Montoire, France. August 25th, 1939
Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp never expected to live in a tiny French village. After all, an orphan from Oxfordshire, who spent most of her childhood and adolescence travelling around the world with her extravagant uncle, finding herself in a place where everyone knew one another and the highlight of the day was going to the bakery wasn’t the idea she had about her future.
Nevertheless, after living in Montoire for the last five years, she called it home. Even if the feeling of it was missing, deep down. It had been the place she spent the longest time in so far. The place where she had friends and a job.
Habits. A husband.
Claire met Jacques six years ago in Paris. She was following along with Uncle Lamb who had been giving lectures about the Middle East at La Sorbonne and Jacques had been one of the students. It all happened very quickly. One morning, they were sharing cigarettes at Café de Flore and the next day, Claire was getting married and moving to Montoire.
While Jacques was a teacher at the local school, she took up the job as the librarian. The first few months had been dreadful. No one seemed to like to read in that goddamn village and the place was a mess. She spent most of her time rearranging books, throwing out old ones and ordering new ones. Slowly, the library became a place where the children came in to spend Saturday mornings, noses buried in books.
That summer had been particularly warm. The air was so thick, it was almost unbearable to sleep at night. There was something going around that worried people. Talk of conflicts with the germans. The elderly were scared another war would break in and chaos would ensue. Claire tried to ignore it, along with all the rumours. One world war had been enough — she hoped, more than she thought. She refused to think about what might happen if, indeed, another one would suddenly erupt.
She had not known the first one but the stories she heard and read in books had been enough to realise what sort of atrocities were bound to happen. So whenever her mind drifted towards a what if, she quickly brushed it off and got back to her occupations.
On Saturdays, the library always closed at noon. Like every week, Claire made sure the place was tidy, the books in place, before locking up to make her way home. Briefly, she stopped by the bakery to grab some bread and pastries to bring back with her.
“Bonjour madame Morrin,” she said kindly, walking inside the bakery. Bored or not, Claire would never get tired of the smell of freshly baked goods whenever she came here.
“Claire,” the older lady smiled kindly. “Une baguette and two baba?”
“Yes,” Claire smiled in turn, adjusting her hat. “Merci.”
Life in a small village was pretty much the same for everyone. Gossips, small talks. People pretended to care about others’ lives, only to go around with stories to entertain the rest. After spending her time in big cities like London and Cairo, it wasn’t a mentality Claire particularly appreciated. But Montoire had been the place Jacques grew up in and she knew it meant a lot to him to live here and teach here, just like his father used to do.
“Did you hear about the germans?” Mrs Morrin asked, packing up the pastries. “I think we’re about to go through another war, I’m afraid.”
Shrugging, Claire took out some money to pay, “I’m sure Maréchal Pépin wouldn’t let that happen.”
“May God hear you, ma chère,” she answered softly, handing her the little bag.
“Don’t trouble yourself over uncertainties, madame Morrin,” Claire tried to be reassuring and smiled, taking the bag. “The sun is shining and there’s no war right now. Why worry over something that will most likely not happen?”
The older lady didn’t answer, she simply returned a tight smile. It seemed that the people of Montoire wanted a war simply to get away from the boredom they were feeling in this place. She almost couldn’t blame them.
Ignoring it, Claire said a quick ‘bonne après-midi’ and was off.
She still vividly remembered the day she arrived in Montoire. Everyone had come out to see the stranger arriving. The Englishwoman, they called her for months until finally, it became Claire. When she took the position at the library, she heard the rumours about how she must have seduced Monsieur Legrand for the job. And since Jacques had grown up in this village and was bound to another girl before he left to study in Paris, Claire had been labelled a homewrecker though she had wrecked no home.
It had been a difficult first year and even now, sometimes, she still felt out of place. Though her French was impeccable, if she mispronounced a word she would immediately be corrected. She apparently didn’t dress properly for a librarian — wearing trousers and loses shirts she often stole from her husband. Her hair was never tamed nor brushed, instead, the curls were rebellious and had a mind of their own.
Claire was not meek nor obedient, and that, for the women of Montoire, was a sin in itself.
