The Tower House. Down a secluded path, hidden by overgrown vines, the crumbling villa echoes with memories. Of the family who laughed and sang there, until the Nazis tore them from their home. And of the next woman to walk its empty rooms, whose courage in the face of evil could alter the course of history… Germany 1940. As secretary to the leader of the SS, Magda spends her days sending party invitations to high-ranking Nazis, and her evenings distributing pamphlets for the resistance. But Magda is leading a dangerous double life, smuggling secrets out of the office. It’s a deadly game, and eventual exposure is a certainty, but Magda is driven by a need to keep the man she secretly loves safe as he fights against the Nazis… Forty years later. Nina ’s heart pounds as she steps into an uncertain future carrying a forged passport, a few bank notes, and a scribbled address for The Tower House taken from an intricate drawing she found hidden in her grandmother’s wardrobe. Separated from her family and betrayed by her country, Nina’s last hope is to trace her family’s history in the ruins of the past her grandmother ran from. But, when she finally finds the abandoned house, she opens the door to a forgotten story, and to secrets which will change everything: past, present, and future… A poignant and gripping novel about bravery, loss and redemption during the Second World War. An unputdownable read for fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, We Were the Lucky Ones and The Alice Network. What readers are saying about Catherine Hokin: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘The best historical fiction book I’ve read this year! I was awake until the early morning hours finishing it, because I could not put it down!… Heartbreaking.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘What an amazing read… I was totally absorbed in the story and I would love to give it 10 stars. One of my best reads this year. I can’t begin to say how much I loved this book, I couldn’t put it down, absolutely brilliant.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ If I could give this book more than a five-star rating, I surely would! It is absolutely the best WW2 historical fiction I’ve read in a long time!… I couldn’t bear to put it down.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Can I give a rating higher than 5 stars?!… I really loved this book.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Have you ever read a book that has torn at your heartstrings so much that you just know it’s going to leave a lasting impression for the rest of time?… This book is going on that list!’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ This story just swept me away… I was left speechless… just wow!!… I do recommend a box of tissues… This book will have you turning the pages.’ Red Headed Book Lady blog ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘The more I read of this book, the more I had to read! What a fantastic story this is touching just about every emotion there is.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘A wonderfully heartbreaking story of life, love and above all survival. A truly emotional book and very hard to put down. 5*.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Captivating. Sobering. Unflinching. 5+ stars.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Squeezed my cold heart… I was turned inside out yet completely invested and unwilling to put my Kindle down while compelled to read late into the night.’ Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘What an extraordinary, engaging story. It moved me to undiscovered heights of understanding and compassion. A novel that will stay in my mind forever.’ Goodreads reviewer
Release date: May 24, 2021
Print pages: 350
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Magda couldn’t concentrate – her head was filled with lists. She had been so careful: she had replaced every letter and document his absence had allowed her to sneak a glance at, even though she hadn’t expected him back. She was methodical, she was never careless; she never assumed she was safe. So why was her heart pounding?
A sudden cough – the low bark she knew as a signal – pulled her back into the room. Walther. Magda caught his eye, and the brief nod which meant switch on your smile, straighten your shoulders.
A second later, she realised that Elsa had been alerted too and had followed her father’s gaze, her face twisting when she saw where it had landed. Elsa was a hawk, eyes everywhere, especially when it came to Magda. Magda knew she needed to make a better friend of the girl; the problem was how.
‘Fräulein Aderbach, look at the camera and hold your frame steady!’
Magda snapped her attention back to the photographer and smiled her best smile. It wasn’t until he was done positioning and repositioning his subjects that she managed to take a proper look at the drawing itself. It was a pen and ink sketch of a house, with an address and her name picked out in a gold scroll in the top corner. She had no clue what it meant, or why the men to her left and right were holding similar drawings. Her boss – Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler – had distributed his gifts to her and the others without explanation.
