Two women. One shocking wartime secret. And a family mystery just waiting to be discovered… Berlin Zoo, 1943: Ten-year-old Adelaide and her newborn sister are orphaned after a devastating night of bombing. Heartbroken and frightened, Adelaide runs to her mother’s closest friend, Katharina Heinroth, and the kind zookeeper takes the two little girls under her protection. As the bombing intensifies, Adelaide tries to shut out the horrors of war by caring for her tiny sister and playing with the adorable baby monkeys. But when Katharina organises a dangerous operation to enable children and animals to escape the battle-scarred city, something goes wrong. And Adelaide has to promise her adopted mother to keep a shocking secret. A secret that will change Adelaide’s life forever. Berlin Zoo, 2019: Bethan Taylor notices the elderly lady sitting on the bench next to her seems confused, her thoughts flitting between past and present. Ada talks of her childhood, played out in an underground bunker beneath the animal enclosures during the war. As Ada’s story unfolds, Bethan is surprised to hear a name she recognises… Katharina Heinroth is at the top of a list of German names Bethan found in a hidden compartment of her late mother’s jewellery box. Bethan’s father couldn’t tell her anything about the crumpled piece of paper and she’s been searching for the meaning ever since. As the two women are brought together by the pain of the past can they help each other to heal? And after decades of silence, can Ada help Bethan to uncover a long-buried family mystery? An unforgettable and heart-wrenching novel of a brave orphan girl and a shocking wartime secret. Inspired by a true WW2 story and perfect for fans of Orphan Train, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Alice Network. Why readers love The Berlin Zookeeper : ‘ Heartbreaking but amazing!… I was gripped from the very beginning and honestly I didn't want this book to end! The writing was just fabulous loved it! NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Wow! What an emotional read, right from the very start the author was pulling at my heart strings and my emotions, there was times I had to put down my kindle because I had tears in my eyes… five star read.’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Loved, loved, loved this gem!... incredible story and the characters walked off the pages and into my heart… This is a must-read! ’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Brilliant… loved this book so much… hankies at the ready cos you will need them, heartbreaking.’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ This book grabbed me from the very beginning... this book was a home run… I loved every page of this book… terrific!! ’ toreadistobreathe, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Kept me hooked from the beginning… I was totally engrossed in the story… beautiful book… Worth five stars! ’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ FANTASTIC!’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ An unforgettable historical novel that will have readers reaching for the tissues… a poignant tale guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings. Emotional, affecting and beautifully written… will keep readers gripped throughout.’ Bookish Jottings, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Heartwarming… I honestly felt like I couldn’t read this book fast enough & the setting of Berlin Zoo was just magical. Don’t miss out! ’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Just beautiful and poignant. Heart-breaking and heartwarming. I cried... Just beautiful. Do read this one.’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Release date: May 4, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Zookeeper's Daughter
Bethan’s hands shook as she looked at the strange list, written years ago in her mother’s precious hand. Clipped to the top of it was a small silver brooch in the shape of a chubby hippo and, unfastening it carefully, she pinned it to the lapel of her coat. Her hand shook and she stabbed her finger with the pin but she almost welcomed the pain. It reminded her of the terrible day she’d found the now yellowing piece of paper.
She’d been eleven and raw with grief. Her mother’s funeral had been awful and afterwards, when she’d just wanted to curl up in her dad’s arms to resist the grief that threatened to drown her, there had been what felt like hundreds of people in their house, drinking and crying and endlessly telling her how much Jana had loved her.
Bethan hadn’t wanted their assurances, she’d just wanted her mother’s love alive and well, scolding her for not eating her crusts, nagging her to do her homework, making her pancakes on a Saturday morning. She hadn’t wanted all those heavy arms around her, just her mum’s tickles and easy cuddles, so when the food had been served, she’d snuck away to hide upstairs under her parents’ bed. At eleven she’d been almost too big to fit but it had still felt right. So had grabbing her mum’s jewellery box to take under with her, as if the contents might give her a key back to the past.
