He reached across the table to the crate that the Germans had delivered earlier and pulled out a bottle of cognac. ‘Have a drink with me, Madame.’
‘No, thank you, Herr Kommandant.’ I glanced towards the door to the dining room, where the officers would be finishing their dessert.
‘One. It’s Christmas.’
I knew an order when I heard it. I thought of the others, eating the roast pork a few doors away from where we sat. I thought of Mimi, with pork fat dribbling down her chin, of Aurélien, smiling and joking as he boasted of their great deception. He needed some happiness: twice that week he had been sent home from school for fighting, but had refused to tell me what it had been about. I needed them all to have one good meal. ‘Then … very well.’ I accepted a glass, and sipped. The cognac was like fire trickling down my throat. It felt restorative, a sharp kick.
He downed his own glass, watched me drink mine, then pushed the bottle towards me, signalling that I should refill it.
We sat in silence. I wondered how many people had come to eat the pig. Hélène had thought it would be fourteen. Two of the older people had been afraid to break their curfew. The priest had promised to take leftovers to those stuck in their homes after Christmas mass.
As we drank, I watched him. His jaw was set, suggesting someone unbending, but without his military cap, his almost shaven hair gave his head an air of vulnerability. I tried to picture him out of uniform, a normal human being, going about his daily business, buying a newspaper, taking a holiday. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t see past his uniform.
‘It’s a lonely business, war, isn’t it?’
I took a sip of my drink. ‘You have your men. I have my family. We are neither of us exactly alone.’
‘It’s not the same, though, is it?’
‘We all get by as best as we can.’
‘Do we? I’m not sure whether anyone can describe this as “best”.’
The cognac made me blunt. ‘You are the one sitting in my kitchen, Herr Kommandant. I suggest, with respect, that only one of us has a choice in the matter.’
A cloud passed across his face. He was unused to being challenged. Faint colour rose to his cheeks, and I saw him with his arm raised, his gun aimed at a running prisoner.
‘You really think any of us has a choice?’ he said quietly. ‘You really think this is how any of us would choose to live? Surrounded by devastation? The perpetrators of it? Were you to witness what we see at the Front, you would think yourself …’ He tailed off, shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, Madame. It’s this time of year. It’s enough to make a man maudlin. And we all know that there is nothing worse than a maudlin soldier.’
He smiled then, an apology, and I relaxed a little. We sat there on either side of the kitchen table, sipping from our glasses, surrounded by the detritus of the meal. In the other room the officers had begun to sing. I heard their voices lifting, the tune familiar, the words incomprehensible. The Kommandant tilted his head to listen. Then he put down his glass. ‘You hate us being here, don’t you?’
I blinked. ‘I have always tried –’
‘You think your face betrays nothing. But I’ve watched you. Years in this job have taught me a lot about people and their secrets. Well. Can we call a truce, Madame? Just for these few hours?’
‘You shall forget that I am part of an enemy army, I shall forget that you are a woman who spends much of her time working out how to subvert that army, and we shall just … be two people?’
His face, just briefly, had softened. He held his glass towards mine. Almost reluctantly, I lifted my own.
‘Let us avoid the subject of Christmas, lonely or otherwise. I would like you to tell me about the other artists at the Académie. Tell me how you came to meet them.’
I am not sure how long we sat there. If I am honest, the hours evaporated in conversation and the warm glow of alcohol. The Kommandant wanted to know everything about an artist’s life in Paris. What kind of man was Matisse? Was his life as scandalous as his art?
‘Oh, no. He was the most intellectually rigorous of men. Quite stern. And very conservative, in both his work and his domestic habits. But somehow …’ I thought for a moment of the bespectacled professor, how he would glance over to check that you had grasped each point before he showed you the next piece ‘… joyous. I think he gets great joy from what he does.’
The Kommandant thought about this, as if my answer had satisfied him. ‘I once wanted to be a painter. I was no good, of course. I had to confront the truth of the matter very early on.’ He fingered the stem of his glass. ‘I often think that the ability to earn a living by doing the thing one loves must be one of life’s greatest gifts.’
I thought of Édouard then, his face lost in concentration, peering at me from behind an easel. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel the warmth of the log fire on my right leg, the faint chill on the left where my skin was bare. I could see him lift an eyebrow, and the exact point at which his thoughts left his painting. ‘I think that too.’
‘The first time I saw you,’ he had told me on our first Christmas Eve together, ‘I watched you standing in the middle of that bustling store and I thought you were the most self-contained woman I had ever seen. You looked as if the world could explode into fragments around you and there you would be, your chin lifted, gazing out at it imperiously from under that magnificent hair.’ He lifted my hand to his mouth, and kissed it tenderly.
‘I thought you were a Russian bear,’ I told him.
He had raised an eyebrow. We were in a packed brasserie off rue de Turbigo. ‘GRRRRRRRR,’ he growled, until I was helpless with laughter. He had crushed me to him, right there, in the middle of the banquette, covering my neck with kisses, oblivious to the people eating around us. ‘GRRRRR.’
They had stopped singing in the other room. I felt suddenly self-conscious and stood, as if to clear the table.
‘Please,’ said the Kommandant, motioning me to sit down. ‘Just sit a while longer. It’s Christmas Eve, after all.’
‘Your men will be expecting you to join them.’
‘On the contrary, they enjoy themselves far more if their Kommandant is absent. It is not fair to impose myself on them all evening.’
But quite fair to impose yourself on me, I thought. It was then that he asked, ‘Where is your sister?’
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