Authors: Michel Déon
Praise forThe Foundling Boy:
‘Remarkable … deserves a place alongside Flaubert’sSentimental Education and Le Grand Meaulnes’ New Statesman
‘A big-hearted coming-of-age shaggy-dog story … [Déon’s] novel leaves you feeling better about life ’The Spectator
‘It is shamefully parochial of us that this eminent writer has been so ignored by the anglophone world’Sunday Times
‘Quiet, wryly funny prose … a delight’Independent on Sunday
‘Michel Déon is a storyteller par excellence, and ifThe Foundling Boyis your first encounter with him, you couldn’t have a better introduction’Irish Times
‘As witty as its English forebear [Tom Jones] but with French savoir-faire,The Foundling Boymay win new readers for books translated from French’New York Times
‘I loved this book for the way, in its particularities and its casual narration, it admitted me to a world I knew nothing about and the many ways it made me care. It is not just a glimpse into the past, but the study of the heart of a man and his times’ Paul Theroux
‘The Foundling Boyis a legitimate, if not yet fully grown, heir to the great line of storytellers running from Fielding to Giono’Le Figaro
‘This is a book to devour, savouring every last mouthful’ Pierre MoustiersThe Foundling’s War
by Michel Déon
translated from the Frenchby Julian EvansContentsTitle PageThe Foundling’s WarNotesAbout the AuthorCopyrightÂ Â
Jean's view of the band as it turned into the avenue leading to Place de Jaude, was obstructed by Palfy's nose. It had always been of noble dimensions, with nicely arched nostrils that quivered particularly sensitively at the smell of grilling meat or a ripe Camembert but never, never before had it aspired to block an entire avenue. From the front, Palfy's nose suited his bony face, and its bump, emphasised above its bulbous tip by a white scar, actually seemed somehow cheerful and promising. But then suddenly, seen from the side, it underwent a curious mutation: protruding, it transformed Palfy's expression utterly, turning him into a sort of predator, a gourmand (or sensualist, if you like) of an extreme and quite possibly sadistic kind. Abruptly his eyelashes seemed too exquisitely brushed, his eyes to retreat into their orbits, exaggerating the pink, living caruncle into a pustule at the corner of the eye, and his arched nostril revealed the cartilage inside, as smooth as the wall of a cavern.
Jean told himself he must never really have seen his friend's face in profile before, which was both a pretty peculiar and pretty improbable state of affairs, given that they had known each other for three years and been through nine months of fighting together, eating from the same mess tins, sleeping on the same straw, throwing themselves down in the same mud. He had had to sit at a cafÃ© terrace in Clermont-Ferrand on a July morning in 1940 to discover Palfy's nose for the first time. How long would it take to get to know the rest of his face? Jean closed his eyes and tried to imagine Palfy's hands. His attempt to conjure up a precise picture of them was unsuccessful and when he opened his eyes again the band, having filed past Palfy's nose, had arrived at the cafÃ©. Children dashed along the pavements. Women in sleeveless dresses waved. One of them stopped in front of the cafÃ©Â terrace, and through the thin blue lawn of her dress the sunlight outlined soft thighs, delicious hips, and a slim back. For a second or two she stood without moving, offered to their gaze, an unknown, fragile-looking young woman with ash-blond hair falling over her cool neck. She turned to walk away and her face appeared with its childlike nose, pale lips and sun-lightened eyebrows.
âDid you see?' Jean said.
âYes. We are visited by grace herself.'
âHowever fleeting, she must always be acknowledged. And we shall see her again.'
âShe might be really stupid.'
âI guarantee she won't be!' Palfy declared, in a tone that brooked no contradiction.
Sergeant Titch was passing them now, chest out, marching stiffly, tossing his beribboned baton high above his head. The band followed, drummers first, ahead of the buglers, whose instruments festooned with blue pennants embroidered with a red design â a devil and his lance â glinted in the sunlight. These gaitered, white-gloved cherubs, cheeks bulging under their greased and gleaming helmets, were being menaced from behind by Pegasone, the strawberry roan mare of Colonel Vavin, a fine figure of an infantryman on horseback. Mounted uneasily in his saddle, the colonel, knowing the mare hated the cacophony of brass and drums, feared she would throw him at any moment. And behind Pegasone lay further danger in the shape of the baby-faced subaltern who, flanked by heavily decorated NCOs, was carrying the regimental standard at far too acute an angle, threatening Pegasone's hindquarters with its metal spike. One false move and she would be off.
âCome on!' Palfy said.
Jean looked for a waiter to pay for their beers.
âWhat are you doing?' Palfy asked.
âI can't see the waiter.'
âDon't you know that we won the war? Have you ever seen the winning side pay for its drinks? Let's get out of here.'
They dived into the crowd, which grew thicker as they approached Place de Jaude.
âI think you're overstating it,' Jean grumbled. âWe didn't win the war. In fact I don't think we can ever have lost a war as shamefully as we did this one.'
âWe must have won. At the last minute it all worked out for us. The miracle of the Marne.La furia francese. Otherwise they'd never dare parade like this.'
The regiment flowed into the square, its companies marking time as they waited to take up their positions in front of an empty stage backed with red curtains that looked like an open mouth. Squeezed into khaki jackets buttoned to the throat, trussed up in cartridge belts stuffed with bread, chocolate and tobacco, and weighed down by new cleated boots that threw sparks as they hit the ground, the soldiers looked as though they were on the verge of apoplexy. Company sergeant-majors, lieutenants and captains scuttled back and forth, issuing orders to their companies that were raggedly obeyed. Rifles were stacked, and at a signal from section NCOs each man pulled a rag out of his cartridge belt to polish his boots. An admiring âah!' of astonishment ran through the crowd massed on the pavements, held back with some difficulty by a police cordon. A new era was dawning. Groomed and gleaming, newly issued with MAS-36 rifles (prudently kept back during the fighting to make sure the old rifles from 1914â18 were used first), the regiment with its distinctive red epaulettes and dashing, self-important officers seemed to have survived its recent battles without so much as a scratch or losing a single one of the buttons Gamelin had promised to the government.
When the boots were polished, the rifles were unstacked and companies lined up once more. An official in a black-edged jacket, stiff collar, striped trousers and bowler hat appeared on the platform.He scrutinised the two rows of chairs, looking for the one with his name on. He looked like a clown or a tiny Jonah, about to be swallowed by the curtains' open mouth. Having found his seat, he settled himself, mopped his brow, and suddenly saw that more than a thousand spectators had him in their sights. Swiftly replacing his bowler, he disappeared as if swallowed by a trapdoor, followed by a wave of laughter.
Moments later, the prefect made his entrance. Instructions rang around the square and battalion commanders ordered their men to shoulder arms.
Jean and Palfy found themselves in the front row, among the ex-servicemen, who wore their berets tugged down over their ears and carried children on their shoulders. Jean could have named nearly every officer and NCO now standing to attention in the square, but the veterans of the regiment â the men who had still been fighting three weeks earlier â had been redistributed among the re-formed companies, which had then been joined by the last contingent to arrive. He and Palfy recognised Hoffberger, fat as ever, and the huge Ascary, little Vibert, still furious-looking, the seminarian Picallon, their friend the boxer LÃ©onard, and Negger, the pacifist primary-school teacher â all of them easily distinguishable from the young recruits drummed up after the armistice by their visibly casual way of standing to attention.
âI can hear Ascary swearing, “God oh God oh God in heaven”,' Palfy said.
âAnd Hoffberger going “hmmph”.'
âGood to see they're both still with us.'
âTo tell you the truth,' Jean said, âI'd prefer to see that nice blonde, the one we saw just now with the sun behind her.'
âIs that all you can think about?'
A general was inspecting the regiment. When the inspection was finished, it was time to award the decorations. Colonel Vavin added a bar to his Croix de Guerre, which already reached his belt. Three captains and four lieutenants received the official embrace. Next it wasthe NCOs' turn. A dozen sergeants fell out.
âYou see, we won the war. No question about it,' Palfy said.
Next to them, an ex-serviceman curiously sporting a faithful copy of a Hitler moustache hissed at them, âShut up, you bloody layabouts!'
âForgive me, Monsieur,' Palfy said contritely, âI was only joking.'
âThis is no time for jokes.'
Jean's elbow connected with Palfy's ribs. One of the sergeants, good-looking in a thuggish way, was taking his three paces forward to receive a Croix de Guerre.
âIt's Tuberge! They're giving Tuberge the Croix de Guerre! They're out of their minds!'
âNot that bastard who trousered my watch!'
There was movement and a murmuring around them. The ex-serviceman put up his fists.
âNow you're insulting our heroes!'
âI make a hero like that every morning,' Palfy said.
âOh, belt up, you old fart.'
The ex-serviceman attempted to grab Palfy's shirtfront. Shoving him back, Palfy broke free and, cupping his hands around his mouth, yelled, âSergeant Tuberge! You're a fairy! Coward! Bastard! Looter! Murderer! Shit! Thug!'
The general, about to pin on Tuberge's medal, stopped dead, although he did not deign to turn towards the heckler. Nor did the colonel, who beckoned to an aide-de-camp. In the reverential silence that reigned across the square, Palfy's shouts had been heard by everyone. Tuberge himself, fists clenched, appeared to be about to dive into the crowd towards his tormentor, who was now brandishing his fist, having just shoved the infuriated ex-serviceman to the ground.
The ex-serviceman was shouting, âArrest them! Arrest them! They're agitators.'
The aide-de-camp ran over to a police sergeant. In the ranks of his old battalion Jean could see Ascary doubled up with laughter,Hoffberger scarlet with amusement, and Negger, who had put his rifle on the ground to underline his pacifism. Despite the many hands trying to restrain him, Palfy was not finished.
âBloody coward! Bloody bugger! Bloody â¦ navvy!' he went on shouting.
âLet's get out of here,' Jean begged him.
The police were running towards them. Ducking low, they shoved their way back through the crowd, which watched them dumbfounded. Breaking free, they found that they were face to face with agarde mobile,1who tried to grab their arms. They tripped him and he fell.
âThis way!' Palfy said.
They ran down one side of the square. No one tried to stop them, but several policemen in the square were still following them, running parallel to the crowd, which might have thinned out enough to let them through if it had not been distracted by a new development. Overcome by heat, weakened by dysentery, three soldiers who had been standing presenting arms for ten minutes crashed to the ground. They were followed by a fourth. A bugle call and a series of drum rolls covered the yells of the police and the growing noise of the crowd. Reaching the corner, Jean and Palfy found a narrow cobbled street that led up to a church. They had left thegarde mobilea hundred metres behind them. Palfy swerved right. Jean was following suit when he suddenly saw, directly in front of him, the young woman with ash-blond hair. Their eyes met. The woman's were amused. Jean was lost for words, feeling the same inexpressible emotion he had felt when she had innocently stood in front of the cafÃ© terrace with the sun shining through the light lawn of her dress.
âWhat's your name? Tell me!' he blurted out.
She stopped, and smiled.
âQuick!' he said.
Not hearing his friend behind him, Palfy spun round and shouted, âJean!'
Thegarde mobilewas gaining on them. The young woman was still smiling. Jean, wrenching himself away, caught up with Palfy and together they ran up to the church then turned left into a small square where an area had been roped off for some roadworks. Palfy stepped over them, put his shoulder to the door of a small wooden hut till it gave, and pulled out two pickaxes and a pair of straw hats.
âTake off your shirt!' he said.
Seconds later they were breaking up the earth with their picks as thegarde mobileand a dozen policemen arrived.
âOy! You lads! Did you see a couple of men scarpering like rabbits?' the sergeant asked breathlessly.
âThat way!' Jean pointed to a side street.
The sergeant mopped his brow and turned to his men.
âThey'll be the death of us! Right, let's go!'
The group jogged out of sight. Palfy dropped his pickaxe and pounded his bare pectorals.
âNow,' he said, âgiven the combined brain power of a middle-aged police sergeant and a youngishgarde mobile, I reckon it will take them a good five minutes to work out that no one works on the roads on a Sunday and that actually we are Sergeant Tuberge's tormentors. So no need to hurry. Put your shirt on, my fine friend, and let's get out of here and find a drink.'
âI've met one of the women of my dreams,' Jean said.
âYour little shadow puppet in the blue lawn dress?'
âHow did you guess?'
âI have a talent.'
âI spoke to her.'
âAre you going to have many children?'
âWe're going to make love endlessly, but we'll only have two children, and not until several years after we marry.'
âI want to be godfather to the eldest.'
They put their rough wool shirts back on and left the roadworks behind. The streets behind Place de Jaude were deserted, the citizens of Clermont-Ferrand having gathered en masse to watch the parade. The army, decried and scorned for years, had again become a symbol, one of the values the French were trying to cling to. The first parade by Jean and Palfy's regiment since the armistice belied the merciless thrashing Germany had inflicted on it and cast a pious veil over the missing, the million and a half prisoners who at that very moment, crammed into livestock wagons or straggling along distant roads, were being herded to camps in Silesia and Poland.
Palfy seemed to know where he was going. Jean followed him, but so absentmindedly that his friend stopped and said, âHello! Where are you?'
âA small part of me's with the lovely Claude, the rest is with our friend Tuberge. The look on his face â¦'
âYes, we mustn't forget it. One day, Tuberge, one day I'll have your guts for garters. When I think about that poor priest â¦'Â
The night had been calm except for a few volleys of tracer rounds fired over the canal, mostly either to let off steam or soothe nerves, or just for the pleasure of emptying a magazine and watching a salvo describe a clutch of luminous parabolas like a storm of meteorites in the warm June air. Early dawn light spread along the canal's banks. A trickle of water carried with it planks of wood, a hat, a dead cow with a monstrously distended stomach and a pair of corpses, two men tied together at the wrist and obligingly floating on their stomachs to hide their mortified expressions. Then, from out of nowhere, a fat, bare-headed priest appeared on the enemy side of the canal, walking along the towpath and reading his prayer book. His incomprehensible appearance seemed to cause time to stop, forcing a respite at the exact moment when the fighting was due to restart.
âIt's a truce from God!' Picallon, the seminarian, said, and for once no one laughed at him.
A damp freshness enveloped the numb men in their hastily constructed dugouts. Mosquitoes had devoured their hands and exposed faces. Lance-Corporal Astor had woken up blind, his eyelids swollen and stuck together with pus. He was led off to the command post, where a hypothetical ambulance was waiting. Jean and Palfy, smeared with lemon juice, had escaped the onslaught and subsequent wholesale itching. The priest followed the towpath, hard by the water's edge, as far as a destroyed footbridge, where he turned round and, with his nose still in his prayer book, retraced his steps. The last shreds of grey night were drifting away in the sky. The cleric's florid face was visible, as was his unkempt white hair and too-short cassock that revealed a pair of skinny calves ending in stout ankle boots very like those worn by the abbÃ© Le Couec.
Behind the group to which Jean and Palfy belonged, Sergeant Tuberge and Lance-Corporal Pomme had dug themselves a comfortable hole which they had reinforced with planks and sandbags. Thirty metres to the rear of his men, Tuberge claimed it was a good command post because he could receive orders from the main CP without endangering a runner. In reality it was clear that his location would, at the first sign of trouble, allow him to take to his heels down a well-protected trench, at the end of which lay one of those elastic positions so beloved by communiquÃ© writers at headquarters. But Tuberge, a loudmouth well skilled in the boasting arts, still managed to impress with his physical presence and underworld vocabulary. A one-time lathe and milling-machine operator at Renault, he had prepared himself for battle by wreaking havoc among the female population of the villages where the regiment had been billeted during the phoney war. Jean and Palfy had not been surprised to find that the first shots fired in anger had revealed the sergeant's possession of a hitherto unsuspected virtue: enormous caution.
The priest once again about-turned, impervious to the threateningsilence that accompanied his reading and private prayers. He was like a tightrope walker exorcising his vertigo at the war to right and left and keeping his balance on the high wire with a long pole, in this case, his prayer book, the word of the Church. At that hour, with the day still undecided, a priest's innocence and the word of the Church seemed truly supernatural. They held the guns silent, forbade bloodshed, and returned to its state of French grace the whole tract of peaceful countryside whose colours were beginning to awaken. Everyone felt the moment, except for Tuberge, who grumbled something about fifth columnists and parachutists disguised as priests, then picked up a light machine gun and raked the black cassock with a volley of fire. The priest's hands flew to his flushed face, and his body, after a moment's hesitation, toppled into the canal, joining the dead cow whose horns had become tangled in the weeds. As the echo of the machine gun died away a sudden breeze sprang up, rippling the surface of the canal. The cow moved off again, dragging the priest behind, his wet cassock floating just below the surface.
âBastard!' Picallon yelled, standing up in his dugout and shaking his fist at Tuberge.
âYou shit, it'll be your turn next!' Palfy shouted in the sergeant's direction.
Tuberge prudently kept his head down, but shouted back, âThe next one to complain gets a bullet in the back of the neck from me.'
âDo we shoot him?' Jean asked in a low voice.
âHe won't show himself,' Palfy answered. âHe may even be making his way to the rear at this very moment.'
Five hundred metres away on the far bank, from behind a half-ruined wall, a machine gun fired several rounds and jammed. Silence fell again between the lines, as if death were taking a last deep breath before exhaling its fire across the meadow and through the willows. Everything looked frozen: the cumulus clouds in the pale sky, the canal's greenish-black water, the leaves in the trees and the tall grass stained with the red spots of poppies that had been winking theresince sunrise. The stillness might have carried on for an eternity if a crow had not suddenly swooped low over the canal, attracted by the corpses that floated there. Someone muttered that it must be the priest's soul, as the crow settled on a willow branch, but the priest's soul must have been as cursed as his body. The first mortar struck the willow, splitting it in two, and the blast scattered black crow feathers in every direction. Shells began falling far beyond the canal, behind Jean and Palfy, shredding trees and blasting funnel-shaped craters out of the meadow. Then a salvo hit the canal, sending up geysers of brackish water. Progressively the range was adjusted until at last it started pounding the bank held by the French in their foxholes. For an hour, shells arced through the sky, emitting soft whistles as they fell. They could be seen climbing merrily, twisting as they rose, then gliding and hesitating, as if choosing their targets, and boring their way down through the air to land in a spray of earth, grass and stones, their dull thud as they burst putting an end to fear.
For no discernible reason, the mortars fell silent. The Germans failed to show themselves. Trees and bushes were ablaze. At eight in the morning the sun was already sweltering. Packed into their foxholes, their necks protected by their packs, Tuberge's group was sweating as much from fear as heat. The corpses of the cow and the priest had disappeared. In their wake drifted dead branches, a boater, and a cutter with a smashed gunwale. Palfy raised his helmet on the tip of a bayonet, but no one shot at it and he crawled gingerly out of the foxhole. On the far side of the canal, in the deserted meadow, the wind was bending the tall grass.
âTuberge,' he called.
âMaybe he's been blown to bits,' someone said with unconcealed joy.
âI'd hate to miss that,' Picallon said, crawling towards the sergeant's shelter.
There was no one in the shelter but it was piled high with tinnedfood, wine and ammunition. On a plank Tuberge had pinned a photo of a donkey with an erection sodomising an enormous Hindu woman.
âThey've cleared off!' Picallon shouted.
âTry and get hold of the command post.'
The seminarian disappeared down the trench. He returned two minutes later.
âScarpered! With the 75.'
The 75's disappearance was no news to anyone. Ever since war had been declared the self-propelled field gun, commanded by a reservist officer cadet, seemed to have had as its principal objective staying out of sight of the enemy. With three shells it could have silenced their mortars, but that would have meant risking an artillery piece destined to feature in a museum with a caption that read: â75mm cannon, having succeeded throughout the war of 1939â40 in not aggravating relations â already very bad at that time â between Albert Lebrun's France and Adolf Hitler's Germany'.
âWe're buggered!' NoÃ«l, a railway worker who was always depressed, said. â`We'll have to surrender. Who's got something white we can wave?'
âNot on your life,' said Pastoureau. âThe Krauts don't take prisoners. If I have to die either way, I'm for scarpering too. But who's going to take command?'
âYou, Palfy, you're the oldest!' JoÃ«l Tambourin, a Breton, declared.
âAll right,' Palfy said, having expected the nomination. âJean will be my NCO.'
âWhat's happening?' Picallon called from his hole. âWhat are we doing?'
âPalfy's taken over command!' Tambourin yelled back with the joy of a man who had been liberated. âWe've got a chief!'
Palfy smiled and murmured, âThe frogs need their prince.'
Jean crawled across open ground to the next foxhole. For some incomprehensible reason, the Germans were holding their fire. The other group was dug in about twenty metres away. Jean hailed them.Getting no answer and tired of crawling, he got to his feet, ran and jumped into the hole: into a tangle of pulverised heads and crushed faces, of men whose spilt guts were already attracting flies. Two, possibly three mortars had fallen directly into the shelter and Jean found himself floundering in a pulp of blood, shredded flesh, and pieces of bone. His right boot finished the job of crushing a man's chest. As he pulled it free, he pulled white ribs away with it and squashed the heart, from which thick black blood trickled. A ghastly nausea gripped him, and his whole body seemed to turn over in an excruciating pain that affected his arms and legs, as if his own life was being dragged out of him by giant pincers. He vomited not just the hunk of bread and corned beef he had eaten during the night, but all the food he had ever eaten, all his innards, his blood, his saliva, his snot. Intolerable throbbing drilled into his temples as he shut his eyes and clawed at the parapet to try to get out of the hole and flee the horror. Standing up, casting all caution to the winds, he wanted to run but collapsed, his foot caught in a length of someone's guts. A machine-gun volley rattled over his head and his mouth was filled with earth.
âCrawl, you bloody idiot!' Palfy shouted.
Jean disentangled his foot and, green and trembling, let himself drop into the foxhole, where Palfy broke his fall.
âWell â¦? Oh, I see. Right.'
Palfy in turn crept to the nearest position in the opposite direction, which was better protected by a parapet, but there the men had decamped, abandoning kit and ammunition. Another machine-gun volley punctuated his return.
âNothing for it but to do the same.'
âForget it. I'm not moving,' Boucharon said. âAll things considered, I'm all right here. Demob!'
âI'm going,' Palfy said. âIf I make it to Picallon I'll cover you.'
He climbed out. The enemy machine gun fired, kicking up dry sprays of earth around him, but he reached Picallon and set up the light machine gun.
âDoesn't fill me with joy,' NoÃ«l said.
âYou'd have to be mad!' Boucharon added.
âWould it fill you with joy if I get across?' Jean asked.
Jean got across. A bullet ricocheted and hit his heel, another holed his jacket.
âThree of us! The holy trinity!' Picallon said, laughing uproariously and helping Jean back to an upright position.
âYour turn, NoÃ«l,' Palfy called.
The machine gun scythed through NoÃ«l's spine when he was halfway across. He did not even flinch, just fell with his face flat on the ground. His fingers untensed and slid away from his rifle. Tambourin, whose turn it was next, hesitated at the shelter's edge, then scrambled forward, crawling level with the immobile body. Palfy's light machine gun discharged a magazine over his head towards the invisible German machine gun, which responded with a volley of bullets that riddled the earthwork of Tuberge's shelter just as Tambourin was sliding into it. Palfy caught a dead man in his arms. He placed him in the bottom of the foxhole and sat him up. His face was already waxen, his lips pulled back to reveal his gums.
âPalfy?' Boucharon called from the shelter.
âWhat happened to Tambourin?'
âYou want to know?'
âIn that case, all things considered, I'm staying put. They're not cannibals, the Germans, after all. Demob!'
And so Boucharon, who had been expecting to throw away his uniform that day, kept it for another five years. On the other hand, he travelled and got to know the camps of Poland, Silesia and WÃ¼rttemberg where, working as a farmhand, he impregnated thewife of a farmer who was freezing at Stalingrad. Not the worst life he might have had, as he admitted, free of worries, his board guaranteed, and plenty of available women. He talked about it for the rest of his life after he got back to his family in Creuse, over whom the war had passed without a trace. From time to time, he still roared, âDemob!' when he had drunk a bit too much at the CafÃ© des Amateurs, but no one knew what demobilisation he was talking about, and nor did he. For a few years after he got back he dreamt of his German companion, of her delicious breasts and her strong smell of milk after she had been milking, but the memory gradually faded and he arrived by degrees at a princely state of apathy for everything that did not belong to his little world of food, wine and work on the farm, where he lived alone with his dogs, cows and two pigs. In which case let us speak of him no longer (in any case his role in this story is about as episodic as it could be) and return to Palfy, Jean and Picallon who, having bid Boucharon, huddled in his hole, farewell, reached a long hedge and then a clearing that they crossed on their stomachs, and finally a sheep pen next to a duck pond. This had been the command post. A table set up outside the door was still strewn with tins of corned beef and sardines, red wine and country bread, and cigars.
âI'm hungry,' Picallon said. âI could eat a horse.'
âEat, young priest, eat. I shall keep you company. What about you, Jean?'
He would never again be able to swallow another mouthful. The smell of blood and human flesh clung to him, and he gagged again, all the more painfully because his stomach was empty. He leant against a tree and stayed there for a long time, staring at a landscape as blurred as the sea bed. Picallon gobbled down three tins of corned beef, a litre of wine, and an entire loaf of bread. The enemy machine gun, still close by, was regularly audible, firing at random in the direction of the canal bank where Boucharon had decided to see how events turned out. Turning away so as not to see the other two gorgingthemselves, Jean walked into the house. A headquarters map was spread out on the kitchen table, dotted with white and red flags as if for a lesson at the Ãcole de Guerre. In their scramble to retreat the staff had left behind the stock of flags, a pair of binoculars, a swagger stick, even a monocle attached to its black string. Jean looked for their canal position on the map and understood why the Germans had not attacked. They had settled for a flanking movement via a bridge ten kilometres downstream. Alerted, the command post had ordered a withdrawal so hasty that only the NCOs had known about it. But the map indicated the local paths as well, and the enemy could not be in possession of all of them. If they moved at night or kept to the woods, they would eventually rejoin the French lines. As propositions went, it was optimistic but not so absurd as to be impossible. Nor would it be the first optimistic proposition formulated by members of the French army since 10 May 1940.
Lacking communications and at the mercy of idiotic wireless broadcasts and a hopeless romanticism, France, its retreating army and its refugees lived in a whirlwind of rumours and lies that, despite the majority being instantly refutable, ricocheted from village to village and unit to unit. The strategic discussions at a thousand CafÃ©s du Commerce had never been blessed by such a unanimous belief in success before, and as the retreat gathered momentum a veritable torrent of misinformation received the same serious consideration: the very night of the German forces' entry into Paris, Hitler had gone to the OpÃ©ra to hearSiegfriedand gliders had dropped a battalion of parachutists disguised as nuns on the outskirts of Tours, where they had taken control of the aerodrome without firing a shot; other parachutists disguised as farm workers were giving false directions to the French armoured division and sending it straight into the lion's den; Roosevelt was about to make available to France and Great Britain five hundred fighters and more than a thousand bombers, with aircrew; a famous singer had been shot: her coded songs broadcast on the wireless had given away troop numbers at the Maginot line; twotrains filled with gold ingots were going to buy Mussolini's neutrality; the German armoured division had only a day's fuel left and the bombing of the Ruhr was causing strikes in the armament factories; some units were already running out of ammunition; in any case, the president of the Council had announced with a tremor in his voice that âGermany's iron supply line has been cut' and it had not a gram of steel left.
Jean went outside again, map in hand. Using a spirit stove Picallon was heating up some coffee he had found in a flask, and Palfy was coming back, smiling broadly at his discovery: a hundred metres away, in the shelter of birch woods, were two working tankettes with trailers stuffed with mines, sub-machine guns and ammunition. The tankettes, with which the French army had been supplied in abundance for want of battle tanks, had been assembled at high speed at arsenals to the south of the Loire and lined up under the proud gaze of sergeant-majors to be counted and re-counted. They had proved utterly useless. They looked like cartoon tanks, the kind of thing rich men's children might play with on the family estate. What terrifying toys they could have been in childish, cruel hands, flattening hens under their tracks, crippling the children of the poor!
With the turret raised, there was room for two inside each one. Picallon could not drive and in any case his height â close to six foot three â made him too big to fit into a tankette. He settled himself on the bonnet of Jean's instead, accepting, as a consolation, a new sub-machine gun still covered with the oil applied by the regimental armourer, who must have relinquished it only under the most extreme duress.
The convoy jerked into motion, heading south on a forest track through the woods. The tankettes advanced slowly, doing ten kilometres an hour at best. Sheltered by summer foliage and twice cutting across roads that helped serve as landmarks, they reached the edge of the forest where they were forced to move without cover through a hot, empty landscape in which the hay roasted by the Junesun was starting to wilt. Three Stukas passed overhead, way up, at well over a thousand metres, mission accomplished, dazzling birds in the midday sun. The road led through a deserted hamlet, then a second where, suddenly, a scarcely human form emerged from a doorway, a ball of sound slumped in a wheelchair. The man was working the wheelchair's wheels desperately, trying to get away from a pack of excited dogs. Picallon slid off the bonnet and walked towards the invalid. He had been abandoned there with a plate of rice and bread and water that he was protecting, groaning inarticulately, from the starving dogs. At twenty paces he reeked of excrement and urine. Picallon stepped back.
âWhat do I do?' he asked.
âKill the dogs before they make a meal of him!' Palfy ordered.
The sub-machine gun silenced the wheelchair's famished attackers, and Picallon nudged the corpses into a ditch with his boot. The man shrieked with joy and clapped.
âThat's enough, young priest, you can't do any more!'
âNo going soft. Come on.'
They set off again, and the man in the wheelchair tried for a moment to follow them, burping and coughing in the cloud of dust and exhaust gases. Re-seated on the tankette's bonnet, Picallon began to heat up as if he was being grilled and started to pray aloud to St Lawrence, offering his apologies for not hitherto having appreciated his martyrdom. Jean, having familiarised himself with the tankette's various directional levers, was following the tracks made by Palfy, who had dived into a series of dusty paths bordered by yellowed, overripe wheat and parched grass. The harvest of 1940 was superb, but there were no men to take it in. From time to time across the fields they saw the distant figures of women in white headscarves, cutting wheat by hand and forking the crop into carts drawn by Percherons whose coats trickled with sweat. But no one turned to watch the two strange vehicles lurching noisily into and out of view in plumes ofdust. Jean felt an intoxicating sense of freedom. No more yapping NCOs to order pathetically inadequate defensive fire or a premature withdrawal. He and crazy Palfy were going on holiday, to tour France's agricultural heartland and discover its bistros where thepatronne, in vowels as round as her hips, served âher'pÃ¢tÃ© de campagne, âher' beef stew, âher' local wine and the pears from âher' garden. But the farms looked like theMary Celeste, the famous brigantine discovered still under sail in the middle of the ocean, without a crew, with breakfast served on the table, the fire still lit in the galley and not a soul on board. They stopped at some of these farms and called out, and no one came. There might be a dog barking, pigs snuffling in the rubbish, cows with swollen udders mooing in the pastures, but apart from the few women they glimpsed, busy bringing in the wheat, France had been emptied of its population by the wave of a magic wand, with the single exception of a disabled man in a wheelchair whom the pigs would eventually deal with too, for lack of anything better to eat.
His mouth painfully dry from the dust, his stomach empty, his head burning, and still with the taste of his exhausting nausea on his tongue, Jean's mind began to wander. The war was ending just when it could have become amusing and comfortable, riding in this tracked contraption after having marched themselves to a standstill ever since the Ardennes, chasing the ghosts of promised trucks that would miraculously allow the regiment to rest and re-form. But the trucks had archives of documents to save, tons and tons of archives that headquarters were relying on to exact their revenge one day.
The first evening they broke open the door of an abandoned farm. A slab of butter still sat on the pantry shelf. Picallon, brought up in the country, milked the cows and brought a jug of cream to the table. They found ham andsaucissonin the cellar, and some bottles of light red wine and apples. Unmade beds told of a hasty flight. Palfy went looking for bedsheets and found piles of them in a cupboard; picking up a sheet, he rubbed the linen between his thumb and index finger.
âObviously it's not satin, and there's no trace of a monogram. Butthe mistress of the house washes her own linen and hangs it to dry in the meadow. Even in London you won't find whiteness like this any more. We must make do. In any case we have no right to ask for too much, my friends. I must remind you that there's a war on, in case you've forgotten, for youth is terribly forgetful.'
âYou're amazing,' Picallon said. âYou've seen everything, you know everything. Without you we'd either be dead or have been taken prisoner.'
âPerhaps I'm actually God!' Palfy suggested, modestly.
âNo, definitely not, I know you're not Him. I may be naive, but I'm not that naive.'
Night was falling. They lit candles and stuck them in glasses on the big table in the main room.
âLook at us, back in the good old days at Eaton Square all over again,' Jean said. âAll that's missing is Price and his white gloves.'
Picallon was astonished that his friends had seen so much of the world. He was particularly dazzled by Palfy, who was way beyond the experience of a country boy from the Jura. He watched in amazement as Palfy laid spoons to eat the melons that he had cut in half and scooped out.
âMy dear Picallon,' Palfy said, his voice tinged with regret, âI know that at your seminary no one would ever have dared to serve melon without port. Unfortunately I've run out. My butler drank it one evening when his boyfriend cheated on him. I sacked him of course, but the damage is done and there's not even a drop of white wine left to help you save this melon. Just this red which, incidentally, as you'll note at once, has the same lightness as your Jura wines. I hope you won't be cross with me for inviting you and offering you such simple fare â¦'
Picallon was not cross with him at all. He found the entire dinner marvellous, down to the candles that cast the room's soot-blackened chimney, post office calendar and portrait photo of a lance-corporal in the engineer corps into gloomy oblivion. The war had been banishedand no longer filled their thoughts. Around midnight they stumbled on a bottle of what they thought might be plum brandy.
âWhen you're a bishopâ' Palfy said.
âMe a bishop! Not ruddy likely. I don't like tricky situations. As you're my witness, I shall be a priest and stay a priest â¦'
âYou lack ambition.'
âAmbition is a sin.'
âPicallon, you're an imbecile.'
âYes, maybe I am, but you're too clever, you know too many things. Doesn't he, Jean?'
âNo. Palfy doesn't know anything. He guesses it all. And because he doesn't know anything, he dreams up fabulous schemes that make him a multimillionaire one day and a conman the next.'
âConman is harsh,' Palfy said without irritation.
Picallon, his mind opened to life's great adventures by the plum brandy, wondered whether the things he had been taught at the seminary still meant something. The invader was trampling France â the Church's elder daughter â underfoot, and of his only two friends one was disenchanted and the other a conman. His mind a little fogged by alcohol, he tried to work out whether it was all a very good joke, or a dream inspired by the Great Tempter.
âYou're mocking me, both of you,' he said. âYou're incapable of being serious â¦'
And he went to bed, in a bedroom that smelt of wax and straw dust, which was a reassuring atmosphere for a country lad from the Jura.Â
We shall not elaborate now (or later for that matter) on the conversation that took place between Jean and Palfy after Picallon had gone to bed. More serious than usual, it went on until around two in the morning, after a last glass of plum brandy. The bottle was empty. To find another they would have had to break down the cellar doorand they were neither vandals nor looters, just soldiers abandoned by a republic in flight. A minimum of careful thought was vital. Where had the French army gone? Even in the absence of official news, it was plain to see it had evaporated. The worst part was that there did not seem to be a German army either.
Standing on the doorstep, admiring the warm starry night that enveloped the farm and the countryside, Palfy sighed.
âIf we were genuine optimists,' he said, âwe'd be imagining that both armies have put the wind up each other. The Germans have turned round and nipped back across their beloved Rhine to stroke their Gretchens with their blond plaits, and the French have laid down their rifles and put in for their paid holidays, a month's leave on the CÃ´te d'Azur â¦'
âI wouldn't mind going down to Saint-Tropez myself â¦'
He thought of Toinette and the sweet letter she had written him when he enlisted. But dreaming was forbidden! Palfy reminded him of it every time he weakened, and did not fail to do so this time as well.
âMy dear boy, one doesn't sleep with one's aunt. It's no more unhealthy than sleeping with anyone else, but it may bring misfortune on your head. Now is the time to be superstitious again, believe me. I would not have messed up my last two projects in London and Cannes so stupidly if I'd paid attention to certain signs â¦'
âYou'll never fail to make me laugh,' Jean said. âLet's go to bed. Tomorrowâ'
âMaÃ±ana serÃ¡ otro dÃa.'
âDon't get clever with me. I know those are the only four words of Spanish you know.'
âMm, they're all I need. In them lie all the hopes of the world.'
Tomorrow was indeed another day. The tankettes had to turn out onto a short stretch of departmental road that might be used by the Germans. As soon as they were under way they glimpsed a motorcyclist in the distance, bent over his handlebars and riding flat out in their direction, like a fat cockchafer. The insect swelled disproportionately and they made out a green jacket, black boots, a sort of large, gleaming kettle crowned with insignia and, beneath it, a face grey with dust. The rider did not slow down, acknowledging them with a friendly wave as he flashed past and immediately disappeared behind a hill. Palfy, driving in front, stuck out his right arm, indicating that they should turn onto a dirt track between two large fields. The track led to a barn and a ruined farm. Picallon jumped down, opened the gate, and the two tankettes concealed themselves behind the barn's stack of hay.
âThat was a German!' Picallon yelled, as soon as the two engines cut out.
âThanks for telling me!' Palfy sighed. âI came to the same conclusion. I must say, strong emotions make me hungry and thirsty.'
They found some shade and sat down to somesaucissonand the two bottles of light red wine they had liberated unrepentantly from the farm that morning.
âIt should be drunk cooler than this!' Picallon observed, the taste of the light wine reminding him of haymaking time on his father's farm.
âI say, young priest, you do know how to live!'
âDon't make fun of me, Palfy. I went straight from my farm to the seminary and from the seminary to the army. You've seen the world; I haven't. So perhaps you know why that German didn't stop and didn't shoot at us.'
âIt's probably perfectly simple: a humble soldier on the winning side finds it impossible to imagine that behind his army's lines are three chaps in French uniforms out sightseeing on a couple of tankettes.'
âAre you saying he took us for Germans?'
âPrecisely, my dear young priest. In which case, it also occurred tome that a semblance of thought might run through his fat head and perhaps cause him to turn round and come back. Which is why we are sitting eatingsaucissonin the hay in the shelter of a barn while there's a war on somewhere.'
âAll right,' Picallon said, âI get it. We're in the hands of divine Providence again â¦'
Providence was no slouch. From the haystack they watched the road for more than an hour. It remained empty. They set off again in the summer heat. Their tracks chewed the soft tarmac. Picallon sat cooking on Jean's bonnet while the tankette advanced at a stately pace and Jean alternately dozed and watched anxiously as the fuel gauge neared zero. They had been on the move for two hours when they glimpsed a village whose church pointed a tentative spire into a sky empty of aircraft. Palfy held up his arm and they halted outside themairie. The tricolour hung despondently from its pole. There was not a soul on the street, not even a stray dog. A grocer's had been looted and the CafÃ© des Amis had barricaded itself behind wooden shutters. It was an ordinary French village, pleasant, neither ugly nor handsome, lacking all arrogance as it lacked all pretension. Windows closed, it slumbered quietly in the warm afternoon. On nameplates they read: Jean Lafleur, solicitor; Pierre Robinson, doctor: surgery hours from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment; Auguste LariviÃ¨re, contractor â¦ Where had they all gone, these peace-loving citizens, exiled one morning in panic from their village, from their memories, their family portraits, the little gardens you could picture behind their houses, tidy and neat, with an apple tree, a few rose bushes and some geraniums? Crammed into wheezing cars, they had fled the war without thinking that the war would travel faster than they could on the congested roads. The single petrol pump was, predictably, padlocked, and hung with an unequivocal sign: âNo more petrol, so don't ask.' The situation seemed perfectly simple: they would have to continue on foot.
Palfy said bad-temperedly, âGod, what fools you French are!'
Picallon's hackles rose. âYou're French as well.'
âI do apologise, young priest, I haven't regaled you with my life story yet. My mother was English, my father Serb. I'm wearing the same uniform as you are merely because I happened to be born at Nice while my father was trying out an infallible system at the Casino on the JetÃ©e-Promenade.'
âAn infallible system?'
Palfy raised his arms heavenwards and called Jean as his witness.
âMust I explain everything? Listen to me, Picallon: my heart belongs to France. I could have steered clear of this war, but it amused me and came at the right moment, when I had one or two problems as wellâ'
Jean interrupted him, pointing his finger at a window on the first floor of a grey house with a shale frontage.
âI saw the curtain twitch and a hand, just a hand â¦'
A cat sauntered calmly across the square, walked up the stairs to themairie, and sat down to watch them.
âThe curtain twitched again!' Picallon said.
Someone was watching them from a window. The village was not entirely dead. A hand and a cat still lived here, and things began to look more lively as a breeze rustled the leaves of the ash trees shading the avenue with its inevitable war memorial, which for once was reasonably discreet, an obelisk decorated with bronze laurels beneath which was inscribed the fateful date â1914â1918', followed by a list of names. At a second gust of wind a door creaked, and the three startled men whipped round: one of the doors of the church had swung open onto a dark space streaked through with reddish flashes of sunlight from the stained-glass windows.
âBlimey!' Picallon said, crossing himself.
The seminarian went in, crossing himself again after dipping his fingers in the font. Jean did the same, and both felt the incense-scented coolness of the holy place buffet their hot, dry faces. Picallon knelt to pray while Jean, moved by the silence and innocent simplicity of the church, which reminded him of the abbÃ© Le Couec's at Grangeville,stayed standing in the nave. A splintering sound distracted him. Palfy was trying to force the poor box underneath the Sulpician statue of St Anthony. Their gazes met. Palfy shrugged and went out.
âWhy do you keep doing that?' Jean asked, following him outside to the porch. âIt's like an illness with you. I thought you'd got over it.'
âI'm not harming anyone. I believe I explained it to you years ago, when we first met. What's in the poor box is for the poor. And we're poor: twenty-five centimes a day is nowhere near enough to live on. Particularly as our government no longer knows where we are.'
âYou're forgetting the postal orders Madeleine sends you. And that I always share the ones Antoinette sends me.'
