The pig had been moved discreetly next door in the early hours of the morning. Some months ago Aurélien, chopping up old beer barrels for firewood, had discovered that the only thing separating the labyrinthine wine cellar from that of the neighbours, the Fouberts, was a single-skin brick wall. We had carefully removed several of the bricks, with the Fouberts’ co-operation, and this had become an escape route of last resort. When the Fouberts had harboured a young Englishman, and the Germans had arrived unannounced at their door at dusk, Madame Foubert had pleaded incomprehension at the officer’s instructions, giving the young man just enough time to sneak down to the cellar and through into our side. They had taken her house to pieces, even looked around the cellar, but in the dim light, not one had noticed that the mortar in the wall was suspiciously gappy.
This was the story of our lives: minor insurrections, tiny victories, a brief chance to ridicule our oppressors, little floating vessels of hope amid a great sea of uncertainty, deprivation and fear.
‘You met the new Kommandant, then?’ The mayor was seated at one of the tables near the window. As I brought him some coffee, he motioned to me to sit down. More than anyone else’s, his life, I often thought, had been intolerable since the occupation: he had spent his time in a constant state of negotiation with the Germans to grant the town what it needed, but periodically they had taken him hostage to force recalcitrant townspeople to do their bidding.
‘It was not a formal introduction,’ I said, placing the cup in front of him.
He tilted his head towards me, his voice low. ‘Herr Becker has been sent back to Germany to run one of the reprisal camps. Apparently there were inconsistencies in his book-keeping.’
‘That’s no surprise. He is the only man in Occupied France who has doubled in weight in two years.’ I was joking, but my feelings at his departure were mixed. On the one hand Becker had been harsh, his punishments excessive, born out of insecurity and a fear that his men would not think him strong enough. But he had been too stupid – blind to many of the town’s acts of resistance – to cultivate any relationships that might have helped his cause.
‘So, what do you think?’
‘Of the new Kommandant? I don’t know. He could have been worse, I suppose. He didn’t pull the house apart, where Becker might have, just to show his strength. But …’ I wrinkled my nose ‘… he’s clever. We might have to be extra careful.’
‘As ever, Madame Lefèvre, your thoughts are in harmony with my own.’ He smiled at me, but not with his eyes. I remembered when the mayor had been a jolly, blustering man, famous for his bonhomie: he’d had the loudest voice at any town gathering.
‘Anything coming in this week?’
‘I believe there will be some bacon. And coffee. Very little butter. I hope to have the exact rations later today.’
We gazed out of the window. Old René had reached the church. He stopped to talk to the priest. It was not hard to guess what they were discussing. When the priest began to laugh, and René bent double for the fourth time, I couldn’t suppress a giggle.
‘Any news from your husband?’
I turned back to the mayor. ‘Not since August, when I had a postcard. He was near Amiens. He didn’t say much.’ I think of you day and night, the postcard had said, in his beautiful loopy scrawl. You are my lodestar in this world of madness. I had lain awake for two nights worrying after I had received it, until Hélène had pointed out that ‘this world of madness’ might equally apply to a world in which one lived on black bread so hard it required a billhook to cut it, and kept pigs in a bread oven.
‘The last I received from my eldest son came nearly three months ago. They were pushing forward towards Cambrai. Spirits good, he said.’
‘I hope they are still good. How is Louisa?’
‘Not too bad, thank you.’ His youngest daughter had been born with a palsy; she failed to thrive, could eat only certain foods and, at eleven, was frequently ill. Keeping her well was a preoccupation of our little town. If there was milk or any dried vegetable to be had, a little spare usually found its way to the mayor’s house.
‘When she is strong again, tell her Mimi was asking after her. Hélène is sewing a doll for her that is to be the exact twin of Mimi’s own. She asked that they might be sisters.’
The mayor patted her hand. ‘You girls are too kind. I thank God that you returned here when you could have stayed in the safety of Paris.’
‘Pah. There is no guarantee that the Boche won’t be marching down the Champs-Élysées before long. And besides, I could not leave Hélène alone here.’
‘She would not have survived this without you. You have grown into such a fine young woman. Paris was good for you.’
‘My husband is good for me.’
‘Then God save him. God save us all.’ The mayor smiled, placed his hat on his head and stood up to leave.
St Péronne, where the Bessette family had run Le Coq Rouge for generations, had been among the first towns to fall to the Germans in the autumn of 1914. Hélène and I, our parents long dead and our husbands at the Front, had determined to keep the hotel going. We were not alone in taking on men’s work: the shops, the local farms, the school were almost entirely run by women, aided by old men and boys. By 1915 there were barely any men left in the town.
We did good business in the early months, with French soldiers passing through and the British not far behind. Food was still plentiful, music and cheering accompanied the marching troops, and most of us still believed the war would be over within months, at worst. There were a few hints of the horrors taking place a hundred miles away: we gave food to the Belgian refugees who traipsed past, their belongings teetering on wagons; some were still clad in slippers and the clothes they had worn when they had left their homes. Occasionally, if the wind blew from the east, we could just make out the distant boom of the guns. But although we knew that the war was close by, few believed St Péronne, our proud little town, could possibly join those that had fallen under German rule.
Proof of how wrong we had been had come accompanied by the sound of gunfire on a still, cold, autumn morning, when Madame Fougère and Madame Dérin had set out for their daily six forty-five a.m. stroll to the boulangerie, and were shot dead as they crossed the square.
I had pulled back the curtains at the noise and it had taken me several moments to comprehend what I saw: the bodies of those two women, widows and friends for most of their seventy-odd years, sprawled on the pavement, headscarves askew, their empty baskets upended at their feet. A sticky red pool spread around them in an almost perfect circle, as if it had come from one entity.
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