It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 10

They drove to Aubusson in Alfie’s little car as he would be taking them back after their visit to the place as yet unknown to Daria. Just out of Ayen, Tilly pointed out her grandson Pippin’s farm, an old square house and their fields of red-brown, horned Limousin cattle.

‘Daria’ said Alfie ‘do you remember those caves I was going to take you to? Well, will be taking you sometime still. I hope. I seem to remember that there are cave paintings of aurochs there. You know, the huge cows with nearly three foot long horns. Anyway, Limousin cattle are their direct descendants. They have similar DNA or something.’

‘Three foot long horns? Scary. I wouldn’t have wanted to come across one of those’ said Daria ‘the Limousin look huge enough. I never sort of know if I’m scared of cows or not. They’re so big, solid looking. But an auroch?’

‘And apparently, they were still around in the 17th century’ said Alfie.

‘Really? So late? I thought it was, well I don’t know, back during the Roman times or even earlier, I suppose. Tilly, do you know the caves? Have you been to any? Did Opa ever go to any?’

‘Ah, there are many caves in this part of France and Gene got to know some as a teenager as he was wandering around. So he knew them as places to hide and to shelter when not many others did, at that time. And he put that knowledge to good use with the underground railway.’

Daria looked out of the window as the car wove its way down curving lanes, at the miles and miles of hedgerows and tiny hamlets and farm houses that were dotted around the foothills of hills covered with forest. It was all so sparsely populated that it was easy to picture hiding places in remote barns or clearings amongst the trees. In her mind’s eye, Daria could see figures scurrying in the distance across green fields to get to the safety of the trees. Anything could be in those forests, on those hills, she thought, remembering how easy it was to get lost. And scared.

‘Do you know which caves, Tilly? Were any the ones with the prehistoric paintings in?’ said Daria.

‘No. Or maybe they were. But not all had been discovered then or we only found out about them later. But we did go to some of the caves where Gene had hidden allied airmen, Jews. Ah, too many to mention. Ones that he had sheltered in many times. He took me and the children once when they were little. But that was many years ago. Ah, Daria, no. I would not be able to remember where they were, so I cannot take you.’

Daria grinned widely. ‘How did you...never mind.’

Tilly turned to look at Daria and slowly nodded her head saying ‘Tilly knows’. Then she smiled at Daria and turned back to continue.

’Gene always said that the caves sang to him, so he never felt alone when he was there. He said he’d learnt to listen when he had been alone and frightened, but had to take shelter somewhere when he was younger. At first, he tried to avoid the caves as he was scared of what might be living there. But sometimes he had no choice. If the weather was too bad, if he had nowhere else to go. But in the end he loved those caves. Ah, Gene used to say the noises in those places were unworldly. He said they were the echoes of the wind carrying the songs of the ancestors who wanted to comfort, to relieve the pain. Ah, who knows? But believing that took away his fear.

‘Ah, that was no way for him to live, for any child to live. Although mother arranged so many things, took care of such details that I have no idea how she managed it. But she could not do it all. She somehow sewed coats for him in winter without Bonner knowing. Knitted scarves and gloves, made shirts and trousers as he grew out of old ones. She would sew through the night, putting scraps of used clothes together. Bonner was too stupid to see. Or too drunk.’

Tilly sighed and fell silent, clearly lost in thoughts painful to voice.

‘Tilly? Do you mind if I ask you why you don’t call Bonner father or dad or something?’ said Daria.

Tilly gave a half smile and nodded her head.

‘No, little flower angel. How could I mind any question you ask? Even if I don’t answer you straight away. I do not call him my father because he did not earn that title. Ah, any fool can impregnate a woman, but surely a father nurtures a child, provides for it, teaches it, cares for it, loves it. And Bonner did none of that. Not to me nor to Dareau. Oh, he taught Dareau to hate, to be bitter and he taught us both how to be afraid. Although I no longer hate him and I don’t suppose I despise him as I once did, this does not mean I can ever call him father.’

‘How different Opa’s life would have been if Bonner hadn’t been the way he was. And yours, Tilly’ said Daria.

