In Nazi-occupied Guernsey, the wrong decision can destroy a life…
Left profoundly deaf after an accident, Émile is no stranger to isolation – or heartbreak. Now, as Nazi planes loom over Guernsey, he senses life is about to change forever.
Trapped in a tense, fearful marriage, Isabelle doesn’t know what has become of Émile and the future she hoped for. But when she glimpses him from the window of the French House, their lives collide once more.
Leutnant Schreiber is more comfortable wielding a paintbrush than a pistol. But he has little choice in the role he is forced to play in the occupying forces – or in his own forbidden desires.
As their paths entwine, loyalties are blurred and dangerous secrets forged. But on an island under occupation, courage can have deadly consequences…
Lyrical, moving and compelling, this is a novel about wanting to hear and learning to listen – to the truths of our own hearts. Perfect for lovers of The Nightingale, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and All the Light We Cannot See.
Read an extract of The French House by Jacquie Bloese here:
The men in the boarding house have started calling Émile a sap. They greet him with kissing noises as they stumble down to breakfast, heavy with hangover, on a Sunday morning. It is the time Émile reserves for writing to Isabelle, while church bells ring for the faithful and his companions snore in their beds – it is his holy hour and everyone knows it, and if ever a boisterous back slap from
one of the fellows should cause Émile to smudge or blot, they’ll share a smoke later to show they’re sorry.
‘She must be some woman,’ they say, and Émile grins and tells them she is, although recently the effort of doing so makes his face ache. It has been four months with no word and Isabelle is not the kind of woman who mislays addresses – or who gives up on a thing because other people don’t like it; they are the same that way, she and him.
Nonetheless, the other evening, in a saloon in Gastown, Émile had found himself swept up into a little more than just conversation with a girl who would have made his mother tut (lips ladybird red, tatty lace shawl prone to slippage, glimpses of bare freckled skin). He had bought her drinks, flirted a little, but when, from under the table, her hand crept like a small creature across his thigh, Émile
moved away, feeling a rush of shame, as if Isabelle herself was standing there, silently observing.
Now it is September and he has been in Vancouver a year. He wakes to the screech of freight trains and the smell of frying bacon, he walks through streets alive with unfathomable languages – Chinese, Japanese, Russian. His job at the dairy pays thirty-five a month, with a few dimes extra when he plays his accordion in bars for tips; his boss calls him Mike because he says his last name is too fancy and his first doesn’t suit him; no one has heard of the tiny island in the Channel that he used to call home. This is the new life the advertisements promised, but the sky isn’t as blue as he
remembers from the posters, and he’s not ready to leave the city for a homestead in Saskatchewan or Manitoba just yet, not with winter around the corner and his savings still lower than he’d like.
On the day it happens, a day that will vibrate like a chord across the years ahead, it is Émile’s first week on the night shift and he cannot sleep. His body protests at being coerced into lying in bed like an invalid when it’s light outside, and he is in the worst of humours when six o’clock comes and it’s time for him to rouse himself.
The street car he takes to the East Side is cramped and noisy. A baby screams relentlessly, there is an altercation between two men on his right and the air is blue with cursing, he steps on an elderly woman’s foot and when he apologises, she regards him suspiciously and mutters something about foreign types having no manners and she doesn’t know what kind of place Vancouver is turning into. His head aches, he feels soiled with the city and at that moment, there is nothing Émile longs for more than to be sitting on the bank of pebbles at Portinfer Bay, with the sound of the sea sieving through shingle, and just a few oystercatchers for company.
This week he is doing deliveries with a man from China called Lin. He doesn’t speak much and when he does, Émile can only make out one word in five. When he arrives at the dairy, Lin is harnessing the horses; he greets Émile with a nod and they begin the nightly routine of loading milk churns onto the wagon to take to Pender Street for pasteurising. As they set off, it starts to rain. The streets glisten in the yellow lamplight and Émile feels the slow creep of exhaustion. He turns to Lin.
‘You want to stop off at Kowalski’s later?’
