Kit Philipson has always felt like something of a stranger in his family. Growing up as the only child of professional parents in Glasgow, Scotland, he had every advantage. His mother was a teacher; his father, a journalist, escaped from Nazi Germany at the age of three on one of the 1939 Kindertransports. But on her deathbed, Kit’s mother tells him he was adopted and that his birth name was Novello. Soon, vague memories of his early life begin to surface: his nursery, pictures on the wall, the smell of his birth mother when she’d been cooking. And, sometimes, there are more disturbing memories—of strangers taking him by the hand and leading him away from the only family he had ever known. A search of old newspaper files reveals that a three-year-old boy named Peter Novello was abducted from his parents’ holiday hotel in Sicily in 1989. Now the young man who has known himself only as Kit sets out to rediscover his past, the story of two three-year-old boys torn from their mothers in very different circumstances. Kit’s probing inquiries are sure to bring surprises. They may also unearth dangerous secrets that dare never be revealed.
With sharp wit and deep insight, Robert Barnard sweeps away all preconceptions in this powerful study of maternal love and the danger of obsession.
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The two children sat almost motionless on their seats as the landscape through the train windows became flatter. They didn’t look at the country they were passing through, perhaps feeling that was somehow dangerous or forbidden. Periodically the girl looked down on her young brother, straightening his clothes, once giving him a smile which was not returned.
When there were sounds of footsteps in the corridor the girl pricked up her ears, and the little boy looked anxiously up at her.
“It’s all right,” said the girl, patting his leg. “Our papers are all in order. The man who came from Daddy said they were.”
“Why couldn’t Mummy come too?” the boy asked, his face crumpled up. “It was horrible saying good-bye to her.”
“I know it was. She’ll come as soon as she can get things settled,” the girl said carefully. Her words were something decided in advance, said by rote.
“He’s coming!” said one of the older boys in the carriage as footsteps were heard from the next compartment.
The door opened and a cheery man with a long nose and ruddy cheeks put his face round the door.
“What have we here? Eight children with eight tickets and eight sets of papers. How did I guess? Never mind. Now, I’ll never remember your names—”
“I’m Hilde Greenspan and this is my brother, Jürgen,” said the girl.
“Is that so? Very nice names too. But I think I’ll do without names for the rest of you. Your papers were seen at Munich or Frankfurt when you boarded the train, were they not? So no need to—wait a moment: we’re stopping.”
He must have caught the look of panic on the girl’s face because as he retreated to the corridor he turned back.
“Don’t worry. This happens practically every trip. Routine. I just have to go and say my piece and then we’ll be on our way.”
They heard his footsteps going to the end of the corridor and a window opening, talk beginning. Jürgen looked at his sister pleadingly.
“It’s all right, little brother. The man smiled at us. Only good people smile at us these days.”
Minutes later the talk stopped and the window was pulled up. No footsteps were heard. Hilde’s face showed that the tension was almost unbearable. Then the train started and slowly, slowly it went through the station and out to a landscape of flat fields. Only then did the footsteps return. Hilde smiled a strained smile at her brother.
“Right. That didn’t take long, did it?” said the ticket collector.
“Why is your voice funny?” asked the boy called Jürgen.
“It doesn’t sound funny, I just say sometimes words that you’re not expecting. You see, I don’t talk German. I talk Dutch.”
“Well, well. How old are you, young man?”
“I’m three. And four months.”
“Then you should know that the country next to Germany when you go north is called Holland or else the Netherlands, and the people there are Dutchmen. It’s a bit complicated, isn’t it? You only have one word for your country and its people and somehow we seem to have three. That’s the last time I say anything good about Germany. But our two languages are very similar and one day we’ll be friends, with God’s help. Anyway, the thing to remember, the important thing, is that now we’re in Dutch territory. Holland.”
The compartment suddenly changed in character. The children, of all ages from three to fifteen, looked at one another, smiled, mouthed a brief prayer, and shuffled in their seats as if before they had been statues, but now had come to life.
“Thank you so much,” said Hilde.
“Nothing to thank me for. Now, Miss Hilde Green-span, take a good look at my funny face. You might need a bit of help when you get to Waterloo. Try to keep me in view, and if you do need something or want to know something, come and ask me. Right? No need for papers now, but you’ll need them on the boat.” He started out of the compartment. Then he turned back again.
“Good luck,” he said.
The children looked at one another.
“What a nice man,” said Hilde. The other children, especially Jürgen, nodded vigorously.
“I haven’t had a stranger be so nice to me for years,” said a boy in his teens.
Later, when their papers had been examined and all had been found in order, Hilde and Jürgen stood on the prow of the ferry taking them away and tried to make their eyes penetrate the sea mist.
“When are we going home, Hilde?” asked Jürgen.
“I think that’s where we are going,” said Hilde. She strained her eyes still further, as if that would enable her to see the future.
© 2010 ROBERT BARNARD