It was late afternoon. The air was clear and sweet but the chill stung. Although the sun glowed, its golden hand couldn’t seem to reach this town. The snow mounds heaped in corners were left untouched. But, more than that, a darkness festered – one that the watery sunlight couldn’t dispel. Even a stranger would be able to sense a fraught tension, lingering unseen yet unmistakable, beneath the sweet air that stung.
A handful of children darted about with damp gloves and half laughs but the air reached through them too. For youth could not offer protection. There was no longer room for blissful ignorance in this world – not even for the young. As these children played tag, their laughter was forced; their eyes without sparkle. And as these children pretended to play they paid no attention to the dishevelled man, standing on the corner watching.
He took one final drag before his numb fingers let the cigarette drop. Its glow was quickly extinguished, ash peppering the new layer of snow. A perfect white fractured, thought the man, which mirrored this town in France… a once-idyllic place, corrupted by the occupation.
More were taken every day. The lucky ones – whose blood was not deemed too tainted – would flock to the tracks and reach through the cracks in the train carriage: trying to touch the fingers of those whom they loved one last time. Those left behind did not consider themselves lucky. Perhaps, if they had known more of the train’s destination, they would have.
Others had no warning: a door crashing open at midnight; a scream ignored along with a gun shot. Many were damned if their last sight would be that of a red armband sporting an evil symbol – once an ancient religious icon, that would never be considered so again. But they never had a choice.
Heels suddenly wrapped against the cobblestone, echoes ricocheting up the narrow ally. The man could hear the crunch of ice until the footsteps stopped just behind him.
“Snow is unusual this time of year?” a female voice whispered tentatively.
“It will last until next week,” he finished, before curtly adding: “You’re late.”
He turned, ready to glower. But her beauty threw him off balance. A blue beret balanced on auburn hair, over a face with skin so pale it could be translucent. Except for her cheeks, which were tinged pink from the cold. To him, she looked more English than French but it was easy to see what you already knew. It wouldn’t be so easy for others. He hoped, at least. Her eyes were wide and doleful. His gaze almost slipped down. Almost.
“Désolé,” came her breathless reply, as she glanced up and down the street. “I was delayed.”
“Does it matter?”
“Everything matters. There’s no room for mistakes, here… no matter how inconsequential they seem.” He reached a habitual hand to ruffle hair already messy before grabbing her arm. “So who are you? What’s your story?” He strode down the street, leading her with him.
“I just arrived. I’m Eliza-”
“Are you mad?” he cut her off. “Did you learn nothing at the academy?”
“But you’re – ”
“That doesn’t guarantee anything,” he hissed. “Christ, this must be your first… You trust no one. Understand? No one. And only whisper an English name here if you want a bullet in your back.”
She recovered composure quickly. “My name is Annette. I’m a war widow visiting an old school friend...” Perhaps she wasn’t as amateur as she seemed.
“Which is me.”
“And since we’re such good friends, I suppose I should know your name too.” She slipped him a timid smile that once would’ve left him spell bound. But that was before.
“It wasn’t in the brief?”
“No, I mean, yes, it was. I just…” she trailed off. “You’re Luc,” she finished quietly.
“Do you have it?”
She dug into her pocket and shoved the package at him as if it were capricious and dangerous. He slipped it into his own pocket furtively. After offering her one from a silver case, he lit another cigarette for himself with shaking hands. An old man with a walking stick rounded the corner and Luc jerked his head back and offered Annette his arm with a smile. It didn’t reach his eyes.
Any passer-by would’ve seen an inconspicuous couple sauntering along, the lady’s beige heels clicking. Had they looked closely, however, they would have seen the knuckles clutching her dainty bag were white. They would have noticed his clenched jaw; and two sets of eyes restlessly flickering every now and then from left to right.
The bell above the door tinkled as they entered the smoky café. At a table in the corner, heads bent together, he squeezed a small piece of folded paper into her hands. “The coordinates…” he whispered. “You’re to pass them on at your next rendezvous.”
“That’s it for now. Were you expecting more?”
