About Paid In Full – Short Story
Paid In Full is set in France, in a small village where we once owned a holiday home and enjoyed many happy, family times. The world wars are remembered very seriously in this country. Residents from each city, town and village gather on November the 11th to lay a wreath at the foot of a war memorial and to remember those who fell. An older generation still exist who can recall the occupation, its hardships and its horrors.
The story was shortlisted out of more than 1000 entries in the 2017 Bath Short Story Award and was published in the anthology of the same name.
Paid In Full
I found him in the river; leather boots, trouser legs, soldier’s jacket. His face rippled under the quiet water, the features separating and reforming. Curiosity gripped and I stared.
I recall pushing him with my toe, watching the body move like the logs and branches that float downstream after heavy rain and catch between rocks. I glanced round, then slid two fingers in his pocket teasing out a whistle and a penknife and a photograph of a lady with dark hair. Finally, before panic, and the urge to escape overtook me, I released a few small coins.
A boy of strange and curious ways, I was a collector; pebbles, rusty shards of metal, coloured glass pieces, animal bones. I risked friendship to steal ribbons or pencils from the other children. I risked punishment if my aunt found my treasures, so I hid them. A loose floorboard in the barn could be prised up, or a brick removed from a wall. Discovery haunted me; harsh fingers handling precious things, stealing my collections. In the end, a careless hiding place twisted the course of my life, destroyed the lives of others, loaded my soul with a bitter, impossible debt.
Today, my head is full of disturbing thoughts and the afternoon heat oppresses. I refuse my cane, but I am grateful for Fabienne’s arm and the tall figure of my grandson close by. She is a sweet girl and I see the love she has for Stefan.
‘Do you feel up to a short walk?’ she asks. ‘Surely you want to see the village now we’re here. We can return to the car if you get too hot.’
She tells Stefan to get my hat, and it is placed gently on my head.
We walk and I notice the cart, abandoned long ago, as if the horse was released for the last time and the carrier let the shafts fall to the ground. As we pass, I pause to touch the letters of his name, faint colours across the rough planks. I remember myself as a child of three who sat in this cart and howled all the way from the station. I stopped when my aunt gave me an unexpected cuff and shouted; ‘Shut up, that’s enough.’
Should I go into the village? So much time has passed. Yet someone may recognise the turn of my head, a strand of hair, a look that unsettles a memory. I grip Fabienne’s arm and we walk towards the Maison de Maitre. She remarks how pretty it is. Stefan fiddles with his expensive camera. He is a collector of photographs, a safe, two dimensional pastime. Later, he will tinker with the images on a screen, enhancing colours, smoothing imperfections, polishing the captured memory.
We pose in front of the gates.
‘Do you remember this house, Papi?’ Fabienne asks, and I reply that I do. She sees the geraniums tumbling over the balustrade which frames the double staircase up to the door. Years ago, my aunt had grumbled at this extravagance.
‘They need two staircases?’ she protested to Uncle Jean. ‘Madame doesn’t have to sweep them herself, that’s for sure.’
I look up to the flowers, the twisted ironwork, the crafted stone, and I see soldiers, Monsieur Delpech in pyjamas, his face red, his eyes full of fear. I see a woman crying, children clutching at her dress. The sound fills my ears. Fabienne’s chatter, whilst not unpleasant, seems distant.
It is a cloudless sky and I am glad of my hat. I wear long trousers and sleeves now, after all, who wants to look at the thin arms and shapeless skin of an old person? Yet as a child, I put on the same rags every day, garments fashioned from curtains, old clothes, even the sacks that held the grain. My aunt was as resourceful as the rest during the occupation, but only when her own children had been clothed, did she look to me.
The little bar tabac is still here, and I recall the dark interior, thick with cigarette smoke. If Madame Celeste had sweets, we huddled around the counter with our coins and were usually rewarded with a morsel of something pink or red which brought a brief shot of sugar to sweeten our lives. Our fathers and uncles sat with glasses of pastis, the alcohol softening their faces, gentling their hands. On the farm it was a cuff or a slap. In the bar they ruffled heads and patted shoulders. The figure of poor Jean-Marc is still clear, a noisy, ebullient drinker, dragged home by his wife most evenings. We would watch, then mimic his drunken capers, each of us exaggerating the loose limbs and slurred voice.
If the soldiers came in, the men drank up and left, coins placed quietly on the counter.
The bar is closed, so we walk on towards the Mairie and the church.
‘How pretty,’ Fabienne exclaims. ‘What beautiful stonework.’
I hear the click of the camera behind me. City youngsters. They see the charm of this village. I gaze at the steps leading to the church door and I see desperation, injustice, and I feel the burden of shame I shouldered as a boy and have carried for a lifetime.
We sit outside the Mairie and they leave me to rest as they visit the church. He takes her hand. She reaches up and kisses him with a smile full of promise. I am jealous of their youth yet grateful they can enjoy it. At their age I was already old.
A crowd of us would meet at the river, but the day I saw him I was fishing alone. I wanted to run, but found no movement in my legs. Then, the urge to search his wet pockets, to take possession of whatever I found, took hold. With dripping fingers, I stowed the items in my bag and glanced over his face. It was pale, like the flesh of a dead fish, stripped of its silver scales. Turning away in disgust, I fell over a rock in the shallow water and splashed wildly for a moment, trying to regain my balance. Calm tipped into panic and I reached the bank with frantic ungainly strides. The firmer ground gave my legs momentum and they sprinted me back to the village, my stolen goods rattling.
