The Dressmaker's Gift

When she set her empty cup back on its saucer, he reached across and put his hand over hers. To the casual observer, it would simply look like a gesture of romantic intimacy. ‘Thank you for helping, Mireille,’ he said. ‘I wonder, might you be interested in helping us a bit more? Although I must warn you, the dangers are very real and very serious.’

She smiled at him and withdrew her hand from his, the picture of bashful propriety. ‘I wish to do all that I can to help, m’sieur.’

‘Then there may well be a further role for you. Our mutual friend, the dyer, will let you know. Thank you for coming today, Mireille. Take care.’

She stood, pushing back her chair, gathering up her coat and bag. ‘You too, Monsieur Leroux.’

As she left the café, she glanced back to where the man with the sandy hair and the paisley print tie was paying the waiter.

He stood and shrugged on his overcoat. And she could just make out the corner of a folded newspaper, barely visible, where it protruded from the pocket.

Outside the tall windows of the sewing room, the December sky had taken on the same dull gunmetal-grey colour as the uniforms of the Nazi occupiers, as if it, too, had surrendered all hope and capitulated with the new order. The glare of the lightbulbs overhead seemed to Claire as bright as the searchlights sweeping the darkness for Allied aircraft, whose beams could be seen in the distance if one peeped out from behind the blackout which covered the attic windows at night. She held the bodice of the scarlet crêpe de Chine evening gown that she was working on a little closer to her face as the stitches blurred and swam, her eyes having been strained in focused concentration for hours on end. It was draughty in her seat by the window, but she wouldn’t have exchanged it with any of the other seamstresses for a chair closer to the cast-iron radiators on the far wall. She needed the light to work by. And those radiators didn’t give out that much heat anyway nowadays, since coal for the furnace in the basement was so strictly rationed. It would often go out and not be relit for days on end, although there was always enough coal to keep the fireplace in the salon blazing so that clients would be warm enough when they came in for fittings.

Claire and the other seamstresses were all thinner now, surviving on the measly rations that they had to queue for at the weekends. But, glancing around the table, she realised that it only showed in their faces where the lights cast dark shadows beneath sunken cheekbones and eyes. Their bodies looked bloated, well-padded under their white coats, and on some of the girls the buttons strained and gaped. In reality, this illusion was down to the layers of clothes that they wore to try to keep out the cold while they sat at work in the atelier.

Delavigne Couture was busier than ever and the run-up to Christmas was proving, if anything, even more hectic than in the years before the war. Paris had become an oasis of luxurious escapism in war-torn Europe, and the Germans flocked in to spend their pay on black market food, wine and designer gowns for their wives and mistresses. And their money went a long way now that the exchange rate had soared to almost twenty francs to the Reichsmark.

Even the German women who had been assigned to Paris to help run the new administration could afford to have couture creations made for themselves. The saleswomen in the salon scathingly referred to them as ‘grey mice’ behind their backs, because they looked so frumpy and dowdy in their uniforms when they came in for their fittings.

Mademoiselle Vannier left the room for a few minutes to go and fetch another bolt of the thin, unbleached muslin that was used to make the mock-ups of the more complex garments. Once they’d been cut out and tacked together, these toiles were then taken apart again and used as templates to make sure the more expensive fabrics used for the finished garments were cut accurately and with minimal wastage.

Taking advantage of Mademoiselle Vannier’s absence, Claire joined in the chatter and gossip with the other seamstresses around the table: one of the models from the salon was rumoured to have taken up with a German soldier and opinion amongst the girls was divided. Some were shocked and disgusted, but others asked what a girl was supposed to do? With so few Frenchmen left now that any able-bodied males of working age who had survived thus far were being sent to work in the factories and camps in Germany, young French women were faced with the choice of becoming old maids or being spoiled and pampered by a rich German lover.

From beneath her lashes, Claire glanced at Mireille in the seat next to her. She seemed so distant these days. Mireille didn’t join in the chatter any more, remaining studiously focused on her work. She was always preoccupied now, a far cry from the vivacious, fun-loving friend she had been before the Occupation, and she seemed lost in her thoughts most of the time. She kept to herself more, too, in the evenings and at weekends, often disappearing without inviting Claire to come along. And there was no point asking questions, Claire had learnt, as Mireille simply smiled her sad-eyed smile and shook her head, refusing to answer. Maybe she really was playing at her ‘Resistance’ games, as she’d threatened to do when she first came back to Paris, but Claire couldn’t see what earthly good any of that sort of thing might do. However, if Mireille wanted to be all cloak-and-dagger and keep her own company then so be it.

But Claire did miss the friendship they’d once shared. There were only two other girls sleeping in the rooms above the shop at the moment and they were in the other team of seamstresses, so they tended to exclude Claire from their weekend outings, probably assuming that she’d be spending time with Mireille.

Claire cut a thread and smoothed out the scarlet fabric, relishing the vicarious sense of luxury. Her fingers, roughened with cold and work, caught slightly on the crêpe.

Rubbing her thumb against the chapped skin of her fingertips, the sensation transported Claire back to the years spent growing up in Port Meilhon. After her mother had died of pneumonia, brought on by the damp and chill and exhaustion, leaving her only daughter a silver thimble and a pincushion stuffed with coffee grounds, Claire had been responsible for darning socks and mending the clothes of her father and four older brothers. The pins and needles would quickly grow rusty in the sea air and she had to pause frequently to rub them down with emery paper to stop them becoming blunt and staining the fabric of her father’s and brothers’ shirts with little brown marks like dried-on droplets of blood. As she’d sat at her sewing beside the range in the kitchen of the cottage that had been her home, her chapped fingers cracking open in places with painful fissures, a quiet determination had grown within her: her mother’s legacy of needles and pins would become her passport out of there. It was all she had. She would use it to change her path, refusing to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Instead of her grief at losing her mother lessening over time, the thought of the grave in the churchyard up on the hill had become more than Claire could bear. She preferred to think instead about the possibility of a life elsewhere filled with elegance and sophistication. And so she had concentrated on making her stitches smaller and neater, sewing quickly but fastidiously.

Her longing for pretty things was a form of escapism from Claire’s rough and ready upbringing in a cottage full of men who spent their days wrestling creels from the grip of the cold Atlantic waters. When her father and brothers were off in the boats, she offered to take in mending for her village neighbours, charging them a few sous a time, saving the coins in an old sock stuffed into the bottom of her mending basket. Slowly, the sock became heavier, the toe weighted down as the coins accumulated. And then one day she counted her money and discovered that she had enough for the train fare to Paris.

Her father had scarcely reacted when she told him she was leaving. She suspected it would be more of a relief to him than anything else – one less mouth to feed. And Claire sensed, too, that increasingly she reminded him of his dead wife, her mother, a reminder which probably stabbed his heart with guilt each time he looked at her. He must know that this was no place for her to live so, she said to herself, he couldn’t blame her for wanting to leave. He’d driven her to the station at Quimper and given her a gruff pat on the shoulder as the train pulled in, picking up her bag and handing it up to her once she’d climbed the steps into the carriage, which was about as much of a blessing as she could have expected.

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