Do you know how it feels to resign yourself to your fate? It is almost welcome. There was to be no more pain, no more fear, no more longing. It is the death of hope that comes as the greatest relief. Soon, I could hold Édouard to me. We would be joined in the next life, because I knew surely that if God was good He would not be so cruel as to deprive us of this consolation.
I became dimly aware of a fierce discussion in the sentry box. A man emerged and demanded my papers. I was so weak it took me three attempts to pull them from my pocket. He motioned to me to hold up my identity card. As I was crawling with lice, he did not want to touch me.
He ticked something on his list and barked in German to the guard holding me. They had a short conversation. It faded in and out and I was no longer sure whether it was them lowering their voices or my mind betraying me. I was as mild and obedient as a lamb now; a thing, ready to go where they instructed me. I no longer wished to think. I no longer wished to imagine what new horrors lay ahead. Fever buzzed in my head and my eyes burned. I was so weary. I heard Liliane’s voice and knew distantly that while I lived I should still be afraid: You have no idea what they will do to us. But somehow I could not rouse myself to fear. If the guard had not been beside me, holding my arm, I might just have dropped to the ground.
The gates opened to let a vehicle out, and closed again. I drifted in and out of time. My eyes closed and I had a brief vision of sitting in a café in Paris, my head tilted back, feeling the sun on my face. My husband was seated beside me, his roar of laughter filling my ears, his huge hand reaching for mine on the table.
Oh, Édouard, I wept silently, as I shivered in the chill dawn air. I pray you escaped this pain. I pray it was easy for you.
I was pulled forward again. Someone was shouting at me. I stumbled on my skirts, somehow still clutching my bag. The gates opened again and I was shoved roughly forwards into the camp. As I reached the second sentry post, the guard stopped me again.
Just put me in the shed. Just let me lie down.
I was so tired. I saw Liliane’s hand, the precise, premeditated way she had lifted the gun to the side of her head. Her eyes, locked on mine in the last seconds of her life. They were limitless black holes, windows on an abyss. She feels nothing now, I told myself, and some still functioning part of me acknowledged that what I felt was envy.
As I put my card back into my pocket my hand brushed against the jagged edge of the glass fragment, and I felt a flicker of recognition. I could bring that point up to my throat. I knew the vein, just how much pressure to apply. I remembered how the pig had buckled in St Péronne: one brisk swipe and his eyes had closed in what seemed like a quiet ecstasy. I stood there and let the thought solidify in my head. I could do it before they even realized what I had done. I could free myself.
You have no idea what they will do to us.
My fingers closed. And then I heard it.
And then I knew that release was coming. I let the shard fall from my fingers. So this was it, the sweet voice of my husband leading me home. I almost smiled then, so great was my relief. I swayed a little as I let it echo through me.
A German hand spun me round and pushed me back towards the gate. Confused, I stumbled and glanced behind me. And then I saw the guard coming through the mist. In front of him was a tall, stooped man, clutching a bundle to his stomach. I squinted, aware there was something familiar about him. But the light was behind him and I could not see.
I tried to focus, and suddenly the world grew still, everything silent around me. The Germans were mute, the engines stopped, the trees themselves ceased whispering. And I could see that the prisoner was limping towards me, his silhouette strange, his shoulders skin and bone, but his stride determined, as if a magnet were pulling him to me. And I began to tremble convulsively, as if my body knew before I did. ‘Édouard?’ My voice emerged as a croak. I could not believe it. I dared not believe it.
And he was shuffling, half running towards me now, the guard quickening his stride behind him. And I stood frozen, still afraid that this was some terrible trick, that I would wake and find myself in the back of the truck, a boot beside my head. Please, God, You could not be so cruel.
And he stopped, a few feet from me. So thin, his face haggard, his beautiful hair shaven, scars upon his face. But, oh, God, his face. His face. My Édouard. It was too much. My face tilted heavenwards, my bag fell from my hands, and I sank towards the ground. And as I did, I felt his arms close around me.
‘Sophie. My Sophie. What have they done to you?’
Édith Béthune leans back in her wheelchair in the silent courtroom. A clerk brings her some water, and she nods her thanks. Even the reporters have stopped writing: they sit there, pens stilled, mouths half open.
‘We knew nothing of what had happened to her. I believed her dead. A new information network sprang up several months after my mother was taken away, and we received news that she was among a number of people to have died in the camps. Hélène cried for a week at the news.
‘And then one morning I happened to come down in the dawn, ready to start preparing for the day – I helped Hélène in the kitchen – and I saw a letter, pushed under the door of Le Coq Rouge. I was about to pick it up, but Hélène was behind me and snatched it away first.
‘“You didn’t see this,” she said, and I was shocked, because she had never been so sharp with me before. Her face had gone completely white. “Do you hear me? You didn’t see this, Édith. You are not to tell anyone. Not even Aurélien. Especially not Aurélien.”
‘I nodded, but I refused to move. I wanted to know what was in it. Hélène’s hands shook when she opened the letter. She stood against the bar, her face illuminated by the morning light, and her hands trembled so hard I was not sure how she could possibly read the words. And then she drooped, her hand pressed to her mouth, and she began to sob softly. “Oh, thank God, oh, thank God.”
‘They were in Switzerland. They had false identity cards, given in lieu of “services to the German state”, and were taken to a forest near the Swiss border. Sophie was so sick by then that Édouard had carried her the last fifteen miles to the checkpoint. They were informed by the guard who drove them that they were not to contact anybody in France, or risk exposure of those who had helped them. The letter was signed “Marie Leville”.’
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