Suddenly, the man cleaning glasses behind the bar coughed emphatically. The bell tinkled once more and two men entered. They were dressed in civilian clothing but that didn’t fool anyone. Everyone knew who were Gestapo and who weren’t; knew who were informants, and who were friends. But that – more importantly – of the latter you could never be sure.
The two men started to make for the couple sitting at the corner table, purposefully. Luc pulled Annette to him in a kiss so passionate it was awkward to witness. So the men veered clumsily and settled at another table instead, their faces suddenly red.
“Should we leave?” Her murmur between kisses was barely audible.
“Let’s get another drink,” Luc said warmly and loudly, finally breaking away.
After two glasses of the house red, the pair finally left, not sparing a glance for the café’s two other patrons, who, on the contrary, stared suspiciously and unashamedly at the rather dapper young couple ambling casually out.
After they turned the corner, Luc let go of Annette.
“Well, that was unexpected,” she said.
“Yes, you have to be ready for them at any time. And it would’ve looked suspicious if we left as soon as they arrived.”
“Oh yes, I realised…. I wasn’t talking about the Gestapo, though.”
Luc shrugged. “Welcome to France,” he said. And the smile he gave her was finally genuine. Her eyes gleamed in return.
Moments later, Jean-Claude – for his real name wasn’t Luc, any more than hers was Annette – swung into his white-washed flat, opened the dusty red curtains and poured a generous glass of whisky. A stack of post lay on the table untouched. After a swig of the amber spirit that made life just a little more bearable, he sighed, and glanced up at the mirror.
A rather jagged man stared back, the softness of youth long chiselled away by the war. It was a long time since the smile wrinkles framing his eyes had been exercised. Instead, he had a studied boredom and his eyes were deliberately dull. The dullness was difficult to master at first but now he didn’t have to feign at all. War dulled everything.
Jean-Claude observed himself in the mirror most days but never out of vanity. He simply would ask himself the overwhelming question that stalked him down the street; that hovered on the tip of his tongue each waking moment, but that could never be voiced aloud. Goodie or baddie?
If evil acts were committed in the name of the greater good, where did that leave the perpetrator? Was a stifled shot down a dark alleyway permissible if the recipient sported a swastika? Most days he told himself yes. Because he had to. In the heroic stories of his childhood, a host of characters were split into goodies and baddies. If only the world were that simple...
Taking a seat, Jean-Claude extracted the package from his pocket. He cut the string tying the brown paper. Out tumbled two dials. Carefully he removed the faulty ones from the poorly hidden machine on the desk and screwed in the replacement parts. He put his feet on the desk and waited.
Hours later, the message came through. Annette must’ve passed on the coordinates. He jotted down the dots and dashes and, with painstaking care, deciphered the code. Now he had an exact time along with the coordinates. Marie and Philippe would’ve received them too so that only the three of them knew exactly where the new placements would be dropped, and when: a field at midnight in three days’ time.
Now he simply had to wait. And while three days might not seem a long time, to an agent it can be an
agonising eternity. Waiting was always the worst part. It left too much time to tease out terrifying possibilities; too long to contemplate what could go wrong… a message missed; an errant pilot; an obscuring mist... So much to go wrong. And the chance of success suddenly seemed so small. But it did before every drop, Jean-Claude reminded himself, and they always seemed to muddle through somehow.
The end of the second day brought a surprise of its own. There was a tentative knock at the door – too
gentle to be alarming. The spyhole revealed a bright-eyed Annette.
“Do you mind keeping me company?” she asked softly. “I feel so alone.”
And so did he.
Surprising himself, he opened the door.
He woke early the next morning. Across the room, Annette was bending over his desk in her undergarments.
“What are you doing?”
“Just looking…” He leaped across and gathered the strewn papers to his chest. “Oh, I’m sorry, darling. I was just curious. You’re a bit of an enigma to me.”
Annette looked utterly unflustered so his suspicion abated, but only a little. When she returned the next night, the papers were locked away in his drawer.
“Why do you do it?” she asked later in bed, her pale hand with its dainty long fingers reaching lazily
across to bring the cigarette from his lips to her own.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“You’re deflecting… I learned that trick too."
