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The Girl You Left Behind, Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  I addressed him directly: 'And for what supposed misdemeanour have your men come to punish us now?'

  I guessed he had not heard a woman speak to him in this way since his last leave home. The silence that fell upon the courtyard was steeped in shock. My brother and sister, on the ground, twisted round, the better to see me, only too aware of where such insubordination might leave us all.

  'You are?'

  'Madame Lefevre.'

  I could see he was checking for the presence of my wedding ring. He needn't have bothered: like most women in our area, I had long since sold it for food.

  'Madame. We have information that you are harbouring illegal livestock.' His French was passable, suggesting previous postings in the occupied territory, his voice calm. This was not a man who felt threatened by the unexpected.


  'A reliable source tells us that you are keeping a pig on the premises. You will be aware that, under the directive, the penalty for withholding livestock from the administration is imprisonment.'

  I held his gaze. 'And I know exactly who would inform you of such a thing. It's Monsieur Suel, non?' My cheeks were flushed with colour; my hair, twisted into a long plait that hung over my shoulder, felt electrified. It prickled at the nape of my neck.

  The Kommandant turned to one of his minions. The man's glance sideways told him this was true.

  'Monsieur Suel, Herr Kommandant, comes here at least twice a month attempting to persuade us that in the absence of our husbands we are in need of his particular brand of comfort. Because we have chosen not to avail ourselves of his supposed kindness, he repays us with rumours and a threat to our lives.'

  'The authorities would not act unless the source were credible.'

  'I would argue, Herr Kommandant, that this visit suggests otherwise.'

  The look he gave me was impenetrable. He turned on his heel and walked towards the house door. I followed him, half tripping over my skirts in my attempt to keep up. I knew the mere act of speaking so boldly to him might be considered a crime. And yet, at that moment, I was no longer afraid.

  'Look at us, Kommandant. Do we look as though we are feasting on beef, on roast lamb, on fillet of pork?' He turned, his eyes flicking towards my bony wrists, just visible at the sleeves of my gown. I had lost two inches from my waist in the last year alone. 'Are we grotesquely plump with the bounty of our hotel? We have three hens left of two dozen. Three hens that we have the pleasure of keeping and feeding so that your men might take the eggs. We, meanwhile, live on what the German authorities deem to be a diet - decreasing rations of meat and flour, and bread made from grit and bran so poor we would not use it to feed livestock.'

  He was in the back hallway, his heels echoing on the flagstones. He hesitated, then walked through to the bar and barked an order. A soldier appeared from nowhere and handed him a lamp.

  'We have no milk to feed our babies, our children weep with hunger, we become ill from lack of nutrition. And still you come here in the middle of the night to terrify two women and brutalize an innocent boy, to beat us and threaten us, because you heard a rumour from an immoral man that we were feasting?'

  My hands were shaking. He saw the baby squirm, and I realized I was so tense that I was holding it too tightly. I stepped back, adjusted the shawl, crooned to it. Then I lifted my head. I could not hide the bitterness and anger in my voice.

  'Search our home, then, Kommandant. Turn it upside down and destroy what little has not already been destroyed. Search all the outbuildings too, those that your men have not already stripped for their own wants. When you find this mythical pig, I hope your men dine well on it.'

  I held his gaze for just a moment longer than he might have expected. Through the window I could make out my sister wiping Aurelien's wounds with her skirts, trying to stem the blood. Three German soldiers stood over them.

  My eyes were used to the dark now, and I saw that the Kommandant was wrong-footed. His men, their eyes uncertain, were waiting for him to give the orders. He could instruct them to strip our house to the beams and arrest us all to pay for my extraordinary outburst. But I knew he was thinking of Suel, whether he might have been misled. He did not look the kind of man to relish the possibility of being seen to be wrong.

  When Edouard and I used to play poker, he had laughed and said I was an impossible opponent as my face never revealed my true feelings. I told myself to remember those words now: this was the most important game I would ever play. We stared at each other, the Kommandant and I. I felt, briefly, the whole world still around us: I could hear the distant rumble of the guns at the Front, my sister's coughing, the scrabbling of our poor, scrawny hens disturbed in their coop. It faded until just he and I faced one another, each gambling on the truth. I swear I could hear my very heart beating.

