Grief and anger spill over in Fran’s small village when German prisoners of war are sent to the nearby camp. After the death of her beloved brother on the front lines in Europe, it is hard for Fran to see these young men as anything but his killers. But prisoner Thomas, with his gentle nature and piercing blue eyes that see into Fran’s very soul, will force her to question everything she thought she knew.
Thrown together on the day one of the mines on the beach explodes, they begin to meet in secret. Fran even dares to dream about a future when their countries are no longer enemies and their blossoming love is not something they must hide from the world. But when Thomas receives shocking news from home, Fran must decide how much she is willing to risk for love…1989, Berlin: Tiffany arrives in Berlin just as the wall that divided a nation finally falls. As citizens celebrate in the streets, she joins the tide of people crossing the newly opened border between West and East. In her pocket is a crumpled letter addressed to her grandmother, yellowed with age, that has led her in search of a wartime secret with the power to change her future…
Inspired by an incredible true love story, this is a beautiful, sweeping tale about the power of hope in the face of war and the legacy of a terrible choice. Fans of Fiona Valpy, The Forgotten Village and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will be absolutely gripped from the very first page until the final, heart-stopping conclusion.Readers love Sarah Mitchell:
‘I adored this book, devouring it in a couple of days!... A beautiful and moving story that will stay with me… Five shiny stars!!’ Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Beautiful, heart-warming, wonderfully written tale!... A story that moved me and one that will stay with me for a very long time.’ Renita D’Silva, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘I LOVED this book!... I had to keep reading!... My heart broke.’ Mama’s Book Ramblins
‘I started this book on a Sunday morning and my family didn’t see me again until Sunday night!... A brilliant read!’ Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐‘Gorgeous… Crackling with atmosphere and emotion.’ Lucinda Riley, bestselling author of The Love Letter, The Midnight Rose and The Seven Sisters‘There is not one thing I did not love about this story… A beautiful and poignant story that has completely captured my heart.’ Sinfully Wicked Books, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐‘I absolutely loved this book… An emotional, heart-wrenching, beautiful and poignant read that I completely fell in love with… Have the tissues ready for this one…
Release date: June 18, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The English Girl
Tiffany lowers her rucksack onto the packed pavement of Friedrich-Strasse and listens to the sound of singing. Lusty serenades float across the rooftops, while on the streets crowds of young and old are gathering, strangers calling out to one another and hugging with abandon. People swarm past her like a river, laughing, crying, waving their arms. It’s almost nine o’clock in the evening, and all around the night air thrums, jubilant and bright with shock.
In London rumours had been building for weeks. Swirling with the autumn leaves as she jogged beside the steely Thames. Gathering momentum from the updates on her radio. Reports of resignations, of capitulations, of demonstrations in East Berlin. Tales of a people’s tide, about to turn a country on its head. And every hour made for fresh news. She listened while she ate breakfast on the counter that doubles as a table (trebles, occasionally, as a desk). Wondering, waiting, thinking of that address scribbled in her Filofax. And at long last, the dam burst. Today at the airport nobody bothered even to glance at her passport. Finally, Berlin has become the centre of the world. Today Berlin is focused only on itself.
Two young men are hurrying past.
Sofort! she hears.
Delving into her coat, she pulls out an English-German dictionary. A soft-back book purchased late yesterday afternoon from a disgruntled shop assistant wanting to cash up his till. How can it have been just yesterday? The day before yesterday, she faced commuting in the London rain, persuading herself that selling artisan bakery products was the perfect job for a psychology graduate, and a steady and depressing stream of sympathy invitations supposed to lessen the pain of heartbreak.
Yesterday, however, everything changed.
Or rather, she changed everything.
She dug out the address (from her Filofax), packed a bag (the trusty rucksack), bought a flight (an open return) and left a message on the answerphone at work. (And how will that turn out when she gets back to London?)
She is here now.
Listening to history.
And history seems to be shouting in her ear. A male voice says, ‘Freiheit, it means freedom. And sofort, that means immediately. Right this moment. Now!’ One of the young men has returned. He is smiling, beaming. His face is alight with happiness and crowned with soft brown curls that glow bronze in the streetlights.
She gestures at the hordes. ‘Where are they going?’
