Excerpt from The Bicycle Spy

A gust of wind cut across Marcel’s face as he cycled furiously down the street.  He was riding as fast he could, and he pushed even harder on the pedals of his trusty, blue bike but the bumpy, cobblestone streets of Aucoin were not exactly made for speed. Still, he had to hurry. Just a little while ago his mother had come into his tiny room with its narrow iron-framed bed, and old armoire crammed in the corner, demanding that he get up and run this errand for her.  She said it was very important.

“Can’t it wait?” he had said.  “It’s so cold out.” It was late Sunday morning, and he and his family were back from church. He was warm and cozy under a small blanket, reading an out of date magazine about French-born René Vietto, the second place winner of the 1939 Tour de France.

“No,” she said. “It can’t.  You have to bring this loaf of bread to Madame Trottier right now.”  Her tone was unusually stern.

So with a big sigh, Marcel set aside the magazine, ran his fingers through his mop of curly hair, straightened his tortoise shell glasses on his nose and reached for his jacket.  He’d have to finish the article later.

Ever since Marcel had gone with his cousins and his father to see the Tours three years ago, he been practically obsessed with the big bicycle race and was looking forward to seeing it again.  Riders from all over the world participated in the grueling race that was broken up into stages and went on for days.  But in the spring of 1940, Germany invaded France, and shortly after that, the German army marched into Paris. The Tours de France had been cancelled indefinitely.  Now it was 1942, and the Occupation had dragged on for two long years. Who knew how long it would last or when the race would start up again?

Marcel had just rounded the corner of the street where Madame Trottier lived when suddenly, a streak of orange flashed across the road.  Zut alors! He jammed his feet on the brakes hard and swerved just in time to miss hitting a very large ginger cat.  The cat looked annoyed but not especially alarmed.  What a relief.  He would have hated having been responsible for squashing a cat on the cobblestones. He liked cats. His parents kept a pair of tabbies in the bakery over which they lived because they were good mousers.

Though his mother disapproved, he would feed them scraps from his plate when she wasn’t looking.  They would lick his fingers with their rough, pink tongues and purr softly, almost too softly to hear.

The ginger cat padded away unharmed but a girl darted out into the street and scooped the cat up in her arms.   She had blue eyes and black hair plaited into two tight braids.  Under her gray coat, he could see the hem of her dress, which was also blue.

“Bad kitty!” she said.  “You could have been hurt.”

“Is he okay?” Marcel asked.  He thought so but he wanted to be sure.

“It’s a she,” said the girl.  “And she’s fine, thanks.” Still cradling the cat in her arms, she walked away.

Marcel stood staring after her for a few moments.  He had never seen her before. Maybe she was new in town. She looked like she was around his age, and she was pretty—not that he cared about stuff like that.  He wasn’t interested in girls.  He though they were bossy and gossiped too much.  Also they cried at least the provocation.  And not one of them he knew had the least interest in what he considered the most important thing in life: cycling.

But why was he even standing here thinking about this? He’d promised his mother he’d hurry and if he didn’t, she would be annoyed. He loved his mom, but she did have a tendency to nag—about cleaning up, washing his hair, helping out in the bakery. Moms were like that.

When he finally reached Madame Trottier’s house, he’d been pedaling so hard that despite the chilly day, he was sweating. “Merci,” she said, taking the bread from him.  “Tell your mother I appreciate it very much.”

“I will,” said Marcel.  He pedaled home more slowly, passing the string of shops that lined the street: butcher, cheese store, greengrocer, café and on the corner, bakery.  On the other side of the street was a store that sold clothes, another that sold hats and a third that sold toys.  That one used to be his favorite, but now that he was twelve, he was a little too old to stop in anymore. There was also a tailor, a tiny shop that sold used books and a church, St. Vincent de Paul.

The only thing that was unfamiliar in all this was the presence of the soldiers.

When the Germans had invaded France, they swarmed all over Paris and lots of other cities in the north. Marcel had seen the headlines in the newspapers, and heard about it on the radio that Papa kept on a table in the front room.  Aucoin, however, had been in the Free Zone since the invasion in 1940.  That meant it was not occupied by Germans and they had not seen many soldiers here.

But in the last two weeks, that had all changed.  On November 11, the Germans invaded the Free Zone too and now soldiers from France and even Germany had started to appear in the town square or at the market.

The French soldiers wore belted, olive green coats or jackets and helmets on their heads.  In other circumstances, he might have admired them. But right now, they made his once-sleepy little village seem like a strange and scary place.  There were other people who felt the same way. Some said that they were working in hand in hand with the Germans, and called them collabos, which was short for collaborators. Whatever they were called, Marcel feared and distrusted them.  He wished they would all go away.

He slowed when he got to the bakery.  His mother was outside, scanning the street for him.  “Did you deliver the bread?”

“Yes, and Madame Trottier said to say thank you.”

Only then did her expression soften.  “Good. Thank you for getting it to her.”

“I’m going to keep on riding for a while,” he said.  His mother nodded, and went back into the bakery.  She’d seemed so anxious lately, more so than usual. He wondered what was wrong but when he asked, she said she was fine.

