The two women found no relief from the torrid atmosphere, even when their taxi pulled up outside the station of the eighth arrondissement. The Paris summer of 1942 was as hot as a steel-mill, the kind of weather that prompted an exodus from the city. La Gare Saint Lazare buzzed with sweaty travellers swarming like locusts in the humid heat through the seven tall, stone archways leading to the platforms.
Perspiring despite her cotton blouse, Francesca Pascal tugged at the case in the open boot as the driver stood by and watched. She looked up at his bewhiskered face, hoping for help, but it seemed clear no assistance was forthcoming. He, too, was sweating beneath his beret in the scorching sun, but he smiled all the same as he opened the taxi door for Francesca’s lithe young daughter, Marie. It was clear he did not intend to exert himself in the August swelter; he was a Paris taxi-driver after all.
‘Maman, let me help you,’ Marie said. ‘You should not be doing that, it’s too heavy.’
Her smile lit up her face; she showed no signs of urgency, despite the time. At eighteen she stood a little taller than her mother, but the resemblance between them was unmistakable. She wore her auburn hair in a bob, though the fringe was a little too long according to Francesca’s critical eye. High cheekbones and wide green eyes gave Marie an instant eye-catching appeal. To Francesca, her daughter was the crowning achievement of her life.
The clock above them struck the half-hour and Francesca fretted because they were late. She hoped the train would be as tardy as they’d been made by the traffic on the Avenue de Gabriel, where she’d admonished the driver for taking a bad short cut through the park.
Together, mother and daughter extracted their luggage and carried it towards the platform. Marie smiled again as Francesca checked the tickets.
‘Platform two I expect,’ Francesca said.
‘Yes, Maman, like last year. It’s on the board, up there.’
‘Perhaps he was German or something, that taxi-driver. Such an impolite man. He saw me struggle.’
‘Maman, times are hard for men like him. If he just coughs in the wrong place the Germans will send him to a munitions factory. Poor fellow.’
The mother looked at her daughter, revelling in the young woman’s youthful enthusiasm for everything in life. Marie was even-tempered and pleasant, such a contrast to most young people, in Francesca’s experience.
‘Is Papi meeting us?’
‘I expect so, my child. The telephone was not working again and who can afford a telegram these days?’
‘He might not be there?’
‘I wrote to him but who knows? If he isn’t there, we’ll get another cab.’
‘I love it when summer comes and we spend time with Papi and Mami. It’s not like the old farm, of course, but Switzerland is super too. You remember that boy from the shop?’
‘Yes, I remember. You encouraged him,” she said. ‘It was not his fault.’
‘He was nice all the same.’
Francesca took in the high glazed ceiling of the old station, reflecting how it seemed much the same as in Monet’s painting of it a hundred years before. She thought the old master had got it right, after all; the predominant colours, to her eyes, were greys and blues. The long, grey platform stretched away before them, filled with travellers and all of them waiting in endless queues, restless but powerless.
They shoved their way onto the platform, jostled by the crowd. There was a smell of humanity, body odours, scent and more. Francesca wrinkled her nose. Marie almost fell as a boy in his twenties pushed past, but he reached out strong, muscular arms towards her, grabbing her shoulders and keeping her upright.
‘I apologise,’ he said. ‘I apologise but am enchanted to meet you.’
Francesca said, ‘You can take your enchantment down the platform and take your hands off my daughter.’
He said, ‘I apologise to her mother, also. To bump into two such beautiful women at once is both formidable and overwhelming.’
He smiled a smile of white teeth and radiant humour.
Francesca’s frown saw him off. He shoved on through the milling crowd, pushing his way to the end of the platform. Marie stared after him. He glanced over his shoulder and the grin reappeared. The girl smiled back. Francesca could see it was a forceful, momentary connection.
She could not help watching too as he pressed on. He wore a grey suit, tight enough to indicate it might not be his own and she thought his backside swaggered in masculine pride. He was young and attractive and she felt pleasure, because he was beautiful and because he was French. She sighed, catching herself in thoughts to which she was sure no woman of her age should have admitted, even to herself.
They now stood twenty yards from the young man and Francesca noticed how he turned towards Marie and grinned again. He raised his eyebrows, again with a smile. Even at twenty yards, its meaning was clear. It was an expression of appreciation and Francesca, despite herself, felt pride in the beauty of her daughter. As a mother, she also knew she must keep such men at bay. Enchanted indeed. Cheeky boy.