A year ago, he would have baulked at eating anything that he couldn’t pronounce; now the plates of steaming pierogi from a hole in the wall on Keefer Street count among Émile’s favourite meals. Lin’s shrug is as good as a yes. He doesn’t like the food here and compares every meal they eat with those that his wife used to make in China. She coming soon, he says, but everyone knows that the Chinese wives never come – the authorities make them pay five hundred bucks before they even get off the boat. The unfairness of it rankles Émile. He slaps Lin’s shoulder and resolves to stand him dinner.
They draw up outside the depot and begin unloading the milk. There are no street lamps and the place is in darkness. Émile has only ever been here in the daytime before. It has one of those new-fangled elevators to transport the milk down to the basement and Émile gets a childlike thrill whenever he rides in it. Lin, he knows, is scared; every time they go in, he stands rigid with one fist clenched and the other clutching his stomach, eyes squeezed shut. Even now, as they roll off the last churn, Émile can sense him drawing back.
‘Christ’s sake, it won’t bite you,’ he says, then takes pity on the fellow. Lin is twice his age and the foreman is tough on his sort – cutting their breaks short, giving them the worst shifts.
‘Get the horses watered,’ Émile tells him. ‘I’ll see you round the corner.’
The relief in Lin’s voice as he thanks him makes Émile feel a notch or two better than he did when he woke up. Do as you would have done to you, isn’t that what they say? It isn’t easy starting up in a new country and he should pat himself on the back more than he does – isn’t he putting money away every week for him and Isabelle, for the farm on the prairie with a south-facing porch overlooking the golden wheat fields, where they will sit together on warm Sunday afternoons . . . Émile yanks back the elevator door. The image he creates feels as real as a recent memory: Isabelle with a book in one hand, the other resting on the curve of her belly, which in this latest fantasy is just beginning to swell, the ring now on her finger where it should be, not hidden under layers of clothing on a piece of ribbon inside her petticoat.
The familiar metallic chill of the elevator greets him. It is black as tar and he gropes in his pocket for matches, cursing the dairy for expecting him to do a daytime job in the night-time, when he should be at home with the others, having a smoke in front of the fire and chewing the fat. But he must have left his tobacco and papers in the wagon, because he can’t find any matches and he tries to recall if there’s an electric light affixed to the sides of the elevator. He doesn’t remember and so he steps forward into the cave-like darkness, his hand outstretched.
Later, they will tell him he fell a full fifteen feet down the elevator shaft. He supposes it was over quickly, in no more than a split second, yet time seems to lengthen and slow as a roaring starts up in his ears, a howl of sorts like a demented dog, and his legs paddle underneath him and the shock of it all is compounded by the surety that he is about to die. No homestead, no children, no Isabelle.
The ground crushes him. His body crumples. There is a ferocious pain in the base of his skull, which spreads to his collarbone and shoulders. His body is not his own anymore, he doesn’t dare to move; he is fragile, broken. He opens his mouth to call for help but no sound comes out. Over and over again he tries, but if he can’t hear himself, what hope is there that anyone else will, and this is Émile’s final despairing thought, before the blackness overwhelms him.
He comes to three weeks later in crisp hospital sheets. There is a young, yellow-haired nurse bending over him with concern in her pale eyes. Her lips move, but Émile hears nothing. Speak up, he says, or at least he thinks he does, and the nurse turns and the ward sister appears, pushing a trolley that glides soundlessly across the tiled floor before pressing a cold instrument against the flesh of his ear. More nurses come and a doctor this time, circling him, mouths opening and closing like goldfish in a bowl – speak up, dammit, speak up, he thinks – until the truth batters him like another clout to the head. Everyone else can hear perfectly well, and it is he who can’t hear a blasted thing.
