Interesting concept of an optimistic twist of time travel meets Australian characters (mainly) who are faced with the realities of their lives. They come to Paris to escape from their problems. A unique story as it follows a number of female characters and how they try to deal with what life throws at them. The author lovingly takes the reader to many parts of Paris enfolding them into an unforgettable sensory journey to experience it as a virtual tourist.Miriam 5.0 out of 5 stars ~ Amazon ~ Reviewed in Australia on April 26, 2020 Verified Purchase
5th Arrondissement, Paris. April 1944
The hunched figure shuffled along the pitch-black laneway; ruined arm pressed against her side. She had lost one shoe and the bare foot throbbed. For a moment, she imagined the bloody trail she was leaving for the police dogs to follow but part of her no longer cared who might come for her. Would tonight be the night they finally put a bullet in her back? At least death would end the pain and her father would no longer need to worry about her. Still, she shuddered at the thought.
The heat was spreading through her body as she stood disoriented in the dark. One of her father’s favourite sayings echoed in her mind; ne paniquez pas, organisez vous. She calmed her breathing…un, deux, trois, quartre…don’t panic, organise…
She stood rigid, listening for any sound, eyes closed – they were useless in the inky blackness. Again, she thought of her father and the last time she had seen him. They had argued of course, they always did, but this time the words were not barked at each other, a smirk playing at their lips, their familiar jousting. War was no time for games. Instead they whispered urgently behind the closed door of his clinic. He had begged her to stay home.
‘You are most certainly being watched, Ana…’ He was tired but there had been an edge of anger in his voice that she had never heard before.
‘You are putting this whole house at risk…’
She had raged inside, but then calmed herself knowing that dramatics and hysteria would not convince him of anything but her immaturity. Still, she spoke with force, the anger pulling her lips taut across her teeth.
‘Papa, I know what you do. I know you tend people in the old servant’s entry. This is a big house with many rooms, and I know you hide people. Do not lecture me on keeping this house safe. Men and women are dying this very minute on battlefields and in work camps. We all must play our part. Even your daughter…’
They stood inches apart. Neither was prepared to lose this time; the stakes were too high.
‘You must be mindful of the children, they know nothing of the war, I have made sure of this. I am careful, but you, you are so reckless. Do you not recall the fates of those arrested last month? They were shot and tortured, and some were sent east. The collaborationists have even sent women to the guillotine. Women!’
Her father’s face twisted in anger. She had never seen him so angry. Certainly, the raids and arrests over the previous weeks had made Antoinette more careful but had left her as one of the few chemists in Paris to carry on the work.
‘Of course, I knew those people… Some of them were my colleagues at the university.’
Her heart lurched at the thought of her friends, the American, her lover…
She felt the fight go out of her as the sadness crept in. What she hadn’t told her father was that one of those men, the American, shot in the street had been her… what had he been? She wasn’t sure but perhaps he was the man, she’d hoped quietly, would be her husband…after the war…although they had never spoken of it.
His face had softened. ‘You want to help but making explosives is no work for a woman. There are so many ways you could be helping the war effort.’
‘Until the war is won, this is my work, Papa. Who else can do it? I am your daughter, yes, but I am a scientist first, then a woman.’
He’d said much more, by turns, warning and begging her, but she stopped listening. Finally, he had issued an ultimatum: if she returned to the laboratory, she would not be welcome at his home. She knew it was breaking his heart to say such a thing, but she knew it was for the best. Then he had turned his back on his last living child, bracing his hands on the old carved desk that had been his fathers before him. With tears in her eyes she had kissed her sister’s children and left that day knowing she would not return, until the war was won.
Pain dragged Antoinette back into the present, standing adrift in the dark alley somewhere behind her father’s house, her body shattered. She had broken her vow by returning but she knew he would not refuse to help her. Without warning, she was paralysed by a deep, convulsing surge of pain. It threatened to overwhelm her, but she stood rigid, knowing if she sat on the wet cobblestones she would not stand again. She could not see her damaged arm in the darkness but could smell the smoke on her clothes, in her nose, taste the acid on her tongue and smell her burning flesh. The pain in her arm seemed to burn hotter at the thought of it. She squeezed her eyes shut against the appalling images of the moment the chemicals had caught alight.
