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, 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, she looked up at the roof lines 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, a faint blue light shone through the stained-glass that remained after the Sisters had moved out to the suburbs, the house now converted to flats. The tiny private school run by the ancient order of nuns had taught the de la Roche children to read and write for three generations. That had been a source of pride for the Sisters, until Antoinette had 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 suddenly she knew where she was. She was nearly home, although she now 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 la 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 just 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 in the darkness 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 just 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 laugh but no sound came. He stood and checked her vitals again.
‘I have given you a tincture. You 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 that words had come at all.
Her father was sitting on the floor, his back against the old wooden door, his head in his hands.
‘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,’ he said.
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 and they could not risk any of the children or staff seeing her. He thanked God the walls were so thick, the doors so solid, as Antoinette groaned in pain and mumbled incoherently.
Jean-Claude again leaned heavily against the wooden door. Seeing she was awake again, he rose and sat gently on the edge of the settee. 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 asked.
‘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 very bad.’
Antoinette sobbed and coughed. Hot tears ran down her temples and burned the skin with their heat.
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 – 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 own mother a painter. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, but they were a good match and raised a large family. He spoke to his listening daughter 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 very 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 very 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 really smiled for what felt 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 for the tiny room, 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, and 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. Was 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, and the sky over Paris glowed bright orange. The fire from the explosion was spreading. He quickly replaced the tarpaulin and bolted the door.
Paris was burning.
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 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 more 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 lead 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 would come. 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.
Antoinette was surprised to wake at all, let alone with no fever or pain. Bright light forced its way in under the door, forcing her to cover her eyes. She was disoriented. Instinctively she felt her forehead and cheeks. No fever, no pain. Taking her own pulse, she closed her eyes and counted the beats.
Perfect, she thought, although she felt sure it shouldn’t have been.
She cleared her throat and rolled onto her side, watching dust motes float in the shaft of light. There were so many questions running through her mind. In typical fashion, she attended to them one by one until she came to the large question that had been floating around in the back of her mind.
There had been…an explosion…
This was more of a statement than a question and it seemed to hang in the air, swirling with the dust. Her stomach lurched. She pressed her back into the mattress and ran her hands over her face and arms, sweat beads forming across her forehead. Her skin was smooth, but her clothes seemed to be in tatters. She felt sick. Screwing her eyes tight against spinning room, she forced herself to think about the night before. Her face and right arm had been burned. There was no doubt in her mind. She would remember that pain for the rest of her life.
Her father had saved her. The events of the previous night flashed into her mind as though lit by lightning…or an explosion. She could see it all; the slick cobblestones, the stench of the chemicals, the skin stretching across her ruined face.
She sat up, her head swimming from the sudden elevation, and checked her feet. Her shoes were gone but her skin was perfect, better even than she recalled. Her father’s reputation as a physician was widely known, but this recovery was nothing short of miraculous. Her hands moved quickly checking every part of her body but found no trace of the traumatic night before. Had it all been a dream, a nightmare? This seemed reasonable. She fondled the blackened fabric of her dress and felt the torn sleeves. Something terrible had indeed happened.
Lying back on the settee she was confused. Antoinette was not accustomed to feeling confusion. She remembered everything; dinner with her colleagues, flouting the curfew as they always did, somehow hiding in plain sight. She had just met the new chemist, a young man she had once seen at the university. After serving and surviving at the front he had found he had a talent for explosives and a deep hatred for the enemy.
After dinner, they made their way slowly along the river, arm in arm, to the laboratory, but to the Boche they were just a devoted couple walking home.
Where was he now?
She sat up again, a little too quickly and felt her pocket. Her papers were still there. She felt along the hem of her skirt for the carefully concealed papers that would be her lifeline if the worst should happen.
‘Think,’ she said, clenching her fists…ne paniquez pas, organisez vous…
She had been thrown down into the alley at the back of the old disused stables that had been their laboratory. It had been part of an old abattoir being used again during the occupation, the perfect disguise for the strong smells of their operation. Obviously, she had been lucky, she thought as she ran her hands across her smooth skin.