‘Such thoughts haunted mother. Especially after the war. And if Bonner hadn’t taught Dareau to resent Gene? Ah, a lot of things may not have happened. But that too is for later.’

Daria lay her hand on Tilly’s shoulder and Tilly patted it.

‘Today will be quite a day for us both, Daria. But later. For now I will tell you about the caves for they played quite a part when Gene was in the Resistance. If they had to go to the caves, I know he tried to teach some of the children who took the Underground Railway how to listen. But many were too terrified and couldn’t understand. And who could blame them. Gene used to say those children lived lives much worse than his had been. At least he knew where his mother was, even if he could not live with her. And it broke his heart to see children, who were so little, alone. But there was one boy, a boy that was to become important in Gene’s story, who heard the songs immediately. He was special to Gene. Ah, Gene could tell that he was intelligent and had had an education and he knew how the natural world worked. So much knowledge at only ten years old. But secretive, ah very secretive.’

‘How was the boy important to Opa?’ said Daria.

‘Gene had picked up a small group of children from a safe house in Aubusson, where you live, Alfie. It was Gene and Henri, the brother of my best friend, Colette, who were moving the children to Ambert. Nearly a hundred miles away. Ah, can you imagine that. Not all on foot, but a great deal of it even though they had arranged for trucks which would travel through the mountains. It was a treacherous time by then. Thousands of people were being rounded up or captured and arrested, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, anybody different. Such brutality. It was disgusting. People thrown into concentration camps, ah yes, France had enough of those. So many people afraid, the towns smelt of fear. They became hateful places to go to. Ayen was safer, as smaller places were, you understand. But not always, as you shall be finding out. But later.’

As Daria was discovering, Tilly was an poignant and expressive story teller. Daria thought that the telling and the listening became a mutually holistic experience, as Tilly seemed to almost coerce her audience to become as involved as she was. Tilly spoke with her whole body, as Opa had. And it was compelling.

’But Gene, Henri and the children had a bad time, ah a very bad time on that journey. They followed the river valley, the Rozielle, for as long as they could. Until it started raining and raining. So bad that they were forced to climb higher up as the river flooded. But Gene knew where he was and led them to a cave. Dreadful storms kept that small group longer in the cave than they had hoped. But timing was always important. The links in the chain to Ambert, so they could be taken to Switzerland, were fragile and could be broken by small things. A misunderstood sign, being an hour late, bad weather. And it rained and rained for five days. Too much rain as it made the route treacherous and they had no idea how far the storms reached. Gene had to hunt and forage for food, as they could not get to the arranged pick-up places.

‘Ah, so many amazing and brave people always ready to help however they could. And Henri was a wonder at keeping the children from letting fear get the better of them. Ah, what a charmer Henri was and such a handsome man. So gentle with the children as well. So Gene got to know little Adam, the ten year old. At least, got to know him as far as Adam would let him. Adam did not want to stay in the caves, but insisted on going out with Gene whenever he had to look for food. Ah, Daria. Look over there, far into the distance.’

Daria scoured the countryside, then spotted a huge ruined castle on the side of a mountain. It looked vast, even though it was miles away.

‘The castle? How on earth did they build it up there? How old is it?’

‘Bits of it go back to the twelfth century, but it was added to until about the sixteenth, I think’ said Alfie, ′ is that right, Tilly? Then it was slowly deserted and became too inaccessible for centuries. But they put on light shows and medieval festivals and things now. Usually just through the summer. It’s supposed to be amazing, even if it is quite a journey up there.′

‘Ah, you are quite right, Alfie’ said Tilly, ‘and they improved the roads about twenty years ago. But it is another place that Gene took us to one day after the war, mother and me, because it was a place where he had slept when he was about fourteen. Mother liked to see as many places as she could, so she could understand more about how he took care of himself. I know it made her feel better about it all, seeing for herself how resourceful Gene was.’

They all sat in silence, looking at the castle fade away into the distance and Daria felt in awe of everything Opa must have done and seen and experienced. And looking at the actual places, seeing the fields and the farmhouses, gave Tilly’s stories an extra dimension. It almost felt too incredible, too inconceivable that Opa had lived that life.

