Authors: Joanna Rees
For my sister, Catherine
East Germany, 1971
The grubby white Trabant pulled to a stop in the forest, the shuddering brakes sending a flurry of birds screeching into the night sky. When the noisy engine cut, a cloak of
inky silence descended once again.
Inside the car, Sebastian Trost kept the lights on, illuminating the frozen track ahead, which disappeared deeper into the forest. There was no moon tonight and a light snow had started to
Sebastian had hunted here with his father as a boy and knew this seldom-used route to the outskirts of Schwedt on the Polish border well, but in the dark the familiar woods felt hostile and he
wished again that he was back home in his apartment.
He cupped his hands and blew on them, trying to get some warmth into them after the long drive, then stole another glance in the rear-view mirror.
Volkmar, his boss, sat behind him with his hat pulled down low. Sebastian had heard whispered stories at the steel factory where he worked about how Volkmar’s family had been imprisoned
and tortured by the Stasi, and that Volkmar himself had been born in jail. His face was thin and rat-like. The face of a man who would do whatever it took to get by.
Sebastian had only been Volkmar’s driver for two weeks – recruited against his will after he’d witnessed Volkmar stabbing a man in the loading dock at the steel works.
Sebastian, fearing for his own life, had looked the other way. He knew the score only too well. If he kept his mouth shut, then his family would live.
Sebastian sparked up a cigarette, trying to cover up his shaking hands. He glanced in the rear-view mirror again, this time looking down towards Volkmar’s right.
On the back seat next to Volkmar was a bread crate containing two sleeping babies, each one bundled up in a crudely knitted blanket. With a stab of guilt, Sebastian wondered how long it would
take his wife, Martina, to notice that those precious blankets had gone. He remembered his own sons and how they’d been wrapped in those very blankets as babies.
‘Where the hell is Solya’s man? He should have been here,’ Volkmar said, checking his watch, before taking a pistol from inside his coat pocket and weighing it in his hand.
The most feared man around. Even to know his name would mean a brutal execution for Sebastian and his family at the hands of the Stasi.
Sebastian forced the thought away. Instead, he thought of Martina at home and the rabbit stew she had prepared for him. He tried to imagine sleeping beneath the fur throw on their hard bunk
later on, his hand cupped around her ample breast. How he’d match his breathing to hers. How he’d never tell her that he’d come here tonight. Or why.
But try as he might to think of other things, the same questions kept queuing up in Sebastian’s head, as he stared out into the tunnel of snow. Where were the babies from? Who were their
mothers? How had Volkmar come to be in possession of the two of them?
One of the babies snuffled and stirred. A soft mewling sound that wrenched Sebastian’s heart.
‘What?’ Volkmar growled impatiently, as if sensing his unease.
‘I was . . . I was thinking . . . Where will they go?’ Sebastian asked, trying to make it sound as if he was interested, and not terrified at being complicit in all of this.
‘What does it matter? I get a thousand marks for each one,’ Volkmar said. ‘But it is rumoured one child is destined for America.’
Sebastian heard a flash of pride in his tone. ‘Don’t they have enough babies of their own in America?’
‘Not anonymous ones. Not ones that look small like these, with no paperwork and no past,’ Volkmar said.
‘And the other one?’
Volkmar shrugged and, in his dark look in the mirror, Sebastian understood the fate of the other child. He’d heard that Solya’s underground network was linked to Bolkav, the
orphanage in the hills, a place shrouded in secrecy, where many children went in, but few ever came out. Sebastian had heard talk in the clocking-out room at the steel works of some of the orphans
ending up in films. Horrible, sick and violent films that would haunt a man forever.
If that was one of the children’s fate, then tonight would probably be the only taste of freedom she would ever know.
Lights appeared through the trees ahead. Sebastian blinked, blinded by them as they drew up closer and an old Mercedes ground to a halt on the track ahead. Only then did the
Sebastian felt Volkmar’s pistol barrel jabbing into the back of his seat.
‘Get out and help me with the crate,’ he said.
Sebastian hurried to do what he was told. The quicker this was over, the better.
Outside it was no colder than inside the car, but the conspiratorial silence of the forest made Sebastian shudder. Compared to the town in which he lived, where the air was always acrid with
industrial smog, here the air was penetratingly clear and he felt all his senses on alert. Peering into the darkness of the stationary Mercedes, he could make out the silhouettes of two men.
He dropped his cigarette on the ground, where it hissed in the fresh dusting of snow, and quickly opened the back door of the Trabant and lifted out the crate, instinctively holding the babies
close to protect them.
Then he heard the slam of car doors. Turning, he saw two men walking towards them. One was huge – a great bear of a man with a black beard. The other was wearing a long leather coat.
