Chapter 1: July 1943
Lieutenant Lowitz unlocked the heavy door, pushing it open. ‘Make yourself at home,’ he said in perfect French, stepping to one side, grinning.
The six Frenchmen stepped into the room, each one gazing round, taking in their surroundings. The dank, rectangular room was large and low-ceilinged with an uneven cobbled stone floor strewn with a thin layer of straw. Following them and the lieutenant, a German corporal, Schmidt, a rifle slung round his shoulder.
‘Well, beats the bloody cells,’ said one of the Frenchmen, a former soldier, his hands deep in his trouser pockets.
‘It s-stinks,’ said another, the former postman, a man with bovine eyes, stuttering, as he often did, on the ‘s’.
‘A rose by any other name…’ said the teacher, pushing his glasses up his nose.
The ex-policeman coughed. ‘There’s a small window at least,’ he said. Outside, through the barred window, it was dark.
‘I see we’ve got a mattress each,’ observed the former doctor, stroking his moustache. ‘Thank heavens for small mercies.’
‘Well done, Sherlock,’ said the soldier.
‘Yeah, but… but look at ’em,’ said the postman, pointing. ‘They look like an elephant’s s-slept on them.’
‘Ah,’ said the teacher. ‘I knew an Indian prince once; owned so many elephants–’
‘Wouldn’t let me horse sleep on that,’ said the soldier.
‘Et requiem capiti meo laboravi,’ muttered the doctor.
‘What the hell’s that meant to mean?’ barked the soldier.
‘It’s Latin. I rest my weary head. My dear chap, you wouldn’t understand.’
‘Gentlemen, please,’ said the lieutenant. ‘Like I said, it’s only for one night. There’s a bucket in the corner for you. Someone will bring you water in a while.’
The German corporal stood guard at the door while the lieutenant, adjusting his cap, addressed his prisoners. ‘So, tomorrow morning you will be released. Please make sure you’re ready to leave at six sharp.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘It’s now half eleven. So you have precisely six and a half hours.’
‘What’s to get ready?’ asked the doctor. ‘Can I have my tie back?’
‘Can I have a shave before we go, Lieutenant?’ asked the former policeman. ‘I’d also like to look smart on my first day out.’
‘What day is it?’ asked the postman.
‘Monday, you idiot,’ said the soldier.
‘God, I need a drink,’ said the teacher. ‘I knew an admiral once; drank like a fish–’
‘If I may continue,’ said Lieutenant Lowitz. ‘Your papers and any belongings you had will be returned to you. We’ll be catching the seven o’clock train back to Saint-Romain. Your fares will have been paid. Never accuse the German authorities of not being generous.’ He laughed but, noticing no one was laughing with him, felt slightly foolish. Clearing his throat, he continued, ‘Yes, well… Once back in Saint-Romain, you’ll be free to return to your homes. Hopefully, having spent six months here, you will realise that any attempt to undermine our authority is futile. We will not tolerate it.’
‘Your authority means bugger all to us,’ said the soldier to himself.
‘You have something to say, Private?’ asked the German.
‘No, no,’ said the priest quickly. ‘He has nothing to say.’
‘Hm. Well, keep your noses clean and we need never meet again. Any questions?’
‘Will we get breakfast?’ asked the teacher. ‘After all, a man is half a man without breakfast.’
‘Yes,’ said the German. ‘You will have breakfast.’
‘Sausages and tomatoes for me,’ said the soldier.
‘And perhaps a little wine,’ said the teacher. ‘Can we place orders?’
‘If you want, but you’ll still get the usual bread and water.’
Father Claudel asked, ‘Will you be escorting us on the train back, Lieutenant Lowitz?’
‘Yes, I will be.’ He nodded at the men. ‘Well, if that’s it, I shall leave you to it. I have things to attend to.’ Corporal Schmidt, clicking his heels, held the door open for him. ‘Goodnight, gentlemen. See you in the morning.’
The Frenchmen watched the two Germans leave, closing the heavy wooden door behind them, and listened as the key turned in its lock.
‘It’ll be nice not to have to hear that every night,’ said the policeman. ‘I’m used to locking people up, not the other way round. My Emily used to say–’ Slapping his chest, he coughed, unable to finish his sentence.
