In Falling Snow
At first it was the summers I remembered, long warm days under the palest blue skies, the cornflowers and irises and forget-me-nots lining the road through the Lys forest, the buzz of insects going about their work, Violet telling me lies. He loves you, he loves you not, she'd recite, skipping along the road until all the petals were gone. She'd finish with "he loves you" no matter what the flower told her. I'd seen her cheat like that. Violet showed me an iris and told me what it was. Beautiful like you, she said. She couldn't believe I'd never seen one. They're common as weeds, she said. No offence. None taken.
But now in my mind's eye, it's winter, that first winter we arrived, Miss Ivens and me alighting from the train in Viarmes, the darkness descending, no one to meet us. And there's Miss Ivens herself, charging ahead to walk, not a thought for our luggage, abandoned on the station platform when we'd failed to rouse the porter. "Where's Monsieur Bousier?" Miss Ivens said, as if I might know. I shrugged but she'd already moved off down the hill at a cracking paceeven with my long stride I could barely match herturning back to me every now and then, those large straight teeth somehow adding to my trepidation, all the better to eat you with going through my head. What was I doing? I'd boarded a train with a perfect stranger. I'd listened to her story for an hour from Paris and now I was following her to a place called Royaumont. "Better to walk at any rate," Miss Ivens said. "Nothing like seeing it on foot," turning back to smile, "the world, I mean," and then she was off again.
"You should know that you and I and the rest are at the beginning of something momentous," she'd said on the train, a curl of her dark hair slipped from its moorings and dangling between her eyes. "It's going to be grand," she insisted, reading something in my face that suggested I disagreed. I'd been assigned to the British Casualty Clearing Station in Soissons, close to Amiens where we thought Tom had gone. A Sergeant Fleming would be there to meet my train unless Matron had sent word, and no one sent word of anything in these strange days, not as far as I could tell. I'd signed up in London with the Red Cross and already, I'd had orders changed, waiting those three days in Paris, I assumed because of a change in the fighting. And then I'd happened upon Miss Ivens and everything changed again.
I was just what she needed, Miss Ivens said. She smiled so quickly I almost missed it. Her French wasn't the best, she said, book-learned, she could write but no one understood her spoken word, and no one else at Royaumont had time. "You'll be my shadow," she said, "my voice. Just what I need. I can't believe our good fortune. There's a little work to be done at the abbey, of course," dismissing it like a fly with a flick of her wrist. "The building's not quite ready. It's rather old," making shapes with her hands, collapsing them into her lap. "I need someone who understands the language and can liaise with the tradesmen, someone with common sense. I believe that's you." If I was silent, she never noticed, just kept on talking, more to herself really, setting out on her fingers the work she wanted to do that night, the supplies they'd need to order before Christmas, the long list of people to meet the next day. I listened.
And then Viarmes itself, at the base of the hill, a main street, a few shops, already shut up tight although it was barely 4 p.m., a little stone square defined by the church and town hall, the smell of incensebenediction or deathand we soon saw which. There was a funeral procession ahead of us. A boy had died, we learned from some stragglers. His leg went under a plough and no one knew to stanch bleeding. Miss Ivens was furious at that. Knowledge was something the whole world had a right to and how could they not be told? We turned off the main road, watched the funeral at its slow march behind a black motor vehicleMonsieur Bousier, our taxi driver, was also the undertakerheading across a cold field towards the little cemetery in the nearby town of Asnières-sur-Oise. We took a narrow road out of town, more a path really, which was flanked on either side by pine trees. "Blanche de Castille rode her horses through here," Miss Ivens said. Perhaps I looked perplexed. "Her son built the abbey, Royaumont. Louis IX, the saint." She sniffed the air. "They were all whitethe horses I mean. But Blanche was marvellous. Such an example to women. I'd love to have known her, just for an hour."
Excerpted from In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl. Copyright © 2013 by Mary-Rose MacColl. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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