I told her then. I told her what Aurélien had said, and how the ladies in the boulangerie had spoken to me and about Monsieur Armand and his bread, which we could not now risk eating. Hélène listened to all of it, placing her arms around me, resting her head against mine, and making sounds of sympathy as I talked. Until: ‘You danced with him?’
I wiped my eyes.
‘You danced with Herr Kommandant?’
‘Don’t you look at me like that. You know what I was doing that night. You know I would have done anything to keep the Germans away from le réveillon. Keeping him here meant that you all enjoyed a proper feast. You told me it was the best day you’d had since Jean-Michel left.’
She looked at me.
‘Well, didn’t you say that? Didn’t you use those exact words?’
Still she said nothing.
‘What? Are you going to call me a whore too?’
Hélène looked at her feet. Finally she said, ‘I would not have danced with a German, Sophie.’
I let the significance of her words sink in. Then I stood and, without a word, I went back down the stairs. I heard her calling my name, and noted, somewhere deep in a dark place within me, that it came just a little too late.
Hélène and I worked around each other in silence that evening. We communicated as little as possible, speaking only to confirm that, yes, the pie would be ready for seven thirty and, yes, the wine was uncorked, and that indeed there were four fewer bottles than the previous week. Aurélien stayed upstairs with the babies. Only Mimi came down and hugged me. I hugged her back fiercely, breathing in her sweet, childlike smell, feeling her soft skin against my own. ‘I love you, little Mi,’ I whispered.
She smiled at me from under her long blonde hair. ‘I love you too, Auntie Sophie,’ she said.
I put my hand into my apron and quickly popped into her mouth a little strip of cooked pastry I had saved for her earlier. Then, as she grinned at me, Hélène shepherded her up the stairs to bed.
In contrast to my sister’s and my mood, the German soldiers seemed curiously cheerful that evening. Nobody complained about the reduced rations; they seemed not to mind about the reduction in wine. The Kommandant alone seemed preoccupied and sombre. He sat alone as the other officers toasted something and all cheered. I wondered whether Aurélien was upstairs listening and whether he understood what they were saying.
‘Let’s not argue,’ Hélène said, when we crawled into bed later. ‘I do find it exhausting.’ She reached out a hand for mine, and in the near dark I took it. But we both knew something had changed.
It was Hélène who went to the market the following morning. Only a few stalls were out, these days, some preserved meats, some fearsomely expensive eggs and a few vegetables, and an elderly man from La Vendée who made new undergarments from old fabric. I stayed in the hotel bar, serving the few customers we had left and trying not to mind that I was evidently still the subject of some unfriendly discussion.
At about half past ten we became aware of a commotion outside. I wondered briefly whether it was more prisoners, but Hélène came rushing in, her hair loose and her eyes wide.
‘You’ll never guess,’ she said. ‘It’s Liliane.’
My heart began to thump. I dropped the ashtrays I was cleaning and ran for the door, flanked by the other customers who had risen as one from their seats. Up the road came Liliane Béthune. She was wearing her astrakhan coat, but she no longer looked like a Parisian model. She had on nothing else. Her legs were mottled blue with a mixture of cold and bruising. Her feet were bare and bloodied, her left eye half closed with swelling. Her hair lay unpinned around her face and she limped, as if every step were a Sisyphean effort. On each side of her stood two goading German officers, a group of soldiers following close behind. For once, they seemed not to mind when we came out to stare.
That beautiful astrakhan coat was grey with dirt. On the back of it were not just sticky patches of blood but the unmistakable smears of phlegm.
As I stared at it, I heard a sob. ‘Maman! Maman!’ Behind her, held back by other soldiers, I now saw Édith, Liliane’s seven-year-old daughter. She sobbed and writhed, trying to reach past them to her mother, her face contorted. One gripped her arm, not letting her anywhere close. Another smirked, as if it were amusing. Liliane walked on as if oblivious, in a private world of pain, her head lowered. As she came past the hotel a low jeering broke out.
‘See the proud whore now!’
‘Do you think the Germans will still want you, Liliane?’
‘They’ve tired of her. And good riddance.’
I could not believe these were my own countrymen. I gazed around me at the hate-filled faces, the scornful smiles, and when I could bear it no longer, I pushed through them and ran towards Édith. ‘Give me the child,’ I demanded. I saw now that the whole town seemed to have come to watch this spectacle. They were catcalling at Liliane from upstairs windows, from across the marketplace.
Édith sobbed, her voice pleading. ‘Maman!’
‘Give me the child!’ I cried. ‘Or are Germans persecuting little children now too?’
The officer holding her looked behind him and I saw Herr Kommandant standing by the post office. He said something to the officer beside him, and after a moment the child was released to me. I swept her into my arms. ‘It’s all right, Édith. You come with me.’ She buried her face in my shoulder, crying inconsolably, one arm still reaching vainly in the direction of her mother. I thought I saw Liliane’s face turn slightly towards me, but at this distance it was impossible to say.
I carried Édith quickly into the bar, away from the eyes of the town, away from the sound of the jeering as it picked up again, away into the back of the hotel where she would hear nothing. The child was hysterical, and who could blame her? I took her to our bedroom, gave her some water, then held her in my arms and rocked her. I told her again and again that it would be all right, we would make it all right, even though I knew we could do nothing of the sort. She cried until she was exhausted. From her swollen face I guessed she had been crying much of the night. God only knew what she had seen. Finally she became limp in my arms and I laid her carefully in my bed, covering her with blankets. Then I made my way downstairs.
As I walked into the bar, there was silence. Le Coq Rouge was busier than it had been in weeks, Hélène rushing between the tables with a loaded tray. I saw the mayor in the doorway, then stared at the faces before me and realized I no longer knew any of them.
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