âMoney from women doesn't count. It's dishonourable. Can only be spent on things you shouldn't spend it on. The only money I respect is the money I earn.'
âThere are risks.'
âNot in churches.'
âJean, you're being tiresome.'
Picallon was still praying. They walked back to the square. Again the curtain fell back. Someone was spying on them. Approaching the front door, they read the enamelled nameplate âJacques Graindorge, surveyor'. Palfy rang the bell. They heard chimes: three notes repeated three times. The house remained silent.
âPerhaps it was the wind twitching the curtain,' Palfy said. âOr just a mirage. I don't know how many days it's been since we saw a civilian, apart from that handicapped chap in his wheelchair, whom the pigs must have eaten by now.'
âI saw a hand the first time.'
The cat, licking its paw on the top step of themairie, stretched, arched its back, and padded towards them. An ordinary cat, black spotted with white or white spotted with black, in no hurry, pausing to bat playfully at a piece of paper before proceeding with remarkable casualness across the deserted square. Jean watched it closely: itwas clearly well fed, so there was no question of it making do with rummaging in dustbins or hunting mice. No, this was definitely a proper, bourgeois moggy, returning from a short stroll after its lunch. Nothing surprised it, not even the two men in khaki shirtsleeves who had arrived from another planet in their big noisy toys that were resting further down the avenue. It walked between Jean and Palfy, lifted a paw to push a flap that swung back in the bottom of the door, and hopped through it. The flap closed automatically.
âThere's someone inside,' Jean said.
Palfy rang the bell repeatedly. The only reply was the sound of meowing. The cat did not like the noise of the chimes.
âI know what to do,' Palfy said, walking back to the tankette and pulling out a machine pistol. Of course, the classic tactic: a quick burst to shoot the lock and you push the door open.
But there was no need: above them the window opened and an anguished voice called out, âKamerad! Kamerad!Don't shoot! Me friend Germans. You speak French?'
âLike your mother and father,' Palfy said calmly. âMy friend too. Open this door or I'll shoot it open.'
âI'm coming! I'm coming! Don't shoot!'
The house suddenly came to life. A door slammed, hurried steps made their way downstairs. A chain was slipped and a key turned in a lock. In the doorway stood a man in his forties, his red hair tousled, his lips pale and quivering in an almost purple face.
âGentlemen, forgive me, I thought you were French soldiers. I swear' â he put out his right arm â âI swear I'm a friend of the Germans, a friend of Grossdeutschland and its leader, the FÃ¼hrer Adolf Hitler.'
Palfy put on an interested expression.
âSo you're definitely not hiding any Frenchmen?'
âI'm the only Frenchman in the village.'
âYou don't listen to the lies on the English wireless?'
âNever. Anyway I don't understand a word of English.'
Palfy turned to Jean and said to him in English as guttural as hecould make it, as though it was spoken with a German accent, âThis bugger deserves to be taught a lesson. Go and get Picallon, and tell him not to utter a word of French.'
In French he said to the surveyor, âThat's all very well, but we're an advance force. The regiment is following behind and we're here to start the requisitioning. What do you have for lunch?'
Monsieur Graindorge raised his arms heavenwards.
âRequisitioning! What an awful word, Messieurs. You won't be requisitioning anything here. You are my guests. My maid â a very stupid woman â has gone off pushing a pram filled with everything she holds most dear. But I can do without her. Give me an hour and I'll have the pleasure of offering your German palates â a little basic, I'm sure you won't mind me saying â a lunch worthy of French discernment and quality. I trust you accept?'
âOf course, Monsieur GraindeblÃ©,' Palfy answered with blithe artlessness.
âGraindorge!' the surveyor corrected him. âStrangers do sometimes muddle up my name.'
Blushing and still trembling, the man was sweating with unctuousness. Jean went to warn Picallon, who was where he had left him, on his knees, communing with himself before the altar, thanking God for having saved his life and entrusted it to such resourceful friends, even if they did not seem very promising at first sight. Jean's hand on his shoulder roused him from his reverie.
âAre you hungry?'
âVery,' the seminarian said.
âCome on then.'
As they crossed the square he explained the situation.
âI'm not setting foot in there!' Picallon said indignantly. âHe's a traitor.'
âI thought you said you were hungry?'
âYes, but such a man's bread shan't pass my lips!'
âYou only have to open your mouth and eat.'
âYou're both mad.'
Palfy was in the sitting room, stretched out in an armchair, his feet on a velvet stool, holding a glass in his hand.
âWhat are you drinking?' Picallon asked, thirst getting the better of him.
âMonsieur Graindemoncul's pastis. Help yourself. The bottle's over there and the water's cold.'
âWhere is he?'
âIn the kitchen, knocking us up a chicken fricassee.'
Picallon helped himself to a glass of pastis and stared around the sitting room, finally exclaiming, âIt's really nice in here!'
âPersonally, I think it's revolting,' Palfy said. âI wouldn't live in a room like this if you paid me. The worst of French bad taste â¦'
Picallon was quiet, suddenly anxious. The black furniture polished to a dusky red, the dresser and its shelves of travel trinkets, the reproduction Corot that was so dull it made you want to throw up, the bone china on the mantelpiece had astounded him, but Palfy's confident and violent antipathy cast doubt on all of it. He turned to Jean, who saw his discomfiture.
âListen, I grew up in a kitchen. My father's a gardener, my mother was a washerwoman and a nanny. A house like this would have been the height of luxury to them. My father would say the same as you. He's an honest, good man and I'll never be ashamed of him. You stick to what you think, Picallon.'
âBut what about you, what do you say?'
âI say the same as Palfy, but I've been lucky, I've learnt how to live.'
They heard footsteps. Palfy put a finger to his lips.
âYou got the message, Picallon? Keep mum. You don't speak a word of French.'
Their host entered, smiling and happy. He grasped Picallon's hand and shook it vigorously.
âI hear you don't speak French. Your comrades will translate. You are welcome in my house. I am a friend of Germany.'
âDon't waste your breath, Monsieur Graindorge,' Jean said, âour comrade is an excellent soldier but a complete dimwit. The only thing he's interested in is eating.'
âIn that case just give me half an hour, and forgive me for receiving you like this, with whatever's in the larder â¦'
The surveyor was wearing a blue pleated apron much too big for his narrow waist and he had turned up his cuffs, revealing pale, skinny wrists.
âWhat do you think of my pastis?'
âDrinkable!' Palfy said without enthusiasm.
âFor German throats it must be a novelty.'
âDon't you believe it, Monsieur Graindavoine. Before entering France like a knife through butter, we had an intensive course in French language and customs. We were taught to appreciate garlic, red wine, accordions and women who wear little silk knickers â¦ Don't laugh, Monsieur, I'm not making it up. Our FÃ¼hrer is very far-sighted. Helmut here is quite different from my friend Hans and me. He may be a giant and rather crude-looking, and he may not have followed the course we did, which was somewhat beyond his intellectual capacity, but instead he was taught how to kill and he now belongs to a commando unit that specialises in terminating suspects with extreme prejudice. I've never seen anyone kill as cleanly as Helmut does. You can trust him, he eliminates without fuss, and if you like, if you have an enemy, I don't know, anyone, just let me know, don't be shy, all I have to do is lift my little finger and Helmut will get rid of him for you â¦'
Picallon, furious, was about to explode with indignation. Jean gripped his arm and urged him to drink. The so-called Helmut's sullen expression fully convinced Monsieur Graindorge, who quivered with excitement and fear at having such a redoubtable fighting machine as a guest in his house.
âAs you see, the village is deserted,' he said. âSo I have no enemies here any more. In peacetime it was a different matter â¦ The mayorwas a leftist and a warmonger. No one would mind seeing the back of him â¦ but as I say he's not here â¦ We'll talk some more. I need to see to my saucepans.'
Jean thought of his father. Albert Arnaud would definitely not have left Grangeville. At the beginning of the phoney war his pacifism had made him several enemies. Now his leftist ideas would make him a sitting duck for the Graindorges of the world.
âI'll have you for this,' Picallon said to Palfy. âIf you take the piss out of me once moreâ'
âDrink your pastis, young priest, and belt up. You are about to eat like a prince and we're about to empty this ass's cellar.'
âThen we'll see.'
âIt will end badly.'
âEverything always ends badly. So if it's a bit sooner or a bit later than expected, who cares?'
Monsieur Graindorge was a competent chef, though it was hard to judge on the basis of a hastily prepared chicken fricassee in which he had had to use tinned mushrooms. His sauce lacked body.
Palfy interrupted him.
âMonsieur GraindemaÃ¯s, let me say that we are listening to you with the closest attention. The truth is that you are our first real contact with the French population. But on Adolf Hitler's instructions â very strict instructions â we were ordered categorically never to say “Forgive me” but “I beg you to forgive me”. I can't believe our FÃ¼hrer would have made a mistake on such a point â¦'
The surveyor blushed deeply. He was not an ugly man, having an average nose, mouth and eyes, but the rush of blood to his cheeks and forehead and around his neck, in large splotches, coloured his face so violently and artificially that it looked like a mask tortured by fear and anxiety. Have I mentioned that this was a man who had only just turned forty and was therefore in what is commonly referredto as his prime, and what is more a bachelor, which in general keeps you young; that he enjoyed a level of material comfort as a result of his technical abilities, which were sought after in the region; that he was a gourmet, a trumpeter in the village band, always jockeying for position on official occasions, but unhappily secretly undermined in his pleasure by a deficiency that, at another time and place, would have earned him highly trusted status in a harem? I'll admit that that is a lot to reveal about the character of a man whom the author will feel obliged to leave behind fairly swiftly. Jacques Graindorge, then, was ignorant of the subtleties of the French language that Palfy was disclosing to him with a calculated ingenuousness. Querulous, he started to stammer, then, feeling his self-importance rapidly slipping away, made a superhuman effort to get a grip on himself and hide his petulance.
âYour FÃ¼hrer is right â¦ I have made a mistake in French and what you have been taught is absolutely right â¦ but look, you must excuse me. So as not to seem like a pedant in this village, inhabited by honest but unrefined citizens, I tend to adjust my speech to stay in tune with them. Stupidly, in your company, I forgot myself â¦'
âI'm not annoyed,' Palfy said, âbecause our FÃ¼hrer is right on this point. I'm not aware that he has made a single mistake in his life.'
Picallon was shovelling down his lunch, apparently devoting himself to the pleasures of his plate. He served himself a second helping without a word or gesture to his host. Monsieur Graindorge ventured a timid smile.
âYour killer has a healthy appetite, anyway. It's a real pleasure to see him eat. What a face! A real animal. I expect he was born in some remote province in Germany â¦'
Under the table Palfy applied sudden sharp pressure to Picallon's foot, sensing he was about to explode, and to calm him served him a third full plate of fricassee. Monsieur Graindorge noticed nothing. Crouched at his sideboard, he was looking for a box of cigars that was so well hidden that for a moment he suspected his housekeeperof having made off with it in her pram. He eventually discovered it under a pile of napkins. Palfy sniffed one with suspicion.
âHm,' he said. âRather dry â¦ Well, there's a war on.'
The surveyor offered him the flame of a petrol lighter. Palfy drew back in surprise.
âWell, well â¦ that is remarkable â¦ We were taught that the French were as painstaking about their cigars as they were about their wine, and they only lit them with wooden matches â¦ Might our FÃ¼hrer have been mistaken?'
Picallon grabbed a cigar from the box uninvited and chewed a piece of it before spitting it on the floor. Graindorge rushed to pick up the flakes of tobacco scattered over his flower-patterned carpet. Picallon took advantage of him bending over to make an expressive gesture, placing his hands around an imaginary neck and wringing it.
âOnce again,' the surveyor answered, âyour FÃ¼hrer did not deceive you but, well â¦ I haven't any matches left. Thetabacis closed, and a fortnight before you arrived my fellow citizens panicked and started hoarding matches.'
âThis is extremely serious!' Palfy said. âYou are aware of course that looting and hoarding are both punishable by death. Our comrade here â who I would agree is a little coarse â is responsible for executing all summary verdicts by courts martial. It seems to me he would have his hands full in this area. What sort of brandy do you have?'
âI haven't a very big selection.'
Palfy cast a suspicious eye over the bottles and glimpsed an unlabelled one behind the run-of-the-mill brandies.
âThank you, no, this gut-rot isn't for me; I look after my health. But tell me what's in your bottle there.'
âA raspberry liqueur,' Graindorge said, looking devastated.
âThere's no brand.'
âInteresting! Interesting! Then I suppose it must be the gift of a private distiller?'
âHow did you know?'
Palfy waved his hand disdainfully: he was hardly going to go to the trouble of explaining. Graindorge served them with a sinking heart and made to put the bottle back in the sideboard. Picallon took it from him threateningly. The surveyor, who was partial to his raspberry liqueur, tried to reason with Jean.
âYou shouldn't let your comrade get drunk. Men like him, real forces of nature, they don't know their limits. When a brute like him gets alcohol inside him, he'll be unstoppable and very dangerous.'
âWe have him well under control, Monsieur. He only kills to order.'
A ray of sunshine cutting across the dining room splashed onto the tablecloth. In the golden light the curls of cigar smoke stretched out languidly, forming silvered snakes and mobile geometric shapes. Picallon was indeed drunk, but the naive and good-hearted seminarian was more ready to burst into tears than fly into a rage at the role he was being forced to play, of a poor country lad among the ways of gentlemen. Their host, he saw, was a proper bastard, and there is always something sad about the first bastard you ever come across, about discovering the multiple ruses by which Satan attaches himself to a human being. One day when the war was over and the seminary reopened, he would unburden himself of all these thoughts to his spiritual director, the abbÃ© Fumerolle â¦
The reader is already aware of the author's warm feelings for Picallon, who reminds him of the parish priest at Grangeville, Monsieur Le Couec. Between the country boy from the Jura and the elderly Breton there exists a certain bloodline: a now vanished race of French priests whose only reasoning was their brazen faith and who lived among their parishioners in poverty, charity and hope. They taught children their catechism in simple, idealised pictures that seemed fascinatingly magical. And yes, in their sermons Jesus was always a great magician, whose feats would never cease to dazzle the world. At the time this story begins, the integrity possessed by young men such as Picallon is already under threat, but so far our seminarianhas been immune to the new order. His model is the village priest who awoke his own vocation, just as for Jean, already half disillusioned in faith, the model priest will always be the abbÃ© Le Couec, that rough Breton âexiled' to Normandy. Picallon of course is fated one day to confront the influences of his community, but we shall not see him in those circumstances. Meanwhile he is here, in this bourgeois dining room in a French village with a full stomach and a dry mouth, and it is too late to stop the game his comrades are intent on playing. The afternoon wears on, the bottle of raspberry liqueur is emptying, and now and then Picallon rocks back on his chair and lifts the white tulle curtain to keep an eye on the still-deserted square and the two tankettes parked on the avenue with the surveyor's cat asleep on the bonnet of one of them. Palfy is on his third cigar, Jean has excused himself twice, and the dreadful noise of a toilet chain that refuses to flush properly has been heard. Picallon would like to go too, but is unsure of his ability to remain upright, and in a foggy dreamlike state he recalls the wedding feasts in his village at which the laziest would slip an empty bottle under the table and use that. He has hiccups, pins and needles in one leg and above all he is sick of listening to the nasal tones of Jacques Graindorge, surveyor, toady and coward, watching his every move with a terrified expression. When Picallon finally gets to his feet, the dining room sways and without Jean's steadying hand he would have fallen over. Moving gingerly, he reaches the front door and there, in the middle of the square, opens his flies and sprinkles the cobbles as he gazes gloomily at the flag drooping from its flagpole.
âWhat do you think of it?' he asks Jean, who is still holding his arm.
âOf what? What you're doing?'
âNo. The flag.'
âIt looks a bit limp.'
âAnd what about liberty, equality and fraternity?'
âI'm afraid the moment for them is past.'
âWhy are you holding my arm?'
âSo you don't fall down.'
âAm I drunk?'
âIt's the first time in my life and it'll be the last, but I want it to be a drunkenness I'll never forget, one befitting the Apocalypse. We'll empty that stinker's cellar, and anything we can't drink we'll smash up.'
âAll right, old chap â¦'
âWe'll smash it up, we'll smash it up!'Â
Picallon, his bladder much lighter but suddenly distracted by his obsession with smashing up what could not be drunk, forgot to put his organ away and, supported by Jean, remained standing unsteadily there, limply facing the erect flagpole on themairie's pediment.
It was in this posture that he was first observed by UnterscharfÃ¼hrer Walter Schoengel as he arrived at the village square in an armoured car, his body emerging from the green turret, ramrod straight in his black SS uniform, his face darkened by the sun beneath his peaked cap. Jean, for a second, imagined that in this victorious warrior he was seeing his friend Ernst, his companion from his famous cycling tour of Italy which had taken them to Rome in 1936, but â as we already know â Ernst and Jean will never meet again, and no chance meeting in the long war now under way will revive the friendship born four years earlier between a young Frenchman indifferent to politics and a handsome member of the Hitler Youth with straw-coloured hair.
Unfortunately this particular warrior was not Ernst, but a run-of-the-mill SS NCO with no sense of humour whatsoever, who was greatly offended by the sight of these two men in khaki shirts and trousers, staggering and with flies undone. Leaping athletically from his armoured car, revolver in hand, he walked up to them, barking a sharp order. Jean understood and put his hands up. Picallon remained bewildered. The UnterscharfÃ¼hrer barked again. Jean translated.
âPut your hands up, you idiot, otherwise he'll shoot us.'
Picallon did as he was told, forgetting his open flies and limp penis, which was enjoying its exposure to the fresh air with an utter lack of curiosity for the events unfolding around it. The puddle on the cobbles bore witness to what had occurred only moments before. Walter Schoengel circled it with disgust and patted both men down. Reassured as to their inoffensive character and that they were a couple of strays, he sniggered and delivered a good kick to both their backsides. The driver of the armoured car had raised his goggles and was observing the scene with ill-concealed ribaldry as the square suddenly began to fill with motorcycles and sidecars, a further two light armoured cars and an open-topped car on whose rear seat sat ObersturmfÃ¼hrer Karl Schmidt, his face hidden in the shadow cast by a gleaming helmet adorned with the SS lightning flashes. Schmidt was a lieutenant with a plump face and small, piercing grey eyes, and to begin with he paid no attention to what was happening. With a gesture he motioned to a young Obergrenadier to lower the French flag, then ordered a house-to-house search. Jacques Graindorge's door was still open. Two grenadiers jogged into the hall and returned with the surveyor and Palfy, who were propelled forward by the rifle butts in their back and then lined up with Jean and Picallon. The ObersturmfÃ¼hrer knew a few words of French.
âYou ambush behind Wehrmacht! Shoot you!'
Jacques Graindorge realised that there had been a mistake and smiled apologetically.
âMein Herr, I believe you are mistaken. These three men are some of your comrades. They are German soldiers. I invited them to lunch. I'm a friend of Germany.'
The SS lieutenant reddened with fury.
âShut up, pig. Shoot you as well. Harbouring irregulars.'
The grenadiers quickly broke down the doors of several houses. They were empty. They reported to their section chief, who nodded and set sentries to hold the square against fire from all four corners.
Palfy yawned in a way too forced to be real and said to Jean, almost without moving his lips, âNow's the time to produce your famous letter from the prince.'
âIt's in my tunic pocket.'
âAnd your tunic?'
âIn the tankette.'
Soldiers were searching the tankettes and had already removed several pots of jam, chocolate biscuits, and three sub-machine guns. Jacques Graindorge was shaking so much that he was on his knees. A soldier forced him to his feet with a rifle barrel to the ribs. The ObersturmfÃ¼hrer studied the square in search of a wall against which he could line up his four captives. The firing squad could not do its job with the sun in their eyes. But behind him his grenadiers were doubled up with laughter and, wanting to understand what had caused his men's hilarity, he scrutinised his prisoners until he noticed Picallon's ill-adjusted uniform. A roar of laughter blew across the square and the ObersturmfÃ¼hrer summoned Walter Schoengel who walked over to Picallon and, with the barrel of his revolver, flipped the flaccid member back into his trousers.
âPig!' the officer repeated, putting into the one insult of which he was confident all the scorn that seethed inside him.
Picallon was sobering up slowly. He was regaining his lucidity and faith at the same time, already glimpsing his final moments, for which he was better prepared than his two friends. He began, under his breath, an act of contrition: âMy God â¦' Palfy told him to shut up and then Jean told Palfy to shut up. Karl Schmidt was enjoying the unprecedented moment. In Poland, where his section had advanced into a zone already cleared by the Wehrmacht, he had never been favoured with a moment as dramatic as this. The French campaign was at last offering him an opportunity worthy of him. He dispatched a grenadier to fetch his camera. When it arrived he took several pictures of his prisoners. The surveyor, his throat constricted, attempted to explain the appalling error that had been made, but not one articulatesound emerged from his mouth, which was distorted by a rictus that the ObersturmfÃ¼hrer interpreted as insolence. Handing his camera back to the grenadier, Karl Schmidt walked up to Graindorge and slapped him twice, hard. Blood flowed from the corner of the surveyor's mouth and he fell to his knees again.
âPig too!' the officer said. âGet up!'
Palfy helped the foolish man to his feet.
âI thoughtâ' Graindorge said.
âWe fooled you, you stupid twerp,' Palfy said. âAll three of us are French. Now you're paying for your stupidity.'
âQuiet!' the ObersturmfÃ¼hrer said.
âNo!' Jean retorted. âWe're not irregulars. And you don't shoot prisoners. Now, if you likeâ'
âMay God forgive you!' Picallon finished his sentence, then lowered his arms and put his hands together in prayer.
The SS lieutenant pointed to the faÃ§ade of the CafÃ© des Amis, and the grenadiers shoved the four men towards the wooden shutters. The sun was going down. A pink light bathed the square and fell gently on the church porch. Graindorge's cat jumped from the bonnet of the tankette and followed its master, its back arched, its tail bristling. Walter Schoengel selected the twelve men of the firing squad.
âIt'll all be over very quickly,' Palfy said gloomily.
âYes,' Jean answered.
âThe raspberry liqueur was really good.'
âIt's a consolation. There's none left for them.'
âThey'll be pardoned!' Picallon said.
âNot by me!' Palfy said.
Karl Schmidt made a sign to a grenadier to bring him the cat, which let itself be picked up and settled in the ObersturmfÃ¼hrer's arms.
âSchÃ¶n!' the officer said tenderly. âHow he called cat?'
Graindorge started with indignation.
âIt's not a male, it's a female. She's called Sarah.'
âSarah! A Jew name!'
The ObersturmfÃ¼hrer threw the cat down, tried to kick her but missed, unholstered a revolver and emptied its magazine at Sarah, missing her again as she dashed to hide under an armoured car. A ricochet hit the Obergrenadier who had taken down the French flag, injuring him in the calf. The lieutenant paled, pressed his lips together and swore at the man, who stood to attention with blood flowing down his boot. Jean, Palfy, Picallon and Graindorge lined up in front of the wooden shutters of the CafÃ© des Amis. Karl Schmidt issued a brief order and a grenadier ran to his car, from which he returned carrying a violin case. The firing squad took up position under the orders of the UnterscharfÃ¼hrer, who then inspected them. Karl Schmidt took out his violin and bow with an ecstatic smile, pressed the instrument against his cheek and tuned it before walking over to the Frenchmen.
âDo you like Brahms?' he asked, a delicate smile lightening his porcine features.
âNo!' Jacques Graindorge shouted, seized by convulsive trembling and convinced this was another trap. He would never like anybody again.
âDon't listen to him, Lieutenant,' Palfy said. âHe's a fool who knows nothing about music. I can assure you, and I speak for my comrades too, that we all like Brahms very much, and that if you were to do us the honour of playing his Sonata No. 1, Opus 78, we could die happy.'
âYou know?' Karl Schmidt said, astonished not to be dealing with brutes.
âObviously the piano will be lacking, but I feel sure that playing solo will allow your musical temperament to be given full expression. We are your humble audience.'
The grenadiers stood to attention. The officer advanced between them and the prisoners, legs apart, eyes lowered to concentrate before his first bow stroke. Karl Schmidt was a fine violinist. Before joining the Waffen SS he had been second violin in the Stuttgart city orchestra. His father was a virtuoso and his two sons played the flute and violarespectively in a Hitler Youth orchestra. Since being commissioned he had missed playing in public. Not any old public. One that was thoughtful, contemplative, ready to feel the music's emotion. Who could be a more attentive audience than four condemned men? Four was not many, but the future promised bigger audiences, much bigger, and one day Karl Schmidt would have the great public his talent deserved. Music transfigured him. Under podgy skin that shone with heat and effort the fine features of a blond child could be discerned, a little German boy who could have been generous, trusting, enthusiastic. The little German disappeared with the last bars of the sonata.
âClap!' Palfy whispered to the others.
They lowered their arms and clapped with a fervour that surprised Karl Schmidt so much he straightened and bowed his head as if he were on stage in a concert hall. The sight of Graindorge's pasty face brought him back to earth. The surveyor was not applauding. He was dribbling. He no longer existed, he was already dead, his back slumped against the shutters of the CafÃ© des Amis, a village amenity he had always scorned.
âYou, not happy?' Schmidt yelled.
Graindorge heard nothing. His brain was no longer functioning. Palfy came to his aid.
âI think he is a little overcome by the situation we find ourselves in.'
âOvercome? What is overcome?'
âThe idea of dying.'
Karl Schmidt roared with laughter and turned to the firing squad to explain in German that the Frenchman on the left was afraid of dying, then turned back to Palfy, whom he had identified as the leader of these outlaws.
âMy soldiers, they not fear to die! Heil Hitler!'
The squad responded with a unanimous âHeil Hitler'.
âWould you play us another piece?' Palfy asked politely.
âShut up!' Jean muttered.
âAnother?Nein!' the ObersturmfÃ¼hrer said contemptuously. Where did these bandits think they were?
âPlay for time,' Palfy hissed at Jean.
Picallon seemed lost in thought. He was praying. Jean envied him his ability to escape so far from the world, to see nothing of the scene that was unfolding: these soldiers in black uniforms that bore the silver lightning flashes of the SS, the lengthening shadow of the church, the swallows darting over their heads. It looked like a film set into which actors destined for other roles had strayed. Where had the real actors gone? The mayor with his tricolour scarf, the priest in his round hat, the teacher in his black jacket, the drummer in his blue shirt, the children in the choir, and the few scattered old men and women to occupy the benches that lined the avenue in the shade of the ash trees. Instead, an absurd misunderstanding, had placed, like a screen across the deserted square, still warm from the setting sun, a row of black statues masked by shadows, their lips tight and jaws tensed, stretching their chinstraps. The shadows of these men had in turn lengthened beyond the lead actor, violin in hand, almost to touch the condemned men. The real actors meanwhile wandered the roads, lost, crushed by fatigue more than sorrow, their feet bleeding, their mouths dry, their stomachs empty, driven by a fear whose incommensurable futility they were just beginning to understand.
âOur comrade would like to take our confessions!' Palfy said.
âConfession?' Karl Schmidt repeated, unfamiliar with the word.
âYes, before he gives us absolution. He's a priest.'
The SS officer looked Picallon up and down, staring incredulously at this emaciated beanpole who a few moments before had stood in front of him with his flies undone, offering a sight of his sleepy organ to all and sundry.
âThe pig is priest?' he repeated.
Picallon made a gesture as if to deny the description: he was neithera pig nor a priest, just a seminarian. Jean's expression beseeched him to shut up as he knelt down first.
âListen to me, young priest,' he said in a low voice, âfirst make the confession last as long as you can, then you're to ask God to forgive me for two things: I caused pain to my father by joining up instead of deserting, and I caused pain to my dear guardian, the abbÃ© Le Couec, by showing myself to be a very poor Christian.'
âYou're already forgiven,' Picallon said.
âNo, that's too quickâ'
âSchnell!' Karl Schmidt yelled.
Palfy knelt down in turn and murmured, âYou're going too fast, you numbskull. We have to play for time â¦'
âThe ways of God are impenetrable.'
âShut up, for God's sake, get down on your knees and let's all pretend to pray together. That means you too, Graindorge â¦'
âI'm â¦ a â¦ freemason!' the surveyor stuttered.
âThat's all we need!'
The ObersturmfÃ¼hrer was growing impatient. He summoned a grenadier, handed him his violin, and marched up and down in front of the firing squad, repeating, âSchandlichbande! Schandlichbande!' Picallon got to his feet and smiled at him. He was ready.
âIt really upsets all my plans, having to die!' Palfy said.
âI'm starting to panic!' Jean admitted.
They lined up again in front of the CafÃ© des Amis. A gust of wind swept the square, raising a dry cloud of dust which got into Karl Schmidt's eye. He called an orderly, who cleaned his eye with gauze. Rubbing it, the officer barked a rapid order at the UnterscharfÃ¼hrer and walked back to his car with a disgusted expression. The grenadiers stood to attention â¦
The French are very patriotic deep down. A few bars of a military march and their dormant fighting instinct is aroused. Clermont-Ferrand was throwing itself into the parade. Men unfit for military service wandered in the neighbouring streets, brooding on their shame, and were joined by a few stone-deaf pensioners. Palfy was walking briskly, Jean struggling to keep up behind him, his thoughts still on Place de Jaude where the woman in the lawn dress had vanished into the crowd. He was cross with his delicious apparition for letting herself be taken in by such a dubious spectacle. Did she have a taste for heroes? If she did, Palfy’s noisy interruption must have surprised her. Her amused smile when she had glimpsed Jean with thegardes mobilesin hot pursuit planted a hope that she had a critical turn of mind. If I’d had to, Jean mused, I’d have accepted a Croix de Guerre from her; her cool kiss on his cheeks was infinitely more tempting than the rough embrace of some colonel or general. But what chance did he stand of chatting her up on a big day like this, dressed in a ghastly pair of old corduroys two sizes too big and a rough wool shirt? Something about her reminded him of Chantal de Malemort: the outline of her figure, a neatness about her, her smile when she answered an unexpected question. But Chantal, gone to earth in Grangeville, was bringing in the harvest and Jean would never forgive her for having betrayed him.
Palfy stopped. They had taken the wrong street. They retraced their steps, looking for a crossroads in the old town that led to where they had decided to go. A short, elderly man in an alpaca suit and a boater with a black ribbon, walking with the aid of two sticks, offered to show them the way.
‘Follow me – it’s a long time since I’ve been there, but I knowthe way. When I had my legs, I used to go there on Saturday nights. Around 1925 there was a Negress there, Victoire Sanpeur was her name; everyone in Clermont remembers her—’
‘Victoire Sanpeur?’ Jean asked.
‘Now, now!’ the old man chuckled. ‘Just listen to the youngster! My dear young fellow, in 1925 you were still suckling at your mama’s breast. Yes, Victoire Sanpeur, that’s who I said; everyone in Clermont remembers her. An unforgettable head of hair! She was here a year, before she was kidnapped by a député … I can’t walk very fast. It’s because of my arthritis …’
Palfy winked at Jean and asked in a deliberately innocent voice, ‘Not because of an old dose of the clap, perhaps?’
The old dodderer raised his stick.
‘You blooming rascal, you deserve a good hiding!’
His anger was short-lived. The allusion to his past exploits helped him forget what a wreck he had become.
‘No, Monsieur, throughout my life I have only ever frequented establishments that maintained the highest standards of cleanliness.’
‘Never an honest woman?’ Palfy enquired politely.
‘Never! Honest women, as you call them, that’s where the trouble lies. No sense of cleanliness.’
He stopped, gathered his sticks in one hand, mopped his brow, and blew his nose noisily before breathing again. Jean gave up being astonished. How did Palfy know Clermont-Ferrand? He was a vagrant who was at home everywhere: in London, Cannes, Deauville, Paris, and now in the Auvergne. In fashionable society or the demimonde he fell on his feet with staggering ease: penniless one day and dressed up as a priest to rob the poor boxes in church; elegance itself the next, driving his Rolls-Royce around London, served by a butler who was straight out of an English novel; one day a swindler, the next a successful wheeler-dealer. Beside him Jean measured his own clumsiness and naivety, discovering that life is made up of such differences: one child is born into a glittering, false milieu that giveshim a passport for the rest of his existence; another, born in a caretaker’s lodge at Grangeville in Normandy, will always feel the weight on his shoulders of his humble origins as the child of a washerwoman and a gardener, and have to discover everything by himself. The fact that Jean had known his real mother’s name since Antoinette’s revelation at Yssingeaux – Geneviève du Courseau – changed nothing. Only Albert and Jeanne counted. The couple had brought him up with strict principles, boring virtues and flat homilies that had proved useless in the present circumstances. As for Geneviève, she had offered him only the most ambiguous feelings. He was once again hanging on to Palfy’s coat-tails, as he kept the man with two sticks company.
‘My sister keeps house for me,’ the arthritic old man said, each step producing a grimace of pain. ‘She leaves me a few francs for my tobacco. I’ve been rolling my own since 1914, shag, nothing but shag. And enough to order an Amer Picon before lunch. What do you drink?’
‘Champagne or vodka,’ Palfy answered.
‘I’ve drunk vodka … in the past. No taste. Champagne is for marriages, christenings and the sick … Here we are … This is it.’
He jabbed his stick at a massive, freshly painted door. A mermaid’s tail in gilded bronze served as a knocker beneath the iron grille. The shutters were closed.
‘There won’t be anybody home,’ the old man said. ‘They’ll all be at the parade. You’d be better off coming back – and making yourselves more presentable. They won’t let you in like that. It’s a place with a good reputation. It belongs to the diocese.’
In the distance the band struck up the first bars of ‘Le Téméraire’. The companies were marching past the general.
‘It’s over,’ Jean said. ‘They’re returning to barracks.’
Palfy lifted the knocker. The little old man stamped his foot and banged the pavement with his stick.
‘They’re not there! And they won’t let you in anyway.’
Having led them there, he was regretting his kindness. Goodheavens! Two workers did not seriously think they were going to slake their appetites in a house that had seen Clermont’s political and municipal elite pass through its doors, not to mention distinguished men of the cloth and numerous respectable husbands and fathers.
‘They won’t let you in, I tell you!’
A creaking warned them that someone was sliding the grille aside to observe them. The door opened a fraction. A birdlike head, thin and with a long curved nose and jutting chin, crowned by a meagre but severe bun, appeared.
‘Now look, Monsieur Petitlouis, you know perfectly well that your sister does not want to see you coming here any more. Be reasonable. You’re past it now!’
Monsieur Petitlouis, choked with fury, banged his walking stick again.
‘My sister? Bugger my sister. And you too, you blooming madam.’
Palfy inserted a foot between the door and frame. The woman saw it and tried to force it back.
‘The establishment is closed.’
‘Not to me,’ he said.
‘The staff are watching the parade.’
‘We’ll both wait for them together then.’
‘You’ll wait outside …’
And more energetically than expected, she let fly a kick that connected with Palfy’s shin and dislodged him. The door shut again.
‘Didn’t I tell you you wouldn’t get in?’ chuckled the ghastly old man.
Through the grille the woman called out that she would call the police if they continued to make a scene in a street of respectable citizens. But Palfy was not to be deterred. He knocked again with the mermaid’s tail. The grille slid half-open.
‘What are you wanting now?’ the haughty, shrill voice demanded.
‘The correct form is, “What do you want?” but it’s a small detailand we shan’t let ourselves get hung up on grammar. I want to see Monsieur Michette. I have a message for him.’
‘Monsieur Michette is doing his duty. He’s gone to war.’
‘Allow me to point out to you that the war is over.’
‘Madame Michette will be here shortly.’
The grille slammed shut. It was clear this time that the door would stay closed. The assistant madam had her orders. Monsieur Petitlouis almost burst with pleasure. He spat into a checked handkerchief. Have I mentioned that on this particular day in July 1940 the temperature had risen to 31 degrees in the shade, overwhelming a town far more used to a temperate climate? Jean and Palfy had been running. Their throats were parched. Monsieur Petitlouis offered to take them to a bistro where they served home-distilled pastis, on condition naturally that they bought him a glass.
‘My sister will never know!’
He laughed so hard he almost choked again. Jean looked anxiously at Palfy. The night before had left them with no more than a few francs in their pockets, hardly enough to buy half a baguette and some mortadella. As the reader will have realised, Palfy was not a man to let such a detail bother him. One on each side of the arthritic old devil, they reached a café at the bottom of the street. Back from the parade, thepatron, in a black jacket and homburg hat, was raising the shutter. He served them at the counter, philosophising about the morning’s spectacle.
‘Well, Monsieur Petitlouis, you really missed something at that parade! You have to hand it to our army and how it’s put itself back together, two weeks after the armistice. The Germans won’t want to brush with them a second time, I tell you. You can see it in our chaps’ faces: they’re raring to go. It’s the government that’s not. A fine bunch of traitors in the pay of Adolf, I tell you … That armistice business was all for show, with a fat lot of cash changing hands to stop us pulling off another Marne like we did in ’14, on the Loire …’
Monsieur Petitlouis agreed. Traitors were everywhere. Customerswere arriving, red in the face and breathless. They listened to thepatron, nodding or choosing their words carefully to express mild doubts. The pastis was served in cups, in case a policeman came past and decided to apply the new law on the consumption of spirits. Jean kept an eye on the street. In the distance he caught sight of about a dozen women, led by a matron in a blue skirt, white blouse and red hat, walking up the middle of the street. They fanned themselves with little paper tricolours, and as they passed the café he saw, sashaying in the middle of the group, a black woman with straightened hair, her back hollow and her buttocks stretching the pink satin of her skirt. She reminded Jean of the girls from the Antilles who had brought up Antoinette and Michel du Courseau and simultaneously been their father’s bit on the side. And what an odd coincidence: one of them, Victoire Sanpeur, had come to live at Clermont after her departure from La Sauveté. He decided to tell that part of the story to Monsieur Petitlouis, who was sipping his pastis like a greedy child.
‘You really knew Victoire!’ the old hog exclaimed. ‘You were lucky. They say she’s still living with her député. She comes back sometimes to see her old girlfriends. She’s been known not to turn down the odd customer, even now. For fun – know what I mean? Ah yes, that’s a real establishment, a proper family if you’re with the Michettes. Not one of those nasty whorehouses where they chuck the girls in the street when they’re a bit past it. No. They teach them a trade, how to spell and use a knife and fork; then they find them a job somewhere …’
The women walked past, looking straight ahead and ignoring the customers’ ribald comments. Madame Michette glared at those responsible for the coarsest comments. Two girls giggled. Palfy ordered another round of pastis and made a sign to Jean.
‘We’ll be back in a couple of minutes,’ he said to thepatron. ‘Look after Monsieur Petitlouis, he’s a friend of ours.’
This time Madame Michette herself opened the door and asked them, disdainfully, what they wanted. The house was closed. The ladies were having lunch.
‘We won’t disturb them. We merely wanted to have a word with Monsieur Michette and deliver a letter to him from a mutual friend.’
‘And who might that be?’ she asked, with the suspicion of someone accustomed to the kind of subterfuge her business inspired.
‘It’s a matter between Monsieur Michette and ourselves.’
‘Monsieur Michette is still serving in the army.’
‘In that case we shall come back later.’
It was a risky move. It depended entirely on the curiosity and high regard in which Madame Michette held herself, after having taken over the reins of the establishment. The two workmen rightly inspired very little confidence, although the older one talked very correctly and the younger one had a handsome, open face. These were tumultuous times. Clothes no longer made the man.
‘Come in!’ she said, in a more accommodating tone.
We shall not linger over a description of a brothel interior at Clermont-Ferrand in 1940. It would be tedious. There is a whole literature full of such images of the good old days, when lonely men could take themselves to a so-called ‘house of ill repute’ and find a family to welcome them, to provide tenderness and a sympathetic ear to their preoccupations large and small. Let us merely say that at the Michettes’ (another fateful name, but the author cannot help that)2a very strict code of discipline and morals was applied. Monsieur Petitlouis was not exaggerating. Madame Michette was convent-educated and Monsieur Michette had had an exceptionally distinguished war in 1914–18, coming out of it as an infantry sergeant-major. The sum of physical and spiritual human misery that found respite and forgiveness in their establishment was incalculable. One might, without irony, describethe Michettes as belonging to that category of society’s benefactors that provincial life shunned, stifling it in the straitjacket of moralistic disapproval. Lastly – a supreme luxury in a town whose relative enlightenment as the capital of the Auvergne did not stop gossip being rife – the Michettes had made discretion the watchword of their profession. No large number over the door, and obviously no red light. A stranger could walk past the house a dozen times without suspecting anything, unless his gaze should rest for a second upon the little mermaid whose fish’s tail curled to form the knocker and gave its name to the establishment.
The diocese valued this self-effacement and the punctuality with which its rent was paid. Seminarians were offered concessionary prices and popular opinion had it that senior clerics paid by handing out absolutions. Numerous were the Clermontois who remembered with feeling having lost their virginity there before their marriage. In the arms of Nénette, Verushka or Victoire they had learnt many imaginative alternatives to the missionary position, alternatives that they would later teach their wives. Those violated, humiliated, ashamed and overwhelmed brides, at first taken horribly by surprise at what marriage involved, would later be secretly grateful to the girls of Michette’s. Not for them the harrowing labours of Mesdames de Rênal and Bovary, pursuing experience with clumsy youths. I am being perfectly serious. France’s brothels – the serious ones, in any case – contributed to both the moral welfare and mental stability of her people. They were her universities of sex. Anatomy was taught there and love acted out with far greater talent than was to be found in a marriage arranged by a notary. They were, in fact, where men passed their exams in licentiousness before setting out on the business of life. Suppressed after the war by a prudish republic, they were so sorely missed by the French that a generation later the state was forced to take measures to introduce the theory and practice of sexual matters into schools. We then witnessed the spectacle of a generation of benighted adolescents receiving the cobbled-together guidance ofschoolteachers and demonstrating just how far the civilisation of love had regressed.
There is no need to remind ourselves that our two heroes had different conceptions of love. Palfy, as a gentleman, kept his preferences to himself, and Jean, thanks to his physique, had not had to go to the same school as everyone else. As a result, coming across such a place for the first time, he found Madame Michette’s establishment gloomy, especially its large sitting room with its walls decorated in a design of pale-skinned mermaids with crimson lips and golden tresses, where Madame received them standing up, not inviting them to sit as she would have done for the humblest customer before the girls processed past him. A scent of cheap face powder hung in the air, along, perhaps, with other odours less pleasing to fastidious nostrils. Tall, solidly large, with the physique of a grenadier, with workman’s hands, and hairs sprouting from her animated chin, Madame Michette banished from their minds any further thought of playing practical jokes.
