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France: Thursday April 30th 1942.
Françoise hurriedly cleared the pots from the table for her mother after finishing their meal. She had an important job to do this evening. Some of her father’s friends had visited today and she knew something was going to happen tonight but she didn’t yet know what. Her father had told her the fewer people who knew the better, as many lives depended on secrecy, but she would soon find out as she had an important part to play. For a fourteen year old she was very mature, wartime has that effect on children.
The town of Ville Des Fleurs where she had lived since she was born lay sixteen miles to the west of Reims in France. It had been occupied by German soldiers since the invasion of France when she was just twelve years old. Her father Fabien was a member of the French Resistance and tonight there was an important mission for his group. He had been told by his contact that he would receive a message on his radio with details of the time and place of the mission. When it was received it would be Françoise’s job to cycle to the other group members with the details. Because she was a young girl she was far less likely to be stopped by German soldiers. She had done this on many previous occasions and had often talked to the soldiers, so they were quite used to her cycling around on her pushbike.
‘Françoise,’ she heard her father call her from the top of the stairs.
‘Yes Papa,’ she replied.
‘Come, I want you to help me.’
‘Coming,’ she said eagerly and ran upstairs.
‘It will soon be time for the message so I want you to keep a lookout while I assemble the radio,’ he whispered. ‘You know what to do.’
‘Of course Papa, I’ll let you know straight away if I see any soldiers.’ She went into her bedroom and pulled the curtain aside slightly so she could see both up and down the street. From that vantage point she could see anyone approaching and give the alarm if necessary.
Listening to the radio had been prohibited by the Germans because every day at the same time since June 1940 a radio station started by the BBC in London had sent transmissions to the people of France. Most of these messages were from French people who were living in England to their loved ones still in France, but they also included coded messages to the French Resistance. The transmissions always started with: “Ici Londres ! Les Français parlent aux Français…” (“This is London! The French speaking to the French…”)
Her father went downstairs and returned with what appeared to be two tins of fruit which he kept in the larder. He carefully pulled off the tops and out of one tin lifted a small radio tuner and a short length of wire, then, from the other he took a set of headphones. He connected them up, put on the headphones and looked at his watch. It was important not to switch on the radio until necessary as the Germans were constantly listening for radio transmissions, and it would only take a few minutes for them to triangulate the signal and find out where it was located.
The minutes ticked by until the allocated time arrived. He switched on the radio and listened for the message. There was continuous talking as the woman transmitting from London gave out a string of code words and messages, each one being sent to different groups of the resistance in different parts of France. He had to listen for his own code word “Okay to go” which would be followed by his instructions, then he would transmit a short code to acknowledge he had received the message and quickly switch off the radio.
He waited patiently for the message. Two minutes passed, then three, it would be dangerous to wait much longer, then, over the crackling he heard his password.
‘Okay to go. Your message is….’ and the woman’s voice started to recite the coded message, which when translated gave the time 11:30 pm at map reference Latitude 49º 15’ 20” N / Longitude 3° 36’ 37”E. This was the time and place they would meet a group of paratroopers being dropped into France just a few miles away to carry out a mission, the details of which had already been given to him.
He wrote the information on a piece of paper, rolled it up and placed it inside a small cylindrical cage about two inches long and half an inch in diameter. The cage was made from chicken wire and was springy when you squeezed it, specially made to slide up inside the hollow handle bars of Françoise’s pushbike. She would push this deep into the handle bar so it couldn’t be felt by sticking your finger inside, just in case she and the bicycle were searched by any soldiers. To pull it back out she wore a hair slide with an adapted clasp with a small hook on it.
‘Is the coast still clear?’ he asked Françoise.
‘Yes Papa,’ she replied.
‘Good girl, now you know what you must do. We have three hours to get to the rendezvous point so there is plenty of time. I want you to go to André, Gérard, Gilbert, Jacques and Rémi and tell them to meet me at point B at 11:00pm. Show them the message so they have the time and location to make their own way in case they can’t meet me at that time. That’s all you have to tell them. Be careful now ‘ma belle’ and don’t hurry, you don’t want to attract attention to yourself.’
‘Don’t worry Papa I’ll be alright, I’ll be very careful,’ she said. He gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek before she set off down the stairs.
Françoise put on her coat and beret making sure she had the hair slide in her hair. She left by the rear door, stepping out into the cold evening air of the small yard at the back of the house. She opened an outhouse and took out her pushbike, then looking around to see no-one was watching she pushed the message up into the handlebar using a pencil, then opening the gate into the side street she set off. The sun had set but it was still light so there were people walking about in the streets which made it easier to travel without being noticed. She pedalled her pushbike down the street until she reached the main road through the small town then stopped and looked if the coast was clear. There were two soldiers walking away from her. She waited a few moments until they were further away then set off again crossing the main road and entering another back street.
