Eliza Bennet has the life she has always dreamed of. She is who she wants to be, and she is with the man she loves.
But Eliza is living a lie. Her real name is Klaudia Myer. And Klaudia is on the run. She is escaping her old life, and a terrible secret buried at the heart of her family.
This is the story of Eliza and Klaudia: two women, two lives, and one lie they cannot hide from.
In The Other Me, Saskia Sarginson hypnotically examines whether our identities are tied to where we’ve come from, in a captivating mystery that shows how sometimes history doesn’t tell the true story.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)|
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The Other Me
By Saskia Sarginson
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Saskia Sarginson
All rights reserved.
All through the long drag of summer my stomach knotted and unraveled when I thought about what was going to happen in September. I'd circled the date on the calendar in red felt-tip with pink stars shooting out over the surrounding days. Inside the scrawl of rose and scarlet it said: Tuesday 3rd. Klaudia starts at Kelwood High School.
I've often walked past the big brick building on Mercers Road, pausing to glance at crowds of pupils in green and gray, watching them spill out of the gates, arm in arm, chatting and laughing. I used to wonder what they were saying, what it was that made them laugh. Now I'll find out, because it's going to be me in that uniform, skipping down the steps, my elbow linked with a friend's.
I've been taught at home. Mum and I at the kitchen table with a pile of exercise books, working our way through the syllabus, learning things by rote so that I could repeat them to my father when he came home from work.
I'm worried that not going to school has made me different. Perhaps it's even more strange that I'm an only child, or that my parents are as old as grandparents. I don't know, because I haven't learned any of the rules. Mum says I just have to be myself. I'm sure it's more complicated than that.
There's only the three of us at home: me, Mum and Dad. Well, four of us, if you count Jesus. Nothing ever actually happens at our house. Nothing ever changes. Reflections flicker inside surfaces and windows sparkle; the three cushions propped on the velveteen sofa don't move out of position, and the pictures on the walls are never wonky, especially the framed tapestry in the living room that reads, All may be saved to the utter most. My father checks its alignment every morning, squinting one eye and standing back to read the needlepoint lettering as if he doesn't know it, and a hundred other lines of scripture, off by heart.
Wooden ornaments jostle for space on the mantelpiece and dresser: the twelve apostles and Jesus in different poses, hand raised or holding a basket of fish, all staring out with blind eyes, frozen in place, as if the witch from Narnia has been on the rampage. Even these don't have a speck of dust on them. Each one is lifted and re-positioned after a thorough polish. Hunting dirt is something my mother does, feather duster in hand, the vacuum cleaner like a faithful pet, rolling from room to room with its long nose snuffling into corners.
I wish we could have a real pet. "We don't live on a farm, Klaudia," my father told me when I asked, "and it would add to your mother's burdens." My mother sighed, "It's a shame, cariad, but a cat would kill the birds." Mum feeds the robins, sparrows and thrushes that live in our garden with bits of bacon fat and the broken skulls of coconuts. My father made a bird table for her and fixed it on a branch of the apple tree. He likes to make things from wood. We're running out of places to put the ornaments, and there are a lot of characters in the Bible still to go. He has a shed in the garden where he keeps his tools and does his carving.
That's the other thing about starting school that worries me. My father. Otto Meyer. He works there. That's embarrassing. He is embarrassing. He's like Goliath, always too big for any room. And of course there's his heavy German accent. How can he still talk like that when he's lived in England for years and years? But maybe nobody will know or care that he's my dad. I'll make friends. Kids my own age. I want to take a look inside their homes and see how they live and what they eat and what they watch on TV. There is a whole world outside these pebble-dashed walls, beyond our straight suburban street, the Guptas' local store, the Methodist chapel and the Texaco garage blinking its orange lights on the main road.
* * *
The teacher, Mrs. Jones, is writing on the blackboard with chalk. I bend low over the desk and try to keep up with copying. I can feel the good-luck postcard that Mum gave me this morning crumpled in my pocket. Its edges press against my skin through the silky lining.
Most of the kids already seem to know each other. Lots of them must have gone to the same primary school. That hadn't occurred to me. I thought we'd all be new. After I'd found a spare desk, I perched on the edge of my chair wondering how to join in with one of the conversations. A girl stopped by my desk.
"Hello. I'm Lesley." She put her head on one side. "Have you just moved here?"
"Oh, no," I gabbled, "I've lived here for my whole life. Just around the corner."
She'd curled her lip. "Well, how come I've never seen you?"
"I didn't go to school. My mum taught me. At home," I said quickly.
The way she looked at me — it was as if I was a purple-spotted lemur in the zoo. I shouldn't have said anything. I knew it was wrong.
The collar of my white shirt is rubbing my neck. I wish I could rip off my top button. Thick gray socks make my knees itch. At the next desk a girl called Amber is frowning at the board. She has a bobble nose, curly black hair and blue eyes. Not like an Amber at all. She looks like Snow White. Her lips are blood-red as if she's bitten them. Perhaps she has. Perhaps she's as scared as me.
