Henry Mead hurriedly strode through the maze of French back alleyways that once bustled with the breathing life of street vendors and shoppers. The February night air was brisk with a fine mist of Northern French rain dampening the uneven terrain of the cobbled street roads he hastily traversed. The old streetlamps that still worked, threw up shining reflections from the wet ground, spreading enough light onto the hazardous obstacles of loose bricks and rubble, still littering the post war streets. Avoiding a scuffed shoe or a stumble to the ground is a challenge on any evening walks through the city centre; however, Henry’s US Army issued combat boots offered him a small level of protection on uneven ground. Still, his eyes had to constantly adjust from light to dark as he made his way through the old market area.
The once lively community of artists and market stall holders disappeared in a flash - one evening past, during an allied bombing run prior to the liberation of France. Beneath the rubble and crushed glass, distant echoes of happier times faded long ago. This is a dead zone now. Not many residents remain to help raise their Phoenix from the ashes of war. Most have simply moved to neighbourhoods still standing or are dead. However, these buildings will soon be razed, providing a blank canvas for the next generation to leave future echoes.
It had been nine months since VE-Day and five years since Henry left his home in Lincoln, Nebraska USA to join the war in Europe. Departing as a boy of eighteen years, Henry trained in demolitions, then six months before D-Day, he secretly parachuted into France to train and fight alongside members of the French Resistance. An invasion loomed and Henry’s orders were to prevent the enemy from leaving.
His experiences in France quickly transformed Henry into a man, not matured through life’s normal passages but through the ravages that war and its theatre of horrors always produce. An army captain, he earned his bars fighting in the majestic Dordogne region of Southwestern France. Wounded twice – once in his right arm and once in his right leg, he had earned two purple hearts, three bronze stars, and the French ‘Croix de Guerre’ for his bravery in facing the Nazi enemy full on. There is a small rectangular plaque – placed for posterity - on the bridge along the ‘La Cuze’ river – just outside the beautiful and historic medieval town of Sarlat La Caneda. It is dedicated to Henry and his resistance team of eight men and four women, who for five days, bravely held back a Panzer division from crossing it. The bridge’s dedication was not just a tribute to the bravery of its defenders, it was also for the heroic deed of saving the bridge from destruction by placing fake explosives around its stone structure; to slow the approaching Nazi advance. The town’s mayor had pleaded with the resistance group to not destroy the centuries-old crossing, so Henry and his group of French patriots did just that. They delayed the enemy’s progress and preserved a piece of history for future generations to appreciate. Overjoyed, the mayor posthumously bestowed upon him the title of ‘Un fils à vie de la France’ - A Lifelong son of France.
Henry and four of his surviving comrades were lucky to escape with their lives. The three women and one other man that fled with him into the surrounding countryside, decided to split up to evade capture – a decision that Henry reluctantly agreed to, because in the six months of fighting together, one woman in particular; Cécile, who had also survived with him, had captured Henry’s heart with her bravery, warmth, and compassion. Originally from the town of Lille, Henry affectionately referred to her as Cécile de Lille. She liked that, and she also liked that he was taking the time to learn to speak French. Letting her own stirrings of passion warm to his intelligent and gentle character, the two were inseparable. However, against Henry’s better judgment, the group agreed to individually make their own ways toward friendly lines. Henry and Cécile vowed to rendezvous at a designated time and place. Cécile described to him a confectionary shop in Lille that made the best chocolate and served the best coffee in all of France. Feeding the sugar cravings of its customers for nearly two hundred years, it survived several violent periods that included, the French Revolution, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon Bonaparte, World War I, and the Nazis – to name a few. It was the most romantic and poetic setting for their reunion.
Henry pressed a Rose into a book he carried with him and gifted it to her. Written by H.E. Bates, ‘Fair Stood The Wind For France,’ told a tale of a French country girl and a downed American pilot – who, not too dissimilar to themselves – fall in love, and jointly undertake a hazardous journey from her family’s farmhouse in France to the pilot’s base in Britain. Departing on the cold February morning, Cécile told Henry she would wait for him – book in hand - at precisely 9:00PM inside the chocolatier in Lille on the first St. Valentine’s Day following the end of the war.
Henry safely made his way back to allied lines and was reassigned to desk duty. His new assignment had him liaising with other French Resistance forces across the country, providing logistical support and greatly needed supplies to them. A few weeks into his new role, he was shown a devastating French despatch detailing Cécile’s capture and subsequent execution by the SS. His bottled-up emotions could not contain his grief, so Henry wept uncontrollably, grieving deeply for the loss of the woman he loved. Each day since, his heart carried the heavy weight of guilt for not commanding her to go with him.
After the war ended, mass demobilisation of occupying forces, saw an exodus of hundreds of thousands of war veterans head back to civilian life in the USA. Henry had volunteered to stay on in France to help organise the logistics involved – not so much from the dedication to duty but because of the simple fulfilment of a promise to Cécile, and a date at the famous chocolatier’s premises on the anniversary of their separation. Home was waiting for his eventual return, and orders had finally arrived to send him there. In two days after Valentine's, he would be on a ship headed west across the Atlantic, so this march across the city of Lille on a wet and atmospheric evening, would be his last campaign on French soil.
