Read Gibraltar Passage Online

Authors: T. Davis Bunn

Gibraltar Passage (2 page)

Again Pierre stirred himself enough to ask, “What was the message?”

“Beware the traitor,” the girl replied, “I have the proof you need.”

“Which traitor?” Pierre demanded.

“Patrique did not say,” Lilliana replied. “Only that it was no longer safe for him in Morocco. That he was going to try to make it to Gibraltar. And that they should not believe overmuch in rumors of his death.”

Two days after finding Lilliana, Jake and Pierre boarded the train for Marseille. Lilliana had been examined by the local Red Cross doctors and proclaimed unfit for travel—acute malnourishment and a persistent low-grade fever. Besides which there was still no word from her family. Three inquiries had been sent to Morocco, with no reply. Pierre's last action before departing had been to place yet another request through official channels.

The train was crammed to overflowing. Every compartment was full. People jammed the aisles outside, sitting on
their luggage, standing, crushed together like sardines. Yet there was no pushing, no shoving, no arguments over places. With their officers' passes, Pierre and Jake were assured seats. Twice they rose and tried to give their places to ladies. Both times they were refused—not only by the women themselves but by all the people surrounding them. When the people saw that Jake did not understand their words, they motioned him down with hand signals. Sit, sit. Officers deserved a place.

Of Pierre they asked as much as politeness allowed. Where were the gentlemen coming from? And where, might one ask, were they headed? Ah, Marseille. A beautiful city. To see the family. How nice. And the first time since the end of the war? Oh, how exciting it must be for you, sir. And for your friend, this will be his first time in France? Welcome, welcome. Smiles and bows were presented in Jake's direction. May your stay in France be a glorious one. That was the word they used, Pierre assured him. A
glorious
stay. This from people who wore their hunger as evidently as the frayed elbows and carefully darned tears in their clothes. They wished him a glorious stay in their beloved land.

Once they were settled in their seats, Jake asked Pierre in a low voice, “Why did you keep asking Lilliana to repeat parts of her story, you know, about when Patrique came back to Morocco unexpectedly?”

“Because, my friend,” Pierre replied, “this entire episode took place a month after my brother was supposed to have died.”

Jake turned back toward the train window and mulled this over. The others in their compartment showed polite disinterest, granting them as much privacy as their crowded surroundings would allow.

Lilliana's story had not ended there. She had done as Patrique had requested, traveled to Marseille, and hurried to the designated address. But the building had been destroyed in the war, and she had no other way of contacting Pierre's friends. In desperation she had walked the streets until a
roving German patrol spotted her and arrested her for being out after curfew. She soon found herself on a train with other detainees, heading north.

Once inside Germany, the train had been halted and left to languish on a siding for three days. Finally the soldiers in charge had forced those still alive to continue onward by foot. They had walked for a very long time—Lilliana was not sure exactly how long, the days had melted together. She had ended up in a workers' camp and endured the grueling weeks of autumn and winter working in an unheated bomb factory. Then with the spring had come the Allied liberators, and after that she had been passed from one camp to another, awaiting papers and word of her family.

“I am tempted to travel directly to Gibraltar,” Pierre broke in, “but I know I must first go to my family in Marseille.”

“I thought you said they were in—” Jake searched his memory, but could not recall the name. “Some other town.”

“Montpelier,” Pierre supplied. “My family originally came from Marseille, and we spent much time there when I was growing up. During the war my parents moved back there because survival was easier when surrounded by family. Now my uncle, my mother's brother, is one of the President's team in Marseille. Not one of the cabinet, mind you. One of the local staff. He is in charge of food distribution for that area of Provence. My father works with him. Marseille is where the Americans offload all supplies.”

As soon as he had recovered from Lilliana's story, Pierre had applied for and been granted long-overdue leave to visit his family. The brigadier general responsible for Jake's region had then personally authorized his own travel to France—not because of Pierre, but because he knew of Jake's lack of family and his distress over Sally.

