St Péronne October 1916
I was dreaming of food. Crisp baguettes, the flesh of the bread a virginal white, still steaming from the oven, and ripe cheese, its borders creeping towards the edge of the plate. Grapes and plums, stacked high in bowls, dusky and fragrant, their scent filling the air. I was about to reach out and take one, when my sister stopped me. ‘Get off,’ I murmured. ‘I’m hungry.’
‘Sophie. Wake up.’
I could taste that cheese. I was going to have a mouthful of Reblochon, smear it on a hunk of that warm bread, then pop a grape into my mouth. I could already taste the intense sweetness, smell the rich aroma.
But there it was, my sister’s hand on my wrist, stopping me. The plates were disappearing, the scents fading. I reached out to them but they began to pop, like soap bubbles.
‘They have Aurélien!’
I turned on to my side and blinked. My sister was wearing a cotton bonnet, as I was, to keep warm. Her face, even in the feeble light of her candle, was leached of colour, her eyes wide with shock. ‘They have Aurélien. Downstairs.’
My mind began to clear. From below us came the sound of men shouting, their voices bouncing off the stone courtyard, the hens squawking in their coop. In the thick dark, the air vibrated with some terrible purpose. I sat upright in bed, dragging my gown around me, struggling to light the candle on my bedside table.
I stumbled past her to the window and stared down into the courtyard at the soldiers, illuminated by the headlights of their vehicle, and my younger brother, his arms around his head, trying to avoid the rifle butts that landed blows on him.
‘They know about the pig.’
‘Monsieur Suel must have informed on us. I heard them shouting from my room. They say they’ll take Aurélien if he doesn’t tell them where it is.’
‘He will say nothing,’ I said.
We flinched as we heard our brother cry out. I hardly recognized my sister then: she looked twenty years older than her twenty-four years. I knew her fear was mirrored in my own face. This was what we had dreaded.
‘They have a Kommandant with them. If they find it,’ Hélène whispered, her voice cracking with panic, ‘they’ll arrest us all. You know what took place in Arras. They’ll make an example of us. What will happen to the children?’
My mind raced, fear that my brother might speak out making me stupid. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and tiptoed to the window, peering out at the courtyard. The presence of a Kommandant suggested these were not just drunken soldiers looking to take out their frustrations with a few threats and knocks: we were in trouble. His presence meant we had committed a crime that should be taken seriously.
‘They will find it, Sophie. It will take them minutes. And then …’ Hélène’s voice rose, lifted by panic.
My thoughts turned black. I closed my eyes. And then I opened them. ‘Go downstairs,’ I said. ‘Plead ignorance. Ask him what Aurélien has done wrong. Talk to him, distract him. Just give me some time before they come into the house.’
‘What are you going to do?’
I gripped my sister’s arm. ‘Go. But tell them nothing, you understand? Deny everything.’
My sister hesitated, then ran towards the corridor, her nightgown billowing behind her. I’m not sure I had ever felt as alone as I did in those few seconds, fear gripping my throat and the weight of my family’s fate upon me. I ran into Father’s study and scrabbled in the drawers of the great desk, hurling its contents – old pens, scraps of paper, pieces from broken clocks and ancient bills – on to the floor, thanking God when I finally found what I was searching for. Then I ran downstairs, opened the cellar door and skipped down the cold stone stairs, so sure-footed now in the dark that I barely needed the fluttering glow of the candle. I lifted the heavy latch to the back cellar, which had once been stacked to the roof with beer kegs and good wine, slid one of the empty barrels aside and opened the door of the old cast-iron bread oven.
The piglet, still only half grown, blinked sleepily. It lifted itself to its feet, peered out at me from its bed of straw and grunted. Surely I’ve told you about the pig? We liberated it during the requisition of Monsieur Girard’s farm. Like a gift from God, it had strayed in the chaos, meandering away from the piglets being loaded into the back of a German truck and was swiftly swallowed by the thick skirts of Grandma Poilâne. We’ve been fattening it on acorns and scraps for weeks, in the hope of raising it to a size great enough for us all to have some meat. The thought of that crisp skin, that moist pork, has kept the inhabitants of Le Coq Rouge going for the past month.
Outside I heard my brother yelp again, then my sister’s voice, rapid and urgent, cut short by the harsh tones of a German officer. The pig looked at me with intelligent, understanding eyes, as if it already knew its fate.
‘I’m so sorry, mon petit,’ I whispered, ‘but this really is the only way.’ And I brought down my hand.
I was outside in a matter of moments. I had woken Mimi, telling her only that she must come but to stay silent – the child has seen so much these last months that she obeys without question. She glanced up at me holding her baby brother, slid out of bed and placed a hand in mine.
The air was sharp with the approach of winter, the smell of woodsmoke lingering in the air from our brief fire earlier in the evening. I saw the Kommandant through the stone archway of the back door and hesitated. It was not Herr Becker, whom we knew and despised. This was a slimmer man, clean-shaven, impassive. Even in the dark I could see intelligence, not brutish ignorance, in his face, which made me afraid.
This new Kommandant was gazing speculatively up at our windows, perhaps considering whether this building might provide a more suitable billet than the Fourrier farm, where senior German officers slept. I suspect he knew that our elevated aspect would give him a vantage-point across the town. There were stables for horses and ten bedrooms, from the days when our home was the town’s thriving hotel.
Hélène was on the cobbles, shielding Aurélien with her arms.
One of his men had raised his rifle, but the Kommandant lifted his hand. ‘Stand up,’ he ordered them. Hélène scrambled backwards, away from him. I glimpsed her face, taut with fear.
I felt Mimi’s hand tighten round mine as she saw her mother, and I gave hers a squeeze, even though my heart was in my mouth. And I strode out. ‘What, in God’s name, is going on?’ My voice rang out in the yard.
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