March 10, 1918
It’s quite a shock to be back in occupied territory. Things have degraded even more here than before, and even though I’d been warned, the reality was unsettling. During my final two weeks in England I’d eaten very little food in preparation, so I wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of undernourished citizens. Even so, my eyes are not as sunken as the other women in Lille, where I’m stationed in Nord—Pas-de-Calais, and my skin is not as sallow, but I have sufficiently lost the look of someone well fed. Indeed, this morning when I observed myself in a cracked and dusty mirror, “Lady Gold” was nowhere to be found. The camouflage of a shorter hairstyle, sunken cheekbones and a threadbare day frock, several seasons gone, was rather convincing.
The city of Lille is so close to the front lines that the thunder of artillery can be heard in the distance. Fifteen thousand German soldiers are barracked due west in the village of Carvin which has a population of seven thousand French. With so many German soldiers walking about, I feel I am in the mouth of the dragon.
The clocks here are set to Berlin time. Every automobile and nearly every bicycle has been confiscated by the Bosch who have also ‘requisitioned’ most of the potato crop and much of the meat and poultry stores. Fresh vegetables can be found, but only in small supply and even then, you have some sort of connection to a local farmer who has somehow been able to squirrel away some stores from the eyes of the Bosche. Dysentery is commonplace as is death by malnutrition.
Today, I watched a military parade in front of the Place de la République, a garish spectacle of preening officers, soldiers in faded uniforms marching in circles. I, along with a diminished crowd of while a tired citizenry, was forced to look on with feigned interest.
I’m stationed in Lille to serve as a new contact for several French women who are part of a network of operatives. Because of my experience, I’m to act as both a consultant and a liaison between them and our networks in free France. The previous operative, a woman whom I have never met, suddenly disappeared last month, leaving part of the network without a key person to deliver their messages. It’s not known at the moment whether the operative is still alive or what happened to her. Captain Smithwick had considered disbanding the network in case she had been compromised, but ultimately decided that it was worth the risk to continue on. Operatives are given limited information for a reason.
After the parade, I waited at a safe house. I was able to procure a small loaf of rough bread, a bit of lard, and a few leaves of substandard tea. I arranged the bread and the brewed tea on a small table, added a bit of coal to the pot belly stove, then took one of the sparse wooden chairs and sat in silence. Soon, there was a soft knock at the door and when I opened it I was met with the sight of a young woman, no more than eighteen years of age. She stood in the rain, pale eyes cast down, looking as timid as a rabbit.
I call her Eloise, though that is not her name. Pushing the hood of her cape off her head, she revealed dark, auburn hair tied in a low ponytail. A pretty, petite girl, with sharp cheekbones and hollow sunken eyes. She stared at the bread and when I motioned for her to help herself, she eagerly spread a bit of lard across the surface and closed her eyes as she took her first mouthful.
“I work at one of the more expensive restaurants here in Lille,” she said in French as she finished, “but they don’t let me eat there.”
I held in my contempt. “The owner, Monsieur Deschamps, is known to be a Bosche collaborator.”
“Oui,” Eloise said with a nod. “Which is why his restaurant is doing well in contrast to most of the others in the city.”
“And you work as a serving girl?”
“Oui, and because the restaurant is frequented by so many German officers, both ones stationed here and those travelling through here, I have overheard many conversations.”
“Yes, your work has been important,” I said. “Obviously no one has guessed that you understand German.”
“I was born and raised mostly in the Alsace region, but my father was German. He spoke to me in his language when I was a child. Of course no one knows about that outside of our network.”
“And so, tell me how it is going for you?” I’d noticed that Eloise had difficulty making eye contact. This wasn’t a good trait for someone in her role. One’s life often depended on exacting use of facial expressions, the ability to present the opposite impression of what one truly felt. “Is the work all right?”
Eloise shrugged. “Mostly. Monsieur Deschamps occasionally gives me scraps of food and when he’s in a good mood, he’ll let me eat the desserts that are left unfinished by the German officers.”
“Have you had any problems with any of the officers?” I asked as I’d had my fair share of experiences with belligerent and entitled men who thought nothing of taking what they wanted.
“I hate them.” Eloise’s eyes darkened with disdain. “They are boorish and loud, especially after a few drinks of schnapps. But that of course, is precisely why I have been able to pass on some good information. After a bottle or two, the pearls start dropping into my ears.”
Her smile was quick. I barely saw it before it disappeared again.
“Your information about weaknesses in the German artillery lines last week was excellent,” I said with a nod of encouragement. “The French army made some good gains because of that.”
“The Germans can’t keep their guns in proper working order these days,” Eloise said. “Not enough men or supplies and ammunition. I learned that from two German officers who had to be carried out of the restaurant just an hour later.” She snorted. “What a waste of good liquor.”
“Sounds like you are getting along well here then.” I said, but I knew from the hard line her mouth had formed that something was wrong.
“An operative has to be good at hiding her thoughts,” I said.
“Obviously you are good at it or you wouldn’t be alive. And yet… I can tell that something is bothering you. What is it?”
“My boss…the owner of the restaurant. I told you he lets me eat leftovers.”
“For favors in return?”
Eloise snarled. “The other serving girls hate me for it. They call me a collaborator.” Bitterly, she added, “If they only knew.”
“Three or four times a week. After my shift. I know if I refuse his advances, I will lose my job. If I lose my job, I can’t pass on any more information. And at least this way, I get cake.”