Marcel shuffled into the cafe and started a fresh fire in the potbelly stove before settling into his rocking chair. He was having a hard night: the violent storm outside caused his joints to ache and brought to mind too many harrowing nights at sea. Getting out of bed was not a good idea, he thought, but he couldn’t stay there, tossing and turning the rest of the night, feeling age and loss too deeply to rest.
Watching the lightning flashes, he was startled when Badass leaped onto his lap and lifted his front legs to rest on Marcel’s chest. As Badass rubbed his muzzle against Marcel’s jaw, the old man smiled and stroked the cat from neck to tail. After several purrs, Badass curled up and went back to sleep. The heat pumped out from the stove, as well as the furry body on his lap was absorbed into Marcel’s very bones. Slowly, he relaxed, eyes drooping, and a long-ago memory came to mind …
It took more than ten years for Marcel to scrimp and save for the Marie-Jeanne II, a sturdy little tugboat that had seen better days under worse owners, and a couple of years to restore her from engine to hull. Two months after the last coat of paint went on and the last bolt was screwed on, the damned Nazis commandeered her. When he protested, the German officer looked down at his paperwork, then gave him a hard look.
“Your father, Monsieur, was last seen in one of de Gaulle’s divisions in Africa. Technically, that would mark your family as traitors to the government of France. However, the use of your boat will balance things out. And you can focus on keeping your mother and sisters healthy and in the home. Unless you think you can help them more by serving at the front? Your mother is expecting another mouth to feed very soon, according to our files.”
Marcel walked away from the officer, his anger and pride forming lumps in his chest that made it hard to breathe. But he immediately got a job at the docks to keep an eye on the Marie-Jeanne, watching as the Germans turned the vibrant port into a locked-down base for its U-boat fleet.
Marcel noticed the young woman hanging around near the entry of the port for several days in a row. She was dressed drably, only a hint of hair seen beneath her scarf. But he detected a steely deliberateness in her movements – she moved with alertness and purpose, even when she tried to look aimless. The impulse to approach her warred with the desire to keep his head down and stay out of trouble.
But she approached him before he made up his mind, just after Marcel finished work and had left the restricted area. Her smile was bright, as if she recognized him. “Walk with me, please?” After a beat, Marcel held out his arm and she took it. At first, they strolled towards the central square, but she steered him onto a quiet side-street.
“I am not sure I can help you, Mademoiselle. Regardless of what you request.” His heart thumped so painfully in his chest, he was surprised the sound did not drown out his voice. The local Resistance knew his sympathies, but had given up recruiting him. Was this a Vichy honey trap, testing his loyalty?
She squeezed his arm, then laid her head on his shoulder, making him slow down. In a very low tone, she replied, “Monsieur Rabbe at the machinist’s shop said that you would be the one to talk to.”
Monsieur Rabbe was part of the local Resistance. But this could still be a trap. Marcel tried to pull away, but the woman held onto his arm with a fierce grip. “Please, let me have my say,” she whispered. “Neither of us want attention.”
He nodded, and she started walking again, pulling him further into the shadows. After several minutes, she broke the silence. “The Americans are coming soon.”
Marcel stopped cold and gripped her hand. “When? Where?”
“If I knew, I could not tell you – and I am limited in what I know. All I know is that they are coming. They will need the port. And to take the port, they will need more information.” Even in the shadows, he could tell when she lifted her face to meet his gaze. “You can help.”
“Or I can call for the authorities.”
“But you will not. You are not one of them.” The ‘them’ was practically spat out, despite the softness of her voice.
“My family cannot be punished for my actions.”
“My colleagues cannot guarantee anyone’s safety. But your assistance will not be forgotten.”
They both froze at the sound of footsteps. She recovered first, whirled him against a nearby wall, pulled his head down as she rose on her tiptoes, and kissed him. Marcel was still frozen as the footsteps came closer. Against his mouth, the woman murmured, “Push down my scarf and muss my hair.”
Marcel wrapped one arm around her waist, drawing her close, as he pushed back her scarf and ran his fingers through her hair. He realized that her dull, shapeless raincoat hid a trim but curvaceous body. She moaned, nuzzling his lips apart for an open kiss. Lust took the edge off of Marcel’s fear, but did not significantly ease it; nonetheless, he followed her lead, stroking her hip just as someone coughed a few feet away.
