‘Tilly’ Alfie said quietly, not sure if she was asleep or not, ‘I think this is where you wanted me to stop.’
‘Here? Why?’ said Daria as she looked around puzzled when she realised Alfie was pulling into a lay-by in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.
‘Only so we can speak before we go on’ said Tilly, ‘Let us get out of the car.’
As they stood on the sandy verge, Tilly pointed to what seemed to be a village, tucked into a small valley, about a mile away.
‘Tell me what you see, Daria’ said Tilly, almost whispering with an hint of despair in her voice.
Daria turned sharply to her, not understanding. Not sure if she wanted to understand either because of the tone in Tilly’s voice.
‘That village? I just see a village.’
‘Look again, little flower angel. Look properly.’
Daria stared and squinted. Then she slowly frowned as a realisation dawned on her, and she shivered.
‘It is a village. Or if I’m seeing it right, it was a village. Is that right? Some of those buildings look as if they’re in ruins. But it’s more than that. It’s empty. It doesn’t look lived in. There’s nobody about. And there’s no signs of anybody, no signs of people living there. Nothing is moving. Oh god, what is it? What happened?’
‘Ah. I hate this place and it is not easy for me to come here again. No, I am alright, Daria. I always knew I would be here again. When you came to discover Gene’s story.’
Daria had reached out for Tilly’s hand and the two women stood side by side as Tilly continued.
‘This is the village of Oradour and before you go there, I want you to know what happened. What happened to the village and what happened here to Gene. Ah, that this should ever to happen to ordinary people. It was an abomination.’
Daria turned to look at Tilly, thinking that she could hear tears in the old woman’s voice. But Tilly was just staring, with a look of resolution and stoicism. Daria squeezed her hand.
’Towards the end of the war, as I said to you, more and more terrible, terrible things were being committed by the SS who knew it’s defeat was very possible. The Nazis in Vichy were acting as Nazis everywhere else at that time. And everyone was scared and do not forget that that included the soldiers. But does that excuse people being shot or hung in front of their entire village for only being suspected of harbouring Jews? Of course not. Nothing is defensible of the actions of war. Henri Plumiérè, the mad baker in Ayen who said it could never be as bad as we were hearing, certainly had to eat his words. The man was a fool.
’Ah, enough of him. It was here, that in 1944 nearly 650 men, women and children were murdered. And even today, nobody really knows why. Some say that those who gave the order got the place name wrong. Others thought that it was because the village was thought to be hiding people who had escaped on their way to the death camps. But no evidence ever emerged to verify these things. As far as anyone can find out, and many have tried, there was no Resistance activity here whatsoever. But still a division of the SS arrived one sunny morning, when everyone was just going about their usual business. To put it simply, although such things are never simple, they grouped the people together and then women and children were burnt alive in the church and any survivors were shot. The same happened to the men in the barns. Then they burnt the entire village.
‘Ah, I cannot speak of the stories that came from that massacre. For a few people, only a very small handful, survived and spoke of what they had seen and what they had suffered. My own heart breaks when I say or hear those words that show how heinous human behaviour can be. It is enough to realise, to see this place and to know that this is where, apart from all those villagers, this is where the joyous Henri was murdered, Gene’s best friend and the brother of my best friend, Colette. But my sweet friend Collette was also killed here. She was only twelve years old. I cannot dwell on what or how they must have suffered.’
‘Oh my god, no. That’s so dreadful. Oh god. Why were they here? Did they live here?’ said Daria, her hand over her mouth in shock and utter disbelief. She felt a tear slide down her cheek.
‘No. They came for the day. Ah, it could so easily have been, and I feel a shame to say it, even been Gene who was killed here that day. But he was my brother and I am glad he did not die.’
‘How? Why were they all here?’ Daria turned to Alfie, whose face was mirroring the distress she felt. He walked a step closer to her and laid his hand on her shoulder.
’Gene and Henri had dropped Colette off at the house of a cousin of her mother so that she could spend a few hours with their new baby. Colette had been so excited for days. And I had wanted to go with them but I was not allowed. I can’t even remember why now. Oh, poor mother. How she had to put up with a tantrum from me that day. But when we heard what had happened, we just clung to each other. She hugged me so tightly I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe. We knew what would have happened if I had joined Colette, we didn’t need to say it.
