Somewhere between Carrbridge and Aviemore, forty minutes into an eight-hour journey, the train stopped again. Jane looked out of the carriage at the rocky, heather-sprigged landscape. Conifers stood in clumps, like bristles on a balding toothbrush. The snow-capped Cairngorms loomed on the cloudy horizon.
Sarah, Jane’s eleven-year-old daughter, pressed her nose against the window, squealing as she spotted rabbits and deer. Jane’s mother, Trudy, sat opposite.
‘This is the third time we’ve stopped in the middle of nowhere.’ She drummed her fingernails on the tea-stained table in front of them, strewn with magazines and discarded paper cups. ‘I don’t like trains.’
Jane felt her throat constrict. ‘Then why wouldn’t you fly to the funeral? It’s only an hour to Inverness. Then we could have spent more time there. We wouldn’t have had to belt to the station straight from the cemetery and sit here dressed in black, looking like three crows.’
‘I like my dress,’ Sarah said.
‘Black’s too old for you.’
Trudy leaned across the table and patted Sarah’s arm. ‘It suits you, with your titian hair. That’s a new word to remember, it’s the name of an artist. He painted auburn-haired ladies.’ She turned to Jane. ‘I couldn’t fly, not after that dreadful business. Planes flying into buildings. They’re still looking for people. Dragging bodies out.’
‘Who’d hijack a flight between England and Scotland– Och Aye Qaida? Sporran bombers? The Haggis Liberation Front?’ Jane snapped.
‘Haggis Liberation Front!’ Sarah giggled. ‘Take me to Inverness!’
Trudy tutted and shook her head. ‘It’s nothing to joke about. Don’t encourage her, Jane.’
‘If we hadn’t gone to the funeral,’ Sarah said, ‘we wouldn’t be stuck here, trying to get home. And I wouldn’t have missed the swimming gala. And we wouldn’t have had to send Duke to the kennel.’
‘And this. And that,’ Jane said. ‘Edie was Gran’s guardian, the nearest person I had to a grandmother. Gran couldn’t go on her own. We all had to, or there’d have been nobody from our side of the family.’
‘It felt like Edie would be around forever. Just a few more months and she’d have got her telegram from the Queen,’ Trudy said, looking down at the table. ‘It wasn’t so easy keeping in touch, once she moved back to Scotland after Sid died.’
‘Scottish people are thick,’ Sarah said. ‘This man at the funeral said “Hiya, Carrots!”. And I said, “Wow, never heard that before.” And he called me a rude wee besom. What’s a besom? I’d rather be a titian.’
Trudy laughed. ‘Silly old devil, you’d think they’d never seen auburn hair before. I read that thirteen per cent of all redheads in Europe live in Scotland, more than anywhere else. Sarah, how many would there be in a hundred?’
Sarah shrugged and turned away towards the window.
Trudy shook her head. ‘You’ll need good grades to get into vet school. It’s not too soon to start practising your maths.’
There she goes again, Jane thought. Why does she have to turn everything into a lesson? Why can’t Sarah just be a kid? Why does she have to be the best at everything – like I had to? Not in maths, though, she was never any good at that. Nor was Sarah’s father.
Widowhood was one thing she and her mother had in common. Josef, Jane’s father, died when she was a baby. And now there were just three of them. Stuck with each other in the middle of nowhere.
Standing apart from the other mourners at the funeral had reminded her of when she first noticed she was different, as a child. She’d gone to parties and realised all those adults were her friends’ aunties, uncles, grandparents, cousins. She knew that Trudy had come to England from Germany alone on a Kindertransport in 1939 and that none of her family had survived. But there was an invisible barrier she felt she shouldn’t reach across. Jane knew, without having to be told, never to ask.
Josef had come to England after the war, and Jane knew nothing about his time before then. Trudy never spoke about him. ‘He died of a heart attack,’ was all she would say, when Jane asked how he died, and her face seemed to shut down.
‘What’s in there?’ Jane pointed to the tattered supermarket carrier bag on the seat next to Trudy. The solicitor had given it to her after the funeral.
‘Nothing!’ Trudy shouted, clutching the bag as though it was stuffed with diamonds. ‘Just some old stuff Edie kept. Forget it. Just forget it.’ She put it on the floor under the table by her feet.
