‘We are doing this for tonight?’ I asked the last corporal.
He shrugged. I pointed at the clock. ‘Today?’ I gestured at the food. ‘Kuchen?’
‘Ja,’ he said, nodding enthusiastically. ‘Sie kommen. Acht Uhr.’
‘Eight o’clock,’ Hélène said, from behind me. ‘They want to eat at eight o’clock.’
Our own supper had been a slice of black bread, spread thinly with jam and accompanied by some boiled beetroot. To have to roast chickens, to fill our kitchen with the scents of garlic and tomato, with apple tart, felt like a form of torture. I was afraid, that first evening, even to lick my fingers, although the sight of them, dripping with tomato juice or sticky with apple, was sorely tempting. There were several times, as I rolled pastry, or peeled apples, that I almost fainted with longing. We had to shoo Mimi, Aurélien and little Jean upstairs, from where we heard occasional howls of protest.
I did not want to cook the Germans a fine meal. But I was too afraid not to. At some point, I told myself, as I pulled the roasting chickens from the oven, basting them with sizzling juice, perhaps I might enjoy the sight of this food. Perhaps I might relish the chance to see it again, to smell it. But that night I could not. By the time the doorbell rang, notifying us of the officers’ arrival, my stomach clawed and my skin sweated with hunger. I hated the Germans with an intensity I have never felt before or since.
‘Madame.’ The Kommandant was the first to enter. He removed his rain-spattered cap and motioned to his officers to do the same.
I stood, wiping my hands on my apron, unsure how to react. ‘Herr Kommandant.’ My face was expressionless.
The room was warm: the Germans had sent three baskets of logs so that we might make up a fire. The men were divesting themselves of scarves and hats, sniffing the air, already grinning with anticipation. The scent of the chicken, roasted in a garlic and tomato sauce, had thoroughly infused the air. ‘I think we will eat immediately,’ he said, glancing towards the kitchen.
‘As you wish,’ I said. ‘I will fetch the wine.’
Aurélien had opened several bottles in the kitchen. He came out scowling now, two in his hands. The torture this evening had inflicted on us had upset him in particular. I was afraid, given the recent beating, his youth and impulsive nature, that he would get himself into trouble. I swept the bottles from his hands. ‘Go and tell Hélène she must serve the dinner.’
‘Go!’ I scolded him. I walked around the bar, pouring wine. I did not look at any of them as I placed the glasses on the tables, even though I felt their eyes on me. Yes, look at me, I told them silently. Another scrawny Frenchwoman, starved into submission by you. I hope my appearance rots your appetites.
My sister brought out the first plates to murmurs of appreciation. Within minutes the men were tucking in, their cutlery clattering against the china, exclaiming in their own language. I walked backwards and forwards with loaded plates, trying not to breathe in the delicious scents, trying not to look at the roasted meat, glistening besides the bright vegetables.
At last, they were all served. Hélène and I stood together behind the bar, as the Kommandant made some lengthy toast in German. I cannot tell you how it felt then to hear those voices in our home; to see them eating the food we had so carefully prepared, relaxing and laughing and drinking. I am strengthening these men, I thought miserably, while my beloved Édouard may be weak with hunger. And this thought, perhaps with my own hunger and exhaustion, made me feel a brief despair. A small sob escaped my throat. Hélène’s hand reached for mine. She squeezed it. ‘Go to the kitchen,’ she murmured.
‘Go to the kitchen. I will join you when I have refilled their glasses.’
Just this once, I did as my sister said.
They ate for an hour. She and I sat in silence in the kitchen, lost in exhaustion and the confusion of our thoughts. Every time we heard a swell of laughter or a hearty exclamation, we looked up. It was so hard to know what any of it meant.
‘Mesdames.’ The Kommandant appeared at the kitchen door. We scrambled to our feet. ‘The meal was excellent. I hope you can maintain this standard.’
I looked at the floor.
Reluctantly, I raised my eyes.
‘You are pale. Are you ill?’
‘We are quite well.’ I swallowed. I felt his eyes on me like a burn. Beside me, Hélène’s fingers twisted together, reddened from the unaccustomed hot water.
‘Madame, have you and your sister eaten?’
I thought it was a test. I thought he was checking that we had followed those infernal forms to the letter. I thought he might weigh the leftovers, to ensure we had not sneaked a piece of apple peel into our mouths.
‘We have not touched one grain of rice, Herr Kommandant.’ I almost spat it at him. Hunger will do that to you.
He blinked. ‘Then you should. You cannot cook well if you do not eat. What is left?’
I couldn’t move. Hélène motioned to the roasting tray on the stove. There were four quarters of a chicken there, keeping warm in case the men wanted second helpings.
‘Then sit down. Eat here.’
I could not believe this wasn’t a trap.
‘That is an order,’ he said. He was almost smiling, but I didn’t think it was funny. ‘Really. Go on.’
‘Would … would it be possible to feed something to the children? It is a long time since they had any meat.’
He frowned a little, as if in incomprehension. I hated him. I hated the sound of my voice, begging a German for scraps of food. Oh, Édouard, I thought silently. If you could hear me now.
‘Feed your children and yourselves,’ he said shortly. And he turned and left the room.
We sat there in silence, his words ringing in our ears. Then Hélène grabbed her skirts and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. I hadn’t seen her move so fast in months.
Seconds later, she reappeared, with Jean in her arms, still in his nightshirt, Aurélien and Mimi before her.
‘Is it true?’ Aurélien said. He was staring at the chicken, his mouth hanging open.
I could only nod.
We fell upon that unlucky bird. I wish I could tell you that my sister and I were ladylike, that we picked delicately, as the Parisians do, that we paused to chat and wipe our mouths between bites. But we were like savages. We tore at the flesh, scooped handfuls of rice, ate with our mouths open, picking wildly at the bits that fell on to the table. I no longer cared whether this was some trick on the Kommandant’s part. I have never tasted anything as good as that chicken. The garlic and tomatoes filled my mouth with long-forgotten pleasure, my nostrils with scents I could have inhaled for ever. We emitted little sounds of delight as we ate, primal and uninhibited, each locked into our own private world of satisfaction. Baby Jean laughed and covered his face with juice. Mimi chewed pieces of chicken skin, sucking the grease from her fingers with noisy relish. Hélène and I ate without speaking, always ensuring the little ones had enough.
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