It's may be against her will, but a sudden realisation that she's a collaborator, shocks Matilde. Things are going to change...
Matilde was late for work. She hurried along garden pathways of the Tuileries’ having lingered in Xavier’s arms a little too long before rising. As she approached the museum, she noticed yet more red and black flags adorning the building. They snapped and flicked in the wind, their cords rattling against their flagstaffs. It seemed to her that the number of banners in the city had doubled as the population diminished. It was as if the Germans were replacing each fleeing French citizen with a swastika. The Parisians that remained were forbidden to use public spaces; the same parks and squares where they had grown up. Matilde felt that the Germans had multiplied the oppressive effect of being occupied. Buildings had grown tyrannical, days longer and the Seine, blacker.
It was Monday and the beginning of her fifth week. Matilde’s shoes click-clacked along the museum’s corridors, yellowed with subdued lighting, before setting about her morning routine in her windowless office. At least she didn’t have to sit with Gertrude. Small blessings. She turned on an electric heater and heard it begin to click as the elements heated up. She knew from experience that it would be half an hour before the room was warm enough to remove her coat.
Matilde laid out a suede mat for examining each piece of jewelry, removed the cover of her typewriter and polished her magnifying glass. She breathed on the glass and rubbed it against the hem of her skirt. Just as she was about to leave and collect another box to be sifted through, Kommandant Beitel and another man walked into her office. She hadn’t seen the Kommandant since their first meeting and she silently berated herself for blushing in surprise.
He looked at her, his features showing no emotion. His back was straight and his chin was raised. ‘Good morning, Madame Guillon. I trust you are well?’
Matilde laid the magnifying glass on her desk. ‘Very well, thank you, Herr Beitel.’
The Kommandant gave a quick nod. ‘The amount of valuables we’ve received has risen significantly. This is Officer Meyer. He’s been assigned to assist you.’
She looked at the taller man at the Kommandant’s side and smiled in simple reflex. Immediately she felt ashamed. In that instant of introduction, she had been transported back to her life before war, where manners and smiles were commonplace. She had dropped her guard; lost her concentration. Officer Meyer didn’t return her smile. His hair was fair and pushed to one side at the front, like the wing of a gull. He was young, but an ageing v-shaped frown sat between his blue-grey eyes. He wore a look of resignation about him, as if working alongside her wasn’t his idea of a substantial enough contribution for the German war effort. She blinked when he suddenly bowed his head and brought his heels together. Something jangled in the worn leather bag he was holding.
‘I have a busy morning, so I will leave Officer Meyer to show you where you will both be working for the time being. Good morning, Madame Guillon.’
Matilde watched the Kommandant leave her office. His footsteps receded down the corridor, leaving an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.
‘Well…’ began Matilde, trying to make an effort at polite conversation. Ingrained good manners were a difficult habit to break.
Officer Meyer interrupted her. ‘This way.’ He turned and left the room.
She hurried to catch up with him as he marched down the corridor in the opposite direction to the Kommandant. On reaching a staircase, he shoved the leather bag beneath his arm and took a crumpled packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, removed one and lit it. Matilde followed him downstairs. Her body was turned slightly to one side because her restrictive brown pencil skirt was making movement difficult on the steps. She held on to the handrail, sliding her fingers down the smooth wood and praying he wouldn’t look back at her because the hem of her tight skirt was riding above her knees as she descended. She inhaled the bitter smoke left in the officer’s wake. Three floors below, he paused and waited for her to catch up. She saw him pinch a speck of tobacco from his tongue with his thumb and forefinger before sucking once more on his cigarette’s diminishing length.
Despite working at the museum for over a month, Matilde still felt out of her depth. It wasn’t that she couldn’t organize an inventory, but surely she was expected to understand what she was recording. Apart from the obvious red rubies and blue sapphires, she couldn’t recognize one cut stone from another. Her mornings were spent sifting through jewelry: rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and watches. She made use of a measuring gauge, a Zeiss Ikon camera and a book filled with photographs of gems and precious stones for ease of identification. Inevitably she would come across a stone she couldn’t find pictured on any page. These pieces were placed inside a velveteen bag that was collected daily; she had no idea where they were destined. Presumably to be examined by a more qualified eye. It didn’t stop her puzzling over where they’d come from, especially when she prized open lockets with a fingernail to reveal sepia photographs of family members. Perhaps their owners had sold them in order to feed their families.
Every afternoon she would type up the inventory that she had scribbled on sheets of paper and at the end of each day, Gertrude Loup would collect these typed lists. Occasionally Matilde would make her wait in front of her desk, as she herself had been made to wait on her first day. It amused her to see Gertrude’s jaw tighten with annoyance, her lips pursing and stretching as if she was sucking sherbet.
At the bottom of the staircase, two guards opened double doors and stood to attention, arms extended and palms straight. ‘Heil Hitler.’ They spoke in unison. Officer Meyer responded. She prayed that she wouldn’t be spending too much time with this ill-disposed German. He marched ahead, lithe and square-shouldered. His uniform fit him well and was pressed sharply, with just a frown of wrinkles puckered behind the knees of his trousers, disclosing the fact that he’d been sitting earlier.
