Authors: Eliza Graham
For Mungo and Eloise Graham
Even now I don’t like leaving the house on foggy days, though soldiers are unlikely to jump on me in Richmond. The scar on my hand aches in the cold.
But this morning I barely have time to note the weather. All my nervous energy is given to preparing for my visitor. I change my outfit twice, finally selecting a long cashmere tunic and silk
scarf. I add a silver necklace strung with chips of Baltic amber. I plump cushions that don’t need plumping and fiddle with the Christmas roses in the vase. All the time I’m listening
out for footsteps on the front path. As a child I had sharp ears, always attuned to whatever grown-ups didn’t want me to hear. I’m seventy-four now and my hearing is still good.
None of the displacement activity works. I can’t distract myself from my fear. I’m almost as scared now as I was in that misty forest more than fifty years ago. But I’m excited
Someone’s coming up to the door. The bell rings and my heart lurches. I force myself to take deep breaths before I go to open up. Before me stands a tall, broad-shouldered, middle-aged man
in smart un-English clothes with a wide un-English smile that shines through the fog.
‘Alexandra?’ American accent – Midwestern?
‘Yes.’ I extend a hand and he grips it, his grasp warm and dry.
Of course he is.
Everything spins; I clutch the door handle.
He must have taken my arm and led me to my armchair in the drawing room because I find myself sitting down. I rally. ‘There’s coffee in the cafetière, just waiting for me to
boil the kettle, I’ll—’
‘No. Let me. Where’s the kitchen?’
I direct him, almost relieved to have a minute to catch my breath. He finds everything and returns with the tray. His fine, strong hands are nimble as he pours the coffee and places the cup in
front of me. I gulp down caffeine, trying not to stare but unable to resist. Very dark blue eyes – those haven’t changed. A good head of greying hair. Who does he look like? I realize
he’s studying me too.
‘It’s good of you to see me, Alexandra. Is it all right for me to call you that?’
‘Alix, please.’ Only my governess ever called me Alexandra.
‘You must have been very surprised to hear from me, Alix.’ For the first time I notice a chink in his ease.
‘I was delighted.’ Wretched, inadequate word. ‘As I said on the phone, I lost contact with your adoptive parents when they returned to America.’ And even if the Whites
had stayed in Germany I doubt I’d have kept in touch. ‘Adoptions were handled differently back then and wartime made things . . . complicated.’
‘I do understand.’ He looks around the room at the photographs and ornaments. ‘I’ve been researching your mother and father. I had no idea my grandma was a famous movie
star and my grandpa a Resistance hero.’
The carriage clock strikes the quarter-hour five minutes early. Michael frowns at his watch.
‘Your grandfather may have been a hero but his clock repairs were less than heroic. That clock’s always fast.’
‘He repaired his own clocks? I’d have thought a baron would have servants to do all that kind of thing.’
‘Papi was always disembowelling some unfortunate timepiece.’
‘And that clock came from the old house, from Alexanderhof?’ He stands to take a closer look at it.
‘Yes, and I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent over the years trying to get it to tell the right time.’ He looks at the photograph of Mami on the fireplace beside
the clock – the only one I have, given to me by my cousin Ulla as a wedding present. Mami is dressed for her own wedding to my father in 1926. Her eyes are focused on something beyond the
camera lens; her lips form a perfect bow, as though she’s about to smile. Her veil is pushed back over her hair and looks a little like a halo.
‘She was stunning.’ He picks up the picture. ‘More beautiful than Dietrich or Garbo. Or even Bergman.’
‘Schoolboys used to collect cigarette cards with her pictures on them.’
‘You inherited her bone structure.’
‘But sadly not her talent.’
‘The best teachers often have something of the actor in them.’
He replaces the frame on the fireplace and comes back to his chair, a more guarded expression on his open face.
‘Alix, there’s something . . . I need to ask you . . .’
I close my eyes to give me strength. We’ve reached that moment.
‘I’ve only just met you again and I don’t want to bombard you with questions, but obviously there’s one big thing about myself I need to know.’ He swallows.
‘I didn’t want to ask you when we spoke on the phone.’
‘You need to know about your real father. Of course.’ I’m going to make this as easy as possible for my son. The least I can do for him.
His dark eyes fix themselves on my face.
I find myself speaking very carefully while my heart pounds. ‘Germany had collapsed. I was only seventeen.’ A young, sheltered, seventeen at that.
He looks up. ‘Same age as my Mark.’
One of my grandsons. In our preliminary telephone conversations I’ve lapped up details about these children. My greed to know every detail of their lives to date is almost insatiable.
‘I know you came from the east.’ Michael frowns. ‘The Soviets . . .’
Oh God. I know where this is leading. Even after all these years my body stiffens at the mention of those men in their filthy, stinking uniforms, their eyes wild and greedy.
‘The Red Army must have been very close.’ He taps a finger on his lower lip.
So close you could taste the vodka on their breaths.
He takes a breath and now that American ease has gone and he looks very young and unsure of himself, just as his father did when he reappeared in my life so unexpectedly all those years ago.
‘Alix, a month ago, just after I first called you, I watched a documentary about Bosnia, the Muslim women . . .’
