The Frenchman seemed briefly animated. ‘We should hold cups, bowls, anything out of the carriage if possible, while it rains. We do not know when we will next receive food or water.’
Liliane swallowed painfully. I positioned myself on the floor so that she could rest against me. With a squeal and the harsh grinding of metal on rails, the train moved off into the countryside.
I could not tell you how long we stayed on that train. It moved slowly, stopping frequently and without obvious reason. I stared out through the gap in the splintered boards, watching the endless movement of troops, prisoners and civilians through my battered country, holding the dozing Liliane in my arms. The rain grew heavier, and there were murmurs of satisfaction as the occupants passed round water they had gleaned. I was cold, but glad of the rain and the low temperature: I could not imagine how hellish this carriage might become in the heat when the odours would worsen.
As the hours stretched, the Frenchman and I talked. I asked about the number-plate on his cap, the red stripe on his jacket, and he told me he had come from the ZAB – the Zivilarbeiter Battalione, prisoners who were used for the very worst of jobs, shipped to the front, exposed to Allied fire. He told me of the trains he saw each week, packed with boys, women and young girls, criss-crossing the country to the Somme, to Escaut and Ardennes, to work as slave labour for the Germans. Tonight, he said, we would lodge in ruined barracks, factories or schools in evacuated villages. He did not know whether we would be taken to a prison camp or a work battalion.
‘They keep us weak through lack of food, so that we will not try to escape. Most are now grateful merely to stay alive.’ He asked if I had food in my bag and was disappointed when I had to say no. I gave him a handkerchief that Hélène had packed, feeling obliged to give him something. He looked at its laundered cotton freshness as if he were holding spun silk. Then he handed it back. ‘Keep it,’ he said, and his face closed. ‘Use it for your friend. What did she do?’
When I told him of her bravery, the lifeline of information she had brought to our town, he looked at her anew, as if he were no longer seeing a body but a human being. I told him I was seeking news of my husband, and that he had been sent to Ardennes. The Frenchman’s face was grave. ‘I spent several weeks there. You know that there has been typhoid? I will pray for you that your husband has survived.’ I swallowed back a lump of fear.
‘Where are the rest of your battalion?’ I asked him, trying to change the subject. The train slowed and we passed another column of trudging prisoners. Not a man looked up at the passing train, as if they were each too ashamed of their enforced slavery. I scanned the face of each one, fearful that Édouard might be among them.
It was a moment before he spoke. ‘I am the only one left.’
Several hours after dark we drew into a siding. The doors slid open noisily and German voices yelled at us to get out. Bodies unfolded themselves wearily from the floor, clutching enamel bowls, and made their way along a disused track. Our path was lined with German infantry, prodding us into line with their guns. I felt like an animal to be herded so, as if I were no longer human. I recalled the desperate escape of the young prisoner in St Péronne, and suddenly had an inkling of what had made him run, despite the knowledge that he was almost certain to fail.
I held Liliane close to me, supporting her under the arms. She walked slowly, too slowly. A German stepped behind us and kicked at her.
‘Leave her!’ I protested, and his rifle butt shot out and cracked my head so that I stumbled briefly to the ground. I felt hands pulling me up, and then I was moving forward again, dazed, my sight blurred. When I put my hand to my temple, it came away sticky with blood.
We were shepherded into a huge, empty factory. The floor crunched with broken glass, and a stiff night breeze whistled through the windows. In the distance, we could hear the boom of the big guns, even see the odd flash of an explosion. I peered out, wondering where we were, but our surroundings were blanketed in the black of night.
‘Here,’ a voice said, and the Frenchman was between us, supporting us, moving us towards a corner. ‘Look, there is food.’
Soup, served by other prisoners from a long table with two huge urns. I had not eaten since early that morning. It was watery, filled with indistinct shapes, but my stomach constricted with anticipation. The Frenchman filled his enamel bowl, and a cup that Hélène had put into my bag, and with three pieces of black bread, we sat in a corner and ate, giving sips to Liliane (the fingers of one hand were broken so she could not use them), wiping the bowl with our fingers to retrieve every last trace.
‘There is not always food. Perhaps our luck is changing,’ the Frenchman said, but without conviction. He disappeared towards the table with the urns where a crowd was already congregating in the hope of more, and I cursed myself for not being swift enough to go. I was afraid to leave Liliane, even for a moment. Minutes later he returned, the bowl filled. He stood beside us, then handed it to me and pointed at Liliane. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘She needs strength.’
Liliane lifted her head. She looked at him as if she could not remember what it was to be treated with kindness, and my eyes filled with tears. The Frenchman nodded at us, as if we were in another world and he was courteously bidding us good night, then withdrew to where the men slept. I sat and I fed Liliane Béthune, sip by sip, as I would have done a child. When she had consumed the second bowl, she gave a shaky sigh, rested her head against me and fell asleep. I sat there in the dark, surrounded by quietly moving bodies, some coughing, some weeping, hearing the accents of lost Russians, Englishmen and Poles. Through the floor I felt the occasional vibration as some distant shell hit home, a vibration that nobody else seemed to find remarkable. I listened to the distant guns, and the murmuring of the other prisoners, and as the temperature dropped I began to shiver. I pictured my home, Hélène sleeping beside me, little Édith, her hands wound into my hair. And I wept silently in the darkness, until finally, overcome by exhaustion, I, too, fell asleep.
I woke, and for several seconds I did not know where I was. Édouard’s arm was around me, his weight against me. There was a tiny crack in time, through which relief flooded – he was here! – before I realized that it was not my husband pressing against me. A man’s hand, furtive and insistent, was snaking its way inside my skirt, shielded by the dark, perhaps by his belief in my fear and exhaustion. I lay rigid, my mind turning to cold, hard fury as I understood what this intruder felt he could take from me. Should I scream? Would anyone care if I did? Would the Germans take it as another excuse to punish me? As I moved my arm slowly from its position half underneath me, my hand brushed against a shard of glass, cold and sharp, where it had been blasted from the windows. I closed my fingers around it and then, almost before I could consider what I was doing, I had spun on to my side and had its jagged edge pressed against the throat of my unknown assailant.
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