By Paul Hynes
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 5th contest was Migration.
Paul Reynaud could hardly face the men sat around him as he felt all their glares. They all knew that they were here to discuss treason, one way or another.
“The way I see it we are without options. France is lost either way, at least this way we have a chance to save her.”
It had been barely a month since the Germans had first smashed through the Ardennes and inflicting a series of disastrous defeats on what was meant to be the strongest army in the world. The French army was no longer able to defend the country any longer and the British Expeditionary Force had already fled back across the Channel. Now they were proposing his government do the same, as equal partners. It seemed that they were so keen to keep France in the fight, that they were willing to make the Channel nothing more than a river between two banks of the same country.
“We would be at the mercy of the English.,” Paul de Villelume protested, “and history has shown that that is never a position to envy.”
“The English people are just as desperate for peace as the French, this union they propose is nothing more than a ploy to benefit their position post-war. They hope that Hitler will allow them to annex our colonies and want legal backing to do so, that’s all.”
Several of the French ministers nodded. It seemed that the alternative option was the most popular.
From the darkened bunker underneath Paris, Reynaud could not see the glorious capital in the Summer. He was almost glad for that now. He could not help but fear that when he returned to the surface he would find it hard to not imagine German troops everywhere. He wondered if the French people would ever forgive him if he were to surrender.
“What’s necessary is that we end this war as quickly as possible, and to do that I propose we make contact with the Germans today. Now, we know what Hitler mi-”
Before de Villelume could continue, an ancient fist slammed on the meeting room table to induce silence.
“A true Frenchman would rather die than surrender to the Boche.”
Ferdinand Foch was far too old to be Minister for War, almost everyone knew that his appointment had more to do with public perception than ability. The old war hero coming back to help the younger men who really called the shots, nothing more. But he had authority now.
“That anyone around this table could even think of such a thing makes them unfit to speak for France. If you were in my army you would have been shot as a traitor!”
Both Pauls seemed to have shrank into their seats as the ageing Marechal’s tirade continued.
“...you are both a disgrace to your country! Don’t you remember the last words of Marechal Petain at Verdun?! Il ne passeront pas! He fought till his last breath along with four hundred thousand other heroes. Are you more French than them?!”
By the time Foch had finished one could have heard a pin drop.
“There is only one option.” The Marechal concluded, staring at Reynaud with what the Prime Minister, for the first time since the beginning of the German invasion, was a look of hope.
“We must make the British our brothers.”
McGillman’s Butchery had been an institution in Newmains even before the war. This was what Gus would often remind his loyal customers of. It’s what gave him his raison d’etre in life, to carry on his father’s work as a servant of the community and a successful businessman. It was a position that came with authority. His father’s authority had carried on twenty years after his death, even as he had passed without Gus by his side. He had been fighting battles on the other side of Europe at the time
Gus pointed to the picture of his father’s face, next to that of Good King Billy, when he refused the Catholic couple service. Gus could have spotted them a mile off, her sullen expression and shifty eyes, and a rosary to boot! Him with those fancy eyeglass frames that people wore in those stupid films from across the Channel and a smile that gave away the fact that he was a shyster. A French husband and an Irish wife, no doubt with Catholic kids numbering in the double figures. Gus was sure of all these things he had told himself. It was what he had grown to loathe about the state of his country.
The Union had been a wartime expediency, he had welcomed it as many had that day in June when Churchill announced that the United Kingdom would be linking arms with the French in the name of continued struggle. Now the Union was a Cold War expediency, and he accepted that the Franco-British alliance was important for keeping the Soviets in check and making sure that the Americans weren’t allowed to boss either country around in the meantime.. But why did they have to move here in such numbers. And why his town?
“This is Scotland and I will serve Scottish customers.” He shouted patronisingly at the couple as soon as they had walked in to the shop, annunciating every syllable on the suspicion that they wouldn’t understand him otherwise. It was enough to send them back out the door with only an un-Christian hand gesture in response. He tracked their movements down the main street, until they disappeared into Allard’s Pâtisserie. It was always the same with these people, and Gus hated them to the extent that he didn’t mind sending them into the arms of his nemesis.
When Gus had been a young man he had seen a great deal of action, and it had often been the case that he had fought side by side with the French. First in Norway, then in kicking the Italians out of Libya, and finally the next three years in Greece, fighting for mountain after mountain in the cold and rain until the Germans had packed it in. The French had had their role to play, and he wished them all the best in their Catholic country. These were experiences that made a man, and it made him all the angrier to return home only to find out the assistant his late father had left in charge of the shop whilst he had been fighting the war was sourcing rolls from a French bakery. Allard’s bakery.