Desperate to get her bearings, her eyes found the rooflines of the surrounding stone buildings. She and her twin, Marcel, had climbed those roofs as children, it had been their playground, while their little sister Marie-Louise had preferred playing house. There it was; the distinctive mansard roof of the old convent house, illuminated by light shining through the remaining stained-glass. The house now converted to apartments, was no longer home to the tiny private school run by the order of nuns who had taught the de la Roche children for three generations. That had been a source of pride for the Sisters, until Antoinette darkened their doorstep. The Sisters had smacked Antoinette’s soft pink hands for every act of will.
Flexing her hands at the memory she could feel the skin tightening on her burnt arm. She grimaced in pain, the tight skin on her face objecting to the sudden movement. But she knew where she was. She was nearly home, although she could not remember travelling the mile or so from the makeshift laboratory.
Taking small gulps of air, she looked back through the darkness towards the quai and the river Seine beyond. The sky was now glowing faintly and the stars that had only appeared a few hours earlier as she and the others had sat on the terrace with wine and cigarettes, feigning frivolity under the watchful eye of the enemy, had gone. The dawn was hours away and yet the sky over Paris was a sickly pink.
Her head swam and her gravelly breath seemed deafening in the quiet alley. She felt her way along the wall, searching for the low brick terrace she knew was only feet from the hidden door. It might have been a well-known refuge for injured members of the Résistance, but a place of last resort for her. To let her father see her like this…
She eased herself down until she was sitting on the cold stones. Great care had been taken to disguise the door, including painting it black and draping dirty tarpaulins across it. It had to be only feet from her, but she couldn’t make it out. Normally there would have been a call, to alert her father that his expertise was needed, and he would be waiting near the door. Was there anyone left to make the call? She closed her eyes and carefully touched her left hand to the burned parts. The heat still radiated from her right arm, her shoulder, her face. The skin was tightening. She didn’t have much time. Despite the pain, Antoinette bent to remove her remaining shoe and threw it against the wall hoping the noise would alert her father. Or the police. She no longer cared who came first.
She hung her head. She was épuisé, exhausted, ‘done for’ as the American liked to say. God knew he had enough cause to say it in his line of work. He was quick with a joke, but he had been the saddest man she had ever known and that was saying something in those bleak times. She never knew what, or who, he had lost but she knew loss when she saw it. She conjured his face in her mind, his unruly hair and those eyes. Her burnt skin protested now as she tried to smile at the thought of his arms around her. She pressed her back against the wall and clenched her jaw, waves of agony arcing through her body like electricity.
She coughed and the pain almost made her faint. As the echo of her cough died away, she heard a sound, a knocking sound on timber. A flicker of light caught her attention. Her limbs had begun to stiffen but Antoinette stood and walked towards where the light had been. A door opened and her father ushered her into the dark room. He bolted the door and turned towards the dimly lit lamp with shaking hands.
‘Lie down,’ he said, pointing at the settee.
She shuffled over to the little bed. He was turning up his sleeves as he approached her with the now bright lamp. He stopped, horror on his face as he took in her ravaged appearance. He tried to clear his throat.
‘I heard the explosion. I…I knew I would be needed, but I didn’t know it would be my own daughter…’ She tried to speak but no words would come. She had to tell him about the explosion, the fire.
He helped her onto the settee. Antoinette let out an animal-like sound as she collapsed onto the clean white sheet. She fought to stay conscious. Her lips were parched but when she ran her dry tongue across them, the bitterness made her grimace. She knew that taste; a tincture to dull the pain. Delirium replaced her terror and she muttered soundlessly to her father as he worked above her, bathing her wounds, monitoring her vital signs as well as he could in the tiny room. She tried to ask him to take her up to his clinic, but as confused as she was, Antoinette knew the police would come to see Herr Doktor de la Roche in the morning, if not sooner. They were both safer in the hidden room.