Jane shrugged. ‘OK, calm down. Just make sure you don’t leave it on the train. Talking of which, if you don’t like trains, why do you always get ready for them so early? You had your case packed the day before we went. You had to keep opening it up to get things out again, remember?’
Trudy shrugged. ‘I’m just scared of missing them. Does it matter?’ She picked up a magazine and began reading.
Jane looked round at the scuffed red carpet and rows of empty seats back to back, covered with fuzzy blue fabric. The carriage was empty except for a girl backpacker, who stood up and moved towards them.
‘Excuse my interruption – the train… why does it not go?’ The girl pronounced it interrup-tchun. German. It always gave them away, that way they said words ending in –tion.
‘Machen Sie sich keine Sorgen. Es wird schon gehen,’ Trudy replied. Reassured, the girl wandered back to her seat. Jane thought her mother had forgotten her German. All that was left was a trace of the accent Jane used to deny she had, sometimes with her fists, as a child.
‘I’ll be doing German next year,’ Sarah said. ‘Help me, Gran?’
Jane’s mouth turned down at the corners.
‘I scraped an O level pass. On my own.’
Trudy looked out of the window, then at her watch. ‘This is ridiculous! We’ve been stuck here for an hour. I’m going to see what’s happening.’
She stood up and shivered. ‘It’s freezing in here, the heating must have packed up. Put your coats on. You’ll catch a cold.’
‘We’re fine, don’t worry.’ Her mother always seemed to be waiting for the worst to happen.
‘OK, I’ll find out what’s going on.’ She left the carriage.
Sarah got up.
‘Can I go to the buffet car?’
Jane nodded and gave her some money.
As soon as Sarah was out of sight, Jane reached under the table and picked up the bag Trudy had left there. She pulled out a cardboard folder with torn corners, Trudy written on the cover. Inside, at the front, was an envelope addressed to Edie in Trudy’s writing, containing a card and two letters. The card was from Trudy, dated August 1960, announcing Jane’s birth.
‘She’s named after Josef’s mother, Jana, who perished in Europe. Josef says she is her memorial candle.‘
A lot for a kid to live up to, a lot to expect. The first letter was dated March 1962. Trudy’s writing.
There was a fly in a sprout I gave Josef last week. He said I was trying to poison him, threatened to divorce me and stormed off to sleep in the spare room. He’s all I’ve got, Jane and I need him. I must do better. He mustn’t go.
I can’t decide what to cook any more. I can’t decide about anything. His approval is like a moving target. I can’t do anything right and then it’s another row, more threats to abandon me. Waiting, guardedness, wishing it would stop.
Jane felt her stomach churn. The second letter was also in Trudy’s writing, from December 1962.
I couldn’t tell you on the phone.
I never went out on my own. Returning to more sulking, belittling; finding fault? Wasn’t worth it. But, last week, I went to a party. Alone. When I got back, he screamed at me for ruining the car. I hadn’t done anything to it. I screamed at him to leave me alone. He ripped off his wedding ring and threw it at me. He banged out of the house. This time I realised I didn’t care; there would be nothing he could do to change it. I silenced the voice in my head that nagged ‘You survived. They didn’t. This marriage of despair is your penance.’
Yesterday I got back from work in the dark, weighed down with my heavy shopping. I decided to drop it off at home before I collected the children from the nursery. I stepped inside and switched on the light.
I went into the kitchen. The sink was filled with dishes and there was a stale smell of bacon. You know how we’re not meant to eat it? You were always lovely about not giving it to me. But Josef decided that there was no God, how could there be? A tap dripped onto a plate, adding to the greasy water. An empty whisky bottle stood on the counter.
I banged into something on the floor of the dark landing. I groped for the switch – a kitchen stool on its side. I stood it up. Moved towards the next staircase. Something blocking the light coming down. A rope hanging from the loft entrance. Josef’s eyes were closed, his tongue and lips black and swollen. I struggled for breath. I pushed past to the phone. That was when I rang you, before I even called 999.
Doorbell: police. I watched my hand reach out to open the door.
So many people going about their business, just another job.