‘Perhaps I am dreaming,’ she whispered to the room.
Antoinette de la Roche was not what you would call a dreamer. When trying to make a point, she could be dramatic, granted, but she considered herself practical and intelligent. She would be the last person to be given over to hysterics.
‘If that wasn’t a dream then I have died and gone on to the afterlife,’ she said a little louder as though tempting someone to argue with her. A little startled by the sound of her own voice, she looked around the tiny room, disappointment the only emotion she could muster.
‘Why does hell look exactly like the old servants’ entrance in father’s basement?’ she said, laughing at her own joke.
She decided she’d had just about enough of this nonsense, whatever it was. She swung her legs over the edge of the settee. She took a tentative step, and then two more. She leaned against the old outer door looking down at her bare feet, frowning at the dust motes swirling furiously now. The light should not be coming through.
The tarpaulins have been taken down. Her heart began to race. The police would be looking for her.
She put both hands to the latch and prepared to shove it as hard as she could, but the latch moved easily. Her father must have oiled it. The old bolt had often threatened to trap those who used the tiny room. She swung the door open, blinding sunlight flooded the room. She jumped back as though the light would harm her.
‘Perhaps I am in heaven, after all,’ she said. No, perhaps I am going mad.
A small grin edged across her mouth as she imagined the nasty mathematics mistress from her school days, Sister Marie, who would have dropped dead all over again to see the likes of Antoinette de la Roche in heaven. Buoyed by the bright sunshine, Antoinette made her way into the street.
Sunday morning in Paris was always quiet but as the occupation wore on it had become a ghost town. This morning somehow felt like the Paris of her youth. Parisians were out in force, soaking up the sunshine. The drizzle and low cloud of the previous week had departed in spectacular fashion; she hadn’t seen a day like this since before the war, but considering it was heaven that made sense. She allowed herself a little smile at the thought.
Stopping at the curve in the laneway she looked towards the quai. There were crowds of people, just strolling around Paradise or Paris, or whatever this was. She felt faint at the thought, but strangely elated, feeling she could run onto the street and throw her arms around everyone. Remembering her tattered clothes, she quickly retreated. Stopping abruptly, she looked up and down the length of the lane. Someone had removed the piles of building materials and barrels that her father had been storing on the brick terrace to disguise the doorway to the little room. The alley was clean and bright on that impossibly warm morning, clear of everything except the washing lines she could see crisscrossing between the buildings at the end of the street.
If this is not the afterlife, the police must have searched the alley already, she thought.
Her mind began to revolt at the idea of an alleyway in Paris existing in either heaven or hell. Where was the hellfire and brimstone? If this was heaven, then the streets were cobblestones as they had always been, rather than pavement of gold that the priests promised.
Confused and sweating in the warm air, she leaned against the low terrace wall, recalling the events of the night before as they jumbled about in her head. She had to get out of sight and think. Unlike the previous night, the door was now easily visible. She gripped the wrought iron handle to pull it open and stopped. The door her father had painted black was no longer black. It was blue. A shiny glossy blue, chipped in places, showing a deep grey paint underneath. She leaned her head against the door. It was warm from the sun shining on it.
She put her hand to her head and felt again for fever. The door had been deep cobalt blue during her childhood, but it should be black. She felt her knees buckle, the floor seemed to rise to meet her. She sat for what seemed like an hour but must only have been minutes, staring at the door, the only sound in the room was the ticking clock and her own breath.
Deeply inhaling, she pulled herself upright. She had to find her family. Whether this was Paris or heaven, she had family here and she had to find them before the police found her. She went into the tiny room and rapped loudly on the heavy door that lead to the house but knew it was pointless. The outside door had always been left unlocked, but the internal door was usually bolted from inside the house for security, especially during the occupation. She pulled the handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. It was at least four inches thick and far removed from the living areas, deep in the bowels of the house.