Sebastian saw that he was young, in his early thirties at most, and was broad-shouldered and athletic-looking, with cropped blond hair. He might have been called handsome, had it not been for his
pale-blue eyes. They were predator’s eyes, as if, given half a chance, he’d strip the meat from your bones and leave them to bleach in the sun.
‘Solya,’ Volkmar said, stepping up beside Sebastian. ‘I wasn’t expecting you.’
Sebastian felt his throat constrict with fear.
‘Volkmar, old friend,’ the smaller man – Solya – said, spreading his arm out wide and stepping forward to hug Volkmar. His teeth, Sebastian noticed, were perfectly white.
‘You have them for me?’ he asked, pulling back and altering the cuff of his coat to reveal a thick gold bracelet.
‘Yes. They are both here. As you requested,’ Volkmar said, nodding to Sebastian, who stepped forward, holding the crate as if he was proffering bread rolls to be inspected.
Solya’s pale eyes glinted as he looked down at the babies. ‘Good.’ He smiled. From inside his coat he produced a clean white envelope. He pressed it to Volkmar’s chest.
Sebastian saw the edges of a stack of crisp bank notes inside its open flap.
Then Solya raised one gloved hand to his minder behind him. ‘The vodka, Udo,’ he said, waggling two fingers in command. ‘For our friend.’
Solya handed Volkmar the bottle that Udo passed him. A black glove against a silver label.
‘As a gesture of goodwill,’ he said.
‘Thank you. Thank you, sir,’ Volkmar told the younger man, taking it and curtly bowing his head.
Solya clicked his lips and then turned towards Sebastian. Two dewy rosebud noses poked out from the top of the green and yellow blankets that Martina had made all those years ago.
‘So which one shall it be?’ Solya said in his Berlin accent. The lightness of his tone made it seem as if this were all a joke. ‘Because, in fact, I think both are adequately
small for the purpose. You choose,’ he said, his eyes locking on Sebastian’s. He took a coin from his pocket and flipped it up in the air, catching it and slapping it onto the back of
his hand. ‘Which one of these sisters should have the good life? And which the bad?’
Nobody had told Sebastian anything about the babies being sisters. Somehow that very fact made this all so much worse. Sisters born so close together in age – no mother
could bear such a loss.
Sebastian felt his heart begin to hammer. Solya cocked his head to one side as if he could almost hear the noise. His ice-blue eyes seemed to pierce Sebastian’s soul and he knew with
absolute certainty then that this man was a devil and that he, Sebastian, was damned.
He stared down at the two innocent girls. He wished he could grab them both and run away, deep into the forest and never come back.
‘I . . . I can’t,’ he said, his voice cracking. At first he thought Solya would be angry, but then he saw that he was smiling.
‘Yes,’ Solya said, finally inspecting the coin, ‘you’re right. If anyone should play God, it should be me.’ He reached inside the crate and scooped up the babies,
holding one in each arm. The crate felt desperately empty in Sebastian’s hands.
It was only now that Sebastian noticed that one of the babies was awake. The bigger sister.
She made no sound. Just stared up at Solya, her eyes shining like black pebbles.
‘I like this one,’ Solya said. ‘Yes, this one I’ll keep for myself. Now say goodbye to your little sister.’ He turned the babies momentarily towards one another, as
if it was all a game. ‘And this other one, the lucky one, we’ll give to Walchez. He’ll know what to do,’ he told Udo, the guard, handing over the younger sister in the
The baby looked impossibly small and vulnerable in the big man’s arm. She didn’t wake.
‘It is done,’ Solya said, nodding, before turning away and walking back to his car, with Udo trudging heavily behind him.
Sebastian looked towards Volkmar. He was examining the label on the vodka bottle, approvingly.
Could it really be that simple? That this terrible thing they had done here was now to be forgotten and mentioned no more?
, Sebastian thought.
He would never forget.
He held the empty crate in his hands, watching the men get into the Mercedes. Then the engine started and the car reversed back up the track, and the babies were gone.
Volkmar slipped the bottle into his coat pocket and rubbed his hands together. ‘What are you waiting for?’ he asked. ‘We have celebrating to do.’
Unlike the name suggested, there was nothing diminutive about Little Elms. In fact, the 125-hectare estate with its grey turreted castle and ornamental lakes was famed for its
majestic elm trees, which now, in mid-October, were the pride of New England.
At the front of the house, at the centre of a vast gravel turning circle, Theadora Maddox was up early for her riding lesson. Dressed in an immaculate red riding jacket with cream jodhpurs and
black riding hat, she sat with her back ramrod-straight on Flight, a grey Welsh cob. She breathed in the fresh morning air, looking at how the sun was melting the frost on the lawn and turning it
into a field of diamonds. She loved it here and she already knew that today was going to be another perfect day.