The Cornfield. A story by Catherine Broughton
Her fingers shook slightly as she removed the poison from the cupboard. For a moment she stopped, observed her shaking fingers, smiled slightly almost as though she expected the phial to speak, to congratulate her, before she placed it carefully in the pocket of her apron.
She had a strange sensation of awareness: plans and dreams had been made, exercised, exorcised. The years had fled with them. Wrapped up in the huge dark blanket of fleeting memories were all the hopes and the fears, all the terrors and laughters. All gone now.
Thank Heavens – merci Jesus – for that.
There seemed to be a lightness to her legs and arms so that, given a bit of music and sixty years less, she’d have danced the way she used to… and, very aware of her aloneness in the room, in the entire house , Madeleine now turned in a circle on the bathroom floor. A small tune, all but forgotten underneath the layers of moulding leaf of her mind then sounded in her throat, rasping slightly as the unfamiliar notes were emitted from her mouth, quiet, like an apology, and her feet turned again … and again … till it was almost, just for a moment or two, a little dance.
Madeleine knew that if she rummaged through all those song books and music sheets up in the grenier she would come across the song ; in no time at all, she knew, she would remember the words and the fine old music of the war years would come flooding back into her mind …. je t’aime comme l’herbe aime le vent, je t’aime comme les fleurs aiment la pluie … But not for now. She would treat herself to a walk down memory lane all in due course. First there were things to do; she needed to remove anything she wanted to keep. And she had to dispose of the poison.
Madeleine Hubert was born in the year 1927 between the two world wars, in the dark back room of the fermette where her father., a small time tenant farmer, lived his entire life. She was the seventh of nine children, all born on the blood and semen stained mattress in the same dark room that smelt of apples and straw and red wine. Her mother, no bigger than a child of twelve or thirteen, bore her nine children with the tough resignation inbred in women of her class; by the time she was forty she looked fifty years old, and by the time she was fifty she was dead.
The smell of apples and wine remained Madeleine’s most powerful childhood memory, though the sound of the sea on a winter night crashing against the little stone harbour at Bourcefranc, thrashing it’s way icily round the small fort Louvois, was a sound that forever filled her with a sense of comfort and warmth, of memories of log fires and fish grilling in the hearth and home-made bread. During those windy winter months when the Atlantic roared and heaved angrily against the French coast, the nine Hubert children huddled around the fire of their single living-space, listening to their mother clattering with pots. The shutters rattled noisily at the windows and the thick stone floors and walls gave off an odour of damp mustiness which mingled with the smells of cooking and the perfume from the bunches of lavender and tilleul that hung from the rafters.
All on one floor, as was the way which Charentais houses, Madeleine’s home was little more than a hovel. The loft area was used for storing straw, apples, wine, grain and flour. The sound of rats and mice up there was almost constant, a never-ending series of scratching and scuttling noises that lasted all night and frequently all day. On the ground floor were three rooms: the living room which doubled as a kitchen, the bedroom which Madeleine’s parents shared with her and her little sisters, Joelle and Ellie, and another room built under the sloping roof of the house, so that you couldn’t stand up on the far side, where all her siblings lived.
Although as a small child it seemed to Madeleine that they wanted for nothing – they ate at least every day, sometimes twice, and they all had shoes – they owned virtually nothing. Her mother had a small vaisselier, a kind of dresser from which hung a few cups and on which the candles sat, guttering and dipping in the dark. There were four chairs and a wooden bench, a small iron cooker inside which she learnt, by the time she was just six or seven years old, to light a fire and keep it alight for hours at a time. On top of the cooker – which could be moved about the room when not alight – there was space for one pot and this, along with the cremaillaire, a big old iron hook, inside the hearth, provided enough cooking capacity for the entire family. Food was invariably fish and cagouilles – local snails – though in the summer the Hubert children collected cherries, apples and figs, all of which grew in abundance on their small farm
In the corner of the room was a ancient stone sink, the hollow section of which was no more than a few centimetres deep , though the stone itself was a massive piece hauled in from Crazannes in the days of her father’s grandfather or even before. The cold surface helped to keep things fresh during the summer, when the winter Atlantic tamed. April through to the end of October tripped by in blissful sunshine … butterflies and dragon -fly, the roses tremieres in full bloom and growing wild at every corner.
