Hélène’s hand reached for mine. ‘You should have gone,’ she was whispering, her voice breaking. ‘You should have gone, Sophie …’ She made as if to take hold of me, but she was pulled away.
One of the Germans grabbed my arm, pushing me towards the back of the truck. Someone shouted something from the distance, but I couldn’t make out whether it was a protest at the Germans or some term of abuse aimed at me. Then I heard, ‘Putain! Putain!’ and flinched. He is sending me to Édouard, I told myself, when my heart felt as if it would break out of my chest. I know he is. I must have faith.
And then I heard her, her voice breaking into the silence. ‘Sophie!’ A child’s voice, piercing and anguished. ‘Sophie! Sophie!’ Édith burst through the crowd that had gathered and hurled herself at me and clutched my leg. ‘Don’t leave. You said you wouldn’t leave.’
It was the most she had said aloud since she had come to us. I swallowed, my eyes filling with tears. I stooped and put my arms around her. How can I leave her? My thoughts blurred, my senses narrowing to the feel of her little hands.
And then I glanced up and saw how the German soldiers watched her, something speculative in their gaze. I reached up and smoothed her hair. ‘Édith, you must stay with Hélène and be brave. Your maman and I will come back for you. I promise.’
She didn’t believe me. Her eyes were wide with fear.
‘Nothing bad is going to happen to me. I promise. I am going to see my husband.’ I tried to make her believe me, to fill my voice with certainty.
‘No,’ she said, her grip tightening. ‘No. Please don’t leave me.’
My heart broke. I pleaded silently with my sister. Take her away from here. Don’t let her see. Hélène prised her fingers from me. She was sobbing now. ‘Please don’t take my sister,’ she said to the soldiers, as she pulled Édith away. ‘She does not know her mind. Please don’t take my sister. She does not deserve this.’ The mayor put his arm around her shoulders, his expression confused, the fight knocked out of him by Aurélien’s words.
‘I will be all right, Édith. Be strong,’ I called to her, above the noise. Then someone spat at me, and I saw it, a thin, vile trail, upon my sleeve. The crowd jeered. Panic filled me. ‘Hélène?’ I called. ‘Hélène?’
German hands propelled me roughly into the back of the truck. I found myself in a dark interior, seated on a wooden bench. A soldier took his place opposite me, his rifle resting in the crook of his elbow. The canvas flap dropped down, and the engine fired into life. The noise swelled, and so did the sound of the crowd, as if this action had unleashed those who wished to abuse me. I wondered briefly if I could throw myself through the small gap, but then I heard, ‘Whore!’ followed by Édith’s thin wail, and the sharp crack of a stone as it hit the side of the truck, causing the soldier to bark out a warning. I flinched as another struck, behind where I was sitting. The German looked at me steadily. The slight smirk in his expression told me of my terrible mistake.
I sat, my hands pressed together on my bag, and began to shake. As the truck pulled away, I did not try to lift the canvas flap to see out. I did not want to feel the eyes of the town upon me. I did not want to hear their verdict. I sat on the arch of the wheel, and slowly dropped my head into my hands, murmuring, ‘Édouard, Édouard, Édouard,’ to myself. And: ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m not sure who I was apologizing to.
Only when I reached the outskirts of the town did I dare to look up. Through the flapping gap in the canvas, I could just see the red sign of Le Coq Rouge glinting in the winter sun, and the bright blue of Édith’s dress on the edge of the crowd. It grew smaller and smaller until finally, like the town, it disappeared.
Liv runs along the river, her bag wedged under her arm, her phone pressed between ear and shoulder. Somewhere around Embankment, the loaded grey skies over London have opened, dumping a near-tropical rainstorm across the centre of the capital, and the traffic sits stationary, the taxis’ exhaust pipes steaming, their windows obscured by the breath of their passengers.
‘I know,’ she says, for the fifteenth time, her jacket darkened and her hair plastered to her head. ‘I know … Yes, I’m well aware of the terms. I’m just waiting on a couple of payments that –’ She ducks into a doorway, pulls a pair of high heels from her handbag and slips them on, staring at her wet pumps as she realizes she has nowhere to put them. ‘Yes. Yes, I am … No, my circumstances haven’t changed. Not recently.’
She ducks out of the doorway and heads back on to the pavement, crossing the road and heading up towards Aldwych, the wet pumps in one hand. A car sends a spray of water over her feet and she stops, staring at its departing wheels in disbelief. ‘Are you kidding me?’ she yells. And then, ‘No, not you, Mr … Dean. Not you, Dean … Yes, I do appreciate you’re just doing your job. Look,’ she says. ‘I’ll have the payment by Monday. Okay? It’s not like I’ve been late paying before. Okay, once.’
Another taxi approaches and this time she ducks neatly back into a doorway. ‘Yes. I understand, Dean … I know. It must be very hard for you. Look – I promise you’ll have it on Monday … Yes. Yes, definitely. And I’m sorry about the whole shouting thing … I hope you get the new job too, Dean.’
She snaps shut her phone, stuffs it into her handbag, and looks up at the restaurant hoarding. She dips to check her reflection in a car mirror and despairs. There’s nothing to be done. She’s already forty minutes late.
Liv smoothes her wet hair from her face, and glances longingly back down the street. Then she takes a breath, pushes open the door of the restaurant and walks in.
‘There she is!’ Kristen Solberg stands up from her chair in the middle of the long table and opens her arms to greet her, air-kissing Liv noisily some inches from each side of her face. ‘Oh, my goodness, you’re drenched!’ Her hair is, of course, an immaculate chestnut sheet.
‘Yes. I walked. Not my best decision.’
‘Everybody, this is Liv Halston. She does wonderful things for our charity. And she lives in the most amazing house in London.’ Kristen smiles beneficently, then lowers her voice. ‘I’ll consider myself to have failed if she hasn’t been snapped up by some lovely man before Christmas.’
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