Authors: Patrick Horne
Tags: #Suspense & Thrillers
SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS
SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS
Copyright © 2010 Patrick Horne
The right of Patrick Horne to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
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It is commonplace for authors to thank those who have helped them to compile and write a book by explicitly naming them. In this particular case I refrain from naming any of them directly, however, to all those who have enabled me to complete this book, I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks in allowing me to convey a story that, even now, still continues.
My specific reasons for reticence shall remain undeclared; however, I would refer to the sardonic phrase 'no good deed goes unpunished' to justify my action, wishing that the individuals who have been so invaluable in helping me to convey hidden facts as fictional truth may continue to do so.
Tuesday, January 5th 2010.
- Den Haag, The Netherlands.
The old woman ran the brush through her shoulder length hair and considered how this simple task had become easier the more she had aged, in ironic contrast to other aspects of her life. As a child, and certainly as a teenager, her arms had positively ached from the protracted sessions of combing and brushing her long red locks. Now abundantly grey with only isolated strands of copper and streaks of cinnamon, it had lost the thickness and vitality of youth.
For a moment, she remembered how as a child she and her younger sister had squealed and complained when their mother had washed their hair and combed it out afterwards, although it had become only a weekly occurrence as the luxuries of even the relatively wealthy had rapidly abated after the privations visited upon The Netherlands during World War II. As their mother had tugged and pulled at each knot and tangle, teasing them out, their bleats and yelps had been cast aside with a gentle admonishment: 'Grown women would kill for hair like this, and if you want long beautiful hair like a princess then you must be prepared to suffer for it!'
She stopped brushing in mid-stroke and looked intensely at her reflection in the large oval dressing table mirror. Her skin was still remarkably unlined and wrinkle-free, the emerald eyes vibrant and affected with only mild deterioration; she wore glasses sometimes but considered herself well blessed not to have developed the cataracts and glaucoma from which some of her generation now suffered. Her lips, naturally thinner than she would have liked, especially compared to the modern fashions, had benefited from the attentions of a new lip enhancing cosmetic gloss; her advancing years did not mean that she had to give up on herself and the miracles of modern science had provided some wonderful solutions compared to twenty-five years ago. Overall, she felt that she could pass for a decade or more younger than her seventy-eight years of age, but her sharp features inevitably made her face look hawkish and they aged her no matter the positive impact of good genes.
She placed the brush down on the dressing table surface, nudging aside the clutter of trinket boxes and cosmetic accessories. She blinked and looked across at a sepia toned picture of herself as a little girl, proudly standing with her arm around her younger sister, the seaside in the background and their shared smiles reflected in the unseen image of their father behind the camera, keen photographer as he was. Her sister had much softer features combined with the same gloriously red hair, although the brown shades of the fading picture could only hint at the vibrancy of the colour. Their mother had always made a point of keeping their hair long and well-cared for: 'If we cannot afford nice clothes then we shall make the best with what God has given us.'
The photo had been taken in the early spring of 1940, before the capitulation of her homeland, when she was only eight years old with her sister just over a year younger. It took pride of place on her dressing table and she would look at it every day, morning and night, a private remembrance ceremony that she had repeated for the last sixty-five years. It was the last photo of her sister ever taken.
She recalled the beautiful beach of Scheveningen just a five minute walk away from where they had originally lived together, where they had played together on the golden sand, hours and hours spent cosseted in the bliss of ignorance. Those seasons of simple childhood pleasure had been abruptly stolen away from them, plundered forever, the fairy tale walls and castles of imagination brusquely replaced by barricades of seemingly endless rolls of barbed wire overlooked by squat concrete bunkers built into the dunes.
Their once idyllic seaside town had been overrun by German soldiers toting machine guns and accompanied by monstrous tanks belching great plumes of black smoke as they growled past. Ejected from their comfortable and spacious home and 'evacuated' to a dishevelled backstreet of The Hague, their mother had tried her best to make a new home in the cramped accommodation they had been given, the loss of much of their finest furniture being an academic point since they no longer had the space to use it anyway. Located just behind the main rail line linking Amsterdam, their once inspirational views of dunes, sand and sea had been replaced by squalid backstreets, drab industrial buildings and desolate supply yards. They could at least find some solace in the city forest, a few streets away but nevertheless an Eden in the midst of the bricks and mortar where the promise of a life in sunshine could be heard in the song of the birds.
In early April 1944, after almost four years of enforced conformity, there had been a loud knock on the door in the early hours of the morning. It was a knock that did not simply request entry, it demanded it. She had quietly snuck out of bed and along with her sister had listened at their bedroom door, not recognising the cool bureaucratic voice speaking in German or the unusually defensive indignations of their father. What had scared her most were the beseeching and plaintive exclamations of innocence from their mother. The peremptory slam of a door had brought a curtain of silence down upon the auditory scene, broken only by a muted and muffled weeping.
In spite of the circumstances, a week of surreal normality had followed, their mother showing strength and fortitude for the sake of their family, although bereft of the smiling and ebullient presence of their father.
