The White Venus – extract

Chapter 1

Xavier passed him the chicken. ‘Go on then, you do it. Like you say, it can’t be that difficult.’

Pierre gathered the hen in his arms and stroked its head to try and keep it calm. Her sister hens and cousins ambled around the yard, pecking, their shadows long in the late afternoon sun, circling the various monuments dotted around – statues and memorials half completed. It was here, at the back of the house, that Pierre’s father did his work.

‘It’s all right for you,’ said Pierre, ‘she’s not part of your family.’

Xavier, sitting in an old rocking chair Pierre’s mother no longer wanted in the house, guffawed. ‘It’s a chicken, Pierre, not your grandmother. Go on, two seconds and it’ll be done with.’

‘Yeah.’ The chicken jerked its head. ‘Right then, Madeleine.’

‘Madeleine? You call it Madeleine?’

‘Yeah. So what? All the chickens have names.’

‘How quaint,’ said Xavier, shielding his eyes from the sun. ‘You give it a name, it’s part of your family, as you say, like a family pet, then your dad tells you to kill it.’

‘She’s old. She’s not laying any more. And Papa, well, he thinks I’m of an age now,’ he said, adopting a pompous tone. ‘This one’s called Marion,’ he said, pointing to another hen. ‘That one Marlene, Monique…’

‘Wait, do they all start with M?’

MmmMaman’s idea.’

‘Your parents are strange.’

‘Papa wanted to name them each after top Nazis – Goebbels, Goring, Rosenberg, but Maman wouldn’t let him. Said it’d be bad taste, especially if he was heard calling out the names.’

‘She has a point. So, which one’s Hitler?’

‘He’s the cock behind you – on the fence. But he’s called Maurice.’

Xavier turned round to view the cockerel. ‘So what would Madeleine have been?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps Bormann.’

‘Well, hurry up then, kill Martin Bormann, even though she’s a girl. They could be here any minute.’

‘And we can’t be late for our special guests.’

‘Exactly. The swines. They couldn’t have chosen a hotter day for it. All this white stone – it hurts your eyes. How do you see to work?’

‘Sunglasses, Xavier. Sunglasses. What d’you think?’

‘What’s this block of stone going to be?’

It’s sandstone. It’s mine to practice on. Papa said I could have it.’

Xavier ran his hand down the stone. ‘What’s it going to be?’

‘A chicken.’

Xavier laughed. ‘Oh, really? A fucking chicken? A metre-high chicken? I’d like to see that when it’s done.’

‘Yeah, a chicken with a Hitler moustache pecking your eyes out.’

‘Very funny. Well, look, your Madeleine’s going to die of old age before you get to wring her neck.’

‘OK. It can’t be that difficult.’ Pierre placed two fingers beneath the bird’s head. Securing its body under his armpit and clamping it against his chest, he tightened his fingers. All he had to do was pull. Pull hard. He’d seen his father do it several times. It took but a second. One solid pull; that’s all it took. The bird squawked. He had to do this. It was part of growing up. He had to have it done before his father came out. He regretted now having invited Xavier over to witness the occasion. He thought it would give him courage but instead it only made things worse. It was like inviting someone over to watch you lose your virginity. He felt self-conscious, pressurised by his friend’s presence. Some things should be done in private. Bracing himself, he started to count down in his head. Five, four, three…

The door to the kitchen flung open. It was his father. Pierre’s fingers slackened, his body slumped. ‘They’re here,’ said Georges.

‘What, already?’

‘Come on, we ought to go.’ Uncharacteristically, Pierre’s father was wearing a collar and tie and his best beret, his shoes polished, his moustache waxed. ‘Hello, Xavier. You can come with us if you like, or are you going with your parents?’

‘I said I’d meet them there.’

‘Let’s go then. After all, we don’t want to keep them waiting.’

Pierre wondered what to do about the chicken. His father spotted his hesitation. ‘What are you doing with Mirabelle?’

‘Mirabelle?’

‘I said wring Madeleine, not Mirabelle.’

Pierre dropped the chicken as if he’d burnt himself. The bird flapped its wings as it landed, causing billows of dust, and ran off, squawking.

His father sighed. ‘Please don’t tell me you were about to do away with one of our best layers?’

Xavier stepped forward. ‘No, Pierre wanted to show me Mirabelle, that’s all.’

‘Thank the Lord for that.’ He straightened his tie. ‘Well, let’s go. Let’s see what the future of France looks like. You ready then, boys?’

*

It was like a carnival. The whole population seemed to have converged on the town square. The clock on the town hall showed five. The sun beat down on the assembled crowd. Whole families had turned out together. Children ran around the square, their shadows chasing after them. The cafés, although still open for business, were empty; their staff in their black and white uniforms waiting outside, craning their necks like so many penguins. There was laughter but also a deep sense of apprehension. No one wanted to admit it but Pierre could feel it; could see it behind everyone’s outward smiles. Ahead of them, in front of the town hall and the war memorial, they had erected a stage, a wooden platform, with large speakers to the side. Centre stage, a microphone in its stand. The war memorial, dating from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, featured a bronze statue of a French soldier high on a plinth, one hand holding a rifle, the other shielding his eyes as he gazed into the distance. The locals affectionately called him ‘Soldier Mike’. The French tricolour hung limp on its flagpole above the town hall; there was no wind to stir it.

People stood on the benches. Pierre’s mother stood on tiptoe, the better to see. She too had dressed up for the occasion, wearing a bright blue dress that came with a belt and a simple straw hat. It was her ‘going out’ dress, her only one. She wore it rarely. A kingfisher brooch acted as a button. Pierre noticed her take her husband’s hand. His father wouldn’t like that. Sure enough, after a few seconds, he leant over to talk to his friend, thereby having the excuse of letting go. Kafka, his father’s friend, chewed on his pipe. Kafka scowled as Pierre’s father whispered in his ear. Pierre heard his father utter the word ‘bastards’. Georges rolled his eyes and nodded knowingly. ‘Georges…’ said Pierre’s mother, remonstrating that her husband should allow his friend to swear in public.

