Sample Sunday is back and I’m pleased to bring you a Sneak Peek from Lilian Darcy’s new book, Saving Gerda, to enjoy with your morning coffee.
Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Marsha. I’m thrilled to be here amongst all these very fine-looking men gazing out at me from your covers. I particularly like the one in The Following Sea. Actually, there are even more of them over on your website. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just pop on over there as soon as I’m done here. Or Amazon. I could go to Amazon and buy some of those fine-looking men and keep them on my Kindle…
Wait, is this what I’m supposed to be talking about?[Note from blog owner: YES, of course you are!!!] I don’t think so. [Bummer]
I’m here to introduce Saving Gerda, out this month in ebook on all major platforms. This was a hugely challenging yet satisfying book to write, haunting my headspace for years before I finally got it down on paper the way it needed to be, and I very much hope readers will respond to it. Here’s a little more about it, and an excerpt to give a real taste:
Out of the smoke and shattered glass of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht in November 1938, two families in impossibly different circumstances become linked by tangled bonds. Wealthy and privileged Kitty von Kolhausen must somehow draw something from this dangerous new relationship that can save her precious child.
In Chapter Four, we see Johannes Fruehauf just after his first meeting with Kitty. He has come to Paula zu Greitz’s house to paint her portrait, and Paula has urged her friend Kitty to commission a portrait from him as well, but the atmosphere has become very awkward following Kitty’s departure…
Potsdam, July 1938
Paula zu Greitz’s body in the nude was not sensual, Johannes had quickly realised. Her torso was boxy and too short, and her shoulders were like the shaped corners of a suitcase. Even her breasts seemed boxy, made square by the pectoral muscles beneath. Her hip at least rose in a nice shape and he made the most of that, playing with the curve, running his paintbrush across the canvas in a lush arc of exaggerated pink to mound it higher and rounder, echoing the line of the chaise longue’s rounded back.
He was very thankful for the chaise longue. It could lend some of its sensuality to Paula, and with any luck she and her husband the Count, for whose birthday gift this Bohemian portrait was intended, would not notice what he had done, and that so little of the life and beauty in the painting came from Paula herself. He could bounce reflected light from the crimson velvet upholstery onto the skin that she powdered too pale. He could paint the carved wood like the thick waves of glossy brown hair she might have had in her youth.
Johannes had his own theories about this youth of hers. She was only seven or eight years older than himself, he thought. Perhaps not yet forty. But something about her suggested the excesses of Berlin ten years earlier and made her seem older. The heavy Oriental scent she chose, the way her dyed hair had thinned, the glimpse of scars running lengthwise along her wrists, their once-garish evidence of her destructive intent now faded to three or four thin, silvery lines. He had an idea that her fifteen-year-old daughter Liesl had been born well before her advantageous marriage.
As soon as the thin, blue-eyed English beauty had left, the Countess offered a toxic variety of cocktail. Johannes declined it, trying to save them both. He could tell that the Countess had drunk too much wine at lunch. For a moment or two he’d thought that Baroness von Kolhausen might find a way to save him from Paula’s intent. She’d looked as if she wanted to, as if she understood to an embarrassing extent what was going on, but then she had let Paula hurry her away, leaving Johannes with an instant, chivalrous, ardent and unrequited infatuation, borne of her beauty and his thwarted gratitude, her perception and the twinkling, and at the same time startled, look of commiseration in her blue eyes.
He’d once felt this same way in Paris , plunged into an immediate and hopeless passion for a woman of similar appearance and manners. Fine-boned and pretty and pale, effortlessly well-bred. He’d made dozens of drawings of Daphne, in Paris , little studies of her hands or her face half-hidden by the edge of her seductive hat. He’d barely been able to utter a word in her presence, knew nothing about what she was really like, had never forgotten her, would never see her again, had had a weakness for her type ever since.
The Countess showed a moment of sheepish regret about the offered cocktail, having taken his awkwardness for disapproval. He was quite right, of course, she quickly said. Coffee would be much better. But then she was sheepish about that, too. She liked the Turkish style, thick and fragrant and strong. “It’s no wonder I don’t sleep!”
