The Dressmaker's Gift

Mademoiselle Vannier had always made it clear that those who enjoyed the privilege of being accommodated in the apartment upstairs at the couture house were at her beck and call until she decided that their work was over for the day, even if sometimes that meant working late into the evenings on important commissions. Claire was annoyed at being made, as usual, to stay later than the other seamstresses and, in the haste born of her irritation, she caught the soft skin on the inside of her wrist against the edge of the hot iron. She bit her lip to stop herself from crying out at the searing pain of the burn. Any fuss would only attract the attention of Mademoiselle Vannier again and then her departure would be delayed by yet another scolding for not taking proper care over her work.

She hung the skirt on the clothes rail for the night, smoothing the softly stippled texture of the tweed over its russet silk lining and admiring the way the contrasting braid flattered the waistline. It was a beautifully classic design, typical of Delavigne’s work, and her own tiny, neat stitches were as good as invisible, befitting the elegance of the garment. The matching jacket was being finished off by the tailor and the new suit would soon be ready for delivery to its owner.

The sound of footsteps on the stairs and the door opening made Claire turn to see who it was, thinking it must be one of the other dressmakers who had forgotten something and come back to fetch it.

But the figure standing in the doorway wasn’t one of the seamstresses. It was another girl, whose dark curls surrounded a face grown so thin and pale that it took Claire a few moments to recognise who it was.

Mademoiselle Vannier spoke first. ‘Mireille!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ve returned!’ She took a step towards the figure in the doorway, but then stopped and regained her usual formal demeanour. ‘So you decided to come back, did you? Very well, we shall be pleased to have another pair of hands. Your room upstairs is empty. Claire can help you make up your bed. And has Esther also returned with you?’

Mireille shook her head, pressing one hand against the door frame as if she needed the support. And then she spoke, her voice rough with sorrow. ‘Esther is dead.’

She swayed slightly and the harsh light in the sewing room made the dark circles beneath her eyes look like tender bruises.

There was a shocked silence as Claire and the supervisor absorbed Mireille’s words, and then Mademoiselle Vannier pulled herself together again.

‘Alright, Mireille. You are tired after your journey. This is not the time to talk. Go upstairs now with Claire. Get a night’s sleep and tomorrow you can take your place on the team once more.’ Her tone softened slightly as she added, ‘It is good to have you back.’

Only then did Claire, who had been frozen by the unexpected, altered appearance of her friend and by the shocking words she had uttered, move swiftly to Mireille’s side and wrap an arm around her in a brief hug. ‘Come,’ she said, taking the bag from Mireille’s hand. ‘There’s some bread and cheese in the kitchen. You must be hungry.’ With quick, light steps she led the way, and Mireille followed her more slowly up the stairs.

Sensing that Mireille needed a little time to readjust to being back in the apartment, Claire busied herself with making up the bed for her and then setting out a meagre supper for the two of them. Sharing her week’s rations, Claire wondered for a moment how they would eat tomorrow, but she shrugged the thought aside. It was more important that Mireille should eat properly tonight. Perhaps she’d be able to find some vegetables for a soup. And with Mireille here now too, they’d be able to get double the rations, which would help make things go further.

‘A table!’ she called. But when Mireille did not immediately appear, she went to find her.

Mireille had opened the door to the room that Esther had occupied when she’d arrived in Paris as a refugee from Poland, pregnant and desperate to protect her unborn child. A few months later, her baby had been delivered in the tiny attic room, and given the name Blanche. Claire remembered the awe she’d felt on seeing Esther propped against her pillows, holding her newborn daughter in her arms. She would never forget the look of exhausted elation on Esther’s face as she gazed into her baby’s dark blue eyes, the strength of her love seeming to be both instantaneous and visceral.

As Mireille stood in the doorway of Esther’s old room, Claire slipped an arm around her shoulders. ‘What happened to her?’ she asked, quietly.