I sat trying not to listen as they carried a metal coffin upstairs. Then down again, the clangour against the wall at each turn like a shovel against concrete.
This sorry story is over. I’ve done my time.
Josef? But her father died of a heart attack. Or was that just another story? Jane tried to swallow the lump in her throat. All the air seemed to have been sucked out of the carriage.
The sliding door opened, and Jane saw Trudy and Sarah coming back. With shaking hands she stuffed the letter back in the envelope and shoved it into her pocket. She pushed the bag back under the table.
‘Buffet’s closed.’ Sarah held out the coins. Jane took them without moving her eyes from Trudy’s face.
‘Jane? Are you feeling alright?’ Trudy said. ‘They said we could be here for another hour.’ She sat down.
A flicker of movement at the end of the carriage caught Jane’s eye and she looked away from Trudy. The backpacker girl was putting a bag into the overhead luggage rack.
‘I’ve never heard you speak German, I thought you’d forgotten it,’ Jane said, ‘and you were OK talking to that girl. Don’t you hate them?’
‘Not the younger ones. They’ve had to get to grips with what their parents did, it must be hard for them. I’ve forgotten nothing.’
‘That’s the war,’ Sarah said. ‘We did that in History. History’s boring.’ She folded her arms and pouted. ‘I’ve got nothing to do.’
‘Why don’t you read your magazine?’
‘Reading’s boring.’ Sarah took a personal CD player out of her bag and inserted the earphones.
‘Mum! I’ve got to talk to you,’ Jane whispered.
Sarah poked at a button on the CD player then yanked the earphones out.
‘Batteries dead. Got any?’
Jane shook her head.
‘I haven’t either,’ Trudy said, ‘but I’ll tell you a story. One day, Daisy the cat caught her nose in the mangle. After that, everyone called her Daisy Flatnose-’
‘–that’s for babies! I’m eleven.’
Trudy nodded. ‘You are, aren’t you? A girl of eleven on a train. When I was your age… well, we didn’t have gadgets like that, we had to make our own fun. I liked swimming.’
‘What pool did you go to?’
‘It was in Berlin, in Germany. Before the war I lived there with my mum and my dad.’
‘Did you argue with your Mum?’ Sarah asked.
‘All the time! This is me.’ She rummaged in her bag and fished out an identity card.
On it was a black and white photograph of a little girl with Sarah’s eyes and smile. The card was overstamped with a capital letter J.
‘Come and sit next to me, you’ll be able to see better.’
Jane gasped. ‘Where did you get that dreadful thing?’
‘It was in a folder that Edie kept.’
‘Why didn’t you leave it there? Put it away when we get home. You don’t want to be reminded of all that, do you?’
Trudy turned away from Jane, towards Sarah, and pointed at the pass.
‘What you can’t tell is that my hair was bright red.’
Sarah smiled. ‘I get it from you! Did you look like your father or your mother?’ More questions Jane had always felt unable to ask.
Sarah read the card. ‘Trood Sara Stein. You had the same name as me, as well.’
‘Trud-e. When your mum called you Sarah, it reminded me… but it wasn’t really my name. The Nazis made all Jewish women and girls take that extra one. And all the men and boys had to have the name Israel. To show we were different.’
She pointed at the German stamp opposite the photo. ‘When Hitler first came to power, lots of people thought he wouldn’t last. But soon, I saw men in brown uniforms standing outside Jewish shops telling people not to go in. And posters everywhere saying horrid things about us.’
‘Why didn’t you go and live somewhere else?’ Sarah asked.
‘You had to find a country to take you. Soon, we weren’t allowed to sit on park benches or go to theatres or cinemas. Or swimming pools. We couldn’t have pets, we had to hand them in.’
‘They wouldn’t have taken Duke,’ Sarah said, ‘I wouldn’t have let them.’
‘You’d have had to. But we didn’t have a pet. What I really missed was swimming.’
‘Yeah, don’t blame you.’
‘My friend Susi and I found a secret outdoor pool. It wasn’t being used any more. We squeezed through a gap in the fence. It still had water. All green, leaves and twigs floating in it.’
‘Yuck!’ Sarah pulled a face.
‘But it was such a hot day, we didn’t care.’
‘Don’t keep interrupting,’ Jane said, seeing Trudy wince.
