The Dressmaker's Gift

As I read back over the first few pages, I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed that it was Mireille who wanted to join the Resistance and not Claire, who quite frankly seems to have been a bit of a wimp in comparison. But she was young, I remind myself, and hadn’t experienced the horrors of the war in the way that Mireille had.

The background sounds of the traffic a couple of streets away on the Boulevard Saint-Germain are interrupted by the urgent wail of police sirens. Their sudden noise makes my heartbeat race. As I listen to them fade, the city lights cast a dull orange glow through my attic window and I reach out a hand to steady myself, touching the bars of the bedstead behind my head. The metal feels cool, despite the mugginess of the city night. The mattress on my bed is clearly a recent addition and is comfortable enough, but could this be one of the original bed frames that was in the apartment all those years ago? Did Claire sleep here? Or Esther and her baby, Blanche?

I roll on to my side, willing sleep to come. In the dim light, the photograph on the chest of drawers gleams faintly in its frame. I can just make out the three figures, although I can’t see their faces in the darkness.

I recall Simone’s words of warning from earlier, that I should only ask questions if I am absolutely certain that I want to know the answers. Which is worse, I wonder: knowing the horrors of war like Mireille, or choosing to remain as unaware as possible like Claire?

Simone must have realised I’d feel a bit let down by my grandmother’s passivity and her reluctance to join the struggle against the Occupation. Maybe that was why she didn’t want to tell me the story. But how could any of us nowadays know what it feels like to have your country invaded? What it feels like to live with deprivation and fear, in the grip of foreign control, with the ever-present threat of casual acts of brutality? How could any of us know how we’d respond?

I fall asleep at last. And I dream of rows of girls in white coats, their heads bowed over their work as they stitch together an endless river of blood-red silk.





1940

Mireille shivered as she waited outside the tobacconist on the Rue Buffon, pretending to wait for a bus. It was bitterly cold and her feet were frozen. She knew that later on, when she washed them in a bowl of warmed water back at the apartment, her toes would itch and burn as the chilblains that pierced them thawed out.

To take her mind off the cold, she ran through her instructions in her head once again, making sure she’d got them straight. Wait here until a man in a grey homburg with a green band goes into the shop. He will come out carrying a copy of Le Temps. Go into the shop and buy a copy of the newspaper, asking the tobacconist whether he has any of yesterday’s edition left over. He will hand you a folded copy from under the counter. Keep it safe in your bag. Walk to the Métro at the Gare d’Austerlitz and catch a train back to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Sitting at a table in the back corner of the Café de Flore, you will see a man with sandy-coloured hair wearing a silk tie with a paisley pattern. Join him as if greeting a friend, and he will order you a coffee. Put the folded copy of the newspaper on the table while you drink your coffee. When you leave, do not pick it up.

This was not the first time she’d passed messages on for the network. Shortly after she’d returned to Paris, when she was dropping off some silk at the dyer’s to be matched as a lining for an evening dress, she’d spoken to a contact there whom she’d guessed might be involved in Resistance activities. Through him, she’d been introduced to a member of the network and had soon been given assignments like this one. She was aware that they were testing her at first, making sure she was who she said she was and that she was a reliable courier. She wasn’t even certain whether the messages she’d been passing on had been real so far. But today’s assignment was a little different from the usual, and she guessed that the proximity of the pick-up point to the Gare d’Austerlitz, which was one of the arrival points in Paris for trains from the east and the south as well as a point of departure for transports to the work camps, held an important significance. So she tried to ignore the cold, which seeped through the soles of her shoes, worn thin by the miles she’d walked in them, and pretended to study a bus timetable as, out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the customer in the homburg hat entering the tabac.



A cloud of warmth, noise and cigarette smoke engulfed Mireille as she pushed open the door and stepped across the threshold of the Café de Flore. She picked her way around the pillars, making for the back corner of the room by the wood-panelled bar, as directed. At a banquette near the door, a group of soldiers in Nazi uniform laughed uproariously and one clicked his fingers in the air, summoning the waiter and ordering another bottle of wine. As Mireille passed, one of the soldiers leapt to his feet, blocking her passage. Her heart thumped against her ribs at the thought that he might demand to see what she was carrying in her bag and discover whatever message was concealed within the pages of the newspaper. But instead he made an elaborate bow and pretended to offer her his seat, to the raucous cheers of his comrades.

Suppressing her first instinct to spit in his face, and her second instinct to turn and run, Mireille managed to summon a polite smile and, with a diplomatic shake of her head, she stepped past the soldier and headed for the table in the back corner where a sandy-haired man wearing a paisley-patterned silk tie sat sipping a café-crème, reading his own copy of Le Temps.

The man set down his paper and rose to his feet as she approached, and they embraced as if they knew each other well. For a second, she breathed in the expensive scent of his cologne – a subtle blend of cedarwood and limes – and then she settled herself on the banquette opposite him.

A waiter appeared and the man ordered her a coffee while she casually pulled the folded newspaper out of her bag and laid it on top of the one on the table. The man ignored it completely, pushing both papers to one side so that he could lean towards her as a lover would do.

‘I’m Monsieur Leroux,’ he said. ‘And you, I think, must be Mireille? It’s a pleasure to meet a new friend of our cause.’

She nodded, feeling awkward and self-conscious, unsure what to say to this man about whom she knew absolutely nothing, even though he clearly knew a bit about her.

She had fulfilled her task and now she wanted nothing more than to push her way out of the café and hurry back to the peace and safety of her attic room. But she forced herself to stay seated and to smile and nod, playing out the charade.

There was a momentary silence between them as the waiter appeared and set a cup of coffee down in front of Mireille, slipping a scribbled note of the price under the ashtray in the centre of the table. Monsieur Leroux used the opportunity of the arrival of the coffee to move the two newspapers, tucking them casually into the pocket of his overcoat which was draped over the back of his chair.

He watched her as she picked up the thick china cup and blew cautiously on the contents to cool them down enough to take a sip. The coffee wasn’t too bad – a little watery but not overly tainted with the bitterness of chicory.

‘So, you are one of Delavigne’s seamstresses? How is the world of couture faring these days? I hear special licences have been granted to all the major fashion houses to enable them to continue trading. It appears our German friends like to dress their wives and mistresses in the best French finery.’

He spoke evenly, his tone pleasantly conversational, but she detected the undercurrent of scorn for the occupying enemy in his words.

‘We’re busier than ever,’ she agreed. ‘Even with two teams back up to full strength, we can scarcely keep up with the demand. Every well-dressed woman in Paris still wants her new suit and her evening dress for the season. And it’s true, even though the government rations the food we eat and the fuel to heat our homes, it has ensured that buttons and braid are not rationed. It can be hard to get enough material sometimes though, and the prices are extortionate, naturally.’

Monsieur Leroux nodded. ‘What a bizarre playground for the Germans Paris has become. While her citizens starve and freeze, her newest inhabitants parade around in world-class designs in the finest of fabrics, drinking vintage wines and entertaining themselves at the Moulin Rouge.’

Again, Mireille was struck by his facade of equanimity as he spoke; only the bitterness of his words belied the air of pleasant social conversation with which they were delivered.

As she sipped her cooling coffee, Monsieur Leroux asked her a series of questions about the atelier. What did her work involve? How many seamstresses were there? And how many lived above the shop?

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