Be forewarned you old guys,
Be forewarned you heads of families.
The time when you gave your sons to the country,
As one gives bread to pigeons,
That time won’t come again.
So resign yourselves to it,
– from Paroles by Jacque Prevert
March 10th 1937,
Dear M. Dufy,
I don’t know what to write to you. I have terrible news. Jean-Paul was killed yesterday. I was with him and before he died he asked me to write to you. We were retreating through a small village whose name I do not know when a grenade exploded near us. Jean-Paul was badly wounded and I had to carry him a long way. He died in my arms. I do not know what to say to you. A letter seems so cold. When I return I will be able to tell you all about it. He has been buried in Laneda south of the Basque country I marked the grave myself. You will understand how much I respected him, his bravery and his beliefs.
With great sorrow,
The letter informing François Dufy of the death of his only son provoked no reaction—not at first. He stared at the page. He read it again. Although he had been a language teacher since the end of the Great War, the letter could have been written in Hindi, for all the sense he could make of it. There was nothing wrong with the writing, nor was there in the grammar; it was the content his mind refused to recognise.
Minutes passed. The old clock on the mantelpiece struck six. The realisation that the most precious thing in his life was gone seeped into his mind, like water seeping into a crack in a dam. His understanding of the news changed from a trickle to a torrent once it began to percolate through his consciousness.
Slowly and with both hands, he placed the letter on his knee as he sat in the tattered chair beside the fire. He stared straight ahead and a tiny drop of moisture appeared in the corner of each eye. A truck passed by outside and the house trembled, like François’ lower lip.
His thoughts went back to the day Jean-Paul left. He recalled how it was a warm summer’s morning and they were eating croissants from the baker’s shop two doors away. Gentle morning sunshine filtered its yellow rays through the kitchen window.
‘You can’t go. I forbid it,’ François said.
‘Thumping the table like that won’t make any difference. Charles and I are going to join the Loyalists. The Fascists will overrun the whole country. Someone has to stand against them.’
‘How does that matter to us? It’s nonsense.’
‘Look Papa, if the Spanish rebels take over, they’ll join with the Germans and the Italians. Who knows? They could take over our country too. It’s not just because they’re unjust and inhumane, it’s because we’ll be next.’
‘I don’t care, you’re just a boy and wet behind the ears. You can’t even shoot straight.’
‘Fascist rebels aren’t rabbits. They’re bigger targets. I believe in the Loyalist cause. You fought in the war with Arnaud and the others; they even decorated you. Now it’s my chance to fight for something I believe in. Would you really stand in my way?’
‘I was much older than you when I joined the army. You’re not going.’
‘Charles is coming in two hours’ time and I’m going with him. Get used to the idea, will you? I told you I was going weeks ago. You just don’t listen.’
‘I listen. It’s the nonsense I hear that foxes me. This foreigner’s brigade of yours is a rag-tag rabble. They don’t stand a chance of stopping the rebels. The Fascists have help from the Germans and the Italians. Your brigade is a collection of academics and idealists and they’ll be shot to pieces.’
‘I won’t argue any more. I’m going - with your blessing or without it. Will you really part with me like this? Since mother died, we’ve needed each other. Can’t we be friends?’
‘I’ll never give way on this. You will stay and finish your studies. If you go now, this door will be shut to you when you come home. I mean it.’
‘So damned rigid. Is it your age? If my only son was going to war, I would at least wish him well.’
‘No you wouldn’t. Why can’t you listen to reason? Spain is not our cause, our country.’
In exasperation, François stood and paced the floor. He waved his hands.
‘You’re just like your mother. Unreasonable and stubborn.’
‘At least promise me you’ll write.’
‘I thought you said you’d disown me?’
François leaned forwards across the table, his hands flat on the scarred surface. His voice softened. ‘No. I was angry. You’ll write to me?’
Jean-Paul was silent. The two looked at each other, François standing and Jean-Paul sitting at the old oak table. The sound of a pigeon cooing from the eaves came in the open window and a smell of fresh coffee still hung in the air. François felt like a man attempting to push a car uphill: slipping back two steps for every forward pace. He knew his son was determined and he was powerless to stop him. He was not a man who accepted defeat easily, but this time there seemed to be no options open to him.
And now the boy was dead.
Clutching the letter, François got up from the chair and stared out of the window. It was still wintry and a late snowfall painted the rooftops and balconies a dirty white. Occasional cars and motorcycles passed by, churning the St Cyprien cobbles into a mire of brown slush.
Their last conversation took place on the doorstep. He hugged the boy and made him promise to write; unreasonable, as it seemed to him later. Who writes letters in a war?
He did receive one letter at Christmas time and it had been a brief, stained, and crumpled note, passed from hand to hand until, in the end, someone delivered it late on Christmas Eve, while François was at church. Jean-Paul said little, apart from how he was well, but hungry and cold. He mentioned they were passing through the small Basque town of Guernica on their way south. The boy wished him a happy Christmas.