And in a way they had – just not to her own past. For there, beneath the pretty necklaces and bracelets of happier times, had been the hippo brooch. She’d been instantly caught by the cute animal, and with it had come the small sheet of paper she was gazing on now, filled, in her mother’s distinctively rounded European hand, with women’s names.
Bethan had stared at it until her tear-red eyes had swum with more than just sorrow. She’d always been fascinated by her mum’s German roots and the language that had been their own little code. She’d loved visiting the country and staying with her Oma Erika and had missed it once Oma had died three years ago. And now this – a suggestion that there had been things going on in Jana’s life that Bethan hadn’t known about, people that had been important to her, questions she had wanted answers to. It had been a special link to her mum just when it had felt as if all connection had been lost.
Later that night, when it had finally just been her and Dad, she’d asked him about it. His reaction had hit her like a thunderbolt.
‘Where on earth did you get that, Beth?’
He’d snatched it out of her fingers, jolting her.
‘I found it. It was in Mum’s jewellery box and you said everything in her jewellery box was mine now, so that means it’s mine.’
He’d made a strange noise in the back of his throat, then fought to control himself.
‘I did, sweetheart, I did. But this is just a silly thing. Just a, a shopping list.’
‘Who are they?’
‘I’m not sure. Just people in Germany. Friends, I think, from when Mum was young.’
‘Friends? Are you sure? This one’s a countess, see.’ She’d tried to take it from him but he’d pulled it away, tearing the edge, and she hadn’t dared fight for it in case it ripped totally.
‘Please, Daddy. I like it. It’s in her writing.’
‘So is this.’
He’d plucked the card off her bedside table. It had a picture of two elephants with their trunks entwined and, inside, a long message of love from her mum. It had been Bethan’s most treasured possession but that hadn’t stopped her wanting the list.
‘What’s so secret about it?’ she’d demanded.
He had backtracked then, insisting, again, that it was just a ‘silly thing’, before sweeping it off downstairs. She’d heard the slam of the kitchen bin and lain there, the hippo brooch clutched tightly in her hand, picturing the list rotting amongst the tea bags and potato peelings and trying not to hear her father crying quietly in front of the TV. Later, when he’d finally trudged up to bed, she’d crept back down, opened the bin and dug amongst all the sludgy mess until she’d found the paper, stained and damp but whole. She’d hated deceiving her dad but had been convinced there was something important about the list. It had felt as if it were a little part of her mum, still alive and contained on the paper, and Bethan had clung to it.
Now her fingers went to the brooch, tracing the indented letters on the silver hippo’s chunky feet: BZ. She’d had no idea what they signified until Google had been invented years later and given her some basic information about the top name on the list: Katharina Heinroth – director of Berlin Zoo after the Second World War. Somehow, it seemed, the zoo had been important to her mother, so that had made it important to Bethan, even before she’d landed a job there.
Carefully, she placed the fragile list into her leather vet’s bag. It was time to head for her new workplace, a new chapter in her life and a chance to try and find out more about the mystery list. Both, she knew, would be a challenge but it was one she was finally ready for.
Bethan stared happily up at the word, scrolled across an ornate archway supported by two huge marble elephants. Was this really the entrance to her new home? All around her, crowds were filing in, pointing at the monkeys playing in the cages to their left and running across to see the pandas lounging in their bamboo grove ahead. Bethan’s fingers went to the hippo brooch and she almost skipped with excitement.
‘I’m so pleased to be here,’ she said in German to Ella, the young vet who’d kindly picked her up from the airport.
Ella was twenty-five with silky copper skin, a shock of dark curls in a bouncy ponytail, and a seemingly unfaltering smile. She was very chatty and already Bethan could feel the language coming more easily to her. She’d worked hard over the years to keep her German fluent, but without her mum to chat to it had inevitably become a little rusty. It felt special to hear their ‘code’ in action again.
