With the ticket in his hand, Jack made his way down the train corridor, pushing past soldiers, trying to find an empty compartment, but each one seemed to be full of men, shouting in good heart, laughing. Making his way, he saw at the end of the corridor, a lieutenant. The soldiers wouldn’t question him, but an officer? It was too risky. Instead, he turned back. Eventually, on the fourth carriage, towards the back of the train, he found a compartment with just a woman and a child inside. This will have to do, he thought.
Sliding the door open, he muttered a bonjour to the woman and sat down heavily, relieved to catch his breath. The woman responded with an accented ‘hello’. She was about thirty, thought Jack, wearing a brown jacket with large buttons, a daffodil in the lapel, a matching hat and bright red lipstick. On her lap a newspaper. Next to her, wearing shorts, her son, probably about eight, reading a book with a cowboy on its cover. Jack felt awkward and wished he had something to read. Instead, he leant against the window and watched the countryside rush past. He thought of what lay ahead of him – how would he get on a boat to England; the train to London. It was all too daunting. At least now he had the money. He thought of the woman with her straw hat and pitied the anguish he had caused her. He knew the policeman would telephone ahead; that they’d be waiting for him at Calais and possibly every station in between. He could try and merge in with the soldiers but it wasn’t without its risks, especially in the state he was in. The little boy laughed at something in his book. His mother spoke fondly to him, then smiled at Jack.
‘He’s always reading,’ she said.
‘You speak English?’
‘I read a lot at his age. Always adventure stories. Africa, India…’
‘Are you going back home to England?’
‘Yes. England.’ How simple it seemed.
‘You have a ticket,’ she asked.
‘Of course.’ What made her ask that?
They sat in silence for a few minutes and Jack tried to concentrate on the outside. She broke the silence by speaking to her son.
‘Why do you not sit with your friends?’ she asked, turning to Jack.
‘Oh, I’ve seen enough of them to last a lifetime.’
The compartment door slid open with a flourish. ‘Billets, s’il vous plait.’ The ticket inspector’s call made Jack jump. The inspector, wearing a cloak, took both the woman’s and Jack’s tickets, punched them and handed them back.
Jack couldn’t help let out a sigh of relief as the man slid the door behind him. He could hear his voice asking for tickets in the next compartment.
The woman picked up her newspaper, opened it randomly and started to read. On the front page, a picture of Henri Pétain, the French commander-in-chief, with his square little hat. ‘You can’t get off at Calais,’ she said from behind the paper.
‘I’m sorry?’ asked Jack, sitting up.
‘They’ll be waiting for you.’
‘I don’t understand, who will be…’ He slumped back in his chair; what was the use? ‘How did you know?’
She put down the newspaper. ‘I saw them from the window at the station. The woman, the policeman. They were looking for someone. They were looking for you.’
The two looked at each other, their eyes locked. The spell was broken only by the boy pointing at something out of the window. She humoured him, and said to Jack, ‘He saw a bird, I don’t know the name of it in English. Big, colourful. You come off the train with me at the station before, Les Attaques.’
‘No, not peacock.’
‘They could be waiting for me there.’
‘They will be expecting you in Calais, not Les Attaques. More brown than a peacock. Has a green head.’
‘But why? Why should you want to do this?’
‘We walk together, with Pascal here. Husband and wife. Yes?’
‘Yes, it was a pheasant, un faisan,’ she said picking up the newspaper.
Thirty minutes passed without another word between them. Occasionally, the boy would chuckle at the pages of his book. After a while, she closed her eyes, and drifted off. He looked at her more carefully. She wore her hair in a hairnet, pulled back beneath her hat. The hat and jacket were made of a heavy cloth, almost masculine, but countered by the flower. Perhaps she was older than he originally thought; there were lines at the corner of her mouth, crow’s feet around her eyes. She looked tired; she looked as if she would be perpetually tired.
The train stopped a few times but the woman did not stir. Only as the train slowed for perhaps the fifth time, did she open her eyes. ‘We are here,’ she said, repeating the phrase in French for the boy. Jack breathed deeply, trying to calm his nerves. He knew what lay ahead could be awkward. She took her handbag and thanked Jack as he slid the compartment door open for her. The boy glared at him as he passed. He spoke to his mother as they alighted onto the platform of a tiny-looking station called Les Attaques, questioning her. She tried to soothe him.
