All Kinds Of An­gels

Nathalie was learn­ing that it was a mis­take to judge by ap­pear­ances . . .

The People's Friend - - News - by Al­i­son Carter

IKNOW I’m com­mut­ing,” Nathalie said, “but I am still go­ing to make sure that I take part in the life of this town.” “I think Vin­con is go­ing to be great for all of us,” Remy agreed. “You, me, the kids. Your com­mute is ac­tu­ally shorter than when we lived in Lyon.”

“Ten min­utes, tops.” Nathalie picked up their baby, Chan­tal. “I can be home muck­ing about with you two ras­cals be­fore Daddy has even put my din­ner on the ta­ble!”

Chan­tal laughed with that throaty, in­fec­tious laugh that only a child un­der two can pro­duce, and the sound of it made her par­ents join in.

Bruno, now five and ex­tremely self-im­por­tant, got up from the ta­ble where he had been mak­ing an enor­mous Christ­mas card.

“Don’t drop her, Ma­man,” he said. “She might bang her head.”

“I prom­ise,” Nathalie said with a solemn nod.

Remy bus­tled them away to wash their hands, and Nathalie went over to the din­ing-room ta­ble to look at Bruno’s de­sign.

He was in the mid­dle of cray­on­ing a dark green tree, and be­side it lay an omi­nous tube of sil­ver glit­ter.

There would be glit­ter stuck to ev­ery bit of fur­ni­ture in the new house, but Nathalie didn’t care. This move had been per­fect: a more ru­ral en­vi­ron­ment, just the thing for the chil­dren.

Bruno was thrilled with his new school; he’d be­come pos­i­tively an­noyed when he’d learned that the Christ­mas hol­i­days would be­gin soon.

“I’ve only been there a few weeks!” he said.

Bruno was dis­mayed that he’d have to leave kind Mme Burel and the ex­cite­ment of the play­ground and craft time, and stay at home.

It was 1999, so this hol­i­day sea­son was go­ing to be a spe­cial one. A new cen­tury was around the cor­ner, and with it came (for the Ni­col­lier fam­ily) a new life in the foothills of the Pyre­nees.

Nathalie worked as a lec­turer in his­tory at the univer­sity in Per­pig­nan. She had started as a head of depart­ment that Oc­to­ber, and Remy (for now) was to stay at home with the chil­dren.

It suited them, be­cause Nathalie was pas­sion­ate about her job and Remy en­joyed child­care.

“Also,” Nathalie told her hus­band, “I get to browse the Per­pig­nan shops for Christ­mas presents!”

He sighed in an ex­ag­ger­ated, fake way.

“While I get to scrape ce­real off the chairs.”

She kissed him. There was no con­flict be­tween them about who worked out­side the home: they had given it an enor­mous amount of thought.

Nathalie and Remy shared a de­sire to give their son and daugh­ter the best pos­si­ble child­hood and had seized the chance to move to a larger place in a small town with fresh air. It was all about the chil­dren.

“We get the south of France sun­shine and the snow of the moun­tains,” Remy had said as they read through house de­tails.

They hadn’t been the sort of peo­ple who longed for chil­dren from a young age, but when Bruno came along they re­alised that rais­ing chil­dren was part of their destiny.

“Some peo­ple can’t have this,” Nathalie said sadly, the day they brought Chan­tal, in her lit­tle padded car seat, into their Lyon flat. “They never get this thrill.”

Now that Nathalie was set­tled at the univer­sity, and they had fi­nally un­packed all the mov­ing crates, she had more time to look round the town.

It was noth­ing spe­cial – boxy houses and wide roads, a town hall too big for its boots and a range of cafés, from the dark, poky one where men went to watch the foot­ball to the bright, airy one where women went to chat.

There was a recre­ation ground, a de­cent chil­dren’s clothes shop and a funny old man­sion up on the hill which was now a ho­tel.

“Was it al­ways a ho­tel?” she asked the woman who ran the airy café. She’d taken the chil­dren there one cold

Satur­day at the start of De­cem­ber, to al­low Remy a lie-in.

“Oh, no. It’s been all sorts – a pri­vate house in the Seven­ties, some kind of spa in the Eight­ies. Delma worked there be­fore that.”

Delma was a name that had cropped up al­ready in the few con­ver­sa­tions that Nathalie had had around Vin­con.

