‘My father never spoke of it.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Not everything that happens in a family is explicable.’
The room falls silent. Mo looks awkward. Liv tries to shift the subject. ‘So … do you know much about Monsieur Lefèvre?’
‘No. But I did acquire two of his works. After Sophie disappeared some paintings were sent to the hotel from a dealer in Paris; this was some time before I was born. As Sophie was not there, Hélène kept two, and gave two to my father. He told her he didn’t want them, but after he died, I found them in our attic. It was quite a surprise when I discovered what they were worth. One I gave to my daughter, who lives in Nantes. The other I sold some years ago. It pays for me to live here. This … is a nice place to live. So – maybe I think my relationship with my aunt Sophie was a good one, despite everything.’
His expression softens briefly.
Liv leans forward. ‘Despite everything?’
The old man’s expression is unreadable. She wonders, briefly, whether he has nodded off. But then he starts to speak. ‘There was talk … gossip … in St Péronne that my aunt was a collaborator. This was why my father said we must not discuss her. Easier to act as if she did not exist. Neither my aunt nor my father ever spoke of her when I was growing up.’
‘Collaborator? Like a spy?’
He waits a moment before answering. ‘No. That her relationship with the German occupiers was not … correct.’ He looks up at the two women. ‘It was very painful for our family. If you did not live through these times, if your family did not come from a small town, you cannot understand how it was for us. No letters, no pictures, no photographs. From the moment she was taken away, my aunt ceased to exist for my father. He was …’ he sighs ‘… an unforgiving man. Unfortunately the rest of her family decided to wipe her from our history too.’
‘Even her sister?’
Liv is stunned. For so long, she has thought of Sophie as one of life’s survivors, her expression triumphant, her adoration of her husband written on her face. She struggles to reconcile her Sophie with the image of this unloved, discarded woman.
There is a world of pain in the old man’s long, weary breath. Liv feels suddenly guilty for having made him revisit it. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she says, not knowing what else to say. She sees now they will get nothing here. No wonder Paul McCafferty had not bothered to come.
The silence stretches. Mo surreptitiously eats a macaroon. When Liv looks up, Philippe Bessette is gazing at her. ‘Thank you for seeing us, Monsieur.’ She touches his arm. ‘I find it hard to associate the woman you describe with the woman I see. I … have her portrait. I have always loved it.’
He lifts his head a few degrees. He looks at her steadily as Mo translates.
‘I honestly thought she looked like someone who knew she was loved. She seemed to have spirit.’
The nursing staff appear in the doorway, watching. Behind her a woman with a trolley looks in impatiently. The smell of food seeps through the doorway.
She stands to leave. But as she does so, Bessette holds up a hand. ‘Wait,’ he says, gesturing towards a bookshelf with an index finger. ‘The one with the red cover.’
Liv runs her fingers along the spines until he nods. She pulls a battered folder from the bookshelf.
‘These are my aunt Sophie’s papers, her correspondence. There is a little about her relationship with Édouard Lefèvre, things they discovered hidden around her room. Nothing about your painting, as I recall. But it may give you a clearer picture of her. At a time when her name was being blackened, it revealed my aunt to me … as human. A wonderful human being.’
Liv opens the folder carefully. Postcards, fragile letters, little drawings are tucked within it. She sees looping handwriting on a brittle piece of paper, the signature Sophie. Her breath catches in her throat.
‘I found it in my father’s things after he died. He told Hélène he had burned it, burned everything. She went to her grave thinking everything of Sophie was destroyed. That was the kind of man he was.’
She can barely tear her eyes from them. ‘I will copy them and send this straight back to you,’ she stammers.
He gives a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘What use do I have for them? I can no longer read.’
‘Monsieur – I have to ask. I don’t understand. Surely the Lefèvre family would have wanted to see all of this.’
She and Mo exchange looks. ‘Then why did you not give it to them?’
A veil seems to lower itself over his eyes. ‘It was the first time they visited me. What did I know about the painting? Did I have anything to help them? Questions, questions …’ He shakes his head, his voice lifting. ‘They cared nothing for Sophie before. Why should they profit at her expense now? Édouard’s family care for nobody but themselves. It is all money, money, money. I would be glad if they lost their case.’
His expression is mulish. The conversation is apparently closed. The nurse hovers at the door, signalling mutely with her watch. Liv knows they are on the point of outstaying their welcome, but she has to ask one more thing. She reaches for her coat.
‘Monsieur – do you know anything about what happened to your aunt Sophie after she left the hotel? Did you ever find out?’
He glances down at her picture and rests his hand there. His sigh emanates from somewhere deep within him.
‘She was arrested and taken by the Germans to the reprisal camps. And, like so many others, from the day she left, my family never saw or heard of her again.’
The cattle truck whined and jolted its way along roads pocked with holes, occasionally veering on to the grassy verges to avoid those that were too large to cross. A fine rain muffled sound, making the wheels spin in the loose earth, the engine roaring its protest and sending up clods of mud as the wheels struggled for purchase.
After two years in the quiet confines of our little town, I was shocked to see what life – and destruction – lay beyond it. Just a few miles from St Péronne, whole villages and towns were unrecognizable, shelled into oblivion, the shops and houses just piles of grey stone and rubble. Great craters sat in their midst, filled with water, their green algae and plant life hinting at their long standing, the townspeople mute as they watched us pass. I went through three towns without being able to identify where we were, and slowly I grasped the scale of what had been taking place around us.
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