Read an Excerpt
Welcome to the Free Zone
By Nathalie Gara, Ladislas Gara, Bill Reed
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2013 Claire Meljac
All rights reserved.
Round Saint-Boniface in Eighty Minutes
Stopping to take a vast man's handkerchief from her bag, Mme Hermelin wiped her steel-rimmed spectacles and blew her nose vigorously.
According to the cracked sundial of Rochefontaine Château, overlooking the village, it was midday. But for strategic and economic reasons quite beyond the comprehension of Saint-Boniface's inhabitants, the clocks in the village, as throughout France, indicated two o'clock in the afternoon: the time a sundial would be showing in Kiev.
Settling her glasses back on her thin sharp nose, the retired tax inspector's wife trotted off again across country as if she had to make up the two hours stolen from her by the Administration. For years now, her angular figure, permanently engaged on some distant errand, had been part of the landscape of Saint-Boniface.
Although over sixty, she retained an elastic stride, like those indestructible Englishwomen who could almost have been modelled on her. But as she picked her way between the clumps of broom and the rivulets in the fields, scrambling over heaps of stones, she looked more like one of the scrawny goats in the bleating herds which capered among the ravines and barren hillsides all year round. Even the sound of their bells was echoed by the jangling of the bunch of keys she always wore at her waist.
On this sixteenth day of May 1942, Mme Hermelin was wearing a new dress. It was made from an offcut of mattress ticking, long considered unsuitable for any other purpose, following the last renewal of her bedding. But after three years of war, in a moment of creative inspiration, it struck her that the blue and grey striped cotton was actually quite attractive, and with typical decisiveness she had immediately had a dress made. The result was indeed strikingly novel, while suitably understated, as became a lady of her standing.
In spite of her new dress, the mattress lady seemed anxious and irritable. Since the previous morning she had been searching high and low for a supply of potatoes. She needed at least 200 kilos to see her season out. For Mme Hermelin, assisted by her 'poor husband' the retired tax inspector, who was partially paralysed and increasingly senile, had turned her villa, Les Tilleuls, into a guest house. She would not wish you to get the wrong idea! It wasn't the sort of establishment which took in guests indiscriminately, or one of those hotels which she had heard would let a room to any passing couple, and which Mme Hermelin could not picture without a shiver of disgust mixed with a vague prurience. No, thank the Lord, nothing like that. Over the summer, Les Tilleuls took in only respectable (that is, undemanding) guests, who made an appropriate payment to their hosts upon departure. This arrangement suited Mme Hermelin down to the ground for, as a sister and mother to church ministers, she knew that even the guardianship of Christ's own grave had been paid for.
So at the beginning of each holiday season, an advertisement was placed in the classified section of the Nouvelliste to attract custom to Les Tilleuls.
Over the years, a number of families – though never the same two summers running – had savoured both Mme Hermelin's improving conversation and her house speciality, nettle soup. But in 1940 the tourists had been obliged to make way for a horde of agitated and demanding refugees. Some of the houses in Saint-Boniface had even been requisitioned. The schoolmaster, M. Longeaud, had been forced to suspend lessons so that his pretty whitewashed schoolroom could accommodate a group of refugee children from Paris. The vulgar middle classes had taken over his Lordship's country seat at Rochefontaine. Les Tilleuls, for all its daintiness, had not been spared the invasion. The main rooms had been allocated to a professor from the University of Nancy. The unfortunate mistress of the house had been exiled to an attic room whose comfort she always praised when letting it to tenants. Proudly refusing to share her own kitchen, Mme Hermelin was reduced to cooking her own meals on a spirit stove in a corner of this garret. Embittered by the experience, she took advantage of it to pose as a martyr, the victim of a plot, of a base vengeful scheme by the Maire, a creature known by all to be a godless member of the Front Populaire. 'Look at me,' she told her acquaintances at the Protestant Church, 'you see before you a refugee in her own home!'
At last the professor departed, along with his wife, his five children, his assistant, his servants, and the secretary who Mme Hermelin was convinced must be his mistress. On leaving, he had handed the landlady of Les Tilleuls an envelope containing a sum of money intended to repay her for her trouble. But while everyone in Saint-Boniface, and even in the nearby town of Francheville, knew the extent of the 'pillage', this last unimportant detail remained confidential.
The following spring, Mme Hermelin's eldest son Joseph returned to the fold. Previously a professional army officer, he had been demobilised and appointed Rationing Officer in a departmental depot.