The bicycle bumped along until Marcel reached the end of the cobblestones; then he was able to pick up speed.  Soon he was outside the town, pedaling faster, and faster still.  The houses rushed by; the trees arched overhead, only a few dried leaves left on their tall branches. What if one day, he could actually ride in the Tour de France?  He’d be speeding along, just like this.  As he rode, the red-roofed houses gave way to farms and pastures in which he saw horses, cows, sheep and pigs.  For a few seconds, he imagined the road not lined with animals, but with crowds of spectators, cheering him on as he flew along to victory. Wouldn’t that be great?

Then he had to slow down for a gaggle of geese crossing the road, their noisy honks echoing in his ears as he passed.  No more dreams of Tour de France.  At least not now.  After a while, he grew tired, so he let the bike slow to a stop and hopped off.  He propped the bike on its kickstand and then flopped down in the dry grass. He would rest here a few minutes and then continue on his errand.

Marcel was small for his age and not the best cyclist either. And he wore glasses.  He didn’t like being the smallest kid in class, the one who got picked on or teased.  He couldn’t do anything about growing taller or the glasses. Those things were beyond his control. But he could get stronger and faster.  He could.  That was why he’d vowed to ride every day that he could, to build up his speed, his endurance and his strength.  Then the other kids would think twice about teasing him.

That’s what the Tour de France riders did; he’d been reading all about them. The entire course last year was 4224 kilometers; you had to work up to a distance like that. Of course the race was divided into stages of a certain number of kilometers each day, to make it possible to finish. There were eighteen stages in all. He also learned that the cyclists had developed strategies, like eating certain foods and taking vitamins, all in an effort to improve their performance.

Marcel still felt bitter about missing the race these last three years; it was another reason to resent the Germans. He reached for his canteen, took a long drink and climbed back onto the bike.  He knew that his parents and other people in town detested the Occupation[if !supportAnnotations][BS2][endif]  which brought the soldiers here.  It also brought rationing and shortages of food and gas.  His parents especially detested Adolf Hitler, the leader of the German people and the man responsible for the invasion and the war.  But what could they do about it?  Not a whole lot.

As Marcel headed back toward town, he came to a small bridge where a French soldier stood patrolling. Under his helmet, his expression was stern and his gun looked big and heavy. Marcel slowed down the way he’d been taught.

The guard stepped out into the road and raised his hand.  Marcel came to a full stop and waited while the guard walked over, and slowly looked him up and down.  After a few seconds, he waved his hand, indicating Marcel could continue on his way. It was only when Marcel had gone a little distance from the soldier that he realized he’d been holding his breath. Exhaling was a relief.

When he got back to town, he locked up his bike and went into the bakery, where he helped his mother stack the fresh loaves, swept the floor and waited on a couple of customers before the shop closed up for lunch.  Then he followed his parents upstairs, to the apartment above the bakery.

“How far did you ride today?” asked his father once they were seated at the round table in the space that served as kitchen and dining room. A gas stove, sink and small icebox lined one wall. The other held an open hutch where all their dishes were stored.

“About three kilometers,” Marcel said. His father was interested in cycling and the Tour de France too, and they liked talking about it.  If France had not been occupied by the Germans, they would have gone to see this year’s Tour de France together.

Marcel took a bite of his food.  Last night, his mother had made a cassoulet—a stew of sausage, beans and bacon. With all the food shortages and rationing in town, he didn’t know how she’d managed to get the ingredients.  But there wasn’t all that much left and there was no bread.  All the loaves from the bakery had been sold, and they had even gone through the stale loaves his mother saved to toast.

“And did you run into any soldiers?” his mother asked.

“Just one.”  Marcel ate eagerly. Not only was he hungry, he also hoped that if he ate more, he would grow taller.  “Over by the bridge.”

He caught the look his parents exchanged.  “Was he French?  And did he stop you?” his father asked.

“Yes, but then he let me go ahead.”

“That’s the second time now,” his mother said. “Or is it the third?”

“I don’t know,” Marcel said. “Does it matter?”

There was a weighted silence during which the clink of the cutlery could be heard.  Finally his father said, “After lunch, I’d like you to deliver something to Marie Pierre and Benoit.”  The question about the guard was left unanswered.

“All right.” Marie Pierre was his father’s sister and Benoit was her husband. They lived in a town that was a few kilometers away, and Marcel often brought them bread or pastries.  He did wonder why his father hadn’t asked him to do it earlier, when he’d gone on the errand for his mother.  But this time, he did not protest. When lunch was over, Marcel went back outside to get his bicycle.

“These are the two loaves of bread for your aunt and uncle,” said his father, handing him a parcel wrapped in white cloth.

Now that was another strange thing.  His mother had said there was no bread for lunch. Why didn’t she serve one of these loaves? His aunt and uncle had no children and they could have easily done with one.

“…and this is for the soldiers, in case you get stopped again,” his father was saying.

“For the soldiers?  Why?” Marcel asked.  The package, wrapped in a red and white checked dishtowel contained pain d’épice—gingerbread.  He recognized the smell.