‘We’re delighted to have you,’ Ella said. ‘We’ve been run off our feet recently. So many animals seem to be breeding that we can hardly keep up. Last week fifteen turtles hatched, yesterday we had two baby chimps, and Reina is due to give birth soon.’
‘One of the lionesses. Don’t worry – you’ll soon to get to know all the names. Come on, let’s take you to the vet centre and then we can show you around.’
The queue of visitors parted at the sight of her dark green uniform and she waved at the young lad in the ticket booth and headed off past the monkeys, threading her way around a rocky compound from which baboons shrieked and chattered. She blew them a kiss and led Bethan round the back and up to a low, modern building. Big doors blocked their way but Ella’s pass let them straight through and, as Bethan saw a few of the visitors eyeing them curiously, she felt a surge of pride. She was an employee of the zoo with access to all the private areas, and she felt like a kid in a sweetshop. It was everything she had dreamed of and more.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Callum had questioned her this morning, as she’d taken her medical bag through to their room to get the rest of her luggage.
She could see her boyfriend now, his chocolatey eyes shadowed by a frown as he’d sat on their bed, plucking at a loose thread on the Leicester City duvet cover that had been about his only contribution to the decor of the flat.
‘You know how much I’ve been wanting to work in a zoo, Callum.’
‘What’s wrong with Twycross?’
She’d blinked, wondering why on earth he’d waited until now to express his doubts.
‘Nothing, really. It just hasn’t got a research department as big as Berlin. This is a huge opportunity for me, Cal, you know that. You’ve read my PhD on animals in captivity. You said it was interesting.’
‘It was interesting. I just didn’t realise it was going to, you know, consume you.’
Callum had plucked again at the duvet, puckering Jamie Vardy’s face.
‘Are you sure this is about the zoo, Beth?’
‘What else would it be about?’
‘Your mum,’ he’d said. ‘And that stupid list you’re so obsessed with.’
Bethan had gasped.
‘How dare you? It’s not a stupid list and it’s not the main reason I’ve taken this job. If you can’t see that then maybe it’s a good job we’re having some time apart.’
‘What d’you mean by that? Are you leaving me, Bethan?’
For a moment she’d been tempted to say yes. Things had been rocky between them since Callum had turned thirty-five at the back end of last year and started partying hard, trying to ward off impending middle age. Bethan didn’t like it – she’d invited him to move into her flat a year ago to share their future, not to save him beer money – but friends had told her it was just a male-crisis thing and a few weeks without her would soon sort out his priorities. She hoped they were right, but for now she had to focus on her career.
An athletic older lady came striding towards them and she rushed forward to shake her hand.
‘Bethan – welcome to Berlin Zoo.’
‘It’s fantastic to be here. Thank you so much for taking me on.’
Tanya, the head vet who’d video-interviewed her last month, was tall with sharp grey eyes and a long plait of hair far blonder than Bethan’s own strawberry locks. She shook her hand enthusiastically.
‘You were the best candidate by far so I’d have been mad not to. Let’s show you around. Ella, could you…’
But at that moment Ella’s phone bleeped and a highly realistic meerkat avatar peeped out of the screen. Bethan squinted at it and Ella laughed.
‘It’s our bleeper system. I’m a meerkat and I’m needed at the hippo house. Sorry, Tanya, can you show Bethan around?’
‘Of course,’ Tanya agreed, but then her phone bleeped as well, displaying a picture of a giraffe. ‘Hang on – me too. Come on, Bethan, straight into the heart of the action!’
Bethan followed the other two women as they headed up past the elephants doing tricks for their keepers, and two rhinos digging in the dirt, and made for a futuristic glass dome. They moved fast and Bethan, encumbered by her bags, was soon panting. She fought to keep up as they laced their way through a large group of visitors and past a statue of a hippo, startlingly realistic save that it was wrought in rich bronze that sparkled in the spring sunshine. Something about it seemed curiously familiar and Bethan paused to look.
