It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 9

Celebrating as Gene would meant good food and champagne, a practice that Daria was delighted to realise had occurred with Opa in Ayen as it did with him in England. Ila, Pasquale and Marie had arrived laden with boxes and bags full of such a variety of food, both hot and cold, that Daria’s senses were assailed with a delight of sights and smells. She remembered that Alfie had said she was assured of a warm welcome, but that evening far exceeded any expectations Daria may have had.

Pasquale and Marie, Ila’s son and daughter-in-law, seemed as delighted to meet Daria as she was them. And they too included Alfie with their warm welcomes as if he were family, too. Anecdotes of Opa flowed around the table, Alfie’s translations being shared with Marie, who spoke excellent English even though she was slower. Daria was hugely amused and impressed when she found out the details about the time Opa had bought some donkeys and had missed Christmas when they were expected at Aunt Pearl’s. Apparently, when Opa had travelled around as a teenager, for several weeks he had attached himself to a group of Roma people who had escaped persecution in eastern Europe. Although these people were not entirely safe in France, their lifestyle and the landscape of southern France meant they could travel relatively easily during the early 1930′s. One particular family who had fled, had had to leave their much loved herd of donkeys behind. The family had been kind to Opa, had treated him as one of their own and he never forgot. He’d always kept in touch and years later, when he heard that some donkeys in Spain needed rescuing, he bought them for the family. They’d stopped travelling by then and had escaped being caught by a miracle. But they had never replaced their donkeys.

Daria felt eager to learn about everyone, what they did, where they lived. She wanted to be able to picture Opa’s life in France; to imagine him talking to, eating and laughing with this side of his family. She had a feeling that he must have admired Ila and her work with the rehabilitation of drug addicts and the homeless. Ila told tales of such deprivation that Daria was in awe of how she could even do her job. And Daria was full of enthusiasm to hear about Ila’s sons and to speak of her own. Pasquale and his wife were teachers, and Pippin and Rémi had their own small farms nearby.

They swapped stories of motherhood and family, of holidays and life with teenage boys. Daria told of the fun her sons always had with Opa and how much they loved him. And Alfie joined in with tales of his eccentric mother in Coventry who worked in soup kitchens on Christmas day when he was a child and regularly took him on demonstrations or to Greenham Common to camp for the weekend. Then Daria remembered about the photos she had brought along. Showing them to everyone, amid such cries of delight, she discovered that the photo of the little girl squatting in front of Opa’s house was Ila.

‘Ah, always a wild child’ said Tilly ‘always wanting to be outside no matter the weather, the time.’

Daria understood. And she felt a real tenderness towards this woman who was speaking with such love in her voice.Then she remembered joking with Sandra and Amy about not wanting more family if they were like Pearl. And how unlike Pearl these people were. Daria also learned that it was mainly Pasquale and Marie who had taken care of Opa’s house and organised the summer rentals. It was very successful and more than paid for the care of the house, and Daria was reassured that everyone knew of the possibility of Daria even living there one day.

At that point, there was a strange and awkward silence that Daria couldn’t understand. She looked to Tilly for reassurance.

‘Ah, Daria. Families are never straightforward. I did wonder if this would come up this evening and I hoped it wouldn’t. So, it is a shame but now it has happened. My brother Dareau married and had a son, whom he named after himself and wanted to mould in his own image, exactly as his own father had before him. Now, my brother disappeared many years ago after he had lost the family money. Nobody knows where he is or if he is still alive. One night, gone. No message, nothing. But not before he had poisoned his son’s mind against Gene. Dareau junior runs a small hotel in the upper part of Ayen and was as vitriolic about Gene as his father and his grandfather ever were. Your paths may cross, Daria, but just remember that bullies are cowards. He resented Opa owning this house and he’ll resent you for inheriting it. Ah, now you are going to ask about Opa owning this house, but that is for tomorrow.’

Daria grinned for that was exactly what she was going to say. But she was starting to feel a bit disconcerted about Dareau the younger. Then she found herself drawing strength from Tilly who, although was obviously issuing a warning of sorts, did not sound concerned. So Daria decided not to be either.

