It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 12

Whenever Daria thought about that moment, she could almost re-live, re-experience the way it made her feel. Her thoughts whirled and raced. If the accusation was right, it turned Opa into a stranger, not the man overflowing with love and care. So how could it be true? She felt hot and cold. She wanted to say a million things and was silent. It was incredulous, totally mad, ridiculous, Daria couldn’t think what adjectives fitted it all best. She just sat open mouthed and filled with disbelief. How could such an accusation be considered as anything other than outrageous and absurd? How could it have been taken seriously? And she couldn’t even begin to think about how Tilly and her mother must have felt. How scared. How helpless. How betrayed.

‘Say nothing, Daria’ said Tilly, gently ‘and think, remember. I know, I understand how you feel right now. But do not let your love of Gene cloud your thoughts. Gene wanted you to know his truth in ways that went beyond just taking his word and that is why he wanted you to take this journey. That’s how important it was to him.’

‘But why? Why didn’t he just say? It’s ridiculous’ Daria was whispering, but the words seemed to shout in her head.

‘It was not an easy time for Gene to talk about. There were many things too hard for him to keep remembering. But he always knew there was the possibility that you would find out after he had died. Ah, it would never have happened until he’d been dead for quite a while, he knew that. But that he would be accused and that you would not hear his truth, his side of the story, was too much for him.’

‘What? How? Who by? I don’t know what you mean, Tilly.’

But Tilly did not answer. She just sat and looked at Daria and Daria could not understand the look she had in her eyes. A silence hung in the air. Then a name leapt into Daria’s head.

‘I know, don’t I?’ said Daria, ‘I know the person who would have told me after he died.’

‘Ah, yes. You know the person. But be careful how you judge others, Daria. This, too, is what Gene wanted you to think about.’

‘It’s Pearl, isn’t it? But how did she know? Did she know everything that had happened? Why didn’t she mention anything when he was alive?’

But again, Tilly did not answer.

‘Talk to me, Tilly. Tell me. I can’t think about it. I can’t work it all out by myself. Pearl? Am I right? Really? How?’

‘Ah, Daria, you must let the pieces of the whole picture fall into their place. But I will explain one thing. Gene always said you never knew how he and Pearl were related, but they were cousins. You see, Bonner had a younger sister, Abelle, who married an English man. I only ever met Abelle once, they had moved to England before the war. And Pearl was their only child.’

‘So, Abelle told Pearl? How did she know if she was in England?’

‘No. Dareau told Pearl.’

Daria waited for more, but Tilly remained silent.

‘I can’t think of what to say. I don’t know what I want to say first. Tilly?’ Daria implored, ‘Tilly?’

‘Just think, Daria. Let the story reveal itself to you. You have to work out the meaning of Gene’s life for yourself. Or why else would he have painted that ridiculous picture and left it for you to find? Why did he leave you the deed to his house and not just tell you? Ah, you need to start remembering many things about him.’

The room fell silent again. Daria couldn’t think or speak but she felt as if everyone was waiting for her to say something, anything. What did Tilly mean? That it was true? Opa was a collaborator? Pearl? Why hadn’t Pearl told her at some point? Pearl had certainly resented her relationship with Opa and had always tried to inhibit it. And Pearl had always painted Opa as dark as she could, so why not mention this? Her head was still spinning so she picked up her mug and took another sip as she couldn’t think of anything else to do. Then she raised her head and looked at Tilly and Alfie. He was looking at her, bewildered and uncertain. And Tilly’s expression seemed to pierce her soul. She looked down again.

‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what you mean or I’m afraid to know what you mean.’ Daria knew she sounded harsher than she felt, that she must have appeared annoyed and that made her feel bad. But she still couldn’t look up.

Not really knowing what else to do, Daria stood up, wishing her heart would stop thumping so loudly and went to look out of the window. Everywhere looked bleak and dark in the rain and she watched heavy drops splash into puddles and a stream of water race down the road. Then a thought hit her.

‘That’s what turned his hair white, wasn’t it? He came back with white hair,’ she said as she turned to face them both, frowning. ‘God, what did they do to him?’

Then, seeing the expressions of extreme concern on their faces, she burst out laughing and found she couldn’t stop. She slowly sunk to her haunches and still did not stop laughing, even though she felt mortified at her own behaviour. And when she looked up and saw the looks of shock, she laughed even louder.