She was cer­tain that the name be­longed to a very el­derly lady she’d seen strolling the streets with a stick, an up­right bear­ing and a mild ex­pres­sion on her face.

“Delma,” she said. “That’s not a French name.”

“Bel­gian,” the café owner said. “I don’t know what part of Bel­gium. But she’s lived down here for ever. Quite a lady.

“Do you want an ex­tra cup for the lit­tle boy?”

“Bruno!” Nathalie lunged across the café to where her son was about to turn a salt pot on its head. The woman laughed. “They’re a full-time job,” she said. “I’ve got four, all grown. But you’d not be with­out them.”

“Not in a mil­lion years,” Nathalie said.

She set the salt cel­lar down the right way up and gave Bruno a warn­ing glare.

She met Delma her­self only a day later. The town hall opened an ex­hi­bi­tion of the early his­tory of Vin­con – a few traces of a Ro­man road vis­i­ble fol­low­ing a hous­ing devel­op­ment, and preRo­man arte­facts or­gan­ised by the lo­cal ar­chae­o­log­i­cal so­ci­ety.

“Delma de Lan­noy,” the lady said. “Pleased to meet you.”

She wore a long cash­mere cardi­gan and neat black brogues with a high shine, and had some­thing of the ma­tron or head­mistress about her.

“I think you’re new. Wel­come to Vin­con.”

Nathalie in­tro­duced her­self.

“We’re in­com­ers,” she said.

“So am I, I sup­pose.” “Don’t be silly, Delma.” A short man in a beret stopped be­side them. “You’re prac­ti­cally a na­tive.”

“When did you move here?” Nathalie asked.

It seemed an odd place for a Bel­gian to come to, but per­haps Delma had moved, like her­self, for work. Or fol­lowed a hus­band here.

“Nine­teen thirty-seven,” Delma said. “Fe­bru­ary the twelfth.”

As they chat­ted, Nathalie took an in­stant lik­ing to this straight­for­ward, well-spo­ken woman with her slight ac­cent. She could see why this el­e­gant lady of eighty-five was a pop­u­lar mem­ber of the com­mu­nity.

She had a wide un­der­stand­ing of lo­cal his­tory. They talked about the town, and then about them­selves.

“I was mar­ried for some time,” Delma said. “My hus­band died a long time ago. But I never had chil­dren.”

Their at­ten­tion was drawn away by a pair of young men in the lobby of the town hall, mak­ing a song and dance about putting up Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions.

“It’s a lit­tle too early for a tree.” Delma smiled.

Nathalie looked at the young men. They were pre­tend­ing to be grumpy. She guessed that the work re­minded them of Christ­mas prepa­ra­tions at home.

Maybe they con­sid­ered them­selves too old for hang­ing tin­sel in their par­ents’ houses, but missed do­ing it.

Christ­mas was a child­hood thing. Nathalie had never re­ally un­der­stood that un­til she had chil­dren. The light in Bruno’s eyes when he’d seen a père Noël in a shop win­dow, red and white and bearded, had made her own body tense up with ex­cite­ment.

She looked at Delma, who was bend­ing over a dis­play of flints – tidy, self-con­tained Delma – and won­dered what it would be like not to have chil­dren. They were Nathalie’s life now, the cen­tre of ev­ery­thing.

Delma in­vited Nathalie for tea at her house on the edge of town. But then she phoned on the day it­self (a Satur­day) and sug­gested the ho­tel on the hill in­stead.

“They do good cake. It’s get­ting ter­ri­bly cold and I need a treat.”

Nathalie asked Remy to mind the chil­dren for an hour and drove up the hill. In the dis­tance the moun­tains were capped with snow.

It was clear that Delma had walked to the ho­tel. Nathalie watched her peel off lay­ers of clothes be­fore tak­ing her seat.

“Madame de Lan­noy!” the waiter said. “It is al­ways a plea­sure to see you. I think I know which cakes you’ll en­joy. One mo­ment.”

Nathalie smiled. “You’re a reg­u­lar here?” Delma he­si­tated. “Not ex­actly,” she said. Tea came, and the din­ingroom be­came nois­ier when a fam­ily ar­rived with twin girls singing a mod­ern carol, how­ever hard their par­ents tried to get them to pipe down.

