I love fiction with an historical theme so what could be better than to be celebrating publication day of Letters to the Pianist by SD Mayes than with a guest post delving into how the book came about and an extract for you all to read?
Letters to the Pianist is published today 19th September 2017 by BHC Press and is available for purchase here.
Letters to the Pianist
Letters to the Pianist is a poignant, suspense story about a broken family, struggling to find an anchor in the midst of loss.
In war torn London, 1941, fourteen-year-old Ruth Goldberg and her two younger siblings, Gabi and Hannah, survive the terrifying bombing of their family home. They believe their parents are dead, their bodies buried underneath the burnt remains – but unbeknownst to them, their father, Joe, survives and is taken to hospital with amnesia.
Four years on, Ruth, stumbles across a newspaper photo of a celebrated pianist and is struck by the resemblance to her father. Desperate for evidence she sends him a letter, and as the pianist’s dormant memories emerge, his past unravels, revealing his true identity – as her beloved father, Joe.
Ruth sets out to meet him, only to find herself plunged into an aristocratic world of sinister dark secrets.
Can she help him escape and find a way to stay alive?
An Extract From Letters to the Pianist
Way back, in 1941, when I was still young and naive, in that twilight world of adolescent confusion, I could fritter away time daydreaming for hours. In truth, all three of us: the Goldberg children, escaped into a magical world, immersing ourselves in books like The Secret Garden and Peter Pan, or transforming into castaways wrapped up in old towels pretending we were on Treasure Island foraging for food. We grew to thrive on fantasy as if it were an energy fuel, always searching for a new diversion. Anything to block out the bitter reality of London life.
Our home was a red-brick terraced house on Sandringham Road in Hackney, known as the heart of the East End, a cosy haven despite the peeling paintwork and windows so thick with dust you couldn’t see in or out.
There weren’t many families like us that remained. Our once friendly neighbourhood, with the sound of children’s laughter and neighbours chattering in the street, had long gone. It was now eerily quiet; the pavements strewn with rubble and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh.
Most of my school friends had been evacuated, disappearing to the countryside without time for goodbyes, whilst others were horribly maimed or killed in the blitz. But our daddy was adamant. ‘We’re not staying in a stinking shelter,’ he’d say, ‘home is our anchor and they can take me on bare knuckles an’ all before I’d send you three away.’ And I felt truly blessed that he kept us together despite the dangers.
At night, when darkness came along with the night raids, I often thought of my old friends as I tried to sleep, wondering if their spirits were rejoicing in heaven or aimlessly wandering the shadowlands of Sheol. I prepared to die so many times; the sirens screeching in my ears as I’d dive under the covers frantically reciting the Shema, trying to block out the grinding roar of planes overhead and the whistling bombs raining down, the deafening boom, boom, boom as they crashed into buildings and tore them apart. It all felt monstrously chilling, the cruelty of it all; in awe that our lives were so fragile, knowing we could be snuffed out in seconds and ready for a coffin.
In the morning, I’d clamber out of bed rubbing my gritty eyes, exhausted from lack of sleep, and walk straight into my warm fuzzy bubble, brushing away my worst fears as I awaited my handsome prince, hoping he would come and save us as promised in every happy ending.
That was all I had: pretence to help save my sanity and give me some kind of antidote to pain.
Until one day my bubble popped, bursting open.
And finally, I knew.
That dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake – they can’t hide the truth – because when you take a proper bite, you choke.
Saturday morning, 8th March 1941
‘I’m coming to get you,’ I whispered in a sing-song voice. ‘Something’s going to bite you, rip you in two.’ I leant across the breakfast table staring at my younger siblings menacingly as they ignored me, scraping up the rest of their porridge. I waited, ready to pounce. ‘Last one out’s a dead-un.’ This was our favourite game; goading, teasing, scaring each other witless with our safe form of ‘terror’ until their spoons slammed down and in a shrieking mad scramble, we all hurtled outside like cannon balls ready to play.