While it had taken time for her to adjust to her life in Montoire, it had taken her no time at all to fall in love with Jacques’ childhood home. It was a modest size, but one of the larger homes in the village. It was separated from the other homes, and it always took Claire at least ten minutes to walk into town. There was a small iron fence with a gate that always squeaked when it opened, and a tree in the front with a swing where Jacques used to play as a boy.
The house was a two-story charmer, with a white exterior and pale blue shutters. Claire had prided herself in taking care of the greenery around the house and even growing a garden outback. Not only was the house positioned over many acres of land, their backyard opened up to a small apple orchard. It was idyllic, and when the sun sets at night, making the house light up with a warm glow, there was nowhere else that Claire would rather be. She never truly had a home until moving here and it was what she’d be stuck with for the rest of her life, the prospect wasn’t so bad.
She had only stepped one foot through the front door that the telephone in the kitchen was ringing. Not knowing where her husband was, she hurried to go and pick it up.
“Allô?” She said a bit out of breath, holding the horn between her shoulder and her head.
“Darling lamb, it’s your favourite uncle.”
She could hear the smile in his voice and it immediately prompted her to smile, just as much. “Uncle Lamb! I wasn’t expecting to hear from you for at least another week.”
“Oh well, I came back to London earlier than I had planned so I thought, why not call?!”
“I’m happy to hear you,” she put the bag on the table and removed her hat while she talked. “How is everything up there?”
“Same old, same old. My office is dusty and I have way too many notes to go through from my trip to Cairo but other than this, I’m marvellous!”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” she smiled, leaning against the counter. In the garden, she could see Jacques fidgeting with the vegetables. He was wearing a white undershirt and wiped his forehead with a cloth every two minutes. He was tall and broad, with hair almost black and piercing green eyes. She could understand why most women were mad at her from marrying him.
“And in Montoire? I’ve received your last letter…”
“Go ahead,” Claire sighed, leaning against the counter. “Say what you want to say, uncle Lamb.”
“Well darling, it seems to me you are terribly bored —”
“I am…sometimes,” she admitted. “But what do you expect from living in a little village? I knew what I got myself into when I agreed to follow Jacques here. And in truth, I really love working at the library, so I’m not that bored.”
“I know you do and I know Jacques is a lovely husband but I’m also convinced you are meant to do more with your life than be a housewife who has a little job on the side, my darling.”
“Uncle,” she sighed, her eyes glued on her husband. She knew her uncle was right, and yet, she couldn’t leave Montoire now. She couldn’t leave Jacques. Maybe the grand life she had always imagined for herself was not meant to happen, after all. Maybe she could be fulfilled with less. She always knew the hardest bit in life was realising what you have may not be what you wanted but what circumstances can only give you, in the end.
“I’m sorry,” Lamb said softly. “It’s none of my business, I shouldn’t pry on you this way. I know if you were not happy, you would be back in London already.”
“Well, it’s been five years. I think I would have come back by now,” she reassured him, though she wasn’t sure she wasn’t trying to reassure herself there.
“Indeed,” Quentin agreed. She didn’t need to see him to know he was nodding his head while readjusting his round glasses.
“Now,” she changed the subject. “When do you plan to go back to Cairo?”
“I don’t have a definitive date just yet, I want to come and visit you for a little bit before I set off again!”
“Oh, that would be lovely,” the idea alone able to bring another smile to her face. “It’s been way too long! And you know you are always welcome to stay here with us.”
“I promise I’ll make the journey very soon, darling Claire.”
She didn’t know why, but at that moment, she knew she’d never see her uncle again. It wasn’t the way he said it nor something in his voice. Simply a feeling deep in her bones.
“But first, let us pray another war doesn’t erupt,” he quickly added, his tone slightly changing. “This climate in town is unbearable, I didn’t know it had gotten so bad when I was in Egypt.”
Briefly, Claire closed her eyes and ignored the drop of sweat going down the back of her neck. “I’m tired of everyone talking about an impending war. That’s all everyone talks about here! There won’t be another fucking war, I’m sure of it.”