‘Ethnic rape,’ I prompt him, some courage coming to my rescue. I was born a Prussian officer’s daughter, after all.
‘I saw young girls running from the Serbs through misty forests.’ He stops, perspiration gleaming on his brow. ‘I don’t know why it didn’t strike me at the time the
Bosnian war was on. Mom and Dad – sorry.’
I nod to indicate that I have no problems with his using these titles for the Whites but my mind is on what’s coming.
‘They were still alive then and I could have asked them. But I didn’t.’ He’s looking at my arm. ‘That scar on your wrist . . .’ I look down at the white
crescent just visible below the tunic sleeve. ‘I couldn’t help noticing . . . I thought, I wondered whether . . . ?’
‘Whether a Russian had stabbed me.’ I nod.
A look of pain flashes across his eyes. ‘Oh God . . .’ He looks like the small boy he must have been once, the child I never saw grow up. I wish I could go over to him, run my
fingers through his hair, fold him into my arms. But I don’t know my son well enough.
‘No!’ It’s intolerable, evil, that my child should imagine he was the result of an act of violence. My voice shakes. ‘It’s not what you’re thinking,
He leans across to take my hand. ‘I’ve come here and met you for the first time and asked you terrible questions. Can you forgive me?’
I stroke his long fingers. Last time I held his hand it was small enough for me to encase completely in my own.
I still don’t how to explain his father, how to explain Gregor. I’ve had a whole month since he first rang me to prepare myself but I still feel at sea. I lean forward and clasp his
‘You’re right in one respect. Your father
the enemy. But he was also the great love of my life.’
My most feared, most adored enemy.
Pomerania, eastern Germany, February 1945
They’d reached a small village when the planes swooped and fired. The world blasted itself into millions of fragments of snow, earth and stone. The horses were screaming
and Alix couldn’t hold them. ‘Steady,’ Lena called.
The wagon swayed. Debris blinding her, Alix pulled on the brake, tugging at the reins with her other hand:
stop, stop, stop.
The wagon careered past refugees, barely missing people
dashing for cover. She called the horses’ names, trying to convey calmness, trying to remind them of days spent pulling the trap round the estate or moving logs in the forest. At last they
slowed to a trot, coming to a halt just outside the church. Alix let out a long breath. Her clothes felt clammy and her skin sticky, despite the freezing air. The planes seemed to have vanished.
She removed a glove and wiped her eyes and forehead with her shirt sleeve.
Two hundred years earlier Alix’s ancestors, the von Matkes, had driven along this very road into the morning sun to take possession of their new country house in Pomerania. The four bays
in the harness of the gleaming liveried carriage tossed their sleek manes, kicking up dust as they cantered along. The coachman in his velvet jacket and tricorn hat looked down his nose at anyone
who dared gaze at the spectacle.
Now here she was: Alix, properly Alexandra, seventeen, last in the line of von Matkes. Sitting, heart pounding, on this ancient farm wagon creaking its way west along the road. They’d
packed the wagon with cooking pots, flour, bedding and a cageful of hens, rather than trunks full of finery. Beside Alix sat Lena, last remaining servant of the von Matkes. Alix’s ancestors
had worn the finest silks from Paris. This morning Alix was encased in three layers of woollens, an old coat of her mother’s, chosen for warmth rather than fashion or its crimson colour, and
a beaver hat of her father’s.
A chicken reached through the wicker bars and pecked at her scarf. She turned round to push the basket back and blinked hard. She wouldn’t let herself down by snivelling and reminded
herself not to slump on the wagon seat, even though a little voice inside her murmured that nobody would now reprimand a von Matke for poor posture. Alix was just a refugee, like the farmers,
peasants and tradesmen fleeing the Soviets.
Of course it was; she’d known this in her head for months, years now. But that was different from feeling the end in her cramped, cold muscles and churned-up
stomach. Beside her on the wagon seat Lena let out a long sigh but said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Flames curled round the roof of a distant barn. Almost pretty.
She pulled herself together and clicked at the horses. ‘Walk on.’
Around them hundreds of others picked themselves up and walked, rode, shuffled and cycled their way on through the grey slush. No men, except the very old. Even the boys had gone now, dressed in
uniforms so big their mothers had turned up their trousers and sleeves.
Some of the refugees looked bewildered. Others showed comprehension in the set of their mouths. Children sat blank-eyed in wagons or clutched the hands of their mothers and elder siblings. Dogs
trotted behind their owners. Parrots and cats were crammed into cages stowed in handcarts. It was a cruel pastiche of long-ago picnic trips to the beach – Mami overloading each member of the
party with parasols, towels, badminton rackets and hampers, even a gramophone, which they’d carried with happy grumbles through the pine trees.
Guns rumbled to the east. Closer now. Occasionally planes whined again behind them. Alix silently begged the German troops – supposed to be protecting the Reich – to fall back.
Thoughts like that could get you into trouble.
The Wehrmacht continues to demonstrate success in protecting the Reich:
that’s what the wireless broadcasts had told them last night
as they packed up their boxes and hid precious objects that couldn’t travel with them.