Sighing heavily, her father held her wrist and took her pulse again. He stood, head bowed, beside the bed. He replaced her hand on the bed and sat heavily on the stone floor, one hand on his own heart, forcing himself to take deep breaths. …ne paniquez pas, organisez vous…
She watched him with terrified eyes, unable to help. He nodded at her and smiled. The face was lined but the eyes were warm. She tried to smile back.
‘I am okay, chérie. I am an old man, it’s normal to feel tired at this time of the morning.’ He smiled at her again and nodded at the little clock on the shelf in the corner of the room, the clock that had not kept time for years. She tried to speak but no sound came. He stood and checked her vitals again.
‘I have given you a tincture. Sleep now, I will be right here,’ he said, as her eyes closed.
Antoinette had no idea how much time had passed, but for a moment, the delirium had subsided. She noticed that her father had stopped moving around the small space and tried to clear her throat.
‘Papa, thank you.’ She was surprised words had come.
Her father sat on the floor, his back against the old wooden door.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she sobbed, a cough gurgled in her raw throat.
‘Don’t talk, my love,’ he said. He shuffled over towards the settee and knelt beside her. ‘You will be well by morning. We will have tea with the children.’
Antoinette wasn’t sure when her father had decided to lie to her. If she made it through the night, they would be lucky to be free citizens by morning, let alone sitting around the big wooden table eating Clementine’s fresh baked bread.
She attempted to sit up but quickly abandoned the idea. She was drifting in and out of consciousness but could feel her father gently bathing her burnt skin. The room was stifling but they could not risk opening either the inner or outer doors. The police would surely be looking for her by now.
Jean-Claude thanked God for the thick walls, the solid door, as Antoinette groaned in pain and mumbled incoherently. Taking a deep breath, he reached for her good arm, testing her pulse once again. Her dark eyes were swollen but he could see her watching him in the lamplight. They sat in stillness, father and daughter, hands locked, silent except for their shallow breathing. Jean-Claude smiled and wiped a tear from his own cheek.
‘Is my face very bad?’ she whispered.
‘You are…beautiful,’ he said, his heart breaking.
Jean-Claude smiled although it pained him to see Antoinette’s damaged features. She had always resembled her mother; the dark hair and fierce nature.
‘Yes, chérie…the burn is bad.’
Antoinette sobbed and coughed. Tears ran down her temples. Jean-Claude wrung out a cloth and gently sponged the tears away.
‘Tell me stories of Maman,’ Antoinette whispered.
He took her unburnt hand in his and began to speak. Surprised by the strength of her grip despite the terrible burns, he told her his favourite tales of her mother. Stories of her talent for cooking, her love of painting, her famously short temper. He spoke of her love for her three children.
Antoinette’s breath became even more shallow but her grip on his hand remained. He then spoke of his own parents, their families. Jean-Claude’s father had been an officer but had then become a surgeon, his mother, a painter. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, but they were a good match and raised a large family. He spoke of their grand home in Paris where like her, he had been born and lived his entire life, and of the ancient chateau in the countryside where he had spent long summer days with his cousins, long before his own children did the same.
For Jean-Claude it had been a charmed life filled with love and reading, sunshine, close-knit family, and his fulfilling work. He told Antoinette of his younger siblings with affection and humour but stopped short of recounting how they had all died, one by one in their thirties and forties, leaving him alone to run the family estates.
There will only be happy stories told in this room tonight, Jean-Claude thought. He began to speak of his own children. The lovely Marie-Louise with the softest heart, and brave Marcel, who had gone away to be a hero and returned home in a box, both now waiting with their mother in the family crypt. He wouldn’t speak of death but of how they had both lived their lives to the fullest. The family summers at the seaside were his favourite times, the snatched moments away from the hospital, a few stolen weeks of relaxation when he would do nothing but watch his children play.
‘Do you remember 1933, La Rochelle?’ he asked, her hand squeezing his in response.
Antoinette tried her throat, but she could not speak. She remembered the Summer well. Marie Louise and Antoinette had convinced their father to give them two puppies they called Mimi and Joe. Sitting on the beach, the dogs yapping at the gulls, the family ate mussels fresh from the boats, boiled right there on the beach.