‘Let’s not worry about that now, eh, Inspector?’ said the doctor. ‘There’s a good man.’
The men shuffled around, each claiming one of the straw mattresses. There were three along one side, three opposite. Except for Béart, the soldier, they sat down, sighing, leaning against the grey-bricked walls. The soldier made use of the bucket in the corner, the sound of his piss echoing as it hit the metal.
‘Just think,’ said Béart, shouting over his shoulder, ‘this time tomorrow we’ll be free men, sleeping in our own bloody beds.’
Garnier, the teacher, snorted. ‘As free as you can ever be with a curfew and the wretched Boche tripping you up and asking for your papers every five minutes. I knew a man once–’
‘That’s better,’ said Béart, buttoning up his fly and taking his place on the last mattress.
After six months of incarceration, all six men were only vaguely aware of how filthy and stinking they were – their clothes and shoes, skin, fingernails – everything layered in grime. None had looked at himself in the mirror in all that time. Frankly, it was a blessing because they would have been shocked by what they saw: their hair, long and matted, like men marooned on a desert island, their complexions the colour of wax from the lack of fresh air. Their breaths smelt of decay. They’d all grown beards, although a couple had had ones previously. And naturally they had all lost weight, and having had their belts confiscated, their clothes now hung from them.
Each of them had, over the months, wondered how the Germans had known about their meeting. Someone somewhere had snitched on them, someone they’d trusted. But who? Their little resistance cell had to be the most spectacular failure since the start of the occupation. They had met just the once, drunk wine and gossiped. They hadn’t even had the chance to plan anything, let alone achieve anything.
Father Claudel spoke, ‘I think we should each say the first thing we’re going to do on getting home.’
‘Now, that’s an idea,’ said Garnier, the teacher. The men fell silent for a few moments, each considering their options. ‘Why don’t you start, Father?’
‘You want me to go first? OK. Let me think…’ Tall and stooped, with long, bony fingers, Father Jean-Paul Claudel had, until recently, maintained a degree of vanity, a trait leftover from his younger, pre-church days. His hair, although now receding, had preserved its tawny brown colour and he was once considered a fine-looking man. But vanity, like so much else within the prison, had become a long-forgotten luxury. He’d been permitted to wear his cassock in prison, but of course, after six months, it looked worse for wear. Father Claudel was a man frustrated with life. Had been for years. Just turned sixty years old, he’d been a priest for the best part of forty years and had once desperately wanted to become a bishop. He had been prepared to up sticks and move, if need be. But things hadn’t worked out. They rarely do. All that dreadful business ten year’s back with that ruffian had undone all his plans and ambition. That dreadful boy. He shivered, preferring not to think about it.
‘I know it’s rather obvious for a man in my position but I will go to church and pray, to thank the Lord for our safe deliverance. I rather miss my church. For me, it’s like a home; it’s where I feel safe. I miss my congregation and I’d like to think they miss me.’ He smiled at the thought. ‘And I certainly miss God in this Godless place.’
‘I thought God was everywhere,’ said the soldier.
‘He is, Private, he most certainly is. But still… What about you, Professor?’
‘Me?’ Gustave Garnier was a humble teacher but known ironically as ‘Professor’; by his own admission not a particularly good one. French literature was his main subject, a connoisseur of nineteenth century French poetry plus a bit of Shakespeare throw in. He wore an ash-brown jacket with elbow patches, now filthy after six month’s wear, the patches lined with grease, and thick-rimmed brown glasses. He too was a man dissatisfied with his lot despite being young enough to do something about it. But, lacking ambition, he lacked motivation. Instead, until his incarceration, he was content to plod along, moaning about his job, his colleagues, the town and life generally, existing with the slight nagging feeling that at the age of thirty-two, life had already sucked him dry. If there was one thing he craved, beyond a drink that is, it was respect. His pupils liked him because he was a pushover and his colleagues thought him a fool. And of course, he’d recently lost his last vestiges of respect to a bloody art teacher, of all people. Removing his glasses, he shuddered at the memory. Sometimes, he rather fancied himself as a hero of the resistance – but he knew he hadn’t the gumption. ‘I shall go to my own sort of church,’ he said with a smirk. ‘One that serves beer. I’ve been dying for a drink from the moment I stepped into this awful place. One large, ice-cold beer, all frothy at the top. Condensation running down the glass.’ He sighed. ‘That’s all I want. I’d give up all my fame for a pint of ale. That’s from Hamlet, you know.’
