But then when they were ready to load the lorries, they got resistance. Not just from us. A few of their captives came to life – a handful of the men who weren’t chained just ran for it, dived into the ditch at the opposite side of the road and lucky for them, it turned out, ran straight into Paul and his men, who hustled them under the bridge and back to the boats by the river path. More shooting as a couple of soldiers went after them and Paul’s men pounded the soldiers. Go for the equipment, Paul had ordered, and for a minute the gunfire was so fierce I knew two shots from my small revolver would go unnoticed. I aimed at the chains. The Double Tap, two quick shots at the same target. The chains I was aiming at burst apart like a toy balloon – could hardly believe my luck. And the two men I’d managed to free also ran.
When another man tried to run, the soldiers mowed him down like bank robbers in an American gangster film.
When the first men had fled, the guard Julie had attacked held her down with his heel dug into the back of her neck – he wasn’t giving her a chance. She fought hard and got kicked for it by the one who had said not to kill her. So now, with a few of the hostages dead and a few loaded up in the lorries and a few escaped, there were only 7 living people left lying on the ground – Julie with the guard’s boot against the back of her neck, and two other women. Two of the remaining men were chained ankle to ankle. And now the German corporal or whatever he was, the fellow in charge who had arrived with the reinforcements, decided to teach everyone a thorough lesson – us for trying to free their prisoners and the prisoners for wanting to be freed –
He picked on the men, mainly, the two who weren’t chained, and hauled them to their feet. And seeing that Julie was getting special treatment from the man who was holding her in place with his foot, he hauled her to her feet as well and pushed her over to stand next to the two other standing prisoners – one of them a sturdy workman and one a handsome lad my own age, both ragged and battered.
Julie was ragged too. She was still wearing exactly the clothes she’d had on when she parachuted into France, grey wool flannel skirt and Parisian chic pullover the burnt scarlet-orange of Chinese lanterns, with holes in the elbows now. Her hair shone brassy gold in the artificial light, falling loose and wild down her back. Her face was skin over bone. As though – as though she’d aged fifty years in eight weeks – gaunt, grey, frail. The dead spit of Jamie when I first met him in hospital. But thinner. She looked like a kid, a head shorter than the shortest of the men standing around her. Any of those soldiers could have picked her up and tossed her in the air.
Three prisoners in a line. The soldier in command gave an order, and the guard who’d been holding Julie down took aim at the younger of the captive men and with one bullet maimed him low between his legs.
The lad shrieked and collapsed and they fired at him again, first blowing apart one elbow and then the other, and then they hauled him to his feet again, still shrieking, and made him walk to the lorry and climb in and then they turned to the next man and fired on him low in the groin also.
Mitraillette and I both knelt wheezing with horror, side by side under cover of the undergrowth and darkness. Julie stood cowering, white as paper in the harsh glare of the floodlight, staring straight ahead of her at nothing. She was next. She knew it. We all knew it. But they weren’t finished with their second victim yet.
When they shot him in one elbow and then again rapidly in the same place to shatter it, my not-very-reliable control just went and I burst into tears. I couldn’t help it, something snapped, like when we went to help the gunner at Maidsend and found the dead boys. I burst into loud, gulping sobs, bawling like a baby.
Her face – Julie’s face – her face suddenly lit up like a sunrise. Joy and relief and hope all there at once and she was instantly lovely again, herself, beautiful. She heard me. Recognised my fear-of-gunfire blubbing. She didn’t dare call out to me, didn’t dare give me away, Ormaie’s most desperate fugitive.
They fired at the second man again, destroying his other arm, and he fainted dead away. They had to drag him to the lorry.
Julie was next.
Suddenly she laughed wildly and gave a shaking yell, her voice high and desperate.
‘KISS ME, HARDY! Kiss me, QUICK!’
Turned her face away from me to make it easier.
And I shot her.
I saw her body’s flinch – the blows knocked her head aside as though she’d been thumped in the face. Then she was gone.
Gone. One moment flying in green sunlight, then the sky suddenly grey and dark. Out like a candle. Here, then gone.
I’ll just keep writing, shall I? Because that wasn’t the end. It wasn’t even a pause.
The officer pulled another woman up from the ground to take Julie’s place. This doomed girl screamed at us in French: ‘ALLEZ! ALLEZ!’ Go! Go! ‘Résistance idiots sales, vous nous MASSACREZ TOUS!’
FILTHY RESISTANCE IDIOTS, YOU’RE KILLING US ALL
I knew what she was saying even with my rubbish schoolgirl French. And she was right.
We ran. They fired at our backs and came after us. Paul and his men fired at THEIR backs, swarming over the bridge walls, and they turned to face this rear attack. Carnage. CARNAGE. Half of us, Paul with them, were torn to bits on the bridge. The rest of us made it back to the boats and set off down the river with the five fugitives we’d managed to save.
When we were away from the bank and someone else was rowing and there was nothing more for me to do, I bent over with my head on my knees, my heart in pieces. It is still in pieces. I think it will be in pieces forever.
