It is stultifyingly hot. The open sewers send out their familiar stench around the grand boulevards, normally long abandoned by the wealthy and landed during the warmer months in favour of the coast. But this is not a normal year.
The couturier is remembering how a little over 3 years ago he would’ve been enjoying a glass of wine on a terrace in Brittany, far away from the concerns of work. But that was Before, and Now is very different. Things had not been the same since May the previous year. Many of his clients, the elegant ladies who occupied the coveted residences in the 8th arrondissement had gone, mostly to Vichy but in some cases to London or America. Others had all but disappeared entirely and he didn’t like to think about where they’d gone. People talked in hushed tones of trains to mysterious places eastwards with unpronounceable names from which there was no return. In quiet moments in between work when his mind would wander, he quickly dismissed these kinds of thoughts. It wouldn’t do any good thinking like that, he thought, and besides he had too much to do.
He had actually never been busier, hence why he remained in the capital through the notoriously maddening summer heat. The wives, girlfriends and mistresses of the Nazi officers and Gestapo needed garments, almost more than he could keep up with. They had plenty of money, maybe even too much he thought. These men would swan into his studio with strikingly pretty girls, often half their age, purchasing yard upon yard of the finest silks, taffeta, tulle and lace, and wanting them to leave dressed like Gene Tierney or Lana Turner. Paris was not Berlin; These men wanted glamour and escapism now that they’d finally taken the city and were far enough away from home to enjoy themselves. And, he thought, we are still the centre of fashion, war or not. People still had parties to attend, champagne to consume and ill-advised dalliances to involve themselves in.
The couturier’s business was booming. He had money to spare. He had even been able to send his wife and son away to Biarritz with his mother in law for the summer while he cleared a backlog of orders with the small group of seamstresses who had remained after the occupation began. Then why, he pondered as he sat in the cafe across the road nursing a small glass of red with lunch, did he feel so… uncomfortable about it all. Things had become calmer, there was an air of normality after a year of seeing fighting and tanks and bodies in the streets. This was the new normal. This was regular. He did not necessarily enjoy the presence of the new owners, however. He was often greeted in the morning by young men with guns demanding to see identification. He sometimes saw neighbours being taken away by men in black trench coats and sometimes he wouldn’t see them again.
A few days after his family had left for the coast, he had left his apartment to go to work, turned a corner and saw a boy hanging from a lamppost. He couldn’t have been older than 16. He had a sign in German around his neck that read “Verräter des volkes”. The couturier had witnessed him having a scuffle with some younger infantry soldiers who had been drinking and harassing the locals a few nights earlier. After the boy had refused to heil, there were insults thrown and spitting. He had kept well out of it, crossing the street and walking faster to get away from the unpleasantness. And then there the boy was, swinging heavily in the breeze, another life gone. The couturier flitted between thinking the response was heavy-handed and then believing the young man had been in some way responsible for his fate. Who antagonises Nazi soldiers, he thought. Couldn’t he just have been grateful that peace of a kind had come over the city? That the food shortages were mostly over and it was safe to have a modicum of enjoyment in life again? Yes, he thought, that young man was unwise and maybe others wouldn’t be so foolish now.
He realised later it was this encounter that started all the strangeness.
The first time was whilst attending a regular client in his salon, the much younger mistress of one of the elder Sturmbahnfuhrer who was based in the west of the city, heading up a task force concerned with unearthing communists and other undesirables who were yet to flee or be shot. The couturier assumed he was at least 55 but behaved as if he were half that, spending much of his time in the Soldatenkaffee in le place de la Madeleine, drinking bad overpriced wine, gambling and cheating the junior officers out of their money and possessions with childish wagers. This was where, he and his staff were told by the svelte bottle blonde from Reims who couldn’t have been more than 20, she had met the Sturmbahnfuhrer. She had lost a bet to balance a saucerful of champagne on her head whilst singing La Marseillaise and woke up in the morning in the Sturmbahnfuhrer’s bed. Romantic, he chuckled to himself inside. The seamstresses in the studio giggled and clapped at her lascivious stories whilst measuring and pinning yards of peach satin to her. She had bought a picture with her of the movie star Joan Fontaine; “Make me look American! Gerhardt says American girls are the most beautiful and glamorous in the world. Did you know they bleach and shave their cunts??” More clapping and laughter.
