Liliane stared at me. ‘Are you insane?’ she whispered. ‘Come, Sophie. Come. This is our chance.’
She ducked in again, glancing nervously at the sleeping soldier, then grabbed my wrist with her good hand. Her expression was fierce and she spoke as one would to a particularly stupid child. ‘Sophie. They are not taking you to Édouard.’
‘The Kommandant said –’
‘He’s a German, Sophie! You humiliated him. You revealed him as less of a man! You think he will repay that with kindness?’
‘It’s a faint hope, I know. But it’s … all I have left.’ As she stared at me, I pulled my bag towards me. ‘Look, you go. Take this. Take everything. You can do it.’
Liliane grabbed the bag and peered out of the rear, thinking. She readied herself as if working out where best to go. I watched the guard nervously, fearful that he would wake.
I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t move. She turned towards me slowly, in anguish. ‘If I escape, they will kill you.’
‘For aiding my escape. They will kill you.’
‘But you can’t stay. You were caught distributing resistance material. My position is different.’
‘Sophie. You were the only person who treated me as a human. I cannot have your death on my conscience.’
‘I’ll be fine. I always am.’
Liliane Béthune stared at my dirty clothes, my thin, feverish body, now shivering in the chill morning air. She stood there for the longest time, then sat down heavily, dropping the bag as if she no longer cared who heard it. I looked at her but she averted her eyes. We both jumped as the truck’s engine jolted into life. I heard a shout. The truck moved off slowly, bumping over a pothole so that we both banged heavily against the side. The soldier let out a guttural snore, but he did not stir.
I reached for her arm, hissing, ‘Liliane, go. While you can. You still have time. They will not hear you.’
But she ignored me. She pushed the bag towards me with her foot and sat down beside the slumbering soldier. She leaned back against the side of the truck and stared into nothing.
The truck emerged from the forest on to an open road and we travelled the next few miles in silence. In the distance we heard shots, saw other military vehicles. We slowed as we passed a column of men, trudging along in grey, ragged clothes. Their heads were down. They were like spectres, not even like real people. I watched Liliane watching them and felt her presence in the truck like a dead weight. She might have made it, if it were not for me. We might have made it together. As my thoughts gained clarity, I realized I had probably destroyed her last chance to be reunited with her daughter.
She shook her head, as if she did not want to hear it.
We drove on. The skies darkened and it began to rain again, a freezing sleet, which bit my skin in droplets as it sliced through the gaps in the roof. My shivering became violent, and with every bump, pain shot through my body as if from a bolt. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I wanted to tell her I knew I had done something terrible and selfish. I should have granted her her chance. She was right: I had been fooling myself to think the Kommandant would reward me for what I had done.
Finally she spoke. ‘Sophie?’
‘Yes?’ I was so desperate for her to talk to me. I must have sounded pathetically eager.
She swallowed, her gaze fixed on her shoes. ‘If … if anything happens to me, do you think Hélène will look after Édith? I mean, really look after her? Love her?’
‘Of course. Hélène could no more fail to love a child than she could … I don’t know – join the Boche.’ I tried to smile. I was determined to make myself appear less ill than I felt, to try to reassure her that good might still happen. I shifted on my seat, trying to force myself upright. Every bone in my body hurt as I did so. ‘But you mustn’t think like that. We will survive this, Liliane, and then you will go home to your daughter. Maybe even within months.’
Liliane’s good hand lifted to the side of her face, tracing a livid red scar that ran from the corner of her eyebrow along her cheek. She seemed deep in thought, a long way from me. I prayed that my certainty had reassured her a little.
‘We have survived so far, haven’t we?’ I continued. ‘We are no longer in that hellish cattle truck. And we have been brought together. Surely the fates must have looked kindly upon us to do that.’
She reminded me, suddenly, of Hélène in the darker days. I wanted to reach across to her, touch her arm, but I was too weak. I could barely stay upright on the wooden bench as it was. ‘You have to keep faith. Things can be good again. I know it.’
‘You really think we can go home? To St Péronne? After what we each did?’
The soldier began to push himself upright, wiping his eyes. He seemed irritated, as if our conversation had woken him.
‘Well … maybe not straight away,’ I stammered. ‘But we can return to France. One day. Things will be –’
‘We are in no man’s land now, you and I, Sophie. There is no home left for us.’
Liliane lifted her head then. Her eyes were huge and dark. She was, I saw now, completely unrecognizable as the glossy creature I had seen strutting past the hotel. But it was not just the scars and bruises that altered her appearance: something deep in her soul had been corrupted, blackened.
‘You really think prisoners who end up in Germany ever come out again?’
‘Liliane, please don’t talk like that. Please. You just need …’ My voice tailed away.
‘Dearest Sophie, with your faith, your blind optimism in human nature.’ She half smiled at me, and it was a terrible, bleak thing. ‘You have no idea what they will do to us.’
And with that, before I could say another word, she whipped the gun from the soldier’s holster, pointed it to the side of her head and pulled the trigger.
‘So we thought we might take in a movie this afternoon. And this morning Jakey’s going to help me walk the dogs.’ Greg drives badly, dipping his foot on and off the accelerator, apparently in time with the music, so that Paul’s upper body lurches forward at odd intervals all the way down Fleet Street.
‘Can I bring my Nintendo?’
‘No, you cannot bring your Nintendo, Screen-boy. You’ll walk into a tree like you did last time.’
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