‘Ah, when Gene and Henri left Colette with her cousin, the young men then went off hunting in the forests. There were food shortages everywhere by then and a deer or a boar would make a welcome addition to any village, for such gifts, as Gene would call them, were shared between many. And what interest did they have in babies, when they could hunt and forget the war for a couple of hours? They were in the forest when they heard shooting, a lot of shooting. So they ran and ran to see what was happening. Gene said it was the most wretched and brutal thing he had ever seen. Ah, can you imagine? From hoping they could forget the war for a couple of hours, to being forced right into the middle of it. They could barely believe what they were seeing. Buildings on fire everywhere, people screaming and crying and being shot trying to run away. A car exploded just at the moment they entered the edge of the village by a foot path. The soldiers turned, for just a second, to see what the explosion was and in that moment they could run and they hid behind a garden wall. But from where they were crouching, they could see the ransacked street where they had dropped Colette off. Every door was open or broken, windows smashed, belongings had been thrown out into the street and they knew that nobody was left inside. It was a scene of madness. Ah, again, I will not describe what Gene saw. I cannot, for it all was as terrible as you can imagine, Daria.’
Tilly fell silent and the two women looked at each other with such sorrow in their faces, that all they could do was to hug. Daria felt stunned into silence. Words felt small and inadequate. Tilly shivered again.
‘Come Alfie’ she said, slowly parting from Daria, ’let us drive to Oradour. It is a haunting place to visit, but it is necessary.’
Once back in the car, Tilly explained that as soon as they saw the house that Colette had been in, Henri ran towards it, too quickly for Gene to try to stop him.
’And who could blame Henri? When you think your little sister is in great trouble, are you going to remember your Resistance training? Gene always said that he would have acted exactly the same if I had been there. But what could Gene do? He could not run after Henri, there were soldiers everywhere and poor Henri only got to the beginning of that street before he was shot. So Gene tried to get to the back windows of some houses to see if anyone was left inside any of them. But each one was empty. Then some soldiers started rampaging through homes and shops, looting and stealing as much as they could carry. As soon as Gene realised what they were doing, he ran and hid in a muddy ditch at the edge of the village, barely daring to breathe in case he was noticed. He did not know how long he lay there and he did not know what else to do. He said he had never known such fear. Fear that he felt, fear that he knew everyone there also felt and he could not stop himself violently shaking. Then suddenly it seemed as if all the shooting and the screaming all stopped at the same time. The only sounds were of buildings burning and it seemed as if the whole village had been set alight. Then a command was shouted and the division left.
’But still he dare not move and only got up when it began to get dark. It was mostly silent by then, but Gene did not dare to go back into the village as it could still have been guarded. Sometimes the SS had returned to the sites of their terrible crimes and who knew what their plans were for there. Ah, but Gene did not return home for another two days. So when we heard the news of Oradour, we did not know what had happened to Gene. Mother would not let anyone say he had been killed, she said she would know if he was dead.
‘Ah, he was in a terrible, terrible state when he got back. He came very early that one morning, too early for anyone to be awake so he would not be seen. His clothes were wet and muddy and torn, he had bloody scratches on his face and hands and he could not stop shaking. He said that when he finally dared to get out of the ditch, he had just ran and ran and ran, not knowing and not caring where he was going. He did not know what to do and he hadn’t dared to try to sleep because the images of what he’d seen and heard haunted him. He returned home only for a few hours, to let us know that he was ok, but he was too scared for us to stay any longer.’
‘Why? Why couldn’t he stay longer?’ said Daria as Tilly had paused in her story. The she looked ahead and saw they were about to enter the village. Alfie stopped the car and they just sat and looked at the ruins in front of them.
‘Oh my god’ Daria said, whispering. Oradour demanded respect.