‘I’m too hungry to drink.’ This was André Le Vau, the town’s doctor until a few year’s back when he took early retirement. Well, he didn’t really take early retirement; more a case of having been obliged to do so. Forced into it. He’d been quite the dashing doctor about town, admired and sought after. A long, prosperous career beckoned. A silver-haired man in his early-fifties, he spoke with a gentle lilting Parisian accent and wore too many rings on his fingers than was considered right for a man. Known for never being seen without a collar and tie (although the former had gone almost black with dirt and the latter, along with the rings, had been another item confiscated by the Germans), he used to pride himself on having the smartest suit and the shiniest briefcase. A woman had been his downfall. Women are at the root of all man’s failings. It was all his own fault, he knew that. He should’ve known better at his age. No fool like an old fool, as his mother used to say. ‘I shall eat like a king – I’ve got the menu all planned out in my head.’ He proceeded to describe his perfect meal, a variety of dishes that involved veal, mushrooms and dauphinoise potatoes, all the time fiddling with a ring that wasn’t there any more. ‘I shall be dressed as a gentleman, served by a buxom maid and finished off with strawberries and meringue and a dollop of fresh cream. Quod esse perfectum. That would be perfect.’
‘Not asking for much then, Doctor,’ said Roger Béart, the former soldier. ‘I’d forgo the meal for the buxom maid bit. I shall go home, grab my missus by the hand, take her upstairs, throw her on the bed and…’
‘Yes, yes, thank you, Private Béart,’ said Father Claudel. ‘Spare us the details.’
‘Yeah, right. I need a woman, I do. Six months in this shithole, I’m getting desperate, I’m telling you.’ Roger Béart, mid-forties, had fought with the French cavalry during the Great War, serving in the Palestinian desert. He still missed it, in a way. Not the heat and sun and sand but the camaraderie that only men in combat understand in its purest form. He missed the horses too. He knew he swore too much and he knew others found him a bit rough round the edges but he cared not one jolt for what men said. Horses were his love. Always had been. He’d reminisce about horses he’d known and loved as others might pine a lost love. And that had been his downfall – putting the life of a horse ahead of a man’s. He’d been a young man at war, barely twenty. He felt as if his whole life since was but an anti-climax. Such a long time ago but one didn’t forget these things, try as one might. He’d worked in bars, on the farms and as a labourer, never able to settle to anything. He’d married young to a girl attracted by the uniform but little else. Once the uniform was gone, not much remained. But still, twenty-five years on, they were still together – just. Rubbing his crotch, he sniggered. ‘A man has his needs, don’t he?’
‘Perhaps, but he doesn’t always need to voice them,’ said the priest.
‘You wanted to know.’
Turning to his left, the priest asked, ‘What about you, Inspector?’
The former policeman, Nicholas Leconte, a gaunt man with a handlebar moustache, smiled wistfully. ‘I’d want my wife but since that’s impossible, I want my garden.’
‘Your garden?’ said Doctor Le Vau. ’Strange thing to hanker for.’
‘Since I retired and after Emily died, I spend all the time in my garden, well, I did until… you know, the Boche put my life on hold.’ He drummed his fingers on his kneecap. Leconte, respected and appreciated, had also fought in the war but in 1917 his involvement had been cut short by the effects of a gas attack. Instead, he swapped uniforms and joined the police. A quarter of a century on, he still occasionally coughed his guts up and still occasionally had nightmares of flailing in the fog of poisonous gas, waking up with his hand over his mouth, wanting to vomit. He married, had three children, who, one by one, had left home. His eldest son, Robert, had been killed three years back, fighting the Germans. His wife had died of a broken heart soon after. People assumed he’d retired because of his grief. It had nothing to do with his wife’s death. No, it was that Jew, damn him. When he went to bed at night, it wasn’t his wife he thought of, it was the Jew.
‘And what would you want to do in your garden, Inspector?’ asked the priest.
