A neighbour celebrated her 90th birthday recently. At her birthday party – a surprisingly lively affair – I discovered an extraordinary story about quiet heroism in our street. I wrote it up and read it out as an exercise at my writers’ group this evening. You can read the story by clicking on ‘read the rest of this entry’.
I rushed home early to help a neighbour, Mme Eeckhout, celebrate her ninetieth birthday. Between ourselves, but not to her face, we call her ‘Mon Petit Lapin’, which is what her lover, some fifty years ago, used to call her. A dapper General, he was completely infatuated with her and the adulterous relationship (for he was married) continued until he died. We know about this because Mon Petit Lapin is the tenant of a redoubtable eighty-five year-old lady, Mme Smet, who lives just two doors down the road (both houses are more-or-less opposite our house). Mme Smet is the widow of another General, a tall, distinguished, polyglot man whom we had the pleasure of knowing. He worked in military intelligence and must have had important duties. (There is a photograph in her house of the General explaining a piece of equipment to a deeply concentrated Jack Kennedy, the two of them surrounded by a gaping crowd.) His wife entertained a lot and seemed to have played an informal role as ethical overseer of the street and it was she, Mme Smet, who once confided in us about the shocking affair between the other General and his Petit Lapin. But though she may have been shocked, it didn’t prevent her from keeping Mon Petit Lapin as a tenant for fifty-three years and now, here she was, playing host to Mon Petit Lapin’s ninetieth birthday party.
It was a small living room and it would have been far too conspicuous if I had tried to take notes or record the evening, but I wish I could have done. The extraordinary thing is that the ladies were both so lucid – none of this good on older memories and bad on short-term recollections stuff, though their historical recollections were the ones that I found most interesting. Mon Petit Lapin remembered seeing the big airships that I like to try and write about. She saw, in effect, most of the twentieth century’s technological developments unroll before her, from flimsy five-winged airplanes to Concorde, Jumbo Jets and the latest Airbus, from rudimentary telephones to today’s mobile phones, from abacuses to PCs in classrooms. When they got onto people it was equally fascinating. Alan Bennett would have had a field day. The collective memories of these old ladies (and they were all old ladies) went back to the way our street was before the Second World War and stretched forward through everybody who had lived in it since then. On and on they went, tracing where the neighbours had gone and where their children had gone and their grandchildren and… In the UK now they pop a tape recorder under your nose and call it social history. And it is clear that a large slice of social history will indeed disappear when Mon Petit Lapin and Mme Smet finally pass away.
In a lull in the conversation Mon Petit Lapin suddenly sat up straight and said; ‘We forgot Madame Michelle!’ Madame Michelle, we learned, had lived, alone, with a small dog, in the house between the houses of Mme Smet and Mon Petit Lapin – just opposite our house, in fact. Before the war, she had kept herself very much to herself. She had an unpronounceable name and a miserable face. Her dog was called ‘Michelle’. Having given up on the owner’s name, the kids in the road ended up calling her ‘Mme Michelle’ and so the parents of the children ended up also calling her ‘Mme Michelle’. The war came along and Brussels was occupied. But nothing could have prepared the inhabitants of the street for what then occurred. All of a sudden, Mme Michelle started entertaining, and on a lavish scale. This was a shocking change in itself, and additionally shocking given the austerity of those times – for Belgians, at least, had little food and drink. Worse, though, was the fact that Mme Michelle’s guests were exclusively German soldiers, and on occasion one or more of them would stay overnight. Then it was discovered that Mme Michelle was German. So that explained it! Given the circumstances, the neighbours in the street could do little more than ostracise her. She didn’t seem to mind, though they crossed the street whenever she walked towards them and would never look her in the eyes. And though they continued to serve her, the shopkeepers became curt and surly.
The war ended. Brussels was liberated. Revenge, briefly, was in the air. And then the neighbours found out the full truth. For the duration of the occupation Mme Michelle had been hiding a Jewish family on the third floor of her house; two adults and two children. All of that consorting with her compatriots and sleeping with the enemy had been part of an extraordinary bluff. For when the authorities came looking for Jews to round up, the last place they would ever have thought of looking was in the house of Madame Michelle. And of all of the extra food that she got from her German friends and lovers a lot must have gone up the stairs to the third floor.
What could the neighbours do? They had looked upon her as scum for almost four years. They had spat at her behind her back and taught their children to do the same and now they discovered that this small, quiet, completely unremarkable woman had done something extraordinarily courageous and almost incredibly remarkable. The entertaining had stopped and surly-faced Mme Michelle went back to keeping herself to herself. One day in the late 1940s, crossing the road outside the Post Office, she was hit by a car and died on the spot. And that was that. There was no recognition for Mme Michelle. No righteous of the nations. Just, I suppose, the inner knowledge that she had done good. Of course, me being me, I have written to the European Jewish Congress for I feel such acts should be recognised for what they are, even if posthumously. In the meantime, though, part of me is thinking ‘what an extraordinary story! I could make something out of that.’ For, as so often, truth on this occasion easily beats fiction.