Delma leaned out to­wards their ta­ble.

“They’re good singers,” she said. “Never keep ta­lent down!”

The girls im­me­di­ately clammed up with the usual em­bar­rass­ment of ten-yearolds, but Delma soon per­suaded them to sing “Silent Night”.

The waiter stood in the door­way to lis­ten.

“You’re good with chil­dren,” Nathalie com­mented. “Do you have nieces and neph­ews? Even great-nieces and great­nephews?” “No,” Delma said. She sliced her minia­ture tarte aux pommes deftly. “I’m an only child.”

Nathalie asked if Delma knew where the ladies’ toi­let was, and Delma waved her right hand across the space.

“Wait,” she added. “It used to be by the main en­trance, but they moved it years ago.”

“You re­ally do know this build­ing.”

Delma blinked, clearly sur­prised.

“Of course I do,” she said. “You’re not aware that I lived here?”

Nathalie put her hand to her fore­head.

“I’m so sorry!” she said. “Some­one did men­tion that, or at least that you have worked here. My apolo­gies.”

“I re­mem­ber a very great deal about this place,” Delma said. Her eyes roved around the room. “This was the main ward. It was a long time ago.” “Ward?”

Nathalie had heard no men­tion of the build­ing hav­ing a med­i­cal use. It sim­ply looked like a stan­dard overly large build­ing, built 150 years ago and, like so many oth­ers of its type, only use­ful as a ho­tel.

“Do you have to get back to those chil­dren of yours,” Delma asked, “or have you time for a lit­tle bor­ing his­tory?”

“The only thing that would keep me away from Bruno and Chan­tal is his­tory,” Nathalie said with a smile.

“I will keep this as short as pos­si­ble. But it is a mildly in­ter­est­ing episode in Vin­con’s past, and prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant episode of mine.

“I was born in Bruges in 1914. I was never a well-be­haved child, and usu­ally head­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from the one my sen­si­ble, well-off fam­ily in­tended for me.

“I trained as a nurse in 1936 – a scheme my mother thought in­sane. The ap­pro­pri­ate thing to do, of course, was to find a hus­band with prospects.”

Nathalie smiled.

Nathalie won­dered what it would be like not to have chil­dren

“I bet nurs­ing was fas­ci­nat­ing back then – new tech­niques be­ing dis­cov­ered.”

“It was fas­ci­nat­ing. But where was I? Oh, yes. In 1936 we took a tour – my par­ents and I – to Barcelona and Madrid. My fa­ther adored travel. It proved an in­con­ve­nient hol­i­day, be­cause a war broke out.”

“The Span­ish Civil War.” “They packed up and booked trans­port out, but I had seen the in­jured al­ready com­ing into Madrid, and I wanted to stay and help in some way. I prac­ti­cally forced my­self on an aid team.

“I was a hope­less ro­man­tic, I sup­pose.”

“A use­ful one, though.” Nathalie was aware of the vi­o­lence that char­ac­terised that war.

“There were many, many ex­iles once the Span­ish Re­pub­lic fell, and most of them looked for refuge in France.”

“So you fol­lowed the ex­iles and worked in France in­stead? That’s why you, a Bel­gian, ended up here in the lower Pyre­nees.”

“Sort of. It was a ter­ri­ble time – so much hunger, dis­ease and tragedy. What I saw among these peo­ple flee­ing was far, far too many young women, preg­nant women, ba­bies just born and ba­bies at risk.”

She paused and took a long sip of her tea.

“Un­born chil­dren were lost be­cause of the de­pri­va­tion – it was very bad. Peo­ple have for­got­ten it. Span­ish Repub­li­cans were hunted down like an­i­mals.”

Nathalie shook her head. “What hap­pened next? To you, I mean.”

“Ah, well, I am afraid I rather abused the love of my fam­ily. As I said, I was the only child. I went home to Bruges and con­fronted my fa­ther with the suf­fer­ing I’d seen.

“I wouldn’t let him out of his study un­til he’d given me – loaned me – a house I knew he owned barely thirty miles in­side the French bor­der.”

Delma smiled. She looked for all the world as though she was in her early twen­ties again, bam­boo­zling her dot­ing papa and feel­ing guilty about it.

Nathalie looked around the room.