Lamb stayed silent for several long seconds before he cleared his throat. He was used to his niece cursing. After all, he had learned her himself. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring? You of all people should know that, Claire.”
“Yes, that’s exactly why I don’t like to think about tomorrow. There’s nothing one can do about it.”
“Look, I’ll come to Montoire soon, alright? I have to go now but I’ll write you this week and phone if I have the time.”
“Alright, Uncle. Take care and talk to you soon.”
“Talk soon, Claire bear,” Lamb said softly.
Claire was not able to shake off the feeling of sadness she felt once hanging up on her uncle. Shaking her head of curls, she took a breath and started to prepare some tea. Jacques would be done in the garden soon, she reckoned.
Opening the cupboard to get some mugs, she realised the sugar jar was empty. Not that she needed an excuse to visit her neighbours, she decided this might as well do, anyway.
Gaëlle and Joseph Rosenberg lived in a smaller house down the path from her. They had been the most welcoming people when she had arrived in Montoire and since then, valuable friends she considered to be like family. Joseph was the postman while his wife was a kindergarten teacher. They both grew up in the village and knew Jacques since they were children.
Claire knocked on their bright red door and waited, hearing footsteps approaching. Gaëlle answered the door and smiled when she saw it was Claire. With dark chocolate skin like mousse, her friend was beautiful and had always been so welcoming to her.
“Bonjour, Claire!” Gaëlle kissed her cheek and opened the door wider. “Come in, come in.”
“I’m so sorry to disturb you, I just came by to borrow some sugar. It seems we’re all out,” Claire shrugged as she stepped into the small kitchen. Gaëlle was already opening a cupboard to retrieve a small jar of white sugar.
“It’s not a problem, my dear, you can have this jar. I’ll get more in town this week.” Gaëlle smiled and set the jar in front of Claire. “I was actually planning to stop by soon. I have some news of my own. Won’t you sit for a while?”
The two women sat down at the kitchen table, and Claire ran her fingers lightly over the blue and white tablecloth. The sun was shining in the room, heating it up, but the window was opening letting in a welcomed cool breeze.
“Your news?” Claire smiled softly, crossing one leg over the other.
Gaëlle couldn’t stop the smile spreading on her lips. “You know that Joseph and I have been trying for quite some time to have a child?”
“Oh, Gaëlle! Are you…?” Claire gasped, reaching for the other woman’s hand.
“Oui!” Gaëlle practically squealed. “I am most likely eight or ten weeks along. We are so pleased. Joseph is worried about the timing — with the talk of war and everything, but I told him that babies don’t know what time is or war for that matter.”
“I’m so happy for you both,” she smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Claire and Jacques had been trying for a baby for years since they first married in fact, but they had not been blessed. “You and Joseph will be wonderful parents to this baby, I know it!”
Gaëlle squeezed her hand tight, understanding that while this news was joyous, it also brought up sad memories for Claire. “It will happen for you one day too, Claire. When the time is right, when you are ready.”
“Oh well,” Claire sniffed, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. “I should get back to Jacques. He’ll be wondering where I am!”
“It was lovely to see you as always,” Gaëlle stood up and walked Claire to the front door. “Enjoy the sugar, and if you need anything else, my door is always open, but you know that.”
They parted, and Claire made her way back to her own house next door.
“There you are!” Jacques exclaimed as she stepped through the gate. He was smiling slightly, wiping his hands on a towel.
“I saw the pastries in the kitchen and I wondered where you might have gone?”
Claire held up the jar, “We ran out of sugar so I went to get some at Gaëlle’s. I wanted to make tea.”
“Ah, you and your tea,” his smile grew as he pulled her closer. “You can take the girl out of England but you can’t take England out of the girl.”
“Well if coffee here didn’t taste like grass water, I might consider drinking it instead of tea,” she made a face.
“I can’t fault you,” Jacques kissed the tip of her nose and pulled her inside the house.
Following him, Claire hesitated about sharing the baby news with him. She knew he’d be thrilled for their friends but she also was aware how much he wanted to be a father. Unable to give him a child had made her feel inadequate. She didn’t want to make him feel this way towards her yet again unless she couldn’t help it.
