A gripping, moving story of loss, friendship, the need to belong, inspired by real events, of two orphaned girls and the woman who becomes a surrogate mother to them, only to be separated in the most heart-wrenching way.
Two orphaned girls become found family amidst the horrors of WWII in a gripping and heart-wrenching tale of friendship, loss and survival against the odds which sweeps the reader across wartime Europe to Budapest from the mountains of Scotland.
Inspired by true events and perfect for readers of The Nightingale and The Midwife of Auschwitz, from the author of The Child on Platform One and The Lighthouse Sisters.
Listeners LOVE Gill Thompson's moving and heart-wrenching novels:
'The characters and their moving stories will haunt you long after you finish the last page' Shirley Dickson
'A warm-hearted tale of love, loss and indefatigable human spirit' Kathryn Hughes
'A heartrending story' Jane Corry
'A mother's loss and a son's courage . . . A heartrending story that spans the world' Diney Costeloe
(P) 2023 Headline Publishing Group Ltd
Release date: October 1, 2023
Print pages: 352
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The Orphans on the Train
As Kirsty pushed open the door to the swimming baths, the familiar sharpness of chlorine laced with something earthy made her spirits soar, even though she smelled it every day.
‘Evening, hen.’ Maggie had her handbag on the counter already. She snapped it open and extracted the keys, then locked the office door behind her.
‘Evening, Maggie. Were many in today?’
‘Aye. Loads of ’em. It’ll be the warm weather.’ The summer heat still lingered in the atmosphere, that and the chemicals making the air gauzy. Kirsty felt as though she was looking at Maggie’s flushed plump face through a veil.
‘Bound to be lots of men in later then.’
‘Aye. Make sure you clean up after them well, lass.’ Maggie grimaced. ‘Bye for now.’ She pushed open the outer door and went into the street.
The miners usually came for their baths on a Friday night, washing the grime of the pits from their bodies before heading home by way of the pub. It was Kirsty’s job to sluice the black tidemarks off the tiles after they left. It was mucky work, but there were rewards. Da would be there. He’d come in with his cronies, full of bluster and banter, but making sure to wink at her as he walked past. Kirsty would keep well away from the baths while the men were washing. She’d busy herself mopping down the side of the pool, or swilling out the toilets; anything rather than be thought to be gawping at their nakedness, or eavesdropping on their smutty talk. At fourteen, she was so easily embarrassed.
But as soon as the men had left, blackened skin now miraculously returned to its underground pallor, it would be their time, hers and Da’s. They’d have the pool to themselves. And she’d be allowed to swim.
She looked at her watch then frowned as she opened the cleaning cupboard and pulled out the metal bucket, which scraped across the floor with a clatter. It was after five. The miners were usually here by now. But that was probably nothing to worry about. Doubtless the foreman had kept them late or maybe they were working deeper in the mine and taking a while to get back up to the surface.
She took her bucket over to the sink and filled it with warm water. Then she delved into her pocket to retrieve the bag of soap shavings she’d shoved in earlier. She always grated the carbolic at home, so all she had to do was tip in the flakes, then swirl her fingers around until the water lathered. She went back for the mop, dipped it in, then squeezed out the excess of frothy liquid. By the time she’d done the toilets, the miners would be here. Then she could scuttle back to the pool side while they bathed.
But by half past five there was still no sign of them. She tried to shake off the pinpricks of anxiety creeping up her spine. She couldn’t help being a worrier, although she wished she wasn’t. Losing Ma at a young age made her terrified of losing Da too. Mining was such a precarious job – so far underground with all those explosives and the constant threat of a roof collapsing or a sudden rockfall. ‘Don’t be daft, Kirsty,’ Da would say whenever she expressed her concerns. ‘Hamilton pits are well maintained. There’s never been an accident in my lifetime.’ But that didn’t help. It only took one miscalculation . . . one careless slip.
