The boy at the top of th.., p.1
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       The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, p.1

           John Boyne
 
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The Boy at the Top of the Mountain


  Contents

  Cover

  About the Book

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Part 1: 1936

  Chapter One: Three Red Spots on a Handkerchief

  Chapter Two: The Medal in the Cabinet

  Chapter Three: A Letter from a Friend and a Letter from a Stranger

  Chapter Four: Three Train Journeys

  Chapter Five: The House at the Top of the Mountain

  Chapter Six: A Little Less French, a Little More German

  Chapter Seven: The Sound That Nightmares Make

  Part 2: 1937–1941

  Chapter Eight: The Brown Paper Parcel

  Chapter Nine: A Shoemaker, a Soldier and a King

  Chapter Ten: A Happy Christmas at the Berghof

  Part 3: 1942–1945

  Chapter Eleven: A Special Project

  Chapter Twelve: Eva’s Party

  Chapter Thirteen: The Darkness and the Light

  Epilogue

  Chapter Fourteen: A Boy Without a Home

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Also by John Boyne

  Copyright

  About the Book

  Pierrot knows nothing about the Nazis when he is sent to live with his aunt in a mysterious house at the top of a mountain.

  But this is no ordinary house, and this is no ordinary time. It is 1935, and this is the Berghof.

  Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot is swept up into a dangerous new world of power, secrets and betrayal – and ultimately, he must choose where his loyalties lie.

  The unforgettable new World War Two novel from the author of The Boy in Striped Pyjamas.

  For my nephews, Martin & Kevin

  PART 1

  1936

  CHAPTER ONE

  Three Red Spots on a Handkerchief

  Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

  Pierrot wasn’t the only seven year old in Paris to live with just one parent. The boy who sat in front of him at school hadn’t laid eyes on his mother in the four years since she’d run off with an encyclopaedia salesman, while the classroom bully, who called Pierrot ‘Le Petit’ because he was so small, had a room above his grandparents’ tobacco shop on the Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, where he spent most of his time dropping water balloons from the upstairs window onto the heads of passers-by below and then insisting that it had nothing to do with him.

  And in an apartment on the ground floor of his own building on the nearby Avenue Charles-Floquet, Pierrot’s best friend, Anshel Bronstein, lived alone with his mother, Mme Bronstein, his father having drowned two years earlier during an unsuccessful attempt to swim the English Channel.

  Having been born only weeks apart, Pierrot and Anshel had grown up practically as brothers, one mother taking care of both babies when the other needed a nap. But unlike a lot of brothers they never argued. Anshel had been born deaf, so the boys had developed a sign language early on, communicating easily, and expressing through nimble fingers everything they needed to say. They even created special symbols for each other to use instead of their names. Anshel gave Pierrot the sign of the dog, as he considered his friend to be both kind and loyal, while Pierrot adopted the sign of the fox for Anshel, who everyone said was the smartest boy in their class. When they used these names, their hands looked like this:

  They spent most of their time together, kicking a football around in the Champ de Mars and reading the same books. So close was their friendship that Pierrot was the only person Anshel allowed to read the stories he wrote in his bedroom at night. Not even Mme Bronstein knew that her son wanted to be a writer.

  This one’s good, Pierrot would sign, his fingers fluttering in the air as he handed back a bundle of pages. I liked the bit about the horse and the part where the gold is discovered hidden in the coffin. This one’s not so good, he would continue, handing back a second sheaf. But that’s because your handwriting is so terrible that I wasn’t able to read some parts . . . And this one, he would add, waving a third pile in the air as if he was at a parade. This one doesn’t make any sense at all. I’d throw this one in the bin if I were you.

  It’s experimental, signed Anshel, who didn’t mind criticism but could sometimes be a little defensive about the stories his friend enjoyed the least.

  No, signed Pierrot, shaking his head. It just doesn’t make any sense. You should never let anyone read this one. They’ll think you’ve lost your marbles.

  Pierrot too liked the idea of writing stories, but he could never sit still long enough to put the words down on the page. Instead, he sat on a chair opposite his friend and just started signing, making things up or describing some escapade that he had got up to in school, and Anshel would watch carefully before transcribing them for him later.

