Yvette walked around the war memorial pausing to read the names on each panel. Some were familiar but the name she sought was not among them.
What had become of Papa? Had he been shot for mutiny? Or cowardice? Or desertion?
She sank down on the seat that encircled the war memorial, enveloped in the summer air that was heavy with the scent of roses. Her mind went back to the day soon after her fifth birthday when they’d seen Papa off from the station to fight for France and how, over the next two years, each successive short visit home on leave had left her feeling sadder than ever.
Maman, who was running the village café single-handed in Papa’s absence, would tell her to snap out of it, didn’t she know there was a war on? At school she’d learnt to cover her misery with a blank expression to stop her teacher reminding her that she was lucky when other poor children were already fatherless.
In 1916 they’d moved to another village further away from the front lines where Maman began work with the village baker, Pierre, who, Maman said, would be her papa from then on. She never saw Papa again.
Soon after the Armistice they had paid a visit by train to Pierre’s brother, Arnaud, and his wife, Jeanne who ran a bakery and patisserie in a town on the other side of the former Western Front.
Yvette remembered the train emitting a hideous shriek as it entered the tunnel that ended on the outskirts of her childhood village. In the darkness relics of conversations between the adults that she used to overhear during the war after she was in bed had marched through her mind in time to the drumming of the train’s wheels.
And when the train emerged from the tunnel, she’d shuddered at what she saw. Her Papa, ashen faced, his uniform hanging on his once burly frame like a scarecrow’s rags, had been standing on the pedestrian crossing so close to the train that he could have been killed.
“Maman! I saw Papa! On the crossing over the railway near Tante Suzanne’s house,” she’d cried to her mother who had been sitting opposite beside Pierre.
Maman, after exchanging glances with Pierre, had declared in her that’s-the-end-of-the-matter tone:
“Nonsense! You’re dreaming again, child. Papa is here beside me.”
Yvette had resumed her blank expression, unresponsive to Pierre’s fleeting smile, not daring to ask why they’d never been back to see Tante Suzanne. If they’d been at home he might have consoled her with a treat from the patisserie, and a whispered instruction not to tell Maman.
Over the years Papa’s ghost had appeared in many a nightmare. She would wake with a feeble cry when he was about to fall under the train, and he would be standing by her bed, his expression as sad as she felt.
Yesterday, eight years on, she’d taken the same train, this time to stay with Arnaud and Jeanne to train as a pastry-cook. Maman’s voice in her head forbade her to look when the train approached Papa’s crossing, but instinct won. His ghost was there, watching the train go by from the safety of the path over the adjoining field. She remembered how he used to take her to hear the skylarks singing as they rose from the field, and her eyes filled with tears.
As the train went onward over the former Western Front, green now with fresh grass and young tree plantings, it appeared to her as it had in 1919. A mud-scape littered with ruined farmsteads, black tree stumps, barbed wire, artillery parts, and craters of putrid water. She’d heard that the soldiers, deprived of all sustenance, would drink it to assuage their terrible thirst.
Strange undulations marked the sites of trenches and shell holes, and piles of rubble were all that remained of farms that would never be rebuilt. The soldiers and the people had vanished forever, like Papa, leaving behind ghosts, memories, and questions without answers.
Yvette blinked her tears away with practised ease as the train pulled into the station where Pierre’s sister-in-law met her.
“We’re looking forward to having you with us, Yvette. Pierre says you have the makings of an excellent pastry-cook, like your mother. You look tired after your journey. Take tomorrow off. Have an easy day before you start work.”
Last night Yvette had tossed and turned in bed like all the unanswered questions thrashing about inside her head.
Where was Papa? Why had his photograph that she used to kiss every bedtime after he’d left for the front disappeared when they moved? Why had they stopped seeing Tante Suzanne?
Her sleep when it came was disturbed by the nightmare. She woke up to see Papa standing at the end of the bed. He spoke to her:
I’ll go tomorrow, she promised, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Now, sitting by the war memorial with her questions unanswered, she remembered Papa’s words of last night and made her way to Tante Suzanne’s house.
Her first hesitant taps on the door brought no response. Perhaps her aunt was out or had moved or wouldn’t want to see her. She heard Papa’s voice: ‘Tante Suzanne.’
Courage! she whispered and gave the door a good hammering. A frowning Tante Suzanne appeared.
“What…?” Her frown disappeared and her words died on her lips as she recognised her niece and held out her arms in welcome.
“Yvette! After all these years! Come in.”
In the shabby comfort of her aunt’s home, Yvette felt as if she’d never been away.
“Yesterday, Yvette, I decided the time had come to seek you out. We must both have been thinking the same thought. Come into the kitchen while I make us some coffee then we can talk about the missing years.”
When they were sitting together on the living room sofa Tante Suzanne began her story.
