14 Nov 1942:
As I enter the Le Grand Café, I cannot help but notice the hustle and bustle at the place, in stark contrast to the conditions prevailing in France at that time. Charlotte, my ever beautiful Mom, accompanied me on our rare visit to the café where Dad works at. As Dad spots us, he arranges a table for us and waves us to come by. We order our favourite coffee and my favourite chocolate cookies, as usual.
“Calvin, how does the staff manage so much crowd, without testing their patience?”, Mom asked Dad in her curious tone, looking at the turnout at the cafe.
“Talent, maybe.”, Dad smiled effortlessly.
“When I’ll grow up, I’ll also join you here, to help you out.”, I had commented innocently.
“Well,why not?”, Dad smiled, “but for now,I guess you must concentrate on your studies instead. Right?” to which Mom nodded.
I faked a frown as I take a bite from the cookie.
That’s when hell broke loose. My ears go numb as I’m pushed away by the impact of the blast. Everything blurs out. My eyes search for my parents, but my voice gives up. Pain takes over. I couldn’t feel my limbs. Tears flood my eyes. Darkness.
I wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and tears. The dream has repeated itself. The last time I met my parents. That moment has been etched in my memory so strong that it can’t be forgotten. I relive that feel of helplessness and pain over and over through my dreams, still aware that they might be alive somewhere, missing me in return, hoping I’ll return back, the same way I do for them.
Twenty years have passed since that incident. I was just twelve at that time, unclear of the war or the politics surrounding it. The radio chatter and the rumours didn’t make any sense to me. My parents were quite silent on this topic, and even disappeared in the mystery of it.
But one man changed everything. He is the very reason I’m still alive and sane. The man who moulded me with values, principles and ethics. The man who taught me that the world is a cruel place and we need to fight for our existence. The man who reprised the mantle of my Dad. Curtis.
I turn on the table lamp besides me and gulp down a glass of water. The telegram that my land lady Amy gave me this evening was still there, crumpled and crushed with agony and despair. I have another look at it and notice that the tears haven’t dried yet. Their impression has made the paper moist and the ink has spread a little. As I re-read the contents, the sick feeling returns to my throat. My heart wrenches in pain as I visualise Edith writing it with teary eyes and shaking hands.
I don’t know when this Telegram will reach you but I have something to inform you. Curtis has been bed-ridden since the last time you visited us a week ago. Doctors say he may not survive for long after examining him. He has stopped talking to anyone Emma, and barely eats anything. The high fever adds to the distress. I can only pray to the Almighty to save him. I hope you will make it on time. You are the only hope that he’ll ever talk again.
Prayers and blessings,
14 Oct 1962
The telegram took ten days to reach me, and when time is such a delicate and important factor, ten days meant too much. Deep inside, I prayed and hoped Curtis would be fine and awake. I don’t want to lose him at any cost. I go near the window and look at the calm dark sky above. The Eiffel Tower looked enchanting under the moonlight. I imagine Curtis looking at the moon, thinking about my arrival, devoid of sleep.
The next morning, I take the first available tram to Bordeaux where Curtis and Edith lived. The place where I spent more than half of my life under their care and affection. Travelling to Bordeaux always brings back my past to sight. The very thought of the lanes and gardens of Bordeaux filled me with immense pleasure. I still remember the evenings I spent with Curtis and Edith at the nearby playground and how they always smiled looking at me running across the ground, playing with the swings and the see-saws.
Curtis was the person who saved me the day the blast happened, twenty years ago at Saint Nazaire- where my family used to live. My birthplace.
He noticed me lying unconsciously in a pool of blood and took me to the nearest hospital which was bombed too. But the makeshift tents near the hospital was enough for me to get back to my senses,albeit for a few minutes. My right hand had gone numb and my ears still couldn’t hear things properly. The first thing I asked when I realized I still have my voice was about the whereabouts of my parents. Curtis, who himself was wounded badly due to the blast assured me that they’ll find them soon and I need not worry. I had no other option but to trust him. The entire city was in ruins, being bombed mercilessly. The very thought that my parents didn’t make it out alive still sends chills down my spine.
The next time I opened my eyes, I was in a warm cozy room. The walls were painted in light brown colour and the window sent in a fair amount of light.
As I slowly rose up from the bed, a lady in her thirties came up to me and calmed me down, the look of confusion clear in my eyes. That’s when I see him. Curtis.