‘Now. Let us have a last toast to Gene and then Ila will take me home. You young ones can finish the last bottle’ said Tilly.

As the glasses chinked, Daria inwardly smiled about being classified as a young one. Pasquale and Marie, however, also said they needed to go, but would help clearing up. Then Daria had a sudden realisation.

‘Alfie, where are you staying tonight? You were going to go home, but you’ve had too much champagne. We haven’t even spoken about that. I am sorry.’

‘Well, I was going to but...’

‘Stay with us. We are close to Tilly and have a spare room. You are very welcome.’ Pasquale quickly interrupted.

‘Perhaps Daria does not want to be alone tonight. Perhaps she has other plans’ said Tilly, big brown eyes twinkling innocently but fooling nobody.

‘Daria, Alfie, take no notice of her teasing. Mother, your incorrigibility astounds me. You get worse as you get older’ said Ila ‘or do you? As far as I remember you have always enjoyed embarrassing others.’

But Tilly just chuckled and waved her hand dismissively.

‘Thank you, Pasquale, Ila’ said Alfie ‘I would like that. But please don’t worry anyone, I am not easily offended. In fact, I feel quite flattered.’ His sing song voice betrayed the amount of champagne he had drunk.

At that point, Daria looked quite startled and began to giggle, partly because he clearly was not finding interpreting particularly straightforward. The muddling up of languages in each sentence meant everyone only got the gist of what he was saying. And partly because he said he was flattered and that made her want to snigger. Then Tilly joined in. Alfie looked as if he had shocked himself and seemed about to apologise but started to laugh as well, shaking his head.

‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Too much champagne. Who should I apologise to first?’ he said.

Daria and Tilly just glanced at each other and both spluttered with laughter, not realising that their audience of Ila and her family, as well as Alfie, were looking at them both with amused perplexity.

‘Hmm. I can see that Daria is not going to be a good influence on your grandmother’ Ila said to Pasquale and Marie, smiling ‘come, let us tidy up and go.’

So they all just left Daria and Tilly laughing together while they all tidied up around them. Soon, everything was cleared and even the washing up was done while Daria and Tilly just sat and held each other’s hands.

After several rather noisy goodbye’s, they all left with promises of breakfast in the morning at Daria’s. Neither Ila, Pasquale or Marie could be there and again Alfie reassured them that he did not have to go in to work. Closing the door behind them all, Daria suddenly wasn’t sure what to do next. She felt tired but her head was so whirling with images and thoughts and questions, that she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep.

She poured the last of the champagne into a glass and went to fetch the shawl she’d bought in Orleans. Walking into her bedroom, she ran her hand over the bed thinking of Opa sleeping in this room and then, pulling back the muslin curtains, Daria opened the French windows. It had originally been her idea to sit in the garden, on the bench under the arbour, as the evening felt warm. But the view from the balcony was so startling, she changed her mind. It looked as though an ocean of stars had been thickly sprinkled on a jet black sky, sparkling for as far as she could see. Clusters of lights from distant villages twinkled and shimmered, and an orange moon seeped its hazy mantel into the darkness. She leant against the balcony and looked in wonder.

‘Thank you, Opa’ she whispered, ‘thank you for all this. For all them. For everything.’


Daria woke to a loud clap of thunder and heavy rain sounding as if it wanted to clamber in through the roof and windows. Still half dazed from a deep sleep, she squinted around until a realisation of where she was slowly swept the drowsiness away. Lightening suddenly lit up the room and Daria leapt out of bed to close the French windows. The previous evening had been so warm that she’d left them open, enjoying the breeze rippling through the curtains.

Slightly shivering, Daria looked through her suitcases for Opa’s old red dressing gown that she had impulsively decided to bring and, glancing at the clock, went down to make coffee. The house sounded strangely quiet despite the muffled noises of the storm. Daria stared through the kitchen window, watching raindrops bounce off absolutely everything and was amazed at the ferocity of the rain. Then she remembered her first night in the national park and couldn’t help grinning. How long ago that felt now. With all that had happened, with all that she’d heard and had been given to think about. With all the people she had met and the emotions she had gone through.