  'What is this?'


  He held up the lamp, and it was dimly illuminated in pale gold light: the portrait Edouard had painted of me when we were first married. There I was, in that first year, my hair thick and lustrous around my shoulders, my skin clear and blooming, gazing out with the self-possession of the adored. I had brought it down from its hiding place several weeks before, telling my sister I was damned if the Germans would decide what I should look at in my own home.

  He lifted the lamp a little higher so that he could see it more clearly. Do not put it there, Sophie, Helene had warned. It will invite trouble.

  When he finally turned to me, it was as if he had had to tear his eyes from it. He looked at my face, then back at the painting. 'My husband painted it.' I don't know why I felt the need to tell him that.

  Perhaps it was the certainty of my righteous indignation. Perhaps it was the obvious difference between the girl in the picture and the girl who stood before him. Perhaps it was the weeping blonde child who stood at my feet. It is possible that even Kommandants, two years into this occupation, have become weary of harassing us for petty misdemeanours.

  He looked at the painting a moment longer, then at his feet.

  'I think we have made ourselves clear, Madame. Our conversation is not finished. But I will not disturb you further tonight.'

  He caught the flash of surprise on my face, barely suppressed, and I saw that it satisfied something in him. It was perhaps enough for him to know I had believed myself doomed. He was smart, this man, and subtle. I would have to be wary.


  His soldiers turned, blindly obedient as ever, and walked out towards their vehicle, their uniforms silhouetted against the headlights. I followed him and stood just outside the door. The last I heard of his voice was the order to the driver to make for the town.

  We waited as the military vehicle travelled back down the road, its headlights feeling their way along the pitted surface. Helene had begun to shake. She scrambled to her feet, her hand white-knuckled at her brow, her eyes tightly shut. Aurelien stood awkwardly beside me, holding Mimi's hand, embarrassed by his childish tears. I waited for the last sounds of the engine to die away. It whined over the hill, as if it, too, were acting under protest.

  'Are you hurt, Aurelien?' I touched his head. Flesh wounds. And bruises. What kind of men attacked an unarmed boy?

  He flinched. 'It didn't hurt,' he said. 'They didn't frighten me.'

  'I thought he would arrest you,' my sister said. 'I thought he would arrest us all.' I was afraid when she looked like that: as if she were teetering on the edge of some vast abyss. She wiped her eyes and forced a smile as she crouched to hug her daughter. 'Silly Germans. They gave us all a fright, didn't they? Silly Maman for being frightened.'

  The child watched her mother, silent and solemn. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever see Mimi laugh again.

  'I'm sorry. I'm all right now,' she went on. 'Let's all go inside. Mimi, we have a little milk I will warm for you.' She wiped her hands on her bloodied gown, and held her hands towards me for the baby. 'You want me to take Jean?'

  I had started to tremble convulsively, as if
I had only just realized how afraid I should have been. My legs felt watery, their strength seeping into the cobblestones. I felt a desperate urge to sit down. 'Yes,' I said. 'I suppose you should.'

  My sister reached out, then gave a small cry. Nestling in the blankets, swaddled neatly so that it was barely exposed to the night air, was the pink, hairy snout of the piglet.

  'Jean is asleep upstairs,' I said. I thrust a hand at the wall to keep myself upright.

  Aurelien looked over her shoulder. They all stared at it.

  'Mon Dieu.'

  'Is it dead?'

  'Chloroformed. I remembered Papa had a bottle in his study, from his butterfly-collecting days. I think it will wake up. But we're going to have to find somewhere else to keep it for when they return. And you know they will return.'

  Aurelien smiled then, a rare, slow smile of delight. Helene stooped to show Mimi the comatose little pig, and they grinned. Helene kept touching its snout, clamping a hand over her face, as if she couldn't believe what she was holding.

  'You held the pig before them? They came here and you held it out in front of their noses? And then you told them off for coming here?' Her voice was incredulous.

