It was so startling that I let out an involuntary gasp. She stared at me and for a second I thought she was going to offer us food – but she turned, her pale hand still holding up the canvas – and shouted something in German. Liliane scrambled across the back of the truck and pulled me with her. ‘Cover your head,’ she whispered.
Before she could say anything else, a stone shot through the back and landed a stinging blow on my arm. I glanced down, confused, and another landed, cracking the side of my head. I blinked, and three, four more women appeared, their faces twisted with hate, their fists loaded with stones, rotting potatoes, pieces of wood, whatever missiles came to hand.
Liliane and I huddled in the corner, trying to cover our heads as the armaments rained down on us, my head, my hands stinging at the impact. I was about to shout back at them: why would you do this? What have we done to you? But the hatred in their faces and voices chilled me. These women truly despised us. They would rip us apart, given a chance. Fear rose like bile in my throat. Until that moment I had not felt it as a physical thing, a creature that could shake my sense of who I was, blast my thoughts, loosen my bowel with terror. I prayed – I prayed for them to go, for it all to stop. And then when I dared to glance up I glimpsed the young soldier who had sat in the back. He was standing off to the side and lighting a cigarette, calmly surveying the market square. Then I felt fury.
The bombardment continued for what was probably minutes but felt like hours. A fragment of brick struck my mouth and I tasted the iron slime of blood on my lip. Liliane didn’t cry out, but she flinched in my arms as each missile made contact. I held on to her as if there were nothing else solid in my universe.
Then suddenly, abruptly, it stopped. My ears ceased ringing and a warm trickle of blood eased into the corner of my eye. I could just make out a conversation outside. Then the engine charged, the young soldier climbed nonchalantly into the back and the vehicle lurched forwards.
A sob of relief filled my chest. ‘Sons of whores,’ I whispered in French. Liliane squeezed my hand with her good one. Hearts thumping, we moved, trembling, back on to our benches. As we finally pulled out of the little town, the adrenalin slowly drained from my body and I found myself almost bone-dead with exhaustion. I was afraid to sleep then, afraid of what might come next, but Liliane, her eyes rigidly open, was scanning the tiny patch of landscape visible through the canvas. Some selfish part of me knew she would look out for me, that she would not sleep again. I laid my head on the bench, and as my heartbeat finally returned to normal I closed my eyes and allowed myself to sink into nothingness.
There was snow at the next stop: a bleak plain with only a small copse and a derelict shed to break the flat landscape. We were hauled out into the dusk and shoved towards the trees, mutely instructed, with the wave of a gun, as to what we should do. There was nothing left in me. Shivering and feverish, I could barely stand. Liliane limped off to the relative privacy of the shed, and as I watched her, the landscape swayed around me. I sank down into the snow, vaguely aware of the men stamping their feet by the truck. Part of me relished the icy cool against my hot legs. I let the cold air settle on my skin, the blood cool in my veins, enjoying the brief sensation of being anchored again to the earth. I looked up at the infinite sky, through which tiny glittering stars were emerging, until I felt dizzy. I made myself recall the nights, so many months ago, when I had believed he might be out there, looking at the same stars. And then, with my finger, I reached down into the crystalline surface and wrote: ÉDOUARD.
After a moment, I wrote it again on the other side of me, as if to persuade myself that he was real, somewhere, and that he – and we – had existed. I wrote it, my blue-tinged fingers pressing into the snow, until I had surrounded myself with it. Édouard. Édouard. Édouard. I wrote his name ten, twenty times. It was all I could see. I was in a great ring of Édouards, all dancing up at me. It would be so easy to tip over here, to sit in my Palace of Édouard and let it all go. I leaned back a little and began to laugh.
Liliane came out from behind the shed and stopped. I saw her staring at me and in her face I saw suddenly the same expression that Hélène had once worn, a kind of exhaustion, not from within but from weariness with the world, a fleeting indecision as to whether this was a battle she still had the energy to fight. And something pulled me back.
‘I – I – my skirt is wet,’ I said. It was the only sensible thing I could think of to say.
‘It’s just snow.’ She pulled me up by my arm, brushed off the snow and, with her limping and me swaying, we made our way back past the incurious soldiers and their guns and climbed into the truck.
Light. Liliane was looking into my eyes, her hand over my mouth. I blinked and involuntarily bucked against her, but she lifted her finger to her lips. She waited until I nodded, to show I understood, and as she removed her hand I realized that the truck had stopped again. We were in a forest. Snow blanketed the ground in piebald patches, stilling movement and stifling sound.
She pointed at the guard. He was fast asleep, lying across the bench, his head resting on his kit bag. He was snoring, completely vulnerable, his holster visible, several inches of neck bare above his collar. I found my hand reaching involuntarily into my pocket, fingering the shard of glass.
‘Jump,’ whispered Liliane.
‘Jump. If we keep to that dip, there, where there is no snow, we will leave no footprints. We can be hours away by the time they wake up.’
‘But we are in Germany.’
‘I speak a little German. We will find our way out.’
She was animated, filled with conviction. I don’t think I had seen her so alive since St Péronne. I blinked at the sleeping soldier, then back at Liliane, who was now carefully lifting the flap, peering out at the blue light.
‘But they will shoot us if they catch us.’
‘They will shoot us if we stay. And if they don’t shoot us it will be worse. Come. This is our chance.’ She mouthed the word, motioning silently for me to pick up my bag.
I stood. Peered out at the woods. And stopped. ‘I can’t.’
She turned to me. She still carried her broken hand close to her chest, as if fearful anything would brush against it. I could see now in daylight the scratches and bruises on her face where the missiles had caught her the previous day.
I swallowed. ‘What if they are taking me to Édouard?’
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