Although a hard and work-worn man, Stephan Hubert loved his wife and nine children with that kind of gruff amiability that needs to be recognised and understood, otherwise it is mistaken for bad mood. He was a small man and had, since he was nine years old, worked every single day. Apart from his wedding day and the day of the birth of his fourth child , Benoit, when the labouring mother seemed to be having inordinate difficulty and screamed out so much that he didn’t dare leave the midwife alone with her , he had never had a day off. Relaxation came in the form of red wine shared with a few friends by the fire in the winter.
He rented, as his father and grandfather had before him, nine hectares of flat land that swept away east of Bourcefranc, hemmed in at one end by the road that ran from Marennes to the coast and at the other end by the marshlands that, mosquito-riddled, drifted away as far as the eye could see towards Hiers and Brouage. On the western side of his nine acres lay the mighty ocean, separated from his land by a couple of streets of low houses and the Place du Marche. To the east lay the flat fields and small trees that separated the coastal villages from the inland villages of St Just and Luzac.
Madeleine was inordinately pleased that her father was a farmer. Almost all the other fathers she knew were fisher-folk and, although her father made not a sou more and worked every bit as long hours, the fact that he worked on the land and not on the sea set him apart from the others.
The oldest five Hubert children were boys, Matthieu, Florent, Tomas, Eric and Benoit. They had been born in quick succession and were barely a year apart in their ages. A gap of three years passed before at last a daughter, Josie, made an appearance in to the already over-crowded Hubert household. Matthieu, the eldest, was eleven when Madeleine was born and she in turn, was barely eighteen months when the eighth child, Danielle, arrived. A year later the ninth child was born. Madeleine and Josie watched , wide-eyed as their maman went through the early stages of her labour , while Benoit ran to fetch the midwife and Matthieu set off in to the fields to fetch his dad. The little girls clutched their maman’s hands as she gasped with each contraction, fetched her a cup of water, mopped up the whiteish fluid that had spread on the floor and helped maman onto the bed.
“ Allez! Allez jouer dehors! “ their mother shooed them outside as soon as she saw the midwife lumbering through the field. Benoit was not with her. Already he had learnt to keep well out of the way in these matters.
Outside, where the darkling pines cast shadows over the green spring fields, the three little girls played in the dust, using sticks and shells in some childish scenario that only they understood. Sometimes they looked up when they heard their maman shriek and once it made the young Madeleine start to cry. Josie followed suit and then all three girls sat on the dried grass amid their sticks and shells and yelled lustily till the midwife reappeared, herself a mother of ten, and told them to hush,
“ Be quiet!” she pleaded at the crying toddlers,
They opened their mouths wide and wailed louder.
“ Where is your papa?” asked the midwife. “Where are your big brothers ? “
She was carrying a bucket and an armful of rags, and she disappeared back into the house. The children could hear their mother shriek again and again, and each shriek caused them to start crying more desperately, till even they got used to the noise and fell silent, dirty tear-stained faces red from the sun and the crying. The midwife rushed out, past them, back through the woods. There was blood on her arms.. Madeleine noticed this wonderingly – surely the neighbour had not been butchering the meat in the house ? Maybe that was a pig being slaughtered indoors …..and she resumed her game in the dust. Papa and Matthieu then appeared and Madeleine knew all would be well. Man and boy both sat down in the dust with the children. Florent, Benoit and Tomas had scarpered.
Another woman came lumbering through the woods. Madeleine recognised her as Tata Brune, an aunt. She bent and kissed the little girls briefly and scurried indoors.
Morning turned into afternoon and, just as the sky was beginning to darken and the sun cast scarlet paint over the fresh blue underbelly of the skies, hailing another hot day to follow, Tata Brune reappeared. There was blood al over the front of her frock and her hair was sticking up in all directions.
“ You can all go in an see your maman now,” she told them, “ but do not clamber up on the bed. Maman has been really poorly, and the little baby is poorly too.”
The frail and beautiful baby girl was named Elodie. From the moment she was born she seemed to be like a ghost, a spirit, small and pale and fragile like a spring flower. The village priest, to whom maman had to confess her sins every Saturday, came along and baptised the baby.
