The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. Her room was closest to the entrance of the apartment. At first, dazed with sleep, she thought it was her father, coming up from his hiding place in the cellar. He’d forgotten his keys, and was impatient because nobody had heard his first, timid knock. But then came the voices, strong and brutal in the silence of the night. Nothing to do with her father. “Police! Open up ! Now !” The pounding took up again, louder. It echoed to the marrow of her bones. Her younger brother, asleep in the next bed, stirred. “Police! Open up! Open up!” What time was it ? She peered through the curtains. It was still dark outside.
She was afraid. She remembered the recent, hushed conversations she had overheard, late at night, when her parents thought she was asleep. She had crept up to the living room door and she had listened and watched from a little crack through the panel. Her father’s nervous voice. Her mother’s anxious face. They spoke their native tongue, which the girl understood, although she was not as fluent as them. Her father had whispered that times ahead would be difficult. That they would have to be brave and very careful. He pronounced strange, unknown words: ‘camps,’ roundup, a big roundup,’ ‘early morning arrests,’ and the girl wondered what all of it meant. Her father had murmured that only the men were in danger, not the women, not the children, and that he would hide in the cellar every night.
He had explained to the girl in the morning that it would be safer if he slept downstairs, for a little while. Till “things got safe.” What “things,” exactly, thought the girl. What was “safe” ? When would things be “safe” again? She wanted to find out what he had meant by ‘camp’ and ‘roundup’, but she worried about admitting she had eavesdropped on her parents, several times. So she had not dared ask him.
"Open up! Police!"
Had the police found Papa in the cellar, she asked herself, was that why they were here, had the police come to take Papa to the places he had mentioned during those hushed midnight talks: the ‘camps,’ far away, out of the city?
The girl padded fast on silent feet to her mother’s room, down the corridor. Her mother awoke the minute she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"It’s the police, Maman, ” the girl whispered, “they’re banging on the door.”
Her mother swept her legs from under the sheets, brushed her hair out of her eyes. The girl thought she looked tired, old, much older than her thirty years.
"Have they come to take Papa away?” pleaded the girl, her hands on her mother’s arms, “have they come for him?”
The mother did not answer. Again the loud voices down the hallway. The mother swiftly put a dressing gown over her night dress, then she took the girl by the hand and went to the door. Her hand was hot and clammy, like a child’s, the girl thought.
"Yes?” the mother said timidly, without opening the latch.
A man’s voice. He shouted her name.
"Yes, Monsieur, that is me,” she answered. Her accent came out strongly, almost harsh.
"Open up. Immediately. Police.”
The mother put a hand to her throat and the girl noticed how pale she was. She seemed drained, frozen. As if she could no longer move. The girl had never seen such fear on her mother’s face. She felt her mouth go dry with anguish.
The men banged again. The mother opened the door with clumsy, trembling fingers. The girl winced, expecting to see green-grey suits.
Two men stood there. One was a policeman, wearing his dark blue knee length cape and high, round cap. The other man wore a beige raincoat. He had a list in his hand. Once again, he said the woman’s name. And the father’s name. He spoke perfect French. Then we are safe, thought the girl. If they are French, and not German, we are not in danger. If they are French, they will not harm us.
The mother pulled her daughter close to her. The girl could feel the woman’s heart beating through her dressing gown. She wanted to push her mother away, she wanted her mother to stand up straight and look at the men boldly, to stop cowering, to prevent her heart from beating like that, like a frightened animal’s. She wanted her mother to be brave.
"My husband is…not here,” stuttered the mother. “ I don’t know where he is. I don’t know.”
The man with the beige raincoat shoved his way into the apartment.
"Hurry up, Madame. You have ten minutes. Pack some clothes. Enough for a couple of days.”
The mother did not move. She stared at the policeman. He was standing on the landing, his back to the door. He seemed indifferent, bored. She put a hand on his navy sleeve.
"Monsieur, please ---” she began.
The policeman turned, brushing her hand away. A hard, blank expression in his eyes.
"You heard me. You are coming with us. Your daughter too. Just do as you are told.”
Bertrand was late, as usual. I tried not to mind, but I did. Zoë lolled back against the wall, bored. She looked so much like her father, it sometimes made me smile. But not today. I glanced up at the ancient, tall building. Mamé’s place. Bertrand’s grandmother’s old apartment. And we were going to live there. We were going to leave the boulevard du Montparnasse, its noisy traffic, incessant ambulances due to three neighboring hospitals, its cafés and restaurants, for this quiet, narrow street on the right bank of the Seine.