‘After all this time? It’ll need a good clear up, a whole lot of weeding and cutting back. Plenty to keep me busy.’
‘That leaves just me,’ said the man nearest the door, Henri Moreau, a young postman, a short, once stocky man. Half a year in prison had finally rid him of his excess weight. He had also lost his wife and child, although he couldn’t be sure they were both dead. His Jewish wife, Liliane, and their daughter had been rounded-up and deported. He’d done everything to save them. Everything. There was nothing else he could have done. He just hoped if he said it often enough he’d come to believe it.
‘Go on, then, tell us,’ urged the policeman.
‘All I want is to go home, have a deep, deep bath and s-shave, and get rid of this layer of filth and the s-smell. We forget how much we s-stink – all of us. I hate feeling this dirty. Then I would worry about everything else. But I can’t do anything until I feel clean again.’
‘Well, gentlemen,’ said the priest, ‘we all have our different desires, some a little more basic than others, and in just a few hours we may all get to fulfil them. That is what I shall pray for,’ he added, crossing himself.
‘Yes, assuming the Boche don’t double cross us in some way,’ said the doctor, jerking his thumb towards the door.
The policeman raised his eyebrows. ‘In what way, Doctor?’
‘Never trust a German, old man, that’s what I always say.’
The soldier nodded in agreement. ‘The only bloody German you can trust is a dead one.’
‘And you’d know,’ said the doctor.
‘What’s that meant to mean?’
‘Nothing, dear man, nothing, Keep your hair on. Just saying, because I know you were in the war.’
‘Wrong enemy, you know that. I fought the bloody Turks.’
‘Oh, not the bloody Germans, then?’ said the doctor with a grin.
‘No, I told you. The Turks. Bloody slippery lot, I can tell you.’
The six men leant back against the walls. They were tired. Doing nothing all day, every day, was a tiresome business. The policeman began humming a little tune, tapping his fingers against his knee as if playing the piano, the teacher watching him, his thoughts far away. The priest and the soldier closed their eyes. The doctor, sitting upright, picked at a scab on his ankle while the postman twisted a piece of straw round his finger.
Six months. To each of them it had felt like six years. They wondered what the world would be like outside – whether life had become more tolerable living under German occupation, whether they’d be welcomed back as heroes or failures. The idea of feeling the wind in their hair, of feeling the warmth of the sun for more than just a few minutes per day, seemed blissful. The forgotten pleasure of life – of seeing people going about their everyday business, of seeing kids playing in the village square, of hearing birds singing in the trees, of hearing dogs barking, the smell of freshly-baked bread, the smell of the hedgerows, of all the small, routine things one took for granted. For the first time in six months they felt able to relax. Yes, the low-ceilinged room was dank and dark, the place stank, the mattresses dirty, there were bugs and insects, and a bucket of piss in the corner, but there was light now at the end of their tunnel, an end in sight. Just a few hours to endure. Six small hours between now and freedom.
The time was approaching midnight. A German private had brought them their water. The six Frenchmen had settled on their mattresses, ignoring the scratchy, rough surface, ignoring various insects and rodents scuttling around, and fallen asleep. They slept well, still in their clothes, comfortable in the knowledge that they were only hours from freedom. The air inside was muggy, the low ceiling and the warmth of the night outside making for a claustrophobic environment. The piss bucket in the corner was already half-full.
Having discussed the first thing they’d do on release, they fell asleep imagining their various scenarios. Father Jean-Paul Claudel, dreaming of his church, fell asleep, as he did every night, with a prayer and hoped that the boy, not such a ruffian, would hear him and find it in himself to forgive him. Gustave Garnier, the teacher, conscious of the dryness in his throat, imagined a pretty young woman pouring him his first icy cold beer. He would toast the art teacher, who, on reflection, wasn’t such a bastard, and wish him well. Dr André Le Vau’s mouth salivated as he savoured the thought of cutting into a mushroom roulade, even though he knew such delicacies were nigh-on impossible to find during wartime. Surely, he thought, even lovelorn fools were allowed the occasional luxury. Roger Béart, the former soldier, went to sleep with an erection, dreaming of making his wife scream. But, instead of hearing his wife, his head was filled with the sound of a horse screaming in terrible pain. Nicholas Leconte, the ex-policeman, dreamt of taking his dead wife’s hand and presenting her with a bunch of roses, freshly plucked from his well-managed garden. Instead, he found himself handing them to the Jew, his head bowed with contrition. Henri Moreau, the postman, dreamt of wallowing in a deep, hot bath with bubbles everywhere. But no amount of hot water and soap would scrub away the ingrained sense of shame that had scoured his soul.