She made Johannes uneasy, but then most of the people he met had that effect on him, as soon as he was forced to engage with them. He did not know what they would think of him. He did not know with which of them he belonged. He was far better as an observer, at a distance, because then he could forget himself.
Paula’s husband had cancelled their last sitting at short notice, via a curt telephone call made to the shop, Appelfeld and Sons, Fine Repairs, Watches and Clocks. Johannes only worked there intermittently and it was purely by luck that he’d received the message about the cancellation in time.
Today, having rescheduled as if nothing was wrong and introduced him as a talented artist to her beautiful English friend, the Countess then questioned him with a little too much carelessness and innocence about his employer. What kind of a business was it, just by the way? Had he worked there for long? Was he on close terms with the proprietors? Were they relatives, perhaps?
No, he told her truthfully. Appelfeld and Sons were not relatives.
Good to know, she drawled.
While talking, she unconsciously moved her position and he had to say to her, “Please, the left arm a little lower. And the shoulder more relaxed.”
The rounded hip looked good, now. He borrowed a little more sensuality from the chaise longue beneath her and went on painting, while the smell of boot polish, resolute and somehow military, reached his nostrils via the mild late afternoon air drifting through the open window. A servant must be out on the back steps attending to the Count’s shoes. He could hear the brisk strokes of the horse-hair brush back and forth across the leather. The sound stopped, started again, went on for a very shiny and thorough length of time, punctuated by the occasional clopping sound of a boot sole on the brick.
He forgot about the boots eventually, and became lost in the paint, the swim and stipple, the…the… you could almost call it surgery, or music, of his movements with the brush. Heaven must be like this, he sometimes thought. The terrible clumsiness and consciousness of the body and the self would miraculously disappear. Only the fascinating perceptions of mind and spirit would remain, and the fierce struggle to truly see.
The Count came home, evidently earlier than expected. Paula heard the sounds of his arrival, a car engine, doors, his voice. Murmuring and frowning, “Oh, dear, he didn’t say he’d be home, perhaps I should have told him…” she sat up and reached for the flowered silk robe draped over the footstool in front of the chaise longue. Johannes had borrowed significant amounts of sensuality from the robe, too.
The Count came into the room, carrying a letter opener and an envelope already slit. He saw his wife, the easel and Johannes. “Paula!” The word contained a wealth of agitation and disapproval. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no!”
“You had appointments, Ernst, I’m sure.”
“They were cancelled. But Heller is coming with some papers to be signed.” He dropped the envelope and opener on his desk, strode over to the picture. Johannes stepped back automatically out of the way, failing to perceive the man’s intention.
He wasn’t long left in doubt. “He could be here at any moment, Paula!” The Count wiped at the painting, his fingers sliding down through the wet oil, rapid and clumsy, the heel of his hand pushing back up.
He went first for the face, obliterating its half-finished features, then smeared at the naked breasts and the triangular fold of the crotch, half-hidden by the angle of Paula’s painted thigh. He swore under his breath, looked at his sticky fingers, made a sound of regret and disgust. Not, Johannes understood, because of what he’d destroyed but because he’d made such a mess of himself. He grabbed a rag this time and went at the painting again, smearing the crimson chaise longue into the flesh, ruining the outlines of Paula’s body.
Ruining the whole thing.
Johannes couldn’t move or speak. Stupefied with creative loss, he fumbled inside himself for a reaction. He felt immediately in the wrong and at the same time deeply wronged, hurt through. Did he have any rights in this situation? It seemed not.
Paula sat and watched from the chaise, hunching over the robe in her hands. She hissed and sighed at an especially harmful scraping movement through the paint. “Oh dear, this much fuss?” she murmured again.
The Count mastered himself at last and clipped his words, wiping his hands in vain on the rag then giving another glance of distaste at the tenacious oil. “It’s not a fuss. What a word! Why must you – ? Put on your robe. Excuse me, Mr…” He couldn’t remember Johannes’s last name.
Johannes supplied it with his usual difficulty, wondering if it would be any use. “Fruehauf.” So German, with its suggestion of industrious rising before cock crow each morn. Such a torture of a name for a man who often stuttered, with the worst of all possible letters at both the beginning and the end.
