Authors: Jacqueline Yallop
Jacqueline Yallop read English at Oxford and did her PhD in nineteenth-century literature at the University of Sheffield. She has worked as the curator of the Ruskin Collection in Sheffield and is the author of the non-fiction work
Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves
and the novel
She currently lives in France.
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Atlantic Books Ltd.
other Catherine knew the devil. He was twisted and dwarfish; his clawed hands were gnarled. His neck was short and his legs bowed. He had a hump on his back, heavy like a sack of walnuts. He was crafty, she knew that; she had heard how cunning he could be. But surely he could never stretch over five shelves of jars, pickles and conserves to take down the coffee and tempt her nuns?
Sister Bernard, too, was a little under five foot tall, and of limited reach. She had to ask for help to take the packet down from its place at the top of the pantry, and this is how she met the young soldier. He stretched over her. She noticed how thin he was. As he reached up, his uniform jacket swung away from his shoulders, too large and loose for his frame, making him gawky, cartoonish. He smelt of damp cloth. He brushed the packet quickly with his open hand, in case there was dust perhaps, and he gave the coffee to Sister Bernard without looking at her. Then he went back to join the other soldiers bent over the refectory table and she listened to their guttural chatter as she lit
the stove. She understood nothing. The smell of the coffee made her hungry and light-headed.
Looking out through the small window above the sink there was just the sweep of the convent drive and the village clustered beyond, cramped and low, the moss thick on the heavy stone roof tiles. The wash house, the well and the water fountain huddled together in the dip of land by the stream; the church tower stood high to one side, its spire uncertainly modelled against the trees, and the square in front of it hidden from Sister Bernard's view. Smoke rose in the cluster of stores and farm buildings packed in by the bakers, hanging in the airless day, misting the street. A dog ran. Women bent low over buckets and baskets, the ridged earth encircling them, their hats pale. On the slope that rose behind the houses, the new leaves of the vines shone and the gnarled old stems greened with the promise of early summer.
Sister Bernard hardly saw it. It was too ordinary, the way it had always been. She could not see that the occupation had made much difference. For the few weeks the German soldiers had been there, the days had passed unremarkably. The women and the old men seemed to be getting everything done. There was a silence settling, an unstirring quiet that perhaps stretched across the whole of this part of France, creasing up against the mountains to the south and north, and unfolding over the flat land on either side. But Bernard hardly noticed this, and God did not mention it.
She stirred the coffee in the pan, watching its thickness bubble. It had been many months since she had tasted coffee; it might have been years, she could not remember.
This same packet had been stored on the top shelf of the pantry since long before the previous winter, she was sure of that at least. There was the rationing brought about somehow by the war, which had reached them finally, stripping the shelves at the
in the village. And there was Mother Catherine's unshakeable belief that coffee was a temptation from the devil. Both of these things had kept it from her, and she had not once thought of the pleasure of it until now.
Sister Bernard carefully folded the packet again, slipping a pin through to hold the loose paper. Then she dipped her finger very slowly into the pan, feeling the warmth of the steam on her hand and letting her finger linger in the coffee until she could not bear it any longer. When she put it to her mouth, she closed her eyes and felt a drip slide down her chin. It was the coolness of her lips she tasted, more than anything.
It was a surprise when one of the Germans spoke, in French, so that Bernard could understand him. She opened her eyes with a start and popped her finger from her closed lips. She could not think what he might want. Even at thirty, in her prime, she was not beautiful. Her hair was already thin and her skin faded, her hands were wretched. No one spoke to her much, except God.
âCome in, Sister, we will not disturb you,' said the German.
Bernard half-turned from the brewing coffee, beginning to smile. She twisted her wet finger in the folds of her habit and she tried to quieten the monotone rumble of God preaching in her head. She stepped through the doorway to the refectory where the soldiers were waiting.
It was like somewhere new, the sun coming in through the long windows and the table shrunk by the bulk of the men, their uniforms somehow exotic and the temptation still tingling on her tongue. Bernard gulped down a stuttered breath.
But he had not been speaking to her. They were all looking towards the back door, where Sister Jean had paused at the sight of them, unsure.
,' he said again, his accent sharp.
âI have come for the pig scraps,
,' she said, blinking at the unfamiliar need to explain her routine.
He got up and went to the door, pulling it more fully open and standing to one side, his arm outstretched into the refectory, inviting in the nun. He bowed, low and loose, grinning. One or two of the other soldiers applauded. Still Sister Jean stood outside.