In the dark room, Jean-Claude told story after story, his words recreating that magical summer. The rambling chateau was being re-shingled, and they had camped in the gardens in a mishmash of tents, to the horror of Cook and the rest of the Paris staff. The children had been delighted. He asked her if she recalled the summer storm that hit two days after the roof was completed and the children were forced to abandon their tents to retreat to the safety and warmth of their bedrooms. That summer had indeed been idyllic.
Lost in the memory, Antoinette sighed in the dark and Jean-Claude smiled for what seemed like the first time in a year. Considering they were from an old family, they had had an enchanted, riotous childhood, even if their mother’s absence was felt keenly at times.
Would that you were here now with me, mon amour, Jean-Claude thought, picturing his wife’s face. He looked down at the ruined face of his daughter. ‘Chérie, I will bathe your face and arm again.’
She squeezed his hand again. Her strength was going.
Rising slowly, still smiling at the thought of his wife by his side, Jean-Claude felt he might faint. He had been feeling ill since the morning and now feared he would collapse there on the floor, leaving them both locked in the tiny room. He had the only key, looped around his neck as it always was, on scarlet cord. A panic began to rise in his belly. He needed to open the door, to be free of the claustrophobic space, but could not leave Antoinette alone. Slowing his breathing, he decided to quickly check on his grand-children and fetch more of the tincture for Antoinette’s pain. He would leave the key on the desk in his clinic. If the worst happened, at least the police would find them both.
‘I’ve done all I can, my precious daughter. Please sleep now,’ he said, his throat raw from talking. He gently leaned across and lifted her left hand. The pulse was weak. Her eyes closed. She was almost gone. He could not believe he would outlive all his children. He sniffed the air. Is that smoke?
Jean-Claude covered the lantern and unbolted the laneway door. Carefully shifting the tarpaulin aside, he stuck his head far enough into the alley to see the sky. There were no stars. The air reeked of smoke and worse, the sky over Paris glowed bright orange. The fire from the explosion was spreading.
Paris was burning.
He quickly replaced the tarpaulin and bolted the door.
He had to get to the children, perhaps get them out of Paris, or at least to the river. That would mean leaving Antoinette. He did not want to think about it, but he was running out of time. He unlocked the heavy inner door and stood in the narrow corridor, breathing a sigh of relief that he was no longer in the airless room. Antoinette opened her eyes.
‘I’ll see you in the morning, chérie,’ he said, but he couldn’t look at her. They both knew what the morning would bring.
The clock on the small mantle ticked loudly in the silent room. It refused to keep time no matter how often it was wound, but the base was stuck in layers of varnish, so it remained. Jean-Claude opened the glass case and touched the hour hand lightly. Carefully, he wound it anti-clockwise three or four times and hung his head, as though this small action had taken the last of his energy.
‘Would that we could truly turn back the time,’ he said.
Antoinette watched her father place his hand over his heart. She was desperate to help him, but she could not move. Without looking up, his hand found the little clock again and he clicked the glass door shut. She wanted him to stay, talk to her of La Rochelle, of her brother, her sister… She closed her eyes and thought of those puppies, that summer on the beach.
Antoinette heard the key turn in the old door and even though her father had taken the lantern, she thought she could see her brother waiting in the corner of the room.
Jean-Claude shuffled along the pitch-black corridor, exhausted, but knowing exactly where he was going as only a man who has lived in the same house for all those years does. He had to get the children to the river, they would be safe at the river.
Eight paces and a left turn would bring him to the stairs, a right turn, then nine paces to his cabinet de consultation, the clinic rooms that had been his fathers before him. The next landing led to the room Marie-Louise’s orphaned children shared with their nanny.
He pushed the door open a fraction. They slept like the innocents they were, Clementine between them, like a protective mother hen. Jean-Claude wondered how life could be so incredibly beautiful in moments but could then bring such darkness in others. He began to speak, to rouse his household. No words came. He grasped the thick wooden door frame. He was on his knees before he realized what was happening and held his left arm as though his grip alone would keep him alive.
My heart is…breaking, he thought.
The cold sandstone under his cheek was not unpleasant after the gruelling hours trying to save his daughter and he relaxed at once, deciding he would not fight it, as though he had a choice. Jean-Claude de la Roche smiled. He would soon see his wife again.