Not listed on any of his logistical maps, Henry followed the hastily written directions by a fellow officer friend of his, shipped back home the previous week. Momentarily stopping under a streetlamp to confirm directions, Henry produced a small flashlight from his tanned army issued raincoat. Flicking at its power switch produced no satisfying result, so he shook it, then banged it against the lamppost’s metallic pole. Slowly, the flashlight came to life, and Henry shined it onto the torn piece of paper. Immediately, the torch seemed to glow extremely brightly, like an anti-aircraft searchlight’s beam hitting him straight in the face. At first, the light dazzled him, visually producing a series of concentric circles swirling around the inside of his eyes.
“Damn Army issue,” he cursed.”
Straightaway, a sudden gust of warm air pulled at him, like it was trying to free the paper from his grasp, but he clung onto it like it was the most precious thing in the world; like it was the only remaining microcosm of his young life that desperately needed clinging onto. After a few moments, Henry’s eyesight recovered and adjusted to the lamppost’s vacillating light. A series of criss-crossed lines with hand-written street names etched onto the notepaper, had Henry transfixed. Distracted, he failed to notice the slight movement in the shadows, just beyond the reach of the streetlamp’s luminosity.
“Excuse me old chap,” the educated British voice interrupted.
“What!? Who’s there?” Henry defensively responded. Shining his shaking flashlight towards the mysterious voice, a thinly moustachioed gentleman wearing the uniform of his majesty’s forces of Great Britain, came into view.
“Do be a love and point that elsewhere - my good man. Night eyes need to stay accustomed to the dimness.”
“Sure Buddy, Sorry.”
“It’s er… Major Buddy, in fact. All metal insignia removed for safety’s sake, and all that, you know?”
“Captain Henry Mead, US Army.”
Still taken aback by the sudden surprise, Henry took a quick visual check behind the Major for any other unexpected introductions.
“Why are you skulking around out here, like a ghost?”
“What? Yes! Far from skulking old chap… Doing a bit of dismantling… One of our own, it appears – a wayward twenty-two-thousand-pound variety that our brave pilots like to tear up Germany with. Must have found it necessary to unload it before returning home and chose this lucky plot of land… Probably thought they could nudge old Jerry into leaving and missed wildly, of course.”
“Where is it?” Henry gingerly asked.
“Approximately twenty feet below your exact spot, Captain. It was discovered by a road gang trying to repair burst water pipes just after Jerry skedaddled… We were just setting up a safety perimeter when we spotted you leaning on this lamppost, and I thought, ‘By George, better move that chap away before…’
The Major took a beat, like he’d just remembered something and briefly looked to his right followed by a glance to his left, then an upward, introspective glance at the lamplight, causing a freshly alerted Henry to shift his stance, like he’d just stepped on hot coals with bare feet.
“…Yes, we’re not quite sure what detonator this oversized Tall Boy has, you see.”
Whispering loudly, the Major corrected himself.
“We’ve been instructed to refer to the thing as, ‘The Grand Slam’ instead of... but old habits die hard, what?”
The hushed secret now explained, the Major continued at a louder decibel.
“…Before you noisily tapped on this lamppost, we were convinced we saw a vibration cap sticking its nose out of the dirt… you certainly proved us wrong, what? Anyway, it might well be prudent of you to delicately step this way before…”
The Major hesitated as if caught in a cerebral moment of repeating himself, then snapping out of it, he gently grabbed Henry’s arm, and slowly led him away from the danger zone.
“I’d also take a strong grip of any loose change you might have in your pocket. Unsure now whether this is a magnetic timer or not. What we do know is it’s a number thirty-seven with a long delay and has sat here long enough to be irritated by any variety of triggers. Should this thing go off, then big boomah. Enough to shake de Gaul out of his bed in Gay-Paris.”
Safely secured around the corner of a building, the Major’s interest was tweaked, and a sense of impulsive nosiness temporarily took hold.
“May I be so bold as to ask what you are doing out on a night more fit for warm fires and a glass of Burgundy?”
“I’m shipping out in two days, stateside. I was told there’s a famous confectionary shop around here.”
“Ah, Maison Méert,” the Major immediately acknowledged.
“You… you know it?”
“Of course, old chap. Had to warn them earlier. Not to be the dasher of hope, but you may find them prematurely closed.”
“I have to try,” Henry interrupted. “I made a promise…”
“Aah, I see. Sweetheart back home? It is Valentine’s Day, after all.”
Remaining tight-lipped, a melancholy Henry shook his head.
“Say no more, dear Captain. It’s only two streets away. Just head North, you’ll intersect rue Esquermoise and find the shop there…”
Tapping on his watch, the Major stiffened up. The clock is ticking.
“Heavens! It’s almost Nine O’clock, and I should go see whether my corporal has uncorked this oversized firework yet. There’s a bottle of cognac waiting for us back at HQ, and the night is still young.”
