‘I do,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I forget what he looks like. I gaze at his photograph, and I can’t remember anything.’
‘It’s because you look at it so often. Sometimes I think we wear our photographs out by looking at them.’
‘But I can’t remember anything – how he smells, how his voice sounds. I can’t remember how he feels beside me. It’s as if he never existed. And then I think, What if this is it? What if he never comes back? What if we are to spend the rest of our lives like this, our every move determined by men who hate us? And I’m not sure … I’m not sure I can …’
I propped myself up on one elbow and reached over Mimi and Jean to take my sister’s hand. ‘Yes, you can,’ I said. ‘Of course you can. Jean-Michel will come home, and your life will be good. France will be free, and life will be as it was. Better than it was.’
She lay there in silence. I was shivering now, out from under the blankets, but I dared not move. My sister frightened me when she spoke like this. It was as if there was a whole world of terrors inside her head that she had to battle against twice as hard as the rest of us.
Her voice was small, tremulous, as if she were fighting back tears. ‘Do you know, after I married Jean-Michel, I was so happy. I was free for the first time in my life.’
I knew what she meant: our father had been quick with his belt and sharp with his fists. The town believed him to be the most benign of landlords, a pillar of the community, good old François Bessette, always ready with a joke and a glass. But we knew the ferocity of his temper. Our only regret was that our mother had gone before him, so that she could have enjoyed a few years out of its shadow.
‘It feels … it feels like we have exchanged one bully for another. Sometimes I suspect I will spend my whole life bent to somebody else’s will. You, Sophie, I see you laughing. I see you determined, so brave, putting up paintings, shouting at Germans, and I don’t understand where it comes from. I can’t remember what it was like not to be afraid.’
We lay there in silence. I could hear my heart thumping. She believed me fearless. But nothing frightened me as much as my sister’s fears. There was a new fragility about her, these last months, a new strain around her eyes. I squeezed her hand. She did not squeeze back.
Between us, Mimi stirred, throwing an arm over her head. Hélène relinquished my hand, and I could just make out her shape as she moved on to her side, and gently tucked her daughter’s arm back under the covers. Oddly reassured by this gesture, I lay down again, pulling the blankets up to my chin to stop myself shivering.
‘Pork,’ I said, into the silence.
‘Just think about it. Roast pork, the skin rubbed with salt and oil, cooked until it snaps between your teeth. Think of the soft folds of warm white fat, the pink meat shredding softly between your fingers, perhaps with compôte of apple. That is what we will eat in a matter of weeks, Hélène. Think of how good it will taste.’
‘Yes. Pork. When I feel myself waver, I think of that pig, and its big fat belly. I think of its crisp little ears, its moist haunches.’ I almost heard her smile.
‘Sophie, you’re mad.’
‘But think of it, Hélène. Won’t it be good? Can you imagine Mimi’s face, with pork fat dribbling down her chin? How it will feel in her little tummy? Can you imagine her pleasure as she tries to remove bits of crackling from between her teeth?’
She laughed, despite herself. ‘I’m not sure she remembers how pork tastes.’
‘It won’t take much to remind her,’ I said. ‘Just like it won’t take much to remind you of Jean-Michel. One of these days he will walk through the doors, and you will throw your arms around him, and the smell of him, the feel of him holding you around your waist, will be as familiar to you as your own body.’
I could almost hear her thoughts travelling back upwards then. I had pulled her back. Little victories.
‘Sophie,’ she said, after a while. ‘Do you miss sex?’
‘Every single day,’ I said. ‘Twice as often as I think about that pig.’ There was a brief silence, and we broke into giggles. Then, I don’t know why, we were laughing so hard we had to clamp our hands over our faces to stop ourselves waking the children.
I knew the Kommandant would return. In the event it was four days before he did so. It was raining hard, a deluge, so that our few customers sat over empty cups gazing unseeing through the steamed windows. In the snug, old René and Monsieur Pellier played dominoes; Monsieur Pellier’s dog – he had to pay the Germans a tariff for the privilege of owning it – between their feet. Many people sat here daily so that they did not have to be alone with their fear.
I was just admiring Madame Arnault’s hair, newly pinned by my sister, when the glass doors opened and he stepped into the bar, flanked by two officers. The room, which had been a warm fug of chatty companionability, fell abruptly silent. I stepped out from behind the counter and wiped my hands on my apron.
Germans did not visit our bar, except for requisitioning. They used the Bar Blanc, at the top of the town, which was larger and possibly friendlier. We had always made it very clear that we were not a convivial space for the occupying force. I wondered what they were going to take from us now. If we had any fewer cups and plates we would have to ask customers to share.
I nodded at him. I could feel my customers’ eyes on me.
‘It has been decided you will provide meals for some of our officers. There is not enough room in the Bar Blanc for our incoming men to eat comfortably.’
I could see him clearly for the first time now. He was older than I had thought, in his late forties perhaps, although with fighting men it was hard to tell. They all looked older than they were.
‘I’m afraid that will be impossible, Herr Kommandant,’ I said. ‘We have not served meals at this hotel for more than eighteen months. We have barely enough provisions to feed our small family. We cannot possibly provide meals to the standard that your men will require.’
‘I am well aware of that. There will be sufficient supplies delivered from early next week. I will expect you to turn out meals suitable for officers. I understand this hotel was once a fine establishment. I’m sure it lies within your capabilities.’
I heard my sister’s intake of breath behind me, and I knew she felt as I did. The visceral dread of having Germans in our little hotel was tempered by the thought that for months had overridden all others: food. There would be leftovers, bones with which to make stock. There would be cooking smells, stolen mouthfuls, extra rations, slices of meat and cheese to be secretly pared off.
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