She glances across under sooty lashes and grins. I catch my breath. I want to be friends with her more than anything.
Mrs. Jones's chalk goes on scratching numbers. A dry, pale scent mixes with a faint tang of sweat and rubber, and the warm exhalations of a roomful of eleven-year-olds. I copy the numbers as carefully as I can, but they jumble up on the page, making no sense. Dad says that I'm lazy at math. He says I don't try hard enough.
Mrs. Jones has stopped writing to stare at us. Her cheeks have burning scarlet patches as if she's boiling hot or really embarrassed. But I don't think she can be either. She rakes her nails against her scalp, fingers disappearing inside short curls. Her navy cardigan is peppered with bits of dead skin. The eyes behind her spectacles search around the room. She taps one finger on her chin. She's looking for someone to ask. I drop my forehead so low it almost touches the wooden desk, hunching up, fixing on the blur of numbers on my paper, praying dear God, dear God, don't let her pick me.
Then lots of things happen at once. There's a soft thump, and the high-pitched sound of breaking glass. A missile has flown clean through the window on the other side of the room, making a jagged hole. Cracks run across the remaining panes in zig-zag lines. Someone screams. A cricket ball bounces and rolls slowly, coming to rest under my desk. There's broken glass all over the floor under the window. Bits gleam and sparkle.
My whole life I've been saying prayers, but they've never been answered before. I sit up in surprise, fighting to control my face, wanting to laugh at the miracle. Mrs. Jones has her hand clamped over her mouth. Amber and I exchange triumphant looks.
Kids have jumped out of their seats. There is an excited chatter. Mrs. Jones has recovered enough to shout, "Sit down — everyone keep calm and sit down." Another teacher comes in. He must have heard the noise. After a hurried chat, he leaves with a frown creasing his face.
"Whoever hit that ball is going to be in dead trouble," Amber whispers to me, eyes round as she makes a slicing motion across her throat.
"I know." I nod. "Look." I peer at the ball. "Under my desk."
She stretches out her leg to push it with her toe; then she glances at me and giggles. I'm so happy that I want to grab her hand and squeeze it tight. I want to ask her to be my best friend right now. Do people do that? I don't know how to behave. I don't know how to have a friend.
"Is everyone all right? No cuts or injuries?" Mrs. Jones is saying. "We'll have this mess cleared up in no time."
The door opens. We turn expectantly, and I catch my breath. I can feel the class watching my father stalking to the front, a broom grasped in one huge fist and a dustpan in the other. I look away from his towering shape, buttoned into a brown cotton coat. But I see his profile etched against the inside of my lids: the sharp line of his nose, the downward pull of his mouth.
I grip the edge of the desk. How weird is it that my father is the caretaker? What will Amber think?
I can hear the swish of bristles and the tinkle and scrape of glass fragments being swept into the plastic pan. I clench my teeth.
"See him?" Amber nudges me. "He's German."
I swallow, clearing my throat, trying to work out how to reply.
She hisses, "My sister says he's a Nazi. He gassed the Jews."
The desk tilts under me and I curl my toes inside my shoes to stop the sudden lurch in my belly. She puts her finger under her nose, straight across her top lip like a mustache, and winks at me. I examine my hands clamped against the desk: white speckles on my nails, pink, ragged skin around them with bits that shred and sting.
"Well, I think that will do. Thank you," Mrs. Jones is saying.
At the edge of sight, I see him moving away. He's stuck a piece of cardboard over the open wound of the window. He's going to leave. I squeeze my knees together, dropping my chin and rounding my shoulders to fold myself up. Don't look. Don't make eye contact. Underneath everything the word "Nazi" is repeating inside my head. But Nazis are heel-clicking men in scary uniforms, with polished black boots, scars cutting across their smooth monster faces.
I hear the scrape of heavy footsteps passing, and then the door closes quietly. He's gone. I draw a deep breath and dare to raise my eyes. The class is back to normal: muttering, scratching heads, scribbling in exercise books. Nobody is looking at me. Mrs. Jones is writing on the board again. Amber makes a funny face for my benefit, miming a yawn.
My father was in the war. I'd never thought what that meant before. I know nothing about it, except that we won, and the Nazis killed the Jews. Of course my father had nothing to do with that. My insides start to crack like the glass in the window frame. He doesn't talk about the past. I put my thumb between my teeth and bite. He's just my dad: tall and serious with a funny accent. And ordinary. He can't be part of history.
The thing to do, I decide, is to keep quiet. Maybe nobody will think to connect us; it doesn't have to mean we're related, just because we have the same surname. I'll avoid him at school. I won't tell anyone.
I tilt my chin up and stretch my lips, grinning for Amber. She pats her opened mouth, pretending to yawn again, and I copy her, rolling my eyes at the numbers Mrs. Jones is inscribing onto the board.
