‘I think we have made ourselves clear, Madame. Our conversation is not finished. But I will not disturb you further tonight.’
He caught the flash of surprise on my face, barely suppressed, and I saw that it satisfied something in him. It was perhaps enough for him to know I had believed myself doomed. He was smart, this man, and subtle. I would have to be wary.
His soldiers turned, blindly obedient as ever, and walked out towards their vehicle, their uniforms silhouetted against the headlights. I followed him and stood just outside the door. The last I heard of his voice was the order to the driver to make for the town.
We waited as the military vehicle travelled back down the road, its headlights feeling their way along the pitted surface. Hélène had begun to shake. She scrambled to her feet, her hand white-knuckled at her brow, her eyes tightly shut. Aurélien stood awkwardly beside me, holding Mimi’s hand, embarrassed by his childish tears. I waited for the last sounds of the engine to die away. It whined over the hill, as if it, too, were acting under protest.
‘Are you hurt, Aurélien?’ I touched his head. Flesh wounds. And bruises. What kind of men attacked an unarmed boy?
He flinched. ‘It didn’t hurt,’ he said. ‘They didn’t frighten me.’
‘I thought he would arrest you,’ my sister said. ‘I thought he would arrest us all.’ I was afraid when she looked like that: as if she were teetering on the edge of some vast abyss. She wiped her eyes and forced a smile as she crouched to hug her daughter. ‘Silly Germans. They gave us all a fright, didn’t they? Silly Maman for being frightened.’
The child watched her mother, silent and solemn. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever see Mimi laugh again.
‘I’m sorry. I’m all right now,’ she went on. ‘Let’s all go inside. Mimi, we have a little milk I will warm for you.’ She wiped her hands on her bloodied gown, and held her hands towards me for the baby. ‘You want me to take Jean?’
I had started to tremble convulsively, as if I had only just realized how afraid I should have been. My legs felt watery, their strength seeping into the cobblestones. I felt a desperate urge to sit down. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I suppose you should.’
My sister reached out, then gave a small cry. Nestling in the blankets, swaddled neatly so that it was barely exposed to the night air, was the pink, hairy snout of the piglet.
‘Jean is asleep upstairs,’ I said. I thrust a hand at the wall to keep myself upright.
Aurélien looked over her shoulder. They all stared at it.
‘Is it dead?’
‘Chloroformed. I remembered Papa had a bottle in his study, from his butterfly-collecting days. I think it will wake up. But we’re going to have to find somewhere else to keep it for when they return. And you know they will return.’
Aurélien smiled then, a rare, slow smile of delight. Hélène stooped to show Mimi the comatose little pig, and they grinned. Hélène kept touching its snout, clamping a hand over her face, as if she couldn’t believe what she was holding.
‘You held the pig before them? They came here and you held it out in front of their noses? And then you told them off for coming here?’ Her voice was incredulous.
‘In front of their snouts,’ said Aurélien, who seemed suddenly to have recovered some of his swagger. ‘Hah! You held it in front of their snouts!’
I sat down on the cobbles and began to laugh. I laughed until my skin grew chilled and I didn’t know whether I was laughing or weeping. My brother, perhaps afraid I was becoming hysterical, took my hand and rested against me. He was fourteen, sometimes bristling like a man, sometimes childlike in his need for reassurance.
Hélène was still deep in thought. ‘If I had known …’ she said. ‘How did you become so brave, Sophie? My little sister! Who made you like this? You were a mouse when we were children. A mouse!’
I wasn’t sure I knew the answer.
And then, as we finally walked back into the house, as Hélène busied herself with the milk pan and Aurélien began to wash his poor, battered face, I stood before the portrait.
That girl, the girl Édouard had married, looked back with an expression I no longer recognized. He had seen it in me long before anyone else did: it speaks of knowledge, that smile, of satisfaction gained and given. It speaks of pride. When his Parisian friends had found his love of me – a shop girl – inexplicable, he had just smiled because he could already see this in me.
I never knew if he understood that it was only there because of him.
I stood and gazed at her and, for a few seconds, I remembered how it had felt to be that girl, free of hunger, of fear, consumed only by idle thoughts of what private moments I might spend with Édouard. She reminded me that the world is capable of beauty, and that there were once things – art, joy, love – that filled my world, instead of fear and nettle soup and curfews. I saw him in my expression. And then I realized what I had just done. He had reminded me of my own strength, of how much I had left in me with which to fight.
When you return, Édouard, I swear I will once again be the girl you painted.
The story of the pig-baby had reached most of St Péronne by lunchtime. The bar of Le Coq Rouge saw a constant stream of customers, even though we had little to offer other than chicory coffee; beer supplies were sporadic, and we had only a few ruinously expensive bottles of wine. It was astonishing how many people called just to wish us good day.
‘And you tore a strip off him? Told him to go away?’ Old René, chuckling into his moustache, was clutching the back of a chair and weeping tears of laughter. He had asked to hear the story four times now, and with every telling Aurélien had embellished it a little more, until he was fighting off the Kommandant with a sabre, while I cried ‘Der Kaiser ist Scheiss!’
I exchanged a small smile with Hélène, who was sweeping the floor of the café. I didn’t mind. There had been little enough to celebrate in our town lately.
‘We must be careful,’ Hélène said, as René left, lifting his hat in salute. We watched him, convulsed with renewed mirth as he passed the post office, pausing to wipe his eyes. ‘This story is spreading too far.’
‘Nobody will say anything. Everyone hates the Boche.’ I shrugged. ‘Besides, they all want a piece of pork. They’re hardly going to inform on us before their food arrives.’
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