When there was nothing left, when every bone had been sucked of its meat, the trays emptied of each last grain of rice, we sat and stared at each other. From the bar, we could hear the chatter of the Germans becoming noisier, as they consumed their wine, and occasional bursts of their laughter. I wiped my mouth with my hands.
‘We must tell no one,’ I said, rinsing them. I felt like a drunk who had suddenly become sober. ‘This may never happen again. And we must behave as if it did not happen once. If anyone finds out that we ate the Germans’ food, we will be considered traitors.’
We gazed at Mimi and Aurélien then, trying to impart to them the seriousness of what we were saying. Aurélien nodded. Mimi too. I think they would have agreed to speak German for ever in those moments. Hélène grabbed a dishcloth, wetted it, and set about removing traces of the meal from the faces of the two youngest. ‘Aurélien,’ she said, ‘take them to bed. We will clear up.’
He was not infected by my misgivings. He was smiling. His thin, adolescent shoulders had dropped for the first time in months, and as he picked up Jean, I swear he would have whistled if he could. ‘No one,’ I warned him.
‘I know,’ he said, in the tone of a fourteen-year-old who knows everything. Little Jean was already slumping heavy-lidded on his shoulder, his first full meal in months exhausting him. They disappeared back up the stairs. The sound of their laughter as they reached the top made my heart ache.
It was past eleven o’clock when the Germans left. We had been under a curfew for almost a year; when the nights drew in, if we had no candles or acetylene lamps, Hélène and I had acquired the habit of going to bed. The bar shut at six, had done since the occupation, and we hadn’t been up so late for months. We were exhausted. Our stomachs gurgled with the shock of rich food after months of near-starvation. I saw my sister slump as she scrubbed the roasting pans. I did not feel quite as tired, and my brain flickered with the memory of the chicken: it was as if long-dead nerves had been sparked into life. I could still taste and smell it. It burned in my mind like a tiny, glowing treasure.
Some time before the kitchen was clean again I sent Hélène upstairs. She pushed her hair back from her face. She had been so beautiful, my sister. When I looked at how the war had aged her, I thought of my own face, and wondered what my husband would make of me.
‘I don’t like to leave you alone with them,’ she said.
I shook my head. I wasn’t afraid: the mood was peaceable. It is hard to rouse men who have eaten well. They had been drinking, but the bottles allowed for maybe three glasses each; not enough to provoke them to misbehaviour. My father had given us precious little, God knew, but he had taught us when to be afraid. I could watch a stranger and know from a tightening of their jaw, a faint narrowing of the eyes, the exact point at which internal tension would lead to a flash of violence. Besides, I suspected the Kommandant would not tolerate such.
I stayed in the kitchen, clearing up, until the sound of chairs being pushed back alerted me to the fact that they were leaving. I walked through to the bar.
‘You may close up now,’ the Kommandant said. I tried not to bristle visibly. ‘My men wish to convey to you their gratitude for an excellent meal.’
I glanced at them. I gave a slight nod. I did not wish to be seen as grateful for the compliments of Germans.
He did not seem to expect a response. He placed his cap on his head, and I reached into my pocket and handed him the chits from the food. He glanced at them and thrust them back at me, a little irritably. ‘I do not handle such things. Give them to the men who deliver the food tomorrow.’
‘Désolée,’ I said, but I had known this full well. Some mischievous part of me had wished to reduce him, if only briefly, to the status of support corps.
I stood there as they gathered their coats and hats, some of them replacing chairs, with a vestige of gentlemanly behaviour, others careless, as if it were their right to treat any place as if it were their home. So this was it, I thought. We were to spend the rest of the war cooking for Germans.
I wondered briefly if we should have cooked badly, taken less trouble. But Maman had always impressed on us that to cook poorly was a kind of sin in itself. And however immoral we had been, however traitorous, I knew that we would all remember the night of the roasted chicken. The thought that there might be more made me feel a little giddy.
It was then that I realized he was looking at the painting.
I was gripped by a sudden fear, remembering my sister’s words. The painting did look subversive, its colours too bright in the faded little bar, the glowing girl wilful in her confidence. She looked, I saw now, almost as if she were mocking them.
He kept staring at it. Behind him, his men had begun to leave, their voices loud and harsh, bouncing across the empty square. I shivered a little every time the door opened.
‘It looks so like you.’
I was shocked that he could see it. I didn’t want to agree. It implied a kind of intimacy, that he could see me in the girl. I swallowed. My knuckles were white where my hands pressed together.
‘Yes. Well, it was a long time ago.’
‘It’s a little like … Matisse.’
I was so surprised by this that I spoke before I thought. ‘Édouard studied under him, at the Académie Matisse in Paris.’
‘I know of it. Have you come across an artist called Hans Purrmann?’ I must have started – I saw his gaze flick towards me. ‘I am a great admirer of his work.’
Hans Purrmann. The Académie Matisse. To hear these words from the mouth of a German Kommandant made me feel almost dizzy.
I wanted him gone then. I didn’t want him to mention those names. Those memories were mine, little gifts that I could bring out to comfort myself on the days when I felt overwhelmed by life as it was; I did not want my happiest days polluted by the casual observations of a German.
‘Herr Kommandant, I must clear up. If you will excuse me.’ I began stacking plates, collecting the glasses. But he didn’t move. I felt his eyes rest on the painting as if they rested on me.
‘It is a long time since I had any discussion about art.’ He spoke as if to the painting. Finally he placed his hands behind his back, and turned away from it to me. ‘We will see you tomorrow.’
I couldn’t look at him as he passed. ‘Herr Kommandant,’ I said, my hands full.
‘Good night, Madame.’
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