This story takes place in the Auvergne Region, in Central France. It concerns an elderly gentleman I’d met in 1971 in my wife’s town, Moulins-sur-Allier, and with whom I’d become friendly. His name was Mr. Jean Gaston. He had been a soldier in the First World War, and a celebrated Resistance fighter in World War Two. He now ran his newsagent’s and tobacco shop in the square of the town.
One day, after we’d been acquainted a couple of years, this was 1975, he invited me to accompany him on a visit to a WW2 museum, high in the remoter part of the Auvergne hills.
The following morning, I picked him up at 5.30 am and we set off.
The museum, he told me, was in commemoration of a battle in 1944, between a Resistance group, and three full German battalions. The majority of the Resistance group was made up of very young people, and elderly, because all the people of the ages in between, were either in the army, prison camps, or in active Resistance groups around the country.
On the way to the museum, Jean told me to take a turn at some cross-roads. We drove for a short while and came to a derelict cottage at which he asked me to stop. We got out of the car, and he continued his story of the battle.
The purpose of the attack by the group back in those days of war, was to delay the Germans in their journey as reinforcements against the impending Allied Invasion.
Having held the might of the soldiers for nearly nine days, the Resistance fighters retreated, scattering in the hilly and difficult countryside. Their losses were high, but they had achieved their aim.
Jean, my friend, had been visiting the site of the battle every year since about 1954. One day, he told me, he took a wrong turning in the labyrinth network of tiny roads that led to the village. He came to a cottage at which a middle-aged man was standing at the gate. The man had a pile of small sticks on top of one of the pillars, and was sharpening them systematically, using a tiny penknife. Jean introduced himself, explained he’d got lost, and said where he wanted to go.
The two men chatted for a while. They were both ex-Resistance fighters, and though they’d never met, had heard of each other, and had mutual friends. Jean thanked the man, Robert Feuillore, and went on his way.
Arriving at the museum, Jean made a note to himself to look for any mention of Robert Feuillore.
What he found, chilled him.
Commander Robert Feuillore had been one of the heroes, who, in the gallant attack that delayed the German advance to Northern France, in May 1944, had been shot to death by the enemy. He was now buried in Vallon-en-Sully, the small village in which he’d been born, beside his wife, Yvette, who had also been killed in that encounter.
On his way back from the museum, Jean went by the road and to the cottage at which he’d met Robert.
When he came to the cottage, what met him was the ruin at which we were both now looking.
The little iron gate was hanging off the hinges, the pathway to the house was overgrown, and the front door was ajar, showing a derelict and weathered abandoned interior. Most of the windows were broken, shards of remaining glass jutting from the frames, letting the sweltering heat of the summers, and the subzero cold of the snow and the icy winds, do their worst, in winter.
On one of the gate pillars, though, was the tiny penknife, and the pile of sticks, that Jean had witnessed being used by the man he’d met only hours before. Jean told me he’d picked up the tiny bone-handled knife, put it in his pocket, and got from that place fast.
He looked at me for some kind of reaction, lifted his shoulders in Gallic wonder. We got back in the car and drove off. I didn’t know what to think.
Every year after that, when we went to Mont Muchet, we drove by the cottage.
Every year we stopped, got out of the car, and just looked. I always had the feeling he was looking for some kind of sign, something to prove that what he’d told me was true, would validate his story.
At Easter of 1996, I went as usual to visit Jean’s newsagent, but it was no more.
Instead, there was a busy café. Fearing the worst, I went in and made enquiries. The café was run by Jean’s son, Michel. When I said who I was, his face brightened and he said,” Ah yes, the Irishman of whom my father spoke.” His face saddened then, and he continued, “My father died just after Christmas this year. He had a peaceful, happy death. And he told me that if you should call, he would like you to have this.” And he handed me a small box.
I thanked him, left the shop and made my way to a table on the square. Slowly, I opened the box, having a good idea what I was going to find. And there it was, the little bone-handled penknife.
As I took it out, I wondered, and still wonder to this day, whether I’m the victim, a willing victim, I don’t mind saying, of a humorous, imaginative old man whom it was my privilege to have met in this life, or if I’m the witness to a truth so profound and mysterious, that I cannot, nor ever will, even begin to understand it.
Je ne sais pas.