‘He could not stay as a few in Ayen knew of his Resistance activities and he knew reprisals had got more frequent and could be more brutal. He would not risk us. Mother gave him fresh clothing after she had tended the wounds he had gained blindly running through the woods. She stroked his head while he tried to sleep amid his tears and she gave him as much food as she could spare when he left just after dusk. This time, it was too hard to see him go. How we both wept, mother and me. Ah, we never knew where he was off to, he always said that the least we knew of his whereabouts then the better it would be for us. But to see him go like that, with shoulders that slumped and a heart that was crushed...’ Tilly paused. The distress in her voice was tangible.
‘Oh, Tilly. Oh my god, Tilly. I can’t begin to think about how dreadful that must have been for you. For all of you.’ Daria felt the tears well again. Then she suddenly remembered her experiences in the forest on the way to Ayen. Daria knew that the fear and panic that Opa must have felt was beyond compare to her unfortunate excursion. But she felt as if it gave her a little taste, an added insight. She felt it gave her some sort of greater understanding of what Opa must have gone through. The thought of Opa suffering so much seemed to churn her stomach. Not least that his best friend had been shot while he crouched, helpless and knowing Tilly’s best friend was almost certainly dead too. And then lying in a ditch, listening to such absolute cruelty going on around him.
‘Daria, I will stay in the car. I cannot look upon the devastation again. Alfie will take you around, he has not been here before and I think this place is important. It speaks more loudly of the atrocities of war than any other thing I know. There is no overlay of glamour or heroes as there are in even the most realistic of war films, neither is it about taking sides. We do not need grotesque photos of the poor dead or even those who killed them. Go. And let the silence teach you.’
Daria and Alfie got out of the car, after Daria had got the reassurances she needed that Tilly would be alright on her own. Tilly had pointed out the street in the distance where Opa and Henri had dropped Colette off and the wall that Opa had hidden behind. As they walked away from the car, Daria thought her legs would give way before her.
By the time they got back, Daria felt devastated. It was more of a harrowing experience than she’d expected and she saw that Alfie, too, looked emotionally drained. Tilly had told them that the village remained virtually untouched since that dreadful day, standing as a memory and a monument to what happened. They had walked round street after street of ruined buildings, roofs burnt off with scorch marks still on the bricks. A burnt out car, the stone skeletons of the barns and the church where the massacres took place, everywhere in fact, made Daria feel overwhelmed with an outrage. Shops, workplaces, the town hall, the tram station and homes all seemed to echo the ordinary lives that ordinary people must have been living before that historic day. And the silence also seemed to emphasise how all of those lives were wiped out in just a few hours.
They read the plaques of names and memorials and Daria dare not let her imagination run riot for fear of the images that would surface. When they stood by the wall that Opa and Henri had hidden behind and looked at the street that Tilly had pointed out to them, they had simply turned and wrapped their arms around each other.
‘Oh god. What they all went through. What Opa must have felt. God, I can’t imagine. I barely want to’ said Daria, her breathing unsteady and her throat tight. She felt as if the bleak and barren village-scape was almost confrontational. It made her feel angry and she wanted to scream and shout against such barbarity, apart from anything else. But she also felt that anger was inappropriate. That the desolation and the emptiness demanded feelings of sorrow and regret in silence.
‘I am so sorry that you have to see this. Knowing what Opa went through.’
‘I see why Tilly thinks it’s an important place though. But it’s almost too much, as well. How do things like this happen? An entire village? They all woke up that morning, just as they would have done the day before and the day before that. And then this. That’s the scariest thing about it all. But I’m also not sure why this is a part of Opa’s story. I mean, I know he must have wanted me to see this, but I don’t yet know of the full significance. Do you know what I mean?’ said Daria, but then didn’t let Alfie answer. ‘No. Let’s go. I can’t bear it anymore and yet in a strange sort of way I don’t want to go either.’
Alfie kissed the top of her head.
‘Oh, sorry’ he whispered as they pulled apart.
‘That’s ok’ said Daria, managing a half smile ‘I’m glad you were here. Thank you.’
They walked back to the car with Alfie’s arm around her shoulder, while Daria wiped tears from her face. Tilly got out of the car as they approached it and stood closely to Daria to hold her cheeks. She looked deeply into Daria’s eyes.
‘I understand’ said Daria, ‘I know why you wanted to take me here and why you didn’t want to go round again. Well, I know some of why, anyway.’
