- does it interest you enough to read further?
- does anything strike you as out of place? poor use of language?
- does it read easily?
Time & Regret – Chapter 1
I saw the man a third time in Bailleul. Now seeing someone once means nothing. Twice is mere coincidence. But a third time is cause for apprehension. A third time made me wonder if I was being followed.
From the shade of a sweet-smelling linden tree, I glanced his way, recording a few more details of the man’s appearance beyond the blue cap he wore: pale brown hair, narrow shoulders, slouching physique, and a t-shirt with Mona Lisa on the front. He raised his head and to disguise my scrutiny, I looked down at the brochure I held.
Why on earth would someone follow me? I have nothing to hide and brought nothing of value with me except my pearls. I was in France; ostensibly to visit places my grandfather had served during World War One, but in reality, searching for clues to solve the puzzle he had left me. Not that I had found anything yet. I shook my head to dismiss the notion of being followed into the wild-imagination bucket where it belonged.
A blond woman holding a clipboard emerged from the tourist office.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am Juliette Devere your guide to historic Bailleul. On our tour today we will visit the Grand Place, the town hall, our beautiful belfry and Maison de la Dentelle—the lace house. Then we will travel a few kilometers to see our cemetery and memorial for the war and a replica of a casualty clearing station. This is acceptable, yes?” Heads bobbed in agreement.
“Alors, I will begin. Bailleul’s history dates to the thirteenth century with the Counts of Bailleul.” As Juliette spoke of the families who owned the land and the battles that occurred as France and England fought for control hundreds of years ago, I glanced again at the man wearing the blue baseball cap. He seemed to be listening intently.
“During the Great War,” Juliette continued, “this square was full of military vehicles and men dressed in uniforms. My grandmother was a young girl at the time and she remembers having two British officers staying at her house.” Juliette nodded slowly for emphasis. “By 1918 more than ninety percent of Bailleul was destroyed, but through the good efforts of our town leaders, it has been rebuilt to an exact replica of what existed.” Our guide beamed as though she had been personally responsible for this feat. “The belfry first, mes amis.”
Juliette pointed across the wide cobblestone square lined with red brick buildings.
Dominating its north side was the town hall, an imposing sandstone structure with a whimsical turret at one end and clock tower and belfry at the other. The flag of France hung limply at the main entrance; red petunias spilled from the windows. The day was already hot, a few filmy clouds on the horizon, crows squawking from a nearby perch. Having spent six days on my own, I had decided to take a tour and visit the sites with others for company. I was tired of my thoughts—the plague of post-divorce angst, the annoyance of my grandmother’s self-centered behaviour, worries about how my sons would cope with parents who lived apart, and the vague sense that my job was no longer fulfilling.
An older woman sauntered along beside me. “Are you enjoying France?” she said.
“Very much. Although I’ve been here less than a week.”
“What brings you to Bailleul? It’s not usually on the tourist agenda. In fact, most tourists never get to northern France. Too wrapped up in Paris or the famous wine regions, I suppose.”
While keeping an eye on the man who might or might not be following me, I replied. “I’m looking at World War One sites. My grandfather served in France and I came to see where he had been.”
“Sounds like me,” she said, “but in my case it’s my father who served. I never knew him. He died in 1916, when I was two. My mother remarried and I had a lovely stepfather, but all my life I’ve wanted to know more about my real father. And here I am.”
Juliette called for our attention. “We are going to climb to the top. Many stairs, ladies and gentlemen, so if anyone feels unable to do the climb, please wait here. The rest may follow me.”
She unlocked a wrought-iron door and swung it aside so we could pass. Beyond the vestibule, stones steps lead upwards circling around and around so many times I lost count. The walls and slit windows and the odour of damp cold spawned a sense of long ago and I imagined the clatter of soldiers’ boots and the clang of swords as men fought their way up the tower. When we finally reached the top, I was out of breath and grateful for a chance to rest. Turning to stand by the railing, I noticed the man a few feet away taking a picture.
“Well, and here we are,” said Juliette. “Let me explain a little. Belfries were built as watchtowers. Bailleul sits on a rise of land, so guards on duty in this belfry could see for miles and if someone tried to attack, they could alert the town by ringing the bells. It was also a place to watch for fires. The first town hall was built in the twelfth century. Several times the belfry has been destroyed by wars or fire, but always rebuilt in the same style. If you look to the west, you can see the church spires of Hazebrouck and looking north, you can see Belgium. Ypres is just ten miles away, so you will understand why Bailleul was often threatened during the Great War.”