Antoinette pushed the outside door open again, catching sight of a small mirror propped on the mantel behind the old silver clock. She had never noticed it before. She picked it up and examined her reflection in the mottled surface. The clock that never worked showed it was just after 11 but had read 10:30 when she woke. The slim second hand was smoothly working its way around the face. She was more confused than ever.
Ignoring her tattered clothing, she propped the mirror against the clock and after combing her hair with her fingers, pulled it back into a chignon. She had never been interested in appearances but was grateful that her sister had taught her how to make herself presentable. There was nothing she could do about the state of her clothing, so she pulled the discarded top sheet from the settee and wrapped it around her waist like a long skirt. It would have to do, she thought. She could either walk around the block via the quai or through the busy Sunday market to get to the front door, the old carriage entrance that now served as the entry to the house.
Carefully closing the blue door, she kept her head down to avoid eye contact with any neighbours. Paris was a big city, full of soldiers and towns-people going about their day as best they could despite the war, but a woman would be sure to run into most of her friends, the local priest and the gossipy concierge from a neighbouring building if she was anything less that perfectly turned out, which, despite her sister’s best intentions, Antoinette rarely was.
Deciding to brave the quai rather than the crowded marché, she hesitated in the alleyway, surveying the crowds of people strolling along under the plane trees. Completely forgetting her bed-sheet skirt, she stood staring at the crowded street. Had the war ended overnight? Had the explosion somehow caused the enemy to turn tail and go back east? Confusion gave way to joy as she smiled at the happy people. It was joyous to see Paris as it should be; teeming with tourists and locals enjoying the beautiful city. She tore herself away from the glorious vision and turned towards Rue du Bièvre, and home.
‘Bonjour, mademoiselle Antoinette,’ said a quiet voice.
Antoinette looked up to see Monsieur Levy, the famous luthier and violinist locking his studio, violin case tucked under his arm. He smiled warmly and waited for her to reply but Antoinette stood gaping, completely frozen in her tracks. The kind old gentleman nodded, tipped his hat, and continued towards the kerb to a waiting taxi. Open-mouthed, Antoinette stared at the retreating back of the elderly violinist. He didn’t look up at her from the cab window, but she continued to stare as it drove away.
This day, this Paris, most definitely had to be Paradis, heaven. She was certain now. Monsieur Levy had confirmed it.
At some time in January 1940, Mr. Levy had left his home and studio as though he had simply popped out the market. He took his violin and a small bag. He was never seen again. He had in fact, moved to Scotland. And he had reportedly died peacefully surrounded by his nephews and their families in 1943. Jean-Claude had received a telegram.
The kind, generous Mr. Levy would never go to Hell, so Antoinette knew now that she must be dead, and had, by some stroke of luck, made it to Paradis. Her father had a lot of influence, but clearly even she had under-estimated his reach. She smiled, then started to laugh at her own joke and felt a bizarre feeling bubbling up inside her. The trauma of the last few weeks had finally caught up with her and she felt her sanity slipping away.
A face seemed to float into her field of vision, and she reached her hand out to touch it. A gloved hand reached up to take hers and a voice from the past spoke to her. Antoinette’s world tilted and she found herself on the warm cobblestone sidewalk, a couple hovering over her.
‘Go and get her father,’ the girl’s voice called to the boy running down the street towards her house.
‘Antoinette, what happened to you? I saw you behind the church but when I walked over to you, you had already gone.’
‘Genevieve?’ Antoinette whispered. ‘You’re here too? How can you be here?’
‘Paul has gone to fetch your father. You’ll be okay.’
Genevieve patted her hand and took in her dishevelled appearance.
‘My father isn’t in heaven, Genevieve, he is still alive. Unless…no…’ Antoinette said.
More faces swam into view.
‘Marcel!’ Antoinette screamed. A moment later she was off the ground and in his arms.
Her twin had been her best friend, her ally and her protector, until he was taken from her by the war. He looked so young. She held him in a violent embrace as he struggled to pull away from her grip. A young girl walked towards her; concern knitted on her brow.