Then there came the first touch of irony; just eight days later an RAF Mosquito raid had bombed the headquarters of the German secret state police and their father, their beloved father who had been arrested and held for questioning by the Gestapo under suspicion of aiding the resistance, had died in the ensuing building collapse.
Quite apart from the immediate affect and aftermath of such news, the subsequent months saw their mother develop a new disposition. Her nervous hope had now been replaced by a fatalistic expectation. She looked upon the world through the eyes of Cassandra with knowledge aforethought but without a hint of optimism for the events yet to come. Maybe she had seen the future, certainly she feared it. In any event, a few months later the touch of irony was to be felt yet again by what now remained of her family.
As the steady fall of leaves signalled the sure onset of autumn, an apparently small privation was to be added to the multitude already endured; the wooded paradise that had accommodated brief but welcome respite and sanctuary from the machinations of war - their Eden - had been declared as
, the area cordoned off and access strictly forbidden.
In stark contrast to the serenity offered by the trees and birds, the occupation forces of the Reich offered an extravaganza of light and sound but without the least intention to entertain.
From the cover of the trees, the Germans had taken to launching the most amazing display of fireworks she had yet seen; massive plumes of fiery exhaust thunderously pushing towering rockets up into the night air. Whilst her sister would blot out the crescendo with her hands pressed over her ears and her eyes screwed shut in denial of the spectacle, she could only wonder at the marvel these fireworks produced at the nadir of their flight, although many only flew for a couple of kilometres before crashing down onto the beach or into the sea in a plume of smoke and flame. The ones that did make it past the coastline flew on to unknown towns and cities in England and gave a momentous display of power, light and sounds to other families, other children.
Inevitably, beyond the imaginations of two young girls, different soldiers wearing different uniforms had classified their city as a front-line and had developed their own destructive plans for those monstrous fireworks that were yet still rocketed aloft, soaring up between the houses and lighting up the night sky. The British bombers came and dropped their payloads of high explosives, but, not on the V2 launching sites as expected; no, fate had decreed that the citizens of The Hague should suffer further before their redemption.
The residential area that was hit, their residential area, became an inferno of scorching incineration; burning, choking and finally collapsing upon the screaming population. Their neighbourhood, a stark enclave of dispossession, had been reduced to a total ruin of smouldering rubble and charred timbers. Over fifteen thousand people had lost their homes, but only one home mattered for a young girl who could not find her younger sister. Over five hundred people had lost their lives but only one life mattered to a still grieving widow who was now an overwhelmingly distraught mother. Without resorting to sentimentality, the national mood was succinctly summed up by the Dutch resistance newspaper: 'what misery, what distress.'
It was misery and distress that claimed the final victim from her family; her mother had died a month later, in anguish, in despair and, no doubt, with a broken heart.
The old woman blinked and focussed once more on her reflection in the mirror, rapidly travelling through time to bring her back to the present. She realised that just lately she had become disconsolately wistful. Maybe it was a sign? She would buy some more books to take her mind off things, to focus her attention on heartening escapism. She thought of the book seller that she had befriended, the beautiful young girl with the long red hair and aventurine green eyes, the soft features that reminded her so much of a sister lost so long ago.
In that young girl, young woman she supposed, she saw the possibility of a life unlived; the culmination of the tentative steps of adolescence that had never been trodden, the first blush of young womanhood that had never bloomed, an impression of an unrealised future forever trapped in the imagination of the past.
She nodded to herself; she would visit the antiques market this week and see the young girl who had promised to find some art and beauty books from the 1950's and 1960's, books she had enquired after that would act as catalysts for the reminiscences of happier times. Perhaps they could have a coffee together after the market had finished, as they had done the last time? She had enjoyed talking with her so much, about books, about antiques and about make-up and hairstyles. It had left her reinvigorated to speak of such things with an enthusiastic companion who had not once patronised her.
Smiling, she leant to one side and tilted her head to let her hair hang down, glad that she still possessed fingers nimble enough to thread a braid. She divided the hair into three strands and capably interwove them, working down from her scalp to the tips and tying off with a small elastic hair band. She flicked her head up to swing the braid to the back of her head. Reaching into a drawer she took out a silk nightcap and slipped it on. Gazing into the mirror she suddenly burst out a giggle like a schoolgirl, amused by her own reaction in contrast to the archetypal old maid that she appeared to be. She did not mind - her grandmother had known a thing or two about caring for long hair at night and had always observed her own bedtime rituals.
She rose and brushed down her nightgown, padded softly over to her bed and scooted beneath the sheets and heavy blankets. Turning to her bedside table she reached for her diary and the pen ensconced between the pages at the day's last entry. Flipping it open she reread the last few lines to remind herself of what she had written that morning, the detail of her last night's dream.
She checked the bedside alarm clock before completing the time stamp and then, pausing, considered how to start the entry. Smiling yet again, she remembered vivid green eyes and started writing freely.