Then she suddenly fell silent and covered her mouth with her hands.

‘I am so sorry, Tilly. I don’t know why I laughed. I can’t believe I just did that. I am so sorry.’

Daria slowly stood and walked over to Tilly, breathing deeply. She clung to Tilly for reassurance and comfort. Tilly gently whispered unknown words that Daria instinctively felt were soothing. Washing her turmoil away. Almost.

Daria sighed. ‘I’m sorry Tilly.’

‘Ah, that was just shock. My poor flower angel, it has all been such a shock to you. Now sit. Drink.’

Daria allowed herself to be led to her chair and Tilly stroked her hair.

‘Tilly, I don’t understand. How could anyone have taken Dareau seriously? After Opa had helped so many people? After all he had gone through? That would mean he’d led Henri and Colette into a death trap. His best friend. Your best friend. How could anyone think he’d do that? How could they think he was a Nazi sympathiser?’ Daria felt as if a thousand questions wanted to pour out of her. Her head still swam with crushing thoughts. She felt angry about the accusation; she felt acutely indignant. And she knew she struggled with a tiny whisper of doubt which she desperately wanted Tilly to tell her was unfounded. And she knew Tilly wasn’t going to. How many times had Tilly told her that Opa wanted her to make her own mind up.

‘You torment yourself, Daria. You have learnt of many things today. Things that were not easy for you to hear or to see. Ah, Gene knew this. But now he asks you a question. A question for you to consider before you go on. If this was true, if Gene was a collaborator, would you love him any the less now? Would it change the way you look back at the past you had with him?’

Daria frowned. She looked down again, eyes darting as she thought.

‘But do not answer now. You have found out much that is upsetting and have much to think about. It is enough for now.’

‘No’ Daria stood, ’no, it is not enough for now.’ Daria felt her heart pounding and her breath short ‘how can it be enough? I can’t bear it’ and she burst into tears as she realised Alfie did not translate that and she slumped down in her chair.

‘Tilly, I’m sorry. I shouted and I didn’t mean to. Forgive me.’ Daria blew her nose on the tissue that Alfie had immediately offered her and she looked beseechingly at Tilly.

‘Ah, it is too much. I know. It is hard to hear how people have suffered, especially those you love. Let it be enough for now. Because now you need to think. And remember. It is best.’

Daria stared into Tilly’s deep, brown eyes and, again, took counsel from her. There was no doubt that she felt frustrated, wanted to know everything at once. But it was more than that too. Daria knew she felt irritated that, once again, she just had to trust what Opa had wanted and how he had wanted it to happen.

‘He needed me to make up my own mind, didn’t he?’ Daria wiped a tear from her face. ‘But he could have just told me and I’m not sure I know why he didn’t. You’re right Tilly, I need to think. And I need to remember. But there’s more as well, isn’t there?’

‘Yes. There is more. But I think you have had enough for today. Ah, my flower angel. My heart weeps to see you so upset. Gene loved you so much, so very much and you must not forget that this was such a big, such a significant time in his life that he wanted you to really understand it all. Would words alone have done it? Wasn’t it always better to see and to hear his story at the same time? Would it have meant the same if he told you sitting in his house over a coffee? How could you have made up your own mind? And you need to remember what you have learnt about his childhood.’

Daria gently nodded her head and sighed.

‘Ah, but also, my dear sweet Daria. He also wanted to give you an opportunity and an experience that he knew would be exciting for you as well. Don’t forget how you felt when you first decided to take this trip. To discover the other side of his family. And it was very important to him that you did not feel ill towards him.’

‘Ok, ok. I’ll wait. And think. I feel worn out by it all anyway. And you’re right, Tilly. It has been quite a day’ Daria tried to smile. ‘I can’t think about it anymore.’

Tilly wrapped her arms around Daria once more and the tenderness with which she did so reassured and calmed her.

‘Now. Come into the kitchen both of you. I shall tell you what to make for us to eat. And we can talk about what we want to do over the weekend. And you are very welcome to join us, Alfie. For as long as Daria wants you around. Eh, Daria?’ And Tilly gently nodded her head.

