• gmontcombroux

At the Café de la Mairie

For a writer, researching never ends. After completing the outline of my Pilot Error and began checking my facts, the Massif des Bauges region of France, where I situated the novel, became very personal.

In July 1944, the German alpine troops, the Gerbirgsjäger, attacked the massif (mountainous area) where numerous maquis were located. The maquisards put up a fierce resistance and retreated. The Germans turned on the inhabitants of the neighboring hamlets, shot the men and set fire to the houses, then tortured, before killing, the maquisards they had taken prisoner.

Among the list of résistants executed were brothers Émile and Lucien Gonthier, who happened to be my grandmother’s nephews. The family originated in a town on the east side of the massif.

Although I acknowledge a writer never stops researching, there comes a point when I have to put pen to paper, or rather fingers to the keyboard, and write the story. This is what I am off doing right now. But first a short excerpt:

After checking on her patients, Josiane strolled to the café-tabac in the Place de la Mairie. No one had made any effort to give a name to the drinking spot. So it was simply labelled Café de la Mairie, as it sat opposite the town hall. Like all buildings in Chamoz, the town hall sported a steep roof of larch shakes and wide overhanging eaves to shelter the rows of logs stacked against the wall so did the café.

When she entered, her throat was assailed by an acrid cloud of tobacco smoke.

Someone laughed and offered her a cigarette. “Here, have one. It’s good for the cough.”

“Ugh, what do you put in those things?”

More laughter greeted her grimace. “Gaston dries a little gentian, left over from making liqueur, and mixes it with the tobacco. It’s good. You should try it.”

Now that her throat and nose were getting accustomed to the strange smell, it was not unpleasant. She accepted a cigarette. Her eyes watered, but after a couple of puffs, she found she quite liked it. Bertrand pushed his neighbor aside and made room for her on the leather-covered bench. Someone slid an ashtray toward her over the marble table top. Through the blue haze, she glanced around the room. All the councilors and most of the villagers were present, crammed around the tables.

“Official town hall meeting?” she asked.

“We were just waiting for you,” Bertrand replied.

The buzz of conversation resumed. The mayor called for silence. “We’re meeting at the request of some of you about what to do with our German prisoners. Josiane, what is the condition of the two men?”

“Mr. Abitz probably has a fracture of the nasal bone. Without X-rays, it’s impossible to know how deep the fracture goes into the cranium. He also has several broken ribs. Again, I can’t tell whether they could be piercing the lung and make it collapse. But I don’t think so. He’s short of breath, but broken ribs are always painful. The scalp wound has been stitched and shouldn’t cause any problem. There’s extensive bruising.”

“And the other one?”

“He has a broken leg in a cast. Sprained wrist and dislocated knee. A minor scalp wound and bruising.”

“So when can we drive them to Chambéry?” a villager asked.

“Not for a while. Going over the bumpy road in the back of a van would seriously aggravate their injuries.”

“Why should we care? You patched them up. Now they can go,” an angry voice said.

“Yes, why should we bother with them? Sales Boches!”

Other voices supported the idea.

Christian slapped the table. “I asked everybody here so we can come up with a satisfactory solution. So far, we have been lucky in our corner of Savoie, unlike some other villages and their maquis. The regional Italian Alpini patrol doesn’t come around too often and when they do they close their eyes to quotas. They’ve made no requisitions, yet they could.”

“That’s because they like Denise Mazarelli. She’s one of them.”

Indignant and red-faced, Denise jolted upright. “Let me tell you, my great-grandparents came to the Haute-Savoie a long time ago and became French citizens. We’ve been French ever since.”

“Except when the Piafs came over the Alps again and took over Savoie. Talk about being stabbed in the back!”

Bertrand rapped his pencil several times against his glass to restore order. His voice alone dominated the racket. “Enough! While Denise chats with our Alpini patrol and encourages them to choose a gift from her boutique, and Gaston plies them with wine, and all the while Claude is stuffing them with his petits pains au chocolat, they’re satisfied and happy enough to forget to ask whether there’s a maquis nearby or round up any young men for the Service du Travail Obligatoire. Now, Roger, do you want your son to be sent to Germany for forced labor?”

The butcher reddened and lowered his head. “No. You’re right, but it’s not right. Marshal Pétain―”

“We know about the marshal, but we’re still at war. And so far, we’ve kept the war from our doorstep. So what if we have to pretend to be obedient little citizens?”

A voice rose. “You’ve all heard what happens to innocent folk in the zones the Germans occupy. Even where the Bersaglieri are in control, it isn’t a bed of roses.”

Quiet murmurs of approval floated around the room.

Roland poured more wine into Josiane’s glass. “And, by the way, next time a Bersagliere patrol finds its way up here, do not, I repeat, do not mock them by pinning chicken feathers in your berets, like the last time. I agree, though that their panache hats look quite ridiculous. But for them they’re sacred and they don’t take kindly to being laughed at. So ignore them. Luckily, thanks to Gaston’s quick thinking in providing them with drink, there were no reprisals.”

“Yep, they’re a different breed to the Alpini who are mountaineers, like us. And those only put one raven’s feather in their hats.”

Christian raised his glass. “Let’s get back to the meeting’s topic. How and when do we let the Piafs know we’ve got two wounded Germans here?”

The assembly chuckled. The mayor never called the Italians by their local nicknames, Piafs and Pioulets. That he did now showed that he was worried.

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