And then it was dark. He stopped to clean his brushes and gazed around him, as if he were only just noticing it. He lit candles and a gaslight, placing them around me, then sighed when he realized the dusk had defeated him.
‘Are you cold?’ he said.
I shook my head, but he walked over to a dresser, pulling from it a bright red woollen shawl, which he carefully placed around my shoulders. ‘The light has gone for today. Would you like to see?’
I pulled the shawl around me, and walked over to the easel, my feet bare on the wooden boards. I felt as if I were in a dream, as if real life had evaporated in the hours I had sat there. I was afraid to look and break the spell.
‘Come.’ He beckoned me forwards.
On the canvas I saw a girl I did not recognize. She gazed back at me defiantly, her hair glinting copper in the half-light, her skin as pale as alabaster, a girl with the imperious confidence of an aristocrat.
She was strange and proud and beautiful. It was as if I had been shown a magic looking-glass.
‘I knew it,’ he said, his voice soft. ‘I knew you were in there.’
His eyes were tired and strained now, but he was satisfied. I stared at her a moment longer. Then, without knowing why, I stepped forward, reached up slowly and took his face into my hands so that he had to look at me again. I held his face inches from my own and I made him keep looking at me, as if I could somehow absorb what he could see.
I had never wanted intimacy with a man. The animalistic sounds and cries that had leaked from my parents’ room – usually when my father was drunk – had appalled me, and I had pitied my mother for her bruised face and her careful walk the following day. But what I felt for Édouard overwhelmed me. I could not take my eyes from his mouth.
I barely heard him. I drew his face closer to mine. The world evaporated around us. I felt the rasp of his bristles under my palms, the warmth of his breath on my skin. His eyes studied my own, so seriously. I swear even then it was as if he had only just seen me.
I leaned forwards, just a few inches, my breath stilled, and I placed my lips on his. His hands came to rest on my waist, and tightened reflexively. His mouth met mine, and I inhaled his breath, its traces of tobacco, of wine, the warm, wet taste of him. Oh, God, I wanted him to devour me. My eyes closed, my body sparked and stuttered. His hands tangled themselves in my hair, his mouth dropped to my neck.
The revellers in the street outside burst into noisy laughter, and as flags flew in the night breeze, something in me was altered for ever. ‘Oh, Sophie. I could paint you every day of my life,’ he murmured into my skin. At least I think he said ‘paint’. By that stage it was really too late to care.
René Grenier’s grandfather clock had begun to chime. This, it was agreed, was a disaster. For months, the clock had been buried underneath the vegetable patch that ran alongside his house, along with his silver teapot, four gold coins and the watch his grandfather had worn on his waistcoat, to prevent it disappearing into the hands of the Germans.
The plan had worked well – indeed, the town crunched underfoot with valuables that had been hastily buried under gardens and pathways – until Madame Poilâne hurried into the bar one brisk November morning and interrupted his daily game of dominoes with the news that a muffled chime was coming every quarter of an hour from underneath what remained of his carrots.
‘I can hear it, even with my ears,’ she whispered. ‘And if I can hear it, you can be sure that they will.’
‘Are you sure that’s what you heard?’ I said. ‘It’s so long since it was last wound.’
‘Perhaps it is the sound of Madame Grenier turning in her grave,’ said Monsieur Lafarge.
‘I would not have buried my wife under my vegetables,’ René muttered. ‘She would have made them even more bitter and wizened than they are.’
I stooped to empty the ashtray, lowering my voice. ‘You will have to dig it up under cover of night, René, and pack it with sacking. Tonight should be safe – they have delivered extra food for their meal. With most of them in here, there will be few men on duty.’
It had been a month since the Germans had started to eat at Le Coq Rouge, and an uneasy truce had settled over its shared territory. From ten in the morning until half past five, the bar was French, filled with its usual mixture of the elderly and lonely. Hélène and I would clear up, then cook for the Germans, who arrived shortly before seven, expecting their food to be on the tables almost as they walked through the door. There were benefits: when there were leftovers, several times a week, we shared them (although now there tended to be the odd scraps of meat or vegetables, rather than a feast of chicken). As the weather turned colder, the Germans got hungrier, and Hélène and I were not brave enough to keep some back for ourselves. Still, even those odd mouthfuls of extra food made a difference. Jean was ill less often, our skin began to clear, and a couple of times we managed to sneak a small jar of stock, brewed from the bones, to the mayor’s house for the ailing Louisa.
There were other advantages. The moment the Germans left in the evenings, Hélène and I would race to the fire, extinguishing the logs then leaving them in the cellar to dry out. A few days’ collections of the half-burned oddments could mean a small fire in the daytime when it was particularly cold. On the days we did that, the bar was often full to bursting, even if few of our customers bought anything to drink.
But there was, predictably, a negative side. Mesdames Durant and Louvier had decided that, even if I did not talk to the officers, or smile at them, or behave as if they were anything but a gross imposition in my house, I must be receiving German largesse. I could feel their eyes on me as I took in the regular supplies of food, wine and fuel. I knew we were the subject of heated discussion around the square. My one consolation was that the nightly curfew meant they could not see the glorious food we cooked for the men, or how the hotel became a place of lively sound and debate during those dark evening hours.
Hélène and I had learned to live with the sound of foreign accents in our home. We recognized a few of the men – there was the tall thin one with the huge ears, who always attempted to thank us in our own language. There was the grumpy one with the salt-and-pepper moustache, who usually managed to find fault with something, demanding salt, pepper or extra meat. There was little Holger, who drank too much and stared out of the window as if his mind was only half on whatever was going on around him. Hélène and I would nod civilly at their comments, taking care to be polite but not friendly. Some nights, if I’m honest, there was almost a pleasure in having them there. Not Germans, but human beings. Men, company, the smell of cooking. We had been starved of male contact, of life, for so long. But there were other nights when evidently something had gone wrong, when they did not talk, when faces were tight and severe, and the conversation was conducted in rapid-fire bursts of whispering. They glanced sideways at us then, as if remembering that we were the enemy. As if we could understand almost anything they said.
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