Daria stretched forward to look at Tilly in the front of the car, as she thought she’d detected a slight nod of her head.

‘She’s asleep, I think’ said Alfie.

‘I am awake’ said Tilly, gently and deeply ‘but you two carry on as if I was not here’ and she grinned, all the while keeping her eyes closed.

Alfie glanced at Daria through the mirror, smiling.

‘I didn’t know if I should translate that’ he said.

Daria smiled back and shrugged. She said nothing, but held his gaze in the mirror until she rested her head to look out of the small side windows and became lost in staring at the village they were now approaching. The honey coloured stone houses with pale blue or muted red shutters that followed the course of a twisting river and the mishmash of tall, then squat, then wide buildings added to the beauty and Daria could easily imagine that nothing much had changed much over the centuries.

Nobody said anything for quite a while and Daria found the silence comforting. She wasn’t sure if Tilly slept or not and Alfie looked relaxed driving. She occasionally caught his eye in the mirror and they automatically smiled at each other. Daria felt herself re-absorbed into Tilly’s story and fantasised about how and where you could hide, sleep, eat without being seen, as they drove through tiny hamlets and up and down small, twisty roads that hugged the rugged hillsides. “Opa knew all this”, she thought “and that’s amazing. But both times, as a child and an adult, they were linked to fear and that is sad.” She felt her heart start to thump louder as she fantasised about what Opa must have suffered. And she knew she didn’t know the full story, momentarily feeling that she didn’t want to. But the fact that Opa wanted her to know, and realising how important it appeared to be to Tilly, strengthened her.

At that moment, just as Daria was beginning to feel rising nerves again, they went round an enormous bend and Daria laughingly screamed as she was almost flung from one side to the other. Alfie’s car was a source of huge amusement to Daria throughout the journey, but especially since the roads had become smaller and bends larger. Daria had never been in what Alfie called ‘his chicken chaser’ and she giggled every time they went round a corner or a roundabout and the car seemed to lean dangerously into it and she slid across the back seat. At first, she thought it seemed as if the car was going to fall over, it leant so hard.

‘Sorry about that. It’s different in the back and I don’t very often have many passengers. But it’s quite safe, you know’ Alfie tried to reassure her, not knowing if she felt unsafe or not. ‘I love these little, quirky cars and they do a ton of miles on a thimbleful of petrol.’

‘It’s ok, I’m not worried. It did make me feel a bit weird at first and you do get thrown about a bit in the back. But it makes me laugh as well.’

‘Good. I know some people find it a bit disconcerting. But how are you? This is a real journey of discovery.’

Daria could see the concern in his brown eyes through the mirror and just found herself looking at him and being warmed by his physical presence.

‘I’m alright. Yes, I am. I haven’t thought really. I’ve found out so many things already that I just find myself trying to let it all settle. Sort of stop it all swimming round in my head and find the place for it all to belong. And it makes me a bit scared really, which might sound nuts because whatever Opa went through, I know he didn’t die.’

Daria stopped and frowned. ‘I’m not sure if I’ve said all that right. I never knew any of this and I don’t know what’s in front. But I did know Opa and I’m trying to put the pieces together. He always said he was in the Resistance and he regularly went to France. Probably more times than he told me. So he must have come here. And I like that. I know he must have had a wonderful time whenever he came. Who couldn’t, with Tilly around? And he was a man of imagination, resourcefulness, loyalty. And despite his secrets, he was an honest man. If that makes sense. And his energy. God, he had such get up and go. Even in his nineties, he just oozed vitality. Like Tilly does.’

‘Yeah. I know what you mean. She’s been amazing through all of this. It must be taking it out of her though. She tells every part of this with such emotion, it’s as if she relives every bit. But it’s easy to tell how much she’s loving it as well. And she loves you.’

‘Thank you for saying that, Alfie. I just love her so much, I really, really want her to feel the same about me. Somehow that’s become quite important. To not be a disappointment to her, particularly after the way Opa must have spoken about me. I know how much he loved me and how much I meant to him.’

