Bergerac, February 1943
Dusk. Grey slats of cloud lay suspended above Bergerac’s town square. Auguste Ran, Assistant Chief of Police, stood at the window of his office in the Prefecture; he was reminiscing. His thoughts made him frown as he looked out. He watched as the cold sunset shed its bloodshot light on the scene below. The waning rays of light filtered through the naked, brown elm branches around the square’s periphery, weaving restless, lengthening patterns. He felt as if the cold, dingy grey of the approaching evening was robbing him of the hope of a forthcoming spring.
A lone cyclist crossing below caught his attention. Auguste recognised the man with irritation because he should not have been there. The man bore the yellow Star of David sewn on the right arm of his coat, in testimony of his faith. Jews were subject to curfew after five o’clock and cycling past the Sub-Prefecture could only be a gesture of defiance. It must have been hard for the Jews now but he also knew they had it good before the First War and he at times half-believed the concept they were responsible for this second disastrous conflict, bringing down his country, perhaps even questioning his faith. Of course, he was not anti-Semitic, how could he be? His best friend as he grew up was a Jew. He understood how some of his countrymen reasoned, that was all.
For Auguste, the cyclist with his simple act of disobedience was symptomatic of the hopelessness and anger experienced now by everyone around him. He knew this man very well, but he would not have talked openly to him in the street. They had known each other since they were boys, yet somehow Auguste’s life had changed so much, he could no longer greet some of his oldest friends out-of-doors even if he wished to. If an informer or soldier should see him they might report it. If the occupying forces apprehended Pierre on his bicycle, Auguste knew it would mean internment for his friend and his friend’s daughter Monique. Auguste had no appetite for more of the persecution his job seemed to be perpetrating on even his old friends. He had seen enough of it already, he reflected, as the cyclist disappeared from view.
The grey cobbles, dull and worn, seemed almost to stare back at Auguste, their emptiness taunting him with memories of happier days. Days of bustling markets in bright sunshine. Days of laughter and coffee in the open-air café next door. Duck breasts, pink, plump and succulent; foie gras, accordion music and clinking wineglasses—all gone now. In those days, before the Germans came, the farmers could afford grain to feed their ducks and geese. In those days, they had plenty to sell and there was always a sense of prosperity in the town. The elm-bordered market square, silent now, seemed to Auguste a dull mirror to these disconsolate feelings arising within him.
He was not a man to embrace the past from habit, but the events of the last few years forced him to look back at his pre-war life with a heartbreaking nostalgia. Auguste smiled, recalling a scene from those “old days”. He was a young policeman then and as in all his memories of those times, the sun was shining. Off-duty, he sat in the café on the square under a bright red and blue striped parasol, he ate a salad with walnuts and duck gizzards, oil and vinegar. He could almost smell the balsamic odours, recall the taste of the Rosé and how it mingled with the flavours in his mouth. His superior pointed over his shoulder across the square and they shared a joke. What was it? Something to do with promotion? His memory seemed clouded; he was forgetting. It was a long time ago, a time of happiness and so details were out of mind.
He had worked in the City Police Force for over twenty years now, but in his early days, he was not ambitious and never sought promotion; it just happened. His precise police work and his tenacity investigating cases drew him to the attention of his superiors and so the elevation of rank came uninvited. It might have been that murder case when the murderer, a farmer, hid the body under a hay-stack. If Auguste had not brought his Scottie dog with him the seventh time he questioned the man, he might not have found it. It had been the dog’s constant fascination with the yellow hay-pile alerting him, which led to his finding the body.
He did well out of the case; it was widely publicised. The town acknowledged his abilities too. Auguste knew he was a good investigator and experience now gave him an edge. He also knew he was too emotional for the job, as Odette, his wife, often told him. Auguste had felt sorry for the murderer’s wife at the time. She was shunned and castigated by everyone but there was nothing he could do for her and he knew it. Her subsequent suicide shocked and depressed him. Those feelings blunted his triumph and made it all a hollow victory when they discovered her body hanging by the neck from a rafter in the barn.
The German occupation was changing his role and every aspect of his life changed with it. Auguste felt like a man on a treadmill who discovers he is only marking time but has long since ceased to care. His existence in the Vichy police was taking him nowhere now and he knew it. He was a second-class bureaucrat in the eyes of the German administration and nothing more. It was as if he spent the last ten years blinkered not seeing what was coming when it was obvious to everyone in the rest of Europe. At first, with the defeat, he felt shocked, threatened. Before it happened he trusted the Maginot line, he thought the Government knew how to defend the country. Disillusionment came when the Germans entered Paris and he wondered what would become of his wife and family; he feared for his life. The family felt tempted to flee like so many others all over France, but Paris was a long way away and salvation came for Auguste in the end. It was Pétain, hero of the last war, who seemed to save France, save him, Odette and little Zara. He thought then the President was right; the only way forward would be to work with the Germans and God knew, how as a policeman, he tried. Policing was his job and he continued to exist within its framework. He could no more buck those traces than he could leave his beloved France.