Madeleine loved the baby instantly, loved the tiny face and the huge eyes that sometimes opened and were deep and dark like the outer reaches of the sea. For several days Madeleine watched the tiny child, waiting for the little eyes to open, and when they did she would say hello and grasp the miniature fist. Then, just as the baby seemed to be willing to open her eyes a little more frequently, she was suddenly gone. She saw her papa weep for the first and last time, as he carried some bundle out with him on his way to work. The cradle was empty. She looked at her mother knew that the baby had gone away for ever.
Madeleine was twelve when the war started.
At first “ the war” was just a phrase that meant nothing. It was something to do with the other side of France, way over near Champagne and Paris…..way beyond any of the towns Madeleine had ever even heard of.
The French army, which Matthieu had declared would defeat the Germans by the end of May, had totally disintegrated in a matter of weeks. The Germans crossed the Ardennes in the early summer of 1940 and marched straight in to an undefended Paris.
Then they heard that Philippe Petain, the great general, had signed some kind of a peace agreement with the Germans who, in turn, would leave the south of France alone. Around the village people wondered if they were classified as the south of France or not. Some people, largely young men, wanted to fight at all costs. Others wanted peace.
There was talk of shortages – shortages of food, of fuel, of clothing – but there were no shortages during those first months. Madeleine sometimes accompanied her father to la mairie in the village, where there was a radio, but she could make little of what was apparently dreadful news. It seemed to her that nothing was happening and, if it was, it was in another world – so what did it matter ?
Madeleine nonetheless took on the omnipresent hatred for the Germans. This seemed to be obligatory, regardless of how old you were or whether or not you knew what was going on. The Germans had caused trouble for France, that much was clear, and France was her country, and so she – along with everybody she knew – hated the Germans.
“ Vive la France !” her father cried, and others cheered and shouted the same thing. She joined in the singing “allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de glorie est arrivé… “ ( – come along , children of this land, the day of glory has arrived ). But when, less than six months later, the Germans marched in to the neighbouring towns, and then into Bourcefranc itself, all the patriotic fervour ceased, or, at least, was well hidden under the dark and resentful brows of the local people as they watched the soldiers marched by.
“ Do not sing that song,” warned her father as they sat around the supper table. “ Do not say anything – anything at all – in front of a German, in case you say the wrong thing. Be silent. Watch and listen. But do not speak. “
The Germans didn’t settle in Bourcefranc but took over the Chateau de Rochebonne in St Just for the officers, and the houses all along the Quai du Port in Marennes for the soldiers. There were others. Madeliene heard of them in St Jean d’Angle and in Nieulle-sur Seudre, and they had gathered in their thousands in Royan and on the island of Oleron. Terrifying stories about rape and plunder and even murder were whispered around the villages. The Germans were called les boches – les boches had raped a nun, they had stolen all the Mayor’s chickens, they had sunk all the small fishing boats at St Palais …… and nobody cared to question whether or not it was true.
The entire coastline of France was annexed by the Germans and became one huge military zone. Local inhabitants were allowed to stay provided they had a pass. A curfew was imposed. At night the village was strangely silent. Radios were banned. Huge quantities of food were requisitioned by the army; everybody started to feel hungry. Nobody was allowed to drive.
Stephan Hubert and his sons set about digging a hideaway for themselves and for their food. The large German presence had already depleted stocks of salt, wines, preserves and almost all canned goods. Stories of Germans calmly marching in to farms and taking pigs and chickens and random items were heard in almost every conversation, and Stephan looked at his young daughters with fear.
“ If a German comes, you hide! “ he ordered them. “ You let your brothers speak. “
The hideaway was dug beyond the latrine, obscured by trees and foliage, a deep pit some five metres by three which was then lined with whatever materials the Hubert family could lay their hands on – a few planks, a lot of sacking, a sheet of corrugated iron – as they worked, Stephan realized glumly that these very lining materials might perhaps be put to better use elsewhere. The flour and grain was double-wrapped in an attempt to keep rats away and, where possible, was poured into the large earthenware jars that once kept sugar and butter.
“ Tell nobody ,les enfants, nobody ! Not even your best friends, not even Tata Brune “
“ But why not ? “ Madeliene was incredulous .
“ When people are hungry and frightened they do unkind things.” Stephan gripped his daughter’s arm, “ Maddie just believe me. This food is for us, just for us.”
