- Published: 1 June 2021
- ISBN: 9780143794103
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $32.99
Secrets My Father Kept
Krakow, Poland, February 1939
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him. Her patriarch was a respected man in town who kept to himself and attended church eight times a week (every morning and twice on Sundays). He possessed no interests beyond the rapture of the Blessed Sacrament, and studying the reproductive habits of bacteria. He did not deserve such disrespect from his only daughter. But unfortunately, the burning desire to find something – anything – about her mother had become irrepressible for Marie, and that Wednesday afternoon, as the rain made lovely fat spatters on the cobblestones outside, was as good a time as any to betray him.
People only see what they want to see. That’s what Marie’s father always told her. He rarely gave out fatherly advice; this was his one dabble with cliché. If you only acknowledged the narrowest purpose of a person or object, the world was a far smaller and less interesting place.
She wasn’t exactly sure what her father meant or why he liked to say it, but she would make use of this phrase now to break into his bedroom. She retrieved a hairpin from her blonde hair. She had no experience as a cat burglar, but Olaf, a local delinquent who caught the same tram as Marie on the days he chose to attend school, had bragged to her earlier that week that one could pick a lock with a piece of thin metal. ‘Stick it in and jiggle,’ he’d boasted as he coughed on a cigarillo. Marie held up her strip of brass and smiled. Most people who owned a hairpin saw only an object for holding back their tresses. Marie saw something else. A key.
She had little expectation of what she might find inside her papa’s chamber, but she knew there had to be something. Letters, or a forwarding address for her mother? Her father locked no other rooms in the house, not even his study, where his important research notes lay. Nobody locked a door with nothing valuable inside.
As she climbed the stairs to her father’s quarters, she heard the familiar sound of what could only be described as thwacking beginning outside. Mrs Nowak, who lived next door, was stacking sandbags again, one on top of the other. The portly woman, whose height did not reach a metre and a half, maintained an obsession that Mr Hitler would invade in the next day or two. She had warned her neighbours, her friends and whoever else would listen about this imminent visit from Der Führer for the past three years. Everyone shook their heads, proclaiming her insane, but she continued her task. She was building a wall of sandbags around her front door, to barricade herself inside for the night – along with the other tenants of the building, whether they wanted it or not. She performed this ceremony daily, adding more bags to the pile as she located more sand. Today’s rain did not stop her; neither would a hurricane. But although the sandbags slapping outside unnerved her, Marie had other tasks to attend to right now. She arrived at her father’s bedroom and bent down to inspect the door.
The lock sat within the doorknob itself, a modern contraption. No other doorknob in the house contained a lock, so her father had likely installed this one himself. She removed a second pin from her hair; according to Olaf, the aspiring criminal, lock picking required two. A piece of hair, set free by the pin’s removal, fell into her face, covering her left eye and fuzzing her vision. She blew it away, then tucked it behind her ear. She inserted the pins – one into the base of the lock, then the second directly above it – and commenced with Olaf’s instruction to jiggle them.
She jiggled and jiggled again. She jiggled so much it made her elbow hurt. Nothing happened. The doorknob felt looser as she did it, but the lock itself did not budge. What to do? She glanced at the clock at the end of the hall. The hands read almost six o’clock. Her father would arrive home soon. She would have to abandon her mission. She cursed herself and cursed the hairpins, which had promised her the world; she cursed Olaf for his defective advice; and she cursed Mrs Nowak too, who kept stacking her sandbag wall outside. She’d try again another time, when she had more than minutes to complete her task. She withdrew her hand to remove the pins from the lock. One pin fell into her hand. The other, however, didn’t release itself from the door. Marie pulled again, but the lock had ensnared the metal in its jaws.
She planted her feet, gripped the pin and wrenched it with all her strength. She flew backwards onto the floor with the effort, and the pin came free. Unfortunately, so did the doorknob. The entire structure, with the hairpin still wedged in the lock, now lay in Marie’s hand. A jagged hole yawned in the door where the knob had once stood.