‘Everyone is going to the Gate!’ His eyes are dancing. ‘Do you want to come? Do you want to see it too?’
‘The Gate?’ The question is superfluous. She is shoving the dictionary into her pocket, hoisting the rucksack onto her shoulder.
‘The Brandenburg Gate. The crossing to the East.’ Already the human river is sweeping him away. Stretching forwards, he grabs her arm. ‘Let’s go, sofort!’
The roads are becoming busier by the minute. Everywhere people are chanting, singing, shouting. Cars are hooting, vehicles parked haphazardly, their drivers standing dazed and confused by half-open doors. Twice the young man turns to check she is following, pushing wire-framed glasses up the bridge of his nose and a hand, sometimes, through his hair.
All at once there is a street sign.
Then spotlights. Cold and white and too many to count.
‘The border!’ Her companion points towards a passageway, a high-sided concrete alley that is beginning to fill with clusters of people all drinking and cheering. He shakes his head as though he no longer trusts his eyes. ‘It was the border! Now we go where we want! East to West, West to East. Now there is one Berlin!’
He pulls her closer to the crossing, to the checkpoint, where before there must have been barriers, policemen, border officials, and now a succession of small squat cars is crawling steadily into the West. Some of the occupants appear to be crying. Some are waving, Others, more composed, looking tired and pale behind their steering wheels, make Tiffany want to cry herself. Fists bang a welcome onto roofs. Champagne drenches bonnets in cascades of foam. ‘Die Mauer ist weg! Die Mauer ist weg!’ The wall is gone! The wall is gone! Although her new-found friend is translating again, this time she doesn’t need him to. The excitement is catching, like a fever. Now any fool can guess what the people are saying.
Someone nudges her arm. A bottle is pushed into her palm. ‘Trink nach Berlin!’ Drink to Berlin! The glass is cold, the champagne colder and tastes likes almonds, cherries and buttered toast all at the same time. Tipping back her head, she swallows again, wipes her hand across her mouth and passes the bottle to her friend.
‘Trink nach Berlin!’ Her first words of German.
They are of similar age, she sees. And behind the glasses, behind the delight, a hint of earnestness, of dependability.
‘Do you want to go into the East?’
‘To East Berlin?’
Tiffany stares. This is why she is here, after all. To go to East Berlin. But she didn’t expect this. Not so soon. Can they really go now? Can they go sofort?
The concrete passageway is overflowing with bodies. As they watch, a woman climbs onto the shoulders of another, scrambles up the wall on the far side and jumps from a bulwark and straight into the East, hair trailing behind her like a flag. A great roar erupts. More bodies surge forwards. From nowhere four border guards appear. They glance at each other, as if for reassurance, before pushing the next in line back towards the western wall. In the glare of the lights the officials appear uncertain, almost scared.
The crowd edges forwards again. ‘Lass uns rein!’ Let us in!
The air seems to tremble.
Tiffany finds she’s holding her breath.
‘We go a different way. In one moment.’ Her companion passes her the bottle of champagne, and as she drinks she feels the bubbles in her blood, the rush through her veins. He points towards the slow column of vehicles edging over the crossing, inching into freedom under the gaze of a full moon.
And here comes the next, small and blue on thin fragile wheels.
As the people part to let the car through he grabs her hand and together they race over the border ground towards the East. Her rucksack is bouncing on her back, the champagne is sloshing high against the glass. And in her chest her heart is thundering. She doesn’t dare look around, doesn’t dare look anywhere but at the outstretched arm of the brown-haired boy who is tugging her onwards and forwards until they have outrun the crowds and the furore and all there is about them is a dark and empty plaza.
He slows to a halt.
Both of them are breathing hard.
Tiffany shakes her hair, long and blond, out of her eyes. ‘This is East Berlin?’ She can’t believe it.
But nobody is here. Does anyone live in East Berlin? Do they know what’s happened?
From deep inside her rucksack she seems to hear a rustling of paper.
All at once her companion spins around. ‘Look! Over there!’