Émile may not hear trouble coming, but he always knows when it’s on the way. As he sweats in the greenhouse on this plump June afternoon, while the sea rails against the jagged cliffs and gusts of wind whip up the salted scent of the Channel, Émile feels as if the pulse of the island is quickening in time with his own. When the shadow of the first German plane lengthens over him and the vibrations on the glass sting his palm, he stares after it, and wonders whether he would feel more afraid if he could hear the roar of the engine. Another follows and then another and although he’s seen them before, they are lower than usual, close enough for him to see the monochrome markings on the underside of the wing. A blast of warm air courses through the greenhouse and then they are gone, and all is still again.
Émile looks at his watch and curses. Maud should have been here half an hour ago: there are still a load of tomatoes to pack and annoyance curdles inside him as he picks up several of the wooden chip baskets and carries them out to the lorry. As he passes the cottage, the back door opens and his other daughter – the real one, and this he knows is his temper speaking – steps outside. She is clutching the ivory dance shoes she bought with her first month’s pay packet; she has done something to her hair that he’s not sure he likes, but when she smiles, the years roll back and Stella is six again, skipping down to the greenhouse to collect him for tea, her hand warm in his. Now she peers anxiously down the garden, to where her sister should be and isn’t. Her mouth opens and Émile waves away any real or imagined offer of help.
‘Go!’ he says, and she doesn’t need telling again and Émile is glad to see it, because dance classes and war aren’t natural companions, even here in the islands where they have been safe so far. He tries not to think of the planes as he hoists the boxes of tomatoes into the back of the lorry.
Maud arrives just as he is tying up the tarpaulin, when all the real work is over. It is almost six-fifteen; she is over an hour late, and it is maddening because now they will be one of the last in the queue at the harbour and by the time the paperwork is done and the tomatoes are loaded, the fellows in the Caves will be several rounds ahead of him and he has a thirst on him today: he’d start now if he could. And the girl isn’t even making a show of hurrying, propping her bicycle against the wall, checking a run in her stocking.
‘Where were you?’
‘Out.’ She stares at him, her eyes dark as sloes.
‘Get in the lorry!’
Maud flinches but does as she’s told and the smell of diesel fills the air as he starts up the engine and drives down the narrow lane, putting his foot down once they’re on the main road. Maud’s knuckles are clenched on the dashboard, the silence between them a hiss, a fizz. Émile knows what she’s thinking, can follow her thoughts like a score of music.
The less she says, the simpler it is.
You know that I always rehearse on Friday, while Ma’s out cleaning because all the stopping and starting and the same song over and again makes her head hurt.
Yes, Émile does know this. His wife isn’t fond of the accordion; he doesn’t need telling.
Why is Stella’s tap class more important than my accordion?
Because she’s paid for the classes already, show some sense, girl!
You just want to stop me from playing.
Not true. Not true. And yet . . .
Émile brakes as they approach the coast road. From time to time, he has caught glimpses of Maud practising through the half open door of the bedroom. She wears the accordion like it is part of her and that, he knows, is half the battle. Even though he can’t hear a single note, he can tell she is good, better than he was before the accident. If he watches for too long, it makes him feel peculiar, as if something is rotting inside him. Couldn’t she have picked another instrument – the fiddle, the harmonica?
He sighs and winds down the window a little further. The sea is lively today, the waves capped with silver, the filtered rays of the sun turning the hump of Herm Island into more than it is, whitewashing the beaches, dusting the rocks with gold. He knows the visitors love it, but the place is overrated, if you ask him – half an hour to get there and not much longer than that to get bored once you’ve arrived. If he was going to take the trouble to leave Guernsey, he’d want a bit more than a pint of ale and a dose of sunburn to show for it – not that he’s likely to go anywhere further than the White Rock to see off his tomatoes on the boat every Friday, these days. And, really – he presses down harder on the accelerator – it comes to something when a basket of Grade One Smooths has a more exciting future than the man who grows them.
This last thought dies abruptly, extinguished by Maud doing what she’s been taught never to do when he’s driving: she takes him by surprise, grips him suddenly, without warning – the truck swerves across the road as the steering wheel slips through his hands. He starts to yell, asking what the hell she’s playing at, but Maud’s mouth is frozen in a scream, and as Émile looks towards where she’s pointing, her fear becomes his own.
