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The Diary

By Annabel Barker


 

I stumbled and landed heavily on my hands and knees.

        ‘Ouch!’

        I stayed there for a few moments, waiting for my heart rate to return to normal. Swearing under my breath, I shifted into a sitting position and massaged my aching knees with my smarting palms, eventually striking two pigeons with one rock. I listened hard; thankfully no hurried footsteps sounded this time, nor did Dad’s face make another appearance round the door. The last thing I wanted was anyone fussing over me.

        This was the second time I’d nearly broken my neck tripping over a storage box. There were a dozen of them in my new bedroom, littering the cream carpet – the contents waiting to be unpacked.

        Dad had just married his girlfriend, Stella. They got together four years ago, when I was ten, three years after my mum died of cancer. I was fourteen now - and rather embarrassed by people’s sympathy. They meant well, but some people were extremely patronising or came out with clichés about time being a great healer and Mum’s spirit living on – the usual shit. Nothing could ever fill the hole inside me, nothing could soothe the stone in my heart where Mum should be.

        Stella Robinson was a divorcee who worked at the media company next door to Dad’s law firm. In the early days of dating, Dad’s mobile may as well have been glued to his body. Stella was so different from my mum - her skin and hair were dark and always wore warm, bright colours, accessorised with a lot of gold jewellery - but she had been brilliant from the start. Never trying to replace my mum, but always there for me. When Dad told her that I liked knitting (it made me feel close to Mum), Stella bought me a whole selection of yarn in every colour of the rainbow. I knitted lots of hats, scarves and gloves, ready for the shoeboxes sent to Eastern Europe, as well as some for myself – always pale blue, the colour I associated with my mum. From then on, Stella became Mum 2.0. and I felt flashes of hope that I didn’t think I’d ever feel again.

        There was just one problem: Stella already had two children, twins Naomi and Aaron, who were the same age as me and were not keen on sharing their mother.

  

The wedding was a very quiet affair – twelve people to be exact, including the registrar who took the service. Dad’s and Stella’s parents; a couple of family friends; Naomi, Aaron and me. I wore my favourite powder blue satin dress, which had originally belonged to my mum and had been altered to fit me. The dress was V-neck, with short cap sleeves and a gathered seam at the waist. I’d also had my hair and makeup done, as had Naomi – she wore a strapless, off-white mini dress embroidered with large cerise flowers. I smiled and chatted with the guests, posed for photographs, whilst wondering what Dad’s wedding to Mum had been like.


I was only a few weeks older, but Naomi and Aaron Robinson might as well have come from another world. Both good-looking, popular and extremely confident; they could have been a pair of teenage pinups. As for me, Alice Doherty, I think you already get the idea.

        Naomi in particular was intriguing, which I suppose came down to the fact that we were both girls, but so different – it was almost as if she was setting a standard with which I was expected to compete. How to be an adequate girl. Just thinking about it made my head spin. She was several inches shorter than me, with jaw-length black hair, an oval face and peridot-green eyes. My hair was deep blonde and my eyes cornflower blue, exactly like my mum, though I’d also inherited Dad’s sharp cheekbones and narrow chin.

        The twins were politer to Dad and me now we were fourteen, but I knew that if they’d had their way, they wouldn’t have a stepsister. Especially not somebody shy and nerdy like me. The twins themselves never confirmed this, but the unspoken clung to the air like mist. Naomi spent most of her days out with her posse of friends, which didn’t leave a lot of time for me. Hours of gossiping, makeovers and prattling about boys sounded like torture to me, but it was still hard not to mind never being invited to anything.

        Aaron was nearly as identical in persona as he was in looks. He attended the boy’s grammar school in town while Naomi went to the one for girls. His hair was black like his mother’s and sister’s, though his eyes were distinctly bluer than Naomi’s. He too was often out with his mates - and he was a star on the rugby team, so he looked strong and filled out.

        So, there you have it: Naomi and Aaron - a pair of shining stars – and me, a simple lump of rock.


The wedding was last week, at the beginning of August. Dad and I moved in straight afterwards. I’d have the rest of the summer to get used to living as an official family. Stella, Naomi and Aaron lived in a wide, three-storey townhouse on a road that featured identical houses, on the other side of the borough from the cul-de-sac where Dad and I lived before. At least I hadn’t had to change schools. The house had large rooms; my new bedroom was at least as twice as big as my old one. Like in the other rooms, the walls were cream, but I’d already added plenty of blue touches, from periwinkle butterflies to a turquoise lava lamp.

        I opened the doors of the built-in cupboard, intent on placing my school stuff there. Only it wasn’t empty. There was something right at the back. I pulled it out.

        It was a pocket-sized notebook. The cover was plain black, except for the Star of David on the front. I peered inside and felt my brain jumble. It seemed to be a diary. The handwriting was in a totally different language. Wait, I recognised a few words: Fuhrer. Robinson.

        The room suddenly felt cold. When she married Dad, Stella became Mrs Doherty, but Naomi and Aaron still kept the name Robinson - and I knew of only one person who was known as the Fuhrer.

