Arlette's Story

By: Angela Barton

Chapter One

June 1940


Arlette turned to see her friend, Francine, running up Montverre Hill with her fair hair swinging from side to side and her clogs scuffing the parched ground. Arlette had been leading a cow from the barn to the field but stopped when she heard Francine shouting.

Her friend hurried across the farm entrance, scattering a cluster of chickens before stopping and leaning forwards with hands on her hips, trying to catch her breath.

‘Qu’est-ce qui se passe?’ asked Arlette.

‘C’est Pétain.’

‘Pétain? What about him?’

Arlette knew that when their fathers talked about the French leader, usually over a glass of pastis, the conversation became heated and resulted in insults being directed towards the man.

‘He’s abandoned Paris to the Germans.’

Arlette gave a high-pitched laugh and continued to lead the beast across the lane, its huge bulk swaying and slewing as it walked. ‘Don’t be silly.’ Although they had both turned twenty earlier in the year, Francine was still occasionally liable to childish exaggeration.

Francine followed. ‘It’s true.’

‘No one gives away a city as if it were a bag of apples.’

‘Pétain has. Maman heard it on the wireless.’

Arlette’s smile wavered. ‘When?’

‘Just before she’d finished cleaning the mayor’s office.’

‘No. I mean when was Pétain supposed to have done this?’

‘This morning.’

‘But why?’

Francine held out her hands, palms upturned. ‘I’ve no idea. Papa says he’s a coward.’

Arlette reached the gate to the field and unhooked the lock before slipping the cord from the cow’s neck. ‘Allez!’ She slapped its rump and watched it amble towards the herd. She held on to the top bar of the sun-warmed gate in a daze. Her eyes scanned the landscape, half expecting to see a line of German soldiers marching across its fields. The war; that vague, far off entity that was spoken of in hushed tones for fear of it becoming a reality, suddenly seemed so much closer.

‘Stop daydreaming? Do you know what this means?’ asked Francine.

‘I’m not daydreaming. I’m thinking. Will they come here?’

‘I hope not. Can you imagine?’

Arlette saw fear in her friend’s grey eyes. ‘Come on. I need to talk with Father.’

Arlette gripped Francine’s hand and pulled her back towards the farm. The women hurried in the direction of the stone barn, running through the yard and dispersing the reassembled chickens and were greeted by Klara, the farm’s Brittany spaniel. Arlette opened the huge cowshed door and heard her father curse. The interior was striped with sunlight that streamed in through gaps in the eaves and the familiar smell of pungent manure stung the back of her nose. Her father, Henri, raked his hands through his thick greying hair and noticed the girls standing in the doorway.

‘Ma pêche!’ He beckoned to Arlette.

Arlette smiled. He’d called her his peach since she was a baby. She leant into his broad chest and nestled just below his shoulder, his shirt infused with laundry soap, tobacco and fresh sweat. A safe place.

‘Have you heard?’ asked Arlette.

‘Yes. Your father was here earlier, Francine.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘I’m not sure how it will affect us here in the south, but Pétain’s weakness won’t stop us from bringing in the harvest. We’re a long way from Paris and hopefully we won’t be too affected by the armistice. I’m sure we’ll be left alone to get on with our work.’

He tried to sound matter-of-fact but Arlette sensed a change in his voice. Despite his apparent disregard for the information, she heard a faltering that hadn’t been present before.

‘Where’s Gilbert?’ asked Francine.

It was unspoken knowledge that Francine had become sweet on Arlette’s elder brother this past year.

‘He went inside for bread and goats’ cheese,’ said Henri, loosening his embrace on his daughter. ‘Go and tell him to hurry up. We won’t let the Germans disrupt our lives.’

Arlette nodded. If her father wanted to pretend that everything was fine, then she would reciprocate.