Magda forced herself to concentrate as Himmler began talking again, living up to his reputation for being long-winded. The first part of his speech had dragged on for an hour; the second could easily last as long. The special ceremonies Himmler had concocted to honour his beloved SS ran to timetables only he knew, and followed rituals he said harked back to the knights and quests Germany’s heroic past was filled with. Magda didn’t know if tonight’s Yuletide celebration – Himmler had forbidden his ‘family’ from calling it Christmas – was historic or not, but it was certainly macabre.
Himmler’s villa on Hagenstraβe in Grunewald – a wealthy suburb of Berlin tucked into the edges of the thick forest from which it took its name – had always struck Magda as a far colder place than it looked from its elegant exterior. Tonight, it was particularly austere. Himmler had removed the name from the holiday season and all the trappings that went with it. There was no tree weighed down with baubles, no gingerbread scenting the house, no carols. Himmler had instructed his guests to enter the wood-panelled reception hall in silence. He had left them there in a darkness so complete, Magda could barely see her own hand. By the time his carefully stage-managed theatricals had started – on the stroke of a gong whose loud bellow resounded through her body – the tension in the room was sharp enough to taste.
As the gong faded, a candelabra had burst into life, its flames welcomed by a ripple of voices too low for Magda to make out what was said. When it rang out again, a second set of candles had flared. This time, the murmur had separated itself into words, although Magda quickly wished that it hadn’t.
Let his, and our, light shine. Let his, and our, light shine.
The chant had whispered on and on, creeping out of the shadows and into the room. And then the third set of tapers had burst into life, and Magda finally saw them. The men in their black SS uniforms appearing like wraiths, intoning the chorus their wives and children instantly echoed. Soon, so many candles were ablaze, the room glowed a dull gold and some of the guests were discreetly loosening their collars. Magda, by contrast, was chilled to the bone. She had been edging away when Himmler had invited ten of his most ‘valued and trusted servants’ to step forward and had included her name with the chosen.
Walther coughed again. Magda refocused. Himmler was still speaking, his voice stuck in the monotonous drone his lackies told him was melodic.
‘These houses whose portraits you hold are your new homes. Treasure them: they are symbols of what this country will soon be. Every one of them once belonged to a Jew. Every one of them is cleansed by their removal. These streets are no longer defiled; this beautiful corner of Berlin is returned to us. As Germany will be returned to us, city by city, field by field, as our light – the Führer’s light – shines on in our hearts, and in our hands.’
He stopped. There was the briefest pause and then applause rang out, led, as Magda knew it would be, by Walther.
Himmler bowed and stepped forward, his too-eager beam fixed on his ‘lucky faithful’.
I have to thank him. I have to praise him to the skies or he will take offence and be done with me.
Magda knew what she needed to do, but her brain was stuck on cleansed and defiled and, when she opened her mouth, it refused to co-operate.
‘I can’t accept this. I can’t possibly—’
‘Believe my good fortune.’
Walther was at her side, his hand pressing onto her shoulder. Magda knew it was there to calm her, although it felt as if he was holding her in place.
‘And, given that you were my secretary before the Reichsführer’s, I am adding my thanks to yours. This is an honour for us both, wouldn’t you agree, Magda dear?’
Somehow she found the right words. Himmler lapped up her delighted performance and swept on to bask in the next.
Magda couldn’t move.
‘He trusts you. This is proof. You did it, Magda; you are where we need you to be. You should be proud.’
Walther’s whispered words as he steered Himmler away had pinned her to the spot as surely as his hand.
Magda stared around the room as the guests mingled, their diamond earrings and silver shoulder-flashes gleaming. She knew that Walther was right – that she had done her job well and convinced Himmler she was loyal – but the result of that was unbearable. The discreetly made-up women fawning over their uniformed husbands disgusted her. The scent of victory they wore turned her stomach.
We have played our parts so perfectly, they believe we’re the same as them.