‘Oh, have absolutely no doubt that she loved you from the moment she saw you. Just like Opa did when you were born, I suppose. How does it feel to be instantly loved by so many?’

Alfie seemed to suddenly sound quite serious and Daria saw him intently and intensely glance at her through the mirror. Her stomach leapt at wild implications that raced through her head and she wanted to ask more than she would be comfortable saying.

‘What?’ was all that she could manage.

‘On that first morning, the day of the storm when we arrived at your house early. From the second she arrived at Ila’s, you were all she could talk about and how she couldn’t wait to be with you again. And she wanted to know that you were alright, that everything that had happened wasn’t too much for you. And she also said that you were stronger than you knew. Yes. She loves you a great deal.’

Daria really hoped that she wasn’t blushing. She certainly felt embarrassed. Being completely honest with herself, she realised that she’d wanted Alfie to be saying that he’d fallen in love with her instantly. And clearly he wasn’t saying that at all, she thought feeling foolish and wondering why she had wished that.

But at the same time, she was truly delighted that he had said Tilly loved her. She’d certainly felt an instant connection with the woman, something almost tangible and something that Daria thought was solidified by their mutual love for Opa. She had never met anyone else who felt as fiercely, as devotedly to him as she did.

They fell silent again and Daria just watched the beautiful rolling countryside amble by, thinking about Alfie and how much Opa would have liked him. She fantasised about them laughing together over a bottle of red wine, discussing the history of the region. And she felt it was a shame that they would never meet.

Tilly opened her eyes and sat up straight at exactly the second that they were about to drive over a small medieval bridge and into Aubusson.

‘Ah, this is a beautiful old town. You must come here again, Daria and see the wonderful old tapestries in the museum. Aubusson is famous for them. Some are over four hundred years old, ah they are so beautiful, and you can still see the skill and the delicacy that the weavers must have had. Alfie, I am sure that you must live in the beautiful old part of town.’

Daria could see his grin match hers.

‘Yes. Yes, actually I do. It’s a sixteenth century workshop, I think. Well, a converted workshop. I have the top two floors and the view is just amazing. You can see over roof tops and right to the mountains. We’re nearly there, it’s just round this corner.’

*

Daria and Tilly stood and looked out of a window in Alfie’s flat, down on the occasional car or shopper, to a street cafe on a corner and over wonky, sloping roofs to the hills beyond. Daria hadn’t really known what to expect when they entered Alfie’s flat. But she knew it certainly wasn’t what she found. Although it was a small flat, it was decorated exotically. Deep burgundy muslin curtains mirrored the richness of a rich red settee, and dark wooden furniture, and brass and silver ornaments and lamps gave the effect a Moroccan flavour. Alfie explained that he rented the flat fully furnished but that despite the size, he thought the decor worked. Both of the women agreed and had spent a bit of time marvelling over the contents of his flat, while he made lunch.

’Et voila, Daria. Il ya le musée. Le grand bâtiment’ said Tilly, pointing to a huge square building.

‘Musée? Oh, museum. The big building? Tapestries are there, didn’t you say?’ said Daria.

Then she turned to Tilly and placed her hand on her arm.

‘Oh Tilly. I am so sorry I can’t understand you. But I am understanding more and more, I think. At least, it’s getting there slowly. Or quickly, if you think about it. But I should have done more at home. I am sorry. And I wish I could say that in French.’

But Tilly nodded her head, as if in understanding and then smiled as Daria attempted the apology in French.

‘Ah, bon, bon. Très bon’ said Tilly and kissed her on the cheek.

‘By the tone of Tilly’s voice, you’ve certainly impressed her with something’ said Alfie, walking into the room to announce that lunch was ready.

‘I only said sorry in French. Not much. But I was saying that I need to learn more. I can’t keep relying on you like this. But maybe you could help? Teach me or something, I mean. If you wouldn’t mind?’

‘I’d be delighted. And it won’t be difficult as you’re immersed in the language being over here.’

‘I sort of think I’m already learning more. Or remembering it. I just don’t feel very confident about trying it, I suppose. I wish Opa had taught me. Actually, I’ve never thought of that before. I didn’t know he would have been fluent in French. I wonder why I hadn’t made the connection?’