  So did I write this? Pierrot asked when he was finally given the pages and read through them.

  No, I wrote it, Anshel replied, shaking his head. But it’s your story.

  Émilie, Pierrot’s mother, rarely talked about his father any more, although the boy still thought of him constantly. Wilhelm Fischer had lived with his wife and son until three years earlier, but left Paris in the summer of 1933, a few months after his son’s fourth birthday. Pierrot remembered his father as a tall man who would mimic the sounds of a horse as he carried the boy on his broad shoulders through the streets, breaking into an occasional gallop that always made Pierrot scream with delight. He taught his son German, to remind him of his ancestry, and did his best to help him learn simple songs on the piano, although Pierrot knew he would never be as accomplished as his father. Papa played folk songs that brought tears to the eyes of visitors, particularly when he sang along in that soft but powerful voice that spoke of memory and regret. If his musical skills were not great, Pierrot made up for this with his skill at languages; he could flit between speaking German to his father and French to his mother with no difficulty whatsoever. His party trick was singing La Marseillaise in German and then Das Deutsch-landlied in French, a skill that sometimes made dinner guests uncomfortable.

  ‘I don’t want you doing that any more, Pierrot,’ Maman told him one evening after his performance had caused a mild disagreement with some neighbours. ‘Learn something else if you want to show off. Juggling. Magic tricks. Standing on your head. Anything that doesn’t involve singing in German.’

  ‘What’s wrong with German?’ asked Pierrot.

  ‘Yes, Émilie,’ said Papa from the armchair in the corner, where he had spent the evening drinking too much wine, something that always left him brooding over the bad experiences that haunted him. ‘What’s wrong with German?’

  ‘Haven’t you had enough, Wilhelm?’ she asked, her hands pressed firmly to her hips as she turned to look at him.

  ‘Enough of what? Enough of your friends insulting my country?’

  ‘They weren’t insulting it,’ she said. ‘They just find it difficult to forget the war, that’s all. Particularly those who lost loved ones in the trenches.’

  ‘And yet they don’t mind coming into my home, eating my food and drinking my wine.’

  Papa waited until Maman had returned to the kitchen before summoning Pierrot over and placing an arm round his waist. ‘Someday we will take back what’s ours,’ he said, looking the boy directly in the eye. ‘And when we do, remember whose side you’re on. You may have been born in France and you may live in Paris, but you’re German through and through, just like me. Don’t forget that, Pierrot.’

  Sometimes Papa woke in the middle of the night, his screams echoing through the dark and empty hallways of their apartment, a
nd Pierrot’s dog, D’Artagnan, would leap in fright from his basket, jump onto his bed and scramble under the sheets next to his master, trembling. The boy would pull the blanket up to his chin, listening through the thin walls as Maman tried to calm Papa down, whispering in a low voice that he was fine, that he was at home with his family, that it had been nothing but a bad dream.

  ‘But it wasn’t a dream,’ he heard his father say once, his voice trembling with distress. ‘It was worse than that. It was a memory.’

  Occasionally Pierrot would wake in need of a quick trip to the bathroom and find his father seated at the kitchen table, his head slumped on the wooden surface, muttering to himself as an empty bottle lay on its side next to him. Whenever this happened, the boy would run downstairs in his bare feet and throw the bottle in the courtyard bin so his mother wouldn’t discover it the next morning. And usually, when he came back upstairs, Papa had roused himself and somehow found his way back to bed.

  Neither father nor son ever talked about any of these things the next day.

  Once, however, as Pierrot went outside on one of these late-night missions he slipped on the wet staircase and tumbled to the floor – not badly enough to hurt himself but enough to smash the bottle he was holding, and as he stood up a piece of glass embedded itself in the underside of his left foot. Grimacing, he pulled it out, but as it emerged a thick stream of blood began to seep quickly through the torn skin; when he hobbled back into the apartment in search of a bandage, Papa woke and saw what he had been responsible for. After disinfecting the wound and ensuring that it was tightly wrapped, he sat the boy down and apologized for his drinking. Wiping away tears, he told Pierrot how much he loved him and promised that he would never do anything to put him in harm’s way again.