France, their once proud and great nation, had been living under German occupation for over three years now. Even before their incarceration, the six men knew things were changing. The Germans of three years ago had gone. Looking back on those early years, the Boche had been polite, keen to show who was in charge but in such a way as to win over the French. Apart from dealing with the occasional and usually ineffectual act of sabotage, these men realised they had an easy ticket, a holiday posting. But once Hitler had invaded Russia, the Germans here knew they were on borrowed time and they all lived in terror lest they be posted to the Eastern Front. And sure enough, division by division, they were. And those that took their place had seen action in Poland or Russia or North Africa. These were hardened men, hardened to the realities of war at its most relentless, hardened to killing and dying. Now, in mid-summer forty-three, the war was going against them – and they knew it. The Germans had suffered and lost at Stalingrad, the Red Army was fighting back; the useless Italians were caving in. All this served only to make the Germans uppity and nervous.
The priest, the teacher, the doctor, the soldier, the policeman and the postman. All were fast asleep. None heard the approach of footsteps on the stone floor in the corridor outside. None heard the turning of the key in the heavy wooden door. None heard the door creak open, nor the soft tread of leather boots entering the room. None saw the dim shaft of light from the corridor. It was perhaps the priest who first half-opened his eyes, vaguely aware of a dark figure nearby, the reality merging with his dreams. Grimacing, he covered his eyes. ‘No, no, do not enter this house,’ he mumbled. ‘Satan, back to hell with you.’
The Devil-like figure tapped a well-polished shoe.
‘What… what’s going on?’ This was the postman, aware of the priest muttering next to him.
‘Who’s that?’ called out the doctor, immediately awake.
The teacher adjusted his glasses.
Soon all six were awake, rubbing their eyes, sitting up, their backs pressed against the wall behind them, eyeing the figure standing near the door.
‘Who… who are you?’ asked the postman, unable to disguise the tremor of apprehension in his voice.
The men blinked as their eyes focussed.
‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ said the figure. The man in front of them was a German officer, wearing the grey-green uniform of the Wehrmacht, a large cap, braided over the peak, the German eagle on its front, oak leaves on his collar, a gold swastika on his top button, a row of medal ribbons, black leather gloves.
Looking at each of them in turn, he removed his cap, exposing a full head of neatly-combed strawberry-blond hair. ‘My name is Colonel Geist,’ he said in French with a deep, measured German accent. He was about fifty years old, clean-shaven, with defined cheekbones, distinguished by a raw scar shaped like a bolt of lightning across the right side of his jaw. He had bright, piercing sapphire-blue eyes that made the priest shudder. He’d never seen eyes like that before.
‘I am sorry for disturbing your night’s sleep but I have come to tell you there has been a change of plan.’
‘Change of plan?’ repeated the doctor, trying to get to his feet. ‘What on earth…’
Colonel Geist put his hand out. ‘Please, Dr Le Vau, stay seated. I won’t take up too much of your time.’
The doctor sat back down and watched as the colonel slowly paced to the far end of the cell, his gloved hands holding his cap behind his back. On reaching the end, he turned. If he noticed the stench from the piss bucket, he made no sign of it. He paced back to the door, turned again and faced the men.
‘I spoke to Lieutenant Lowitz. He informed me you six men are here in what he calls the holding cell, and that at six tomorrow morning, you are to be escorted to the station to catch a train back to your town. You have completed your sentence, and he trusts that you will present no further problem for the German authorities here. However, I come as the bearer of bad news.’
‘Bad news?’ asked the teacher, his eyes almost popping out of his head.
‘What do you mean, Colonel?’ asked the priest.
‘There has been a development, Father Claudel.’