“Why did you bring me here? Where’s my Mom? Where’s my Dad? Answer me!”, I tried shouting in my meek little voice.
“Your parents are safe, Emma. Believe me. They can’t currently come here due to the war. They are currently in Marseille. I’m in contact with them and they’ve said it’s fine that you are with us here. They’ll be back soon as soon as the conditions get better.”, Curtis assured me confidently. Even his hands were bandaged due to the blast. I kept silent, unsure of what’s actually happening with my life. Curtis continued, “The civilians in Saint Nazaire have started shifting to other safer towns and cities. Me and my wife Edith were sure about shifting to my ancestral home here at Bordeaux. It’s pretty safer than other cities.”
I wasn’t averse to the idea of shifting with them, since I badly needed the company of my parents. But I had no other option but to comply. And since my parents were okay with this, I gave in.
The initial days were quite awkward for me since I really didn’t know them. But they took care of the fact that I’m not isolated at all. Edith made my favourite dishes for dinner, whereas Curtis bought me the dolls I always clamoured for when we went to the market. He always read me bed-time stories and always made sure that I am asleep before he goes to bed. At times where most of the girls weren’t encouraged to study, he enrolled me at a school nearby and ensured that I get quality education. They made me feel at home without any doubt.
Slowly, I realised the overall scenario of the ongoing war, thanks to Curtis and his patience for answering my silly questions. The ever growing tension between the Allies and the Axis powers, especially Germany, had reached a peak, since the latter slowly gained prominence and power with each passing day. Even France was under the partial rule of Germany. The conditions weren’t favorable for life. Death played hide and seek as the number of deaths increased rapidly. Civilians and armymen bore the brunt of this ordeal. The economy crashed. But what shocked me is the fact that the Allies had bombed the cafe at Saint Nazaire and not the Nazi’s. Curtis then went on to explain that Saint Nazaire’s population mainly consisted of Germans after they took over the place. The city being a port ensured that the Nazi’s made it their stronghold and an important place for trade and their naval operations. Hence, to eliminate them, the Allies had no option but to bomb the city, which actually belonged to one of their ally- France.
At frequent intervals of times, I used to ask Curtis about my parents and how they’re doing. He used to reply me when he gets their telegram as a reply. I always read their mails and each time, their memories broke me down. They were always on the run for their lives, for every city they went, the Nazi’s gatecrashed their hopes of settling down. But the fact that they’re still safe and sound made me feel better.
Years down the lane, I started writing letters to my parents, mostly on how I’m doing well in life, about my academics,how Curtis and Edith looked after me so well, about my newfound love for writing poems and about my pet dog Edgar. In one letter I even mentioned Edmund, the guy from my college whom I had started liking lately.
Edmund was the only son of an affluent businessman. It was 1947, and we were in the same college pursuing the same stream. He was impressed by the poems that I had written for the college magazine, and that’s where it all started. I found him quite adorable and sweet. The way he talked, the style in which he dressed. The smell of cologne and the way he behaved – everything was just perfect! I had only heard about love in movies and novels but meeting him made me realize that love exists for real. The way he looked at me lovingly always melted my heart. I started skipping my evening walks with Curtis and Edith and instead went with Edmund. Edmund knew all the worthwhile places in and around Bordeaux since he was born and bought up there. With him, I realized how happy I can be. Curtis and Edith were happy for me too since they could watch me smiling impishly every now and then. I was sure, Edmund is the one, with whom I will spend the rest of my life. Even he shared the same thought. But our togetherness didn’t last long. His family shifted to London, considering the factor of safety and economy. But he promised me that one day, he’ll be back . To take me home. And I believed in him.
The war had ended two years back, but my mind was restless. Curtis and Edith always tried cheering me up after Edmund left. On the other hand, my interactions with my parents had reached an all time low. Even Curtis couldn’t contact them.
We were in a state of confusion and chaos. Everything depended on the decisions the Government took. The state has to be rebuilt back. The economy has to be stabilised.
A few years later, the letters started again. But I had already given up hopes of meeting them by then. In anger, I decided to pen down my last letter to them.
