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PART OF THE The Myth Makers ISSUE

‘What would he do if he knew the truth? If he knew what a good actress I’ve become? How devastated would he be then?’

When Hanni Winter shows her new husband the heartbreaking photos she captured during the war, he recognises one of the girls as his sister he thought was lost in the concentration camps. They decide to find her, and travel back to where Hanni took the picture. But there is more to Hanni’s past that her husband doesn’t know. In this extract, Hanni worries about the consequences of their journey.

 

The Girl in the Photo
By Catherine Hokin
Published by Bookoutre

 

Once the euphoria of recognising Renny in the photograph had worn off and all the arrangements for the journey were in place – once there was nothing else to do but set out on it – Freddy’s faith in the search had started to crack. He was too proud to admit that he was wavering; Hanni was too careful of his emotional state to comment. The visit to Elias, and more specifically the way Freddy had looked at her in the bar and the night that had followed, had made her remember the basis of their bond.

His happiness matters more to me than mine; mine matters more to him than his.

So when Freddy’s hopes started to fly, she didn’t pull them down again: she encouraged them to soar. And when they crashed, she didn’t beg him to listen to the voice of reason in his head, or in hers, and stop. It was a change he was grateful for, a shift in mood that pulled them back together. It didn’t mean Hanni was blind. She saw the doubts clouding his eyes when he thought she wasn’t looking. And she had seen the tremor in his hand when they were finally travelling through the German Democratic Republic and the GDR train guard spent too long scrutinising their papers.

‘It’s unusual to see a police inspector from the West venturing into the East. This conference in Dresden must be an important one.’

Freddy had agreed, very seriously, that it was. Then he had launched into a speech about shared investigative processes still being a focus despite Germany’s political divisions, which was horribly flimsy but bored the train guard away.

The instant the man was gone, Freddy’s façade collapsed. He crumpled back into his seat and immediately started to fret over Hanni’s safety.

‘That was rough. That was harder than I expected and those are our legitimate papers. If the Czech ones are subjected to the same level of interest…’ Freddy left ‘which they will be’ unsaid, but it still hung there between them. ‘Well, you heard what Elias warned us could happen. I won’t blame you if you want to call it quits, Hanni. And I won’t hold it against you, no matter how hard I came down on you before.’

It wasn’t exactly an apology, and Hanni wasn’t looking for one of those – she understood why he had felt let down – but it was good enough, it came from the heart. They had always had a language of their own. They had learned to say ‘I love you’ and ‘I need you’ in a myriad different ways while they navigated who they were going to be to each other. They might forget how to use it at times, but, so far, that language had always come back.

Hanni slipped her hand into his, grateful beyond anything for that. ‘And since when did I give up on things, or sit waiting at home like a good little wife? It’s not your responsibility to find her, my love – it’s ours.’

Ours sounded good; it sounded as certain as us. Hanni wanted to believe it; she wanted Freddy to believe it. She had filled her voice with all the confidence Freddy had been trying to pour into her for the last three weeks. They had learned how to wrap that – or the imitation of that – around each other as well.

He smiled and pulled her closer. Hanni nestled into his side and took refuge in a silence she hoped Freddy would decide was a companionable one. The last thing her nerves needed was questions. Unfortunately, his senses were still on alert.

‘I really needed to hear you say that. You’ve been so on edge since we left Berlin, I thought you were regretting coming with me.’

Hanni shifted away from him before her stiffening body betrayed her. She thought he had been too busy to notice her fears, or that she had been successfully hiding them.

Tell him who you saw on the platform at Berlin. Tell him why that scared you. Don’t hide the truth again, or lie like you did with the Theresienstadt photographs.

It was the right impulse, but Hanni couldn’t act on it. The truth – ‘there was a man I recognised at the station. He was at my exhibition, behaving oddly, and I think he might be following us’ – opened up a minefield. They were about to illegally enter a country where – or so rumour had it – Soviet-backed secret agents were as completely embedded as they were in the GDR. Hanni didn’t need Freddy to have even the slightest suspicion that there were eyes already on them. That would only convince him that he was right to be cautious, that he should go on without her.

Which might be the best thing; it would at least get me out of this.

As much as Hanni wanted to support Freddy, she also desperately wanted to turn round and go home. She wanted Theresienstadt to disappear back into history and for Freddy to give up. Except he would never do that, so she couldn’t either. Never mind that he might discover secrets in the town which she wouldn’t be there to explain, his quest could very easily end in heartache. How could she abandon him to face that pain alone? So she couldn’t turn back and she couldn’t tell him that they might be being followed, either by a secret agent or by her father. Admitting the possibility of that was unthinkable. It would involve spilling the whole story of Reiner and his web of spies, and it wasn’t the time for that yet. Besides, she could be wrong. Hanni wasn’t certain that the man she had seen boarding the Dresden train at Berlin’s Ostbahnhof was the one who had thrown her off balance at the gallery. His height was similar, and so was the dark hair combed neatly under his hat. But it had been a moment’s glimpse in a crowded station. He hadn’t turned; she hadn’t seen his face.

And why would Reiner set a tail on me when I am so clearly not following him?

Freddy had noticed her nerves but that was all he had noticed, and telling him the truth was too dangerous. So, despite what she had promised herself, it had to be another lie. But a small one; a deflection.

‘Of course I’m not regretting it. And yes, I’ve been a little on edge but it’s nothing to worry about.’

Hanni kissed Freddy’s cheek and smiled into his eyes, hating how easy it was for her to convince him she was never anything but honest.

‘I’m nervous about my language skills, that’s all. If I’ve been quiet it’s because I’ve been running all the phrases and grammar I learned years ago back through my head and testing my fluency. I’m not sure it’s as good as it could be.’

That too was a minefield. Hanni had told Freddy that she had learned Czech but she hadn’t told him why, and he had been too caught up with Elias’s complicated chain of arrangements to ask her. Now that his detective’s brain was re-engaged and he was weighing up the journey’s dangers, she could see the questions forming. She kissed him again, on the mouth this time, offering a silent thanks for the luxury of an empty carriage.

‘So maybe we should take the time now to practise. Run over our cover stories in Czech rather than German and quiz each other about them.’

It was a good suggestion, it did what was required and diverted him. They spent the rest of the journey turning their identity papers into fully fledged characters and helping each other iron out their accents. By the time the train pulled into the tiny suburban station on the edges of the city, which was as close as the rail line still went, Freddy’s nerves had vanished and his enthusiasm was racing.

He helped her down the steep step and onto the platform, holding on to her hand as they weaved their way through the press of people and bags. Hanni knew how they appeared to the world, there were enough admiring glances to tell her: like a couple perfectly in step and in tune with each other. It was what she wanted them to be, and she knew Freddy would have agreed with that assessment if anybody had asked him.

What would he do if he knew the truth? If he knew what a good actress I’ve become? How devastated would he be then?

The thought of that was as bad as the lying.

 

The Girl in the Photo by Catherine Hokin is published by Bookoutre, priced £8.99.

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