My back ached as I straightened my spine, the weight of the night still riding on my shoulders. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, rolling my head to crack my neck. It was well past midnight and the restaurant had just cleared out, empty wine bottles and broken glasses were scattering the floors and tables. I wasn't sure what the celebration had been about tonight but the men had behaved as if they were commemorating something important by drinking nearly all our wine and brandy.
I reached into the pocket of my dress and pulled out the loose change I had collected over the evening. The bills were already in the safe. I shook my head as I counted the Francs in my palm, knowing that no matter what I did, there were always going to be those men who felt they didn't need to pay. Well, hopefully not always. One day this war would be over and we could pick up the pieces of our lives.
A crash from the other room made me jump and I stuck my head around the wall to see what could have possibly happened. It was my mother, of course, stooping to collect the utensils she had dropped, her hunched back making it almost impossible.
"Maman," I called. "Leave it. I'll finish up tonight."
She lifted her head only long enough to glare at me then continued to collect the forks from the floor.
I sighed and set down my tray, walking quickly over to her and reaching for her shoulders. I guided her back to her feet and she gave me a woeful glance.
"I'm sorry," she whispered and I nodded my head. She always looked her age at the end of the night, the shadows cast by the dim lights exaggerating the wrinkles in her face, her eyes tired and her hands shaking as she gripped her walking cane. Her frail appearance didn't fool me, though. Even though she now stood just under 5 feet tall, even though she barely spoke a word while in the restaurant, even though her hair was now a strange bluish-grey, I knew there was still plenty of fire burning within her.
But she was hurting. Some days she would work through the pain, like tonight, and insist on closing up with me. Others she would relent and return to the house. I sent her home most evenings, claiming that someone needed to look after Papa, and these days she would rarely object.
"Go home," I told her firmly. "I'll finish up and see you in the morning."
She smiled up and reached for my face with her bony hand. A pat on the cheek, soft enough not to hurt, hard enough to show that she didn't like being told what to do, was all I received before she hobbled out the door and into the pitch black of the night. I smiled after her and finished picking up the utensils before returning to the back room and collecting all rubbish from the tables. A dingy old towel was used to wipe down the chairs and I swept all the broken glass from the corners of the stone floor.
The lights were turned off in the back room and I sighed as I stepped around the wall, taking in the sight of a dozen more dirty tables. I could just leave it for tomorrow, I thought as I started rounding up the bottles. Maybe if I left the place looking a mess, people would stop coming in every night. But then where would we be? Broke.
Finishing up the first table, my back to the door, I heard a low creaking sound and felt a cool rush of wind on my legs and arms.
"Maman, I said I would…" But as I turned around, I saw it was not my mother who was looming in the doorway. A tall man was standing straight as an arrow and looked to be as unmovable as a brick wall. His grey tunic fit him well, the green collar starched and standing stiff at his neck. The thick belt was pulled tight around his waist and his cap was tucked snuggly under one arm. His blonde hair was cut short and his blue eyes stared at me with an uncomfortable and unwelcome distain.
"We're closed," I said in German, moving on to the next table and piling more glasses onto my tray.
I could hear him moving toward the bar, his heavy boots clicking the ground with every step he took. I sighed and put down my tray, walking toward the counter just as he began to perch himself on the stool.
"Don't bother sitting down," I said in French, assuming he wouldn't understand but then reverting back to German. "We're closed."
"Your door was unlocked," he said in a near perfect French accent. I hid my surprise and glanced at his hat sitting on the counter. A Hauptmann, it would appear. Most likely college educated.
"We're done for the night," I answered. "You can come back tomorrow."
"You can make an exception," he told me plainly and removed his Lugar from his belt and placed it next to his hat.
I stared at him as he made himself comfortable, trying to figure out if he was threatening me. He eventually looked up and all I could see was his annoyance with my persistence.
"Well?" He prompted and I clenched my jaw.
"What would you like?" I asked in a sour voice.
"Whiskey," he answered in a deadly even tone.
"We're out," I lied, knowing I had some hidden in the cellar. "What else?"
"Wine," he said, assessing my defiance without changing his tone.
I turned around and pulled down a nearly empty bottle from the shelf, removed the cork and grabbed a glass.
"Open a new bottle," he directed. "I'll want more than a glass."
"Exactly how long do you plan on staying?" I demanded, holding the bottle by its neck.
"What does it matter?" He asked in return, his voice suddenly sullen. "You still have to clean up."
I shook my head at his insistence and replaced the cork, returning the bottle to the shelf and opening a new one. His glass was set in front of him and I poured the wine, leaving the open bottle on the table so he could help himself to more.
"Pour a glass for yourself," he said as I started to walk away from the bar. His eyes were fixed on the counter in front of him. "You look like you need it."