Leconte, the policeman coughed, the imaginary taste of chlorine gas on his tongue. ‘A development?’ he spluttered, unable to hide the note of incredulity in his voice.
With a raised finger, the colonel continued. ‘I will explain, Inspector Leconte. At seven twenty-two this morning, a German train passing through on the line to Saint-Romain was blown-up. It was, alas, a highly efficient operation. The train was derailed, the line buckled beyond use. Many troops were hurt. Five were killed. Five!’ He paused, looking intently at each of the men in turn, his features hardening. ‘Also, an equal number of Frenchmen were killed. They were caught in the blast; they would have died instantly. Plus many more injured – one of them lost both his legs.’
The priest’s hand went to his mouth. ‘Both his legs? Oh my, poor fellow, both his legs.’
‘He may live; he may not. It depends.’
The others watched as the priest crossed himself. ‘Colonel Geist, would you know the names of the five Frenchmen who died?’
‘No, and I have no interest in them whatsoever. They are of no consequence.’
‘Silence. I’m more concerned about the five young men doing their duty for the Führer, five sons of the Fatherland.’
The soldier laughed. ‘Ha, better to die here than somewhere like bloody Stalingrad–’
‘I said silence! You will not trivialise the barbaric killing of five of my most able men, Private Béart.’ He paced forward again, before turning and resuming. ‘We will find the culprits and they will pay. Mark my words.’
The priest cleared his throat.
‘Yes, what is it, Father?’
‘We’re sorry to hear of your misfortune, Colonel Geist. But… if I may ask, what has this to do with us?’
‘Indeed,’ said the policeman. ‘You can hardly suspect us. We’ve all got the perfect alibi.’ He laughed feebly.
‘Five young men were killed,’ said the colonel, now speaking quickly. ‘The news has got round already. There’ll be much celebration amongst the baser elements of your community. The culprits will have made their escape. They will be caught but it might take a while. Meanwhile, it is essential that no one is encouraged to mimic their deeds, even in the most minor way. There must be no repetition. Everyone must see that such actions will be dealt with in the harshest way possible.’
‘You mean… r-reprisals?’ asked the postman nervously.
‘Yes, exactly, Monsieur Moreau; there must be reprisals. Severe reprisals. Otherwise, how will you people learn? And this, gentlemen, is where you come in. Five German soldiers were killed. Five of you will die as a result.’
The colonel waited while the six men absorbed what he said. They were all on their feet now, panic etched on their drawn, dirty faces.
The priest stepped forward.
‘Stay back, please, Father.’
The priest did as told, stepping back. ‘Five of us?’
‘I know,’ said the colonel. ‘The usual practice is to execute ten of yours for each one of ours, so I know you’ll be grateful for this relative show of mercy.’
‘Isn’t the death of those Frenchmen enough?’ asked the policeman.
‘Certainly not, Inspector. Their deaths were unforeseen; they will not act as deterrents. Therefore, five of you will be executed by firing squad tomorrow morning at six fifteen.’
The six Frenchmen looked at each other. Again, it was the priest who spoke for them all. ‘There are six of us, Colonel. You have to tell us – which one of us will be granted his life?’
The colonel took a deep breath. ‘You decide.’
‘Me?’ said the priest, jabbing himself in the chest.
‘No, not you individually, but all of you.’
‘All of us?’
‘Between you, you have to decide which one of you should live – and which five should die.’
‘That’s bloody ridiculous,’ said the soldier. ‘How do we do that?’
‘I do not know,’ said the colonel. ‘It is not my concern. How you decide is entirely up to you.’
‘Yes, Dr Le Vau?’
‘I must protest; this is monstrous. You cannot possibly imagine that we will decide on such a thing.’
The teacher slapped his hands together. ‘He’s right. We won’t do it. We refuse.’
The colonel sighed, running his finger along his scar. ‘It’s your choice, Monsieur Garnier. You have to decide. If you won’t, or are unable to, then you will all be executed. At least this way, one of you will live.’ Fishing inside his tunic, he pulled out a silver watch chain. ‘It’s quite simple. I shall leave you to it.’
‘Bu… but wait…’ stuttered the postman.
‘Yes, Monsieur Moreau? Is there anything else?’
‘I… I mean, we can’t… How long have we got?’