My mind was already working on a hiding place. It would be too dark to make things out in the barn, so I chose a loose stone in the wall opposite the post office. The stone came out easily. I hesitated before replacing it, chose one coin to keep, taking a moment to turn its foreignness over in my fingers. I walked home through the village, catching my breath.
‘Where’ve you been?’ My aunt was waiting. ‘Disappearing again, when you have jobs to do. Get on with them before it’s too dark.’
Dodging her raised hand, I touched the surface of the coin in my pocket and felt glad.
‘Papi.’ A voice weaves through the memories and I feel a gentle touch on my arm. I turn my head and see Stefan’s face. ‘You’re tired,’ he says. ‘Shall we go back?’ I think about this. ‘We can go past the post office,’ I say. ‘It isn’t much further.’
Fabienne eases me to my feet and we make our way through the houses. The road is dusty, hot. Shutters are closed and there is no one to notice us. She tries to lead me to the pavement, but I resist and we continue across the road to the hiding place. It isn’t there. I needn’t search for it as the wall has been rebuilt. There is one stone, slightly larger than the others, with a metal plate, a little tarnished, but the lettering is clear. Fingering the small coin in the pocket of my trousers, I reach out and touch the names: Arnaud Delpech, Celeste Balat, Jean-Marc Fournier. Mort pour la France.
‘Did you know these people?’ Fabienne asks, and I nod, but offer no explanation. ‘How sad,’ she says, and the three of us stand in quiet thought and I remember.
Soldiers marched in, tearing apart a soft grey dawn, shouting orders in harsh, twisted French, clattering on doors. We were herded into the square, some still in night clothes, others rough-haired and unwashed. I was sent to get my cousin who was at the pump and I saw them forcing the mayor from his home.
Men held their wives, women grasped their children. In the faces around me I saw defiance, hatred, fear, and I twisted my fingers to stop them shaking. Officers stood on the steps to the church. A whistle, a penknife and a handful of coins lay on the floor; my treasures, discovered. I tried to speak, but children were pushed to the back where the school teacher encircled us with his arms whispering words of calm. We heard accusing voices, then shouts, then cries. Finally, three shots.
As the marching feet receded, a subdued wailing began, rising up until words of fury punctured the sorrow. Children found their parents, but I crept away and hid in the barn.
When my aunt and uncle returned they dragged me from my hiding place. She pinched my arm and pressed her wet, angry face close to mine.
‘What do you know?’ she hissed. Madame Delacroix saw you hiding something in the wall. And what’s this?’ She held out the German coin. ‘I found it in your pocket.’
She let my cheek take the full force of her outstretched hand and shouted, ‘Tell me.’
‘The body, it was in the river, it was already dead.’ I faltered over the words. ‘I – I just took some things and hid them.’
The fury was uncontrollable, her hand, a fist, her mouth venomous and foul. In the end my uncle dragged her away. The last words I remember were; ‘My friends, they are murdered because of you.’
I touched the hurt places, watched tears drip through my fingers to the dust and felt each sob like a rough shock. Darkness fell and I was afraid to be alone. I wiped my nose and face on my sleeve and reached up to try the door. It was jammed from the other side. I pleaded, rattled the wood, but each time I stopped and listened, I heard only the stirring of the animals and the frantic clicking of the cicadas. My bare foot touched something under the straw. Reaching down, my fingers closed around the coin. I lay on the straw like an animal and slept.
The next day, Uncle took me to the station and put me on the train to Paris, back to my father.
I feel the softness of Fabienne’s hand. She lifts the brim of my hat to look into my face.
‘Why did you want to come back?’ she asks. ‘I think you have a story about this village that you haven’t told us.’
I push my hat from my forehead, try to recall why I decided to return after so many years, and, in the muddle of my thoughts, there is one clear thread, and I know.
‘I have a debt to repay,’ I offer.
‘From so long ago? You were only a boy.’
I am silent. My thinking, like my limbs, is slow. It needs time to separate each thought and drop it into place.
‘Papi, you are the kindest man. You have spent your life helping others.’ She looks again into my face and I briefly lift my eyes to meet hers. ‘Whatever happened when you lived here, you have paid your debt.’
I consider her words. I think about the three who paid for me. In my life I have tried to pay, so many times, in so many ways, but I have discovered, that release from the magnitude of my wrong comes at an impossible price. The Bank of Atonement is, indeed, a foreboding place. No withdrawals at this establishment, only deposits against huge, life-sapping debt.
‘We love you Papi,’ Fabienne says, and I meet her eyes with a slow gratitude. She takes my hand between her hands, but does not ask for more.
So many years ago. I was such a little scrap of life.
As we pass the cart on our way back to the car, I feel in my pocket and draw out the small German coin, worthless now, priceless as the means to finally settle my account. I have carried it for far too long. It is time to let go. I look briefly in the palm of my hand, then I push the coin into the soil beneath the flowers, burying it deep. I experience a lightness of spirit, a weight lifted, a final reckoning settled.
I glance towards the young people striding out in front, hands touching, their lives, their memories pure. Hope is in the next generation. It envelops me, opening my eyes to truth, bringing a glimpse of peace, finally.
And my debt to this village, to Monsieur Delpech, Madame Celeste and Jean-Marc; paid in full.