Severe pain in his leg woke Claude Beauchêne. Most of his nights were sleepless and when he found a few hours of sleep he dreamt of entrenchments, foxholes, gun emplacements, and underground bunkers. In his nightmares, he heard the cries of wounded soldiers, the noise of the weapons, the impacts of the firing of projectiles by the opposing troops.
He had been wounded in Bir Hakeim, an oasis in the Libyan desert, during the Battle of Gazala. When the weather was about to change, his leg injury reminded him of the last battle under Lieutenant Colonel Prince Dimitri Amilakhvari. He had, and still, adored this man of Russian-Georgian origin, this iconic figure of the Legion.
The night was over, the morning penetrated through the half-closed blind.
He looked over to his cupboard, on which was displayed his Képi blanc, the white cap, the cap of the members of the Foreign Legion.
His small apartment in a three-story house, built before the first world war, was very modest, with Spartan amenities, and resembled more the room he had lived in as a legionary. There was a cupboard, a bed, a chair, a table and a sideboard with a few utensils hanging from the wall.
Behind the door hung his old uniform jacket with the medals and decorations of various battles and military operations, and his belt with the combat knife.
He was not accustomed to a different environment, to a cosy house, wife, children, garden, flower pots, dog, all the paraphernalia of bourgeois life. He would not have found such a life comfortable or desirable. All his life consisted of barracks, army drills, shooting, barking orders, the burning sun, his comrades.
The Legion was his family. Legio Patria Nostra, The Legion is our Fatherland, the motto of the Légion étrangère, which was tattooed on his right forearm. He never had married. From time to time he visited Justine, a woman from La Réunion. A woman with brown skin, long black hair, and a Rubenesque figure.
He limped to the small pantry to pull out a tin of coffee and put the kettle on a small table cooker on the sideboard. His lifestyle was simple, monotonous, but he felt happy and content. Until recently, when the German army invaded France and established its headquarters in his town, Angers, southwest of Paris. They did the same in many towns in Vichy France, the occupied area.
He poured the hot water over the coffee powder, added two lumps of sugar, opened the blind and looked out of the window, over to the castle on the opposite side of the river Maine. This old castle with its round proud towers symbolised power and resistance and was housing the “Apocalypse Tapestry”. Claude thought with a bitter smile that apocalypse had reached their town, their lives.
There was a damp spot in the corner of the room, the roof had been leaking for months. The few roofers of the town had died in the war or had been deported.
He remembered the observation he made yesterday.
He had forgotten it after his walk through the town after he had lunch in a small bistro in Rue Chaperonnière near the Saint Maurice Cathedral, where he met casually (or better to say conspiratorially) with his friends and former comrades. They had formed a secret group of the Résistance. Claude hated the Germans, he fought for France, for the independence of his country from foreign powers.
He was happy, and proud, that he had killed a few Germans in the battle of Gazala, members of the troops led by Field Marshal Rommel. He was proud of it and it did him good when the memories came back. It even relieved the pain in his leg.
He remembered, when he had walked up a side street, had rested for a moment to give his leg time to cope with the uphill walk, that he saw from the corner of his eye, a pale face at a window in the second floor of a building, which had a crêperie in the ground floor. The appearance resembled more a ghost than a human being. The pale face moved back when Claude stopped and looked up to the window.
He knew the owner of the shop, where he frequently bought croissants au chocolat. The owner sympathized with the Résistance, was not an active member but a source of information which was exchanged when he collected his croissants and no eavesdropper was near to listen to their short, whispered conversation.
Since the Germans invaded, soldiers, officers and officials were seen everywhere. A paralysing tension was present in the town. The Gestapo raided houses during the night; people, especially Jews, were rounded up. The previous week eight hundred and fifty-three Jews from Angers were sent to Auschwitz. Sixty Resistance fighters were shot in Belle-Beille outside Angers.
Distrust, fear, anxiety, a suffocating feeling lay like lead on Angers. Claude preferred to stay at home, and to keep a low profile, and to restrict his walks outside the curfews to a minimum.
He knew that the second floor of the building with the crêperie, which was used as a store, was damaged by rainwater and had been repaired and refurbished in a makeshift manner and had been vacant since.
