The two women found no relief from the torrid atmosphere, even when their taxi pulled up outside the station of the eighth arrondissement. The Paris summer of 1942 was as hot as a steel-mill, the kind of weather prompting an exodus from the city. La Gare Saint Lazare buzzed with sweaty travellers swarming like locusts in the humid heat through the seven tall, stone archways leading to the platforms.
Perspiring despite her cotton blouse, Francesca Pascal tugged at the case in the open boot as the driver stood by and watched. She looked up at his bewhiskered face, hoping for help, but it seemed clear no assistance was forthcoming.
He, too, was sweating beneath his beret in the scorching sun, but he smiled all the same as he opened the taxi door for Francesca’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Marie. It was clear he did not intend to exert himself in the August swelter; he was a Paris taxi-driver after all.
‘Maman, let me help you,’ Marie said. ‘You should not be doing that, it’s too heavy.’
Her smile lit up her face; she showed no signs of urgency, despite the time. At eighteen, she stood a little taller than her mother, but the resemblance between them was unmistakable. She wore her auburn hair in a bob, though the fringe was a little too long, according to Francesca’s critical eye. High cheekbones and wide green eyes gave Marie an instant, eye-catching appeal. To Francesca, her daughter was the crowning achievement of her life.
The clock above them struck the half-hour and Francesca fretted because they were late. She hoped the train would be as tardy as the traffic on the Avenue de Gabriel had made them. Mother and daughter extracted their luggage and carried it towards the platform. Marie smiled again as Francesca checked the tickets.
‘Platform two, I expect,’ Francesca said.
‘Yes, Maman, like last year. It’s on the board, up there.’
‘Perhaps he was German or something, that taxi-driver. Such an impolite man. He saw me struggle.’
‘Maman, times are hard for men like him. If he just coughs in the wrong place, the Germans will send him to a munitions factory. Poor fellow.’
The mother looked at her daughter, revelling in the young woman’s youthful enthusiasm for everything in life. Marie was even-tempered and pleasant, such a contrast to most young people, in Francesca’s experience.
‘Is Papi meeting us?’
‘I expect so, my child. The telephone was not working again and who can afford a telegram these days?’
‘He might not be there?’
‘I wrote to him but who knows? If he isn’t there, we’ll get another cab.’
‘I love it when summer comes and we spend time with Papi and Mami. It’s not like the old farm, of course, but Switzerland is super, too. You remember that boy from the shop?’
‘Yes, I remember. You encouraged him. It was not his fault.’
‘He was nice all the same.’
Francesca took in the high glazed ceiling of the old station, reflecting how it seemed much the same as in Monet’s painting of it a hundred years before. She thought the old master had got it right, after all; the predominant colours, to her eyes, were greys and blues. The long, grey platform stretched away before them, filled with travellers and all of them waiting in endless queues, restless but powerless.They shoved their way onto the platform, jostled by the crowd. There was a smell of humanity, body odours, scent, and more. Francesca wrinkled her nose. Marie almost fell as a boy in his twenties pushed past, but he reached out strong, muscular arms towards her, grabbing her shoulders and keeping her upright.
‘I apologise,’ he said. ‘I apologise but am enchanted to meet you.’
Francesca said, ‘You can take your enchantment down the platform and take your hands off my daughter.’
He said, ‘I apologise to her mother also. To bump into two such beautiful women at once is both formidable and overwhelming.’
He smiled a smile of white teeth and radiant humour.Francesca’s frown saw him off. He shoved on through the milling crowd, pushing his way to the end of the platform. Marie stared after him. He glanced over his shoulder and the grin reappeared. The girl smiled back. Francesca could see it was a forceful, momentary connection. She could not help watching as he pressed on. He wore a grey suit, tight enough to indicate it might not be his own and she thought his backside swaggered in masculine pride. He was young and attractive and she felt pleasure, because he was beautiful and because he was French.
She sighed, catching herself in thoughts she was sure no woman of her age should have admitted, even to herself.They now stood twenty yards from the young man and Francesca noticed how he turned towards Marie and grinned again. He raised his eyebrows, again with a smile. Even at twenty yards, its meaning was clear. It was an expression of appreciation and Francesca, despite herself, felt pride in her daughter’s beauty. As a mother, she also knew she must keep such men at bay. Enchanted indeed. Cheeky boy.
She stumbled forward and Marie gripped her mother’s arm as four German soldiers dressed in green uniforms pushed past. One of them stood almost a head taller than the rest and his uniform bore flashes on the collar and badges of rank on the arms. He had a long, thin face and a grim, determined expression in his pale, darting eyes. The features were strong and to Francesca, as an artist, they imprinted themselves in her memory.
The train was late. They always were these days. The occupation meant nothing functioned as it used to, even Francesca’s finances, though she did still have means. Her savings, tucked away in Switzerland were safe but she was never smug; she knew anything could happen in these times of German occupation.They stood waiting in the heat and chatted, as only a mother and her daughter can do, about clothes, about details of the people around them, but they were careful in what they said. Who could tell, Francesca thought, whether someone was eavesdropping? Truncating their conversations was almost a habit nowadays when everywhere seemed populated by informers and soldiers and false accusations and petty quarrels resulted in arrests.
Presently, Francesca heard the sound of raised voices. German voices. The young man, who had pushed past them only minutes before, seemed to be in intense argument with the soldiers. He held up his papers. One of the Germans snatched them and then threw them onto the rails beneath the platform. He shoved the boy in the chest. To her horror, she saw the young man land a punch. The soldier collapsed. His colleagues turned as one. As if ordered to do so, they raised their Mauser rifles.
The young man turned, running up the platform with a look of terror on his face.A shot rang out. Only one shot. It echoed in the station building. Loud, like an instant of thunder, it seemed suspended in the air. The other soldiers took aim. The crowd ran or lay down all around on the cold, grey platform. Before Francesca could prevent it, Marie ran towards the now-crawling young man.
Francesca could see a blood trail behind the boy and his face, once handsome, contorted by pain. Then more shots.Marie almost reached the young man. The sound of the shots echoed as she fell.
Francesca stood watching in silent disbelief. There was nothing else to do. Why was her daughter lying down? Incomprehension, then action. She ran to Marie’s side. She pulled at the limp, lifeless form.
Turning her, Francesca realised it was pointless. The young man lay still; the very stillness of his corpse was reflected in her daughter’s. Marie’s forehead leaked blood, where the bullet had entered. It trickled down her face, her beautiful face, the face of Francesca’s only life. She saw how Marie’s eyes were open, pupils huge, and it needed no medical degree, no experience of death, to realise, to understand.
Francesca absorbed the horror, but felt nothing for seconds. It was a numbness and an absence of pain which gripped her most in that instant. Then she clutched her daughter to her breast. She rocked back and forth. Then she felt it - a pain worse than labour, worse than anything she had ever imagined. In her heart, it exploded like a grenade. Then she wept bitter tears. She wailed like a Bedouin. Her life was gone. Everything that ever mattered to her ceased to exist in that moment. Death had come.
Death, darkness and the everlasting cessation of hope.