Daria felt the mood lift and she smiled at Tilly in appreciation. Not only was Tilly expertly organising again, but she had exactly sensed what was needed. As they all trooped into the kitchen, Daria could understand that Alfie was again making light hearted fun of Tilly’s mischievousness and she felt a real delight when she saw the twinkle in Tilly’s eyes. Just like Opa, she thought, also feeling a twinge at his not being there. But she refused to allow her thinking to become maudlin. She just wanted to enjoy the present company and feel restored by them.

*

Ila had been in Tilly’s house earlier that day and had prepared a soup for them. Over the meal, all three seemed determined to keep the conversation light and easy and they made plans for the weekend ahead. Daria felt excited at the thought of meeting more of Opa’s family and, as the weather was promising to be good for the following day, a walk to a nearby lake and a picnic were planned. Tilly assured Daria that everyone had kept the weekend open and that they were all eager to spend time with her.

‘You are as new to them as they are to you, remember. We have all hoped and waited that this time would come. And you are very welcome to join us, Alfie.’

‘Thank you, Tilly. But I really can’t and much as I am tempted, I must catch up with my work. And from what it sounds like, you won’t be needing a translator what with Ila and her family being quite fluent. But it does sound as if it should be just family and...’

Tilly interrupted. ‘You would not be intruding. And a lovely day would be a good way to say thank you for everything you have done.’

Daria grinned at Tilly anticipating correctly yet again.

‘Yes, you would be very welcome. This can’t exactly have been easy for you, either’ she said to Alfie.

Although the plan had always been that he would not be around for the weekend, Daria felt pangs at the thought of not seeing him. She knew he’d been involved in Opa’s story in a multitude of ways, including the research he’d done even before she’d arrived and she saw that it had been an emotional time for him too. Daria had found him supportive and caring, and she liked the way he understood her responses and did not force his opinions or judgements on her. Daria smiled at the amount of times he had caught her unawares, when she’d felt she was definitely making a fool of herself. And theirs had hardly been a conventional introduction, soon after her nightmare of thinking she would be eaten by a bear whilst being lost in a forest in a thunderstorm. Then she found herself holding her breath, what if he hadn’t been able to talk her out of returning home? How could she have even thought of going back and missing out on all this? And Daria realised how important her decision to actually come to France was. A value could not be put on everything she had seen and heard, everyone she had met. It had become a momentous time in her life, brimming with new experiences and Daria understood that Opa had offered her the chance for something unique.

She glanced at Alfie, feeling incredibly grateful to him and thought that he certainly was an aspect of this journey that Opa had not anticipated. And there was no doubt that he was an attractive and interesting man. But she felt it was more than that too.

When their meal was finished, Tilly was eager to know more details about Daria’s sons and their childhoods, especially Opa’s involvement. She giggled with a childish delight when Daria told her about Anthony’s ninth birthday and how Opa had arranged a secret party for him when a trip to the cinema had been planned. Daria had known nothing about it and was as surprised as Anthony when Opa drove them to a small copse. And there they found not only upturned apple crates loaded with snacky foods, cakes and fizzy drinks, not only half a dozen of Anthony’s friends surrounded by trees and shrubs that were decked with streamers, bunting and balloons, but somehow Opa had managed to get an old out of tune piano there and they had all spent a couple of hours singing and dancing, eating and drinking.

So although Tilly was amused, she was not surprised at Opa’s behaviour or ideas. Tilly told of how Opa would tell stories of exotic, foreign lands in front of the fire in the evenings, of how everyone would hang on to his every word that slipped off his silvery tongue. Daria and Tilly laughed together at similar stories they’d heard from him and each recognised names and places from the other. They spoke about Opa’s love of champagne and his home-made mixed summer fruits ice-cream. They giggled together about his love of practical jokes, of making apple pie beds for both Daria’s and Ila’s children when they were little and of leaving fake dog pooh for the children to find on their beds. And Daria realised they all needed the relief that laughter and joy brought. That it kept Opa’s unique spirit close. That it added a bit of perspective.

‘Ah, little flower angel’ said Tilly ‘has such a man ever lived before?’

‘Or since’ said Daria, a feeling of poignancy washing over her ‘I am so glad that dotty man was in my life.’

