I was about to go back to my room to dress when there was a rap at the door. I flinched, seeing a shadow behind the cotton screen. I pulled my blanket around me, staring at the silhouette, trying to work out who would be calling on us at such an hour, whether it was the Kommandant, come to torment me about what he knew. I walked silently towards the door. I lifted the screen and there, on the other side, was Liliane Béthune. Her hair was piled up in pin curls, she was wearing the black astrakhan coat, and her eyes were shadowed. She glanced behind her as I unlocked the top and bottom bolts and opened the door.

‘Liliane? Are you … do you need something?’ I said.

She reached into her coat and pulled out an envelope, which she thrust at me. ‘For you,’ she said.

I glanced at it. ‘But … how did you –’

She held up a pale hand, shook her head.

It had been months since any of us had received a letter. The Germans had long kept us in a communications vacuum. I held it, disbelieving, then recovered my manners. ‘Would you like to come in? Have some coffee? I have a little real coffee put by.’

She gave me the smallest of smiles. ‘No. Thank you. I have to go home to my daughter.’ Before I could even thank her, she was trotting up the street in her high heels, her back hunched against the cold.

I shut the screen and re-bolted the door. Then I sat down and tore open the envelope. His voice, so long absent, filled my ears.

Dearest Sophie

It is so long since I heard from you. I pray you are safe. I tell myself in darker moments that some part of me would feel it, like the vibrations of a distant bell, if you were not.

I have so little to impart. For once I have no desire to translate into colour the world I see around me. Words seem wholly inadequate. Know only that, precious wife, I am sound of mind and body, and that my spirit is kept whole by the thought of you.

The men here clutch photographs of their loved ones like talismans, protection against the dark – crumpled, dirty images endowed with the properties of treasure. I need no photograph to conjure you before me, Sophie: I need only to close my eyes to recall your face, your voice, your scent, and you cannot know how much you comfort me.

Know, my darling, that I mark each day not, like my fellow soldiers, as one that I am grateful to survive, but thanking God that each means I must surely be twenty-four hours closer to returning to you.

Your Édouard

It was dated two months previously.

I don’t know if it was exhaustion, or perhaps shock from the previous day’s events – I am not someone who cries easily, if at all – but I put the letter carefully back into its envelope, then rested my head on my hands and, in the cold, empty kitchen, I sobbed.

I could not tell the other villagers why it was time to eat the pig but the approach of Christmas gave me the perfect excuse. The officers were to have their dinner on Christmas Eve in Le Coq Rouge, a larger gathering than normal, and it was agreed that while they were here Madame Poilâne would hold a secret réveillon at her home, two streets down from the square. For as long as I could keep the German officers occupied, our little band of townspeople would be safe to roast and eat the pig in the bread oven that Madame Poilâne had in her cellar. Hélène would help me serve the Germans their dinner, then sneak through the hole in the cellar wall and out down the alley to join the children at Madame Poilâne’s house. Those villagers who lived too far from her to walk through the town unnoticed would remain in her home after curfew, hiding if any Germans came checking.

‘But that isn’t fair,’ Hélène remarked, when I outlined the plan to the mayor in front of her two days later. ‘If you remain here you will be the one person to miss it. That’s not right, given all you did to safeguard the pig.’

‘One of us has to stay,’ I pointed out. ‘You know it’s far safer if we can be sure that the officers are all in one place.’

‘But it won’t be the same.’

‘Well, nothing is the same,’ I said curtly. ‘And you know as well as I do that Herr Kommandant will notice if I am gone.’

I saw her exchange glances with the mayor.

‘Hélène, don’t fuss. I am la patronne. He expects to see me here every evening. He will know something is going on if I am missing.’

I sounded, even to my own ears, as if I was protesting too much. ‘Look,’ I continued, forcing myself to sound conciliatory. ‘Save me some meat. Bring it back in a napkin. I can promise you that, if the Germans are given rations enough to feast on, I will make sure I help myself to a share. I will not suffer. I promise.’

They appeared mollified, but I couldn’t tell them the truth. Ever since I had discovered that the Kommandant knew about the pig, I had lost my appetite for it. That he had not revealed his knowledge of its existence, let alone punished us, didn’t make me joyous with relief, but deeply uneasy.

Now when I saw him staring at my portrait, I no longer felt gratified that even a German could recognize my husband’s talent. When he walked into the kitchen to make casual conversation, I became stiff and tense, afraid he might mention it.

‘Yet again,’ the mayor said, ‘I suspect we find ourselves in your debt.’ He looked beaten down. His daughter had been ill for a week; his wife had once told me that every time Louisa fell ill he barely slept for anxiety.

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said briskly. ‘Compared to what our men are doing, this is just another day’s work.’

My sister knew me too well. She didn’t ask questions directly; that was not Hélène’s style. But I could feel her watching me, could hear the faint edge to her voice whenever the question of the réveillon was raised. Finally, a week before Christmas, I confided in her. She had been sitting on the side of her bed, doing her hair. The brush stilled in her hand. ‘Why do you think he has not told anyone?’ I asked, when I finished.

She stared at the bedspread. When she looked at me it was with a kind of dread. ‘I think he likes you,’ she said.

The week before Christmas was busy, even though we had little with which to prepare for the festivities. Hélène and a couple of the older women had been sewing rag dolls for the children. They were primitive, their skirts made of sacking, their faces embroidered stockings. But it was important that the children who remained in St Péronne had a little magic in that bleak Christmas.

I grew a little bolder in my own efforts. Twice I stole potatoes from the German rations, mashing what was left to disguise the smaller amounts, and ferried them in my pockets to those who seemed particularly frail. I stole the smaller carrots and fed them into the hem of my skirt so that even when I was stopped and searched, they found nothing. To the mayor I took two jars of chicken stock, so that his wife could make Louisa a little broth. The child was pale and feverish; his wife told me she kept little down and seemed to be retreating into herself. Looking at her, swallowed by the vast old bed with its threadbare blankets, listless and coughing intermittently, I thought briefly that I could hardly blame her. What life was this for children?

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