The Marais was not an arrondissement I was familiar with, although I did admire its ancient, crumbling beauty. Was I happy about the move? I wasn’t sure. Bertrand hadn’t really asked my advice. We hadn’t discussed it much at all, in fact. With his usual gusto, he had gone ahead with the whole affair. Without me.
"There he is,” said Zoë. “ Only half an hour late.”
We watched Bertrand saunter up the street with his particular, sensual strut. Slim, dark, oozing sex appeal, the archetypal Frenchman. He was on the phone, as usual. Tailing behind him was his business associate, the bearded and pink-faced Antoine. Their offices were on the rue de l’Arcade, just behind the Madeleine. Bertrand had been part of an architect firm for a long time, since before our marriage, but he had started out on his own, with Antoine, five years ago.
Bertrand waved to us, then pointed to the phone, lowering his eyebrows and scowling.
"Like he can’t get that person off the phone,” scoffed Zoë. “ Sure.”
Zoë was only eleven, but it sometimes felt like she was already a teenager. First, her height, which dwarfed all her girlfriends --- as well as her feet, she would add grimly --- and then a precocious lucidity that often made me catch my breath. There was something adult about her solemn, hazel gaze, the reflective way she lifted her chin. She had always been like that, even as a little child. Calm, mature, sometimes too mature for her age.
Antoine came to greet us while Bertrand went on with his conversation, just about loud enough for the entire street to hear, waving his hands in the air, making more faces, turning around from time to time to make sure we were hanging on to every word.
"A problem with another architect,” explained Antoine with a discreet smile.
"A rival?” said Zoë.
"Yes, a rival,” replied Antoine.
"Which means we could be here all day.”
I had an idea.
"Antoine, do you by any chance have the key to Madame Tézac’s apartment ?”
"I do have it, Julia, ” he said, beaming. Antoine always spoke English to my French. I suppose he did it to be friendly, but it secretly annoyed me. I felt like my French still wasn’t any good, after living here all these years.
Antoine flourished the key. We decided to go up, the three of us. Zoë punched out the digicode at the door with deft fingers. We walked through the leafy, cool courtyard to the elevator.
"I hate that elevator,” said Zoë. “Papa should do something about it.”
"Honey, he’s only redoing your great-grandmother’s place,” I pointed out. “Not the whole building.”
"Well, he should,” she said.
As we waited for the elevator, my mobile phone chirped out the Darth Vader theme. I peered at the number flashing on my screen. It was Joshua, my boss.
I answered: “Yup?”
Joshua was to the point. As usual.
"Need you back by three. Closing July issues. Over and out.”
"Gee whiz,” I said pertly. I heard a chuckle on the other end of the line, before he hung up. Joshua always seemed to like it when I said gee whiz. Maybe it reminded him of his youth. Antoine seemed amused by my old-fashioned Americanisms. I imagined him hoarding them up, then trying them out with his French accent.
The elevator was one of those inimitable Parisian contraptions with a diminutive cabin, hand-maneuvered iron screen and double wooden doors that inevitably swung in your face. Squashed between Zoë and Antoine --- a trifle heavy-handed with his Vétiver scent --- I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror as we glided up. I looked as eroded as the groaning lift. What had happened to the fresh-faced belle from Boston, Mass.? The woman who stared back at me was at that dreaded age between forty-five and fifty, that no-man’s land of sag, oncoming wrinkle and stealthy approach of menopause.
"I hate this elevator too,” I said grimly.
Zoë grinned and pinched my cheek.
"Mom, even Gwyneth Paltrow would look like hell in that mirror.”
I had to smile. That was such a Zoë-like remark.
The mother began to sob, gently at first, then louder. The girl looked at her, stunned. In all her ten years, she had never seen her mother cry. Appalled, she watched the tears trickle down her mother’s white, crumpled face. She wanted to tell her mother to stop crying, she could not bear the shame of seeing her mother snivel in front of these strange men. But the men paid no attention to the mother’s tears. They told her to hurry up. There was no time to waste. In the bedroom, the little boy slept on.
“But where are you taking us?” pleaded her mother. “My daughter is French, she was born in Paris, why do you want her too? Where are you taking us?”
The men spoke no more. They loomed over her, menacing, huge. The mother’s eyes were white with fear. She went to her room, sank down on the bed. After a few seconds, she straightened her back and turned to the girl. Her voice was a hiss, her face a tight mask.
“Wake your brother. Get dressed, both of you. Take some clothes, for him and you. Hurry! Hurry, now!”
