‘That’s a rather melodramatic way of putting it.’ For the first time Sven looks awkward. ‘Liv, this is an incredibly difficult situation. But if I side with your case everyone in this company stands to lose their jobs. You know how much we have tied up in the Goldstein building. Solberg Halston cannot survive if they pull out now.’
He leans forward over the desk. ‘Billionaire clients are not exactly thick on the ground. And I have to think about our people.’
Outside his office someone is saying goodbye. There is a brief burst of laughter. Inside the office the silence is stifling.
‘So if I handed her over, would they keep David’s name on the building?’
‘That’s something I haven’t discussed. Possibly.’
‘Possibly.’ Liv digests this. ‘And if I say no?’
Sven taps his pen on the desk.
‘We will dissolve the company and set up a new one.’
‘And the Goldsteins would go with that.’
‘It’s possible, yes.’
‘So it doesn’t actually matter what I say. This is basically a courtesy call.’
‘I’m sorry, Liv. It’s an impossible situation. I’m in an impossible situation.’
Liv sits there for a moment longer. Then, without a word, she gets up and walks out of Sven’s office.
It is one in the morning. Liv stares at the ceiling, listening to Mo moving around in the spare room, the zipping of a holdall, the heavy thump as it’s stacked beside a door. She hears a lavatory flushing, the soft pad of footsteps, then the silence that tells of sleep. She has lain there considering whether to head across the corridor, to try to persuade Mo not to leave, but the words that shuffle themselves in her head refuse to fall into any kind of useful order. She thinks of a half-finished glass building several miles away, the name of whose architect will be buried as deeply as its foundations.
She reaches over and picks up the mobile phone by her bed. She stares at the little screen in the half-light.
There are no new messages.
Loneliness hits her with an almost physical force. The walls around her feel insubstantial, offer no protection against an unfriendly world beyond. This house is not transparent and pure as David had wished: its empty spaces are cold and unfeeling, its clean lines knotted with history, its glass surfaces obscured by the tangled entrails of lives.
She tries to quell the waves of vague panic. She thinks about Sophie’s papers, about a prisoner loaded on to a train. If she shows them to the court, she knows, she might still be able to save the painting for herself.
And if I do, she thinks, Sophie will be on record for ever as a woman who slept with a German, who betrayed her country as well as her husband. And I will be no better than the townspeople who hung her out to dry.
Once it is done, it cannot be undone.
I no longer wept for home. I could not say how long we had been travelling, for the days and nights merged, and sleep had become a fleeting, sporadic visitor. Some miles outside Mannheim my head had begun to ache, swiftly followed by a fever that left me alternately shivering and fighting the urge to shed what few clothes remained. Liliane sat beside me, wiping my forehead with her skirt, helping me when we stopped. Her face was drawn with tension. ‘I’ll be better soon,’ I kept telling her, forcing myself to believe that this was just a passing cold, the inevitable outcome of the past few days, the chill air, the shock.
The truck bucked and wheeled around the potholes, the canvas billowed, allowing in spatters of ice-cold rain, and the young soldier’s head bobbed, his eyes opening with the bigger jolts and fixing on us with a sudden glare as if to warn us to remain where we should be.
I dozed against Liliane, and woke periodically, watching the little triangle of canvas that exposed briefly the landscape we had left behind. I watched the bombed and pitted borders give way to more orderly towns, where whole rows of houses existed without visible damage, their black beams strident against white render, their gardens filled with pruned shrubs and well-tended vegetable patches. We passed vast lakes, bustling towns, wound our way through deep forests of fir trees, where the vehicle whined and its tyres struggled for purchase in mud tracks. Liliane and I were given little: cups of water and hunks of black bread, thrown into the back as one would hurl scraps to pigs.
And then as I grew more feverish I cared less about the lack of food. The pain in my stomach was smothered by other pains; my head, my joints, the back of my neck. My appetite disappeared and Liliane had to urge me to swallow water over my sore throat, reminding me that I must eat while there was food, that I had to stay strong. Everything she said had an edge, as if she always knew far more than she chose to let on about what awaited us. With each stop her eyes widened with anxiety, and even as my thoughts clouded with illness, her fear became infectious.
When Liliane slept, her face twitched with nightmares. Sometimes she woke clawing at the air and making indistinguishable sounds of anguish. If I could, I reached across to touch her arm, trying to bring her back gently to the land of the waking. Sometimes, staring out at the German landscape, I wondered why I did.
Since I had discovered we were no longer heading for Ardennes my own faith had begun to desert me. The Kommandant and his deals now seemed a million miles away; my life at the hotel, with its gleaming mahogany bar, my sister and the village where I had grown up, had become dreamlike, as if I had imagined it a long time ago. Our reality was discomfort, cold, pain, ever-present fear, like a buzzing in my head. I tried to focus, to remember Édouard’s face, his voice, but even he failed me. I could conjure little pieces of him: the curl of his soft brown hair on his collar, his strong hands, but I could no longer bring them together into a comforting whole. I was more familiar now with Liliane’s broken hand resting in my own. I stared at it, with my home-made splints on her bruised fingers, and tried to remind myself that there was a purpose to all this: that the very point of faith was that it must be tested. It became harder, with every mile, to believe this.
The rain cleared. We stopped in a small village and the young soldier unfolded his long limbs stiffly and climbed out. The engine stalled and we heard Germans talking outside. I wondered, briefly, if I might ask them for some water. My lips were parched, and my limbs feeble.
Liliane, across from me, sat very still, like a rabbit scenting the air for danger. I tried to think past my throbbing head and gradually became aware of the sounds of a market: the jovial call of traders, the soft-spoken negotiations of women and stallholders. Just for a moment I closed my eyes and tried to imagine that the German accents were French, and that these were the sounds of St Péronne, the backdrop to my childhood. I could picture my sister, her pannier under her arm, picking up tomatoes and aubergines, feeling their weight and gently putting them back. I could almost feel the sun on my face, smell the saucisson, the fromagerie, see myself walking slowly through the stalls. Then the flap lifted and a woman’s face appeared.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com