Cassis, Reinette and I been waiting for over an hour when they arrived. Once we were outside La R'ep, Cassis, shed all pretense at indifference and watched avidly through one of the smeared windowpanes pushing us back when we tried to take our turns. My interest was limited. Until Tomas arrived there could be nothing much to see, after all. But Reine was persistent.
“I want to see,” she wailed. “Cassis, you mean thing, I want to see!”
“There’s nothing there,” I told her impatiently. “Nothing but old men at tables and those two tarts with their mouths painted red.” I’d only caught a glimpse at the time, but how I remember. Agn`es at the piano and Colette with a tight green wrap-over cardigan revealing thrusting breasts like cannon shells. I still remember where everyone was, Martin and Jean-Marie Dupr'e playing cards with Philippe Hourias-fleecing him, as usual, by all appearances-Henri Lema^itre sitting by the bar with an everlasting demi and an eye to the ladies, Francois Ramondin and Arthur Lecoz, Julien’s cousin, discussing something furtive in a corner with Julien Lanicen and Auguste Truriand and old Gustave Beauchamp on his own by the window, beret pulled down over his hairy ears and a stub of a pipe jammed between his lips. I remember them all. With a struggle I can see Philippe’s cloth cap lying on the bar next to him, I can smell the tobacco smoke-by then the precious tobacco was heavily laced with dandelion leaves, and stank like a green-stick fire-and the smell of chicory coffee. The scene has the stillness of a tableau, the golden glow of nostalgia overridden by the dark-red flare of burning. Oh, I remember. I only wish I didn’t.
When at last they came, we were stiff and bad-tempered from crouching against the wall and Reinette was almost in tears. Cassis had been watching through the doorway and we had settled under the smeary window. It was I who heard them first, the distant sound of motorbikes getting closer on the Angers road, then blatting down the dirt track with a muffled series of small explosions. Four bikes. I suppose we should have expected the women. If we’d known how to read Mother’s album we should certainly have anticipated their arrival, but we were profoundly innocent in spite of everything, and the reality shocked us a little. I suppose it was because as they entered the bar we could see that these were real women-tight twinsets, fake pearls, one carrying her pointed high-heeled shoes in one hand, the other fumbling in her handbag for a compact-not especially pretty, not even very young. I’d expected glamour. But these were only ordinary women like my mother, sharp-faced, hair held back with metal grips, backs arched to an impossible camber by those agonizing shoes. Three ordinary women.
Reinette was gaping.
“Look at her shoes!” Her face, pressed against the smeared glass, was pink with delight and admiration. I realized that she and I were seeing different things, that my sister still saw movie-star glamour in the nylon stockings, the fur collars, crocodile handbags, fluffy ostrich feathers, diamond-cluster earrings, elaborate hairstyles. For the next minute she continued to murmur to herself in tones of ecstasy. “Look at her hat! Ohhh! Her dress! Ohhh!”
Cassis and I both ignored her. My brother was studying the boxes that had been brought on the back of the fourth motorbike. I was watching Tomas.
He stood slightly aside from the rest, one elbow against the bar. I saw him say something to Rapha"el, who began to draw glasses of beer. Heinemann, Schwartz and Hauer settled themselves at a free table near the window with the women, and I noticed old Gustave drew away to the other side of the room with a sudden expression of disgust, taking his glass with him. The other drinkers behaved much as if they were used to such visits, even nodding to the Germans as they crossed the room, Henri giving the eye to the three women even after they sat down. I felt a sudden, absurd stab of triumph that Tomas remained unescorted. He stayed at the bar for a while, talking with Rapha"el, and I had chance to watch his expressions, his careless gestures, his cap pushed back at a jaunty angle and his uniform jacket left hanging open over his shirt. Rapha"el said little, his face wooden and polite. Tomas seemed to sense his dislike, but to be more amused than angry. He lifted his glass in a slightly mocking way and drank Rapha"el’s health. Agn`es began to play the piano, a waltzy tune with a brittle plink-plink on one of the high notes where one of the keys had been damaged.
Cassis was getting bored.
“Nothing’s happening,” he said in a sullen voice. “Let’s go.”