“1916 was the worst year of my life, Yvette. Your Papa and Stephane, my fiancé, were sent to Verdun. Soon afterwards Stephane was killed. Such grief, Yvette, it will never leave me, and there was more to come.”
She paused. Yvette laid her hand on her aunt’s arm. After some minutes’ silence Tante Suzanne continued her story.
Six weeks later looters had ransacked their café leaving it uninhabitable. Maman and Yvette had slept on Tante Suzanne’s living-room floor.
The next day Maman told Tante Suzanne she had received word that Papa was missing, and she had seen the doctor about Yvette’s nightmares. He had told her that Yvette needed a father figure and a secure home.
That was why Maman had accepted Pierre’s offer of a safe roof over their heads in his village, in return for her help in his bakery The doctor had advised her to make a clean break with the past so there had to be no further contact with Tante Suzanne, Papa’s sister.
“I’d lost everything, Yvette,” Tante Suzanne explained, “My fiancé, my brother and my niece. I’ve worried ever since about you.”
In the silence broken only by the mellow tick of the old wall clock they both sat lost in their own thoughts. At times Yvette’s brows crumpled into a deep frown. Then she asked:
“Why isn’t Papa’s name on the war memorial?”
Yvette saw her aunt take a breath several times as if about to answer before she brought herself to explain:
“Your father turned up here soon after the Armistice. It occasionally happened after people had been reported missing. He’d become a shadow of the man who’d left for the front. He’d seen the remains of his café but nobody knew where you and Maman were. He’d heard nothing from home since he’d been at Mort Homme.”
“Dead Man?” gulped Yvette. Her aunt explained that it was one of the Verdun battlefields so called after a man who had died in a blizzard there many years before.
When she’d told her brother what had happened, he’d said that it was probably for the best. She’d had to go out that afternoon but she’d told him she wouldn’t be long. When she returned there was a note on the table saying he’d gone for a walk. Dreading what she might find, she’d hurried to the railway crossing.
Tante Suzanne explained:
“No, Yvette, he wasn’t on the railway. I found him at a quiet spot in the field nearby, where he liked to take you to hear the larks singing. He looked so peaceful lying there…Oh, Yvette, ma pauvre petite.”
Yvette’s lips were quivering and tears that refused to be blinked away were running down her cheeks. Safe in Tante Suzanne’s arms her grief had its way until the sobs subsided and sleep overcame her.
She awoke to the aroma of fresh coffee. Tante Suzanne emerged from the kitchen with two cups of coffee, a photograph and an envelope.
“Here is a photo of your Papa as he was in his new uniform of horizon blue. And he left this letter for me to give to you when you were old enough. Would you rather read it alone?”
“No, read it with me.”
My dearest Yvette
I am writing this letter for you to read when you are old enough to understand.
I returned from Verdun a relic of my old self, my soul imprisoned in a body destroyed by that inferno. I can hear now the cries of my dying comrades for relief of their pain and thirst that would never come.
Little comforts meant everything. A lark singing like the larks we used to hear back home. A free canteen behind the lines run by kind English ladies who knew how to make coffee as well as tea. A change of clothes, thanks to Marshall Petain, the man who cared. For us, the poilu.
My beloved Yvette, be kind and helpful to others. Never return evil for evil. If we loved one another as our Lord has taught us there would be no war.
Do not feel bitter towards Pierre and your mother. I know they will have cared for you well. Fighting for you would have caused another war without victors.
I walked to the railway crossing that day intending to throw myself under a train but how could I even have thought of inflicting that on you, my sister, the train driver and whoever might have found me.
Instead I went back to rewrite my letter to you.
I will drink some blanche while I listen to our skylarks and remember discussions in the café of Le Marquis de St Evremont, a story of the French revolution by the Englishman Charles Dickens. In it a man with no future achieves immortality by taking Le Marquis’ place on the guillotine to spare him for his wife and daughter. His face was the most peaceful that the observers had ever seen. Read that book, Yvette, and remember me.
I will picture, dearest Yvette, the beautiful young woman you will be when you read this, marrying a man who will give you all the love you deserve.
I leave you this letter, the photograph of you that went with me to hell and back, and the precious memories of our short time together.
I will love you forever
Tears rolled silently down Yvette’s cheeks, falling on to the letter, mingling with the ink of her father’s writing, binding her past to her future forever. Her aunt answered the last unvoiced question:
“Your father is buried in the village cemetery. I threw the bottle of blanche away before I went for the priest.”
They picked two bunches of cornflowers from the garden to take to the cemetery. Tante Suzanne placed one on the war memorial in memory of Stephane. When Yvette laid the other on the grave of her father, a veteran of Verdun as his headstone declared, she heard his voice:
“Now my soul can rest in peace.”