‘Marie-Lou?’ Antoinette grabbed her sister and drew her into the embrace with Marcel, who was still trying to get away. She smiled at the small crowd of people gathered around her. ‘You all so young? I saw Mr. Levy, he’s here in heaven too. And maman? Where is she?’
Marie-Louise looked at Marcel as though he could somehow translate the nonsense that was coming out of his twin’s mouth.
‘Chérie, let’s take you home, and clean you up,’ Marie-Louise spoke in a sing-song voice, as though speaking to a small child.
‘Yes, please let us go home and see maman,’ Antoinette said. She took her sister’s hand.
Not wanting to upset her deranged sister, Marie-Louise did what she did best. She held her head high and helped. It was her mission on earth, she had decided from a very young age. Antoinette had the brains, the dreams and the schemes, and Marie’s self-appointed role was to help her keep her hair and clothes neat while achieving those dreams.
They reached the huge entry doors, Genevieve’s fiancé Paul rapping on the ornate iron knocker. Jean-Claude pulled it open, his smooth face became troubled as he saw the crowd of people at his door.
‘Papa, why are you here?’ Antoinette cried out, tears springing to her eyes.
She pushed passed him into the foyer and called out to their mother. Jean-Claude and Marcel moved forward to take her by the arms and guided her to a sofa as Marie-Louise closed the door on the crowd of neighbours who had gathered to see exactly what was disturbing their Sunday walk.
‘Ana? What’s happened to you?’ Jean-Claude took in the dishevelled appearance and the bed-sheet skirt. ‘What are you wearing?’
He pulled the sheet from around her waist, his brow furrowing at the sight before him. Marcel bolted from the room at the sight of his twin’s tattered skirt. Marie-Louise moved forward to replace the sheet over her sister’s bare legs, searching her eyes for answers.
‘Get me some hot water and towels. Bring them to the clinic,’ Jean-Claude said to his youngest daughter.
Marie-Louise ran to the stairs and raising a warning finger to her lips, directed the gathered staff to follow her. They had been preparing all week, to depart for their summer home, the ancestral chateau near La Rochelle that morning, but that would have to wait now. For a tiny young woman, fifteen-year-old Marie-Louise ran her father’s household like a benevolent dictator, a role she relished as much as her older sister would have detested it. The girls boiled water and placed it carefully in the dumbwaiter with piles of freshly washed linens.
Antoinette had no interest in fashion, but Marie-Louise ensured that her clothes were fine-looking and well kept. She took clean stockings and undergarments from the trunk at the end of her sister’s bed and a new dress from the armoire. Marie-Louise was worried. The dress was a strange style and appeared to be burned in places. She knew what that much blood on a woman’s skirt could mean and she didn’t like to think of what might have happened to her head-strong sister. Or what might happen next. Had Ana been assaulted in some way? Marie-Louise had no idea how her sister had managed to disappear after walking home from Mass that morning, to be found collapsed in the street, her clothing ruined.
Marie-Louise took the fresh clothes to the clinic, waiting in the cool, dark foyer for Jean-Claude to admit her. Time seemed to drag by, but eventually Jean-Claude opened the door and allowed her to see her sister. Marie-Louise quietly nodded to her father. Antoinette was sitting on an old over-stuffed chair, wrapped in a fresh linen sheet.
‘Are you well, sister?’ She was careful to look at her sister’s face and not at the pile of soiled clothing and linens.
‘Yes, I am very well,’ Antoinette said, seeming quite her normal self again, ‘better than I’ve been for a while, chérie!’
She allowed Marie-Louise to help her dress, then pulled her into a warm embrace.
‘It’s so wonderful to be here, and to see you again.’
Antoinette gazed into her sister’s eyes and kissed her cheeks. Marie-Louise turned to see their father come back into the room, his worried face down-turned.
‘There’s nothing physically wrong with her,’ he said quietly.
Relieved, Marie-Louise turned back to her sister and hugged her.
‘But it’s not her body I’m concerned about.’
‘Oh Papa, don’t be dramatic,’ Antoinette said. ‘I simply fell asleep by the river after walking too far with my friends. Obviously, I’ve had a terrible dream, and torn my dress while sleep walking.’