‘Do you have the letter you mentioned?’ she asked Palfy.
‘I have it with me, but its sender, Monsieur Salah, was very insistent that we deliver it personally. It’s a shame Monsieur Michette isn’t yet back from the war.’
Jean patted his back pocket. The famous letter he had been given by the prince, in case he ever found himself in difficulty, was not there. His friend’s latest deceit infuriated him. He would happily have strangled Palfy, who intercepted his glare and gave a forced half-smile, half-grimace. Madame Michette, whose eyes had opened wide at Salah’s name, took the smile as a shared understanding. She was dying to know the letter’s contents.
‘I have the same authority as my husband to receive Monsieur Salah’s orders. His friends are our friends.’
‘It’s a delicate matter,’ Palfy murmured in a reticent undertone.
Jean decided that if Palfy showed the letter to Madame Michette, he would grab it and make a run for the nearest exit, but a diversion savedhim from such an extreme step. A face framed by red curls appeared in the half-open doorway.
‘Madame, the lamb’s done. Shall I pour the sauce over the flageolets?’
‘Wait for me, Zizi, I’m coming. Serve the asparagus first and leave the lamb in the oven.’
Zizi’s head disappeared.
‘We shall leave you,’ Palfy said.
Madame hesitated. Despite her position and her responsibilities, she was still a woman. Suspicious but curious. She would have that letter.
‘Come and join us for lunch. We had a gift of a shoulder of lamb, and it’s sitting waiting for us.’
Jean felt his resistance weaken. Palfy was already accepting, begging Madame Michette to forgive his and his friend’s state of dress.
‘We trust you, Madame, but I must ask you not to enquire as to the reasons for what we’re wearing. We are on our way back from an ultra-secret mission and haven’t yet been able to change …’
The reader will find his excuse less than subtle, but I ask him or her to remember the period. Over the next four years numerous people would live in disguise and under borrowed identities. The world would lose count of the colonels and generals who popped up like jack-in-the-boxes, only to disappear again immediately; of the bogus priests and phoney nuns concealing sub-machine guns or explosives underneath their skirts, and the inflated numbers of commercial travellers, an easy profession to assume for those who carried false papers. A great intrigue was on the wing, undertaken by amateurs who would dazzle the readers of adventure and espionage fiction. Madame Michette, ordinarily exceptionally sceptical and trained by years of experience at sniffing out men’s lies, felt so flattered by Palfy’s half-confidence that she instantly adopted an expression of complicity.
‘I promise youweshall say nothing.’
So they went through to the dining room, where the residents had already sat down. They stood up again as Madame entered, and for a moment Jean wondered if she was going to say grace. He and Palfywere introduced as ‘friends’ to Nénette, Claudette and one or two others. Indicating the young black woman, Madame added, ‘– and our black pearl, Victoire from Guadeloupe. Her real name is Jeannine, but the customers have such fond memories of the first black resident we had here that they demanded we call her successors Victoire as well. Since our motto has always been “put the customer first” …’
At the Sirène, behind closed shutters, life carried on in the glare of electric light. Jean noticed the poor girls’ anaemia, their skin coarsened by make-up, the rings round their eyes and their bodies’ lack of firmness beneath their thin dressing gowns. Their eyes were the only part of their faces that still showed signs of a life of joy and pleasure. They nudged each other and giggled, and there was general hilarity when Madame scolded Zizi for eating her asparagus in a manner that might have given pause to those with dirty minds.
Palfy liked to put his friends on the spot. Jean’s silence made him feel disapproved of, so he swung the spotlight back on him.
‘To be perfectly honest’ – he leant towards Madame’s ear – ‘I know Monsieur Salah very slightly. It’s more my young colleague who knows him well. Before this absurd war they saw each other often, in Rome, in London and even, I believe, at Grangeville in Normandy.’
‘And how old are you, young man?’ she asked Jean.
‘I’m just twenty.’
‘Twenty years old, and you’ve already seen the world!’
‘Not the world: only Italy and England.’
‘Well, I had to wait forty years before I went on a pilgrimage to Rome. That was the year I brought Maria back.’
Across the table from Jean a girl with brown hair and bright eyes smiled. Less pale than the others, she revealed behind her plumply rolled lips the compact teeth of a Roman she-wolf.
‘And do you speak Italian?’ Madame enquired, making at the same time a gesture to Nénette that she should extend her little finger when drinking her glass of wine.
‘Only a few words, but I speak English.’
‘Education always comes in handy. I say it again and again to my young ladies.’
The young ladies, who usually chattered non-stop at the arrival of a customer, whoever he might be, had understood that a certain decorum was called for at this lunch in the company of two strangers. Madame fortunately was well versed in the art of what she called ‘lathering’ her customers, and secretly hoped that the two messengers would take flattering reports back to Salah about the way her establishment was run.
‘Who knows where that man is now?’ she said with an anxiety that was only half feigned.
‘In Lebanon,’ Jean said.
Questioning looks were exchanged around the table, but no one dared ask where Lebanon was. Madame Michette’s anxiety was not allayed.
‘There’s no war there, I hope?’
‘Not yet!’ Palfy said with a knowing air.
Zizi, the establishment’s cook, had prepared a surprise: a chocolate gateau topped with whipped cream. Everyone clapped. Madame Michette injected a melancholy note.
‘Cream is getting hard to come by. Apparently the Germans are commandeering whole trainloads of it. If we let them, they’ll take it all. However, Monsieur Cassagnate, who is a little in love with our Zizi, has promised to keep some by for us. From his farm! Real cream.’
‘He’s such a sweetie!’ Zizi said.
‘A sweetie filled with cream,’ Nénette added.
Madame tapped on the table with her spoon.
‘Nénette always talks too much,’ she said. ‘When she was little her parents took her to pray to St Lupus, who cures the timid. He cured her too well.’
Palfy played up to her, listening attentively, and when the Bénédictine was served (what else, in such a right-minded establishment?) Madame Michette and her young ladies launched into stories of their favourite saints with healing properties: Saints Cosmas and Damian who would cure you of anything at Brageac in Cantal, St Priest at Volvic who restored the infirm (although, as Victoire observed, he had had a failure with Monsieur Petitlouis), Notre-Dame de la Râche at Domerat who was good for getting rid of impetigo, and at Clermont itself a pair of saints who were not short of work: St Zachary who restored the power of speech and St George who eliminated the harmful effects of embarrassing diseases …
Madame protested. They had no need of him at the Sirène. It was a decent establishment, veryhygienic. The girls cleared the table and carried the dishes to the kitchen. In half an hour the first customers would be arriving. They had just enough time to make themselves up and slip on the négligées they wore for work. The assistant madam, who had received Jean and Palfy so disagreeably, appeared looking pinched and officious and summoned the young ladies. The bedrooms needed to be clean and tidy.
‘It’s Sunday,’ Madame explained to her guests. ‘And after that parade we’ll be seeing a fair few soldiers. Oh, if only Monsieur Michette were here …’
‘He won’t be long now.’
‘One often needs a man on such occasions. Military men are such children.’
‘My colleague,’ Palfy said, ‘has exactly the physique you require to preserve respect for the conventions. If he can be of any use to you … I can’t personally: I’ve a very hollow chest, and at thirty my reflexes aren’t as quick as they were.’
Before accepting his offer, Madame Michette again expressed her keenness to know more about the letter. Might she not just see the envelope? Palfy put his hand in his pocket and turned pale.
‘I had it a moment ago.’
Jean let him search for it. Madame Michette, her face flushed a little from red wine and Bénédictine, started to look suspicious. Palfy ran to the sitting room and Jean took advantage of his absence to get out theletter he had surreptitiously removed from his friend’s pocket. The outer envelope had already been slit. It contained a typed list of town names, and next to each town someone’s name. Against Clermont-Ferrand was the name ‘Michette, René’, underlined by Palfy. This addressee was to be given a second sealed envelope, which he would open and reveal the important person whose intervention would save Jean, if it ever became necessary.
‘I can’t show you any more,’ Jean said regretfully to Madame, reclaiming his property as Palfy returned, looking yellow and sheepish.
‘You had it?’
‘You gave it to me this morning, remember. For safekeeping,’ Jean lied, to save face for his friend.
Madame Michette had seen the list for long enough to scan the names.
‘I know some of these people,’ she said meaningfully. ‘They’re acquaintances.’
‘Yes,’ Palfy said, ‘but we must ask you to be very discreet. Since you’re clearly a trustworthy person, we can tell you that great plans are being made. The Germans have not won the war, as some benighted souls imagine. They have lost it. It is for that defeat that my friend and I are working. We are, I’ll be completely frank and open with you, secret agents.’
‘My lips are sealed!’ Madame Michette breathed, closing her eyes and pressing her hand to her stomach, which was making a joyful gurgling sound.
Jean tried very hard not to laugh. Madame Michette led them to a small ground-floor office from where, through a spyhole, they could monitor her customers arriving and leaving. As soon as they were settled, they fell fast asleep in their armchairs, full of lunch and exhausted from their recent forced march, and were undisturbed by the noise of the knocker and the comings and goings in the hall. Her uniformed customers, that day at least, refrained from behaving likeconquering heroes. They came, mostly in groups of three or four and pushing a blushing virgin ahead of them, and the authority of Madame and her assistant madam impressed them deeply. There were no brawls, nor Bacchic outbursts.
Let us make the most of the moment while our two heroes slumber to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about a point of history that the author has, in his Machiavellian way, so far left blank. What happened when the twelve rifles of the SS Grenadiers took aim in the little village square where Constantin Palfy, Jean Arnaud, Francis Picallon and the surveyor Jacques Graindorge had been lined up to be shot? Of course, apart from themselves and Obersturmführer Karl Schmidt, no onereallythought they would be shot. We would not have undertaken the narrative of Jean Arnaud’s long sentimental education if we had had to call a halt at the age of twenty because a uniformed idiot who played the violin had ordered a platoon of his men to execute four Frenchmen after a good lunch. No. Jean Arnaud and the strange Constantin Palfy will have a hard life, but it is Karl Schmidt who will be the first to die, which no one, except for his wife and children, will greatly mind. But let us abandon Karl Schmidt, whose only virtue was to add a grotesque element to a macabre spectacle. The thing we need to know is that the SS Grenadiers did take aim at our friends. It was a ghastly, melancholy minute and few who have survived such a thing can bring themselves to talk about it. Twelve black holes and an NCO, his boots squarely planted where he stands, revolver in hand for the coup de grâce, are an image you don’t forget. If you escape, by a miracle, that image awakens a deeper respect for life, and the three-line notices announcing the death of a hostage jump out of the news with a significance so harrowing that it can become unbearable. What does one think about at such a moment? It is as difficult for the survivor to remember as it is for anyone else to imagine. If wewere to ask Jean Arnaud, he would answer, ‘I don’t know. Nothing, maybe. Two or three fleeting memories: Maman in the kitchen of her house, holding the iron up to her cheek, Papa limping across the garden, Antoinette showing me her bottom at the foot of the cliffs, Chantal in our bedroom in Rue Lepic, or Geneviève, my real mother, embarking at Cannes to escape from the war. But all of it very fast, very superficial. Nothing, in fact. And not even a thought for my soul’s salvation. No, really, nothing dignified or interesting, not the sort of thing you read in classical tragedies, romantic plays, or heroic novels.’ Come to the point, I hear you say. But the author cannot help but go on hesitating to say what saved Jean and Palfy that day, so utterly improbable does it seem here. It would be so much easier to explain that it was all a poor and violent joke on the Obersturmführer’s part to test the four Frenchmen’s equanimity, or, more prosaically, to divert himself after a campaign so rapid that the SS units intended for the fiercest fighting had not had to fire a shot in anger. Valiant warriors who had advanced with the thought of heroic battles to come had experienced considerable frustration. They had been drilled for war, not sightseeing. The firing squad was thus not merely a macabre joke. A few seconds longer, and Jean and Palfy would have been shot. So we are left with no alternative but to invoke Providence, that benevolent entity that sometimes stoops to take a hand in human destinies and delay deaths without giving reasons, just to amuse itself, or so it seems, to toy with existences that are no more or less dear to it than others and that it only identifies by caprice or a taste for sarcasm.
On this occasion, then, Providence appeared in the guise of an open-topped car belonging to the German army, an elegant high-bodied vehicle driven by a helmeted chauffeur whose chinstrap was immaculately placed. On the rear seat sat three individuals: two French soldiers in forage caps, flanking a Wehrmacht colonel. They had come from the south and been on their way for more than an hour, which showed how far behind the lines the tankettes were. But was there still a line on 20 June 1940? One wonders. The car was crossingthe square when the colonel caught sight of the drama in which the Obersturmführer was already losing interest. He tapped the driver’s shoulder. The car braked in a cloud of dust. The Unterscharführer ordered his platoon to about-turn and present arms. Karl Schmidt attempted to inject an offhand note into his salute, but the colonel ordered him to approach.
‘What do you think you’re doing? Are you shooting civilians?’
‘They’re irregulars, Herr Oberst.’
‘They are not, because there aren’t any. And if there were, they would first of all be answerable to a court martial, not to an SS lieutenant.’
‘Herr Oberst, I assure you that they are dangerous bandits.’
The colonel sighed and stepped from his car to approach the men lined up in front of the Café des Amis.
‘Will you excuse me,’ he said in French to the two prisoners who flanked him, pale and with clenched teeth, on the rear seat.
The colonel approached Jacques Graindorge, who was seized again by a mad hope.
‘Were you sheltering these soldiers?’ he asked scornfully. ‘If one may call them soldiers …’
‘I thought they were Germans, General! I’m a friend of Germany, General, of Greater Germany, General.’
‘A friend of Germany ought to be able to tell the difference between a colonel and a general and a pair of khaki trousers and a pair of field-grey trousers. Or alternatively he’s an idiot, but even if he is we aren’t going to shoot every idiot on earth – we’d be here for years.’
One of the prisoners got out of the car and walked up to the colonel. Had it not been for his uniform, he could have been taken for a German: a tall Celt with curly blond hair, eyes of a clear blue, hollow cheeks.
‘Colonel, will you allow me to ask these men a question?’
‘Of course, my dear fellow.’
The man stared at the prisoners in turn, with great concentration.
‘Are there any Bretons among you?’
‘I am Anglo-Serb,’ Palfy said.
‘I’m Norman,’ Jean said.
‘From the Jura!’ Picallon sang out.
‘And you, Monsieur?’ The prisoner turned to Graindorge.
‘From the Auvergne!’
The man turned back to the colonel and shrugged.
‘They are of no interest to me at all. Having said that, Colonel, spare them if you’re able and if you believe, as I do, that we should begin our project in a spirit of reconciliation rather than hatred.’
‘Consider it done!’ the colonel said.
He called Karl Schmidt and ordered him to release the prisoners. The Obersturmführer protested. The officer reminded him of his rank. There was much heel clicking and more presenting of arms and the SS section drove away in its armoured cars.
‘Do we have you to thank?’ Palfy asked the Frenchman.
‘No. Thank the colonel.’
‘There are always blunders when two great peoples such as Germany and France are reconciled,’ the German said, ‘but it is well known in Berlin that your country has been plunged into a fratricidal war by unscrupulous politicians … Now, leave your two tankettes and try to rejoin your army …’
Laughing, he added, ‘… if you have strong legs.’
Jean studied the French prisoner who had spoken to the colonel with such assurance, and to whom the colonel spoke in a tone close to deference. In the colonel’s car, the other prisoner was looking both furious and bored. It was the combination of the two faces that reminded Jean where he had seen them before, one open and friendly, the other sarcastic and closed.
‘I’m wondering whether I might possibly know you,’ Jean said to the prisoner whose incomprehensible contribution to the situation had saved their lives. ‘You wouldn’t be a friend of the abbé Le Couec?’
‘Then you know me too, and your friend sitting in the car owes his freedom to me. My name is Jean Arnaud and I led him by bicycle from Tôtes to Grangeville eight years ago. I was a little boy then.’
‘Jean! Jean from Grangeville!’
He kissed him. The colonel smiled. Things had been going very well ever since the morning. When he had asked a group of prisoners of war for any Bretons among them to make themselves known to him, he had had the surprise of coming across two senior members of the Breton National Party. The reader who still has a vague memory of Jean’s childhood will already have guessed that these two are Yann and Monsieur Carnac, names that in the underground denote the two separatists who, having taken part in the attack at Rennes on 6 August 1932, on the eve of a visit by Édouard Herriot, had fled and met up again at the abbé Le Couec’s rectory at Grangeville. A terrific coincidence, I will agree, having promised that these kinds of magic meetings would be putting in no further appearances, yet it must be admitted that in the general chaos of that time anything was possible. Monsieur Carnac stepped from the car and shook Jean’s hand.
‘I wouldn’t have recognised you. You’re a man now.’
The colonel (I have not given his name as we shall not be seeing him again in Jean Arnaud’s life; he is no petty Prussian squire with a monocle screwed into his eye – there really would have needed to be a fantastic reservoir of petty squires to supply the entire German army with officers – but a professor of Celtic studies at the University of Mainz whose detailed report on Breton separatism, published at the outbreak of war, had attracted the attention of the German high command), the colonel seemed over the moon. His grand political design was taking shape: the two prisoners he was taking to Dortmund, where separatists of every stripe, Breton, Basque, Corsican and Alsatian, were being assembled, had sympathisers in the rest of the country. They were not disliked, far from it. France was behind them!
We shall cut short the scene that followed. The colonel was in a hurry to return to Germany. He signed three safe-conduct passes forPalfy, Jean and Picallon and assured Graindorge of his protection.
‘If I may give you a word of advice,’ he said to the three soldiers, ‘it would be to throw away those uniforms and lose yourselves on one of the farms around here. Marshal Pétain requested an armistice last night. The war is over …’
The village square returned to a state of calm, and if the two tankettes had not still been parked in the shade it would have been easy to imagine that it was any summer’s day at siesta time. Graindorge, his fear evaporated, and overcome by shame and rage, hastened to his house and locked himself in. The three friends walked across to a clothes shop which they opened with a boot through the window. Inside, they found that all that was left were trousers and jackets that were either too large or too small. They spent the next two weeks on a farm bringing in the hay, heard that the armistice had been signed and the ceasefire had come into effect. Picallon, ever dutiful, left on his own to rejoin the regiment, said to be stationed at Clermont-Ferrand. Palfy and Jean took longer to get themselves organised. They had become fond of the farm, where they were looked after lavishly in the evenings when they came in from the fields. But once the hay was in, there was no longer any need for their services, and they set out. It was on the morning of their arrival at Clermont that we first caught sight of them on a café terrace, enjoying their regiment marching past and moved by a glimpse of a pretty young woman with ash-blond hair, wearing a dress of translucent lawn.
Their siesta, deepened by Madame Michette’s red wine and Bénédictine, was succeeded by a conversation which we can summarise briefly. Palfy felt quite at home at the Sirène – he would happily havespent several days there – and urged Jean to hand over the secret letter to thepatronne, a woman of intelligence, well organised and enterprising. She was capable of getting them out of trouble at a time when contacts, ideas and courage would not bear fruit so easily. What could Clermont-Ferrand offer them by way of resources in these difficult days? With the frontiers closed, there was no leaving France now, and even more inconveniently, to get across the demarcation line from the northern zone to the southern was impossible without a special pass. Despair would obviously have been absurd. The cage in which they found themselves was still a large one, and the freedom of movement it offered was not so very different from before the war. The newsstands were still covered with names of newspapers that reminded them of Paris:Le Figaro, Le Journal, Paris-Soir, Le Temps, Action Française, now proudly launching into the subject of the ‘national revolution’. In short, one had to be there in order to see what would happen. Jean, however, wanted to keep the prince and Salah’s letter, which was intended to be used only in extreme necessity. What, in any case, could it contain? Probably a recommendation to some powerful person who controlled the destinies of thirty such welcoming establishments scattered here and there around France. As such, that person was likely to have close relations with police and politicians, and Jean, more by instinct than serious consideration, recoiled from using such a recommendation, to the point where he was willing to leave Clermont if he could not find work there …
‘We’ve got nothing to eat this evening!’ Palfy objected.
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Very well … let’s wait till tomorrow.’
This was stating the obvious. The truth was that Palfy was becoming bourgeois. He was less fond of the risks that for so long had been a prime feature of his character. Jean, on the other hand, felt that the situation was tailor-made for them: a few francs in their pockets and nowhere to stay.
‘I know,’ Jean said, ‘let’s play a little game while we’re at it. Tounearth, in this town where we know neither streets nor habits, a pearl beyond price lost in the crowd …’
‘Yes, she’s very pretty. But you’re not going to make me wear out my shoe leather. In all sincerity I prefer Zizi. Firstly because she’s a good cook—’
‘Palfy, you think of nothing but eating these days.’
‘Yes, and it’s my impression that that is going to become more and more difficult. We’re not even allowed to go to Switzerland, where they’ve hollowed out mountains to fill them with chocolate and butter. So we might as well get a head start here. The establishment is very welcoming—’
‘Nothing says that old woman Michette is going to be happy keeping you for a single night.’
‘You’re out of your mind! She’s quivering with anticipation at the idea of harbouring secret agents.’
Palfy was right. Madame Michette offered them a room without any prompting.
‘After midnight we’re closed. Nénette and Zizi will sleep together. You can use Zizi’s room. We’ll give you clean sheets. Tomorrow perhaps we’ll have some news of Monsieur Michette. An officer told me that his regiment has reached Perpignan at last, after defending heroically. He’ll be here soon; he knows his duty now that the war is over.’
Palfy explained that they had another problem: to find their contact, a pretty young woman who answered to the name of Claude, green eyes, ash-blond hair, a blue lawn dress (but well dressed enough not to wear it two days running), whom they had just missed this morning because of the crowds gathering for the parade.
‘Naturally,’ he pointed out, lowering his voice, ‘we are still talking about a secret mission, and as I’m sure you’re aware, when a meeting between agents fails, they stand a strong chance of not making contact a second time. Safeguarding security is of the utmost importance in our work.’
Madame Michette threw herself into her two guests’ predicament with an eagerness that astonished them. The truth was that she had recently become a devoted fan of a serial in L’Avenir, the Clermont-Ferrand newspaper, about the adventures of a secret agent whose name, Soleil, had particularly captivated her. Ever since her breathless daily dose of Soleil’s adventures, which had had her hurrying to the newsstand before she drank her morning coffee, she had dreamt of offering her services to her country. She had begun raiding the bookshops for spy novels. Accepting that her appearance was unlikely to allow her to seduce an enemy agent and extract his secret from him, she had been waiting for an opportunity that would reveal her deeper qualities of courage, intuition and decisiveness. In this bourgeois woman brought up to respect the virtues on which an honest and hard-working society was based, there seethed ambitions that her position as madam of a brothel did not allow her to satisfy. She suffered from not being ‘accepted’ in society. The great and the good of Clermont were as friendly to her as good taste allowed, but in public either barely greeted her or failed to acknowledge her entirely if they were with their wives. Their disregard made her miserable and she had complained bitterly about it to Monsieur Michette, who himself had no such sensibilities and contented himself with scrupulously keeping the establishment’s accounts for the benefit of its powerful patrons. Palfy and Jean could not have guessed upon what marvellously fertile soil they had fallen, or what an ally they were making for themselves by asking this honest woman for her help. In a flash Madame Michette had glimpsed an incredible opportunity in the challenge they had set her. If she came out of it well she would be eligible for other missions, and one day, like her husband, be entitled to wear the Croix de Guerre, and earn the respect of all.
She nevertheless made it clear to Jean and Palfy that what they were asking was tantamount to finding a needle in a haystack. Thousands of refugees were flooding into Clermont-Ferrand. The hotels werefull. There was not a bed to be had in any private house. And the inhabitants of Clermont, secretive at the best of times, recoiled from showy behaviour. Families lived discreetly, rarely showing themselves. Perhaps there were, all the same, two or three streets and Place de Jaude where one might position oneself in the hope of meeting the desired person. But their description of Claude was vague. Madame Michette promised to give the matter some thought.
The next morning the street’s residents were highly surprised to see the young women from the Sirène emerge as a group from their lodgings. This was not part of their routine. Speculation ran riot: the girls were on their way to the railway station to greet Monsieur Michette, who was returning with another palm to add to his Croix de Guerre; they were going to present a petition at the prefecture calling for their status as workers in a reserved occupation to be recognised, which would entitle them to extra food rations: 350 grams of bread instead of 250, a bar of chocolate a month and an extra 100 grams of butter; they wanted to complain en masse to the regional military commander about his rumoured decision to send the glorious 152nd infantry regiment to Montluçon – the 15–2 – first regiment of France, recently re-formed at the Desaix barracks. The spectators watched them go, their bottoms swaying briskly down the street, led by Madame Michette dressed soberly in grey, the appropriate colour for a secret agent. The girls were not laughing and walked with their eyes lowered, their faces unmade-up, swinging their patent handbags. In short, only Monsieur Michette was missing for them to start walking in step with each other.
As soon as they arrived in the town centre they dispersed according to a prearranged plan. Madame Michette installed herself at the Café Riche, next to the telephone booth. Palfy and Jean sat at a table some distance away, pretending to ignore their new friend, who ordered a beer and immersed herself in a spy novel. With a passion unexpected in a person as down to earth as she was, she had, in the space of anight, taken the bait put down by Palfy and decided, by every possible means including the consumption of pulp novels on the subject, to begin her training as a secret agent.
The wait lasted all morning. Palfy rejoiced in his machinations. Jean was the only one not to believe it would work, even though the preparations had crystallised in his mind’s eye an idealised image of the young woman he had glimpsed during the parade. In the shabby, heavily perfumed surroundings of the Sirène, that image was like a window open onto a scrap of sky, a hope that a world more sympathetic to his tastes and his aspirations still existed despite the debacle of the past month.
‘I feel we’re on our way to great things,’ Palfy murmured. ‘The era is eminently favourable to those who venture all. We shall have fun.’
‘I’ll admit it hasn’t got off to a bad start. I adore Madame Michette.’
‘France is full of Madame Michettes. We shall fill their heads with dreams.’
‘You’ll fill their heads. Not me.’
Palfy waved his hand irritably.
‘Are you starting again? Listen, dear boy, I don’t know how many times you’ve tried to back out, but it’s time to stop. I know your excellent soul, your rectitude, your honesty, your courage and loyalty. All well and good, I’m in the picture. You can’t shock me any more. But from now on, life is about living, so put all that on one side for the next few years. We own nothing, hardly even the shirts on our backs. We’re starting again from nothing. I have a few ideas and you’ve got a sweet mug – women like you. On my own I can’t do anything, and if you go it alone you’ll end up doing ghastly little jobs: delivering parcels, or bouncer at a nightclub. Think about it …’
‘Then explain to me,’ Jean said, ‘why your cheating makes me feel so uncomfortable. I should be getting used to it and recognising that it’s justified most of the time, because all you’re really doing is taking advantage of human stupidity. But I can’t help it: every time something inside me says no.’
‘My dear chap, I’m afraid these scruples of yours are metaphysical in origin. They’re an artificial distinction, produced by centuries of tradition, between good and evil. Trust me on this: get out of the habit, or you’ll be doomed to play the game of a society that doesn’t give a shit about your soul and will happily exploit you like a slave …’
A slave? Wasn’t one a slave to everything? To one’s social status, one’s passions, one’s stupidity or clear-sightedness for that matter? Jean would have liked to muse on the question at greater length, without immediately answering yes or no to Palfy, for whom, ever since they had enlisted, he had felt real friendship, even something close to admiration. Palfy shone a light on life, painted it in bold colours, set traps for him. Unfortunately, every time events seemed to point to perfect happiness, they had a tendency to come to grief and everything went back to square one. Staring out of the café window, Jean felt sceptical about the possibilities Palfy saw in the situation: he saw only a quiet street, women carrying shopping bags, a queue outside a butcher’s twenty people long, several closed steel shutters. After the emotions sparked by the parade, life was returning to normal, as dull as before, with the same hardships making themselves felt and starting to monopolise people’s thoughts, as night followed day. How could one hope to succeed in a defeated country that, since the unprovoked massacre of its sailors at Mers el-Kébir, no longer knew whether yesterday’s allies were not today’s enemies and whether the enemy currently occupying half the country in such a disciplined way would not become tomorrow’s friend? To be able to see clearly these days demanded a particular lucidity, one that no single person possessed. Reason dictated simply surviving until one could see things more distinctly. No one knew what was happening in Paris or the rest of France. Jean thought about his father. How was he feeling now, the old leftist pacifist who had remained so loyal to his ideas that he was willing to insult French officers in the street while a war was going on? Jean had disappointed him deeply by enlisting on the eve of the conflict.
‘I need to see my father,’ Jean said.
‘Forget it. You’ve got to leave all that alone now too.’
One of the girls from the Sirène came into the café. She brought an address. Madame Michette made a note. By the end of the morning she had half a dozen other addresses. Posted at different crossroads, the girls had observed six possible Claudes and trailed them to where they lived. Six was too many. Jean did not hide his scorn. He found Palfy’s new ploy risible, an ugly caricature of the carefree pleasure to be had from a sudden encounter with a desirable face and a tantalising outline in the morning sunshine. After lunch he refused to accompany Palfy when he set off, list in hand, to find the real Claude. He was thrown into an even greater panic when his friend returned triumphant. Claude existed! And she was waiting for him, in a café on Place de Jaude. First they had to put on an elaborate act for Madame Michette, whose chest had swelled to bursting and who expected a medal at the very least.
‘Get going!’ Palfy ordered. ‘I have a hunch that you’ve got an incredible opportunity waiting for you this time, one you can’t pass up. She’s much more beautiful than we thought when we first caught sight of her. A refugee from the north. Lives in Paris. Get a move on, I tell you! The future is yours.’
‘I won’t know what to say to her, I don’t know her.’
‘You’ll think of something.’
He went, pursued by Palfy, who, suspecting he might try to run away, did not want to give him the opportunity.
‘What did you say to her?’ Jean asked as they reached the café.
‘Nothing. I didn’t need to. She guessed.’
‘I haven’t even got enough to buy her a drink.’
‘I thought of that. Here.’
He held out a 500-franc note.
‘Where did you get that?’
‘What do you care?’
‘Was it Zizi?’
‘Yes, clever dick. She’s mad about us.’
‘It makes me feel sick.’
‘We’ll pay her back a hundred times over.’
The time for hesitating was over. Palfy turned and walked away. Inside the café the young woman was sitting at a table on her own. She smiled when she saw him walk in.
‘So it is you,’ she said.
Jean had never readOn Love.3Had he ever opened it, he would probably have shut it again immediately. Theories left him cold, and the philosophy of love had not yet revealed itself to him. Jostled and pre-empted by reality, as spoilt as a little prince and punished as only the innocent are, he had never thought love could be expressed in cut-and-dried formulas. The cold-eyed clarity of Stendahl’s Julien Sorel, punctuated by outbursts of frenzy, left him annoyed and disbelieving. In truth, being incapable of calculation, he found it natural that fortune should smile on him more than other young men of his age. Life had granted him, very young, two capital experiences and he felt they would never be repeated, at least not in the same way. A shred of reason restrained him – reason that was swept away by the words ‘So it is you’ and by the amused look the speaker directed at him. He felt suddenly awkward and ridiculous, and so inferior to the lovely woman staring at him that it was all he could do not to take to his heels. Sitting facing her, he was unaware that the crystallisation around her fleeting outline had turned into a real love that was almost comfortable in its reciprocity, however undeclared it was, and that he was preparing for this young woman with her nose dotted with pale freckles, her unmade-up mouth that scorned lipstick, and short hair that exposed her lovely, gazelle-like neck, to be the love of his life – even long after everything was finished between them – and that his only distress, as it is with every happy love, would be not to know how to love her enough. In short, as she sat in front of him with her chin resting on the palm of a hand ornamented at the wrist by a green malachite bracelet, she was the natural intermediary a boy of twenty needed in order to embark upon manhood.
It would be so much kinder not to smile. Jean’s feeling for Claude and hers for him have coalesced within a drama containing plenty of burlesque elements. We ought to overlook the participation of Madame Michette and the girls at the Sirène. Let us just lament, by way of excuse, that the ways of love are impenetrable. Fortunately that’s all too true. The situation and timing are ill-chosen: the country is split down the middle by a defeat that has left it stunned. People are nursing their bruises and wounds, counting their dead, their missing, their prisoners. Without the saving grace of a cowardly relief that the adventure had been no worse, there would be little place left for the love that is blossoming, masked by a discreet ruefulness, between a young man of twenty and a young woman of twenty-five.
There is no mistaking some raising of eyebrows at the mention of their ages. Is Jean destined for ever to love women who are older than him? Let us remember that in those distant times women did not start making love as soon as they reached puberty. It was thus inevitable that a fine figure of a boy, as the novelists have it, should experience his first amorous awakenings with women who are a little more, or even much more, experienced than he is. With of course one exception: Chantal de Malemort, who by her conduct at Jean’s age had wrecked the idea of a pure love blossoming in a sylvan paradise, dawning in a provincial mansion and rudely sundered from its ideals in a cramped bohemian bedroom in Paris, in Rue Lepic. So here they are, these two, Jean and Claude, each subtly attracted to the other, and I am very tempted to talk of magic. In fact magic it certainly is if we enumerate the combination of circumstances necessary to bring this encounter about. If a single detail were out of place, the whole thing would be impossible. If, for instance – as Jean imagined, thinking about his Italian journey of 1936 – a thief had not stolen his bicycle, if the consular official had not shown him the door instead of offering him his help, if he had not met the truck driver, Stefano, the lover of Mireille Cece, if Mireille had not squeezed him dry with her insatiable appetite, if, as he fled from her, he had not met Palfy disguised as apriest in his elderly Mathis, and so on … he would never have found himself, one July afternoon, at a café table on Place de Jaude facing a young woman who, in any other circumstances, he would have had no reason to be meeting. We might ask ourselves some questions about the impressive intelligence of chance, which has been preparing for a long time for this inevitable event, and preparing for it with such minute attention to detail that no electronic brain could match it. It is an observation that leaves us with few illusions about our freedom of choice, but what does it matter if the result is the one we have been preparing for from birth? Out of the air we plucked the theft of Jean’s bicycle at Ostia, but there are a thousand other events whose sequence is equally necessary. And so must we also, in the same context, thank chance for having thrown Chantal into the arms of Gontran Longuet and Sergeant Tuberge for abandoning his men in their foxholes. The backstage scene is one of an immense watchmaker’s mechanism of cogs and wheels of such complexity that they pass all human understanding. Only the result counts, and for now Claude and Jean are face to face.
We shall compress the account of the first meeting of these two beings, already in love and still swimming in that atmosphere of happy awkwardness and sweet felicity that precedes the moment of fateful pronouncements. So as not to keep the reader in suspense any longer, we shall provide some details about Claude, at least the ones we know, unconnected with her character, whose slow discovery is Jean’s business. She is French on her father’s side, Russian on her mother’s. We shall refrain from mentioning Slavic charm, out of consideration for those who witnessed the arrival of the first Soviet troops in Poland, Silesia, Pomerania and East Germany, and, later, the triumphal entry of the liberators into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. That so-called quality may well be one of those ghastly clichés you still hear bandied about in nightclubs. Claude’s aura expresses itself in a different way, more like a poem whose lines are arranged in the form of drawings, in words that write themselves around her when she speaks and smiles.
I am conscious of having mentioned her smile a great deal already. That is because each time it appears in her natural, unmade-up features it is an extraordinary summons, an instant temptation, an expression one would give one’s soul to see appear. So why is she not surrounded by a swarm of admirers battling to get closer to her, elbowing each other aside, loathing their rivals and planning their victorious offensive? For the simple reason that charm and grace are not apparent to everyone and this exquisite young woman lacks one crucial quality that excites and fans men’s passions: she is incapable of being a bitch.
So far only one man had disregarded this shortcoming. His name was Georges Chaminadze, and Caucasian blood ran in his veins. He was the father of the small boy with blue-green eyes who we shall encounter a few days after the first meeting with Claude, in a third-class railway carriage steaming slowly up to Paris. In the same compartment are six other people, all with set faces, who clearly dislike the presence of this boisterous child with the strange name of Cyrille. Jean is trying to get him interested in some drawings of monsters that he is sketching in an exercise book, while Claude stares out of the window at the countryside rolling past on the other side of the demarcation line.4France is in the fields. Between Paris and the Loire the war has left few serious scars on the land. There is no sign of crops flattened by tanks, and only occasionally an abandoned truck at the side of the road or an aerodrome where planes were burnt where they stood on the morning of 10 May, at the sacrosanct coffee hour. A horse drags a wagon with a cot balanced on its roof. The crossing keeper chases his children, playing on the level crossing. The sun is shining. The summer of 1940 is superb, soft and golden. Three fighter planes – Messerschmitt 109s – fly over the train, showing their camouflaged undersides decorated with the black cross of the Luftwaffe. On a river bank there are even some fishermen sitting with their rods, two wearing straw hats, one in a beret. Paris is approaching: suburban burrstone houses and sad-looking apartment blocks, their shuttersclosed above shops still locked and dark. The train slows. Cyrille is at the window. Scrambling onto Claude’s knees, his feet have made her skirt ride up. Jean sees her knee for the first time. He places his hand on it, and she gives him a glance of reproof. The other passengers pull down their suitcases and parcels. Impatience and clumsiness make their natural rudeness worse. They would trample you underfoot rather than face a second’s delay.
Jean has very little with him, just a small bag containing a shirt and a sweater, his razor, a toothbrush, and a book. He is a long way from the ambitious Rastignac’s ‘It’s between you and me now!’,5yet the future lies here: he must live to deserve the beautiful being at his side, whom the war has left defenceless. Georges Chaminadze is in England. He has managed to get a message through via the Red Cross. Claude is going back to her apartment and an uncertain livelihood. The train draws into the platform at Gare de Lyon with a long screech of brakes. German railway workers mingle with French. There are no longer any porters and no taxis.
The mêlée of passengers jostles and pushes its way to the Métro, which greets them with its smell of burnt electricity and disinfectant. Claude holds Cyrille’s hand. Jean carries the two cases. He escorts Claude to her apartment on Quai Saint-Michel. Apart from the occasional German car, the streets are empty. Paris smells good. The chestnuts are in leaf. The booksellers have reopened their stalls and there are soldiers flicking through pornography or buying engravings showing little urchins peeing in the gutter while a girl with an upturned nose watches spellbound. The lift is out of order. Four floors.
Claude pushes open the shutters and there is Notre-Dame, to which France’s government of freemasons and secularists filed on 19 May to pray to the Holy Virgin to save the nation. ATe Deumthat fell on deaf ears. France has vanished but the witnesses to her past have remained: the Conciergerie, the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle, and in the distance the Sacré-Cœur, as ugly as ever, the work of a pretentious pastry chef. Cyrille tugs off his socks and lies down on his bed among his favouriteanimals. Claude closes his bedroom door and walks back to the hall with Jean. She raises herself on tiptoe and kisses him quickly on the cheek.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘Tomorrow?’
As he goes back downstairs he reflects that so far he has not even held her hand. But his palm has kept the memory of her knee that he stroked for a second on the train. Where to now? He knows no one and has only a few francs in his pocket. He feels a strong urge to turn round and retrace his footsteps. He reaches the Opéra. On the terrace of the Café de la Paix there are green uniforms and women sitting at the small tables. Rue de Clichy is deserted and the Casino de Paris is closed. Paris looks like a city drowsing in the sun, unwilling to wake up because it feels too early and there is no sign of the familiar morning noises – the buses and their grinding gearboxes, the milkmen and newspaper sellers – yet different noises are audible, as if in a bad dream – the two-stroke engines of German cars, the distant rumble and squeak of armoured units driving through the city back to the north, and the whistle of dispatch riders’ heavy BMW motorcycles. Drawn by a Percheron, a charabanc passes, transporting cases of beer. And on the giant billboard above the entrance to the Gaumont a poster for a German film.
Jean had thought he would never see Rue Lepic again, but here it is, and as he walks up it he recognises the Italian fruit-seller, the pork butcher from Limousin and the café-tabacrun by the Auvergnat, though it is no longer Marcel behind the counter but his wife whose breasts are as large as ever. And finally the filthy, poetic building from which Chantal de Malemort escaped one morning, carried off in a Delahaye driven by that dandified thug, Gontran Longuet. Nearly all the shutters are closed, but two are open on the fourth floor. Jean climbs the stairs. Nothing has changed. He rings the bell. A sound of footsteps. The door opens wide. Jesús Infante stands with his mouth open.
He throws his arms wide, seizes Jean and crushes him, knocking all the air out of his body and thumping him on the back, Spanish-style.
‘Jean!’ he repeats. ‘You are ’live!’
On a bed behind him, draped with black satin, lies a girl with dyed blond hair.
‘Com’ in!’ Jesús shouts in a booming voice. ‘Make yourself at ’ome!’
The girl gets to her feet to look for a dressing gown and finds a piece of cloth that she knots above her breasts.
‘Coffee, Zorzette! A real one!’
Jesús is the same as ever, shirt unbuttoned on his hairy chest, five o’clock shadow, gold-filled smile. On his easel is a canvas of depressingly anatomical realism. He intercepts Jean’s gaze.
‘Yes, it’s revolting, I know. But i’ sells, i’ sells. You ’ave no ide’. I make one a day. So – tell me everything!’
Jean tells his story quickly. Jesús’s reaction is decisive. Jean has nothing, so he must live with him. He has a camp bed he can put up in the studio. The Germans buy his nudes by the dozen. The gangster from Place du Tertre who sells them visits three times a day and has doubled his price. Anyhow, Jean’s not here for that. They’ll talk about it later. Jesús jerks his chin in the direction of Georgette, pouring boiling water into the coffee pot. She is not in on the secret. Jean studies her as she bends forward to fill his cup: she has a tired and listless face with smudges around her eyes. She bleaches her hair carelessly and smells of the same cheap scent as the girls from the Sirène. Jesús taps her on the bottom.
