Read A Stranger in the Family Online

Authors: Robert Barnard

A Stranger in the Family

A Stranger in the Family

R
OBERT
B
ARNARD

A Stranger in the Family
P
ROLOGUE

 August, 1939

The two children sat almost motionless on their seats as the landscape through the train windows became flatter. They didn’t look at the country they were passing through, perhaps feeling that was somehow dangerous or forbidden. Periodically the girl looked down on her young brother, straightening his clothes, once giving him a smile which was not returned.

When there were sounds of footsteps in the corridor the girl pricked up her ears, and the little boy looked anxiously up at her.

‘It’s all right,’ said the girl, patting his leg. ‘Our papers are all in order. The man who came from Daddy said they were.’ 

‘Why couldn’t Mummy come too?’ the boy
asked, his face crumpled up. ‘It was horrible saying goodbye to her.’

‘I know it was. She’ll come as soon as she can get things settled,’ the girl said carefully. Her words were something decided in advance, said by rote.

‘He’s coming!’ said one of the older boys in the carriage as footsteps were heard from the next compartment.

The door opened and a cheery face with a long nose and ruddy cheeks put his face round the door.

‘What have we here? Eight children with eight tickets and eight sets of papers. How did I guess? Never mind. Now, I’ll never remember your names …’

‘I’m Hilde Greenspan and this is my brother Jürgen,’ said the girl.

‘Is that so? Very nice names too. But I think I’ll do without names for the rest of you. Your papers were seen at Munich or Frankfurt when you boarded the train, were they not? So no need to— Wait a moment: we’re stopping.’

He must have caught the look of panic on the girl’s face because as he retreated to the corridor he turned back.

‘Don’t worry. This happens practically every trip. Routine. I just have to go and say my piece and then we’ll be on our way.’

They heard his footsteps going to the end of the corridor and a window opening, talk beginning. Jürgen looked at his sister pleadingly.

‘It’s all right, little brother. The man smiled at us. Only good people smile at us these days.’

Minutes later the talk stopped and the window was pulled up. No footsteps were heard. Hilde’s face showed that the tension was almost unbearable. Then the train started and slowly, slowly, it went through the station and out to a landscape of flat fields. Only then did the footsteps return. Hilde smiled a strained smile at her brother.

‘Right. That didn’t take long did it?’ said the ticket collector.

‘Why is your voice funny?’ asked the boy called Jürgen.

‘It doesn’t sound funny, I just say sometimes words that you’re not expecting. You see, I don’t talk German. I talk Dutch.’

‘What’s Dutch?’

‘Well, well. How old are you, young man?’

‘I’m three. And four months.’

‘Then you should know that the country next to Germany when you go north is called Holland or else the Netherlands, and the people there are Dutchmen. It’s a bit complicated, isn’t it? You only have one word for your country and its people and somehow we seem to have three.
That’s the last time I say anything good about Germany. But our two languages are very similar and one day we’ll be friends, with God’s help. Anyway, the thing to remember, the important thing, is that now we’re in Dutch territory. Holland.’

The compartment suddenly changed in character. The children, of all ages from three to fifteen, looked at each other, smiled, mouthed a brief prayer, and shuffled in their seats as if before they had been statues, but now had come to life.

‘Thank you so much,’ said Hilde.

‘Nothing to thank me for. Now, Miss Hilde Greenspan, take a good look at my funny face. You might need a bit of help when you get to Waterloo. Try to keep me in view, and if you do need something or want to know something, come and ask me. Right? No need for papers now, but you’ll need them on the boat.’ He started out of the compartment. Then he turned back again.

‘Good luck,’ he said.

The children looked at each other.

‘What a nice man,’ said Hilde. The other children, especially Jürgen, nodded vigorously.

‘I haven’t had a stranger be so nice to me for years,’ said a boy in his teens.

Later, when their papers had been examined
and all had been found in order, Hilde and Jürgen stood on the prow of the ferry taking them away and tried to make their eyes penetrate the sea mist.

‘When are we going home, Hilde?’ asked Jürgen.

‘I think that’s where we are going,’ said Hilde. She strained her eyes still further, as if that would enable her to see the future.

