Camille did not look surprised when Becca appeared at the door of her suite ostensibly to return the book which she had enjoyed. Camille invited her in and they exchanged small talk about Silence of the Sea. After a short silence, Becca took from her bag two photos she had printed out and gave them to Camille. She stared at them for a moment. She said nothing but tears began to quietly flow. “They’re the same man, aren’t they?” Becca waited for a response. Camille shook her head, yes. “I did not know he was married and had a family.” Becca admitted that he may not have known that a son was on the way which mitigated the abandonment only slightly. Camille agreed to tell the whole story on the condition that Becca not reveal it until all those mostly affected by it had passed away. Becca was uncomfortable with that promise but had no choice. There was no other way she could learn what happened.
Camille started her long story. “It was 1942 and the Allied bombers made regular raids over Germany. They passed close to my village in Normandy and we were used to the sounds of planes and artillery trying to shoot them down. One night we heard and saw a plane in flames trying to ditch in the channel. The Boche got in their boats to capture the crew after it crashed. My brother, Charles, was in the resistance, the Maquis, and they always tried to help crews that crashed but there wasn’t much they could do in this case. But in the dim light of dawn, a farmer saw a man dangling from a tree near his farm. He knew that it must have been a crew member who had bailed out. He gathered the Maquis and they got him down. He was unconscious with a head injury, had broken bones and a gunshot to the leg but he was alive. Charles new I lived alone on a remote farm since my husband was killed in 1940. I was just 19. He knew I had a large cellar where we could hide the airman. It wasn’t a pleasant space but it was safe. We had his wounds tended to but he had a tough time in and out of consciousness, infections and getting sulpha drugs was not easy. Charles had learned that the Boche found all the crew either floating dead on the water or, they believed, trapped inside the sunken plane. They were not looking for a missing crew member which helped us. The airman said he was Harry Bennett and told my brother that the plane was badly shot up on the raid and it was hard controlling it to stay on course back to Britain. They drifted over Normandy and they hoped to ditch the plane in the channel without breaking it up. Most of the crew was so badly injured from the raid they found it hard to bail out but Harry decided to attempt a jump just before the plane went over water. He survived when the others did not.
As I nursed Harry back to health, we became very close. I was lonely, needy, I wanted companionship and Harry was entertaining and congenial and he made me laugh which I had not done in a long time. He told me that he was an orphan. That his parents had been killed in a traffic accident when he was 10. During the depression in his country it was hard to find a family that could take him in so he went to an orphanage and was never adopted. He said he survived doing odd jobs since he was good with his hands, fixing things, construction, skills they taught at the orphanage. He said he moved from place to place looking for work until he had the opportunity to enlist. It all seemed plausible and I wanted to believe.
When Harry was well healed, Charles suggested to me that the Resistance try to get him back to Britain. I didn’t want him to go and Harry confided that he did not want to go. I told Charles that I needed Harry to help work the farm and that I cared deeply for him. Charles knew these things but he felt that it was cowardly not to attempt to send him back. Eventually Charles relented and we began our first deception. Harry would pretend to be a farmworker from Amien who was simple minded and handicapped but able enough to help in the fields. Harry had learned some French and could learn more to understand what was said to him. If he was spoken to his speech problem from the retardation could explain his inability to respond well. We believed that people in the village and the Boche would not question him too much. His acting ability and his jovial personality won over the few people he had contact with. Harry did agree to work with my brother and the resistance-the Maquis.
The years passed with few questions asked. Charles and Harry helped me on the farm and we had enough food. I was happier than I had been in many years. I was always in fear when Harry went with Charles on each raid but everyone did what needed to be done. When we were alone on the farm, we were like a married couple but kept the facade when anyone came to our farm. But in June of 1944 everything changed. The allies were coming. We had no doubt they would succeed and then a flood of American and British forces entered the country. We feared what would happen if the Americans discovered Harry, the deserter. Liberation was at hand and Harry and I wanted to live openly as husband and wife. We were tired of the ruse and knew we would have to leave sooner or later. Once France was cleared of the Germans, Charles created a fake identity for Harry. Harry now spoke French but with an English accent so Charles, who was adept at making phony British passports, decided to present Harry as Harvey Benedict, a former British soldier medically discharged from service who loved France and wanted to stay. Charles also forged legal papers giving Harvey legal residency in France. We were married in a civil ceremony. As long as we didn’t attempt to leave the country on his phony passport, we hoped to be safe. We couldn’t risk careful scrutiny of the documents so we were trapped in France. Being together was all that mattered.
We traveled around the country often working in inns. I did domestic work and Herve did many kinds of jobs from maintenance to entertainment. He was so well liked that few people asked many questions. Herve was a man without a county. One time in the south of France about 1950, I British tourist who had served in the war started asking questions of Herve—questions that he couldn’t answer. Perhaps we were paranoid but we feared that, if our employers became suspicious of legal status, Herve could be deported to the U.S. and face desertion charges. We often left our jobs and all we had established in a hurry. We had decided not to have children because we knew, at some point, the citizenship question would raise its head. The child would want to know why he couldn’t have dual citizenship if his father was British. However, as careful as we were, I had a child, a girl. I was inconsolable when I had to leave her in a church. But it was either my child or my husband. What life could we give her constantly on the run. It was the worst day of my life.
After nearly 20 years of instability, we decided that memories of the war had faded enough that we could settle down somewhere quiet. My brother, Charles, lived in a small village in Brittany and we thought we could be safe there. We bought the cottage and farmed for ourselves. As Gabby might say, we lived off the grid. We lived a safe life with my brother and his children. They loved their uncle and aunt so it was almost like having our own children and grandchildren. Then one day Herve was working in the garden and collapsed. He died quickly of a heart attack. After more than 50 years together, I was alone. Charles died shortly after Herve and my nephew, Jacque died in a traffic accident. My nieces lived far away and weren’t keen on helping me so my grandnephew and his wife brought me to the UK. The rest you know.”
Camille leaned back and took a deep breath. Becca didn’t know what to say and she knew it would take time for her to digest this beautifully tragic story. Camille had paid a heavy price for the love of a man. After a few minutes Camille asked about Becca’s great grandmother. How did she manage after her husband was gone? Becca was able to tell her that Harry had bought extra life insurance above the military one so Viola and Harry, Jr. were taken care of. Yes, she had remarried to a very nice man and had two other children. She’s now a widow and lives with her son. Becca couldn’t tell her that Harry was really the only man in Viola’s life. Perry was a good provider but he never made her glow the way Harry had done. She didn’t need the guilt.
So now Becca had emptied her burden to her electronic confidant and felt much better. The secret was safe with a password protected file. She knew that in her 19 years she had not gained enough wisdom to understand what drives people to do what they do. She hoped she would have that wisdom when she becomes free to tell the secret. She closed her laptop and returned to the party.
The day after the holiday, Becca got an e-mail from Gabby. Camille Benedict had passed away in her sleep. The family wants to bring her ashes back to Brittany to release them next to her husband.
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