‘Knautschke,’ Ella told her. ‘Father, grandfather and great-grandfather to most of the hippos in here, bless him.’
‘Is he still alive?’
‘Lord no. He was born in the war. Nearly died in it too by all accounts, but was saved from a burning building just in time. This way.’
A keeper was waving to them from the edge of the water, and Bethan again felt the thrill of being part of the team as Tanya’s pass opened up the gate. Two of the younger hippos had been fighting and one, Klumpig, had a nasty gash in his side.
‘It’ll need stitching up,’ Tanya said straight away. ‘We’ll have to get him somewhere more private.’
She nodded to the growing crowd beyond the barrier and the keeper, Sonya, fondly patted the head of the hippo who looked up at her forlornly. Bethan’s already laboured breathing caught. Klumpig was clearly a juvenile, but he was a big lad with a huge mouth and long teeth. She had to remind herself that he was a herbivore. This was a far cry from the parade of dogs, cats and hamsters that she’d been used to in the practice back home, and she bent down to touch the animal’s leathery back to be sure that it was real. Behind her another hippo let out a furious bellow and she jumped.
‘Don’t worry – Mummy hippo’s behind the gates.’
Bethan looked over and saw that the other hippos had been locked off by a metal barrier, both above and below the blue pool. Within moments Sonya was fetching a sling-device and they were able to winch up Klumpig and carry him into the sleeping area at the back. A disappointed sigh rippled around the crowd and Tanya laughed.
‘Did they think I was going to whip out my needle in front of them?’
‘They certainly hoped it,’ Ella said. ‘Sorry, Bethan, we threw you in at the deep end there. Let’s see if we can find someone to show you around.’
‘No rush,’ Bethan said, as Tanya began swabbing the hippo’s thick skin.
‘It’s best. No offence, but the more of us in here, the more agitated Mum will get.’ She nodded in the direction of the bellows still sounding out from the pool. ‘I’ll bleep Max.’
Before Bethan could protest further, Ella pulled out her phone, opened the zoo app and selected a picture of a cheeky chimp.
‘Max, hi! We’ve got an incident in the hippo house. Have you got time to come and show the new vet around? The English one, yes.’
‘Half German,’ Bethan corrected her self-consciously, but Ella was talking again.
‘Course you can, Max. It’s good for you to get away from your precious monkeys and talk to something a little more evolved.’ She laughed merrily at whatever poor Max replied. ‘She won’t bite you. She’s nice. And very pretty.’
‘Ella!’ Bethan objected. Already the younger vet was feeling like a sort of mischievous little sister. ‘I’ll just wait somewhere till you’re done, really.’
Ella waved her quiet.
‘Thank you, Max,’ she trilled. ‘See you in a minute.’ She clicked off the phone. ‘He’s coming to get you. Leave your bags here and head back out to the entrance. He’ll see you there.’
‘But…’ Bethan started, before she saw that Tanya and Sonya urgently needed Ella’s help and she was only getting in the way.
Shyly she edged back round the pool, very aware of myriad visitors’ eyes on her. Outside, she rested a hand on the broad, bronze back of the Knautschke statue to steady herself. But something about the smooth feel of it triggered a memory that sent her already strained senses reeling.
She was ten and dressed in shorts and her favourite penguin T-shirt, her strawberry blonde hair in two little pigtails and a rucksack on her back containing a camera, a notebook and pink pencil with which she intended to record all she saw at the zoo. Her mother was with her, and suddenly Bethan could imagine herself back in time and reached out a hand to try and touch the hem of Jana’s sky-blue dress. It met only thin air and she snatched it back, worried she looked insane.