She glanced at the hallway clock: the hands read two minutes past six. She expected her father home at 6.14, and his nature did not accommodate lateness.
Marie considered the possibility that her father wouldn’t notice what she’d done. He worked as a surgeon at the city hospital and his pastimes included studying minuscule organisms under a microscope. The chances of him noticing a ten-centimetre hole in his bedroom door neared one hundred per cent.
She was perched to position the knob back in its place when the door creaked open, and she caught a glimpse of the interior of her father’s quarters. A shard of afternoon light shone into the room through a window on the far side. She’d imagined her father’s chamber many times. Sometimes the floorboards creaked as she lay in bed at night, and she’d imagine what he did in there. Did he write secret letters to her mother, begging her to return? She checked her watch. Before she could talk herself out of it, Marie darted inside. She’d snatch a quick glance, then repair the door.
Marie gazed upon the room. Spotless wooden boards covered the floor. A perfume of carbolic soap rose from the linens and a pound of starch seemed to imprison the sheets. A pillow rested uneasily at the bed’s head; from its texture it seemed her father had stuffed it with stones. No dust besmirched the windowsills, no dirt befouled the floorboards: ‘a hospital room dressed by a vindictive matron’ best described the space. She felt disappointed, but also relieved. She’d secretly wondered if she might discover a den of iniquity in her father’s bedchamber; that he actually concealed an altar for devil worship in there, or hoarded files from his missions as a double agent for Stalin. Instead she found that her father behaved in his private spaces as he did in the public ones; as a man of few pleasures, who darned Marie’s school blouses and baked her bread, as conventional behind closed doors as he appeared to the world, a steadying presence who it would not be unjust to call boring. His propriety blazed in contrast to the apparently wanton behaviour of her mother, who, from the evidence presented, had left them for some selfish and lascivious reason of her own.
Her father slept in a single bed. A solitary photograph graced the bedside table, Marie as a six-year-old smiling from a brown leather frame. If she possessed any reserves in her body where more guilt could nest, it did so now. Marie appeared to be the only woman in her father’s life, and now she’d broken into his bedroom.
A dresser stood in dull redwood. She opened the top drawer and sifted through the socks and underwear that sat in two straight lines. Marie felt funny viewing her father’s socks rolled up; she’d only ever seen them on his feet. The wardrobe yielded more stiffly starched clothing and a spare back brace, which he wore to correct a childhood scoliosis. Two pairs of leather shoes sat in the footlocker, polished to a modest shine.
She replaced all the items she’d moved. The task presented little difficulty as the mathematical neatness of the previous positioning encouraged proper placement. She left everything as she’d found it. Marie wondered why her father bothered locking his door. Nothing existed there worth hiding.
But then her foot struck a floorboard it had not trodden on before and an irksome creak rang out across the room. She stopped. She struck the floorboard again with her foot. The wooden plank felt loose.
She dashed downstairs to retrieve a butter knife to prise up the wood. The board lifted. She placed it to one side, then squinted into the floor cavity. An extended space lay below her. Darkness obscured her view. Her breath increased. She plunged her hand down into the space, where warm dry air prickled her skin. She grappled around, her head and body above, her limb submerged in the hole.
She reached her arm around in a circle, patting the ground. Her fingers recoiled as she touched the cotton sponginess of a spider’s web. She retracted her arm in horror to see her hand covered in white threads.
She wiped her hand clean on her skirt, gritted her teeth and plunged it under the floor once more. She winced, convinced the web’s owner lurked somewhere down there, and was about to pull her hand back again when it landed on a square object. She tapped it several times, convinced herself of its status as inanimate and pulled it up into the room.
She inspected it from all sides. A small jewellery box of faded maroon velvet sat in her hand. Her heart thumped in her chest: a woman owned this box. She went to open it, then hesitated. Did she want to know what lay inside? The floorboard, the lock – everything meant more now. Then a new sound rang out downstairs, one that terrified her with its familiarity. A key, a real one, entered a different lock. She heard her father open the front door and step inside their house.