Mitraillette gently unlocked my fingers from the Colt .32 and made me put it away. She whispered, ‘C’était la Vérité?’ Was that Verity?
Or perhaps she just meant, Was that the truth? Was it true? Did any of it really happen? Were the last three hours real?
‘Yes,’ I whispered back. ‘Oui. C’était la vérité.’
Don’t know how I kept going. You just do. You have to, so you do.
The original idea, when we hoped we’d have 24 extra people to move and hide, was to ferry them to the opposite bank where we’d divide them into smaller groups of 2 or 3. Then we were going to split up our own team to guide them cross-country towards various sheds and cow byres for the night before the more complicated task of smuggling them safely out of France across the Pyrenees or the English Channel. But now we only had 5 fugitives to hide and there were only 7 of us left so there was room for everybody to make a single trip back to the riverside villa. Mitraillette made the decision to keep us together. Don’t think I’d ever noticed – so absorbed in my own fears and worries – but she was Paul’s second in command.
Not sure we’d have pulled it off without her either. We were all just so dazed. But she drove us like a demon. ‘Vite! Vite!’ Quickly! Orders whispered sharp and quiet – boats hauled back on to their racks, oars put away, all of it carefully dried off with dust sheets which we hid beneath the floorboards afterwards. You can work in a daze. If someone gives you a mindless job to do you can do it automatically, even if your heart is in pieces. Mitraillette thought of everything – perhaps she’s done it before? We brushed the oars and hulls lightly with handfuls of ancient straw from the stables, leaving a fine layer of dust over everything. The 5 men from the prison bus worked silently and willingly alongside us, anxious to help. The boathouse was perfect when we left – looked like it hadn’t been used in years.
Then the Nazi search party arrived and we spent an hour lying in the mud along the riverbank, hiding in the bulrushes like Moses, waiting for them to leave. Could hear them chatting with the groundskeeper. He came back later to lock up the boathouse and give us the all-clear – such as it was – now there were Nazi guards posted on the front drive, so we’d not be getting the Rosalie out any time soon. But the groundskeeper thought it would be safe for a couple of bicycles to leave by the river path on the opposite bank. Benzedrine handed out all round. Got one of the canoes out again and ferried 2 of the bikes, 2 of us and 2 of the escaped prisoners over the river, and saw them off into the fog.
At this point one of the remaining lads from the bus collapsed in a shivering heap and Mitraillette sort of stalled.
‘Nous sommes faits,’ she said. We’ve had it.
We bedded down in the stables with the bicycles. Not the safest place in the world.
I wonder where that is right now – the safest place in the world? Even the neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland, are surrounded. Ireland’s stuck with being divided, they have to mark the neutral bit ‘IRELAND’ in big letters made of whitewashed stones hoping the Germans won’t drop bombs there thinking it’s the UK side of the northern border. I’ve seen it from the air. South America, perhaps.
We were all still wide awake when it grew light. I was sitting with my arms wrapped round my knees, side by side with one of the lads who’d escaped when I shot his chains apart. The men who’d been chained had to stay with us because they’d got to get rid of the fetters on their ankles before they could go anywhere.
‘How did they catch you? What did you do?’ I asked, forgetting he was French. He answered me in English though.
‘Just what you did,’ he said bitterly. ‘Blew up a bridge and failed to stop the German army.’
‘Why didn’t they just shoot you?’
He grinned. All his upper teeth had been savagely broken. ‘Why do you think, gosse anglaise, English kid? They cannot question you if they shoot you.’
‘How come only some of you were chained?’
‘Only some of us are dangerous.’ He was still grinning. I suppose he had reason to be optimistic – he’d been given a second chance at life, at hope. A slim one, but better than he’d had 12 hours ago. ‘They chain you if they think you are dangerous. The girl whose arms were tied behind her, did you see her? She wasn’t dangerous, she was a – collaboratrice, collaborator.’ He spat into the disintegrating straw.
The shattered pieces of my heart went cold. I felt as if I’d swallowed shards of ice.
‘Stop,’ I said. ‘Tais-toi. SHUT UP.’ He didn’t hear me, or didn’t take me seriously, and carried on relentlessly: ‘Better off dead, that one. Did you see her, even lying in the road last night, sweet-talking the guards in German? Because her arms were bound, someone would have had to help her, on the way to wherever they were taking us – feed her, help her drink. She would have had to offer favours to the guards to get them to do it. None of us would have done it.’
I am dangerous too, sometimes.
That morning I was an anti-personnel mine, a butterfly bomb, unexploded and ticking, and he touched the fuse.
I don’t actually remember what happened. I don’t remember attacking him. But the skin of my knuckles is torn where my fist connected with his broken teeth. Mitraillette says they thought I was going to try to dig his eyes out with my fingers.
I do remember 3 people holding me back, and I remember screaming at the boy, ‘You wouldn’t have helped her EAT AND DRINK? SHE’D HAVE DONE IT FOR YOU!’