She stumbled forward and Marie gripped her mother’s arm as four German soldiers dressed in green uniforms pushed past. One of them stood almost a head taller than the rest and his uniform bore flashes on the collar and badges of rank on the arms. He had a thin face and a grim expression in his pale, darting eyes. The features were strong and to Francesca, as an artist, they imprinted themselves in her memory.
The train was late. They always were these days. The occupation meant nothing functioned as it used to, even Francesca’s finances, though she did still have means. Her thoughts wandered as they stood waiting in the heat and chatted, as only a mother and her daughter can do, about clothes, about details of the people around them, but they were careful what they said. Who could tell, Francesca thought, whether someone was eavesdropping? Truncating their conversations was almost a habit nowadays when everywhere seemed populated by informers and soldiers and false accusations and petty quarrels resulted in arrests.
Francesca heard the sound of raised voices. German voices. The young man who had pushed past them only minutes before seemed to be in intense argument with the soldiers. He held up his papers. One of the Germans snatched them and then threw them onto the rails beneath the platform. He shoved the boy in the chest. To her horror, she saw the young man land a punch. The soldier collapsed. His colleagues turned as one. As if ordered to do so, they raised their Mauser rifles. The young man turned and ran up the platform towards the crowd.
A shot rang out. Only one shot. It echoed in the station building. Loud, like an instant of thunder, it seemed suspended in the air. The other soldiers took aim. The crowd ran or lay down all around on the cold, grey platform. Before Francesca could prevent it, Marie ran towards the now-crawling young man. Francesca could see a blood trail behind the boy and his face, once handsome, contorted by pain.
Then more shots.
Marie had almost reached the young man. The sound of the shots echoed as she fell. Francesca stood watching in silent disbelief. There was nothing else to do. Why was her daughter lying down? Incomprehension, then action.
She ran to Marie’s side. She pulled at the limp, lifeless form. Turning her, Francesca realised it was pointless. The young man lay still; the very stillness of his corpse was reflected in her daughter’s. Marie’s forehead leaked blood, where the bullet had entered. It trickled down her face, her beautiful face, the face of Francesca’s only life. She saw how Marie’s eyes were open, pupils huge, and it needed no medical degree, no experience of death, to realise, to understand. Francesca absorbed the horror, but felt nothing for seconds. It was a numbness and an absence of pain which gripped her most in that instant.
She clutched her daughter to her breast. She rocked back and forth. Then she felt it: a pain worse than labour, worse than anything she had ever imagined. In her heart, it exploded like a grenade. Then she wept bitter tears. She wailed like a Bedouin. Her life was gone. Everything that ever mattered to her ceased to exist in that moment.
Death had come. Death, darkness and the everlasting cessation of hope.
A sparrow called to its mate in the autumn dawn, heralding the start of a new day. Francesca lay on her back, staring up at the yellowing, paint-peeling ceiling. Her eyes traced a crack in the plaster, meandering to the far left corner. As her gaze reached the wall, she broke the silence.
‘Charles, when they shot her, I thought my life would end. The pain, it was so hard; I slept little. I roamed my apartment, drinking eau-de-vie for God’s sake, and I almost folded then.’
‘Hush, now, my sweet friend. We cannot, any of us, go back. She has gone to God.’
He stroked her cheek.
‘No,’ she said, pulling away and facing him. She stared into his eyes. A wild stare, insane almost. ‘I did not cave in as I expected.’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Somewhere inside that world of pain, that sea of misery, stirred a thought. It was the smallest of things when it began, you know.’
‘Yes, but it grew.” She groped to explain. “It grew like a green shoot in the spring sunshine. It took only a few days for me to comprehend that germination within me. It was rapid, complete,” she went on. “It was the beginning of hatred, a hatred so deep and so enormous it now fills my every waking moment. It occupies my life as the Germans occupy our land. My sole reason for living now is to obtain revenge.’
‘But revenge against whom? The entire German army? The SD?” He shook his head. “No, Francesca, that is not the right road; it will make you bitter. Resistance is the way. If enough people stand against the sauerkrauts, we will win through, but hatred makes for mistakes. There is no room for error.’
She leaned up on her elbow; the bed creaked.
‘And what are you doing with your silly newspaper? Few people read it and you will be caught one day distributing it.’
‘You have no contacts. You have never fired a gun. What do you expect to do?’
She stared at him again as her eyes filled with pain and moisture. She leaned in towards him and he stroked her hair, a gentle movement of his hand, a gesture of kindness as she pressed herself to him, sobbing. She knew he loved her. She was his closest friend and he, hers. Her pain was his but she knew he was right; there was no way to fight, only resistance, and the hope it would be enough.