Dear Mom and Dad,
It’s been 13 years since the blast at Saint Nazaire and till now, you haven’t even met me. Always on the run huh? I get your point, but the war’s over right? The condition is quite stable now. Then why? Why this drama? Why don’t you just come here at Bordeaux and meet me,Curtis and Edith? Or have you both abandoned your only daughter even without letting her know? I want a straightforward answer Dad. I’m done writing these letters to you. This is the last one. Do you even feel the pain behind my words? Do you even have a faint idea of how much I miss you? DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT ME? Life here is quite good. Comfortable. But without you both, there’s this void. A void that no one else can fill. I admit that our memories have faded over time. But, still I love you from the bottom of my heart.
Your loving daughter,
16 March 1955
The letter didn’t receive any reply. Maybe they changed their location and didn’t inform Curtis about the same. Maybe they didn’t reply purposefully. I didn’t know how to react. My mind was in turmoil when Curtis comes along and sees me in tears. He slowly caresses my cheeks, wiping away the tears. And then he speaks something.
“See Emma, I don’t think it’s the best time for me to say this, but looking at your condition, I see no other option but to say it.”
His cold voice made me shiver in fear.
“See..the thing is..your letter didn’t receive a reply because..your parents..”, he paused in between, looking steadily at my eyes.
“Say ahead!”, I demanded.
“Your parents Emma, they had been captured by the Nazi’s during the final stages of the war. The Germans thought that they are French resistances and put them in a concentration camp at Buchenwald…”
I couldn’t believe my ears as I heard what Curtis just told me. I was about to break down when he held me tight and raised my chin.
“But they are safe now. They escaped the camp as soon as the war ended and left off to Mozambique, Africa. They’re safe there. Far away from the tension of Western Europe.”
But I wasn’t relieved on hearing that. Curtis had lied to me, or atleast hidden such important information from me. I was miffed. But he knew me well. I always forgive my loved ones after a period of time.
The letters stopped. I moved on with my life. I spent most of my time at the library, engrossed in books. I tried new art forms like painting when everything else felt boring. Edgar always calmed me down when I felt lonely or depressed. Curtis and Edith tried planting the idea of marriage in my mind, but I was adamant. Edmund will be back one day. They couldn’t do anything but sigh. Five years passed in a glance.
Two years ago, 1960: The women finally get rights to independently work outside the comforts of their home, without any approval from their spouse or family members. They get the power to vote as well. I was bored by just helping Edith with the household work all this time. I always had the desire to visit Paris one day. I talked about this with Curtis amd Edith, and they were happy for me as well. They looked a bit sad at the same time. After all, everything will change due to this decision. I will be miles away from them. The only people I can call mine.
I finally set out to Paris, bidding them goodbye. I promised them I will come to meet them twice a month.
Life at Paris slowly kicked in. The mornings were spent on guitar classes whereas noons were spent at the publication where I worked. Amy, my landlady was kind enough to give me the room through which one can spot The Eiffel Tower at a distance. Everything was going in perfect monotony until I received the telegram from Edith yesterday. It really startled me and for a split second, I regretted the decision of leaving them and moving to Paris.
As I halt at Bordeaux, I walk down the memory lanes straight to the house where we lived. As I near the door, my heart starts pounding heavily. I don’t know how Curtis will be. I just prayed he’d be alive. I knock the door, expecting Edith. But there was no reply. I knocked again. Still no reply. This was getting on my nerves. I was about to shout out her name when I felt a hand over my shoulder. I turned around to look at the person. It was Mr. Carvalho, our neighbour.
“Looking for Edith right?”, he asked in a low voice.
“Yes..and how’s Curtis? Is he okay? Where have they gone? The hospital? Did they have an appointment today?”, I mumble out load of questions at once.
“Look Emma.. I thought you’d know about this..”, his voice trailed off.
I kept silent. I tried my best to keep my mind from racing into unwanted pessimistic thoughts. But deep inside, I realised that somethings can’t be avoided. They are meant to occur at some points of our life. I forced my mind to just shutdown for the moment and focus on Mr. Carvalho’s words.
“Sorry to inform you Emma, but Curtis passed away today morning at 5. Stroke. They are currently at the graveyard.”
“Okay. Thanks for the info Mr. Carvalho.”, I say plainly and hide away my tears.
As I walk down the steps, the world around me started spinning round. My heart couldn’t handle the info that I just received. I ran.
Tears trickled down my cheeks as I ran with no sense of direction. As I reach the playground, I run towards the small concrete tunnel that I used to play in during my stay here. I snuggle in and wail helplessly like a kid who has lost her Mom in the market. Lost forever. I look at the other side of the tunnel and see Curtis, smiling gracefully.
