A Draft first Chapter from Crow’s Song

Book Two in a new Series of Historical fiction.

CHAPTER  ONE – Gone Missing 1940 Netherlands

It is the end of spring when my father vanishes.

He hugs me at bedtime, gripping me, almost crushing me into his chest. I’m taken by surprise because he isn’t a touchy hugger kind of man. Moments later, I pull back. His eyes hold mine as if begging me to say something.

‘Anything wrong, Papa?’

‘No, son,’ his words are an unconvincing lie, an avoidance.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve played out this scene hundreds of times, especially at night when I lie awake, praying for my father’s return and for sleep to gloss over my churning memory.

Mama tells me he has traveled far away for work.

‘But he has the shop,’ I say. ‘He always works here in the family business and serves his customers. He’s always gone on about the importance of the shop.’

‘It’s OK. Uncle Tony is looking after the shop now,’ Mama says, wanting to shut me up.

I know things. I understand things, so I let it go, but like a persistent rat, it gnaws at the edges of my consciousness every day and most nights.

After a month, I worry Papa will never return home. I keep this to myself. I’m the eldest of five children and I don’t want to upset them too. They ask me about him sometimes and I tell them he has a new job on a building site for a new factory in Rotterdam, which is far away from Eindhoven where we live. It’s hard work and there is no time to come and see us. But he will be back on St Nicholas’ Day.

At breakfast I watch my mother closely, her unhappy face rarely smiles. With Nazi occupation, it is no surprise that soldiers are everywhere. At first, our lives carried on like normal, but now things are much harder. I try to remember what Papa explained about the war. But I only recall small pieces of his conversation. None of it makes any sense to me now, the phrases I turn over in my mind, rearrange the words but still understanding eludes me.

‘What are you staring at, Piet?’ my brother Jantjie asks.

I glance into his face. ‘I was just looking at Papa’s empty chair and hoping he isn’t working too hard,’ I smile, keeping the tension out of my words. My two younger sisters burst into the kitchen, giggling about nothing. They are irritating and I look back down at my watery porridge and wonder: when did breakfast change from fresh bread, butter, cheese and ham? When did the thick creamy porridge with heaped spoons of brown sugar and raisins change to this watery, tasteless pretence, I now stir in my old porcelain breakfast bowl? When was the last time I didn’t feel hungry?

Mama sits at the kitchen table after placing the same watery cereal in front of my brother and two sisters. She cradles baby Mia in her arms and spoons the same breakfast slop into her own mouth. This is the first time I notice dark rings under her eyes and her sunken cheeks are pale. Mama’s dark hair pulls back into a makeshift bun at her nape. A style she always wore, but it looks unkempt, strands of long wavey hair unravel and fall onto her shoulders and back, one thick strand has fallen forward across her ace which she pushes back behind her left ear and focusses on smiling at Mia, gurgling and grinning at her.

When had my beautiful mother become so thin? Why didn’t we have enough food? I had been so busy playing with Henk that I had spent little time at home. I felt like I was in the wrong house, with the wrong family, a shadow family of my real one. What was going on? How had this happened to us? This is all wrong, and it all went wrong when Papa left our home. I spooned in another lukewarm mouthful and forced it down. After the entire bowl is empty, it does nothing to stem my hunger.

I stand up to take my plates to the sink and stop in front of Mama. She glances away from Mia towards my upset face.

‘What’s wrong, Piet?’ she asks calmly.

‘We need Papa to come home,’ I say. The other three stop dead still watching and listening, all of us waiting for our mother to declare he will be home soon, and our lives will be back to a normal, wonderful favorable time again.

‘Come here,’ she reaches out her free hand and clutches mine. ‘He isn’t coming home for a long time.’

‘But… he must… come back,’ I plead as tears well and trickle down my cheeks. Mama reaches her arms around me, hugging me close with little Mia wriggling between us. ‘It is all right, darling,’ she whispers in my ear. ‘He will come home one day.’

‘One day?’ I want to rage, to scream, to sob and shout. But my gaze falls on the wooden kitchen table surrounded by my brothers and sisters. I suck in a deep breath and say nothing, squeezing myself against my mother’s warm neck. The knot in my throat holds my fear and frustration in check.

‘We must wait until after the war,’ she says. ‘It can’t be much longer and then your Papa will return.’

‘You can’t know,’ I challenge and immediately regret my words as I see a flicker of fear in her eyes.

‘Piet, we all have to be brave and do the best we can. I cannot explain much, but all I can say is we need to look after one another and you are the eldest, so I expect you to act like the man of the house and help me. I am a woman alone with five children. This is no easy time for you, for all of you,’ she looks at us seated around the table and seems about to weep but shifts Mia over her other shoulder and steps up to the table. ‘I am depending on all of you to help me and each other, so when Papa comes home, he will be proud of us all.’

I need to go; I want to get out of here, away from my home, my mother, my family. I want to find Henk and escape to our life outside this miserable place. I wipe my tear-stricken face with open palms and drag them across my trousers.

‘See if you can find some coal,’ Mama asks me. ‘Or the baby will freeze to death if we can’t keep the fire going.’

I nod, grab my jacket and scarf off the hook near the back door and walk out into the snow.