The Dressmaker's Gift

Tonight, especially, she felt a pang of longing for her family, picturing them in the mill house on the river beneath this same star-frosted sky. Her mother would be in the kitchen, preparing a special Christmas Eve supper from whatever supplies she had managed to gather together. Perhaps her sister, Eliane, would be sitting there too, in the warmth of the old iron range, bouncing baby Blanche on her knee. Her father and brother would step through the door, back from delivering the last few sacks of flour to the local shops and bakeries, and her father would scoop up Blanche and swing her round, making her chortle and clap her chubby hands together.

Mireille swallowed the lump of homesickness that had hardened in her throat at this image. How she missed them all. She would have given anything to be there in the kitchen, sharing a frugal meal richly seasoned with love. And afterwards, lying in her bed in the room that she and Eliane shared, they would exchange whispered secrets. How she longed to have someone to confide in.

But that was a luxury that she couldn’t afford. She forced herself to set aside her thoughts of home and focus instead on her instructions for tonight’s task.

Under cover of the Christmas Eve revelries, which would hopefully be providing a welcome distraction to those soldiers unfortunate enough to have been assigned guard duties over the festive period, Madame Arnaud explained that Mireille was to accompany a man to the Pont de Sèvres, where they would be met by Christiane, a passeuse with whom Mireille had worked before, and she would take him to the next safe house along the route.

‘But you will need to work fast tonight, Mireille,’ Madame Arnaud cautioned. ‘The Métro will be crowded, with few trains running, and you must rendezvous with Christiane in time to get yourself back home before the curfew. Even at Christmas, it would not be wise to be picked up by the Germans.’

Mireille nodded. She understood the risks all too well. She had been warned that if she was picked up and questioned, she should try not to divulge any information for the first twenty-four hours to give the others in the network time to cover their tracks and disperse. But she was also aware of some of the torture methods that the Nazis employed to try to get that information out of any suspected members of the Resistance and an unspoken fear was lodged deep within her. If it came to it, would she have the strength to endure such treatment?

None of that bore thinking about right now, though; she needed to concentrate fully on the task in hand. Even the slightest fear or distraction might give them away or mean that she forgot to keep up her guard at some crucial moment. One never knew what would be encountered en route to get her ‘friend’ safely to his destination.

‘Level of French?’ she asked Madame Arnaud, referring to the stranger for whom she was about to risk her life.

Madame Arnaud shook her head. ‘Almost none, and an accent so terrible it would give him away in an instant. One further complication – he’s injured his foot. So you’ll need to give him some support if you have to walk any distance.’

A bad landing during a parachute jump, perhaps, Mireille thought. This wouldn’t be the first foreign airman she had helped to escape. Or maybe this man had just had a long, terrifying journey fleeing in fear of his life because of his religion. Or his politics. Or simply because of some petty feud with a neighbour which had led to a bitter denunciation. Who knew? She didn’t ask, because if she happened to be caught then the less she knew, the better.

The man appeared from a room towards the back of the house, dressed in a thick overcoat. He was limping and Monsieur Arnaud, who followed him, reached out a helping hand to support the man’s elbow as he came down the two steps from the hallway to the entrance where Mireille stood waiting. The man’s skin had a greyish tinge and, although he tried to hide it, she saw that he winced in pain as he stepped down on to his injured foot. Monsieur Arnaud handed him a homburg hat. And Mireille couldn’t help noticing that the hat was grey and that it had a green band, just like the one worn by the man who had dropped off the newspaper on what had felt like her first proper assignment, that day when she’d first met Monsieur Leroux.

‘Come,’ she whispered in English. ‘We must be going.’

The man nodded and then turned to Madame Arnaud, clasping both her hands in his. ‘Merci, madam, a thousand thanks, you are so very gentille . . .’ He stumbled over the words, and the flattened vowels of his English accent made both women wince.

One thing was certain: she would have to do the talking if they were stopped and asked for their papers. She’d been briefed on his false identity and she knew he’d have an ID card tucked into the pocket of his coat, procured from who-knows-where, to match her story.

As they walked arm in arm through the Marais, looking like a young couple out for a few drinks to celebrate le Réveillon, she tried to make it look natural, as if he were supporting her rather than the other way around. She planned her route. She would need to try to use the Métro as far as possible to minimise his walking. At the same time, she knew she would need to avoid the busier stations like the one at the Place de la Bastille, which would be mobbed and would be more likely to have guards on duty checking papers.

She guided the man through the streets, making the occasional encouraging remark to him although she had no idea how much of what she said he could understand. But as they approached the Saint-Paul Métro station, she was horrified to see two German guards standing outside the entrance. They had stopped a man and were shouting at him to hand over his papers as he fumbled in his attaché case trying to find them.

Thinking fast, Mireille steered her ‘friend’ on to the Rue de Rivoli. It would be better to mingle with the pleasure-seeking crowds and move on to another stop on the Métro. They were jostled and pushed by a sea of merrymakers and the man gasped as someone stumbled into him, the pain making his leg almost give way.

‘Hold on to me tightly,’ Mireille muttered in his ear, wrapping an arm around his waist. With any luck he would just look like another party-goer who had drunk too much Ricard, whose girlfriend was trying to get him home to bed. They staggered along like that for some way, past the H?tel de Ville where yet more Nazis were checking papers. By now the man was sweating with the pain from his injured foot and Mireille was struggling to help him stay upright. They would just have to risk it at Chatelet, even though it was one of the busiest stations on the line. Les Halles, the wholesale market which ran close to the Métro station, was known as a hotspot for black market activity, although this usually meant that the Germans were more likely to be shopping there than checking papers. She sent up a silent prayer to anyone who might be listening that, on Christmas Eve, the soldiers would be more interested in laying their hands on a little extra steak or a few oysters than on stopping an exhausted couple who were wending their weary way home, so obviously the worse for wear.

They slipped, unnoticed, past a group of noisy soldiers who were too busy whistling and cat-calling at a group of girls dressed up for a night out on the town to pay attention to anything else. When shouting broke out and a whistle blew shrilly, Mireille almost froze in panic, but she forced herself to keep on moving, leading the man towards the staircase which led down to the platforms. Allowing herself one quick backward glance she saw that, thankfully, the target of the police’s attention was a pickpocket. In the confusion, she imagined that she heard someone calling her name, but in that crowd it could have been aimed at anyone and so she kept going, conscious of the man’s gasps of pain at each downward step.

In the dim light on the platform, his face looked greyer than ever and she was worried that he might be about to pass out. If he did, it would make them the centre of everyone’s attention and that was the last thing they wanted. She glanced up at him anxiously and he smiled at her. She smiled back, reassured. They would make it. She could see he was a fighter, this man, determined to keep going. He would do whatever it took to escape. The worst was over now. She calculated the journey . . . They just had to get on to the next train to come along, and then change to line nine, as long as the station at Rond-Point was open tonight, which would take them all the way to the Pont de Sèvres . . .

At last, a train rattled into the station and a flood of passengers got off. With grim determination, Mireille elbowed her way on, pulling the man behind her and then pushing him on to one of the double banquettes. As the doors closed and the train pulled away from the platform, the man next to her closed his eyes and rested against her, breathing a quiet sigh of relief.

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