Tears she didn’t dare shed pricked at her eyelids.
What if no one ever believes we were not?
The day of her great-grandmother Herthe Aderbach’s funeral was a day of firsts for seven-year-old Nina Dahlke.
It was the first time she had been in a graveyard, an event she quickly realised she did not want to repeat. It was the first time she had ridden in a car. It was the first time she had come face to face with the wall which divided Berlin into the East, which was her home, and the West which was a blank to her. And it was the first time she saw her unflappable grandmother Magda not only unsure of herself – a state of affairs which would have been strange enough on its own – but utterly and unmistakeably afraid.
The day had started with the car or, to be more accurate, her parents’ ridiculously childlike excitement about their new acquisition that not even a funeral could dim. Unlike her mother and father, Nina had no interest at all in cars. As far as she could see, the only remarkable thing about the boxy brown Trabi was the effect it had on her parents. If Nina had known the word, she would have described their mood as giddy. Her father Holger had polished it twice from tip to stern in the three days he had owned it. When they climbed into its chemically scented interior to drive to the cemetery, her normally undemonstrative mother Britte had caressed its thin roof.
‘Five years we’ve been waiting for this, Nina. Five years to get to the top of the list. Can you imagine?’
Given that it was identical to all the other cars that spluttered round their neighbourhood, Nina couldn’t. More than that, however, she had been confused by the question. Her parents had never asked her to use her imagination before; they normally begged her to stop. Good citizens of the German Democratic Republic – which both Britte and Holger Dahlke were determined they, and Nina, would be – were sensible people. Good citizens, as her mother constantly reminded her, were not given to flights of fancy which were of no practical use. Her teacher had said the same thing when she handed back Nina’s last story assignment – which was, admittedly, rather more magical than the theme ‘The Good Child of the Factory’ had requested – soaked in red pen. As far as Nina could see, and as she had explained to Frau Maier when she saw the D scrawled across her hard work, what the phrase good citizens really meant was dried-up and dull.
The memory of Frau Maier’s plump face reshaping from cosy to pursed wasn’t a pleasant one. Neither was the memory of sitting in Principal Huber’s office while he angrily invited her parents to explain why they were raising a child who ‘believed she had the right to question authority’ and ‘what was going so wrong with their parenting?’ All three of them had had to write letters of apology to the school, an instruction Nina had struggled to understand, given that the ‘crime’ in question was hers.
‘It’s the way things are done, chicken. Everyone is responsible for everyone around them. That means that there are thoughts it’s better to keep private, rather than letting everything that pops into your head pop out on your tongue. It isn’t always easy, Nina, hiding who you are – I know that, I really do. But, trust me, sometimes it’s the safest thing.’
Grandma Magda had dried Nina’s tears with that advice; Nina hadn’t admitted how much it disappointed her. Although she hadn’t fully understood everything Magda had said, she knew it wasn’t a million miles away from her mother’s tight-lipped ‘learn to be quiet and learn that quickly before you mess everything up’.
What Nina had really wanted when she crawled wet-eyed onto her grandmother’s knee was for Magda to defend her. To march into school waving the red-inked assignment as if it was one of the scarlet flags the whole building was festooned with and demand the grade A Nina knew it deserved. It was Magda, after all, who had introduced her to the fairy stories packed with princesses and curses and magical creatures which Nina had been trying to copy. The stories Frau Maier had dismissed as ‘empty capitalist nonsense you have no business reading’. And it was her grandmother who always insisted that everybody had the right to fair treatment – it was one of her favourite sayings – and Nina having her best story covered in red definitely wasn’t fair treatment.
Nina had been about to beg Magda to do just that, and then it had dawned on her that perhaps her grandmother had no business reading the stories either. That Magda would also get into trouble if she admitted she was the source of Nina knowing them. It was, admittedly, hard for Nina to imagine Herr Huber demanding a letter of apology from someone as well respected as her grandmother.
