The Kommandant stood very still, his senses trained on the sound. I was suddenly anxious: if his ear for music was as good as his eye for painting, he might yet detect the chiming beneath it.
‘I was wondering what you wanted to eat tonight,’ I said abruptly.
‘Whether you had any favourites. I mean, our ingredients are limited, yes, but there are various things I might be able to make for you.’ I could see Madame Poilâne urging the others to sing louder, her hands gesturing surreptitiously upwards.
The Kommandant seemed briefly puzzled. I smiled, and for a moment his face softened.
‘That’s very –’ He broke off.
Thierry Arteuil was running up the road, his woollen scarf flying as he pointed behind him. ‘Prisoners of war!’
The Kommandant whipped round towards his men, already gathering in the square, and I was forgotten. I waited for him to go, then hurried across to the group of singing elders. Hélène and the customers inside Le Coq Rouge, perhaps hearing the growing commotion, were peering through the windows, some edging out on to the pavement.
There was a brief hush. Then up the main street they came, around a hundred men, organized into a small convoy. Beside me, the old people kept singing, their voices at first faltering as they realized what they were witnessing, then growing in strength and determination.
There was hardly a man or woman who did not anxiously scan the stumbling soldiers for a well-known face. But there was no relief to be had from the absence of familiarity. Were these really Frenchmen? They looked so shrunken, so grey and defeated, their clothes hanging from malnourished bodies, their wounds dressed with filthy old bandages. They passed a few feet before us, their heads lowered, Germans at their front and rear, and we were powerless to do anything but stare.
I heard the old people’s chorus lifting determinedly around me, suddenly more tuneful and harmonic: ‘I stand in wind and rain and sing bailero lero …’
A great lump rose in my throat at the thought that somewhere, many miles away, this might be Édouard. I felt Hélène’s hand grip mine, and knew she was thinking the same.
Here all the grass is greener,
Sing bailero lero …
I shall come down and fetch you o’er …
We scanned their faces, our own frozen. Madame Louvier appeared beside us. As quick as a mouse, she forced her way through our little group and thrust the black bread that she had just collected from the boulangerie into the hands of one of the skeletal men, her woollen shawl flying around her face in the brisk wind. He glanced up, unsure of what had arrived in his hands. And then, with a shout, a German soldier was in front of them, his rifle butt thrashing it from the man’s hand even as he registered what he had been given. The loaf toppled to the gutter like a brick. The singing stopped.
Madame Louvier stared at the bread, then lifted her head and shrieked, her voice piercing the still air, ‘You animal! You Germans! You would starve these men like dogs! What is wrong with you? You are all bastards! Sons of whores!’ I had never heard her use language like it. It was as if some fine thread had snapped, leaving her loose, untethered. ‘You want to beat someone? Beat me! Go on, you bastard thug. Beat me!’ Her voice cut through the still, cold air.
I felt Hélène’s hand grip my arm. I willed the old woman to be quiet, but she kept shrieking, her thin old finger pointing and jabbing at the young soldier’s face. I was suddenly afraid for her. The German glanced at her with an expression of barely suppressed fury. His knuckles whitened on his rifle butt and I feared he would strike her. She was so frail: her old bones would shatter if he did.
But as we held our breath he reached down, picked the loaf out of the gutter and thrust it back at her.
She looked at him as if she had been stung. ‘You think I would eat this knowing that you knocked it from the hand of a starving brother? You think this is not my brother? They are all my brothers! All my sons! Vive la France!’ she spat, her old eyes glistening. ‘Vive la France!’ As if compelled to do so, the old people behind me broke into an echoing murmur, the singing briefly forgotten. ‘Vive la France!’
The young soldier glanced behind him, perhaps for instruction from his superior, but was distracted by a shout further down the line. A prisoner had taken advantage of the commotion to break for freedom. The young man, his arm in a makeshift sling, had slipped from the ranks and was now fleeing across the square.
The Kommandant, standing with two of his officers by the broken statue of Mayor Leclerc, was the first to see him. ‘Halt!’ he shouted. The young man ran faster, his oversized shoes slipping from his feet. ‘HALT!’
The prisoner dropped his backpack and appeared briefly to pick up speed. He stumbled as he lost his second shoe, but somehow righted himself. He was about to disappear around the corner. The Kommandant whipped a pistol from his jacket. Almost before I had registered what he was doing, he lifted his arm, aimed and fired. The boy went down with an audible crack.
The world stopped. The birds fell silent. We stared at the motionless body on the cobbles and Hélène let out a low moan. She made as if to go to him, but the Kommandant ordered us all to stay back. He shouted something in German, and his men raised their rifles, pointing them at the remaining prisoners.
Nobody moved. The captives stared at the ground. They seemed unsurprised by this turn of events. Hélène’s hands had gone to her mouth, and she trembled, muttering something I could not hear. I slid my arm around her waist. I could hear my own ragged breathing.
The Kommandant walked briskly away from us towards the prisoner. When he reached him, he dropped to his haunches, and pressed his fingers to the young man’s jaw. A dark red puddle already stained his threadbare jacket, and I could see his eyes, staring blankly across the square. The Kommandant squatted there for a minute, then stood again. Two German officers moved towards him, but he motioned them into formation. He walked back across the square, tucking his pistol into his jacket. He stopped briefly when he passed in front of the mayor.
‘You will make the necessary arrangements,’ he said.
The mayor nodded. I saw the faint tic to his jaw.
With a shout, the column moved on up the road, the prisoners with their heads bowed, the women of St Péronne now weeping openly into their handkerchiefs. The body lay in a crumpled heap a short distance across from rue des Bastides.
Less than a minute after the Germans had marched away, René Grenier’s clock chimed a mournful quarter past the hour into the silence.
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