Arriving just before Easter, he found his parents busy spring cleaning. Mme Hermelin, perched on a ladder, was dusting a picture frame, and her husband, dribbling a thread of saliva while his limbs shook spasmodically, was trying to manoeuvre a heavy mattress onto a bed in the middle of the room. Mme Hermelin, in perpetual motion herself, could not bear to see the retired tax-inspector at rest, even though he was three-quarters incapacitated. Every morning, she drew up a timetable which left him not a moment to himself. It was he who had to chop the wood, fetch the water, do the watering, and sweep the rooms, shaking and dribbling as he went. Perhaps his most important mission was to pick the nettles, and chop them up small. This task was generally scheduled for about four in the afternoon, which meant he was unable to put in an appearance at his wife's little get-togethers where she generously offered tea and tisane – but not sugar – to her acquaintances: the notary's wife, the deaconess, the mother of a Francheville tobacconist, and the widow of the Justice of the Peace.
When Joseph asked why there was such a commotion, his mother told him she was putting the house back in order for paying guests. Joseph protested. Unthinkable that the mother of a Rationing Officer, treasurer of the Veterans' Legion to boot, should stoop so low as to run a soup kitchen, as if she were no better than Sarzier, the owner of the Hôtel Panorama!
In a moment of weakness, Mme Hermelin gave in. But she quickly regretted this and, as hotel prices in the Francheville area began to rise, her regrets deepened. So she undertook an intensive letter campaign, with one aim in mind. 'Les Tilleuls must reopen' became her 'Delenda est Carthago' and she drummed this into both her children with the relentlessness of an advertising agent.
Having used up all her writing paper, she was rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing her son Jérémie, the minister, bow to her superior reasoning. Joseph found himself surrounded, and he too was forced to give way.
And now that she had overcome all resistance, here was a new difficulty, this stupid annoying business of the potatoes.
Heedless of the trees, of their fragrant blossom, and of the greening hills which flashed with golden broom, Mme Hermelin, who had other things on her mind, continued to bound along.
Suddenly she stopped, frowned, and looked around. Nobody in sight. Fifty metres further on there was a turning, but what of it, she'd have time ...
On the spot, without even seeking a bush to go behind, she crouched down by the side of the road. For Mme Hermelin was a martyr to her bladder, which frequently caused her to interrupt her walks.
She was still in this position when she heard a man's footsteps behind her. Turning, she saw M. Longeaud, the primary school teacher and clerk to the Maire of Saint-Boniface.
She leapt up smartly, showing not a hint of embarrassment, and inclining her head with all the aplomb of a woman of the world, said, 'Oh I do beg your pardon, Monsieur.'
'Oh, don't mind me!' said the schoolteacher awkwardly. He was still trying to regain his composure when Mme Hermelin continued casually, 'You're just the person I wanted to see. I have something to ask you.'
'What can I do for you?' he said, grudgingly.
He guessed it would be an official matter, and had no desire to offer a roadside consultation, especially to Mme Hermelin who was one of 'the other lot'. In M. Longeaud's view of the world, there were two distinct types of people: those who agreed with him, and the others.
'It's just this,' said Mme Hermelin. 'I'm opening my house to guests again next month and I need at least two hundred kilos of potatoes for my tenants. They're from the city, so of course they'll have ration books. But where will they be accepted, since we're not allowed potato coupons in Saint-Boniface? I know you are a clever and learned man, M. Longeaud.'
She spoke quickly, adopting the gracious smile she bestowed on everyone except her housemaids and her 'poor husband'.
M. Longeaud, unmoved by this flattery, assumed the official look he reserved for 'the other lot' when they came to the Mairie to renew their ration books.
'I'm afraid I don't see how I can help you, Madame. Country villages aren't entitled to potato coupons. Your clients will have to go and see if they can be used in Francheville.'
'That's all I need to know. That solves the problem.'
'In order to do that,' continued M. Longeaud imperturbably, 'your clients will first have to have their name removed from their regular supplier's list, then apply for a certificate at the Mairie where they live, have it witnessed by a notary, submit an application to sign up at the Mairie in Francheville, and then put their names down at a greengrocer's there. They may still have some problems as their domicile will be in Saint-Boniface rather than Francheville. But assuming all goes well, they will be entitled to two kilos of potatoes per month. But now I come to think of it, why don't you register your guest house officially? That could be to your advantage when it comes to rations.'
'If you say so,' said Mme Hermelin uneasily, but keeping up her smile. 'I'll have to think about it. The thing is, they're not really tenants, they're more like friends who come to stay with me in the summer ... I don't think it would be fair for me to have to pay taxes like a hotel.'
The schoolteacher's thoughts were already elsewhere. He wasn't used to listening to his petitioners for more than a couple of minutes at a time. He had also just been distracted by a noise in the distance.
The sound grew louder. A car was coming up the hill. It would appear at the turning any moment now.