Two German aircraft are hovering over the quay, above the line of lorries, and in the time it takes for Émile to thank his dizzy stars that he and Maud are not there like sitting ducks underneath them, silver pellets tumble like the rungs of a ladder from the innards of one of the planes, and the truck shakes until his teeth chatter. He is on the floor now – they are both on the floor – Maud’s knee lodged in his armpit and she is trembling as he drags them both out into air which reeks of sulphur and smoke. Maud’s hands are clamped over her ears, and Émile gestures towards the greasy undercarriage of the truck and begins to slide himself underneath it. For a few excruciating seconds, she doesn’t move. But then the ground shakes a second time and Maud shuffles in next to him, and they lie belly-down in the dark as tomatoes tumble from the back of the lorry, the juice running in rivulets around them.
As the vibrations subside, Émile is tortured by the small things. Letty will be furious. Letty will be furious about the ruined tomatoes and will somehow attach the blame to him, as if he is personally responsible for the Germans’ military strategy and when they get back home, she will make her displeasure felt for as long as it takes for him to find this month’s rent, to put food back on the table. Then the ground quakes again and the housekeeping is forgotten. If they get back home. Letty had been dead set against them evacuating and he’d let her have her way, but it would have kept the
girls safe, he sees that now. He should have insisted; he’s been a fool. Émile closes his eyes. He tries to remember the last time he laughed, or felt his life was something more than early mornings and the sweat of the greenhouse, the last time he and Letty had looked at each other with even a drop of tenderness.
Maud taps his shoulder and he turns to see her crawling back out. The road is just a road again; solid, unmoveable. He follows and emerges, blinking in the sunlight. He turns towards the White Rock, absorbs the chaos of flames, the thick grey plumes of smoke on the quay where Stella and Maud used to play hopscotch every Friday as they waited for the boat to come in. Maud’s face is streaked with tears and grime and a damp patch has bloomed across the front of her skirt and with it comes the forgotten smell of accidents at night-time; he remembers bedsheets soaking in a bucket, the whiff of shame at the breakfast table. Émile wants to take her in his arms and hold her, stroke her back as she sobs, but they’ve never been that way and he can’t start now. Instead, he asks if she is all right and she nods and says she is.
Émile opens the door of the truck. ‘Let’s get home,’ he says. ‘Your ma will be worried.’
As they pull into the yard, Émile sees his wife standing on the porch. Her hair is loose and he hasn’t seen it like this for years – she is luminous, beautiful in the fierce gold of the slanting sun, her hands clasped as if in prayer – and for a moment, Émile tastes hope. For once, she will be proud of him; he kept his head, protected Maud, brought her home safe. Then she steps into shadow and calls into the house and he realises that it’s Stella, not Letty. It’s a trick that his mind has played on him before and it is disorientating, this confusion between what is real and what is wished for – and
then Letty appears, striding towards the truck in her faded housecoat, her face contorting as she shouts, and not for the first time, Émile is glad he can’t hear her.
Letty pulls Maud from the truck as if from a burning fire. Her embrace is more of an assault than a hug; her body, tense with resentment and she releases Maud quickly. She jabs her index finger at the sky and then at Émile.
You saw the planes, she seems to be saying, everyone saw them. Lipreading his wife has always been a struggle – words spill like slops, shapeless for the most part, although certain phrases are well-worn, fitting comfortably in the contours of her mouth. I’m married to a fool. What were you thinking?
Émile pushes past her, heads towards the cottage. He looks back. Letty’s shoulders are slumped, she is rubbing her forehead with the pad of her thumb – a gesture as old as their marriage. He refuses to let himself feel an ounce of sympathy: she doesn’t deserve it, not today, not after what’s just happened.
‘All the same to you if I hadn’t made it back, eh?’
