Anne-Marie Verlaine dragged her feet along the embankment of the Seine towards the Pont Neuf on a cold, unforgiving October night. Her eyes ached in the face of a bitter north-easterly, and her heart ached with the despair she felt, unable to reconcile her suffering with the joy of the Liberation being celebrated in Paris after four years of occupation.
Around her neck and over her head she’d wrapped the Paisley shawl that she’d brought back from England before the War, a gift from the people on the farm. The material was too thin for winter, the shawl unable to keep the cold from the bare skin of her shaven head.
(Earlier that day, Anne-Marie had been cornered by a vigilante group of so-called patriots, cruelly misidentified as a collaborator and paraded head shaved through the streets, yet another victim of the épuration sauvage, the brutal purge, retribution meted out to women ostensibly in the name of justice in the months following the Liberation).
Anne-Marie shivered, wrapping her arms around her body as she walked. She glanced through the window of a houseboat moored alongside the embankment and saw the homely glow of oil lamps within. She caught a flicker of movement, hesitated, but the person’s shadow moved away and disappeared.
She climbed the stone steps to street level, stopping in one of the half-moon alcoves of the bridge, and gazed absently out along the river. In the distance stood the Eiffel Tower dimly outlined by the ambient city lights, its own beacon and floodlights extinguished.
The bridge was more exposed to the weather than the embankment and the hostile wind took no prisoners. Anne-Marie pulled the shawl tighter, and felt the softness of the lambswool weave. It would have been perfect for springtime, in Paris, in England.
‘Here’s something for next spring’, he said, as he gave me the shawl, a parting gift at the end of that summer. And he gave me the bracelet too which he made himself and engraved my name inside. But I lost it. He’d think I didn’t care, but he forgave me, dear Richard, as he showed during our parting moments together at the quayside …
Silhouetted before the soft glow of the iron street-lamp behind her Anne-Marie stood in the alcove, hands on the cold stone of the parapet, and stared down upon the dark waters flowing beneath. No city-light reflections softened the unforgiving blackness. She barely recognised the serene river Seine that defined her beloved city.
Perhaps he found the bracelet, unable to share the excitement of discovery with me and reunite the gift with … mon dieu, the person he said he loved, and who loved him. It was all so long ago, and so much has changed, but I remember every moment as if it were yesterday.
He quoted Housman: The happy highways where we went and cannot come again. ‘Let’s prove the poet wrong’, he said. It had been a beautiful but futile promise.
He’s dead now, my pilot, my fighter.
Quite suddenly the wind dropped, the less icy air feeling almost warm by contrast, prompting Anne-Marie to look up and away from the river. She gazed vacantly down at the riverside and saw that the light inside the houseboat was still lit, a shadowy figure moving across the window. Moments later a woman appeared on deck and emptied a bucket over the side. As the woman straightened she chanced to glance up at the bridge and saw the silhouette that was Anne-Marie. The movement caught Anne-Marie’s eye and for a moment the two looked at each other and must have made eye-contact, albeit unseeing across the half-lit distance between them.
Then the woman on the barge waved. It seemed to be the instinctive gesture of a soul happy with life in the afterglow of the Liberation. Anne-Marie hesitated, thwarted from her purpose and unsure whether to return the wave. But she found it in herself to do so and raised her arm half-way flicking her hand in a brief, tentative half-wave.
In that moment the connection was made and the woman on the barge beckoned enthusiastically for Anne-Marie to join her. Anne-Marie still wavered and gazed down at the woman for an age. At last she turned and edged away from the alcove of the bridge and made her way back down to the embankment where the boat was moored. The woman was waiting on deck by the gangplank and beckoned Anne-Marie aboard. She was still unsure whether to accept the woman’s invitation welcoming her into the warmth of the lamplit cabin.
‘Come, my dear, you could use something warm inside you, I think.’
