Arlette's Story(3)

By: Angela Barton

Having leant their bikes against the barn, Arlette waved to her father who was walking towards them through the wheat field behind the farmhouse, Klara running along beside him. His eyes were shadowed beneath his hat but he smiled and strode out of the golden field, cupping his right hand in front of him.

‘We’re all set for tomorrow,’ said Henri, rubbing the wheat heads between his palms and blowing the chaff away. He offered his children a kernel each.

‘It’s ready,’ said Gilbert, tasting it. ‘Very dry.’

Arlette bit into hers, cracking it between her teeth. She knew that if it wasn’t bone dry the harvest was likely to rot.

‘We start harvesting first thing tomorrow and this year is more important than ever due to the shortages,’ said Henri. ‘I’ve spoken with the neighbours. Thierry, Bruno and Monique are all willing to help. I want you to sharpen the scythes today, Gilbert. Thanks to the fuel shortages we have no choice but to harvest the old way. There’ll be no tractor or conveyor belt this year.’ He turned to Arlette. ‘Choose two chickens for the pot today, ma pêche. We’ll eat a large dinner to prepare for the cutting and we’ll make extra to feed everyone tomorrow. Let’s pray for good weather.’

The following day dawned with drooping, golden heads of wheat swaying in the breeze, sounding as if they were whispering in anticipation of the harvest. Inside the kitchen a small group of neighbours huddled around the stove that Arlette had lit to take the early morning chill from the room. The logs crackled and the friends hugged their cups of coffee, discussing plans for the day. It hadn’t escaped Arlette’s notice that Gilbert had slowly manoeuvred his way around the kitchen so he was standing next to Francine.

Henri removed his cap and scratched his head. ‘Gilbert and I will be cutting the wheat starting at the top end of the field closest to the brook. I want everyone to stay well back from the scythes. Bruno and Thierry, you’ll be gathering the wheat into bundles. Ladies, your job is to tie them and stand them into stoops to dry. It looks as if it’s going to be another hot day, so Arlette and Francine, please bring jugs of water and apples with you.’

Everyone nodded.

Henri shuffled and rubbed his stubbled chin. ‘I just want to say, thank you. We couldn’t have managed this without your help now that the tractor and binder are out of action. We have a tough couple of days ahead of us, but just think of Marshal Pétain or Hitler when you’re chopping and binding, and we’ll soon get it finished!’

Thierry, the pig farmer from down in the valley guffawed and Bruno and Monique, Francine’s parents, exchanged a glance.

Everyone left the kitchen, crossing the farmyard. They pushed their way through the metre-high wheat field, their thighs pushing against the stalks. The sun was now above the horizon, already warming their skin and dampening their backs. The growing heat had also stirred insects, causing the friends to swipe and spit as they made their way to the far corner of the field. Refreshments were placed in the shade of a tree and covered with rectangles of muslin cloth weighted at each corner by glass beads. Arlette noticed Francine watching Gilbert as he hoisted his jacket above his head, momentarily revealing his taut stomach. Her brother glanced back at Francine, making her blush. He threw his jacket beneath the tree.

Harvesting began. Henri and Gilbert started the process, walking steadily six feet apart while swinging their scythes rhythmically from right to left. The stalks collapsed and were walked over by father and son as they continued forwards. Bruno and Thierry followed a short distance behind. They crouched to collect the fallen wheat, assemble them into piles and tie them with loose stray stalks. The girls and Francine’s mother fell into step at the rear, standing bunches in groups of six and leaning them against each until they resembled miniature tepees.

This continued for over an hour until the group had walked down the length of the field and back up again, returning close to their starting point. Once there, they stopped to rest. Arlette sat beside Francine and Gilbert, all three gratefully quenching their thirst. Gilbert laid back, his chest rising and falling with each deep breath. He studied his hands.