As she prepared the tea, she noticed how unusually silent her husband was being. He smoked his cigarette while sitting at the table, absently glancing out of the window.
“My uncle called earlier,” she said nonchalantly, pouring the tea in the cups. “He wants to come to visit soon.”
“He should, it’s been a while,” Jacques smiled softly, looking at her.
Claire smiled in turn, trying to ignore the sudden thickness in the air. Maybe Jacques had a rough week at work and simply worried about his job. It happened often. Without a word, she put the cups on the table and sat down. She poured some milk in her own cup, trying to ignore her husband’s eyes on her. All of a sudden, she felt like a shy schoolgirl who was being watched by her crush.
“How was your morning at the library?” He asked, crushing his cigarette into the ashtray. Leaning back, he watched her.
“It was all right, rather calm, actually.” She took a sip of tea, burning the tip of her tongue on the boiling liquid. “Which was nice, I could rearrange most of the sections.”
“Good,” he took her hand, lightly stroking it. “I’ve cleaned up the vegetable garden and picked up what could be. I think we should preserve what we can for the winter.”
“It’s barely September and you are already thinking about winter?” She grinned, almost amused. Jacques, contradictory to her, always thought about tomorrow. Prepared for the future while she cruised around life living day by day.
“Well, someone’s got to think about it.” He remarked, bringing her hand to his lips.
“Mmh,” she answered, picking up a cigarette and a box of matches. Slowly, she took a long drag and let the smoke burn down her gullet for a brief moment. When she blew out the smoke, she attentively watched her husband’s face.
“What’s the matter with you, Jacques? Is something bothering you? Something happened at work?”
Jacques tensed and stood straighter on his chair. He swallowed, almost painfully, it seemed. And whatever passed through his eyes frightened Claire, all of a sudden.
“I’ve received a letter this morning…” his voice was barely a whisper. So low she wasn’t sure she had even heard anything.
“What do you mean, a letter?” Frowning, she racked her brain to find out what it could be. Jacques had no family left, it couldn’t be bad news about relatives.
“Just say it for God’s sake, you’re worrying me.”
“They are recruiting men to train in case of a fight with the Germans occurring. I’ve been, along with most of the men of the village, called into training.”
Claire stomach sunk. She was speechless and the sour taste in her mouth gave her a sudden feeling of nausea. “You..you’ve been drafted?”
Nodding slowly, Jacques’ eyes dropped to their linked hands. “I’m afraid so.”
“But you’re a teacher, you can’t just leave the school like this to go fight for a war that will likely not happen —”
“Claire…I’m afraid the war will happen. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother calling men in.”
“It’s just useless prevention! The Germans won’t invade anyone and no one will start a useless fight. It didn’t help matters the first time it happened, I’m sure it’s not about to happen again.”
“I don’t have a choice, anyway. War or not, I’ve been called and I have to show up.”
Claire actually felt like she was suddenly suffocating. The heat was unbearable and her husband’s common sense seemed to have disappeared. “You can’t leave.”
The prospect of a war wasn’t too joyful but the one of finding herself alone in Montoire, while Jacques would be off somewhere with no guarantee of ever seeing him again was actually worse. She barely knew how to function here. Without him, she had no idea of it at all.
“I’ll come back,” he got up and pulled her up slowly. Wrapping his arm around her waist, he used his other hand to cup her cheek. “I promise you I’ll be back, Claire.”
“The war won’t happen,” she repeated softly, barely a whisper. “It won’t.”
“Then I’ll be back even quicker than planned,” he smiled softly, resting his forehead against her.
“What am I going to do here alone?” She whispered, trying to prevent her voice from breaking.
Closing her eyes, Claire did not hear his answer to her question. Deep down, she knew the war would happen. All this time, she had simply tried to convince herself of the contrary — though, she did not know why. As much as she tried to hide it, she was frightened.
Frightened of a future she never wanted to think about.
On September 1st, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland from the west; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany and what would be known as World War II began.
For Claire, along millions of others, life would never be the same.