She looks up. Her eyes are red. He says it again, just in case. He wonders if his voice is shaking, but in any event, it’s unimportant, as she is screwing up her face and shrugging and saying, Wha’? What’s that, Émile? and there is a high pitching ringing in his ears as he goes into the house.
The kitchen table is set for tea. Slices of ham sweat on chipped plates, a bowl of glistening tomatoes covers the stain in the oilcloth. Stella appears and half knocks the breath out of him she hugs him so hard, and Émile stands a little awkwardly and pats her head.
‘Shush,’ he says. ‘Ssh.’
Then he goes to the bedroom, closes the door and rifles through the bottom drawer of the dressing table, where Letty has taken to keeping the housekeeping money, until he finds the brown envelope he is seeking. A note and a few coppers. He counts up the loose change – barely enough for a couple of drinks, much less a round. Émile hesitates, sees once again Letty’s expression of outrage, the jabbing index finger, and trembling a little, he tosses the coins back into the drawer and slips the ten-bob note in his back pocket. He’s the man of the house, he can do as he pleases, there’s plenty more where that came from except there isn’t and he can’t, at least not without feeling wretched with guilt, but it’s too late now – they all know what he’s doing in here. As he strides back into the kitchen, he feels the sudden dip in conversation as he might a pothole in the road and he cannot look at any of them as he leaves.
The first drink is always the most difficult; the faces of his wife and daughters seem to glimmer in the bevelled beer glass whenever it catches the light, and Émile drinks quickly to chase them away. He has barely swallowed his last mouthful before he is reaching for the brown envelope and standing a second round.
His back gets slapped, his glass clinked, satisfying even when silent. Tobacco is rolled and lit. The men shift on their bar stools, letting him in for as long as the free pint lasts. They are talking about the raid. Forty dead, fifty. They’d dropped them on Jersey too, and Sark. The landlord, polishing the bar as if his life depended on it, says something that makes everyone laugh but they’re all scared; Émile sees it in their eyes. The drink makes swaggering fools of them all, when he knows most of them to be cowards, only too ready to take advantage, to cut him out of a round as soon as his back’s turned.
Émile feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks up and sees Ron Martel, a cousin of sorts of Letty’s. He is a short, weaselly man, with a permanent thirst and a tab longer than your arm. Émile waits to be touched for a bob or two, but to his surprise, Ron throws a couple of coins on the counter and nods at Émile’s empty glass.
He is being paid to listen, not the first time nor the last. The beer is sour but vaguely comforting, like the smell of home. Émile nods slowly as if in time to music, as Ron speaks, catching what words he can.
Now Ron is miming an explosion. ‘Bombed!’ he says.
‘The French House.’
‘On Hauteville?’ Émile puts down his drink, does his best to concentrate.
Ron nods. He has moved on to the Germans. He turns an imaginary key in a lock and says something to Émile about his daughters, about Letty, which Émile ignores. Through the fog of alcohol, an unpleasant feeling, like grit under an eyelid, worries at him. He sees the peevish curl of Letty’s lip. For all her airs and graces, the woman’s just a housekeeper. Scrubs floors same as I do, I should think.
‘Anyone in the French House,’ he asks, ‘when it happened?’
But Ron’s desire for an audience has waned now that their glasses are empty and he looks expectantly at Émile and Émile gives him the same look back. He gets to his feet, shakes Ron’s hand and launches himself unsteadily into the deserted streets.
Émile ducks down a side alley and relieves himself against the wall. He squints up at the sky, swaying a little, searching for the tilt and dip of the Plough, but the night is soupy and close and the stars are hidden. He wipes himself off and is halfway up Cornet Street before his mind has caught up with his body, and he understands where he is going and why.
He continues up the hill into Hauteville, no more than a spit away from the crooked terraces of Cornet Street, but where the houses are grand, all la-di-dah brass door knockers and freshly painted railings, and tradesmen’s entrances for those the rich folk don’t want to look in the eye. Émile can’t remember the last time he was up here; he has no reason to be around these parts and he feels out of place, a trespasser. Ahead he can make out the bulk of the large oak tree that stands in the front garden of the French House, and as he approaches, Émile sees that the house is intact, all three haughty storeys of it, and he curses Ron Martel for not knowing his arse from his elbow and giving him a fright.