        Questions exploded in my head like fireworks. Why was the diary there? Who had it belonged to? My eyes fell again on the star of David on the cover and harrowing images crept into my head. Cruel-faced soldiers patrolling the streets… masses of sunken-eyed prisoners in camps…

        What has this got to do with my new stepfamily?


‘Alice? Time for a break.’ Dad’s shout from downstairs jolted me back to the present. I pushed the diary to the back of the cupboard. I didn’t know why, but I felt protective of my new discovery, like it was my secret. Grabbing some light blue yarn, I left the room.

        Like the rest of the house, the kitchen was large and airy, except it had a wooden floor where the other rooms had carpets. Five mugs stood on the oval-shaped table in the centre, around which everyone was seated. That is, until Aaron shifted to his feet, muttering something about rugby practice. Naomi was bent over her phone, but Dad and Stella smiled at me as I sat down with them.

        ‘How’s the packing going?’ asked Stella. ‘Need a hand?’

        ‘No, it’s okay.’ Aware I’d sounded abrupt, I returned her smile. ‘Thank you anyway.’

        There was a pause while we drank our tea, or in my case, drank tea and knitted. Today, though, I could barely concentrate on my creation. The diary was burning in my brain like a candle I couldn’t blow out, distracting me from everything else.

        ‘What are you knitting, Alice?’ Dad asked, eyeing the blue yarn in my hand.

        ‘Knitting?’ Naomi’s voice dripped with disbelief. ‘In the summer?’

        My face grew hot. ‘A scarf,’ I mumbled.

        ‘Is it for the shoebox?’ asked Dad. ‘The charity doesn’t start collecting them until November and that’s three months away.’

        I shook my head.

        ‘I wish I knew how to knit,’ said Stella earnestly. ‘You’re amazing being able to do that. Darling, put that away,’ she added to Naomi.

        Naomi glanced up from her phone. ‘I might be seeing Roxie later.’

        Stella stared at her. ‘But you saw Roxie the other day.’

        Naomi raised her eyebrows. ‘And?’

        ‘Anyone would think you hadn’t seen her for years.’

        ‘Whatever.’ Naomi glanced back at her phone and groaned. ‘Roxie can’t make it. Her mum’s got a migraine.’ Her voice sounded accusatory, as if it was our fault. I could feel her dislike radiating from her like heat.

        I gulped down the rest of my tea, my eyes suddenly burning.

‘Thanks very much for the tea.’ I patted Stella’s arm and got up. ‘I’d better finish my unpacking if I want it done by bedtime.’


The tears were running down my face before I reached my room. The sound of Stella and Naomi arguing drifted up the stairs, though mercifully fell away when I closed my bedroom door.

        I didn’t resume my unpacking but took the diary back out of the cupboard. I needed distraction from the misery tightening around my heart. A few tears splashed onto the diary. I wiped my eyes before opening it.

        On the inside of the front cover was a black-and-white photo of a small girl who looked about ten, with wavy black hair and serious dark eyes. Beneath this photo were two words: Rifka Wallach.

My heartbeat quickened. I was getting closer to solving the mystery - this girl had to be the author. The next step was to find out what language it was in. I whipped out my phone and clicked onto Google Translate, then set the default so it would detect the language and translate it into English. I typed the first sentence into the search box. The result told me it was German. Next to the box with the German words was another box with the English translation.

        My hands sweating, I typed a few more sentences, then found a clean notebook and began to write.


Sunday, 4 December 1938


They said I’d be happy and safe in Britain, but I’m not. Despite everything that’s happened, I’d rather be back in Berlin. Maybe it was dangerous, but at least I knew people there and I could communicate with them. I also had Mama and Papa, but they’re still at home. Mama said that they will follow soon, that the British government must look after all the children first, which is why Mama and Papa weren’t allowed to come with me to England.


My jaw dropped. Rifka Wallach had not only been forced to leave her home, but her country too. Without her family. There was me thinking I had it bad. A pair of tricky stepsiblings – it was meaningless by comparison. My stomach clenched thinking how Rifka must have felt, along with deep shame. Bracing myself, I continued translating:


I have been taken in by Mr and Mrs. Robinson and their three children. Their names are Alistair, Andrew and Angela. Mr. Robinson’s moustache is even thicker than the Fuhrer’s and he is always laughing and talking with everyone and anyone. Mrs. Robinson has such thin eyebrows that I can’t tell whether they’re plucked or pencilled on. All the family is fair-haired. My hair is black, so it won’t take a genius to work out that I’m not related.

They were all waiting for me at the station when the train arrived. They jabbered away excitedly, only I couldn’t understand a word. Mama and Papa said that I’ll learn English soon, but I can’t imagine myself ever speaking it. Why can’t the whole world speak one language?

One thing I can understand is that I’ve been given a new name. I am not to be called Rifka anymore. They call me Rebecca now, pronouncing it ‘Ree-beck-cur.’ In Berlin, my name was Rifka Wallach. In England, my name is Rebecca Robinson.


        My whole body went limp. The diary slipped from my hand. For a moment I forgot who and where I was. Bile rose in my throat.

        ‘Alice?’ I jumped and spun round. Naomi’s head was poked round the door, her expression unreadable.