Her brother went speechless with terror when he peeped through the door and saw the men. He watched his mother, disheveled, sobbing, trying to pack. He mustered all the strength he had in his four-year- old body. He refused to move. The girl cajoled him. He would not listen. He stood, motionless, his little arms folded over his chest. The girl took off her night dress, grabbed a cotton blouse, a skirt. She slipped her feet into shoes. Her brother watched her. They could hear their mother crying from her room.
“I’m going to our secret place,” he whispered.
“No!” she urged. “You’re coming with us, you must.”
She grabbed him, but he wriggled out of her grasp and slithered into the long, deep cupboard hidden in the surface of the wall of their bedroom. The one they played hide-and-seek in. They hid there all the time, locked themselves in, and it was like their own little house. Maman and Papa knew about it, but they always pretended they didn’t. They’d call out their names. They’d say with loud, bright voices, “But where did those children go? Howstrange, they were here a minute ago!” And she and her brother would giggle away with glee.
They had a flashlight in there and some cushions and toys and books, even a flask of water that Maman would fill up every day. Her brother couldn’t read yet, so the girl would read Un Bon Petit Diable out loud to him. He loved the tale of the orphan Charles and the terrifying Madame Mac’miche and how Charles got back at her for all her cruelty. She would read it to him over and over again.
The girl could see her brother’s small face peeking out at her from the darkness. He had his favorite teddy bear clutched to him, he was not frightened anymore. Maybe he’d be safe there, after all. He had water and the flashlight. And he could look at the pictures in the Comtesse de Ségur book. His favorite was the one of Charles’s magnificent revenge. Maybe she should leave him there for the moment. The men would never find him. She would come back to get him later in the day when they were allowed to go home again. And Papa, still in the cellar, would know where the boy was hiding, if ever he came up.
“Are you afraid in there?” she said softly, as the men called out for them.
“No,” he said. “I’m not afraid. You lock me in. They won ’t get me.” She closed the door on the little white face, turned the key in the lock. Then she slipped the key into her pocket. The lock was hidden by a pivoting device shaped like a light switch. It was impossible to see the outline of the cupboard in the paneling of the wall. Yes, he’d be safe there. She was sure of it.
The girl murmured his name and laid her palm flat on the wooden panel.
“I’ll come back for you later. I promise.”
We entered the apartment, fumbled with light switches.
Nothing happened. Antoine opened a couple of shutters.
The sun poured in. The rooms were bare, dusty. Without furniture, the living room seemed immense. The golden rays slanted in through the long, grimy windowpanes, dappling the deep brown floorboards. I looked around at the empty shelves, the darker squares on the walls where the beautiful paintings used to hang, the marble chimney where I remembered so many winter fires burning, and Mamé holding out her delicate, pale hands to the warmth of the flames.
I went to stand by one of the windows and looked down at the quiet, green courtyard. I was glad Mamé left before she ever got to see her empty apartment. It would have upset her. It upset me.
“Still smells of Mamé,” said Zoë. “Shalimar.”
“And of that awful Minette,” I said, turning up my nose. Minette had been Mamé’s last pet. An incontin ent Siamese. Antoine glanced at me, surprised.
“The cat,” I explained. I said it in English this time. Or course I knew that la chatte was the feminine for “cat,” but it could also mean “pussy.” The last thing I wanted was having Antoine guffaw at some dubious double entendre.
Antoine appraised the place with a professional eye.
“The electrical system is ancient,” he remarked, pointing at the old fashioned, white porcelain fuses. “And the heating as well.”
The oversized radiators were black with dirt, as scaly as a reptile.
“Wait till you see the kitchen and the bathrooms,” I said.
“The bathtub has claws,” said Zoë. “I’m going to miss those.” Antoine examined the walls, knocking on them.
“I suppose you and Bertrand want to redo it completely?” he asked, looking at me.
“I don’t know what he wants to do exactly. It was his idea, taking on this place. I wasn’t so hot about coming here. I wanted something more…practical. Something new.”
“But it will be brand-new once we finish it.”
“Maybe. But to me, it will alw ays be Mamé’s apartment.”
The apartment still bore Mamé’s imprint, even if she had moved to a nursing home nine months ago. My husband’s grandmother had lived here for years. I remembered our first encounter, sixteen years back. I had been impressed by the old master paintings, the marble fireplace boasting family photos framed in ornate silver, the deceptively simple, elegant furniture, the numerous books lining the library shelves, the grand piano draped with lush red velvet. The sunny living room gave onto a peaceful inner courtyard with a thick thatch of ivy spreading out on the opposite wall. It was right here that I had met her for the first time, that I had held out my hand to her, awkwardly, not yet at ease with what my sister Charla dubbed “that kissy French thing.”