She reached the house of Gilbert first and knocked on the door. It was opened by his wife Camille who looked up and down the narrow street then beckoning her in with a wave of her hand said.
‘Bonjour Françoise come in quickly and bring your bicycle too.’
Françoise entered, leaned her bicycle against the wall and took off her beret.
‘You have a message for Gilbert?’ asked Camille.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
‘I’ll get him. Gilbert,’ she called. ‘Françoise is here, come quickly she has something to tell you. Would you like a drink or something to eat child you look cold.’
‘No thank you I have other calls to make but thank you for the offer.’
‘You’re very welcome,’ said Camille. ‘Don’t ever go cold or hungry, you can always ask for anything you need and if we can help we will. We all have to help each other in these hard times. Tell that to your mother will you.’
‘Yes of course and thank you I’ll tell her,’ said Françoise.
‘Ah, here he is,’ said Camille as Gilbert appeared. ‘I’ll leave you two to talk and I hope you will call again soon, au revoir.’ She waved goodbye and disappeared into another room.
‘Au revoir,’ replied Françoise.
She passed on the message to Gilbert and set off again to go to the next contact. She made three more calls to Gérard, Rémi and Jacques then there was just one more and she could head home to safety. Darkness had fallen quickly, there was only a slight glow over the western horizon and the first stars were easily visible. The back streets were now deserted as she cycled down Rue de Bouleaux on her way to see André. She passed the pond where she used to go with her Mama and Papa to feed the ducks, but no one ever did that now, no one could afford to throw away food, it was far too precious. She turned left after the pond into a narrow alley but slammed on the brakes when she saw the silhouette of two soldiers a short distance ahead, lit up by a street light a little way behind them. They were unmistakable with their rounded tin hats and long coats. The barrels of the rifles they carried on their backs could be seen sticking above their shoulders, and they were coming in her direction. One of them exhaled a lung full of cigarette smoke then stopped and dropped the end on the floor stubbing it out with his boot. That gave Françoise just a couple of seconds to decide what to do, should she continue or turn around and pedal as fast as she could. She would be out of sight in a few moments. Then one of the soldiers shouted.
‘Hey you! You on the bike, HALT!’
That decided it for her – she was going to make a run for it! She could travel a lot faster on her pushbike than they could run and she would be out of sight as soon as she turned the corner. She started to turn the bike around looking down to find the pedals in the darkness. There was a BANG which echoed up the alley, then the sound of running boots. She found the pedals and spun them round putting her foot on the top one pushing it down hard to make a quick getaway. Then she glanced back to see where the soldiers were before fleeing, but they were running in the opposite direction in pursuit of a man who had just left a house slamming the door behind him and was now running away. She sat there for a moment until her heart stopped pounding then set off to take her message to André.
She turned into André’s street and could see there was some kind of action up ahead. She quickly ducked into a passage and tentatively peeked around the edge of the wall to see what was happening. There was a car and soldiers with torches, and it looked as if they were at André’s. She had to be sure it was his house but she daren’t go nearer so she rode in the opposite direction then turned up an adjacent street until she was very near his house. She dismounted and crept through the garden of the house opposite where her worst fears were confirmed, she saw André being pushed roughly into the back of the car parked outside. She went back to her pushbike as fast as she could and pedalled like the wind to get back home and tell her father. She was going to take a quicker route but each time she came to a junction there were soldiers and also cars with SS officers, so she had to take a longer detour around the back streets to avoid them.
‘Papa Papa!’ she cried bursting in through the back door gasping for breath. He came running from another room and put his arms around her.
‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What on earth’s happened?’
‘They’ve got André, they took him away and there are soldiers everywhere in the town.’
‘Did you see them? How do you know?’ he asked in a frightened voice.
‘Yes I saw them, I was just going to the house and I saw them take him away, they pushed him into a car.’
‘Oh my God! That’s really bad, I wonder how much they know. We must leave quickly we can’t risk staying here it’s too dangerous. ‘Carine,’ he shouted to his wife. ‘André has been arrested we must leave quickly. Pack some things and we’ll go to your sister’s until we know if it’s safe to return. We can’t make the rendezvous with those poor British soldiers now, I’m afraid they are on their own, come on hurry. God help André!’ They were about to leave through the back door into the alley when there was a pounding on the door and the sound of German voices outside.