‘Ah, don’t forget that it was Gene who wanted to you to see this. To try to understand how hard it was for him when he was here and because of what happened later. To see his friend shot and to know he would never see little Colette again. When he took me here, he showed me the houses he’d peeked into and the ditch where he had hidden. And he showed me the house from where Colette had been taken. But not only Colette. She had been to visit a woman with a new born baby. And he wept as I had never seen him. Before or since.’
‘I can’t even begin to think what Opa must have felt when they first heard the shooting. When it dawned on them what was happening’ said Daria.
‘Ah, it took him a long, long time to come to terms with it. Of course, he could never forget and said he would never want to. And he wanted you to feel something of what he’d been through here. And everybody said what a miracle it was that he got away. It is an important part of his story, you had to see it to understand what happened later.’
‘I know there’s more and thank you Tilly. I know this isn’t easy for you.’
Back in the car, they travelled again in silence on their way back to Ayen. Daria didn’t know what to say, she barely knew what to think. She did know that this was significant, but also felt that Opa’s experiences here weren’t the full story. There was more to learn about the repercussions of that terrible day.
The rain began just as Tilly’s front door shut behind them and Daria didn’t know if she shivered because of the sudden chill or the horrors of the day. Tilly disappeared into the kitchen to make fresh ginger tea, insisting it was what they all needed.
‘I don’t know what to say’ said Daria and surprised herself by immediately bursting into tears. Alfie immediately leapt to her side, tissue in hand.
‘Sorry, sorry. I didn’t know I was going to do that’ said Daria, feeling a little embarrassed because of the ferocity of her tears. She simply felt as if she wanted to really sob for a while.
‘I’m surprised you haven’t cried before now. I know I certainly wanted to several times.’
‘I can just hardly believe it. Those poor people. Poor Opa. And Henri and Colette. I don’t know how he could have stood it.’ Daria sat and blew her nose just as Tilly entered with the tea on a tray.
‘Ah, yes. It is hard to think of. Here, drink this’ said Tilly and poured three mugs full from a stone jug. The three of them took large sips of the drink. Daria almost spluttered.
‘There’s more than ginger in this tea though. It tastes delicious, Tilly’ said Daria.
‘A splash of pear cognac, that’s all’ said Tilly with a grin.
‘Hmmm’ said Alfie ‘there’s a bit more than a splash I’d say. I’d better be careful as I’m driving later.’
‘Right now, it is what we need,’ said Tilly ‘and I have more to say. So sit Alfie. Then I can continue.’
Daria took a couple of deep breaths as she could feel her heart begin to race again. She tried to squash feelings of fear and part of her did not want to hear anymore. But she knew she had to. There was a reason why Opa had arranged all this and nothing she had heard so far, horrendous as some of it was, explained why Opa had kept the French part of his life from her. Opa’s part in the Resistance filled her with a pride for his bravery, for what he had done and a humility for what he had experienced.
Tilly made herself comfortable and, wrapping a rug around her knees, continued.
‘Gene wanted you to know about Oradour , to see Oradour, for you to understand several things, my little flower angel. It is a terrible place, I know. But Gene wanted you to know what he survived, that he survived when so few did. And he also wanted you to know, that in hard times, people, all people can act in strange ways. In unexpected ways. No, Daria. I will not explain what he meant by that. It is up to you to decide.’
Daria grinned at the answer to her unvoiced question, despite the words raising her levels of anxiety. She’d find out.
’Ah, Gene helped to save the lives of so many people, so many different people. And it was never easy. He’d lost many comrades by the end of the war, many people who worked alongside him. He had such respect for them all. Remember, these were ordinary people before the war, Daria. Postal clerks, shopkeepers, nurses, bakers, farmers or mothers. Just ordinary people who did extra-ordinary things. Their heroism took many forms. Carrying messages, intercepting letters, aiding clandestine travellers to reach their destination, sabotaging German convoys, supplying food to those who fought, hiding Jews in the back rooms and attics of their homes. Ah, many, many amazing things so many people did.
