As each explosive blast crawled closer, covering her hair with crumbling bits from the ceiling and tiled walls, Marion clung to the steps and wondered if she might be buried alive that night.
The singing had stopped. She squinted to scan the crowd huddled in the dimly lit staircase around her and saw a sea of gaunt white faces, concerned brows and clutched fingers.
Just a few minutes earlier there had been an almost pub-like atmosphere in the London tube station. A boy of about 14 played the harmonica and led those around him in a heartfelt round of “We'll Meet Again” only to be interrupted by whistles and hoots as the stakes grew higher at a nearby card game. Two middle-aged ladies chatted away while their fingers and knitting needles nimbly partnered in a dance that produced perfect rows of red and blue stitches. Marion’s mother, Mrs. Thornton, had just opened up their family’s worn brown leather bag to uncover biscuits and a thermos of tea for her and her little brother Georgie. For a moment, it was almost enough to make them forget the reason they were there.
This had become their new nocturnal routine that autumn of 1940. Marion and Georgie would ride the late afternoon bus from their flat in Paddington to Piccadilly Circus to meet their mother outside the law firm where she worked as a secretary. The children hadn’t heard from their father in weeks. The Spitfire he flew with the Royal Air Force had last been spotted going down in a battle near the coast of France.
The trio would go straight from the law firm to the tube station to secure their regular sleeping spot on the train platform. They would descend down and down the stairs to where the platform was located, frighteningly deep underground and far away from the German bombers that stalked the night sky. But this day was different. Mrs. Thornton was delayed at work so they arrived at the tube station much later than usual. The crowd had already packed onto the platform and people were pressed against each other along the stairs all the way up to the station entrance. Marion, Georgie and their mother had no choice but to sit on the stairs, not far from the entrance. From that spot, Marion could see the fire crews on the street checking their equipment and the last few pedestrians hurrying to safety.
Just before midnight, Marion was awoken by the urgent whine of the air raid sirens. There was silence for a moment and then the reverberating thuds began in the distance. Each resounding vibration came closer, as if a predator was tracking their location. It was almost too terrifying to breathe.
Mrs. Thornton squeezed Marion and Georgie close to her sides to the point of discomfort. The crowd in the stairway sat stone still and silent, all except one woman. Marion found herself admiring the sophisticated waves of the woman’s blond hair and her smart brown suit. The woman’s heaving breaths became louder and soon enveloped her entire body.
“He…he’s…he’s after me,” she finally blurted out. “I did it! I’m guilty! I’m the reason it’s coming here!”
An older lady next to her tried to calm her down, “There there, what’s your name dear?”
“Juliette,” the woman responded after hesitating for a moment.
“Juliette dear, no one’s after you,” the older woman said. “Just come sit down here and it will all be alright.”
“No!” she screamed and stood up. “They’re gone…they’re dead…and it’s my fault. I killed them!”
Juliette fished out a small black notebook from her bag and raised it in the air, just as her eyes met with Marion, huddled on the other side of the stairs. “See, it’s all there! I did it!” Juliette shrieked between tears. A moment of calm passed over her eyes as she said defiantly, “I won’t be responsible for any more deaths.” Juliette flung the notebook in Marion’s lap and ran outside the station into the night.
Marion was too afraid to move, so the notebook remained where it landed in the folds of her skirt. As the night wore on, the vibrating explosions began to dissipate and eventually ceased. The heaviness of Marion’s eyelids won over her fear and she fell asleep, leaning against her mother’s shoulder.
The next morning they packed up their things and headed home for breakfast. As their mother poured porridge into their bowls she pointed to the black notebook on the table. “I packed it in our bag. There were a lot of empty pages toward the end, so I thought you could use it for writing or drawing,” she said.
As Mrs. Thornton headed out to work she said to Marion and Georgie, “Be good, and remember to stay within a block of the flat.”
School had been canceled for the time being, so Marion and Georgie amused themselves at home during the day. When Georgie went outside to play, Marion stared at the notebook and gently pressed her fingers against the cool leather. She opened it.
On the first page was a name, Juliette Dupaye, and biographical description: place of birth – Paris; date of birth – July 17, 1917; parents – Catherine and Richard; sister – Celeste; etc. Marion thought it strange that anyone would need to write down such basic information.
Marion flipped through the notebook and found numerous appointments with names, dates, times and meeting places, all with French sounding names.
“Do you think she’s a spy?” Georgie breathed over her shoulder. Marion had been so engrossed in the notebook she hadn’t heard Georgie come in.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Marion chided, a little nervous he might be right. “And you shouldn’t go around sneaking up on people. It’s very rude.”