High above the English Channel an aircraft was approaching the coast of France carrying seven highly trained men who were preparing to be dropped by parachute on a secret mission.
Eight years later in a country farmhouse near a village called Felstow in the south of England Tom and Sally were unpacking after moving home from London with their parents. Their dad had been called away overseas on business so he would join them later.
Tom was kneeling on the stone farmhouse kitchen floor unpacking a large cardboard box. Suddenly he ducked as a huge chest of drawers carried by two burly men swished past his head.
‘HEY– WATCH OUT!’ he yelled.
‘Sorry ‘laddy’,’ replied one of the men who was wearing a flat cap with greasy black curly hair and tea stains down the chest of his shirt. ‘Didn’t see yer there.’ Then he stood on Tom’s foot.
‘OOWWWCCHH!!!’ cried Tom, this time forty decibels louder.
‘What are you doing that now for?’ shouted Pamela his mum. ‘You’re in the way.’
‘I was just…..’ started Tom.
‘Well not now Tom, and definitely not there! Go and find something else to do somewhere other than the kitchen until the van is unloaded, or at least until these men have finished bringing things we need into the house.’
‘No fear, I’m going, this place is dangerous,’ he said picking himself up and starting towards the outside door.
‘Where’s Sally, go and see what she’s doing,’ she shouted after him, but Tom had already gone, he didn’t fancy getting trampled on again. He stood outside the kitchen and squinting his eyes in the bright sunlight looked around. He could see trees and fields stretching to the horizon but no sign of Sally. He waited for a few minutes to see if she would appear. The two rather large removal men passed him as they headed back to the van for more furniture. As they did so, one of them stopped and whispered in Tom’s ear.
‘Why don’t you go and look for the ghost in that old barn over there?’
Tom jumped back.
‘What do you mean – ghost?’ he replied a little startled.
‘Oh, you wouldn’t know would you, with you not bein’ from ‘round ‘ere an all.’ But there is a rumour, just a local rumour mind, that the old barn is haunted.’ said the man. Then he smiled at Tom as he wiped away a dew drop that was hanging from the end of his nose with a much practiced sweep of the back of his hand.
‘Sally,’ shouted Tom, as the men slinked away whilst he tried to convince himself he didn’t believe in ghosts. There was no reply.
‘Saaalllyyy.’ He shouted again this time in a more melodic tone and cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify the sound. There was still no reply. He wondered if she was in the old barn and wandered across the yard to see if he could find her. He was stood at the barn when his mum appeared from the kitchen door and started directing the removal men at the top of her voice.
‘I think you will have to put a lot of those boxes around in the back of the barn for now, we can unpack those another day, I just need those containing the essentials at the moment,’ she shouted frantically waving her arms about as mums do.
The barn was a creepy looking old building even in daylight. Tom made his way to the door. He lifted the latch and pushed, the door reluctantly creaked open. It was dark inside, too dark to see anything immediately. He stepped in but had to wait a few moments until his eyes adjusted before he could see anything. It was dirty and smelt of something not very pleasant but he couldn’t quite remember what it was.
‘Hello’ he said in a quiet enquiring voice. ‘Is there anyone in here?’ Thinking to himself if anyone answered he would be out of there but fast! Fortunately no-one did. He could see better now and looked around the room. It was an untidy place, and dusty, very dusty. There were lots of things scattered around on the floor; boxes, barrels, rolls of wire and rope, farming tools, and a three legged stool for milking cows. On the wall to the left hung a horse’s saddle and above it some wooden ladders. Across on the opposite side of the room against the wall was a stone slab about four feet wide and six inches thick. It was resting on two brick pillars about three feet high and had lots of dusty old tins and jars on top. Behind them some old wood panelling sat on the top of the slab leaning back against the wall and below it were even more tins. He made his way carefully across the uneven cobbled floor to the slab. It was quite dark even though his eyes had adjusted because the wooden louvered shutters covering the windows were closed. Only cracks in the wood and the odd missing louvre allowed a few slithers of sunlight to penetrate the darkness. Amongst the tins and boxes on the slab were a couple of half used candles and a box of matches. He thought it would be a good idea to light a candle so he could see more easily. He opened the box and took out a match, then propping one of the candles against a tin he struck the match and lit the wick. In a few seconds the yellow flame was swelling and he could see a lot better. He decided to look under the slab before opening any tins, so took the candle in his hand and bending down peered under it. He was rummaging amongst the tins when he suddenly heard something move behind him and something touched his shoulder. Tom dropped the candle which immediately went out plunging him into darkness again and he leapt into the air higher than he thought he could possibly leap giving out the most ear shattering screech.
