Welcome to Sarah’s Vignettes stop on the blog tour for The Child on Platform One by Gill Thompson.
I am so pleased to be taking part in this tour and thank you to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part.
I was sad that I couldn’t fit in a review for this book. It is exactly my kind of historical read as I gravitate towards stories set in World War 2. However, after reading the extract below, I will be reading and reviewing the book at some point. It’s powerful.
Before I share the extract with you, here is what The Child on Platform One is about.
~ Publisher’s Description ~
Inspired by the real-life escape of thousands of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe on the Kindertransport trains to London, the new novel from the author of The Oceans Between Us Gill Thompson. For readers of The Tattooist of Auschwitz Heather Morris, The Choice Edith Eger and Lilac Girls Martha Hall Kelly.
Prague 1939. Young mother Eva has a secret from her past. When the Nazis invade, Eva knows the only way to keep her daughter Miriam safe is to send her away – even if it means never seeing her again. But when Eva is taken to a concentration camp, her secret is at risk of being exposed.
In London, Pamela volunteers to help find places for the Jewish children arrived from Europe. Befriending one unclaimed little girl, Pamela brings her home. It is only when her young son enlists in the RAF that Pamela realises how easily her own world could come crashing down.
~ Extract from The Child on Platform One ~
The guard’s whistle blew. Pamela put her head out of the window to check that all the children were safely on board. Further down the platform, a wailing child was being forced into a carriage by a clearly agitated mother. How awful. As the train pulled out, Pamela hurried down the corridor to check on the little girl. As she did so, she caught the mother’s eye. There was no time to call out that everything would be all right, even if she could find the words, but in that split second of contact she concentrated all her efforts on silently assuring the woman that she’d protect her child. She saw the woman turn to her companion and they put their arms round each other. She couldn’t bear to think how hard it must be for them to hand over their children. She twisted her wedding ring round her finger as she thought of Will, and silently thanked God he was safe.
She found the little girl, her face buried in her doll, sitting by the window, her small legs dangling. Opposite her was a boy of a similar age, imperturbably munching on a hunk of black bread. For a second Pamela thought of Margery Weston, who no doubt had purchased new provisions and was tucking into them heartily. How strange that some people could carry on eating even in the most extreme of circumstances. She herself certainly couldn’t manage a morsel.
She sat down carefully next to the child. Her long hair, probably carefully brushed by her mother, was frizzy where it had rubbed against the seat. Pamela longed to smooth it but didn’t want to scare her. The girl had brown frightened eyes in a white face and looked about five or six. ‘Seef por ardku?’ Pamela asked. Are you all right? Mrs Brevda had taught her well. She was quite fluent now.
The little girl nodded woefully.
‘Yak-say-manyouyesh?’ What’s your name?
‘Miriam,’ the girl whispered.
Pamela gently stroked the doll’s hair. ‘Jakka hezka panenka.’ What a pretty doll! Thank goodness she’d had all that practice with Agata. She reached out to shake the doll’s hand, just as she had with Agata’s doll in the hospital. The child gave a half-smile. Pamela gestured to her to hand the doll over, and soon they were playing hide-and-seek with it. Even the little boy joined in. By the time the train pulled to a halt an hour later, the children had started to laugh a little.
Pamela walked up the train to find out why they had stopped. They were at a station. Terezin, the sign said. She located Margery, who was gesticulating at an official with a hand that still clutched an apple. Tiny bits of the fruit’s flesh flew through the air. ‘Ah, Pamela. Perhaps you can help.’
‘I’ll try.’ Pamela stepped forward and exchanged a few sentences with the man. ‘Apparently some important papers are missing. We can’t cross into Germany without them.’
Margery blew out her cheeks. ‘Oh no. How frustrating. I was assured everything was in order.’
Pamela bit her lip. They had such a long way to go, and already there was a holdup when they’d barely started.
Margery had no choice but to dispatch Patrick Smith back to Prague to collect the necessary papers. Pamela looked out of the window to see the black ulster coat scuttling self-importantly up the platform, ready to catch the return train. Perhaps Smith was more competent than he’d appeared.
It had been nice to be back in Prague, however briefly. Despite the pain of her accident, and the horror of Ada’s death, Pamela still had some good memories of Czechoslovakia: the warmth and kindness of the people . . . the beauty of the landscape . . . even the food had been interesting, though very different to Hampstead fare. Most of all, it was tremendous to feel she was doing something. She had her part to play: registering the children, issuing brown labels, trying to console distraught mothers. It had been a very long time since she’d felt she was genuinely helping. I feel like a Quaker again, she realised. At long last the guilt of compromise, hypocrisy even, was beginning to recede. Hugh was doing his bit at the Foreign Office; she was rescuing refugees. Finally they were working as a team.