‘As I said, the executions will be carried out at precisely six fifteen. The five men due to be executed will collected at exactly six. They will be accompanied by a priest. The other will be escorted home. It is now midnight. Here… listen.’
The men listened but to what they didn’t know. The teacher opened his mouth. The colonel, seeing he was about to speak, put up his hand. The teacher closed his mouth.
From outside they heard a church clock strike the hour. They remained silent as the last peal faded into the night.
‘You have exactly six hours.’
‘But surely, Colonel Geist…’
‘I’m sorry, Father, but there is nothing else to add. This is the way it has to be; nothing you say can change this.’
The priest shook his head.
Replacing his cap, the colonel said, ‘I bid you well in your deliberations, gentlemen. Good night.’
The six Frenchmen watched silently as he opened and closed the door behind him, plunging them back into near darkness, only the faint moonlight shining through the barred window. They listened as he turned the key in the door, listened as his footsteps disappeared down the corridor outside.
Only then did they turn to face each other.
‘This cannot… It cannot be true.’ The postman paced to the far end of the room and back.
‘Well, I’ll tell you one thing for now,’ said the soldier. ‘I’m not bloody dying in front of no German firing squad.’
‘Oh, so that’s what you’ve decided then,’ said the doctor. ‘Well, that’s good to know. Quod est. That is that. Pleased we got that over and done with; we can all go back to bed now.’
‘Gentlemen, we must maintain our composure,’ said the priest.
‘Composure?’ screeched the postman. ‘We’ve all got a five in s-six chance of being dead in a few hours and he talks about composure. I’ve got to get out of here, for Christ’s s-sake, I’ve got to find my wife and me daughter.’
‘Yes,’ said the policeman, thumping his chest to prevent a coughing fit. ‘And I have to tend my dear Emily’s grave. It’ll be so overgrown by now.’
The teacher leapt towards the door. ‘We’ll break out,’ he screamed, pushing against the door. ‘If we all push together…’
‘Don’t be daft,’ said the soldier. ‘The door’s solid. Look at that lock. You’d need a bloody stick of dynamite for that.’
‘So what do we do?’ said the teacher, removing his glasses. ‘What do we do, for Christ’s sake?’
‘Calm yourself down, for one thing,’ said the policeman, sitting back down on his mattress.
‘I wonder who the five Frenchmen were,’ said the postman. ‘We probably know them. I deliver to everyone.’
‘Or the poor soul who lost both his legs,’ added the priest.
‘It’s too awful,’ said the doctor. ‘Too awful.’
‘This is what we’ll do, men,’ said the policeman.
The others realised he was holding in his hand a clutch of straws.
‘You can’t mean that,’ said the postman. ‘You want to decide our fate by drawing s-straws?’
Returning to his feet, the doctor said, ‘He’s right though. What else do you suggest, dear chap? Musical chairs?’
The soldier sniggered. ‘Musical mattresses.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the policeman. ‘It’s fair, it’s simple and it’s quick.’
‘Too quick – that’s the problem,’ said the teacher. ‘We can’t decide our fates by something so basic. I knew a judge once–’
‘So what do you suggest, Professor?’
‘I… I don’t know,’ he said, pushing his glasses up his nose.
‘I know,’ said the postman. ‘We’ll draw the s-straws – but not now. All of those who lose will have hours to ponder their fate. Best do it at the last minute.’
‘By G-god, P-postie’s right,’ said the soldier, mimicking the postman’s stutter. ‘Two minutes to six.’
‘That sounds good to me,’ said the doctor. ‘Are we all agreed?’
There were nods all round.
‘So what do we do now?’ asked the teacher.
‘Go back to sleep,’ said the policeman.
‘Go back to s-sleep? Probably our last night on earth, and you s-say go back to sleep.’
‘What else would you have us do, dear chap?’ asked the doctor. ‘Play “I Spy”?’
‘No, but… I don’t know.’
In silence, the men paced up and down, their eyes fixed on the ground, kicking at clumps of straw and loose bits of stone. Only the priest sat down on his mattress, leaning against the wall, his head in his hands. For five minutes the others continued their pacing. They stopped on hearing the church clock strike once. They looked up at the window as if they could see the church spire from there.