Xavier nudged Pierre in the ribs. ‘Well, this is better than murdering innocent chickens.’

‘I wish they’d hurry up; it’s getting hot.’

‘Look who I see. Our lovely librarian.’

Pierre followed his friend’s gaze. Involuntarily, he let slip the word ‘fuck’. His mother, thank God, didn’t hear. Claire looked gorgeous. She was wearing a white blouse, its buttons like daisies, her breasts clearly defined, and a swirling yellow skirt. Her auburn hair, held with a band, reflected the sun. As if aware of Pierre looking at her, she turned and caught his eye. A flicker of a smile.

‘Here he comes,’ said Georges, breaking the moment. Pierre saw the mayor climbing the steps onto the platform. He looked back towards Claire, but she had gone.

The mayor, wearing his red robes, tapped the microphone. Clutching a sheet of paper, he waited as mothers called their children back. A wave of silence descended across the town square as the hum of conversation died away, broken only by the cawing of a pair of crows perched high on top of Soldier Mike.

Bonjour, messieurs, mesdames.’ The microphone squealed. The mayor stepped back, a clear look of annoyance on his face. Someone to the side of the platform offered advice. Adjusting his spectacles, the mayor, now standing a little further back, continued. ‘My friends, citizens of this glorious town; we live in momentous times. France may have been defeated but she is still France and we are still her children. Yes, we have fallen at the feet of the enemy and yes, Marshal Pétain has asked the Germans for an armistice. The Battle of France is over. You may ask is it unpatriotic to accept so meekly the German in our midst, to bow down before him? I tell you instead to ask is it patriotic to want to throw thousands, hundreds of thousands, of young men to be slaughtered like lambs? Is it not patriotic to want to save our future generation from futile resistance? Most of us remember too well the horrors of the last war. A war we won, but at what price?’ He shook his fist, causing his chin to wobble. ‘So many men and boys killed; leaving behind a generation of young widows; children growing up without ever having known their fathers. Those of you who remember, look now at the children, the young men amongst us. Would you want them to suffer as we suffered twenty years ago in the name of victory?’ Pierre and Georges exchanged glances. His father, Pierre knew, had been in the war. His father had never mentioned it to him – not once. And Pierre had never, until this moment, thought to ask him. ‘No,’ continued the mayor, the sun reflecting off his glasses, ‘this is no shameful defeat; this is peace. Compromised maybe, but better a compromised peace than a victory awash with so much blood.’

‘Bollocks,’ someone muttered. People nearest turned around. That someone, Pierre knew, was Kafka. Pierre’s mother pursed her lips, tutted, noticeably affronted by Kafka’s language. Georges grimaced, as if responsible for his friend’s outburst.

‘I, Claude Marchel, will remain your mayor. You elected me to serve four years. And four years I will serve. With your blessing, perhaps more. But now, as from today, I will have at my side, the Ortskommandantur at Saint-Romain. Together, Colonel Eisler and I will ensure the smooth running of this town and its surrounding area. We shall work together to maintain peace so that we, the good people of this proud town, can coexist in tranquillity with our guests.’

Pierre feared another outburst from Kafka. Thankfully, the man held his tongue. Pierre could see this Colonel Eisler hovering at the side of the stage, waiting for his cue.

‘I have asked the colonel to deliver a few words.’ Removing his spectacles, the mayor motioned the German to take his turn. Pierre noticed that the crows had gone but, with a start, he saw a line of German soldiers at the edges of the crowd. Left and right, they were there, stock still in their grey-green uniforms and steel helmets, their rifles at their sides. Georges had noticed too and visibly stiffened.

The mayor stepped back to allow the colonel centre stage. A tall man; in his fifties, thought Pierre, but still lean. Even from a distance, the man had a presence; his immaculate uniform a stark contrast to the mayor’s ceremonial garb. ‘Thank you, Monsieur le Maire.’ Pierre had half expected a deep authoritative voice, and, although heavily accented, was surprised by its normality. ‘This town and its surrounding area are now under the jurisdiction of the German High Command,’ said the colonel without an introduction. He paused as if allowing his audience to absorb the import of what he had said. ‘While we have nothing but scorn for your government and its feeble-minded politicians, we have nothing but respect for the French people.’

‘So why in the hell did you invade us, then?’ came a loud voice to the side. It was not Kafka, but the man was nodding his agreement. The colonel ignored the taunt and continued his speech, extolling the need for Franco-German cordiality. Pierre noticed the German soldiers nearest the dissenter shuffle forward, squeezing in the crowd. They had seen the man, Monsieur Touvier, the town’s blacksmith, and they were watching him.

Pierre saw his mother take his father’s hand again. ‘All guns, in whatever form, are to be handed in to the town hall by noon tomorrow. There are to be no exceptions. Likewise, all radios are to be handed in by the same time. From today, we will be observing German time, so you will need to adjust your clocks and watches by one hour in advance.’ Pierre felt rather than heard the collective groan. ‘From today also, you will have to abide by a curfew. This curfew will change with the time of year but for now, with the days at their longest, it will be nine o’clock – German time. Anyone found outside their homes from nine to five the following morning will face consequences.’ The colonel scanned the audience in front of him, looking at people, one to another, as if daring anyone else to make a comment. No one did. The soldiers nearby, Pierre noticed, were still watching the blacksmith.

