‘There are days I would consider a weevil a welcome hors d’oeuvre,’ Madame Louvier said mournfully.
‘Then I will save a jam jar full for you, my dear Madame. Believe me, there are many days in which we receive generous helpings in our flour. Weevil cake, weevil pie, weevil profiteroles: thanks to German generosity, we can supply them all.’ We laughed. It was impossible not to. Monsieur Armand managed to raise a smile even on the direst of days.
Madame Louvier took her bread and put it into her basket with distaste. Monsieur Armand took no offence: he saw that expression a hundred times a day. The bread was black, square and sticky. It gave off a musty smell, as if it were mouldering from the moment it left the oven. It was so solid that the older women frequently had to request the help of the young simply to cut it. ‘Did you hear,’ she said, tucking her coat around her, ‘that they have renamed all the streets in Le Nouvion?’
‘Renamed the streets?’
‘German names for French ones. Monsieur Dinan got word from his son. You know what they call Avenue de la Gare?’
We all shook our heads. Madame Louvier closed her eyes for a moment, as if to make sure she had got it right. ‘Bahnhofstrasse,’ she said finally.
‘Can you believe it?’
‘They will not be renaming my shop.’ Monsieur Armand harrumphed. ‘I’ll be renaming their backsides. Brot this and Brot that. This is a boulangerie. In rue des Bastides. Always has been, always will. Bahnhof-whatsit. Ridiculous.’
‘But this is terrible!’ Madame Durant was panic-stricken.
‘I don’t speak any German!’
We all stared at her.
‘Well, how am I supposed to find my way around my own town if I can’t tell the street names?’
We were so busy laughing that for a moment we did not notice the door open. But then the shop fell abruptly silent. I turned to see Liliane Béthune walk in, her head up, but failing to meet a single person’s eye. Her face was fuller than most, her clear skin rouged and powdered. She uttered a general ‘Bonjour,’ and reached into her bag. ‘Two loaves, please.’
She smelt of expensive scent, and her hair was swept up in curls. In a town where most women were too exhausted or too empty-handed to do anything but the minimum of personal grooming, she stood out like a glittering jewel. But it was her coat that drew my eye. I could not stop staring at it. It was jet black, made of the finest astrakhan lambskin and as thick as a fur rug. It had the soft sheen of something new and expensive, and the collar rose around her face as if her long neck were emerging from black treacle. I saw the older women register it, their expressions hardening as their gaze travelled down its length.
‘One for you, one for your German?’ Madame Durant muttered.
‘I said two loaves, please.’ She turned to Madame Durant. ‘One for me. One for my daughter.’
For once, Monsieur Armand did not smile. He reached under the counter, his eyes never leaving her face, and with his two meaty fists he slammed two loaves on to its surface. He did not wrap them.
Liliane held out a note, but he didn’t take it from her hand. He waited the few seconds it took her to place it on the counter, and then he picked it up gingerly, as if it might infect him. He reached into his till and threw two coins down in change, even as she held out her hand.
She looked at him, and then at the counter where the coins lay. ‘Keep them,’ she said. And, with a furious glance at us, she snatched up the bread, and swept out of the shop.
‘How she has the nerve …’ Madame Durant was never happier than when she was outraged by somebody else’s behaviour. Luckily for her, Liliane Béthune had granted her ample opportunity to exercise her fury over the past few months.
‘I suppose she has to eat, like everyone else,’ I said.
‘Every night she goes to the Fourrier farm. Every night. You see her cross the town, scuttling like a thief.’
‘She has two new coats,’ Madame Louvier said. ‘The other one is green. A brand new green wool coat. From Paris.’
‘And shoes. Of kid leather. Of course she dare not wear them out in the day. She knows she would get lynched.’
‘She won’t, that one. Not with the Germans looking out for her.’
‘Still, when they leave, it’ll be another story, eh?’
‘I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes, kid leather or not.’
‘I do hate to see her strutting about, rubbing her good fortune in everybody’s faces. Who does she think she is?’
Monsieur Armand watched the young woman crossing the square. Suddenly he smiled. ‘I wouldn’t worry, ladies. Not everything goes her way.’
We looked at him.
‘Can you keep a secret?’
I don’t know why he bothered asking. Those two old women could barely stay silent for ten seconds at a time.
‘Let’s just say some of us make sure Miss Fancy Pants gets special treatment she wasn’t expecting.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Her loaves live under the counter by themselves. They contain some special ingredients. Ingredients that I promise you go into none of my other loaves.’
The old women’s eyes widened. I dared not ask what the baker meant, but the glint in his eye suggested several possibilities, none of which I wanted to dwell upon.
‘Monsieur Armand!’ They were scandalized, but they began to cackle.
I felt sick then. I didn’t like Liliane Béthune, or what she was doing, but this revolted me. ‘I’ve – I’ve got to go. Hélène needs … ’ I reached for my bread. Their laughter still ringing in my ears, I ran for the relative safety of the hotel.
The food came the following Friday. First the eggs, two dozen, delivered by a young German corporal, who brought them in covered with a white sheet, as if he were delivering contraband. Then bread, white and fresh, in three baskets. I had gone off bread a little since that day in the boulangerie, but to hold fresh loaves, crusty and warm, left me almost drunk with desire. I had to send Aurélien upstairs, I was so afraid he would be unable to resist the temptation to break off a mouthful.
Next, six hens, their feathers still on, and a crate containing cabbage, onions, carrots and wild garlic. After this came jars of preserved tomatoes, rice and apples. Milk, coffee, three fat pats of butter, flour, sugar. Bottles and bottles of wine from the south. Hélène and I accepted each delivery in silence. The Germans handed us forms, upon which each amount had been carefully noted. There would be no easy stealing: a form requested that we note the exact amounts used for each recipe. They also asked that we place any scraps in a pail for collection to feed livestock. When I saw that I wanted to spit.
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