But still. ‘I am not sure our bar will be suitable for you, Herr Kommandant. We are stripped of comforts here.’
‘I will be the judge of where my men will be comfortable. I would like to see your rooms also. I may billet some of my men up here.’
I heard old René mutter, ‘Sacre bleu!’
‘You are welcome to see the rooms, Herr Kommandant. But you will find that your predecessors have left us with little. The beds, the blankets, the curtains, even the copper piping that fed the basins, they are already in German possession.’
I knew I risked angering him: I had made clear in a packed bar that the Kommandant was ignorant of the actions of his own men, that his intelligence, as far as it stretched to our town, was faulty. But it was vital that my own townspeople saw me as obstinate and mulish. To have Germans in our bar would make Hélène and me the target of gossip, of malicious rumour. It was important that we were seen to do all we could to deter them.
‘Again, Madame, I will be the judge of whether your rooms are suitable. Please show me.’ He motioned to his men to remain in the bar. It would be completely silent until after they had left.
I straightened my shoulders and walked slowly out into the hallway, reaching for the keys as I did so. I felt the eyes of the whole room on me as I left, my skirts swishing around my legs, the heavy steps of the German behind me. I unlocked the door to the main corridor (I kept everything locked: it was not unknown for French thieves to steal what had not already been requisitioned by the Germans).
This part of the building smelt musty and damp; it was months since I had been here. We walked up the stairs in silence. I was grateful that he remained several steps behind me. I paused at the top, waiting for him to step into the corridor, then unlocked the first room.
There had been a time when merely to see our hotel like this had reduced me to tears. The Red Room had once been the pride of Le Coq Rouge; the bedroom where my sister and I had spent our wedding nights, the room where the mayor would put up visiting dignitaries. It had housed a vast four-poster bed, draped in blood-red tapestries, and its generous window overlooked our formal gardens. The carpet was from Italy, the furniture from a château in Gascogne, the coverlet a deep red silk from China. It had held a gilt chandelier and a huge marble fireplace, where the fire was lit each morning by a chambermaid and kept alight until night.
I opened the door, standing back so that the German might enter. The room was empty, but for a chair that stood on three legs in the corner. The floorboards had been stripped of their carpet and were grey, thick with dust. The bed was long gone, with the curtains, among the first things stolen when the Germans had taken our town. The marble fireplace had been ripped from the wall. For what reason, I do not know: it was not as if it could be used elsewhere. I think Becker had simply wanted to demoralize us, to remove all things of beauty.
He took a step into the room.
‘Be careful where you walk,’ I said. He glanced down, then saw it: the corner of the room where they had attempted to remove the floorboards for firewood last spring. The house had been too well built, its boards nailed too securely, and they had given up after several hours when they had removed just three long planks. The hole, a gaping O of protest, exposed the beams beneath.
The Kommandant stood for a minute, staring at the floor. He lifted his head and gazed around him. I had never been alone in a room with a German, and my heart was thumping. I could smell the faint hint of tobacco on him, see the rain splashes on his uniform. I watched the back of his neck, and eased my keys between my fingers, ready to hit him with my armoured fist should he suddenly attack me. I would not be the first woman who had had to fight for her honour.
But he turned back to me. ‘Are they all as bad?’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘The others are worse.’
He looked at me for such a long time that I almost coloured. But I refused to let that man intimidate me. I stared back at him, at his cropped greying hair, his translucent blue eyes, studying me from under his peaked cap. My chin remained lifted, my expression blank.
Finally he turned and walked past me, down the stairs and into the back hallway. He stopped abruptly, peered up at my portrait and blinked twice, as if he were only now registering that I had moved it.
‘I will have someone inform you of when to expect the first delivery of food,’ he said. He went briskly through the doorway and back to the bar.
‘You should have said no.’ Madame Durant poked a bony finger into my shoulder. I jumped. She wore a white frilled bonnet, and a faded blue crocheted cape was pinned around her shoulders. Those who complained about lack of news now that we were not allowed newspapers had evidently never crossed my neighbour’s path.
‘Feeding the Germans. You should have said no.’
It was a freezing morning, and I had wrapped my scarf high around my face. I tugged it down to respond to her. ‘I should have said no? And you will say no, when they decide to occupy your house, will you, Madame?’
‘You and your sister are younger than I am. You have the strength to fight them.’
‘Unfortunately I lack the firearms of a battalion. What do you suggest I do? Barricade us all in? Throw cups and saucers at them?’
She continued to berate me as I opened the door for her. The bakery no longer smelt like a bakery. It was still warm inside, but the scent of baguettes and croissants had long since disappeared. This small fact made me sad every time I crossed the threshold.
‘I swear I do not know what this country is coming to. If your father could have seen Germans in his hotel …’ Madame Louvier had evidently been well briefed. She shook her head in disapproval as I approached the counter.
‘He would have done exactly the same thing.’
Monsieur Armand, the baker, shushed them. ‘You cannot criticize Madame Lefèvre! We are all their puppets now. Madame Durant, do you criticize me for baking their bread?’
‘I just think it’s unpatriotic to do their bidding.’
‘Easy to say when you’re not the one facing a bullet.’
‘So, more of them are coming here? More of them pushing their way into our storerooms, eating our food, stealing our animals. I swear I do not know how we will survive this winter.’
‘As we always have, Madame Durant. With stoicism and good humour, praying that Our Lord, if not our brave boys, will give the Boche a royal kick up their backsides.’ Monsieur Armand winked at me. ‘Now, ladies, what would you like? We have week-old black bread, five-day-old black bread, and some black bread of indeterminate age, guaranteed free of weevils.’
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