'Excuse me,' he said suddenly.
With one bound he reached the side of the road, threw himself into the ditch, pulled some branches down on top of himself, and lay flat on his stomach.
Mme Hermelin watched in astonishment. Had the town clerk suddenly taken leave of his senses? It wasn't impossible; he was known to be a heavy drinker as well as an atheist, and the Almighty had a way of visiting violent punishments upon these godless beings.
At that moment, the car rattled past. Its driver, the village Curé, a corpulent man whose puffy face was sweating profusely, acknowledged the retired tax inspector's wife with a courteous wave. The car continued on its way, disappearing towards the presbytery.
A cracking of branches in the ditch signalled M. Longeaud's emergence from his hiding place. He looked rather a mess. His hair was dishevelled, his cheeks were scratched by the brambles, and his clothes were muddy, as there was still water in the ditch from the last rains. Looking anxiously around him, he pointed at the light dust cloud raised by the car and asked warily, 'Who was that?'
'The Curé,' answered Mme Hermelin, gradually getting over her amazement.
'Oh, only him,' said the schoolteacher with a sigh of relief. 'You see, I'm not keen to meet the rationing inspectors. That's why I prefer to ... um ... make myself scarce.'
Mme Hermelin still didn't understand.
'I've just come back from a district teachers' meeting in Francheville. On the way I stopped at a friend's house and he filled my flask for me. As you know, the transport of wine is prohibited.'
Mme Hermelin realised that under his arm the schoolteacher was clutching a container which would hold about three litres.
'Do you think that would be enough to get you into trouble?'
'You never know!' said the schoolteacher darkly. 'They've been trying to catch me for ages. And why, you may ask? Because I don't want to see a certain section of the population victimised! They know where my sympathies lie, so they'd like me out of the way. The other day I had a letter asking me if I was sure I wasn't a Jew. I felt like saying to them, I'm afraid I don't have that honour. But if it was true, I would feel very uncomfortable indeed.'
'The Jews are reaping the punishment of the Almighty because they denied the Lord,' said Mme Hermelin sententiously. 'But the day is nigh when they will come to Him. And I myself am soon going to help one of them save his soul.'
M. Longeaud wasn't listening.
'Now it is time to awake, for the day of reckoning is at hand.'
Somewhat ashamed of having overreacted in fright, he was anxious to change the subject.
'You Protestants, you should know better than anyone. The other day Jarraud from the hardware shop was saying right there in Francheville market that we'd have to have another Saint Bartholomew's to restore order. Be warned! Take the Curé. He gets a petrol ration because he covers two parishes and he's secretary to the Farmers' Corporation. As for the Minister, he doesn't get a drop of petrol, and he has to make his rounds on his bicycle.'
M. Longeaud was on home territory now. He prided himself on his diplomatic skills. He had no time for either the Protestants or the Catholics, and enjoyed setting them up against each other, which was not hard to do in a region where memories of the religious wars still ran deep.
Meanwhile Mme Hermelin paid no more attention to him than he had to her plight. One thing only was bothering her: the 200 kilos of potatoes she needed. Longeaud was obviously no use at all, so that put an end to the matter.
She pulled out the watch she carried on a silver chain and consulted it. 'Oh! It's nearly half past two,' she said. 'I'm already late. Goodbye, M. Longeaud.'
Turning away from the schoolteacher, she took off uphill on a side track.
She had decided to pay a visit to the hamlet of La Barbarie, and she would not leave until she had wrested a few kilos of potatoes from one of the farmers.
Ten minutes later, after crossing the ocean of mud and manure which formed a moat around La Barbarie, she reached the home of the Legras family.
The Legras family lived in a big house on the outskirts of La Barbarie, some way from the rest of the hamlet. Legras was a farmer by birth but a carpenter by vocation, and in the good old times before the war, when petrol in France flowed like milk and honey, you could hear his machines from afar. Nowadays, that background hum of modern times was replaced by the archaic rasp of the saw and the jarring scrape of the plane.
Mme Hermelin walked past the great outbuilding where Legras had set up his workshop, and entered the house without so much as a knock on the door. Within, a respectful silence reigned. In fact the visitor had arrived at a moment of great solemnity: with the pride of a young mother bathing her firstborn, Mme Legras was submerging a great slab of butter in a large bowl of cold water.
Panicking at the sound of the door, she snatched a washtub cover up from the floor and flung it on top of the bowl. Too late! In a split second, Mme Hermelin's prying little eyes had seen everything.
Excerpted from Welcome to the Free Zone by Nathalie Gara, Ladislas Gara, Bill Reed. Copyright © 2013 Claire Meljac. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.