C
HAPTER
O
NE

The Homecoming

2009.

The tall, skinny young man stopped outside the gate of number 35, which he had been aiming for since he came into Seldon Road. By doing a spot of mental arithmetic he had counted the detached and semi-detached houses and fixed on the dark-green painted house, a tacked-on-to, half-timbered building from the Thirties.

He stopped and looked at the front garden. Now he knew he had come to the right place – knew from some memory, or the memory of a picture perhaps. In the centre of the small plot – the real garden was out the back he somehow knew – stood seven or eight rose bushes, in their winter bareness, and around them was a narrow,
neat path of lawn, while bordering the road was a well-clipped hedge.

Very well cared for. A tidy, garden-proud person lived here. One first, new piece of knowledge. Perhaps he remembered it because the house owner was disinclined to change anything. Too busy? Or perhaps just hopeful that …

He shook himself back into consciousness of his situation. He had been here several minutes. He looked around. He caught no one looking at him, but one of the curtains had moved. An old neighbour, perhaps, who remembered when it had happened. Or was that dark event of the past part of the folk memory of the neighbourhood, passed on from the old to each new resident?

He put his hand down and clicked the latch of the gate. It was only a few steps to the front door. He couldn’t say he remembered it, but when he looked down at the bottom panel it said something to him. He mustn’t arouse comment or suspicion by standing there for too long. He rang the bell, which sounded soullessly and electronically through the house.

No footsteps came.

He looked at the lock. An old-fashioned one, a sturdy-key job. He resisted the inclination to look round again to see if he was watched. That could have someone ringing the police. He tried
the handle of the door. It swung open, as if of its own accord, inviting him in. He crossed the threshold.

The beanpole boy shut the door carefully, as if in a dream. He looked around him. The hall was fairly newly decorated, he guessed. A rather indeterminate blue, as if a strong colour would have been too adventurous, a pastel one too old-fashioned. He thought that the woman of the house – that was how he had begun to think of her – was chivvied into having the hall done when it was far gone into shabbiness or decay, but had not put her heart into it.

He passed into the living room. The television was new: one of those widescreen jobs, just like his mother had had. The rug in front of the fireplace was also new – indefinite flowers against unidentifiable leaves. He looked up at the pictures. Photos of present-day young children in colour – children laughing at the photographer, children playing on a sunny beach. A reproduction of a Landseer sheepdog, and an urban landscape by night, with a woman walking beside a wall. They said little to him.

Of course, he didn’t recognise them. A boy of three, as he had been, would have to bend backwards to see them, or lie on the floor, and then they would probably be too distant.

He passed back into the hall, then through
to the kitchen. He was hit by an overwhelming smell. Two smells. He recognised one of them – it was caramelised sugar. Toffee. The other was of a cake – some kind of curranty bun.

He was so rapt in the past that he jumped when the handle of the kitchen door was pulled down. Through the frosted glass he could only see a shape, but he thought it was a woman’s, and was glad.

‘What are you doing in my kitchen?’

There was only a slight quaver in the voice. He said the first thing that came into his head.

‘I thought you wouldn’t mind.’

She looked at him and he looked at her. He would have guessed she was about sixty, but he knew she was several years younger. Her grey hair was pinned back, her face was lined with plenteous wrinkles, her mouth was set as if in a stern, unforgiving line, perhaps to conquer misfortune.

‘You’re not—?’

‘I’m Kit now. Christopher.’

‘But before?’

‘I was Peter before.’

The colour drained from her face. ‘You’re alive!’

 

It was as if they were thinking of what they should do. The young man’s bewilderment was
natural and total, but the woman took some time before she did the right thing, the inevitable thing.

‘Come here,’ she said. And she took him in her arms, he letting out little sobs of pleasure and relief, and she following suit. She only came up to his chest, and when she pushed him away she gave a little laugh.

‘It was a lot easier to hold you when you were a baby!’

He laughed too, and wiped his eyes.

‘I remember your hugs, or I think I do … It’s difficult to say, but I do remember when I had my new … my new mother,’ he said firmly, as if he had taken a resolution, ‘when she hugged me she had make-up on, and at first I didn’t like the smell and took a long time getting used to it.’

