Strange how monotony can make time stand still. And yet, if asked, Abigail could not tell you what she wore on her birthday in 1943, even though every day seemed to stretch for an agonizing length of tedious and exhausting boredom.
Over four years. Almost one thousand and five hundred days. The same thing, day after day after day. All she seemed to do was pace around her house, checking windows, locking doors.
Outside her world a lot was happening. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and the United States joined in the conflict, you could almost feel hope flicker back, like a faint pulse. On the verboten BBC she heard of the invasion of Italy. The victory in Stalingrad, while truly sounding horrendous and terribly violent, was at least a bright light. Germany was being beaten back, inch by painful inch.
Britain succeeded in regaining all ground earned through blood by Italy and Germany in North Africa. The disastrous assault on Dieppe had been grim. Then the Allies attacked Egypt, sweeping west through Libya.
When Germany took control of Vichy France, local anger rose again. The armistice signed between the Vichy government and Germany was torn like tissue on the wind. The Axis withdrew further from Tunisia, bolstering their forces in Europe. And still nothing changed for her or her neighbours.
It was the news of Africa she tried to follow more than anything else, even though an increase in Resistance civil disobedience was all the local talk, from the limited contact she had with locals, anyway. The one person she needed to hear from had gone completely silent. She still had no word from James. With all the fighting in that fucking desert it was starting to feel like deliberate torture.
Four bloody years.
So here, again, tonight, she made the rounds of her home. She went around the exterior walls of the upstairs, closing the blinds. Locking the windows. Leaving her bedroom light on as she did so. She used the washroom, then made the same circle around the downstairs she’d done every night for over four years. Windows. Doors. Blinds. Lights off.
Then she’d turn off the bedroom light as though she’d gone to sleep, and made her way downstairs, through the cellar, down the secret steps and in to the shelter. With the inside door tightly closed she turned the light on and took stock of what was left on the shelves.
It was running out. She barely ate, because she hardly expended any energy. The canned good supply was dwindling. Each can of vegetables lasted at least two days. Anything that came fresh from the garden was mostly taken, what was left to her never did make it through winter. Luckily one neighbour had taken to hunting and not telling anyone, so he was able to get meat to her every now and then, since she was now basically an honorary member of the Resistance through no actions of her own.
The man that had shown up past curfew at her home had been one Phillipe Moreau, and he had been lost in the dark trying to find the Boulangers, honest members of the French Resistance. In the past few weeks they’d managed to take out a few phone lines, and she knew at that moment they were trying to sabotage the electricity grid – there was a large switching station not too far from their division. They used some of Abigail’s far-flung outbuildings as hide outs, and just like that she was protected by a network of surprisingly well-armed and well-organised Free French.
The only real positive of being out in the country was that life was a lot less restricted than in the larger cities. Abigail had been quite upset at the rules they had to follow until they heard the tales of people being arrested past curfew and disappearing, hopefully to work farms and not because they’d been killed and hidden away. The not knowing and constant paranoia would have driven her mad.
Out here she respected the curfew, turned over the Army’s share of her vegetable garden without complaint. That’s all she really had to do. The animals were long gone, taken during the initial battle so now the barn and chicken coop stood empty. When rations were handed out she turned up, feeling guilty since she had a more than ample supply of goods when she knew for a fact that families of five were only given twice what she received. It truly wasn’t fair but the neighbours couldn’t be wondering what she was eating. She shared her rations with the larger families to keep their goodwill but still kept some to make it look like she needed it.
Who knew? In a few more months she might need all of her rations.
She was paid back for some rations with preserves. The Boulangers, for example, made fantastic jam from berries their children collected. She gave them her sugar and received a few jars of jam throughout the year. Having something she enjoyed, even if it was just jam on a stale cracker, was sadly one of the bright points of her year. The Martins also shared the odd loaf of bread, which was a nice change. She gave them her share of cooking oil since she had more than enough stored in her shelter. At Christmas they would even send her a cake.
