The Billet

That night when Lieutenant Engel comes back to the house he doesn’t knock. He’s a little drunk and his boots clatter on the hallway tiles—that’s announcement enough for the Bonzons, he decides, that and the barking of their damned dog tied up by the shed. He sets down his briefcase then takes off his coat and cap and hangs them on the hook that has become his. His coat is sleek and grey, the brim of his cap gleaming in the lamplight: beautiful things next to the Bonzons’ shabby jackets. It’s wartime but for God’s sake—the sight of those sagging clothes, the reek of boiled vegetables and laundry filling the air—it sets his nerves on edge.

At least this evening he’s been wise and eaten at the brasserie, although it has to be said that the food there is only marginally better than Madame Bonzon’s. In the dining room his place will have been set: a knife, fork and spoon, a plate, a glass catching the light, a bottle of wine like a stain against the expanse of the tablecloth. The cloth will be gritty where Madame has missed crumbs from his breakfast. What a room to eat alone in, everything cramped and overpowering from the wallpaper with its stripes and blowsy roses, to the hard sofa under the window, to the monstrous sideboard reaching almost to the ceiling with its shelves of painted plates and yellowing lacework. Ugly things to stare at while he eats. It doesn’t help that the room is always chilly because Madame airs it no matter the weather. She’s persisted even after he’s told her not to—just last night he asked if she thought it pleased him to sit shivering over his meal and she looked down at the table, squeezing her handkerchief in her hands, then simply left the room. Perhaps she hadn’t understood his French. Perhaps she’d understood him perfectly. 

Tonight she hasn’t come rushing out to say, “Good evening, Lieutenant, are you ready for your dinner?” No one has come out, and he wonders if it’s because he didn’t knock, though surely the Bonzons must have heard him. Even though it’s a relief not to have to bother with them, he feels a flush of annoyance. He imagines the four of them hunched over their own dinner at the long kitchen table, the air dense and warm from a huge pot boiling away—filled with bones or vegetables or laundry. Only now the Bonzons will be sitting with their knives and forks held motionless above their plates as they listen to him, and maybe they’re exchanging glances because not one of them wants to leave their dinner and wish him good evening. He’ll have to do something, he thinks. He’s seen the way a few lapses can turn into something close to insubordination. Just look at Schwartz, and all because Captain Müller’s too lazy to do a thing about him. What does Müller care? He spends his mornings sipping brandy at his desk, then orders Engel to finish reports that in truth aren’t even started so he can slip out to the café on the town square.

Engel rubs his jaw with his fingers, hears the slight scrape of bristles against his skin. Is it always this quiet in the house? It’s as if the Bonzons are afraid he’s listening, as though he’d even want to understand every word of their gabbled French. At first he’d suspected that Madame chattered away just to humiliate him into asking, “Pardon?” over and over. Before long he realized that she was asking about his health, and what he thought of the weather, and—this last couple of days—whether the dog’s barking disturbed him, though he must please remember that the dog is old and losing its mind, it takes fright at anything, even the wind, but it’s her husband’s and what can she do? So many words rushing out of her mouth, as though she believed they would please him when quite the opposite was true: a ridiculous old woman talking on and on—how could she imagine he wouldn’t be irritated? 

Engel takes a few steps along the hallway. Whispers from the kitchen, then a sound, a laugh almost, immediately stifled. He should throw open the door and march in but the idea of it, especially on a night when he’s had more to drink than usual, is distasteful. He pictures them: the two grandsons, almost grown men with sulky eyes and thin moustaches, Madame with her big sad face and the handkerchief that’s always clenched in her fist and, worst of all, her giant of a husband slouched in his chair, his scalp bare as a doorknob, his eyes lost. If Engel ordered them all to their feet that old man would tower above him with his mouth hanging loose and the stink of his rotting teeth everywhere. If he was unlucky something in the old man would give way and he’d yell, “Boche! Get out of my house! Get out!” just as he had the first time he’d seen Engel coming through the doorway. His wife would grab Engel’s arm again and cry something like, “He doesn’t mean it, he was gassed in the last war and he hasn’t been right since.” And what would Engel do? He’d have to wrench himself away and tell her to keep the old man quiet, and those grandsons would be watching, their faces carefully blank.

Why bother with them when all he’d heard was a laugh, and maybe it wasn’t even that? He takes a couple more steps towards the kitchen. Silence. Perhaps the Bonzons are listening to the creak of his boots, the belch he only half stifles, waiting for him to go upstairs. Not waiting, he corrects himself—they’re willing him up to his room. Then there’ll be no need to leave their dinner or even lay eyes on him standing in their hallway. And what is he going to do? Is he just going to head upstairs?

The slight euphoria the brandy gave him walking the few streets from the brasserie has washed away and now he simply feels tired. He goes back to the door for his briefcase, spots a small brown leaf on his coat and lets it fall to the floor. At least when the Bonzons come out his coat and hat will be hanging here, waiting for them in his place.

    Through the quiet comes the slow tick of a clock, the dog’s barks, the rush of the breeze through the trees. How pleasant it was to walk back with the wind racing about him and carrying with it the smell of mouldering leaves and bonfires, the smell of home. For a few instants at a time the brandy would lift him away from this awful little town, to an autumn evening walking to Ina’s, but then his briefcase would swing against his leg, or his eye settle on one of the ugly houses strung out along the road, so unlike the tidy homes of Frankfurt.

Engel brings his hands to his head as though to cradle it, but then smoothes his hair once, twice. When he rubs his fingers together he feels the greasiness of his pomade between them. Damn this place, he thinks, damn this war. For a moment he stares at his hands, then he wipes them on one of the jackets hanging by the door. A moment later he picks up his briefcase and heads upstairs.

 

¤

 

Most evenings Engel sits by the window at the small flyleaf table he insisted Müller have carried out here from the town hall. Only a few weeks ago when they took this town the evening sun was enough for him to work by, finishing Müller’s reports, writing letters to his mother and sister in Frankfurt that recounted how dull this small town was, how the women seemed old before their time, and how the food—almost unbelievably—was consistently bad. His sister had written back that the French were hateful and she was sure they were serving him terrible food on purpose, and that he must insist on being given the best. How could he explain Mme. Bonzon to her and how she peeled carrots as though she meant to do them harm, how dinner was dug from the garden he had to walk through—that they all had to walk through—to reach the outhouse built on stilts over the narrow river, how the current carried with it sodden squares of newspaper from the neighbors upstream as well as their stinking turds, how in a place like this there is no good food for anyone?

Now the season has turned. Whereas before he worked with the hiss of the wind sifting through the trees, and the Bonzons’ chickens grumbling in the garden, now it’s too chilly to keep the window open. Besides, most evenings the daylight drains away before he’s finished and he has to light the paraffin lamp and work in its muddy glow. If he looks up he doesn’t see the trees and the sharp roofs of the town but his own reflection stretched about in the old glass of the window, bright against the darkness of the shutters behind. Every breath he takes reeks of sour vegetables, and the mothballs in the wardrobe, and the oily fumes of the lamp, and all of it reminds him that he’s trapped here until the war moves him on.

This evening when Engel pushes open his door, the room’s cold and smells of wood smoke from outside. The window has been left wide open and through it come the insistent barks of the dog. He tosses his briefcase onto a chair. With a savage scrape of a match, he lights the paraffin lamp. The huge bed that takes up half the room is unmade, his towel crumpled where he tossed it onto the rack, the bowl of water he washed in this morning scummy and cold beneath the mirror.