‘Go an’ get dress’. ’E’s finish’ for today.’
She goes to change behind a screen.
‘What time tomorrow?’ she asks.
‘Today, tomorr’, we celebrate Jean. I le’ you know. An’ fuck the painting!’
She shrugs and holds out her hand. He puts money in her palm and she vanishes. Jesús tells Jean about his ‘war’, which has been assimple as can be: he has stayed exactly where he is. The only one left in the building, he went to the Étoile to watch the Germans march past, their band leading the way, in front of General von Briesen. Life has slowly returned to something like normal. Jean, remembering his friend’s strange eating habits, asks if he can still find peanuts and red wine. No, there are no more peanuts.
‘The peanut supply line ’as been cut!’ Jesús says, imitating Paul Reynaud, former president of the Council and much given to vainglorious announcements.
‘I eat wha’ I find! War is war. You ’ave to survive.’
His face takes on a sorrowful expression. There is a question on the tip of his tongue, but he is hesitating. Finally he speaks.
‘An’ ’ow is Santal de Malemort?’
‘I don’t know,’ Jean says.
‘You forgive ’er.’
‘I haven’t thought about it.’
‘You ’ave to forgive.’
‘That’s rich, coming from you!’
Jesús puts his hands together. He would like to swear but there is no God, so Jean will have to believe him. This is the truth: he, Jesús, never slept with Chantal, although it is true that she came to see him when Jean was working nights and offered to pose for him. Jesús would not have dreamt of touching her. He hadn’t known how to say it to Jean, and then afterwards he realised the misunderstanding.
‘I don’t care,’ Jean said. ‘And you’re a chump not to have screwed her.’
‘You is telling me that I’m chump?’
‘A very big chump.’
‘Okay, I’m chump. She was a girl who like’ to show ’er tits …’
Jesús wants to know everything. Why did she go back to Malemort when Gontran Longuet was offering her the high life, sports cars, hotels, travel? Women were incomprehensible; in fact they werecompletely mad. An Andalusian philosopher, a man from Jaén, Joaquín Petillo, declared in the eighteenth century that female seed came from another planet. An unknown object, smaller than a whale and bigger than a sardine – but in the shape of a fish – had several thousand years ago deposited an unknown seed on the surface of the earth. Until that moment our fathers (and mothers), all hermaphrodites, had lived happily and immortally together.
‘So how did they reproduce?’ Jean asks.
‘By the masturbación, dear Jean, the masturbación, mother of all the virtues.’
Unfortunately the seeds of this strange planet, so remote it took a hundred years at the speed of light to get from there to here, had mingled with those of the men who had been calmly masturbating as the sun passed its zenith, and so the first women had been born, bringing discord into an idyllic world. From these strange and remote beginnings they had retained a quality of mystery that even the greatest seers had never managed to unravel. They were incomprehensible, completely mad, acting with a total lack of masculine logic, and you ended up asking yourself if they were not somehow ruled by an interplanetary logic evolved by their seed during the long voyage through space, a logic purely and exclusively feminine and incommunicable to any human not possessing ovaries.
‘Even a transvestite can’ understand it!’ Jesús declares, raising his finger. ‘Tell me abou’ your friend Palfy, who interes’ me …’
Jean tells him that Palfy badly wants to come and live in Paris. Unfortunately his papers are not in order. He is waiting for clearance from the Kommandantur, which is investigating his past. Palfy has no alternative but to wait: the Côte d’Azur is closed to him, London likewise. He needs fresh pastures and a clean slate for his great schemes.
‘Madeleine will ’elp ’im!’ Jesús says.
‘Have you seen her? Is she doing business again?’
‘You mus’ be barmy! She lives with the colonel who is commanding the cloths!’
Jean is baffled. His understanding was that colonels commanded regiments. But no, this is a German colonel who occupies an office on Rue de la Paix. Buying stocks of available French cloth for the Wehrmacht. Of every type; even organdie, jersey and satin. The German army is an exceptionally chic fighting force, which conceals beneath its aggressive flag a passion for frothy and seductive undergarments. The important thing is that Madeleine has not forgotten Palfy and Jean. Only last week she was voicing her anxiety that they had been taken prisoner. If it were true, she would move heaven and earth to have them released.
‘She will fin’ you work!’
‘I don’t know if I’ve the means to work. Unless someone pays me weekly. I haven’t got a sou to my name.’
‘Sous, I’m making plenty o’ them. We share. This nigh’ dinner is on me …’
Jesús, then, is assuming importance in Jean’s life, having been in the first part of this story no more than a face glimpsed between two doors. The author is well aware of how irritating it is to see reproduced phonetically the words of an individual afflicted with such a strong accent. We get tired not just of the accent, but even more of the crude, overblown caricature a foreigner speaking our language imperfectly feels obliged to give to the least of his ideas, as though the nuances are likely to be completely missed because their refined and distinguished French equivalents (as we like to think) are lacking. Make no mistake though: like Baron Nucingen jabbering his execrable French, dunked in low German like bread in soup,6Jesús, sucking his way through a French as beaten and twisted as a Spanish omelette, is no fool. As a young man he fled the mediocrity of a petty bourgeois Andalusian family, shopkeepers in the torrid city of Jaén, to breathe a different air that, even befouled by occupation, he continues to call theair of freedom – not political freedom, about which he does not give a damn, and will continue not to give a damn to the point that, when France is finally liberated, he is still a member of the Communist Party, but freedom to shock, sexual freedom, of which his own Spain at that time has not the slightest idea. In truth, his great dilemma – about which, out of embarrassment and naivety, he dares not speak to anyone – can be expressed in four words: where is painting going? Impossible to discuss it with other painters, especially those who have made it. The only talk he hears from them is about money, girls and food. With Jean it is different. Jesús can unburden himself without fear of ridicule: Jean is not an artist and will not retaliate with sarcastic remarks that conceal all the jealousy, envy and contempt with which his contemporaries are riddled. To Jean and Jean alone he can confide, without being mocked or scoffed at, his unspeakable misfortune in having to prostitute himself in order to survive and keep his hopes alive. Despite the difference in their ages – Jesús is thirty and Jean now twenty-one – they are children from the same stock: friendship is the only asset they possess. It is quite true that Jesús did not sleep with Chantal de Malemort. He could have, but did not want to. Preserved by his disinterested ambitions, Jesús will never grow up, whereas Jean will become an adult in small steps that will each break his heart a little more. Oh, what price must a youth not pay to become a man one day! Jean, back in a Paris it sickens him to return to, possesses neither love nor friendship enough to keep his courage alive. Fortunately Claude is there, and in her presence nothing is inevitable, everything is simple, and there is no shade of ambiguity from the beginning. I would not like to say more at a time when Jean himself still knows nothing. Let us attempt, in some measure, to act as he does, and feel our way towards this woman whose smile will light up two of the four dark years to come.
Jean recoiled from meeting Madeleine. In two days and as many journeys across Paris on foot he had taken in the reality of the occupation: the parades at the Étoile, the signposts, the flags of the Third Reich stamped with the swastika flapping in Rue de Rivoli. Small signs, yet they sufficed to stop him forgetting and to allow him to guess that an iron fist existed, gloved in velvet for now but an unspeakable and indeterminate threat in the sky of the future. The free zone could play its games of smoke and mirrors, parade with its bands blaring and its comic-opera army of a hundred thousand men, unfurl all the modest pomp of a new regime, but the undeniable, naked, crushing truth was here, in Paris.
Next morning Jesús introduced Jean to the director-owner of the gallery who sold his grotesque and obscene nudes at Place du Tertre. This person, who before the war had mocked the Spaniard with merciless sarcasm, nicknaming him ‘Papiécasso’ for his unsaleable collages, had spotted in the defeat a new and much more interesting clientele than the American and English tourists of the inter-war years. Short, fat, blue-eyed, his neck pinched by a celluloid collar, his cheeks red and his short legs swamped by trousers even more voluminous than his backside, Louis-Edmond de La Garenne claimed to be descended from a crusader who would have covered himself in shame had he seen one of his descendants keeping a shop. Jean was deeply put off by his lack of eyebrows and his jet-black hair (with its unnatural reddish glints) which clashed with a face that was smooth, chubby and apparently completely hairless. Jesús had forgotten to warn him that Louis-Edmond wore a wig, ever since a strange illness that had robbed his body of all hair. Louis-Edmond de La Garenne looked Jean up and down.
‘I know my way around men,’ he boasted. ‘I’m never wrong. The first impression is the only one worth having. Afterwards you getbamboozled into all sorts of feelings and nuances. You’ll do. Do you speak German?’
‘Not a single word. Only English.’
‘Perfect. Our clientele at this time is exclusively German. It demands flattery. Either these imbeciles imagine they speak French or they will address you in the language of our hereditary enemy: English. You’re the man I need. You’ll start straight away. I’ll give you five hundred francs a month. With tips you’ll do very nicely for yourself.’
‘Louis-Edmond,’ Jesús said, ‘you take us for stupid bastards who is workin’ for nozing. You give Jean two thousan’ francs an’ a commission on what ’e sell ’imself.’
‘Jesús, no one is indispensable.’
‘No, is true. No’ even you. Especial’ you. You understan’ me?’
‘You’re ruining me. I accept only to give you pleasure.’
Jesús treated him to a vigorous thump in return.
‘You are intelligen’, Louis-Edmond. Very intelligen’, you old sweendler.’
Jean discovered that the gallery already possessed a salesperson, a middle-aged woman with a dignified but ravaged face named Blanche de Rocroy, the last of her line, beggared and humiliated at every turn by La Garenne, suffering his criticisms in silence as she had suffered since childhood, the only daughter of decrepit and déclassé aristocrats whose one remaining pride was the name they carried. Her fiancé had been killed at the front in 1918. What chance did she have of finding another when she looked like a battered, abject old owl with no bust? La Garenne had slept with her once during her period of greatest misery and still requested, in a tone that brooked no refusal, minor services from her which she provided in his office after the door had been locked behind her. For the first few days Jean could not get a wordout of her. He tried to reassure her that he had not been taken on so that La Garenne could get rid of her, but because only a man could deal with customers interested in canvases of nudes. She half believed him and for a long time continued to look as gloomy as the rural landscapes that she sold with barely disguised apathy. Business boomed. Soldiers on leave in field-grey uniforms crowded outside the gallery windows, shoving each other with their elbows, smothering their guffaws, embarrassment and curiosity pressing them together. Their NCOs walked past, ramrod straight, eyes front, outraged in the name of the Reich at the sight of these bottoms, nipples and pussies, the very symbols of the moral and physical corruption that had led France to its destruction. The officers, on the other hand, strode in, leafed through the gallery’s catalogue and asked to see what Louis-Edmond proudly called his ‘hell’, a collection of pornographic prints, licentious drawings and Jesús’s most daring canvases. It was understandable that Blanche de Rocroy should feel uncomfortable displaying such horrors to male customers who were in the habit of screwing monocles into their eyes so as not to miss the smallest detail. Jean’s days were therefore mostly spent in ‘hell’, with Louis-Edmond only appearing when a customer started haggling too much. Moving from honeyed charm to outright disdain, and from disdain to perfectly pitched indifference, he would close the sale with his ineffably glib tongue. The examples of extreme erotica sold fast. Jesús began to be unable to satisfy the demand, and La Garenne started to look for new artists. He found a few, but their work did not sell: talentless and sleazy, they failed to meet La Garenne’s customers’ exacting requirements. From Jean Jesús learnt what was happening and slammed the door on his dealer. Jean laughed. Louis-Edmond, frantic at the idea of running out of merchandise, sent him back as his ambassador, bearing a very large cheque.
‘Tell ’im to come ’ere hisself,’ Jesús answered. ‘I wan’ to see this shit climb my stairs on ’is ’ands an’ knees.’
The dealer came, and climbed. Jesús let him off the hands and knees,though La Garenne was ready to submit. Puce-faced, perspiring, so breathless he could not speak, he listened without protesting as he was called every name under the sun, his head bent, twisting his plump hands with their filthy nails. When Jesús ran out of insults La Garenne sobbed, ‘I am a wretch.’
‘A wretch stuff’ with cash!’
‘I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about my name, which I’ve allowed to be dragged through the mud. Me! The descendant of a crusader!’
‘An’ fuck your crusades!’
But La Garenne had got his breath back, and with it his snooping instinct, and was glancing around the studio. Ignoring the daubs he usually bought, he went up to an easel on which stood one of Jesús’s new canvases, a black and luminous landscape, a violent confrontation between a lava-covered land and the sea, under a blazing sky.
‘This is brilliant!’ he said. ‘I’ll buy it.’
‘Eh?’ Jesús said, dumbstruck.
La Garenne took out his cheque book.
‘How much? You tell me.’
‘I don’ feed the jam to the pig.’
‘Jesús, I’m not asking for compensation for your insults. Where genius is concerned, everything is allowed. How much?’
La Garenne signed his cheque, dated it, left the amount blank and handed it to Jesús.
‘You put down whatever you like.’
‘Go fuck yourself!’
As we may imagine, La Garenne walked away with the picture, leaving behind a cheque for twenty thousand francs and the promise that Jesús would deliver within the next week a series of six etchings for ‘hell’.
‘Edition of fifty, not one more!’ the dealer promised, his arm extended as if for a fascist salute.
Jean had reason to believe that, with the help of subtle manipulation, the fifty would turn into two hundred, plus several dozen artist’s proofs. La Garenne fiddled the documentary evidence and had already for a long time been forging the pseudonymous signature Jesús used for his bread-and-butter work. To buy Jesús’s landscape as he had, almost with his eyes closed and with an impressively faked passion and a cheque to match, had been a stroke of genius. Jesús wavered. For a time he even stopped heaping insults on Louis-Edmond, making an effort, without great conviction, to acknowledge a flair beneath his crudity, a sort of instinct for painting that only the treacherous circumstances and frightful materialism of the French prevented from showing itself. Jean refrained from pouring cold water on his friend’s enthusiasm and opening his eyes to the Machiavellianism of La Garenne who, almost as soon as they were back at the gallery, had handed Jesús’s canvas to Blanche, curling his lip contemptuously.
‘Put that in the toilet or the cellar. Yes, in the cellar. If I had that in front of me I couldn’t deal with two shits at once.’
Perhaps the important thing was that Jesús had found a buyer for a painting that he had begun to think was unsaleable.
What about Claude? I hear you say. We have not forgotten her. She explains everything. Without her Jean would not stay a single day longer in this new Paris, slowly beginning to fill with people again and to face the autumn with a kind of fearful, courageous expectancy. He puts up with the ignominy of working for La Garenne, with Blanche’s relentless gloom, with the disheartening experience of spending his days in the gallery’s hell, because when he finishes work Claude’s smile and the cool welcome of her cheek is waiting for him on the fourth floor of Quai Saint-Michel.
Cyrille would open the door: a pale little boy with curly blond hair and blue eyes sparkling with pleasure.
‘Maman, it’s Jean!’ he would shout.
‘Who else did you think it would be?’ she would answer from the next room.
She would appear, her face half turned to his, offering her cheek and the beginning of her smile. Cyrille would go back to his toys, and when the weather was fine they would lean on the balcony and look out over the city slowly disappearing in the twilight, the Seine velvet and immobile, its banks empty but for pedestrians hastening home.
The first evening Claude said, ‘It’s terrible!’
‘Everything. Not knowing anything about the people you love, or even the people you don’t love. Not being sure of anything. What will happen to us? We’re using up the best years of our lives wanting to know, wanting to have an answer.’
‘I close my eyes. You should do the same.’
‘You don’t have anyone else.’
‘I’m the same as you. I have you.’
‘You don’t have me. You have to remember that.’
‘Well, I think I have you, whether you like it or not, and deep down it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t.’
Yes, let us dispel the ambiguity. Nothing has happened between them since their meeting at Clermont-Ferrand, and it is Claude’s wish that nothing should happen. To all appearances that is not how things are: they are together, they see each other every day. When the gallery closes, Jean walks down from Montmartre to Saint-Michel. He likes crossing Paris like this, among crowds of Frenchmen and -women hurrying about their business, paying no attention to the signs in Gothic script that they encounter en route. The occupiers are stilltourists. There were others like them before the war, and no one is surprised that this new wave of curious visitors responds to the same siren songs as their predecessors, making straight for the Opéra or the Folies-Bergère. Jean loves Paris for other reasons; for him the city is intimate and full of secret places. Turning a corner, catching sight of a theatre or a cinema, revives memories that no longer cause him pain. Claude is there, and she drives out Chantal de Malemort. As he crosses Pont Saint-Michel he looks up to see Claude’s windows and is flooded with happiness. Cyrille has his tea and goes to sleep in his mother’s bed. Claude has laid a table for two. They sit and talk. From time to time Claude looks down and the divine smile that Jean adores leaves her face. Then quickly, in a few words, he takes back what he has just said and what has upset her. Since the day he put his hand on her knee in the train that brought them to Paris, she has never had to be wary of him. Little by little she has learnt who he is and where he comes from, and is surprised that he has no desire to go and see what is happening at Grangeville.
‘Aren’t you worried about your father?’
‘He’s not my father. I love him, but I don’t feel I have anything in common with him any more.’
‘What about Antoinette?’
‘I’d like to see her again. There’s no urgency.’
‘And Chantal de Malemort?’
‘We have nothing to say to each other.’
He would love Claude to talk, as he does, about the people close to her, about her family whom she sees, he knows, during the day; but she seems to prefer to be without attachments where he is concerned. A single woman with a small boy, the two of them perched on a Paris balcony. Not a word about the husband. There is a photo of him in the bedroom, on the bedside table on Cyrille’s side of the bed. Jean hates this bed. He finds it hard to look at it when he goes to kiss the little boy on his damp forehead before he leaves. One night they go on talking for so long that when they stop it is after curfew. Jean sleeps on a couchin the sitting room; he has to curl up like a dog under an eiderdown. The night seems endless to him. Is Claude asleep? He swears that she is. A single police car speeds past along the embankment, then there is no other noise until the dripping, cold dawn reveals a lugubriously grey Paris.
Claude makes coffee and toast. Cyrille is in a bad mood. Jean cheers him up and the boy does not want him to go. After that night there are others, and now Jean sleeps practically every other night at Quai Saint-Michel. Sleeps properly. Lightly, in case Claude were to get up in the adjoining room and come to him. But, as we have guessed, she does not come. Occasionally he wonders what progress he has made since the day he first sat awkwardly opposite her. In all honesty he is obliged to say: none. The curious thing is that it does not make him feel bad, and little by little he has settled for this friendly and affectionate distance that she has assigned to him, like the trinkets – a silver snuff box, an ivory sweet tray, a tortoiseshell dance card, a crystal perfume bottle – laid out on a small side table that she often strokes with her finger as she walks past, familiar mementoes of life in Russia that her mother has saved. Jean is there, just like them, though he is not from Russia.
In fact he would feel perfectly comfortable where she has put him, if he did not, at certain moments, desire her with a painful intensity. During the day she knows how to keep his desire at bay, but at night, asleep behind her bedroom door, she loses her advantage and Jean has a trio of images that help remind him of her reality: the silhouette of her body placed between him and the sun, beneath the transparent material of her dress; her knee on the train (which will stay with him for the rest of his life); and, one morning when she bent over to butter Cyrille’s bread, her dressing gown falling open and revealing a bare breast. Not both, just one; although with a modicum of imagination one could picture the other as very similar. She did not notice and Jean averted his gaze to avoid embarrassing her, but at night, as soon as he closes his eyelids, he sees again the curve and delicacy of thisbreast that looks like a young girl’s. It is maddening and unbearable. The funniest part of it is that his days are spent sorting, exhibiting, putting away, and selling Louis-Edmond de La Garenne’s ‘hell’, an unbelievable pornographicvomitus, an ocean of the most extreme erotica, of which Jesús is the chief supplier. In all honesty, Jean fails to understand how anyone can feel the slightest emotion at the sight of an obscene engraving, and he would need very little persuasion to consider all the customers who throng the gallery in Place du Tertre as suffering from some form of mental illness. And so, step by step, he is discovering what is particular to his own notion of physical love: almost total indifference when he is not in love, and contrarily, hypersensitivity when he is. He would not need much persuasion either to believe that all lovers of erotica must be impotent. Who among his customers would feel their heartbeat race when they looked at Claude because she had innocently worn a sleeveless dress or because, as she sat down, she had revealed her knee?
Jesús, when Jean attempts to explain these nuances, opens his eyes wide. In Spain only virginity can trigger an erotic frenzy. A married woman, the mother of a child, is totally uninteresting. Several times the discussions that follow last till dawn. The next day Jean is reeling. He accuses himself of naivety and clumsiness. Any man with any experience would already have obtained from Claude what he so passionately desires; and later, as he crosses Paris to see her again, he spends the journey making cynical resolutions he is determined to keep and every time fails to keep. As soon as she is there in front of him, he is disarmed. First there is Cyrille, who every day shows him more and more affection, then there is Claude herself, talking to him as if she has guessed his resolve and is herself determined to head it off.
‘Jean, I think you and I are going to make something wonderful, something completely unique in the world that no biologist could even think of. Born to different fathers and mothers, we are going to have the same blood.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That you are my younger brother.’
‘Haven’t you ever heard of incest?’
‘Yes. And haven’t you ever heard of the curse that strikes down those who engage in incest?’
He tells her she is being overdramatic. She smiles and they talk of other things, of Jesús whom she wants to meet, and of Palfy, about whom there is still no news. Jean wonders if his friend has moved into the Sirène with all its comforts, continuing to dupe Madame Michette mercilessly. It is so unlike him to put up with the same fate as everyone else! No one who knows him can imagine him waiting for a visa along with three hundred thousand hopefuls waiting to cross the demarcation line and get to Paris. He has failed to reply to the interzone postcard Jean sent at the beginning of September. It probably sounded baffling to him anyway, with its series of permitted formulas, almost all to do with food or family.
The truth is that no one knows what is happening on the other side of the militarised border. When Parisian newspapers are not lampooning the Vichy government, they are dismissing it as a den of traitors coolly plotting vengeance. In Paris people live in a closed and isolated world. Beyond the palisade people might be mobilising or they might not: if the German communiqués are to be believed, in London, Coventry and elsewhere everyone has gone to ground.
The army of occupation continues to conduct its war without a scratch, a superb fighting mechanism whose resources were criminally concealed from the French. It has fuel, leather, endless supplies of machinery, perfect discipline, and all it can eat. The exotic London Jean once knew is impossible to imagine now, under a storm of steel: the majesty of Eaton Square that he loved, the doll’s houses of Chelsea, the elderly ladies in Hyde Park, the boats that steamed up the Thames to moor at Hampton Court among the oarsmen. It seems so distant now! The French are winding themselves into a cocoon, like a small child, while the Heinkel 111 bombers drone through the night towardsBritain. They remain in a state of shock. The most pressing question is that of subsistence, a difficult problem for which the country is unprepared. At least love can make everything else go away. Jean does not stint himself. In the evening when he arrives at Saint-Michel there is always a package under his arm, something to make the dinner go better, whatever he has managed to extort from the grocer in Rue Lepic. Blanche de Rocroy’s cousin, who lives in the Seine-et-Marne region, sends her parcels of butter, lard and even game that she shares with Jean, who passes it on to Claude and Cyrille. The lift in their building is sealed off and he has to walk past the lodge of the concierge, a ghastly woman who wears her spitefulness on her face. Whenever she opens her door a crack, a smell of stew and decomposition fills the lobby. Jean is unaware that she has bought herself an exercise book in which she notes down the comings and goings of the tenants and their visitors. For the moment she does it because she enjoys it, with the thought at the back of her mind that one day it might be useful. Who to? The German police, or the French? She doesn’t know, but she tells herself she is a patriot and that if there had been more like her France would not be in the state it’s in now. Jean hurries up four floors. Claude’s cheek is waiting on the other side of the door.
‘You’re late!’ she says.
To excuse himself, he opens his package, which contains a hare. They skin it together on the kitchen table, an operation Jean has seen his father carry out a hundred times with an Opinel painstakingly sharpened beforehand. Alas, their own knife is far from razor-sharp and the skinning is a laborious business. The blood dries on their hands and Claude begins to feel sick. They will be cooking all evening, using up their last onions, a scrap of flour, four potatoes, some herbs and a glass of red wine. Cyrille proclaims that he does not like eating dead hare. He wants a live one. Because they have eaten late, Jean is to sleep on the couch in the small sitting room. Claude is on the other side of the wall. He strains to hear her breathing. Nothing. Not a sound. Neither the other tenants on this floor nor those on thefloor above have returned to Paris. The ghastly concierge maintains they are all Jews; she has proof they are, in the form of the miserable New Year tips they used to give her before the war. In fact the only Jew is an upstairs tenant called Léon Samuel-Roth, a professor at the Sorbonne who for ten years has been writing an essay (eight hundred pages of his final draft are complete) on the Marxist aspects of the thought of Jean Racine as developed in his two Jewish plays,EstherandAthalie. At this moment Professor Samuel-Roth is hidden away in the Auvergne, missing his books terribly. Having succeeded in avoiding the increasingly widespread arrests, within four years he will nevertheless finish his essay (another four hundred pages), bring the manuscript back to Paris in October 1944, a few months after the Liberation, and leave it on a bus, a loss he will get over surprisingly easily, frequently telling his students that it was actually a fairly superficial piece of work, an academic’s distraction, and that at the age of fifty he felt the time had come instead to write a novel, whose action would be located in the same Auvergne where he lived for four years without seeing a thing, buried in his writing and with his nose, bristling with grey hairs, constantly to the grindstone. The other absent tenants on Claude’s floor are an elderly Alsatian couple, the Schmoegles, the husband a former officer in the Coloniale7and since his retirement a technical adviser to a company manufacturing lead soldiers. No one knows what became of them when Paris fell and we shall hear no more of them; perhaps they died in the general exodus, hastily buried without anyone taking note of who they were. The fact that their apartment is empty will soon be passed on by the concierge to the German police, who will requisition it for one of their informers, who in turn will be denounced by the same concierge at the Liberation, be arrested and have his throat cut in a cellar, to be succeeded by an FFI colonel8who will finally take his ease among the late Schmoegles’ belongings.
In the silence insomnia gnaws at Jean. He knows it will make his frustration worse, but he cannot stop himself from fantasising. He hasto clench his teeth, get up and go out on the balcony, where the sudden numbing autumn cold freezes his temples. Quai and Pont Saint-Michel, Quai du Marché Neuf and the forecourt of Notre-Dame are deserted. Jean remembers a film by René Clair,Paris Asleep, that Joseph Outen had showed at his film club in Dieppe in the heyday of his cinema period. Alas, it is not the charmingly cocky Albert Préjean, his cap tilted over his ear, who is making the most of the sleeping city, but a German motorcyclist, fatly girdled in black leather and preceded by a brush stroke of yellow light, whose machine rips into the silence as it dashes past. What message can be urgent enough for the rider to wake up thousands of sleeping Parisians along the road to his destination? And talking of films, where has poor Joseph Outen got to? Has he been killed, taken prisoner, wounded? Did he make it back to Normandy, to a new hobbyhorse and another pipe dream? Freezing, Jean closes the window, moves across to the communicating door, and hears the parquet floor creak in Claude and Cyrille’s bedroom. The door opens, and in the doorway a figure is vaguely outlined against a black background. Claude closes the door behind her.
‘You’re not asleep,’ she murmurs in a reproachful voice.
‘Nor are you.’
He stretches his hand out towards what he guesses to be her bare arm, grasps it, and presses his thumb against the vein beating in the crook of her elbow. Her skin is warm and smooth. Claude, usually sensitive to all physical contact, does not pull her arm away.
‘That motorcyclist woke us both,’ she says.
‘I wasn’t asleep, I was on the balcony.’
‘In this weather?’
‘In this weather.’
He goes on stroking the crook of her elbow and the skin whose taste he so longs to know.
‘Why aren’t you afraid?’
‘Of you? Never.’
‘I’m an idiot.’
‘Don’t say that! I can’t bear it. And I wouldn’t love an idiot anyway.’
It is the first time she has said it. An icy shiver runs down his spine that he finds it hard to make sense of.
‘You said you love me.’
‘Of course. Could you have doubted it? Would I be here if I didn’t love you?’
‘So we wait … Go to sleep. Cyrille will wake up.’
At daybreak he leaves for Rue Lepic, to wash and shave. The elation he feels makes the human beings pressing into the entrances to the Métro look sadder and greyer than usual. He notices how much thinner they are already. The well-fed crowds of 1939 have given way to men and women whose clothes flap around them. Poor diet makes them more sensitive to the cold. Jean usually walks back, varying his route. It’s his only way of maintaining his physical fitness, under threat from the sedentary existence he leads. He longs to have his bicycle with him but it is out in the country, in Normandy, assuming no one stole it during the exodus. He decides to write to Antoinette.
Jesús is already up. Winter and summer, he rises at five, lights his stove with wood from a friendly joiner in Rue de l’Abreuvoir, boils the water for his coffee or something with the colour of coffee if not the taste.
‘I wouldn’ min’ meetin’ this girl!’ he says.
‘She isn’t a girl!’
‘So she’s what?’
‘A … woman … Thanks very much … So you can suggest she poses naked for you straight away, I suppose.’
They laugh at this. Before going to his easel Jesús does ten minutes of weight training in his underwear. In the mornings he works for himself, but no collages now, no borrowed technique. He had plenty of excuses; anyone coming from Jaén has a good excuse. Everything’s fascinating and new when you haven’t seen anything yet, but two or three visits to museums quickly reveal Surrealism showing its age, and now Jesús has decided not to listen to or admire anyone but himself. The result is landscapes. And for him these mean a return to Andalusia every time: scorched earth, melancholy vegetation, an oily sea, skies crushed by light. As he remembers the landscapes of his childhood, he feels such thirst for austerity and absolutism that he simplifies his colours to their extreme. From a short way away the spectator could be looking at abstract canvases and must examine them close up to grasp the pictures’ tormented life.
‘You understand, my friend. I am ’appy, ’appy … I do wha’ I wan’. And I tell you, fuck La Garenne … Fuck ’im, fuck ’im …’
In truth, Jesús is a long way from being able to send La Garenne packing, and at ten o’clock when his model arrives he bundles his canvas into a wardrobe and whips out a sketchbook. Jean leaves for the gallery. Blanche has the keys and is already there as he arrives. Through the window the sight of her scrawny figure fills him with pity, even though, despite the endless stream of insults and obscene remarks La Garenne subjects her to, she has somehow always managed to cling to something like dignity. She has a distinguished voice, which verges on affectedness in her pronunciation of certain words, as though she intended to remind whoever might get the wrong impression from her physical appearance that she remains a Rocroy. She has only just turned forty, yet it is impossible to guess how old she is. Bad luck ages people: they go grey, bags appear under their eyes, their shoulders droop, their legs become so thin they look like broomsticks. HandlingJesús’s series of drawings for La Garenne’s specialist clientele, she smiles unembarrassedly, observing how ‘saucy’ they are, which is the very least that might be said of them.
In front of the building in Rue Lepic a German car was parked. Sitting on the bonnet, a blond soldier with soft features and cap at a rakish angle lit a cigarette and smiled at a girl who hurried on her way. Jean went up. Madeleine was sitting in the studio’s only armchair. Her elegance jarred with its tattered upholstery and missing foot, replaced by three books. She looked like Lady Bountiful, come to console a poor artist. Behind her back Jesús made a frustrated gesture of apology for Jean’s benefit. Since coming to Paris Jean had avoided Madeleine, who had called at Rue Lepic several times to try and find him. He hardly recognised her. She had taken full advantage of Palfy’s lessons and now knew how to sit in an armchair and smoke a cigarette with poise. There was no longer any trace of what had once been so garish about her: the handbag that was too big, the over-thick make-up, the jarringly jaded tone. She kissed Jean and he noticed she was wearing good perfume. There was an air about her, an attitude that suggested a deeper transformation. Perhaps it was the result of security, of a feeling that she had a strong, powerful man to rely on, who asked her only to be the woman she wanted to be. In a few sentences of conversation it became clear that, after years of unhappiness in a milieu in which she had felt fear more than any other emotion, she was suddenly blossoming at an age when Blanche de Rocroy was withering. She must have kept up her elocution lessons: her diction was smoother and her level voice had lost its vulgar cadences. Jean had been fond of her for her naturalness and generosity. The naturalness had gone but her generosity remained, and now with evident resources at her disposal she had not forgotten her friends.
‘I was beginning to think you were avoiding me,’ she said.
He lied, assuring her she was wrong. She wanted news of Palfy. He briefly told her the story of their war, not omitting their encounter in the village square with Obersturmführer Karl Schmidt.
‘Ah, the SS!’ she said knowingly. ‘That doesn’t surprise me. Julius hates them …’
‘Who is Julius?’
‘Oh, you’ll meet him. You’ll like him instantly. He’s a big manufacturer from Dortmund. The Kommandantur has put him in charge of getting the French textile industry going again.’
‘We could do with that,’ Jean said, having managed with great difficulty to buy himself a suit.
‘Don’t be silly. If there’s anything you need, all you have to do is tell me. In any case tonight you must come for dinner – we’re going to Maxim’s.’
‘Dressed like this? They’ll turn me away at the door.’
‘With Julius? You must be joking. But if you feel uncomfortable, we can go to a bistro at Les Halles.’
‘Listen, Madeleine, I’m going to say no, for a simple reason that Jesús is already aware of. Very simple and stupid: there’s a woman in my life—’
‘Well then, bring her, you goose!’
‘She can’t go out. She has a little boy and there’s no one to look after him in the evening.’
‘You are disappointing. Isn’t he, Jesús?’
Jesús raised his arms to the sky.
‘’E’s in love, Mad’leine, ’e’s in love!’
‘What about you? You could do with getting a move on in that direction.’
‘Never! I love the art. Is the only zing!’
This made Madeleine laugh. She wrote her address and telephone number on a piece of paper.
‘Whenever you feel like seeing me, ring me. And now give me Palfy’s address. I’m going to get him anAusweis.’
‘AnAusweis, my little bunny … A travel permit. Do try to keep up a bit. Come down off your cloud. You’re still a good-looking boy. I’m very fond of you, you know.’
Jean wrote down the Michettes’ name, but suddenly could not remember either the name of the street, or the number.
‘It’s at the Sirène, Clermont-Ferrand.’
‘The Sirène? A hotel?’
‘No. A bordello.’
‘Are you saying that he lives in a bordello?’
‘Thepatronneis a fascinating woman.’
Madeleine looked baffled. She found it difficult to imagine ‘Baron’ Palfy in love with thepatronneof a bordello. It was undeniable that in the new world born from defeat, old values had been turned upside down. She, for now, was at the top of the ladder. She supposed that since places were limited, it was natural that some were obliged to take a step or two down.
Jean and Jesús stood at the window, watching Madeleine leave. The soldier opened the car door for her and, standing behind her, made an obscene gesture in the direction of her backside before she turned to sit down.
‘Respect is dead,’ Jean said.
‘You can say that again! And there are even some pricks who says no to dinner at Maxim’s.’
‘With Julius? You must be joking. I know exactly what that would be like.’
‘Madeleine ez an angel.’
‘Steady on. Let’s say she’s all right.’
Thoughtfully Jean watched the car turn round and drive down towards Clichy. He thought how far Madeleine had come. Two years earlier she had been living in that same building and hanging out on the stairs in her dressing gown, with tired skin and breath soured by alcohol. She had led a wretched life until she met Palfy, who hadoffered her a lifeline before the ship went down. What would have become of her if she hadn’t met him? A new woman had been born out of those chance events. She still had much to learn, of course, and even if her destiny looked rosy she still ran the risk of committing some serious faux pas that would not escape a trained ear. What more reliable audience could she have chosen for her performance than an industrialist from Dortmund? Madeleine’s reappearance and her ascent in society, despite Jean’s efforts to ignore her, were a sign. At the age of twenty-one it is no easy matter to leave the past behind.
He wrote to Antoinette. She answered him in a long letter which we shall quote in full.
Jean darling, what a relief to have your letter. We have all been thinking of you. I ran up- and downstairs, shouting everywhere, ‘Jean’s alive, Jean’s in Paris!’ The only person to greet the news with no emotion was your father – well, I mean Albert, because I don’t know how you think of him any more in your heart. The fact that he isn’t your father isn’t really important in the end, is it? Our parents are the ones who bring us up. To tell you how he is, first of all: still working with the same fortitude and self-sacrifice, despite the arthritis in his hip that hurts him dreadfully. The abbé Le Couec says simply that he’s a saint. A cranky saint because we made him plant cabbages, potatoes and carrots in his borders. Yes, it’s not very pretty, but we have to make do as we can and we suddenly have a lot of new ‘friends’ who happen to drop in on Sundays, always around lunchtime, from Dieppe and Rouen. Maman bought some hens and rabbits and Michel came down from Olympus for long enough to build us a henhouse and some hutches out of wood and chicken wire. Oh yes – Michel’s back. He came back at the end of June, dressed as a farmhand … You know what he’s like: he took one look at our expressions and insisted that he was a gardener, not a farmhand, and quoted St John’s Gospel: ‘And theydid not know he was Jesus … thinking he was a gardener.’ We’re no less complicated than before, as you can see. We had some difficulty getting him proper papers. The gendarmes at Grangeville claimed he needed to get himself demobilised at the Kommandantur. In other words, our poor darling looked very much as if he might end up in a stalag. Finally Maman’s brother, Uncle René, who’s something important in Paris in some new political movement, got involved. Now Michel has papers and even a permit to go to Paris when he needs to. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t drop in on you one day soon. He was very interested in your work in the gallery and would like to know if you only sell well-known painters.
Maman is the same as ever. So active she exhausts us all. She cycles down to Dieppe in the afternoon to volunteer as an auxiliary for the Secours National:9blankets, powdered milk and medicines for those in need. She’s in her element and her only complaint is that there aren’t enough who need her services.
The abbé Le Couec suffered terrible depression after the defeat. We were worried he would have a complete breakdown, right up until two mysterious friends of his came to visit him. I met them one day and they told me a quite fantastic story, that you would have been shot by the Germans if they hadn’t intervened. You can imagine my panic! The abbé assured me that the Blessed Virgin was protecting you, and perhaps there’s some truth in what he said because no one could possibly believe that it was chance that put the abbé’s two friends in exactly the same place as you at exactly the moment when the Germans were about to shoot you.
The Marquis de Malemort was taken prisoner and is in an oflag somewhere in Silesia. After two terribly worrying months, his family finally got a letter. They’re sending him weekly parcels. He dreams of saucisson, cider and turkey, apparently. It’s all he can think about. Do you want to hear about Chantalor not? If you don’t, cut off this part of my letter and throw it away now.
Chantal has taken over from her father. She found a couple of Percherons from somewhere to replace the tractor and she drives the plough now as if she’s been doing it all her life. You’d never have suspected the energy that lurks inside that frail-looking creature. Living the way she does, in the open air, has given her a … Norman complexion, to put it politely. No more beautifully manicured hands, no more life’s little luxuries. She’s out in her overalls all day long. Gontran Longuet went to see her in a car he’d had fitted with a wood-gas generator. She set the dogs on him. Oh yes, apropos the Longuets: they came back in July. They’ve two German officers living with them, ‘visiting’ the region, taking photos and writing things down. Apparently one of them was asked, ‘Are you here to stop the British from landing?’ and he burst out laughing rather rudely and said, ‘It’s more the other way round.’
End of paragraph about Chantal and the Longuets. I’ve still got lots of news to tell you, but if I write too much you won’t read my letter. Let me know if there’s any way of getting word to my father. He’s never mentioned here. I’m the only one who misses him. Terribly. Don’t laugh. Your affectionate aunt,
His affectionate aunt? Yes, it was true, even though they were so close in age, she twenty-four and he twenty-one, a difference of no significance now, but one that had been so great in his childhood that he had repeatedly been tripped up by it. Had it really been his ‘affectionate aunt’ who had celebrated her nephew’s thirteenth birthday by taking him down a gully to the bottom of the cliffs at Grangeville to show him her bottom, two delicious globes that dimpled where they met the small of her back? Had it been his affectionate aunt who had led him into the hay barn for altogether more serious games? To a bare mattressin the new house her mother was having built? And to a night of melancholy goodbyes in a hotel at Dieppe before he left for England? When he had found out he was Geneviève’s son, it had opened up a gulf between Antoinette and him. But perhaps it was better that way. It was to her he owed his transition to manhood, still more because of her that he had felt jealousy for the first time and suffered his first and greatest disillusionment, although these negative experiences had in the long run been of little use to him, nature in her generosity having endowed him with the ability to forget and to hope. So that the part of her letter that talked of Chantal de Malemort, though it still made his heart ache, no longer deeply affected him. Claude had wiped out all his bad memories. Thanks to her, the world was now a spectacle he could observe with a detached, almost untroubled gaze, a vantage point that let him take things as they were, without disapproval or indignation.
Which was useful, for he needed a healthy dose of indifference to deal with Louis-Edmond de La Garenne’s salacious mischief-making. We have not much discussed this character, except to describe his physical appearance, unflatteringly some will think. It is, admittedly, not kind to point the finger at a man in a wig who imagines he’s the cat’s whiskers, nor to make fun of excessively wide trousers or pointedly hold your nose when a person with bad breath speaks to you. Nature is cruel enough without us adding caricature to the blemishes with which she already makes so free. And since two wrongs don’t make a right, it ill becomes us to invoke Louis-Edmond’s lack of scruples and then display the same fault when speaking of him. But how are we supposed to stifle our laughter when we’re faced with his schemes, and our brickbats when they fail, and how can we feel pity for a wretch so bent on humiliating Blanche de Rocroy? Jean was dismayed and moved by Blanche. She would for ever be downtrodden and ridiculed, or treated with sadistic delight as a pariah by her employer. If he were to sack her, she would starve; at least that was what he let her think. But Jesús – who also felt sorry for her – reassured Jean. He was convinced she liked to be whipped, and that if Louis-Edmond abandoned her shewould simply go looking for another tyrant capable of humiliating her to the point of complete degradation.
However, an unexpected meeting that took place in October 1940 was to alter Louis-Edmond’s attitude.
Shivering in a Spanish shawl her grandmother had brought back with her from a pilgrimage to Compostela in 1865, Blanche watched gloomily through the gallery window as the procession of uniformed tourists wended their way around Place du Tertre. These young Teutons did not feel the nip of autumn, with their pink cheeks and blue eyes, their polished boots and black leather belts with buckles stampedGott mit uns. They lingered in front of the open-air exhibitions, buying their miniature Eiffel Towers and Sacré-Cœurs and postcards of Le Lapin Agile, admiringly contemplating the painters seated on their stools, bearded, their berets tilted down over one ear, pulling on their black pipes and begging tobacco from their audience ofnouveaux riches, those soldiers who should have been taken captive with a pot of French jam or a quarter-kilo of butter but who now represented prosperity, strength, the new order.
It was just after lunchtime. Business was slack. Jean was cataloguing his drawings in hell. Louis-Edmond was shut in his office, supposedly working, but in reality asleep with his feet on his desk, trousers and waistcoat unbuttoned, revealing a triangle of rumpled, dirty shirt and a waistband of grey cotton underpants. Blanche stood up as a German officer came into the gallery. She had learnt to recognise the ranks: this one was a colonel. He nodded to her, put his cap under his arm and glanced around at the canvases hanging from the picture rail, a smile of distaste curling his lips. Blanche was about to summon Jean when the officer asked in almost unaccented French, ‘You haven’t anything of interest apart from these horrors, have you? I’m looking for a Utrillo.’
The rule laid down by La Garenne was to make it clear that the gallery possessed many valuable reserves, far from the public’s vulgar gaze.
‘I’m sure we have. I’ll have to ask Monsieur de La Garenne. He’s an unusual proprietor and a very bad dealer. When he finds a picture he likes, he refuses to sell it. He’d like to keep everything for himself. But he can be persuaded … if you’re a genuine lover of art.’
The German smiled.
‘In that case I’ll leave you my name. You can call me in the mornings at the Hôtel Continental.’
Removing his black leather glove, he wrote in the visitors’ book ‘Rudolf von Rocroy’.
‘Von Rocroy!’ Blanche exclaimed, her heart beating fast. ‘My name’s Rocroy too, Blanche de Rocroy. I was always hearing my father talking about the German branch of our family …’
‘Yes, we do come from France originally; we emigrated to Germany after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. My father used to keep in touch with a cousin of his: Adhémar de Rocroy—’
‘That was my father.’
‘So we’re cousins too.’
Blanche clasped her hands together. Fortune was smiling on her at last, in the shape of this cousin with clean-cut features, piercing blue eyes and manners she had straightaway identified as perfect. The last of the French Rocroys, the pitiful straggler of a once great line, had rediscovered her pride in the family name. All was not lost. The younger branch had kept the flame firmly alight, and its representative was both a dashing officer and a victor.
‘Do you have children? I do hope so!’ she innocently exclaimed.
‘Four. Two little Rocroy boys to be on the safe side, and two girls.’
Praise be! The Rocroy line was indeed assured.
‘In that case, come and see me tomorrow at the Continental instead. We’ll lunch together and you can tell me what interesting things youhave in your secret reserves … I’ve already forgotten your owner’s name.’
‘Louis-Edmond de La Garenne. He doesn’t awfully look like it, but he’s descended from a crusader.’
Rudolf von Rocroy raised an eyebrow in silent approval. He kissed his cousin, as cousins do in well-born families, and the following day over lunch he even addressed her astuand Blanche, who had only addressed three people astuin her entire life, was clearly required to respond in kind. She had brought von Rocroy good news: La Garenne owned a number of paintings of the sort that interested him – Utrillos, Derains, Braques and Picassos – although it would take a little time to have them brought to Paris from the country where they had been stored since the outbreak of war.
‘We are very interested,’ he said, so archly discreet that his interest was glaringly obvious. Even Blanche felt that his royal ‘we’ was a bit too much, and it took her until lunch was over to realise that her cousin was in fact acting on behalf of a German organisation that wished to add to the collections of contemporary painters in a number of German museums. The new Germany, he told her, needed French art just as the new France needed German order. The two countries were bound in a common hope, the birth of a united Europe, which in future would be the only conceivable way to bring peace to the world.
By now Blanche was no longer listening. She was thinking of La Garenne, who, after what she had told him about Rudolf von Rocroy, had scented a big client and big business. But who would ever have imagined that that diabolical man possessed such unexpected treasures? That he had modern masters hidden away that he had never mentioned before? In her blindness Blanche decided it must be because of his genius for discovery, and she rejoiced to think that he would now have a chance to sell at inevitably astronomical prices canvases he had shrewdly bought for peanuts when their artists were unknown names. She made her way back to the gallery, her cheeksflushed after an over-rich lunch that had finished with champagne. La Garenne was waiting impatiently.
‘Well?’ he asked. ‘Is he serious, your Roc-of-my-arse-roy?’
‘Did you pin him down?’
‘I did not pin him down. He is a Rocroy and his motto is the same as ours: “My word and my God”.’
‘What blasted use is your motto to me? “My word!” Only one? Like the poor! And “my God”! When the ancients had thirty-six …’
‘Your ancestor would not be at all pleased to hear you talk like that, Louis-Edmond!’
‘Well, that twit … instead of copping a dose of the clap in Jerusalem he’d have done a lot better for himself, and made a lot more money, if he’d stayed at court. Then I wouldn’t be here selling filth to perverts and ruining myself dragging artists out of the gutter and having them repay me with their contempt and ingratitude. When does your Rudolf want his paintings?’
‘As soon as you’ve brought them to Paris.’
Louis-Edmond beat the air with his arms, like a wounded duck.
‘Oh I see! I’m at his beck and call, am I? Art on a plate for the Fritzes! They open their mouths, they require, they decide. Monsieur the colonel would like his Utrillo with his breakfast. Thinks we’re at his feet, does he! Well, he can forget it! He can wait, like everyone else. Join the queue, Messieurs Boches …’
‘In that case, perhaps he’ll go somewhere else!’ Blanche said, more mischievously than she would have believed herself capable of.
‘Oh, no! No! No, he’ll be robbed blind if he does. Explain that to him. It’s your job from now on. Go out with him, show him round, talk to him about your family, and make him wait, patiently. He’ll get his blasted pictures.’
Jean observed this scene without saying a word. He knew where La Garenne would find his Utrillos and Picassos. It would depend on Jesús’s skill and whether he was in a good mood, but Blanche was not to know that. With a gesture that he considered dashing, La Garenne swept up his battered broad-brimmed felt hat with its grubby ribbon and clamped it on his head, apparently heedless of his wig, though in reality he knew it was in no danger, thanks to a new gum. In his black cape he resembled an elderly portrait photographer, despite lacking any of the courtesy of such a person and gesticulating madly with his arms as if, like some horrible plucked bird, he was trying to take off over Montmartre and dive down onto the city below to peck out its heart with his beak. From the direction in which he strode off, Jean guessed that he was on his way to Jesús, and was sorry he could not be a fly on the wall.
Blanche, left behind, radiated happiness that afternoon: to have, all in the last twenty-four hours, discovered a noble cousin and possibly secured a fortune for her persecutor supplied her with all the reason she needed for existing.
That evening Jesús recounted the arrival of the grotesque but skilful La Garenne, who had come as a supplicant and left with the promise that in a week’s time the Spaniard would deliver a fake Utrillo and two fake Picassos.
‘You understand,’ he said, ‘’e’s more ’ard to make an Utrillo. I ’ave to forget I knows ’ow to pain’. Picasso, ’e knows but ’e doesn’ want, so you make a Picasso the same way you smok’ the cigarette or you fuck the girl. But an Utrillo, an Utrillo …’
To help him make up his mind, La Garenne had also left with one of his canvases under his arm.
‘We goin’ to be rich, my young friend. Rich. And then one day we say fuck to them all, to that crook La Garenne, to the dealers, to thepainting. Fuck, you ’ear me, the biggest fuck in the ’istory of the art.’
Jean lamented the disappearance of the canvas La Garenne had taken, a red-brown bull in the Andalusian light, a sublime bull in sublime light, a vision that on the mornings when he woke up in the studio was waiting at the foot of his bed, splendid and overlooked, a door open onto a landscape that gradually, as Jesús talked it into life in his stories, he wanted to get to know. What would La Garenne do with it? The bull was destined for his toilet wall. Jean said nothing. Yet again he had the uncomfortable feeling of being, if not implicated in something crooked, then at least a witness to it in a way that pained him. Was he not making himself an accessory by staying silent? He had to put it out of his mind.
Going to Claude’s that evening, to the taste of her cool cheek and to her mysteriously indulgent smile, put an end to his remorse. He continued to long to take her in his arms and bury his face in her neck so that he didn’t have to think of anything but the smell of her hair and the tang of her skin that drove him mad with hunger. So why did it have to be on this evening that he noticed two half-smoked Virginia cigarettes, stubbed out carelessly or nervously, in an ashtray? Claude did not smoke. Jean was so preoccupied by what he saw that, since he did not dare say anything, dinner passed very glumly, despite Claude’s efforts and Cyrille’s questions.
‘What do you do to earn money? Why don’t you live with us all the time? I’ll tell Papa when he comes home that you’re my best friend.’
The absent husband was suddenly between them. When Cyrille was in bed Jean finally turned to Claude.
‘For the first time since we’ve been together, I’m not happy.’
‘I can tell … Have I said or done something to upset you?’
‘You couldn’t if you tried.’
‘Then it must be because of Cyrille. But I can’t stop him talking about his father. The longer the war goes on, the more he’ll forget him. It’s a horrible situation but it’s not my fault.’
‘I’m jealous!’ he burst out.
She smiled, reassured and reassuring.
‘Well, that’s something new, and on the whole rather nice to hear. I was a bit afraid you might not be. Although I know someone else who has much more reason to be jealous of you. But why talk about it?’
He knew she was thinking of Georges Chaminadze, whereas he was simply suffering from not knowing who had smoked two cigarettes in her apartment that afternoon. Curiously he had to acknowledge that the idea of a husband aroused no animosity in him. There were few signs of Chaminadze’s former presence at Quai Saint-Michel, as if time had already erased this man of whom only a snapshot remained, a photograph of a tall, blond man with a rugged face and short hair in tennis whites. The picture could not come to life; it fixed its subject for ever as someone who would never grow old, a tennis player who had not even met Claude when it was taken, who spoke Russian and French, who, born at Makhachkala on the shore of the Caspian Sea in 1910, had fled to France in 1919 in the great Russian emigration. That was all Jean knew; he had no idea how Georges and Claude had first met, where they had got married and Cyrille had been born, what Georges did. They had apparently lived without material hardship, but not in any luxury either, and Claude knew how to do everything for herself. Jean had found her several times with a pattern on the table, a dress she was cutting out and sewing from pieces of cloth she had kept from before the war, a precaution that had appeared full of foresight since rationing had been introduced. She made Cyrille’s clothes too. When she cooked she had that discreet, subtle way of making ingredients go a long way that has to be admired for its dignity. Jean remembered his adoptive mother’s exhausting attitude to thrift: matches split in two, one lamp for the whole house every evening, the leftovers from Sunday lunch served up cold two or three times on Monday and Tuesday, socks darned to death, bed sheets sewed edge to middle (how that seam in the middle of his bed had rubbed him!), and yet they could have lived better, but Jeanne went without from a feeling that she ought to, saving up her sous at thesavings bank the way people did when a lifetime’s thrift guaranteed one’s old age. She had not understood or even noticed how money had collapsed, and had been distressed by what she had called the ‘folly’ of her little Jean when he had bought himself a bicycle with the prince’s first postal order. Albert, with the soul of a contrarian, though at heart he lived by the same strict principles of ‘a sou is a sou’, let Jean spend his money, recognising perhaps unconsciously that the younger generation no longer relied on the same values to ensure their future. In the era ushered in by their defeat in June 1940 the French were about to rediscover Jeanne’s virtues, the stubs of candles, the meanness of locked cupboards. Claude had adapted without complaint to privations that her grace dispelled. She was a strange person; her character appeared too simple and too decent for one to dare believe that she was real. Yet there were those two cigarettes in the ashtray, which, by the way, she made no attempt to hide as she emptied it after dinner.
With the butts out of sight Jean felt calmer. They belonged to a bad dream, whose scenes Claude had swept away in a single gesture. Her power was very great.
‘It’s over!’ Jean said. ‘You’re with me again.’
‘Was I not with you?’
‘No. I’m an idiot, aren’t I?’
She was silent for a moment, absorbed in thought that she tried, as she always did, to articulate with a precision and clarity that gave her more serious conversations a faintly bookish tone.
‘Do you somehow imagine,’ she said at last, ‘that this situation is only hard for you?’
It was true that he had never thought about it from her point of view. In fact the truth seemed to him so glaring and his egotism so awful that he felt ashamed and threw himself at her feet, burying his face in her lap. And could she have made a sweeter indirect confession? He looked up at her. Her eyes were wet with tears, and she smiled with the same indulgence she showed when Cyrille had done something silly.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I truly don’t know what we should do. Perhaps we shouldn’t see each other any more.’
There was so little conviction in her voice that Jean regained his courage and the sense of humour that had saved them from awkward situations before.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s definitely the solution. It’s such a clever idea, only you could have come up with it. I suggest we put it off a bit – only because to start this evening would be too easy – and definitely start in ten years’ time, when we’re completely used to each other and the separation would be really heart-rending … yes, heart-rending … and so romantic it would make a gravedigger weep.’
She offered him her cheek, laughing.
‘Go and sleep!’
In the stairwell, happy again, he ventured to ask the question.
‘Who came to see you this afternoon?’
‘My brother!’ she said. ‘How do you know?’
‘He smokes, doesn’t he?’
‘Ah, that’s what it was about, was it? Well, you’ll meet him one day.’
He jogged as far as Place Clichy before slowing down. His fitness was returning. Jesús had lent him his weights. They had a punchball and took turns at it, ten minutes each, wearing wool vests. Jesús insisted that it allowed him to do without women. There were, of course – at least for others if not for them – a variety of ways of solving that particular problem. La Garenne, seeing the fame of his gallery spread far and wide as whole coachloads of uniformed tourists began arriving to visit, intended to satisfy every taste, but despite his best efforts had not been able to find a painter who knew his way around homosexual subjects. A hissed word from a diminutive, baby-faced major with a glass eye had put him on the right track. ‘Photos!’ Whyhad he not thought of that? He instantly set about adding the new line to his gallery.
‘Photography is an art!’ he explained to Jean. ‘A new art. The only new art invented since Phidias’s time. Yes indeed, Monsieur Arnaud, Nicéphore Niepce is as great an artist as Phidias, the divine Leonardo and the genius Picasso. The philistines think you just have to press a button, click!, and there’s a photo of Grandpa and Grandma and little Zizi with his hoop. The morons! When I say “morons” I’m being polite. As much composition goes into a photograph, Monsieur Arnaud, as into a still life by Chardin, and light plays as important a role in a photograph as it does in a Rembrandt. There is no phrase more absurd than the term “objective lens” when applied to the eye of a camera. Nothing is less objective than an objective lens. That transparent glass, which one imagines to be inert, is both a third eye and a brain but that eye, that brain must have a spiritual motor, which is the genius of the photographer, his vision of the world, his culture, his sensibility, his responsiveness. Painting is perhaps an expression of the human; photography is an expression of life …’
Jean assumed that this speech was a prelude to some new mischief-making by La Garenne, who always felt the need to dignify his muckiest transactions with the name of art. Thus his erotic drawings became, as he saw it, a means of psychological liberation for sexual misfits. He was even armed with a fine quote on that very subject by Freud that made of him, the purveyor, a benefactor of humanity, a saviour of inhibited couples and a generous supplier to lonely masturbators. His glibness, which never lacked conviction, was in every respect a match for his greed. The only question that remained was how he would spend the piles of money he had been amassing since the beginning of the occupation. There was no danger of it being wasted on women. Blanche de Rocroy was enough for that very restrained libertine, toostingy even to treat himself to a tart. He was not a betting man and he spent nothing at his tailor’s, being always dressed in the same black suit of the tenth-rate painter who has called himself a bohemian for far too long, on top of grubby shirts that he wore until they fell apart with, for a necktie, a greasy black ribbon that might once, in its long-distant youth, have been an ascot. In the mornings he would appear in his shiny, crumpled, dust-flecked suit as if he had slept under a bridge the night before. In his office, on the door of which he had inscribed in large capital letters the only play on words he had ever deserved credit for – ‘The bosom of bosoms’ – he would remove his trousers and throw them at Blanche, who piously set to ironing them in the stockroom, as if this garment, rigid with unnameable grime, represented some sort of thaumaturgical vessel for the Holy Grail, while her master (what other word can we use?), in his long grey-coloured cotton drawers, scratched his crotch and explained his grand designs to Jean. No one knew where he called home. Did he even have one? It was doubtful.
Photographs, then, began to be added to the stock of drawings in hell. Mostly they depicted young boys with erections. Their creator, an antifascist refugee called Alberto Senzacatso, lived in an artist’s studio on the top floor of a respectable building in Rue Caulaincourt. His models were occasionally to be encountered on the stairs, mostly the sons of the other residents, cheeky boys with roving eyes. Truth compels us to add that Alberto was not the sort of man to inspire repugnance, and might have resembled a fruit and vegetable wholesaler more than a maker of pornographic photographs if it had not been for the way his face lit up in a faintly mad way whenever he talked about his models. As a boy he had been force-fed with castor oil by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and from the severe diarrhoea that had followed he had been left with an anal obsession that verged on mania. His models, all volunteers, emerged tight-lipped from their posing sessions and returned to their families on the floors below. Alberto’s customers sometimes bumped into them on the landingsand recognised the models who were the subjects of the very special photographs they had just purchased.
Their excitement can be imagined. The Italian lived alone in a studio stuffed with books and paintings. Open-minded and curious, he was writing a history of Mannerism which, after years of contemplation, he was hoping to reduce to three volumes of five hundred pages each. He counted a number of writers among his regular customers, whom he referred to only by their Christian names – Monsieur André, Monsieur Roger, Monsieur Julien – recognisable even to the uninitiated from the odd detail slyly slipped in by the garrulous photographer about their propensities. Two or three times he had been within a hair’s breadth of getting arrested, and Jean would find out later that he had succeeded in avoiding arrest by passing on details about his buyers. The police turned a blind eye and added to their files. Alberto showed no remorse. That was life, and staying in Paris was worth the occasional piece of information that in most cases was never used, the parties in question being protected by their standing and their periodic contributions to theRevue Littéraire de la Préfecture de Police,10or in some cases their status as patrons of a non-profit-making organisation known as the Amicale des Gardiens de la Paix.11
Alberto was a good judge of character and understood straight away how disgusting Jean found his business. Handing over an envelope containing around twenty photographs in exchange for a sum of money, he would move quickly on to another subject, for preference one of his choosing, which at that time meant Il Bronzino, whom he referred to familiarly as Agnolo and with whose painting he had a relationship that can only be described as love. He even claimed to have unearthed a very late sketch for the portrait of Jean, the son of Eleanor of Toledo, at the flea market. This modest canvas sat on an easel, mostly concealed under a piece of velvet. He uncovered the picture to talk about Bronzino, as though he was inspired by the inquisitive gaze of the child with the round face, and the plump hand laid upon the brocade dress of the beautiful Eleanor. Listening to him,Jean realised that, underneath his crude, kinky exterior, innocence and passion remained, that it was unfair not to give him some credit for such feelings, and that clearly life demanded, if only out of a sense of justice, as much indulgence as Manichaeism. But what about La Garenne? A full-blown shit, without the slightest outward sign of anything that might be considered a redeeming feature. And yet there was one.
Sometimes in the afternoons, stifled and sickened by the gallery’s atmosphere, Jean slammed the door behind him and escaped to stroll the streets of Montmartre village, to breathe fresh air and banish the accumulated fetid vapours of hell. What he found most unendurable was not being able to see how he could get away from a society so fearfully turned in on itself. In Paris he knew only Jesús and Claude. And Madeleine, in her new life of affluence and suspect relations. The situations vacant in the newspapers were starting to offer work in Germany, but the world at war required specialists, die- and toolmakers … And to take the first job that came along, for the sake of being dramatic, would mean parting from Claude, which he could not bear. What would a single day without her be like? He would die of loneliness and fear of losing her, convinced that her charm and naivety would render her easy and innocent prey, forgetting in his blindness how much that lovely and tempting being had preserved of her own defences. But what she gave to him – however small it was – would she not give it to others? Did she really have a brother? One doubt led to another in a process that would be irreversible if he did not retrace his steps back to the start, to his trust in her candid and natural features. When, too unhappy to bear such thoughts alone, he opened his heart to Jesús, the Spaniard consoled him in his own way.
‘It’s true that the women are easily turnin’ into the ’ores!’ he said. ‘It’s subleemly true, and it’s a stupidity to make a man weep. En we, wha’ are we, the men? The sons of the ’ores, for sure!Claro!The women are in ou’ imáge! You, you is a good imáge. The wimmen in you’ life, they will be like you …’
‘What about Chantal?’
‘That one, se sowed ’erself to be a ’ore without knowin’ it. Don’ speak to me of ’er …’
Jean could not quite believe that Chantal had been a whore. The idea wounded his self-esteem, despite everything being over between them. No, she had lost her head, like a little country girl, and now she was making amends the fashionable way, going back to the land, and when all was said and done that was a laudable way to atone for a moment of madness with a gigolo in a red Delahaye convertible. He must not think about her. Not ever, despite all the memories lurking in the lanes of Montmartre that he kept stumbling across, surprised to find they were still so vivid.
When he returned from his brief forays away from the miasmas of the gallery, he would be greeted by La Garenne looking furious, but the gallery owner had kept his fury bottled up ever since he had been reminded that it was upon his salesman’s welfare that Jesús’s continued goodwill depended. It was Jean, too, who took care to deliver the fake Picassos and Utrillo from Jesús’s studio himself. Rudolf von Rocroy admired them and requested a few days to think about the purchase. When he returned to the gallery he was accompanied by a tall, severe-looking and haughty person. Jean learnt that this was Émile Dugard, an art critic who was highly regarded, whose services the German had enlisted. Dugard, showing no enthusiasm, examined minutely the signature and the composition of the sky over Rue Norvins and declared that the painting was a Utrillo from his early period, when he was still living under his mother’s influence. Subsequently, as he explained to Rocroy, who was listening attentively, Utrillo had weaned himself off alcohol but in the process had lost part of his genius and begun peopling his canvases with the famous little couple who walked hand in hand through the pale streets of Montmartre. As for the Picassos, there was absolutely no doubt about them either; they belonged to the so-called Synthetic Cubism era, almost monochrome, with different shades of brown playing off against each other. Rocroy left with the paintings. The following day Dugard presented himself at the gallery to collect his commission. Raised voices were heard coming from La Garenne’s office, and Dugard pretended to flounce out. If he had not achieved everything he had demanded this time, at least he had succeeded in agreeing the terms of his future services.
Louis-Edmond felt the critic was robbing him blind and bared his soul to Jean with unfeigned indignation, forgetting that his listener knew better than anyone where the paintings had really come from.
‘Ponces and crooks, art critics, the lot of them! Sons of Barabbas, selling themselves to both sides, taking from every honest party. That Dugard is the worst, with his high and mighty airs. And tell me, young man, tell me if there’s a single man on earth who has the right to criticise Art? Eh? “Art critic” – it’s so pretentious you could die laughing. All ponces, I tell you. In my day … How old are you, actually?’
‘I’m two and a half times your age … I was around when this buggers’ century started … I tell you, they were full of it. It was going to be the triumph of civilisation, humankind delivered out of servitude by machines. And the sum total: two wars … Yes, in my day, Monsieur Arnaud, artists and their public had no need of bribed intermediaries – yes, you heard me, bribed – to reach each other. The spark jumped between themon its own. There were still patrons, truly inspired art lovers then. Now it’s all speculation, percentages – do you hear what I’m saying? Beggars with their hand out! A real racket, as the Americans say.’
He waved his arms like a scarecrow to chase away the predators who wanted to wheel and deal in Art with a capital A. Blanche listened to him starry-eyed. She did love her Louis-Edmond! Especially when he let fly with a good rant, belabouring the middlemen, chasing the moneychangers from the Temple. His honesty would condemn him to poverty for life. But the defence of Art was a long ascent to Calvary, and at its summit one could not even be certain of seeing one’s effortsrecognised. She would climb the path of that Calvary with him, bent beneath the world’s opprobrium, stooping to gather up crumbs of genius and the bitter tears of ingratitude.
Jean shrugged his shoulders. What was the point of reminding La Garenne of the truth? Especially as a customer had just arrived, a tall, thin young man whose deep, dark gaze settled on those present with a gentleness that was too earnest to be genuine. Michel du Courseau was honouring Paris with a visit. Blanche thought he looked distinguished, but Louis-Edmond, scenting an artist in the gallery, prudently vanished into the ‘bosom of bosoms’. Michel favoured Jean with a rather formal hug and these words, which seemed to encapsulate an affection of long standing: ‘Dear old Jean!’
‘Steady on, people are going to expect us to start weeping in each other’s arms.’
‘I’ve found you again!’
‘And it’s not over yet.’
‘You’re still my little brother, you know.’
‘Your nephew, you mean.’
‘Ah yes, of course, you know the truth now: Antoinette told you everything.’
‘Antoinette has never kept anything from me.’
He almost added, ‘not even her bottom’, but managed to stop himself, reining in his feelings of aggression in Michel’s presence; his uncle was, after all, his mother’s brother and Antoinette’s.
‘I don’t know that she should have!’ Michel said. ‘I hope you don’t find it painful being Geneviève’s son.’
‘Not a bit. I think she’s wonderful. Oedipus’s dream woman. Every chap would love a mother like her: her beauty, her charm, the pathos of a life threatened by tuberculosis. In short, an awfully modern story, a slightly muddled version ofThe Lady of the Camellias and The Bread Peddler. It’s a shame that she’s so elusive and maternal feelings aren’t her strong point, but you can’t have everything.’
‘One mustn’t blame her,’ Michel said sententiously. ‘She was left toher own devices. Maman was torn between Geneviève and us. In the end she chose us.’
‘I can’t quite see my mother sitting darning socks by the fire.’
‘Listen,’ Michel said. ‘We’ll talk about it another time. Now’s not the moment. Shall we have dinner this evening?’
‘I can’t. I’m busy.’
‘I’m busy every evening. We can have lunch if you like. The gallery’s closed from midday till two. Will you excuse me for just a moment?’
Two German officers who had just walked in were asking to visit hell. They left swiftly, their choices made, concealing their Alberto Senzacatso prints under their arms. Michel had remained with Blanche de Rocroy, who had naively tried to interest him in a series of horrors: fishing boats against a setting sun, Parisian girls on a swing, flowers in a vase – paintings for innocent tourists.
Seeing her look discouraged, Jean said, ‘There’s no reason you should know, but Michel is a real painter.’
‘Oh … in that case I’ll leave you alone.’
She was not cross; she made mistakes all the time. The name meant nothing to her and all painters were real painters. Some just grabbed their chances better than others.
As might have been imagined, Michel du Courseau’s visit was not without motive. After abandoning a singing career he had returned to Grangeville to devote himself to painting, though without an audience or friendly voice to encourage or guide him.
‘Solitude is very necessary for my work, but I need warmth too, particularly as I’ve started on a risky path: religious inspiration, you see, is the only kind that moves me. Secular subjects leave me cold. Art has lost its faith. I want to give it back …’
‘Listen,’ Jean said, ‘this gallery isn’t really the kind of place you need. I tremble at the thought that you might discover what we have for sale back there …’
‘You mean that old spinster—’
‘She’s not so old … only just forty. And it’s not her who sells the stuff in what we call hell, it’s me. The owner, Louis-Edmond de La Garenne, is a crook. Paris is a cut-throat place. Everyone’s on the fiddle. Only idiots don’t make anything. In this city honesty is an unforgivable sin.’
Michel looked genuinely shocked. He had never come across anything like the situation Jean was describing.
‘I see now the terrible isolation our family has lived in. If I’m honest, all we know is our little Grangeville world, satisfied, happy, hiding its little wounds. If what you tell me is true, and if in coming to Paris I have to fall in with your pessimism, then it’s Maman who is guilty for having made me live too long in a state of innocence. What is so special about this hell of yours?’
Jean supplied a full account, with a vulgarity we shall not venture to repeat. He enjoyed seeing Michel’s reaction.
‘Someone like that Italian,’ Michael said, paling, ‘should be denounced, and arrested instantly. He’s a criminal. He’s contaminating a society that he lives from by perverting it.’
‘This isn’t a time for denunciation.’
What was Jean saying? He was still unaware of what had already started to happen, too rarely among his fellow Frenchmen to grasp the purulent frenzy of denunciation that had erupted in a country still stunned by the blow it had received. It was a shame he had not read Céline, who was hunched over a manuscript that very day, that very moment, writing, all illusions abandoned, with the penetrating acuity of the visionary: ‘Censors and informers are at every corner … France is a pitiful donkey, the Kommandantur stuffed with people who have come to denounce each other.’ He was heedless even of the gnawing unease corrupting a population tempted by an authority known for its prompt reactions; yet Michel’s threatening words chilled him. Denounce? Who to? How?
‘There is no right time for denouncing or not denouncing,’ Michelwent on agitatedly. ‘Evil is evil, whether France is occupied or free.’
‘Now you’re annoying me,’ Jean said. ‘Go and enjoy your painting and leave me alone.’
Michel flinched, wounded, cross and surprised. He had arrived with good intentions, wanting to bury an awkward past. Why was Jean unwilling to take the olive branch he was offering?
‘You sound bitter,’ he said.
‘Bitter? Well … now you mention it … I am. And it’s a very mediocre emotion. So forgive me. Did you bring any of your canvases?’
‘Five. Not enough for an exhibition, but I’ve several pictures in progress: a Last Supper that’s nearly finished, a “Suffer the little children …” I’ve just started. Nothing but sacred subjects. A great Christian revival has taken hold in France. Artists cannot stand idly by.’
Jean suppressed a shrug of his shoulders. Generalised ideas like Michel’s bored him to death. He found his pompousness beneath sarcasm.
‘I’ll ask who you should introduce yourself to,’ he said. ‘La Garenne knows all that sort of thing. But don’t say he was the one who sent you. He’s a crook.’
‘In that case I don’t want to have anything to do with him.’
‘Save your fine words for later. At the moment he’s the only possibility I can offer you.’
‘I’ll leave it to you in that case.’
Jean walked a short distance down the street with Michel, and in doing so learnt that Antoinette had been ill with a stubborn bout of influenza that she could not shake off, that Marie-Thérèse du Courseau was astonishing Grangeville with her energy, and that there remained, as expected, no news of Antoine.
‘I suppose he’s in the southern zone,’ Michel said. ‘Antoinette knows his address, but she’d let herself be cut into little pieces before she’d tell Maman or me. Anyway, neither of us is insisting. Papa has gone from our life. Now that he can’t get hold of petrol to keep his Bugatti on the road, he must be a shadow of his old self. He’s one of those men who only have a personality when they’re behind the wheel. If you’d known Gontran Longuet better, you’d understand why I put them both in the same boat, or rather car. Did you know Gontran is currently impressing the Norman coast with a wood-gas car …’
‘You’re unkind and unfair about Antoine. He was my only friend. It makes me happy to know that he got away from you both.’
‘Oh, I know you’ve always had a soft spot for him, and more than ever now you know you’re his grandson.’
Jean thought about this.
‘Actually you’re wrong. It makes me uncomfortable more than anything else. I feel tempted to believe in blood ties now, whereas before it felt like something more noble, an affinity between two men, which is something so rare it doesn’t happen more than once in a lifetime.’
Michel suggested they might agree to differ on the subject of Antoine, without coming to blows. Like a coward, Jean accepted the offered platitude, which got them both out of a situation that left them feeling awkward. They stopped on the forecourt of the Sacré-Cœur, turning their backs on the hideous basilica, looking out over an impassive Paris, a sea of roofs glittering in the cold winter sun. Children were playing on Square Willette and soldiers in green uniforms seated on the steps contemplated the El Dorado of a city below them, which in truth looked from this height like almost any other city, as long as they could not put names to the church steeples, domes and palaces. The absurd Eiffel Tower was the only landmark that wholly reassured them, and perhaps the wavering line of the Seine. Jean pointed, lower down, to Rue Steinkerque and a small bistro there.
‘Second on the left as you go down. I’ll meet you there tomorrow atone. It’s Wednesday. There’ll be black pudding. I hope you like black pudding?’
‘I’ll make do.’
‘See you tomorrow.’
Jean watched him go down Rue Foyatier and disappear, swallowed up by this Paris that succeeded, in so many different ways, in cloaking the most singular individuals in anonymity. He did not hate Michel, he had never hated him despite his deviously spiteful behaviour that had dogged his, Jean’s, childhood, despite all the scorn Michel had poured on him because he had thought, in those days, that he was the gardener’s son. The emotion he felt was simpler than hate: he did not understand him and would never understand such gratuitous and spontaneous spite. Michel had arrived in Paris like a provincial youth greedy for conquests. Perhaps it had not even entered his head that the city might not recognise his talent any more than it had the first time at the Salle Pleyel, on the occasion of his recital accompanied by Francis Poulenc. The audience then had not been able to appreciate his quality. Or had he sensed, from a lack of warmth and despite having a fine baritone voice, that he would never, in that sphere anyway, be in the first division? Painting offered him a second chance in a confused era. He was no less talented an artist than he had been as a singer, but would he again have to be satisfied with asuccès d’estime? With music lovers thinking of him as a gifted amateur, and art critics as a talented dilettante?
Jean returned to the gallery. Blanche, sitting on a stool by the door, was observing the comings and goings of the passers-by through thewindow. Her chapped, reddened hands lay on the shiny cloth of her skirt, stretched tight by her bony knees. Rudolf von Rocroy had not appeared at the gallery for a week. The elation of their first meeting and the success of the first sale had begun to evaporate. That same morning La Garenne had reproached Blanche for not looking after her cousin.
‘The idiot’s buggered off! You didn’t know how to keep hold of him. He’s running around the other galleries now, where they’re robbing him and cheating him. And you, Mademoiselle de Rocroy, don’t care. Quite cynically, you do not give a tinker’s cuss. Telephone him.’
‘I have. He’s never there.’
‘Not there for you, perhaps. Because you’re always talking to him about family: Papa Adhémar, Cousin Godefroy, Aunt Aurore and Grandfather Gonzague. He doesn’t care a fig about your family, you goose. He came to Paris on his own, to enjoy himself. Take him to the Folies-Bergère, find him a girl, go to the Bois de Boulogne at night. Show the old aristo a thing or two …’
‘Oh for God’s sake, don’t be such a bloody goody-goody.’
Powerless, Blanche suddenly came face to face with her failure to help Louis-Edmond. Instead of taking a lunch break, she walked all the way to the Hôtel Continental to deliver a letter. Would he answer? Jean’s return produced a timid smile.
‘Your visitor is absolutely charming!’ she said. ‘Is he a relation of yours?’
‘So young and already an uncle! Your mother must be very young, then?’
‘Yes, very young.’
‘I’d so like to meet her.’
‘Not much chance of that, at this precise moment. She’s in Lebanon.’
‘In Lebanon? How extraordinary! I’ve got a second cousin there. She must know him. Colonel Pontalet. A colonel in the Foreign Legion. Quite an old scrapper.’
‘Perhaps they’ll meet!’ Jean said kindly, doubtful whether the prince and Geneviève spent any time at all socialising with army officers.
At seven that evening Jean walked into the apartment building on Quai Saint-Michel. The concierge appeared from her stew-ridden lair.
‘You’re Monsieur Arnaud?’ she asked.
‘Madame Chaminadze has gone away. She left a letter for you.’
‘Yes, gone away. Don’t you understand French?’
He took the letter. The concierge did not move, perhaps in the hope that he would open the envelope in front of her and tell her what was in it. She had tried hard to steam it open and had not succeeded. But Jean put the letter in his pocket and went out without hearing her affronted mutter. ‘And not so much as a thank you for it.’
He walked a hundred paces before stopping at an illuminated shop window. His hand was shaking. He felt sick and afraid.
Jean, I have to go away for a few days. Shut your eyes. Don’t try to find me. As soon as I get back I’ll let you know. Loving and kissing you, Claude
‘Already?’ Jesús said when he reappeared at the studio. ‘Hombre!You look like you ’as jus’ been to a funeral. Is you angry?’
‘Ah the bitch!’
‘Just for a few days.’
He held out the letter to Jesús, who held up his arms to heaven.
‘My friend, ’e’s a crazy. Your Claude ’e’s comin’ back. I tell you is true. Is family business.’
‘Do you believe in those sorts of excuses?’
‘Yes, idiot, I do b’lieve. An’ tonight you is dinin’ with me at old Coco’s. She ’as got leg of lamb for us, real lamb.’
‘There’s no such thing as mock lamb.’
‘Shu’ your mouth, you argumentin’ boy.’
The door bell rang. A pretty, slightly over-made-up young woman stood in the doorway. Jesús kissed her and said to Jean, ‘This is Irma.’
He led the woman onto the landing and Jean saw him press a note into her hand. Irma frowned, sulking, but turned away.
‘Why don’t you have dinner with her?’ Jean asked.
‘’Cause I am ’avin’ dinner with my frien’ Jean.’
So Jean learnt that evening that Jesús was his friend.
So many loose ends need to be tied up, the reader will say, if only from time to time. It’s not fair to introduce new characters into a story when the old ones are still alive and kicking. The author feels the same, and he begs forgiveness for this unavoidable chain of events that leaves Jean no time to meet again those who knew him, helped him and loved him in the early part of his life. All we can do is try to keep up with him, hero that he is of this incredible adventure that we call the birth of a man. An adventure that begins all over again when a woman arrives and blots out her predecessors, when all of a sudden events overtake you that before seemed so distant, of concern only to others … those who don’t suffer in their own lives suffer from the infinite, vertigo-inducing distraction of being in love. So no, we shan’t slide into a pointless universalism but will regret and carry on regretting the fading into the background of so many characters whom Jean, in his discovery of life, is leaving behind, leaving to their emotional (or physical) unhappiness – or even their modest happiness – and will not see again.
So it is with his adoptive father, Albert Arnaud, wounded equally by loneliness, the devastation of his pacifist dreams and of France, by the country’s occupation under those he continues to refer to as ‘the Uhlans’, and by Marie-Thérèse du Courseau’s practical initiative to plant cabbages, carrots and potatoes where there should have been rhododendron beds, azaleas and oriental flowering cherries. Perhaps his reaction was absurd and disproportionate, but let us reflect for a moment on the kind of existence Albert Arnaud had had: a childhood and adolescence that was far from well-off, a coming of age at alocal brothel and then marriage to a kind and generous woman who nevertheless could hardly be said to have lived her life with a deep sense of romance. Then had come the four years of the Great War and the loss of his leg at the bottom of a muddy shell-hole. The unexpected arrival of the baby Jean had swiftly turned into a mixed blessing, as Albert had watched his adopted son grow up with the children from La Sauveté, Michel and Antoinette du Courseau, and privately felt that nothing good could come of it. He sensed, not without reason, that Jean would be happy neither at home nor with the du Courseaus, tugged in two directions by different worlds that would both reject him as a hybrid, belonging to neither. And Jean would certainly not become a gardener.
Albert’s accumulated knowledge – his only capital – that he would have liked to bequeath to the boy, Jean did not want. In any case, he did not have green fingers: whenever he planted something, it almost never turned out well. So let us not mock Albert’s disappointment when, instead of his flowers, he sees vegetables growing, and let us compare him to a man who has spent his life reading and suddenly finds himself in a universe purged of books. Without twisting words and their meaning, let us say that flowers are his culture. Without flowers, existence lacks the one gratuitous element that justifies it: the creation of beauty. They are his poetry, the thoughts he can’t manage to articulate, the pictures he dreams of and that the earth has given him, perfect and complete, the symbols of a world of exquisite grace.
Jean had not wanted flowers, or political ideas; instead, in 1939 he had enlisted. Albert had felt deeply wounded and the wound had been, in the larger sense of destiny, like a denial of justice. The abbé Le Couec’s patient explanations were to no avail. The facts were there. Albert did not reproach Jean. His elevated and democratic notion of individual liberty forbade it. Adoptive father and adopted son will not see one another again. Jean writes phrases of such banality that even he finds them depressing. From Antoinette, their go-between, he gets conventional answers: ‘Your father’s in good health and hopes you aretoo.’ She faithfully writes down these sentences, adding as a PS, ‘He’s sad, grumpy, stoical and never smiles.’
When Jean finally has an opportunity to travel to Grangeville, it happens to be on 19 August 1942, the morning a commando unit of Cameron Highlanders from Winnipeg lands at the foot of the cliffs, slips between the German bunkers and reaches the village. At Puys and on the esplanade at Dieppe the remaining commando units are pinned down by the German defences. But at Grangeville and a little further south, at the Pointe d’Ailly lighthouse, Lord Lovat’s No 4 Commando at the foot of the cliff – at the spot where Antoinette first showed Jean her bottom – and the Cameron Highlanders have met no resistance. They blow up a coastal artillery battery, the one placed in the former garden of Captain Duclou, Jeanne Arnaud’s uncle, and for a time their advance is practically a victory parade as they hand out cigarettes and sweets, pat children’s cheeks and then, joining up with the South Saskatchewan Regiment which has surrounded Pourville without succeeding in taking it, return to their landing craft. Albert is at the roadside. He recognises the khaki uniforms and the soldiers in their tin hats.
His memories of 1914 are like a lump in his throat. Forgetting his neutrality, he limps as fast as he can towards them, waving his arms to stop them turning onto a path where a Wehrmacht patrol is lying in wait. German and Canadian bullets riddle his body, easily a hundred or more, for no one counts the bullets when they’re waging war. Let us merely record that when it is over, there is nothing left of Albert. The pieces of him are collected with a fork and spade and tipped into a sack.