I stared at his profile. His skin was tanned, his brows were slightly exaggerated but his cheekbones, jaw and chin were strong. His lips were pressed together in neither a frown nor a smile. Stepping confidently back behind the bar, I poured myself a glass from his bottle and swallowed it in a few gulps, allowing it to warm my chest and calm my senses.
"You can't appreciate it if you drink it like that," he scolded me and I set my glass back on the counter.
"It's cheap anyway," I said as I returned to my cleaning.
The man didn't speak another word to me as I finished in the restaurant. I would glance at him occasionally and apart from the necessary movement of pouring and drinking the wine, smoking a cigarette and ashing on my floor, he stayed as still as statue, his back slightly curved over the bar, his legs stiff against the foot rest of the stool, his head hung between his shoulders.
He certainly wasn't like the other men who frequented my restaurant. They were loud and raucous, swearing and grabbing at me all night long. But they were the only customers I had left, having scared off the locals and regulars, so there was little I could do about it. My mother, of course, tried to help where she could, striking them with her cane if they got too touchy with me. She was usually laughed at but never disobeyed. I was thankful she didn't understand German. The things that were said to her were hurtful enough to make any daughter cry.
I barely heard him when he stood up to leave. I turned and watched him go, not expecting or receiving any thanks for the service rendered. His hat and gun were collected and he walked out the door as calmly as he had come in. I rubbed my forehead and eyes once the door had shut, tired and weary. This customer had been a strange one, unexpected and irksome. I glanced at the counter where his empty glass and his empty bottle of wine still sat. I could see a bill for 10 Francs sitting there, one corner held down by the bottle. At least he paid.
I locked the door behind me once I had finished. The dark sidewalks were deserted at this hour and the only light I could see was the candle which flickered behind my parent's bedroom curtain. I crossed the cobblestone street and let myself into the house. The old wooden door moaned as I pushed against it and I eased it open. I ignored the bread and cheese my mother had left out for me, placing it in the cupboard before walking silently upstairs to my bedroom. I passed by my parent's door and smiled to myself when I saw no light creeping from their room. They would always wait up for me.
I lit only one lamp in my room so I could change from my dress. I stood in front of my mirror as I disrobed, examining my body in the reflection. My arms were thick from carrying too many trays, my hands rough and cracked from the work. My collar bone stuck out from my chest rather grotesquely but that had always been the case. My belly was soft and my legs were skinny. Nothing had changed since this morning.
I reached for my nightgown and pulled it over my head before sitting down at the vanity. The worn and faded blue material was one of the only items with any color I had left. Everything else seemed to be grey or brown, the texture rough and stiff. But there was nothing else we could afford, nothing else much of anyone could afford these days.
The pins in my hair were removed and long, caramel colored tresses fell around my shoulders and breasts. I smiled at my reflection. My hair was beautiful and I loved every inch of it. The way it would still shine at the end of a long day such as this, the silky texture it would always keep no matter what was happening around me. I kept it pulled back on most days, not wanting to share it with anyone. It sometimes felt like the only thing that brought me any happiness. I knew I was vain for admiring its beauty, but things were rarely beautiful anymore, and I would hold on to this for as long as I lived.
My face was a different story. I had once been told that I had a cherub-like appearance, eternally youthful and innocent. But years of slaving for German soldiers had changed that. I looked older than my 20 years, hardened, bitter perhaps. My silver eyes would never sparkle. My skin was clear but dull. My lips rarely smiled.
Standing up, I carried the lamp to my bedside table and set it down before pulling back the quilt and sheets. I had been sleeping in this exact same bed since I was in grammar school, the mattress just barely long enough to hold my body, now too soft from years of tossing and turning. I lay myself down and reached for the lamp, the light disappearing with a simple flick of a switch. I turned over to face my window and watched as my curtains flapped in the slight draft that came from the cracks of the pane. I knew it would be morning soon and I prayed that the tanks and trucks would wait until mid-day before they started moving through the streets.
I closed my eyes and thought of Tristan and what we would be doing at this very moment had he still been alive. I smiled to myself, remembering all the late nights we had in the bar after all the customers had gone home. I could point to the very table where we had our first kiss. I could still stand at the back corner of the room in the very spot where he had first told me that he loved me. And I could still feel his weight on top of me as we made love for the first time in this very bed.
I fell asleep and dreamt of my fiancé. He was very much alive in this dream, exactly how I remembered him. We were on the beach near Arramanches and he was holding my hand as we waded into the icy waters. His pale skin was warm to the touch, his walnut hair was blowing in the wind and his deep brown eyes were smiling at me. Only, he didn't stop when the water reached our knees. He kept on walking into the frigid surf even after I begged him to return to the shore. I was pulling and pulling at his hand, pleading with him to turn around. And when the waves started crashing around my waist, he let go of my hand. Tristan didn't turn around. He didn't look back to see if I was following him. He just disappeared into the grey water as I stood there screaming for him to stop.