âCome on then, come on,' he said again.
Sister Jean did not move. The German looked at her for a moment, no longer smiling, and shook his head. He stepped towards her and pulled at her arm, yanking her across the threshold. She stumbled. He slammed the door behind her and brushed his hands together, ignoring her now as he went back to his place at the table. Sister Jean winced, the idea of pain keeping her bent over for a moment. And then she passed through to the kitchen, her steps hurried and her eyes fixed on the floor, the empty sack slumped behind her like old skin. The soldier whistled quietly and somebody laughed.
âWhat are they doing?' Sister Jean stood close to Bernard and piled the leftovers from the bucket into the sack. It swelled on the floor between them. She watched
exactly what she was doing, did not even glance at the men.
âThey're having coffee, Sister. They're waiting for someone who is with Mother Catherine; it's their commandant, I think.' Bernard was embarrassed by the hiss of Jean's question. âThey've been very quiet â they've been no trouble.'
Sister Jean pulled tight the neck of the sack and kicked the bucket back towards the sink. It was noisy on the stone floor.
âThey're drawing straws.'
Bernard could not see how she had known this. There was hardly a movement between the soldiers.
âPigs,' spat Sister Jean, dragging the sack out into the refectory again. The men did not stir this time as she passed.
Bernard took the pan from the heat. The handle was insecure and her hand unsteady, and she walked slowly with it far in front of her as she took the coffee to them. Two of the soldiers parted, pushing back so that she could fill their glasses, and Bernard held the pan high over the table between them before pouring a measure evenly into each glass. She did not spill anything. Some of them thanked her, and though her hand trembled, God was silent.
Later, when the Germans were preparing to leave, the soldier who had helped Bernard with the coffee brought his empty glass to the sink where she was scraping carrots. He stood for a moment at her side, and she paused in her work. She turned towards him; she saw how young he was, perhaps only twenty, and she saw the perfect blueness
of his eyes, an intimation of divinity. Smiling, he pulled her veil back from her face, as though to take a better look, and then he leant towards her and whispered something softly in her ear in German. She did not understand what he said, but she blushed anyway, surprised at the intimacy of the coffee on his breath. As he left her, he tossed away the short end of matchstick; one of the other soldiers nudged him.
Smoke hung low from the house fires and the air was thick. The shutters were closed tightly, blinding the rough walls, the warm ochre of the stone faded in the grey light. The clumps of iris pressing against the buildings and along the edges of the street seemed pallid, their reds and purples already exhausted. The shuffle of the village could have been silence, and when the two German soldiers passed the wash house their shoes clicked incongruously on the cobbles, the abrupt echoes spiking the quiet. The nuns were folding heavy wet cloths into baskets; they did not look up. Bernard was rinsing down the long rows of stone basins, each one split open like a giant missal so that the linen could be scrubbed against its sloping surfaces. Unthinking, she watched the dribble of sudded water disappear into the unmoving depths of the central wash pond, and she heard the tap of the soldiers' footsteps as a counterpoint to the grumble of God. She lifted her head, the heavy bucket hanging still for a moment, as she watched the Germans go round the corner towards the church.
Her soldier followed, alone. He paused in front of the wash house, stepping carefully to one side to avoid the puddle of spilt water leaking away towards the stream.
He wished the nuns good morning, his French careful and studded with accent. One of the sisters with the basket of washing, a pretty young girl, returned his greeting, half under her breath, dropping her eyes. The soldier looked at the nuns in turn, as though weighing something up. He came to Bernard last. She was half-hidden in the gloom of the interior, the slouch of her habit making her shape indistinct. She met his gaze for a moment, the water dripping fast onto the dark fabric. She saw him clearly, even in that instant, the slightness of him soft in the smoky damp, his hands held tight in front of him, his face already anciently known to her. She looked at the way he stood, at the defeated slump of his shoulders, and she knew she had been chosen for something.
For the rest of the day and into the night Sister Bernard thought about what this might be. She went through events, tremulous and expectant, ignoring as best she could the incessant complaints that God hammered into her head. She recalled everything about the soldier; she went over and over his incomprehensible code of broken-nailed hand signals and half-obscured facial gestures. The thought of him was irresistible, a mystery. It made her feel beautiful. And, while it lasted, it gave her a glimpse of paradise.