‘Come,’ she said to Jack, ‘walk next to me. Stay close. Pascal, venir ici.’ There were very few people about, the station seemed small. Ahead of him, he could see the ticket barrier and an elderly ticket inspector in uniform, a pair of glasses, but not, that he could see, a policeman. He caught the eye of a soldier still on the train. The man winked at him. He wished he could take her hand, to appear more like a married couple. He stopped in his tracks, seized by a moment of panic – could he trust her, was she taking him into her confidence only to betray him at the barrier? As if reading his thoughts, she smiled at him and motioned him forward with the slightest nod of the head. He had no choice.
She walked quickly now, taking Pascal by his hand. Jack knew why, she wanted to crowd into the family ahead of them. He heard the inspector asking for the tickets. If need be, thought Jack, the old man could easily be pushed to one side. Billets, billets, s’il vous plait. And of course, he still had the knife.
‘Vous avez votre billet?’ she asked him, ‘your ticket?’
Jack nodded, unable to speak, the ticket in his hand. Without a word, the ticket was taken from him, a glint of light reflecting in the rounded glasses. ‘Merci, monsieur,’ said the man, taking the ticket. ‘Mais cela pour Calais.’
He didn’t understand but he didn’t like the tone. The woman spoke, ‘Changer de plan.’
And then they were on the other side, the train station in front of them, largely deserted bar their fellow passengers. ‘My word,’ said Jack, the relief felt as if it was pouring out of him. ‘We did it, we… we did it.’ He beamed at her; she smiled back but between them came the irritated voice, ‘Arrêter.’ Young Pascal, thought Jack, was one jealous little boy.
‘Are you hungry?’ she asked as they strolled towards her home, through the empty streets flanked by tall, grey-bricked houses. The clouds were dark, the atmosphere strangely oppressive. He noticed a sign with the words Chiens en laisse, with a picture of a dog with its lead.
‘So, what is your name?’
‘Jacques – that’s the name of my husband.’ She told the boy of the coincidence and the boy reacted to this new nugget of information with a tirade of angry-sounding words. He seemed surprised as if only his father had the right to use that name eliciting a verbal riposte from his mother. He walked on, a boy cloaked in sullenness.
‘And what’s your name?’ asked Jack.
‘And here we are. This is where we live.’ The house, although two-storied, was small and sat on a bend in the road. The front door opened straight into the living-room, and Jack’s eyes had to accustom to the dark until the woman flung open the windows and pushed open the shutters. A large table dominated the room, a faded carpet, a coat rack, small oil paintings on the wall, a photo of a man in uniform and, in the corner, an upright piano. She told her son to take Jack’s coat and things to his room. Why not the coat rack? thought Jack. She offered him the armchair and promising something to eat disappeared into the kitchen. Pascal, having done his errand, sat at the table and pulled his book out from his satchel. He half-heartedly flipped through the pages but Jack knew he was being watched by the boy.
‘Is it good – your book?’
The boy made no response but merely stared at him, troubled, resentful. ‘C’est bon?’ said Jack, trying again. Still no response. The boy was dark, almost black-haired, large, prominent eyebrows on one so young. Jack gazed at the pictures on the wall, hoping the boy would stop staring at him. The boy snapped shut his book and left, flouncing out and back up the stairs. Jack sympathized – it must be difficult having your mother invite a total stranger into one’s house.
Stretching his legs, he ambled round the room. On the coat rack, a man’s coat – the only sign, thought Jack, of the man of the house, except, of course, the photo. A good-looking man, staring into the distance, a prim moustache, his hair combed back. The work of a studio. And then there was the piano. The lid was peeling and on opening it, the keys had faded yellow. Jack sat down on the stool and ran his fingers down the keys. It’d been a long time since he played, such a long time… He should have asked, he knew that, but the sight of the keys had had a strange pull on him. With his left hand, he held down a chord, most gently, barely audible. To his surprise these notes were in tune. Then closing his eyes, and throwing his head back, he lunged into a melody. His heart felt free for a moment, the first time in such a long, long time. His fingers skirted across the keys, the melody not attractive, harsh to the ear, jagged and twisting but the joy, the joy it brought him, the freedom. Arrêter Arrêter Arrêter . The word, repeated ever angrier, came to him. He saw her from the corner of his eye, to his right, her hands on her cheeks. He stopped mid-tune, his hands levitating above the keyboard, the last chord hanging between them. ‘Que faites-vous?’ she asked. ‘What are you doing?’