‘Marie?’ he called.
Marie felt her blood chill. She replaced the floorboard and darted from the room, placing the maroon box in her pocket.
The doorknob still lay on the floor. She gasped in horror. It consisted of two pieces actually, which she’d not noticed before. The first piece was the doorknob that faced outwards, the second was the corresponding knob from the inside of the door.
‘Marie?’ her father called again. She needed to say something.
‘Coming, Papa,’ she declared in a bright voice.
‘I want to show you something.’ The sound of a clanging pot rose up the stairs; he was doing something in the kitchen. Marie silently begged him to stay there.
‘I will be down in a fraction, Papa,’ she assured him. The odds didn’t appear in her favour that she’d emerge from this unscathed. A hole gaped in her father’s bedroom door. No reasonable explanation existed for its presence other than the true one.
Marie imagined what would follow when her father discovered she’d broken into his private quarters. She enjoyed a warmth of relationship with her father that few girls in town boasted. Dominik Karski cared for and nurtured his daughter. He obsessed himself with her nutrition and fitness to a degree that went beyond professional pride and bordered on irrational concern. Whenever she complained of a headache or feigned an illness, he would fetch his stethoscope and analyse her breath sounds and heart rhythm for countless minutes until even Marie grew bored. He would pronounce the diagnosis, as always, that she was in full health, and he kept the record of her pristine vital signs in a binder. She imagined the look on his face if he discovered her breaking into his bedroom. Her gentle and generous father. He would not show anger, but something far worse. He would look disappointed. She shuddered at the thought of it; she could not let that happen.
She collected the pieces of doorknob and examined them. Two screws hung loosely from one. She had not undone the lock; instead she’d removed the entire structure from the door. She repositioned the two knobs back in place as best she could and began to screw them together with the butter knife.
‘They finished St Bartholomew. At long last,’ her father called again from downstairs. Marie started and dropped the knife. The pots downstairs stopped clanging. She swallowed. As he continued talking about the church, his soft voice grew louder, the soundwaves shortened. Her father was coming up the stairs. Marie’s hands sweated and she cursed; she had only managed one screw. She collected the knife and began twisting the second into place, but then her father arrived at the top of the stairs. Marie pocketed the screw instead and jumped up.
Her father wasn’t looking at her, only at the pamphlet in his hand. He offered it to her. ‘Here.’ The flyer declared the completion of a window in the church she and her father attended. A photograph showed St Bartholomew being flayed alive in stained-glass glory, his executioner peeling strips from his body with a knife. Despite his skin coming away from him in bloody scrolls, like bark curling from a tree, St Bartholomew’s face remained serene, looking upwards to God with a beatific smile. Marie strived to emulate such composure now.
‘Hallelujah,’ she said, stifling her puffed breathing. ‘They took enough time,’ she added.
‘It might have taken even longer,’ her father replied. He had sat on the committee to ensure the window’s completion, attending summits with bureaucrats and priests. She studied his face for any recognition of her crime, but his gaze ran solely across the picture of his flayed saint. His voice remained at its usual soft, calm pitch. ‘What is that?’ he asked, pointing at Marie’s side. Her stomach churned. The moment had arrived; he had caught her. But he was reaching higher than her pocket to lift her sleeve.
‘Strawberry jam,’ Marie answered, concealing her relief. She had wiped her mouth on her shirt cuff earlier. ‘I’m sorry, Papa.’
Her father told her dinner would be served at seven o’clock, like every night, and as he expressed a desire to soak the blouse with the strawberry stain overnight, she returned to her bedroom to change.
Her heart pounded in her chest. How she had got away with it, she didn’t know. She waited for her father to stroll inside and accuse her of breaking and entering. He would notice the screw still missing. Or something else she hadn’t put back in its correct place. But her father never returned. She sighed and undressed.
