The Devil's Daughter
London 2022 / Paris 1946
If every man is guilty of all the good he did not do, as Voltaire suggested, then I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that I am innocent of all the bad. It has been a convenient way to endure decades of self-imposed exile from the past, to see myself as a victim of historical amnesia, acquitted from complicity, and exonerated from blame.
My final story begins and ends, however, with something as trivial as a box cutter. Mine had broken a few days earlier and, finding it a useful tool to keep in a kitchen drawer, I paid a visit to my local hardware shop to purchase a new one. Upon my return, a letter was waiting for me from an estate agent, a similar one delivered to every resident of Winterville Court, politely informing each of us that the flat below my own was being put up for sale. The previous occupant, Mr. Richardson, had lived in Flat One for some thirty years but died shortly before Christmas, leaving the dwelling empty. His daughter, a speech therapist, resided in New York and, to the best of my knowledge, had no plans to return to London, so I had made my peace with the fact that it would not be long before I was forced to interact with a stranger in the lobby, perhaps even having to feign an interest in his or her life or be required to divulge small details about my own.
Mr. Richardson and I had enjoyed the perfect neighborly relationship in that we had not exchanged a single word since 2008. In the early years of his residence, we'd been on good terms and he had occasionally come upstairs for a game of chess with my late husband, Edgar, but somehow, he and I had never moved past the formalities. He always addressed me as "Mrs. Fernsby" while I referred to him as "Mr. Richardson." The last time I set foot in his flat had been four months after Edgar's death, when he invited me for supper and, having accepted the invitation, I found myself on the receiving end of an amorous advance, which I declined. He took the rejection badly and we became as near to strangers as two people who coexist within a single building can be.
My Mayfair residence is listed as a flat but that is a little like describing Windsor Castle as the Queen's weekend bolthole. Each apartment in our building-there are five in total, one on the ground floor, then two on both floors above-is spread across fifteen hundred square feet of prime London real estate, each with three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, and views over Hyde Park that value them, I am reliably informed, at somewhere between £2 and £3 million apiece. Edgar came into a substantial amount of money a few years after we married, an unexpected bequest from a spinster aunt, and while he would have preferred to move to a more peaceful area outside Central London, I had done some research of my own and was determined not only to live in Mayfair but to reside in this particular building, should it ever prove possible. Financially, this had seemed unlikely but then, one day, like a deus ex machina, Aunt Belinda passed away and everything changed. I'd always planned on explaining to Edgar the reason why I was so desperate to live here, but somehow never did, and I rather regret that now.
My husband was very fond of children but I agreed only to one, giving birth to our son, Caden, in 1961. In recent years, as the property has increased in value, Caden has encouraged me to sell and purchase something smaller in a less expensive part of town, but I suspect this is because he worries that I might live to be a hundred and he is keen to receive a portion of his inheritance while he is still young enough to enjoy it. He is thrice married and now engaged for a fourth time; I have given up on acquainting myself with the women in his life. I find that as soon as one gets to know them, they are dispatched, a new model is installed, and one has to take the time to learn their idiosyncrasies, as one might with a new washing machine or television set. As a child, he treated his friends with similar ruthlessness. We speak regularly on the telephone, and he visits me for supper every two weeks, but we have a complicated relationship, damaged in part by my year-long absence from his life when he was nine years old. The truth is, I am simply not comfortable around children and I find small boys particularly difficult.
My concern about my new neighbor was not that he or she might cause unnecessary noise-these flats are very well insulated and, even with a few weak spots here and there, I had grown accustomed over the years to the various peculiar sounds that rose up through Mr. Richardson's ceiling-but I resented the fact that my ordered world might be upset. I hoped for someone who had no interest in knowing anything about the woman who lived above them. An elderly invalid, perhaps, who rarely left the house and was visited each morning by a home-help. A young professional who disappeared on Friday afternoons to her weekend home and returned late on Sundays, spending the rest of her time at the office or the gym. A rumor spread through the building that a well-known pop musician whose career had peaked in the 1980s had looked at it as a potential retirement home but, happily, nothing came of that.
My curtains twitched whenever the estate agent pulled up outside, escorting a client in to inspect the flat, and I made notes about each potential neighbor. There was a very promising husband and wife in their early seventies, softly spoken, who held each other's hands and asked whether pets were permitted in the building-I was listening on the stairwell-and seemed disappointed when told they were not. A homosexual couple in their thirties who, judging by the distressed condition of their clothing and their general unkempt air must have been fabulously wealthy, but who declared that the "space" was probably a little small for them and they couldn't relate to its "narrative." A young woman with plain features who gave no clue as to her intentions, other than to remark that someone named Steven would adore the high ceilings. Naturally, I hoped for the gays-they make good neighbors and there's little chance of them procreating-but they proved to be the least interested.
And then, after a few weeks, the estate agent no longer brought anyone to visit, the listing vanished from the Internet and I guessed that a deal had been struck. Whether I liked it or not, I would one day wake to find a removals van parked outside and someone, or a collection of someones, inserting a key into the front door and taking up residence beneath me.
Oh, how I dreaded it!
Mother and I escaped Germany in early 1946, only a few months after the war ended, traveling by train from what was left of Berlin to what was left of Paris. Fifteen years old and knowing little of life, I was still coming to terms with the fact that the Axis had been defeated. Father had spoken with such confidence of the genetic superiority of our race and of the FŸhrer's incomparable skills as a military strategist that victory had always seemed assured. And yet, somehow, we had lost.