        ‘Are you all right?’

        I held out the diary to her. Regarding me warily, Naomi took it from me. As she flickered through the pages, her eyes filled with horror. When she saw the photo of Rifka inside the front cover, her face drained of colour.

        ‘Where the hell did you find this?’ she asked quietly.

        I pointed to the cupboard. ‘In there, it was right at the back.’

        ‘I thought Mum cleared everything out,’ Naomi murmured. ‘She was moving it all out.…’ She backed out of the room.

        ‘Cleared what out?’ I hurried after her. ‘Naomi, tell me!’


We were in the living room. The diary lay in the middle of the coffee table. Naomi had collapsed onto one of the flowery sofas, her head in her hands.

        ‘What’s happened?’

        I hadn’t noticed Stella enter the room. She just sat down next to Naomi and put her arms round her. Her eyes fell on the diary on the table – and widened in horror.

        ‘What is going on?’ I demanded. ‘Whose diary is it?’

        Dad came in with a tray of fresh mugs of tea, then sat next to me on the opposite sofa. He followed Stella’s gaze to the diary. ‘Is that…?’

        ‘Yes.’ Naomi’s face was streaked with tears. She clutched Stella’s arm. ‘Mum, Alice says she found it in the cupboard.’

        Stella turned to Dad. ‘It’s time to tell her, Joe.’

        ‘Tell me what?’

        Stella took a deep breath. ‘Do you remember, Alice, that when I first introduced you and your dad to my family, you met Grandma Rebecca, my father’s mother?’

        I nodded, remembering an elderly lady with grey flecks swamping her dark hair. She had died a year or so ago, around the time Dad and Stella had got engaged.

        My heart gave a sudden lurch. ‘Did she…’

        ‘Yes.’ Naomi gestured to the diary. ‘That was hers.’

        Stella’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I told you once before that she originally came from Germany. What I haven’t told you is the circumstances. She came via the Kindertransport.’

        I blinked, utterly bewildered.

        ‘It was a train that brought thousands of Jewish children to England, from all over Europe, just before the Second World War,’ said Stella. ‘Rebecca was on the very first train, which came from Berlin.’

        My eyes widened. ‘Rebecca came to England because she was Jewish?

        Stella nodded. ‘That’s how she met my grandfather, Alastair. His parents took her in with his family. Her birthname was Rifka, but they called her Rebecca, which is the English version of Rifka. She kept diaries of her experience, which we still have today, kept private within the family. When the war was over, Rebecca and Alastair married and they had several children, including the twins’ Grandpa. Rebecca never went back to Germany.’

        There was a pause, during which I glanced at Naomi. Her green eyes were even brighter with her tears. No matter how many times she had heard the story, I knew the impact would never soften.

        ‘But what about Rebecca’s family?’ I whispered.

        Naomi gulped. ‘Rebecca got in touch with the Red Cross and…’ Her voice cracked. ‘They told her that her parents had been deported to death camps. They didn’t survive.’

        A chill crept through my entire being. Tears were spilling down my own cheeks. Even Dad’s eyes were glistening. He got up from the sofa and pulled Naomi into a hug. She fell into Dad’s arms. I suddenly thought of her own dad and wondered whether he had held her like that as she cried.

        ‘That’s why we’re always aware of Jewish celebrations in this family,’ Stella told me. ‘Even though we’re not Jewish ourselves.’

        ‘Exactly.’ Dad was stroking Naomi’s hair. ‘I remember the twins Grandpa saying that his heart belongs to both Christianity and Judaism, because of his parents.’

        My face grew warm. I knew it wasn’t my fault that I’d found the diary, but I still felt awful that I’d done so before Rebecca’s actual family had the chance to tell me in their own time. Feeling as though I was intruding on a private moment, I took my tea into the kitchen.

        A few minutes later, Naomi followed me. Her eyes were dry now, though her face was still blotchy.

        ‘I’m sorry I found the diary before you did,’ I said.

        Naomi shrugged. ‘Not your fault.’

        I reached out and touched her shoulder. It was trembling under my hand. I was suddenly struck by how she resembled Rifka Wallach.

        ‘Can we be friends?’ I asked suddenly.

        Whatever Naomi had thought I might say, it clearly wasn’t that. Her head jerked like a jack-in-the-box.

        ‘I know it must be difficult for you,’ I went on. ‘Not having your dad around, but can…’

        Naomi’s face softened. ‘Oh, Alice, I’m sorry. Sorry for the way I’ve acted. It’s hard without Dad but it’s been way harder for you.’ She clasped my hand that was on her shoulder. ‘When Dad left, it was as if he was moving on, starting over, as if Aaron and I were old jobs or something. He made that choice.’ She hesitated. ‘Your mum passing away is awful, but she didn’t choose to leave you, did she?’

        I shook my head. Mum hadn’t chosen to die, but she and Dad had loved me together.

        Naomi hugged me. ‘We’re not just friends, Alice. We’re sisters, okay? Another thing,’ she added. ‘Please can you knit me a hat, scarf and gloves?’

        I laughed and squeezed her back, realising right there and then that family wasn’t always defined by blood. Sisterhood was no exception.

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