‘Is that one o’clock, or half twelve?’ asked the teacher.
‘Half twelve, I think,’ said the doctor.
‘Christ almighty, another five and a half hours to go,’ said the soldier.
The men resumed their pacing. The policeman, his hands on his chest, coughed. The soldier spat onto the straw while the postman pulled on his beard.
It was the priest, still sitting on his straw mattress, who finally broke the silence. ‘I have an idea, gentlemen.’
The men stopped as one. ‘You do?’ asked the postman and the policeman in unison.
With some difficulty, the priest rose to his feet, aided by the doctor. ‘Thank you, André,’ he said, wiping the dust from his cassock. ‘You will know, I’m sure, the story of Saint Peter at the Gates of Heaven. Jesus, according to the Gospel of Saint Matthew, tells Peter, “I shall give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven”.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean then?’ asked the soldier.
‘You idiot,’ said the policeman. ‘It means once you’re up there, Saint Peter looks at your record, and if you’ve been good on Earth, you’ll get into Heaven, and if you ain’t…’
‘You go down there,’ added the postman, pointing at the floor. ‘Down, down, down.’
‘So what I propose,’ said the priest, ‘is our own version.’
‘Hear me out, Professor.’ Clearing his throat, he continued. ‘We each have done good things in our lives, we have each contributed to the wellbeing of our fellow citizens, to the community. We won’t want to talk about the bad things because, men being men, we might not be entirely truthful. This is understandable. Yet I propose we each confess our greatest sin. In the eyes of God, this being each man’s last confession, forgiveness will be granted only to the ones who speak the truth – regardless how painful that may be. When done, he who has committed the lesser sin shall live.’
‘Why should we be honest, then?’ asked the teacher.
‘It’ll be your last confession, Professor. God will be listening and you will need His forgiveness before you meet Him, be that in six hours or six years.’
It took a while before anyone spoke as the five men exchanged glances. Finally, clearing his throat, the policeman asked, ‘And how do we judge, Father?’
‘God will judge. Having listened to everyone, we will each cast a vote on who we think deserves to live, and God will guide us in our deliberations. The five people with the least votes, well… There you have it.’
‘Bloody ridiculous,’ said the soldier. ‘Excuse my language, Father, but that’s… it doesn’t seem right.’
‘And drawing straws at two minutes to six is?’ asked the doctor.
‘He’s right, it’s not a bad idea,’ said the teacher.
‘No, but… but hang on a minute,’ said the soldier. ‘It was my job to kill; to be ruthless.’
‘In a good cause, Private Béart,’ said the priest.
‘Exactly,’ said the teacher. ‘Sine qua non.’
‘Meaning, old man, it was essential to your job.’
‘As long as you all recognise that.’
‘What does everyone think?’ asked the priest.
The men fell silent for a few moments. Some resumed their pacing.
‘I’d rather draw s-straws,’ said the postman quietly.
‘Dear chap, you won’t be saying that after you’ve drawn a short one,’ said the doctor.
‘And talking will help pass the time away,’ added the policeman. ‘We’re all as good as dead anyway, so why not?’
The soldier shrugged his shoulders. ‘Fine by me.’
‘We’ll put it to the vote,’ said the doctor. ‘Blessed Germans may have stolen our democracy but it doesn’t mean we can’t use it ourselves.’
The six men looked at each other. One by one they nodded their agreement.
‘Right,’ said the doctor. ‘Those in favour of Father Claudel’s suggestion, say “aye”.’
All but one said “aye”.
‘Looks like you’re outvoted, Roger,’ said the teacher.
The soldier spun away. ‘It’s unfair.’
The doctor patted him on the back. ‘Come on, Roger, my dear man. You can do it. You have as much chance as anyone else.’
‘So, who should go first, Father?’ asked the teacher.
‘Ah, for that, perhaps we should use the straw,’ said Father Claudel.
The priest scooped up six strands of straw from the stone floor and snapped one in half. Circled round the priest’s mattress, they one by one took a straw, each one relieved that their lives did not depend on so simple an act.
It was André Le Vau, the doctor, who drew the first short straw.
Chapter 4: The Doctor’s Story
Read the rest of The Sixth Man.