February, 1945. The war is over, but for some the fight for survival is only just beginning. Alix is alone and desperate to flee. But when a ferocious snowstorm descends she must return to the shelter of her abandoned ancestral home. There, she is shocked to find her childhood sweetheart Gregor. As old passions are rekindled, a couple break into the house to hidethe man is a stranger, but his companion is altogether more familiar. By morning, the blizzard has died down but the Reds are back. The woman and her Nazi escort are dead, and Gregor has vanished. Alone and terrified, Alix runs for her life, and embarks upon an extraordinary and heartbreaking journey. It will take 60 years and the fall of another empire, Communism, before the riddles of that fateful night can be deciphered.
Eliza gives an overview of the book:
Even now I don’t like leaving the house on foggy days, though
soldiers are unlikely to jump on me in Richmond. The scar
on my hand aches in the cold.
But this morning I barely have time to note the weather.
All my nervous energy is given to preparing for my visitor. I
change my outfit twice, finally selecting a long cashmere tunic
and silk scarf. I add a silver necklace strung with chips of
Baltic amber. I plump cushions that don’t need plumping and
fiddle with the Christmas roses in the vase. All the time I’m
listening out for footsteps on the front path. As a child I had
sharp ears, always attuned to whatever grown-ups didn’t
want me to hear. I’m seventy-four now and my hearing is still
None of the displacement activity works. I can’t distract
myself from my fear. I’m almost as scared now as I was in
that misty forest more than fifty years ago. But I’m excited
Someone’s coming up to the door. The bell rings and my
heart lurches. I force myself to take deep breaths before I
go to open up. Before me stands a tall, broad-shouldered,
middle-aged man in smart un-English clothes with a wide un-
English smile that shines through the fog.
‘Alexandra?’ American accent – Midwestern?
‘Yes.’ I extend a hand and he grips it, his grasp warm and
Of course he is.
Everything spins; I clutch the door handle.
He must have taken my arm and led me to my armchair
in the drawing room because I find myself sitting down. I
‘There’s coffee in the cafetière, just waiting for me to
boil the kettle, I’ll—’
‘No. Let me. Where’s the kitchen?’
I direct him, almost relieved to have a minute to catch my
breath. He finds everything and returns with the tray. His
fine, strong hands are nimble as he pours the coffee and
places the cup in front of me. I gulp down caffeine, trying not
to stare but unable to resist. Very dark blue eyes – those
haven’t changed. A good head of greying hair. Who does he
look like? I realize he’s studying me too.
‘It’s good of you to see me, Alexandra. Is it all right for
me to call you that?’
‘Alix, please.’ Only my governess ever called me Alexandra.
‘You must have been very surprised to hear from me,
For the first time I notice a chink in his ease.
‘I was delighted.’
Wretched, inadequate word.
‘As I said on the phone, I lost contact with your adoptive parents when
they returned to America.’
And even if the Whites had stayed in Germany I doubt I’d have
kept in touch.
‘Adoptions were handled differently back then and
wartime made things . . .complicated.’
‘I do understand.’
He looks around the room at the photographs
‘I’ve been researching your mother and father. I had
no idea my grandma was a famous movie star and my
grandpa a Resistance hero.’
The carriage clock strikes the quarter-hour five minutes
early. Michael frowns at his watch.
‘Your grandfather may have been a hero but his clock
repairs were less than heroic. That clock’s always fast.’
‘He repaired his own clocks? I’d have thought a baron
would have servants to do all that kind of thing.’
‘Papi was always disembowelling some unfortunate timepiece.’
‘And that clock came from the old house, from Alexanderhof?’
He stands to take a closer look at it.
‘Yes, and I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent over
the years trying to get it to tell the right time.’
He looks at the photograph of Mami on the fireplace beside the clock –
the only one I have, given to me by my cousin Ulla as a wedding
present. Mami is dressed for her own wedding to my
father in 1926. Her eyes are focused on something beyond
the camera lens; her lips form a perfect bow, as though she’s
about to smile. Her veil is pushed back over her hair and
looks a little like a halo.
‘She was stunning.’ He picks up the picture. ‘More beautiful
than Dietrich or Garbo. Or even Bergman.’
‘Schoolboys used to collect cigarette cards with her pictures
‘You inherited her bone structure.’
‘But sadly not her talent.’
‘The best teachers often have something of the actor in
He replaces the frame on the fireplace and comes back to
his chair, a more guarded expression on his open face.
‘Alix, there’s something . . . I need to ask you . . .’
I close my eyes to give me strength. We’ve reached that
‘I’ve only just met you again and I don’t want to bombard
you with questions, but obviously there’s one big thing about
myself I need to know.’ He swallows. ‘I didn’t want to ask
you when we spoke on the phone.’
‘You need to know about your real father. Of course.’
I’m going to make this as easy as possible for my son.
The least I can do for him.
His dark eyes fix themselves on my face.
I find myself speaking very carefully while my heart
‘Germany had collapsed. I was only seventeen.’
A young, sheltered, seventeen at that.
He looks up.
‘Same age as my Mark.’
One of my grandsons. In our preliminary telephone conversations
I’ve lapped up details about these children. My
greed to know every detail of their lives to date is almost insatiable.
‘I know you came from the east.’ Michael frowns. ‘The
Soviets . . .’
Oh God. I know where this is leading. Even after all these
years my body stiffens at the mention of those men in their
filthy, stinking uniforms, their eyes wild and greedy.
‘The Red Army must have been very close.’
He taps a finger on his lower lip.
I nod. So close you could taste the vodka on their breaths.
He takes a breath and now that American ease has gone
and he looks very young and unsure of himself, just as his
father did when he reappeared in my life so unexpectedly all
those years ago.
‘Alix, a month ago, just after I first called
you, I watched a documentary about Bosnia, the Muslim
women . . .’
I prompt him, some courage coming to my
rescue. I was born a Prussian officer’s daughter, after all.
‘I saw young girls running from the Serbs through misty
He stops, perspiration gleaming on his brow.
‘I don’t know why it didn’t strike me at the time the Bosnian war was
on. Mom and Dad – sorry.’
I nod to indicate that I have no problems with his using
these titles for the Whites but my mind is on what’s coming.
‘They were still alive then and I could have asked them.
But I didn’t.’
He’s looking at my arm.
‘That scar on your wrist . . .’
I look down at the white crescent just visible below
the tunic sleeve.
‘I couldn’t help noticing . . . I thought, I wondered whether . . . ?’
‘Whether a Russian had stabbed me.’ I nod.
A look of pain flashes across his eyes.
‘Oh God . . .’
He looks like the small boy he must have been once, the child I
never saw grow up. I wish I could go over to him, run my
fingers through his hair, fold him into my arms. But I don’t
know my son well enough.
It’s intolerable, evil, that my child should imagine
he was the result of an act of violence. My voice shakes.
‘It’s not what you’re thinking, Michael.’
He leans across to take my hand.
‘I’ve come here and met you for the first time and asked
you terrible questions. Can you forgive me?’
I stroke his long fingers. Last time I held his hand it was
small enough for me to encase completely in my own.
I still don’t how to explain his father, how to explain
Gregor. I’ve had a whole month since he first rang me to prepare
myself but I still feel at sea. I lean forward and clasp his
‘You’re right in one respect. Your father was the enemy.
But he was also the great love of my life.’
My most feared, most adored enemy.
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Eliza Graham is the author of Playing with the Moon, shortlisted for World Book Day's Book to talk about 2008. Her second novel, Restitution, will be published by Macmillan in September 2008.