“Delma, are you say­ing that this is that house, that this was –”

“A ma­ter­nity hospi­tal.” “For refugees.” Nathalie sat back, as­ton­ished and im­pressed. “Delma, I know some­thing of that war, and I imag­ine you saved many lives.”

“I don’t know how many, be­tween ’36 and ’39,” Delma said. “It was a chaotic time, and records were not good.”

“Well, I’ve learned so much to­day,” Nathalie said. “I hope they will let you take me on a tour of this place some time, so I can imag­ine the labour rooms and the rows of lit­tle cots.

“How did you fund the hospi­tal?”

“Oh, with do­na­tions. I nagged a lot of peo­ple. My mother gave up try­ing to get me to hunt hus­bands, and she helped with that.

“And I met my hus­band here, any­way, so she had to give up com­pletely then!

“He was an ob­ste­tri­cian, and we were very happy. The ma­ter­nity hospi­tal scraped by.”

“So it closed when the refugees pe­tered out after the war? Of course! I’ve seen sev­eral Span­ish names round here al­ready! My good­ness, I bet you de­liv­ered dozens of ba­bies that have de­scen­dants still here!”

“Quite a lot. But we didn’t close. This was a ma­ter­nity hospi­tal un­til 1949.”

“Oh, I see. So through World War Two.”

“You know how many refugees that war threw up.

“Sadly, there was hardly a pause be­tween the last lit­tle repub­li­can ba­bies leav­ing in the arms of their moth­ers, and the first Ro­many and Jewish women creep­ing in, ter­ri­fied and ill and hun­gry, about to give birth, some of them.”

Delma gave a low, soft laugh.

“We’d ab­so­lutely run out of money at that point. Un­be­knownst to me, my kind par­ents had sold most of what they owned.”

She leaned to­wards Nathalie.

“You know what par­ents give up for their chil­dren.” “Ev­ery­thing.” “Ex­actly. They did ev­ery­thing for me. But this was a big­ger war, with more sources of refugees, more ex­pec­tant moth­ers and sick ba­bies need­ing help.

“They came down through France from many na­tions, some smug­gled, to this house. They were run­ning from Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion as fast as they could.”

“How did you raise more cash?” Vaguely, Nathalie no­ticed the tea stew­ing and the cake dry­ing up, but took no no­tice.

Delma looked a lit­tle guilty again. Her ex­pres­sion seemed as though in her head she was back in 1940, us­ing ev­ery wile she had to get what she needed.

“The Red Cross. I went cap in hand to them.”

Nathalie re­called a short lec­ture se­ries she’d at­tended. There’d been a pre­sen­ta­tion with the his­tor­i­cal lo­gos of the Red Cross on slides.

“Hang on. The Red Cross is a neu­tral or­gan­i­sa­tion

– it re­lies on its neu­tral­ity. They can’t – won’t – deal with po­lit­i­cal refugees. Surely Jewish peo­ple, for in­stance, were po­lit­i­cal refugees?”

“I can’t get any­thing past you aca­demics,” Delma said with a de­lighted smile. “I had to, well, find a way.” “You hid them?” “Good­ness, no! The hospi­tal had to be open. Any­one could walk in and shake the hand of any of my young women, if they wanted.

“No, I only dis­guised their re­veal­ing names, and the fact that they were gypsy moth­ers, or Jewish moth­ers, or other moth­ers at risk.

“Isn’t it ridicu­lous that they drew those dis­tinc­tions? To me they were just women with breech birth or high blood pres­sure.”

She took the lid off the teapot and peered in­side. The waiter came over, so quickly that Nathalie jumped, and was back with hot tea be­fore Delma could get un­der­way again.

“I had a very use­ful lit­tle book of French names,” she ex­plained. “Hun­dreds of moth­ers got a new name. It was quite fun, ac­tu­ally.”

“When it wasn’t ter­ri­fy­ing.”

“As I said, noth­ing gets past you.”

“Hang on. The Red Cross col­luded?”

Delma poured the tea. “I could not pos­si­bly com­ment. Is this strong enough for you? I know the French hate strong tea.”

“Delma, I –” Nathalie was strug­gling to find some­thing ap­pro­pri­ate to say.

