Novel Excerpt

Rendez-vous at Caluire

Wednesday, November 11, 1942 – Lyon, France

Jean opened his eyes to early morning darkness and fumbled for the pack of cigarettes on his nightstand. It was shameful, being such a slave to tobacco that he couldn’t get out of bed without having a cigarette first, but what could he say? Smoking was the only extravagance he permitted himself (unless perhaps you counted Colette, which you really couldn’t). Besides, he was frugal in almost every other way: nothing but fifteen-franc lunches, suits so worn they would have disgraced a scarecrow, a single room hardly larger than a monk’s cell. Anyone who’d known him two years ago would have been dumbfounded by the meagerness of his current life, he reflected, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs for the first and only head rush of the day. He’d been a préfet then, an exalted servant of the state living in a préfecture surrounded by wrought iron and appearing at public events in a uniform with fringed epaulets. But that career had ended with the arrival of the Germans. Now he had a new job, which was organizing the fight against them—an assignment that had come straight from General de Gaulle himself.

A sudden rapping at the door interrupted his thoughts: one heavy knock, a beat, then two lighter knocks. Alain? he wondered, putting down his cigarette and pulling on his pants. Well, obviously, that was his knock, but why come so early? The rest of Jean’s day would be filled with a series of rendezvous, strategy meetings, arguments and complaints. Couldn’t he have just fifteen minutes to himself at the start of his day? Was that too much to ask? But apparently it was, since he had a secretary so afraid of being late that he almost always arrived early. There were worse things, Jean supposed, but as he padded across the room to open the door for Alain, he couldn’t think what they would be.

Bonjour,” said Alain as soon as Jean opened the door, jumping inside so quickly that Jean had to take a step back. Alain was high-strung by nature, but he seemed unusually tense this morning.

“Are you all right?” Jean asked, taking a close look at the boy.

“Of course I’m all right,” answered Alain peevishly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Jean shrugged, deciding that if something was wrong it must be personal. Alain was so slight he always reminded Jean of an elf, but that didn’t preclude a love life. Some girl—Suzette perhaps—might have done him wrong. Suzette was useful in any number of ways, but she was a relentless flirt. She’d be quite capable of flustering someone like Alain, who’d lived a monastic life, first in Catholic boarding schools, then in Nissen huts while training with the Free French Forces in Hampshire, England. It was unlikely he’d ever even been alone with a girl, much less slept with one unless perhaps it was a putain.

“Well, sit down then and start reading me the papers,” Jean said, gesturing toward the table which stood by the window overlooking the Rhône. It was how they always started their day: with Alain reading the newspapers aloud while Jean shaved and dressed.

But Alain only shook his head. “Sorry, no papers today,” he said, holding out a thick stack of messages instead. Jean looked at his adjutant in surprise. Reviewing the messages that had come in overnight was always their second order of business, and Alain was not the type to break with routine. Suddenly alarmed, he pulled out a chair and snatched up the first of the decoded transmissions:

Etes compagnon Libération, je dis compagnon Libération—amicales felicitations de tous.

For several long moments, Jean stared at the words—personal words, words addressed to him alone—yet he couldn’t make sense of them. Surely there must be some mistake. But no message could have been clearer or more to the point: Charles de Gaulle, who headed the Free French Forces in London, was designating him a Companion of the Liberation. It wasn’t the highest honor de Gaulle could have bestowed, but it was so beyond anything Jean had expected that he sat there stunned, feeling unworthy, almost ashamed. Naturally, he had plans for the Resistance, plans that he’d confided at one time or another to de Gaulle, but as of yet that’s all they were—just plans.

Alain cleared his throat then, and Jean, who had nearly forgotten about him, looked up to see him standing at attention and nodding his head ecstatically. Afraid of what he might be about to blurt out, Jean looked back at the scrap of paper and frowned. “There are more important things to transmit at the moment,” he said. “When I think that London put the life of a radio operator at risk for this . . . ”

But before he could go any further, Alain interrupted him with what must have been a prepared speech. “Permit me to congratulate you with all my heart,” he said, stammering a little, “for this great honor which you so richly deserve.”

