I’m sorry, Sophie, she says, and, suddenly exposed, the girl’s image stares back at her.
Liv walks unsteadily back to her seat, the empty blanket balled under her arm, barely hearing the growing commotion around her. The judge is in conversation with both barristers. Several people make for the doors, evening-paper reporters perhaps, and above them the public gallery is alive with discussion. Henry touches her arm, muttering something about how she has done a good thing.
She sits, and gazes down at her lap, at the wedding ring she twists round and round her finger, and wonders how it is possible to feel so empty.
And then she hears it.
It is repeated twice before it can be heard over the mêlée. She looks up, following the swivelling gaze of the people around her, and there, in the doorway, is Paul McCafferty.
He is wearing a blue shirt and his chin is grey with stubble, his expression unreadable. He wedges the door open, and slowly pulls a wheelchair into the courtroom. He looks around, seeking her out, and suddenly it is just the two of them. You okay? he mouths, and she nods, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.
He calls again, just audible above the noise. ‘Excuse me? Your Honour?’
The gavel cracks against the desk like a gunshot. The court falls silent. Janey Dickinson stands and turns to see what is happening. Paul is pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair down the central aisle of the court. She is impossibly ancient, hunched over like a shepherd’s crook, her hands resting on a small bag.
Another woman, neatly dressed in navy, hurries in behind Paul, consults with him in whispers. He gestures towards the judge.
‘My grandmother has some important information regarding this case,’ the woman says. She speaks with a strong French accent, and as she walks down the centre aisle, she glances awkwardly to the people on either side.
The judge throws up his hands. ‘Why not?’ he mutters audibly. ‘Everyone else seems to want to have a say. Let’s see if the cleaner would like to express her view, why don’t we?’
The woman waits, and he says, exasperated, ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, Madame. Do approach the bench.’
They exchange a few words. The judge calls over the two barristers, and the conversation extends.
‘What is this?’ Henry keeps saying, beside Liv. ‘What on earth is going on?’
A hush settles over the court.
‘It appears we should hear what this woman has to say,’ the judge says. He picks up his pen and leafs through his notes. ‘I’m wondering if anybody here is going to be interested in something as mundane as an actual verdict.’
The old woman’s chair is wheeled round and positioned near the front of the court. She speaks her first words in French, and her granddaughter translates.
‘Before the future of the painting is decided, there is something you must know. This case is based on a false premise.’ She pauses, stooping to hear the old woman’s words, then straightens up again. ‘The Girl You Left Behind was never stolen.’
The judge leans forward a little. ‘And how would you know this, Madame?’
Liv lifts her face to look up at Paul. His gaze is direct, steady and oddly triumphant.
The older woman lifts a hand, as if to dismiss her granddaughter. She clears her throat and speaks slowly and clearly, this time in English. ‘Because I am the person who gave it to Kommandant Hencken. My name is Édith Béthune.’
I was unloaded some time after dawn. I don’t know how long we had been on the road: fever had invaded me so my days and my dreams had become jumbled and I could no longer be sure whether I still existed, or whether, like a spectre, I flitted in and out of some other reality. When I closed my eyes, I saw my sister pulling up the blinds of the bar window, turning to me with a smile, the sun illuminating her hair. I saw Mimi laughing. I saw Édouard, his face, his hands, heard his voice in my ear, soft and intimate. I would reach out to touch him, but he would vanish, and I would wake on the floor of the truck, my eyes level with a soldier’s boots, my head thumping painfully as we passed over every rut in the road.
I saw Liliane.
Her body was out there, somewhere on the Hannover road, where they had tossed it, cursing, as if she were a sandbag. I had spent the hours since speckled with her blood and worse. My clothes were coloured with it. I tasted it on my lips. It lay congealed and sticky on the floor from which I no longer had the energy to raise myself. I no longer felt the lice that ate me. I was numb. I felt no more alive than Liliane’s corpse.
The soldier opposite sat as far away from me as possible, furious at the staining of his uniform, at the dressing-down he had received from his superior for Liliane’s theft of his gun, his face turned to the canvas sheeting that let in air from outside. I saw his look: it spoke of revulsion. I was no longer a human being to him. I tried to remember when I had been more than a thing, when even in a town full of Germans I had possessed dignity, commanded some respect, but it was hard. My whole world seemed to have become this truck. This hard metal floor. This woollen sleeve, with its dark red stain.
The truck rumbled and lurched through the night, stopping briefly. I drifted in and out of consciousness, woken only by pain or the ferocity of my fever. I breathed in the cold air, cigarette smoke, heard the men speak in the front of the cab and wondered if I would ever hear a French voice again.
And then, at dawn, it juddered to a halt. I opened my sore eyes, unable to move, listening to the young soldier scrambling out of the truck. I heard him stretch with a groan, the click of a cigarette lighter, German voices in low conversation. I heard the vigorous, indelicate sound of men relieving themselves, birdsong, and the rustle of leaves.
I knew then that I would die there, and in truth I no longer cared.
My whole body glowed with pain; my skin prickling with fever, my joints aching, my head thick. The canvas flap at the rear was lifted and the back opened. A guard ordered me out. I could barely move, but he pulled at my arm, as one would a recalcitrant child. My body was so light that I almost flew across the back of the truck.
The morning was hung with mist, and through it I could see a barbed-wire fence, the vast gates. Above them, it said: ‘STRÖHEN’. I knew what it was.
Another guard motioned at me to stay where I was, and walked over to a sentry box. There was a discussion, and one of them leaned out and looked at me. Beyond the gates I could see row upon row of long factory sheds. It was a bleak, featureless place with an air of misery and futility that was almost palpable. A watchtower with a crow’s nest stood at each corner, to prevent escape. They needn’t have worried.
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