‘The day-to-day running of this town will remain with Monsieur le Maire. My staff and I will be based in Saint-Romain. Most of my men will be based there but a few will remain here. Some of those remaining will be billeted in your homes. It will not be for long – perhaps a month at the most. The noticeboard behind me has a list of residents who can await a lodger. I expect those listed to make my men feel welcome; and I fully expect my men to treat you with the utmost courtesy. I bid you all good day.’

The rumble of voices began immediately, rising to a crescendo of speculation. The mayor returned to the microphone but his attempts to call for attention were ignored as his face reddened to the same colour as his robes.

‘I hope we don’t get someone staying with us,’ said Pierre’s mother.

‘I’ll bloody show him the door if we do,’ said Georges, pulling on his moustache.

‘Don’t swear, Georges.’

‘He’s right, though,’ said Kafka. ‘Any German staying in my house will sleep in the outside toilet.’

‘Kafka, you live alone – they won’t send anyone to you.’

Pierre noticed two soldiers squeezing into the dissenter. Holding his arms down, they took Monsieur Touvier to one side, trying their best not to cause a commotion.

‘What are they going to do him?’ asked Xavier.

‘They’re going to make him pluck chickens as a punishment.’

Pierre’s mother called out to them. ‘Boys, why don’t you go check the noticeboard? Let us know the worst.’

*

Xavier had got there before Pierre, pushing his way through the throng of people crowding round the noticeboard. Pierre watched as people came away, either with a look of relief or dread emblazoned on their faces. Someone, he noticed, had wrapped a French flag round Soldier Mike’s ankle. He caught sight of Claire again. He waved and although she was looking in his direction, did not see him, leaving him feeling rather foolish with his hand mid-air.

Xavier re-appeared from the scrum of people, looking slightly dishevelled but grinning.

‘Well?’

‘Don’t worry, my parents are in the clear.’

‘Well, that’s nice. I’m so pleased for you. And, erm…’

‘Oh, sorry, Pierre, I forgot to look for your name.’

‘You’re an idiot.’

His friend laughed. ‘I’m only joking. I did look.’

‘Oh, the suspense. Well, go on then, tell me.’

Xavier could not contain his glee as he imparted the news. ‘Yep, my dear friend. You are to expect a Major something-or-other at some point in the next couple of days.’

‘Oh great. Sod it. A major?’

‘Yeah. What rank was your father?’

‘No idea. So what’s his name?’

‘I’ve forgotten. Something beginning with an H.’

‘Major H, welcome to our humble home. I’d better tell my parents.’

‘Ah, don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll be a very nice Kraut, and I’m sure you’ll all live happily ever after together.’

‘Yeah, thanks, Xavier. You’re still an idiot.’

*

Xavier had, at last, found his parents and disappeared with them into the throng of people now meandering back to their homes. Heading home down a side street, Pierre walked alongside his mother while his father walked behind, talking to Kafka. Pierre had told them the news – they were to expect a lodger. They took it rather well, he thought. ‘What does it all mean, Maman?’

‘The Germans? I don’t know. Maybe the mayor was right; maybe it is for the best.’

‘What? To have a bunch of Germans telling us what to do?’ Further ahead, they saw two German soldiers peering through the window at the baker’s.

‘I remember the last war, Pierre,’ said his mother quietly, as if the soldiers might hear her from twenty metres away. ‘They were terrible, terrible years. The Marshal knows what he’s doing; he’ll find a way.’

‘What, Pétain? That old goat?’

‘Pierre, please. Keep your voice down. You don’t know what you’re saying. He saved us once; he’ll save us again.’ The soldiers, sharing a joke, were now heading towards them, ambling leisurely, looking around them as if sightseeing in the sunshine.

‘But the lad is right,’ bellowed Kafka from behind. ‘Pétain is an old goat; he’s sold us down the river.’ The soldiers were getting closer but Pierre feared that Kafka was far from finished. ‘In sucking up to the Krauts, he’s signed a pact with the Devil.’

The soldiers had heard Kafka’s shouting. They were watching him as they strolled past them in the lane. Pierre’s mother turned to Kafka, ‘Keep your voice down.’

‘No, sorry, Sandrine; I cannot hold my tongue. Pétain has betrayed us and betrayed his country.’ This time the Germans had clearly heard him. Pierre saw their faces harden. ‘And so now we have to tolerate having these Krauts telling us what to do.’

‘Hey, you; watch your tongue,’ said one of the soldiers in German, a man with a boxer’s nose, gripping his rifle in front of him.

‘Fuck off back to Germany.’

It took but a second – Kafka was on his knees on the tarmac, clutching his stomach. The soldier had hit him with his rifle butt. Sandrine screamed; Georges’s face turned white; Pierre had taken his mother’s hand. The soldier was leaning over Kafka, screaming at him: ‘You filth! You talk like that again you’re dead; you got it?’ The second soldier kicked Kafka, catching him in the arm. People stopped, shocked, open-mouthed.

‘Please don’t say anything else,’ Pierre whispered to himself.

The first soldier had his rifle poised, ready to butt Kafka a second time. Pierre held his breath, gripped his fingers over his mother’s, but a voice rang out in German: ‘Hey, stop right this instant.’

Kafka spat as a German officer ran onto the scene. ‘Stop right now, Private. What’s going on?’

The second private spoke. ‘This piece of shit was insulting us, sir.’

‘What was he saying?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t know that much French.’

‘He’s got a bad attitude, sir,’ said the other, lowering his rifle.

Kafka rose unsteadily to his feet, still holding his stomach.

‘That’s enough now,’ said the major. Pierre released his mother’s hand.

Georges helped his friend up. ‘You’re OK, Kafka?’

‘I can manage,’ he said, shrugging Georges off.