It was then that something peculiar caught the couturier’s eye. He was holding up a selection of lace for the hem in the large 3-way mirror and the late afternoon sun was beaming across the salon. There was a space in the top right corner of the room that looked off somehow. He stared for a few seconds. Despite the heavy summer heat, the room seemed cold suddenly. A chill went down his arm and he felt something grip his wrist. He looked down and there was no one there, but still he felt the grip getting tighter and tighter, so tight in fact he dropped his large, heavy sheers on to his foot. The seamstress kneeling to his right jumped backwards with shock but the courtier just stood there, despite the shears sticking into his foot and gushing blood. The others screamed and fetched towels, brandy and bandages, but he couldn’t move. He was staring at the mirror. And there he was; the lamppost boy, gripping on to his wrist, his face twisted in fear, pain and horror. One of his eyes bulged out of his caved in skull, blood crusted around his mouth which was fixed into a soundless scream. He was staring up at him, pleading. No one else in the room could see him.
It was only when his pattern cutter finally managed to get him to sit down did the vision disappear. The staff bandaged his foot and helped him recover from the shock. It was quite peculiar, one of them commented. Had he felt ill, another enquired. As his head began to quieten, he noticed the yards of peach satin, the most exquisite available anywhere at that time and in limited supply, were splattered with his blood and completely ruined. The girl, the customer he had almost forgotten about, stood there trembling. And then she began to shout. His ears were ringing from shock and he could hear nothing, which was just as well as the language she used was obscene he was told by the staff later. She stormed out of the salon half crying, half swearing, while staff apologised and promised her it wouldn’t happen again. Not knowing what to make of what he had experienced, the couturier dismissed his staff for the rest of the day. He needed to go home, he said. No need to worry, he said, they would be back to work tomorrow.
After the salon was empty of life, he locked up and left, scurrying quickly back to his home. He was covered in cold sweat and limping. When he finally arrived at his apartment, he opened some wine and examined the damage to his foot. The wound looked dramatic but could’ve been much worse. He was more concerned about potential damage to his reputation. Things were going too well and he was making too much money from the Germans to allow some silly hallucination to ruin business. Pull yourself together, he thought. You’ve not been sleeping enough, get some rest, he told himself. But the part of his brain that thought of trains to unknown places, to bodies in the street and disappeared neighbours could not unfix from what he had seen. No amount of cognac could wipe the sensation from his mind and he couldn’t sleep. Nor the following night. Nor the night after. A week went by and still sleep would not come. In the dead of night, he would pace around his apartment, hoping the gentle exertion would allow sleep to come, but it did not. The visions however did come, thick and fast. The boy appeared again, this time at his kitchen table at 3am, trying to pick up fruit and bread and shove it into his terrifying frozen bloody mouth. The third time he saw him was in his bathroom; the boy was opening bottles and rifling through cupboards. The fourth time was outside the boulangerie first thing in the morning; this time observing the customers queuing for bread. After that, there were others; men and women, young and old, each trying to undertake the normal tasks of life but seemingly unaware of their condition, their grey and bloodied faces carrying the horrible ends they had reached. Each one silent. He tried to ignore them, then he tried reasoning with them. He wanted to know what they wanted but they could not tell him. The couturier started to feel ill.
After 2 weeks, he went to see the apothecary who prescribed him laudanum. He told the couturier he was stressed and overworked and to take time off. He thanked him but ignored his advice. Time off for what exactly, he thought. Although word had got round about the strange incident in the salon, he still had customers, albeit far fewer and certainly not the German ones. Fewer still came as the couturier started to stop turning up with his usual regularity, and when he did he was gaunt, uncommunicative and strange. He mumbled and shuffled and seemed to care less and less about his work. Money became tighter and he had to let one of the seamstresses go. The second went of her own volition after witnessing the couturier weeping and begging at thin air to leave him alone. The pattern cutter took another job for less money; partly out of want of work and partly out of fear. The last to go, his assistant who handled the salon front of house, merely left a note apologising that she was unable to return with vague talk of a sick relative.
It was then he stopped leaving the apartment altogether and the few friends he had stopped calling by. This was fine, he thought, he had all the company he needed. The dead were everywhere now; in his kitchen, on his balcony, sometimes in his bedroom. Some had holes in their heads, others broken bones they could barely stand on. One elderly woman was missing her jaw bone, a small child had a broken spine, others were burnt or impaled or simply shot in the skull or the chest. They were so many and so frequent their horrible visages ceased to shock him. This was his new normal, he thought, and it was fine. At least it was quiet.