But Reinette and I were fascinated, she by the lights, the jewelry, the glassware, the smoke from an elegant lacquer cigarette holder held between painted nails, and I…Tomas, of course. It didn’t matter whether anything was happening. I would have derived equal pleasure from watching him alone and sleeping. There was a charm in watching him in secret like this. I could put my hands on the blurry glass and cup his face between them. I could put my lips to the window and imagine his skin against mine. The other three had been drinking more heavily, fat Schwartz with a woman on his knee, one hand riding her skirt higher and higher up her legs so that occasionally I was able to catch a glimpse of the top of her brown stocking and the pinkish garter that held it. I noticed too that Henri had moved closer to the group, ogling the women who screeched like peacocks at every pleasantry. The cardplayers had stopped their game to stare, and Jean-Marie, who seemed to have won the most, moved casually across the bar toward Tomas. Jean-Marie pushed money across the scuffed surface, and Rapha"el brought more drinks. Tomas looked once, briefly, behind him at the group of drinkers and smiled. It was a short conversation, and it must have passed unnoticed by anyone who was not deliberately observing Tomas. I imagine that only I saw the transaction, a smile, a mutter, a paper pushed across the bar and quickly hidden in the pocket of Tomas’s coat. It didn’t surprise me. Tomas traded with everyone. He had that gift. We watched and waited for another hour. I think Cassis dozed. Tomas played the piano for a while as Agn`es sang, but I was pleased to see that he showed little interest in the women who fawned over and caressed him. I felt proud of him for that. Tomas had better taste.
Everyone had drunk rather a lot at this stage. Rapha"el produced a bottle of fine and they drank it neat in coffee cups but without the coffee. A card game started between Hauer and the Dupr'e brothers, with Philippe and Colette watching and drinks as stakes. I could hear their laughter through the glass as Hauer lost again, though there was no ill feeling, as the drinks were already paid for. One of the town women fell over onto her ankle and sat on the floor, giggling, hair falling over her face. Only Gustave Beauchamp remained aloof, refusing an offer of fine from Philippe and keeping as far from the Germans as possible. He caught Hauer’s eye once and said something under his breath, but as Hauer didn’t catch it, the German just looked at him coolly for a moment before returning to the game. It happened again though, a few minutes later, and this time Hauer, the only one of the group apart from Tomas who could really understand French, stood up, one hand going to the belt where he kept his pistol. The old man glowered at him, his pipe jutting out between his yellow teeth like the barrel of an old tank.
For a moment the tension between them was paralyzing. I saw Rapha"el make a movement toward Tomas, who was watching the scene with unruffled amusement. A silent exchange passed between them. For a second or two I thought he might let it go on, just to see what might happen. The old man and the German faced each other, Hauer fully two heads taller than Gustave with his blue eyes bloodshot and the veins in his forehead like bloodworms against his brown skin. Tomas looked at Rapha"el and smiled. What do you think? said the smile. Seems a pity to step in just when things are getting exciting. What do you think? Then he stepped forward, almost casually, to his friend, while Rapha"el maneuvered the old man out of harm’s way. I don’t know what he said, but I think Tomas saved old Gustave’s life then, one arm round Hauer’s shoulder and the other gesturing vaguely in the direction of the boxes they had brought with them on the back of the fourth motorcycle, the black boxes that had so intrigued Cassis and which now stood against the piano waiting to be opened.
Hauer glared at Tomas for a moment. I could see his eyes narrowed to cuts in his thick cheeks, like slices in a piece of bacon rind. Then Tomas said something else and he relaxed, laughing with a troll’s roar above the sudden renewal of sound in the taproom, and the moment was over. Gustave shuffled off into a corner to finish his drink, and everyone went over to the piano where the boxes were waiting.
For a while I could see nothing but bodies. Then I heard a sound, a musical note much clearer and sweeter than that of the piano, and when Hauer turned toward the window he was holding a trumpet. Schwartz had a drum. Heinemann an instrument I did not recognize. The women moved aside to allow Agn`es to reach the piano, then Tomas moved back into my field of vision with his saxophone slung over one shoulder like an exotic weapon. For a second I thought it was a weapon. Beside me Reinette took in a long wavery breath of awe. Cassis, wide awake now and his boredom forgotten, leaned forward, almost pushing me out of the way. It was he who identified the instruments for us. We had no record player at home, but Cassis was old enough to remember the music we used to listen to on the radio, before such things were forbidden, and he’d seen pictures of Glenn Miller’s band in the magazines he loved so much.