While one of our group asked a question, I gazed at the land spreading out in all directions, splotches of green in a multitude of shades mingled with pockets of trees and occasional bursts of reddish-brown suggesting fields left fallow for the season. Roads meandered this way and that; each intersection marked by a cluster of houses surrounding a church steeple. A ridge embraced the southern horizon. The land looked rich and peaceful. At the opposite railing, the man took another picture. Maybe he really is a tourist, I thought.
While walking through the lace museum, the British woman introduced herself as Pamela Collins and as we followed Juliette around, explained that her husband had passed away a year ago and she had made a spur of the moment decision to take a trip to the battlefields of World War One.
“Time to get on with life,” Pamela said. “I have my father’s records and I know he died at Ypres. My children think I’m slightly bonkers to have come on my own.” She chuckled. “They would surround me with cotton wool to keep me safe, if I let them.”
“As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can climb that tower can look after herself, Pamela. No one back home understands why I’m here either, except my best friend Joan. My ex-husband definitely thinks I’m crazy. Calls it a waste of money. Not that how I spend my money is any of his business anymore. And my grandmother is very annoyed with me.”
“Was it her husband who served in the war?”
I nodded. “You might think she would be pleased at my interest. But instead she’s concerned about herself. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.” I looked at Pamela. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear about my family problems.”
My grandmother never lost her English accent and at ninety-two was still a formidable woman. And a curmudgeon. She met my grandfather in London in 1917. When I had announced plans for a vacation in France, she had been anything but pleased.
“I don’t understand why you’re going,” she said. “What do you expect to find over there?”
Grandmama’s tone had been both querulous and demanding, a tone which often prompted deliberately contrary behaviour on my part. That day I kept my voice calm.
“I told you the last time we spoke, Grandmama. I obtained a copy of his war records and now I know where he served, I’m interesting in visiting those places. And besides, I need a break.”
“Why do you need a break?” Grandmama emphasised the word you.
I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath before responding. “Divorcing Jim has been hard on me. I have a lot on my shoulders. I need a break. Simple as that.”
“But your mother and I need you.” Grandmama often brought up the subject of my mother to make me feel guilty.
With the phone crooked between head and shoulder, I tidied a pile of papers on my desk. “Mother hardly knows me anymore.”
“Well, I need you. I have no other family. You’re being selfish, Grace. It’s not becoming.”
In the past, such an accusation might have caused me to change my mind. “You can manage for a few weeks. Philomena will be there. You have my itinerary, and I’ve included the exact numbers you need to dial and the time difference so you can call me if you want.”
My grandmother harrumphed and then cleared her throat in an exaggerated fashion. “Well, I suppose I’ll just have to manage on my own.”
The call had ended abruptly.
Thankfully, Pamela asked no questions. “For some reason,” she said, “it’s perfectly understandable for a man to visit war memorials, but not for a woman.”
“Maybe that’s it. My grandfather kept a diary throughout the war. He mentions all sorts of places many towns and battles and describes his experiences. Each place I visit seems to be steeped in tragedy. Statues and cemeteries and museums all paying tribute to men like your father and my grandfather. It’s overwhelming, really. Isn’t it?”
“So true. When I stood at the Menin Gate in Ypres listening to the Last Post, I couldn’t stop crying.” Pamela’s face looked as though she might cry again.
“Perhaps we should talk about something else,” I said. “Do you see that man over there with the blue hat?” Pamela nodded. “Well, he keeps looking at me.”
“That’s not surprising, Grace. You’re a good looking woman.”
I laughed. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think he’s following me. This is the third time I’ve seen him. Once in Honfleur, once in Hazebrouck and now here in Bailleul.”
Pamela drew her eyebrows together and pursed her lips. “Surely not,” she said. “Lots of men wear caps like that, especially you Americans.”
“You may be right,” I said, deciding not to pursue the matter further with someone who was essentially a stranger, albeit a very friendly one.
But I was almost certain she was wrong.
All comments gratefully received! Many thanks.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.