‘He loved and he was loved. Now, it is time for you to go. This old woman needs her sleep and you two young ones are keeping her awake’ said Tilly, grinning at them both.

‘Gosh, it is late’ Daria glanced at the clock, smiling at Tilly’s typical abruptness ‘and yet I don’t want the day to end. But what a day. Tilly, thank you. For it all. For everything.’

Alfie stood up. ‘I’ll walk you home, Daria. The rain has stopped. Good night, Tilly and thank you’ and he stooped to kiss her cheek.

‘Dream well, as my Gene always used to say.’

‘Yes, he did, didn’t he? I always used to think that was somehow nicer than saying sleep well’ said Daria and the women held each other. Recognising the laughter and sorrow they had shared. Appreciating the difficulties the other had experienced. And loving the other even more for it.

*

Not only had the rain stopped, but the evening had turned quite warm and the sky seemed to be bursting with stars. Just as they stepped outside, Daria turned to Tilly.

‘Tilly, just tell me one more thing. Not a big story, no explanations just a name. That’s all, I promise. Somehow I forgot to ask. Who was the parcel from? The one Opa received and that caused such a stir.’

‘Ah, Daria. A name is often more than just a name. A name need not be a simple thing but can require explanations and understanding, thinking and talking about. A name can inspire or it can cause hate and jealousy. It can turn your head or pierce your heart. No, a name is not a simple thing. Ah, but that does not satisfy you, Daria. Yes, Tilly knows. Very well then. When Gene turned the parcel over to see who had sent it to him, it plainly said it was from Adam’s uncle. Adam, the little boy from the caves. And his uncle? Ah, we all knew the name, who it was, who the family was, what it meant, what the family stood for. His uncle was Oswald Mosley. A Blackshirt. A Nazi by any other name.’

Daria’s head whirled and she knew Tilly had been right. A name need not be a simple thing and she knew that her questions would have to wait. Tilly was not going to tell her anymore. And yet, just having a name also seemed to mean that more things could be explained. But she couldn’t think about it right there and then. Not yet.

So she grinned at Tilly. ‘I shouldn’t have asked should I? You were right again, of course. Ok then. Good night, Tilly and thank you’ and she kissed her and slowly walked away.

Daria and Alfie walked slowly and silently. Their footsteps echoed as they made their way to Opa’s house and as Daria refused to think about Tilly’s last words. It was too late, it was too big. She couldn’t think about it, she wasn’t going to think about it. Not yet. And she felt incredibly appreciative towards Alfie for respecting her need not to talk. At the front door, Daria turned to him.

‘I don’t want to go in yet. Can we go for a walk? Are you tired? No, it’s ok. I’m sure you need to get home and it’s quite a drive. Never mind.’

‘I’d love to go for a walk, especially as it’s a lovely evening. Do you need to talk? About anything? About the not so simple name?’

‘No. Talking about it is the last thing I want. Not yet, anyway. But thank you for that. Seriously. God, you must have had enough of all this anyway. Let’s walk beyond the village. I’ll just nip in and get a torch, though.’

Daria rushed into the house and felt a thrill at spending a bit of time with him. Alone.

Beyond Opa’s house, any light that may have been shining from houses or the occasional street light, melted away. The darkness was encompassing and Daria shivered.

‘Are you cold?’ Alfie said, whispering.

‘No’ Daria found herself whispering as well ‘it’s so dark. It keeps surprising me. After home, I mean. Why are we whispering?’

‘I haven’t the slightest idea. I think the night sort of feels different when there isn’t much light. And the stars certainly become gob-smacking.’

‘Gob-smacking? You sound like my sons when they were teenagers’ Daria said and found herself sniggering at such a phrase coming from Alfie’s mouth. The snigger turned into laughter and she desperately tried to keep quiet. Tears began to stream down her face as she unsuccessfully tried to get her laughter under control and her attempts at saying sorry turned into incomprehensible mutterings. Which made her laugh even more.

Alfie stood and watched in amusement. And he watched in amazement as well. Daria looked at him as she felt helpless and saw his grin broaden and soon she wasn’t laughing alone. Eventually they fell silent and Daria held her stomach.

‘God, that hurt.’

‘Here, do you need another tissue?’

Daria took it. She felt lightened by the laughter and delighted that he had joined in. They slowly walked on, side by side with Daria shining the torch in front.