He looked at her then, and saw how she was growing. Breasts, like firm young fruit, were protruding slightly under her thin blouse, the nipples clear and pink under the fabric. She had started menstruating a year earlier, and with this change her puppy-fat tummy had gone, replaced by a slender waist. Her legs were bare, and tanned from the sun, and an inch of grubby petticoat showed at one side of her skirt.
“ Get these girls indoors !” he shouted suddenly at his wife. “ Dress them properly ! “
The sound of the sea was unfamiliar to Dieter. It fascinated him. he could imagine what it would be like to be hypnotized when he listened to it.
Born and raised in Heidleberg, he had never seen the sea until he was stationed here. However, he told himself, once the war was over he would go to Giessen University, as planned, and study medicine. Once he was a qualified doctor he would earn good money and he would go to the seaside as often as he wished. He would return here if he could. He would look at the places where his feet had marched, where his army had trampled the ground, where that poor old lady had sat and wept as he and his compatriots took away her chickens. He had wanted to stop and tell her he had to, he was obeying orders, but there was no room for that kind of nicety any more. The world had become brutal.
But he knew he would see this French Atlantic coast in a different light in better times. That summer of 1944 was hot. With a few friends he bathed in the sea when he could. It was difficult to think of war. Hollyhocks were ablaze along the village streets and the unbroken blue sky stretched forever , in off the Atlantic and over the woods and even as far as Germany. He loved the warm sandy colour of the local stone and the shutters painted in blue or green. Looking at the undisturbed sea, it was extraordinary to think of German U.-boats lurking there in the dark and eerie water.
He had no opinion as to who would win the war. He was obliged to say that – naturlich! – the Germans would win the war. But in his private thoughts, as he lay in his bunk at night and listened to the sound of the sea, he knew the opposite to be equally likely.
He made very little attempt to follow the progress of the fighting and, unlike many of his fellow soldiers, he took no pleasure in discussing the British escape from Dunkirk or the activities of the French Resistance. He obeyed his orders and tried to not think. His aim was to keep his head low, to get through this as best he could, to go home to his parents and his sister, who he loved, and to become a doctor as planned. He often thought about Gnetile, his terrier, and wondered how she was. He had not finished re-painting the kitchen window for his mother, or helped her clear out the cellar … and he wondered if these household chores would be there waiting for him when he returned. He hoped so.
At twenty years old, Dieter was still a virgin. He knew all about sex and had done some heavy petting with his girlfriend, Helle, back in Berlin. But that was all. Many of his comrades went to see French prostitutes in nearby Royan, and there were a couple of local women who, desperate for food, would open their legs for a German soldier in return for some bread or an egg or a few stale biscuits. He didn’t want to do that. It disgusted him.
And, truth be told, he was a romantic. He didn’t want to fuck for the hell of it. He wanted to be in love or – at least – really like her. He wanted to do it because he really really wanted to with her, not just because he really wanted to. That was the difference.
Like many Germans Dieter was tall and fair. Skinny now, he knew he’d become portly like his father all in good time. He was good looking in an ordinary sort of way, clean and polite and respectful. He’d been to a good school, came from a good family, and it showed.
He had been born in to a household of upper middle-class lawyers, well-heeled though not rich, comfortable,with a big house in western Berlin and a holiday house in the mountains near Hochblassen. He had the one older sister. In fact it was via his sister, Breta, that he had met Helle. His mother was tall and fair and elegant and wore pretty dresses that smelt faintly of flowers and soap. Dieter’s childhood had been one of family fun, skiing trips in the winter and hiking holidays in the summer, toys, relatives, laughter and security. Till the war came.
He thought about his family a great deal, especially about his mother. He had had no word for some weeks. They had very little news from home about anything at all, not even war news, let alone family news. Rumour had it that post couldn’t get out of the country because of heavy British bombing and, although Dieter truly didn’t care who won or lost from a political viewpoint ( it felt blasphemous to even think that! ) he hoped with all his heart that the British were losing for one reason alone … it made his family safer.
During the first years of the war Berlin had been bombed several times, but always over by the factories and not in the smart leafy areas where his family lived. Some said the reports were grossly exaggerated and he trusted it to be so. It kept him awake at night and made his mouth go dry in fear for the people he loved. He couldn’t imagine his home being bombed; he pictured it as he had left it, three years ago now, with the big marble fireplace in the living room, the portrait of Grossvater, the flowers in the vase (were there always flowers in that vase ? Surely not in winter ?) the wide staircase up to the bedrooms and the bath – oh, the bath! How he’d love to have a bath right now!