There was nothing more to do in the changing rooms so she wandered into the pool area. Normally she loved being on her own in the cavernous space, enjoying the silence, the deep expanse of blue-green water, the invitingly smooth surface. Da, who’d done a lot of swimming when he was younger, had once told her that every pool tasted different. Hamilton water was soft and sweet; the Motherwell baths, where he’d trained as a lad, were more acidic. Doubtless it was the different quantities of chemicals, but to Kirsty it was a source of wonder.
She leant over the side and trailed her fingers through the water, creating tiny ripples. When the pool was full, the water heaved and surged, a cauldron of thrashing limbs. It was hard to believe something so turbulent could now be so serene. Soon she’d be in the pool herself, revelling in its delicious coolness, the water wrapping itself round her like silk. She loved swimming: it cheered her up when she was sad; it calmed her when she was anxious; it soothed her when she was angry. She’d started to learn after Ma had died and Da had taken on a couple of lifeguard shifts at the baths at the weekend. At first she just stood in the shallow end, letting the water lap around her, too scared to join the other swimmers. Da sat on the side, watching her through glazed eyes – or with his head in his hands, ignoring her completely. But one day, he emerged from the changing room in his trunks, climbed down the steps and joined her. ‘Not like that, lassie,’ he said as she bobbed up and down in the pool, slapping at the surface with her palms. He picked her up and laid her across the water, a strong hand supporting her tummy. ‘Now kick your legs.’ She made a cycling motion. He laughed. The first time he’d done that in months. ‘You’re not on a bike. Like this.’ He let her go, grasped the rail at the side of the pool, stretched his legs out, then beat them up and down in a steady rhythm. Kirsty held onto the side next to him and did the same. ‘That’s much better. Well done.’
Da’s encouraging smile came back to her now from across the years. He’d always taken her swimming after that. Friday nights, after the miners had washed, was their time. Within a few months she was swimming properly – first widths, then lengths. Now she could do all the strokes, and even tumble turns and racing dives. He said she was a natural, like him.
But where was he? Where were all of them? The pool clock said a quarter to six now. They were never that late. The air in the pool thickened and her breath snagged in her throat.
As she made her way back to the changing rooms with a thrumming heart, she heard the outside door bang. Relief surged through her. At last. She imagined the miners pouring into the lobby, moaning about some last-minute crisis that had eaten into their leisure time, desperate to get their breeks off and wallow in the warm water. But when she opened the door, only one figure greeted her. And it wasn’t Da. Or any of the other men.
‘Oh it’s you, Maggie. Have you forgotten . . .?’ At the sight of Maggie’s expression, the words died in her mouth.
‘Kirsty.’ Maggie reached out a hand and drew Kirsty towards her. ‘There’s been an accident.’ Her face was as white as the tiles.
‘No-o-o-o-o-o!’ If she shouted hard enough perhaps she could stop Maggie telling her anything; she could push her words into reverse until they ceased to exist. Then Maggie would just smile and admit she’d left her keys behind, or her jumper . . . or there’d be something she’d forgotten to tell her. But not this, please not this. The one thing she dreaded above all.
She put her hand to the wall as the floor tilted under her feet. Maggie pulled up a chair and pushed her gently down. There were two deep ridges between her eyebrows.
Kirsty swallowed down a rush of bile. ‘What happened?’ she whispered.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know much. I popped into the Black Bull on the way home to ask my Archie what he wanted for his tea. But I could hardly get in for folk rushing out of the pub. Rumour is there’s a fire at the colliery.’ Maggie’s voice was heavy with shock. ‘I thought you’d want to know, lass.’
Kirsty’s knee was jiggling up and down uncontrollably. Maggie put out a hand to steady it. ‘Shall we go over there together?’
Kirsty nodded mutely. She couldn’t breathe. A huge weight was pressing on her chest.
‘Come on.’ Maggie helped her up, wrapped an arm round her and guided her out of the building.