Thinking about that letter caused pain. There would be no more Christmases for François, no reason for church, for laughter or prayer. All gone.
He went down to the tiny cellar and found a case of Bergerac. He recalled how Jean-Paul carried it down and joked how it would last forever if his father were the one who had to fetch the fresh bottles. François took two bottles and carried them upstairs to the poky little kitchen, a place of memories. Arlette, his wife, cooked there. Jean-Paul and he grieved there together. François recalled how he once thought all he had left of her was their son. He opened a bottle and poured a glass. Jean-Paul was everything to him, his only source of hope in a contracting world, filled with politics, anti-Semitism, and pain.
He sniffed the wine and began to drink. It dulled the pain a little by the time he had consumed three glasses. He felt more solitary now than at any time in his life, even compared to the nightmare of the Great War, when men made few friends lest they lose them in death.
And now? He felt it was the commitment and the love causing his pain; a feeling so deep it consumed him. By the end of the bottle, he was unsteady and almost dropped the second in opening it. Life held no attractions for him anymore. He knew some teachers would respond by throwing themselves into their work. Teaching young people could give some reason for carrying on, for such civic bastions. For François, the prospect of teaching dull, resentful children how to speak and write German and English seemed a reason for ending it all rather than something from which he might gain strength.
It was growing as dark in the kitchen as it was in his heart. He fumbled the matches, attempting to light the lamp. Cursing, he got down on all fours to pick up the scattered pine slivers. Jean-Paul was dead. He would never be here again, François would never see his smile, and the tiny kitchen would never again resonate to the sound of his laughter. François stayed like that for minutes, on his hands and knees like some huge canine, then lay down on the cold russet tiles, immobile, silent and uncaring.
Outside it began to rain.
If he had been a wealthy man, François would have travelled by car. A schoolteacher in the backwater Dordogne town of St Cyprien had no money for such luxuries however. His motorcycle had seen better days too. He stripped down the ancient Peugeot engine before he left and the head teacher’s anger sparked by his sudden absence came to mind as he rode away. It angered him still. ‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘like being stabbed in the back.’
After all he had done for the school over the years, to be told he would be sacked if he failed to return in a month seemed to him typical of the small-mindedness of his superior, but he reminded himself she came from Paris and we all know, he thought, what Parisiennes are like.
He set off on April fool’s day and thought it was apt in some ways. What was the use? To visit a grave. To weep and mourn, as if it made any difference to the pain he carried in his heart each day. That pain was there when he awoke, when he went to bed, and throughout each day since the news arrived. Every moment, whether he was occupied or not, contained memories, regrets and a feeling of ‘why?’
The border police stopped him. They accepted his explanation and hurried him through the barrier as if he was one among many with the mission of finding a grave, and delaying him might make his grief contagious. The cold wind burned his cheeks as he rode and he began to realise he was seeking to close a chapter of his life, nothing more. He knew he could not settle until he spoke a prayer at his son’s graveside. The pragmatist in him insisted it was meaningless, but what man is practical in grief?
Entering Spain, the countryside seemed barren and dull. It was mountainous and steep at first, wide expanses of scrub and empty roads doing nothing for his mood or humour. All he wanted was to arrive, to do his duty and return home to his fire, a bottle of wine and his memories. Small villages lined the roadway and when he stopped, he drank wine, ate bread and cheese, and felt his despair deepen. François spoke to no one unless it was to find a place to sleep or ask directions. He was there; he was doing what was necessary, but he had no wish to interact with anyone even though he spoke their language.
He travelled through Guernica, because Jean-Paul mentioned the place, and in the approaching dusk he found a small hotel where he parked his motorcycle. It was a yellow-rendered building with two balconies, each with a dilapidated flower-box, displaying last year’s dead plants. The interior seemed as neglected as the proprietor. Approaching the tiny desk, François took in the woman, who sat sewing. From her appearance, he wondered if she too was a leftover from last year. He stood, and it took a full minute before the woman looked up from her work. She had a weatherworn face, wrinkled beyond her forty-odd years, and her expression seemed tired and disappointed. Yet despite the lacklustre face, her green eyes held something alive but indefinable.
‘A room. I need a room for one night.’
‘We have rooms. We have a hotel full of rooms and you’ll be the only guest.’
She reached behind her to a pigeonhole and passed a key to him across the desk. He signed the register and she directed him upstairs.
‘Do I need to take you?’
François stood for a moment looking at her. There seemed to be something between them, a common disconsolate feeling, perhaps a mental connection. He said nothing. Since Jean-Paul died, he had felt detached from life, and seldom cared enough to enquire about anyone. This woman was no different.