‘Gene had had his number of close calls throughout the war and the gods, the universe, call it whatever you want, but they smiled on him and decided it was not his time to die many times. He even managed to escape once when he was captured. The Resistance had arranged for a small convoy of Romas to be taken to Turin and Gene was to lead them to a safe house near Lyon. A German road block was supposed to have been destroyed, but instead they all walked straight into an ambush. They had been betrayed. Some were shot, but the rest were herded into a truck no doubt on its way to a death camp. How Gene managed to get away as they were being beaten for resisting is a miracle. And a blessing for us all.’
Tilly refilled Daria’s mug and Alfie declined, even though he was tempted.
After holding her hands around her own mug, as if to warm them, and just staring into space, Tilly continued. Daria felt as if she dared not even breathe too loudly in case she missed something. And each new sentence filled her with a dread for the next.
‘And now it is time to remember Dareau, my brother’ said Tilly. Daria felt more than just a little surprised at this sudden, seeming change in subject. But she kept silent so Tilly could continue.
‘Ah, who knows how different things would have been if Bonner had not poisoned his mind against so many things, not least Gene. It is because of Bonner that Gene and Dareau could never know the joy of having a brother. Bonner had done a good job in convincing Dareau that Gene was a thief, a cheat and a thorough waster. Ah, Bonner never trusted anyone and he taught Dareau the same. So it was Dareau who became the thief, the cheat and the waster. Ah, Daria. I feel such shame. Dareau was my brother.’
‘No, Tilly. How can you feel shame? You were not responsible for Dareau’ said Daria, not really understanding but feeling for Tilly and the clear pain in her voice.
‘Ah, Daria. But you know it is sometimes hard to not to think that maybe I could have done more. Could have shown Dareau all the ways in which Gene was a good man. But maybe Dareau was too much like Bonner. Bonner had been driven by his jealousy for Aaron, Gene’s father. It may be that Dareau was driven by a jealousy for Gene. We will never know for certain now.’
Tilly paused again and sighed. Daria moved her chair so that she was sitting closer to Tilly. She felt that this was getting even more difficult for Tilly, but knew there would be no stopping her continuing.
‘You are right, Daria. I need to finish this today so we can move on and see what we shall see.’
Daria felt overwhelmed at the woman’s insight and resolve.
‘Ah, Dareau was just a boy when the war began, but we all grew up quickly. I don’t know how much he knew about Gene and the Resistance, but he learnt somehow. Dareau would sneak about, listening through keyholes and peeking through windows. He always had done. When we were children, he had always got me into such trouble with Bonner. Always told tales, mostly lies, just to get Bonner’s approval and he would snigger every time I was punished, as if he enjoyed it. I can only guess at how he found out about the things Gene had done, how he managed to know so much. Sneaking around, eavesdropping. He always looked as if he had secrets to keep. I know he worked with the Resistance for a while, much to his credit I have to say, and he helped sabotage railway lines and storage depots. But he enjoyed the danger and that meant he was reckless. As well as ruthless. Now many in the Resistance thought this a good thing and he quickly made many connections somehow.’
Tilly explained how the Resistance had operated through a pyramid chain of command, with each layer not really knowing who was above and around it. That kept people safe, for if they were captured they would not be able to give lists of names or details. So just because Opa and Dareau were brothers, this did not mean that they would know anything about the other’s activities. But somehow, Dareau had found out quite a lot about Opa.
’Ah yes, I remember the day we heard on the radio that the war was over. Nobody ever forgets a day like that. We were so happy. The entire village seemed a changed place that day. But it was not over. I do not only mean the rationing. We had lived with fear, lost people we loved, seen dreadful things. Everybody had. And the anger and the sadness, that does not disappear overnight. Vigilante groups all over the country took it upon themselves to expose and punish suspected collaborators and in some cases behaved no better than the Nazis had before them. Peoples heads were shaved, some were tortured then hung or shot. Ah, maybe some and maybe even all had been collaborators. But there was no dignity in the way they were treated. When we had just had years of the inhumane, surely it calls upon us all not to be the same? No matter what people were suspected of doing. There are ways of doing things and there are ways of not doing things, even if the end result is the same. Ah, the war may have been over, but some of the fear and the madness remained.