Morning rolls, the very principle of the object was Scottish. Walter Scott himself had preferred his to be well fired, Adam Smith had apparently chosen the soft baked variety whilst writing The Wealth of Nations, it was quite probable that Rabbie Burns had used them as a receptacle for his haggis. Without a doubt, John Knox had kept his rolls warm underneath his Presbyterian bunnet as he travelled across the land to spread His word. Gus might not have been able to prevent the French from exploiting the benefits of British hospitality, but he was not going to let them control the supply of a Scottish institution.
Ever since Gus had been in charge of his father’s shop he had gone out of his way to make sure that he sourced his rolls from a Scottish bakery in Lanark. It wasn’t an ideal situation, the bakery was much further away and noticeably more expensive, but it was one he was happy to play along with. It made it easier to gauge which customers were loyal to his father and to King Billy and to Queen Elizabeth.
It was a situation that became even less ideal when the delivery van crashed en route the following morning. He had no doubt the Irish woman had put a curse on him.
Gus had finally got hold of the bakery on the phone three hours after the roll van was meant to arrive. They gave their apologies, but it was he who had to pass on the devastating news to loyal and increasingly irate customers.
“Looks like we’ll have to go to Allard’s in that case,” one had sneered. It was that comment which gave Gus the brainwave to close down the shop and reassure his customers that soon the crisis would be resolved.
Gus marched down the main street with the same gusto he did on the Orange walk, sack in hand. His plan becoming more and more logical in his head with every stride. Allard adhered to the perfectionism of many French bakers, a bemused customer had told him several months beforehand. At Midday everything he had baked that morning that hadn’t been sold was thrown for the birds, whilst the shop closed to focus on producing new batches. He had no doubt that there must be rolls involved in that wastage. Rolls that could save him in his hour of embarrassment. He crept down the alleyway next to Allard’s shop, and peaked over the fence to see the garden behind it.
There were rolls there alright, dozens of them, unmolested and serene amongst the long grass and weeds. Gus had struck gold, and with an agility he had not summoned since he had had to get the jump on an SS man in ‘43, he vaulted over the fence to gather the treasure. Even though they had been lying outside the booty was firm in his grasp, almost better than the ones he would usually purchase in Lanark. He put the thought out of his mind and progressed with lightning speed, aware that he might get caught at any moment. He was confident he could see off Allard if the Frenchman did come out to protest, but he had not expected his assailants to come from above him.
It was a war cry more fear inducing than any Stuka’s siren, a squabble of enraged Seagulls swooping down to defend their daily riposte from a foreign interloper. Gus tried to ignore their protests at first, before he felt one land on his right shoulder and begin to peck at his head. It was brushed off with ease, but the three others hovering above him were out of reach. He swung the sack at them, but that nearly left him exposed to more pecking. The nightmarish creatures drew blood, and it wasn’t long before this had become a losing battle with every countermeasure Gus attempted merely leading to more punitive attacks from the birds.
“Aw...FINE!” he shouted with a frustrated roar, as he threw the sack as far away from him as possible. Almost instantly he was left alone, covered in scrapes and feathers. Defeated.
Gus jolted at the thought of more pecks before realising that Seagulls couldn’t speak English. Not even with a French accent.
The Frenchman ran over and helped him to his feet, Gus didn’t protest. He had made himself look too ridiculous for that.
“Come inside and get yourself together, they really are hellish creatures when you get between them and what they want.” Gus felt himself being beckoned inside to the warm bakery, full of the pleasant smell of freshly baked bread. He scowled as he sat down, gazing contemptuously at the portrait of the Virgin Mary that hung on the wall, before it was replaced with Allard’s kindly face that smiled as he handing him a cup of tea.
“If you wanted some rolls, you only had to ask.”
“Who says I want any of your rolls?” Gus tried to utilise his usual annunciating tactic, but it fell through due to his exhaustion.
“I was hoping you might, to be honest,” The Frenchman chuckled, “I was hoping you might be willing to take some in exchange for a few pieces of your lorne sausage. Your customers always say that it is very good. I have been meaning to try some myself.”
Gus couldn’t help but smile.
“They’re right to say that. It’s the best.”
The two men talked for a while before Gus returned with fresh rolls to the delight of his customers. He didn’t mind telling them where they had come from for once.
It had become clear that there were worse things in life than having a friend.