Antoinette had told her father a most bizarre tale. A terrifying tale of death and of…war. He had made sure his daughter was physically safe, left her to clean herself up, and gone into the adjoining office where he had vomited. He had told her, and himself, that it was a nightmare. Just a bad dream, he consoled her as they both cried. It had been her mother’s absence that confirmed for Antoinette that she was neither in heaven, nor hell, nor was she dreaming. No, this wasn’t 1944; it was 1933. She was sixteen years old and she had had a terrible nightmare. Jean-Claude wondered if his daughter had been drugged or taken drugs voluntarily. She had always been wild, but her mother’s death three years earlier had seen her spiral into a kind of mania. She pushed at every barrier before her and saw every rule as though it was there to be broken.
Too much time reading medical books and hanging around those women at the university; filling her young head with silly dreams. His daughter was fascinated by women in medicine and science, and fiercely proud that French women led the world in medical research, but her out-spoken nature and intellect had made her a target at the lycee. And her obsession with old photographs of murders and autopsies had given her the nickname ‘Angel of Death’ even amongst her friends.
Marie-Louise watched her father’s face. He smiled at Antoinette, but they had all seen that smile before. That was what the three children called their father’s ‘we will discuss this later’ smile.
‘Yes, ma petite, that must be it,’ he said finally, smoothing her wild hair.
‘Keep her calm, ma petite chérie,’ her father said. ‘I need to talk to the staff. Perhaps we won’t go to La Rochelle today.’
Antoinette shook her head. ‘Oh no, papa, we must go. I am fine. We had…we will have the best summer.’ Jean-Claude looked at Marie-Louise who nodded her head although she really wasn’t sure why.
‘Very well, we will go, but in a few hours after you have rested. I will be upstairs if you need me,’ he said.
The moment they were alone, Antoinette took two large steps towards her sister, roughly taking hold of her Marie’s slight shoulders.
‘Fetch paper. And something to write with. Now,’ she said in a harsh whisper.
…ne paniquez pas, organisez vous…
Marie-Louise knew better than to question her sister. She slipped into her father’s study and snatched a wad of paper that he used in consultations with patients and one of his prized mechanical pencils. She presented them to Antoinette, who then sat, scribbling on sheet after sheet of paper. She stopped occasionally to stare at the wall, mumble and count on her fingers.
‘I’m already forgetting things, like a dream.’
‘But it was a dream, darling,’ Marie-Louise said. She spoke softly, as though to a child.
Antoinette’s head flicked around to face her sweet sister.
‘It was real, and it was so awful. Oh god, the camps…’ Antoinette’s shoulders hunched, and her pencil flew across the page.
Marie-Louise scanned the words with her eyes, her hand went to her throat.
‘Why are you writing such things? The Great War was years ago. We were just tiny children. Germany is chastened. Oh, Ana…’
Pulling the paper away from her sister’s gaze, Antoinette continued writing and whispering to herself.
‘A new war is just beginning, it will take time, but it’s coming. The new Chancellor of Germany… Lucifer personified.’
Marie-Louise clamped her hand over her mouth, tears springing to her eyes.
‘Stop it, you’re scaring me. It’s not true. Stop…lying…’
Antoinette looked up again, her eyes boring into her sister.
‘Lying? You think I am lying to you? When have I ever lied to you? Papa yes, but you, never! Now, please, hush…I need to remember everything that happened, that will happen… so I can stop…it.’ She returned her attention to the paper and continued writing.
Marie-Louise turned and faced the huge cabinet of leather-bound journals that ran along the clinic wall.
‘Even if I just save you and Marcel…’ Marie-Louise heard in the mumbled, jumbled mess that was coming from her sister’s mouth.
Had she heard right? From the corner of her eye she saw Antoinette’s shoulders stiffen but she continued scribbling on the page. Marie spun on her heel to face Antoinette.
‘What do you mean, save us?’ Marie’s voice was shrill, but her face was blank.