‘I don’t know,’ Trudy said. ‘If someone Jewish was married to someone who wasn’t, they had to get divorced. The children had to live with the non-Jewish parent. Susi’s Dad was a Lutheran. But then things got a whole lot worse.’ She paused, then cleared her throat.
‘No more. It’s upsetting you,’ Jane said.
‘No, I have to pass it on, you have to know. I won’t be around forever. At the beginning of November 1938, when I was ten, I saw posters saying “Vom Rath shot.” Dad said, “That means trouble.”’
‘Why? Who was Vom Rath?’ Sarah said.
‘A German diplomat. A teenage boy shot him. Jewish. Because his parents were thrown out of Germany and sent to Poland. But the Poles wouldn’t let them in and they had nowhere to go.’
‘But you never shot him.’
‘No, but we didn’t have long to wait till trouble came. On the night of 9 November I was woken up by Mum and Dad rushing about. They wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. In the morning they said I didn’t have to go to school.’
‘Lucky!’ Sarah said.
Trudy frowned. ‘No. We had to find somewhere else to live. In the street I saw glass everywhere, like flakes of snow, like ice crystals, crunching under our feet. Policemen and Nazis jeering while Jews swept up glass and boarded windows. Synagogues in flames, great columns of smoke reaching up into the sky. I saw an old man sitting in a cart, with his books burning around him. Shop windows smashed. People strutting out with jewellery and food. Doors and windows of houses shattered, chairs, tablecloths, bits of a piano, all thrown out.’ She fiddled with the fabric of her skirt, folding it into tiny pleats.
‘But why?’ Sarah asked.
‘They said it was revenge for Vom Rath, but they must have had it planned, just waiting for an excuse. All that day we were on the move, walking, taking buses and trains. Dad thought that we might not be arrested if we didn’t stop anywhere for long. They sent me into the shops to buy food. With my red hair I didn’t look like their idea of someone Jewish.’
Trudy nodded. ‘But I was the only one who could do it, even though it was against the law. They only let us go into Jewish shops between 3 and 5 in the afternoon, when there was nothing left. In the evening we went to stay in an empty flat someone gave us the key to. Mum and I crept up the stairs and Dad waited in the street. Once we got inside Mum twitched the curtains to tell him all was clear.’
It set Jane’s teeth on edge, a woman of Trudy’s age talking about ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad.’ She closed her eyes. A picture formed in her head of a little girl, looking like Sarah, with nowhere to run.
‘Then Britain decided to take ten thousand unaccompanied children. When my name came up, in April 1939, I was eleven. Like you.’
Trudy took another card out of her bag, stamped with Nazi eagles and swastikas.
‘Edie kept this too. It’s my exit permit. Mum and Dad took me to the station. All I could see were parents and children crying. But we pretended I was going on a big adventure. Mum and Dad said, “look out for us at the next station but one.” And they’d caught a taxi. They were standing on the platform, waving, as the train rushed past. I never saw them again.’ Trudy looked out of the window, as if she thought she might catch another glimpse.
‘What happened then?’ Sarah asked. Jane put her finger to her lips and nodded at Trudy.
‘Gran?’ Sarah said.
‘The train went to Hamburg. I got on a ship to Southampton. Look, here’s the stamp from when I arrived. It says I could come into the UK if I didn’t take paid or unpaid work while I was there.’
‘But you were only eleven,’ Sarah said.
‘Yes, pretty stupid, isn’t it? Then I got a train to London. The outskirts to the town were mean and broken, all covered in soot. At Waterloo, we had to stand wearing labels round our necks waiting for our names to be called out. I went to stay with Edie and Sid.’
Jane realised she had been holding her breath.
‘Could you speak English?’ Sarah said.
‘Mum taught me a bit, once they knew I was going. Edie and Sid sent me to boarding school, to learn more. The other girls said I was a Nazi. I wanted to run away, burn the place down if they caught me and sent me back, but where could I go? After the war started, I went to a different school. There were other refugee Jewish children there.’
‘At least you had friends who knew what you’d been through,’ Jane said.
‘We all knew, but we never spoke about it.’
‘Could you phone your mum and dad?’ Sarah asked.