Until her retirement, Magda had held some kind of job with the government which Nina didn’t understand but knew was important because everyone had told her so. She still sat on a lot of what sounded like very boring committees. And she had done something heroic in the war, although the war – and everything associated with it, including the death of Nina’s never-discussed grandfather – was a time in her life Magda refused to speak about. But then Nina’s mother was a teacher, and her father worked in an office, which were also respectable jobs, and the principal had still managed to reduce them to the status of naughty children. Instead of arguing, therefore, Nina had tried out the art of holding her tongue that everyone had suggested she practise. It hadn’t come easily.
‘Remember, Nina, this isn’t a place for children. I don’t know what Mother was thinking letting you come, but it’s on her head not mine. There’s to be none of your nonsense today.’
Britte’s terse command broke into Nina’s meanderings as the car made its slightly jerky way round the edge of Friedrichsfelde Cemetery. If she had been looking at her daughter as they drove through the narrow gateposts, Britte would have realised that the order wasn’t necessary. Nina was staring out of the window at the bare lifeless trees and the crumbling weather-beaten statues feeling suddenly very small. Wishing she had listened to everyone, including her mother, who had told her she was too young to go to a funeral, and not begged Magda to let her attend.
Everyone had talked about the importance of ‘saying a proper goodbye’ and how comforting that was. Nothing in the cemetery, however, was comforting. The rows of headstones sticking up like greying teeth upset her. So did the damp-smelling earth piled up beside the grave, and the coffin which was too solid and too final and far too small to contain her big-hearted great-grandmother. Nina pushed her shaking hands deep into the pockets of her scratchy wool coat and squeezed her eyes shut as the casket was lowered into the grave. Then the first clod of earth thumped onto the lid and her knees turned to water.
‘She’s been very brave, but that’s enough now, Holger. Why don’t you take her home or, better still, given that we’ll be here a little while yet, take her for a drive in that new car of yours. Show her a bit of Berlin.’
Nina was more than happy to obey her grandmother’s quietly made intervention. Holger was more than happy to follow his mother-in-law’s bidding and lead his family away. Within moments, Nina was back in the car, curled up with the doll she wished she hadn’t left behind on the back seat during the funeral, as her parents reeled off street names and landmarks and tried to work out a route. Nina didn’t mind where they went, as long as it was away from the cemetery. Her ears pricked up, however, when Holger mentioned the Brandenburg Tor. None of her classmates had been to see that yet, and a trip to the Tor, with its enormous chariot and horses, would be quite an adventure to boast about.
It soon became clear, however, that neither of her parents possessed the knowledge of the city’s streets they both claimed. The wedding-cake houses on Karl Marx Allee did not lead into Alexanderplatz with its needle-shaped television tower, as Holger had confidently promised it would. Instead of the broad tree-lined sweep of the Unter den Linden, which Britte had said Nina would love, the Trabi was locked instead inside a labyrinth of increasingly narrow grey streets. Nothing outside the windows looked different enough from the roads round her home in Oberschöneweide to grab Nina’s attention. If anything, the district they were in was less interesting – at least there were pretty parks where she lived and it was within walking distance of the river. Nina stopped imagining the tales she would take into school. She was tired, and slightly sick from the car’s constant bumping. She closed her eyes as her parents continued to bicker. Then Britte’s moaning turned into a wail.
‘Where have you brought us? Oh dear God, that’s a guardhouse. It’s a checkpoint. Are you mad?’
Nina snapped awake. The car’s back window didn’t open, but she pressed herself up against it as hard as she could and peered out. The street ahead was blocked by a slab of concrete whose dinginess made the red and white barrier stretched in front of it seem unnaturally bright.
‘Is that it? Is that the Wall?’
Britte sprang round and pulled Nina back from the glass as if it was paper-thin. ‘Don’t call it that, especially not here where you’ve no idea who could be listening. Do you want to get us arrested?’ She kept one hand on Nina’s chest and punched Holger’s arm with the other. ‘Don’t just sit there – turn round or reverse.’