‘Kafka? What sort of name is that? Are you a writer?’ asked the major in perfect French. Turning to his soldiers, he said in German, ‘OK, men, you can go now.’ The two soldiers looked at each other. One shrugged and with a half-hearted Hitler salute headed off, the other following in his wake. ‘I apologise for the men,’ he said to Kafka. ‘After a month of fighting, they’re a little twitchy. Are you OK?’

Kafka puffed out his cheeks. ‘A month of killing Frenchmen, eh? My heart bleeds for them.’

Pierre could see the major’s goodwill rapidly draining away. ‘What is your name?’

‘Kafka; I told you.’

‘Your real name?’

Kafka stretched, as if trying to rid his stomach of the pain.

‘I asked you what is your name?’

‘Foucault, Albert Foucault.’

‘But they call you Kafka?’

‘Looks like it. Can we go now?’

The major stared at him for a few moments. Then with a quick bow to Pierre’s mother, turned to leave. They watched him head briskly back towards the town square.

‘Oh, Kafka,’ said Sandrine. ‘When will you learn?’

‘Thanks for all your help, Georges.’

‘I – I wanted to but…’

‘But what?’

Sandrine, still agitated, fanned herself with her hat. ‘I think we should go now. Come, Pierre.’

But Kafka, rubbing his stomach, wasn’t finished. ‘Still a little smitten with the German race, eh, Georges? Still in awe of their biological superiority after all these years?’

Sandrine took Georges’s hand. ‘Let’s get you home, dear,’ she said, dragging him away, trying to save her husband from further embarrassment. ‘And you, Kafka. Go home and have a bath, even in this heat. Hot water will do your stomach some good. Help ease the pain.’

Georges huffed. ‘Take a few days off, Kafka. Go to your island on the lake, have a rest.’

‘I might well do that. And thank you for your concern, Sandrine; I’ll do exactly as you say, a hot bath, even in this weather.’ He was smiling now, a smile without affection. ‘I’ll see you soon, Georges; and Pierre…’

‘Yes?’ said Pierre nervously.

‘You know, you don’t always have to grab your mother’s hand at the first sign of trouble.’

Chapter 2

While Sandrine waited for the kettle to boil on their large, black stove, she washed her hands thoroughly, still determined, she’d said, to wash away the dirt of the previous day. Pierre was familiar with this habit of hers – this obsessive washing of hands whenever she felt under a strain. He remembered exactly when it had started.

Eventually, with the tea made, they sat and sipped in silence, Sandrine smelling of carbolic soap. His parents sat on the bench at the kitchen table, the table with its rose-patterned oilcloth, while Pierre sat back in the kitchen armchair. His eyelids felt heavy. His eyes scanned the familiar items on the chest – the crucifix at its top, the china cups hanging on hooks, the ones rarely used; the saucers on display with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on a white background, the Tower, adorned with a smiling face, leaning to one side as if exercising. There was one missing – Pierre had broken it years back; he must’ve been about eight or nine. It was the only time he ever recalled his mother spanking him. He cried, naturally, but not from the pain – there wasn’t any, but from the fact he’d so upset his mother. On the wall opposite the chest, two framed photographs – one of a man on a tightrope and the other of a young boy aged about five wearing a flat cap too big for him and baggy trousers, the definition of a cheeky but sweet boy.

While his mother had made tea, he had sat there with his father. Neither spoke a word yet he’d wanted so much to ask. But his father seemed so diminished it didn’t seem right to bring it out in the open. Kafka knew something that Georges would rather forget. Perhaps, at some point, thought Pierre, he would broach the subject with his mother. And then of course there was the little matter of his own abject humiliation. He tried to persuade himself that he had taken his mother’s hand to protect her. But Kafka knew the truth. And so did he.

Finally, Pierre’s mother broke the silence. ‘What about your gun, Georges?’

‘What about it?’

‘You have to hand it in.’

‘Why? Because they said so?’ asked Georges, stirring his tea although he had almost finished it.

‘Of course. We can’t keep it, especially with a German staying in the house. If they find it…’

‘There’d be serious consequences,’ finished Pierre.

‘Yes, thank you, Pierre,’ said his father. ‘For God’s sake, it’s only an old shotgun. I use it for the rabbits and crows. That’s it.’ Pierre didn’t like to say that, despite numerous attempts, he’d never seen his father kill anything. ‘And I’ve had it for years. It’s virtually an antique.’

Yes but they don’t know that, Georges. You have to hand it in. Think of us, all of us.’

Georges finished his tea. ‘I’m not handing it in,’ he said, placing his mug on the table.

Sandrine rose from her seat and went outside. ‘She’s gone to get it,’ said Georges to Pierre. ‘You wait.’

Sure enough, moments later, Sandrine returned carrying the shotgun at arm’s length as if it was emitting a terrible smell. ‘It is safe, isn’t it, Georges? You haven’t left it loaded or anything?’

‘No, of course not. Bloody hell.’

She looked up worriedly at the crucifix. ‘Please, Georges, don’t use profanities.’

Gingerly, she placed the gun on the table. They looked at it. Pierre had never really considered it before. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, he decided. Elegant, sleek yet solid. He knew nothing about guns but could see that this thing could cause some damage. He realised that his father knew he had to hand it in but couldn’t face another indignity. ‘I’ll take it if you want.’ The idea of walking through the town with this in his hand was thrilling.

His parents looked at each other and silently reached the same conclusion. ‘Good idea,’ said Sandrine. ‘Yes, you take it. But do it now – in case this Major H turns up early.’

Pierre picked it up. He weighed it up and down. It was heavier than he expected. ‘It’s lovely.’

‘Just take it, Pierre,’ said Sandrine.

Pierre pointed to his father’s wartime helmet that hung from the back of the kitchen door. It’d been there for as long as he could remember. ‘Can I wear your helmet, Papa?’