‘Shut up silly,’ shouted Sally. ‘If mum hears you she’ll think something terrible has happened to you.’
‘I thought it had you idiot, don’t ever do that again. Where did you come from anyway?’ he asked whilst fumbling in the darkness trying to find the candle again.
‘I was on the other side of the garden and I saw you come in here so I thought I would see what you were doing. When I got so close without you hearing me I just couldn’t resist making you jump.’
‘Well you certainly did that,’ he said in a pretty annoyed tone of voice. Then finding the candle picked it up and thrust it towards Sally.
‘Here hold this,’ he said taking hold of her hand and planting the candle in her palm. He struck another match and soon the slab was bathed in light again.
‘What are all these tins and things?’ asked Sally pushing them around with her finger.
‘I don’t know yet, I was about to look when my daft sister scared the living daylight out of me,’ he replied sarcastically while picking up a square tin with some red printing all around it.
‘Shush!’ said Sally suddenly, placing her forefinger over his lips.
‘Do you mind,’ said Tom removing her finger. ‘You’ve just had that finger in a dirty old tin.’
‘Shut up will you I thought I heard something.’
‘Like what?’ asked Tom quietly.
‘I’m not sure, but I thought I heard something,’ she repeated.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Don’t be scared, old buildings like this are always making noises as the wood expands and contracts in the heat. You’re just imagining it because it’s spooky in here, it was probably those removal men or just a rat.’
‘Oh please, not rats,’ she said. ‘You know I hate rats’.
‘Well you can listen as long as you want,’ said Tom. ‘I thought I saw something under here I want to explore further, pass me the candle please.’
Sally handed him the candle and he fumbled about in the semi dark for a few moments then said excitedly.
‘Hey Sal, I can see the bottom of a door down here, take a look.’ Sally bent down and peering into the darkness could also see it.
‘The top must be behind that piece of wooden panelling up there,’ she said. ‘Let’s take a look, someone might have put that up there to hide it.’
They quickly cleared away the tins and jars from the top of the slab, then, with one at each side they tried to pull the panel away from the wall just far enough to see behind it, but it was heavy and as they leaned it forward it overbalanced and went crashing to the floor knocking over tins and creating a huge dust cloud. Both children jumped back out of the way then started sneezing and coughing with the dust.
‘Oh, wow, that was noisy,’ shrieked Sally.
‘And messy,’ added Tom waving his arms frantically trying to clear the dust cloud so he could see and breathe again. ‘I hope mum didn’t hear that or we are going to get into big trouble.’
‘I think we may already be in that when she sees the state of us,’ she said patting her clothes which created a secondary cloud of dust. They both stood quietly listening for the footsteps of their mum racing across the yard, which thankfully didn’t happen.
‘At least we’ve found the top part of the door, I wonder why it had been covered up,’ said Tom.
‘A secret door, how exciting,’ said Sally. ‘What do you think might be behind it, perhaps we ought to tell mum about it.’
‘Not yet,’ replied Tom. ‘Let’s see if we can get it open and have a look ourselves.’ Leaning over the stone slab he turned the doorknob and pushed hard on the door, but it wasn’t going to move. ‘It’s stuck tight,’ he said. ‘I think it must have been closed for a long time.’
Sally looked closely at the door. ‘I think you have to pull,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Pull the door, you have to pull it,’ she repeated. ‘It opens outward not inward, but if it opens outwards why would anyone put a stone slab in front of it. In fact why would anyone put a stone slab in front of it even if it opened inward?’ she queried.
‘A good question for a girl,’ said Tom smiling. ‘Perhaps it isn’t meant to be opened. Perhaps there is something dangerous inside. I think we ought to find out, I’m going to see if any of the panels in the door underneath are loose so I can squeeze through.’
‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,’ said Sally.
‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’ said Tom.
‘In my sensible box which is in my bedroom,’ she replied.
But Tom was already under the slab looking for a way to get through. The wood was quite rotten near the bottom of the door and one of the panels looked loose. He kicked it and it fell away leaving a hole big enough to crawl through.
‘Now we need a torch, I’ll go and get mine from my bedroom,’ he said jumping up and heading for the door to the barn hardly able to control his excitement.
‘No – wait! If you go in looking like that and mum sees you she will never let you back out.’
‘I thought you didn’t want to do it anyway,’ said Tom.
‘I’ve changed my mind, a woman can do that,’ she said. ‘We’ll have to use that other candle so we both have a light though.’