Jean groaned inwardly, but Alain wasn’t finished. With a flourish worthy of a magician, he produced a cone of newsprint from behind his back and handed it to his boss. What next? thought Jean, taking the cone and peeking inside. But he laughed as soon as he saw what was there—a croissant and a brioche, both of them still warm.

“But pâtisseries like this are forbidden,” he said, looking up at Alain, whose face had turned a bright shade of pink. “How the devil did you manage it?”

“I told the clerk it was for my sister’s birthday,” grinned Alain, looking as pleased with himself as if he’d just derailed a troop train or uncovered a nest of infiltrators.

Jean lifted his eyebrows. Tricks like this were against his rules—they were too risky, too likely to draw unwanted attention—but Alain was so excited he couldn’t bear to lecture him just now.

“Here, you choose,” he said, extending the newspaper-wrapped pastries toward Alain. “No, really,” he insisted, “take the one you want. After all, you were the one who went to get them.”                                                                                                                                             

*          *          *

For the next several hours, the two men sat at Jean’s oilcloth-covered table working their way through the stack of WT messages. If a response was required, Jean dictated it to Alain, who would see to it that the message was passed on to a wireless operator for later transmission. It was time-consuming and tedious work, however, so by the time they came to the last message (a short one announcing General Delestraint’s appointment as commander-in-chief of l’Armée secrète), it was nearly noon.

“What do you say,” said Jean, stretching his arms over his head and grunting. “Le Coq au vin for lunch?”

Outside on the street, the sky was gray and thick with clouds. It wasn’t winter yet, not quite anyway, but Jean knew that the nice days were behind them now. Only the Sunday before, he’d seen children playing in the parks, boquinistes presiding over their stalls along the river, lovers strolling listlessly along the quays. But now November had arrived, and with it the rains that never seemed to let up for more than an hour or two. Even the native Lyonnais complained, but for Jean, who had grown up amidst the palm trees of southern France, this dark and soggy descent into winter was soul-deadening. Every day, the same gray pavements, the same gray sky: it was like being in purgatory.

As they walked along Cours Gambetta toward the bistro, Jean was only half-listening as Alain complained about the various chefs. They were so petty,so jealous. The Resistance didn’t exist for them, only their own little fiefdoms. It was impossible to work with them.

Jean looked over at Alain whose ears had turned red from the cold. “But without the chefs and their movements, you would have nothing to do,” he said, teasing him gently.

But Alain was in no mood to be placated. “They just won’t keep their promises,” he said as they passed still another display window which was empty except a sign reading Rien à vendre (nothing for sale). “They know very well that you put me in charge of the Délégation,” continued Alain, “but whenever I ask them for something they brush me aside. So far they haven’t helped with anything. Not with personnel, not with safe houses—nothing! I’ve had to find everything myself.”

Jean caught the rising tone of Alain’s voice and gave him a warning look—they were on the street after all—then added somewhat absent-mindedly, “Eh bien, but what can you do?” It wasn’t that he didn’t understand Alain’s frustration, but he’d been working in Lyon for the last six months, long enough to know what the chefs were like. They’d never been brought to heel, not by Jean or anyone else—not in any military sense anyway—and they probably wouldn’t be until the Allies appeared on French soil. But what could either of them do? Just get on with it and hope that in time perhaps . . .                                                    

Just then, though, approaching the Guillotiere bridge, Jean caught sight of an unexpected sentry manning a machine gun—and on his head, a coal-scuttle helmet! So it had happened: the Germans were here! He’d predicted their arrival as soon as he’d heard about the Allied landing in North Africa—when was it?—just last Sunday. That had put Eisenhower’s troops within striking distance of France, so you didn’t have to be a military genius to guess that Hitler would rush in troops of his own. The southern coast of France had to be protected, no matter what arrangement he’d worked out with the Vichy government.

Jean exchanged a quick glance with Alain and the two of them stopped, hearing the rumble of heavy vehicles behind them. Turning, they watched in horror as a caravan of canvas-topped trucks flashed by them, followed moments later by a formation of goose-stepping troops. Marching past in a grayish-green blur, they seemed almost mechanical, a wind-up army whose hobnailed boots swung forward automatically, striking the pavement with such an ear-splitting cadence that the crowds on either side of the street stood there paralyzed. It was almost as if a wizard had waved his wand, immobilizing them.

Jean looked over at Alain—Stay calm—but he could feel tears stinging his own eyes. For two and a half years, the Germans had confined themselves to the upper two-thirds of the country, leaving Marshal Pétain to run what was left of it from his headquarters in Vichy. But now the Boches were grabbing what was left of France. Though Jean had foreseen it, it still came as a shock—a visceral shock, like a kick in the gut—to see Wehrmacht soldiers marching past no more than an arm’s length away, their faces clearly visible beneath the beetle-like brow of their helmets. Unwillingly, his eyes were drawn to a pimply boy with the shadow of a mustache on his upper lip. Not far from him was a thin-faced man with dark baggy eyes, and there, so close Jean could have clapped him on the shoulder, a pug-nosed lad with rosy cheeks and wire-rimmed glasses. It was unnerving, seeing the enemy this way, as individuals, that is—ordinary, commonplace, no different from anyone else—but how could it matter when they’d all sworn allegiance to Hitler?        

When the last row of soldiers had filed past, Alain turned to Jean. “I need to go back to rue Sala, just to check . . .” he whispered, his face stiff and pale. “I may have left my codes out, or my revolver, or—”

Jean nodded. “Yes, go,” he said, waving him away. Alain was being ridiculous. It was unlikely that the Gestapo (who had surely slunk into town ahead of the troops) would be converging on Alain’s room in the middle of the day when they could have come at four in the morning to seize not just his codes, but him too. Still, Jean understood the boy’s panic.

The Vichy police had been a nuisance, but now, with the SD on the scene, their difficulties would be multiplied: the city clogged with checkpoints, rendezvous even riskier, voitures gonio trolling the streets in plain sight. Jean had seen these trucks in Paris. On the outside, they looked like delivery vans, but inside they carried equipment that could pick up even the faintest of radio signals.

Little by little, the crowd around Jean started to melt away. Women hurried off with their string bags to queue in whatever line looked promising. Workmen wearing coveralls scrambled back into manholes or quickly picked up their tools and disappeared. Teenagers, out on the streets during their lunch hour, scurried back to their lycées. But Jean continued to stand there. His day had started with a decoration from de Gaulle and seldom-seen pastries, but the delight of that moment had dissipated. Thinking it over, he wasn’t even sure what the decoration represented. He was a Companion of the Liberation, but so what? Would that make his job any easier?Would his rivals suddenly start taking orders from him? Would l’Armée secrète  finally coalesce into a fighting force that might actually help, rather than hinder, the Allies? No, not likely. 

For all he knew, the medal might not be an honor at all. Perhaps, in awarding it, de Gaulle was merely being strategic. He knew what Jean was up against, so perhaps he was merely trying to strengthen Jean’s hand, to give him a bit of extra leverage. But the chefs were a rowdy group. De Gaulle might have chosen Jean as his personal surrogate, his man on the ground, but did they care? No. Coordination was a dirty word as far as they were concerned. There were a few exceptions, of course—Lévy for instance—but Jean still spent the better part of his time embroiled in their squabbles, from the monarchist Frenay on the right to the haughty d’Astier de la Vigerie on the left, with God knows how many stops in between. Trying to bring these disparate groups together was like trying to conduct an orchestra when everyone was playing a different piece of music.  

A sudden spattering of raindrops made Jean look up at the sky, which had turned an ominous shade of grayish-green. Yes, he thought, as the rain hit the brim of his hat, this is what I am in for, a long dull season of lowering skies and sodden feet.

He turned up the collar of his battered overcoat and plunged his hands deep into its pockets, wondering how far off spring was and whether or not he’d be alive to see it.         

© Roberta Hartling Gates, all rights reserved