By Daniel Sharp
Lighting a cigarette, the old man sat down by the window to wait. The time was coming, he knew, when he would die. Not from withered age would he perish though– he would do his part and bow out voluntarily. The time was coming but until it did, he was quite content to smoke his cigarettes and drink some wine.
It was June, and Charles de Gerre could hear artillery in the distance. They were approaching. Many of his fellow Parisians had already fled, and he did not blame them. He was just old enough to recall the dark year of 1871 when another German army had conquered his beloved city. He reflected sadly that his life had begun and would end with Paris under the heel of an oppressor. He knew they would enter the city shortly, and he knew that there was nothing anyone could do – France had fallen. Perhaps, soon, the rest of the world would follow.
But Monsieur de Gerre was not one of those who would flee, nor was he one who would accept what was coming. He knew he could not make a difference to what was going to happen, but he was damned if he was just going to roll over without a fight. He was a Parisian, for God’s sake, and abandon his city he would not. So he sat, waiting, watching out of the window while cigarette smoke curled around his large, domed head and long, grey, bedraggled hair. The smell of the wine as he brought the glass to his mouth invigorated him, and he considered that this was what he was fighting for. The wine, the art, the music, the culture and the cigarettes – all would soon be poisoned by the Nazis, and the least he could do was enjoy what he could before the end.
Gazing out of the window at the wide street below, Charles breathed in the silent beauty of his city. Nothing stirred, all was eerie and quiet, but it was beautiful. In the distance he could hear the artillery pounding, but he focused his senses on the Eiffel Tower which rose up over the city and was within sight of his apartment. It was night, but he could make out the familiar shape. Ah, the Tower. This would be the last time he would ever see it. Soaking it in, recalling memories of walking under it with his long-departed wife, a tear came to Charles’ eye. He sniffed, wiped it away. Now was not the time for sentiment.
Indeed, if Charles had begun to reminisce he would have died from sadness before anything else. Paris in 1871, the Great War, the deaths of his friends, sons and brothers and the suicide of his wife in 1919 after the war – all these, and many other events, would have ruined a less resilient man. But Charles de Gerre had borne the mud and the blood of the trenches, and had become accustomed to wrapping up his feelings in iron. Sometimes he pictured a miniature, deformed Eiffel Tower around his heart, twisted and writhed around it to hold in his sorrow.
For hours Monsieur de Gerre waited for the moment to come– the wine bottles and the cigarette packets getting emptier and emptier until he worried that he would run out. He had picked up supplies for his wait a few days before, when he had taken a last, long walk around Paris to appreciate it before it was despoiled.
The old man needn’t have worried, however, for the night passed and day came, and, with it, the Nazis. It would take a while for them to fully occupy the city, Charles reasoned, but that was immaterial to him, for all he needed was for a group of them to march down the street he had spent all night gazing out on. All he had to do was wait a little longer, and he would have revenge, however small his act would be.
One last glass of wine and a cigarette later, the time came. At the other end of the street he spied a contingent of marching men – the Nazis. They must be coming down the street to keep us in check, thought Charles, while smirking at the surprise they were about to be given. The old man got up, adjusted his coat and put his hat on, and took his revolver from his pocket to check it was loaded. Satisfied, he hid it and walked downstairs to the main hallway. Taking a few breaths behind the door, he shut his eyes before opening it and running into the street.
“Help! Help!” he shouted, “men with guns in the building – they want to ambush you!” The Nazis had nearly shot him on sight, but, alarmed at the seemingly harmless old man’s words, they shoved by him and ran into the building. Standing back, Charles let them enter, and looked up at his apartment window. It was not far up and he could see the explosives he had planted over the past few weeks, all waiting for this moment to be set off and engulf the invaders. The others in the block had left at his behest. God knows what will become of them, Charles thought as he aimed his revolver at his apartment window – but hopefully they will appreciate this.
He fired, and hit his mark. The bullet flew into the central barrel of explosive powder, setting off the reaction Charles had so carefully designed over the last few weeks. The building was blown apart, rock and body parts flying across the street. Charles himself, smiling, allowed himself to be torn apart by the blast.
The flames settled eventually, as the Nazis cleared the scene up. The commander of the clear-up crew grimaced as he observed the scene. The spirit of Paris, he realised, was a spirit of resistance.