Tiffany turns and steps back in amazement. To their left the Brandenburg Gate is soaring above them. Bathed in a deluge of light, the monument looms ghostly and majestic beneath a sphere that is as full and as round as the sun. For a while, they both stand motionless. Tiffany tries to imagine what it would be like, what it would have been like, to gaze at the titanic columns and galloping chariot from this spot before tonight. The Gate so close, yet so utterly out of reach. Dropping her rucksack onto the ground, she fishes out her camera. Although she knows the lens will never quite capture the authority of the moon hanging low like a polished coin, the uncanny quiet of the square, or the fact that less than a mile away a festival is exploding at the border.
Nevertheless, a photograph is better than nothing.
Afterwards, she sits down on the plaza. The ground has a deeply frozen quality that immediately seeps through the lining of her coat. Her German friend squats beside her. Neither of them seems able to drag their eyes away from the silver-drenched pillars. Silently she sips from the bottle. Her fingers are freezing, her grip on the glass is becoming clumsy. Yet a sensation of warmth is swelling inside her chest, either from the alcohol or simply the thrill of being where she is, being alive on 9 November 1989, when the world is changing in front of her eyes and she’s here in Berlin, witnessing the transformation for herself. She gives the champagne to her companion. For some extraordinary reason it doesn’t seem particularly ridiculous to consider leaning against him, a boy whose name she doesn’t know, or even to find his hand and slide her fingers into his. Maybe she is not quite as heartbroken, not quite as wretched, as she was three months ago. Perhaps, after all, she is moving on.
As soon as he finishes drinking, however, her new friend rests the bottle on the ground. There’s a sense of finality to his action. ‘Shall we go back now?’
‘Go back?’ She blinks.
‘To the West.’
He must go home, of course. Now he has crossed the border and experienced the fallen wall for himself he has no reason to be in the East. She, on the other hand, has no reason at all to return. And every reason to stay.
She shakes her head and tries to hide her disappointment.
It’s his turn to look astonished. ‘If you don’t come back, what will you do?’
‘I will find somewhere to sleep.’ She’s surprised to sound so confident. Already her stomach is tightening at the prospect of such alien surroundings. But surely East Berlin must have some kind of hotels or guesthouses? And since the border no longer exists, since nobody can send her away, why shouldn’t she stay in one? Before her courage has time to dip, she jumps to her feet, swings her hair into a ponytail and clips it high on her head with a band from her pocket. A sign she means business.
Her companion gets up more slowly. He slaps the dirt off the seat of his jeans and takes a moment adjusting his spectacles, even though they don’t appear to have moved since he last corrected them. ‘So, I will leave you now.’ The sentence is poised between a statement and an enquiry.
Before she can react, voices interrupt them, shouting from the eastern end of the plaza. Two young women are hastening across the square, hurling questions towards them through the dark. Die Mauer ist weg. Die Mauer ist weg? The wall is gone?
Tiffany’s companion calls back, ‘Ja! Ja! Wir sind aus West Berlin!’ We are from West Berlin!
There are squeals and screams. The women consult each other briefly before running in the direction of the border. The second they disappear, more people arrive. Die Mauer ist weg. They too sound incredulous. Soon the trickle expands in number and swells in volume until the hush of the previous minutes is evaporating amongst an assembly of stunned faces and rapid, eager German. Some of the crowd start to rush across the plaza. Others hang back as though the news must be a trap. Or a joke. As if their hopes have been dashed too many times in the past to dare to trust them again now.
‘I must go.’ Her German friend sounds worried. Tiffany can’t tell if he’s concerned about her safety or anxious his journey back won’t be as straightforward as their one here. She’s still wondering about that, about the thoughtful crinkle to his brow, as he thrusts out his hand. She hesitates. The handshake has a strange solemnity. She feels the fleeting grip of his fingers, a sensation of heat and the brief charge of interlocking eyes before he swings around.
‘Hey?’ She catches his sleeve. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Ralp. My name is Ralp.’
‘And mine is Tiffany.’
‘Goodbye, Tiffany. Viel glück!’ He leans forwards. ‘It means good luck!’
She starts to walk, heading away from the border, against the steady current of people now negotiating the square, and only allows herself to stop and turn around when she reaches a road. Although her German friend is nowhere to be seen, she can still glimpse the green glass of the empty champagne bottle through a sea of legs.
She feels suddenly alone.
Alone and slightly afraid.
