‘Are you satisfied?’ I said, my voice breaking as I spoke. ‘A child lies upstairs having watched you spit and jeer at her brutalized mother. People she thought were her friends. Are you proud?’

My sister’s hand landed on my shoulder. ‘Sophie –’

I shrugged her off. ‘Don’t Sophie me. You have no idea what you have all done. You think you know everything about Liliane Béthune. Well, you know nothing. NOTHING!’ I was crying now, tears of rage. ‘You are all so quick to judge, but just as quick to take what she offers when it suits you.’

The mayor walked towards me. ‘Sophie, we should talk.’

‘Oh. You will talk to me now! For weeks you have looked at me as if I were a bad smell because Monsieur Suel supposedly believes me to be a traitor and a whore. Me! Who risked everything to bring your daughter food. You would all believe him rather than me! Well, perhaps I do not want to talk to you, Monsieur. Knowing what I know, perhaps I would rather talk to Liliane Béthune!’

I was raging now. I felt unhinged, a madwoman, as if I gave off sparks. I looked at their stupid faces, their open mouths, and I shook the restraining hand from my shoulder.

‘Where do you think the Journal des Occupés came from? Do you think the birds dropped it? Do you think it came by magic carpet?’

Hélène began to bundle me out now. ‘I don’t care! Who do they think was helping them? Liliane helped you! All of you! Even when you were shitting in her bread, she was helping you!’

I was in the hallway. Hélène’s face was white, the mayor behind her, pushing me forwards, away from them.

‘What?’ I protested. ‘Does the truth make you too uncomfortable? Am I forbidden to speak?’

‘Sit down, Sophie. For God’s sake, just sit down and shut up.’

‘I don’t know this town any more. How can you all stand there and yell at her? Even if she had slept with the Germans, how can you treat another human being so? They spat on her, Hélène, didn’t you see? They spat all over her. As if she were not human.’

‘I am very sorry for Madame Béthune,’ the mayor said quietly. ‘But I am not here to discuss her. I came to talk to you.’

‘I have nothing to say to you,’ I said, wiping at my face with my palms.

The mayor took a deep breath. ‘Sophie. I have news of your husband.’

It took me a moment to register what he had said.

He sat down heavily on the stairs beside me. Hélène still held my hand.

‘It’s not good news, I’m afraid. When the last prisoners came through this morning, one dropped a message as he passed the post office. A scrap of paper. My clerk picked it up. It says that Édouard Lefèvre was among five men sent to the reprisal camp at Ardennes last month. I’m so sorry, Sophie.’

8

Édouard Lefèvre, imprisoned, had been charged with handing a fist-sized piece of bread to a prisoner. He had fought back fiercely when beaten for it. I almost laughed when I heard: how typical of Édouard.

But my laughter was short-lived. Every piece of information that came my way served to increase my fears. The reprisal camp where he was held was said to be one of the worst: the men slept two hundred to a shed on bare boards; they lived on watery soup with a few husks of barley and the occasional dead mouse. They were sent to work stone-breaking or building railways, forced to carry heavy iron girders on their shoulders for miles. Those who dropped from exhaustion were punished, beaten or denied rations. Disease was rife and men were shot for the pettiest misdemeanours.

I took it all in and each of these images haunted my dreams. ‘He will be all right, won’t he?’ I said to the mayor.

He patted my hand. ‘We will all pray for him,’ he said. He sighed deeply as he stood to leave, and his sigh was like a death sentence.

The mayor visited most days after the parading of Liliane Béthune. As the truth about her filtered around the town, she became slowly redrawn in the collective imagination. Lips no longer pursed automatically at the mention of her name. Someone scrawled the word ‘héroïne’ on the market square in chalk under cover of darkness, and although it was swiftly removed, we all knew to whom it referred. A few precious things that had been looted from her house when she was first arrested mysteriously found their way back.

Of course, there were those who, like Mesdames Louvier and Durant, would not have believed well of her if she had been seen throttling Germans with her bare hands. But there were some vague admissions of regret in our little bar, small kindnesses shown to Édith, in the arrival at Le Coq Rouge of outgrown clothes or odd pieces of food. Liliane had apparently been sent to a holding camp at some distance south of our town. She was lucky, the mayor confided, not to have been shot immediately. He suspected it was only special pleading by one of the officers that had saved her from a swift execution. ‘But there’s no point in trying to intervene, Sophie,’ he said. ‘She was caught spying for the French, and I don’t suppose she’ll be saved for long.’

As for me, I was no longer persona non grata. Not that I particularly cared. I found it hard to feel the same about my neighbours. Édith stayed glued to my side, like a pale shadow. She ate little and asked after her mother constantly. I told her truthfully that I didn’t know what would happen to Liliane, but that she, Édith, would be safe with us. I had taken to sleeping with her in my old room, to stop her shrieking nightmares waking the two younger ones. In the evenings, she would creep down to the fourth stair, the nearest point from which she could see into the kitchen, and we would find her there late at night when we had finished clearing the kitchen, fast asleep with her thin arms holding her knees.

My fears for her mother mixed with my fears for my husband. I spent my days in a silent vortex of worry and exhaustion. Little news came into the town, and none went out. Somewhere out there he might be starving, lying sick with fever or being beaten. The mayor received official news of three deaths, two at the Front, one at a camp near Mons, and heard there was an outbreak of typhoid near Lille. I took each of these snippets personally.

Perversely, Hélène seemed to thrive in this atmosphere of grim foreboding. I think that watching me crumble had made her believe that the worst must have happened. If Édouard, with all his strength and vitality, faced death, there could be no hope for Jean-Michel, a gentle, bookish man. He could not have survived, her reasoning went, so she might as well get on with it. She seemed to grow in strength, urging me to get up when she found me in secret tears in the beer cellar, forcing me to eat, or singing lullabies to Édith, Mimi and Jean in a strange, jaunty tone. I was grateful for her strength. I lay at night with my arms around another woman’s child and wished I never had to think again.

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