You didn’t shake a Parisian woman’s hand, even if you were meeting her for the first time. You kissed her once on each cheek. But I hadn’t known that, yet.
The man with the beige raincoat looked at his list again.
“Wait,” he said, “there’s a child missing. A boy.”
He pronounced the boy’s name.
The girl’s heart skipped a beat. The mother glanced toward her daughter. The girl put a swift finger to her lips. A movement the men did not catch.
“Where is the boy?” demanded the man.
The girl stepped forward, wringing her hands.
“My brother is not here, Monsieur,” she said with her perfect French, the French of a native. “He left at the beginning of the month with some friends. To the country.”
The man in the raincoat looked at her thoughtfully. Then he made a quick gesture with his chin to the policeman.
“Search the place. Fast. Maybe the father is hiding, too.”
The policeman lumbered through the rooms, clumsily opening doors, looking under beds, into cupboards.
While he made his noisy way through the apartment, the other man paced the room. When he had his back to them, the girl quickly showed her mother the key. Papa will come up and get him, Papa will come later, she mouthed. Her mother nodded. All right, she seemed to say, I understand where the boy is. But her mother started to frown, to make a key gesture with her hand as if to ask, where will you leave the key for Papa, how will he know where it is? The man turned around swiftly and watched them. The mother froze. The girl trembled with fear.
He stared at them for a while. Then he abruptly closed the window.
“Please,” the mother said, “it’s so hot in here.”
The man smiled. The girl thought she had never seen an uglier smile.
“We keep it closed, Madame,” he said. “Earlier this morning, a lady threw her child out of the window, then jumped. We wouldn’t want that to happen again.”
The mother said nothing, numb with horror. The girl glared at the man, hating him, hating every inch of him. She loathed his florid face, his glistening mouth. The cold, dead look in his eyes. The way he stood there, his legs spread, his felt hat tilted forward, his fat hands locked behind his back.
She hated him with all her might, like she had never hated anyone in her life, more than she hated that awful boy at school, Daniel, who had whispered horrible things to her under his breath, horrible things about her mother’s accent, her father’s accent.
She listened to the policeman continuing his clumsy search. He would not find the boy. The cupboard was too cleverly hidden. The boy would be safe. They would never find him. Never.
The policeman came back. He shrugged, shook his head.
“There is no one here,” he said.
The man in the raincoat pushed the mother toward the door. He asked for the keys to the apartment. She handed them over, silently. They filed down the stairs, their progress slowed by the bags and bundles the mother carried. The girl was thinking fast, how could she get the key to her father? Where could she leave it? With the concierge? Would she be awake at this hour?
Strangely, the concierge was already awake and waiting behind her door. The girl noticed she had an odd, gloating expression on her face. Why did she look like that, the girl wondered, why did she not glance at her mother, or at her, but only at the men, as if she did not want to see her or her mother, as if she had never seen them. And yet her mother had always been kind to this woman. She had looked after the concierge’s baby from time to time, little Suzanne, who often fretted because of stomach pains, and her mother had been so patient, had sung to Suzanne in her native tongue, endlessly, and the baby had loved it, had fallen asleep peacefully.
“Do you know where the father and the son are?” asked the policeman.
He gave her the keys to the apartment.
The concierge shrugged. She still did not look at the girl, at her mother. She pocketed the keys with a swift, hungry movement the girl didn’t like.
“No,” she said to the policeman. “I haven’t seen much of the husband lately. Maybe he’s gone into hiding with the boy. You could look through the cellars or the service rooms on the top floor. I can show you.” The baby in the small loge began to whimper. The concierge looked back over her shoulder.
“We don’t have time,” said the man wearing the raincoat. “We need to move on. We’ll come back later if we have to.”
The concierge went to get the wailing baby and held it to her chest. She said she knew there were other families in the building next door. She pronounced their names with an expression of distaste, thought the girl, as if she was saying a swearword, one of those dirty words you were never supposed to utter.