Jean is turned back at Rouen without explanation. He nevertheless manages to get through to Antoinette by telephone and from her learns that Albert, according to his oft-expressed wish, has been buried without a religious service. The ceremony is attended only by the du Courseaus, Captain Duclou, stunned and muttering and making no sense, Monsieur Cliquet who repeats over and over again, ‘That’swhat happens to pacifists’, and the abbé Le Couec, who is wearing an ordinary suit so as not to disturb his friend’s soul’s rest but who, through the long night that follows, will pray for him at the foot of the altar. It is all over for Albert, and we shall miss him. He will no longer pitch his stubborn ideas against an unreliable and inconstant world in which men and women of his ancient stamp have no place. A little of France as she once was has been extinguished with his passing.
And while we are on the subject of the dead, let us mention too that a year earlier, in the summer of 1941, the prince slipped away at Beirut. That enigmatic figure simply stopped breathing one night. At dawn his secretary/chauffeur/right-hand man, Salah, bent over him to wake him up. He lightly touched the hand that lay on the sheet, and it was cold. The prince was a wax statue, his papery yellow skin stretched over a bony mask. He was buried according to the rites of his religion, and that afternoon friends gathered at Geneviève’s. She displayed impressive dignity. Perhaps she was already aware of what the prince’s will contained. She had inherited a substantial fortune, but not its management. Salah with his dark complexion was stepping into the light, and there were those who murmured spitefully, in Beirut as in Alexandria, that he was now more than merely Geneviève’s legal representative, which was untrue. And she herself was at risk. Lebanon’s climate did not suit her. She felt she needed to get to Switzerland, which, despite her possessing influential contacts, looked to be almost impossible, and it took her until December 1941 to make it happen and find her way to a small village in Valais, hidden away in the mountains, called Gstaad, where she rented the first floor of a modest country hotel.
As for the famous letter given to Jean by the prince before the outbreak of war, it remains unopened. To be honest, Jean attaches no importance to it, and the only person to suspect its true value is Palfy.Which is, one imagines, why his first question when he arrives in Paris on Christmas Eve of 1940 is, ‘Have you still got the letter?’
Jean is no longer even very sure where he has put it, and it has to be said that at that moment it is the least of his worries. Claude left him the day before, and he has not yet got over this latest sudden twist of fate. During the night Jesús and he have polished off a bottle of calvados between them, a present in a parcel from Antoinette. Waking up has been exceptionally painful and there is no respite: here is Constantin Palfy, knocking at the door in an elegant grey flannel suit.
‘You’re my first port of call,’ he says. ‘You look like death warmed up. I bring you “real” coffee and “real” croissants. Everything is real!’
‘Even me, who’s a real idiot.’
‘Ah,delectatio morosa… that is you all over, my dear Jean.’
Jesús was no more awake than Jean but glimpsed, standing behind Palfy on the landing, the girl who had come to pose for him. She was called Josette and had generous breasts, and portraits of her in outrageous style already furnished the rooms of several German officers and their most bountiful dreams.
‘Not today, Josette! Is the wrong time …’
She cried and he pressed a note into her hand, a remedy he considered, not without justification, to work very effectively whenever disappointment manifested itself. Once Josette was gone, they boiled water for ‘real’ coffee, which they drank with ‘real’ warm croissants. Palfy, finding it hard to sit still, went to the window. Paris was enveloped in a purifying cold, its roofs covered in frost in the clear light of the end of December. A city unlike all others, whose gentle blue and pink breath misted the windows and broke up the sun’s rays.
‘You’re not about to say, “It’s between you and me now!” are you?’ Jean said.
‘Don’t worry. Not a bad idea, though.’
‘Is it all thanks to Madeleine that you got your permit to cross the demarcation line?’
‘Of course! The dear girl. She’s complaining that she never seesyou. We saw her last night. Marceline’s very impressed with her.’
‘Ah yes, you didn’t know … Marceline Michette.’
‘Thepatronneat the Sirène?’
‘You’re not going to tell me you’re shacking up with thepatronneof a brothel now?’
‘No, you ninny! Zizi’s the one I’m after …’
Jean tried to remember the foxy, mocking features of the redheaded Zizi at the Sirène, apparently Palfy’s sort of girl.
‘What about … Marceline’s husband?’
‘Taken prisoner, dear boy! Bravely falling back to Perpignan, his regiment left him behind. There are, sadly, some colonels not worthy of being called the father of their regiment. Now our dear sergeant-major is atoning for France’s sins. Let us salute a warrior and a gentleman. Monsieur Michette! A hero! Not to mention his wife, who yearns to serve her country. Her talents cannot be allowed to lie fallow. In Paris there’ll be no stopping her.’
Jesús poured himself more coffee.
‘The best I ’ave ever drunk!’ he said. ‘This war ’as got to be made to las’.’
‘We’re working on it in high places,’ Palfy assured him. ‘And what about dear Claude? Are you still seeing her?’
‘Every day,’ Jean said, ‘but yesterday she had to go away for a few days …’
‘So everything going all right there then. Good!’
Jean and Jesús looked at each other. Why say more? If Claude returned, her sudden departure – once explained – would be no more than a moment’s upset that was swiftly forgotten, and if she failed to return Palfy would not even notice. Jean’s affairs of the heart had always seemed to him to be pointless aberrations, weaknesses unworthy of a young man destined for a great future. So Jean said nothing: Jesús knew what had happened, and that was enough. In anycase Palfy had already moved on, asking Jesús to recount in detail La Garenne’s rackets. The scale of the gallery owner’s hoaxes thrilled him. He immediately wanted to meet this master swindler and have lunch with him.
‘He doesn’t have lunch with anyone,’ Jean said. ‘He’d be too afraid he’d be left with the bill.’
‘I’ll take him out!’
‘You haven’t got any money!’
‘I’ll borrow some from him.’
They burst out laughing.
‘Even supposing you succeed,’ Jean said, ‘which, just between ourselves, would be a stroke of genius, I ought to warn you that as soon as he opens his mouth to speak he’ll start spitting into your food.’
‘I’ll buy him some new dentures.’
‘He’ll resell them as a Surrealist sculpture.’
‘You won’t stop me, you’ll see.’
Jean believed him. His friend had spotted an opportunity and was already plotting to join forces with La Garenne. After all, yes, why not? Jesús was delighted by Palfy.
‘This La Garenne ’e’s a slob. ’E put everyzin’ in iz own pocket. What I like ’e’s that ’e’s connin’ the Boches. For that you need ahombrewith bigcojones.’
‘No hurry. Let’s give it some thought. I have a few ideas. Today I’m having lunch with Madeleine and her Julius, at Maxim’s, where else?’
‘It’s their local,’ Jean said.
‘I saw this Julius fellow yesterday for the first time. Not uncongenial. A great music lover.’
‘Like that SS officer Karl Schmidt, the one who wanted to shoot us to the strains of his violin?’
‘No grudges, Jean. Very unbecoming. The SS and Wehrmacht are worlds apart. One day the Wehrmacht will wipe out the SS. Julius may not be a Prussian nob but he’s a solid businessman. One of his daughters is married to an English banker in London and one of hissons is at Bern, as an attaché at the embassy. All doors open for him – and he can’t live without Madeleine. You should see her, dear boy. Your attitude upsets her.’
Jean promised. One day … In the meantime he would arrange a meeting with La Garenne. Palfy wrote down Blanche’s name.
‘A Rocroy? That rings a bell. I’ll do some research. By the time I meet her I’ll know everything about her family. What a performance! You’ll see. Come on, come to lunch at Maxim’s, both of you. Madeleine will be so pleased.’
‘Will there be black pudding?’ Jean asked.
‘Black pudding at Maxim’s? You are joking, dear boy.’
Jesús felt as Jean did.
‘I am like ’im, I wan’ black puddin’. They ’ave it in a little restauran’ …’
‘You’re pathetic, the pair of you. I’ll leave you to it. See you soon.’
He was already halfway down the stairs.
Everything worked out. Very well. La Garenne, whom it cost nothing, suggested an address to Michel du Courseau. A gallery offered him hanging space. For a modest fee. Jesús was unsurprised. According to him, the ascetic nature of the paintings and their religious inspiration made them powerfully prophetic pictures in wartime. They would show the French how to suffer, now that they were without bread and butter, cheese and meat, and going through their own Passion. Their natural masochism would find an outlet in Michel’s display of suffering.
‘Your uncle ’e’s very talented,’ Jesús said approvingly. ‘You’re no’ nice to ’im. Et look like ’e bore you.’
It was true. Michel bored Jean enormously. Not a word he spoke rang true, despite his sincerity. The excessive self-confidence he had alwaysfelt spilt over into his art. All around him he saw skilful mediocrities trying to establish themselves in the general confusion. Once he had obtained what he desired, there was no question of his showing his contemporaries any indulgence. Jean who, in reality, barely knew him, so divided in enmity had they been in their childhood, discovered that behind his humble exterior Michel maintained a view of himself that was so superior that no one else actually existed – an idea intensely comforting to a young person aspiring to genius. Even the failure of his first exhibition in spring ’41 – a failure that was unjust because even though there was nothing new in his sombre, passionate approach to his subject, it was still a revelation of a painter brave enough to go against fashion – even that failure was a source of pride to Michel. In the essentially biographical idea he had of what counted as glory, a failure was one more ‘proof’, a necessary expiation that would help him make a name for himself.
But if we occasionally proceed too slowly as far as Jean is concerned, we ought not to go too quickly with the characters in his life. We have scarcely reached the end of 1940, and here we are already talking about Michel du Courseau’s exhibition of religious paintings from spring 1941, just before Hitler sets his Panzer divisions on the Soviet Union; about the death of the prince, also in ’41, in the course of that summer; and a year later about the death of Albert Arnaud. Our only excuse is that our real preoccupation is the unexpected and hasty departure of Claude Chaminadze, shortly before the first Christmas of the occupation. We therefore request that the reader return with us, for a moment, to the three days that followed this dreadful blow to Jean’s existence. He felt he had returned to the aftermath of the departure of Chantal de Malemort in that same building in Rue Lepic where they had lived together so carelessly and happily. With Chantal, however, the disaster had been definitive and complete at the instantof its discovery. With Claude, hope remained: an explanation might be forthcoming that would return their life to what it had been before. Jesús commented, perhaps shrewdly, that Michel du Courseau had the evil eye. Had it not been at the concert he had given in 1939 at the Pleyel that Chantal had run into Gontran Longuet again? Now Michel had reappeared and Claude had vanished. Jean did not believe in the evil eye, but he listened to the Andalusian’s grumbling ruminations and they distracted him from his anxiety and pain. It was Jesús’s belief, in any case, that women went up in smoke several days a month. They returned transparent, as immaterial beings. In reality they no longer existed: it was a proven way for them to rest and not get older, an old trick they had exploited ever since they arrived from that unknown planet to cause us anxieties that only a real, open friendship between men could attenuate … Jesús did not deny that these absences had something magical about them, but refused to explain them to himself in those terms because Spaniards and certainly not Andalusians did not believe in magic. Magic was a Lapp invention at best, or a Scandinavian one at worst, a migratory invention whose effects were most noticeable at the start of winter, when the days shorten and night closes in. Fairies do not exist in hot countries, where the sun wipes out imagination.
So there were three dreadful days when, like an automaton, Jean listened to La Garenne shouting for all he was worth and then mysteriously – La Garenne, most sceptical of men – allowing himself to be dazzled by Palfy, who simultaneously conquered Blanche with his extensive knowledge of her family tree and information about several new international branches of the family that she knew nothing about; when he listened to Michel who thought of nothing but his exhibition; and to Jesús who talked non-stop simply to make sure his friend was not left alone with his thoughts. At last, on thefourth day, the telephone rang at the back of the gallery and, picking up the receiver, without even having heard her voice, he knew it was her. And it was all over. She was waiting for him. He would be there as soon as he could after the gallery had closed. And when she opened the door Cyrille ran at him and threw his arms around his neck.
‘Why didn’t you come and see me at Grandma’s?’ he said. ‘I was really bored.’
And so he discovered, for the first time, that he had been deprived of the little boy as much as of his mother, who offered him her cool cheek and whose light eyes were unreadable with some unexpressed emotion. All Jean could take in at that moment was that she had left Cyrille, her little guardian, behind for three days and gone off, alone, heaven knew where. This realisation cast a shadow over the joy of the reunion. They had dinner together without being able to speak, because of Cyrille. Eventually she put him to bed and came back to where Jean was waiting for her. He put his arms around her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Not tonight. You’ll understand when I explain it to you.’
‘Explain it then.’
‘If you love me, just a little, you’ll give me some time. One day it’ll all become clear. For now, I don’t know myself. All right … I wanted to get away, to breathe again, and then for us not to part any more.’
‘It wasn’t me who left you.’
‘No, it wasn’t you. And it wasn’t me who left you either. You have to believe me.’
She smiled through her tears and kissed him on the lips, very quickly. He wanted to take her in his arms again. She stopped him.
‘No. I told you: not today.’
‘Then I’m going.’
He thought: for good, and he honestly believed it. She misunderstood his words.
‘You’re a good man. There aren’t many good men. In fact I think you must be the only one and perhaps that’s the reason I love you.’
‘Do you love me?’
‘And you’re also very silly because you doubt it when I say so.’
‘I don’t know where I stand with you.’
He left her early and climbed back up to Montmartre on foot in the blackout. Figures loomed out of the darkness on the same pavement and stepped aside as he went past. He realised he was walking at an intimidating, brutal pace through the shadowy closed-down city. Opening the studio door, he heard a scuffle and a woman’s cry. A single low lamp lit Jesús’s bed, where he was lying with the girl he had sent away the evening he and Jean had had dinner.
‘Sorry!’ Jean said foolishly.
‘Can’t a man ’ave a fuck now and then!’ Jesús murmured with unexpected shyness.
‘I’ll come back later.’
He returned just before the curfew and found Jesús alone in a dressing gown.
‘I’m getting in your way,’ Jean said. ‘I’d better find myself a room.’
‘Listen, Jean, you gettin’ on my nerve. You is too little to live alone. Now tell me: what is with Claude?’
‘And she explain to you?’
‘No. And it doesn’t matter?’
‘You is really en lov’.’
‘Do you think so?’
Jesús held out his arms and swore it was so, on the Madonna of the Begonias.
‘How often does it happen in a lifetime?’ Jean asked anxiously.
Jesús assured him that certain men never experienced what it felt like to be in love, and that others in contrast fell in love with every girl they met. He personally had never been like that. No feverishness or sweaty palms, ever, and as soon as his passion was satisfied, an irresistible desire to chuck the girl out. He could not remember having made love to any girl twice. He tried to remember their names, tried to recall a moment of sweetness or tenderness that they might have spontaneously shown him. He couldn’t. He inspired sweetness and tenderness in them as little as they did in him. Jean commented that in that case, deep down, he was still a virgin. The Spaniard protested. He was not a virgin, he suffered from an ailment. His blood possessed an antibody that destroyed love. Jean, on the other hand, was in the grip of a virus and his love affairs made no sense to him unless they felt as if they were for ever.
‘Is always the lov’ of your life!’ he said with a despairing expression. ‘I canno’ keep up with you.’
‘Claude is the love of my life.’
‘You is twenty years old!’
Jesús roared with laughter. The difference was, of course, vast. In fact it demanded celebration. They opened the magnum of champagne that Madeleine had brought. The bottle had been cooling on the window sill and they drank it from tooth mugs. Jesús’s unmade bed gave off the scent of the woman who had been in it an hour before. On the bedside table lay a silk scarf she had left behind. Jean pointed at it.
‘She’ll be back for that tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow? No. I will no’ be ’ere. You too.’
‘We are ’avin’ dinner with Mad’leine.’
‘I didn’t say yes.’
Jesús had said yes for him. The situation was becoming untenable.Madeleine was deeply offended. One day or another they would need her, or to be more specific her Julius, whom it seemed everyone in Paris had fallen for. Without him, women would go naked, and the theatres and film studios close for lack of costumes. The Germans made Jesús as anxious as Fu Manchu. Yet what real reason did he have to keep out of their way? He was a Spaniard and could not give a damn whether they had won or lost a war, because it was not his war. Julius could not be as bad as all that. He did a thousand small favours, handing out travel permits, clothing coupons, fuel coupons for heating, cigarettes, liquor. At home his door was always open to fashion designers and fashionable young hairdressers, and on certain evenings, mixed up haphazardly with his suppliers, writers, poets, actors, dancers, art critics and film directors. As for Jean, the thought of going without Claude for a whole evening made him more reluctant than the bad memories he had of the Germans from his participation in the brief battle of France. He admitted as much to Jesús, who pretended to tear his hair out and called him a very sublime moron. What was he talking about? Claude disappeared in a puff of smoke for three days, and he hesitated to stand her up for a single night? If he went on that way, she’d start thinking she could behave however she liked! A man who was really and truly in love could not behave more stupidly. Jean did not know what to say.
Madeleine lived on Avenue Foch in an imposing panelled apartment whose owner, a Jew who was also a great art lover, had taken refuge in the United States as soon as the Germans had attacked. Julius kept up the same staff: two hoary manservants, two maids and a butler whom he had had freed from a POW camp to resume his old post. There were rumours that, under the guise of a requisition, the Jewish art lover and Julius had come to a working agreement: a luxury apartment in return for an assurance that the treasures on show would not besubject to any confiscation. Although he had been forewarned at length by Jesús, Jean was nonetheless dumbfounded to find Madeleine in the new role she had created. He tried to remember her the way she had looked two years earlier, standing in a peignoir on the landing of the building in Rue Lepic, taking refuge with him and Chantal one morning when Jesús had nearly set fire to his apartment, and again in 1939 when she had played the ambiguous part of Madame Miranda at Cannes, a little more polished than before but still retaining some of the gestures of the humble streetwalker she had once been. Refusing to colour her hair, she had a fine head of grey hair that softened her tired-looking expression. The make-up artist’s skills had turned a previously vulgar mouth into a worldly pout and smoothed the first signs of crow’s feet. Palfy’s lessons had borne fruit: the suburban accent had gone along with most of her mispronunciations. In short, to all intents and purposes – though she still did not know who was who – she could be mistaken for a woman of the world, even in the rare letters she wrote, in which there were so many spelling mistakes that nobody believed they were not deliberate. As time went on Palfy, who was a bit fogeyish about such things, urged her to give up writing altogether, and she, more than happy, concurred.
‘I thought you were avoiding me,’ she said, kissing Jean. ‘And why haven’t you brought your divine lady friend?’
‘Divine’ was a word much in vogue, which the fashionable young hairdressers with whom she spent a couple of hours every day in order not to look as if she had been to the hairdresser – oh subtle accomplishment of long toil! – used to describe the least of their amazements.
‘She’s not divine,’ he answered. ‘She’s just a woman with a little boy she can’t leave on his own in the evenings.’
He tried not to feel he had been right to hesitate to come and allowed himself to be led towards a group surrounding a bald, plump man with a scarred cheek. Julius Kapermeister had none of the cold, condescending distinction of a Rudolf von Rocroy. The son of a solidline of Dortmund industrialists, he certainly possessed a more than modest opinion of himself, but concealed it beneath an unctuousness that was excessive, particularly if you knew the extent of his official functions – and even later, when you learnt what their objective was. Unused to Germans, Jean had a feeling of unease he found hard to shrug off. Julius spoke precise, heavily accented French, but we shall spare the reader a phonetic transcription of his words. One is enough, and Jesús will for ever chew his French into a sort of pidgin, while Julius had already made considerable progress in less than a year and could express himself relatively fluently in correct French.
‘So here you are, Jean Arnaud!’ he said with affected surprise. ‘I’ve heard so much about you from Madeleine, yet never seen you. I was beginning to think you were refusing to meet us! There are one or two French who, it must be said, are rather stubborn – though in one sense I forgive them – they’re reluctant to understand …’
Taking Jean by the arm, he steered him to a sideboard covered in bottles of champagne, whisky and vodka. The dozen or so other guests present looked at Jean with mingled curiosity and envy. Who was the badly dressed but rather good-looking young Frenchman whom Julius was favouring with a private word?
‘What will you have?’ Julius asked.
Jean chose a glass of champagne and Julius served him. A white-gloved servant passed around trays of sandwiches andpetits foursthat had survived the guests’ first famished rush. Jean refused.
‘Ah, I see, you’re the sporting type!’ Julius exclaimed, clasping his biceps with a firm hand. ‘Which sport?’
‘I sell pictures!’
The German laughed loudly.
‘I know, I know! A very good profession at the present time. The Germans have brought metaphysics, history and music. The French are teaching us taste, good taste, art! Andcuisine. Cuisine, Monsieur Arnaud, is the gift of the gods. Have you readIs God French?by our great Friedrich Sieburg?’
‘No,’ Jean said. ‘And I’d be fairly likely to answer the question in the negative.’
‘You mean you think God is not French?’
‘If God exists He must have slipped away for a bit, and it seems to me He doesn’t have a lot of time for us French.’
‘Come, come, come,’ Julius said, wrinkling his pink brow. ‘Do you mean the French lost a war they started because God wasn’t on their side but riding on our tanks instead? I suppose it’s possible. We must talk about it again. It looks to me as if our friend Jesús is looking for you. Such an extraordinary young man and so profoundly original, yet he’s lost the moment he sets foot outside his den. A very shy lion. I say, who is that impressive person following Constantin Palfy? I don’t know her.’
‘Madame Michette, Marceline Michette. Her husband’s a prisoner of war. A former infantry sergeant-major, who re-enlisted in 1939.’
‘I see, I see … We must look into that. And what did Monsieur Michette do in civilian life?’
Jean looked squarely at Julius, to see whether he would raise an eyebrow.
‘The Michettes run a well-known brothel at Clermont-Ferrand. Perhaps the best in the Auvergne. If the Michelin Guide was fair, it would give them three stars. Excellent appearance and morals, perfect service …’
‘What a remarkably interesting person! I suppose she has many political friends …’
‘Not many, I don’t think… local officials perhaps …’
‘You may be forgetting that the capital of France has moved. It’s no longer Paris but Vichy, and from Vichy to Clermont is a mere stone’s throw. And what is she doing in Paris?’
‘You’ll need to ask Constantin.’
Julius moved towards the singular couple, whom Madeleine had already greeted, and Jean found himself on his own next to a servantwho was passing round caviar on squares of toast. He took one and the servant asked, ‘Monsieur is only taking one?’
‘Is it rude?’
‘Oh no, Monsieur, but it’s not what people usually do here.’
A young woman with very white skin and very dark eyes walked over to him. He knew the face and tried and failed to put a name to it. The woman smiled at him and picked up a bottle of whisky, half filling her glass. It was not him she had wanted to meet; she had just been on her way to the sideboard. She did not look embarrassed to be seen filling her glass, and as Jean made a vague gesture she stopped.
‘Have we met somewhere?’
‘I have a feeling we have,’ he said.
‘I must be wrong, then.’
‘I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it,’ she said, almost rudely. ‘You don’t know me but you’ve seen me. Somewhere. In a film.’
‘It’s a long time since I’ve been to the cinema.’
She shrugged and turned away. He was alone for a moment and stood watching the guests. Apart from Jesús, Palfy and Madame Michette he knew no one. At a similar occasion in London he would have been able to put names to at least two or three of the faces. Stendhal would have considered it a desperate situation for one of his heroes, greedy to experience the world. What would Julien Sorel have done in his position? He would have had an advantage over Jean, dressed in the black of a future cleric, attracting people’s attention by his combination of good looks, outward reserve, and aggressive conversation. But aggression did not come naturally to Jean. The only way he might be provoked into it, he reflected, was if he started thinking about Claude, the evening he was missing with her, and what she would perhaps have started to confess to him if he had not given in to Jesús’s entreaties. Not that Jesús craved the high life. He wanted to please Madeleine but had refused to go so far as conforming to theconventions of a formal dinner, arriving in his usual suit of heavy corduroy, tieless, shirt open, revealing his thick, curly chest hair and contempt for social niceties, a contempt that might easily have turned him into the hostesses’ darling, had he had any leanings towards a social life beyond Rue Lepic.
Madame Michette, abandoned by Palfy, seemed at a loss. Everything was new here: the apartment’s luxury, itsobjets d’art, pictures and furniture (she had just run a finger over the marble top of a console table to see whether it had been dusted recently), the servants whose like she had not seen outside the pages of the sagas she read, and the host, a man so powerful that all Paris was queuing up for his invitations. She had had to admire the fact that within a day of her arrival Palfy, apparently waving a magic wand, had led her to this holy of holies at which – supreme revelation – she had simultaneously discovered Madeleine introducing their mutual friend with the title of baron. Why had he not told her? She felt guilty at having sometimes been sharp with him, at having doubted his social standing. Might Jean not be an aristocrat too in that case, despite being less well-dressed and looking profoundly bored? Madame Michette pounced on him.
‘I didn’t recognise you straight away,’ she exclaimed. ‘Although Monsieur Michette is always telling me I’m aphysiognomist.You need that with customers, otherwise you can find people trying it on.Machosistsfor example. I’ve spotted one or two of those in my time.’
Jean protested that he was not a masochist. Madame Michette exclaimed that he was being very perverse; she hadn’t suspected him of it for a minute. It was just a comparison. She picked up a vol-au-vent and popped it between her plump lips, lightly shadowed by a moustache.
‘It’s just like before the war!’ she winked.
He waited for her to add, ‘and that’s something of ours the Boches will never have’, but she was distracted by having to wipe her thumb and index finger, which she had dipped in the sauce.
‘I hear that Monsieur Michette—’
She winked again and jerked her chin in the direction of Julius Kapermeister, talking to the film actress, who by now was looking extremely tipsy.
‘Yes. Let’s hope he succeeds,’ Jean added.
‘He can do anything. He got us ourAusvesses.’
What fantastic, mad scheme was brewing in Palfy’s mind? What use was he intending to make of this person, straight from a Maupassant story and more real and larger than life than any caricature? It was quite unlike his usual modus operandi not to school her beforehand for some role in his Parisian ambitions; instead, within hours of arriving, he had thrown her into a milieu that, though not quite possessing the refinement she imagined it to have, was far above the world ruled by a provincial madam, whatever her superiority in her field. The reason was – as Jean quickly realised – that whilst Madeleine had been malleable, Madame Michette would always remain exactly what she was. Her turn of phrase, her colourful mispronunciations, the way she dressed, even her moral sense, not to mention her avowed profession, would fast make a Parisian character of her. When Jean finally managed to speak to Palfy his friend’s face lit up.
‘Is she not sublime? And you don’t know the half of her! She’s got ideas about everything. And devoted! You’ll have to see it. To get rid of her yesterday, I sent her on a secret mission. She got on the 6 a.m. train to Vernon and from there took a wood-gas bus to Les Andelys, making sure she wasn’t being followed. From Les Andelys she carried on in the pouring rain, on foot, as far as Château-Gaillard. What a landscape! Do you know it?’
‘No. Then what?’
‘Inside the outer wall, having made sure she was alone, she collected three flat stones, placed them one on top of the other, and slipped a note I’d written in code between stones one and two. Child’s play, obviously. Afterwards she had to get to Rouen. She stopped a truck full of Jerusalem artichokes, and as there were already five people in the driver’s cab she climbed up and sat on the artichokes. At Rouenshe went to the main post office where she delivered a sealed letter to a PO box number I’d given her, 109. She was back in Paris that evening, happier than you can possibly imagine. She longs toserve! She shall be served.’
‘Is it indiscreet to ask whose PO box it was and what was in the letter?’
‘Not a bit, dear boy. I haven’t the faintest idea who the PO box belongs to, and in the envelope I put a piece of paper on which I simply wrote, “I’m a silly cow.”’
Jean spluttered with laughter just as the butler announced, ‘Madame is served.’
‘You see,’ Palfy murmured, ‘everyone is served.’
Cards with the guests’ names had been laid at each place. On his right Julius had a bloodless-looking woman with a stare like a fish in aspic, on his left Madame Michette. Madeleine placed Palfy on her right. Was he not a baron, the evening’s only aristocrat? On her left sat a Frenchman, the husband of the woman with the fish-eyed stare, who, furious at seeing Palfy chosen over him, swallowed his first glass of Graves in a single gulp to get over his humiliation. Jean found himself at the end of the table between the film actress, whose name he finally discovered – Nelly Tristan – and a frail-looking young woman who spoke French with a strong German accent and whose place card read ‘Fräulein Laura Bruckett’. He tried to avoid looking at Madame Michette who, quite at her ease, cut herself a thick slice offoie grasand kept the silver knife instead of putting it back in the ewer of hot water. At a sign from the host a servant brought another knife and went round the table. Madame Michette had already finished herfoie grasbefore the men were served. Julius, with a nod, had the plate brought back to her, and she cut herself another slice.
‘What an appetite that woman’s got!’ Nelly Tristan said to Jean.
‘It’s not very surprising. Yesterday she had a long trip on a pile of Jerusalem artichokes.’
‘Why? Does she sell them?’
‘No, she loves travelling.’
Nelly tasted thefoie gras.
‘Not too horrid.’
Julius declared that even if the entire German army were not celebrating New Year withfoie grasin a few days’ time, there would nevertheless be cause for festivities along the new frontiers. Only England was now plunged into the throes of war, at the insistence of that lunatic, Churchill. But Germany’s hand was still extended. No one could conceive of a new Europe without the participation of Great Britain, once she had got rid of the bloodthirsty puppets who dominated her politics … A small man, with a black moustache that detracted slightly from his resemblance to a baby-faced intellectual, agreed with unexpected vehemence. The red and yellow ribbons of the Légion d’Honneur and the Médaille Militaire, a little too obvious in his buttonhole, attested to his past. It did not stop him finding Julius Kapermeister more than a little timid. What were the Germans waiting for? The minute the English saw the first German land on their soil, they’d be on their knees. For six centuries England had been playing the European nations off against each other like pawns and compromising all efforts at peace. Was it not England that had declared war on Germany on 3 September? Yes, there she was, the first! Dragging France in six hours later. England really was the mangy dog of Europe …
‘It’s Julius’s fault. He started it. We promised we wouldn’t talk politics. We’ve got a thousand more interesting things to say to each other.’
‘Madeleine’s very strict,’ Julius said. ‘She’s interested in everything bar politics. She’d like us all to be like her. It’s not easy, you have to admit.’
The small man with the moustache, whose name was Oscar Dulonjé, conceded that politics was not women’s business.
‘What a prick!’ Nelly Tristan murmured in Jean’s ear. ‘Who is he?’
Had Monsieur Dulonjé heard her? He appeared disconcerted and hesitant. He decided to ignore the interruption and Madeleine, keen to salvage the situation, turned to Nelly.
‘My dear Nelly, when are you starting filming?’
‘Tomorrow morning. But if I carry on the way I’m going, there’s a very good chance I may be a teeny bit late at the studio.’
She emptied her whisky glass and then her white wine, and shot the table a charming and innocent smile. Jesús put his fork down noisily.
‘I em never goin’ to get used tofoie gras. All this French food is killin’ me. Before the war I live’ on peanuts. Is much more ’ealthy.’
‘Peanuts?’ Julius said. ‘We must be able to find those. Laura, will you make a note?’
Fräulein Bruckett said timidly, ‘I’m afraid it may be impossible.’
Julius came to her rescue.
‘If Laura says it is impossible, she knows better than anyone. She’s a secretary at the Department of Supply. A pity, my dear Jesús, you will have to wait for the war to be over before you can stop being forced to eatfoie gras.’
‘I haven’ anysing agains’ thefoie gras. Is quite pretty on a plate with this little black truffle and the nice white border.’
‘You have to be an artist to notice that sort of thing,’ Madeleine said.
The husband of the woman with the fish-eyed stare decided it was time to speak.
‘Monsieur is a painter? I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Rhesús! Rhesús Infante!’
‘He means Jesús, of course,’ Palfy added, his eyes sparkling with pleasure at so much stupidity spread out before him.
‘No one is allowed to call himself Jesús!’ Madame Michette said indignantly. ‘It is … blasphemous.’
‘No’ allowed! No’ allowed!’ Jesús shouted, choking.
Jean saw Madeleine looking desperate. Her dinner was going downhill. He rushed to her rescue.
‘Madame Michette means that in the Auvergne it’s not customary. No one would call their son Jesús. Not even a bishop. But in Spain, and especially in Andalusia, Jesús is a familiar … presence, someone people talk to every day, to praise him, to curse him or pray to him. Is that right, Jesús?’
Nelly Tristan leant towards Jean a second time and whispered, ‘Don’t you find a woman who’s drunk disgusting?’
A servant was circulating constantly, a bottle in his hand, each time filling up her glass, which, as soon as it was full, she emptied. She was looking paler and paler. Her gaze shimmered with a general, directionless tenderness.
‘No,’ Jean said quietly.
‘I’m not talking about going to bed, I mean in a general way.’
These private exchanges were arousing the disquiet of a fat, fortyish man in a loud tie seated at the far end of the table. He was unable to hear Nelly’s words but appeared anxious to avoid the scene he felt was on the point of erupting. It came as a visible relief to him when Nelly stood up, pushed back her chair and, addressing Madeleine in an affected voice, said, ‘Where’s the little girls’ room, darling?’
The fortyish man stood up too and asked Madeleine to excuse him.
‘I’ll show her.’
‘As you like.’
He took Nelly’s arm and they left the dining room.
‘You know she’s amazingly talented!’ Madeleine said.
‘She is,’ Julius said, ‘and also very lucky to have a producer like Émile Duzan. He’s like a father to all his stars.’
‘All the same,’ Palfy said, ‘I rather think there’s an age when daddies stop taking their little girls to the toilet, and she’s past it.’
‘Very unhealthy curiosity, I call it!’ Madame Michette said. ‘Now my girls …’
She stopped and looked at Palfy, who smiled back with perfect sweetness, inviting her to go on.
‘You have many girls?’ Julius asked.
‘Quite a few!’ Madame Michette said, embarrassed.
‘I’m sure they’re ravishing!’ Oscar Dulonjé said unpleasantly.
‘That’s not for me to say!’ Madame Michette simpered. ‘All I can tell you is that they’re well brought up …’
The servants changed the plates and the butler carved a joint of roast beef whose arrival monopolised the guests’ attention for some time. A young man with a ferret-like profile who had been silent before grasped the opportunity to say a few words.
‘Did you know that the Schillertheater is coming to Paris next month? The French will finally have a chance to get to know Schiller.’
‘Indeed,’ Julius said, ‘that’s no bad thing. Schiller’s a European writer whose reputation has suffered – though no longer – from the disharmony between France and Germany. Alas, I hear they’re putting onKabale und Liebe,12which is far from being one of his best plays. Franco-German relations deserve a little more care.’
Madame Michette helped herself shamelessly to three slices of roast beef, a liberty she would never have allowed herself at Zizi’s table, but in all this warmth and luxury and feeling of being with the right people she was losing her sense of proportion.
‘In return,’ the young man said, ‘you should do Claudel. Apparently he’s very good in German …’
‘I’ve never read Claudel,’ Julius said, ‘but I hear a lot of talk about him. He was a director of Gnome and Rhône,13which is working for our new Europe now, and a distinguished ambassador. The Comédie Française has a project it wants my help with. A very large number of costumes. In these times of restriction it’s not easy to lay one’s hands on the necessary fabric, but we’ll do our best. I think the play’s calledThe Satin Slipper…’
Nelly Tristan had just come back into the room with her producer, smiling happily, and pounced on the play’s name.
‘The Satin Slipper!It’s gorgeous. I’ve read it – it must be at least ten hours long. I love Claudel. I recited his ode to Marshal Pétain forschoolchildren. Everyone cried. And there was a prayer that reminded me I was one of Mary’s children …’
Suddenly there occurred a miraculous moment, which captivated all the dinner guests as Nelly, whom they hardly knew and whom they looked down on with the bourgeois disdain proper towards actresses and kept women – and Nelly was both – as Nelly lowered her voice and in a tone of unexpected and pure emotion recited Claudel’s very beautiful prayer:
‘I see the open church, and must go in. It’s midday.
Mother of Jesus, I haven’t come to pray.
I’ve nothing to ask of you, nothing to say.
I’ve come here, Mother, just to look at you, and not look away …’
Nelly hiccuped and frowned.
‘Shit! I can’t remember the rest, but it’s really lovely. By the end I was crying too. It’s good that I’ve forgotten it, really, isn’t it? What’s this? Roast. Madeleine darling, we do stuff ourselves with you. I adore you, and Julius too. You know, if you and Julius weren’t having this big thing together, I’d be your girlfriend just like that …’
Émile Duzan was squirming on his chair, pink and embarrassed.
‘Listen, Nelly, just stop drinking, will you?’
‘Poor love, I’m making him uncomfortable. He’s such a sensitive flower.’
‘I like it when people are honest!’ Madame Michette said.
‘I’m flattered!’ Julius declared.
‘Me too!’ Madeleine added.
‘Can I have the mustard?’ the woman with the fish-eyed stare asked.
They gave her her mustard and she said no more for the rest of the evening, except as she was leaving, when she said goodbye and thank you in a tight-lipped way. The remaining guests wondered why she had been invited, and if she had even been aware of being at dinnerwith other people, whose wandering conversation never actually appeared to reach her, even when her husband raised his voice to say, ‘My wife and I …’ The rest of the dinner passed off in the same way. Jesús had a spat with the ferret-faced young man when he expressed his scorn for modern painting, and Oscar Dulonjé and Émile Duzan discovered with equal emotion that both had joined the same political party on the same day, the party whose great objective was France’s entry into Hitler’s united Europe.
In the drawing room, where they returned after dinner, Palfy elaborated an interesting theory concerning the curfew and the rise in the birth rate, despite two million men being confined in stalags and oflags. Julius became embarrassed and attempted to change the subject several times; Palfy took no notice. Jean was probably the only guest to discern, behind his friend’s salacious speculations, the ironic and mischievous sense of humour he had cultivated in England during his brief period of splendour. As the hours went by Madame Michette became redder and redder, victim to the high blood pressure she suffered from every time she mixed white wine, claret, champagne and Alsatian cherry brandy. But that was what people had come for: to drink and eat and turn their back on daily hardships. They had drunk and they had eaten. Now their fear of missing the second-to-last Métro and the last connection was beginning to be all-pervasive; Nelly, who, having sobered up once, was well on the way to getting drunk again, provided the last event of the evening. She snagged her stocking, and it ran. Madeleine immediately brought her a new pair and, beneath the concupiscent gaze of the male guests, she hitched up her skirt and changed them. There was a glimpse of frothy white lace knickers, of the sort worn by French cancan dancers.
‘They’re a present from Émile!’ she said. ‘He likes them. It’s a fixation of his. There are worse ones.’
She had good legs. Oscar Dulonjé, forgetting politics for a moment, confessed that he found them ‘very shapely’.
‘Shapely?’ Nelly replied. ‘I trust your willy’s just as shapely, in that case.’
Émile Duzan coughed until he choked. Dulonjé blushed. Jesús had got to his feet, and people noticed that Fräulein Laura Bruckett, who had stayed in the background for most of the evening, had succeeded in attracting enough of his attention to have a fair chance of spending the night with him. Regulations forbade her gaze to linger on a Frenchman. As a Spaniard, Jesús had neutral status. Julius took Jean aside for a moment in the hall.
‘We must meet again. I’m sure you’re getting bored in that gallery of yours. And this La Garenne is a disreputable character. You’re a young man with a future. Europe needs new men. Your friend Palfy interests me a great deal.’
‘I’m not bored at the gallery,’ Jean said. ‘It’s a good place while I wait—’
‘Ah, you waiters! There’s a choice to be made. The workers who turn up at the eleventh hour won’t be the most welcome.’
After Julius, it was Madeleine’s turn to pull Jean into her bedroom. She had got a parcel ready for him, wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a gold ribbon.
‘You told me she has a little boy, didn’t you?’
‘How old is he?’
‘They’re still sweet at that age. He must be going without a lot of things. I thought you could put this underneath his Christmas tree.’
Jean kissed Madeleine, who suddenly had tears in her eyes.
‘You can count on me,’ she said. ‘But I understand you’re reluctant … Julius is very good, very generous. He likes the French.’
Madeleine, once so suspicious, had discovered a world of good intentions.
‘I don’t doubt it. How does he know so many things about me, about all of us?’
‘Yes, it’s strange. He knows everything.’
They went back to the others, who were wrapping themselves in furs and scarves to face the freezing December night. A bicycle-taxi was waiting for Nelly and her producer. They separated at the Étoile: Palfy and Madame Michette were staying at a hotel in Avenue Victor-Hugo, Jesús, Jean and Laura got into the second-to-last carriage of the Métro.
Just before Concorde Jean said, ‘I’ll carry on to Châtelet. See you in the morning.’
‘You don’ ’ave to.’
But Jesús did not protest and got off, holding Laura’s arm.
The lights were out on Quai Saint-Michel. The concierge let him in after a peremptory ‘Who is it? Where are you going?’ Jean rang Claude’s bell and she opened the door, clutching the collar of a quilted dressing gown to her throat.
‘I’d given up waiting for you,’ she said.
He bent forward and kissed her cheek.
‘You’re freezing. I can’t light a fire, I haven’t got any more wood. Cyrille is sleeping with two jumpers. Do you want to sleep here?’
‘I’ve only got one spare blanket.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
He sat on the couch that had given him so many sleepless nights, listening to the city’s sounds, peering through the shutters for the dawn that would awaken a slumbering Paris.
‘Why didn’t you come?’
‘I was invited to dinner. Madeleine gave me this parcel to go under Cyrille’s Christmas tree.’
‘I felt so badly about not having anything to give him. Who is this good fairy?’
‘She’s not a fairy.’
Claude sat down next to him. He put his arms around her, squeezingher with a strength that made her anxious.
‘We mustn’t leave each other any more,’ he said.
‘No. Not even for an evening.’
‘Not even for an evening.’
Claude shivered. Jean picked up the blanket and they wrapped it around themselves, huddled against each other. Just before drowsiness overcame them, Claude murmured, ‘You have nothing to fear from me.’
‘I hope so.’
Cyrille woke them at the crack of dawn.
‘Jean, Jean. Don’t you even take your coat off to sleep with Maman?’