‘No, you cannot. Is there not a bag of some sort he could put it in?’ asked Georges.

But Pierre was already out of the door. As he closed it behind him he heard his father shout, ‘Get a receipt for it.’

*

Pierre couldn’t resist it. He called in on Xavier to show him the shotgun. His friend was suitably impressed. ‘So what are you doing with it?’

‘I’m off to shoot a few Germans. Do you want to come?’

‘Right we are.’

‘For every German we take out, there’s one less to worry about.’

‘Yep – simple. Let’s go.’

It was strange walking down the street with a huge gun. People couldn’t help but notice and many backed away. Monsieur Tautou, the carpenter, saw them. ‘That’s the spirit, boys.’

They took turns with the gun, carrying it as a soldier would on parade. The walk from Xavier’s house to the town hall was but a few minutes but the boys took several detours so that soon hardly a street in the whole town had not been visited by the two boys and their heavy shotgun. ‘Hey, Pierre, let’s take it into the woods and see if we can kill something. Or we can sneak into the back of the mayor’s house and kill his rabbits.’

‘Xavier – it’s not loaded.’

‘Oh.’

‘You think my dad would let me walk down the street with a loaded gun? Anyway, imagine firing this thing; it’d dislocate your shoulder.’

‘Let’s go to the library – go see the lovely Claire,’ he said in a sing-song voice. ‘I’m sure she’d be impressed with something that size.’

‘It’s closed now.’

‘Barriers, barriers. That’s all you do; create barriers to everything I say.’

Pierre laughed. ‘It’s not my bloody fault that the gun’s not loaded and the library is closed.’

Wrapped up in their banter, they hadn’t noticed the pair of German soldiers approach them. ‘What are you doing with that gun?’ said one in German, his rifle trained on them.

The boys looked up. ‘Oh, shit,’ uttered Pierre, recognising the soldier with the flattened nose. ‘What did he say?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Put that gun down,’ said the first German.

‘Don’t you understand German?’ shouted the second.

‘I think he wants you to put the gun down, Xavier.’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’ Carefully, he placed it on the road.

Pierre pointed in the direction of the town hall. ‘We hand it in to the mayor.’

‘What did he say?’ asked the first German to his comrade.

‘I think he says they’re going to shoot the mayor.’

On hearing this, the first one leapt into action, lifting his rifle to eye-level and, advancing, aiming it straight at Pierre’s head. ‘Get down, you frog, on your knees now.’

‘Whoa,’ cried Pierre putting his hands up.

‘Get down.’

The boys understood and went down on their knees, then, after furthering gesturing, lay on the road on their fronts.

‘I think they’re going to kill us,’ said Pierre.

‘But I haven’t had my dinner yet.’

‘You could ask him to come back later.’

‘Stop talking,’ yelled the first as the second German began frisking Xavier.

‘We’ve got an audience,’ whispered Pierre. Sure enough, a small gathering of people had emerged, forming a circle around the spectacle. Someone shouted, ‘Leave them alone.’ Someone else added, ‘They’re only kids.’

‘No, we’re not,’ said Pierre.

The second soldier had begun frisking Pierre, kicking his legs apart, and running his hands down his trousers, into his pockets, and down his socks. Craning his neck, Pierre saw a light green skirt. Fantastic, he thought; Claire couldn’t help but be impressed. Here he was, only two days in, and he was already a resistance fighter. If only she’d step a little closer with that swirling skirt.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked the soldiers in German.

‘Are they friends of yours?’

‘I know them.’

‘We caught them on their way to kill your mayor. They confessed.’

‘Really?’ She laughed. ‘Hello, Pierre, Xavier. So, you were off to assassinate the mayor, were you?’

Erm, yes,’ said Pierre.

‘Don’t listen to him,’ said Xavier. ‘Of course we weren’t. Tell her, you idiot.’

Pierre told her the truth as the soldier frisked his shirt. People in the crowd sniggered as they turned to leave. Claire, in turn, told the soldiers.

‘I’m not so sure,’ said the first. ‘They look suspicious to me.’

‘Do you really think–’

‘Nonetheless, we’d better escort them,’ said the second. ‘Just to make sure. Get up!’ he yelled at the boys.

‘What did he say?’ asked Pierre.

‘He said, “prepare to die, you filthy sons of dogs”,’ returned Xavier.

‘He said all that in just two syllables?’

‘Boys, you can get up now,’ said Claire. ‘These kind soldiers are going to escort you to the mayor’s office.’

‘What – Fritz One and Fritz Two? That’s awfully decent of them,’ said Xavier, brushing away fragments of tarmac.

‘They don’t have to; we know the way.’

Claire shook her head and smiled.

*

Pierre felt rather excited, walking to the town hall with two German soldiers behind them, pointing their rifles. One carried his father’s shotgun. He hoped everyone in the town would get to see them. Indeed, they received many admiring glances and shocked ones too. It was turning out not to be such a bad day after all. Outside the town hall, the Germans had already erected a notice: Whoever commits acts of sabotage against members or property of the German armed forces, or found to be in possession of arms of any type, will be shot. Xavier caught Pierre’s eye, raising his eyebrows.

Inside the town hall, the reception area was brimming. With its high ceiling and marbled floor, voices echoed. Men in German uniforms marched in and out; well-dressed women carrying envelopes or pads of paper busied themselves; telephones rang; a deliveryman appeared pushing a large cardboard box on a trolley.

The two German soldiers deposited the boys at the main desk, handing the shotgun over to the receptionist. She took it, leaning it against the desk beside her as they briefed her. On the wall behind the desk, a large portrait of Marshal Pétain wearing his peaked hat decorated with gold braids, his grey moustache almost white, his eyes fixed resolutely on the viewer, his chin defiantly prominent. The boys looked at each other. Subtly, Pierre shook his head, warning Xavier not to say anything. As they left, the first soldier slapped Xavier on the back and said, ‘There we are; wasn’t too bad, after all.’