Staring at the iron bedstead with its mattress stripped bare, Mireille’s face was expressionless as she told Claire in a low voice how they’d got caught up in the flood of refugees fleeing Paris as the German forces broke through the Maginot Line and advanced on the capital. The road south had been choked with the tide of civilians when the lone plane attacked, diving again and again to strafe the crowd with machine-gun fire. ‘Esther had gone to try to find some food for Blanche. When I found her, her face looked so peaceful. But the blood was everywhere, Claire. Everywhere.’

The expression of wide-eyed horror on Claire’s face crumpled as her tears began to flow. ‘And Blanche?’ she whispered. ‘Did she die too?’

Mireille shook her head. And then she turned to look at Claire, meeting her eyes at last, with a flash of defiance. ‘No. They didn’t get Blanche. She is safe with my family in the Sud-Ouest. My mother and sister are caring for her there. But, for her own safety, her origins must remain a secret as long as the Nazis continue their barbaric persecution of the Jewish people. Do you understand, Claire? If anyone asks, just say that Esther and Blanche are both dead.’

Claire nodded as she tried, ineffectually, to stem the flow of her tears with her sleeve.

Mireille reached out and grasped Claire by the shoulders with a fierceness in her grip that commanded attention. ‘Save your tears, Claire. There will be a time for grieving when all this is over, but now is not that time. Now we must do all that we can to fight back, to resist this living nightmare.’

‘But how, Mireille? The Germans are everywhere. There’s nothing to be done when our own government has given up on France.’

‘There’s always something to be done, no matter how small and insignificant our efforts may seem. We have to resist.’ She repeated the word again, with an emphasis that made Claire’s eyes widen in fear.

‘Do you mean . . .? Would you get involved . . .?’

Mireille’s dark curls danced with something of their old determination and there was defiance written across her features as she nodded. Then she asked, ‘And you, Claire? What will you do?’

Claire shook her head. ‘I’m not sure . . . I don’t know, Mireille. Surely there’s nothing ordinary people like you and I can do.’

‘But if the “ordinary people” do nothing then who is going to step forward and take a stand against the Nazis? Not the politicians in Vichy who are puppets of the new regime; and not the French army whose battalions lie rotting in shallow graves along the Eastern Front. We are all that is left, Claire. Ordinary people like you and me.’

After a pause, Claire replied. ‘But aren’t you afraid, Mireille? To get involved in such a dangerous way . . . and right under the nose of the German army? Paris is theirs now. They are everywhere.’

‘I was afraid, once. But I have seen what they did to Esther, and to so many others who were on the road that day. More “ordinary people”. And now I am angry. And anger is stronger than fear.’

Claire shrugged, causing Mireille to relinquish her grip on her shoulders. ‘It’s too late, Mireille. We have to accept that things have changed. France is not the only country to have fallen to the Germans. Let the Allies do the fighting. It’s enough of a battle to stay alive these days without going looking for trouble elsewhere.’

Stepping backwards into the narrow hallway, Mireille reached for the handle of the door to Esther’s room and pulled it firmly shut.

Claire tugged nervously at the hem of her shirt, uncertain what to say next. ‘There’s a bit of supper . . .’ she began.

‘That’s alright,’ Mireille replied, with a smile that couldn’t erase the sadness in her eyes. ‘I’m not hungry tonight. I think I’ll just unpack my things and get some sleep.’

She turned towards her own bedroom, but then paused, without looking back. Her voice was calm and low as she said, ‘But you’re wrong, Claire. It is never too late.’


As I lie in the unfamiliar darkness of my new bedroom, listening to the sounds of Paris by night wafting up from the streets down below, I mull over what Simone has told me of my grandmother’s story so far. It seems important to capture her words, so I’ve begun to write them down in the journal that I’ve brought with me. I’d intended to use it to record my year working in Paris, but Claire and Mireille’s story seems so connected to me, such a vital part of who I am, that I want to remember every detail.

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