He strides over to shut the window then stops himself and stands swaying slightly in the middle of the floor. No, he thinks, and he lets the lump of annoyance in his chest rise up. His room left in a mess. The damned dog always barking. No one coming out to enquire if he wanted to eat, and on top of that his stomach’s queasy from dinner—stringy pieces of rabbit and potatoes inadequately cooked. It didn’t help that Schwartz and Henke sat at his table, leaning their sweaty faces towards him and talking about some whores they’d had in Lyon, nor that as he was leaving Müller summoned him over and sat sucking on a cigarette, his eyes watery, his belly straining against his shirt, and demanded to know why he was here eating dinner when there were two reports due by morning.

And now, when he might otherwise have settled down to an evening of finishing up those reports, his room’s a shambles. He marches out onto the landing and bellows, “Madame Bonzon! Madame Bonzon!”

A few moments later her face appears looking up at him from the hallway, mouth wide, her hands pressed against her chest. She says quickly, “Lieutenant—I’m sorry—you were so late we thought you’d eaten.”

He gestures towards his door and says simply and in French, “My room.”

She seems puzzled. Then her hands rise to her cheeks and she comes rushing up the stairs saying, “I am so sorry, please forgive me, I came in to air it, then I was called away.” On and on she goes as she pulls up the bedcovers and smoothes them out, but he walks out of the room and leans against the banisters. Soon comes a hiss as she empties the basin out the window, and the bang of the shutters being closed. Coming back past him with the jug under one arm she keeps her head bowed, says, “Excuse me, please excuse me.” 

Engel blocks her way. “This must not happen again.”

She hugs the jug against her chest, mutters, “No, I’m so sorry—” but he steps to the side and she understands she is to leave and takes off awkwardly down the stairs on her thick legs.

As for Engel, he goes back to his room and sits on the bed. The coverlet has been pulled up crookedly over the bolster because she hurried. He should call her back, he should insist that his room be properly taken care of. But what good would it do? Instead he leans against the high scroll of wood behind his head and swings his feet up. His boots come nowhere near reaching the scroll at the other end.  Such a long bed—long enough for that giant, Monsieur Bonzon. When Madame had first shown Engel the room she’d taken care to explain that this was un lit bateau—a boat bed—as though he’d never seen such a thing. She’d patted the mattress before running a thick hand over the smooth wooden curl at the foot of the bed, then she’d busied herself opening the wardrobe for him—the door as rounded as a tree trunk in a style decades old—and the dresser drawers, even running a finger inside them to show him they were clean. He’d walked away to the window. He didn’t involve himself in such things, for God’s sake, but later he did point at the three paintings on the wall in their gold frames, ugly things with clotted swirls of green and brown paint, views of the countryside that made it look ominous. “My husband’s work,” she’d explained, and he’d shaken his head, told her, “Take them away.” She’d carried over a chair and climbed on it to lift them off their hooks, laying them carefully on the bed, one after the other, then gathering them up against her chest. She hadn’t looked at him as she left the room. Where the paintings had hung were three pale shadows on the wallpaper that were, he thought, almost as annoying to the eye as the paintings themselves. 

His briefcase is heavy with work but this evening, whether because of the brandy or the chill in the room, he has no appetite for work, not even for letter writing. Instead he unbuckles his holster and hangs it over the towel rack before flinging himself back onto the bed, his boots dark and shiny against the faded gold of the bedspread, and shuts his eyes. For a while he shivers, then he rolls himself into the covers and falls into dreams of home, and of his darling Ina, dead before they could marry, in a car accident of all things, when the whole world was at war.

 

¤

 

Engel sits up, startled. His head’s spinning and his mouth is dry. Darkness presses in except for where a sliver of light glows beneath the door. What woke him? A noise, he thinks, and he strains to hear it again but there’s only the raw barking of the dog outside. Whatever disturbed him was a different sound entirely, he’s sure of it.

He hauls himself to his feet and stumbles across the room. His legs are stiff because he let himself fall asleep without taking off his boots and his thigh catches something—the towel rack—and there’s a clatter. His holster falling to the floor. He stoops for it and carries it with him, pulls open the windows and the shutters then sits on the sill with his gun on his knee. Now the barks are more distinct. How could anyone sleep with that noise just outside their window? If the dog’s so old and stupid, why haven’t the Bonzons simply killed it? Wouldn’t that be kinder?