She retrieved the maroon box, which had been burning a hole in her pocket the whole time her father had spoken to her. She’d find a way to return it to her papa’s room at some point. But for now, she cared only what lay inside it. She studied the box once more, turning it in her hand, then tried to open it. The lid was sealed shut, not with glue, but something else. She pulled again, firmer this time, and the lid came free.
Inside lay a length of hair.
She lifted it out. It resembled her own yellow-blonde hair, but felt too long and thick to have come from her own head; her hair had never reached such lengths. The hair came from no child’s head at all; it bore no gentle little strands like a parent might save from a baby’s first haircut. Instead it consisted of a thick bunch of blonde, which the owner had plaited into a heavy braid, like rope, and someone had rolled it into a coil and stuffed it in the box. This hair came from a grown woman’s head. Her stomach turned at finding a piece of someone secreted under her father’s floorboards. Hair disembodied from the head, even a baby’s, had something disgusting about it, and although she felt this revulsion now, she couldn’t help but touch and smell it. She revelled in her horror, likening it to the desire to roll in mud or smell milk that looked rancid, just to feel it, to possess knowledge of things previously unknown. She rubbed the hair between her fingers. The strands surrendered to her touch and separated; dust and grit fell to her lap. A glorious whiff of rosewater blessed the air. The sweet, fresh-petal smell took her back to the last time she’d seen her mother – she remembered now, her mother had smelled of rosewater! One of the only details Marie possessed of her matriarch. She gasped as she forged the connection.
This hair belonged to her mother.
It felt as though her mother sat alive in her hands. If Marie smelled the hair again, she might hear her laugh. She suddenly felt unformed, a half-person, with a chunk of herself cleaved from her body. Marie wrote with her left hand, her father with his right. Who was this left-handed person who had given half their genes to Marie, who had created fifty per cent of her? Marie’s fingers were shaped differently to her father’s; her nails ran to oblongs and elegant half-moons, while her father’s sat square and right-angled in the nail bed. Did she have her mother’s fingers? And there were other, deeper things than fingernails and handedness. Plainly Marie did not resemble her father, in looks or character. Where Dominik never raised his voice, Marie took pleasure in shouting. Marie loved to laugh, while her good and joyless father never smiled. Dominik existed as a deep pool of water, a thousand-year-old lake whose surface was never disturbed. Marie lived like a fire, burning its way through a forest. Sometimes she looked at Dominik and wondered if she knew him at all. She longed to meet the person who had given her their fire.Marie had not yet spent two years on the earth when her mother went away. Her father had maintained the story for sixteen years that her mother had left for reasons unknown. He never said anything more on the topic, and any type of prodding shut him down further. Why had her father kept her mother’s hair all these years? She had never considered him a romantic. Did he pine for her mother quietly, privately? Did he still love her?
She wiped the little wetness that had formed in one eye and forced herself to fold the hair back in the box. She pushed the lid down to reseal it as best as she could. She’d open the box again three times that night to smell and fondle the strands. The next morning, she returned the hair to its place under her father’s floorboards while he worked, properly fixing the door she’d damaged as she locked it again behind her.
Marie had gone into her father’s bedroom hoping for some morsel of information that would have allowed her to say to the neighbours that her mother left for a virtuous reason, that they could remove the stain from Marie’s character that her mother’s absence had made. But now, faced with this real piece of her mother, instead of satisfying the craving to gain propriety in front of the townsfolk, she had created a new one a hundred times worse. A cave of longing had opened up in her; she’d set a monster loose. The discovery of the hair – so macabre and strange, so unexpected – changed things. She could never go back to the way things were. She now put aside her concern for finding the reason her mother had left and focused on actually locating her instead.
If Marie Karska knew then how much she would come to learn over that year of 1939, she might have wished for something different. But for now, she felt confident of one thing only: she would not stop until she learned what had happened to her mother.
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As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
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The members of the National Security Council and their advisors all rose as President Bedford Travers entered the White House Situation Room located beneath the Oval Office.
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