That night the mood in Le Coq Rouge was sober. The Kommandant did not attempt to make conversation; neither did I give the slightest impression that I wished for it. Hélène and I served the meal, washed the cooking pots, and remained in the kitchen as far as we could. I had no appetite. I could not escape the image of that poor young man, his ragged clothes flying out behind him, his oversized shoes falling from his feet as he fled to his death.
More than that, I could not believe that the officer who had whipped out his pistol and shot him so pitilessly was the same man who had sat at my tables, looking wistful about the child he had not seen, exclaiming about the art that he had. I felt foolish, as if the Kommandant had concealed his true self. This was what the Germans were here for, not discussions about art and delicious food. They were here to shoot our sons and husbands. They were here to destroy us.
I missed my husband at that moment with a physical pain. It was now nearly three months since I had last received word from him. I had no idea of what he endured. While we existed in this strange bubble of isolation, I could convince myself that he was fine and robust, that he was out there in the real world, sharing a flask of cognac with his comrades, or perhaps sketching on a scrap of paper in some idle hours. When I closed my eyes I saw the Édouard I remembered from Paris. But seeing those pitiful Frenchmen marched through the streets made it harder for me to hold on to my fantasy. Édouard might be captured, injured, starving. He might be suffering as those men suffered. He might be dead.
I leaned on the sink and closed my eyes.
At that moment I heard the crash. Jerked away from my thoughts, I ran out of the kitchen. Hélène stood with her back to me, her hands raised, a tray of broken glasses at her feet. Against the wall, the Kommandant had a young man by the throat. He was shouting something at him in German, his face contorted, inches from the man’s own. His victim’s hands were up in a gesture of submission.
She was ashen. ‘He put his hand on me as I went past. But … but Herr Kommandant has gone mad.’
The other men were around them now, pleading with the Kommandant, trying to pull him off, their chairs overturning, shouting over each other in an attempt to be heard. The whole place was briefly in uproar. Eventually the Kommandant seemed to hear them and loosened his grip on the younger man’s throat. I thought his eyes met mine, briefly, but then, as he took a step back, his fist shot out and he punched the man hard in the side of the head, so that his face ricocheted off the wall. ‘Sie können nicht berühren die Frauen,’ he yelled.
‘The kitchen.’ I pushed my sister towards the door, not even stopping to scoop up the broken glass. I heard the raised voices, the slam of a door, and I hurried after her down the hallway.
I was washing the last of the glasses. Hélène had gone to bed; the day’s events had exhausted her even more than they had me.
‘Herr Kommandant.’ I turned to him, drying my hands on the cloth. We were down to one candle in the kitchen, a wick set in some fat in a sardine tin; I could barely make out his face.
He stood in front of me, his cap in his hands. ‘I’m sorry about your glasses. I will make sure they are replaced.’
‘Please don’t bother. We have enough to get by.’ I knew any glasses would simply be requisitioned from my neighbours.
‘I’m sorry about … the young officer. Please assure your sister it will not happen again.’
I didn’t doubt it. Through the back window I had seen the man being helped back to his billet by one of his friends, a wet cloth pressed to the side of his head.
I thought the Kommandant might leave then, but he just stood there. I felt him staring at me. His eyes were unquiet, anguished almost.
‘The food tonight was … excellent. What was the name of the dish?’
He waited, and when the pause grew uncomfortably long, I added, ‘It’s sausage-meat, some vegetables and herbs, wrapped in cabbage leaves and poached in stock.’
He looked down at his feet. He took a few steps around the kitchen, then stopped, fingering a jar of utensils. I wondered, absently, if he were about to take them.
‘It was very good. Everyone said so. You asked me today what I would like to eat. Well … we would like to have that dish again before too long, if it is not too much trouble.’
‘As you wish.’
There was something different about him this evening, some subtle air of agitation that rose off him in waves. I wondered how it felt to have killed a man, whether it felt any more unusual to a German Kommandant than taking a second cup of coffee.
He glanced at me as if he were about to say something else, but I turned back to my pans. Behind him I could hear the drag of chair legs on the floor as the other officers prepared to leave. It was raining, a fine, mean spit that hit the windows almost horizontally.
‘You must be tired,’ he said. ‘I will leave you in peace.’
I picked up a tray of glasses and followed him towards the door. As he reached it, he turned and put on his cap, so that I had to stop. ‘I have been meaning to ask. How is the baby?’
‘Jean? He is fine, thank you, if a little –’
‘No. The other baby.’
I nearly dropped the tray. I hesitated for a moment, collecting myself, but I felt the blood rush to my neck. I knew he saw it.
When I spoke again, my voice was thick. I kept my eyes on the glasses in front of me. ‘I believe we are all … as well as we can be, given the circumstances.’
He thought about this. ‘Keep him safe,’ he said quietly. ‘Best he doesn’t come out in the night air too often.’ He looked at me a moment longer, then turned and was gone.
I lay awake that night, despite my exhaustion. I watched Hélène sleep fitfully, murmuring, her hand reaching across unconsciously to check that her children were beside her. At five, while it was still dark, I climbed out of bed, wrapping myself in several blankets, and tiptoed downstairs to boil water for coffee. The dining room was still infused with the scents of the previous evening: wood from the grate and a faint hint of sausage-meat that caused my stomach to rumble. I made myself a hot drink and sat behind the bar, gazing out across the empty square as the sun came up. As the blue light became streaked with orange, it was just possible to distinguish a faint shadow in the far right-hand corner where the prisoner had fallen. Had that young man had a wife, a child? Were they sitting at this moment composing letters to him or praying for his safe return? I took a sip of my drink and forced myself to look away.
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