’Several weeks after the end of the war, Gene had came to stay with us for a few days as he knew Dareau was away somewhere. He was exhausted and elated it was over. Ah, he told us many of the things, the terrible things that he had seen and the people he had helped. It was as if his very soul was bursting with the horror of it all and he had to let some of it spill out or he would explode with madness, as he said. It was hard to hear. How many times we cried together, I do not know. How many times we all just sat and held each other, I cannot remember. But we all felt the relief of having survived. We grieved over the many deaths, not least Henri and Colette. We all knew of others who had been arrested and never returned; those who had been farmers and had been forced to work in mines; men who cared and worked hard for their families sent to death camps. Ah, yes, how we grieved.
‘And yet we also delighted in just being able to sit in each other’s company or simply eat a bowl of mother’s soup without being scared. But then. Ah, then it changed. To this day I remember the face of the man who came to deliver the parcel. He looked amazed at the idea that anybody in Ayen at that time would receive a parcel all the way from England and he wanted to know what was inside. But Gene took one look at it and turned white. I remember how, when he looked at the name and address written on the back, his hands trembled as he took it.’
‘What was it? Why did Opa go pale and why tremble? God, what was it Tilly?’ said Daria, unable not to ask.
’For now, that does not matter. What matters is that the parcel caused a stir and I have no doubt that Dareau heard of its arrival and who had sent it. It was as if all the years of having to be silent during the war meant that now everyone had to speak of everything. And draw their own conclusions. And so, it was during the following night that three men with guns came and kicked down our front door. Ah, what bullies. Why come in the middle of the night and wreak such terror and fear into people? Why drag us all out of bed and push us around? For that is how they woke us. I could not stop crying, I was so scared. They practically threw us down the stairs, then they pointed a gun in Gene’s mouth while they held him down in a chair and they were screaming and yelling at him. Then, when they threatened our mother. Ah, he was so angry at that, that he just leapt at them with the strength of twenty men. And so they hit him on the head and knocked him out. And as he just lay there, I thought they had killed him.
‘Ah poor Gene, they would not let us near him. Mother screamed and screamed at them, but they just ignored her. I was so scared. I could not stop shouting and crying that they should leave him alone, that the war was over, that he had been a hero. There was blood on the floor. My Gene’s blood. Then they dragged him out and away in a car. We had no idea where they were taking him or whether we would ever see him again. And just as we thought we were all safely back together again.’
Tilly paused and took another sip of drink. Daria could see tears on her face but she sensed Tilly did not need any interruptions. She knew Tilly was finding it all so hard, but she knew she had to give Tilly the time she needed. She quickly glanced at Alfie and saw how involved he was, how his eyes reflected the nervousness, the uncertainty that she also felt.
’We just sat and cried. For I don’t know how long. Asking over and over again, why and who were they? We dare not think about what was happening to him. Then, just as it was beginning to get light, Dareau walked in. Ah, Mother did not know whether to be pleased to see him at that moment or not. At least she had one son she knew to be alive, but it was not that simple. It never was with Dareau. He came in and he smirked. Can you imagine? Ah, I can just see him now. The way he just looked at us both and grinned. He must have seen the state we were both in, he must have realised how shocked and scared mother was. But did he care? Ah, such wickedness was in his eyes that it silenced us both. He just stood there, just as we had seen Bonner do, especially when he had some news that would hurt us. He came in and said that Gene was going to get what he deserved. And as soon as he uttered those words, we knew he had had a hand in them taking Gene away.
‘Mother just flew at him and started hitting him, beating his chest and crying “why” over and over again and Dareau did not even try to stop her. And he did not deny it. Then she fell to the floor and he laughed. I dare not move. Then he twisted his face in such meanness and bitterness and spoke again. Ah, he was so cold. There was such arrogance, such self-importance in his voice. He said he had had a word with certain people. He had made certain facts about Gene very clear to very important people, he said. He asked why we thought Gene should get away with it. Then he said it was because so many miracles do not happen to one person. So he said it was because Gene survived Oradour. Because Gene was the only one who had escaped the ambush of Romas. Because Gene had appeared to be a little bit too lucky, had avoided capture or death too many times. And because the name on the parcel was not just any name. He had accused Gene of being a spy against his own people. He said Gene was a collaborator.’