“That’s a clarinet!” He sounded very young, suddenly very like his sister in her awe over the town women’s shoes. “And Tomas has got a saxophone-oh, where did they get them? They must have requisitioned them-trust Tomas to find…Oh, I hope they play them, I hope they…”
I don’t know how good they were. I had no point of comparison at all, and we were so flushed with the excitement and the wonder of it that anything would have charmed us. I know it seems ridiculous now, but in those days we heard music so seldom-the piano at La Mauvaise R'eputation, the church organ for those who went to church, Denis Gaudin’s violin on July 14 or Mardi Gras, when we danced in the streets… Not so much of that after the war started, of course, but we still did for a while. But now the sounds-exotic, unfamiliar sounds as unlike La Mauvaise R'eputation ’s old piano as opera from barking-arose from the taproom, and we drew closer to the window so as not to miss a note. At first the instruments did little but make odd wailing sounds-I imagine they were tuning up, but we didn’t know that-then they began to play some bright sharp-sounding tune that we did not recognize, though I think it might have been some kind of jazz. A light beat from the drum, a throaty burble from the clarinet, but from Tomas’s saxophone a string of bright notes like Christmas lights, sweetly wailing, harshly whispering, rising-falling above the half-discordant whole like a human voice magically enhanced and containing the entire human range of softness, brashness, coaxing and grief…
Of course, memory is such a subjective thing. Perhaps that’s why I feel tears in my eyes as I recall that music, music for the end of the world. In all probability it was nothing like what I remember-a group of drunken Germans hammering out a few bars of jazz blues on stolen instruments-but for me it was magic. It must have had some effect on the other patrons too, because in a few minutes they were dancing-some alone and others in pairs, the town women in the arms of the card-playing Dupr'e brothers and Philippe and Colette with their faces close together-a kind of dance we had never seen before, a kind of gyrating, bump-grinding dance where ankles went over and tables were shunted by rotating backsides and laughter shrilled over the sounds of the instruments and even Rapha"el tapped his foot and forgot to look wooden. I don’t know how long it lasted. Maybe less than an hour. Maybe just a few minutes. I know we joined in, gleeful outside the window, jigging and gyrating like small demons. The music was hot, and the heat burnt off us like alcohol in a flamb'ee, with a sharp, sour smell, and we whooped like Indians, knowing that with the volume of sound indoors we could make as much noise as we pleased and still remain unheard. Fortunately I was watching the window all the time, because I was the one to see old Gustave leave the place. I gave the alarm at once, and we dived behind the wall just in time to see him stumbling out into the freshening night, a stooped dark figure with the glowing bowl of his pipe making a red rose on his face. He was drunk, but not debilitated. In fact, I believe he had heard us, for he stopped alongside the wall and peered sharply into the shadows at the back of the building, one hand pressed against the angle of the porch to stop himself from falling.
“Who’s there?” His voice was querulous. “Is there anybody there?” We kept quiet behind the wall, stifling giggles.
“Anybody?” repeated old Gustave, then, apparently satisfied, muttered something barely audible to himself and began to move again. He came as far as the wall, knocked out his pipe against the stones. A spark shower floated down onto our side, and I clapped my hand onto Reinette’s mouth to stop her from screaming. Then, silence for a moment. We waited, barely daring to breathe. Then we heard the sound of him pissing luxuriantly, endlessly against the wall, giving out a little old-man’s grunt of satisfaction as he did so. I grinned in the dark. No wonder he’d been so eager to know if anyone was there. Cassis nudged me furiously, one hand over his mouth. Reine made a disgusted face. Then we heard the sounds of him fastening his belt buckle again, and a few shuffling steps toward the caf'e. Then nothing.
We waited for a few minutes.
“Where is he?” whispered Cassis at last. “He hasn’t gone. We’d have heard him.”
I shrugged. In a sliver of moonlight I could see Cassis’s face shining with sweat and anxiety. I gestured toward the wall. “Look and see,” I mouthed. “Maybe he’s passed out, or something.”
Cassis shook his head. “Maybe he’s spotted us,” he said grimly. “Just waiting for one of us to stick our head up-and pow!”
I shrugged again, and carefully looked over the top of the wall. Old Gustave hadn’t passed out, but he was sitting on his stick with his back to us, watching the caf'e. He was quite still.
“Well?” said Cassis as I ducked back behind the wall.
I told him what I had seen.
“What’s he doing?” said Cassis, white with frustration.
I shook my head.
“Damn the old idiot! He’ll have us waiting here all night!”
I put my finger to my lips. “Shh. There’s someone coming.”
Old Gustave must have heard them too, for as we ducked farther behind the wall into the blackberry tangles we heard him come over. Not as quietly as we had, and if he’d come over a few meters to the left he would have landed right on top of us. As it was, he fell into a mess of brambles, cursing and flailing with his stick, and we retreated even farther into the thicket. There was a kind of tunnel where we were, made up of rolls of blackberry hedge and goosegrass, and for youngsters of our age and agility it looked as if it might be possible to crawl along underneath until we reached the road. If we could do that, we might be able to avoid climbing back over the wall altogether, thus enabling us to escape unseen into the darkness.