As they stumbled up Saffronhall Lane, and along Montrose Crescent, Kirsty was dimly aware of other people joining them. Mrs McKay, who lived further down Beckford Street from them, shot her a frightened glance as she overtook her, walking rapidly down the road, her heels clip-clopping on the cobbles. Mr McKay worked with Da at the colliery. Kirsty glimpsed the Pattisons up ahead: she’d been at school with Jamie. His da was a miner as well. So many of them were. All the men she’d expected to see at the baths were now trapped underground by the fire, possibly dead. She breathed in the scent of her own sweat and fear. There were so many ways you could die when you worked in the bowels of the earth: suffocation, drowning, gas, being buried alive . . . The latter was probably the worst fate of all. Stabs of heat and intense cold pulsed down her spine with each new thought.
The closer they got to the mine, the thicker the crowd became. Mothers dragged bawling toddlers by the arm; a few pushed prams or carried babies in shawls. Young women with blotchy faces and linked arms marched silently along the road. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air and Kirsty’s stomach contracted as she saw a thin black spiral in the distance. It seemed certain then that there had been a fire – and that it was possibly still raging. Despite the abundance of people, the roads were eerily quiet. Nobody dared speak, but it was obvious what they all feared. All Kirsty could hear was the pounding of footsteps, and the crashing of terrified thoughts in her head.
Gloomy groups of people stood around talking quietly, or stared anxiously at the pit entrance. A chain of men scooped water from puddles and passed buckets along the line.
‘Wait here, hen.’ Maggie squeezed Kirsty’s shoulder then walked over to one of the women standing near the front. They spoke intensely for a few minutes then Maggie returned. ‘The rescuers from Coatbridge are on their way. And the fire extinguishers have been sent for.’
Kirsty’s throat tightened. ‘It’s all taking so long.’
‘Try not to fret yourself,’ Maggie said. ‘It may look worse than it is.’
But Kirsty could do nothing to allay her sense of foreboding. Why couldn’t Da have worked in a shop or served drinks at the Black Bull? Why couldn’t he have taught swimming or been a lifeguard full-time? Miners were constantly at risk. Even if they never met with an accident, few of the men had long lives. The work was too strenuous, the conditions too hard. Those elderly miners she did know suffered from ‘black lung’ disease, caused by years of inhaling all that coal dust. It scarred the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Even if you did live to old age, you couldn’t enjoy it.
But Hamilton was a mining town. And most of its men worked down the pits. It was a way of life.
After a while, the banksman appeared, a bag of tokens in his hand. He spread them on the ground and the crowd surged towards them. At the beginning of the day, each miner was given two small metal tokens, one round and one square. When he went into the cage to go underground, he would give one to the banksman, recording the fact he was in the mine, and at what time. It was a way of accounting for the numbers of men below. At the end of a shift, the miner would give his second token to the onsetter who would record the time he left the pit. Da’s token number was one hundred and fifty-one.
Kirsty moved forward on legs that felt suddenly strawlike. Perhaps Da hadn’t been underground after all. Maybe he’d been sent off on an errand and was even now making his way back from another colliery, having spent the day safely in some mining office. She fixed her eyes on the metal shapes glinting in the late sunlight as she took in the numbers. 96 . . . 34 . . . 23 . . . 17 . . . Each one confirmed a family’s deepest fear. The air was punctured with moans and gasps whenever someone recognised a number. The crowd thinned as people turned away, racked with grief. Kirsty continued to scan the tokens. 74 . . . 120 . . . 236 . . . 149. Her stomach twisted and she swallowed down a surge of nausea. 151. Da was in the mine. Maggie drew her back and stood with her arms round her as they continued to wait.