‘What a night. It’s so beautiful’ she said, barely loud enough for him to hear.

Alfie did not reply. Then Daria felt his hand find hers, her stomach churned and her heart thumped. He gently squeezed and she could hear him exhale loudly. Daria held on and turned her head towards him.

Daria couldn’t remember the last time a kiss seemed to blur everything else in life, appeared to render the rest of the world into insignificance. The intensity of her feelings left her breathless when they parted. Without either of them saying a word, they walked on. Daria smiled, enjoying the warmth of his hand and she rested her head on his shoulder.

‘I can’t really see a thing, it’s so dark. The torch hardly touches it’ she said, breaking the easy silence.

‘I know. Is this bonkers? I have no idea where this road goes.’

‘Nor do I and yes, it is. And I don’t care. It just feels right, it’s such a beautiful night. And anyway, ever since Opa died my life has been bonkers. Oh, just look at the stars. God, it’s amazing.’

They stood and looked up, pointing out satellites and the few known constellations until Daria’s neck ached.

‘Would you like to sit in the garden? Have a glass of wine or a hot chocolate or something? I think there’s some of Ila’s peach drink left.’

‘That would be lovely. Yes’ and, as they turned to head back, he put his arm around her shoulders.

Daria felt warm, comfortable and secure and when they got back to the house and went into the kitchen, she looked at him. Neither had spoken since they’d began their walk back and Daria had found a beauty in the silence. They weren’t teenagers, kisses needed no apologies or explanations. Even so, Daria’s head had raced with possibilities but she enjoyed keeping quiet about them. She liked the anticipation.

‘What would you like to drink? Tilly’s tea was certainly quite potent. Unexpectedly so. There’s wine and a bottle of brandy if you’d like a glass of that. Oh, but you’re driving aren’t you?’ Daria knew the implications of what she was saying.

‘Am I?’ was all he replied so Daria went to the cupboard to get the brandy and two glasses.

*

It was barely dawn when Alfie left. Daria knew she would have preferred that he stayed, but she respected his decision and felt confident enough with it. She knew that in her past, sexual encounters had made her feel clingy and needy. But this felt different. As she waved to him from the front door, making his way back to his car outside Tilly’s, she felt a pleasure and a satisfaction at watching him until he disappeared in the dim light.

Although Daria had hardly slept, she made herself a hot drink then pulled a chair out onto the balcony in her bedroom. Wrapped in Opa’s old red dressing gown, she sat gazing out into the pale blue and yellow sky and smiling at the thought of Alfie’s body. Daria thought about how different her life felt and remembered another thing that Opa used to say: change is the essence of life, embracing it is embracing life to the fullest. And she didn’t think she’d ever truly understood what that meant. Until now.

Suddenly tiredness overwhelmed her and although she wanted to think about Alfie and about Opa’s story, she went back to bed and slept deeply.

Sunshine and a gentle breeze filled her bedroom when she awoke and she stretched her weariness away. Surprised that she’d only slept a couple of hours and yet felt awake and refreshed, she got up to make breakfast and shower. There were things she needed to sort out before she met the family. Taking toast and coffee outside to the table under the arbour, Daria felt calm enough to begin to put pieces of Opa’s puzzle together. She felt it was a puzzle, because she need to put bits she had learnt over the last few days together. With that, Tilly was right. She’d been given so much to listen to and in such a short space of time.

Biting into her toast, she suddenly exclaimed out loud. Had it only been several days? She felt as if weeks had passed, yet she had only left home four days ago. So much had happened. And then she grinned as she realised those happenings included a particularly delicious night with Alfie. Who’d have thought that at the beginning of the week? So she just let her mind drift, enjoying the peace and quiet that was only broken by bird song. But, inevitably, her thoughts returned to Opa. Tilly had kept telling her to remember, to think about everything. But Tilly had also said that there was more. She decided to get a piece of paper and a pen, to let her mind go and then write key thoughts down, so she wouldn’t forget. And maybe she’d get some sort of order or insights by seeing things together. But also to stop herself focusing on the most dramatic or the most recent. Oradour and Mosley seemed to be the most dramatic and kept popping into her head, but she started to write with a discipline.