I had almost made my mind up to try this out when I heard the sound of voices from the other side of the wall. One was a woman’s voice. The other spoke German only, and I recognized it as Schwartz.
I could still hear the music playing in the bar, and I guessed that Schwartz and his lady-friend had crept out unremarked. From my vantage point in the blackberry tangle I could see their figures dimly above the wall, and I gestured to Reinette and Cassis to stay where they were. I could see Gustave too, some distance from us and unaware of our presence, huddled against the bricks at his side and watching through one of the cracks in the masonry. I heard the woman’s laughter, high and a little nervous, then Schwartz’s thick voice saying something in German. He was shorter than she was, bullish next to her slim figure, and the way he leaned into her neck seemed oddly carnivorous, as did the sounds he uttered while doing so, slurping, mumbling sounds like a man in a hurry to finish his dinner. As they moved from behind the back porch the moonlight caught them garishly, and I saw Schwartz’s big hands fumbling at the woman’s blouse-Liebchen, Liebling-and heard her laughter shriller than ever-hihihihi!-as she thrust her breasts into his hands. Then, they were no longer alone. A third figure came from behind the porch, but the German seemed unsurprised by his arrival, because he nodded briefly at the newcomer-though the woman seemed oblivious-and turned back to the business in hand while the other man looked on, silent and avid, his eyes gleaming out of the darkness of the porch like an animal’s. It was Jean-Marie Dupr'e.
It didn’t occur to me then that Tomas might have arranged this meeting. This spectacle in exchange for something else: a favor perhaps, or a tin of black market coffee. I made no connection between the interchange I had witnessed between them in the bar and this-in fact I wasn’t even sure what this was, it was so far removed from the little knowledge I had of such things. Cassis would have known, of course, but he was still crouching behind the wall with Reinette. I beckoned to him frantically, thinking that perhaps this was the time-while the three protagonists were still absorbed in themselves-to make good our escape. Nodding, he began to move toward me through the thicket, leaving Reinette in the shadow of the wall, only her white parachute-silk blouse visible from where we waited.
“Damn her. Why doesn’t she follow?” hissed Cassis at last. The German and the town woman had moved closer to the wall so that we could hardly see what was going on. Jean-Marie was close by them-close enough to watch, I thought, feeling suddenly guilty and sick at the same time-and I could hear their breathing, the thick piggy breathing of the German and the harsh excited breathing of the watcher with the high muffled squeal of the woman between them both, and I was suddenly glad I couldn’t see what was happening, glad that I was too young to understand because the act seemed impossibly ugly, impossibly messy and yet they were enjoying it, eyes rolling in the moonlight and mouths gaping fishily, and now the German was thudding the woman against the wall in short, percussive bursts, and I could hear her head and her backside hitting the bricks and her squealing voice-ah! ah! ah!-and his growling-Liebchen, ja Liebling, ach ja-and I wanted to stand up and run for it there and then, all my cool falling from me in a great prickly wave of panic.
I was about to follow my instinct-half-standing, turning toward the road, measuring the distance between myself and escape-when abruptly the sounds stopped and Schwartz, very loud in the sudden stillness, snapped, “Wer ist das?”
It was then that Reinette, who had been moving softly toward us all the time, panicked. Instead of freezing as we had done when Gustave challenged the dark, she must have thought the German had spotted her, because she stood up and began to run, startling with the moonlight on her white silk blouse, and fell into the blackberry bushes with a cry, twisting her ankle to one side and sitting there wailing with her ankle held between her hands and her white face turning helplessly toward us and her mouth moving desperately and without words.
Cassis moved quickly. Swearing beneath his breath he ran through the thicket in the opposite direction, elder branches whipping at his face as he ran and brambles snagging barbs of flesh from his ankles. Without a backward look at either of us, he vaulted the wall on the other side and disappeared onto the road.
“Verdammt!” It was Schwartz. I saw his pale moony face over the top of the wall and flattened myself invisibly into the bushes. “Wer war das?”
Hauer, who had joined him from the back room, shook his head. “Weiss’nicht. Etwas "uber da!” he pointed. Three faces appeared over the top of the wall. I could only hide my own behind the dark foliage and hope that Reinette would have the sense to make a dash for it as soon as possible. At least I hadn’t run away, I thought contemptuously, like Cassis. Dimly I realized that back in La R'ep the music had stopped.
“Wait, there’s someone there still,” said Jean-Marie, peering over the wall. The town woman joined him, her face white as flour in the moonlight. Her mouth looked black and vicious against that unnatural pallor.