To his left, the boy had come running back downstairs and stopped on the bottom step, as wide-eyed as his mother, muttering something.
She answered back, her voice laced with concern. The chord had gone yet it still sounded in their ears. More calmly now, she said to Jack, ‘No, you must not play.’ Stepping forward, she gently closed the lid. She looked at him intently. ‘No one plays this piano.’
‘OK. I understand,’ he said, understanding nothing.
Jack sat on the sofa, feeling awkward, but clean. He’d taken up her offer and had had a bath. But she hadn’t offered any clean clothes, those belonging to her husband. And so, although clean, he sat in his dirty uniform. She was in the kitchen, preparing a meal. He offered to help in some way, peeling potatoes, but all offers were politely if firmly put down. Eventually, she called through from the kitchen and asked him to tell Pascal lunch was ready. Jack went upstairs. There was a French flag pinned to one of the doors. Knocking gently, he opened the boy’s bedroom door. Pascal was standing next to his bed and wearing Jack’s tunic. The look of shame swept across his face as he stood there with the arms hanging down, the hem reaching his knee. Jack laughed and immediately regretted it. The boy looked so pathetic, his eyes filled with hurt.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jack, ‘I didn’t mean to laugh at you.’
In a flurry of indignity, the boy pulled off the tunic and flung it to the floor. The two of them looked at it, the boy’s breaths coming in short bursts. Gently, Jack picked up the jacket as the boy stepped back. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘it’s OK.’
‘Je ne veux pas de toi ici’, the boy yelled.
‘Hey, no need to shout at me, young man.’
‘What are you saying. Stop shouting. Your mother will –’
‘Will what?’ She was standing behind him. ‘What’s going on here? Qu’est–ce qui se passé?’ she said addressing her son.
Pascal didn’t answer, instead he turned his back and folded his arms.
‘He’s upset, that’s all. He’ll get used to you after a while.’
After a while, thought Jack, how long did she expect him to stay? ‘I’m sorry if I upset him.’
‘Come, let’s have something to eat.’
For Jack, it was a luxury to be able to eat at a table with a knife and fork. Dinner consisted of a small cut of mutton with boiled potatoes and a glass of wine, which went straight to his head.
Afterwards, Pascal went to his room, and the woman and Jack reclined on the sofa in silence. His shoulder ached again, and he reached back and rubbed it. Eventually, he said, ‘I’m sorry about earlier – the piano.’ He hoped it would open up a conversation about her husband, her Jacques.
‘No, I am sorry; I should not have reacted the way I did.’
‘No one plays it now?’
‘No. No one plays it now. It is never played.’
‘Your shoulder – it hurts?’
‘Yes, a little.’
‘Here, let me look at it.’
‘Really? Well, OK.’ Jack felt awkward having to take his shirt off in front of the woman and felt vulnerable sitting, perched on the edge of the sofa while she examined his wound.
She peeled off the dressing. Jack winced. ‘Why you make a fuss? Keep still. It’s just a scratch. Wait a moment.’ She disappeared into the kitchen and returned seconds later with a bottle, cotton wool and a bandage. ‘Keep still,’ she repeated, dabbing the wound with disinfectant.
‘You haven’t told me your name,’ said Jack.
‘We should take you to a doctor – to make sure. Tomorrow I take you.’
‘OK, thank you.’
‘But now, I think it is time to go to bed. There is no spare bed but you can sleep here – on the sofa.’
‘Thank you, thank you for everything.’
The sound of a door slamming stirred him from his sleep but it was the shouting of the boy’s name that brought him to. He sat up on the sofa and pushed the blanket to one side. The clock on the wall showed eight.
‘Pascal, Pascal!’ she screamed from outside.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked as she came back in, wrapped in a dressing gown, her face flushed.
‘It’s Pascal,’ she screeched, ‘I can’t find him. He’s gone.’
‘Gone? Are you sure?’
‘It’s not a big house,’ she snapped, ‘of course I am sure.’
‘Yes? Pour l’amour de Dieu, I should never have allowed this. How stupid of me.’
Jack had slept in his trousers. Pulling on his shirt, he said, ‘I’ll go find him.’
‘You won’t know where to go.’
‘It’s not a big village, is it? He can’t have gone far, maybe he’s gone to buy bread or… or something.’
‘Yes, perhaps. Go then, hurry. I’ll stay here in case he comes back.’
‘Ok. Look, I’m sorry to have…’
‘Please, just go.’