She looked up. A silent question showed in her eyes as if she too recognised some common ground between them.
‘You run this place by yourself?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she said and paused. ‘I do now.’
‘My man was killed by the rebels.’
‘He was fighting for the Loyalists?’
‘No. He was not fighting anyone. He went to the city to buy stores. They stopped him and called him a gypsy. They dragged him out of the truck and shot him.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘My sister was with him. They only raped her.’
François felt tempted, for the first time, to explain why he was there, but since the letter from Charles he had confided in no one. He was not close enough to anyone to bare his pain. It felt now as if here was someone who might understand. The temptation to open up and burden her with his grief on top of hers was not strong enough however, so all he said was, ‘I see. Room twelve?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
The moment passed for François and he turned, shouldering his canvas bag, and walked towards the stairs. She looked at his signature.
‘Señor Dufy?’ she called after him.
At the foot of the staircase, François turned.
‘I wondered why you are here. The civil war and all.’
‘I am visiting someone. South of here. I am sorry for your loss.’
He climbed the stairs but he sensed she wanted to call him back. He ignored the feeling. What could he say to her? If she wanted a shoulder to cry upon, his were sagging too much; besides, he had his own pain to deal with and it was a full-time occupation.
The room was quiet and comfortable in a Spartan way. The iron bedstead in the corner, the threadbare rug and the chest of drawers, battered and chipped, testified to the woman’s situation. It was clean enough, though François would not have cared if it had been filthy. He had not bothered with his own appearance since the news.
He dumped his bag and came back down hoping to find a place where he could eat, and most of all drink. He had a bottle of Calvados in his bag but he wanted oblivion, not sleep, and the combination of the vicious apple brandy and a bottle of wine had served him well in the last month. Passing the woman, he heard her call to him. He thought her conversation unwelcome but he was polite enough to reply.
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘Are you eating here tonight?’
‘I didn’t think you would be opening the kitchen for just one guest.’
‘I have nothing else to do. Just one guest is enough.’
‘Well, I wanted wine too.’
‘Plenty of local wine in the cellar. There is no one to drink it.’
He shifted from one foot to the other, undecided.
He said, ‘When will you serve?’
‘Now, if you have a mind. It will take only half an hour to prepare food.’
François’ reluctance weakened; he did not want to become drunk in front of this woman, but he had a vague feeling that to turn her down would be rude. It was not like him to worry about what others thought. Jean-Paul had always castigated him over it. François never understood adolescents and when confronted by a teenage son who refused to be seen in town with his father because of the way he dressed, he simply said it was up to others to choose whether he was suitable company, or not.
He felt like a man forced by politeness to eat something he knew would make him ill, but manners demanded he capitulate. On this occasion he noticed he did care but he could not fathom why. The woman was plain. She was grief-stricken and it showed in her face, even her clothing, yet he sensed something between them. Compared to Arlette, she was of no interest in that way, but he wanted to stay more than he wanted to drink, and it was the first time he had found some distraction from his grief in another person. He gave in and went to his room to while away the half-hour while the woman prepared his meal.
François sat on the bed convinced his thoughts were becoming fanciful. He wondered how it would be to talk to this woman about his miserable life. He was now single, but unwilling to challenge himself with a relationship with any woman. It was as if the conflict within him raged between his need for communication and his reluctance to make close contact with another’s life.
In recent months, he had felt as alone as he imagined any man could be and his only daily company was a bottle, two bottles perhaps. Yet, despite the truth of it, he recognised now a craving to express his inner thoughts, gloomy as they might be. From his bag he pulled the bottle of Calvados and began to sip it, deep in thought. There was a knock on the door.
‘Excuse me,’ came the woman’s voice, ‘your meal is ready.’
‘I will be right down.’
Descending the stairs, he began to wonder what he was doing here and he noticed a tension in his neck. He could have nothing to say to this woman. His sympathy was dried up, like his skin, or even hers. He had expended it in his grief and wanted to share it with no one.
The pork cutlet with vegetables was the best meal he had eaten in over a month. It was also the only one stimulating his appetite enough to make him eat. He pondered that and realised he had lost a great deal of weight since his son’s death.
The wine came from Navarre and although it was lighter than the Bergerac he was accustomed to, he found it pleasant enough. The proprietor served him his meal followed by Manchegan cheese and sliced, homemade bread.
Uninvited, she sat down at his table. He offered her some wine and she fetched a glass.
‘So you are French? You’ve come a long way.’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘I would like to visit France one day.’
‘Perhaps you will. It is a wonderful country, a place of art and peace.’
‘But you come here in a civil war?’
‘Only passing through,’ François said, pouring more wine. He began to get a mild dizziness from it and he wondered if the Spanish wines were stronger than the ones at home.
‘But a strange time to visit,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. I don’t know your name.’
‘Alma. It means…’
‘I know, it means “soul”,’ he said.