‘Oh, but I cannot impose …’
‘Nonsense. Come inside. I am waiting for my husband and I have hot chocolate on the stove.’
Anne-Marie raised her eyebrows but could not resist the temptation of chocolate so long denied her by the severe rationing still enforced in the capital.
‘American chocolate,’ said the woman with a conspiratorial wink, and added, ‘Oh, I’m Madeleine. My husband is Pierre, a true Parisian. He works long hours, there are still so many collaborators to seek out and punish, mostly women now, fraternizing with the enemy occupiers, those women get the justice they deserve, their heads shaved for all to see. But we shouldn’t talk about that. You will like Pierre; he is passionate about France. As am I too, of course.’
Anne-Marie panicked. Her sudden thought was to flee. ‘I should go now, before your husband returns.’ Stopping by the door she turned to Madeleine and added, her voice shaking, ‘All that is not justice, they have no evidence. Guilty or innocent, they decide. It’s the men who do it, as much to hide their own guilt in collaborating or their black-market crimes. They are still hunting collaborators, like rabbits. Savage revenge, it’s not human. It’s barbaric.’ But Anne-Marie was physically and emotionally exhausted and it would have been churlish to refuse Madeleine’s spontaneous offer of hospitality.
‘But can’t you see, my dear,’ said Madeleine. ‘There is hope for our country once more. ‘Paris is free. Can you believe? Paris is free again!’
Anne-Marie was only half-listening. ‘Oh, Madeleine. Do you really believe there is hope? How can there be?’
‘But of course. What else is there?’
Before Anne-Marie could protest, Madeleine had lifted the coat from her shoulders and saw the specks of blood left by the hair clippers on the nape of her neck.
‘Oh, mon dieu!’ she whispered. ‘Ma pauvre petite fille! What have they done to you?’ But she knew.
The two women stared at each other. Madeleine slowly reached her arms out to Anne-Marie and unwound the shawl from around her head and neck. For a reason beyond her knowing, Anne-Marie did not resist.
‘Oh, no!’ Madeleine exclaimed, shaking her head.
‘They got the wrong person,’ Anne-Marie said, so quietly that Madeleine had to bend to hear. ‘Someone pointed at me and that was enough. They thought they recognised my long hair. The Liberation has gone to their heads. I am a woman, an easy target.’
Madeleine was quiet, reflective, awaiting her husband’s return. All she could manage was, ‘My dear, what has become of us?’
Anne-Marie said quietly, ‘I was a courier for the Resistance and spent three months in Fresnes prison after we were betrayed to the Gestapo, and this is my reward.’ She tapped her head and forced a wry smile. ‘It’s an irony, isn’t it, just because the Germans would love my long fair hair I had to befriend a young oberleutnant, to get useful information. It was for France, my duty; I could not refuse. I hated it. He was a cultured man and we talked about music and poetry. But we had a traitor amongst us. Then I was sent to Vincennes …’
Madeleine’s eyes widened. ‘Sacré dieu, Vincennes? But, Anne-Marie, no one came out of there alive.’
Anne-Marie nodded. ‘They shot most of the prisoners when they knew the Allies were about to enter Paris. They left me for dead. I’d given up.’
‘My dear ...’ With words inadequate, Madeleine opened her arms and held Anne-Marie close. ‘I am so sorry. So … up on the bridge, you …’
Anne-Marie forced a smile before this decent woman. ‘I thought my time had come. And when I saw you wave - I shouldn’t have seen you, I was looking down all the time - it was my Damascus moment, that little gesture, that tiny little human gesture that happens a million times a day, Madeleine, it … it choked me and I almost laughed with the miracle of it all.’
‘Thank you,’ Anne-Marie said simply. ‘Thank you.’
A rush of cold air and Pierre stood in the doorway, aghast.
Anne-Marie spun round, ‘Where is my shawl? I must go.’
‘Chéri,’ Madeleine greeted her husband. ‘I have someone here you should meet.’