“Oh, it’s all in the past,” Delma said. “But I’m glad I did it. Just think, if my dad hadn’t fan­cied hav­ing a look at the cathe­dral they were build­ing in Barcelona, back in 1936, I could have mar­ried a Brus­sels banker and lived the life of Ri­ley!”

“I don’t think that would ever have hap­pened,” Nathalie said wryly.

Delma shrugged. Then she turned a lit­tle in her chair.

“Ge­orges,” she called to the waiter. “This is a lovely pot of tea.”

The waiter beamed. He looked about fif­teen.

“He was chris­tened Jorge, that lad,” Delma said. “The Span­ish for ‘Ge­orges’. His grand­mother was one of my first ba­bies – good­ness, she was young!

“They stuck to Span­ish names in the fam­ily as time went on, but Ge­orges wants to be French. You met the mayor?” “Mon­sieur Kohn?”

“He was a ter­ri­ble screamer, al­ways red in the face. He was a poorly in­fant and his mother was fran­tic, so she stayed here for ages.”

“He seems fine now.” “Oh, now he’s fifty-eight and bosses every­one around about plan­ning pol­icy! But I al­ways

re­mem­ber that he comes from the only branch of his fam­ily not sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp; I think it mo­ti­vates him.” “How many, Delma?” “How many what?” “Ba­bies did you help in that war – ba­bies and moth­ers?”

“In that one, three hun­dred and fifty-three fam­i­lies.”

There was a com­mo­tion at the door and Remy ap­peared with Bruno and then Chan­tal in the buggy.

“Ladies, I’m sorry,” he said as he reached their ta­ble. “This young man learned that Mummy had gone for cake.”

“Do you mind if they join us?” Nathalie asked, em­bar­rassed. “I’ll clear them all off home shortly.” “Of course I don’t mind.” Nathalie looked into her new friend’s lined, beau­ti­ful face.

“I sup­pose you have known count­less ba­bies and small chil­dren,” she said. Delma smiled. “Nathalie, you asked me if my hus­band and I had chil­dren, and when I said no you looked . . . stricken.

“Later, you asked about my nieces and neph­ews, my grand-nieces and grand­nephews, and it was as though you were will­ing me to say I had some.

“Per­haps, one day soon, I will show you the archive of the hospi­tal – it’s in the li­brary in Vin­con. I don’t imag­ine you have had time yet to visit.

“You will def­i­nitely meet women who lived here, even if only for a few weeks, and men and women who were born here and stayed.

“In my own per­sonal archive I have let­ters from oth­ers who went to live else­where.” Delma’s eyes were shin­ing. “I have a very large num­ber of ba­bies, Nathalie. I have a fam­ily, ev­ery mem­ber of which is pre­cious to me.

“I have shared the joy, and wept over the pain, of many, many par­ents, and most of them told me that their child is my child.

“I have al­ways felt that there are many ways of be­ing a mother. Moth­ers are friends and helpers, nur­tur­ers and teach­ers – qual­i­ties any of us can have and all of us can of­fer to oth­ers.”

Chan­tal’s enor­mous brown eyes were fixed on the old lady’s face. Bruno was kneel­ing on a chair with a lump of Madeira cake in his small hand, his mouth open but none go­ing in.

Remy looked from one woman to the other, amazed and puz­zled. They all seemed mes­merised by Delma’s pas­sion. Nathalie ex­haled.

“I will never know the vol­ume of love that you’ve shown,” she said.

“Non­sense!” Delma grinned at the chil­dren. “The pot of love you have for your chil­dren is the largest pot of love in the world.”

She smiled at Remy. “Him, too.”

Delma reached for her soft brown leather hand­bag and rum­maged. From it she brought a small wooden toy in the crude shape of an an­gel, un­painted and plain ex­cept that the wings were a lighter colour.

The maker, Nathalie thought, must have carved the piece so that the darker, knotted wood made the body.

“I must have handed out hun­dreds of these,” Delma said, press­ing it into Chan­tal’s ea­ger fist. “They all seem to like them, the lit­tle ones. Five carvers have made them for me, since about 1937.

“It’s not re­ally time for Christ­mas presents yet, but there’s no harm. There’s never any harm in mak­ing a child smile.”

“Thank you,” Nathalie said.

She wasn’t sure what she was say­ing thank you for, but it was cer­tainly for much more than the an­gel. ■

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