Ahead the Unter den Linden stretches long and dark with only the occasional yellow arc light to dilute the gritty gloom. Tightening the strap of her rucksack, she tells herself to get a grip. This is nothing, she reflects, compared to what my grandmother did when she was my age. But remembering her grandmother is less of a comfort than she might have hoped. Her grandmother would certainly not approve of Tiffany’s current whereabouts. And if she knew what Tiffany intended to do next, she would probably be utterly horrified. She would never even have mentioned the existence of such a heartbreaking letter. Let alone shared the anguish of the writer with her impulsive granddaughter.
As she walks away from the plaza, the pavements get busier. People trickle from buildings and alleyways. All of them wear the same stunned expression of disbelief and the same style of dreary, functional clothes. There’s a smell in the air too. An oily, fume-laden stench, and every so often her boot turns on a broken paving slab and slips into a puddle.
She almost walks straight past the Hotel Metropole. Most of the illuminated signage over the entrance isn’t working; only the letters tel and Met stutter a lukewarm glow that makes little impression on the darkness. Tiffany hesitates. The concrete edifice is sooty and decayed and the windows are too grubby to see through properly. She’s still dithering as someone nearly knocks into her. The woman running past is in hair-curlers and appears to have thrown on her coat over a baby-blue bathrobe. Tiffany watches her hurry into the gloom and only once the woman has disappeared does she take a breath and push open the door.
Inside the dirty, marbled lobby, two men dressed in jeans and leather jackets are slumped on a sofa. Both are smoking cigarettes while beside them an ashtray on a metal stand overflows with stubs. The receptionist is talking on a telephone, whispering into the receiver. As soon as she sees Tiffany, she stops and covers the mouthpiece with one hand. Although of similar age she’s dressed in the type of shapeless skirt and jumper that Tiffany associates with her parents’ generation, and her expression is one of naked astonishment.
‘I was wondering,’ Tiffany says quickly, ‘if you have a room that I can stay in.’
The young woman looks at her wordlessly.
‘A room…’ She scrabbles in her pocket for the dictionary and thumbs through the pages. ‘Ein Zimmer.’
‘Yes.’ She nods to reinforce the point.
The receptionist’s gaze sweeps from Tiffany’s kitten-heeled boots to her red-and-blue checked coat. ‘Bist du aus West Berlin?’ The emphasis on the last word is almost reverential, making the question obvious.
‘I’m from London,’ Tiffany says, and then reconsiders. ‘Today I came from West Berlin.’
‘Die Mauer ist weg? Ist es wahr?’
‘Ja!’ she nods again. ‘Die Mauer ist weg.’ Speaking the sentence in German sparks a flare of triumph. And also of memory, the heady breathlessness as she ran with the German boy – with Ralp – across the border, and the sudden, intense serenity of the plaza in the moments before anyone else arrived.
The woman gabbles into the telephone and hangs up the receiver, then reaches beneath the desk and produces a key attached to a metal ball the size of a billiard. She seems quite mesmerised and unable to take her eyes off Tiffany, even when one of the men on the sofa says something and laughs.
Tiffany shifts uncomfortably. ‘How much for ein Zimmer?’
There is another blank pause.
She pulls a bunch of American dollars from her purse and fans them into a semicircle. There must be a better way to do this, but she can’t see any sort of price list and the information she read before she left London suggested dollars would be more useful than German marks. This appears to be true because at the sight of the money the young woman’s face lights up. Leaning forwards, she plucks three ten-dollar notes from Tiffany’s grasp and drops the key onto the counter as if the metal has suddenly become hot.
‘Where,’ says Tiffany, ‘where do I go?’ Although she can see the number 14 marked on the fob, she has no idea which floor the room is on. And she has probably paid far too much. The receptionist’s attention has become entirely absorbed by the dollar bills at which she is staring incredulously.
Tiffany consults the dictionary again. ‘Wo gehe ich hin?’
Briefly the young woman lifts her head and points to a staircase in the corner. Gathering her rucksack, Tiffany heads towards the steps. As she does so, she’s aware of a burst of staccato German from the sofa and a rapid, impatient reply. Turning around, she sees the receptionist has donned her coat and has come out from behind the reception desk clutching the American money. One of the men gets up to block her way and their voices rise in an angry crescendo, the gist of which is plain.