  'In front of their snouts,' said Aurelien, who seemed suddenly to have recovered some of his swagger. 'Hah! You held it in front of their snouts!'

  I sat down on the cobbles and began to laugh. I laughed until my skin grew chilled and I didn't know whether I was laughing or weeping. My brother, perhaps afraid I was becoming hysterical, took my hand and rested against me. He was fourteen, sometimes bristling like a man, sometimes childlike in his need for reassurance.

  Helene was still deep in thought. 'If I had known ...' she said. 'How did you become so brave, Sophie? My little sister! Who made you like this? You were a mouse when we were children. A mouse!'

  I wasn't sure I knew the answer.

  And then, as we finally walked back into the house, as Helene busied herself with the milk pan and Aurelien began to wash his poor, battered face, I stood before the portrait.

  That girl, the girl Edouard had married, looked back with an expression I no longer recognized. He had seen it in me long before anyone else did: it speaks of knowledge, that smile, of satisfaction gained and given. It speaks of pride. When his Parisian friends had found his love of me - a shop girl - inexplicable, he had just smiled because he could already see this in me.

  I never knew if he understood that it was only there because of him.

  I stood and gazed at her and, for a few seconds, I remembered how it had felt to be that girl, free of hunger, of fear, consumed only by idle thoughts of what private moments I might spend with Edouard. She reminded me that the world is capable of beauty, and that there were once things - art, joy, love - that filled my world, instead of fear and nettle soup and curfews. I saw him in my expression. And then I realized what I had just done. He had reminded me of my own strength, of how much I had left in me with which to fight.

  When you return, Edouard, I swear I will once again be the girl you painted.


  The story of the pig-baby had reached most of St Peronne by lunchtime. The bar of Le Coq Rouge saw a constant stream of customers, even though we had little to offer other than chicory coffee; beer supplies were sporadic, and we had only a few ruinously expensive bottles of wine. It was astonishing how many people called just to wish us good day.

  'And you tore a strip off him? Told him to go away?' Old Rene, chuckling into his moustache, was clutching the back of a chair and weeping tears of laughter. He had asked to hear the story four times now, and with every telling Aurelien had embellished it a little more, until he was fighting off the Kommandant with a sabre, while I cried 'Der Kaiser ist Scheiss!'

  I exchanged a small smile with Helene, who was sweeping the floor of the cafe. I didn't mind. There had been little enough to celebrate in our town lately.

  'We must be careful,' Helene said, as Rene left, lifting his hat in salute. We watched him, convulsed with renewed mirth as he passed the post office, pausing to wipe his eyes. 'This story is spreading too far.'

  'Nobody will say anything. Everyone hates the Boche.' I shrugged. 'Besides, they all want a piece of pork. They're hardly going to inform on us before their food arrives.'

  The pig had been moved discreetly next door in the early hours of the morning. Some months ago Aurelien, chopping up old beer barrels for firewood, had discovered that the only thing separating the labyrinthine wine cellar from that of the neighbours, the Fouberts, was a single-skin brick wall. We had carefully removed several of the bricks, with the Fouberts' co-operation, and this had become an escape route of last resort. When the Fouberts had harboured a young Englishman, and the Germans had arrived unannounced at their door at dusk, Madame Foubert had pleaded incomprehension at the officer's instructions, giving the young man just enough time to sneak down to the cellar and through into our side. They had taken her house to pieces, even looked around the cellar, but in the dim light, not one had noticed that the mortar in the wall was suspiciously gappy.

  This was the story of our lives: minor insurrections, tiny victories, a brief chance to ridicule our oppressors, little floating vessels of hope amid a great sea of uncertainty, deprivation and fear.

  'You met the new Kommandant, then?' The mayor was seated at one of the tables near the window. As I brought him some coffee, he motioned to me to sit down. More than anyone else's, his life, I often thought, had been intolerable since the occupation: he had spent his time in a constant state of negotiation with the Germans to grant the town what it needed, but periodically they had taken him hostage to force recalcitrant townspeople to do their bidding.

  'It was not a formal introduction,' I said, placing the cup in front of him.