‘This is Knautschke, Bethie,’ her mum’s voice said in her head. ‘That means Crumples in English. Cute, isn’t he?’ Bethan could remember looking into the big mouth of the bronze creature and not being sure that ‘cute’ was quite the right word for him, but her mum had looked so eager that she’d nodded. ‘Want to ride on his back?’ Before Bethan could answer, Jana had hoiked her up to sit astride the hippo. ‘Isn’t that great? Isn’t he cool?’
Bethan closed her eyes, trying to capture the moment, and was relieved when her phone pinged, pulling her back into the present. It was her dad.
Are you there safe, sweetheart?
She grinned and typed back.
I’m here and it’s fab.
The little dots squiggled as her father typed an answer.
Send me lots of pictures. Can’t wait to see it. Tickets booked for Easter weekend. Missing you already. x
Missing you too, Dad. xxxxx
She added a couple more kisses for luck and pressed send. Callum thought her close relationship with her dad was ‘weird’. He never understood why she popped in to see him every few days, or how often she liked to invite him over to eat with them. He and Paul shared a love of sport which gave them plenty to talk about, but he still insisted it was strange to be this attached to a parent at thirty-three. Maybe it was, but it was her strange and she liked it that way.
Bethan jumped and looked up to see a tall man with dark, floppy hair, intense blue eyes and impatience written across every line of his slim body.
‘That’s me. Max?’
‘Max Femer, head primate keeper and assistant manager here at the zoo. I hear you need a guide.’
His voice was low and warm but he had a very clipped way of speaking, as if there wasn’t enough time for more words. Bethan leaped to answer.
‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m sure you’re busy and I wouldn’t want to hold you up.’
‘No trouble. I have half an hour before feeding time so if we’re quick we can just about fit everything in.’
‘If we’re quick,’ he said sternly, and she clamped her mouth shut and hurried after him as he made off up the path.
His legs were long and his strides as purposeful as his speech, and within moments Bethan was out of breath again. Thank God she’d packed her running shoes; she had to get into shape.
‘Eagle canyon,’ Max was saying, waving to the heavily netted area to their right. ‘Over there, our bears. Everyone loves the polar bears but I think they’re over-rated. I like the brown ones far better. Much more unassuming. And they’re the symbol of Berlin, you know.’
Bethan, almost jogging to keep up, couldn’t think of anything to say but Max was already striding onwards. He took her round the large zoo at speed, ducking expertly around dawdling visitors and throwing animal names at her – ‘penguins, zebras, storks, pandas’. Bethan stopped to stare at the gorgeous black-and-white creatures lazily chewing on bamboo cane beneath an elegant Chinese-style pagoda but Max tutted quietly and, suspecting he found this another over-rated creature, she forced herself on. She was here for a year, after all, so there’d be all the time in the world to drink in every one of the beautiful animals. She hugged herself at the thought and ran after him.
‘And here are the monkeys.’
He stopped so suddenly that she almost ran into him. She put out a hand to steady herself and it met with a surprisingly muscular back. Hastily she stepped away.
‘No problem.’ The look in his dark eyes suggested otherwise, but just then a chimp came swinging across the ropes and he softened instantly. ‘Binky!’
He swiped his pass to open the door and stepped inside, arms held out to the chimp who leaped into them with a chatter of delight. Bethan was so mesmerised that she forgot to catch the door before it locked behind him, and it was only Binky leaping and pointing at her that reminded Max she was there at all. Wordlessly he swiped his pass again and she slid inside. Binky, at least, seemed pleased to see her and reached out to twine her slim fingers into Bethan’s fair hair. She laughed and, to her surprise, Max did too.
‘She likes you.’
‘I’m honoured.’ Beth stood very still as Binky’s fingers went up to her skull and started plucking at her roots. ‘What’s she doing?’
‘Grooming you for fleas.’
‘I hope she doesn’t find any!’
‘Me too. We usually de-bug new arrivals but I’m guessing there hasn’t been time to catch you yet.’