The journey of almost seven hundred miles across the continent did little to encourage optimism for the future. The cities we passed through were marked by the destruction of recent years while the faces of the people I saw in the stations and carriages were not cheered by the end of the war but scarred by its effects. There was a sense of exhaustion everywhere, a growing realization that Europe could not return to how it had been in 1938 but needed to be rebuilt entirely, as did the spirits of its inhabitants.
The city of my birth had been almost entirely reduced to rubble now, its spoils divided between four of our conquerors. For our protection, we remained hidden in the basements of those few true believers whose homes were still standing until we could be provided with the false papers that would ensure our safe removal from Germany. Our passports now bore the surname of GuŽymard, the pronunciation of which I practiced repeatedly in order to ensure that I sounded as authentic as possible, but while Mother was now to be called Nathalie-my grandmother's name-I remained Gretel.
Every day, fresh details of what had taken place at the camps came to light and Father's name was becoming a byword for criminality of the most heinous nature. While no one suggested that we were as culpable as him, Mother believed that it would spell disaster for us to reveal ourselves to the authorities. I agreed for, like her, I was frightened, although it shocked me to think that anyone could consider me complicit in the atrocities. It's true that, since my tenth birthday, I had been a member of the JungmŠdelbund, but so had every other young girl in Germany. It was mandatory, after all, just like being part of the Deutsches Jungvolk was compulsory for ten-year-old boys. But I had been far less interested in studying the ideology of the party than in taking part in the regular sporting activities with my friends. And when we arrived at that other place, I had only gone beyond the fence once, on that single day that Father had brought me into the camp to observe his work. I tried to tell myself that I had been a bystander, nothing more, and that my conscience was clear, but already I was beginning to question my own involvement in the events I had witnessed.
As our train entered France, however, I grew worried that our accents might give us away. Surely, I reasoned, the recently liberated citizens of Paris, shamed by their prompt capitulation in 1940, would react aggressively toward anyone who spoke as we did? My concern was proven correct when, despite demonstrating that we had more than enough money for a lengthy stay, we were refused rooms at five separate boarding houses; it was only when a woman in place Vend™me took pity on us and shared the address of a nearby lodging where, she said, the landlady asked no questions that we found somewhere to live. Had it not been for her, we might have ended up the wealthiest indigents on the streets.
The room we rented was on the eastern part of Île de la CitŽ and in those early days I preferred to remain close to home, confining myself to walking the short distance from Pont de Sully to Pont Neuf and back again in endless loops, anxious about venturing across bridges into unknown terrain. Sometimes I thought of my brother, who had longed to be an explorer, and of how much he would have enjoyed deciphering those unfamiliar streets, but, at such moments, I was always quick to dismiss his memory.
Mother and I had been living on the Île for two months before I summoned the courage to make my way to le Jardin du Luxembourg, where an abundance of greenery made me feel as if I had stumbled upon Paradise. Such a contrast, I thought, to when we had arrived at that other place and been struck by its barren, desolate nature. Here, one inhaled the perfume of life; there, one choked on the stench of death. I wandered as if in a daze from the Palais to the Medici fountain, and from there toward the pool, only turning away when I saw a coterie of small boys placing wooden boats in the water, the light breeze taking their vessels across to their playmates on the other side. Their laughter and excited conversation provided an upsetting music after the muted distress with which I had become familiar and I struggled to understand how a single continent could play host to such extremes of beauty and ugliness.
One afternoon, taking shelter from the sun on a bench near the boulodrome, I found myself consumed by both grief and guilt, and with tears falling down my face. A handsome boy, perhaps two years my senior, approached wearing a concerned expression to ask what was wrong. I looked up and felt a stirring of desire, a longing for him to put his arms around me or allow me to rest my head upon his shoulder, but when I spoke I fell into old speech patterns, my German accent overpowering my French, and he took a step back, staring at me with undisguised contempt, before summoning all the anger he felt toward my kind and spitting violently in my face and marching away. Strangely, his actions did not diminish my hunger for his touch but increased it. Wiping my cheeks dry, I ran after him, grabbed him by the arm and invited him to take me into the trees, telling him that he could do whatever he wanted with me in the secluded space.
"You can hurt me if you like," I whispered, closing my eyes, thinking that he might slap me hard, drive his fist into my stomach, break my nose.
"Why would you want that?" he asked, his tone betraying an innocence that belied his beauty.
"So I'll know that I'm alive."
He seemed both aroused and repulsed and looked around to see whether anyone was watching before glancing toward the copse that I had indicated. Licking his lips, he observed the swell of my breasts, but when I took him by the hand my touch insulted him and he pulled away, calling me a whore, une putain, and broke into a run as he disappeared out onto rue Guynemer.
When the weather was good I wandered the streets from early morning, only returning to our lodgings when Mother would already be too drunk to ask how I had passed my time. The elegance that had defined her earlier life was beginning to fall away now but she was still a handsome woman and I wondered whether she might search for a new husband, someone who could take care of us. But it did not seem that she wanted companionship or love, preferring to be left alone with her thoughts as she made her way from bar to bar. She was a quiet drunk. She sat in darkened corners nursing bottles of wine, scratching at invisible marks upon wooden tabletops while making sure never to cause a scene that might see her exiled to the street. Once, our paths crossed as the sun disappeared over the Bois de Boulogne and she approached me unsteadily before taking my arm and asking me the time. She didn't appear to realize that it was her own daughter she was addressing. When I answered, she smiled in relief-it was growing dark, but the bars would remain open for hours yet-and she continued in the direction of the bright, seductive lights that dotted the Île. If I vanished entirely, I wondered, would she forget that I had ever existed?
Copyright © 2022 by John Boyne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.