“It doesn’t hurt to be polite,” his father said. “And if you give them some cake, they might be less likely to bother you.”

Marcel put both parcels in the basket of his bike.  He was just about to leave when his mother came outside. The worried look was on her face again.  “Don’t give them the bread,” she said.

“Why not?”

“They’ll like the cake better,” she said sharply.

He looked at his mother in surprise. What was wrong with her these days? Whatever it was, she wasn’t telling.

Marcel swung his leg over the slightly beat-up bike. How he wished he had a brand new racing bicycle, a Peugeot or a Gitanes, like the Tour de France riders used. On his bedroom wall was a big poster of Victor Cosson, the third-place winner from 1938. Marcel wanted this poster because unlike the first and second place winners, Cosson was French. Cosson stood holding the handlebars of an orange bicycle with curved, silver handles.  Maybe one day he’d have a bike like that.  Maybe one day he’d even be able to enter the race…

Pedaling along the cobblestones, he once again reached the edge of town.  He travelled in the same direction he had this morning, only when he came to the bridge, he took a right turn, not a left. As he approached, Marcel saw the soldier he had seen earlier in the day.
“Stop!” the soldier called out. “Stop right here.” He slowed the bicycle down and stopped in front of the soldier.

“I saw you before.”  He had a different kind of accent than Marcel was accustomed to hearing. Maybe he came from somewhere near the French-German border, where he would have heard German being spoken.  Marcel knew that on the other side of the border, in Alsace-Lorraine, many people spoke or understood some German. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m on my way to visit my aunt and uncle.  To bring them some bread.” His heart banged hard in his chest, but he tried to look nonchalant as he gestured to the white parcel.

“And what’s that?” The soldier pointed to the red and white checked parcel.

“Pain d’épice.”  He lifted it out of the basket and peeled back the towel.  The pain d’èpice, just baked that morning and smelling of cinnamon, ginger and cloves, was very tempting.

“Here,” he said, remembering what his father said.  “Take it.  It’s really good.”

The soldier looked down suspiciously.  But when he broke off a piece of the moist, spicy cake, and though he did not actually smile, his expression softened.

“You can go.” He took another, larger piece and put it in his mouth.

Marcel got back on his bicycle and sped along as fast as he could, away from the bridge and the soldier.  As he pedaled, his stomach rumbled and grumbled.  There had been no bread at lunch and he was still hungry. He brought the bicycle to a stop and hopped off.

The loaves of bread were still inside the basket. His mother had only said not to give the bread to the soldiers; she didn’t say he couldn’t have a piece.  He untied the white cloth.

Inside, the two round loaves looked fresh and delicious. The dark, chewy peasant breads, studded with currants and seeds, were one of the specialties of the bakery.  Marcel couldn’t help himself. He had to have a big piece right now. Aunt Marie Pierre wouldn’t mind. She always fussed over him when he went to visit.

Marcel sat down by the side of the road and using the little penknife his father had given him for his last birthday, he began to cut through the bread.

But the knife wasn’t cutting.  Why? Was there was something stuck inside the loaf of bread?  Yes, his knife had caught on something. It looked like a piece of paper, tightly folded and wadded up.  What was it doing in there? Marcel extracted the paper and unfolded it.  It was a note, and he recognized his father’s bold, quick handwriting on the page.

The St. Sulpice Bridge has gotten very crowded with visitors from all over.  Need to change plans for our picnic and find another spot.

Marcel read this once, twice and then a third time. What could it mean?  Picnics, bridges…what could it mean?  The Saint Sulpice bridge was where he’d been stopped by the soldier.  Could the message have something to do with that? It sounded like code of some kind.  And who used codes? Secret groups who didn’t want their messages to be understood so easily.  The Resistance,  the French freedom fighters secretly pledged to resist the Germans, was such a group.  Marcel knew about them from kids at school, and from conversations he’d heard among the grown ups.   He’d seen some of the leaflets too, passed swiftly and quietly from hand to hand.  Could his parents have something to do with all that?   Suddenly, he wasn’t hungry any more.

The Germans had invaded the Free Zone about two weeks ago. Marcel’s father had sent him to his aunt’s with bread several times since then.  He’d never thought anything of it.

They had sent him on errand like that before. But in the last two weeks, he’d gone several times. In the past, it had only been once of month or so.

The trips he had made recently must have been about more than just delivering bread or pastries. Much more. He must have been carrying notes that were part of an effort to undermine the Germans. Maybe there had been a note in the bread he’d brought to Madame Trottier this morning. And maybe this explained his mother’s anxious looks, and her sharp voice.

Even though he was sitting down, Marcel’s heart started beating very fast and his cheeks felt uncomfortably hot. He tried to put the pieces together in a way that added up to a different answer but he could not.  The note was from a Resistance member. His father had written the note and given it to him to deliver to another Resistance member—his aunt or his uncle. That could mean one thing, and one thing only:  Marcel’s father—and no doubt his mother too—were full-fledged members of the French Resistance.

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