All Kinds Of Angels
Nathalie was learning that it was a mistake to judge by appearances . . .
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 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. ■