“I must speak to my wife in private, Mr Fruehauf. I think you need hardly ask why I’ve had to act this way. The cunning and deceit are indeed typical, one begins to think.”
Paula wrapped herself in her robe and disappeared in his wake without another word. The Count cast a short, exasperated glance back at her. In it, Johannes thought he could read love worn thin but not vanished completely, a weary readiness to give guidance, and a habitual bad temper that had sources other than what was happening at home. In the corridor before the door closed, he heard, “I told you, no more sessions until I’d asked a few questions. The sheer foolishness – !”
“I thought I could tactfully – ”
“That’s why I cancelled the last sitting. You know that perfectly well. And yet you rescheduled and didn’t have the sense to tell me.”
“Because I knew you’d – ” Johannes couldn’t hear the next bit.
“You didn’t have the sense.”
There was more that he couldn’t hear, then, “ – ruining my fun. I’ve even recommended – ”
A rising tone. “I told you at least to put clothes on and change the pose. Do you not understand at all? Do you think your silliness and my money and position make you immune? And now the rumour’s confirmed by this man in Munster . Do you not realise that you could be taken out into the street and publicly shamed? It could ruin my – ”
“What about what you’ve ruined? Art!”
“That is scarcely significant! Art, indeed!”
After this, Johannes could not hear any more. They’d retreated to another room. He decided he’d better complete what the Count had started, and began to clean off the canvas with a rag and a palette knife. The room soon stank of turpentine and he was left with a scraped-off rectangle, a residue of streaky mauves and pinks and light browns, nothing to suggest the figure that had once lain there, and only a crimson blob on the side of the stretcher frame as a remnant of the chaise longue. The Countess came back about ten minutes later, hastily dressed in sober clothes. “Apparently…” she began, but could not find a way to finish.
Johannes did not wish to betray himself with speech, either. He began to nod, indicating, no matter if it was truthful or not, that he understood. Apparently covered the matter from several angles. He had begun to notice the proliferation of apparently in all sorts of places, afflicting all sorts of people, and apparently was all it took. The precise truth did not need to be nailed down. This or that grandparent, the red herring of Christian baptism, these things did not signify. The stigma of apparently sufficed. Should he have felt an obligation to announce his ancestry at the beginning? The Count apparently thought so.
“He finds me troublesome,” Paula said, still in apology. “I don’t think in advance. I didn’t think to establish… I really thought it was a fuss about nothing. Pack up your things. Take your own time. I’m sorry, this is all I could put my hands on.” She pressed some notes and coins into his hand and peeped at him from beneath her sparse, painted lashes, instinctively still flirting, even though he’d been trying so hard not to give her the slightest encouragement. Then she looked quickly away, aghast at herself.
When she let herself out of the room, Johannes glanced at the coins and the crumpled notes that wrapped them, and felt his stomach curdle. The portrait was well advanced after three sittings, he’d been about to pack it up and take it back to his apartment to finish it there, and the Countess had paid only a fraction of the sum due on completion. Business at Appelfeld and Sons had not been good lately, and he was only paid for the work he did, a day or two a week at most. He would not be eating well for the rest of the month.
He pocketed the notes, packed up his paints and brushes, and wrapped the wet, ruined canvas in newspaper and string. His body did not know whether to puff its lungs in indignation or bow its shoulders beneath the weight of acceptance. Even his clothes… his skin… did not seem to fit.
The Count met him at the open front door and gave him a hearty handshake. His palm was soft and still damp and soap-filmed from much washing. In the driveway, a car pulled up and out climbed the man Heller who had papers to sign, an official in Party uniform. The Count gave Johannes a moment of frank, sympathetic eye contact, as if to suggest that none of this was personal, and indeed Johannes could not fully feel that it was. It was, surely, to both of them, one of those accidents of fate that one must simply make the best of, like losing a foot in the war.
But then, when he stood on the front porch, he could not help a half-turn for one last glimpse of the reassurance he had felt in the Count’s manner, and this time he saw something else. With a series of tiny clicking sounds, as he waited for Heller to come up the path, the man was picking the paint from beneath his fingernails as though it was excrement or blood.
Be sure to check out Lilian’s website at www.liliandarcy.com