Tiffany settles the rucksack on her shoulders and embarks upon the dismal stairwell. She can’t get involved with the altercation in the foyer, she has to focus on the task in hand. Tomorrow she has someone to find. The fallen wall might have made her journey possible, but she knows the path ahead is still buried deeply – perhaps too deeply – beneath choices that were made long before she was even born.
The men arrive one dank afternoon when Fran is in the corner shop considering the relative merits of corned beef compared to potted shrimps. It takes a moment to notice her older sister standing in the entrance and wearing such an expression of suppressed fury that Fran knows why she’s there before either of them say a word.
‘You need to come now, or you’ll miss seeing them altogether!’
Fran doesn’t reply. There have been several false alarms before, with June insistent they must both go to witness the influx of foreigners, the Hitler filth, only to have to contain her passion and return home when the rumours didn’t materialise.
‘They’ve been spotted on the coast road. Apparently, the trucks didn’t arrive so they’re marching from the station.’ Her sister’s face darkens with intensity. ‘This time it’s really happening.’ With that, she spins on her heel and disappears, leaving the door wide open so that the newspapers begin to rattle in their stands and a stray brown paper bag dances across the floor and blows straight out through the gap.
Fran hesitates less than a second before shoving both of the cans back onto the shelf. ‘Sorry, Mrs Reynolds,’ she calls, half-turning to the counter, ‘I’ll come back for them later.’ Tightening her coat, she hurries after June. Behind her the door clatters shut, the chime of the bell jangling at her heels like the signal in a theatre that the show is about to start.
She doesn’t have to go far before she can see quite a horde has gathered. The villagers have clustered a little way beyond the church where the last of the cottages accede to the empty mauve of heath to the south and the grey-green of the salt marsh to the north. Men and women are standing on the inland side of the road, sheltering in the lee of the flint-stoned walls that face the darkening shimmer of mudflats and the invisible pebble beach beyond.
Fran jogs to catch up with June, who is striding towards the crowd, head down, hands buried in the pockets of the same black overcoat that eighteen months earlier their brother would wear to school on wintry mornings. Recently, June has started to wear the coat at every opportunity. Despite the fact the garment drowns her slender frame and, together with her new, short haircut, makes her resemble a schoolboy herself. Now, though, Fran wishes she herself had something warmer than her ancient mackintosh, which is outmatched by the breeze that is whipping straight off the shifting North Sea and gaining in strength.
As they approach, Fran spots friends and neighbours among the jostling pack of bodies. There is a good turnout to observe the arrival of the Germans. Even if nobody wants them here, it seems that most people want to watch them arrive. The villagers haven’t gathered together in such numbers since the end of the war. On those honeyed days in May and August, when the airwaves throbbed with the surrender of Germany and Japan, an impromptu band played until the sky broke with the dawn, dancers filled the tabletops of the Dun Cow, and for a short while at least some of them had been able to forget the terrible price the village had paid for their victory celebrations. It was more than a year ago now Fran realises with surprise. It’s hard to believe the war has been over for a full loop of the seasons when rationing is worse than ever – even bread, since July – the beaches still blighted with mines and barbed wire, and the village is about to be inhabited by Germans.
Work on the old radar site in Purdy Street began a month ago. One dazzling day towards the end of September, when the heath was the colour of new copper, four military trucks appeared with sections of chipboard and wooden planks protruding over their backboards. As huts were patched up, buildings were added and new fencing built, rumours flew about that the site was to become a camp for German prisoners of war. Nobody was certain whether to believe the story or not until Major Toby Markham moved into a large Victorian house on the edge of the village and word got out that the camp would be opening in two weeks’ time, and that Major Markham would be running it.
Fran, however, is more interested in Major Markham’s wife than Major Markham. Nobody knew Major Markham even had a wife until she appeared the week after her husband, driving a very smart racing-green Ford Anglia with a little girl of about seven sitting next to her on the front seat. Fran has only seen her from a distance, hand in hand with her daughter outside the school gates, when the spectacular combination of creamy skin and rich black hair made Fran think, absurdly, of the chocolate éclair she once ate at a birthday tea some time long before the war. There was even gossip Mrs Markham might be French until somebody overheard her asking in the Dun Cow about the nearest bus stop; though her voice was reported to be rather beautiful, there was, apparently, no trace of a foreign accent.