The sun sunk lower in the sky, flushing the pithead with mellow light. Waves of unease came off the crowd. Every so often some words floated back to her: outbye, weighting, powerhouse, brushing squad . . . They were all terms Kirsty was familiar with from years spent listening to Da talk to his mining friends. Not that she ever paid them much attention. Now it was confirmed Da was underground, she suspected he was in No.1 pit; she’d dimly registered him mentioning something about preparing the coalface for Monday’s production when she’d handed him a bowl of porridge that morning, but she hadn’t given it any further thought. She racked her brains to see if he’d told her anything else. It might be vital to know where he was, but she couldn’t recall another detail. He’d been more intent on holding forth about politics. They’d been listening to the radio. The German Chancellor had just summoned the British ambassador to Germany to discuss the Polish situation and Da said he was a bloody eejit. Kirsty wasn’t sure if he’d meant Adolf Hitler or Neville Henderson. Either way, Da was convinced that war was inevitable. For months Kirsty had been worried about him being called up and going off to fight like Granda had in the Great War, coming back injured like he’d been – or worse. But now the events in Europe seemed remote and irrelevant; the real danger lay much closer to home.
A thin breeze threaded through the crowd, ruffling people’s hair, and causing some of the women to shiver and pull their cardigans more tightly around them. The crowd was much larger now, spilling over the main road and up to a railway embankment that overlooked the workings. The lights from the surface machinery and the glare of the coke ovens picked out the dread and worry on people’s faces.
A hush descended.
‘The rescue squad is here,’ Maggie said, pointing out a group of men in full-length overalls and stout boots climbing down from a truck. They were wearing breathing apparatus and carrying lamps.
‘About time too,’ muttered Kirsty, a glimmer of hope flickering in her chest as she watched Mr Fleming, the colliery manager, lead the men over to the entrance to No.1 pit, before they disappeared down below.
Still the crowd waited.
But all too soon the men returned, shaking their heads.
‘The smoke must be too thick,’ said Maggie.
‘What good’s a rescue squad if they can’t rescue anyone?’
A few people turned round at the sound of her raised voice.
‘It’s all right, lass. At least there’s some fire extinguishers already down there.’ Maggie pulled her closer. The Glasgow police and fire brigade had brought some across earlier.
Kirsty felt so helpless standing on the surface, not knowing what was going on deep underground. She tried to summon Da’s face when he’d gone off that morning. There were lines around his eyes now, and his chin-stubble was flecked with grey, but he’d still looked eager to be joining his mates – or his freens as he called them. ‘It’s all about teamwork, ye see,’ he’d say. ‘You look out for yer freens and yer freens look out for you.’
A ripple through the crowd made Kirsty snap to attention. ‘They’re coming out.’ Maggie was looking towards the entrance to No.1 pit where one miner was being carried out on a stretcher, followed by a straggle of weary men, shocked eyes staring out of grimy faces, clothes plastered with dust. Some of them were limping. On others, rivulets of blood created livid stripes across their powder-coated skin. Kirsty’s stomach was a cold mass of fear.
The crowd, which had become lethargic from worry and exhaustion, now came alive. People shouted and pointed. A young woman Kirsty didn’t recognise sprinted across the ground and hurled herself into one of the miners’ arms. He buried his head in her shoulder, his body sagging. Kirsty swallowed and looked away.
Children were running to greet their fathers; whole families hugged each other; women and even some men were sobbing. But as miner after miner emerged, and Kirsty frantically scanned each figure, the ice in her gut expanded until her whole being was frozen with fear.
‘Kirsty?’ Maggie’s voice was laden with concern.
Kirsty shook her head as her world crashed around her. ‘I can’t see Da anywhere,’ she whispered.
‘I’m here to discuss the arrangements,’ the man from McGuire’s told Kirsty. He looked sad, as though it was his Da who’d died, although that was probably part of his job. ‘I called round to Beckford Street to speak to you, but your neighbour informed me I’d find you here.’
For a moment Kirsty failed to grasp what he was talking about. ‘What arrangements?’
‘They want to know where your Da’s coffin is to go,’ said Maggie gently. ‘And what you want to do about his funeral.’
Kirsty tried to look at Maggie but her face was all blurry. She blinked hard. ‘What do you think I should do?’
‘Well it’s up to you of course, hen. He’d be welcome here. But it might be easier to have him resting at your own place. Where he belongs. I can come over there with you.’