  ‘I love you too, Papa,’ said Pierrot. ‘But I love you most when you’re carrying me on your shoulders and pretending to be a horse. I don’t like it when you sit in the armchair and won’t talk to me or Maman.’

  ‘I don’t like those moments either,’ said Papa quietly. ‘But sometimes it’s as if a dark cloud has settled over me and I can’t get it to move on. That’s why I drink. It helps me forget.’

  ‘Forget what?’

  ‘The war. The things I saw.’ He closed his eyes as he whispered, ‘The things I did.’

  Pierrot swallowed, almost afraid of asking the question. ‘What did you do?’

  Papa offered him a sad smile. ‘Whatever I did, I did for my country,’ he said. ‘You can understand that, can’t you?’

  ‘Yes, Papa,’ said Pierrot, who wasn’t sure what his father meant but thought it sounded valiant nevertheless. ‘I’d be a soldier too, if it would make you proud of me.’

  Papa looked at his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Just make sure you pick the right side,’ he said.

  For several weeks after this he stopped drinking. And then, just as abruptly as he had given up, that dark cloud he had spoken of returned and he started again.

  Papa worked as a waiter in a local restaurant, disappearing every morning around ten o’clock and returning at three before leaving again at six for the dinner service. On one occasion he came home in a bad mood and said that someone named Papa Joffre had been in the restaurant for lunch, seated at one of his tables; he had refused to serve him until his employer, M. Abrahams, said that if he didn’t, he could go home and never return.

  ‘Who’s Papa Joffre?’ asked Pierrot, having never heard the name before.

  ‘He was a great general in the war,’ said Maman, lifting a pile of clothes out of a basket and placing it next to her ironing board. ‘A hero to our people.’

  ‘To your people,’ said Papa.

  ‘Remember that you married a Frenchwoman,’ said Maman, turning to him angrily.

  ‘Because I loved her,’ replied Papa. ‘Pierrot, did I ever tell you about when I saw your mother for the first time? It was a couple of years after the Great War ended: I had arranged to meet my sister Beatrix during her lunch break, and when I got to the department store where she worked, she was talking to one of the new assistants, a shy creature who had only started that week. I took one look at her and knew immediately that this was the girl I was going to marry.’

  Pierrot smiled; he loved it when his father told stories like this.

  ‘I opened my mouth to speak but couldn’t find any words. It was as if my brain had just gone to sleep. And so I just stood there, staring, saying nothing.’

  ‘I thought there was something wrong with him,’ said Maman, smiling too at the memory.

  ‘Beatrix had to shake me by the shoulders,’ said Papa, laughing at his own foolishness.

  ‘If it wasn’t for her I would never have agreed to go out with you,’ added Maman. ‘She told me that I should take a chance. That you were not as daft as you seemed.’

  ‘Why don’t we ever see Aunt Beatrix?’ asked Pierrot, for he had heard her name on a few occasions over the years but had never met her. She never came to visit and never wrote any letters.

  ‘Because we don’t,’ said Papa, the smile leaving his face now as his expression changed.

  ‘But why not?’

  ‘Leave it, Pierrot,’ he said.

  ‘Yes, leave it, Pierrot,’ repeated Maman, her face clouding over now too. ‘Because that’s what we do in this house. We push away the people we love, we don’t talk about things that matter and we don’t allow anyone to help us.’

  And just like that, a happy conversation was spoiled.

  ‘He eats like a pig,’ said Papa a few minutes later, crouching down and looking Pierrot in the eye, curling his fingers into claws. ‘Papa Joffre, I mean. Like a rat chewing his way along a cob of corn.’

  Week after week, Papa complained about how low his wages were, how M. and Mme Abrahams spoke down to him and how the Parisians had grown increasingly mean with their tips. ‘This is why we never have any money,’ he grumbled. ‘They’re all so tight-fisted. Especially the Jews – they’re the worst. And they come in all the time because they say that Mme Abrahams makes the best gefilte fish and latkes in all of Western Europe.’