Their train waited at Terezin for four hours, while others moved through the station past it. Four hours of checking on the children, joining in with ‘Hoppe, hoppe Reiter’, which they seemed to want to sing countless times, making sure they didn’t eat all their food, placing blankets over those who had fallen asleep, comforting those who were distressed. And all the time listening to Margery’s infuriated rants and feeling her own blood pressure rise alarmingly. By the time Patrick Smith finally returned with the vital papers, and the train jerked into action, Pamela was exhausted and frustrated. They had so much time to make up.
The motion of the train lulled more children to sleep, and eventually Pamela felt she could relax. For the first few hours the windows were filled with mountains and forests, just as when they’d travelled through Germany for their ski trip. She’d forgotten how beautiful the country was. How could such splendour and tranquillity have spawned such a warlike people? Adolf Hitler was a powerful man, there was no doubt about that. Thank God Chamberlain was holding him off for now, but Pamela had seen the worry and fear etched on the faces of the people at the Wilson station. Occupation was a terrible thing. She hoped it would never come to that in Britain.
When they stopped at Cologne, German officers boarded the train. Pamela heard the thud of their boots as they made their way up the corridors. She looked out of the window. Nazi flags hung from each lamp post; there were black swastikas in white circles and posters of Hitler everywhere. The air crackled with tension.
Suddenly their compartment door burst open and a German officer appeared, lurching slightly in the entrance. Pamela’s mouth turned paper-dry, and she held her breath. The officer strode up to Miriam and motioned to her doll. ‘What have we here?’
Miriam held out the doll with a shaking hand. The man grabbed it and dangled it out of the window, his fingers forcing the little cloth limbs to jerk up and down. ‘Help me,’ he cried in a high-pitched voice, then laughed at his own pantomime. Miriam was frozen with terror.
The little boy shifted in his seat. Pamela put her palm on his shoulder to restrain him, then strode over to the window.
‘Stop it,’ she said, as vehemently as she dared. ‘You’re upsetting the children.’
She had no idea if the officer understood her words, but he’d caught her tone. He shrugged, drew the doll back in and tossed it onto Miriam’s lap. Pamela hoped he’d leave them alone after that, but instead he hauled the children’s cases down from the luggage rack. As he dropped them on the floor, one of them burst open, revealing a neat stack of clothes.
The German pulled the garments out and flung them behind him, creating an untidy pile of skirts and dresses, several made from the same material. Something caught in Pamela’s throat. Miriam’s mother must have sewn them for her. She was obviously expecting them to be apart for some time. The officer grabbed another lot of belongings from the suitcase and dropped them on the floor. There was a smashing sound.
‘I can assure you everything here is in order,’ Pamela said.
The German ignored her.
Anger tightened in a band across her chest. ‘Enough!’ she shouted. She marched up to the German, snapped the suitcase shut, and hauled it across the floor away from him. ‘What kind of man are you that you victimise defenceless children? You should be ashamed of yourself,’ she hissed, putting as much venom in her voice as she could. Even if he didn’t speak English, there was no doubt about her anger. Let him attack her if he wanted – the man in the homburg would surely come to her aid soon – but these children were terrified. They had barely anything of their own. How dare he ransack their cases?
The German scowled. Pamela stood her ground. Where on earth was the homburg man? ‘Keep away from these children. Their things are not yours to take.’ She made a shooing gesture with her hand. ‘Get out this minute!’
The German’s eyes bulged. He aimed a kick at the suitcase, then left the compartment.
Pamela’s legs were suddenly hollow. When she knelt down quickly in front of Miriam, it was as much to stop herself falling over as to reassure the child.
‘Come on, dear,’ she said in Czech. It was almost impossible to speak, her mouth was so dry. ‘Let’s repack your suitcase.’ She started to refold the girl’s dresses and place them carefully back in the case. A photo in a broken frame had slid under the seat. She picked it up to see a smiling Jewish couple, the little girl seated between them. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told her. ‘We’ll get this mended for you when we get to England.’ The child gulped and hugged her doll tightly.
Pamela heaved the cases back into the overhead rack.
‘Will you be all right now?’
Miriam and the boy both nodded.
She strode into the next-door compartment to find the man Lord Halifax had supposedly sent to keep an eye on her still sitting behind his newspaper, his homburg intact. The pages shook slightly in his hands.
She stood in front of him, hands on hips, until he lowered his paper. His face was pale and his forehead gleamed with sweat.
‘I thought you were here to help,’ she said.
The man swallowed. ‘Er, sorry. Got engrossed.’ He wiped his palms down his trousers. ‘Are you all right?’
~ Where to find The Child on Platform One ~
~ About Gill Thompson ~
Gill Thompson is an English lecturer who completed an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University. Her debut novel, The Oceans Between Us, was a No. 1 digital bestseller and has been highly acclaimed. She lives with her family in West Sussex and teaches English to college students.
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