Only Liliane Béthune spared me a friendly smile. I caught her, shortly before dawn one morning, as she slid an envelope under my door. She jumped as I undid the bolts. ‘Oh, mon Dieu – thank heaven it’s you,’ she said, her hand at her mouth.
‘Is this what I think it is?’ I said, glancing down at the oversized envelope, addressed to nobody.
‘Who knows?’ she said, already turning back towards the square. ‘I see nothing there.’
But Liliane Béthune was in a minority of one. As the days crept on I noticed other things: if I walked into our bar from the kitchen, the conversation would quieten a little, as if whoever was talking were determined that I should not overhear. If I spoke up during a conversation, it was as if I had said nothing. Twice I offered a little jar of stock or soup to the mayor’s wife, only to be told that they had plenty, thank you. She had developed a peculiar way of talking to me, not unfriendly exactly but as though it were something of a relief when I gave up trying. I would never have admitted it, but it was almost a comfort when night fell and the restaurant was full of voices again, even if they did happen to be German.
It was Aurélien who enlightened me.
‘Yes?’ I was making the pastry for a rabbit and vegetable pie. My hands and apron were covered with flour, and I was wondering whether I could safely bake the off-cuts into little biscuits for the children.
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Of course.’ I dusted my hands on my apron. My little brother was looking at me with a peculiar expression, as if he were trying to work something out.
‘Do you … do you like the Germans?’
‘Do I like them?’
‘What a ridiculous question. Of course not. I wish they would all be gone and that we could return to our lives as before.’
‘But you like Herr Kommandant.’
I stopped, my hands on my rolling pin and spun round. ‘You know this is dangerous talk, the kind of talk that could get us all into terrible trouble.’
‘It is not my talk that is getting us into trouble.’
Outside, in the bar, I could hear the townspeople talking. I walked over and closed the kitchen door, so that it was just the two of us in the kitchen. When I spoke again I kept my voice low and measured. ‘Say what you wish to say, Aurélien.’
‘They say you are no better than Liliane Béthune.’
‘Monsieur Suel saw you dancing with Herr Kommandant on Christmas Eve. Close to him, your eyes shut, your bodies pressed together, as if you loved him.’
Shock made me feel almost faint. ‘What?’
‘They say that is the real reason you wanted to be away from le réveillon, to be alone with him. They say that is why we are getting extra supplies. You are the German’s favourite.’
‘Is this why you have been fighting at school?’ I thought back to his black eye, his sullen refusal to speak when I asked him how he had come to receive it.
‘Is it true?’
‘No, it is not true.’ I slammed my rolling pin down on the side. ‘He asked … he asked if we might dance, just once, as it was Christmas, and I thought it better if he were thinking about dancing and being here, rather than risk him wondering what was going on at Madame Poilâne’s. There was nothing more to it than that – your sister trying to protect you for that one evening. That dance won you a pork supper, Aurélien.’
‘But I have seen him. I have seen the way he admires you.’
‘He admires my portrait. There is a huge difference.’
‘I have heard the way he talks to you.’
I frowned at him, and he raised his eyes to the ceiling. Of course: his hours spent peering through the floorboards of Room Three. Aurélien must have heard and seen everything.
‘You can’t deny he likes you. He says “tu”, not “vous” when he talks to you, and you let him.’
‘He is a German Kommandant, Aurélien. I don’t have much say in how he chooses to address me.’
‘They are all talking about you, Sophie. I sit upstairs and I hear the names they call you and I don’t know what to believe.’ His eyes burned with anger and confusion.
I walked over to him and grasped his shoulders. ‘Then believe this. I have done nothing, nothing, to shame myself or my husband. Every day I seek new ways to keep our family well, to keep our neighbours and friends in food, comfort and hope. I have no feelings for the Kommandant. I try to remember that he is a human being, just as we are. But if you think, Aurélien, that I would ever betray my husband, you are a fool. I love Édouard with every part of me. Every day he is gone I feel his absence as if it were an actual pain. At night I lie awake fearing what might befall him. And now I do not ever want to hear you speak like this again. Do you hear me?’
He shook off my hand.
‘Do you hear me?’
He nodded sullenly.
‘Oh,’ I added. Perhaps I should not have said it, but my blood was up. ‘And do not be too swift to condemn Liliane Béthune. You may find you owe her more than you think.’
My brother glared at me, then stalked out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. I stared at the pastry for several minutes before I remembered I was meant to be making a pie.
Later that morning I took a walk across the square. Normally Hélène fetched the bread – Kriegsbrot – but I needed to clear my head, and the atmosphere in the bar had become oppressive. The air was so cold that January that it hurt my lungs, sheathing the bare twigs of the trees in an icy film, and I pulled my bonnet low over my head, my scarf up around my mouth. There were few people on the streets, but even then only one person, old Madame Bonnard, nodded to me. I told myself this was simply because, under so many layers, it was hard to tell who I was.
I walked to rue des Bastides, which had been renamed Schieler Platz (we refused to refer to it as such). The door of the boulangerie was closed and I pushed at it. Inside Madame Louvier and Madame Durant were in animated conversation with Monsieur Armand. They stopped the moment the door closed behind me.
‘Good morning,’ I said, adjusting my pannier under my arm.
The two women, muffled under layers of wool, nodded vaguely in my direction. Monsieur Armand simply stood, his hands on the counter in front of him.
I waited, then turned to the old women. ‘Are you well, Madame Louvier? We have not seen you at Le Coq Rouge for several weeks now. I was afraid you had been taken ill.’ My voice seemed unnaturally loud and high in the little shop.
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