I threw down a penny, hopping onto each numbered square, drawn out with chalk on the pavement a few yards from our house.
A stone skittered in front of me and I stumbled outside the chalky lines.
‘Ha-ha you forfeit a point,’ Gabi shouted, punching the air in victory.
‘That’s not fair, Gabi. You’re cheating.’
‘Boohoo,’ he cried, wiping away fake tears as he broke into that big silly grin; so like our daddy’s magnetic smile that could put a spell on you in a heartbeat and charm you into submission.
‘Wow, see that?’ squealed Hannah, interrupting our spat.
We spun round to look.
She pointed at the roadside, her blonde ringlets falling across her face as she crouched down scrutinising something that glittered on the kerb edge, near the drain that went down to the sewers. That was typical of her; she was such a magpie, always finding shiny things amongst the rubble, like marbles or bobby pins.
Gabi and I bent over, peering closely.
She took a breath and picked up a chain from the dirt and held it in the centre of her palm, wiping off some of the sludgy grime with the sleeve of her jumper. ‘Woo, look at this little sparkler. I bet it’s worth a fortune.’ She draped it between her fingers and then glared at us. ‘It’s mine, all mine, do you hear? Finders keepers.’
I gazed at the gold chain with the Star of David dangling from it and instantly knew whom it belonged to. Looking back at the roadside, my heart raced as something caught my eye, lying in the kerb about a foot away. A bloody lump partly hidden under a heap of broken red bricks.
‘What’s wrong, Ruth?’ asked Gabi.
I gulped. He must have noticed my fixed stare. ‘Nothing,’ I said, looking away.
‘Have you seen an icky diseased rat scuttling about, because I’ve seen lots?’ He laughed and pulled out a sticky humbug from his trouser pocket and popped it in his mouth making slurping noises.
‘Yuck, rats,’ said Hannah, wrinkling her nose.
‘Can both of you cover your eyes, please?’
‘Why? I don’t want to.’ Hannah stamped her foot in defiance.
‘Do it! Or you might see something you really wished you hadn’t.’
As with all our little scraps, they reluctantly obeyed, and I could breathe easier. Mama told me countless times, ‘Ruth, get out of that pink fog!’ She said being at war meant facing the ugly facts of life, especially now I was over fourteen and able to apply for work. Gabi was twelve and Hannah only ten and in my mind they were still the ‘little ones’ and I didn’t want to give them nightmares.
Forcing myself to be brave, I leant forward, carefully moving the brick fragments out of the way.
I jumped back in fright.
A severed hand swarmed with maggots, one of the most disgusting insects of all time, and they were crawling everywhere, burrowing into the flesh. I covered my mouth to stop myself screaming, heaving at the sickening sight. Catching my breath, out of morbid curiosity I dared to look again, watching the maggots crawl around revealing patches of bloodstained skin.
Something seemed familiar: the glimpse of chipped nail polish and a pink Bakelite ring on the right forefinger. I looked down at my own matching ring.
This was my friend, Jane Beckerman’s hand, discarded in the gutter like a piece of rubbish along with her necklace that she’d always treasured, a family heirloom her much-loved grandmother had passed down the family. I swatted away the swarm of flies that gathered from nowhere, flitting in circles, taunting me like a gang of bullies.
‘Can I look now?’ asked Hannah, the chain still draped across her fingers.
‘No, not yet!’
‘Hey, don’t be mean!’
‘Sorry, Hannah. Another minute, that’s all.’
I scooped up rubble to re-cover Jane’s rotting hand, ensuring it was completely camouflaged. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whispered.
I turned to look at Gabi, the pupils in his eyes dilated with ghoulish fascination as he chewed on his plump bottom lip, the way he always did when he was nervous. Gorgeous Gabi we all called him, labelled ‘pretty’ ever since he was a baby, given his mop of wavy dark hair and those long feathery lashes that fanned his copper-coloured eyes.