With a respectful salute, followed by a handshake, the Major headed in the direction of the lamppost. A quickening sensation of cold air ran down Henry’s back, forcing him to adjust his raincoat’s collar surrounding his neck. He paused, momentarily looking back toward the Major’s direction, but could not see him.
“Slippery little guy,” Henry shruggingly stated to himself out loud. “Likes the shadows a little too much.”
Correcting the angle of his officer’s garrison cap on his head, Henry resumed his journey.
A light rain began to add to the evening’s dampness, allowing any reflections of light to stream and bounce off the old cobblestone surfaces. Reaching a dark intersection, Henry instinctively looked left for oncoming traffic. It was a pointless exercise as the junction was void of life and deathly quiet. Noticing a buckled sign dangling precariously from its second-floor wall anchor across the street, Henry managed a recognisable smile at the name emblazoned on it. ‘rue Esquermoise,’ he whispered to himself as his right ear detected the familiar sound of gramophone music, playing in the near distance. Drawn toward its melodic tune, Henry followed its sweet allure. As he drew closer to the source of the sound, a beautiful array of coloured lights filled a double-sized shop window on his right, throwing their rainbow of warm, welcoming, festive beauty, out into the wet evening – their effervescence reflecting majestically on the rain-sodden ground. The whole scene was reminiscent of Van Gogh’s, painted café scene. A beautiful beacon on this dark night.
As Henry approached the door to the shop, he looked up at its sign. ‘Maison Méert,’ its name announced.
“Une rose pour la dame, Monsieur?” Asked an old woman in a husky French accent.
Without recoiling, Henry accepted the long-stemmed red rose from the woman's outstretched arm, compensating her with twenty Francs. He thought he might just leave it on the window ledge as a loving remembrance to Cécile.
“Mercy, Monsieur,” the old woman gratefully responded as Henry moved toward the shop’s entrance. “Bonne nuit, Monsieur.”
Gently gripping the rose in his left hand, Henry respectively removed his cap and entered the famous establishment, pausing briefly in the shop’s reception area. He marvelled at the exquisitely renovated 19th century décor - so French and so full of perfection. Mirrored walls displayed confectionary beyond his wildest imagination, presented on glass shelves – each a work of art that any French impressionist would die of desire for.
“Bonsoir, Capitaine,” greeted the proprietor, a middle-aged man with balding hair and a magnificent, red bushy beard. Dressed in the typical garb synonymous with French waitering: black trousers, shiny black shoes, a starched white shirt, black bow tie and waistcoat; the proprietor immediately clapped two short snaps of his hands. Instantly, the shop’s back wall swung open, revealing a room full of life and people milling around small circular tables, quietly chatting, sipping espressos, and eating a variety of chocolate charcuteries; while they listened to the gramophone blaring out the dulcet tones of France’s newest heroine, Edith Piaf.
Familiar faces confused Henry’s recollection of them. He thought he glimpsed Jean, Hercule, Frederick, and Charles – his old radio operator. The former freedom fighters were sat at a table with Mathilde and Juliette, the sniper twins. Convinced his imagination was running wild, Henry looked down at his feet and squinted tightly.
“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose…”
The interjected musical prose prompted Henry to look around the room once again. In the far corner, seated alone; was a more intimate, familiar face smiling back at him. Raising a book in her hands, she extracted a pressed rose from its pages, and held it up for him to see. Tears welled in his eyes as he recognised the beautiful, long golden hair and green eyes of his Cécile. Overcome with emotion, Henry rushed to her table where she stood welcoming him into her arms. The two reconciled lovers embraced warmly followed by an exchanged tender but passionate kiss.
“How is this possible?” Asked a bewildered Henry.
“Sorry, dear chap,” came a response from over Henry’s right shoulder.
Turning his head, Major Buddy stood smiling at the two reunited hearts, still embraced in each other’s arms.
“Didn’t quite have the gumption to tell you at the time… It seems that our Grand Slam friend had a vibration detonator after all… Once you banged that lamppost with your torch… Big Boomah!”
“Serendipitously reunited, yes, old boy. Appears that I am too. Now, you lovebirds must kindly excuse me. Just spotted my Corporal and I promised him a Valentine dance.”
The Major merrily flitted away to an awaiting soldier on the other side of the room, leaving Henry to come to terms with this new situation. Finding it quite ironic that one of his own side’s ordnance did the job that the SS could not, he turned to Cécile and smiled acceptingly and contented as the song wound down to its fin émotionnelle. The two smitten spirits of Cupid’s accurate arrow kissed once more. This time it was a lengthy, lingering kiss that only two hearts destined to be joined forever can share.
“Et dès que je t'aperçois
Alors je sens dans moi
Mon cœur qui bat
La la, la la, la la
La la, la la, ah la
La la la la...”
Music can be a great influence on moods and emotions. I listened to the song, La Vie En Rose by Edith Piaf playing as I wrote this piece. The power of its distinctive 1940s sound, transported me back to that era. If you liked the above tale, I challenge you to read it again and play the following link (with French and English subtitles), and let it melodiously carry you back through the romance of time. https://youtu.be/MZ32WWXHyjg