‘Aye. Thank you.’ Recent events had been so harrowing that Kirsty had barely thought about her home in Beckford Street but now she saw the squat little house nestling between two others, reaching right to the pavement with a wide cobbled street in front. A home where she’d grown up. Where Ma and Da had lived after they were first married and where, later, they’d taken her back from the hospital as a wee bairn. Perhaps Ma had nursed her at the old kitchen table, while Da pottered around trying to make the tea, his strong miner’s fingers fumbling in the drawer for the teaspoons and the strainer. She wasn’t even sure when the rent was due. Normally Da managed all that stuff. There was so much she had to deal with and she didn’t feel much more than a bairn herself. Perhaps Maggie would help her.
The funeral director bowed his head and wrote something in his notebook. ‘And the funeral?’
Again Kirsty looked at Maggie.
‘Shall we talk about that later and let you know?’
Kirsty had a feeling that the man would agree to whatever they suggested, with a bow and a half-smile. Perhaps undertakers practised doing that secretly in front of the mirror.
Maggie saw the man out. Later on she accompanied her over to Beckford Street. A few people stopped them on their way to express their sympathy. Kirsty wasn’t sure what to say. When Ma had died, she’d been too young for people to offer her condolences; Da had handled all that, although she could remember her head being patted a lot. But as ever, Maggie shielded her. ‘Thank you for your kind words,’ she said to each person who told her how sorry they were. ‘Kirsty is very grateful.’ And Kirsty just nodded mutely. It seemed that everyone had a favourite memory of Da or wanted to express their gratitude for when he’d helped them to mend a fence, or carried a bag of coal, or taught their child to swim. Apparently, anyone and everyone had a claim on her father. She knew they meant well, but he was her da and she wanted him to herself. Even if he only existed in memories now.
Da had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Apparently the direct current breaker had tripped and a fire broke out in his pit. Fire extinguishers were sent down and the men tried throwing in bags of cement and stone dust but the fire was like a furnace by then; nothing seemed to be able to stop it. The roof girders were red-hot. That’s why the rescue squad was driven back. Some of the men in the closer passages were rescued, but Da was further back and didn’t make it. Every time Kirsty closed her eyes, red and orange flames leapt behind her lids, and she heard again and again Da’s desperate gasps for air as the deadly gas overwhelmed him. Would she ever be able to sleep again?
Even after just a few hours, the house smelled musty. At the sight of Da’s chipped blue cup from yesterday morning, still on the draining board, and the neatly folded copy of the Daily Record on the kitchen table, waves of sadness surged through her. She slumped over the table, her head in her hands, and sobbed and sobbed. How was she going to cope without Da? There was no one left in the world who loved her. Maggie stroked her hair until she’d cried herself out, then gave her a warm hug. ‘You poor lass.’
Kirsty wiped the snot and tears from her face and gave her a watery smile. ‘I’m all right,’ she said, trying to ignore the wobble in her voice. ‘What do we need to do?’
Maggie spoke gently. ‘Let’s sort out the perishables.’ She opened the larder door and scooped a few items into her basket. ‘These won’t last long, love. Best take them back with us.’
Kirsty nodded, her vision still clouded with tears. It was hard to take any interest in a block of cheese wrapped in greaseproof paper or a handful of carrots and potatoes, but Maggie was probably right. They needed to be practical. Even if what she really wanted to do was to howl and howl until exhaustion drove out the pain.
The McGuire’s van arrived soon afterwards. Kirsty stood in front of the limp net curtains in the window, watching the men unload Da’s coffin and bring it to the door in a sombre procession. She answered their knock, Maggie hovering behind her.
‘Can you bring him into this room please?’ She pointed to the parlour. It seemed so strange to refer to Da as though he was alive, when he was lying in a wooden box. The coffin looked strangely small – hard to believe her da could fit in there. He wasn’t a tall man but he was strong and muscular which made him seem big. As a little girl she used to wrap her arms around his legs, tip her head back, and look up at his broad, smiling face. ‘My da,’ she’d say.