The air’s heavy and smells of wet stone. A slight rain has silvered the flagstone path around the house, a bicycle left leaning against a bush, the roof of the shed. Engel tries to make out the dog in the darkness. He imagines lifting his gun and aiming so fine a shot that the dog falls straight to its side and lies still. But of course, a gunshot at night would bring a patrol here, and he’d have to explain—the dog, its endless barking. Müller would hear about it, and he’d be sure to make a fuss.

He weighs the gun in his hand and lets the empty holster drop to the floor. Before the war, the only gun he ever used was a shotgun for hunting wild boar with his father, but now he has this pistol with him at all times. Ina hated it. She said, It makes you one of them and pulled a face, and he snapped, Don’t be stupid, we’re all them now. That made her cry. It was the last time he’d been home on leave before she died—the last time they’d seen each other, except for a solemn dinner with her parents’—and he’d upset her. He pulls himself away from that thought. It doesn’t do any good to be sentimental. And hadn’t she been sentimental, an innocent still at twenty-four? He wonders what sort of woman she’d have turned into, what sort of wife.

He rests the gun against his thigh. The damp’s enough to make him shiver. All that darkness out there, the moon half blotted out by cloud, the trees nothing more than a wet shimmer when the wind catches their leaves. Between the dog’s barks comes the wind sighing through the branches, the slap of a door. Something else too, and he leans a little out the window to listen. A murmur. Voices tugged about by the wind, then the distinct sound of footsteps. The bicycle has vanished. A moment later he hears the groan of the gate being opened, then the clatter of someone cycling off down the road.

The dog’s frantic now. Engel snatches up his gun and aims it into the darkness. Too late. There’s nothing to see, and nothing to hear except that damned dog. He creeps over to the door with his gun raised and pulls it open. The Bonzons must take him for a fool, getting up to something right under his nose. And if Müller finds out? He’ll reprimand him in the most public way possible, he’s a big enough bastard for that.

Out on the landing Engel curses himself for not taking off his boots. He has to pick his way down the stairs carefully as a wading bird, down to the hallway where he stops and rests one hand against the newel post. Beneath the kitchen door glows a band of light. He moves quietly towards it with his legs kept stiff to keep his boots from creaking then stops to listen. A woman’s voice, Madame Bonzon’s he thinks, then a man’s smooth and high, and he’s sure it doesn’t belong to anyone in the family. He pulls back his cuff. In the darkness the green hands of his watch float in front of his eyes. It’s just after three in the morning, and here are the Bonzons with a visitor.

Ridiculously, he’s breathing hard. For a moment he can’t decide—should he burst into the kitchen? But what if the man is armed? He steps back and feels for the knob on the dining-room door and eases it open. There’s just enough light to see a flash of white beneath the window, then he closes the door behind him. Only when he’s standing over the sofa does he understand: it’s been made up into a bed, in the very room where he eats. No wonder Madame Bonzon is so keen to air it every morning.

He has to kneel on the sofa to pull the windows open then fold the shutters back behind them. The rain’s a faint sizzle in the silences between the dog’s barks. He hesitates, listening, then climbs over the sill and lets himself drop onto the grass.

He runs fast and low through the cobwebby rain, across the grass and onto the path. As he comes close to the shed the dog lets out a frenzy of hoarse barks, then out of nowhere it lunges at him and he jumps out of reach just as it is snapped back by its rope. It tries again then strains towards him, furious, feet scrambling, its whole pale body jerking with each bark.

