Once the Balbis and Gabrielle got word that Lillian, Margaret and their grandmother had safely passed, they started out. Playing for time, Gabrielle, claiming she was ill and in need of rest, arranged with a French policeman in Sèvres to allow her to sign her act of presence for two days running.
‘I never found out what happened to that policeman,’ she said. ‘I hope he wasn’t killed for his kindness.’
Gabrielle and Balbis left for La Gare Lyons, but too late to avoid the curfew, they spent the night in a in a hotel where they were asked to officially record their travels. Balbis invented an itinerary which he spoke out loud as if in thought, while his daughter recorded it, on her form, thus keeping their stories identical.
The next morning, they boarded the train to Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier. Luckily, the Germans checking papers in the train did not demand theirs. They disembarked at their destination and went into a village café where the locals observed these two suspicious strangers ask their way to the local bank.
The bank manager told them to follow the road in front of the bank until they met a young boy with a bicycle. ‘Tell him you come from the bank and do what he says.’
They walked an interminable distance before they saw a young boy with a bicycle.
Gabrielle nudged her father. ‘I hope it’s this one.’
The boy approached.
‘Bonjour,’ Balbis said. ‘We’ve come from the bank.’
‘Okay, follow me,’ the boy replied.
They followed him to the gatehouse door of a large property where a man lead them to a room with five other people. All seven waited several hours in silence until dark. Then without light, they were lead through a park, a field and some woods, until they came to a river where they stood wordlessly. Two men arrived and quietly floated a submerged boat. Everyone got in and crossed the river to the free zone; however not without incident. One of the passengers, a drunken American, knocked Gabrielle’s suitcase into the river. He also tried to light a cigarette (no one knew why) but was knocked out cold by one of the Resistance.
In Nice, Gabrielle stayed with her brother-in-law Georges Moch (a jeweller), who had been demobilized in the unoccupied zone and had found a tiny apartment there; he eventually shared with his wife and two sons, his parents-in-law, his sister-in-law and her two daughters.
Georges’ wife joined him from Paris with much of his stock concealed about her body and in her baby’s milk bottle. Being a Jew, Georges was not entitled to practise his profession. He was detained overnight and interrogated on one occasion before he hid with his family (including his in-laws) in the mountains for the rest of the war.
Food was rationed and scarce, but it was in Nice the family saw their first potatoes in ages. The charwoman’s husband stole seed potatoes from the fields where he worked. Jean Pierre, the baby, ate them mashed while everybody stood watching him.
With white over-refined flour from America, they made a tasteless baguette. Because of the baby, Ghislaine was allowed to line up several times a week for a half pint of milk. Everyone watched her and her mother skim the cream (when there was any) off the milk, and churn it into butter with a fork—the result—a dessert spoon of butter.
When not lining up or scrambling for food, Gabrielle’s family schemed to leave France. Refugees were passing through Spain by train to Portugal and from there to England. Via a family friend, who worked in the Prefecture, Gabrielle got new identity papers. Never having been to England, she did not relish the long trip; nevertheless, she decided to leave immediately. Georges lent her money for a ticket to the border; thereafter, the British Consulate lent her money for the rest of the journey to Portugal. Often, they’d be a representative from Thomas Cook on the platforms along the way, who’d provide refugees with enough money for the next lap.
They left on a hot June day, so hot everyone in the train left the windows open, but since the train was stoked with wood, the soot and ashes flew in and left everyone looking like chimney sweeps. Because they had travelled squashed in place with men sleeping as they stood or in lying in the aisles, upon arrival, their only exit was via the train’s windows. In Barcelona, the British Consulate found them a hotel room and lent them money for fourth class train tickets to Madrid. Prior to crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border everyone was strip searched for smuggled goods. Gabrielle had her sunglasses confiscated.
In Lisbon, the consulate placed the Coakleys in a foul-smelling cockroach-infested hotel that the kids, who had never seen cockroaches before, crunched underfoot on the way to the toilet at night. At the consulate, Gabrielle met the wife of one of her husband’s former colleagues who arranged for the Coakleys to take her soon-to-be vacated room while they waited for a passage to England by ship. Gabrielle had tried to arrange passage by aeroplane but couldn’t get three tickets together.
They boarded a merchant ship, the S.S. Aguila, on July first or second. It was carrying cork.
Except for a bout of seasickness during their twenty-seven days at sea, being on board was the best part of the whole escapade and the least worrisome. They stayed in one place and knew where they were going. After all they had been through, it was like a holiday. They played shuffle board, had three-legged races, children to play with and best of all, good food.
However, Gabrielle realized every morning on the deck, when they counted the ships in the convoy, something could happen—they could loose it all. One passenger tied her six children to her waist, to ensure that if they went down she wouldn’t lose anyone. A Czech woman, who never spoke to anyone but remained on deck while the rest ate, was thought to read the Morse code the ships exchanged. In England, she was arrested.
The convoy formed in Gibraltar where they stayed several days, going ashore once where they saw the Ark Royal which the Germans had claimed they’d sunk. (Later, they did.) To avoid German submarines the merchant ship zigzagged its way to England, thus they endured several climate changes. For most of the voyage, a Dutch submarine would surface each day to send a message to the children on board. The last day before leaving the convoy, the submarine came close to the S.S. Aguila with all the crew on deck to wave goodbye then submerged and disappeared.