terrible news.
‘I thought one day romance would blossom between the two of you,’ she said, sadly. I drank some coffee with her and then said farewell. I knew I would never come back. (Image)
Each year as I grow older the spring seems to be more beautiful than the last. I like to tell myself that I was spared in order to bear witness to what happened that day. And in the years after the war, when I travelled across a broken, humiliated Europe, I would often hear people say that what mattered wasn’t how or when you died but the length of time in which you held the knowledge of your approaching death. Exactly what was meant is hard to say, but I do remember people speaking in this way to each other.
Roma Tearne is writer in residence within the archives of The Imperial War Museum. This first story is based on images she found in Box 30 and is mostly fictional. Tearne’s sixth novel The Last Pier will be published by Hesperus in April.