Fran reaches forwards and plucks June’s sleeve. ‘Is Mother here?’
Her sister shakes her head. ‘She decided to stay at home.’
‘Why did she do that?’
‘Why do you think?’
Fran pauses, although she can very well guess the answer.
‘Because of Robbie.’
The words thicken into a paste. She used to call his name what, ten, twenty, times a day? Banging on the door of the lavatory, arguing about whether he had to walk with her to school, telling him to hurry, or shouting up the stairs that supper was ready and if he didn’t come down right away she or June would get a second helping. Now she hates to say his name, and when she does the word sounds alien. Almost as if it’s not, and has never been, her brother’s name and a term of affection wrapped up together, but rather the prompt for a shadow to fall, a wretchedness to blight the conversation.
‘Of course, Robbie.’ June makes no attempt to conceal her impatience. ‘Mother can’t stand to contemplate actual Germans being so close, let alone want to see them in the flesh. I don’t know how she’s going to cope. I don’t know how any of us are going to cope. I mean, real German soldiers living here in the village. Our village.’ June shudders, and the movement is so blatant there seems to Fran something almost theatrical about it.
‘They’re not—’ Fran stops.
‘What were you going to say?’
They have reached the edge of the waiting crowd. June comes to a halt and turns around. Her brows furrow into a V. ‘Tell me what you were going to say!’
Fran finally draws level. Now she can see directly into her sister’s eyes, the familiar storm-grey gaze that since Robbie died seems to have deepened almost to black. ‘Only that they’re not soldiers any longer, are they? The war is over.’
‘Shh! Be quiet!’ A man some distance away raises his arm above the sea of jostling shoulders. ‘I think I hear something.’
A hush falls like a dropped cloak. Fran stands on tiptoe and tries to peer east along the granite ribbon of the coast road, but everyone else is doing the same and, however much she struggles, all she can see is a wall of backs and bobbing heads. Besides, at well past three o’clock visibility is dissolving in the weak October light and the faraway point where marsh and sky slide into one grey space has already been lost. The man ahead keeps his hand held high and perfectly still while the crowd stays silent. Fran strains to listen but all she can hear is the shuffling of shoes on tarmac and the geese calling out to each other in the impending dusk. Then all at once the air starts to vibrate. Within moments, rumours of noise bloom into the reality of shouted orders and the thrum of stamping feet, and seconds later a column of men appears in the distance.
The villagers surge forwards. Propelled by pushing limbs and elbows, Fran somehow finds herself at the front of the throng with nothing between her and the road upon which the men are fast approaching. Soon two long lines of German prisoners are in plain view, their shabby uniforms patched with black squares and their trouser legs splashed with one bright white letter – P. Beside them, British soldiers bark orders and nudge the slackers to pick up their pace.
Nobody is silent now. Some onlookers merely boo and hiss, but others shout. Fists are raised. Threats are yelled into the cold air. It occurs to Fran that the presence of so many soldiers might be to protect the prisoners rather than prevent them from escaping. A lump of phlegm flies by her ear and lands in a bead on her shoe. Amidst the indistinct roars of protest she hears the woman behind her yell, ‘Bloody German filth! Friggin’ murderers!’ and is momentarily stunned when she registers that the voice belongs to June.
The cavalcade approaches, leather soles smacking against the tarmac. Soldiers flick occasional glances of pride and triumph at the villagers and their marching acquires extra zeal. By contrast the prisoners’ gait is the stumbled step of the tired and fearful, and the eyes of all but one of them – a man in the column closest to the crowd – remain fixed on the safety of their own feet.
Fran’s throat tightens. There is something outrageous and unexpected about the spectacle that is not the baying, angry people or the shuffling foreigners who dare not lift their eyes. As the lines of prisoners get close enough to make out the features of individual men, she is shocked to realise they look the same as British soldiers. Not vicious, not monsters. No different from Robbie, in fact – except that Robbie had toffee-coloured hair that fell into his eyes whenever he laughed and the same grey-brown eyes as June, whereas. . .
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