‘What did he say?’ asked Xavier.

‘He said next time you’re dead.’

‘Severe.’

It took Pierre a whole five minutes to fill out the necessary paperwork and receive, in return, a receipt. As they turned to leave, his mother suddenly appeared, throwing open the double doors of the town hall and standing there, catching her breath while trying to find her son. ‘Pierre, thank God,’ she said upon seeing him. ‘I heard you’d been arrested.’ She threw her arms round him.

Maman, please.’

‘Were you arrested? I heard all sorts of tales of you being led away at gunpoint. What happened?’

As they left and Pierre began recounting the tale, Xavier told them to look behind. They stood and looked up at the flagpole above the town hall. The French flag that had been there as long as anyone could remember had gone. In its place, flapping gently in the breeze, was the swastika.

‘It’s no joke, is it?’ said Xavier.

‘No,’ said Pierre.

*

Having said their goodbyes to Xavier, Pierre and his mother slowly walked the rest of the way home.

Maman, what did Kafka mean by saying Papa was still in awe of the Germans?’

Sandrine stopped. She sighed. ‘I don’t know. Your father fought in the war. You know that, he’s got the medals. And that helmet on the back of the door. They were in the same unit. But, like a lot of men, your father never talks about the war. I only met him in 1920. We married a year later, so I didn’t know him as a soldier. But something happened; I don’t know what but something between Kafka and your father. Whatever it was, your father has always seemed as if he is still in debt to Kafka. He says Kafka is his friend – but friends don’t blackmail each other.’

‘Blackmail?’

‘I don’t mean with money. Just – emotionally, somehow. I remember, about ten years ago, Kafka moved away for a while. I think he moved to the city to be with his father who was dying. He was gone for about six months. I’d never seen your father so happy. He was like a different man. Then, Kafka came back and it was as if a big shadow had fallen over him again. I tell Georges just ignore him but, of course, in a town of this size, it’s almost impossible.’

They had come to the house now. They lived in a bricked bungalow painted green, with large windows and a wooden porch that had three steps leading up to the front door. Either side, on each step, a blue enamel pot of flowers, which Sandrine watered every day. More pots hung from the porch. At this time of year, especially, their porch was ablaze with colour.

‘Before we go in, let me say – don’t mention any of this to your father. And be careful of Kafka. You know what he’s like; we saw it yesterday. He’s unpredictable. Stay away from him. For whatever reason, your father can’t – but you, Pierre, you can.’

Chapter 3

The following morning, Georges was in the yard, working on another memorial engraving, while Sandrine had just returned from her daily visit to the churchyard and a shopping spree, complaining about prices already going up. Pierre was sitting on the bench at the kitchen table drawing – sketching out his ideas for a grand statue. He’d just had his daily dose of cod liver oil and the foul taste still lingered in his mouth. He decided then and there he would never take the stuff again. He was too old for it now. A tray with three Eiffel Tower china cups and saucers lay at the end of the table.

It was exactly ten o’clock when the knock on the door came. They had been expecting it but had not mentioned it. Sandrine, carrying a pallet of mushrooms, ran a hand through her hair. Quickly, she removed her apron, and smoothed out her blue dress. Pierre wondered why his mother had worn her best outfit again, right down to the kingfisher brooch. Again, she smelt strongly of carbolic soap. She opened the door. Immediately, Pierre recognized the German’s voice speaking immaculate French.

‘It’s no inconvenience; do come in,’ he heard his mother say. ‘Mind your head.’

And then, there he was – this tall German officer standing in the middle of the kitchen, his big, shiny boots on the red tiled floor, his cap in hand, carrying a small suitcase. It was the major from the gathering; the one who had intervened in Kafka’s argument.

‘Such a lovely house… oh, hello there.’ The man offered Pierre his hand. ‘My name is Major Hurtzberger, Thomas.’

‘Major H.’

‘Yes; if you like. And your name is?’

‘Pierre. I’ll get my father.’ He heard his mother offer the German a cup of coffee as Pierre stepped outside. It was another hot day. He found Georges with his goggles on, chisel and mallet in hand.

On seeing his son, Georges took off his goggles. ‘He’s here?’

Back inside, Pierre found the German looking at the ornaments and the pictures, paying particular attention to the photographs of the tightrope walker and the young boy in the flat cap. Sitting back at the table, Pierre watched as the three of them, his parents and the German, danced through a series of apologies and polite platitudes. ‘It should only be for a month or so; I do apologize for the inconvenience.’ He was tall, over six foot, dark-haired, thin nose, pronounced cheekbones, and here he was, with his Nazi uniform with its German eagle, epaulettes, and medal ribbons, sitting at the kitchen table. The polite occupier; the enemy within their midst, being offered coffee.

Pierre twirled his pencil around his fingers. He noticed that the German wore a gold signet ring on his left hand.

‘What amusing cups,’ said the major.

Sandrine laughed. ‘Yes, it’s the Eiffel Tower.’

‘Yes, I can see.’

Georges shook his head.

Sandrine complimented the German on his French; mentioned that Pierre had done well in his English lessons at school.

‘You speak English?’ asked the German in English.

‘No,’ replied Pierre in French; annoyed to have been brought into the conversation.

‘Don’t be silly, Pierre. Go on, say something in English,’ said his mother.

‘Leave the boy alone,’ said Georges.

‘What is it you’re drawing?’ asked the major.

‘Nothing really.’ Subconsciously, he scribbled over his drawing, leaving an impression on the oilcloth beneath.

The kettle steamed on the stove while Sandrine prepared the coffee.