‘You saw, didn’t you?’
‘Well, I hope you don’t get nightmares.’
‘It’s no big deal.’ He leant forward so Hannah couldn’t hear. ‘I’ve seen worse collecting shrapnel off the bomb sites.’ He tilted his head to one side as if monitoring my face for shock value. ‘Once I tripped over a decapitated head.’
I sighed at his flippant bravado. He didn’t know the hand belonged to my best friend and I felt it best to say nothing. It wasn’t unusual for body parts to be torn off in explosions and fly into the air landing randomly. Usually, though, the relief workers cleared them away before you stumbled across them.
‘You can look now, Hannah,’ I said, my voice choked, ‘but the necklace … can I have it, please?’
She opened her eyes. ‘Why? Might be worth a bob or two.’
‘It belongs to Jane. She always wore it, remember?’
‘Oh, yes, Jane, she gave me some liquorice.’ She handed me the chain, pouting sulkily. ‘Best give it back to her then.’
I cupped it in my hands as if it were a priceless treasure, placing it in the front pocket of my pinafore. It was all I had left of my best friend. We’d been close for years, more like sisters really; our arms always linked as we walked to the shops, giggling at any silly thing that caught our eye. This was all so unfair, a mockery of her life. Where was the rest of her body, I wondered. I pictured her gap-toothed smile and that frizz of ginger hair and my eyes filled with tears. It hit me hard. I’d miss her, really miss her, and now I’d never see her again.
I decided to sneak back later, wipe away the yucky maggots and put her abandoned hand in a shoebox along with her necklace. I would get daddy’s trowel from the shed and dig a hole in our bomb-blasted back garden, in a private spot behind our leafless, charred apple tree. I’d recite a prayer and give her the humane burial she deserved. She was my friend and I had to make that count, because whatever they tell you, there are no gold stars for good behaviour; a perfect angel or a nasty monster, it’s pot luck how you peg out.
The Inspiration for Letters to the Pianist
A Guest Post by S.D. Mayes
I can still remember when the story for Letters to the Pianist dropped into my consciousness three years ago. It was about a man called Joe, of Jewish descent, who appeared to have lost his wife and children, along with his memory in the war. Having to start again, he ends up with a new identity and unknowingly marries into a family with dark secrets. When his long lost daughter tracks him down, and writes him a letter, fragments of his memories return, and he realises the dangerous trap he’s fallen into.
I remember thinking, wow, I’d love to read what happens next. I guess it’s that ‘what would happen if …’ that inspires most writers. It took me a while to get going. But a downpour of February rain drove me on – a good excuse not to go outside.
I had to do a huge amount of research and it was tricky summoning a wartime atmosphere to mind, but that changed when I discovered my mother, Ruth’s diarised memoirs, when she sadly died a few months after I started the book. I knew she had a traumatic childhood, but was intrigued to flick through the pages and read about her past – something she never discussed – and was amazed how well she vividly described her family home being bombed in the blitz, as her and her siblings were left orphaned after their parents were killed overnight. It was shocking and deeply emotional. And so the bomb scenes at the beginning of the story are an authentic account of what actually happened, along with the children’s separation as they were evacuated to stay with different relatives.
I also did some fascinating in depth research on Hitler and his occult activities, where he employed psychics and practised rituals in order to influence the mind of a nation. Of course Hitler will go down in history as one of the most evil men that ever lived, but there is no denying that he was a bizarre and fascinating character, and without giving away the plot, it is that supernatural aspect, that also made me wonder – what would happen if a character stumbled into all this ritualistic madness? And with that, I will leave you to discover exactly what I mean …
About SD Mayes
S.D. Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly twenty years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s pursuit of power and his obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first historical suspense novel.
Originally from the West Country, she currently lives in Caversham, Berkshire.
You can follow S D Mayes on Twitter @authorMayes.