They walked along a corridor lined with empty display cases and shelves covered in layers of dust. The walls were studded with oblong smudges of accumulated grime; ghosts of missing paintings. Eventually the passage widened into a foyer where more armed soldiers stood at intervals around the tiled space. Officer Meyer walked towards a solid mahogany desk, behind which sat a double-chinned soldier lost in his own cloud of tobacco smoke. The walrus of a soldier coughed and the two men exchanged a few sentences in German.
Officer Meyer turned and beckoned to her. She followed him to a wide, metal door. Two armed men moved aside as he removed the bag from beneath his arm and retrieved a ring of keys from inside. He inserted one in the keyhole and turned it. There was a loud click. He pushed open the door and walked inside, turning to look at her by way of asking her to follow. She stepped through the doorway. An aroma of beeswax, old books and damp material hung in the air as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. Officer Meyer’s footsteps echoed with each stride, leading her to believe that this was a large room, but when he pressed several switches and light flooded the space, Matilde caught her breath. The room was vast. It was even bigger than Monsieur Lombard’s main saleroom at the auction house. It was two stories high and as wide the Vue du Jardin where she lived. Makeshift shelving and storage racks had been erected in long rows, each one laden with objects.
‘What is this place?’ she asked.
The German spread his arms wide. ‘This is one of many storage facilities ordered by the Führer.’
‘One of many?’ She took a few steps further, stopping at an ornate table with barley twist legs. A huge swastika flag had been draped over its surface, but much of its colour was hidden beneath a pile of glistening valuables: gold fountain pens, silver cutlery, goblets, watches, picture frames, candlesticks and oddly, spectacles. She turned to the German. ‘Where has all this come from?’
He gave her a look that she couldn’t decipher.
‘Your job is to log everything, not ask questions.’
‘Everything? All of it?’
‘Are we keeping you from something more important, Madame Guillon?’
Matilde picked at a cuticle with a fingernail and shook her head. ‘Of course not. I just didn’t imagine the scale of the job.’
He began walking towards one side of the room. ‘This way.’
Matilde hugged her arms against the chill and followed him. She could hear grit scrape beneath his soles. He stopped in front of different sized boxes, each draped with thick sacking. He pulled a length of hessian away with a flourish, as if wielding a bullfighter’s cloak. They weren’t boxes. They were paintings stacked against each other. Some had ornate frames of polished wood or feathered with gold leaf. Others were frameless, paint exposed on naked canvas.
Wherever would she begin?
Later that day, Matilde had been ordered to leave work early due to a last minute visit by a high-ranking member of the Gestapo. She supposed they didn’t want the possibility of a Parisian eavesdropping on their secret plans; and that was fine by her. She’d much rather escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of the museum’s basement and the hostile eyes of Herr Meyer.
Outside the sky was the colour of watered-down milk and a breeze carried scents of woodsmoke and rotting leaves. Before the war Matilde had loved autumn with its glow of streetlights reflecting on rain-drenched boulevards and the promise of Christmas; but now Paris appeared insipid and dirty. Windows wore a coat of neglect and paintwork was dulled with grime. Even the railings of the Tuileries reminded her of ribs instead of ornate metalwork. Perhaps this time next year the war would be over. Maybe festive lights would illuminate the avenues with colour once again.
Matilde wrapped her coat tightly around her body and hurried home with thoughts of Xavier and hot onion soup cheering her mood. But as she approached the entrance to the Vue du Jardin, she slowed her pace. Across the road, saw a French gendarme salute a German officer with submissive servility. Stiff and mechanical - already infused with German traits. It hadn’t taken that Frenchman long to surrender. With her next breath, a creeping realization made her stop and clutch a railing. Who was she to condemn this French policeman? Didn’t she work for the Germans? She was as bad as him. Yes, it was against her will, but she was still collaborating. France must fight back. She would fight back. If everyone relied on each other to retaliate, nothing would change. France would willingly succumb to the enemy, one person at a time. She vowed to support Xavier more actively from now on.
A shout. Her head shot up. Sharp, guttural commands were being barked nearby. The sound of an engine grew louder. She pressed her back against the railings. A truck sped past and braked sharply outside the entrance door to the building where she lived. Raised voices echoed inside the doorway. Matilde’s breath came in gasps and she could feel her heart thumping as she pressed her knuckles to her lips. The French policeman and the German officer ran across the road towards the noise. So, their meeting hadn’t been a coincidence; they were working alongside each other. She stayed where she was, partly hidden behind a large evergreen shrub and skeletal branches of an arched tree that hung over the metal fencing. What was happening inside the Vue du Jardin? Had someone run inside the building to hide and had been discovered?
She watched wide-eyed as several Germans scuffled with a man. They’d found who they were looking for. The man was hunched forwards. He stumbled despite being grasped by uniformed men. They dragged him to his feet. Blood covered his shirt. The French policeman opened the back door to the truck. Traitor! The prisoner gave one final attempt to retaliate and as he did so, he raised his head.