Resistance – Patricia Dixon

Maude paused for a moment, needing time to gather her thoughts and as tradition had begun to dictate, have a little chat with Dottie. It was something she did most days but only when they were alone. Today was going to be special and one that caused Maude to feel slightly tremulous but excited nonetheless. Silently making her way to the corner of the room her eyes fell upon the smiling face of her grandmother and in a heartbeat, calm was restored. It had always been the way. Whatever trial or tribulation befell Maude, a quiet chat with Dottie did the trick. It usually came in the form of wise words, sometimes a firm but well-meant rebuke, or silence accompanied by one of her penetrating stares. If, on the other hand, salacious village gossip was the topic of the day, they would have a chuckle at another’s expense and Dottie would pronounce that she knew all along that he, or she, or they, were not to be trusted. On the other hand, those she deemed as harmless scoundrels would be invited round for drinks and delicately interrogated until they gave up the next juicy instalment. Reaching forward, Maude’s fingers gently touched the face of her dear grandmother whose portrait hung in one of the alcoves. It wasn’t the prime position she deserved or would have requested, but the chimney breast wall was out of the question. The smoke from the fire below would damage the paint and anyway, Dottie couldn’t always have her own way, not anymore. In a similar way Maude’s greatest desire could never be granted, to have one last conversation with her gran, to hear her voice again and not have to imagine what she would say or do. Maude would forever feel robbed of that moment so instead, she clung on to all the precious times they had shared. Yes, one could say that conversing with a painting of your dead grandmother was a small step towards insanity, but it gave her great comfort and sometimes Maude sensed that Dottie was still around.

A scent on the breeze, forest wildflowers, or was it Femme de Rochas and Gauloises, her grandmothers non-negotiable scent and cigarette of choice? No wonder Maude could trick herself into believing Dottie was there, when her spiritessence lingered, and her voice echoed around the corridors and rooms. She could still hear its steely determination or languish in the velvet kiss of kind words when they mattered. Oh, and her infectious laugh, that bubbled from deep within and then gurgled into a smoker’s cough. Curiously, Maude’s fingertips would sometimes tingle, remembering the feel of Dottie’s peach-soft skin, enhanced by the powder and rouge she religiously applied each day. Perhaps it was Maude’s own artistic tendencies that were to blame for the trickery, transcribing themselves so fluidly, images and memories becoming words, sounds and feelings. Nevertheless, Maude still gained immense pleasure from her painting of Dottie that had been a labour of love, portraying a vibrant young woman in every sense of the word. Set on the edge of a small French village, with field upon field of rural countryside as a distant backdrop, red-headed Dottie was pictured shielding her eyes from the sun in what could be interpreted as a salute, smiling into a camera lens, almost laughing at something the photographer had said. Maude knew exactly what it was because the photo, that eventually became oil on canvas, was part of family history. In a shutter speed moment on a late summer’s day, as she rested against the trunk of a gnarled oak, Dottie had let down her guard and allowed herself to be happy, carefree even. She was so pretty then, just a young girl who had yet to grow into her beauty but due to circumstance, had already become a woman and seen things, done things, knew things that should have been saved for later, or never at all.

Despite her surroundings, amidst the daily struggles of war and tyranny, in a world dominated by men, Dottie exuded confidence and even through the medium of paint, you could sense it as well as see it. With her bare legs outstretched and crossed at the ankle, utility lace-up shoes dampening any hope of glamour, she wore a dull grey skirt that Maude knew Dottie had hated, but at least it covered her muddy knees. Her favourite white blouse, speckled with flowers, was faded and worn at the collar, one odd button, but Dottie still stood out. The painting didn’t betray the honesty of the original scene that had been retold slightly by the artist. It was a mere misdirection and a private glimpse of a glorious and sometimes inglorious past that had faded into history, remembered faithfully once a year, lest anyone forgot. Today was different. The first time Dottie wouldn’t be here to pay her respects in the year she’d made her century, something she saw as a personal victory and nothing to do with any assistance from the quacks. Maude was sure her gran would have loved a telegram from the Queen, but she’d forbidden anyone to request one. With Dottie it could always go either way. Nevertheless, at long last, seventy-five years since VE Day, Dottie and her comrades, those brave souls who spent so much time in the shadows, waiting underground or camouflaged in mountains and forests would have their moment in the spotlight, a place where they would shine.

Their faces would be matched to names, a love story woven from fact would be told, the bones of the dead raised from the dust, standing tall, together. They would be made real once again. Recognising the swell of returning nerves and knowing there were no guests around, Maude took the opportunity to have a few words with her gran. ‘Now then, Dottie, I’m off to pay my respects and then we will have the grand unveiling so don’t be late, and wear your best dress, and your specs. I know you’ve been peeping and looking over my shoulder because you never could bear to be surprised, so try to look pleased when you see the finished result, if you haven’t already. And make sure you bring everyone, I want them all there. This is their day too. It’s not all about you.’ Despite her attempt at humour, Maude was forced to swallow down the blob of emotion that was obstructing her throat, unable to prevent her eyes misting over. She was being soppy and received a silent chiding from Dottie which at least brought a smile and allowed Maude time to pull herself together.

