John turned to look back; he was puzzled. Grandad wasn’t by his side but had stopped and was standing, staring intently down an extremely narrow alleyway between two ancient buildings.
Earlier that year, during Spring break, he had suggested that Grandad join him for a trip to France in the summer. Fiercely independent still at 89, he lived alone in his little cottage. John had loved to visit him when he was younger and they would go off on walks and day trips into the countryside together. They shared many interests but John had never known him to speak of the war. If he had ever tried to talk to him about it, Grandad would firmly steer the conversation onto something quite mundane.
John missed the casual intimacy they had once shared. Seeing Grandad only occasionally now, he would notice how he had aged since the last time they were together. He had lost weight and his once fast, erect stride has slowed markedly. John began to worry how much time they had left together. With Grandma’s death a few years earlier, Grandad seemed more withdrawn but always bucked up when in John’s company.
They planned their trip. Their route would meander down through France until deep in Burgundy. They planned to shun the AutoRoutes and big cities and instead travel the old Routes Nationale and smaller roads; they would be in no hurry. John made a point of asking Grandad if he wished to include a visit to one or more of the war grave sites.
“Whatever for?” was the only response he got.
So, in mid-July, they set off in John’s old car. The trip went well, the roads were quiet and the small gîtes John had booked all transpired to be welcoming and comfortable. When not travelling, they would visit old villages where John had been careful to match their stay with the local markets. They would wander the stalls and the vast array of goods and produce for sale. Grandad couldn’t walk far so they would sit outside little cafes and bars and enjoy coffees or a glass of the local wine in the sunshine.
Their evenings would be spent either taking dinner with the owner of their gîte or perhaps a local bar or restaurant. Grandad spoke fluent French (far better than John’s basic phrases) and would often engage a group of elderly locals in long conversations. John would smile and nod along, simply pleased that Grandad was enjoying himself so much. When they were on their own, Grandad increasingly spoke of his younger days before the war, his time up at Cambridge and then, his long years in the Foreign Office and the travel that brought.
The day came for them to start their long journey back. Over breakfast that morning Grandad said there was one last place he wished to make a quick visit to, was that alright? He mentioned a place name that john didn’t catch.
“Don’t worry,” said Grandad, “I know the way from here.”
John was a little mystified as, over the week they had been away, he had never mentioned having been in France before, let alone this little backwater in Burgundy. Soon they were parked in the square of one of those typically French bastides, perched on a hilltop with commanding views over the valley on all sides.
“Why don’t you go and have a coffee, or something,” suggested Grandad, “I’m just going to have a wander around.”
And, without further ado, off he went towards the other side of the square.
Having never shown the slightest need to be on his own during the entire trip before made John both curious and a trifle concerned. Grandad was almost ninety and not as sure on his feet as a younger man. Luckily there was a small bar with tables outside on the square where John quickly sat down and watched.
Just as the proprietor came out to take his order, John saw Grandad at the mouth of the alleyway opposite, head in hands, shaking violently.
“Un instant!” exclaimed John to the man as he quickly took to his feet and sprinted across the square. Placing his arm firmly around his shoulders, John steered Grandad back to the table, seated him and ordered a pastis, which he knew he liked. Pulling his chair alongside the old man, John replaced his arms around his shoulders and gave him a hug.
“It’s OK, take your time, there’s no rush.”
Slowly, John felt Grandad’s shaking begin to subside and helped him to sip a little of the pastis. A few moments later, John felt the old chap square his shoulders and saw him gazing intently into his eyes.
“I owe you an explanation.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I need to,” managed Grandad, his eyes filling with tears once more “you see there was a woman in my life before your Grandmother. Her name was Yvette, and I’ve never spoken of her to anyone before.”
Slowly, haltingly, over the next hour or so the story emerged. Grandad, had spent a great deal of time in France before the war and became fluent in French. This had helped him to join the Foreign Office after he left Cambridge with a first in Modern Languages. Soon after the outbreak of war he was transferred to The Special Operations Executive and in 1942, aged just 25, was parachuted in France.
In Dijon, he had made contact with members of the French Resistance and helped them both in acts of sabotage and by passing them information gleaned from the news and messages he received. He had hidden the wireless in the farm where he masqueraded as a Frenchman who was not fit for hard labour in the Service du Travail Obligatoire.
With an increasing number of French men called into STO service in 1942, more and more women were being drawn into the resistance. Grandad found himself increasingly liaising with a young woman, Yvette Delbo. John learnt that Yvette, aged just twenty was a tall, dark haired beauty. With their work pushing them into many hours of close and intense work, it was, perhaps inevitable that they had fallen into a passionate relationship.
John, could see that Grandad was now pausing to take deep breaths in an effort to maintain his fragile composure.
“We knew we shouldn’t try to make plans,” the old man went on “but we couldn’t help ourselves…we were in love and despite the horrors and uncertainties of war, we wanted something to hold onto. And that something was a vision of a life together. This little village was the last place I saw ever saw Yvette.”
Fighting back the tears, Grandad explained that they were due to meet in the square that day, hidden in plain sight on market day, while he passed news to her. The sun shining and eager to see her, he had decided to walk the length of the alley and down towards the fields to meet her. Entering the square he had been concerned to note a German truck parked near the alley entrance. Perhaps they were here to acquire fresh produce, he thought.
Suddenly, two armed soldiers burst out of the alley and stood guard either side of the rear of the truck. He then saw Yvette, head held high, hands cuffed, marched out of the alley and brusquely thrown into the truck.
“She saw me,” cried Grandad “but showed no sign of recognition, just gave a frown as if to say ‘Don’t try anything’. Following close behind were six more armed soldiers. I knew there was nothing I could do. She was so brave”
His shoulders heaving, he went on “Some time later I learnt she had been taken to Dachau and shot!”
“She was everything to me,” he sobbed “she was my future. How could I explain to anyone?”
“I narrowly escaped death myself on several occasions after that,” he continued “I lived but Yvette didn’t!
There was nothing John could say.
“I loved your Grandmother; we shared a life together, we were happy. But we could never share the life Yvette and I had planned together. Our life ended in that alley, that day in 1942.”