Lost in a world of Tilly’s stories of Opa, Daria didn’t really notice the storm abate until the coffee pot began its spluttering. Shaken out of her reverie, she watched as a bright morning sun suddenly seemed to dissolve the clouds. She unlocked the back door and went out, following Ila’s path and enjoying her bare feet sloshing in the puddles as she walked. Everything looked as if it had been flattened by the force of the downpour and leaves hung low with the weight of water. Daria closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, almost celebrating the unique post-storm smell that freshens and invigorates. She felt the sun warm her body and so she slowly opened out her arms as if to welcome the new day. Eyes closed, arms outstretched, she stood facing the sun for several minutes.

‘Err. Sorry. Good morning’ Alfie’s voice slowly penetrated and Daria eyes and mouth opened with disbelief.

‘Oh god, I’ve done it again’ she thought, suddenly very self conscious about her appearance of boxer shorts and a vest under a gaping, outsized and tatty dressing gown.

‘Why am I always making a complete fool of myself in front of you, Alfie?’ she said, grinning with incredulity, ‘what is it about you that seems to make me want to lose all dignity whenever you are around?’

He grinned back. ‘You’re not. You don’t. Sorry if I’m early, but Tilly was practically knocking Ila’s door down at the crack of dawn she’s so eager to be here. She’s in the kitchen, by the way, getting plates for the bread rolls. She made them yesterday apparently. She’s got so much energy, I hope I’m like that when I’m older. Wasn’t that an amazing storm?’

Daria walked towards the kitchen, pulling her dressing gown closed as she tiptoed past him.

‘Thank you for being nice. And I’m glad you’re here early, I’m absolutely starving. I’ve only just made the coffee. Come on.’ Daria practically skipped through to the kitchen, she felt so excited about seeing Tilly again. She felt delighted they’d arrived about an hour before they had originally arranged. Every moment with Tilly felt precious and she wanted as many as she could have.

‘Ah, the beautiful flower angel’ said Tilly as Daria went over to hug her. ‘And look, you have on his dressing gown. Oh, I can still smell him. He is here with you. With us.’

‘You’ve seen this before? I know he’d had it forever and loved it. Oh, wait’ a sudden realisation hit her, ‘did you give it to him? Is that why he’d never let me buy him a new one?’

Tilly nodded, smiling.

‘Oh how brilliant. I love that. He was so insistent on keeping it, he even returned others I’d bought for him. And it was from you. No wonder he wouldn’t let it go,’ Daria ran her hands over its sleeves.

‘I made it for him. Look, it was all hand stitched. My hands won’t let me do such fine work anymore. But maybe I wouldn’t want to anyway. Who knows eh? Ah, must be about forty years ago now. I never knew he’d kept it all this time.’

‘You made it? Wow, amazing. I remember the first time I saw him in it and how warm and soft it felt then. Well, it still is really, even though it’s very worn. And after he died, I couldn’t get rid of it and so I bought it with me. I haven’t properly worn it before. And that makes it feel sort of special now. In his house, with you who made it for him.’

Tilly smiled and held Daria’s cheeks, kissing her.

‘Now, breakfast. It is ready. You can shower and dress after. Yes, I know that is what you were going to say, but your coffee smells rich and hot and I have been up for a long time.’

Daria opened her mouth, but thought better of what she was about to say. Tilly was quite right. Again. So she sat and offered coffee to her guests. Questions started to fill Daria’s head as they chatted over breads and homemade jams, but Daria was learning better than to ask. She knew Tilly would fill in every detail. In her own way and in her own time.

Tilly explained that she wanted to continue with Opa’s story and that in the afternoon she wanted to take them to a place to allow Daria to understand what happened a little more. Tilly explained that Alfie had already offered to drive, but first they would go to his house in Aubusson for lunch which would also mean he could change.