She wrote quickly. Her mind raced and by the time she thought she’d finished, the piece of paper had notes scrawled all over it and not in any real order. As she looked, she started reading aloud, scanning for a timeline of some sort.

’Ok. Childhood. Tilly said he’d grown to take on the blame for being thrown out of home, he’d began to believe the things Bonner had said about him. Could that be true? I suppose he had too much time alone being frightened, cold, hungry, tired. Children can blame themselves for when terrible things happen, I know that. So, yes, I can see that he’d believe what he heard from Bonner. So what can that do to a child? And he must have worried about his mother. How can anyone go through all that and not be scarred by it? You’d have to toughen up really quickly and think about yourself, your own survival first.

’Right then. Tilly also said that all people can act in strange ways. In unexpected ways, especially during such times. Did that apply to Opa? I suppose it could apply to everyone, really. Anyone. Who can say how you’d be when you live in fear? Constantly, for years. Does that mean Opa was a collaborator? Because he thought it was the only way he could survive? Maybe he’d been captured by the Nazis and he had to make a deal? Did that happen? Was he a double agent? An occasional collaborator? Were there such things?

‘But if it was true, he betrayed his best friend and Tilly’s as well. Could he have done that? It’s one thing betraying anonymous people miles away, but close friends? People he loved? Knowing they’d be killed in front of you? What type of person is capable of that? And why Oradour? Tilly also said nobody was really sure. But maybe they just haven’t found out. If Opa was a collaborator, maybe he didn’t realise they’d be caught up in it. No, that’s not right. Henri was his best friend. And could he have betrayed the Resistance anyway? No matter how many lucky escapes he was supposed to have had. Miracles? Or maybe just having a great understanding of what was going on and how to react. And surely all that meant was that he was good at what he was doing. Good at surviving. He’d been practising nearly all his life. And that how and why he could help so many people on the Underground railway.’

Daria was circling key sentences, drawing arrows to connect phrases she’d written. Then she came across Mosley. And she remembered how Tilly had asked her to think about how such a young boy could know about game-keepers and why was he kept in France during the occupation. A young boy would know about game-keepers if his family had money, were the gentry and the Mosley’s certainly were that. And so he could have been kept in France because it would be a safe place for him. Adam came from a family that sympathised with what the Nazis were doing. That supported them. So only towards the end of the war would France become a dangerous place and Tilly had said that Opa’s days in the caves with Adam were later on. But if Opa had received a parcel from the Mosley’s, how did they know where he lived? How did they know where to post anything to? How could they locate a random Resistance member? Unless that wasn’t all Opa was. Daria couldn’t think of any other explanations. But how could Opa have been a fascist? Then a thought did occur to her. A question. What was in the parcel? It had to be significant. She stared out into space.

Then her eyes alighted on Pearl’s name. Daria could see immediately why Pearl hadn’t told her about Opa. She’d always realised that Pearl was frightened of Opa, so Pearl would never tell her about it because she must have known that she’d go straight to Opa. And then Opa would confront Pearl. And opinionated as Pearl was, Pearl would never do that. Then Daria found it amazing that Pearl must have known so much about Opa. About his childhood, about how he must have lived. And Daria remembered that Pearl had always said that there were things about Opa that Daria didn’t know. No, not said. More like hinted at. And Pearl had always made it very clear that she disapproved about her relationship with Opa and had tried to keep her and Opa apart whenever she could. Daria felt very grateful that Pearl had never had much luck with that. Opa could outwit anyone in a thousand ways. And so maybe Pearl was afraid of Opa because if Pearl believed the accusations, then she would think Opa was capable of all manner of heinous things.

Daria poured herself another coffee and sat back. She wondered if there were any other bits she needed to work out. But even though she felt pleased that she’d worked some things out, she couldn’t answer the big question. Was Opa a collaborator? Or maybe a bigger question was, did it matter now? And if it did, how much? Could she ever talk to Pearl about it and find out exactly what Dareau had said to her? But then she dismissed that thought; Pearl would have made up her mind and she was never one for being challenged on anything she was fixed on. But one day, she’d let Pearl know that Opa was innocent. If he was.

Clouds began to cover the warming rays of the sun and so Daria got up and went inside. Realising it was nearly time for her to leave to go to Tilly’s, she dressed and wished she had something she could contribute to the picnic.

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