He was a short stocky man and he wore his brown hair close-cropped in a military style. Deep crow’s feet were imprinted at the sides of his grey eyes, a relic of happier days when there was much to smile about. His black uniform, threadbare but neat, was symptomatic of stringencies as well as his own personal quest for precision and tidiness in a time of upheaval.
A knock on his door drew him away from the window and he sat down behind his desk, trying to look occupied.
‘Enter,’ he said.
Édith, a short plump woman of middle years entered. She had worked at the Prefecture since long before the war started. She knew everyone in the town but Auguste felt her greatest asset was her experience, her knowledge of police procedure when there were difficulties. She showed him the ropes when they first promoted him; she kept him straight afterwards and he trusted her.
She smiled a sympathetic smile and presented him with a letter. Édith had a habit of wrinkling her upturned nose which supported the gold-rimmed, half-moon spectacles through which she peered down at him.
‘This came from Lyon,’ she said.
‘Late in the day for messages from Lyon.’
‘Jean dropped it in. He said it came by special delivery—a motorcyclist no less. It was to be in your hands immediately.’
He took the envelope but noticed his hand betrayed a faint tremble when he saw the Prefecture emblem. It had already been opened, he assumed by Édith.
‘Something more?’ he said.
‘Édith. Maybe you should have let me open this one, it’s from Tulard.’
She walked to the door but turned back as if there was more to say.
Auguste shrugged and indicated the chair.
‘You’ve read it, so you might as well sit down and tell me what’s in it. Am I in trouble?’
The office door gave a quiet click as she shut it. She returned to sit in the chair in front of the desk and crossed her legs. Her worn black suit had seen better days but no one had money these days.
‘No, nothing like that. It’s more Jewish business.’
‘And so urgent it has to be sent at the end of the day? No doubt, they think there is going to be a Jewish uprising, a declaration of independence. Perhaps every homosexual is carrying a gun as well.’
‘A special directive.’
‘More work, I suppose. He should, of all people, know I have enough on my hands enforcing all the new laws. I am used to prejudice against Jews, it’s been common enough here, but the Germans seem to revel in it.’
‘They want all Jews rounded up and interned in Drancy,’ she said.
‘Yes. Will you do it?’
‘But of course I will do it. It’s my job. We need to cooperate with the Germans or things may get much worse for everyone. They will replace the entire Civil Administration with German Military personnel. The work we do here protects the country and the people.’
‘You really believe that? You don’t sound so convinced.’
He was silent. She looked at the floor.
She said, ‘I...’
‘What do they want all the Jews for anyway? I know they use them to work in munitions factories, but how many people do you need for such a thing? They sent twenty thousand away at the end of last year.’
‘Perhaps they die and need to be replaced.’
‘Die? No, Brunner told me they have good, warm accommodation and they are well fed. No, the Germans are plotting something, mark my words.’
‘Brunner is unreliable. You can’t believe him. ’
‘He’s Sicherheitspolizei. You might find him unpleasant but he can hardly be unreliable.’
‘If he was just another SD officer it wouldn’t matter. He has a bad reputation.’
‘Keep your voice down Édith. You’ve told me already. I can’t believe in rumours. I am a man who needs proof, you know that.’
‘I understand, but all the same he makes my flesh crawl,’ she said.
‘Well, I have to work with him. He’s not so bad once you get to know him. He’s quite the Francophile you know.’
She was silent again. A gloomy atmosphere appeared between them now and Auguste wanted to end it. He read the memo.
‘You can go now.’
‘There was one more thing, Auguste.’
‘Not him again? What’s he done now?’
‘Claude arrested him.’
‘What for this time?’
She smiled and said, ‘He caught some rabbits. He stood outside the prefecture and was shouting for people to buy them. He was drunk.’
‘Well it’s no crime unless he was selling at exorbitant prices.’
‘No, he was shouting they were “as fat as Göring”.’
‘As fat as Göring. Claude arrested him in case the Germans heard him. He’s a fool.’
‘Yes, always drunk. What did Claude charge him with?’
‘Disturbing the peace.’
‘Well at least it wasn’t for sedition. He’d be deported for that.’
‘Claude wondered if we could keep him in the cells for a week and then let him out. He’s harmless you know.’
‘Yes, yes. I hope he learns his lesson.’
‘I’m going home now. The keys are on my desk.’ She opened the door again.
She smiled and left. The click of the door as she shut it seemed to echo in his head. Had it not been for Édith, he would have felt an utter loneliness at work. He missed the time when he was a real policeman. A solver of crimes, a true detective. And now? All he did now was persecute people he had known or to whom he had once been close. The townspeople hated him for it. He felt as if he hated himself too at times.
Without Odette to come home to, he would have left the country long ago. She kept him sane. It was a sanity he needed, for he had begun to feel the world was mad. All sense of proportion had gone, its departure leaving behind an emptiness, a potent emptiness, consuming him, spilling over into everything he saw and did.