‘I’ll have you know…’ she started, and then saw a twinkle in his dark eyes and stopped. ‘Very funny.’
‘Come on, you can help feed this lot.’
Binky obviously knew the word ‘feed’ as she let go of Bethan’s hair and flung herself around the cage, whooping. Other monkeys appeared instantly, heading their way in loops and somersaults. Bethan watched, transfixed, and was startled when Max’s hand closed around hers and pulled her sideways.
‘Come on, before they get over-excited.’
‘They’re not over-excited now?’ she asked incredulously, but he was heading for a door at the side, and with his hand still holding hers there was little she could do but follow.
His grip was firm, his skin warm and work-callused so that it tickled against her own, sending a strange tingle across her body. It was just tiredness, she told herself, tiredness and a fierce awareness of this exotic world into which she had been so swiftly plunged. Max paused in the side room and looked down at their hands as if he, too, was surprised by the touch.
‘Sorry,’ he said, snatching his fingers away. ‘The monkeys can be a bit frisky with newcomers.’
‘Lively,’ he corrected hastily. ‘I meant lively. Playful. Mischievous, you know.’
He turned to a young man who’d just come in with buckets of fruit and Bethan finally had time to study her impromptu guide. Max looked to be in his early thirties, like her, but he had a wiry energy that stopped him from standing still for even a minute. She watched him checking through the feed, one eye on the clock that was counting down to the hour. Outside the monkeys were shrieking greedily and a large crowd was gathering, pointing and laughing at their antics.
‘Little show-offs,’ Max said, coming back to her side. ‘Fancy a go?’
‘Follow me then. Make sure you throw well so they have to go and fetch their food. It makes it last a bit longer for the visitors.’
Bethan nodded and looked uneasily at the tangle of ropes and vines through which she would have to aim her fruity missiles, wishing she’d paid more attention in rounders lessons at school. But the chimps were banging their chests in excitement as she and Max reached the feeding platform above them, and there was nothing to do but go for it. Taking a juicy orange half, she pulled back her arm and flung it. It flew across to right near the big windows and two chimps leaped for it instantly.
She smiled at Max’s praise and she threw again. The second piece landed on one of the platforms and more monkeys dived. She relaxed a little. This was fun. Through the glass she could see the eager faces of all the spectators and felt anew the privilege of her position. Just this morning she’d been with Callum in her Leicester flat, and now here she was in soft German sunshine feeding semi-wild monkeys. She threw fruit with all her might and was shocked when she reached into the bucket to find it empty.
‘Oh!’ she gasped out, and Max gave a throaty laugh.
‘Did you enjoy that?’
‘Very much. Thank you.’
He seemed more relaxed with this duty performed.
‘You did a good job. Now, let me finish your tour and get you back to Tanya.’
‘Ah-ha – you like chimps better than hippos.’
‘I don’t, I…’ She stopped herself just in time. Max’s delivery was so dry that she kept missing him teasing her. ‘I definitely like hippos best,’ she said, touching her fingers to her brooch. He shook his head in mock displeasure.
‘Then the tour is cancelled.’
She laughed and handed him back the bucket.
‘I’ll have to ask Binky to show me round.’
‘She would as well. I swear that one thinks she’s human.’
‘She almost is.’
‘True. Far more so than an ugly old hippo.’
‘Or an over-rated polar bear?’
‘Sorry. We keepers get a little protective of our own animals. I love them all, really, even the vultures. Now come on, let’s go.’
He reached for the door and showed her out of the monkey house and down towards the predators’ enclosure. The big cats were stunning, and Bethan was so busy staring at the muscled movements of a tiger as it paced through the grass that she almost tripped over something.
Looking down, she was horrified to see it was an old woman. She was sitting on a bench, drowned by a huge puffa jacket and with a bobble hat pulled low over long silver hair. Her legs were outstretched beneath a tartan blanket from which the feet that had almost sent Bethan flying protruded in scuffed purple DMs.