Damned dog—always the damned dog—and Engel glances down the path. Nothing. But in a few moments someone will come, and he turns the gun around to hold it by its barrel. He hammers it down on the dog’s head, one blow, and another, and the dog staggers then comes back off-kilter and snarling. He brings the gun down again with all his strength and the animal sinks to its knees. A few more blows and it lies twitching on the ground. Engel doesn’t want to touch it. He uses the rope to drag it into the bushes then wipes his gun on the wet grass and follows the path to the back of the house. In his hand the gun’s slippery, and the feel of it makes him feel sick.

The shutters are closed over the kitchen window, but a little light is leaking through the curtains covering the glass in the back door. He walks towards it, taking care not to let his boots scrape over the paving stones. How quiet it is now, and it occurs to him that he’s done something foolish in killing the dog, because won’t the family wonder why it isn’t barking? Won’t someone come out to look?

He brushes a hand across his mouth. Wet skin on wet, the soft rain still falling, and there’s the kitchen door an arm’s length away, then so close he’s tipped his head to the cold glass. Voices. Madame saying in a shaking voice, “You must do something, please, I can’t bear it,” and a man telling her, “I’ve done everything I can.” Then Madame again: “But he’s in pain! To die like this, it’s not human!” She says something more but Engel can’t make it out. Only now does he hear a raw groaning, then some words so stretched and guttural they’re barely words at all, and Madame Bonzon muttering, her voice low and urgent. A few moment later she says, “I’ve told him Pierre has gone for the priest, but he’s worried about the dog, of all things—he can’t hear it.”

Another voice, thick and lazy. “At least it’s shut up. Christ.” One of the grandsons, Engel thinks. 

“Don’t be like that. Maybe it understands. They can, you know.”

The bottom corner of the glass is brighter, and when Engel brings his eye down, there’s the Bonzons’ kitchen buttery with lamplight, Madame standing with her back to him and blocking his half of his view, one of her grandsons warming his hands at the range. A man steps into Engel’s sight. He’s dressed in a grey suit with a stiff shirt collar, and when he turns Engel recognizes the long face with its neat white beard: Dr. Perrin. Just a few days ago the doctor came to see him about medical supplies, and Engel had to explain that there was nothing he could do, civilians were simply not a priority, but he hoped the situation would improve. The doctor had said sharply, “You hope? Is it so beyond your control?”

Engel’s breath has misted the window. Does he dare wipe it? He hesitates, then uses a knuckle to rub it clear before bending back to the glass. The doctor has pushed his hands into his pockets. Without his hat, his head looks small and fragile. Behind him Madame Bonzon turns away, her handkerchief held to her mouth, and it’s only now that Engel sees what’s laid out on the table: Monsieur Bonzon. There’s a quilt over him and a pillow beneath his head, but his face has the stark look of death.

The doctor picks up his bag and sets it on a chair. He takes his stethoscope from around his neck and folds it inside. “At least put him to bed to die, for God’s sake.”

The grandson says, “I’ve got Dad’s old bed but it’s not long enough for Grandpa, and Pierre’s been sleeping on the floor. What can we do? They forced that German bastard on us when we barely had room.”

His grandmother waves her hands through the air as though to disperse his words, then her husband moans and her face folds up on itself. She says, “Don’t make trouble, not now,” and goes back to the table. She bends towards her husband and says something so softly that Engel can’t catch it.

The rain’s coming down harder now and when Engel steps back from under the eaves it quickly soaks his shirt. Soon it’s running down his face and into his eyes, splintering the little light coming from the kitchen into stars. He lifts one hand to wipe the rain away—he’d almost forgotten about the gun, but here it is, and he’s been holding it so tightly his hand has stiffened around the grip. How cold he is, how tired. He wants nothing more than to creep back into the house and fall asleep, but the thought of getting into that bed upstairs makes his gut twist.

He’s about to turn back along the path when he hears a squeal above the crackle of the rain. The front gate. He lifts one foot as though to step away into the shadows of the vegetable garden, but here come voices. It’s too late. Instead he plants both feet on the paving stones and lifts the gun, then with all his might he yells, “Halt! Halt!”

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