Hauptmann Bossong continued to be a pest to her. She had no idea what kept him trapped in this part of France. Maybe he liked it, or maybe he was overlooked by the higher ups in the German military. She had no idea. She continued to be polite but unavailable. He kept his hands to himself, at least. From time to time he would show up with gifts – extra sugar rations, chocolate, champagne. All these she turned over to the neighbours that were helping her.
If he ever found out she’d be dead. He clearly thought he was harbouring a secret crush that no one else knew about.
Phillip Moreau had found it delightfully amusing. For four years a man chases a woman who obviously has no interest in him. What kind of pathetic man does such a thing? Of course, Phillipe was French and had rarely met a woman that said no.
Abigail never admitted it to anyone, but she found herself feeling sorry for the Captain in spite of her fear of him. To some extent Phillipe was right: she had never encouraged him and other than the day he took her to view her father’s body he had never tried to touch her. Perhaps he’d never been with a woman and the thought was terrifying to him. She could believe that: every woman she spoke to had the same reaction to him that she did.
He wasn’t … right. He had ice water in his veins.
For a while the warm-blooded German men had definitely been scarier. Sometimes they got bored, and when soldiers got bored and had access to alcohol women had best be hidden and forgotten about. The Richards had relatives around Boulogne that had been slaughtered in their home, their daughters raped; the youngest of them just fourteen years old.
No German soldier had so much as looked at Abigail, and if that was the effect of having Hauptmann Bossong interested in her she’d endure the occasional awkward conversation. Recently his visits were becoming few and far between as the Allies seemed to be gaining momentum.
Despite her boredom and isolation, she didn’t dare hope for too much. The arrival of American and British/Canadian forces were certainly good news, but if it amounted to nothing she’d hate to be denied something as precious as hope. What she needed more than anything was confirmation that her husband still lived. Anything else was background noise until she knew for a fact, one way or the other.
There was the slightest trembling that shook the walls of her shelter suddenly. After flickering, the page of her book before her went black as the lights went out overhead. She hesitated, then snuck up the cellar stairs and crossed the kitchen to where she knew her odds and ends were kept in a drawer. She found a candle, then after more groping in the dark she found some matches. She should really keep some of these in the shelter, but usually she was sleeping when the power went out so it didn’t matter.
She struck the match and lit the candle’s wick. It wasn’t the power outage that had her concerned. It was that sound that had come first. She knew what explosions sounded like.
A peek out the front windows told her nothing was happening outside. In the moonlight everything looked like it normally did. A glance out the kitchen window confirmed that the road was empty, as well.
Something was wrong. Abigail wondered if maybe the Resistance had made its first strike this close to her house.
Next she went upstairs, checking out the windows up there. All the way to the coast nothing was stirring that she could see. Out the bathroom window she saw it.
Orange flames, high enough for her to see from five miles away. That explosion was definitely the work of people she knew, and it most certainly caused this power outage.
Headlights were racing from the fire at that moment. She let the curtain fall back in to place, returning to her bedroom, sitting on the edge of her bed and listening so intently she could hear her own pulse. On a night as quiet as this she heard the vehicle on the road as it got closer to her yard. And then it stopped. A car door shut. She heard frantic voices, yelling, not even trying to be quiet. They certainly weren’t local, were they?
Pounding from the back door made her jump.
“Abigail! Abigail, open up at once!”
Her heart leapt in to her throat but she carried her candle to the kitchen. Before she could get to the door it burst inward, making her cry out and nearly drop the flame.
Large men in uniform crowded in to her kitchen, making it feel very small. They carried someone with them, and he was moaning loudly. Everyone was shouting in panic. Something was dripping dark liquid on the floor. A boot smeared it. It looked like blood.
Hauptmann Bossong took her by the elbow, shining a torch in her face. She winced at the bright light. Who had taken the candle away from her?
“Abigail, please. Help him. Er ist mein bruder.”
She didn’t need to be told. The man now being laid out on her kitchen table was the mirror image of the captain, if not younger-looking. Something was wrong with his arm. His jacket sleeve was torn and dark stains were wicking their way from his elbow to his shoulder.
“What happened?” She stepped forward, leaning over where the wound must have been.
“Eine explosion. He was caught by shrapnel.”
“Take off his jacket. I need to see what’s happened.”
She went to a cupboard where she knew she’d find scissors. There were enough torches flashing light all over she was able to see them immediately. But the time she got back they’d rolled him to one side and were carefully easing the sleeve off his arm. It wasn’t working – he was screaming “Nein – hör auf! Nein!”
“Okay, wait. We’ll cut his coat off.”
They lowered him to his back again, and Abigail set to snipping away at the sleeve at the shoulder. A pity the fabric was of such good quality – it was very hard to cut with dulling scissors. But she got them all the way around, and one of the soldiers lifted his shoulder slightly so she could pull the fabric away. Abigail did it as gently as she could but the boy still yelled and cursed in between bouts of “Das tut weh!”
She knew it was hurting him. Let him yowl if it helped.
As he was rolled on to his back a second time the arm flopped to the side, which mercifully hurt so much the boy passed out.
“Friedrich!” The captain was as close to emotional as she’d ever seen a German get. “Friedrich, wake up!”
“Let him rest,” she instructed, prodding the torn mass of flesh in the arm. “If he keeps moving around and screaming we might make this worse.”
She couldn’t imagine worse, though. His skin was ripped apart in ribbons, likely done by multiple pieces of flying metal. The muscle and skin were all the same colour. She couldn’t even begin to stitch this closed, but she could stop the bleeding.
“All I can do is tie his arm off in a tourniquet. It’ll ensure he doesn’t bleed to death before you get him to a hospital.”
The captain nodded jerkily. He wasn’t made of stone; he genuinely had concern for his brother. Abigail felt a pang of sympathy, but she didn’t let it linger or else it could become a habit. She got one of the solders to remove his belt as she got a bottle of Russian vodka out of the cabinet. It was from the captain – if he was pleased that she kept it he didn’t show it.
She poured vodka over the bloody mess to clean it, but that was the most she could do. She had sulfanilamide and morphine downstairs, but that was going to stay her secret. She certainly wasn’t going to produce army-issue first aid supplies from her root cellar.
She tightened the belt enough to staunch the blood loss, maybe a little tighter than she would in a hospital. She doubted it would get too infected during the half-hour drive to Calais. The boy likely would have been fine without her help, but the captain had panicked and brought his brother to her first. Again, sympathy. Abigail pushed it aside.
The soldiers carried their unconscious genosse from her house a lot more quietly than they’d entered. She stayed by the kitchen table, staring down at the blood on the wooden top. She moved to the sink to wet a cloth to start cleaning, and when she returned she realized the captain hadn’t left yet. He had his flashlight playing over the table. The only other light came from her candlestick set on the counter. So that’s where it went.
“Hauptmann Bossong,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “are you all right?”
She startled him, and he turned wide and confused eyes on her. “I couldn’t see how bad it was. All I could see was the all the blood. I was so sure he was going to die.”
Abigail could do one of two things. She could keep the cold distance from him she’d been fighting to maintain. Or she could give in to her girl side and act on that sympathy she felt rising to surface again.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “You did the right thing. You assessed the situation before reacting. That’s what a good leader does.”
He exhaled and looked at her hand. Then he looked back at her.
“Thank you, Abigail. I am sorry if we startled you tonight.”
This was very wrong. She was actually feeling comfortable.
He took her hand off his shoulder but held it, thumb running over the back. “Thank you for helping Friedrich.” Then he was gone. Abigail was left to clean the blood from the floor and table by herself in the dark.