Authors: Aleksandr Voinov
When he sang his new
at the Palace, the applause wouldn’t stop. After a while, it sounded like rain, like one of those endless rains after a heat wave, the kind of downpour that washes the air clean and soothes one’s skin. And just like rain, it too sometimes hit a rhythm like a strong wind driving thick raindrops along the streets, painting shapes on the wet pavement.
Yves noticed he’d been holding tension in his body and, gradually, relaxed, though he found it hard in the face of such an enthusiastic standing ovation, everyone staring at him as if expecting more when he had nothing more to give. He bowed, took a deep breath, and shared the applause with his partner, a very pretty singer and dancer named Josette.
Josette had been the star of the last season, and Maurice had hoped to build something with her—ideally a long career in the same vein as La Miss, as unlikely as that was. Teaming Yves up with her had made perfect sense; it launched Yves to the act at the top of the bill with a partner who was just as up and coming as he was, only better established. That Josette wasn’t a diva made it even easier. Yves had found her charming and professional during rehearsals and admired her work ethic. She wasn’t satisfied until they could have done the number in their sleep.
For the show, they’d turned
into a duet, and now the audience was clearly demanding a repeat. Yves nodded to Josette, and they took up their positions, half-facing each other, while the orchestra struck up the tune. The house fell silent, and Yves’s world shrunk down to his breath and Josette, their studied movements and adoring glances. Josette couldn’t have been any more different from Falk, but he was able to fool himself into actually believing that it was meant for her, or somebody like her. He admired what her voice with did with the melody—she could sound girlish and clear or husky and sensuous, and up on the stage, in her costumes and makeup, she was stunning. He’d seen her tousled and sweaty and frustrated, frowning as she went through her steps, intensely focused, and saw only the beauty of complete dedication.
They finished the song, clasping each other’s hands, and delayed looking back to the audience, like true lovers might. Only when the applause washed over them again did they fully turn toward it. And even then, he still wanted to flee the stage. Madeleine had always told him that after everything he’d given onstage, this was the audience’s turn. They wanted to show their appreciation and love, and he had to accept it on their terms, even though all of his focus was on the performance, and that was over. Once he’d sung the last note, there was nothing else he could do. Passively accepting thanks and adulation was maybe the hardest thing about his profession.
They gave another encore, one of her songs and one of his, and afterward, Yves felt that shift in the audience very clearly. They adored her, no doubt, and were halfway in love with her. But they were truly, passionately, in love with him just then. He could feel it in the way his heart hammered inside his chest.
In all, they gave five encores, and even then the audience let them go only reluctantly.
After a couple of weeks, it was clear they had a major hit on their hands. The papers were complimentary, “We do wonder where
Lacroix has been hiding that sparkling voice,” wrote one, as if Yves had never sung in Paris before. Another commented that, “Lacroix has at last matured into a fine artist you won’t regret seeing.” But, more importantly, every seat in the house was booked, and everybody showed up, too. And though Yves recoiled in horror at the weight of all that expectation,
never failed to garner them the same rapturous applause and demands for more.
The show evolved as they all applied little tweaks and improvements until Yves felt he controlled every sound, gesture, and step. If he failed, that was his own fault. Offstage, he was at the mercy of others, and sometimes he wished he’d never stop singing, would never have to leave the stage.
It came as a pleasant shock when a representative from Pathé invited him to record in their Parisian studio. Showing up at ten in the morning didn’t particularly suit him, but what they had in mind was to cut several records—all of his most popular songs. They recorded three versions of
and threw two away after no discussion whatsoever about which one was the best.
After recording all the others, they still had time left, and Yves sang
, a melancholy tune that lived off the undercurrent of defiant hope. It had begun as yet another story inspired by Falk, but Yves had grabbed it with both hands and turned it forcibly around so it would be interpreted as being dedicated to a prisoner-of-war, most of whom still hadn’t returned from Germany. Some lines, he almost thought he was singing for a younger version of himself: one who had believed that fighting would never break out, that the Nazis were merely posturing, and that being at the front meant writing poetry and singing at officers’ parties. Or maybe he was singing it for the comrades who’d gone into battle with him and whose dead bodies bore no resemblance to their laughing, joyful memory. Singing it here, in front of its first audience outside Maurice and Jean-Michel, made Yves tear up, and he was grateful his voice didn’t falter.
After the recording, one of the technicians and two of the musicians approached him and asked for autographs. This was one of the strange things about fame—Maurice had him photographed, and now they sold those as postcards at kiosks, alongside film stars and pornographic images. And invariably, when somebody asked for an autograph, he had to borrow a pen, because he forgot to carry one when he left the house. Strangest of all was that whoever asked for an autograph didn’t seem to be disappointed after meeting him. They just smiled and expressed how much it meant to them. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Yves always suspected they thought he was somebody else.
* * *
Falk was waiting in his flat when he came home. He’d taken to changing into civilian clothes after duty, maybe to avert scandal, maybe to fit in better—or maybe, Yves thought as he quietly closed the door and regarded the sleeping man on his sofa, because the war was wearing on him.
He approached quietly, switched on a desk lamp, and noticed that Falk must have been writing. Falk was still writing poetry, which he occasionally shared with Yves. The chair sat pulled away from the desk, his notebook open, a capped pen at its side. Falk was lying on his back, arms crossed in front of his chest, shoes off, but otherwise fully dressed.
He could’ve been wrong, but Yves thought Falk didn’t appear quite so fresh-faced anymore, not so boyish. In fact, he seemed to have grown considerably in the months since they’d met. Not physically—Yves very much doubted he could become any stronger or more manly—but something about him had become settled and centered. And though his face was peaceful and painfully handsome in his sleep, Yves could make out a new depth to him.
As Yves touched his shoulder, Falk awoke and sat up so abruptly that the sofa underneath him groaned.
“I fell asleep.”
“Looks like it.” Yves smiled. “Coffee?”
Falk nodded and rubbed his face.
In the kitchen, Yves could hear him move about in the flat, to the bathroom and then, after a little while, into the kitchen. His blond hair was wet and looked freshly combed. Yves poured the coffee through a filter into cups. “Tired?”
Falk nodded and took the cup, settling in on Yves’s chair at the table. It was the one with the back to the window, the one facing the door. He held the cup with one hand and spread the other, studying his knuckles and fingers. His eyebrows were drawn together. “I shot a man today.”
Yves’s cup clinked loudly on his saucer. He’d never asked what Falk did. Those were orders, he’d told himself. Even Heinrich had orders. It kept him from worrying about his own guilt for considering both of them human beings rather than enemies. “In Paris?”
Falk nodded, closed his hand, and opened it again, turning it now to regard the palm. With a sigh, he dropped it on the table surface. “He was a deserter.”
Yves drew a shaky breath. “One of your own.”
Falk shrugged. “Or one of yours. He wanted to stay. He had a girl.”
Yves’s heart constricted. It took him a few moments to realize that that the feeling was pity. “And they caught him?” And what of his girl? Had she cried? Screamed? For a German lover?
Falk frowned again. “Yes. After three weeks. Hiding in a cellar, like a rat.” He shook his head. “What did he think would happen?”
“Not that.” Yves swallowed against the tightness in his throat. “How do you feel?”
Falk looked up at Yves now, met his gaze. His eyes were unsteady, questioning, hurt. “He was a good comrade.”
The tightness spread inside Yves’s body, sunk lower like nausea. There was nothing he could say. Shooting a friend? How could a man do that?
“I didn’t want to take part.” Falk pressed his lips together. “But I’m a good shooter. He was ordered to die. Somebody had to do it. I needed to make sure he goes quickly and cleanly.” His voice shook. “My bullet killed him.”
Yves stood. “You can’t know that. You could have shot a blank.”
Falk looked up at him. His eyes seemed reddened. He must have cried, and seemed on the verge of it again. “Blanks feel different. Less recoil.”
“You might still have missed.”
“No. I know. I know it right here.” He touched his heart. “Sometimes you just know.”
And whether that was the truth or whether Falk was merely convinced of it didn’t make the least bit of difference. He looked miserable now, and Yves put his hand on Falk’s shoulder. Maybe that was the reason Falk was wearing civilian clothes—maybe today that uniform had become abhorrent even to a German.
“All he did was fall in love.” Falk bit his lip. “He wasn’t a coward. He was just in love.”
Yves pressed Falk’s shoulder. “Did you know him well?”
“He was from somewhere close. Close to home. The next village. It gave us something to talk about outside duty.” Falk’s jaw muscles tightened visibly. “They asked me if I knew where he was.”
“I didn’t know. And I wouldn’t have told them. Running away was his risk, not mine.” Falk shrank in on himself, curved his back as if in pain or expecting a blow from outside. “Because I know.”
Yves got even closer, now brushing him, and he felt Falk leaning against him. “Know?”
“I know what he felt like.” Falk shook his head. “It’s crazy.”
His heart now beating in his throat, Yves touched Falk’s cheek, gently pulling his head toward him. “You were thinking of deserting?”
No response. Yves wasn’t sure he wanted one. He knew what they had, but he still couldn’t plan for the future. Just a few months ago, the Germans had seemed super-human, invincible. Now they had lost an entire army and surrendered in North Africa. For a fleeting moment, it had almost seemed possible for life in Paris to return to normal—or at least some version of it—but just as soon everything again spiraled out of control.
“Because, if you do . . .” Yves crouched down to be at eye level with Falk. “I might be able to help.”
“Papers. Money. A way out. Everything you need.”
Falk studied his face, seemed to look for something, and then smiled a little. “I don’t want to dishonor—” His voice roughened, and he cleared his throat. Yves fully expected to hear the usual propaganda, and sometimes he envied the German his faith. Maybe it sprang from growing up in a nation that hadn’t been broken for a generation. One that had pulled itself together from defeat and now truly believed in its own destiny—believed so much, in fact, that it was hard to resist that same belief. “Dishonor you.”
“Me? I don’t expect you to be . . .” Ah, God, but Falk was speaking of one of his favorite things—knights and their ladies. Half his poems were about that. “Falk. I’m not like a noble lady. I don’t want a knight.”
Falk blinked. This was the first time they had talked about what they actually wanted. Speaking so bluntly and clearly was almost a shock, but the relief was greater than even the awareness of risk, or how limited their shared language was. “What do you want?”
“I . . .” Yves groped for an answer. Just a little while ago, he’d have said all he wanted was to sing, sing until he couldn’t anymore, until the world ended and singing itself became impossible. Singing, at least, wasn’t silence, wasn’t ducking away and wanting to hide or die in a hole so he’d never again have to face tomorrow. Singing meant, above all, breathing. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”
Falk drew him into a hug. Yves felt Falk’s raw strength envelop him—but it didn’t stifle. “Nobody will ever hurt you while I’m here.”
“I know.” Trouble, was, of course, that even Falk’s loyalty and love wouldn’t be able to change destiny. And in the big picture, technically, they were still enemies, even if Falk had chosen to not wear his uniform.
The change came without warning. Suddenly, there were fans everywhere. When he left the Palace, outside the restaurants where he ate, and even outside his flat.
There had always been the odd fan who asked for an autograph, or those who stood nearby and watched him, smiling, but didn’t approach. At first, he’d found them odd, even unpleasant, until he realized they were simply too shy to cope with him in the flesh as opposed to just his voice, safely banished on a record or on stage. He tried his best to acknowledge them, took his time signing for them, and apologized if he was in a rush to get somewhere.
Whenever he felt overwhelmed by the attention, he forced himself to look at them as individuals, focusing on one at a time. Many looked haggard and gray-faced, and many wore mended clothes or looked like they needed several warm meals to revive them. Despite that, their eyes were full of life and passion when looking at him, when calling his name, or when he acknowledged them.
After each encounter, Yves felt both invigorated and drained. This passion made him soar and work harder, because he was giving something to those people, and they surrendered to the music just like he did, if in a different way. If there was no other hope, his voice at least gave them a little sunshine, and that was what they paid for when they bought the record.
flew off the shelves, and after the first few weeks, Pathé called excitedly about the numbers. Yves had to sit down when they told him that ten thousand records had been sold already, and they’d barely managed to produce enough to satisfy demand, which showed no sign of slowing down. Considering his royalty share, he could expect a very handsome amount.
And the miracles didn’t cease there. Maurice called him into his office one day before the show, looking serious, and Yves felt his stomach flip.
“Sit down.” Maurice pointed at a chair.
Yves obeyed, mind racing through all the possible reasons Maurice might be upset with him. Yes, several other establishments had asked whether Yves would sing for them, and he’d been polite to not burn his bridges, but hadn’t committed to anything but the occasional private party or gala. Part of him hoped the show at the Palace would soon run its course. There were so many offers out there that singing just for one place seemed like putting all his eggs into one basket. But he’d behaved impeccably. Had shown up on time and given his best, night after night. That couldn’t be the reason why Maurice had commanded him here.
“How are you feeling?”
“A little nervous now.” Yves tried a smile. “What’s wrong?”
“We need to talk about your contract.” Maurice picked it up from his desk, took it in both hands, and then ripped it, dropping the shreds into his waste basket.
“What was that for? Are you firing me?”
Maurice pulled a drawer, produced two new documents, and handed one of them to Yves, along with a pen he uncapped for him. “Have a look.”
Yves read through the paperwork. It sounded just like the previous contract. Even the duration was the same. What was radically different was his fee. “Why are you paying me more than double?” He reached for the pen, suspicious and chiding himself for even a moment’s hesitation.
“You’ll see that it’s retroactive.” Maurice pulled something else from the desk drawer. It was a check. Yves’s head swam at the amount written on it. “The show made twice the money I was expecting. And no doubt because of you.”
“Josette is very good, too. It’s not all my doing.”
“That’s not what I’m hearing. She’s holding her own against you, and she’ll be a star yet. But you are a phenomenon.” Maurice pointed at the contract. “You’ll also see that you’re getting a share of the takings every night. It’s not quite a Chevalier deal, but then, you’re not Chevalier.”
“No, I’m not.” Yves hurried to sign the contract and signed the other one too when Maurice offered the second copy. “What about the others?”
“They’ll get a raise too.” Maurice blew on the ink and locked one of the contracts away, then handed Yves the check. “After I’m done with you.”
Yves chuckled, though still somewhat nervously. “You’re not exactly known to throw money away.”
“No, I consider myself a shrewd businessman.” Maurice eyed him closely. “So I need to retain key talent. Especially when there’s so much competition.”
“I haven’t signed with anybody else.”
“Yes, but if I kept you on for the previous amount, you’d end up resenting me when people start offering you more than that.” Maurice gestured toward the check. “That’s the price I’m willing to pay to ensure that you don’t.”
Yves glanced at the six figures, and he placed it carefully in his jacket pocket as if it could bite him and escape. “Resent you after everything you’ve done for me?”
“Like dragging you from those awful dumps against your will? Teaming you up with some of the best songwriters left in Paris? Giving you top billing when I could have my pick of stars?” Maurice nodded with considerable gravity. “And don’t you forget it.”
Maurice’s stern façade cracked just then and he winked. “And there’s more money coming your way. Radio Paris is desperate for your voice. They keep sending people over to convince you.”
Yves took a deep breath. “But they—”
“I know they are in the Germans’ pocket. But they have all the big stars. Everybody has sung on Radio Paris, and they’re paying very, very well. Take the money, my boy, while your talent is so hot and people want you so urgently.” A wink punctuated the innuendo, and Yves couldn’t help but chuckle.
* * *
“I’m glad you could make it.” René Marchand shook his hand and led him into the recording studio. Quite to the contrary of what Yves had feared, there were no German uniforms anywhere in the radio station, just polite Frenchmen and women who treated Yves like royalty.
“I’m sorry it took a while.” Yves signed a photo of himself for a waiting fan. “We’re working on the next show—long hours. I sometimes get sick of the sound of my own voice.”
“Unbelievable.” René beamed. “When I heard you at the embassy, I knew we simply had to have you.”
“I’m flattered.” Yves smiled, but somewhere inside, he recoiled. Such an expression held too many barbs in a radio station that was entirely beholden to the Germans. Singing for an audience he didn’t control was one thing, singing in the outright pay of the enemy another. Though he had probably crossed that bridge when he’d agreed to sing at the embassy. “I did keep your card; I was just busy. I apologize.”
“Ah, but not at all.” René touched his arm. “Shall we get you ready for the session?”
Yves agreed, glad he could concentrate on the task at hand. In this room, with this same microphone and technicians, just about every star of any stature had sung. It was the one station with real popularity because it had the best music. The tiresome German propaganda that came with it was merely the price people paid. And unlike the BBC broadcasts, listening to it wasn’t punishable by death.
Yves didn’t listen to it. He didn’t believe the British, either. Besides, rumor quickly spread the most important news. As the year progressed, the Germans looked increasingly beatable; likely the reason why there were so many acts of sabotage these days (also punishable by death). The more vulnerable the conquerors looked, the more people seemed to itch to prove that they truly were vulnerable. Like a child prodding a dying feral beast with a stick.
But as reports of sabotage increased, so did the number of posters announcing that hostages had been killed in retribution. Such acts had been unimaginable a year ago, but no longer seemed so monstrous, largely because they happened so often.
Yves had to force himself to not care. In the restaurants and onstage, it was easy to pretend life was normal. Whenever he had too much time to worry about it, he dove back into his work, watching the shows of the great performers, studying their strengths and faults.
And when these distractions failed, he’d work on new routines and songs with Jean-Michel. Pathé, after selling more than fifty thousand records of
, as well as respectable amounts of the others, couldn’t wait to get him back to cut more sides. That filled a few days as well. Maurice’s advice had been sound—he could at least make money while people loved him, for nobody knew what the future would bring.