Tom found it and lit it using his own. He passed one to Sally being very careful not to let the flame get near anything flammable. He bent down onto his knees again and leaned towards the hole in the door. Carefully holding the candle in front he put his hand through the hole into the space behind and tried to see what was there. It was difficult because the light was in front of his face and dazzling him, and he couldn’t shield his eyes from it because he was leaning on his other hand. He could just make out what seemed to be the walls of an empty passage, he backed out.
‘Here Sal, you hold my candle for a minute, I’ll go through the hole then pass them both to me and you can follow,’ he said.
Within a couple of minutes they were both through the hole and standing in the passage with just the dim candle light to see by. The ceiling was high enough for an adult to walk upright and the walls smooth but dirty. There were some marks on the walls which might have been writing but were no longer legible. Tom wanted to be the first to find anything so he took the lead. Through the darkness he could just see a wall at the end so it was only a short passage. It looked like a dead end.
‘We must be mad,’ said Sally. ‘Come on, let’s go back, if anything happened to us in here, it could be weeks before anyone found us.’
‘Don’t be silly, what could possibly happen, no one can have been in here for ages, you can tell that stone slab hasn’t been moved for years. This passage must go into the hillside behind the barn, we must be underground now, I wonder why it was built, it’s all a bit strange don’t you think?’ said Tom.
‘Too strange for me, I’ll be happy when we’re back outside,’ said Sally.
They moved slowly forward staying very close together. The flickering candles cast huge eerie moving shadows on the walls. Tom checked that Sally was still behind. He noticed a light bulb holder hanging from the ceiling but no bulb was fitted in it.
‘Look there Sal, there should be a light bulb, we’ll have to put one in next time we come,’ he said quietly as if someone might hear him. Suddenly Sally screamed and jumped as something moving at the end of the passage startled her, she tripped on the rough stone floor and fell towards Tom dropping her candle which extinguished as it hit the floor. A huge black object raced towards them then disappeared into the darkness behind, then before they could turn to run there was another and another and another. They could each see the terror in the other’s eyes, then, nothing. Sally took a deep breath and putting her hand on Tom’s shoulder said,
‘It’s alright Tom, it’s alright, they were just bats, they must have been up there at the end of the passage, we must have startled them and as they flew nearer to your candle their shadows got bigger and bigger.’ Tom was shaking like a leaf.
‘We startled them!’ he said, ‘I feel a bit startled myself’.
‘Do you want to carry on?’ she asked.
‘We’re here now and surely there can’t be anything more scary than that in here so we might as well. Anyway I think I saw what looked like another door in the wall up there on the right just before we were attacked,’ he replied picking up Sally’s candle and lighting it again with his own.
‘After you then,’ she said taking the candle in her hand. Tom turned away from her and started towards the end of the passage. Sure enough there at the end on the right was a wooden door with four panels and a brass doorknob. It seemed to have been painted a number of different colours during its long life as there were bits of blue, green and brown paint which had peeled off and had fallen on the floor below it. The paint remaining on the door was cracked and flaking showing those same colours.
‘Shall we try it?’ Sally asked.
‘Don’t know, what do you think?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Maybe not, but if we don’t we will never know will we?’ said Tom.
‘What’s inside of course stupid.’
‘Don’t call me stupid,’ said Sally.
‘Well it was a stupid question – see what I mean about girl questions.’
‘This is no time for an argument, just open it,’ said Sally with a scowl.
Tom tentatively turned the doorknob.
‘Good, can we go back now?’ asked Sally.
‘No, I was joking, look,’ he said pushing the door slowly open. He held the candle into the room and then put his head inside cautiously, ready to pull back instantly if there was anything in there, although he couldn’t think of anything that could have been in there for years which might still be of any danger. Nothing stirred so he entered slowly. Sally stood back waiting to see what happened, nothing did so she followed him in. She looked around and found a light switch but nothing happened when she switched it on. They stood side by side looking around the room. It was about ten feet square with a roof the same height as the passage. There were two tall cabinets, one against the back wall to the left behind a writing desk, one against the right wall and a drawer chest against the left wall, the desk had a chair behind it facing the children and stood away from the back wall. On the table was a box and a pen or pencil, it was impossible to tell because of the covering of dust. Sally leaned over the desk to look behind it.
‘There’s something behind the chair on the floor,’ she said. ‘It looks like a pair of old trousers.’
Tom moved round to the side of the desk and held his candle closer to see what it was. He stumbled as he jumped back in horror.
‘It’s a pair of old trousers alright,’ he said. ‘But they’ve got a pair of old feet sticking out of them. I think we had better get out of here and tell the police!’
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