What would people think if they saw a perfectly sane, thirty-six-year-old, talking to a painting of a man and woman who never, ever answered back? Shaking her head, Maude placed a kiss on her fingertip and transferred it to the face of Dottie and then the handsome companion seated by her side, the true love of her grandmother’s life. Turning, she removed the book that lay on the coffee table and placed it inside her bag. It was a gift, signed and dedicated to someone special. Then she pulled on her gloves and straightened her back before heading towards the door. As she passed, Maude acknowledged another of her works, one that hung in the opposite alcove. It was a portrait of her very own namesake to which she gave a quick wink and a wave before leaving the room. Outside, after closing the large wooden door of La Babinais, her grand maison de maître, Maude made her way down the path and through the gate, stopping briefly as she always did to admire the plaque attached to the post. It was a golden, shiny statement, a symbol of her freedom and proof, not that she really needed any, that thanks to Dottie she was living the dream in a place that had meant so much to both of them. It read: Mademoiselle Maude Mansfield Propriétaire École d’Art When Dottie bought the house for Maude, it, as with most things, came with a condition or two. The first was that Dottie would be allowed to live there until her death and not be shuffled off to a home or the loony bin.

Much to everyone’s amusement, her imminent demise had been on the cards for years and was frequently used as a ploy to gain her own way. Yet against her own odds, Dottie somehow clung on to life, stubbornly resisting death just like she resisted anything that wasn’t to her liking. The second condition was that Maude converted part of the square, double-fronted house with its high ceilings and four rooms on each floor, into a school of art and painting retreat. She was to carve out an independent life, follow her dream, sell her work and continue making a name for herself. Naturally Maude agreed to both, once again happy to be stage managed by Grandma Dottie. Closing the gate, tucking her scarf further inside her coat, Maude did up another button to fend off the chill of the blustery November morning. At least it wasn’t raining. Today didn’t deserve a deluge. Each year Maude prayed that the grey clouds, like those bearing down above her head, burdened with the weight of tears, wouldn’t weep. Instead they would remain strong, brave and steadfast.

Then, at the hour of remembrance, the winter sun would break through allowing the souls in heaven to peep through a crack and shine their bright, silvery light on those left behind. Making her way towards the centre of the village, Maude nodded politely to the locals who too were heading for the service. It took only minutes to arrive and as she passed through the iron gates of the walled cemetery, the first face she sought was that of the maire, Gabriel. She couldn’t help herself, not anymore. The slight nod of his head told Maude he’d been watching for her too, as did the look in his eyes before he quickly turned away. Their affair, that began with a coming together of minds and shared interest, had evolved. Maude had no idea where it was heading but for now it was better like this, safer, avoiding scandal or distress. Gabriel was already positioned by the memorial and preparing for the service, his wife by his side. This observation irritated Maude immensely and the woman’s dour presence was something she resolved to firmly ignore for the remainder of the day. Instead, Maude focused on the cenotaph.

It was engraved with the names of the fallen from the village and surrounding areas and each would be read out during the service. The ritual was always the same, a sombre moment shared, a time to reflect, but since the passing of Dottie, Maude was ever more unsettled, disappointed in fact. Even though she had not died for France, Dottie had taken her last breath in the country she had always secretly loved the most, in a little village that she could finally call home. But it was more than that. Maude’s brave and indomitable grandmother had once fought on this soil, almost two tumultuous years of risking her life every day, experiencing fear and heartbreak, love and loss. Maude understood why Dottie’s name would never be called out, but it was the omission of her memory, her service and dedication to duty that rankled. And there was something else. Almost to the last, Dottie had fought for and believed in justice, righting a wrong, serving revenge stone cold, laying the past to rest. She’d solved a mystery that had rocked her and others to the core. This and one of her final acts, borne in some ways of retribution, brought her freedom and acceptance.

It allowed her to come back home for good. Dottie never believed in taking the path of least resistance and for most of her life, seemed to take great pleasure in doing the opposite, refusing to be tamed or trussed. For this reason, once Dottie had been laid to rest in the village graveyard by the side of her great love, Maude had decided that somehow, some way, her grandmother would be remembered, not just in her memoirs. With the help of Gabriel and after many months and hours together, time well spent in many ways, they gathered everything they needed. Now, with the blessing of the commune and after the service of remembrance, Maude’s tribute to her grandmother and her comrades would be revealed. It was time. The Tricolor blew in the wind while the bugler played his sad lament. Gabriel began his speech, bringing the carved names back to life, if only in memory. And as they were remembered one by one, Maude touched the antique ring on her finger, and her heart swelled with pride for the young English girl who looked like a mouse but had the heart of a lion. Placing a hand on her bag, Maude smiled.

The book inside, written by an adoring granddaughter, told of an unassuming waitress who enlisted at the start of the war, then became an SOE operative, and after being dropped into France in the dead of night became a courier for the Historian Network, a trusted member of the Resistance, proud fighter with the Maquis and loyal supporter of the Free French. Her family called her Dorothy ‘Dottie’ Tanner, the villagers knew her as Yvette Giroux, but in London, her code name was Nadine.

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