In the far northern corner of France, there exists what, for lack of a better term, I shall call a fishing village. In reality, this place consists only of several old-painted houses clinging like sea-shells to a cliff edge. Below them all, so stormy waves could almost clean her windows, lives Madame Malin. Very little is known about the old Madame and so naturally speculation becomes the food of fact. Over the years it has been a frequent pastime of many a young villager to leap the low wall, sneak between the begonias, and peek carefully into her sitting room, hoping to glimpse the secretive lady. And I am little better, allowing my pen to peer up between her fuchsias and contemplate the old soul within.
While clearing out my mother’s attic, I discovered a cardboard box crouched, forgotten, beneath an old-fashioned wedding dress, two stacks of photos and what looked suspiciously like a singularly ancient loo roll doll. I found it rather exciting as, like an archaeologist, I opened the treasures within: ancient, yellowed letters which rustled as fresh air loosed voices stamped in ink long before. So it transpired that I discovered Madame Malin was my great grandmother’s cousin.
Though the words were grey with age, the stories spoke of a bravery of soul that did not seem to match the quavering figure I remembered. At the end, there was a black and white photo of a young Madame Malin, holding hands with a handsome man in dark clothing and a cap. Both had guns slung over their shoulders. On the back of the photo, four words were written in narrow, slanted handwriting: À toi, pour toujours. Yours, forever.
I spent that evening flicking through online photos: people tied to poles before firing squads, people setting explosives on railway lines, people leaning against sandbags with guns…I read historical summaries on Le Camp du Struthof, a camp for the resistance…and over and over again I pictured Madame Malin as she was in her photo, young with curly dark hair, sabotaging the power grid and fighting in Paris. And yet this woman was younger than me when, as a resistance fighter, she fought against the Nazis to win my freedom.