‘I did not come to eat at the hotel tonight. I thought about what you said, that you are already considered a traitor for our presence in your home.’
I took a sip of my wine.
‘I do not wish to cause you more problems, Sophie … more than we already cause you by our occupation.’
I didn’t know what to say to this. I took another sip. His eyes kept darting to mine, as if he were waiting for some response.
From across the courtyard we could hear singing. I wondered whether the girls were with the men, then who they were, which villages they had come from. Would they, too, be paraded through the streets as criminals afterwards for what they had done? Did they know the fate of Liliane Béthune?
‘Are you hungry?’ He gestured towards a small tray of bread and cheese. I shook my head. I had had no appetite all day.
‘It’s not quite up to the normal standards of your cooking, I admit. I was thinking the other day of that duck dish you made last month. With the orange. Perhaps you would do that for us again.’ He kept talking. ‘But our supplies are dwindling. I found myself dreaming of a Christmas cake called Stollen. Do you have it in France?’
I shook my head again.
We sat on each side of the fire. I felt electrified, as if each part of me were fizzing, transparent. I felt as if he could see through my skin. He knew everything. He held everything. I listened to the distant voices, and every now and then my presence there hit me. I am alone with a Kommandant, in the German barracks. In a room with a bed.
‘Did you think about what I said?’ I blurted out.
He stared at me for a minute. ‘You would not allow us the pleasure of a small conversation?’
I swallowed. ‘I’m sorry. But I must know.’
He took a sip of wine. ‘I have thought of little else.’
‘Then …’ My breath stalled in my chest. I leaned over, put my glass down and unwrapped the painting. I placed it against the chair, lit by the fire, so that he could see it in its finest aspect. ‘Will you take it? Will you take it in exchange for my husband’s freedom?’
The air in the room grew still. He didn’t look at the picture. His eyes stayed on mine, unblinking, unreadable.
‘If I could convey to you what this painting means to me … if you knew how it had kept me going in the darkest of days … you would know I could not offer it lightly. But I … would not mind the painting going to you, Herr Kommandant.’
‘Friedrich. Call me Friedrich.’
‘Friedrich. I … have long known that you understood my husband’s work. You understand beauty. You understand what an artist puts of himself into a piece of work, and why it is a thing of infinite value. So while it will break my heart to lose it, I give it willingly. To you.’
He was still staring at me. I did not look away. Everything depended on this moment. I saw an old scar running several inches from his left ear down his neck, a lightly silvered ridge. I saw that his bright blue eyes were rimmed with black, as if someone had drawn around each iris for emphasis.
‘It was never about the painting, Sophie.’
And there it was: confirmation of my fate.
I closed my eyes briefly and let myself absorb this knowledge.
The Kommandant began to talk about art. He spoke of an art teacher he had known as a young man, a teacher who had opened his eyes to work far from the classicism of his upbringing. He spoke of how he had tried to explain this rougher, more elemental way of painting to his father, and his disappointment at the older man’s incomprehension. ‘He told me it looked “unfinished”,’ he said sadly. ‘He believed that veering from the traditional was an act of rebellion in itself. I think my wife is much the same.’
I barely heard him. I lifted my glass and took a long draught. ‘May I have some more?’ I said. I emptied it, then asked for it to be refilled again. I have never drunk like that, before or since. I didn’t care if I appeared rude. The Kommandant continued to talk, his voice a low monotone. He didn’t ask anything of me in return: it was as if he wanted me only to listen. He wanted me to know that there was someone else behind the uniform and the peaked cap. But I barely heard him. I wished to blur the world around me, for this decision not to be mine.
‘Do you think we would have been friends, if we had met in other circumstances? I like to think we would.’
I tried to forget that I was there, in that room, with a German’s eyes upon me. I wanted to be a thing, unfeeling, unknowing.
‘Will you dance with me, Sophie?’
The way he kept saying my name, as if he were entitled to.
I put down my glass and stood, my arms useless at my sides as he walked over to the gramophone and put on a slow waltz. He moved towards me and hesitated just a minute before putting his arms around me. As the music crackled into life, we began to dance. I moved slowly around the room, my hand in his, my fingers light against the soft cotton of his shirt. I danced, my mind blank, vaguely conscious of his head as it came to rest against mine. I smelt soap and tobacco, felt his trousers brush against my skirt. He held me, not pulling me to him, but carefully, as one might hold something fragile. I closed my eyes, allowing myself to sink into a haze, trying to train my mind to follow the music, to put myself somewhere else. Several times I tried to imagine he was Édouard, but my mind wouldn’t let me. Everything about this man was too different: his feel, his size against mine, the scent of his skin.
‘Sometimes,’ he said softly, ‘it seems there is so little beauty left in this world. So little joy. You think life is harsh in your little town. But if you saw what we see outside it … Nobody wins. Nobody wins in a war like this.’
It was as if he was speaking to himself. My fingers rested on his shoulder. I could feel the muscles move beneath his shirt as he breathed.
‘I am a good man, Sophie,’ he murmured. ‘It is important to me that you understand that. That we understand each other.’
And then the music stopped. He released me reluctantly, and went to reset the needle. He waited for the music to start again, and then, instead of dancing, he gazed for a moment at my portrait. I felt a glimmer of hope – perhaps he would still change his mind? – but then, after the slightest hesitation, he reached up and gently pulled one of the pins from my hair. As I stood, frozen, he removed the remaining pins carefully, one by one, placing them on the table, letting my hair fall softly around my face. He had drunk almost nothing but there was a glazed quality to his expression, as he watched, melancholy. His eyes searched mine, asking a question. My own gaze was unblinking, like that of a porcelain doll. But I did not look away.
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