The Dressmaker's Gift

Simone nods, but then shakes her head. ‘Or maybe it’s no coincidence at all. I’m here because my grandmother inspired me with the stories of her life in Paris during the war, and it’s because of her links with the world of couture that I’m working here at Agence Guillemet. It seems you and I have both been led here by a shared history.’

I nod slowly, pondering this, then pick up the framed picture, bringing it closer to examine Mireille’s face in detail. With her laughing eyes and the tendrils of hair that refuse to be tamed by the band which draws them back from her forehead, I imagine that I can make out a resemblance between her and Simone.

I point at the third figure, the young woman in the centre of the group. ‘I wonder who she was? Her name is written on the back of the picture: Vivienne.’

Simone’s expression grows serious suddenly and I glimpse something I can’t quite identify, a flicker of sadness, or fear, or pain perhaps? A wariness in her eyes. But then she recomposes her features and says, with careful insouciance, ‘I believe their friend, Vivienne, lived and worked with them here too. Isn’t it astounding to imagine the three of them working right here for Delavigne?’

Am I imagining it, or is she trying to divert the subject away from Vivienne?

Simone continues, ‘My mamie Mireille told me that they slept in these little rooms, above the atelier, during the war years.’

For a moment, I seem to hear the sound of laughter echoing from the walls of the cramped apartment as I imagine Claire, Mireille and Vivienne here.

‘Can you tell me more about your grandmother’s time here in the 1940s?’ I ask eagerly. ‘It may hold clues to some of the questions I have about my own family history.’

Simone glances at the photograph, her expression thoughtful. Then she raises her eyes to meet mine and she says, ‘I can tell you what I know of Mireille’s story. And it is inextricably linked with the stories of Claire and Vivienne. But Harriet, perhaps you should only ask those questions if you are absolutely certain that you want to know the answers.’

I meet her gaze steadily. Should I deny myself this opportunity of finding out about the only family to which I have any feeling of connection? At the thought, a flash of disappointment passes through me, so strong it makes my breath catch in my chest.

I think of the fragile thread, weaving its way back through the years, binding me to my mother, Felicity, and binding her to her own mother, Claire.

And then I nod my head. Whatever the story – whoever I really am – I need to know.


Paris was a very different city.

Of course, some things looked the same: the exclamation mark of the Eiffel Tower still punctuated the skyline; Sacré-Coeur still sat on top of its hill at Montmartre watching over the city’s inhabitants as they went about their business; and the silver ribbon of the Seine continued to wind its way past palaces, churches and public gardens, looping around the buttressed flanks of Notre-Dame on the ?le de la Cité and churning beneath the bridges that linked the river’s right and left banks.

But something had changed. Not just the obvious signs, such as the groups of German soldiers who marched along the boulevard, and the flags that unfurled themselves in the wind from the facades of buildings with languorous menace – as she walked beneath them, the whisper of the fabric emblazoned with stark black and white swastikas on a blood-red background seemed to Mireille as loud as any bombardment. No, she could sense something else that was different, something less tangible, as she made her way from the Gare Montparnasse back to Saint-Germain. It was there in the look of defeat in the downcast eyes of the people who hurried past; she heard it in the harsh monotone of German voices from the tables outside the cafes and bars, and it was driven home by the sight of military vehicles bearing more Nazi insignia – those grim emblems which seemed to be everywhere now – as they sped past her through the streets.

The message was clear. Her country’s capital no longer belonged to France. It had been abandoned by its government, handed over by the country’s politicians like a bartered bride in a hastily arranged marriage.

And although many of those, like Mireille, who had fled in the face of the German advance a few months earlier were now returning, they were coming home to a city transformed. Like its citizens, the city seemed to be hanging its head in shame at the brutal reminders that were everywhere: Paris was in German hands now.

As the afternoon light began to stretch the shadows cast by the window frames across the broad expanse of the cutting table, Claire hunched a little closer to the skirt upon which she was stitching a decorative braid. Finishing it off with a few quick over-stitches, she used the scissors which hung from a ribbon around her neck to snip the thread. Unable to help herself, she yawned and then stretched, rubbing the ache of a day’s work from the back of her neck.

It was so boring in the atelier these days, with many of the girls gone and no one to gossip and laugh with at break times. The supervisor, Mademoiselle Vannier, was in an even worse mood than usual as the work mounted up, cajoling the seamstresses to sew faster but then pouncing on the slightest slip in quality which, in Claire’s eyes, was usually imagined.

She hoped some of the other girls would return soon, now that the new administration was organising special trains to bring workers back to their jobs in Paris, and then it wouldn’t be so lonely at night in the bedrooms under the eaves. The sounds of the city beyond the windows seemed to Claire to be muted nowadays, and an eerie silence fell as soon as the ten o’clock curfew arrived. But in the quiet darkness the building creaked and muttered to itself and sometimes Claire fancied she heard footsteps in the night, so pulled the blankets over her head as she imagined German soldiers breaking in and searching for more people to arrest.

She might have been one of the youngest of the seamstresses but Claire hadn’t fled, as so many others had done, that day in June when France fell to the Nazis. It was simply not an option to run back home to Brittany with her tail between her legs, when she’d only recently managed to escape the little fishing village of Port Meilhon, where nobody had the slightest sense of style and where the only men left were either ancient or stank of sardines, or both. With the recklessness of youth, she’d decided to take her chances and stay in Paris. And it had turned out to have been a good choice, since the government had surrendered so that the Germans would allow the city to remain intact. The departure of several of her more senior colleagues meant that she had been allowed to work on some of the more interesting orders to be sent up from the salon on the ground floor. At this rate, perhaps she’d catch Monsieur Delavigne’s attention and fulfil her dream of becoming an assistant in the salon and then a vendeuse before she had to serve too many more years of drudgery in the sewing room.

She could picture herself dressed in an immaculately tailored suit, her hair swept into an elegant chignon, advising Delavigne’s top clients on the latest fashions. She would have her own desk with a little gilt chair, and a team of assistants who would call her Mademoiselle Meynardier and jump to her every command.

The supervisor flicked on the electric lights, illuminating the room where several of the girls were starting to put away their things for the day, stowing their scissors and pincushions and thimbles in their bags and hanging up their white coats on the row of pegs beside the door. Unlike Claire, most of them had homes in the city to go to and they were in a hurry to get back to their families and their evening meals.

Mademoiselle Vannier paused as she passed behind Claire’s chair, reaching out a hand for the skirt. She held it up to the harsh glare of the bare bulbs overhead so that she could inspect the garment closely. Her lips, which were already pleated with deep lines – the inevitable consequence of her age and her twenty-a-day cigarette habit – concertinaed into even deeper creases as she pursed her mouth in concentration. Finally, she gave an abrupt nod and handed the skirt back to Claire. ‘Press it and hang it up, then you may pack up your things too.’

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