How we would love to follow Madame Michette on one of her topsecret missions, and see her employing the most varied methods of propulsion to travel the highways and byways of occupied France! Never will she remind us more strongly of Madame Belazor, paramour of Pancrace Eusèbe Zéphyrin Brioché, alias Cosinus the scientist.14Palfy himself, like the scientist, does not leave Paris. From his hotel room in Avenue Victor-Hugo he directs his agent’s escapades, while she is driven on by the sheer force of her romantic folly. But the pursuit of Madame Michette would soon leave us breathless, and divert us too from our subject: the unconsummated, yet so perfect love that binds Jean Arnaud to Claude Chaminadze. All the reader need know, then, is that Madame Michette’s zeal will not falter and that Julius Kapermeister has promised that, by February or March 1941 at the latest, Sergeant-Major Michette is to be released and leave his camp in a contingent of fathers of large families. Does he not have eight industrious girls waiting at home in Clermont-Ferrand? The alert reader will naturally have asked themselves another question: who does Madame Michette think she is working for? She does not know. A secret within a secret makes an endless hall of mirrors, in which Madame Michette only sees her own face repeated in ever diminishing reflections. When she seeks reassurance, Palfy demurs: the golden rule of counterespionage is that agents are acted on, not acting. He assures her that her missions will remain without risk so long as she speaks to no one about them, and that, at present, it is vital for her to stay in training before more serious operations. Despite the suspicion in which female agents are held – ‘their flesh is weak,’ Palfy notes mirthlessly – she is already held in high regard by his superiors. From books purchased at second-handhand booksellers’ on the banks of the Seine, she learns the basics of operational work. Hers is an exhilarating adventure. Let us allow it to take its course without exposing Palfy’s intentions too soon. Does he himself know what they are? In all honesty, now he is just having fun, yet with the impressive instinct that has guided him so well in his exploitation of human foolishness he strongly suspects that Madame Michette may one day be genuinely useful to his ambitions. We shall see his suspicion proved right. Meanwhile he has concluded that there is nothing to be gained from a man like La Garenne, a second-division fraud and insatiable overeater, a slob taking advantage of the times but already behind them. True, the gallery’s turnover is continuing to rise, but it is really nothing to do with Louis-Edmond. Let us be honest and admit that Palfy is right: La Garenne has been overtaken, failing to realise that, by dint of his greed and ever-present meanness, he has become dependent on Blanche de Rocroy (whose cousin Rudolf has reappeared, wanting to get hold of some Braques and Derains), and dependent too on Jean, without whom Jesús would refuse to paint either his erotic nudes or the forgeries from which the fat man is piling up a fortune. Ever impatient, from time to time La Garenne buys a fine picture from Jesús at a price that seems madness to him, and one day will turn out to have been absurdly low. The canvas joins the others in a cupboard whose contents no one will think to examine until the war is over and peace has been declared.
Yet a little light has also been shed on the mystery of La Garenne. Blanche, sweeping up and dusting before the gallery opens, selling unspeakably bad pictures with rare refinement, ironing her employer’s trousers and from time to time providing him with oral relief, also deals with the book-keeping and tax returns. Thanks to a document left lying on the table, Jean has learnt that the gallery in fact belongs to a woman named Mercedes del Loreto, of no known profession, living in Rue de la Gaîté, in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. We should say straight away that at first the name meant nothing to him. He thought it sounded attractive and romantic. But Palfy, whose knowledge, atleast in this particular cultural sphere, was vast, was startled by the news.
‘What? She’s still alive! She must be a hundred if she’s a day. Everyone thinks she’s dead. She wasn’t exactly a spring chicken when Edward VII had his way with her, just after Félix Faure. Don’t you realise? Mercedes del Loreto is a truly historic figure! Historic!’
She had modelled for Toulouse-Lautrec (Albi museum still had his portrait of her) and been both high-class courtesan and variously lover and fleeting mistress to a wide circle of rich men. If she owned an art gallery, it raised questions. Palfy set Madame Michette on the trail. Staking out Rue de la Gaîté, she soon discovered La Garenne’s hideout, the den to which he disappeared at night and certain hours of the day: an apartment under the rafters, opposite the Bobino music hall. Allow me to romanticise Madame Michette’s somewhat dry reports a little, while not failing to do justice to their key points.
A dark and sticky staircase filled with choice odours from the toilets on each floor led to the top landing and a single door fitted with security locks. There was not even a concierge to provide the smallest titbit of gossip! The postman left the mail in zinc letterboxes. One of these bore, handwritten, the grandiose name of Mercedes del Loreto. After two days of watching, Madame Michette had initiated a conversation with a little old lady stepping downstairs with her shopping bag in one hand and a cigarette between her lips, her face whitened with powder and grey hair curled with tongs.
‘Ah, Mercedes del Loreto!’ the old lady had said. ‘Of course I know her. It must be fifteen years since I saw her in the building. But she’s still up there, still with us. Only yesterday I heard her shrieking. As if there was a sea lion up there … You know’ – she waved her arms and blew out her cheeks – ‘arrh, arrh … oowowoowow… What would you say to a quick glass of white at thetabacon the corner? You wouldn’thave a cigarette, would you? A proper one! I say, things are looking up. Oh, they’re German. You won’t find the black market flooded with those. The Fritzes keep an eye on things. Plays by the rules, their army.’
They walked to the nearest bistro and stood at the counter.
‘Two medium-dry whites, Amédée. Anjou, please.’
The barman raised his eyebrows.
‘Madame Berthe, I don’t know if you’ve noticed … there’s a war on. Shortages. Anjou is hard to get hold of.’
‘Oh, do stop pretending. Get the bottle out. She’s a friend.’
The Anjou appeared. Madame Berthe sipped and clucked with her tongue.
‘She moved in in 1920. I know because I was adiseuseat the Bobino then. Did you see me?’
‘No,’ Madame Michette said, ‘I wasn’t living in Paris. You can’t be everywhere.’
‘I quit in 1925. Went to Gaston Baty. Do you know him?’
‘Baty. Théâtre Montparnasse, you know.’
‘And you’re adiseuse?’ Madame Michette repeated worriedly, a provincial who had no idea what adiseusewas.
‘No, I’m a dresser now. Marguerite Jamois, I dressed her. I did. Oh, there were plenty of actors who couldn’t do without me: Lucien Nat, Georges Vitray. There wasn’t a button out of place inMaya, inSimoom, in TheShadow of Evil. That was great theatre, Madame. What’s your name?’
‘Marceline, Marceline Michette.’
‘If you told me you were from the Auvergne it wouldn’t surprise me.’
‘Like him. Monsieur Baty’s from Pélussin. Do you know it?’
‘No, I’m more from Montaigut-le-Blanc.’
‘Don’t know it. Anyway, it can’t be far. What do you want from old Mercedes?’
‘It’s for a newspaper.’
‘Journalists, I’m used to them. Always hanging round me, waiting for gossip. I suppose everyone’s got to live.’
Madame Michette ignored the jibe. What would this stupid old woman have said if she had found out she was talking to a secret agent?
‘Mercedes has paid the price for her adventures. Hasn’t gone out since 1925. In the beginning you’d hear her walking on her peg leg: knock, knock, knock … Just like Sarah Bernhardt. She was at Saint-Gervais when Bertha sent over one of her big ones.15Bang … no more leg. A terrible thing for a lady who liked to lead the men a merry dance,’ she giggled, knocking back her white wine, ‘and then she took to her bed. Been there for fifteen years. There’s a chap who lives with her. Some say he’s her last husband, others that he’s her son. As disreputable as they come, I can tell you. One evening I found him pissing on the stairs; it was running all the way down. He looked very sheepish. Don’t say anything, don’t say a word, he begged me. He was afraid I’d tell the old girl, his old girl … I don’t know. He goes up to feed her every night and every lunchtime, and if he’s late she starts shrieking:arrh, arrh…oowowoowow…’
The barman, washing glasses behind the counter, grinned.
‘All right, Madame Berthe, still doing your impressions?’
‘My dear Amédée,’ the dresser said, ‘you’re such a peasant. I’m not doing an impression. I am Mercedes del Loreto; I do her better than she does. By the way, your wine is watered down.’
She had drunk her half-glass in a single gulp. Madame Michette bought her another. At the end of each mission she provided Palfy with a list of her expenses, which he signed and passed on to higher quarters. When peace was declared she would be reimbursed.
‘They haven’t got any facilities up there,’ Madame Berthe went on, ‘so he empties the chamber pots. He does it very discreetly, but I’ve seen him. He’s devoted to her. He’s not a bad lad, deep down. People aren’t all good or all bad, generally. There’s degrees. What did you say your paper’s name was?’
‘It’s published in the unoccupied zone.’
‘Oh, down in the free! Some folk think they’re clever, but it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other wherever you go. We’re free here too. We’re chatting, aren’t we?’
‘We are,’ Madame Michette said.
‘So that Mercedes del Loreto, she had a fine old time, I’ll say. Bankers and princes. All right, fine … but in the end we’re all the same … same pussy, up and down, not side to side … even the Chinese. Then one day a wooden overcoat … That chap who lives with the old girl, there’s one or two who knew him around here. Before the war – I mean the 14–18, not the last one; that was a joke. Yes, he used to hang around the cafés at Montparnasse. Did caricatures. Went from table to table with a sketch pad and pencil. Portrait? he’d say. People let him get on with it. They called him Léonard Twenty-Sous. That’s all I know.’
So La Garenne ceased to be a mystery. He was Mercedes del Loreto’s son, and at one time in his life had felt he was an artist. All that was left of his ambition was the way he dressed and an unrelenting meanness from his hungry years. Jean told Jesús. He was unexpectedly moved. La Garenne a failure? The old shit had at last won his sympathy. Jesús vowed not to insult him quite so coarsely in future. Palfy also appeared to be touched.
‘The thought of him emptying his mother’s chamber pots makes me want to cry. I wouldn’t have done as much for mine. Let’s leave him to his little rackets. He’ll never hit the big time. But you, my dear Jean, it’s about time you stood on your own two feet. In the space of a few months you’ve learnt most of the tricks of the most crooked trade in Paris. You should open a gallery.’
‘What with? I don’t have a sou.’
‘Our dear Marceline will provide for you. She’s from the Auvergne. A saver.’
‘Precisely. She’s from the Auvergne, so she’s not stupid.’
‘To do her duty as a patriot she’d happily hand over every franc. I’ll take care of it.’
In barely two months Palfy had gathered together what he continued to call the best capital there was: contacts. Almost nightly his place was laid at Avenue Foch, in an apartment that had become one of the most sought-after destinations in Paris. Soon after midday he was to be found at Maxim’s or Lapérouse’s or in one of those bistros at Les Halles whose doors were only opened to a select few. Paris could no longer do without Julius and Madeleine, and they could no longer do without Palfy. Thanks to Julius, the theatres effortlessly managed to get hold of the cloth and materials they needed for their costumes and sets, which, with unconscious competitiveness, had never seemed quite so sumptuous. Stagehands, judged to be indispensable for the resumption of the economic life of the country, were released from their POW camps. Sergeant-Major Michette was freed as promised. His brief period of captivity had transformed him. Glimpsed as he passed through Paris, he was greatly slimmed down; like Samson losing his hair, in losing his paunch he had lost his authority. Madame Michette was pitiless: she kept him for a few days, then sent him back to Clermont-Ferrand alone to look after the running of the Sirène. She had no use for a clod like her husband in the giddy exhilaration of her Parisian existence and her secret missions. He belonged to another epoch, a bygone era. She explained the situation to Palfy.
‘I can’t concentrate with him here. He’s only interested in himself. He’s like a horse with blinkers on, he only sees what’s in front of him.’
Hadn’t she read in a work describing espionage for the general public that a spy must be asexual? The truth was that, being very used to the sight of human unhappiness and its several forms of relief in her ‘establishment’, she felt repugnance for the practical matters to which Monsieur Michette attempted to draw her back after his extended state of celibacy. She intended to remain chaste, convinced that in ‘high places’ close attention was being paid to her slightestactions prior to her selection for her great mission. The rigorous morals she had imposed on the girls at the Sirène, the attention she paid to their futures when they grew too old, matched a need in her to be respected for the work she did. Hadn’t she dismissed two girls who had confessed to falling in love, one with a soldier, the other – worse still – with a town councillor who was a freemason?
Through the offices of Blanche de Rocroy, Palfy had befriended Colonel von Rocroy in the course of mutually flaunting an exchange of entries from theAlmanach de Gotha. In the belief that he had found someone from ‘his own world’ Rudolf had explained his Paris mission: to protect works of art abandoned by their owners when they had fled abroad. A mission to be performed quite disinterestedly by the Great Reich, which desired to maintain order in the new Europe, plus a redistribution of its riches among those who deserved them. Hadn’t Napoleon (who remained one of Hitler’s historical role models) acted very similarly in the creation of his own Europe? Rocroy had been put in charge of a depository at Boulogne-Billancourt where paintings and furniture were stored. He also happened occasionally to buy the odd contemporary master for himself and a few close friends, excellent investments at the exchange rate fixed by the victorious power.
Yet again Jean’s eyes were opened by Palfy. He was gradually becoming less easy to surprise, now seeing La Garenne’s small-scale frauds as amusing trifles in comparison with the rackets of Rocroy and Kapermeister. The difference lay in their manner. Léonard Twenty-Sous would never have their style, despite his mother welcoming princes to her bed. The deep disgust that sometimes overcame Jean might have pushed him to an extreme solution if he had not had Claude and the few hours they spent together at Quai Saint-Michel and occasional nights when he slept on her narrow couch. Since the night they had spent wrapped in each other’s arms, shivering and sad, not daring to take their caresses further, a new intimacy had grown up between them. He had accepted that she could not tell him a secret that was not hers to share, and took what she offered him with a sinceritythat was completely genuine. Despite feeling sad, even gloomy sometimes, he asked for nothing more. Jogging back to Montmartre alone at night or daybreak, trying to stay fit, he felt rocks of despair falling on his heart and crushing it. Then, a few hours later, he felt Claude’s hand on his face, stroking his cheek, and heard the voice he loved most in the world say to him with a sweetness that instantly revived him, ‘No other man would put up with what you put up with. I feel ashamed. Will you forgive me?’
‘What for? I come here and I breathe fresh air. I’m not giving up. The truth is, I’ve never been so happy, and I’ve been a lot more unhappy.’
The apartment was no longer heated. Claude had installed a stove in the sitting-room fireplace, and with Cyrille she scoured the banks of the river and the Luxembourg Gardens for kindling. Jean arrived with logs Jesús had given him, himself generously supplied by the daughter of a coal merchant in Rue Caulaincourt. They ate dinner in front of the roaring stove and Cyrille fell asleep between them on the couch. Claude scooped him up in her arms and carried him to the double bed where she covered him up to his chin so that only his blond curls, his eyelids with their long, heavy lashes, and his nose, pink with cold in the morning, were visible.
‘I can never sleep on my own again,’ she said. ‘He’s my little man. Almost not my son. Since he started talking I don’t need to go to the cinema or theatre any more – he acts for me all day long – or open a book, because I feel I’m writing one with him in his head, with the names of the trees, the flowers, lessons about things, stars and fairies. I’m just afraid he likes you too. Too much …’
Jean understood without her spelling it out. When Georges Chaminadze came back Claude would say nothing, erasing Jean from her past, but Cyrille would talk. She hid her face in her hands.
‘It’s terrible not to know what’s going to happen. At this moment, I can tell you, I find it unbearable, absolutely unbearable.’
One evening, when she started to cry, he put his arms around herand kissed her tears away. He had discovered her weakness, so well masked by so much courage and warmth.
‘I want to take you away somewhere else,’ he said.
‘Yes, maybe, somewhere else.’
At the end of May 1941 Cyrille could not shake off a bout of flu. A doctor prescribed a period of convalescence in the Midi. But how could they get out of the occupied zone? Within hours Madeleine had obtained three travel permits. Jean bought their tickets for Saint-aphaël. La Garenne made his displeasure felt.
‘You’re really in tune with the times, aren’t you! Holidays? You think now’s the moment for holidays? With two million prisoners of war and a hundred thousand dead? London and Coventry are ablaze, and Monsieur Arnaud’s going on holiday. I’ll be a laughing stock if I say yes. Look at Blanche! Three years she’s worked for me, and not one day off! People are starving. Hostages are being shot. But Monsieur Arnaud doesn’t care. He’s off to the land where the oranges grow. Dear sir, you would die of hunger if I let you swan off to the Midi. You’re behaving like a silly romantic girl.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
La Garenne reddened, then went pale with fury. He had the vicious look weak people have when their anger makes them forget their physical wretchedness and cowardice. Jean thought they might come to blows, which would have been laughable.
Blanche wrung her hands, begging, ‘Louis-Edmond, please …’
Some customers in uniform were waiting. They left with some drawings and a sheaf of photographs, the last pictures of Alberto Senzacatso, who had been arrested at the request of the Italian authorities. (He had not been taken into custody for his modestphotographic output but for political ideas that he had long since abandoned in favour of his definitive study of Mannerism. A visitor to the gallery and admirer of his, always dressed sombrely in plain clothes and afflicted with a strong German accent, had expressed sympathy for the photographer’s predicament and promised to look into his case.)
Watched by his customers, La Garenne swept into the ‘bosom of bosoms’ and shut himself inside. His no was final. Jean took the money he was owed from the till. Blanche kissed him, genuinely moved.
‘I’ll sort things out,’ she said. ‘Go away and don’t worry. The important thing is for your friend’s little boy to get some colour back in his cheeks. Nothing else matters.’
‘I’d appreciate it if you didn’t sort anything out. I’m not worried; I’ve got enough to live on for three months. To be honest, I never want to see La Garenne again.’
‘I know he exaggerates, but deep down he’s a generous man! It’s just that he’s so proud he doesn’t want anyone to see his noble feelings …’
It was a mystery why Blanche persisted in such a grandiose view of this person whose only attractions were his madness and the secret of his ancient ex-courtesan of a mother, now bedridden and snorting like a sea lion: ‘Arrh, arrh… oowowoowow…’ But it would have been cruel to rob Blanche of her illusions.
At Gare de Lyon they boarded a second-class carriage on a packed train that left an hour late and stopped repeatedly to let Wehrmacht transports through. Matériel and men were rolling back northwards, carriages full of blank-faced young soldiers eating and smoking, their jackets undone; artillery and tanks under tarpaulins.
They were eight in their compartment and no one spoke. Cyrille had a reserved seat. A fat man was so close to squashing him that Jean and Claude sat him on their lap rather than protest. The travellers watched each other with sidelong glances in an atmosphere that was suspicious rather than hostile; each clutched on his or her knees a basket or an attaché case too valuable to be put up in the luggage rack. A young couple facing Jean held hands without saying a word. Their appearance was so similar – the same yellow, gaunt complexions, the same big black eyes and full lips – they might have been taken for brother and sister, but their intertwined hands bespoke a deep and anguished love. In the seat nearest the corridor an old woman with wizened cheeks plunged her hand repeatedly into a basket from which she pulled out bread, apples and biscuits which she chewed slowly, her gaze deliberately vacant so as to ignore the covetous looks of her travelling companions. Cyrille was fascinated by her. After watching her for a time, he held out half a bar of chocolate that he had been nibbling.
‘Are you hungry, Madame?’ he said.
She took the chocolate with a delighted smile and mumbled her thanks, then, unable to avoid the astonished looks around her, felt she needed to justify herself.
‘The food coupons we get, we old ones are in a lot more danger of kicking the bucket. It’s all for the young these days …’
No one reacted, and she closed her basket and fell silent.
At Tournus, at the line of demarcation, people’s faces stiffened as they did their best to give nothing away, despite their anxiety. They all knew that no one’s papers were ever entirely in order, and that each day some of those who hoped to cross the line after weeks and sometimes months of effort to do so would be refused. TheFeldgendarmen, huge, in gleaming helmets, with steel plates hung around their necks on chains, wearing brown wool gloves and giving off a strong smell of leather and homespun, blocked the corridors and pushed back the sliding doors.
They examined theAusweiseone by one, comparing the identity photograph with the traveller’s face, then passed the permits to a man in civilian clothes, a file in his hand. A glance at this, and the Gestapo inspector returned the permit. Or he kept it and theFeldgendarmeordered the traveller to collect their luggage and get off the train. As they had feared constantly since they left Paris, the man and woman who had been holding hands were called out of the carriage and ordered onto the platform. They were seen entering an office with a German inscription on the door. A sentry stood guard. Jean felt sure he had seen another emotion besides resignation on their faces, almost an expression of relief, like the one articulated two years later in Paris by Tristan Bernard in an admirable phrase when he was arrested: ‘Until now we were living in fear, from now on we shall live in hope.’
After a two-hour wait the train set off again, at a snail’s pace. Through the windows passengers glimpsed the blue uniforms of French gendarmes, policemen wearing képis at a rakish angle, even a squad of soldiers in khaki on their way to relieve their comrades. The travellers put their packages in the luggage rack, and the fat man spread his backside further across the space left by Cyrille. The old woman with wizened cheeks said dismissively, ‘They were Jews!’
The fat man, biting into a sandwich, stopped with his mouth full.
‘It’s understandable that the Germans are angry with them. The Jews have done so many bad things to them! You should have seen what Berlin was like after the Great War. The cess pit of Europe …’
No one reacted. With the line of demarcation behind them the passengers had succumbed to nervous fatigue. At Lyon-Perrache some of them got off. The old woman who couldn’t stop eating disappeared down the platform in search of food. She returned with some cakes made from millet flour, which she dusted with sugar.
‘Will you give me one, Madame?’ Cyrille asked.
‘Oh, little boy, they’re not very good. It’s millet, you know, those little seeds you used to give to the birds.’
‘What do the birds eat now then?’
‘They get by. They eat worms and usually think they taste better. You don’t need to worry about them.’
‘Worms? If they’re so good, why don’t you eat them?’
She shrugged and stared out of the window at the badly lit platform, the busy railwaymen tapping the bogies with their hammers, soldiers and police, travellers in search of their carriages, their shoulders sagging from the weight of their cheap cardboard suitcases. Three pushed their way into the compartment, cramming their belongings into the luggage racks, trampling on Jean’s feet and claiming that Cyrille had no right to a reservation. A conductor had to be called. At last the train steamed off into the night. Cyrille fell asleep, his head on Claude’s lap, and she dozed off leaning against Jean. Dawn light awoke them just outside Marseille. Two years earlier Jean had covered the same route with Palfy, travelling in comfort on the Blue Train. Flashing through most of the stations without stopping, it had connected Paris with Saint-Raphaël, Cannes and Nice in a matter of hours, usually spent drinking and eating in the dining car. On that occasion he had not known where he was going and had let himself wallow in the pleasurable wretchedness that had been gnawing at him since Chantal de Malemort had run away. Each turn of the wheels, carrying him further from his too hurtful memories and useless regrets, had broken his heart a little more, proving how painful we find it to abandon the things that hurt us most. Now the same monotonous rhythm was taking him further from Paris again, but also binding him a little closer to Claude, whose simple, calm, sleeping face reflected her tiredness after the last twenty-four hours on the train. He did not move for fear of waking her. Her hand held Cyrille’s, the little boy still sleeping, pale and open-mouthed. In her corner the wizened old woman opened her basket and bit into a sandwich, her gaze once more vacant. The compartment stank of soot, cold food and the passengers being prodded from their stupor by the first glimmer of daylight, with their unshaven cheeks and strong breath. It was cold, and rain lashed atthe dirty windows. Beyond Marseille they glimpsed the Mediterranean, as grey as the English Channel. At Saint-Raphaël the rain was pouring down in an icy deluge that streamed through the gaps in the badly maintained platform awning. A horse-drawn carriage took them to the port, where they found a room with twin beds. A cot was brought for Cyrille. The restaurant had just closed and would not be serving food until seven. Jean went out to look for a corner shop and came back with a loaf of bread and three oranges. The rain would not stop, and gusts of wind tore across the surface of the port between bobbing helpless yachts, bending the tamarisks double along the empty quayside. The storm went on for two days. They shivered in their icy room. The hotel had no extra blankets to offer them. Every room was occupied. Claude took Cyrille into her bed. He had started coughing again and stayed with his forehead resting against the window, watching the boats rolling and pitching all along the harbour wall. A screen concealed the washbasin. Claude was first up and splashed herself with cold water. From his bed Jean watched her, naked, in the wardrobe mirror: her fine ankles, her maddeningly lovely bust, her womanly hips and, at the base of her back, a downy softness so sweet that he had to close his eyes, unable to bear it. On the second day, glancing in the mirror, she realised that if she could see Jean in the wardrobe glass, he must be able to see her behind the screen.
‘Why are you spying on me?’ she asked.
‘Why shouldn’t I spy on you?’
Wrapped in a towel, she pushed the screen aside and sat on the edge of his bed. Cyrille was still sleeping, and they had to talk in low voices.
‘What if he wasn’t here?’ Jean said, pointing to Cyrille.
She thought about his question with the seriousness and concentration she showed every time they discussed their unusual relations.
‘I wouldn’t be so strong.’
‘He wasn’t there to protect you when you went away for three days.’
‘Do you still think about that?’
‘Now and then.’
Stretching out his arm, he held her ankle, squeezed it hard, ran his hand up her shin to the knee he loved so much and stroked her thigh, exposed by the towel.
‘No!’ she said.
Her eyes glistened with tears.
‘I want it as much as you do,’ she whispered. ‘But not here. Not here. Not now.’
‘You’re right, it’s horrible here. And we came to find the sun. I hate this place, I hate the wardrobe, the colour of the curtains, the violet carpet, that embroidered armchair. Let’s not stay. I’ll telephone Antoine.’
‘My grandfather, but he doesn’t know it and I’m not going to be the one to tell him. He lives at Saint-Tropez.’
It was not Antoine who answered, because he was out fishing in his rowing boat as he did every morning, but Toinette, whose cool voice and singsong accent brought back the last delicious summer before the war, the cruises on Théo’s ‘yacht’ and a way of living in the moment that now seemed lost for ever. The hotel was shut, she said, and her mother and father were in the ‘village’, but her mother would phone back before lunch.
It was Théo who telephoned at lunchtime.
‘What’s all this, Jean, your rain from Paris you’re bringing us? We’re going to send you and your miserable storms straight back, you know. And what the hell are you doing at Saint-Raphaël? It’s the middle of nowhere. Antoine and me’ve decided you’re coming here. I’ll pick you up in the truck at three, if I can get the gas generator going.’
‘I’m not on my own, I’ve got a friend with me, a girlfriend.’
‘Saints … Toinette didn’t say nothing about that. I hope she’s good-looking, at least.’
‘I think so.’
‘That’s all right then. We got to take life as it comes … we’ve been making do ever since we ran out of petrol … What was the war like? We got plenty of time, save it for later … I’ll pick you up at three.’
The rain stopped just before Théo arrived, and a radiant sun daubed the houses in fresh colours and lightened the ochre mass of the Maures, sending up a bluish mist in the new sunshine. Théo assured them that wherever he went, the sun followed him. His truck smelt of fish.
‘I never make a trip for nothing. I’ve brought them two hundred kilos. They don’t know how to fish at Saint-Raphaël. I’m taking chickpeas and rice back. That’s all they have here. Put your bags on top.’
He showed no surprise at seeing Cyrille. He stroked his cheek and peeled him an orange.
‘Nice boy. A bit pasty. We’ll fix that.’
Théo had not changed. The odd grey hair at his temples, but his face had stayed young, enlivened constantly by the winks, pouts and comical expressions that punctuated his indefatigable chatter. He had sold his ‘yacht’, which had sailed away, laden with English passengers, just after the armistice. His truck now satisfied his hunger for mechanical toys. The gas generator was not perfect, but by fiddling and coaxing, the truck could be made to start. Antoine had looked very happy at the thought of his friend Jean coming, having not seen him for so long. Of course … very happy was putting it too strongly. Being a Norman, a man of the north, he didn’t show his feelings much, and spoke less and less. Fishing was the only thing that interested him. He was getting very good at it. He kept the house well supplied. Toinette was seventeen now. A real angel. She helped her mother. Oh, yes, Marie-Dévote was well too. He’d find her a bit thinner than before … yes, true, Jean hadn’t met her … Well, somesaid she was better-looking like that. He, Théo, he’d liked her skinny, and with a bit of flesh on her, and even good and round, and he loved her the way she was now because there was no other woman on earth like her.
The road followed the curve of the gulf. After three days’ torrential rain the rivers were pouring the red earth of the Maures into the sea, staining the waves. Cyrille sounded the horn as they went round the bends.
‘I tell you, Jean, this little chap’s going to send both of them dotty, Marie-Dévote and Toinette. You don’t see blond kids around here much. They’ll be crazy about him! Cyrille, you say that’s your name?’
‘And polite too! Dotty! Dotty’s what they’ll be, I tell you. They won’t want to give him back! My word on it.’
They were arriving at Saint-Tropez, outside the shuttered hotel. Théo hooted furiously and Toinette appeared at the door in trousers and a sweater, her long chestnut hair falling over her shoulders, instantly reminding Jean of the delightful, unspoken complicity between them during the short summer of 1939 and the deliciously sweet letter he had received at the camp at Yssingeaux where he and Palfy had done their basic training. He could have recited by heart the few lines she had written, to which he had never replied.
Dear godson, I send you my best warm wishes and a muffler. I hope it isn’t dangerous there, where you are. Don’t catch cold. Uncle Antoine sends you a thousand affectionate thoughts. He says you are his only friend. He kisses you, and I shake your hand. Toinette
Marie-Dévote appeared next, as they were unloading their cases. Jean had not seen her before and he was struck by the richness and maturity of her beauty. She had kept her soft skin and her fleshy mouth, like a Provençal nectarine. Rationing had made her lose theten kilos excess that had weighed down her hips and bust. She was no longer the scornful girl, the wild fruit who twenty years earlier had beguiled Antoine, but almost another creature, fully in control of her body and its gestures.
‘Antoine’s waiting for you inside,’ she said. ‘He’s quite choked up at the thought of seeing you again. He hasn’t talked much about you, but we always knew you were his friend from way back.’
Turning to Claude, she said, ‘I’m Marie-Dévote, and this is my daughter Toinette. What’s your little boy’s name?’
‘Cyrille. And I’m Claude.’
‘Cyrille’s my pal,’ Théo said. ‘I’m kidnapping him. We’re going to check over the boat. Like boats, Cyrille?’
He took Théo’s hand and followed him.
‘The hotel’s shut,’ Marie-Dévote said, ‘but we have friends come down now and again and we give them the bungalow over there. There’s one big bedroom. Toinette will bring over a cot for the little one. Come on, Monsieur Jean, Antoine’s waiting. I’ll sort everything else out with Madame Claude. It’s women’s work.’
‘In his little place over on the beach side. It’s his retreat. Nobody but him’s allowed there. You might find he’s changed from when you saw him last. To me – to us,’ she corrected herself, ‘he’s still the same.’
Antoine could not have failed to hear the truck hooting as it arrived. Seated on a stool, he was checking the weights on a line he was coiling into a wicker basket. He looked up as if someone he saw every day had come to disturb him, put down the line, and got to his feet. He too had lost several kilos as a result of rationing, and his faded red cotton trousers and rollneck sweater flapped around him, but at sixty-seven,his face scarcely wrinkled, he remained the same solid Antoine, with the same deliberate step.
‘I’m so pleased to see you again, Jean! A few days ago I was telling myself I’d probably never see anyone from Grangeville again. Deep down I was convinced I’d left it all behind, but this morning when Toinette came to tell me you’d telephoned I suddenly couldn’t wait; I wanted you to be there at once. Come and kiss me. We’re old friends – and I’ve always considered you as my son. Like a second son, one who might have loved me a little … because … the first … Oh, let’s not talk about it. It’s of no interest … See, I’ve become quite chatty, haven’t I? Spending four or five hours every morning in my little boat, all alone, I tell myself stories and when I set foot on dry land it all spills out. Then I shut up again. What are you looking at? Yes, it’s my garage, my workshop, my shed. I’ve got my nets, my lines, my tools … and there’s my last love – you’ll remember her …’
At the back of the garage a waxed tarpaulin covered the shape of a car. Antoine pulled on a rope that ran through a block and the tarpaulin rose, revealing the 3.3-litre Bugatti 57S in which he had driven away from La Sauveté.
‘Obviously she’s not really presentable, except to those in the know. I greased the chromework and the chassis’s up on blocks, so the wheels hardly touch the floor. I know it spoils her lines, but the tyres won’t rot so quickly. I’ve covered the inner tubes with talc. Twice a week I start her up … Wait …’
He sat behind the wheel and tugged the ignition switch. The engine started instantly, perfectly on song.
‘There,’ Antoine said, ‘a little treat for her. She’ll have started three times this week. Can’t afford to spoil her like that too often. I’ve only got two hundred litres of petrol in cans to last till the end of the war. You know that with the 57S you can do the same trick they do with a Rolls-Royce …’
He took a bronze two-sous piece out of his pocket, opened thebonnet, and balanced it on its edge on the cylinder head. The coin stayed upright for several seconds before a stronger vibration of the engine made it fall over.
‘Obviously,’ Antoine said, ‘that wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t on blocks.’
The tarpaulin descended, covering the Bugatti again.
‘They tell me you’re not on your own?’
‘No,’ Jean said. ‘Actually I left Paris to come here with a friend whose little boy badly needs some sun.’
‘Is she divorced?’
‘Not yet. Her husband’s in London.’
‘I look forward to seeing her.’
He said it with the indifference of a man happy with the few friends he had.
‘I haven’t got a lot of news to tell you,’ Jean said. ‘Antoinette’s written. Michel is in Paris. Last month a gallery on the Left Bank had an exhibition of his pictures.’
‘So he really wants to be an artist? It’s a case of spontaneous generation in our family.’
Antoine sat down on his stool to carry on winding his line. The lead weights lay on top of each other, and in the middle of the basket the line coiled up like a lasso.
‘I’m not bored,’ he told Jean. ‘I like this kind of work. You need two or three hours to get a line straight again, and then a few seconds for it all to uncoil into the sea. Time was, I had about thirty trawlers all working for me and never felt the slightest urge to go on board any of them. Now I fish on my own, grandpa out in his boat, and it gives me more pleasure than you can possibly imagine. I didn’t know it, but this was the life I always wanted. I don’t need anything, which is perfect because I don’t own anything, except for my lovely Bugatti that may never go again. There’s a risk that this war will last as long as the first one. It’s not my business … or hardly … Were you old enough to be called up?’
‘Yes, I enlisted in September 1939.’
‘I don’t suppose your father thought much of that. How is he?’
‘Fairly well, I think … I haven’t seen him since then. He works for Madame du Courseau. Antoinette sends me news.’
‘I say your father … it’s a manner of speaking, obviously, as we’re never going to know whose child you really are.’
‘I’ve found out.’
Antoine stood up and reached for a meerschaum pipe, carved in the shape of a Moor’s head with a silver lid, from a rack above a tobacco jar. He filled it with tobacco.
‘I’d be wiser not to smoke,’ he said. ‘Tobacco’s getting scarce and Théo, who keeps me supplied, must be paying a small fortune for it. You don’t smoke?’
‘Not very often.’
Jean hesitated. Was he going to tell him? Here in this shed, with its door open onto a wide beach of sand soaked by the last few days’ rain? The sea was quieter now, and empty. Order reigned inside the shed: nets meticulously tidied, oars leaning against the wall, every tool hanging in its place. A three-horsepower diesel motor, well greased, was hooked onto a trestle. Antoine followed Jean’s gaze.
‘A good little motor. I made do with it very nicely before the war. Now there’s no more fuel. I stripped it down to wait for happier days. It doesn’t have reverse, so the trick is to cut the throttle at the right moment. You can brake with the oars too, of course. Now I row with all my might and have a lateen sail. I never go far, but I usually come back with about ten kilos of fish. We keep what we need and Théo exchanges the rest for olive oil and sugar. We have everything we need …’
‘Aren’t you curious to know whose son I am?’
Antoine relit his pipe.
‘The annoying thing about the tobacco you get on the black marketis that the smugglers sell it by weight. So they soak it. The first thing you have to do is dry it. You’re left with about half what you paid for … You want to know if I’m curious to hear whose son you are? Perhaps. Is it someone I know?’
‘Ah! Come with me. Let’s walk along the beach a bit. I like to stretch my legs. I’m almost always sitting down, in my boat or in my shed.’
They heard Marie-Dévote calling from the terrace of the hotel.
He cupped his hands to his mouth.
‘We’re going for a stroll, we’ll be back.’
She gave a gentle wave and watched them go.
‘She’s a woman of complete, perfect goodness,’ he said. ‘A man as clumsy and demanding as me could have spoilt her, ruined her. She’s stayed the way she was when I met her. Better still, she’s improved. She had a good head on her shoulders and I didn’t even notice it. I only saw her body, only heard her lovely singsong accent.’
Jean was surprised to hear emotion in the voice of this man who had so rarely shown any. It was love: Antoine had stumbled on love, and love had not let him down. They took their shoes off and walked across the cool sand. The tramontana was shooing the last clouds towards the reddening horizon.
‘You know, it’s such a joy to walk barefoot, Jean. I learnt that here …’
He fell silent until they were at the far end of the beach, near a large grey rock.
‘Let’s go back now,’ he said. ‘So whose son are you?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘As sure as I can be.’
‘To tell you the truth, I had my suspicions, but I found it hard to believe that Marie-Thérèse would hide it from me. Idiotic woman! She kept us apart. In the name of what, I’d like to know! Propriety?Morality? Because of what people would say? It’s a disgrace, you know; I loved Geneviève. She led her life the way she wanted to, and so she should. Does she know you’re her son?’
‘She might have her suspicions too. I’m not sure. I have a feeling she might have decided, once and for all, that she never had a child.’
‘And where is she?’
Antoine laughed and hung on to Jean’s arm. They were approaching the shuttered hotel.
‘So, in a nutshell, you’re my grandson. Do you know, I’m almost disappointed. I thought I’d found a stranger to love, someone I’d chosen consciously, a long way from all those family ties – I mean the compulsory sort of love people cultivate within the family circle – and now I discover we have the same blood in our veins. In 1939, back when you met Théo and Toinette, I made up a story for my own amusement: Jean, that nice, straight, honest boy, would be the ideal match for my Toinette … She used to blush when she talked about you. At least we’ve avoided a catastrophe …’
‘Toinette’s your daughter.’
‘Is it very obvious?’
‘I’m proud of her. I adore her. We all adore her.’
‘What about Théo?’
‘He can’t have children. You have to take him as he comes: talkative, sly, always with an eye to the main chance, but with a heart of gold. He likes mechanical things. At least we have something to talk about when we’re not talking about Toinette.’
Marie-Dévote had made tea in the kitchen. A cup of hot chocolate for Cyrille, a herbal tea for everyone else.
‘We don’t have any proper tea left,’ she said. ‘We make an infusion with the herbs from the mountain. It’s good for you …’
Jean, watching, compared Claude and Marie-Dévote, the young woman and the older, one reserved and fragile, the other outgoing and in the full bloom of her fairly commonplace beauty; yet a link had instantly united them: the blond child sitting in a high chair (Toinette’s when she had been small) with a napkin around his neck, drinking mouthfuls of hot chocolate and observing, without speaking, these strangers bending over him one after another with an anxious tenderness, because he had coughed twice as he walked into the kitchen. Jean liked the fact that Claude was not an over-anxious mother, with a suffocating tenderness towards her son. Whatever she did for him she did rapidly, skilfully, without words, and if he were honest, it might have made him jealous because she already loved Cyrille like a man, intelligently, not wanting to crush him. The only difference he noticed in Marie-Dévote’s kitchen was that, for once – and perhaps so as not to disappoint Marie-Dévote – she fussed a little more over her son, wiping the corners of his mouth and his hands covered in chocolate.
‘So lucky, you are,’ Marie-Dévote said. ‘Me too, I’d’ve liked to have a child.’
Antoine roared with laughter.
‘Marie-Dévote hasn’t had a child. She’s only got a daughter.’
Toinette smiled. Perhaps she, too, felt, without bitterness, that boys were the only children. Théo protested.
‘If a girl isn’t a child, then the world really has gone mad. In any case Toinette, as you see, wears trousers. And I take my orders from her: Papa, go and deliver the fish; Papa, get some wood for the stove; Papa, wash the truck because it’s dirty …’
The weather held. Théo was delighted. In his mind it was always raining at Saint-Raphaël and always good weather at Saint-Tropez. Cyrille had stopped coughing and wandered on the beach like a little naked god, watched over by Marie-Dévote while Claude and Toinette bathed, joined before lunch by Jean, back from fishing with Antoine. The fish he caught were only good for the cat; Antoine mocked him. Fishing is a gift. In the afternoons Théo took Jean out in the truck, whose wood-gas generator struggled on every hill. Armed with his movement permit and well in with the gendarmes (to whom he distributed their share), Théo devoted himself to some discreet black-marketeering, delivering fish to Grimaud, Ramatuelle, Cogolin and Gonfaron, returning with vegetables and firewood for the kitchen stove. Under the firewood there was often a calf hidden, or a kid or a sheep, ready skinned. The risk was small, but Théo liked to put on secretive airs and take precautions, though the evening visits of Sergeant Thomasson made them pointless. The sergeant never left without a leg of lamb or some chops in his haversack.
After dinner they listened to the news, first from Vichy, which taught them nothing, then Radio-Paris which reported Germany’s dominance in the Mediterranean, the fall of Crete and the British Army’s rapid withdrawal to Sfakia. Théo curled his lip. The Mediterranean, German? He opened the window onto the empty sea, the placid shore and the sound of the waves whispering on the sand and lapping against the pilings of the jetty where Antoine tied up his rowing boat. Later on they picked up Radio-Londres, where there was small cause for comfort. The bulletins’ emphasis on secondary operations – raids on the Ruhr, the attack on Syria, the overthrow of Iraqi rulers sympathetic to the Axis – could not hide the way things were going. Their heart was not in it. Although he did not like the Germans Théo admired their ‘sense of organisation’, and though he did not like the English either he acknowledged their ‘bravery and coolness’. Antoine refrained from comment, unless he was genuinelyindifferent, which was more likely. He listened with half an ear, busy with a pile of old cigar boxes, making model ships like the ones Jean had seen his uncle, Captain Duclou, making a hundred times on the long evenings of conversation in his parents’ kitchen at Grangeville. Marie-Dévote, Claude and Toinette knitted with rough wool Théo bought from a farm in the Maures where the old women had taken up spinning again. Cyrille would lay his head on the table and fall asleep and his mother would put him to bed. A little later Jean would join her, allowing everyone to think they were lovers, although their relations were still at the point Claude had sworn to herself never to go beyond, even if now she often walked around naked in their bedroom, a freedom Cyrille reproached her for one day.