The following day, when he collected his croissants and a baguette, he asked the crêperie owner, Monsieur Brouillard, a small thick man with a knobbly nose: “I saw somebody at the window of the former storerooms”.
Claude did not expect a direct answer. Especially at those times, lips were tightly sealed. Brouillard said nothing, his face impassive. He just shrugged his shoulders.
When he left the crêperie, he lit a Gauloise, and walked slowly back to his abode humming the melody of the Le Boudin, the slow march of the Legion. At the corner of the street, he turned slightly and looked back. Again, a pale face was visible for seconds at the window over the crêperie.
The town looked neglected, abandoned, the occupation had disturbed habits, things people are accustomed to. The waste bins had not been emptied, crows pulled rubbish from the bins, a smell of decay crept down the pavements, the dry grass of the backyards was populated by stray cats, their owners dead or imprisoned.
A woman in a worn dress with woollen socks offered a few flowers, which looked as if somebody had lost them. He passed by a shop with newspapers on display. The newspapers had nothing to report, anyhow nothing which came near to the truth or was raising hope. Claude bought a pack of cigarettes and matches and passed the concierge without saying a word. Missed conversations wound along the walls of the staircase. He knew that she was an informer. One had to deal with her one day.
During another sleepless night, his thoughts circulated around his observation. He assumed that Brouillard was hiding somebody. For a hiding person to look out of the window and to attract attention was life-threatening for both the person who gave shelter and the person who was hiding in the building. Concentration camp and death was the consequence. He had to warn Brouillard if he had not already copped on himself after he intimated to him what he saw. There was the possibility that he was not the only person who might have noticed.
He did not leave the house the next day, as the town was full of military patrols. He could see it from his window. Houses were searched. People arrested. The French police supported the German officials. He saw with horror the black leather coats and black slouch hats of the Gestapo with their briefcases. The bureaucrats of death.
The following day had the silence of a graveyard. He bent out of the window. No squad vehicles, no soldiers. He finished his coffee and ate a biscuit, put on his clothes, went down the staircase, gave the concierge a wave of the hand when he passed by her room with the big glass window near the exit.
When he walked up the street, leading to the side street where the crêperie was and turned around the corner, he recoiled in horror.
In front of the crêperie stood the black limousine of the Gestapo and he saw at this moment that Brouillard was pushed into the car and behind him a small, pale, thin boy. He looked into the big black eyes of the boy, which were full of sadness and fear, and he saw Jacques Lafouge, the adjudant chef of the Gendarmerie Nationale.
He abhorred this servile monster, a willing servant of the German occupants. He turned back and shortly before he reached the house he lived in, he bumped into a member of the resistance, informed him in short words about the incidence and the man said to him: “You know what you have to do.”
In the evening, shortly after sunset, when the concierge had finished her duty and he heard the radio from her apartment, he sneaked out of the door. One hour was left before curfew began. He knew the pub where Jacques Lafouge had his drink after work. He knew his routine. He was a stickler. A pernickety state servant.
He waited opposite in a porchway, hiding in the shadow of a pillar. He knew that Lafouge would take this way to return home. A cat rushed by. He had not long to wait. Lafouge staggered out of the pub, crossed the road and entered the passageway and passed Claude Beauchêne, who stepped out of the shadow and followed Lafouge at a short distance.
Instinctively, and due to his police training Lafouge was aware that he was being followed, stopped, turned and in this moment, Claude stabbed the combat knife into his heart. He knew from his training between which ribs he had to thrust the knife.
Lafouge collapsed, and Beauchêne continued his way, made a detour and returned home.
Shortly before he reached the door of the house, he imagined seeing a white figure with a pale face waving from the other side of the road. The face dissolved in the mist of the falling night.
Police sirens could be heard in the distance. Claude Beauchêne flung his knife into the river.
He felt good. Even the pain in the leg had gone.
About the Author:
Eduard Schmidt-Zorner is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku and short stories. He writes haibun, tanka, haiku and poetry in four languages: English, French, Spanish and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose.Member of four writer groups in Ireland and lives in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is a proud Irish citizen, born in Germany. Published in 72 anthologies, literary journals and broadsheets in UK, Ireland, Canada and USA.