It made Daria smile to hear that arrangements had been made without her, and she liked it that she didn’t seem to mind. Ever since she’d made the decision to go to France, she knew she had to let life happen, to just see what would unfurl and unwind before her and let it fall into place. Which so far it had done, in one way or another, and led her here. To an astonishing place, an extraordinary time. Daria suddenly thought about Fridays at work and the million contrasts and differences she was actually experiencing on this particular Friday. And she knew this would always be remembered as one of the most amazing times of her life. She remembered Opa saying to her countless times, whenever she felt unsure about something, that it is better to know and be disappointed than to never know and always wonder. And that was why she hadn’t just sold Opa’s house.

Tilly sat reading in the front room and Alfie was washing up and making fresh coffee while Daria got ready. While she was getting dressed, Daria suddenly thought how comfortable she felt, how at home, despite the facts that she was in a strange house with people she hardly knew. This was what Opa always meant when he said that each new morning represents an opportunity to create the life we want for ourselves. At that moment, the day felt perfect. Of course, she’d have loved to have her sons with her and without a shadow of a doubt, Opa would have made a very special addition. But Daria was here to know more about Opa, about Tilly and her family. About Dareau, father and son. And she knew she’d find out.

By mid-morning, they were all sitting outside enjoying the warm spring weather with a large jug of Ila’s peach cordial being poured by Alfie. ‘So, Daria. From now, it is important for you to remember how much Gene loved you and what your love for him meant. Shall I carry on, little one? Gene’s is not an easy story for me to tell. I saw what happened to him, his pain, his troubles.’ Daria looked at Tilly and saw such an intensity of feeling she couldn’t help but empathise with this compassionate woman.‘Yes, Tilly. Yes, please. I know this can’t be easy for you and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this. Appreciate everything, really. Your kindnesses and you’ve been so considerate and...’‘You are here. And so this is the way it goes. How else could I be with the flower angel?’ And so Tilly began.’I do not know how much you know of WW2 in France and now is not the time to give you history lessons of battles and dates. What use is that? But Gene had a part in it, as everyone did in one way or another. Such terrible things happened and all so quickly at first that nobody could believe it. Ah, yes. We heard stories about the invasion and then the troops in Paris. It was on the radio and we read it in the papers but it felt as if the whole country froze with shock. How could this have happened? How did they let this happen? Then, when the Vichy government controlled the south, well, they were Frenchmen, they gave the people promises and said they would keep us safe. I remember Henri Plumiérè, the baker, saying it couldn’t be as bad as we were hearing. That people were scaremongering. That things would soon be normal again. Ah, he was always a fool and prejudices are what fools use for reason.’

But remember him, Daria, for he plays a big part in Gene’s story. Plumiérè was one of those who was scared of Bonner, too scared to ever help Gene. But nothing is that straightforward. Some people resisted Vichy because they could see it was a form of collaboration with the Nazis, others collaborated with them or wanted them to be even more drastic. Others supported Vichy but not Nazis. Some did things through conviction and others through fear. Remember that, Daria.

’But then we heard and then we saw otherwise. Ah, I could never have imagined such madness. What times they were. But fear drives people to do things they would not have imagined they could do. But I jump ahead.

’During the invasion of Paris and the north, many children were just deserted, just left after their parents were taken by the German army. I cannot think what that must have been like for those mothers and fathers to be arrested and see their children abandoned. Just left on the street or in their home, alone and not knowing what would happen next. Not understanding what was going on. And the parents never knowing if their children would be somehow ok, if you’d ever see them again. And how would you begin to find them, even if you are let go or escape? How can you even begin to think about what each and every child went through? Where do you find hope? And so how do you cope with that? So many children, so many tears shed.

Tilly paused and sighed. Daria was moved by the emotion still present in her voice. And by the energetic and compelling way in which Tilly told the story. Daria loved the gesticulations, the facial expressions. Tilly certainly put her whole self into her words.

’So you can imagine how Gene felt when he found out about that. He knew what it was like to be torn away from your family as a child. And I don’t know how, but Gene soon became involved with the people who were offering safe houses. Ah, Gene had spent years learning about keeping safe, he knew how to survive. He’d had to learn for himself, our mother could only do so much. So he had many skills he would not have had if he’d been with us, been with his family. Now, that is one of the things Gene always said. That if the greater reason Bonner threw him out, was so that one day Gene would be able to help save the life of even a single child, then it was worth it. Ah, so like Gene. He always said he could not have helped so many if those years had been different. Don’t forget he’d had to learn how to keep warm, how to stay hidden, how and what to eat.

’But this became much more difficult after the Vichy government was set up. And to think that we were told it would make life easier for us. We were told to cooperate, to behave properly and it would be alright. But as more and more of us found out about the many, many poor people who were fleeing, ah yes, the anger rose. People talked about it everywhere, they could hardly talk of anything else. I remember hearing men shouting in the bar, shouting at the radio and at each other. Some believing and some not. I saw a woman crying in Madam Bisset’s shop. It was a little haberdashery, I had been sent to get some buttons and they had been speaking of a story in the newspaper. Of children and a group who were trying to help. All shot. They all shut up when I walked in, but I had heard. It felt as though the whole world was about to tip into a dark abyss. Children, Jews, gypsies and later communists, anarchists, so many fled for the south looking for safety.

‘Why can’t people be travellers or worship any god they choose? What type of madness is it to think that such things matter? Why is one nation better than any other? Gene used to say, many, many times, that those who seek power should be the very ones who do not get it. In that, and other things, he so admired the Anarchists he met helping them to escape. He said that one of the greatest messages he received from them was that authority had to be earned. It could not just be given. Was it not those in power who allowed food to be seized from their own countrymen to feed an invading army? Who allowed many, many men to be taken and forced to work miles and miles away from their homes and families? Who stole fuel and clothes, never caring if people starved or froze. For him, that is why he would never respect Vichy.’

Tilly paused and poured herself some more cordial. It was the only noise in an intense silence, a reverential silence.

’As I said, very quickly, Gene became part of the Underground Railway as it was called. The routes that were used to move people from one safe house to another. Or to hiding places in the forests, so they could smuggle people to the Swiss border. Ah, such bravery and such suffering. When it was all over, he told such tales. But he never forgot about the love, loyalty, camaraderie, call it whatever you will that he also experienced. Many people were caring deeply for others. But at such a price.

‘Never forget that every single person who helped was in danger for their lives. People were betrayed, arrested, tortured, killed for helping. Their houses were burnt. Families destroyed. So just think, how could you know who to trust? Many who were part of the Resistance could not even tell members of their own family. How do you live like that, every day, every night? The reprisals were great. Yet, somehow, despite the fear that must have haunted everything they did, the Resistance did many, many truly amazing things.’

In the moments silence that followed, Daria remembered the times of when Opa had told her he was part of the Resistance. She explained to Tilly that apart from odd sentences about hiding places in forests and anecdotes of nearly being caught, Opa had never told her a lot about any of it. In fact, when she came to think about it, Opa was incredibly clever at deflecting, twisting and sidetracking any questions. And so much so that you never quite realised that that’s what he’d done. Daria explained to Tilly that she wasn’t sure why he’d done that.

’Ah, you will find out today. Everything is linked together. You are a patient woman, Daria. I understand your longings to know. Especially as it was all so important to Gene. Do you know that the day he heard the famous speech by Martin Luther King, he leapt in the air. I jumped with shock, I remember. King had just said ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’[i] It was on the radio and he laughed and pulled me out of my chair and danced with me. And we laughed and laughed together, even though I did not understand to begin with. But who could ever resist his laughter? He felt happy because here was the reason why he joined the Resistance before the south got involved. It was the beauty of those few words that made him delight in having heard them. Which is an excellent place for us to stop. Let us go to Aubusson so Alfie can give us lunch.′

Tilly stopped to chuckle. ‘Now why does the name Alfie suit you so much, young man? I cannot call you Mr. Norton for the family secrets you will know when this day is out leaves no room for such formalities.’

Daria wondered whether or not to be alarmed at what Tilly had just said and she wasn’t sure how much Tilly was teasing. So she smiled as she thought that she’d find out. All in Tilly’s good time.

[i] Martin Luther King.

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