‘It doesn’t sound to me as if there was any reason why you should have known. Isn’t it all part of his having a house, a family over here? And that you had to discover it all for yourself?’ said Alfie.

‘Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right. And I’ve certainly made some incredible discoveries’ said Daria, turning to Tilly and smiling.

Tilly beamed and patted Daria’s arm as Alfie translated.

Over a lunch of French omelettes and salad, Tilly asked Daria to tell her more about her sons and their relationship with Opa. As Daria did, she felt momentarily homesick even though she was speaking to them regularly and she dearly wished they could have been with her. Tilly leaned across her plate and held Daria’s wrist in empathy. Their eyes held and everyone fell silent for just a moment.

‘Ah, you think they will also help you to be strong as your journey here moves on’ said Tilly softly ‘but you are stronger than you think.’

Daria half smiled as she felt tears tickling her eyes. Tilly was right again.

‘I’m trying not to get nervous. I want to just live in Opa’s story as you tell it. Does that make sense? I don’t want to anticipate, sort of second guess anything. And sometimes that’s quite hard. And then I think of Opa and a thing he used to say. I’m not sure if I’m remembering it right but it was something like, you will never know the truth of how much you are capable of until...’

‘...until you are faced with that which you think you cannot handle’ Tilly finished her sentence, while Daria sat, looking a little amused.

Then both women laughed, while Alfie sat and looked in wonder at them both.

‘I wondered how long it would be before you two started finishing off each other’s sentences. That was amazing.’

‘It’s a saying, a proverb, I don’t know. It was something that Opa used to say. And so, of course, Tilly knows it too. So it’s not really finishing each other’s sentences.’

‘But it sounds good to me, anyway. Wise words. The more I get to know of Opa, the more I know I’d like to have met him.’

‘He’d have liked you’ both women said simultaneously, which Alfie found highly entertaining, particularly as it was said in different languages.

‘As I say’ he said and the three laughed, ‘does anyone want any more bread or salad? There’s a bit left.’

‘Thank you, not for me’ said Daria ‘that was delicious. Omelettes are hard to get so fluffy. I never seem to get them as light as this. Where did you learn that?’

‘Ah, our Alfie is a man of many skills, am I not right?’ said Tilly, winking.

‘I don’t know about that, Tilly. But I do know you are a woman full of mischief.’

‘Ah, Tilly knows’ she said and pointed her slightly bent finger at him.

‘And I think I’ve learnt that’ said Alfie, grinning back at her.

Daria sat back and watched them both. She felt filled with emotions she found hard to label. It was more than the way they had all become necessary to Opa’s story. Bigger than the ties they’d all developed so quickly. Deeper than a warmth from the gentle ease that they all found in each other’s company. And she just let the joy of seeing these two people tease each other wash over her.

Over coffee and still sitting round the table, Tilly returned to the story of Gene and Adam and the days they spent in the cave together. She explained how Adam had hunted and gathered food with Opa, even stealing eggs and a chicken together from a farm they’d stumbled across one rainy evening. The relentless downpour and storms had not deterred the boy and he’d insisted on accompanying Opa each day. Tilly described how fond Opa became of Adam not only because he had many of the skills that Opa himself had acquired, how to snare a rabbit, which leaves, berries and roots were edible and which were not. But also because Adam always showed the same sort of reverence for the environment. Opa had said that Adam had an almost innate respect for and knowledge of the natural world.

Tilly explained that although Adam was young, he was also very reluctant to talk about his family and his background, so Opa had not pushed him. Adam had been fluent in several languages and his French had no discernible accent so Opa couldn’t tell his nationality. Except that he wasn’t French. Tilly recalled how Opa was certain that, education aside, Adam had come from an affluent family because of the quality of his clothes. Although, of course, they were torn and muddy like every other child, to some extent, was wearing.

‘Ah, this Gene knew. He also knew that Adam had travelled from La Rochelle, not the north as many children had.’

‘Why is that important?’ said Daria, sensing this was significant somehow.