‘Almost ready, Major.’

‘Please, Madame Durand, you must call me Thomas.’

‘No,’ interrupted Georges. ‘I think for the sake of propriety, we should stick to more formal use. I hope you understand, Major?’

‘Y-yes. Yes, if you like.’

Changing the subject, Georges asked the German whether he had been to France before. He had once, as a child, with his parents, in about 1922, he said. Loire Valley – all those lovely chateaus. Had Georges been to Germany? ‘No.’ came the quick reply; too quick, causing a moment of awkwardness.

‘You’ll be pleased to know, you won’t see too much of me. I’ll be working most of the day – every day.’

‘No peace for the wicked?’ asked Sandrine. She flushed red and subconsciously glanced up at the crucifix. Georges groaned.

‘Well, yes. Erm. We’re not all so wicked. And don’t worry about food – I’ll be eating all my meals at the canteen. I will endeavour to restrict my intrusion into your home to a minimum.’

‘That’s perfectly OK,’ said Sandrine. ‘You’ll be sleeping in our third bedroom. You’ll just have to ignore all the toys in there.’

‘Toys? Oh, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t want to take Pierre’s room–’

‘No, it’s not Pierre’s room. He’s too old for toys now.’ She poured him his coffee. ‘Sugar, Major?’

‘No, thank you.’

Oh, please, mother, don’t say it. ‘Sweet enough already, Major?’ She’d said it.

He looked suitably embarrassed; as did she for saying it. Nerves. Pierre ground his pencil onto the oilcloth, breaking its nib. ‘Are you all right, Pierre?’ asked his mother.

‘I need to go out. I said I’d go see Xavier.’

‘Well…’

‘You go, if you want,’ said Georges.

‘Yes, please, don’t stay on my account,’ said the major. ‘You must all try to act as if I wasn’t here.’

‘Right,’ said Pierre. A stern look from his mother stopped him from saying anything else.

*

‘Well?’ asked Xavier. ‘Has he moved in?’

They were heading towards the town square. ‘He’s moved in all right. My mother couldn’t be more creepy than if the Queen of Sheba had arrived. It’s no inconvenience, Major. Can I get you a coffee, Major? Sugar, Major? Sweet enough, Major? Can I stroke your hair, Major? It’s sickening.’

‘You ought to send Kafka over. He’ll sort it out. What about your dad?’

‘He doesn’t say much – as usual.’

‘No guns today, boys?’ asked a passer-by, Tautou, the carpenter.

‘Why does everyone find this such a joke?’ said Pierre. ‘We’re swamped by Krauts and we have to pretend nothing’s changed.’

‘What can we do?’

‘You said it just now.’

‘What?’

‘Kafka. He’ll know.’

‘He’s bad news, that man. My father told me to stay away from him.’

‘Funny that, that’s exactly what my mother said. Everyone’s frightened of him all of a sudden.’

‘Good God, look at the cafés; we’ve been taken over.’ They had reached the square and the cafés dotted round the perimeter were all doing a brisk business – but not a Frenchman amongst them; every outside seat seemed to be taken by Germans. The mood was jovial, much laughing as the soldiers relaxed, helmets on the back of their chairs, smoking and drinking their coffees in the sun. With a jolt, Pierre spotted Claire. She was outside Café Bleu standing next to a table full of Germans. She had their undivided attention. With a laugh and a wave, she bid them goodbye and made to cross the square, a smile on her lips, a bounce in her step.

She saw Pierre and his friend. ‘Hello, boys.’

‘Hello, Claire,’ said Pierre. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Me? Nothing. Oh, that.’

‘You were–’

‘Keep your voice down. I’m going to the baker’s. Come with me.’

The boys accompanied her to the baker’s and accepted her offer of a macaroon each. They waited outside while Claire went in. A girl of about eleven passed on a red bicycle. ’I’m surprised the Germans haven’t requisitioned that,’ said Xavier.

‘Ha; don’t give them the idea.’

‘Here we are,’ said Claire, reappearing with a baguette and three macaroons.

‘Are you buying our silence?’ joked Pierre as they walked on.

Glancing up and down the street, Claire seemed to take the accusation seriously. Speaking quietly, she said, ‘It’s Kafka’s idea. He told me to get friendly with the enemy. He’d said I’d be an asset with my German and… well, whatever. Better to know what they’re up to, he said.’

‘And what are they up to?’ asked Xavier.

She waited for an old woman with a walking stick to pass by. ‘That’s not for me to indulge.’

‘Are you working for Kafka now?’

‘No, of course not, I still work at the library. I need to go. I have to open up. What’s the time? My watch’s wrong.’

Xavier shook his head. ‘They’ve changed the time, haven’t they? We’re on German time now.’

‘I forgot. Oh no, that means I’m an hour late.’

‘Don’t suppose anyone will notice.’

‘Nonetheless, I have to go.’

The boys watched her go towards the library, her hair bouncing, her skirt flowing behind her.

‘Wait here,’ Pierre told Xavier. Running, he caught up with Claire.

‘Did you not enjoy your macaroon?’

‘Claire, can I work for Kafka?’

She stopped. She ran a finger softly down his cheek. Her touch, however soft, sent a little surge of electricity through Pierre. ‘Don’t,’ was all she said before walking off again.

Pierre ran up beside her. ‘I don’t understand. Why on earth not?’

‘You’re too young, Pierre.’

‘I’m almost seventeen.’

‘Exactly. Anyway, think of your mother; what would she say?’

‘She’d–’

‘She’d be horrified.’

Pierre watched her leave, waving to a friend across the street. Claire was new to the village; she’d come from Paris, apparently wanting to escape the capital and its Germans. She’d merely swapped one set of Germans for another. Pierre wondered whether the Germans in Paris were any different to the ones in the town. More pertinently, he wondered how long she’d stay. A couple of soldiers passed by on bicycles, one of them wolf-whistling at her. Xavier appeared at his side. ‘What was that about?’ he asked. He had speckles of crumbs on his upper lip.