The undertakers did as she requested and set the coffin on a little stand at the back of the room. She took a deep breath as they prised open the lid. Then there was Da, like a waxwork, his face creamy pale, no trace of dust or soot, purple-lidded eyes closed, his mouth curved as if he’d just told her a joke. A strangled sob escaped her mouth. She’d been holding out a shred of hope that they’d made a mistake, that Da hadn’t been killed after all, that it was another man’s corpse they’d brought up. But it was definitely him – recognisable yet different. If it wasn’t for the tiny scar just above his left eyebrow and the mole on his chin, Kirsty would have thought he was a mannequin. She reached out, conscious of a vaguely chemical smell, then touched his hair, smoothing it over his forehead. It sprung back as though all the life from his body had gone into it, giving it energy when the rest of him was cold and motionless. Da had never been one to sit still. Even if he was reading the paper he’d be scratching his nose or jigging his foot up and down, filled with a restlessness she found irritating at times. Yet she’d give anything now for a twitch of his eyelid or a shrug of his shoulders, the gestures that made him so familiar. Not this impersonal, lifeless figure. She wiped away the tears that slid down her face and tried to swallow the raw, searing grief that hauled at her guts and sawed her nerves until all she wanted to do was curl into a ball alongside Da.
‘We’ve put him in a shroud,’ the undertaker said, indicating the white robe Da was dressed in, like an adult choirboy – so different to his usual dirty mining clothes. ‘But if you want to choose anything different for him – a suit maybe – we can arrange that.’
‘Maybe his mining gear?’ she said to Maggie.
Maggie shrugged. ‘It’s your decision, dear.’
Kirsty wondered what they’d done with the overalls Da had been found in, the second, vital, token still in the pocket. Were they too grimy for him to be seen wearing? There were some spares in his wardrobe that she could get down. But it was the mine that had killed him. Would he want to be remembered in that way?
She ran upstairs to find the clean clothes, but as she rifled through the wardrobe, an image sidled into her mind of Da in his lifeguard’s chair at the pool, wearing his woollen black bather with the ‘crab back’ top. At once she knew what to do. She retrieved the outfit from the drawer, then returned to the undertaker. ‘Please put him in this.’
The man raised an eyebrow and glanced at Maggie, who shrugged again. ‘Well, dear, it’s a little irregular, but if that’s what you want . . .’
‘I do,’ said Kirsty. ‘And it’s what my father would have wanted too.’ She was sure of that now.
‘All right.’ The undertaker held up the costume, stretching it this way and that. ‘If you’d care to leave the room for a few moments, I will see to it.’
‘Thank you,’ Kirsty said, and followed Maggie into the kitchen.
The rest of the day was filled with a succession of visitors paying their respects: Beckford Street neighbours in ill-fitting suits who patted Kirsty’s shoulder and told her how much they’d miss Da; other miners who removed their caps at the door and shuffled past the coffin guiltily, murmuring their condolences, while their faces betrayed their relief that they’d been the ones to survive the accident; members of the pit management who looked in briskly then departed straight away as though terrified she’d ask them awkward questions. Most people looked a little uncomfortable when they peered into the coffin and saw how Da had been dressed. But Kirsty didn’t regret her decision: she wanted to remember him as a swimmer and a lifeguard: that would be people’s last memory of him.
When the final visitor had gone, Maggie took her back to Cadzow Street, insisting Kirsty shouldn’t be on her own for the time being. Kirsty felt guilty leaving Da behind but told herself he wouldn’t know. And she did feel anxious at the thought of staying in the house again. What if she forgot to lock the back door? Or woke in the night to the sound of creaking floorboards? Or the wind whistling down the chimney? She wasn’t ready to deal with all the memories yet. When she was at Maggie’s she was able to keep herself in check; she had an awful feeling that if she was on her own she wouldn’t be able to stop crying. It felt as if there was a huge bucket . . .
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