The German officers claimed afterwards that snipers had shot at them and that they had acted in retaliation. (Apparently they said the same of every village they took.) If they had wanted to prompt insurrection in the town, they could not have done better than their killing of those old women. But the outrage did not stop there. They set fire to barns and shot down the statue of Mayor Leclerc. Twenty-four hours later they marched in formation down our main street, their Pickelhaube helmets shining in the wintry sunlight, as we stood outside our homes and shops and watched in shocked silence. They ordered the few remaining men outside so that they could count them.
The shopkeepers and stallholders simply shut their shops and stalls and refused to serve them. Most of us had stockpiled food; we knew we could survive. I think we believed they might give up, faced with such intransigence, and march on to another village. But then Kommandant Becker had decreed that any shopkeeper who failed to open during normal working hours would be shot. One by one, the boulangerie, the boucherie, the market stalls and even Le Coq Rouge reopened. Reluctantly, our little town was prodded back into sullen, mutinous life.
Eighteen months on, there was little left to buy. St Péronne was cut off from its neighbours, deprived of news and dependent on the irregular delivery of aid, supplemented by costly black-market provisions when they were available. Sometimes it was hard to believe that Free France knew what we were suffering. The Germans were the only ones who ate well; their horses (our horses) were sleek and fat, and ate the crushed wheat that should have been used to make our bread. They raided our wine cellars, and took the food produced by our farms.
And it wasn’t just food. Every week someone would get the dreaded knock on the door, and a new list of items would be requisitioned: teaspoons, curtains, dinner plates, saucepans, blankets. Occasionally an officer would inspect first, note what was desirable, and return with a list specifying exactly that. They would write promissory notes, which could supposedly be exchanged for money. Not a single person in St Péronne knew anyone who had actually been paid.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m moving this.’ I took the portrait and moved it to a quiet corner, less in public gaze.
‘Who is it?’ Aurélien asked as I re-hung it, adjusting it on the wall until it was straight.
‘It’s me!’ I turned to him. ‘Can you not tell?’
‘Oh.’ He squinted. He wasn’t trying to insult me: the girl in the painting was very different from the thin, severe woman, grey of complexion, with wary, tired eyes, who stared back at me daily from the looking-glass. I tried not to glimpse her too often.
‘Did Édouard do it?’
‘Yes. When we were married.’
‘I’ve never seen his paintings. It’s … not what I expected.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well – it’s strange. The colours are strange. He has put green and blue in your skin. People don’t have green and blue skin! And look – it’s messy. He has not kept within the lines.’
‘Aurélien, come here.’ I walked to the window. ‘Look at my face. What do you see?’
I cuffed him. ‘No. Look – really look. At the colours of my skin.’
‘You’re just pale.’
‘Look harder – under my eyes, in the hollows of my throat. Don’t tell me what you expect to see. Really look. And then tell me what colours you actually see.’
My brother stared at my throat. His gaze travelled slowly around my face. ‘I see blue,’ he said, ‘under your eyes. Blue and purple. And, yes, green running down your neck. And orange. Alors – call the doctor! Your face is a million different colours. You are a clown!’
‘We are all clowns,’ I said. ‘Édouard just sees it more clearly than everyone else.’
Aurélien raced upstairs to inspect himself in the looking-glass and torment himself about the blues and purples he would no doubt find. Not that he needed much excuse, these days. He was sweet on at least two girls and spent much time shaving his soft, juvenile skin with our father’s blunt old cut-throat razor in a vain attempt to hasten the process of ageing.
‘It’s lovely,’ Hélène said, standing back to look at it.
‘It is a risk to have it up at all. When the Germans went through Lille, they burned art they considered subversive. Édouard’s painting is … very different. How do you know they won’t destroy it?’
She worried, Hélène. She worried about Édouard’s paintings and our brother’s temper; she worried about the letters and diary entries I wrote on scraps of paper and stuffed into holes in the beams. ‘I want it down here, where I can see it. Don’t worry – the rest are safe in Paris.’
She didn’t look convinced.
‘I want colour, Hélène. I want life. I don’t want to look at Napoleon or Papa’s stupid pictures of mournful dogs. And I won’t let them –’ I nodded outside to where off-duty German soldiers were smoking by the town fountain ‘– decide what I may look at in my own home.’
Hélène shook her head, as if I were a fool she might have to indulge. And then she went to serve Madame Louvier and Madame Durant who, although they had often observed that my chicory coffee tasted as if it had come from the sewer, had arrived to hear the story of the pig-baby.
Hélène and I shared a bed that night, flanking Mimi and Jean. Sometimes it was so cold, even in October, that we feared we would find them frozen solid in their nightclothes, so we all huddled up together. It was late, but I knew my sister was awake. The moonlight shone through the gap in the curtains, and I could just see her eyes, wide open, fixed on a distant point. I guessed that she was wondering where her husband was at that very moment, whether he was warm, billeted somewhere like our home, or freezing in a trench, gazing up at the same moon.
In the far distance a muffled boom told of some far-off battle.
‘Yes?’ We spoke in the quietest of whispers.
‘Do you ever wonder what it will be like … if they do not come back?’
I lay there in the darkness.
‘No,’ I lied. ‘Because I know they will come back. And I do not want the Germans to have gleaned even one more minute of fear from me.’
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