  ‘Anshel is Jewish,’ said Pierrot quietly, because he often saw his friend leaving for temple with his mother.

  ‘Anshel is one of the good ones,’ muttered Papa. ‘They say every barrel of good apples contains a single rotten one. Well, that works the other way round too—’

  ‘We never have any money,’ said Maman, interrupting him, ‘because you spend most of what you earn on wine. And you shouldn’t speak about our neighbours like that. Remember how—’

  ‘You think I bought this?’ he asked, picking up a bottle and turning it round to show her the label – the same house wine that the restaurant used. ‘Your mother can be very naïve sometimes,’ he added in German to Pierrot.

  Despite everything, Pierrot loved spending time with his father. Once a month Papa would take him to the Tuileries Garden, where he would name the different trees and plants that lined the walkways, explaining how each one changed as season followed season. His own parents, Papa told him, had been avid horticulturalists and had loved anything to do with the land. ‘But they lost it all, of course,’ he added. ‘Their farm was taken from them. All their hard work destroyed. They never recovered.’

  On the way home he bought ice creams from a street-seller, and when Pierrot’s fell to the ground, his father gave him his instead.

  These were the things that Pierrot tried to remember whenever there was trouble at home. Only a few weeks later, an argument broke out in their front parlour when some neighbours – different ones to those who had objected to Pierrot singing La Marseillaise in German – began discussing politics. Voices were raised, old grievances aired, and when they left, his parents got into a terrible fight.

  ‘If you’d only stop drinking,’ Maman cried. ‘Alcohol makes you say the most terrible things. Can’t you see how much you upset people?’

  ‘I drink to forget,’ shouted Papa. ‘You haven’t seen the th
ings I’ve seen. You don’t have these images going around in your head day and night.’

  ‘But it’s so long ago,’ she said, stepping closer to him and reaching across to take his arm. ‘Please, Wilhelm, I know how much it hurts you, but perhaps it’s because you refuse to talk about it sensibly. Maybe if you shared your pain with me—’

  Émilie never got to finish that sentence, for at that moment Wilhelm did a very bad thing; a thing he had done for the first time a few months earlier, swearing that he would never do again, although he had broken this promise several times since then. As upset as she was, Pierrot’s mother always found some way to excuse his behaviour, particularly when she found her son crying in his bedroom at the frightening scenes he had witnessed.

  ‘You mustn’t blame him,’ she said.

  ‘But he hurts you,’ said Pierrot, looking up with tears in his eyes. On the bed, D’Artagnan glanced from one to the other before jumping down and nuzzling his nose into his master’s side; the little dog always knew when Pierrot was upset.

  ‘He’s ill,’ replied Émilie, holding a hand to her face. ‘And when someone we love is ill, it’s our job to help them get better. If they will let us. But if they won’t . . . She took a deep breath before speaking again. ‘Pierrot,’ she said. ‘How would you feel if we were to move away?’

  ‘All of us?’

  She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Just you and me.’

  ‘And what about Papa?’

  Maman sighed, and Pierrot could see the tears forming in her eyes. ‘All I know,’ she said, ‘is that things can’t go on as they are.’

  The last time Pierrot saw his father was on a warm May evening, shortly after his fourth birthday, when once again the kitchen was littered with empty bottles and Papa began shouting and banging the sides of his head with his hands, complaining that they were in there, they were all in there, they were coming to get their revenge on him – phrases that made no sense to Pierrot. Papa reached over to the dresser and threw handfuls of plates, bowls and cups on the floor, smashing them into hundreds of pieces. Maman held her arms out to him, pleading with him in an attempt to calm his temper, but he lashed out, punching her in the face, and screaming words that were so terrible, Pierrot covered his ears and ran into his bedroom with D’Artagnan and they hid in the wardrobe together. Pierrot was shaking and trying not to cry as the little dog, who hated any kind of upset, whimpered and curled himself into the boy’s body.

 
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