Bertrand pocketed his phone at last and turned his attention to me. He gave me one of his irresistible grins. Why did I have such an impossibly attractive husband? I wondered for the umpteenth time. When I first met him all those years ago, skiing at Courchevel in the French Alps, he had been the slim, boyish type. Now, at forty-seven, heavier, stronger, he exuded manliness, “Frenchiness,” and class. He was like good wine, maturing with grace and power, whereas I felt certain I had lost my youth somewhere between the Charles River and the Seine and was certainly not blossoming in middle age. If silver hair and wrinkles seemed to highlight Bertrand’s beauty, I felt sure they diminished mine.
“Well?” he said, cupping my ass with a careless, possessive hand, despite his associate and our daughter looking on. “Well, isn’t this great?”
“Great,” echoed Zoë. “Antoine has just told us everything needs to be redone, which means we probably won’t move in for another year.”
Bertrand laughed. An amazingly infectious laugh, a cross between a hyena and a saxophone. That was the problem with my husband. Intoxicating charm. And he loved turning it on full blast. I wondered whom he had inherited it from. His parents, Colette and Edouard? Wildly intelligent, refined, knowledgeable. But not charming. His sisters, Cécile and Laure? Well-bred, brilliant, perfect manners. But they only laughed when they felt they were obliged to. I guessed he probably got it from Mamé. Rebellious, belligerent Mamé.
“Antoine is such a pessimist,” laughed Bertrand. “We’ll be here soon enough. It will be a lot of work, but we’ll get the best teams on it.”
We followed him down the long corridor with creaking floorboards, visiting the bedrooms that gave onto the street.
“This wall needs to go,” Bertrand declared, pointing, and Antoine nodded. “We need to bring the kitchen closer. Otherwise Miss Jarmond here wouldn’t find it ‘practical.’ ”
He said the word in English, looking at me with a naughty wink and drawing little quotation marks with his fingers in the air.
“It’s quite a big apartment,” remarked Antoine. “Rather grand.”
“Now, yes. But it was a lot smaller in the old days, a lot humbler,” said Bertrand. “Times were hard for my grandparents. My grandfather didn’t make good money till the sixties. Then he bought the apartment across the hall and joined the two together.”
“So when Grand-père was a kid, he lived in this small part?” Zoë asked.
“That’s right,” said Bertrand. “This part through here. That was his parents’ room, and he slept here. It was a lot smaller.”
Antoine tapped on the walls thoughtfully.
“Yes, I know what you’re thinking.” Bertrand smiled. “You want to bring these two rooms together, right?”
“Right!” admitted Antoine.
“Not a bad idea. Needs working on, though. There’s a tricky bit of wall here, I’ll show you later. Thick paneling. Pipes and stuff going through. Not as easy as it looks.”
I looked at my watch. Two-thirty.
“I have to go,” I said. “Meeting with Joshua.”
“What do we do with Zoë?” asked Bertrand.
Zoë rolled her eyes.
“I can, like, take a bus back to Montparnasse.”
“What about school?” said Bertrand.
Roll of eyes again.
“Papa! It’s Wednesday. No school on Wednesday afternoons, remember? Bertrand scratched his head.
“In my days it --- ”
“It was on Thursday, no school on Thursdays,” chanted Zoë.
“Ridiculous French educational system,” I sighed. “And school on Saturday mornings to boot!”
Antoine agreed with me. His sons attended a private school where there were no classes on Saturday mornings. But Bertrand --- like his parents --- was a staunch believer in the French public school system. I had wanted to put Zoë in a bilingual school. There were several of them in Paris, but the Tézac tribe would have none of that. Zoë was French, born in France. She would go to a French school. At present she attended the Lycée Montaigne, near the Luxembourg Garden.
The Tézacs kept forgetting Zoë had an American mother. Luckily, Zoë’s English was perfect. I had never spoken anything else to her, and she went often enough to Boston to visit my parents. She spent most summers on Long Island with my sister Charla and her family. Bertrand turned to me. He had that little glint in his eye, the one I felt wary about, the one that meant he was going to be either very funny or very cruel, or both. Antoine obviously knew what it suggested as well, judging from the meek way he plunged into a studious survey of his patent-leather, tasseled loafers.
“Oh, yes indeed, we know what Miss Jarmond thinks of our schools, our hospitals, our endless strikes, our long vacations, our plumbing systems, our postal service, our TV, our politics, our dogshit on the sidewalks,” said Bertrand, flashing his perfect teeth at me. “We have heard about it so many times, so many times, have we not? ‘I like to be in America, everything’s clean in America, everybody picks up dogshit in America!’”
“Papa, stop it, you’re so rude!” Zoë said, taking my hand.
Excerpted from SARAH'S KEY © Copyright 2011 by Tatiana de Rosnay. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved.