‘Touch me again and I will run this through you,’ I whispered. I could smell his stale breath and feel his shock. He had not expected resistance. I was not even sure he understood my words. But he understood that sharp edge. He lifted his hands, a gesture of surrender, perhaps of apology. I kept the glass pressed where it was for a moment longer, a message of my intent. In the near pitch dark my gaze briefly met his and I saw that he was afraid. He, too, had found himself in a world where there were no rules, no order. If it was a world where he might assault a stranger, it was also a world where she might slit his throat. The moment I released the pressure he scrambled to his feet. I could just make out his shape as it stumbled across the sleeping bodies to the other side of the factory.
I tucked the glass fragment into my skirt pocket, sat upright, my arms shielding Liliane’s sleeping form, and waited.
It seemed I had been asleep a matter of minutes when we were woken by shouting. German guards were moving through the middle of the room, hitting sleepers with the butts of their rifles to rouse them, kicking with their boots. I pushed myself upright. Pain shot through my head, and I stifled a cry. Through blurred vision I saw the soldiers moving towards us and pulled at Liliane, trying to get her upright before they could hit us.
In the harsh blue light of dawn, I could see our surroundings clearly. The factory was enormous and semi-derelict, a gaping, splintered hole at the centre of the roof, beams and windows scattered across the floor. At the far end the trestle tables were serving something that might have been coffee, and a hunk of black bread. I lifted Liliane – I had to get her across that vast space before the food ran out. ‘Where are we?’ she said, peering out of the shattered window. A distant boom told us we must be near the Front.
‘I have no idea,’ I said, filled with relief that she felt well enough to engage in some small conversation with me.
We got the cup filled with coffee, and some in the Frenchman’s bowl. I looked for him, anxious that we might be depriving him, but a German officer was already dividing the men into groups, and some of them were filing away from the factory. Liliane and I were ordered into a separate group of mainly women, and directed towards a communal water closet. In daylight, I could see the dirt ingrained in the other women’s skin, the grey lice that crawled freely upon their heads. I itched, and looked down to see one on my skirt. I brushed it off with a sense of futility. I would not escape them, I knew. It was impossible to spend so much time in close contact with others and avoid them.
There must have been three hundred women trying to wash and use the lavatory in a space designed for twelve people. By the time I could get Liliane anywhere close to the cubicles, we both retched at what we found. We cleaned ourselves at the cold-water pump as best we could, following the lead of the other women: they barely removed their clothes to wash, and glanced about warily, as if waiting for some subterfuge by the Germans. ‘Sometimes they burst in,’ Liliane said. ‘It is easier – and safer – to stay clothed.’
While the Germans were busy with the men, I scouted around outside in the rubble for twigs and pieces of string, then sat with Liliane. In the watery sunlight, I bound the broken fingers of her left hand to splints. She was so brave, barely wincing even when I knew I must be hurting her. She had stopped bleeding, but still walked gingerly, as if she were in pain. I dared not ask what had happened to her.
‘It is good to see you, Sophie,’ she said, examining her hand.
Somewhere in there, I thought, there might still be a shadow of the woman I knew in St Péronne. ‘I never was so glad to see another human being,’ I said, wiping her face with my clean handkerchief, and I meant it.
The men were sent on a work task. We could see them in the distance, queuing for shovels and pickaxes, formed into columns to march towards the infernal noise on the horizon. I said a silent prayer that our charitable Frenchman would stay safe, then offered up another, as I always did, for Édouard. The women, meanwhile, were directed towards a railway carriage. My heart sank at the thought of the next lengthy, stinking journey, but then I scolded myself. I may be only hours from Édouard, I thought. This may be the train that takes me to him.
I climbed aboard without complaint. This carriage was smaller, yet they seemed to expect all three hundred women to get into it. There was some swearing and a few muffled arguments as we attempted to sit. Liliane and I found a small space on the bench, me sitting at her feet, and I stuffed my bag underneath it, jamming it in. I regarded that bag with jealous propriety, as if it were a baby. Someone yelped as a shell burst close enough to make the train rattle.
‘Tell me about Édith,’ she said, as the train pulled off.
‘She’s in good spirits.’ I put as much reassurance into my voice as possible. ‘She eats well, sleeps peacefully, and she and Mimi are now inseparable. She adores the baby, and he adores her too.’ As I talked, painting a picture of her daughter’s life in St Péronne, her eyes closed. I could not tell if it was with relief or grief.
‘Is she happy?’
I answered carefully: ‘She is a child. She wants her maman. But she knows she is safe at Le Coq Rouge.’ I could not tell her more, but that seemed to be enough. I did not tell her about Édith’s nightmares, about the nights she had sobbed for her mother. Liliane was not stupid: I suspected she knew those things in her heart already. When I had finished, she stared out of the window for a long time, lost in thought.
‘And, Sophie, what brought you to this?’ she asked, eventually turning back to me.
There was probably nobody else in the world who would understand better than Liliane. I searched her face, fearful even now. But the prospect of being able to share my burden with another human being was too great a lure.
I told her. I told her about the Kommandant, the night I had gone to his barracks, and the deal I had offered him. She looked at me for a long time. She didn’t tell me I was a fool, or that I should not have believed him, or that my failure to do as the Kommandant had wished had been likely to bring about my death, if not that of those I loved.
She didn’t say anything at all.
‘I do believe he will keep his side of things. I do believe he will bring me to Édouard,’ I said, with as much conviction as I could muster. She reached out her good hand and squeezed mine.
At dusk, in a small forest, the train ground to a juddering halt. We waited for it to move off again, but this time the sliding doors opened at the rear, and the occupants, many of whom had only just fallen asleep, muttered complaints. I was half dozing and woke to Liliane’s voice in my ear. ‘Sophie. Wake up. Wake up.’
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