A German guard stood in the doorway. It took me a moment to realize he was calling my name. I jumped up, remembering to grab my bag, and motioned for Liliane to come with me.
‘Karten,’ he demanded. Liliane and I presented our identity cards. He checked our names on a list, and pointed towards a truck. We heard the disappointed hiss of the other women as the doors slammed behind us.
Liliane and I were pushed towards the truck. I felt her lag a little. ‘What?’ I said. Her expression was clouded with distrust.
‘I don’t like this,’ she said, glancing behind her, as the train began to move away.
‘It’s good,’ I insisted. ‘I think this means we are being singled out. I think this is the Kommandant’s doing.’
‘That is what I don’t like,’ she said.
‘Also – listen – I cannot hear the guns. We must be moving away from the Front. This is good, surely?’
We limped to the back of the truck, and I helped her aboard, scratching the back of my neck. I had begun to itch, detected lice beneath my clothing. I tried to ignore them. It had to be a good sign that we had been removed from the train. ‘Have faith,’ I said, and squeezed her arm. ‘If nothing else we have room to move our legs at last.’
A young guard climbed in at the back, and glared at us. I tried to smile, to reassure him that I was unlikely to attempt to escape, but he looked at me with disgust, and placed his rifle between us like a warning. I realized then that I, too, probably smelt unwashed, that forced into such close proximity my own hair might soon be crawling with insects, and I busied myself with searching my clothing and picking out those I found.
The truck pulled away and Liliane winced at every jolt. Within a few miles she had fallen asleep again, exhausted by pain. My own head throbbed, and I was grateful that the guns seemed to have stopped. Have faith, I willed us both silently.
We were almost an hour on the open road, the winter sun slowly dipping behind the distant mountains, the verges glinting with ice crystals, when the tarpaulin flipped up, revealing a flash of road sign. I must have been mistaken, I thought. I leaned forward, lifting the edge of the flap so that I might not miss the next, squinting against the light. And there it was.
The world seemed to stop around me.
‘Liliane?’ I whispered, and shook her awake. ‘Liliane. Look out. What do you see?’ The truck had slowed to make its way around some craters, so as she peered out I knew she must see it.
‘We are meant to be going south,’ I said. ‘South to Ardennes.’ Now I could see that the shadows were behind us. We were driving east, and had been for some time. ‘But Édouard is in Ardennes.’ I couldn’t keep the panic from my voice. ‘I had word that he was there. We were meant to be going south to Ardennes. South.’
Liliane let the flap drop. When she spoke, she didn’t look at me. Her face had leached of the little colour it had had left. ‘Sophie, we can no longer hear the guns because we have crossed the Front,’ she said dully. ‘We are going into Germany.’
The train hums with good cheer. A group of women at the far end of Carriage Fourteen bursts into peals of noisy laughter. A middle-aged couple in the seats opposite, perhaps on the way home from some celebratory Christmas trip, have bedecked themselves in tinsel. The racks are bulging with purchases, the air thick with the scents of seasonal food – ripe cheeses, wine, expensive chocolate. But for Mo and Liv the journey back to England is subdued. They sit in the carriage in near silence; Mo’s hangover has lasted all day, and must apparently be remedied with more small, overpriced bottles of wine. Liv reads and re-reads her notes, translating word by word with her little English–French dictionary balanced on her tray-table.
The plight of Sophie Lefèvre has cast a long shadow over the trip. She feels haunted by the fate of the girl she had always thought of as glowingly triumphant. Had she really been a collaborator? What had become of her?
A steward pushes a trolley down the aisle, offering more drinks and sugary snacks. She is so lost in Sophie’s life that she barely looks up. The world of absent husbands, of longing, of near starvation and fear of the Germans seems suddenly more real to her than this one. She smells the woodsmoke in Le Coq Rouge, hears the sound of feet on the floor. Every time she closes her eyes, her painting morphs into the terrified face of Sophie Lefèvre, hauled by soldiers into a waiting truck, disowned by the family she loved.
The pages are brown, fragile and draw moisture from her fingertips. There are early letters from Édouard to Sophie, when he joins the Régiment d’Infanterie and she moves to St Péronne to be with her sister. Édouard misses her so much, he writes, that some nights he can barely breathe. He tells her that he conjures her in his head, paints pictures of her in the cold air. In her writings, Sophie envies her imaginary self, prays for her husband, scolds him. She calls him poilu. The image of them prompted by her words is so strong, so intimate that, even struggling with her French translation, Liv feels almost breathless. She runs her finger along the faded script, marvelling that the girl in the portrait was responsible for these words. Sophie Lefèvre is no longer a seductive image in a chipped gilded frame: she has become a person, a living, breathing, three-dimensional being. A woman who talks about laundry, shortages of food, the fit of her husband’s uniform, her fears and frustrations. She realizes, again, that she cannot let Sophie’s painting go.
Liv flicks through two sheets. Here the text is more dense, and interrupted by a formal sepia-tinted photograph of Édouard Lefèvre, gazing into the middle distance.
The Gare du Nord was heaving, a boiling sea of soldiers and weeping women, the air thick with smoke and steam and the anguished sounds of goodbye. I knew Édouard wouldn’t want me to cry. Besides, this would only be a short separation; all the newspapers said as much.
‘I want to know everything you’re doing,’ I said. ‘Make lots of sketches for me. And be sure to eat properly. And don’t do anything stupid, like getting drunk and fighting and getting yourself arrested. I want you home as quickly as possible.’
He made me promise that Hélène and I would be careful. ‘If you get wind that the enemy line is moving anywhere towards you, promise me you will come straight back to Paris.’
When I nodded, he said, ‘Don’t give me that sphinx face, Sophie. Promise me you will think of yourself first. I will not be able to fight if I believe you might be in danger.’
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