We tried to hide the worst of it from them as best we could, but they found themselves in a world where men were shot in the street, where strangers hauled their mothers from their beds by their hair for some trivial offence, like walking in a banned wood or failing to show a German officer sufficient respect. Mimi viewed our world with silent, suspicious eyes, which broke Hélène’s heart. Aurélien grew angry: I could see it building in him, like a volcanic force, and I prayed daily that when he finally erupted, it would not come at huge cost to himself.
But the biggest news that week was the arrival through my door of a newspaper, roughly printed, and entitled Journal des Occupés. The only newspaper allowed in St Péronne was the German-controlled Bulletin de Lille, which was so obviously German propaganda that few of us did more with it than use it for kindling. But this one gave military information, naming the towns and villages under occupation. It commented on official communiqués, and contained humorous articles about the occupation, limericks about the black bread and cartoonish sketches of the officers in charge. It begged its readers not to enquire where it had come from, and to destroy it when it had been read.
It also contained a list it called Von Heinrich’s Ten Commandments that ridiculed the many petty rules imposed upon us.
I cannot tell you the boost that four-page scrap gave to our little town. In the few days up to the réveillon, a steady stream of townspeople came into the bar and either thumbed through its pages in the lavatory (during the day we kept it at the bottom of a basket of old paper) or passed on its news and better jokes face to face. We spent so long in the lavatory that the Germans asked if some sickness were going round.
From the newspaper we discovered that other nearby towns had suffered our fate. We heard of the dreaded reprisal camps, where men were starved and worked half to death. We discovered that Paris knew little of our plight, and that four hundred women and children had been evacuated from Roubaix, where food supplies were even lower than they were in St Péronne. It was not that these pieces of information in themselves constituted anything useful. But it reminded us that we were still part of France, that our little town was not alone in its travails. More importantly, the newspaper itself was a matter of some pride: the French were still capable of subverting the will of the Germans.
There were feverish discussions as to how this might have reached us. That it had been delivered to Le Coq Rouge went some way to alleviating the growing discontent caused by our cooking for the Germans. I watched Liliane Béthune hurry past to fetch her bread in her astrakhan coat and had my own ideas.
The Kommandant had insisted that we eat. It was the cooks’ privilege, he said, on Christmas Eve. We had believed ourselves preparing for eighteen, only to discover that the final two were Hélène and me. We spent hours running around the kitchen, our exhaustion outweighed by our silent, unspoken pleasure in what we knew to be going on two streets from ours: the prospect of a clandestine celebration and proper meat for our children. To be given two whole meals as well seemed almost too much.
And yet not too much. I could never have turned down a meal again. The food was delicious: duck roasted with orange slices and preserved ginger, potatoes dauphinoise with green beans, all followed by a plate of cheeses. Hélène ate hers, marvelling that she would be eating two suppers. ‘I can give someone else my portion of pork,’ she said, sucking a bone. ‘I might keep a little bit of the crackling. What do you think?’
It was so good to see her cheerful. Our kitchen, that night, seemed a happy place. There were extra candles, giving us a little more precious light. There were the familiar smells of Christmas – Hélène had studded one of the oranges with cloves and hung it over the stove so that the scent infused the whole room. If you didn’t think too hard, you could listen to the glasses clinking, the laughter and conversation, and forget that the next room was occupied by Germans.
At around half past nine, I wrapped my sister up and helped her downstairs so that she could climb through to our neighbours’ cellar and then out through their coal hatch. She would run down the unlit back alleys to Madame Poilâne’s house where she would join Aurélien and the children, whom we had taken there earlier in the afternoon. We had moved the pig the day before. It was quite large by then, and Aurélien had had to hold it still while I fed it an apple to stop it squealing and, with a clean swipe of his knife, Monsieur Baudin, the butcher, slaughtered it.
I replaced the bricks in the gap behind her, all the while listening to the men in the bar above me. I realized, with some satisfaction, that for the first time in months I wasn’t cold. To be hungry is to be almost permanently cold too; it was a lesson I was sure I would never forget.
‘Édouard, I hope you’re warm,’ I whispered, into the empty cellar, as my sister’s footsteps faded on the other side of the wall. ‘I hope you eat as well as we have done this night.’
When I re-emerged into the hallway I jumped. The Kommandant was gazing at my portrait.
‘I couldn’t find you,’ he said. ‘I thought you would be in the kitchen.’
‘I – I just went for some air,’ I stammered.
‘I see something different in this picture every time I look at it. She has something enigmatic about her. I mean you.’ He half smiled at his own mistake. ‘You have something enigmatic about you.’
I said nothing.
‘I hope I do not embarrass you, but I have to tell you. I have thought for some time that this is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen.’
‘It is a lovely work of art, yes.’
‘You exclude its subject?’
I didn’t answer.
He swilled the wine in his glass. When he spoke next it was with his eyes on the ruby liquid. ‘Do you honestly believe yourself plain, Madame?’
‘I believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When my husband tells me I am beautiful, I believe it because I know in his eyes I am.’
He looked up then. His eyes locked on to mine and would not let them go. He held my gaze for so long that I felt my breathing start to quicken.
Édouard’s eyes were the windows to his soul; his very self was laid bare in them. The Kommandant’s were intense, shrewd and yet somehow veiled, as if to hide his true feelings. I was afraid that he might be able to see my own crumbling composure, that he might see through my lies if I allowed him in. I was the first to look away.
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