I stalked off down the bank of the Seine, bristling. He caught up with me in minutes. ‘I’m sorry.’
I kept walking, my face set.
‘Don’t be cross, Sophie. I’m simply out of sorts.’
‘But you don’t have to make me out of sorts because of it. I’m only trying to help you.’
‘I know. I know. Look, slow down. Please. Slow down and walk with your ungracious husband.’ He held out his arm. His face was soft and pleading. He knew I could not resist him.
I glared at him, then took his arm and we walked some distance in silence. He put his hand over mine, and found that it was cold. ‘Your gloves!’
‘I forgot them.’
‘Then where is your hat?’ he said. ‘You are freezing.’
‘You know very well I have no winter hat. My velvet walking hat has moth, and I haven’t had time to patch it.’
He stopped. ‘You cannot wear a walking hat with patches.’
‘It is a perfectly good hat. I just haven’t had time to see to it.’ I didn’t add that that was because I was running around the Left Bank trying to find his materials and collect the money he was owed to pay for them.
We were outside one of the grandest hat shops in Paris. He saw it, and pulled us both to a standstill. ‘Come,’ he said.
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Don’t disobey me, wife. You know I am easily tipped into the worst of moods.’ He took my arm, and before I could protest further, we had stepped into the shop. The door closed behind us, the bell ringing, and I gazed around in awe. On shelves or stands around the walls, reflected in huge gilded looking-glasses, were the most beautiful hats I had ever seen: enormous, intricate creations in jet black or flashy scarlet, wide brims trimmed with fur or lace. Marabou shivered in the disturbed air. The room smelt of dried roses. The woman who emerged from the back was wearing a satin hobble skirt; the most fashionable garment on the streets of Paris.
‘Can I help you?’ Her eyes travelled over my three-year-old coat and windblown hair.
‘My wife needs a hat.’
I wanted to stop him then. I wanted to tell him that if he insisted on buying me a hat we could go to La Femme Marché, that I might even be able to get a discount. He had no idea that this place was a couturier’s salon, beyond the realms of women like me.
‘Édouard, I –’
‘A really special hat.’
‘Certainly, sir. Did you have anything in mind?’
‘Something like this one.’ He pointed at a huge, dark red wide-brimmed Directoire-styled hat trimmed with black marabou. Dyed black peacock feathers arced in a spray across its brim.
‘Édouard, you cannot be serious,’ I murmured. But she had already lifted it reverently from its place, and as I stood gaping at him, she placed it carefully on my head, tucking my hair behind my collar.
‘I think it would look better if Madame removed her scarf.’ She positioned me in front of the mirror and unwound my scarf with such care that it might have been made of spun gold. I barely felt her. The hat changed my face completely. I looked, for the first time in my life, like one of the women I used to serve.
‘Your husband has a good eye,’ the woman said.
‘That’s the one,’ Édouard said happily.
‘Édouard.’ I pulled him to one side, my voice low and alarmed. ‘Look at the label. It is the price of three of your paintings.’
‘I don’t care. I want you to have the hat.’
‘But you will resent it. You will resent me. You should spend the money on materials, on canvases. This is – it’s not me.’
He cut me off. He motioned to the woman. ‘I’ll take it.’
And then, as she instructed her assistant to fetch a box, he turned back to my reflection. He ran his hand lightly down the side of my neck, bent my head gently to one side, and met my eye in the mirror. Then, the hat tilting, he dropped his head and kissed my neck where it met my shoulder. His mouth stayed there long enough for me to colour, and for the two women to look away in shock and pretend to busy themselves. When I lifted my head again, my gaze a little unfocused, he was still watching me in the mirror.
‘It is you, Sophie,’ he said, softly. ‘It is always you …’
That hat was still in our apartment in Paris. A million miles out of reach.
I set my jaw, walked away from the mirror and began to dress myself in the blue wool.
I told Hélène after the last German officer had left that evening. We were sweeping the floor of the restaurant, dusting the last of the crumbs from the tables. Not that there were many: even the Germans tended to pick up any strays, these days – the rations seemed to leave everyone wishing for more. I stood, my broom in my hand, and asked her quietly to stop for a moment. Then I told her about my walk in the wood, what I had asked of the Kommandant and what he had asked in return.
She blanched. ‘You did not agree to it?’
‘I said nothing.’
‘Oh, thank God.’ She shook her head, her hand against her cheek. ‘Thank God he cannot hold you to anything.’
‘But … that does not mean I won’t go.’
My sister sat down abruptly at a table, and after a moment I slid into the seat opposite her. She thought briefly, then took my hands. ‘Sophie, I know you are panicked but you must think about what you are saying. Think of what they did to Liliane. You would really give yourself to a German?’
‘I … have not promised as much.’
She stared at me.
‘I think … the Kommandant is honourable in his way. And, besides, he may not even want me to … He didn’t say that in so many words.’
‘Oh, you cannot be so naïve!’ She raised her hands heavenwards. ‘The Kommandant shot an innocent man dead! You watched him smash the head of one of his own men into a wall for the most minor misdemeanour! And you would go alone into his quarters? You cannot do this! Think!’
‘I have thought about little else. The Kommandant likes me. I think he respects me, in his way. And if I do not do this Édouard will surely die. You know what happens in those places. The mayor believes him as good as dead already.’
She leaned over the table, her voice urgent. ‘Sophie – there is no guarantee that Herr Kommandant will act honourably. He is a German! Why on earth should you trust a word that he says? You could lie down with him and it would all be for nothing!’
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