“Why, the little trollop!” she said shrilly. “You! Get up this minute! Yes, you, hiding behind the wall! Spying on us!” The voice was high and indignant, maybe a little guilty. Reine stood up slowly, obediently. Such a good girl, my sister. Always so quick to respond to the voice of authority. Much good it did her. I could hear her breathing, the quick panicky hiss in her throat as she faced them. Her blouse had pulled out of her skirt as she fell, and her hair had come down and blew about her face.
Hauer said something softly to Schwartz in German. Schwartz reached over the wall to haul Reinette over onto their side.
For a few seconds she allowed herself to be hoisted, unprotesting. She was never the quickest thinker, and of the three of us she was by far the most docile. An order from an adult-her first instinct was to obey without question.
Then she seemed to understand. Perhaps it was Schwartz’s hands on her, or maybe she understood what Hauer had murmured, but she began to struggle. Too late, Hauer was holding her still while Schwartz stripped off her blouse-I saw it go sailing over the wall like a white banner in the moonlight. Then another voice-Heinemann, I think-shouted something in German then my sister was screaming, high, breathless cries-ah! ah! ah!-of disgust and terror. For a second I saw her face above the wall, her hair flying out around her, her arms clawing the night, and Schwartz’s beery grinning face turned toward her, then she disappeared, though the sounds continued, the gluttonous sounds of the men and the town woman shrilling in what might have been triumph, “Serve her right, little whore! Serve her right!”
And through it all the laughter, that piggy heh-heh-heh that cuts through my dreams even now some nights, that and the saxophone music, so like a human voice, so like his voice…
I hesitated for maybe thirty seconds. No more, though it seemed like more to me as I bit my knuckles to aid concentration and crouched in the undergrowth. Cassis had already escaped. I was only nine-what could I do? I told myself-but even though I only understood very dimly what was going on still I could not leave her. I stood up, opened my mouth to scream-in my mind’s eye Tomas was nearby and would stop the whole thing-except that someone was already climbing clumsily over the wall, someone with a stick with which he lashed at the onlookers with more rage than efficiency, someone who roared in a furious, cavernous voice, “Filthy Boches! Filthy Boches!”
It was Gustave Beauchamp.
I ducked back into the undergrowth. I could see very little of what was happening now, but I was aware of Reinette grabbing what was left of her blouse and running whimpering back along the wall to the road. I might have joined her then but for curiosity and the sudden elation that washed over me as I heard the familiar voice calling through the pandemonium, “It’s all right! It’s all right!”
My heart leaped.
I heard him push his way through the little crowd-others had joined the fight now and I heard the sound of old Gustave’s stick connect twice more with a sound like someone kicking a cabbage. Soothing words-Tomas’s voice-in French and German: “It’s all right now, calm down, verdammt, calm it, can’t you, Fr"anzl, you’ve done enough in one day.” Then Hauer’s angry voice and confused protests from Schwartz.
Hauer, his voice trembling with rage, shouted at Gustave, “That’s twice you’ve tried it with me tonight, you old Arschloch!”
Tomas shouting something unintelligible, then a great cry from Gustave cut off suddenly by a sound like a sack of flour hitting a stone granary floor, a terrible thwack against the stone, then silence as shocking as an icy shower.
It lasted thirty seconds or more. No one spoke. No one moved.
Then, Tomas’s voice, cheerily casual: “It’s all right. Go back into the bar. Finish your drinks. The wine must finally have got to him.”
There was an uneasy murmur, a whisper, a flutter of protest. A woman’s voice-Colette, I think: “His eyes-”
“Just the drink.” Tomas’s voice was brisk and light. “An old man like that. Doesn’t know when to stop.” His laugh was utterly convincing, and yet I knew he was lying. “Fr"anzl, you stay and help me get him home. Udi, get the others inside.” As soon as the others had returned to the bar I heard the piano music begin again, a woman’s voice lifting in a nervous warble to the tune of a popular song. Left alone, Tomas and Hauer began to talk in rapid, urgent undertones.
Hauer: “Leibniz, was muss-”
“Halt’s Maul!” Tomas broke in sharply. Moving to the place where I guessed the old man’s body had fallen, he knelt down. I heard him move Gustave, then speak to him a couple of times softly, in French.
“Old man. Wake up, old man.”
Hauer said something rapid and angry in German, which I did not catch. Then Tomas spoke, slowly and very clearly, and it was more from the tone of his words than the words themselves that I understood. Slowly, deliberately, the words almost amused in their cool contempt.
“Sehr gut, Fr"anzl,” said Tomas crisply. “Er ist tot.”