  He tilted his head towards me, his voice low. 'Herr Becker has been sent back to Germany to run one of the reprisal camps. Apparently there were inconsistencies in his book-keeping.'

  'That's no surprise. He is the only man in Occupied France who has doubled in weight in two years.' I was joking, but my feelings at his departure were mixed. On the one hand Becker had been harsh, his punishments excessive, born out of insecurity and a fear that his men would not think him strong enough. But he had been too stupid - blind to many of the town's acts of resistance - to cultivate any relationships that might have helped his cause.

  'So, what do you think?'

  'Of the new Kommandant? I don't know. He could have been worse, I suppose. He didn't pull the house apart, where Becker might have, just to show his strength. But ...' I wrinkled my nose '... he's clever. We might have to be extra careful.'

  'As ever, Madame Lefevre, your thoughts are in harmony with my own.' He smiled at me, but not with his eyes. I remembered when the mayor had been a jolly, blustering man, famous for his bonhomie: he'd had the loudest voice at any town gathering.

  'Anything coming in this week?'

  'I believe there will be some bacon. And coffee. Very little butter. I hope to have the exact rations later today.'

  We gazed out of the window. Old Rene had reached the church. He stopped to talk to the priest. It was not hard to guess what they were discussing. When the priest began to laugh, and Rene bent double for the fourth time, I couldn't suppress a giggle.

  'Any news from your husband?'

  I turned back to the mayor. 'Not since August, when I had a postcard. He was near Amiens. He didn't say much.' I think of you day and night, the postcard had said, in his beautiful loopy scrawl. You are my lodestar in this world of madness. I had lain awake for two nights worrying after I had received it, until Helene had pointed out that 'this world of madness' might equally apply to a world in which one lived on black bread so hard it required a billhook to cut it, and kept pigs in a bread oven.

  'The last I received from my eldest son came nearly three months ago. They were pushing forward towards Cambrai. Spirits good, he said.'

  'I hope they are still good. How is Louisa?'

  'Not t
oo bad, thank you.' His youngest daughter had been born with a palsy; she failed to thrive, could eat only certain foods and, at eleven, was frequently ill. Keeping her well was a preoccupation of our little town. If there was milk or any dried vegetable to be had, a little spare usually found its way to the mayor's house.

  'When she is strong again, tell her Mimi was asking after her. Helene is sewing a doll for her that is to be the exact twin of Mimi's own. She asked that they might be sisters.'

  The mayor patted her hand. 'You girls are too kind. I thank God that you returned here when you could have stayed in the safety of Paris.'

  'Pah. There is no guarantee that the Boche won't be marching down the Champs-Elysees before long. And besides, I could not leave Helene alone here.'

  'She would not have survived this without you. You have grown into such a fine young woman. Paris was good for you.'

  'My husband is good for me.'

  'Then God save him. God save us all.' The mayor smiled, placed his hat on his head and stood up to leave.

  St Peronne, where the Bessette family had run Le Coq Rouge for generations, had been among the first towns to fall to the Germans in the autumn of 1914. Helene and I, our parents long dead and our husbands at the Front, had determined to keep the hotel going. We were not alone in taking on men's work: the shops, the local farms, the school were almost entirely run by women, aided by old men and boys. By 1915 there were barely any men left in the town.

  We did good business in the early months, with French soldiers passing through and the British not far behind. Food was still plentiful, music and cheering accompanied the marching troops, and most of us still believed the war would be over within months, at worst. There were a few hints of the horrors taking place a hundred miles away: we gave food to the Belgian refugees who traipsed past, their belongings teetering on wagons; some were still clad in slippers and the clothes they had worn when they had left their homes. Occasionally, if the wind blew from the east, we could just make out the distant boom of the guns. But although we knew that the war was close by, few believed St Peronne, our proud little town, could possibly join those that had fallen under German rule.

  Proof of how wrong we had been had come accompanied by the sound of gunfire on a still, cold, autumn morning, when Madame Fougere and Madame Derin had set out for their daily six forty-five a.m. stroll to the boulangerie, and were shot dead as they crossed the square.