The Last Look

by Francesca Martin on Thursday, 8 December 2011

Based on a true story

Haute-Vienne, France, June 1944

Her last look broke my heart. Her
last look accused. Her last look will never leave my mind. She will never let
me forget. I see her face in every moment. That is my sentence.

The day had begun normally. I'd
shouted at Clarisse who had managed to let the café au lait boil over for the second
time that month. Coffee was our one luxury and I craved its bitter taste in the
mornings. The weekly ration only ever lasted a couple of days. I hadn't had a
lot of sleep. That baby had kept us all awake with its insistent wailing.
Clarisse had been typically apologetic, fussing and scraping as she mopped up
the mess.

I had the usual tense wait for the
post, waiting for the dreaded brown telegram marked with the stamp of Vichy
France to tell me my son had finally been wounded, or worse, in honour of his
country. There had been no telegram, no post. I had flicked aimlessly through
the newspaper, the stories vague and unhelpful. They never held any real news,
I never knew where he might be from one day to the next. A rumour had been
circulating for days that Britain had landed in the North. That the Nazis were
on the back foot. I had lost hope in rumours, it had been years, France was
lost. I saw his name in every list, his face in every photograph.

Ellinor had emerged mid-morning with
that baby in her arms. He looked so like him when he slept, his dark features a
constant reminder of his father's ancestry. Our dirty secret. Would anyone ever
guess? Would we find ourselves hauled out by the local gendarme? Would he give us

"Maman, could you take him," she
asked holding out the bundle for me to take.

"I can't," I claimed, turning a page
of the paper.

"He's your grandchild," Ellinor
reminded me through gritted teeth.

"I know, but I can't," I said
shrugging at her helplessly. "My hands are full," I said nodding at the

Ellinor rolled her eyes and moved
into the kitchen to call Clarisse for help.

"This stalemate can't go on," she
said returning empty-handed. "You have to acknowledge that we live here too,

I shook my head as she spoke,
wanting to block out the words, "Don't Ellinor, I'm still trying to work things

"Work what through, what the hell is
there to work through?"

"Don't swear at me Ellinor."

"You have to start accepting he is
here to stay Maman. Don't blame him," she stressed.

I opened my mouth to reply but she
had stalked out. That was when I heard the town crier's bell.

I sat up, brow wrinkled. It seemed
an odd time of day to be out with news.

Ellinor came into the room, "They're
calling everyone out onto the village green," she said, sounding worried. She
was patting the baby on the back absent-mindedly, "It surely can't be an
identity check at this late notice…" The baby squealed.

I looked at them, suddenly sad. The
last few weeks must have been hard for her.

"Maman," she stated, "Come on."

I nodded slowly and then pulled
myself together. "Right, I'll bring the pram."

Ellinor looked at me in surprise.

"Clarisse, bring the identity
papers," I called, holding Ellinor's gaze.

My daughter had smiled at me then. I
felt happiness for the first time since its birth.

Clarisse had brought the papers and
we had bundled into our coats even though the bright sunshine outside beat down
on our heads, threatening to melt us in our layers. I craved some shade as we
crowded into the street where the entire village seemed to making slow progress
to the village green. There was talk that the Nazis had blocked off the end of
the high street. We congregated on the green, people huddling in groups, swapping
news and looking over their shoulders at the soldiers suspiciously.

I remember thinking there were more
of them than usual. A nearby group looked about the same age of Tristin and one
blonde boy seemed to have his same laugh, a hearty, naughty chuckle that
couldn't fail to make me smile. I had looked at the boy in recognition,
hopefully. When I saw the Nazi uniform, the badges gleaming stubbornly in the
sunlight, the spotless boots I remembered. I looked away.

One of the soldiers was whispering
into the ear of the town crier. "Men and women please separate," he translated.

I frowned as the murmurings around
me grew louder.

The town crier repeated the command.

Slowly, after repeated orders and
whistle blowing, we allowed ourselves to be herded. Some of the men looked
uncomfortable, kissing their wives and daughters worriedly as they lined up.
Ellinor and I had no one to kiss. We moved to a nearby group of women.
Francine, the dressmaker, had still got pins stuck in her bun. I gravitated
towards her, hoping to hear her sing-song voice that had always cheered me. She
embraced me, kissing both cheeks. She cooed over the baby in Ellinor's arms,
telling her how he had grown, seemed already so much bigger. I squinted round
at a nearby group of men who were being moved away from the rest. I noticed
Jean-Tristin, our elderly butcher, among the group. He had always given the
children sweets when they collected our order. He had told them stories of his
youth. He had once been a musician, an accordion player, roaming southern
France with a beautiful wife. He had never once talked about the war, his other
adventure. Francine had once told me that he still visited Passchendale every
year. That he still called out for his mother in his sleep even though she had
been dead for over twenty years.