“Come on, let me see it,” Georgie said as he tugged at the notebook.
“Stop it, you’ll rip it,” Marion warned. Georgie continued to pull on the notebook. Marion realized that as the older sister she would have to offer some sort of compromise. “Okay fine, we can read it together,” she offered.
The two read through pages of appointments with people and places that meant little to them. As they continued, the notebook became more detailed and shifted from meeting information to more vivid descriptions, almost like a diary.
July 7, 1940
The car sped to catch the last train out of Paris that night. From the passenger seat I called comforting words over my shoulder, telling the Jewish family huddled in the back seat that everything would be fine. I didn’t know their names, it was better not to. My words sounded uncertain and hollow, perhaps because I hadn’t decided what I would really do. I had $20,000 from my American contact, a small fortune and more than enough to bribe any suspicious guards and pay the family’s way out of Paris, to the south, where our network would secure their passage to safety in America.
I had wrapped the $20,000 in cloth and pinned it in layers to my clothing, underneath my blouse and coat. The ends of some of the bills stuck out and scratched at my stomach and back, nagging me with their burdensome presence. But I needed this money too. It could save Jack. If he was being held by the Germans, this money could buy information and maybe even his freedom. We could go back to England and get a place in the country, far away from all this ugliness.
I purchased the tickets for the Jewish family and escorted them to the train steps. All my mind could see was Jack’s face in front of me, needing help. I shook hands with them and said good bye, keeping the money close to my heart with Jack. They looked confused, but not wanting to draw any attention to themselves, turned and climbed up the steps of the train. I watched through the window as they found their seats and waited. I knew their forged papers wouldn’t get them very far. It was a rushed job and those papers would be checked many times on their journey. As the train pulled away I knew I had escorted that family to their death.
September 30, 1940
If you find this journal I am most certainly gone. I have failed. I could find no news on Jack. I returned to England but the events of France haunt me. The Germans have been bombing us nightly and the pounding overhead feels like death itself has come searching for me, calling me to account for my betrayal. I leave this note in an attempt to free myself, but I know what I have stolen can never be made replaced. There is $20,000 hidden under my mattress at 22 Thadbury Street. Please use it in a worthy way.
“Oh my goodness, this last entry was just a week ago!” Marion exclaimed. “We could go to the flat and get the money and use it just like she was going to — to buy information and find out what happened to Dad!”
Georgie was always up for an adventure, so he readily agreed. The two took the bus to the address in East London and crawled through a window into the flat, which was fortunately on the first floor. They found the money wrapped in cloth under the mattress, just as the notebook described.
Marion and Georgie raced home, hid the money under their bed and waited until the following morning to tell their mother the story at breakfast.
Rather than scold them, their mother saw their pain and eagerness to find news about their father, so she took a soft tone with them. “My darlings, I know your hearts were in the right place, but we can’t keep this money or use it for ourselves. It was meant to save someone else. It’s like blood money. Do you know what that means?”
Marion and Georgie lowered their heads and nodded. The three of them decided it would be best to donate the money to help other Jewish families, so they gave it to the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, though Marion and George did so somewhat begrudgingly.
The next few days passed with disappointing normalcy for Marion. On Thursday afternoon, Marion and Georgie were reading inside their flat when they heard their names being called through the open window. They looked out and it was their mother, running up the street toward their building, waving something in her hand.
Marion and Georgie rushed outside and met her on the front steps. She sat down to catch her breath and pointed to an envelope. The return address was from France and it had been mailed to their mother’s work address. Marion noticed something looked strangely familiar about the way Thornton was written.
“Look…the handwriting…it looks so famil…it looks like your fath…,” their mother gasped. She could hardly get out the words.
Sitting on those front steps with a coolness in the air despite the sun’s attempt to shine reminded Marion of a time with her father a few years ago. He was helping her with her schoolwork, and penmanship was one of her worst subjects. He was showing her how to write her name in cursive.
“Now Marion, we have been blessed to have a last name starting with the letter ‘T’, and look at all the wonderful designs you can make with that letter,” her father said as he smiled at her. He proceeded to show her how he wrote the Thornton name and flamboyantly drew the “T” as if it were a family crest.
Marion pressed her small thumb against the envelope and gently traced the shape of the first letter in Thornton. The sickening feeling in her stomach lifted and she marveled at how the peculiar sculpting of the letter “T” could bring her so much happiness.