The Dressmaker's Gift

I nurse my drink, musing on his words. I hear in them the echo of Mireille’s declaration of resistance and her assertion that it’s up to the ordinary people to decide how life will be lived.

‘Even coming to a bar on a Friday night to listen to some music takes on a new significance for us these days.’ He smiles, and the sadness in his dark eyes is replaced by a flicker of rebellion. ‘We’re not just here to enjoy ourselves. We’re here to make sure that the freedom to live our lives cannot be taken away from us. We’re here for every one of those people who was killed that night.’

Thierry wants to hear what I think as he asks me about the impact the attacks had across the Channel in Britain, and how we have coped with terrorist atrocities on our own soil.

‘My father was already worried about me coming to Paris,’ I admit. ‘Not that London is without its dangers.’ After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Dad had tried hard to talk me out of taking the job, right up until the last minute. At the time, I’d resented his interference and put it down as another example of the distance between us – couldn’t he see how important this opportunity was to me? Didn’t he understand how strong the longing to leave was within me? But now I realise how anxious he must have been. From this perspective, I can see that the fact that he didn’t want me to go was perhaps more to do with love than with a lack of understanding. For a moment, I miss him. I make a mental note to try to call him again tomorrow, although he’ll probably be too busy to talk, as usual, out shopping with my stepmother or driving the girls to their weekend dance classes and sleepovers.

Thierry and I talk on, late into the evening, long after the musicians have finished their set and joined us at the table, and by the end of it I feel a closeness to Simone and her friends that is a new sensation for me. Slowly I find myself dropping my guard, my usual reticence thawing, as – tentatively – I begin to allow my thoughts and feelings to show themselves.

It seems that, in a new language and in a city where I am naturally an outsider, I find it easier to be myself. Perhaps, here in Paris, I can begin to become the person I want to be, enjoying the liberation that a new start brings.

Then another thought occurs to me: perhaps that is exactly what Claire felt too, all those years ago.





1940

The atelier closed early on Christmas Eve once the final few clients had been received in the salon, coming to collect last-minute commissions which were needed for the soirées and events of the festive season.

Mademoiselle Vannier even managed a tight-lipped smile as she handed out the wage packets to the seamstresses. ‘Monsieur Delavigne has asked me to tell you that he is pleased with your work. It has been one of our most successful seasons yet, so he has, most generously, asked me to give each of you a small additional consideration in recognition of your efforts and your loyalty.’

The girls exchanged sidelong glances. It was common knowledge that one of the vendeuses had left the salon only a week ago, taking with her her team of assistants and her little black book with the measurements and contact details of all of her clients. Rumour had it that she had been poached by one of the other couture houses, and one of the seamstresses had even dared to murmur that a certain ‘Coco’, who had cultivated particular links with the German occupiers, was known to be on the lookout for staff now that her business was doing so especially well.

The seamstresses chattered excitedly as they hung up their white coats and pulled on scarves and gloves. Claire glanced at them enviously as she thrust her pay packet into the pocket of her skirt; most of them had homes to go to and families to share tonight’s Réveillon de No?l dinner with, no matter how frugal a feast it might prove to be this year, staying up to see in Christmas Day together. She, on the other hand, had only her three companions in the upstairs apartment and an unappetising menu of vegetable soup – which tasted mostly of turnips – and some dry bread to look forward to.

In her chilly room upstairs, she took the money from her pay packet, carefully counting out what she would need for the coming week and stowing the rest away safely in the tin that she kept under her mattress. The pile of banknotes – her life savings and her passport to the life she longed for – was growing slowly but steadily.

Then, from the drawer next to her bed, she took a small package wrapped in brown paper, and went down the corridor to tap on the door of Mireille’s bedroom. There was no answer, though, and when she knocked again a little harder the door swung open to reveal only the neatly made bed where Mireille’s sewing things lay in a small pile, hastily discarded.

Claire glanced around. Mireille’s outdoor coat, which usually hung on the back of the door, was missing. She must have gone straight out again to meet whoever it was she usually met and to do whatever it was she usually did. Even on Christmas Eve. So it was clearly far more important to her than spending time with her friends. Claire sighed and hesitated, then placed the brown paper package on Mireille’s pillow and turned to go, carefully pulling the door closed behind her.

Her two other flatmates arrived then, laughing and gossiping. When they caught sight of Claire they stopped. ‘Why so despondent? Has Mireille deserted you? Don’t tell us you’re all alone for le Réveillon?’ They glanced at one another and nodded. ‘Come on, Claire, we can’t leave you here. Join us! We’re going out to find some fun. Put your dancing shoes on and come along! You’ll never meet anyone, sitting mouldering up here in the attic.’

And so it was that Claire, after just a moment’s hesitation, pulled the tin out from beneath her mattress again, prised open the lid, drew out some of her carefully saved wages and found herself being swept along the pavement of the Rue de Rivoli in a tide of merrymakers, who scarcely noticed the red, white and black flags that stirred against the starlit sky in the bitter wind that blustered and eddied down the broad boulevard.



Mireille hurried through the narrow streets of the Marais and paused in front of a shop window, as she’d been trained to do, making sure no one was following her. The white sign attached to the door stood out starkly against the lowered blackout blinds: Under New Management, it declared, By Order Of The Administration. These notices were appearing more and more frequently in shop doors and windows, especially in this quartier of the city. They were businesses which had formerly been owned by Jewish shopkeepers. But now their owners had gone – whole families turned out from their homes and sent to deportation camps elsewhere in the city’s suburbs before being transported onwards to God-only-knew-where. The businesses had been appropriated by the authorities and ‘reallocated’, usually to collaborators or to those who had earned the approval of the administration by denouncing their neighbours, or betraying their former employers who used to be the owners of shops like this one.

Ducking her head to lean into the northerly wind, Mireille turned down a small side street and tapped on the door of the safe house. Three quick, quiet taps. Then a pause and two more. The door opened a few inches and she slipped inside.

Monsieur and Madame Arnaud – she had no idea whether that was their real name – had been some of the original members of the network that she’d been put in touch with by the dyer, and this wasn’t the first time she’d been sent to their house to drop off or pick up a ‘friend’ who needed a safe place for a night or two, or to be accompanied across the city and delivered safely into the hands of the next passeur in the network. She was aware that there were other groups operating in the city, helping those in need to pass beneath the noses of the occupying army and be spirited away to safety. Once, in a last-minute change of plans, she’d been asked to accompany a young man to catch a train from the Gare Saint-Lazare, so she knew some people must be getting out via Brittany. But more often her rendezvous point would be at Issy or Billancourt, or out towards Versailles, and the distinctive twang of a south-west accent on the lips of the next link in the chain would reassure her that her latest ‘friend’ was being passed into good hands in order to make the long and arduous journey to freedom across the Pyrenees. She often wondered whether their route would take them anywhere near her home.

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