Friday, 5 July 2019
I’m imagining writing this letter to you as it’s unsafe to put my thoughts on paper in case the German soldiers find it. I want to try to remember every single moment as such exciting and terrifying and important things are taking place, right here, right now. Reverend Mother has let members of the French Résistance use the Convent. We get messages from London, from the Allies who are trying to rescue us. It’s a waiting game. I’m sitting here quietly, waiting until I’m needed in the kitchen, wondering what’s going to happen tonight.
We thought the British would come yesterday, but the weather was so bad. We hope they will come today. We’ve had the signal but the weather is still dreadful. This can’t go on any longer. Something has to happen.
The German soldiers have taken all the food from the village shop, all the meat that the butcher had in his cold store, vegetables from the farmer’s barns and simply everything from the tabac, they cleared the shelves into boxes and bags. There’s nothing left. People are starving.
Villagers are breaking up treasured pieces of furniture to make heat to boil kettles as the water is unsafe now. One man called Sébastien even broke up his wife’s piano, he said she didn’t need it now that she’s dead and he was sure that she’d prefer he gave the children safe water. Water on its own isn’t enough for growing children, they are crying with hunger, but there’s nothing for them.
Reverend Mother has been very bad or very good or very good and bad together. She is very clever and has hidden food in the chapel. I helped her because I’m strong and because it’s my job to prepare vegetables and clean the kitchen. Reverend Mother took down all the robes used by the choir, I had to take one robe to each sister to hang by her bed so nothing looked suspicious and then we hung all the special robes used by the Monsignor and the Priests on the rack where the choir robes go and moved the big chest the clergy robes usually go in, to right in front of the altar. We filled it with bags of oats and flour and other dry stuff that the farmer and the baker had brought here for safe keeping. Mother locked it and told me to put a special cloth over the top, one of those white lace ones that are so very difficult to iron. She put a cross on top and candlesticks and a little pot of flowers from our garden. It looked like it was part of the altar and had always been there.
The butcher had brought hams and saucisson sec, we took all the candles out of the candle store and I had to arrange them on a high shelf at the back of the chapel, so it looked like we always kept the candles up there. That was hard work, climbing up and down the rickety old step ladder, we really do need a new one. Then we got Sister Belina to help us push the big heavy wooden candle box to a dark corner. Reverend Mother sent Sister Belina to do a job upstairs so she didn’t see what we did next. We quickly hid the hams and saucisson sec inside it and piled hymn books and bibles on top of it, nobody would think of looking there. I put all the bags of rice and beans and lentils vert and things like that right under the altar itself. Reverend Mother had thought of everything.
When the Soldiers came she showed them how little food we had in the kitchen and the larder, they took some of it but left us some too, maybe they thought their souls would be damned if they left nuns to starve. She had organised a rota of sisters to always be praying and singing in the chapel, with some big old candles that were quite rancid, always burning to cover the smell of the ham. The soldiers could only look in so as not to disturb the praying sisters. Reverend Mother assured them that the sisters were praying for the souls of Germans as well as for the French.
We’ve just had another coded message from England, I think they are on their way. I pray they are on their way. I’ve heard the men from the Résistance whispering to each other. The English have to capture our bridge over the Caen Canal and the one next to it over the River Orne so that Allied troops can move towards Paris, and the Germans can’t get from the Somme to where the boats land. It’s all very secret and I’m not supposed to know. That’s why I can’t write any of this down. I think the boats are coming to Arromanches Les Bains.
I remember you and Grand-maman taking me there to make sandcastles and paddle in the sea when I was little. It’s a pretty town. I went there not so long ago with my friends, it was our last outing before I gave my life to Jesus. Arromanches has a lot of sand. I used to think the beach went on for ever and ever, but then the sea would come in so quickly and steal it all away. It will be cold there in weather like this, the sea will be bitter, the wind blows along the coast because there’s nothing to stop it. The weather here is gentler as we are further inland. I think I’ve just heard something. This might be it. Mary and Jesus please take care of them.