Holger tried, but his feet were too heavy, and the gears crunched. As he tried again, the hut door flew open and two soldiers came running, their rifles lifted and trained on the Trabi.
‘Cut the engine! They must think we’re trying to escape.’
Britte’s piercing shriek bounced round the car; Nina flung her hands across her ears. The guns were coming closer, slick and black and mesmerising.
‘Mama, what do you mean? Escape from where? And why would we be arrested?’
Her mother either couldn’t hear her or didn’t want to.
The soldiers flanked the car and drummed their fists against the front windows.
‘Don’t open them, Papa, please.’
But Holger didn’t have time to register her tears: he was already half out of his seat, dragged out by one of the gun-wielding guards.
Britte turned round again to Nina. Her pale skin was scarlet, and her thin lips were white. Her face looked all the wrong way round. ‘Get out, Nina, before they make you. Whatever they ask you, answer them. And, for God’s sake, don’t call it what you called it before: remember the right name.’
Nina scrambled out of the car behind her mother, scuffing her shiny brown shoes on the cobbles.
One of the soldiers waved her onto the pavement.
The Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier. Only Westerners call it the Wall.
The Barrier: that was the name Britte wanted her to use – the one that had been drilled into Nina since her first day at school.
As the soldiers began grilling her parents, she dug round for all the other facts she had had to learn and regurgitate in tests and essays, terrified she might make a mistake and get her parents into more trouble than they were in already: 1961 – it had been built in 1961. And it was there for the GDR’s protection, to keep out the capitalists and the criminals from the wicked other side. What was it Herr Huber always said, in his never-ending assemblies at the start of each term? Nina scrabbled round, trying to hear his voice over the blood drumming in her ears. We’re not meant to go near it. That was it. In case Westerners get close enough to tempt us into wrongdoing. And terrible things would happen if it wasn’t there. She could picture him now and hear his voice booming through her head the way it had in the school gymnasium.
‘The West doesn’t respect our way of life and they are jealous of our excellent workers and would steal them all if they could. And worse, far worse, without that barrier, the West would wage war on us, with all the terrible suffering that would bring. Our government loves us too much to permit that and so it protects us. And we love our government, don’t we?’
Nina always shouted back yes along with the rest of the school, even though she didn’t really know what he meant by war and suffering, and she wasn’t sure how to love something as faceless as a government. And she had stopped putting her hand up to ask because Frau Maier said there was no need or place for questions, and only naughty children asked them. Instead of sharing her confusion, Nina had done what everyone else did and agreed that, yes, she was privileged to live in a country that truly cared for its citizens. It was hard, however, to feel privileged while soldiers brandishing rifles screamed at her parents and threatened to take them away.
In the end, the border guards didn’t speak to her. After they had checked the car and found neither the suitcases or the money they were apparently looking for, they seemed to accept that Britte and Holger were hopeless navigators, not escapees, and released them. Holger drove jerkily away; neither Britte nor Nina mentioned the rip in the shoulder of his tweed coat. Nobody mentioned anything about the incident at all. The only thing Britte said to Nina was a curt, ‘Don’t tell your grandmother – I really don’t need my mother’s commentary on this.’
Nina didn’t answer; she was too busy trying to make sense of the guns and the threats.
The journey back to Magda’s two-storey home in Triniusstraβe, a ten-minute walk from the Dahlkes’ apartment building in Kottmeier Allee, was completed at an uncomfortable bone-jarring speed. By the time they arrived, the house was crammed with people. Holger and Britte disappeared into the forest of black coats, but Nina was too shaken to weave her way through them. She slipped away instead, first to the kitchen where she helped herself to a slab of almond-studded sugar cake, and then upstairs to the back of the house and her great-grandmother Herthe’s bedroom. The room, however, wasn’t a sanctuary anymore: it was too hollowed out. The sturdy furniture was all in its right place. Herthe’s collection of silver-framed photographs still hung on the wall; her tortoiseshell hairbrush was still on the dressing table. The right things were there, but Herthe wasn’t and so none of them breathed. The bed Herthe had spent her last year in, where Nina had curled up in the afternoons after school, wasn’t a boat or a magic carpet; it was just a bed. Without the stories that went with them, the faces staring out from the photographs were meaningless shadows.