‘Maman, you mustn’t show your tummy to Jean.’
‘It’s all right with him; he’s a very good friend.’
Cyrille no longer spoke about his father, who was already half forgotten, his face replaced by another that he saw every day. Claude never left his side. Perhaps she felt she would not have the force to resist Jean without her innocent guardian. Even when he was fast asleep in his cot, Cyrille was watching over her. But if her hand slipped outside the sheets, another hand, from the bed next to hers, would grasp it, squeeze her fingers and stroke her wrist, and she had no need for words to understand the meaning of the gesture.
One morning Jean said, ‘Cyrille’s right. Don’t walk around naked in front of me any more.’
She covered herself up, and immediately Jean begged her not to pay any attention to what he had said, to behave as if he didn’t exist. She was turning a warm amber in the summer heat, and her swimming costume left a line at the top of her thighs and above her breasts. She made Jean desperate. There were moments when she realised it and they fell into each other’s arms and wept in silence. Sometimes at night, obsessed and unable to sleep, he got up and slipped out of the window, crossed the garden overlooking the beach, ran to the seaand swam in its phosphorescent water. When he came back he found Claude sitting on her bed, waiting for him.
‘Where were you?’
‘I went for a swim.’
She would touch his damp shoulder and wet hair and kiss his salt-tasting lips.
One night as he left the bungalow, he bumped into Antoine walking across the garden.
‘I can see something’s not right,’ Antoine said, ‘and I don’t like not offering to help. But I’m a selfish man and it’s probably wise if I stay that way. If I don’t sleep, or not much – and badly at that – it’s because I’m getting old. But at your age you shouldn’t be having sleepless nights. Come into my shed – I’ve got a bottle of grappa. It’s not quite calvados, but you’ll get used to it.’
Antoine shut the door behind them and switched on a feeble light after drawing a curtain across the only window.
‘No lights at night on the coast. One evening I came in here and was looking forward to some odd jobs, and suddenly the gendarmes turned up. There’s a rumour that English submarines are landing spies. It could be true and it’s nothing to do with us.’
He took a bottle and two glasses from a cupboard.
‘This reminds me of our last night at La Sauveté. Do you remember?’
‘I haven’t forgotten.’
‘A house emptied by termites and removal men. It made me melancholy for a minute or two. Everyone has their weak points. You didn’t drink. In training, weren’t you?’
‘One day I saw you sculling at Dieppe Rowing Club. It gave me a lot of pleasure. Now?’
‘I drink a bit. To be honest, it doesn’t do anything for me.’
‘You mustn’t get too fond of it. It’s hard to stop if you do. I don’t know how our dear abbé Le Couec keeps going … I suppose there’salways another parishioner who needs his help … These stools are really dreadful … Let’s sit in the car.’
He pulled on the tarpaulin, uncovering the Bugatti, melancholy-looking in the light of the single bulb. Jean sat next to him as he placed his hands on the steering wheel and turned it right and left.
‘The steering’s a bit stiff. Bugatti always wanted cars that would turn on a sixpence. But first you had to learn to drive them. By the time the war’s over I won’t know any more.’
‘Do you think it’ll last long?’
‘I fear so.’
Antoine emptied his glass and refilled it from the bottle between his knees.
‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What’s wrong? You love each other, you’re together, and no one’s bothering you.’
‘We don’t make love,’ Jean said in a moment of recklessness.
‘Ouch! That’s serious. Is it you?’
‘Oh no! I’m fine on that front.’
He could have told him about Antoinette, Chantal, even Mireille Cece, whom they had shared without knowing it.
‘Then it must be her.’
‘I don’t know why. It’s a ridiculous situation. It makes me desperate and there are times when I just can’t go on, I feel like bursting.’
‘I can’t be any help to you. I’ve been lucky all my life. It’s true I had money. But when all the money was gone, Marie-Dévote stayed just the same. Of course now I don’t jump on her every five minutes, but I’m very happy, I’ve got lots of memories … Do you like the smell of leather? They won’t upholster cars with hides like this again. You’ll see a whole epoch vanish. If I hadn’t detached myself from everything, I’d find it a hell of a struggle … Tell me, did Claude still love her husband when you met her?’
‘I suspect not.’
‘Do you think she’s ever had a lover?’
‘She swears she hasn’t.’
‘One man in all her life! Good Lord, that’s not something you come across every day. Personally I’d look for the answer with her husband.’
They went on talking for a while longer before getting out of the car, which Antoine then covered up again with its tarpaulin.
Climbing through the window, Jean heard two bodies’ regular breathing. Claude and Cyrille were both asleep. He got into bed and lay there, gripped by the idea that Claude was obeying a pact agreed with her absent husband. What had it meant, then, when she disappeared for three days?
The noise of knocking at the door woke him. It was bright daylight. Théo had brought news that shattered the lethargy of the false peace.
‘It might interest you,’ he said, ‘to know that Monsieur Hitler has invaded Russia. Bang! Away we go. Some’ll be happy about it, others not at all. Uncle Joe isn’t going to be in a good mood this morning. Not like Antoine. He’s already out fishing. And Marie-Dévote says it’s no reason for us to go hungry.Brékefasteis served …’
In the days that followed, the radio broadcast place names no one had heard before. From the Barents Sea to the Black Sea the German offensive gathered pace. Thunder rumbled across Europe, and the beach in front of the hotel remained as calm and empty as before. Cyrille played in the sand, Antoine went fishing, Claude and Toinette swam out until their heads were small specks, and Marie-Dévote, beauty and forty-year-old matron, put a chaise longue out on the beach and knitted. Cyrille would have the best sweaters in all Paris that winter and Claude a wool overcoat. Jean drove away with Théo and they came back laden with olive oil, beef lard that they turned into lavender-scented soap, fresh fruit, goat’s cheese and big, round country loaves. At the wheel of his wood-gas truck Théo was in his element. Jean learnt from him that Antoine had spoken to Marie-Dévote. She, too, now knew that he was the grandson of thevisitor from Normandy who had brought prosperity to their seaside café. He also learnt of the pictures Antoine had bought from painters who had passed through Saint-Tropez in the period between the wars. When the Italians attacked in June 1940 Marie-Dévote had prudently locked them away in one of the hotel’s cellars. They showed them to Jean, and he was astonished by Antoine’s taste. He, who had declared himself amazed to have a son who was a painter, had not bought a single bad painting.
‘With those in her trousseau,’ Théo said, ‘Toinette’s never going to be poor.’
‘But who knows you’ve got all these?’
‘Well … everyone who came here. People used to ask for the room with the Picasso or the Dunoyer.’
‘So you don’t know that the Germans are making off with every bit of French art they can find?’
‘The Germans? We’re still waiting for them. Right now, they’re going the wrong way. Saint-Tropez’s not on the road to Moscow …’
Watching Toinette as she hovered, fairy-like, discreet and silent in the background, it struck Jean that he might have found happiness there if … How many ‘ifs’ there were! He understood Antoine, his escape from Grangeville, his leaving everything behind. He had decided to grow old at Marie-Dévote’s side and, despite the situation’s ambiguity – Théo’s semi-acceptance, Toinette whom they shared without a mean thought – he had built himself, without really intending to, an ark of happiness that nothing could destroy. It had been his own wish no longer to have a penny to his name. Arriving at Saint-Tropez in the late summer of 1936 at the wheel of his 57S, with a cheque in his pocket representing all he possessed in the world, which he immediately handed to Marie-Dévote, he could – as one-time sugar daddy, the man who had paid for the hotel and much elsebesides – have been shown the door or offered a shack and ignored. Such a fate would have corresponded to the unflattering opinion he held of humanity and its gratitude, but Marie-Dévote had accepted the cheque and him, a man who asked for nothing apart from a new family, people who understood him and opened their hearts to him. Peace reigned at Chez Antoine, the renowned hotel, halted temporarily in its rise to fame. Marie-Dévote ruled the roost, in spite of Théo’s pretensions to the contrary. Her understanding of life, for all her mature warmth and sensual attractiveness, was born of a certain harshness. Her personality had developed to the point where two men had not been too many to unbalance her sense of equilibrium: for her dear Antoine she probably felt that vaguely Oedipal love that tugs at every woman’s heartstrings, and for Théo a kind of loving indulgence that fulfilled her maternal aspirations. Her ambitions satisfied, she had at last ventured to show her real generosity. That she might still be a desirable woman never crossed her mind, and she stretched out on her chaise longue in all innocence, hitching up her skirt to bare her long brown thighs which had first caught Antoine’s attention twenty years earlier, when she used to bring him hispan baniasand cold carafe of Var rosé. She would have been astonished if you had told her that she could still tempt a man. Who? She never went out and had never been to a big city; twice she had refused to accompany Théo to the Paris boat show. Her curiosity had never even led her as far as Marseille, let alone Nice, which she considered a foreign country, where the English ruled on their promenade. What can you learn outside your four walls if your passion for your family is all you need: your love for your daughter, your husband, your old lover, and a hotel that was the fruit of so much hard work? Nothing.
She never invited anyone, not out of stinginess but out of politeness, feeling that people were always happier at home than with others and that invitations embarrassed their recipients, who did not know how to refuse them without giving offence. It was Théo’s job to maintain external relations. He brought back, on his own, all the excitementand noise she needed. She would say to him, ‘Théo, when the war’s over, let me know at once, so that I can get the rooms ready and do a bit of cleaning. I’ll ask the Swiss boy to come back and run the reception again. Poor boy, in his snowy mountains he must be very cold and lonely.’
Théo shook his head and feigned despair.
‘There’s millions of men dying, a worldwide cataclysm, towns burning; we could die of hunger—’
‘Well, maybe not, thanks to me, because I take care of things, but what about the others? The poor, the unemployed, the pensioners, the invalids? … You don’t know, do you? They can all cop it, and all you think of is reopening your hotel.’
‘When they’re dead, we’ll have to make peace.’
‘You’ve got no heart.’
‘Yes, I have. Just not for everybody.’
Marie-Dévote reduced the world, the war, the future, the peace to simple problems. She represented vitality and harmony and the selfishness without which, in the midst of tumult and strife, nothing would survive. Jean, being Antoine’s grandson, belonged to this selfish family circle. With Claude it was possible to see Marie-Dévote being more circumspect – ‘Who is this stranger who’s not from around here?’ – but she acknowledged her qualities as an attentive mother, a good cook, serious, and inspiring Toinette’s admiration. Cyrille’s presence incited no such reservations. Cured of his cough, he was turning brown under the Midi sun, and his gaiety and laughter enlivened an atmosphere that might otherwise have been too staid.
In mid-July Claude received a postcard from her mother, asking her to return. Was it a summons, or merely a request? It was hardto say, with the dryness of the printed card which left room for only single words in response to pre-prepared questions, expressing little. At the same time Jean had a telephone call from Saint-Raphaël.
‘Hello! It’s Marceline …’
For a moment the name meant nothing to him, nor the husky accent.
‘… I’d like to see you. I have a message from the baron for you.’
The baron? He remembered the title Palfy had adopted almost by accident and now used shamelessly. Madame Michette! He should have recognised her from her mysterious tone.
‘Can you hear me?’ she asked anxiously.
‘Yes, yes, I can hear you.’
‘We need to meet.’
‘Well, come to Saint-Tropez.’
‘It’s not easy.’
He remembered that she had not been averse to travelling on top of a truckful of Jerusalem artichokes. Théo, who was going to Grasse that afternoon, could pick her up on the way back. They agreed a meeting place. She would be outside the station, carrying a copy ofParis-Soir, in a grey suit.
‘A suit? In this heat?’
‘I’ve come straight from Paris.’
At four o’clock that afternoon they saw her walking up and down, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, brandishing her newspaper.
Théo had been briefed by Jean.
‘So, Madame Michette, you’re one of those who hug the walls and dress in grey …’
Put out by this newcomer broadcasting her secret, she stared quickly around her. No one was watching.
‘Don’t talk so loudly, please! Enemy eyes are listening.’
‘Ah well, that’s all right then. Jump in!’
She sat between Jean and Théo and they headed for Sainte-Maxime. She stared hungrily out of the window.
‘It’s pretty here!’
‘Haven’t you been before?’ Théo said.
‘I always spend holidays with my family. And my family’s from the Auvergne.’
The new life Palfy had conjured out of the air for Madame Michette had not changed her. Jean reflected that if she went back to her former profession, she would still lead her girls to the Bastille Day celebrations or to confession with the same authority. She accepted her humble clandestine missions from a sense of duty. ‘I’m doing my bit,’ she said. Her arrival was impatiently awaited at the hotel, as if everyone wanted to be part of Palfy’s huge practical joke. Marie-Dévote offered her ‘herbal tea’ which she tasted cautiously, her little finger crooked, after dissolving a saccharine tablet in her cup.
‘It’s better for your mood than sugar,’ she said. ‘Sugar gives youcholer sterol.’
Eventually she asked Jean to step onto the terrace, where she gave him a sealed letter.
Between men such as ourselves one doesn’t use the post, one uses a messenger. The divine Marceline is perfect for our purpose. She hides her messages in her bra, where of course no one’s going to go looking. Actually, I’ve got nothing to tell you except that things are going well, so well in fact that I’m rather annoyed you’re not here to be part of it. You’re dozing down there … Wake up. Now’s not the time to be bleating about love. Come back before the war is over. There are opportunities here for the taking. Tomorrow it’ll be too late. Give our heroine a note and let me know the day of your arrival. I’ll pick you upat Gare de Lyon. I have a car and driver. And that’s just the start. Tibi, Constantin
Jean went inside to write his reply. Palfy was right; he had to go back. When he returned he found Madame Michette talking to Antoine.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘Monsieur sold his house to someone I know. Monsieur Longuet. It’s such a coincidence. Madame Longuet is an absolute saint.’
‘So our priest says.’
‘What a small world.’
Antoine agreed without protest. Madame Michette drank a large glass of grappa, which reddened her cheeks without distracting her for a moment from her mission.
‘I must go!’ she announced.
‘You ought to rest,’ Marie-Dévote said, unsettled by this obsession with travelling.
‘Later! I’ll rest later.’
‘“Later” never comes. Life’s for living now.’
Madame Michette disagreed. Our lives did not belong to us. Superior forces allowed us a few years, provided that we returned them one day, in good condition and with the interest due. The tone of the discussion rose. Madame Michette believed in destiny. Marie-Dévote did not know what it was.
Théo drove her back to Saint-Raphaël where she caught the evening train. Jean felt sorry for her and found himself thinking: why did Palfy play his pranks? So that the august figure of Madame Michette, whohad lived behind closed shutters for so long, discovered a meaning to life? But Palfy was right: he had to get back to Paris. He’d had more than one reminder that his too-happy existence rested on fragile foundations. That night he found his grandfather in the Bugatti. They had run out of grappa, so they drank champagne.
‘Not marvellous!’ Antoine said at the first mouthful. ‘I’ve never quite managed to educate Marie-Dévote on the subject of champagne. She used to order hers from passing salesmen who’d palm her off with the vintages they couldn’t sell to anyone else. They’re back now, but they’re not selling any more; they want to buy up our reserve instead. I soon put a stop to that!’
‘I’m not as fussy as you. Anyway, being here’s what counts.’
They had left the door of the shed open, and through the windscreen they could make out the sea and its swell silvered by the moonlight.
‘Let’s give ourselves a treat,’ Antoine said. ‘I’ll turn the headlights on, and we’ll hope the gendarmes don’t jump out of the bushes and nab us.’
He started the engine and switched on the headlights, which lit up the bushes, the beach and the mother-of-pearl surface of the water. After a moment he switched the engine off again.
‘So you’re off?’
‘Yes. I think it’s the right thing to do.’
‘It’s the first time I’ve ever met a woman I didn’t understand. Until now their intentions have seemed so obvious to me that I had a tendency to simplify them, to reduce them to their appearances. Is it really possible there are complicated ones too? I’ll have to revise all my theories! But I’m too old to backtrack now. I’d rather go fishing.’
They finished their two bottles of champagne and went their separate ways before daybreak. The decision was made. In any case, Jean’s money was running out. Every week he gave Marie-Dévote a small amount to cover their board and lodging. But the biggestreason was that he could not go on. He had become obsessed by his desire. Whether Claude covered herself up or walked around their bedroom naked, she had everything he wanted – except openness. He could only look, and see the grace in her movements, her voice and her words. He had begun to slip into bad moods with her. She had accepted them resignedly. The person we love must sometimes suffer, for obscure reasons that are also the mark of a passion grown too intense. Wounded by her distance, Jean could not forgive himself for causing her pain.
One afternoon, when Toinette had taken Cyrille for a walk, he found himself alone with Claude as she undressed in their bedroom. As she took off her shirt, he felt a hunger so violent he thought he was going mad. Did she see the look in his eyes? She stood rooted to the spot with fear, naked to the waist, exposing her lovely breasts, almost untouched by motherhood, pale, soft, trembling fruits that made him want to throw himself to his knees each time she uncovered them.
He grabbed her by the shoulders, ready to hit her, stun her in order to satisfy his desire for a body that would at last be defenceless. She stiffened.
‘I’ll never forgive you.’
He let go of her naked shoulders, which a moment before he had wanted to bite until they bled. His fingers had left white imprints on her tanned skin. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.
‘You’re the only one I love!’ she said.
‘I’m truly sorry.’
‘We’ll never part, and I’ll never forget these two months.’
‘I want to know.’
‘Is it always going to be impossible?’
‘When, then? When?’
She threw herself into his arms, pushing her head into his chest,and he smelt the fragrance of her hair and caressed her bare neck.
‘I promised Georges that I’d wait till he came back before I decided.’
‘Where did you promise that?’
‘I can’t tell you that.’
He could not persuade her to say any more. She had gone as far as she could. So Antoine’s conclusion had been correct. Jean would ask no more questions. Claude slid to her knees, still holding him. She pressed her cheek against his legs with such unselfconsciousness that he felt hope, for a moment, that one day they would throw aside their clothes and come together. He let himself slide down beside her onto the tiled floor, and they became like two children, kissing each other’s lips and face with as much wonderment as fear.
On the wall of Palfy’s office a map of Europe bristled with red and black flags.
‘You’ll get the idea straight away,’ he said.
He picked up a ruler and drew a line in the air between the black flags in the west and the red in the east.
‘The war has entered its final phase. Leaving the fools aside, who thankfully are legion, for the rest of us the outcome is clear. The Wehrmacht is on the brink of taking Odessa, Kiev and Smolensk, and is approaching Leningrad. Its advance is irresistible. The Baltic is already under Axis control. By the end of October we can look forward to a German Ukraine and Moscow encircled. There are three million Soviet prisoners that no one knows what to do with, dying of starvation and wretchedness. The USSR is losing its bread basket. Its lines of communication are cut, its high command in chaos, Stalin no longer trusts anyone. So what does he do? He purges, purges and purges again to forget his own blindness. You have no idea of the panic in the Kremlin. Neutral representatives are sending back reports that leave no room for doubt. They have understood Hitler’s plan: to establish a line from Arkhangelsk to Astrakhan beyond which, from his armchair, he will use his air force to annihilate the Siberian industrial complexes, leaving Chiang Kai-shek a free hand in Mongolia and eastern Siberia. It’s as clear as day, as elementary as two and two make four.’
‘What about England?’
‘She’ll win the last battle, as she always does. It’s the one thing we can really be certain about.’
Palfy’s assurance beguiled and deceived. Jean felt baffled.
‘So who will win?’
‘Stalin, of course.’
‘You seem to be saying the opposite.’
‘You’re not listening to me.’
‘You said the outcome was clear.’
Palfy shrugged his shoulders. His office windows overlooked the Champs-Élysées, where the Sunday crowds were queuing outside the cinemas. Jean could see the enormous letters on an advertisement for one of the cinemas on the far side of the avenue: ‘Nelly Tristan inThe Girl and the She-wolf’. Palfy followed his friend’s gaze.
‘Yes, at dinner at Madeleine’s. Absolutely legless.’
‘Highly successful at the moment. We’ll be having dinner with her shortly. Your handsome Midi tan is bound to please her.’
‘We’re changing the subject … You were saying that the Germans have won the war …’
Palfy raised his arms heavenwards.
‘You haven’t been listening. I said, “clear outcome”.’
‘Excuse me, I haven’t read Clausewitz or Liddell Hart.’
‘Stop trying to be clever. I’m not talking about Clausewitz or Hart, I’m talking about Napoleon. I hope that name means something to you!’
‘Well then, like the soldiers of the Grande Armée, the Germans are advancing everywhere. They would already be at Moscow now, at the end of July, if Hitler hadn’t coveted the Ukraine like a greedy little boy. Guderian warned him not to, but Hitler doesn’t listen to anyone. He’s already finished.’
‘You wouldn’t think so to look at him,’ Jean said.
‘If you’ll allow me, I shall enlighten you … Have a seat …’
In his room with its large bay windows overlooking the middle of the Champs-Élysées Palfy had assembled an elegant desk and some Louis XVI armchairs, an admirable Lancret, and in a bookcase acomplete collection of the reports of the Fermiers Généraux.16The company name displayed on the door, ‘La Franco-Germanique d’Import–Export (FGIE)’, had little outward connection with the interior’s Louis XVI style. Is it necessary to spell out what was taking place here? That, without going into details, the so-called FGIE was a cover for the substantial commercial dealings to which Julius Kapermeister and Rudolf von Rocroy were key?
‘Hitler,’ Palfy said, ‘is a genius. His pan-Germanic socialism is a psychological weapon as effective as the idea of liberty that preceded Napoleon’s armies. Everywhere he is greeted as a “liberator”, like the soldiers of year II.17The sad thing is that this shy impulsive man does not think he is loved, or perhaps he cannot accept that he is loved. So he crushes, exterminates, imprisons. In the Ukraine they were expecting a saviour and they got Attila the Hun, bombing the triumphal arches prepared for his victorious arrival. Not a very effective way to make yourself loved …’
Palfy raised his index finger.
‘He could have half the population of the USSR with him if he wanted: the Byelorussians, the Don Cossacks, the Muslims in the Caucasus, the Balts … Alas, this oversensitive, sexually inhibited vegetarian teetotaller prefers to be alone, like a god. In addition to which he possesses an unfortunate array of physiological defects which cannot help but eventually have a deleterious effect on the situation. Of course you’re aware that he is pathologically flatulent. Not one of those ordinary farters we all remember from our classrooms at school, but a truly high-powered professional – despite not, so far as I know, amusing himself by blowing out candles, like the famous Pétomane at the Alhambra. The awful thing for him is that he simply can’t control it. Imagine – you who are such a sensitive boy – the anxiety of the Führer at Nuremberg, stepping forward to address tens of thousands of men, to exalt the Third Reich – and suddenly, in the middle of a superb flight of oratory, the microphone amplifies a triumphantfart, echoing through the loudspeakers to every corner of the rally! No dictator could live down the gales of laughter, the ridicule. He has always had a problem with gas, ever since he inhaled ours on the Western Front, but in the last few years it has deeply wounded his self-esteem and dignity. He has found only one remedy that works: strychnine pills. Pitifully ignorant as you are, you nevertheless know that strychnine taken in regular doses is a poison that causes burning in the stomach wall. So there is our Führer, caught between two ills: ill-timed effusions of gas and intolerable cramps. But just at that moment, nothing less than a miracle occurs! A certain Doktor Morell arrives, a magician whose services are in great demand in Berlin society. He tampers with pharmaceutical products and cures incurable patients with cocktails of his own invention. He has been charged several times with quackery, but powerful figures have had the charges dismissed. Emma Göring is one of his protectors. What does Morell suggest to Hitler? A modest white pill and a daily injection. The cramps subside and the gas is tamed. Hitler is reborn and full of good cheer again. He can speak to the crowds without fear of public ridicule. Doktor Morell becomes his personal physician. He accompanies the Führer everywhere. Naturally the prescription has to be gradually increased: two, then three and four pills a day. At this stage we are up to five pills and two injections to stop him falling asleep. Morell is with him constantly, syringe in one hand, pills in the other. Three times a day he takes his baby’s blood pressure. The leader of the eternal Reich is so perforated he’s turning into a sieve! Needless to say there are those around him who try to put a stop to this madness. Nothing doing. The Führer no longer farts. That’s all that matters to him. Unfortunately the active ingredient of the heaven-sent pills is methamphetamine, a euphoric and stimulant whose chronic use is known to cause Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms and episodes of psychosis resembling schizophrenia. Which is why, despite appearances, despite the admirable achievements of von Brauchitsch, von Rundstedt, Rommel, Guderian and a few others, all of themtrue military geniuses, the divine Hitler will not survive an extended campaign. And all because of his farts! Human nature is truly a petty thing! There’s nothing to laugh about. Germany deserved a leader with better health. Amen. Having said that, in the light of this ultra-secret information, we need to row our boat intelligently while the German rearguard – including those souls on the somewhat tipsy Paris gravy train – continue modestly to celebrate their victory. I know a number who are already looking forward to ordering their caviar and getting their boots polished for the big review on Red Square. Let us not rain on their parade. When a man feels the euphoria of victory, he is open to interesting offers. He can be a gentleman, so long as it doesn’t cost him too much …’
‘I still have a question to ask you.’
‘I know what it is. How do I know all this? Well, my dear boy, there are one or two realistic soldiers left. It happens. I suppose you also want to know how I heard about Doktor Morell? From the same sources. Some believe that this shady character with a dubious past is actually an agent of British military intelligence or the American OSS. What a wonderful thought! There would never have been a war if those two organisations of espionage and counterespionage had possessed the slightest intelligence. A plan like that would have been brilliant. Just as if the German Sicherheitsdienst had managed to supply Churchill with his daily bottle of whisky …’
The summer night was falling. The avenue with its blue lamps was fading into shadow, pierced by the occasional headlights of a car. A Light 11 – Palfy apologised: there was really nothing but Citroëns to buy at the moment – was waiting at the entrance. The chauffeur got out, took off his cap and held the door open. The day before, he had been waiting for Cyrille, Claude and Jean at Gare de Lyon, where he had piled their luggage into the boot: a mute figure with a pear-shapedhead and a bovine expression, happy to drive a privileged individual while the unhappy populace crowded into the Métro.
Dinner was in a bistro that had a notice on the door: ‘Closed on Sundays’. They made their way down an unlit side passage and Palfy knocked twice, and twice again. A door half opened and a bald man with a plump red face appeared in the gap.
‘Ah, Baron, please come in! You’re the last to arrive. And late! Fortunately thepetit salécan wait …’
‘Louis, this is Monsieur Jean Arnaud.’
‘Monsieur Arnaud, our friends’ friends are our friends.’
He moved aside to let them pass through into what must have been the back room of the restaurant, a small room that opened into the kitchen, wallpapered in a design the colour of mud. The ceiling light, which had a tasselled lampshade, lit a round table around which, already seated, were Madeleine, Marceline Michette, Nelly Tristan and as always, her producer, Émile Duzan, and Rudolf von Rocroy. Madeleine kissed Jean.
‘You’re a deserter. We never see you. But your complexion reassures me: the sun suits you. Julius will be sorry to miss you. He left for Berlin yesterday. He’ll be back tomorrow …’
Rudolf had sufficient good manners to recognise the young salesman from the Montmartre gallery whom Blanche had told him about: ‘He’s a very honest and intelligent boy. He’ll do well.’ We shall spare the reader the details of the menu. They will have already guessed that in this den of initiates the cuisine was considerably above the usual Paris standard for the time. Louis, a former café owner, and his wife, a skinny, raw-looking woman from the Auvergne, cooked for a select clientele:foie grasfrom the Landes,petit saléwith lentils, cheese andnègres en chemise.18A proper wartime menu, with champagne to go with thefoie gras, a 1929 Bonnes-Mares for thepetit salé, and a modestAnjou with the dessert. Seated between Marceline Michette and Nelly Tristan, Jean would have had a boring evening if it had not been for Nelly deciding, several glasses into thepetit salé, to pick a fight with Rudolf von Rocroy. Émile Duzan cringed in shame and fear. Rudolf thought she was teasing him and laughed heartily at her insults, not understanding them. Palfy scribbled a note and had it passed to Jean. ‘She says everything I think about him. Isn’t she divine?’
Divine? Jean found it hard to see her in that light. The summer had brought no change to Nelly’s almost sickly pallor, her black, glistening eyes and mouth of an exquisite natural pink that opened to reveal perfect teeth. Innocence was the only possible word to characterise her features, framed in her medallion-like face. But then the face spoke and became animated, and her lips, designed to eat cherries or nibble shyly at a shoulder, poured out a string of obscenities. It was a gripping performance, and one could understand why Émile Duzan waited anxiously each time to see what she would come up with. Despite her producer’s mute pleadings, she laid down her knife and fork, clasped her pretty hands under her chin, and said to Rudolf with an angelic smile, ‘Let’s play the truth game. Do you know it?’
‘Yes! Viss great pleasure.’
‘All right. I would like to know whether all of you Teutonic warriors, Prussian squires, Baltic barons and Austrian bastards aren’t really, I mean deep down, secretly poofs.’
The German would rather have been cut into little pieces than admit that he did not understand a word in French. What should he make of ‘poof’? Should he not be reassured by Nelly’s smile that it could only be a very positive epithet?
‘Ach, let us not exacherate. There are some who are, more or less.’
‘I think, dear Rudolf,’ Nelly said, leaning her head on Jean’s shoulder despite the furious stare of Émile Duzan, ‘I think, dear, handsome Rudolf, that it’s all a question of stoicism. The first time one is sodomised, it is really very painful.’
‘Fery painful,’ he agreed.
‘Afterwards it becomes quite pleasant.’
‘Nelly darling, I’m not sure this is a terribly nice conversation. I much prefer it when you recite something. You’re so different … so … how shall I put it … possessed by what you’re saying, you make me shiver.’
‘What do you want? Some Valéry?’
‘I don’t know. Everything you do is so lovely.’
Nelly put her hands up to her face and, in a transformed voice that was hardly audible, recited ‘The Steps’.
‘Your steps, offspring of my quietness.
Placed so slowly, and so saintly,
Towards the bed of my sleeplessness
Proceed, stonily and faintly.
Purest one, shadow divine
With what restrained, soft footfalls you with me meet
Gods! … all the gifts you have made mine
Come towards me on those bare feet …’
Nelly stopped, took her hands away from her face, and poured herself a glass of wine.
‘The rest next time,’ she said. ‘So, handsome Rudolf, do we like French poetry?’
Jean observed with pleasure that the young woman’s poise and versatility had such an impact on the German that they robbed him of his facility and his fatuous air of a man of the world. Rudolf assured her that he adored Paul Valéry and read him every day. But it turned out that Nelly had not done with her previous subject, and she began to go into detail. Madame Michette frowned and interrupted.
‘At my establishment such matters are never spoken of,’ she saidwith barely controlled indignation. ‘If a customer wants that sort of thing, we make him pay extra!’
Palfy puffed on his cigar and blew smoke rings. Jean understood that he was at his absolute happiest, savouring with profound relish the disarray being produced in the wake of this euphoric dinner. Louis brought out a bottle of Armagnac, as a welcome diversion. Nelly’s leg was pressed against Jean’s, and he thought about Claude: she was having dinner at her mother’s with Cyrille tonight. She would be coming back to Quai Saint-Michel by the last Métro. They had parted that morning, unhappy, indecisive, hesitant about seeing each other again, yet certain that they could not avoid doing so. He liked Nelly’s perfume and he liked the refinement and grace of her profile and her shirt open to reveal her braless breasts. She was a devil, and he had made no sacrifices to the devil for too long.
When Émile Duzan told her the bicycle-taxi was waiting, Nelly refused to go with him.
‘I really can’t bear to see another single one of those tandemists with his fat bum aimed at me. Who’ll see me home?’
Rudolf, Palfy and Madeleine all offered. Each of them had a car. She chose Palfy indirectly, taking Jean’s arm. Duzan tried to display his authority.
‘I’ll wait for you to ring the bell. You don’t have a key.’
In the commotion it was difficult to hear her ungracious response, inviting Émile to stick the key in an unnameable place. The reader will be aware that he was not about to comply and he took such offence that he declared it was all over between them. Nelly gave a deep sigh.
Rudolf kissed her hand and promised to telephone her.
‘But please do, dear Rudolf.’
Sitting between Palfy and Jean in the back of the Light 11 as they drove down Rue de Rivoli, she yawned.
‘Where shall we have our last drink?’
‘At my place,’ Palfy said.
‘What about my little Jean?’
‘He lives with me. From now on we shall never be parted.’
‘You’re not poofs by any chance, are you?’
‘Nelly darling, it’s becoming an obsession with you.’
Since the beginning of June Palfy had been living in Rue de Presbourg, in a superb apartment furnished with as much taste as Julius’s. The owner was in Spain, awaiting better times. He was fortunate that hisobjets d’artwould not find their way into the public domain. As for Jean living there, it was true. He had wanted to go back to Rue Lepic, but the key was no longer under the doormat, where it had always been. Palfy claimed to know what had happened: slowly but surely, Fräulein Laura Bruckett had got her claws into Jean’s friend Jesús. He had softened and, now sharing the rations of his rapt German admirer, was currently thought to be in the Chevreuse valley, where he and Laura had been on a honeymoon for the past fortnight in a small farm filled with butter, cream and smoked hams. She was stuffing him with cakes. His waistline was expanding. How fast everything changed! In two months at most. At the Galerie du Tertre, La Garenne did not know what to do: no more paintings, no more drawings. Fortunately Alberto had been freed and resumed his photographic business. Blanche had gone to find Palfy to beg him to bring Jean back …
Nelly took her shoes and stockings off before having her last drink.
‘You mustn’t think I’m drunk,’ she said. ‘I’m just so bored stiff. Life is no fun. I’ve got to get rid of Duzan. He’s hopeless. He promises me Hollywood when the war’s over but he’s never set foot there. And he’s never got any money; he borrows, gets into debt, doesn’t pay me – he’s so mean I could scream – and as forThe Girl and the She-wolf,what a dud! For that I’ll never forgive him. You know … I feel crushed by something as bad as that. But people will watch anything, and everyone knows there’s a sweet little scene with me in the bath. Duzan lives off my tits …’
She pulled open her shirt and offered them to the two men’s gaze.
‘I quite agree, they’re very pretty indeed,’ Palfy said politely, pouring himself another drink. ‘I find it reprehensible that Émile Duzan makes his living by showing them to the general public.’
‘Find me another sugar daddy then! A real one. And I’ll stop drinking! Where’s the toilet?’
Jean showed her to the bathroom adjoining his bedroom. She shut the door as the telephone rang. Palfy told Duzan that Nelly was already asleep and that it would be best to leave her where she was. Were there not two of them there to look after her? No, no, she hadn’t drunk anything since they left the restaurant. All Jean could hear was a distant gurgling: the producer’s furious, desperate voice demanding and then imploring Nelly’s return. All day long this man terrorised his employees, and in the evening snivelled over a girl abandoning him for a night. He hung up eventually, half convinced by Palfy, but he must have called Madeleine to complain to her because shortly afterwards she telephoned in turn, anxious about the consequences and begging them to drive Nelly back to Duzan’s. The best jokes were the ones where you knew when to stop, she said. Julius liked the producer and would take his side. Palfy reassured her: nothing bad would happen to Nelly and they would take her back if she showed the slightest inclination to go. At present she was locked in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror and thinking about the ravages that alcohol would soon wreak on the smooth skin of her lovely face. Madeleine agreed that was a good thing. Yet Nelly was not an alcoholic. While she was filming, not a glass of wine passed her lips. Alcohol was simply a means of forgetting her boredom when she was not working and her panic when she found herself in a room with more than two people. Palfy convinced Madeleine that they would take care of her. She senther love and begged them to have lunch with her tomorrow at Avenue Foch. Julius would be back and there would be a very interesting Pole whom they really ought to meet. Palfy promised.
‘Obviously,’ he said to Jean after he put the phone down, ‘you have little idea of the nest of vipers in which we are operating. Julius is officially in charge of overseeing all textile production in France and requisitions everything that appears on the market. Less openly, he is also the boss of the Abwehr’s economic intelligence service and in open warfare with the same department of the SS. Duzan is his key person in the film industry. We therefore have to move carefully in order not to offend him … Listen, go and check your girlfriend hasn’t fainted in the bathroom.’
Nelly’s skirt, shirt and underwear were spread over the bedroom floor. Naked under the sheet she had pulled up to her chin, she was already asleep, her angelic face lying on the pillow, lit by a bedside lamp.
‘A Greuze to the life,’ Palfy murmured. ‘Night, dear boy. What a brilliant return to Paris this is! I’m happy for you. Let me repeat, in case you’ve forgotten, that she’s also talented, immensely talented. Ask her to recite the telephone directory and she’ll move you to tears …’
‘I’m not going to ask her to do that tonight.’
‘No, evidently not.’
‘Where am I going to sleep?’
Shutting the door, he disappeared. Jean bent over Nelly’s face. Her dark eyes gave a bluish tinge to her fragile eyelids. Her face was like that of a child without sin. Only complete candour could have inspired such a pretty nose. He turned away to look out of the open window at the warm, black night swept by the beam of a searchlight. In the East the butchery was continuing, and the rattle of death filled the red sky, while Antoine, at the wheel of his jacked-up Bugatti, drank champagne or grappa and from time to time switched on his headlights to light upthe expanse of the Mediterranean. Toinette too was sleeping, another angelic face. He should have stayed with them, jumped at Théo’s invitation to share their life and wait out the end of the war there, as Palfy had predicted it. Claude might perhaps have stayed too. She had adapted painlessly to the Tropezians’ careless, immature existence. But would she have resisted her mother’s imperious demands, resisted what bound her to Paris? There was no convincing that categorical creature once she had said ‘no’. He imagined her, across the rooftops, in her apartment on Quai Saint-Michel, sharing her bed with Cyrille, a woman both weak and strong, suffering a torment she could not overcome and to which she too awaited the end in anguish. If their thoughts, as they stood or lay awake that night, were not alike, then they were no longer of any help to one another in this world.
Nelly turned over in bed, offering her other profile. Jean switched off the light and lay down beside her, not daring to touch her. The hours passed and a greyish gleam rose behind the roofs. A German car engine disturbed the silence in the street, followed by pedestrians talking in loud voices, their footsteps ringing on the pavement. Jean moved his hand to Nelly’s hip and she shivered, sighed and snuggled against him. She stroked him and he buried his face in her neck and hair. She lifted her head and pressed her lips to his cheek, roughened with his beard, in a childish kiss.
Just as they concluded the last of their amorous exercise, Palfy knocked at the door. He was pushing a trolley covered in china and silverware.
‘My butler stayed in London, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘I do hope poor Price is saving my honour and paying my debts. I asked him to come, but he refuses. He’s like those island birds that die if you change their climate. He prefers to spend his nights in underground shelters. A man without imagination, a sheep.’
Nelly jumped out of bed stark naked, kissed Palfy, ran to the bathroom and shut the door.
‘I must say,’ Palfy said, ‘she spends a lot of time in that little room.It doesn’t make her any less charming, not at all, and one does prefer the clean sort of person, completely clean. As for you, you look a real sight. About a hundred years old, I’d say …’
‘You must fight it. Age is a serious handicap. Look at that child; she woke just like a rose. What an exquisite creature! Keep her for a few days. I’ll disconnect the phone and tell the concierge to admit no one.’
‘Thanks, but I’m letting her go.’
‘I despair of you. It’s in infidelity that the strong measure the greatness of their love. I hope you’re thinking of that at this moment.’
‘I wasn’t, actually. Thanks for reminding me.’
Nelly came back, wrapped in a bath towel that left her shoulders and thighs bare. Jean closed his eyes. One morning Claude had sat on the edge of his bed in the same way. Their two bodies had something in common, with something more finished and calm about Claude’s. Nelly lifted the lid of the plate warmer, served herself eggs and bacon, and ate greedily.
‘Émile hasn’t telephoned yet, has he?’ she asked with her mouth full.
‘Last night. I didn’t want to disturb you. You were already asleep.’
‘Was he making a fuss?’
‘It can’t be said that he was happy.’
‘I don’t care. I don’t want to make films any more. I’m going back to the theatre. Oh, not to see his face ever again!’
‘Love doesn’t move you?’
‘Mine does, of course. Not others’.’
She leant towards Jean and kissed him on the forehead.
‘Go and shave,’ she said. ‘We’ll go for a walk. I’m giving myself a holiday.’
‘We have to have lunch at Madeleine’s,’ Jean said timidly.
‘Oh God, eating, always eating! That’s all we’ll remember about this occupation. Why don’t we go into the country instead and see your friend, the great Jesús?’
What they did that day is of little importance. Did they go to see Jesús or did they have lunch at Madeleine’s with the aforementioned Pole, who was actually hardly a Pole at all and more a stateless Jew like the already famous Joanovici and, like him, a supplier to the Germans, plundering France in their name and amassing a fabulous fortune? Yes, it hardly matters, because what matters, as the reader will have guessed, is that Jean has tripped up and in doing so renewed, after long abstinence, his acquaintance with the pleasure women offer and begun a period in which the vanity of an affair, even a chaotic one, does not transcend his self-disgust and remorse at being unfaithful to Claude and seeing her suffer. He does not even need to lie. She knows, yet when he misses an evening with her and returns the next day without an excuse, hardly a shadow is visible on her face.
Nelly could be delightfully provocative. That is to say, she possessed many ways to please. Jean discovered her talent, of which he had so far had only glimpses through a fog of alcohol. When she was not swearing at the imbeciles who surrounded and exploited her, she could awaken a lover by reciting softly in his ear:
‘Our weapons are not like enough
For my soul to welcome you in,
All you are is naive male stuff,
But I’m the Eternal Feminine
My object’s lost amid the starry trail!
It’s I who am the Great Isis!
No one has yet peeled back my veil
You should think only of my oasis …
If my song offers you any echoes,
You’d be quite wrong to hesitate
I murmur it to you as no pose
People know me: this is my womanly state’
Jean listened to the voice, which spoke only to him. Nelly, naked, opened the window wide and exclaimed, ‘What are we doing, always fucking when there’s life outside, just waiting for us?’