Trudy shook her head. ‘Not many people had phones. Before the war, I wrote to them two or three times a week. But once it started, we were only allowed one twenty-five word message each month. We had to send them through the Red Cross. In December 1942 I got the last message from Dad. “Sorry, bad news. Mum emigrated 14 December. Terrified myself, but confident of family reunion after the war.”‘
‘Emigrated…’ Jane said.
‘He must have been out when they came and took her away. And after that, silence.’
‘What happened to them?’ Sarah asked. Jane held her breath. She knew what the answer would be.
Trudy looked down at the table. ‘Many years later I found out they were both sent to Auschwitz.’
Sarah raised her eyebrows, mouthed, ‘What’s that?’
‘Tell you later,’ Jane whispered.
‘I wanted to find my parents. Scream in their faces,’ Trudy said. ‘Howl that they’d abandoned me. Sent me to a strange country, alone. But later I realised how brave they’d been.’
‘I’d never have the guts to do what they did,’ Jane said.
Sarah hugged Trudy.
‘I’ve never told anyone about this,’ Trudy said, over the top of Sarah’s head. ‘Not Edie, not Sid, not your father.’
‘And not me,’ Jane said. ‘You told Sarah. You’ve had forty-one years to speak to me. But you never opened up once, not about this, not about anything. Always holding me at arms’ length. And there’s so much you haven’t told me. But all you cared about was how well I did in school. I felt I could never please you.’
Trudy unwrapped Sarah’s arms from around her waist and moved away from her.
‘I didn’t want to upset you. School? I wanted you to go to university. Sid and Edie wouldn’t let me go. They said that if my parents survived, by some miracle, I’d have to be able to support them. So I got a job. But I wanted you to have a profession, something you could take with you anywhere.’
‘But nobody was going to deport us.’
‘How did I know it wouldn’t start up again? But, send you away, to grow up in a foreign country among strangers? I couldn’t do it, not loving you like I did. So I held myself back, easier for all of us when the time came. I was trying to protect myself. And you. But you’re all buttoned down and we can’t talk for more than a minute without snapping and carping. And I did that. Me.’
Jane squeezed her hand.
‘We survived,’ she said. ‘We’re still here.’
‘We have to stick together. We’re all that’s left. You, me, Sarah. Who else is going to look out for us?’
‘Yes, Gran,’ Sarah said, ‘You and me. We’re the Carrots Club. But I think we’ll let Mum join too.’
Trudy smiled. ‘You might have to talk her into dyeing her hair.’
With a judder, the train started moving again.
Sarah stood up. ‘Great, now I can go to the toilet. You can’t when the train’s not moving.’
Trudy laughed. ‘No, poor workmen – trying to fix the wheels!’
‘Yuck. See you! Hope there’s no queue.’
‘That German girl’s getting up, you’d better run,’ Jane said. ‘Get there first, before she puts her towel on it.’
Sarah dashed down the corridor, holding onto the back of each seat she passed as the train rocked.
They rattled into a tunnel. The ceiling lights buzzed and flickered, casting shadows across the table.
‘God, Sarah’s got a bladder of iron,’ Trudy said.
‘Don’t talk about God. I don’t know how anyone can believe, not after that,’ Jane said.
‘Don’t blame God,’ Trudy said, ‘blame people. They abandoned us, not God.’ She picked up her magazine and began reading again.
The train accelerated as they burst into the sun. A beam of light shone through the window, lighting up a column of dust.
Jane blinked. ‘Blame people. Mum, this is doing my head in. I feel like I’ve just come out of the cinema. My mind’s full of pictures and my ears are ringing.’
‘It’s that tunnel.’
Jane shook her head. ‘You’ve said so much. But there are still things I don’t know. So many untold stories.’ She took the envelope out of her pocket and handed it to her mother.
Trudy held her gaze. She took a breath. ‘OK.’
I am a scientist, journalist, editor and (mostly speculative) fiction writer. A wife, mother and grandmother, I live in England.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH AND THEN THERE WERE THREE:
This quiet piece reminds us of things many would like to forget, yet sometimes it is the remembering that tells us who we are and brings understanding. In this well-done piece, Judith Field unites three generations not only on a personal level, but on a historical one as well.