His batallion had arrived in this area of France in August 1940. It was not clear to him what they were doing here, though there was word that they were going to re-group in La Rochelle. Why they should re-group in La Rochelle he didn’t know and like his fellow soldiers, he was not informed.
Dieter was billeted with one other soldier, a man of forty or so, named Heindrich, in a small farmhouse on the edge of Bourcefranc. They shared an attic room which was so hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. The owners, a childless couple in their fifties ingratiated themselves to their two German lodgers, both smiling and making odd little bobbing movements, frantically trying to keep on the right side of them. Like him, they didn’t care who won, they just wanted to survive.
“Just nudge me if I snore,” the older man had said, “ that’s what my wife does. Did. If ever I see her again…..”
With a few exceptions, they were all homesick and wanted nothing but to go back to their homeland.
“ But home ?” Heindrich had continued. “Home ? Where is that now ? Is my house still standing ? Is my wife still alive ? My daughter ? My lovely daughter …! “
Dieter didn’t answer. He knew not to. The other man didn’t expect it and it seemed to be important to him to be able to think aloud this way.
It was the following spring that Dieter met Madeleine.
A pretty girl on a really old bike, aged somewhere around 17 or 18, she cycled rapidly across the Place du Marché. A slight breeze made her dress flap up on one side, and he could see a slender thigh. If the wind would blow just a little bit more, Dieter would see her knickers perhaps. He watched as girl and bike came to a halt outside the Mairie. Unaware of being observed she propped her bike against the wall and went into the building.
Dieter remembered now that he had seen her before, during the winter, huddled up in an old hat, scarf and an overcoat that was too big. She had been on foot that day and her legs were bare. She wore inadequate little shoes and a pair of ankle socks that had once been white. One of the officers had stopped her and demanded she empty her pockets. Her face, pale and pinched with the cold, had remained impassive as she handed over an envelope and demonstrated that her pockets were otherwise empty. The officer read the contents of the envelope and then passed them to Dieter, whose French was far better. It was a note to the doctor to say that Madame Drouet was in labour. Of no interest. He handed it back to the girl and for a split second their eyes met. She was very small and lifted her face defiantly up towards him as she quietly retrieved the envelope and put it back in her pocket.
Watching her now, Dieter became aware of a sensation of tightening – just slightly – in his throat. He wanted to speak to her, to hear what her voice was like, to see her eyes and her skin close up. That night he found himself fantasising about her.
Almost a month went by before he saw her again. She was standing in a queue outside the boulangerie. She glanced over towards him and their eyes met momentarily. Again her face was impassive. Pretty, soft-skinned, young but impassive.
Rumours about the war’s progress continued. Hitler ( who Dieter secretly despised as, indeed , had both his parents) was the greatest leader, Germany would tell the world, the Master Race would rule everybody and everything.
But behind the whisperings were others. The bombing of Berlin was massive. There were thousands of civilian casualties. The British and the Allies were defeating Germany. Soon it would be over.
Looking at the girl Dieter had a sudden sense of clarity, of understanding social and political issues way beyond his experience. So, when the girl had paid for her half-baguette he approached her.
“Bonjour Mademoiselle,” he said. His accent wasn’t good.
“Bonjour,” she replied quietly and hurried away, her head down and the half-baguette clutched in one hand.
They met again – neither was ever sure if it was an accident or providence – and again, and then again.
The first time he kissed her was in the alley behind the boulangerie. He felt her mould into his arms. She was so small, like a butterfly, he held her to him preciously as though she could break. She hadn’t resisted at all. Yet she was an innocent, and her small hands had crept hesitantly up over this shoulders.
“My father will kill me if he finds out,” she whispered.
“We won’t let him find out,” he replied, and he felt more mature than his twenty years as he told her.
“ There will come a day when it won’t matter,” he said. “German, French, British, Spanish………..whatever, it won’t matter. We’ll all be like the United States. The United Countries of Europe.”
Madeleine smiled up at him and ran her fingers down the side of his face. He did have such odd ideas sometimes! He was a man for peace. In many ways it was because of that, that she somehow regarded him as non-German. She didn’t think of him as French, but not as German either. He was just Dieter. Girls who were friendly with the Germans were despised, but already Madeleine felt that it was unreasonable. We all just want to survive, she thought. She looked at his pale eyes and saw a young man, no more, no less, who – like her – was caught up in something he had never asked for.