They flew apart at the interruption. A policemen shined a light into his face, then hers. Her face was flushed, lips swollen and red. For a brief time, she looked genuinely flustered, even to Marcel. “Good evening, sir,” she said as she reached into her coat, brought out a small bundle of papers and handed them to the stranger. The beam of the flashlight bounced between the woman’s face, Marcel’s and the papers in the policeman’s hand.
Marcel moved slower, but handed over his documents, too. The beam stopped over both sets of documents.
“Monsieur, you are local, but not you, Mademoiselle. What are you doing in Brest?”
“My aunt was ill, and my family sent me to take care of her.”
“She has no relatives closer than Paris?”
“No. Her sons served the Armistice Army.”
“One is dead, the other permanently invalided.”
“Sympathies, Mademoiselle. Will you stay long?”
“No, Monsieur. My aunt is improving and I will be leaving in a couple of weeks.”
The beam of light settled on Marcel’s face again. “And you waste your time with him? You should save yourself for one of our brave soldiers.”
Marcel bit the inside of his cheek to keep from reacting, but his hands curled into fists before he was conscious of it. The woman laughed softly. “Do not worry, Monsieur, I am a good girl and he treats me well.”
The policeman returned their documents. “Remember, there is a curfew. Good night and stay out of trouble.” He turned off his flashlight and strolled away.
Marcel offered his arm once more to his companion. She placed her arm against his and they walked on. He put the fingers of his other hand along her wrist and felt the flutter of her pulse, listened to the shallowness of her breathing.
“I have two questions, Mademoiselle. What is your name and what do you need me to do?”
“I am Clothide. And I need you to get me as close to the U-boat base as you can.”
Marcel whistled. “You are asking a lot, Clothide. But, yes.”
After several weeks of building tension and trial runs, Marcel helped Clothide get into the offices at the port. He never learned how she managed to get into locked drawers and safes, and she never showed him everything she kept in that shapeless raincoat. Later that night, she also took him to bed. After their intimacies, she told him a bit about her life before the war and he talked about his boat.
She drew lazy eights through the hair on his chest. “It may be safer if you left before …” He waited for her to finish the sentence but she fell silent. In response, he placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Brest is my family’s home, my home. My father will come back here – leaving would separate us permanently.”
She sat up and stared at him, then leaned over and kissed him hard, beginning another round of lovemaking until they collapsed, sated and exhausted.
In the morning, Marcel woke up alone. A scrap of paper was placed in his right shoe, merely saying, “Thank you and goodbye.” Two weeks later, he received a letter from Clothide, apologizing profusely and confessing that she was due to get married to her long-term fiancé on June 6th, in the North. He waited, making arrangements for his family to go underground once the invasion started.
After a long, arduous battle that destroyed far too much of Brest, the Americans finally took the port. And after destroying the German U-boats … the Americans took the Marie-Jeanne II. But at least they paid him – a little for the use, and more when the boat was scrapped just before the end of the war. When his father returned to civilian life, with a vicious scar down his chest, a medal and a pension, Marcel went to sea on a merchant vessel to save up for a Marie-Jeanne III. But when he finally got his next ship, she was known as The Clothide.
Marcel awoke to his shoulder being jostled by his nephew Sword. “Uncle, did you spend the night in that chair?”
The old man blinked. The sky had lightened but was still gray. The patter of rain on the cobblestones outside but no howling winds or thunder could be heard. Marcel grumped, “The cat does not like lightning. I came to keep him company.” He heaved himself out of the chair and stretched, waving off Sword’s assistance. “I am going to head home and have breakfast. Do you need me here?”
Sword took a couple of steps, grabbed the cane next to the doorway and handed it to Marcel. “Take care, Uncle, it is still slippery out there.”
Marcel harrumphed, waving his left hand as the right clutched the cane closer towards the middle than the hook at the top, wielding it more like a baton. “I’ll be fine. Tell your mother to expect me for Sunday dinner.”
The younger man hid the smile on his face, just in case his uncle turned around, but Marcel did not interrupt his walk out the door and to the dock, looking out at the sea for a long moment before heading home at a brisk pace.
Story by Magda Kamenev; photos by Anouk
This wonderful new chapter of Uncle Marcel’s story was kindly written for us by the lovely Magda Kamenev, who has really given Marcel some interesting history. If you would like to be part of Marcel’s story, please send your chapter via the Contact Us email – we’d love to have everyone contribute to Uncle’s biography!