‘I never did go in much for make-up.’

‘Eventually I came quite to like it, but I soon got to the age when you don’t like being hugged by your mother, not when there are other people around.’

The woman’s face showed conflicting emotions – jealousy that another woman had enjoyed his childish hugs, pleasure that he had compared those hugs unfavourably with hers, controlled rage that she had been denied all the pleasures of seeing this one of her children grow up.

‘You remembered the hugs, then?’

‘I do now. I suppose I’d forgotten them for a long time. Some memories have been coming back to me in the last few weeks since I learnt who I was. I remembered mostly your legs.’

‘My legs?’

‘Because I was down at their level. You wore sandals all the time – at least during the summer, I suppose.’

‘During that last summer, before …’ She couldn’t say it. ‘It was such a hot one,’ she lamely concluded.

‘I remember Dad’s legs too, with the slippers on his feet. He never put them on properly, and trod the backs down with his heels.’

‘You remember quite a lot,’ she said shyly.

‘Yes. Or maybe I’d just put the images at the back of my mind, and they were waiting for me … waiting for now, I suppose.’

‘Yes. For now.’

‘Is my bedroom the same as it used to be?’

‘You remember it, then?’

‘Yes.’ He stood with his hands nursing his chin. ‘The walls were green, with cut-out pictures pasted on them. I don’t remember what they were, but I think Donald Duck was one. And when I saw
Pinocchio
on television once I recognised the nose. And there was a little rocking chair … Or was that in my other home?’

She walked into the hall, then turned and put out her hand. He came to her and put his hand in hers. It was like being taken to a secret garden, or into a magic wardrobe. Neither said anything, and when they came to the landing his mother dropped his hand and let him choose the door to go through. He did it without hesitation. It was like passing an exam, but a pleasant one. The room hit him hard: it was as if it had been preserved in aspic. The green walls were exactly as when he had last seen them, and so were the pictures pasted on. Now he recognised Noddy, and the seven dwarfs – and there was Donald Duck and Pinocchio. He turned and looked at his mother, he smiling shyly, she with new, sparkling eyes.

‘There’s the rocking chair,’ she said, with a break in her voice.

He walked over and rocked it, and then he found his mother suddenly in his arms again, sobbing and laughing.

‘You’ve come home,’ she said. And he said, perhaps too quickly: ‘Yes, I’ve come home.’

He had known this was what his mother would feel, but he knew it would be some time before he could really share the emotion. Now he had acknowledged it rather than felt it. A stiffening of her body suggested she was acknowledging that too.

‘It’s just as I saw it last time,’ he murmured.

‘I kept it like that, specially.’

‘The last time must have been when we went to … where was it?’

‘Trepalu. It was at Trepalu it happened.’

‘That’s Sicily, isn’t it?’

‘Yes. I had to force myself to go back once. It was hideous. The memories were so bitter.’

The boy nodded, then resumed his scrutiny of the room.

‘It’s like my childhood is here,’ he said. ‘My early childhood.’

‘Yes. You weren’t allowed much of one,’ said his mother. Kit, or Peter, looked at her uncomprehending, then shook his head.

‘Oh, I had a childhood after the one here,’ he said. ‘A happy one too. Only it was very different.’

‘Yes, I see,’ said his mother, vowing to be more careful.

‘You’ve got to understand that my new mother and father were good to me. They saw me as a late gift.’ The woman obviously suppressed a tart comment, perhaps that Kit had been in the nature of a purchase rather than a gift to his second pair of parents. ‘I’m going to have to think what to call you,’ the young man said. ‘“Mother” I don’t much care for. I’ve always used it for the mother who raised me, so it would be confusing. I’m not
keen on “Ma” or “Mum”, though they’re less confusing. What is your Christian name?’

‘Isla. It’s a Scottish name, you know.’

‘Oh, I know. I come from Scotland, remember.’

She looked at him, astonished.

‘But I can’t remember! I never knew.’ Kit shook his head in self-reproach.

‘Of course you didn’t know. But somehow I thought that you did … I was brought up in Glasgow, and I’m going to university at St Andrews now. Perhaps I thought that my accent would give me away.’

‘It’s very slight. Isla is really a river. It’s odd, isn’t it? Like calling a boy “Thames” or “Tyne”. We’re going to have to find out about each other, aren’t we? Come downstairs again. We’ll have something to eat.’

‘I’d like that. Something light.’

When they got down Isla took him into the dining room, the smaller of the two downstairs rooms, with a sturdy table, and photographs again.

‘What would you like? Scrambled eggs? Pasta and cheese? An omelette?’

‘Macaroni cheese sounds good. I can’t manage spaghetti.’

‘Use a spoon in your left hand,’ said his mother promptly, ‘and wind up a forkful against
it. The Italians don’t need a spoon but they’re born to it and we’re not. Not yet anyway.’

Left to himself Kit looked around him. The room was not unlike the living room but less used, less lived in. There were photographs on the bookcase, and in the middle of the table. Kit guessed his mother never used the room when she was on her own. One of the snaps showed a couple of about thirty, another a smart-looking woman in her late twenties, then there were several of children, a fair girl and a dark boy.

None of him.

Until, going to the window to look out, he found one on the window ledge, almost hidden by the curtains. He felt sure it was him. There were some of him at an early age in the photo album at home in Scotland, and they were very similar. Here his childish image looked out at the photographer from a beach (Trepalu?) with a complete confidence and love. He wondered how long it had been before he had felt the same confidence in his new family, the Philipsons.

But it was natural to assume there had been problems of adjustment. No child could experience a complete change of parentage and retain the same confidence that he’d had before. And it was natural, too, that Isla should keep any photograph she had of him in an inconspicuous place. To catch sight of it, to be reminded of
her loss, would be to have a daily dose of pain.

The telephone rang and he hastily put the photograph down, as if he didn’t want to be caught looking at it. But the phone was in the hall, and he heard Isla say: ‘Oh, Micky – I was hoping you’d ring … But you’ll have to make time, Micky … Just ten minutes, I don’t need any more. I’ve got something for you here … Why should I need a reason for getting a surprise for you? Anyway it’s Becky’s birthday soon … Well, three days, three weeks, what does it matter? You can’t collect it, but you must come and inspect it … All right, ten minutes will do. I’ll see you at a quarter to two.’

Kit heard her bustle back to the kitchen, and then there wafted into the dining room a warmth and a smell that had cheese and Italy combined, and made the house suddenly seem home-like.

‘We’ll eat before Micky comes,’ his mother said, bustling back. ‘He’s not interested in food. I say he’d never eat at all if his wife didn’t force it down him. He wouldn’t thank me for saving any for him.’

‘It smells glorious.’

She gestured him to a chair, and began filling two large pasta dishes.

‘I hope you don’t mind me calling you “it” to Micky; I want you to be a total surprise. He’ll be expecting a big parcel with pink bows on it for
Becky. That’s his daughter, the only girl – she’s a real love – more charm than she knows what to do with.’

‘And Micky is—’

‘Oh Lord! You don’t remember? I am sorry. Micky is your elder brother. He was seven when you were born. We all spoilt you because you were a late arrival – unexpected, like.’

‘I think you’d better tell me what family I’ve got,’ said Kit, suddenly nervous. His mother paused in her eating, blaming herself for neglecting such an obvious duty.

‘Two brothers. Micky is twenty-nine, Dan is nineteen. One sister, Maria, is thirty. They all live here in the Leeds area. Dan is in Australia at the moment – seems to be enjoying it, so we won’t be seeing him for a while. Micky lives in Pudsey. I’ve had to help him a bit: he started a family early, got married in a bit of a hurry. Maria lives in Ilkley, married to a man well older than herself, but they’re very happy and have a lovely house.’

Kit suspected a submerged disapproval of her daughter, for marrying age in order to get money.

‘What about my dad?’ he asked.

‘Oh, he’s very sick. Won’t last long. He’s in a home.’

There were several questions to be asked, but Kit took a lightning decision not to ask them. Her answer had been brusque.

‘Well, that brings me up to date,’ he said.

‘And it’s time to tell me about you. Then I won’t make any embarrassing mistakes. Why not start with your name?’

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