‘I’m so, so sorry,’ Bethan said. Goodness, she was clumsy today.
The old woman, however, didn’t even seem to have noticed her. She was staring dead ahead and muttering quietly to herself and, with another apology, Bethan edged around her.
‘I nearly hurt that poor lady,’ she said to Max.
He glanced back.
‘Ada? Oh, you won’t hurt her. She’s as tough as those old boots she’s wearing.’
‘You know her?’
‘Everyone knows Ada. That’s her bench. She comes in first thing and heads straight for it. If anyone ever has the cheek to get there before her, she just stands next to them until they get the hint and move on. Then she settles in with her flask and her sandwiches until the bell sounds out for closing time.’
‘More or less.’
‘But what does she do?’
‘Just watches the world go by. And talks to Katharina.’
Max pointed to a statue – the bust of a woman on a white plinth, one of a run of eight sitting quietly amongst the bushes. Bethan edged over and read the plaque:
She jumped, recognising the first woman on her mum’s list.
‘I know about her!’ she cried.
‘I should hope so, if you’ve done any research into your new workplace. She was a heroine.’
His voice had taken on a new edge and Bethan looked nervously at him.
‘In what way?’
‘In every way. She worked tirelessly for this zoo. Without her, I don’t believe we’d have survived the war, let alone become the pioneering animal centre we are now.’
‘I see. It was, er, hard here during the war then, was it?’
‘Hard?’ Max looked down at her. ‘It was a living nightmare. Berlin was almost totally eradicated by the Allies, and the zoo with it.’
He looked down at her for a moment longer, his eyes ablaze with blue fire, and then visibly shook himself.
‘Bethan, it wasn’t your fault. Or mine for that matter. It’s in the past and thank heavens for that. Now look – there’s Tanya come to find you.’
Sure enough, the senior vet was hurrying towards them with Bethan’s rucksack over her shoulder.
‘Beth! What must you think of me? I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s fine, really. How’s Klumpig?’
‘All sewn up and resting. And hopefully musing on the wisdom of fighting bigger hippos! But come on, we need to show you to your apartment and find you a uniform, then Kaffee und Kuchen are on me.’
Bethan’s stomach grumbled obligingly, and Tanya laughed and took her arm to lead her across the zoo. They passed Ada, deep in conversation with the statue of a woman from the past, and Bethan wondered what she had to say that felt so vital and longed to know more of the one-time Zoodirektorin. For now, her new home beckoned and the past, however fascinating, would have to wait for another day.
Katharina Heinroth pushed her small frame tentatively against the heavy door of the underground shelter and edged out into the heart of her beloved zoo. Or rather, what had previously been her beloved zoo. She looked around her, horrified. All night long the bombs had rained down, splitting the air apart with the squeal of their descent and shaking the earth as they pounded holes into what had once been homes and lives. She supposed she should have expected the wreckage but it was still a shock to see it with her own eyes.
The zoo was all but destroyed.
As the other keepers and staff came blearily out of the bunker into the sharp November air, she fought to take it all in. Ahead of her, the magnificent Elephant Gate was in tatters. Miraculously the two stone elephants were still crouching either side, but the ornate archway was blown into pieces, as was the beautiful aquarium building just past it. She heard a choked cry behind her, and turned to see Oskar scrambling through the ruined gate and out into the street.
She ran after her husband, her feet skidding and crunching on the rubble, the acrid taste of smoke filling her lungs and there, to the left of the gate, was a vision that could have been straight from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. She felt bile rise in her throat and put up her hands to her mouth as Oskar made for the bodies of their four giant crocodiles, apparently flung out of the gash in the roof of the aquarium and splatted across the pavement like stark sacrifices to the heartless god of war.
They, along with so many of the exotic aquarium creatures, had been Oskar’s life’s work, and as Katharina watched, helpless, he threw himself down ne. . .
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