The train that took them through the Alsace countryside was from a bygone era. Plumes of smoke and cinders flew by their closed window. Jake gave thanks for a chilly day. If
it had been warmer and the windows open, they would both have arrived blackened by the chuffing locomotive.

“Gibraltar,” Pierre murmured. “Why would he choose to go there, of all places? Why not home?”

“It seems to me that if your brother really had survived,” Jake cautioned, “he would have gotten in touch with somebody long before now.”

“Do not rob me of hope, my friend,” Pierre said, his eyes still on the countryside. “Already it hangs from the slenderest of threads. Do not swing the knife.”

“I just—”

“Don't,” Pierre repeated, turning away from the window. “Let me sit for now, this moment, this day, and believe that there might indeed be a chance that Patrique is still alive. My mind too is full of all the arguments, but my heart does not wish to hear them. Not now. Not yet.”

Jake nodded his understanding. “So tell me more about your brother.”

Pierre was silent a long moment, then began. “Marseille is a funny place. For the first three years of the war, it was occupied by the Italians. Between the mentality of the Italians and that of the Marseille people, life there was what we callsoft.' People got on with the business of living. There was laughter. There was smuggling. That is what my brother did. He smuggled bodies.”

“Warm ones, I hope.”

Pierre smiled. “My brother operated the Marseille end of an underground system that smuggled out people wanted by the Nazis. About half were Jews. The others were mostly German intelligentsia, people who publicly opposed Hitler's madness—professionals, priests, teachers, writers. He was very successful, my brother. At least, as long as the Italians were there.”

“After that?”

“After that, well, after that came the Nazis. And life became very hard.”

“And your brother?”

“Patrique stayed for as long as he could. Then one night the Nazis came for him, and we all thought he had been taken. But somehow he had managed to escape at the very last moment. He went to Morocco and operated there for a while.”

Jake inspected his friend's somber face. “He was killed there?”

“So we were told,” Pierre sighed. “Where exactly I have not been able to determine. Everything after his departure from Marseille remains a mystery.”

Jake said quietly, “You miss him.”

“There is a bond between twins that only another twin can understand,” Pierre said. “It is for me like an invisible connection from the womb. More than sympathy. We
share
in the emotions and the experiences of one another. Across distances, across time. We are different, yet the same.”

Jake listened and heard the way his friend spoke. We
are
these things, Pierre was saying. Not were. Not in the past. Still today. Jake heard, and understood, and dared hope for his friend as he had not been able to hope for his own family.

“I am the cautious one. Reserved. Deliberate. I am the one who made the good army officer,” Pierre continued. “Patrique is bold. More than that. He is reckless. I was the reins that held Patrique in place. I think he understood this better than I. Through Patrique I felt the emotions I never allowed myself, and through me Patrique knew a balance between caution and abandon.”

The emotions that etched themselves on Pierre's features were too naked for Jake to feel comfortable watching. He turned his attention to the window, listening carefully, but granting his friend the only privacy he could offer.

“Patrique was younger than me,” Pierre continued, pitching his voice softly. With the noise of the locomotive and the train's rattles and squeaks, only Jake could hear him. “He was younger only by two minutes in time, but always I was the older brother. I went through life feeling that I watched
over him. I was responsible for him. I was the rock. Patrique was the wind.”

The train did not go fast. Nothing seemed to move fast in this land. The entire country appeared to be gradually recovering from shock, stumbling a bit as it found its footing.

Their journey was one of stark contrasts. Some towns and villages were left virtually untouched by the war, at least as far as Jake could see. Others were pitifully scarred. All wore the same run-down look as the people.

“When Patrique was fifteen,” Pierre told Jake, “he got a job working at the local hippodrome, the racetrack. He became an excellent rider. In his free time, he began hunting the wild white stallions of the Camargue. I can still remember him flying across the great salt flats, both hands busy with his lasso, guiding his horse with his knees. The weekends he went hunting, my mother used to spend at the local é
glise
, praying that her son would come home in one piece.