Nina put her cake down, her appetite gone. It had barely been a week since Herthe had died – there must surely still be a trace of her somewhere?
Where’s the treasure tin? It isn’t her room without the treasure tin.
Nina spun round to the nightstand, fingers crossed that the floral tin brimming with buttons and coins and cast-off bits of jewellery would be sitting there waiting. Ever since Herthe had been bedridden, she had insisted on keeping it close by, ready for Nina to play with. In the last weeks before her death, when Herthe had been too weak to do anything except hold Nina’s hand, Magda had picked up the game her mother had started. The three of them had settled themselves against the thick pillows, Magda had cast the spell Herthe was too tired to manage – Pick out one piece and I’ll spin you a story – and Nina had opened the tin and plunged in, pulling out a broken chain, or a pendant that had lost its setting, or a key that had long lost its lock, to weave a tale out of. It was their special thing: mother and daughter and granddaughter all in love with storytelling. Except now the nightstand was empty and the stories were gone.
Nina panicked. She blundered round the room blind as a moth, rummaging behind the curtains, checking under the bed. There was no tin to be seen. The drawers in the nightstand and dresser were too narrow for it to be stowed in there. The only piece of furniture where it might possibly be hiding was in the bulky, double-fronted wardrobe. Nina hesitated: she had a feeling that her grandmother wouldn’t be happy with her opening doors and digging. Magda was a stickler for something she called privacy, which Britte had explained, somewhat confusingly, as ‘keeping your hands to yourself and your nose well out’. Nina knew she should really ask first, but her grandmother was busy, and she needed to find it. She reached up, gripped the two dangling brass rings and pulled.
The doors swung open with a pop and a whoosh of dried-out musty lavender. It had been such a long time since Nina had seen Herthe in anything but a high-necked white nightgown and a washed-out woollen bed-jacket, it was a shock to see the flower-sprigged skirts and dresses that filled the deep space.
Nina stepped back. She didn’t want to touch them. They looked too stiff to have ever contained her great-grandmother’s body. And so old, she was scared the tiniest knock would crumble them to dust. But she wanted the treasure tin, and all storytellers knew that missing things always ended up in places that were frightening. Holding her breath, Nina bent down as far as she could, making sure that only the bottom of the clothes were in her eyeline. She wriggled a careful hand under the rigid rows of material, stretching until her fingers found a line of boxes at the back.
The first two were cardboard and gave when she pressed them, but the third one was cold and rattled when she pushed. Taking a deep breath, Nina grabbed hold of it and pulled. The tin slid out. As it did so, it dislodged a tightly coiled scroll which rolled out onto the floor in a puff of dust.
Nina instantly forgot about the treasure and grabbed for the scroll. The paper was thick and had yellowed in patches and was far more exciting than broken bits of jewellery – it could be a map, or a letter, or a long-lost painting hidden since the war which the government would thank Nina for finding and maybe even give her a medal. She tugged the roll open, smoothed it out, and then sat back on the carpet and gasped.
