Late in January, Louisa died. That we had all known it was coming did not make it any easier. Overnight, the mayor and his wife seemed to age ten years. ‘I tell myself it is a blessing that she will not have to see the world as it is,’ he said to me, and I nodded. Neither of us believed it.
The funeral was to take place five days later. I decided it was not fair to take the children, so I told Hélène she should go for me; I would take the little ones to the woods behind the old fire station. Given the severity of the cold, the Germans had granted the villagers two hours a day in which to forage in local woods for kindling. I wasn’t convinced that we would find much: under cover of darkness the trees had long been stripped of any useful branches. But I needed to be away from the town, away from grief and fear and the constant scrutiny of either the Germans or my neighbours.
It was a crisp, silent afternoon, and the sun shone weakly through the skeletal silhouettes of those trees that remained, seemingly too exhausted to rise more than a few feet from the horizon. It was easy to look at our landscape, as I did that afternoon, and wonder if the very world was coming to an end. I walked, conducting a silent conversation with my husband, as I often did, these days. Be strong, Édouard. Hold on. Just stay alive and I know we will be together again. Édith and Mimi walked in silence at first, flanking me, their feet crunching on the icy leaves, but then, as we reached the woods, some childish impulse overtook them and I stopped briefly to watch as they ran towards a rotting tree-trunk, jumping on and off it, holding hands and giggling. Their shoes would be scuffed, and their skirts muddied, but I would not deny them that simple consolation.
I stooped and put a few handfuls of twigs into my basket, hoping their voices might drown the constant hum of dread in my mind. And then, as I straightened, I saw him: in the clearing, a gun to his shoulder, talking to one of his men. He heard the girls’ voices and swung round. Édith shrieked, looked about wildly for me and bolted for my arms, her eyes wide with terror. Mimi, confused, stumbled along behind, trying to work out why her friend should be so shaken by the man who came each night to the restaurant.
‘Don’t cry, Édith, he’s not going to hurt us. Please don’t cry.’ I saw him watching us, and prised the child from my legs. I crouched down to talk to her. ‘That’s Herr Kommandant. I’m going to talk to him now about his supper. You stay here and play with Mimi. I’m fine. Look, see?’
She trembled as I handed her to Mimi. ‘Go and play over there for a moment. I’m just going to talk to Herr Kommandant. Here, take my basket and see if you can find me some twigs. I promise you nothing bad will happen.’
When I could finally prise her from my skirts, I walked over to him. The officer who was with him said something in a low voice, and I pulled my shawls around me, crossing my arms in front of my chest, waiting as the Kommandant dismissed him.
‘We thought we might go shooting,’ he said, peering up at the empty skies. ‘Birds,’ he added.
‘There are no birds left here,’ I said. ‘They are all long gone.’
‘Probably quite sensible.’ In the distance we could hear the faint boom of the big guns. It seemed to make the air contract briefly around us.
‘Is that the whore’s child?’ He cocked his gun over his arm and lit a cigarette. I glanced behind me to where the girls were standing by the rotten trunk.
‘Liliane’s child? Yes. She will stay with us.’
He watched her closely, and I could not work out what he was thinking. ‘She is a little girl,’ I said. ‘She understood nothing of what was going on.’
‘Ah,’ he said, and puffed his cigarette. ‘An innocent.’
‘Yes. They do exist.’
He looked at me sharply and I had to force myself not to lower my eyes.
‘Herr Kommandant. I need to ask you a favour.’
‘My husband has been taken to a reprisal camp in Ardennes.’
‘And I am not to ask you how you came upon this information.’
There was nothing in how he looked at me. No clue at all.
I took a breath. ‘I wondered … I’m asking if you can help him. He is a good man. He’s an artist, as you know, not a soldier.’
‘And you want me to get a message to him.’
‘I want you to get him out.’
He raised an eyebrow.
‘Herr Kommandant. You act as if we are friends. So, I’m begging you. Please help my husband. I know what goes on in those places, that he has little chance of coming out alive.’
He didn’t speak, so I seized my chance and continued. These were words I had said a thousand times in my head over the past hours. ‘You know that he has spent his whole life in the pursuit of art, of beauty. He’s a peaceful man, a gentle man. He cares about painting, about dancing, eating and drinking. You know it makes no difference to the German cause whether he is dead or alive.’
He glanced around us, through the denuded woods, as if to monitor where the other officers had gone, then took another puff at his cigarette. ‘You take a considerable risk in asking me something like this. You saw how your townspeople treat a woman they think is collaborating with Germans.’
‘They already believe me to be collaborating. The fact of you being in our hotel apparently made me guilty without a trial.’
‘That, and dancing with the enemy.’
Now it was my turn to look surprised.
‘I have told you before, Madame. There is nothing that goes on in this town that I don’t hear about.’
We stood in silence, gazing at the horizon. In the distance a low boom caused the earth to vibrate very slightly under our feet. The girls felt it: I could see them gazing down at their shoes. He took a final puff from his cigarette, then crushed it under his boot.
‘Here is the thing. You are an intelligent woman. I think you are probably a good judge of human nature. And yet you behave in ways that would entitle me, as an enemy soldier, to shoot you without even a trial. Despite this, you come here and expect me not just to ignore that fact but to help you. My enemy.’
I swallowed. ‘That … that is because I don’t just see you as … an enemy.’
‘You were the one who said … that sometimes we are just … two people.’
His silence made me bolder. I lowered my voice. ‘I know you are a powerful man. I know you have influence. If you say he should be released, he will be released. Please.’
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