‘Gene later found out that there was an international and very elite small school there. Ah, only the children of rich parents could afford to send their children there. Yes, it was very exclusive. But you are right, Daria. It was more than that too. People who sent their children to such schools usually would have had enough connections and money to get them out in other ways. And quickly, too. Rather than to use the underground. Many families who were persecuted escaped the quickest way they could, so it made no sense to Gene that Adam had not been taken home earlier. This puzzled Gene greatly.’

‘Maybe he just couldn’t get out or maybe he’d been staying in some safer place and then it got too dangerous’ said Daria ‘that would make sense, wouldn’t it?’

‘Ah. But why wait? If his parents were taken, then he would have travelled the underground sooner. Nobody lingered in one place too long and Adam had only just left La Rochelle. Gene knew this because his clothes were still in quite a good condition. At least compared to some of the others. But the key thing here is the money. Such wealth opens doors, it always has and it always will, for as long as people put such store in it.’

‘I’m still not sure I understand, though’ said Daria.

‘The time here is of importance. This was towards the end of the war and the German command must have seen the great possibility of being defeated. Ah, reprisals were great and the brutality took on a new and almost frantic turn. The Vichy regime in the south had become more extreme and so opposition had grown. Houses were raided more often, people tortured and killed for being suspected of being part of the Resistance. No trials, no magistrates. Just taken away. The south became a dangerous place. Ah, so let me ask you, Daria. Would you leave a child in such a place? Wouldn’t you want to get your child home as quickly as possible? Especially if you could have easily paid for it? So why was he kept there?’

Daria sat in silence for a moment and imagined the horror of being separated from your child. Especially during a war.

‘Did Opa find out why?’ she said.

‘Ah, yes. Yes he did. But that is for later. Gene wanted a particular order. So now. Have you guessed that it was Adam who gave Gene his nickname, Opa? Of course not. And how it made Henri laugh.’

‘Adam? But why?’ said Daria.

‘Adam said that Gene reminded him of a gamekeeper who used to teach him about animals, who used to make him laugh in the same way. And the gamekeepers name, to Adam, was Opa. It tickled Henri pink, so Gene said, whenever he was called that. And so, of course, all the children copied Adam. And slowly and eventually, throughout the underground, he became known as Opa. But how it made Henri laugh and laugh. Which is also a reason why Opa let the name stick after the war.’

‘What, because it made Henri laugh?’ said Daria.

‘Ah, yes. Henri was killed not too many months after they managed to get Adam and the others to another safe house. Gene always said it was a way of remembering the enormous sense of fun that Henri had. And it was a way of remembering Adam. Gene became very fond of him during those few weeks. Ah, neither of those young men, Gene nor Henri, were to know what a double edge sword that would become. Ah, later, Daria. Later.’

Daria found it was getting quite usual for Tilly to anticipate her questions. She liked that.

Tilly continued. ‘And now we must go and you will find more answers, my little flower angel. I am getting tired and will miss my little siesta today.’

‘Oh, Tilly. I’m so sorry. I never thought’ said Daria.

‘Ah, I like my afternoon naps because I can get away with them. Who will deny an old woman a sleep? But they are whimsical as well. I do not need them. But Gene’s story is hard at times. So we go and leave the washing up to you for later, Alfie.’

‘Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve worked out the route anyway, Tilly.’

‘You know where we’re going? When did you work it out?’ said Daria.

‘Ah, this is for you to follow, Daria’ said Tilly before Alfie could answer. ‘I will not say anymore about this until we arrive. And you have a lot to take in. But remember one more thing. How does a little boy know of gamekeepers? Unless his family were wealthy enough to have one? And what type of family were they, to keep their son where the Vichy regime was operating?’

*

This time, Daria felt sure that Tilly napped in Alfie’s car. Alfie seemed engrossed in getting the journey right and Daria felt pleased to have the silence. So many questions buzzed around in her head. And yesterday, Tilly had said that today would answer her questions. She felt it difficult not to feel nervous. Money? A double edged sword? Although much of what Tilly had explained to her so far made sense, there were gaps, breaks, holes. Daria didn’t know what to call them. And she felt a little afraid to find out.

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