‘She reckons I could work for Kafka,’ he said.

‘What do you mean work for?’

‘You know.’

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘No.’

‘No, nor do I. But I intend to find out.’

*

Producing a sculpture is, foremost, a matter of patience. Occasionally, the family of the deceased wanted something different from the stocks of memorials Georges had at the ready. They wanted a different kind of angel, or Virgin Mary, or Jesus. And they had the money to pay for it. This, then, meant you had to work to a deadline, for no family wanted their loved ones to be deprived of their headstone for too long. But even with a deadline, one had to have patience. Remember, this was a monument that would remain in place for evermore; long after they themselves were dead and forgotten. This was the message that Pierre’s father had instilled in him. The sculptor’s art was unique, he said frequently, in that it involved both hard, physical work, yet a finesse of touch. They were labourers and artists; lackeys and craftsmen. Theirs was a job that came with great responsibility. After all, they were putting the full stop at the very end of someone’s life. They had been given a solemn obligation by the ones left behind; one that came with an expectation that, with their craft, they honour the memory of a life now gone with a memorial that would last for eternity; a testament to the worthy life once lived. In accepting the obligation, they, as sculptors, had formed a bond with the departed.

He hadn’t heard the German open the back door but he knew from the chickens running away that he had company. ‘So, is this how you spend the day?’ asked the major, holding a cup of coffee.

‘Yeah.’ He kicked away the tarpaulin lying at his feet.

‘It’s a beautiful spot.’ Shielding his eyes from the sun, the major scanned the view. Pierre noticed the signet ring on his left hand, holding the coffee cup. The design was of a horse with a wild mane. ‘How big is that woodland?’

‘Fairly big.’

‘Hmm. You have two sheds?’

‘Yes, that one over there with the bike against it is where we keep the stone, the marble and the granite and stuff. Papa calls it the warehouse.’

‘Is that your bike?’

‘Yes. And this shed is for tools and things.’

The major opened the door of the nearest shed. ‘Oh yes, a workman’s paradise in here. What a lot of tools, and so much paint.’

‘Papa wants to paint both sheds.’

‘What colour?’

‘Red.’

‘Certainly bright. Do you mind if I sit for a while?’ asked the major taking a seat on the rocking chair. Pierre shrugged with what he hoped was marked indifference. He was aware of the major watching him at work, chiselling away at the stone. ‘So, is this to be a memorial?’ the German asked, removing his cap.

‘Yes.’

Why, wondered Pierre, had he not told the German the truth? After all, it was not a big deal. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. But the man was a German; he had no right to be in his house, his yard, let alone his country. There again, he was but a man, an annoyingly nice man who washed his cup after he’d finished with it; something neither his father nor he had ever done; a man who rose to his feet whenever his mother walked in the room; why, he even put the toilet seat down and rinsed the sink after he’d had a shave. Pierre had been brought up believing the Germans to be a race of barbarians; brought up on stories of how they’d behaved during the last war; of atrocities committed; of nuns raped and children butchered. The image and reality differed in the extreme.

‘It’s not a memorial,’ he said eventually. ‘Papa reckons I’m not ready for a real memorial, although I have helped him lots. This is just for me.’

‘Just for you and for your father – to show him you’re perfectly capable.’

Pierre looked at the major – what right did he have to read his mind?

‘And may I ask what’s it going to be, this sculpture? Or is it an artistic secret?’

Indeed, Pierre had intended on keeping it a secret, but as neither his mother nor father had shown any interest it hardly warranted being classed as such. And the German had acknowledged that Pierre was embarking on a work of art.

‘You don’t have to tell me.’

‘Venus.’

‘Venus, indeed?’

Pierre got up, went to the little shed where his father kept all his tools, and returned carrying a large book. Opening the pages at a bookmark, he passed it to the major.

The Birth of Venus – Botticelli,’ said the German. ‘Sandro Botticelli. I have seen it.’

‘You’ve seen it – in the flesh, the real thing?’

‘Why yes. In Florence, the Uffizi. It’s beautiful, of course. And so big. It’s almost three metres long.’

‘You’ve been to Italy?’

‘Yes. In my early twenties. The Uffizi is the most wondrous place. One day you must go. It’s perhaps even grander than your Louvre. Well, perhaps not so grand. You’ve been to the Louvre, yes?’

Pierre felt a prick of shame as he had to confess he had not; had not even been to Paris.

‘Don’t worry; you’re still young. One day, when all this… this is over, you’ll go – both the Louvre and the Uffizi, and you’ll see Venus in the flesh, as you say, the real thing. Meanwhile, what you are doing is a grand endeavour; it’s certainly ambitious. I’m impressed, Pierre.’

Pierre shuddered as a feeling of warmth cascaded through him, inducing such an unexpected wave of pleasure it left him momentarily disorientated. It was the way the major had said his name – not as a grown-up would but as an equal, a fellow lover of art.

‘I have to go now; work to do.’

Pierre nodded; he wanted to say thank you but found it was simply too difficult.

The major stood and pulled the creases out of his tunic. ‘I shall leave the artist to get on with his work.’

Pierre smiled.

Putting his cap back on, the major turned to leave, returning to the house. As he opened the kitchen door, he turned round. ‘What do you plan on calling your sculpture?’

Pierre hadn’t actually thought about a name. He stroked the dry sandstone and, on eyeing the thin layer of white dust on his palm, the name came to him in an instant. He grinned. Turning to the major, he said, ‘The White Venus.’

The White Venus – available from Amazon US or Amazon UK

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