“That must be nice for you.”
“Seriously, Luc. Why?”
“Because… to do nothing was never a choice.”
In the morning Jean-Claude dressed quietly, glancing at the figure on the other side of the bed. Her sleeping expression was carefree. The blanket was down by her middle and a slender arm was thrown carelessly above her head, the freckled pallor of her skin luminescent in the morning light. Her nakedness seemed to render her vulnerable. But any urge to protect her was negated by the knowledge that such an undertaking was fruitless in their world. Desires and longings were relegated to their past selves – only surfacing occasionally, and at unexpected moments, that made the rest of the world recede and be replaced by the world before. But only occasionally, and only for a little while. The futility of the present was pervasive. The truth was: he never expected to survive. No one did.
“Don’t come back tonight,” Jean-Claude told the stirring Annette before going out into the cold.
The day of the drop had dawned. More snow had fallen and Jean-Claude’s stomach was swimming.
Dressed and ready, he was about to depart that evening when an urgent knock at the door made him leap to the worst conclusion. But it was only:
“Annette,” he said, breathing out a sigh of relief. “I told you; I can’t see you.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“You told me not to come back.”
“I meant tonight. I can see you tomorrow. Just not tonight.”
Annette looked different – suddenly less sure of the world and of her place in it. So Jean-Claude put his hand on her cheek before turning to leave. She grabbed it tightly. “Please, Luc, just stay with me tonight.”
“You know why. It will be fine, Annette. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Elizabeth,” she said after his retreating back. “Please, call me Elizabeth.”
“I told you,” he looked around alarmed. “Only say that if you want to get yourself killed. I’ll see you tomorrow, Annette.”
He walked out, leaving her in the sparse white-washed room, its door creaking eerily on its hinges.
Jean-Claude marched out of the town and down the hill. After twenty minutes, he glanced at his watch and cursed. He had underestimated the length of his journey, and Annette’s appearance had delayed him further. The snow nipped at his eyes and flattened his hair as his march quickened. At increasing speed, he approached the drop point in the field of a valley, the white of which glistened, even in the darkness.
Human intuition is a strange thing. Jean-Claude knew immediately that something was wrong. Only he didn’t know how he knew. But something felt profoundly different to the previous drops. A shroud of dread descended as he started to sprint. With robotic legs and manic breath, he threw himself through the night. Down the hill, past the rows of trees, and he knew the clearing was approaching. But Jean-Claude tripped and began to slide down the slippery white hill.
Beams of light – sudden and intrusive – flooded the field, catching the parachutes still floating to the floor, their grounded passengers frozen. The scene was illuminated through the trees with devastating clarity.
A shot whipped the air. Dozens of cracking noises seemed to penetrate the night. Luc knew what was happening. Even as he watched, the figures were silhouetted against the light. As they fell, back’s arched, they looked almost balletic. And the Nazis seemed irrelevant, somehow; a faceless enemy behind machine guns. He could see Phillipe reach for Marie as they both went down; and all the new recruits plummeted, having never begun their first mission; never felt reassured that they were making a difference, no matter how small, in this war that never seemed to end.
Only three people knew the exact time and coordinates of this drop. Two were gunned down. It occurred to Jean-Claude that might’ve been the other two’s last thought: that he was the one to betray them. Maybe he had... through sheer carelessness.
Before, despite questioning the morality of certain actions, Jean-Claude had felt that everything he’d done had been for something. Every time he handed over coordinates, or blew up weapons; every time he killed, he thought it was for a greater good, a lesser evil. Now, as he lay there, frozen – a witness to senseless massacre – this idea seemed risible. For what did that really mean: “greater good”; “lesser evil”? Who decided which was which? Were those Germans standing there evil? Was he? After all, that could be him out there. He could be them. Shooting, or being shot. It made little difference: they all seemed dead to him.
Briefly he saw her face and knew her betrayal. Any shred of remaining hope evaporated into the
darkness. Jean-Claude stood up. An impulse throbbed through him; an impulse of desperation bordering on tranquillity.
He ran out across the snow.
The shooting started immediately and the snow turned red.