The Girl You Left Behind Page 3

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

‘What is this?’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mon Dieu.’

‘Is it dead?’

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

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

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

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

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

Prev page Next page