‘No,’ the old woman said. ‘I prefer to stay at home just now.’ She didn’t meet my eye as she spoke.
‘Did you get the potato I left for you last week?’
‘I did.’ Her gaze slid sideways at Monsieur Armand. ‘I gave it to Madame Grenouille. She is … less particular about the provenance of her food.’
I stood quite still. So this was how it was. The unfairness of it tasted like bitter ashes in my mouth. ‘Then I hope she enjoyed it. Monsieur Armand, I would like some bread, please. My loaf and Hélène’s, if you would be so kind.’ Oh, how I wished for one of his jokes, then. Some bawdy snippet or eye-rolling pun. But the baker just looked at me, his gaze steady and unfriendly. He didn’t walk into the back room, as I’d expected. In fact, he didn’t move. Just as I was about to repeat my request he reached under the counter and placed two loaves of black bread on its surface.
I stared at them.
The temperature in the little boulangerie seemed to drop, but I felt the eyes of the three other people like a burn. The loaves sat on the counter, squat and dark.
I lifted my eyes and swallowed. ‘Actually, I have made a mistake. We are not in need of bread today,’ I said quietly, and placed my purse back in my basket.
‘I don’t suppose you’re in need of much at the moment,’ Madame Durant muttered.
I turned and we stared at each other, the old woman and I. Then, my head high, I left the shop. The shame of it! The injustice! I saw the mocking looks of those two old ladies and realized I had been a fool. How could it have taken me so long to see what was going on under my nose? I strode back towards the hotel, my cheeks flushed, my mind racing. The ringing in my ears was so loud that I didn’t hear the voice at first.
I stopped, and glanced around me.
A German officer was marching towards me, his hand raised. I waited just under the ruined statue of Monsieur Leclerc, my cheeks still flushed. He walked right up to me. ‘You ignored me!’
‘I apologize, Officer. I did not hear you.’
‘It is an offence to ignore a German officer.’
‘As I said, I did not hear you. My apologies.’
I unwound my scarf a little from my face. And then I saw who it was: the young officer who had drunkenly grabbed at Hélène in the bar, and whose head had been smashed against the wall for his pains. I saw the little scar on his temple, and I also saw he had recognized me too.
‘Your identity card.’
It was not in my pocket. I had been so preoccupied with Aurélien’s words that I had left it on the hall table at the hotel.
‘I have forgotten it.’
‘It is an offence to leave your home without your identity card.’
‘It is just there.’ I pointed at the hotel. ‘If you walk over with me, I can get it –’
‘I’m not going anywhere. What is your business?’
‘I was just … going to the boulangerie.’
He peered at my empty basket. ‘To buy invisible bread?’
‘I changed my mind.’
‘You must be eating well at the hotel, these days. Everybody else is keen to get their rations.’
‘I eat no better than anyone else.’
‘Empty your pockets.’
He jabbed towards me with his rifle. ‘Empty your pockets. And remove some of those layers so I can see what you are carrying.’
It was minus one in the daylight. The icy wind numbed every inch of exposed skin. I put down my pannier and slowly shed the first of my shawls. ‘Drop it. On the ground,’ he said. ‘And the next one.’
I glanced around me. Across the square the customers in Le Coq Rouge would be watching. I slowly shed my second shawl, and then my heavy coat. I felt the blank windows of the square watching me.
‘Empty the pockets.’ He jabbed at my coat with his bayonet, so that it rubbed against the ice and mud. ‘Turn them inside out.’
I bent down and put my hands into the pockets. I was shivering now, and my fingers, which were mauve, refused to obey me. In several attempts, I pulled from my jacket my ration book, two five-franc notes and a scrap of paper.
He snatched at it. ‘What is this?’
‘Nothing of importance, Officer. Just … just a gift from my husband. Please let me have it.’
I heard the panic in my voice, and even as I said the words, I knew it had been a mistake. He opened Édouard’s little sketch of us; he the bear in his uniform, me serious in my starched blue dress. ‘This is confiscated,’ he said.
‘You are not entitled to carry likenesses of French Army uniform. I will dispose of it.’
‘But …’ I was incredulous. ‘It’s just a silly sketch of a bear.’
‘A bear in French uniform. It could be a code.’
‘But – but it’s just a joke … a trifle between me and my husband. Please do not destroy it.’ I reached out my hand but he batted it away. ‘Please – I have so little to remind me …’ As I stood, shivering, he looked me in the eye and tore it in two. Then he tore the two pieces into shreds, watching my face as they fell like confetti on to the wet ground.
‘Next time remember your papers, whore,’ he said, and walked off to join his comrades.
Hélène met me as I walked through the door, clutching my freezing, sodden shawls to me. I felt the eyes of the customers as I pushed my way inside, but I had nothing to say to them. I walked through the bar and back into the little hallway, struggling with frozen hands to hang my shawls on the wooden pegs.
‘What happened?’ My sister was behind me.
I was so upset I could barely speak. ‘The officer who grabbed you that time. He destroyed Édouard’s sketch. He ripped it into pieces, to get revenge on us after the Kommandant hit him. And there is no bread because Monsieur Armand apparently also thinks I am a whore.’ My face was numb and I could barely make myself understood, but I was livid and my voice carried.
‘Why? Why should I be quiet? What have I done wrong? This place is alive with people hissing and whispering and nobody tells the truth.’ I shook with rage and despair.
Hélène closed the bar door and hauled me up the stairs to the empty bedrooms, one of the few places we might not be heard.
‘Calm down and talk to me. What happened?’
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