As the last of my hair was released, he lifted a hand and allowed the lock to trail through his fingers. His stillness was that of a man afraid to move, a hunter unwilling to startle his prey. And then he took my face gently between his hands and kissed me. I felt momentary panic; I couldn’t bring myself to kiss him back. But I allowed my lips to part for his, closed my eyes. Shock made my body alien to me. I felt his hands tighten around my waist, felt him propelling me backwards towards the bed. And all the while a silent voice reminded me that this was a trade. I was buying my husband his freedom. All I had to do was breathe. I kept my eyes closed, lay down against the impossible softness of the quilts. I felt his hands on my feet, pulling my shoes off, and then they were on my legs, sliding slowly up under my skirt. I could feel his eyes on my flesh as they rose higher.
He kissed me. He kissed my mouth, my chest, my bare stomach, his breathing audible, lost in a world of his own imaginings. He kissed my knees, my stockinged thighs, letting his mouth rest against bare skin as if its proximity were a source of unbearable pleasure. ‘Sophie,’ he murmured. ‘Oh, Sophie …’
And as his hands reached the innermost part of my thighs, some treacherous part of me sparked into life, a warmth that was nothing to do with the fire. Some part of me divorced itself from my heart, and let slip its hunger for touch, for the weight of a body against my own. As his lips traced my skin, I shifted slightly and out of nowhere a moan escaped my mouth. But the urgency of his response, the quickening of his breath on my face, quelled it as fast as it was born. My skirts were pushed up, my blouse pulled from my chest, and as I felt his mouth on my breast, I found myself turning, like some mythical figure, to stone.
German lips. German hands.
He was on top of me now, his weight pinning me to the bed. I could feel his hands tugging at my underclothes, desperate to get inside them. He pushed my knee to one side, half collapsing on my chest in his desperation. I felt him hard, unyielding, against my leg. Something ripped. And then, with a little gasp, he was inside me, and my eyes were tight shut, my jaw clenched to stop myself crying out in protest.
In. In. In. I could hear the hoarseness of his breathing in my ear, feel the faint sheen of his sweat against my skin, the buckle of his belt against my thigh. My body moved, propelled by the urgency of his. Oh, God, what have I done? In. In. In. My fists closed around two handfuls of quilt, my thoughts jumbled and transient. Some distant part of me resented their soft, heavy warmth more than almost anything. Stolen from someone. Like they stole everything. Occupied. I was occupied. I disappeared. I was in a street in Paris, rue Soufflot. The sun was shining, and around me, as I walked, I could see Parisian women in their finery, the pigeons strutting through the dappled shadows of the trees. My husband’s arm was linked through mine. I wanted to say something to him but instead I let out a small sob. The scene stilled, and evaporated. And then I was aware dimly that it had stopped. The pushing slowed, then stopped. Everything had stopped. The thing. His thing was no longer inside me but soft, curling apologetically against my groin. I opened my eyes, and found myself looking straight into his.
The Kommandant’s face, inches from my own, was flushed, his expression agonized. I stopped breathing as I grasped his predicament. I didn’t know what to do. But his eyes locked on mine and he knew that I knew. He pushed himself roughly backwards so that his weight was off me.
‘You –’ he began.
‘What?’ I was conscious of my exposed br**sts, my skirt bunched around my waist.
‘Your expression … so …’
He stood, and I averted my eyes while I heard him pull up his trousers and fasten them. He stared rigidly away from me, one hand on the top of his head.
‘I – I’m sorry,’ I began. I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for. ‘What did I do?’
‘You – you – I didn’t want that!’ He gestured towards me. ‘Your face …’
‘I don’t understand.’ I was almost angry then, accosted by the unfairness of it. Did he have any idea what I had endured? Did he know what it had cost me to let him touch me? ‘I did what you wanted!’
‘I didn’t want you like that! I wanted …’ he said, his hand lifted in frustration. ‘I wanted this! I wanted the girl in the painting!’
We both stared in silence at the portrait. The girl gazed steadily back at us, her hair around her neck, her expression challenging, glorious, sexually replete. My face.
I pulled my skirts over my legs, clutched my blouse around my neck. When I spoke, my voice was thick, tremulous. ‘I gave you … Herr Kommandant … everything I was capable of giving.’
His eyes became opaque, a sea that had frozen. The tic jumped in his jaw, a juddering pulse. ‘Get out,’ he said quietly.
‘I’m sorry,’ I stammered, when I realized I had heard him correctly. ‘If … I can … ’
‘GET OUT!’ he roared. He grabbed my shoulder, his fingers digging into my flesh, and wrenched me across the room.
‘My shoes … my shawls!’
‘OUT, DAMN YOU!’ I had time only to grab my painting, and then I was propelled out of the door, stumbling to my knees at the top of the stairs, my mind still struggling to grasp what was happening. There was the sound of a tremendous crash behind the door. And then another, this time accompanied by the sound of splintering glass. I glanced behind me. Then, barefoot, I ran down the stairs, across the courtyard and fled.
It took me almost an hour to walk home. I lost the feeling in my feet after a quarter of a mile. By the time I reached the town they were so frozen that I was not aware of the cuts and grazes I had collected on the long walk up the flinted farm track. I walked on, stumbling through the dark, the painting under my arm, shivering in my thin blouse, and I felt nothing. As I walked, my shock gave way to understanding of what I had done, and what I had lost. My mind spun with it. I walked through the deserted streets of my home town, no longer caring if anyone saw me.
I reached Le Coq Rouge shortly before one o’clock. I heard the clock chime a solitary note as I stood outside, and wondered briefly whether it would be better for everyone if I failed to let myself in at all. And then, as I stood there, a tiny glow appeared behind the gauze curtain and the bolts were drawn back on the other side. Hélène appeared, her night bonnet on, her white shawl around her. She must have waited up for me.
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