“Come out Emma! Let’s go home.”, he sounded distant.
“Wait Curtis! Wait!”, I yell, but in vain. He’s gone.
For another ten minutes or so, I lay there, sobbing. The fact that I could’ve possibly made it if I had started the journey yesterday night made me regret even more. But there’s no point in thinking and regretting over it. Curtis is no more. And I’ve to accept it no matter how difficult it’d be.
I get out of the tunnel and take the route to the graveyard. I find Edith there. Alone.
As I near Curtis’ grave, the tears make a comeback. I keep my palm around her shoulder which she recognises that very instant.
“Emmaa..”, she turns around and hugs me tight, crying out her pain. I couldn’t handle myself. I join her.
After a few minutes or so, we broke our embrace. Edith looked at me, her moist eyes feeling sad that I couldn’t meet Curtis for one last time. I stared at Curtis’ bouquet crowded graveyard,
Edith was silent. She moved to the adjacent grave and placed another flower there.
“Who’s grave is that?”, I ask with my croaky voice.
Daniel. Son of Curtis and Edith, said the gravestone.
I was shell shocked at this.
“Wha–Whatt? Your son? You never talked about him for the entire duration I was with you!”
“He was in the French Army. Division A. Martyr in World War 2.”
“But why didn’t you even mention it to me once! Wasn’t I even worthy of it Edith?”
“We didn’t want to bring out our sorrows Emma. We had a good time with you. We didn’t want to bring this topic of him in between. We were proud that he sacrificed his life for a noble cause.”
“But…”, I wanted to counter her point, but decided against it. Just not the right time.
I stood there in silence as Edith sat around the grave, mumbling something. The wind blew against my face. The autumn leaves fell along as Edith got up and handed me a wooden box from besides Curtis’ grave.
“Open it for yourself. Curtis had asked me to handover this to you after he’s gone.”,Edith said as she slowly walked away.
As Edith departs, I open the box. My heart halts for a few moments as I look at the contents within. Bundles of letters, all penned down by me lay there. Speechless, I rummage through each one of them. They were the letters that I had painstakingly written for my parents. If these letters are here in this box, it just means that….
“THESE WERE NOT DELIVERED TO THEM!”
I throw up the box in anger, the letters scattered in mid air, falling down to the ground.
Curtis had betrayed me. He lied to me! Why on earth will he do so!
As I sit there besides his grave, sobbing, with all those letters around me, I notice a rather different set of letters tied with golden coloured thread, unlike the rest who were tied with red ones. I reach for them and untie it.
Curtis here! If you are reading this, that probably means I’d already been summoned by the Almighty himself. Sorry, but I’ve to go this time. Yes, I know that you are angry at me Emma. For going away from you, for hiding the truth from you. But I was helpless. I had a promise to fulfill. Let me explain.
The truth is that Calvin and I were friends. We worked together at the La Grand Café. We were the closest of friends, helping each other through the thick and thin. He had asked me to take care of you, if ‘anything’ happens to him and Charlotte. I promised him I’ll. The sad fact is that your parents couldn’t survive the blast at the Café Emma. And this, I couldn’t ever tell you. I didn’t want to break you and spoil your childhood. You’d be bricked forever by this truth. And I can’t see that happening in front of me Emma. I just couldn’t. I know you won’t ever forgive me for this and it’s fine.
All the letters that I wrote, the letters that you wrote, were never sent to them Emma. The replies were framed by me so that you’d atleast believe they existed somewhere. All my life, I lived under this agony and fear that one day, this truth will spill out. My hands tremble as I write this down. This would be too much for you to handle Emma. I know that. But you’re a strong girl. You’ll move on. You have to.
As I end this note, I just hope for one thing: that you’d be here besides me at my deathbed, with me during my final seconds, bidding me farewell to heaven.
At first I laugh like a maniac, unable to register the truth. But when it does, the letter escapes my hand. My head goes numb. The truth hit me hard.
“You. Lied. To. Me. Curtis.”, I clench my teeth as I punch his gravestone in anger and helplessness.
My entire life was a lie. My parents are dead. Curtis is dead. No idea about Edmund either. Why am I still alive?
The idea of suicide crosses my mind. Atleast, it wouldn’t pain as much as I’m experiencing right now. That’s when I hear someone behind me.
“I’m back as promised. To take you home.”