Reverend Mother told Sister Margarita and me to make an extra big vat of soup today and to save some in a hidden place for tonight. We’ve been making soup every day. It has a lot of water as we have to eke things out because we don’t know how long our supplies will have to last. We put in some of the dried foods from under the altar and Reverend Mother has given me special permission to go out into the grounds to find herbs and things to make flavour. The weather has been bad so the wild garlic is still here, in a good summer it would be gone by now. I have found lots of mint and lemon balm growing wild and thyme and roquette and of course nettles, I know the idea of eating nettles sounds horrid but they are very nutritious and you can’t taste them too much in soup. Some days we stir eggs into the soup. We were really lucky that the soldiers let us keep our chickens. Some days we add ham or saucisson. I have to cut it up very small so it goes a long way.
There’s not really been much sign of fighting or anything round here. The Germans play football on the bridge and stand around like they’re on holiday. Every day at 1 o’clock they have their lunch. They all go to a big barn just the other side of the Orne to eat together. They leave just two men in the box on the bridge in case it needs to be opened for a supply boat coming in for them from Ouisterham. Generally the two in the box play cards. Reverend Mother has changed the time of Mass. It used to be early in the morning but now it’s at 1.10 each day to make it easier for the villagers to attend. They each bring a cup or mug or bowl hidden in their clothing and on their way into mass Sister Margarita and I give everyone a ladle of soup. They take it into the chapel with them and drink it quickly whilst they pray. It’s a short service and once they are refreshed the villagers lick their vessels clean and hurry away before the Germans have finished their lunch. Reverend Mother says that if Germans come to visit us during the service I’m to waste all the rest of the soup and spill it on the steps by the chapel as if I’d tripped. That should cover the smell but it would be a sinful waste of soup. I told you she thinks of everything.
The people who come can’t really take soup home with them, because if they got caught it would give the game away. I was worried about Sébastien’s children so I carefully washed and dried one of my socks and filled it with rice, beans and lentils and squeezed it into his hand. He hid it inside his clothing. I know it was a dangerous thing to do but I was so worried. It wasn’t stealing as I fasted three days so I wasn’t eating and they could have my share. I got into trouble for losing my sock, I said it must have been when I was looking for herbs so I was sent to look for it, but of course it wasn’t there. As a penance I was made to get down on my knees and scrub the floor all the way from the kitchen to the chapel, it had got into a right state with peoples muddy feet and drips of soup. I felt very weak so I had to start eating again but I’d confided in Sister Thérèse and she fasted two days to get some more food for the children, Sébastien brought my sock back but I thought I might need it again so I hid it under my mattress. He brought me a stocking which used to belong to his wife. That was better for carrying food as it was thinner and easier to hide, His wife must have had very shapely legs.
Gliders have just landed in the field between the canal and the river. They came so quietly until the last minute when they made a bit of a racket as they landed. We’d told them that the Germans all went to their barn to sleep so there were only two of them on each bridge and they’d probably been drinking wine. The English took over both bridges just like that. It was amazing. There were more English than Germans and they’d had a lot to drink. The English set out over the Orne and the Germans all ran away.
The English must be hungry, so I got out the hidden pan of soup and Sister Margarita got out the bread she made this afternoon. I’ve just added some extra herbs and a bit more ham by way of a thankyou. The English soldiers are coming down here three at a time for soup and bread. They’ve got flying horses on their uniforms, like the Greek God Pegasus.. Just think Mamam, my soup fed the first British Soldiers to land on French soil. What an exciting night this is. Praise be Mary and Jesus.
(C) Jan Loxley Blount 19/06/2019
This piece of writing is entirely fiction and (whilst close to real events) IS NOT AND IS NOT INTENDED TO BE historically or factually accurate.
It began as a very short “Letter written on D Day” for an exercise during a session at Arts Depot Finchley on 17 June 2019. In the session we honoured the experiences of one of our members, who is a 94 year old D Day Veteran. The stimulus was a Son et Lumière at the Pegasus Bridge - with thanks also to two popular films and a much loved TV series.