‘Chérie, be quiet. Do not make Papa come back in here.’ Antoinette arched her eyebrow and locked eyes with her sister. ‘He will sedate me if you tell him anything and I may lose this…’ she tapped the paper with her finger. ‘Do you trust me?’
Marie-Louise did not answer, she just stared at her sister in a mixture of horror and fear.
‘Mary-Lou, do you trust me?’
Antoinette eased back the chair, silently, moving slowly. She reached across and took her sister’s thin, pale wrist. The young girl recoiled a little, but she nodded her head, her eyes not leaving Antoinette’s face.
‘This…this…whatever it is…has happened and I have an opportunity to fix things, save the people I love and do what I can to help others.’ Antoinette’s fingers began to tighten around her sister’s wrist.
‘You’re hurting me, Ana,’ Marie-Louise whispered. Antoinette released her arm.
‘I’m so sorry, my darling, but I must finish this. You can read over my shoulder, but you must be quiet, no matter what you see. Let me write and we will talk about it later.’
‘Why do you think you need to write all this?’
Antoinette sat back again and sighed. ‘Because I need to remember what happened, to try to change things. I can’t trust my memories; they are already slipping through my fingers. If I fail, all is lost. Paris will burn and so will we.’
Marie-Louise sunk onto the stool beside her sister as she gathered the bundle of papers and placed it in a neat pile. She flipped through the pages, reading what she had written, her lips moving slightly as she read.
‘Genevieve and Paul must be warned to leave Paris,’ she whispered, returning to her writing.
Marie-Louise sat staring at the paper. She was shocked to see that her sister had written her name and that of their brother. There were two sets of dates after their names, the way one would write dates of birth…and death. She tried to keep quiet, but she felt like she would scream.
‘What is going to happen to me? To Marcel? This is a prophecy.’
Antoinette ignored her.
Minutes later she spoke. ‘I am no prophet.’ Antoinette sounded bitter. Marie-Louise had heard anger in her sister’s voice before, but never bitterness. Marie-Louise looked at the floor.
‘Marie,’ she said and waited for a response. ‘Marie-Louise, look at me.’
Antoinette reached over and caressed her sister’s cheek.
‘Terrible times are ahead for this family and for France if I ignore this. I don’t care if papa does not believe me, but I need your faith. I will make sure it doesn’t happen…again. You just have to trust me, d’accord?’
Marie-Louise had always trusted her sister, but Antoinette had an alarming knack for getting herself into trouble. The young woman crossed her arms and stood at her full height. Even so she was inches shorter than Antoinette.
‘I will trust you if you stay out of trouble.’
‘Oh, my darling, my troublemaking days are over. I need to be very quiet now and be very clever. I will be invisible…so I can stop…’ she shuddered. Marie-Louise reached out to touch her arm.
‘I trust you and I will do what I can to help,’ she whispered and realised she meant it.
Antoinette returned to her writing and the only sound was the scratching of the graphite on the paper and their breath. Marie-Louise could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Antoinette finally pushed the sheets of paper away and turned to her sister, handing her the pencil.
‘Ana, does anything good happen…to me?’
Antoinette drew her sister into an embrace.
‘So many good things happen. You get married and have beautiful children.’
‘I…get married? When? To…whom…?’ Marie-Louise’s cheeks flushed. ‘Children?’
‘Yes, my darling. And Marcel is elected to municipal council.’
‘Oh, that’s marvellous. It’s perhaps easier to believe that something good will happen. I am too young I think,’
Antoinette nodded. ‘Yes, there are so many wonderful things coming.’
Antoinette clung to her sister. The sister she had lost and now found again. Was it a miracle? However, it had happened, she had managed to return to 1933, she had been given another chance to do things properly, to make right all the wrongs. She wondered why she hadn’t come back in time to save their mother, but then she was only a small child when their mother died.
She found the first page of writing and printed carefully on the top;
‘I think I came back to this day because we were happy. I fell asleep last night thinking of the wonderful memories of that…this Summer.’
‘Shall we gather the staff and go to La Rochelle?’ she said to a mystified Marie Louise.