He stares at the shuttered windows, wondering if it’s as grand on the inside as it seems from up front, and whether Letty’s right and it falls to Isabelle to get down on her hands and knees with a rag and a tin of wax, or to beat the dust from the rugs until her forearms ache. He does not know the answer to this, nor is he ever likely to, because he and Mrs Isabelle Larch – and he raps out her married title with drumsticks in his head, allowing himself a smirk at the monotone dullness of that English surname – he and Mrs Isabelle Larch duck into shop doorways to avoid each other.
Some years back, on one muggy August afternoon at the North Show, he remembers steering Letty and the girls into the jostling fray of the beer tent, such was the deep-seated unrest he felt upon seeing Isabelle approach on her husband’s arm.
A flicker of light passes across a window on the top floor. There is someone up there, a woman, and the skinful he’s had doesn’t stop his heart turning in recognition as he sees Isabelle’s silhouette in the frame – the long graceful neck and sweep of her shoulders, the mussed-up, disobedient hair that would never lie smooth: he remembers the coarseness of it brushing his cheek. She stops and looks straight at him, and Émile stares back. What remains of next week’s housekeeping lies heavy as rocks in his pocket. For a moment, he thinks she doesn’t recognise him and he is almost glad, because he barely knows himself anymore, but then slowly Isabelle raises a hand. His palms remain rigid by his side, but the satisfaction he gets from this small act of dissent passes swiftly, and Émile is left feeling as he always does whenever he is confronted with remnants of his life before the accident – cheated, lost, alone.
There is only one way this evening can end for him now. Lowering his head, he scoots down the hill, not stopping until he is at the top of Cornet Street. There is a lamp glowing at Céline’s window and he throws up a handful of gravel, hoping to God that she’ll let him in quickly – no amount of alcohol seems to protect him from the shame that descends as he loiters on the doorstep. But a few beats later the front door opens and Céline appears wearing a thin mauve dressing gown, seeming neither pleased nor displeased to see him – she delivers a curt nod and gestures him inside.
Émile follows her upstairs to her room with its cloying smell of violets. A magazine lies splayed on the rumpled bedclothes. Céline nods towards the tea caddy on the mantlepiece and shrugs off her dressing gown.
He pays with what he has left, then strips down to his underclothes and lies next to her on the bed. Céline is not a young woman and her body is beginning to pucker and sag. Émile prefers it this way – she is Letty’s age or thereabouts, with the same silvery stretch marks hatching her belly, and this makes the whole business easier somehow. She reaches for him and he closes his eyes. But tonight is not like other nights and as her hand moves against him – and when that bears no results, her mouth – any lurch of desire is knocked flat and he is lying under the truck again, next to Maud, with the ground shuddering beneath them and the tomatoes split open like brains.
Céline gives up and slumps back on the bed. He feels her breath tickle his ear and realises she is saying something: she does this sometimes, forgets that he’s deaf. Émile supposes this should irritate him but the truth is he likes it.
He speaks for the first time. ‘Can I stay?’
Céline rolls her eyes, then holds up six fingers, and points to the alarm clock.
‘Six o’clock,’ she says. ‘Before the others get up.’ She pulls back the covers and they both climb underneath.
She turns her back to him and Émile waits a while, then eases himself towards her, tentatively resting his arm on her hip. She stirs but doesn’t wake. Émile tries to let the gentle undulations of her body soothe him but although he aches with exhaustion, he can’t sleep. He stares into the darkness. This day, 28 June 1940, could have been the last day of his life. His death day. And here he is, alive and not even sure he is glad about it. Hands stained black from tomato plants with a wife who barely comes near him. One daughter who loves him and another who loves to provoke. And the storm, louder tonight than it has been for some time, raging inside his head.