I love historical fiction and am delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for Fifteen Words by Monike Jephcott Thomas, bringing you an extract from the book today. Fifteen Words was published by Clink Street on 22nd November 2016 and is available for purchase in e-book and paperback from Amazon.
Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
An Extract from Fifteen Words
In this extract we are in the last year of the war. Erika and her father-in-law Karl are trying to get across a decimated Germany to the relative safety of Karl’s home in North-West Germany on a crumbling train system at breaking point with the sheer numbers of migrants fleeing danger: from the Allied bombings, from other politically opposed Germans, or just trying to find family. The trains and stations are also bursting with non-German refugees fleeing persecution.
This extract is an example of not only some of the gripping action in the book, but also of the comedy which sometimes finds its way into the most unlikely moments in this story – as perhaps can only happen in a story set in such a bizarre landscape as a World War.
‘The train is about to leave. Will you be able to make it?’
Erika felt better for having been sick, but could have happily laid on the stinking couch for the rest of the morning. The sun was up now though and she took some solace from that as she hurried as fast as she could behind Karl. ‘I’ll make it,’ she smiled. She had to. For Karl more than herself. She couldn’t imagine how frustrated he would be if they missed this train.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘because there’s not another for fifteen hours.’
As they entered the station Erika felt another wave of nausea wash over her. She stopped and bowed her head, hands out in front for balance and protection from the crowds. The feeling soon passed and she raised her head to see Karl almost hopping about with the tension of it all.
Tick tick tick tick.
A whistle sounded. Karl beckoned to Erika with epileptic energy. She hurried after him to the platform where their train and their luggage were getting ready to leave them. The guard was at one end waving his flag at the driver, signalling him to go. There was a clunk as the engine took the strain on its chain of carriages. Karl grabbed Erika’s hand with his left and mounted the ledge outside the nearest compartment door as the train began to move.
‘Step up!’ he yelled at her.
The train continued gradually building momentum.
Erika put one foot on the ledge and found herself hopping along beside the train as Karl tried to haul her up. Karl had a firm grip on the compartment door with his good hand but Erika’s weight was the last straw for the camel’s back of his exhausted left wrist and he yelped.
The yelp told Erika she would end up on her back on the platform if she didn’t stop relying on Karl to rescue her. With her free hand she grabbed the compartment door too and ripped herself clear of Karl’s well-meaning molestations. She now had two hands to hold on with and she yanked herself up onto the ledge next to her father-in-law.
Karl and Erika looked at each other for a second, the fear on each other’s faces laced with delight at their success. Until Karl tried to open the door.
It was locked.
Or it seemed to be locked. Erika looked in through the window. The compartment was full of people and she came face to face with a mother breast feeding her baby. A soldier was standing with his back to door holding it firmly shut, as he had been since they boarded to gallantly preserve the mother’s dignity. Erika couldn’t be sure whether his chivalry was so fierce towards the mother that he would keep two other passengers hanging on the outside of an accelerating train till the child was full, or whether he was just unaware of their presence. Karl knocked on the window. Erika even saw the mother’s lips move as she said something to the soldier. But he didn’t budge. The baby suckled on. Quickly, like everyone else in the country, hurrying up in case he missed out or the supplies dried up.
Karl shouted an expletive which, coming from him, would have made Erika laugh and blush had she not been clinging on for dear life to the outside of a train that was now moving out of the station at some speed.
‘Oi, boss!’ a voice came riding on the growing wind from behind Karl. It belonged to a young chap sticking his head out the door of the next compartment. ‘Come in this way.’
Karl looked at the chap. Looked back at Erika as if to say, ‘Shall we?’ Erika glowered back at Karl with more than a hint of sarcasm in her features that said, ‘No, I’m fine here thanks!’ And they quickly began to edge along the outside of the speeding train. Karl put one hand out to help Erika along but she slapped it away. If she had time to think at all she thought he wouldn’t consider it a rude gesture in the circumstances as they both needed two hands to clamp themselves to whatever railings and bars made themselves available to them on their precarious shuffle along to the next compartment. Memories of her climbing holidays in the Alps chugged through her muscles and she later found herself, ironically, praising God for some aspects of the Hitler Youth Movement, the parts that promoted physical fitness at least. For the first time in a few months she didn’t think about the fact that she was pregnant in so much as she didn’t feel the tiredness, the cramps, the sickness. She was being pumped full of adrenaline, the magical hormone that put everything else the body was going through on hold when it was in charge. And now it really was a time for adrenaline to be in charge. Karl had reached the next compartment and the young chap opened the door ready to receive them.
They will have to close that if we reach the tunnel before I’m in, Erika thought to herself.
Because indeed there was a tunnel up ahead and they were closing in on it fast. She saw Karl disappear into the carriage and then she did think about the physiognomy of her pregnancy, despite the adrenaline. She thought about how far she stuck out from the side of the train because of her belly and how that meant flattening herself against the side of it as they roared through the tunnel was not an option. She would be churned up between the bricks and the train if she wasn’t inside by then.
Tick tick tick tick.
‘Come on, Miss,’ the young chap beckoned frantically, just as Karl had done to her at the station entrance a few minutes before. She was sick of being beckoned at like a dog. She was sick of waddling like a duck. She inhaled her frustrations, like the steam engine consumed coal, turning them into kinetic energy to power herself along with her arms for the last few metres. Things suddenly got very dark as the bright blue winter sky was blocked out now by the looming tunnel. Her feet side stepped along the ledge as fast as possible, too fast for their own good and she slipped.
She felt herself fall.
About Monike Jephcott Thomas
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty per cent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.
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