Today's Reading

There is a little wooden mannequin that Doctor Pierre Hamelin, Dinon's elderly physician, keeps in the window of his surgery. It looks like the kind of oddity an artist might possess but, according to Pierre, is a traditional teaching aid used by Chinese physicians. Its limbs can be moved into various positions. Pierre uses it to amuse and distract his younger patients.

This morning, when Max cycled past the surgery on his way to the mairie, his customary route, he saw that the mannequin's right arm was raised and the hand positioned as if waving a friendly greeting to passers-by. The figure's coolie hat was tilted at a rakish angle. The mannequin seemed to be smiling, but that was merely one of its tricks—sometimes it smiled, sometimes it frowned, depending on the angle from which it was viewed.

At this early hour Pierre would still be out on his morning calls, so Max continued on to the mairie. It was a normal morning. He tackled the day's crop of mayoral tasks: property disputes between neighbors to resolve, council meetings to plan. Hortense, his secretary, fussed and griped in her usual way about the presence of Egon Wolff a few paces away in his Kommandantur offices on the other side of the mairie's entrance hall.

"He uses the same front door as us, Max, the same entrance hall. There's no getting away from them, these damned Germans. It demeans the mairie, having Wolff there, right next door to us. And it turns my stomach."

"Get used to it, Hortense."

Her nose was in the air, as if a foul odour had offended it. "Never, Max. Never."

A normal morning.

* * *

At lunchtime he retrieved his bicycle from the lane by the mairie. Wolff's aide, smoking a cigarette outside the side door, watched him. Max paid him no heed; there was always a German somewhere, watching.

It was by now the hottest part of the day. Dogs slept in any patches of shade they could find. The sun beat down on the almost-empty streets, where there were more Germans to be seen than ordinary Dinonnais. Some of the Germans were on patrol duty and some were just passing time. Local people had more sense than to be out in such temperatures, while the Germans had no choice if they were on duty or at leisure away from their barracks—apart from the choice they had made when they marched into France in the first place.

A young trooper was trying to make the most of the shallow strip of shade cast by the surgery building. It achieved little for him. He was turned out in full kit of helmet, boots and gaiters, his belt and webbing heavy with ammunition pack, pistol and other equipment. His Wehrmacht uniform of gray serge—feldgrau, the Germans called it; field gray—was damp with sweat, his face and neck also streaming with sweat. His rifle seemed too big for him. He looked as if he might collapse at any moment.

Max arrived just as Pierre was propping his bicycle against the wall. A stooped figure, as reassuringly white haired and wise looking as any medical man could be, the very sight of Pierre was enough to restore the feeble and ailing. He was Dinon's bulwark against illnesses and contagions, its revered healer of farming mishaps.

There was movement behind the window of the surgery, the window where the mannequin stood. Patients were waiting, which obliged Pierre and Max to conduct their business out of doors—with care, because, overheated as the trooper was, he still had ears. And Max and Pierre both knew never to assume the Germans had no French.

"This weather," puffed the doctor as he glanced at Max. "Bizarre, a heatwave. When will it end, I wonder."

He produced a handkerchief and mopped his brow, then crossed the pavement and shook Max's hand. Neither of them showed any awareness of the young German.

"You know what, Max—I've had three patients with heatstroke this morning. All in a single morning."

"Unfortunate," said Max. "When will you next see them?"

A shrug, a shake of Pierre's white head. "As soon as possible, but I can't be certain. Could be as early as tonight. As always, it depends on many factors."

"They'll need medicine."

"Oh, indeed they will. I've already let Juliette know."

This being Juliette Labarthe, pharmacist and proprietor of Dinon's pharmacy.

"Perhaps they'll need further prescriptions."

"Certainly, they will. All three of them."

"Otherwise, they're in good health?"

"Perfect health, thankfully."

They chatted for a minute longer, mostly about the exhausting weather, then Max cycled off.

So. Three. Possibly as early as that night.

* * *

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