They lost their virginhood to each other in the cornfield behind Monsieur Demellier’s farm.
“ When the war is over I will come back for you,” he said.
“ Take me with you ! Take me with you when you go! “
And even as she said it she knew that he couldn’t. But she also knew he’d be back for her. That was certain.
Beyond the cornfield was a woodland that sheltered a small hamlet of just four houses and a variety of barns and stone sheds. Hollyhocks and honeysuckle grew wild alongside the centuries-old stone. Bees droned in the still air and the summer sun had bleached the grass to yellow.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Madeleine, “ but I’ve never been here to this hamlet before.”
There was no sign board, nor anybody about though at least two of the houses were occupied, because washing hung on a line to one side and a couple of thin chickens pecked and clucked at the hard, dry earth .
“ Champ-de-Blé,” continued Madeleine, “this place is called Champ-de-Blé”.
“Cornfield ? That’s nice. It is a good name. A happy name.” He stood silently, clasping her hand in his, running his fingers along her tiny boney ones, and looking out over the walls and the dusty little lane.
“It will be our special place,” he said, “forever we will remember our field and this place.”
He seemed to be thinking, and she waited.
“We will live here “ said Dieter suddenly. “I will buy a house here, and this is where we will live. When the war is over and we have all forgiven each other, this is where I want to spend my life. Here with you.”
Madeleine took several weeks several weeks to realise she was pregnant. She knew all about how babies were made, yet for some reason had not feared anything happening. So when she finally realised, she was shocked into silence. She said nothing to Dieter even though she knew he would marry her without hesitation.
There were so many issues to sort out in her head. Her brothers would be very angry – a German ! How could she ? There would be reprisals. Her father would quite possibly take a stick to her. Nobody would speak to her, perhaps ever again. Furthermore, Dieter was in the German army. He was not free. Not yet. She’d tell him soon, but for now she kept her terrifying secret to herself.
And for Dieter it seemed that summer would last forever. He did not talk to Madeleine about the war, nor about the certainty that Germany was retreating.
So when the orders came, very early one bright morning in September when the sun was only just up, he thought for a wild moment that the orders might not apply to him. His first thought was that he had misunderstood. Leave – now ? Right now ? What about Madeleine? His little Madeleine ?
A lot of noise, officers shouting instructions, army vehicles crowding the roads, crates being loaded, soldiers everywhere………..and in less than two hours the army had moved on and he found himself carried away in the hectic panic rush as the army retreated across France.
Madeleine was 78 when I met her, twenty years ago now. She was hitching a ride from Champ-de-Blé into Marennes. I never usually pick up hitchers , and you don’t see many these days, but an old lady seemed harmless, and so I stopped. Small, and thin, but lively, with a ready smile and a cheeky grin.
She knew who I was. Everybody knew who I was – the English family who had bought the famous old Chateau de Rochebonne where Nazi officers were stationed during the war. The locals had watched as we transformed the house from the grey and imposing tree-shrouded hulk it was into the pretty light-stoned demeure it is today.
I dropped her off at a low, run-down property on the outskirts of the town of Marennes about three kilometres from Champ-de-Blé. She thanked me and scuttled indoors. I couldn’t help but notice that her little smile and lively manner disappeared totally as we approached the property. She looked … I searched for the word … dogged, hunted, beaten … as she crossed the yard. I didn’t wonder at it. Who would be cheerful living there? It was a low, mean bungalow, probably built soon after the war, with a grubby yard to the front where a rusting farm implement of some sort lay, brown shutters in need of repair and a corrugated-iron shed to one side which – I knew this from experience with this sort of property – housed an outdoor (and the only) toilet.
At the time I was an estate agent and my job that week involved driving to Champ-de-Blé several times to view, value, measure and photograph a lovely old stone house for sale. Just the sort of thing my British clients would love. It had a field attached to it and a walled courtyard in which tamarisk grew wild, pink and ethereal up against the walls. It was from the house next door to this that Madeleine had emerged, sticking her thumb out at me as she scuttled towards my car. It was a pretty property different in every way from the one in to which she now disappeared.
A housing estate has since been built all around Champ-de-Blé, nasty little bungalows and pocket handkerchief gardens. The pretty hamlet has been swallowed up and I am glad Madeleine can’t see it now.
I gave Madeleine a lift again a few days later and it soon became a regular event. She was a funny little woman, very small, and almost always dressed in the same dull navy dress, hair pinned back, rubber clogs on her feet. She was cheerful despite the hard lines of her mouth and the depths of sadness behind her eyes. Later, I realized, she was a woman with a secret. That secret had kept her going.
“ I was a runner during the war,” she volunteered one day.
“ A runner ?”
“Yes. I’d run with messages, you see. Sometimes I’d cycle. Messages to and from the Resistance. People always think the Resistance was a big thing, but it wasn’t. Just a handful of frightened people. As the war was ending, and it was obvious the Germans had lost, suddenly hundreds joined. Typical !” She laughed.
“Was it dangerous ? Were you not stopped ? Questioned ?”
“No, I was too young to be a worry! I often got stopped by the Germans. I always had an envelope to show them, but the real message was in my knickers.”
She laughed., a delightful schoolgirl laugh.
“ They never thought to look there!”
She fell silent. I could see memories visibly crossing her mind, flitting like birds through the windows of the past.
“ I had a German lover,” she said quietly.
We had just reached her habitual destination in Champ-de-Blé .She looked up, out of the car window, at the shuttered windows of the house she’d been in before.
“ He bought this house,”she said, “He bought it for me. His name was Dieter.”
On her invitation I followed her inside. We stepped straight in to a large living room, fully furnished, and boasting a wonderful old fireplace and heavy beams. I saw there was full central heating, still unusual in rural France in those days, and that the windows were double-glazed. I followed her from room to room, all in good order (as an estate agent would say!) if unimaginative. There was a T.V and little kitchen. It was not big, and it wasn’t really particularly pretty, but I could see how much Madeleine loved it.
Madeline was 4 months pregnant when she married Gael. Her attempts to contact Dieter had failed. In her heart of hearts she knew he was alive and would come back for her.
“ But what was I to do Madame?” she asked me. “ In those days being unmarried and pregnant was a dreadful thing. Dreadful. And there were plenty of girls around who’d had their heads shaved just because they’d dated a German. It was a terrible position for me. I wanted the baby, you see, wanted it so much.”
She married Gael on a blustery day in November . He was ten years older, a gruff and unpleasant widower with two gruff and unpleasant sons. She told nobody about the pregnancy.
“ I thought that it would all work out all right,” she looked out of the window at the trees beyond the field that lined the horizon. “ I thought that perhaps he’d be kind, that his boys would learn to love me … I tried to put Dieter out of my mind. Had no choice.”
She looked down at her hands. There was no self-pity in her.
“But no . Not at all . Dieter remained in my heart and Gael and his sons were … foul. Truly foul. Their mother had died of diptheria – people did in those days, you see. They resented me. Needed me to cook and clean, but resented me.”
“ But Gael ?”
Her face changed suddenly and I saw a look of hatred dart through her eyes. The look was so unlike what I knew of her that it startled me, and the change was so sudden, from the cheerful little woman who chattered so pleasantly, to a woman who had suffered terribly and who had seen a lot of pain.
“ I wish he would die! “ she spat. Then more softly, “ I know that it is a bad thing to say, Madame, but I can’t help it. He is 83 now but still hanging on in there. He has smoked all his life, he has always been a drunk…. but he’s still there. And I wish he would go. God Forgive me, I wish he would go. “
“ Has he been a bad husband ?”
“ Bad ? Well I was fed, housed, if that makes him good. He was violent – not now, he is too old – violent and bad tempered.”
When Madeleine went into labour she tried to pretend that the baby was arriving early. Like her mother before her, her travail was very long, hard, and painful. Her sister and Gael’s mother were there, both trying to warn her that such a premature birth did not bode well.
When finally the baby slipped out of her, Madeleine burst into tears, clasping the little scrap to her, and silently calling “ Dieter! Oh, Dieter!”
The baby , a girl, was indeed very small. But one glance at the hair and finger nails and any midwife, professional or not, could see that the baby was not premature. She was aware of her mother-in-law giving her a thin-lipped stare. Her sister said nothing and left quickly as soon as the birth was done. Although close as children, they had drifted apart.
Madeleine named her baby Melanie. She held her little daughter to her, kissed the tiny face, touched the miniature fingers. Gael did not come up to see her or the baby, and she could hear him and his mother talking for a long time in the other room.
“ She is so beautiful, my love,” she whispered into the empty room. “ We have a little daughter and she is beautiful.”
Every fibre in her body ached for Dieter’s return. Every iota of her being willed him to come back for her.
She lay all night with the child in her arms, dozing and waking, afraid though she didn’t know why.
In the morning the baby was dead.
“I thought it was Gael or his mother,” she told me, “ was convinced one of them had killed her. I have no way of knowing. Maybe I was right and maybe I wasn’t. Too late now anyway.”
She sighed and stared ahead.
“ I never had another baby,” she continued. “ Might have been better if I had. But there. You can’t change these things can you ?”
At the start of the summer of 1949, Dieter returned to Bourcefranc. He was now a qualified doctor, and had endured the grief of the loss of both his mother and his sister. Like so many other victims of the bombing, he and his father re-built the family home in Berlin and life, very slowly, limped it’s way back to normality.
“How did he get in touch with you ? “ I asked.
“ He didn’t. He had been here several days, here in this very house before I knew. He had been to the notaire and arranged to buy it, just as he said he would. He waited for me.”
“ He knew I’d find him. Do you believe in that kind of thing ? I do. Instinct.”
The sun had moved over to the tops of the trees on the cornfield beyond. I judged it to be about 5 o’clock. The vibrant green of early summer foliage had long gone and in a few weeks the now dark green leaves would start to turn. It would have been at this time of year…. about I counted….over sixty years ago.
“ My brother had to go to Brouage that day,” Madeleine said , interrupting my thoughts., “ and I asked him to drop me off here at Champ-de-Blé. Told him I’d got a cleaning job. Had to say something. Don’t know why. Just did. And there he was. Dieter. Unchanged. Waiting for me.”
It was some days later that Madeleine took me to the graveyard and led me through many graves and crosses till we came to a beautifully carved stone. It was very simple, yet the inscription on it was exquisite. It read “ Melanie. One day old. Cherished child of Madeleine and Dieter.”
“ He did it, as soon as I told him. He wept. We both did. But it was too late. War does that, you know. Drives people apart. He didn’t like the wooden cross that was already here, wouldn’t have it. Wanted to change it for something better straight away. He was like that – strong, decisive. Knows his mind. She’d have been three by then, had she lived.”
“But Gael… ?”
“ Oh, he never came here. Not even for the funeral. Didn’t bother him. He’d got his own sons, see. It may be he knew that the baby wasn’t his. Maybe he knew, and maybe he didn’t. Either way he was not interested. But Dieter came every year. Had to pretend we didn’t know each other, standing near our baby’s grave. Just in case somebody saw us, see.”
She smiled then.
“ At first I wanted to return to Germany with him. But he was a doctor, see. Respectful. Respected. Me ? I can’t even read and write. It was no good. We both knew that. But we saw each other every year for six years and we kept this secret house. Nobody knew. It was our special place. Then he got married. Well, what did I expect ? I was married too, wasn’t I ? He had two sons. Wife called Helle. He showed me photos. She looked nice, would be good to him. Dieter and me, we used to walk in the cornfield together. He never came in to the house again after he was married. Very correct, he was. Still keeps in touch. Don’t think I’ll ever see him again though. We’re old now. We’re different people. He’s got grandchildren. Dear Dieter. That’s love, isn’t it ? We always loved each other.”
It was barely a week later that I heard about Gael’s death. He was found face-down in his shed, next to the toilet. He’d had a heart attack following food-poisoning.
Madeleine’s two step-sons, both of whom lived near Marseilles, at the other side of France, came back for their father’s funeral, took anything of any value, rapidly sold the house and told Madeleine to go into a state care home. Just like that.
But Madeleine died, aged 93, in her own bed, there in Champ-de-Blé. A photo of Dieter as a young man in uniform was on the night stand next to her. Despite her hardships she remained fit and well to the end. I felt quite a loss when she’d gone. She is buried next to her baby. I go there sometimes. One day a man was standing there. He placed a few daisies on each of the graves. He was tall and fair. For a moment I thought it was Dieter. Then I realized – of course – it was one of his sons. He had told his sons, and I was glad of that.
Catherine Broughton is an author and an artist.