“Patrique sought out the Resistance within days of the German invasion,” Pierre went on. “He proposed that they use the hippodrome as a gathering point for the fleeing refugees. In his first letter to me, he bragged that already they had ten times as many Jews as horses in the stables. It gave him great pride to help these people.”

Pierre was silent for a time, then said to himself, “I think I have always seen my brother as the hero I never was.”

“That's crazy and you know it,” Jake protested. “Where did you get those medals on your chest, a bazaar?”

The journey from Karlsruhe to Strasbourg to Lyons to Marseille took twenty-eight hours. For the majority of the trip, Pierre remained immersed in his thoughts and his memories. Jake did not complain. His own ruminations were more than enough company. At times he would emerge, look about, return the smiles of the people whose eye he caught. But soon enough the blanket of sorrowful thoughts tucked itself up tight around his chest and he retreated into missing Sally.

Six months. The time stretched out before him in endless emptiness. It did not matter how much he argued with himself. It did not matter that she had been ordered to go. It did not matter that her work was important. Jake found it impossible to see beyond the painful fact that she was not there beside him.

Near Avignon the train chuffed around a high rock ledge just as the sun cleared the horizon. Gray-faced rocks drank in the morning light and were transformed into shades of soft coral. The train's brakes squealed on a sharp decline, the whistle blew a greeting to the new day, and they were swallowed by the ancient town.

From Avignon the train followed the Rhone River's winding path, never leaving its side for more than a few minutes. The air was scented with olive trees and pines and awakening spring. The sensation of entering a new world grew ever stronger. Behind them northern Europe still struggled to cast off winter's cloak. Here in the Provence, spring had long since been welcomed home with open arms.

The faces surrounding Jake seemed to lose some of their deeper lines. Eyes shadowed by years of strain and worry and war took on a glint of newfound humor as breakfast provisions were brought out. The woman next to Jake unfolded a checkered bundle to reveal a round loaf of bread, home-whipped butter, and a honeycomb in waxed paper. Shyly she offered him a portion. The entire compartment watched as he bit and chewed, then shared a smile as he moaned his pleasure.

Jake offered his handful to Pierre. “You want some?”

“What?” Startled by the words, he turned from his endless perusal of the window. “Oh, no thank you.”

“It's great.”

The woman next to Jake spoke up, urging Pierre to take a portion. He dredged up a smile and shook his head. Pierre remained the only one of their compartment untouched by the new day.

He felt Jake's eyes on him and turned a sorrowful gaze toward his friend. “I was thinking of Jasmyn.”

Once more Jake recalled late-night talks. “She's the woman who betrayed you by taking up with a Nazi officer, right?”

His friend nodded and confessed, “The closer we come to Marseille, the harder it is to keep the memory of her behind me. You remember how I said that there could never be another woman for me?”

“I remember,” Jake said quietly.

Pierre sighed his way back to the window. “All she did, all that was, and still I yearn for her.”

“Would it help to talk?”

“Thank you, my friend,” Pierre replied to the unseen day outside the train. “But more words about Jasmyn would be lances to my spirit.”

Outside Arles, a new conductor made his way down the crowded train. He was an ancient survivor of the First War, the chest of his heavy blue conductor's uniform sporting three rows of ribbons. When they handed over their official passes, the old man drew himself to attention and threw them a rusty salute.

For the first time that morning, Pierre showed a spark of life. He asked the old man a question and received an overloud reply. Pierre smiled, only his eyes holding the stain of unspoken memories. He motioned toward Jake and spoke at length. All eyes in the compartment turned his way. Pierre pointed to the ribbons on Jake's own chest and gave a name to several of them. His words were greeted with appreciative oohs and aahs.

Jake objected with, “You mind telling me—”

But Pierre cut him off with further words in French. He grew fervent, his voice rising to reach more of the passengers who now crowded into the compartment's open door. The woman seated next to him had eyes as wide as saucers. Jake felt his face grow hot.

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