‘Yes. Your Spanish is very good.’
‘I am a language teacher. Forgive me, but I need to sleep, I have a long ride in the morning.’
‘Yes, of course. I will clear up.’
François stood up. Conversation remained on the tip of his tongue, but something prevented him from saying more. His hesitation prompted her to pause, clearing away his plates.
‘Please sit,’ she said, ‘I will get more wine. We can talk if you like. I see in you there is much to say, but you say nothing.’
‘You wish to talk about your husband?’
‘No, not really. I have no one to talk to. I’m sorry, I’m being foolish. Please, if you need to sleep…’
‘I have plenty of time I suppose,’ he said.
He sat down and drained his glass.
‘I understand what you must be going through. I lost my wife a few years back and it doesn’t get any better. I understand.’
The words disturbed him. He meant them. He sat deep in thought while she fetched more wine.
‘You said you understand. No one can understand. I lost all that was precious to me and now I sit here in this dreary hotel. The war has destroyed everything in my life that ever made sense; I can’t even earn a decent living. We never had children you see. I don‘t have anyone apart from my sister, and she is still trying to get over what happened.’
‘But you have friends?’
He sipped his wine, then wiped a drop from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.
She said, ‘No one I can talk to.’
‘I do understand. My son died in your war, fighting for the Loyalists.’
‘And you are here because…’
‘To visit his grave.’
‘It is dangerous. The rebels are pushing north; it says so on the radio.’
‘I’ve already been through some of their territory coming here.’
‘You were not caught?’
‘I saw no one, but I travelled fast. Why stay when there is nothing for you here?’
‘I have nowhere else to go. This place is all I have left of my life. We are a small community here in Guernica, mainly women, children and old people. The men have gone to the war. You won’t find many rebel sympathisers here.’
‘I have no side, though my son had.’
‘He was an idealist?’
‘Yes. We argued over his coming and I would have prevented it if I could. I fought in the last war. I know war and its face is terrible.’
They were silent then for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. She reached for his hand across the table. He grasped hers in return. It was a contract between them. They had each shed something - given and taken.
He said, ‘Until Jean-Paul’s death, I had always felt grief was a form of self-indulgence. We miss them and so feel sorry for ourselves. Until now, my son was my life. Existing without him seems meaningless.’
‘Don’t misunderstand, I don’t find suicide attractive. It is not because I am a Catholic but because I know there can be good things still one day, I just cannot see where or when… I drink.’
‘Yes, I understand that. I’m no stranger to suffering either am I? We part in the morning, but my pain will remain you know. It’s like a stain, or like something I’ll have to step over every time I go there. Look, it’s late and I have much to do in the morning. You can take the wine up with you, if you wish.’
There was no embrace, no handshake or other physical contact between them and François took the half-empty bottle to his room. He sipped it, not bothering with a glass, as he stared out at the dark street below. He and Alma had much in common. He understood her grief and felt a softening of his heart. He felt like a man wandering in a mist who, reaching out, found something for which he was searching.
He undressed and lay naked on the bed. It was a tolerable temperature, warmer than at home. His eyes began to close and he dowsed the lamp. A dog barked outside but otherwise, there was silence. He started when his door opened. A faint backlight from the hall lamp framed her. She wore a long pale nightdress. He lay still, watching. She untied the bow at her neck and the nightdress slipped from her shoulders. He felt the beginnings of arousal and it surprised him; he had not been with anyone since Arlette. She approached the bed and sitting, reaching out a tremulous hand, placed it on his chest. He pulled her towards him with gentle, caressing hands. Their lips met, a soft kiss, progressing in fervour and urgency.
As she lay down next to him, he said, ‘It has been a long time.’
‘Yes, for me too. You will be gentle?’
‘I am always that in bed.’
He could sense her smile in the darkness. They made love; he, almost reluctant and feeling unfamiliar with both her body and the act itself. She clung to him afterwards, her head against his shoulder, her hand teasing the hair on his chest.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Thank you for giving me this moment. It is the first time I have felt anything but grief. It is almost as if everything happening around me has to be enormous before I even notice it. My feelings seem to have been so… so blunted.’
‘Yes it has to cut to the quick before I feel anything too.’
‘Will you stay with me a few days? A few days is all I ask.’
‘I cannot. I have a duty to visit my son’s grave. I will come back this way if you wish, perhaps stay a while. I have nothing to go home to.’
She took his hand and kissed it, reassurance flowing from the movement. They were silent then and neither of them slept. It seemed to François words were unnecessary and for the first time for months he began to feel human. It was as if this woman, naked and soft next to him, had reclaimed him. He knew he would return and perhaps there would never be a need to return to the Dordogne. He wondered if his thoughts were born of desperation and he would clutch at any straw to escape his feelings in that lonely house in St Cyprien.