Aurélien was learning. He had taken to lying on the floor of Room Three, his face pressed to the gap in the floorboards, hoping that one day he might catch sight of a map or some instruction that would grant us military advantage. He had become astonishingly proficient at German: when they were gone he would mimic their accent or say things that made us laugh. Occasionally he even understood snatches of conversation; which officer was in der Krankenhaus (hospital), how many men were tot. I worried for him, but I was proud too. It made me feel that our feeding the Germans might have some hidden purpose yet.
The Kommandant, meanwhile, was unfailingly polite. He greeted me, if not with warmth, then a kind of increasingly familiar civility. He praised the food, without attempting to flatter, and kept a tight hand on his men, who were not allowed to drink to excess or to behave in a forward manner.
Several times he sought me out to discuss art. I was not quite comfortable with one-to-one conversation, but there was a small pleasure in being reminded of my husband. The Kommandant talked of his admiration for Purrmann, of the artist’s German roots, of paintings he had seen by Matisse that had made him long to travel to Moscow and Morocco.
At first I was reluctant to talk, and then I found I could not stop. It was like being reminded of another life, another world. He was fascinated by the dynamics of the Académie Matisse, whether there was rivalry between the artists or genuine love. He had a lawyer’s way of speaking: quick, intelligent, impatient towards those who could not immediately grasp his point. I think he liked to talk to me because I was not discomfited by him. It was something in my character, I think, that I refused to appear cowed, even if I secretly felt it. It had stood me in good stead in the haughty environs of the Parisian department store, and it worked equally well for me now.
He had a particular liking for the portrait of me in the bar, and would look at it for so long and discuss the technical merits of Édouard’s use of colour, his brushstroke, that I was briefly able to forget my awkwardness that I was its subject.
His own parents, he confided, were ‘not cultured’, but had inspired in him a passion for learning. He hoped, he said, to further his intellectual studies after the war, to travel, to read, to learn. His wife was called Liesl. He had a child, too, he revealed, one evening. A boy of two that he had not yet seen. (When I told Hélène this I had expected her face to cloud with sympathy, but she had said briskly that he should spend less time invading other people’s countries.)
He told me all this as if in passing, without attempting to solicit any personal information in return. This did not stem from egoism; it was more an understanding that in inhabiting my home he had already invaded my life; to seek anything further would be too much of an imposition. He was, I realized, something of a gentleman.
That first month I found it increasingly difficult to dismiss Herr Kommandant as a beast, a Boche, as I could with the others. I suppose I had come to believe all Germans were barbaric so it was hard to picture them with wives, mothers, babies. There he was, eating in front of me, night after night, talking, discussing colour and form and the skills of other artists as my husband might. Occasionally he smiled, his bright blue eyes suddenly framed by deep crows’ feet, as if happiness had been a far more familiar emotion to him than his features let on.
I neither defended nor talked about the Kommandant in front of the other townspeople. If someone tried to engage me in conversation about the travails of having Germans at Le Coq Rouge, I would reply simply that, God willing, the day would come soon when our husbands returned and all this could be a distant memory.
And I would pray that nobody had noticed there had been not a single requisition order on our home since the Germans had moved in.
Shortly before midday I left the fuggy interior of the bar and stepped outside on the pretext of beating a rug. A light frost still lay upon the ground where it stood in shadow, its surface crystalline and glittering. I shivered as I carried it the few yards down the side street to René’s garden, and there I heard it: a muffled chime, signalling a quarter to twelve.
When I returned, a raggle-taggle gathering of elders were making their way out of the bar. ‘We will sing,’ Madame Poilâne announced.
‘We will sing. It will drown the chimes until this evening. We will tell them it is a French custom. Songs from the Auvergne. Anything we can remember. What do they know?’
‘You are going to sing all day?’
‘No, no. On the hour. Just if there are Germans around.’
I looked at her in disbelief.
‘If they dig up René’s clock, Sophie, they will dig up this whole town. I will not lose my mother’s pearls to some German Hausfrau.’ Her mouth pursed in a moue of disgust.
‘Well, you’d better get going. When the clock strikes midday half of St Péronne will hear it.’
It was almost funny. I hovered on the front step as the group of elders gathered at the mouth of the alleyway, facing the Germans, who were still standing in the square, and began to sing. They sang the nursery rhymes of my youth, as well as ‘La Pastourelle’, ‘Bailero’, ‘Lorsque J’étais petit’, all in their tuneless rasping voices. They sang with their heads high, shoulder to shoulder, occasionally glancing sideways at each other. René looked alternately grumpy and anxious. Madame Poilâne held her hands in front of her, as pious as a Sunday-school teacher.
As I stood, dishcloth in hand, trying not to smile, the Kommandant crossed the street. ‘What are these people doing?’
‘Good morning, Herr Kommandant.’
‘You know there are to be no gatherings on the street.’
‘They are hardly a gathering. It’s a festival, Herr Kommandant. A French tradition. On the hour, in November, the elderly of St Péronne sing folk songs to ward off the approach of winter.’ I said this with utter conviction. The Kommandant frowned, then peered round me at the old people. Their voices lifted in unison and I guessed that, behind them, the chiming had begun.
‘But they are terrible,’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘It is the worst singing I have ever heard.’
‘Please … don’t stop them. They are innocent peasant songs, as you can hear. It gives the old people a little pleasure to sing the songs of their homeland, just for one day. Surely you would understand that.’
‘They are going to sing like this all day?’
It wasn’t the gathering itself that troubled him. He was like my husband: physically pained by any art that was not beautiful. ‘It’s possible.’
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