* * *
The thing about September that I'd failed to mark on the calendar, but of course Mum had in her neat script, is that it's the beginning of the Methodist year. So we're sitting in our usual places in the second row of the church, listening to the long-winded Covenant Service. The lay preacher proclaims, "We are here to celebrate God's gracious offer to Israel that I will be their God and they shall be my people."
In my head I'm offering God my own prayer of thanks, because He's given me what I've always wanted, even more than a pet: my own best friend. Amber is the most popular girl in my class, and she's chosen me. Every day since that first one, I've been impatient to get to school, my chest tightening with nervy excitement as I walk through the gates, waiting for Amber to run over and link her arm with mine. Sometimes I even forget that I have anything to hide.
My father breathes heavily through his mouth. He's placed his palms on his knees, leaning forward as if he's about to spring to his feet and take part in a race. My mother is dressed in her best clothes, hands linked in her lap. Both of them keep their eyes on Mr. Lewis in his gray suit as he talks about Christian perfection.
I wish we could have been Baptists. Like those African women wrapped in swathes of silver fabric, heads bound in brilliant turbans, clapping as if they're at a party. Or Catholics, with candles and blood-spurting statues, and incense-clouded air, altar boys in white lace singing like angels. But if I could choose any religion, I'd choose Hinduism — I like the sound of gods with elephant heads and sinuous ladies with multiple arms, the way they can change shapes and grant wishes. Lots of our neighbors are Hindu. The Choppras and the Guptas. My father says it's a shame that they are heathens. Mum says, "It's not for us to judge, Otto. With God's grace, we know that salvation is possible for everyone."
Aseema Choppra is in the year above me at school. On my first day she smiled at me as we passed each other on the stairs, and I turned to watch her walking away with her friends, her long black plait hugging the curve of her spine.
I fix my eyes on the plain wooden cross that hangs behind the preacher's head, trying to concentrate. He pauses to push a slick of hair back into place across his bald spot, then rubs his palm on his trousers, a fleeting expression of distaste on his face. Brylcreem, I bet. It's really sticky. Dad keeps a pot of it on the bathroom shelf. My father insists on cleanliness, seeing as it's so close to godliness. He gleams from top to toe. This morning I'd woken to find my shoes polished and placed outside my bedroom. My father cleans all our shoes, setting them out on sheets of newspaper and rolling up his sleeves, spitting and rubbing. He says you can tell a lot about a man from what he's wearing on his feet.
Dad also says that to follow Jesus Christ we need discipline. We should be fit and ready for the challenge He will set us. My father does his morning exercises in the garden. Whatever the weather, he's out there going through the same jerks and jumps: bending and straightening, touching his toes and dropping down to do push-ups. Watching him in his vest and rugby shorts, shoulders heaving at the timid air, his hair sweat-darkened, and the light catching his pale, bunched calves, he looks like a warrior in God's army.
My father can be frightening. But I've never thought of him as being someone to make fun of. Not until I saw the boys at school marching behind him, making silent salutes, their fingers under their noses, arms like pistons punching the air. Sieg heil.
* * *
"Klaudia, I notice that you don't speak to me at school," my father said today. "Is there a problem?"
I wrapped one leg around the other and gazed at a spot just behind him. "No."
"Well." He shrugged. "Perhaps you are embarrassed to have a father that is a caretaker. Perhaps you think it's too lowly a profession?"
I shook my head. He was testing me.
"Good, honest work is nothing to be ashamed of." He poked his chin forward, so that I saw the throb of his throat. "We are plain people. But we're giving you the advantages we never had. After everything your mother has done for you, you must work hard, help pay her back for all the sacrifices she's made." His disappointment in me pulled the edges of his mouth down. "Your mother is a saint, Klaudia. Neither of us deserves her."
His face transformed at the mention of her name, mouth and eyes turned upwards with delight, his eyes glowing with the same fervent look he gets when he is praying.
But then he frowned again. "A lot of those kids, they have no discipline. No belief. No work ethic. They are foolish. And they get into drugs and so forth." His hairy eyebrows met in the middle, his eyes narrowing into a blue glitter. "I never want to see you behaving like them. Do you hear me?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"It would kill your mother."
He glared at me as if I was already a heroin addict, had already driven my mother into the depths of despair.
* * *
Mum is gesturing for me to stand, the hymn book flopping open in her other hand. The congregation is on its feet, singing "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies." I catch my father's deep, throaty roar. For once his accent is disguised inside music and all I hear is the power of his voice.
My tongue is dry. No sounds come out. My mother holds the book towards me so that I can read. "Pierce the gloom of sin and grief ... scatter all my unbelief." I mouth the words looking down at my shoes, seeing the hazy reflection of myself in their blue-black shine.
Excerpted from The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson. Copyright © 2016 Saskia Sarginson. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Lie,
Part Two: The Trap,
Part Three: The Telling,
About the Author,
Also by Saskia Sarginson,