We were being ordered to walk to the
church. We still had our papers on us but the last time they had checked them
here. I began to feel nervous. The baby started to cry. I noticed one of the
soldiers look over at our group and frown. I willed it to be quiet and stop
drawing attention. Ellinor was shushing it. We entered the great double doors
of the church. I felt instantly comforted as I looked up at the familiar
stained-glass window. The Virgin Mary seemed to exude a turquoise blue that
soothed my insides. Her expression was unchangingly peaceful as we moved
inside. A nearby woman had started to plead with one of the younger soldiers
and a few of the children were crying.

More and more of us filed into the
building. The heat was unbearable. We were bustled and shunted beyond the pews,
crammed to the sides as still more came. There were shouts now, the soldiers
were angrily swapping exchanges with the women who were beseeching them in a
language they couldn't understand. They barked some German words, their
intentions clear. Their rifles menacing. A few of the soldiers appeared
dragging something through the doors determinedly. A box of some sort. I
couldn't make it out. Fear was bubbling within me. The soldiers left and people
were backing away from the box. Wires attached to the box led out of the
building. The doors were shut. We were locked inside. Cries went up as the
thing started to spew out smoke. Ellinor's eyes were huge as I turned,

We had to get out. It was my only
thought. We had to get out. I started to look around us, at others clawing at
the thick stone walls, clambering over the wooden pews, calling out familiar
names. Ellinor stood fixedly to the spot as I started to drag a stool towards a
window at the back of the altar. It was within reach. I froze as shots rang out
in the distance. The women all turned sharply, listening to a continuing
barrage of bullets. What had happened to the men? There were screams now,
children crying so hard their faces had turned bright red, their lungs bursting
with their cries. This was hell. This is what hell will be like.

I clambered onto the stool, calling
for Ellinor, beckoning her to me.

"I can reach the window," I
insisted, hitching my skirt up, forgetting any decency. Ellinor stared at me,
already lost to another place, her hands clutched around the baby. Its cries
now blended with the rest. I couldn't think for the noise.

I still don't know how I did it but
the glass of the window was smashed and I could feel the hopeful hint of a
breeze on my face as I hiked my body up to the gap. There were blasts from the
centre of the church, great belching black smoke making my eyes sting as I
turned to help Ellinor up. When I looked back I could see a sea of bodies, a
room of women and children half obscured in the smoke. Some had picked up a
long pew, trying to ram the doors open. Flames had begun to lick the opposite
wall. They were killing us. We had been sent here to die. The shots in the
village continued to ring out. Fists pounded on every surface of the church. It
felt like a lifetime that I was seeing the endless faces below me, many
distorted with wailing. Children clinging to their mother's legs, women I had
known and schooled with, women I had worked with, dined with, rowed with and my
own daughter standing below me.

"Ellinor," I called, one leg now
half out of the window, "Climb up," I urged.

I had manoeuvred my whole body onto
the edge of the window frame and could make out the ground below. I would
surely break a leg jumping.

"Ellinor," I repeated urgently,
preparing myself for the leap.

Ellinor looked at me as another
blast exploded in the centre. I could feel my face burning on impact. I gasped
from the pain.

"Ellinor," I cried, frightened.

Ellinor clambered onto the stool.
She held the baby up to me.

"Take him," she said.

I looked at her unblinking.

She frowned, "Maman quickly, take
him," she said, lifting the little body an inch higher. It was within my grasp.

I was frozen, half-dangling out of
the window. The gentle air of our French summer was wafting around my legs, my
upper body was still in hell.

"Take him," she cried.

I stared at her face, her pleading
face, and then I turned to the ground below. I looked back one last time and
our eyes met. I jumped.

I landed awkwardly outside of the
church. The smooth, cool walls of the church loomed before me as I stared up at
the window I had escaped from. I held one hand to the cool stone, the window
was high above me. I couldn't get back up. There was an enormous explosion from
inside and smoke poured out of the gap. The screams and the wails were dying
down on the other side of the smooth stones. Her face danced in front of me.
The next blast threw me from the wall, the stones crumbling in front of me.

When I opened my eyes again the
noises had stopped, the world was eerily silent. In the distance houses
smouldered in the evening light. In front of me the blackened stones showed me
the entrance to hell. I crawled to a shadow, lying in the failing light with
only one image burned forever into my mind.

Her last look broke my heart. Her
last look accused. Her last look will never leave my mind. She will never let
me forget. I see her face in every moment. That is my sentence.



Free Newsletter

Sign up for our daily fashion news, beauty buys, competitions and offers from W&H, Time Inc. UK and its partners.


Latest Poll

How much have you spent in the last month on clothes and accessories online?

woman&home magazine

  • TODAY ONLY: Subscribe to w&h and save 50%