It was a drawing, done in black ink, of the most wonderful house Nina had ever seen. The delicately sketched building was like an illustration from a picture book; it was certainly nothing like the houses in Oberschöneweide. The homes crowding those streets were either apartment blocks of the sort Nina lived in, which were all sharp edges and identical rooms, or small and square like her grandmother’s, which had been built for loyal party workers after World War Two’s air raids had devastated the area. Nothing on this house, however, was simple or plain. The doorway was arched and ornate and had a circular clock and a carved shield set above it. The tiled roof curved in swoops and dips. There was a round tower on one corner, and shuttered windows with small hearts carved into them, and what appeared to be a covered walkway or balcony wrapped round one side. It was jumbled and chaotic and enchanting. It looked like the kind of house a magician would live in with a family of owls, or where a princess would hold parties for a court full of elves.
Nina’s imagination was already soaring, and then she noticed the lettering in the top right-hand corner. It was printed in gold and in an elaborately curly style which made the inscription difficult to read, but, on the third go, she got it:
The Tower House, Erdener Straβe, Berlin-Grunewald. For Magda Aderbach from HH, a gift.
‘Where did you find that?’
Nina had been so entranced, she hadn’t heard the bedroom door open or her grandma come in. If she had been paying more attention, she might have noticed that Magda’s tone was oddly clipped.
‘It was in the back of the wardrobe. It fell out when I was looking for Great-Grandma’s tin. It’s so beautiful, Grandma – as pretty as a castle from a fairy tale. And it’s got your name on it. Did you really live there? Was it really yours?’
Nina looked up at Magda, expecting her face to shine with excitement. She didn’t recognise the woman staring down at her. Nina knew her grandmother was old, at least sixty, but she had never thought of her that way. When Magda picked Nina up from school – which she did every afternoon now she had retired – she never complained that she was too tired to play, the way Nina’s mother always did. She didn’t even complain when Nina begged to stay out in the park on chilly days when the wind made Magda’s damaged hand ache. Magda had always been solid and reliable and steady. Now her body was drawn in and hunched and Nina couldn’t imagine her walking anywhere, never mind playing chase. As for her face. Nina had heard the phrase as white as snow before, but snow was real and it sparkled. Magda’s skin had turned the colour of the putty her father used to mend holes with.
The thought came from nowhere and made Nina shiver. Her grandmother was capable and certain; she was never afraid. And yet even that unthinkable word wasn’t strong enough to explain the distortion in Magda’s face. Her mother had been afraid at the checkpoint, and so had Nina. But there had been guns and soldiers and shouting there, and fear that was noisy and messy, that spilled out in begging and tears. There was nothing here but a piece of paper, and the fear Nina could sense swirling round Magda wasn’t noisy, it didn’t spill out. It was cold and solid, and bigger than the room.
‘What’s the matter?’
Magda replied as if she hadn’t heard the question. ‘I had no idea she’d kept it. I told her to get rid of it; I told her to burn both of the pictures I was stupid enough to bring back. She promised me she had. I should have realised she could never resist anything pretty.’
Nina didn’t know how she was supposed to react. Magda had spat out the last word. Now she was staring at the drawing as if she expected it to burst into flames.
‘Don’t you like it?’
Magda looked at Nina blankly, and then her eyes suddenly filled. Although Magda upset and crying was as unthinkable to Nina as Magda afraid, it was an easier thought to latch on to.
Maybe she’s sad. Maybe she loved living there as much as I know I would and she’s miserable she doesn’t anymore. Maybe HH was a prince she once loved and he had to go away, on a quest.
‘Can I have it?’
Nina picked the sketch up. ‘You’re sad to see the house again, aren’t you? Because you miss it and the person who gave it to you. But I love it, I do, and I’d take care of this, and I’d write stories about it. And maybe, in a bit, if you stopped feeling upset, you could tell me what it was like living there.’ Nina smiled at her grandma, confident she had worked out the problem. ‘It’s a princess’s house. You’re so lucky.’
There was no answering smile. Magda’s body stiffened; her mouth went slack.
Nina scrambled to her feet, still clutching the drawing.
‘Grandma, what’s wrong? Are you sick? Should I go and get Mama?’
‘A princess’s house? Is that what you think? My God, how must it feel to be this innocent?’
. . .
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