It was cold out, a slight drizzle, the clouds dark. She lived about a quarter of a mile from the main village, such as it was. There was a café and a boulangerie, both already open. He looked in both, asking, ‘Un petit garçon?’ In the bakery, he was understood, despite his accent, but received only apologetic shakes of the head. He was in too much of a rush to take notice of the smell of freshly baked bread. In the café, they stared at him vacantly from behind the cigarette smoke. A burly-looking man, unshaven, an oversized cap on his head, approached Jack, barking at him. Jack shrugged he didn’t understand. The coffee smelt divine but Jack needed to leave. But the man felt Jack’s lapel and shouted at his friends behind him. They laughed. Jack pushed the man’s hand away. The man’s eyes narrowed, Jack clenched his fists at his sides but recoiled from the size of the man. The man sensed his fear, this little Englishman in his uniform. With a laugh laced with contempt, he rejoined his friends, picking up a cigarette he’d left burning in the ashtray.
Back outside, Jack looked up and down the main street with its small houses, unkempt and squalid. He felt surprised by how unnerved that brief encounter had made him feel. The church, try the church. The church, small and squat, a much poorer cousin of the grand church in Saint Omer, sat at the end of the village. Too dark inside to see beyond irregular shapes, he called out the boy’s name, his voice muffled in the darkness. He walked up the aisle, looking left and right, thinking he must be here, he must be here. He was not. This was not a church where one came to feel the kindness of God, but to bear His anger. Here, in this small church, in this dreary village, he felt His displeasure. Man had failed Him; Jack Searight had failed Him. He had to find the boy, to repay the woman’s kindness, to leave her feeling gladness in her heart. He realized he still didn’t know her name. He called out Pascal’s name again. I should never have allowed this. Her words came back to him. It was obvious he had to leave. But first the boy. He exited the church, his legs straight, his heart staggering. Outside the drizzle had given to rain. No one was about. Where now?
It was perhaps an hour, maybe more, when Jack finally had to give in to defeat. He’d circled round the village, looked in fields, traipsed through mud, trespassed onto farms, avoiding dogs, checking barns. Sodden, he trudged back towards the house, hoping to God that the boy had returned. He wanted to find Pascal, for sure, but it was the mother’s gratitude he sought, that and a huge breakfast, and he had failed her. He saw the house ahead of him, on the bend of the road. At first, he thought himself mistaken but no, he heard it all right – the piano; someone was playing the piano. Perhaps it was coming from elsewhere but there was no elsewhere – it was coming from within the house.
He slowed down, the rain dripping off his face; why the piano, who was playing it? She was so flustered the previous evening, as if the instrument was the unique preserve of someone no longer there, her husband. He stopped, poised just yards away from the house, squat and ugly with tiny windows. He saw the reflection of the dark clouds in a puddle, the raindrops causing the smallest ripples. The tune was a hearty one, she played well, if indeed it was her. The boy must have come back, why else would she be playing? But it didn’t seem right; something was wrong. Why so loud; she seemed to be hammering on the keys. The realization caught him in the throat – she was warning him. He had to leave, he had to run. Everything he had was in the house – haversack, clothes, money. But he knew now with certainty – she was telling him, don’t come in.
He turned to leave, a rumble of thunder, then the boy’s scream. The piano stopped. He looked back, he was there at the window, Pascal, his face white against the dirt of the pane. The door swung open and out charged two policemen. Jack ran. The policemen called, arrêtez, arrêtez, the boy was screaming, ‘Vite, vite.’; his mother called his name, ‘Non, Pascal, non, non.’ He could hear their footsteps on the wet tarmac. Glancing behind, they were closing in on him, two hazy figures in black. He pushed himself on, running, his breath pounding in his chest, his boots stamping through the puddles, the rain a mask before him, the lane, the dotted houses all a blur. Arrêtez! He had to keep going but the tunic, so heavy, laden with rain. But where to? In the distance, he could hear Pascal screaming, urging the policemen on. He was running, still running through the village, approaching the church; the policemen’s yells following him, their boots thumping behind him. A fleeting look back, they were still there, minus their caps, dropped in the chase. The blow to his body upended him. He lay on the road, his chest heaving. The clouds so dark seemed to be moving rapidly across the sky. Excited voices circled round him when a face came into view, peering at him from above, the man who had stepped out in front of him, the man from the café with his huge cap. He was laughing, enjoying the moment, the capture of the fleeing beast. Then, the man leant down, growled something in French, and spat at him.
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