I stared out through the swaying tarpaulin flap, watching the columns of mounted soldiers pass on skeletal horses, the grey-faced men hauling stretchers, their uniforms dark and wet, the swaying trucks from which wary faces looked out, with blank, fathomless stares. Occasionally the driver stopped the truck and exchanged a few words with another driver, and I wished I knew some German so that I might have some idea of where I was going. The shadows were faint, given the rain, but we seemed to be moving south-east. The direction of Ardennes, I told myself, struggling to keep my breathing under control. I had decided the only way to control the visceral fear that kept threatening to choke me was to reassure myself I was heading towards Édouard.
In truth, I felt numb. Those first few hours in the back of the truck I could not have formed a sentence if you had asked me. I sat, the harsh voices of my townspeople still ringing in my ears, my brother’s expression of disgust in my mind, and my mouth dried to dust with the truth of what had just taken place. I saw my sister, her face contorted with grief, felt the fierce grip of Édith’s little arms as she attempted to hang on to me. My fear in those moments was so intense that I thought I might disgrace myself. It came in waves, making my legs shake, my teeth chatter. And then, staring out at the ruined towns, I saw that for many the worst had already happened, and I told myself to be calm: this was merely a necessary stage in my return to Édouard. This was what I had asked for. I had to believe that.
An hour outside St Péronne the guard opposite me had folded his arms, tilted his head back against the wall of the truck and slept. He had evidently decided I was no threat, or perhaps he was so exhausted that he could not fight the rocking motion of the vehicle enough to stay awake. As the fear crept up on me again, like some predatory beast, I closed my eyes, pressed my hands together on my bag, and thought of my husband …
Édouard was chuckling to himself.
‘What?’ I entwined my arms around his neck, letting his words fall softly against my skin.
‘I am thinking of you last night, chasing Monsieur Farage around his own counter.’
Our debts had grown too great. I had dragged Édouard round the bars of Pigalle, demanding money from those who owed him, refusing to leave until we were paid. Farage had refused and then insulted me, so Édouard, usually slow to anger, had shot out a huge fist and hit him. He had been out cold even before he struck the floor. We had left the bar in uproar, tables overturned, glasses flying about our ears. I had refused to run, but picked up my skirt and walked out in an orderly fashion, pausing to take the exact amount Édouard was owed from the till.
‘You are fearless, little wife.’
‘With you beside me, I am.’
I must have dozed off, and woke as the truck jolted to a halt, my head smacking against the roof brace. The guard was outside the vehicle, talking to another soldier. I peered out, rubbing my head, stretching my cold, stiff limbs. We were in a town, but the railway station had a new German name that was unrecognizable to me. The shadows had lengthened and the light dimmed, suggesting that evening was not far away. The tarpaulin lifted, and a German soldier’s face appeared. He seemed surprised to find only me inside. He shouted, and gestured that I should get out. When I didn’t move swiftly enough, he hauled at my arm so that I stumbled, my bag falling to the wet ground.
It had been two years since I had seen so many people in one place. The station, which comprised two platforms, was a teeming mass, mostly soldiers and prisoners as far as I could see. Their armbands and striped, grubby clothing marked out the prisoners. They kept their heads down. I found myself scanning their faces, as I was thrust through them, looking for Édouard, but I was pushed too quickly and they became a blur.
‘Hier! Hier!’ A door slid sideways and I was shoved into a freight carriage, its boarded sides revealing a shadowy mass of bodies inside. I fought to keep hold of my bag and heard the door slam behind me as my eyes adjusted to the dim light.
Inside there were two narrow wooden benches along each side, nearly every inch covered with bodies. More occupied the floor. At the edges some lay, their heads resting on small bundles of what might have been clothing. Everything was so filthy it was hard to tell. The air was thick with the foul smells of those who had not been able to wash, or worse, for some time.
‘Français?’ I said, into the silence. Several faces looked blankly at me. I tried again.
‘Ici,’ said a voice near the back. I began to make my way carefully down the length of the carriage, trying not to disturb those who were sleeping. I heard a voice that might have been Russian. I trod on someone’s hair, and was cursed. Finally I reached the rear of the carriage. A shaven-headed man was looking at me. His face was scarred, as if with some recent pox, and his cheekbones jutted from his face like those of a skull.
‘Français?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘What is this? Where are we going?’
‘Where are we going?’ He regarded me with astonishment, and then, when he grasped that my question was serious, laughed mirthlessly.
‘Tours, Amiens, Lille. How would I know? They keep us on some endless cross-country chase so that none of us knows where we are.’
I was about to speak again when I saw the shape on the floor. A black coat so familiar that at first I dared not look closer. I stepped forward, past the man, and knelt down. ‘Liliane?’ I could see her face, still bruised, under what remained of her hair. She opened one eye, as if she did not trust her ears. ‘Liliane! It’s Sophie.’
She gazed at me. ‘Sophie,’ she whispered. Then she lifted a hand and touched mine. ‘Édith?’ Even in her frail state I could hear the fear in her voice.
‘She is with Hélène. She is safe.’
The eye closed.
‘Are you sick?’ It was then I saw the blood, dried, around her skirt. Her deathly pallor.
‘Has she been like this for long?’
The Frenchman shrugged, as if he had seen too many bodies like Liliane’s to feel anything as distinct as compassion now. ‘She was here some hours ago when we came aboard.’
Her lips were chapped, her eyes sunken. ‘Does anyone have water?’ I called. A few faces turned to me.
The Frenchman said pityingly, ‘You think this is a buffet car?’
I tried again, my voice lifting. ‘Does anyone have a sip of water?’ I could see faces turning to each other.
‘This woman risked her life to bring information to our town. If anyone has water, please, just a few drops.’ A murmur went through the carriage. ‘Please! For the love of God!’ And then, astonishingly, minutes later, an enamel bowl was passed along. It had a half-inch of what might have been rainwater in the bottom. I called out my thanks and lifted Liliane’s head gently, tipping the precious drops into her mouth.
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