After I woke up and had a stretch as usual and got dirt under my fingernails as usual, I heard voices above me in the barn.
Lots of voices.
Which wasn’t usual at all.
I held my breath in the dark and tried not to make any scared noises.
You know how when there’s a war and you hide in a hole for two years so the Nazis won’t find you and each night a kind man called Gabriek brings you food and water and takes your wees and poos away and the only voice you ever hear is his and you don’t want to hear anybody else’s because that could mean the Nazis know where you are and they’ve come to get you?
I think the Nazis have come to get me.
The voices up there sound bossy and impatient and angry.
I sit up on my mattress and listen hard to catch what they’re saying. I try to make out if they’re using Nazi expressions like Jew vermin and shoot him in the vermin head. But I can’t hear properly because this hole is under a horse stall and Dom is a big horse and he’s muffling the sound.
I struggle to stay calm and think who else the people could be. Neighbours from the next farm wanting to borrow some turnips? The choir from the local church trying to persuade Gabriek to join?
I look at the luminous watch Gabriek gave me.
Five past six.
It’s evening. In the middle of winter. Normal people don’t go out at all in winter if they can help it, and definitely not after dark.
The men up there must be Nazis.
I try to make myself as small as I can in my hole, which isn’t easy because I’ve been growing a bit lately. Plus at the moment my body is completely rigid with fear.
This is what I’ve been dreading. This is what I’ve been trying not to think about.
Why did the Nazis have to come today?
On my birthday.
Maybe they’re doing it on purpose. Maybe they’ve got a Jewish birthday list. Maybe for Nazis it’s extra fun to kill people on their special day.
I get cramp in my leg.
I rub it as quietly as I can. I wish the straw in this mattress wasn’t so scratchy and noisy. You’d think in 1945 they’d have invented quieter straw. And I wish I wasn’t surrounded by things that go clink and clunk. Pee bottles and Richmal Crompton books and the small pieces of machinery Gabriek gives me to explore with my hands when the candle runs out so I can get an education.
All that education will be wasted if I die now. I try to breathe very softly. I try to relax and take my mind off things by thinking about the hydraulic valve system in a hand-operated water pump.
It doesn’t work.
I’m still feeling scared.
Not just of being shot. I’m even more scared of what will happen to Gabriek if the Nazis find me here. The Nazis hate people who protect Jews. They shoot them too, but they do worse things to them first.
The voices up there sound like they’re arguing. I still can’t make out what they’re saying. I hope Gabriek’s telling the Nazis the story we made up, the one about how they should stay away from Dom’s stall because Dom is a moody horse with a very catching skin condition.
Which isn’t true, but you have to lie to Nazis, it’s the only way.
I try something else to stop myself panicking.
It’s what I do when I have a lot of loneliness or fear or worry. I close my eyes and pretend I’m William from the Richmal Crompton books. Having adventures in the woods with my friends. Cooking on campfires and building tree houses and inventing irrigation systems to help ants grow crops.
Now I’m thirteen I’m probably a bit old for that, but I don’t care.
Except it’s not working either.
I hear a sound up above. A loud metallic sound.
I know what that sound is. The safety catch on a gun.
I feel sick.
I think about a story Mum read me when I was little. About a fieldmouse who was going to be killed by a dragon. Instead of cowering in the dry leaves, the mouse decided to look death in the face.
I bet Mum and Dad did that when the Nazis murdered them in the death camp.
It’s what I’ve decided to do if the Nazis murder me. Keep my eyes wide open and look death in the face like Mum and Dad did.
Plus that way, if there’s a chance to escape, I’ll see it.
The voices up there are getting louder. One of them is definitely Gabriek. And I can hear the other voices more clearly now as well.
Wait a minute.
Everyone’s speaking Polish. Nazis usually speak German. It’s very unusual for them to speak Polish. What’s going on?
I feel around for my glasses, put them on and gently tug on the security pulley system Gabriek made. Above my head the trapdoor opens just a bit.I wait for lumps of horse poo to fall in like they always do, then I carefully kneel up and peek out.
And almost faint.
In front of my face, sitting on the sawdust between Dom’s back hooves, is a small parcel wrapped in one of Gabriek’s hankies and tied with string.
A birthday present.
Gabriek must have left it there to surprise me when I come out for my meal later.
If any Nazis see it, I’m finished.
I open the trapdoor a fraction more, grab the present and stuff it into my pocket.
Then I peer out to make sure nobody saw it.
My glasses are smudged and cracked, and Dom’s back legs are blocking part of my vision, but I can still see what’s going on.
Except I don’t understand what I’m seeing.
There are about six men surrounding Gabriek.
They’ve all got guns and torches, but they’re not wearing Nazi uniforms, just ordinary clothes. And they look too tough and fierce to be hungry neighbours or grumpy choir members.
Who are they?
Why are they so angry with Gabriek?
Another person steps into view. She must have been there all the time, but I couldn’t see her behind Dom’s big shoulders.
I go weak with shock and the rope slips out of my hand and I grab it again just in time to stop the trapdoor slamming shut.
I stare some more.
It’s not Mum. It’s just a woman who looks sort of like Mum did when Mum was younger. Mostly because she’s wearing a red headscarf like one of Mum’s. But this woman is about twenty and Mum would be much older than that if she wasn’t dead. Plus this woman is wearing a leather jacket with a gun over her shoulder, and Mum didn’t like leather jackets or guns.
One of the men grabs Gabriek by the arm and pushes him towards the door.
Gabriek doesn’t fight back.
I realise what’s happening.
Whoever these people are, they don’t know I’m here. Gabriek’s letting them take him to protect me.
They all leave the barn together, Gabriek and the men and the woman.
I close the trapdoor and huddle back onto my mattress. I’m shivering now and not just because it’s always cold in this hole.
I’ve guessed who those people are.
The Polish secret police.
I learned about the Polish secret police from one of the old newspapers Gabriek put in here to try to soak up some of the damp.
The Polish secret police are on the Nazis’ side.
One of the jobs they do for the Nazis is arrest Polish slave workers who’ve escaped from Germany.
Gabriek was a slave worker, and he escaped from Germany.
In my imagination I ask Richmal Crompton for her help. So Gabriek can escape again.
I jump, startled.
It’s Gabriek’s voice.
That was quick.
‘Felix, listen,’ says Gabriek quietly.
He must be crouching close to the trapdoor so nobody else can hear him.
‘I can’t bring your birthday meal just at the moment,’ he says. ‘I have to go out for a while with our visitors.’
I hear the clank of Dom’s bucket.
My insides sag.
Gabriek hasn’t escaped. He’s probably just told the secret police he has to pop back into the barn for a moment to feed Dom. So he can secretly try to stop me worrying.
‘Do you hear me?’ says Gabriek. ‘Felix?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Try to sleep some more,’ says Gabriek. ‘Or do some education.’
I hear Dom nuzzling into his bucket again, but I don’t hear anything else from Gabriek.
He must have gone back out to the secret police.
Who’ll hand him over to the Nazis.
My insides ache with worry. I don’t want Gabriek to sacrifice himself to protect me.
If the Nazis catch me they’ll just shoot me. But when they catch escaped slave workers, they hurt them badly and stick up photos of their crippled bodies in Germany as a warning to all the other slave workers there.
It was in the paper.
I don’t want to them to do that to Gabriek.
So I don’t have any choice.
I have to try to rescue him.
After is available in bookshops and libraries in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere, and online:
The audio track on this page is an excerpt from the Bolinda Audiobook After, read by Morris Gleitzman. Buy it online: