It is 1941 when Margaret Brandt is born. She has a thick head of bright blonde hair and her mother’s dark eyes, and her displeasure at being so rudely forced into the world is apparent to all as she wails louder than any siren ever could. The only country she shall ever know will be England, but her mother shall inform her of the beauty of the Netherlands and her father shall one day tell her stories of a Germany that once was, the Germany that should be, the Germany that will be. She will be safe, and she will be loved. She may have been born in wartime, but her mother vehemently swears that Margaret will know nothing but peace.
It is 1946 when Maggie Brandt meets her father for the first time. Dressed in her finest clothes, the ones usually reserved for services at the synagogue, her mother takes her to a very large building one morning, even though Maggie knows it is a school day and her mother is supposed to be at work. Her mother’s eyes are red from crying, but when Maggie asked her mother said that they were happy tears. Maggie doesn’t know how tears could be happy, but if her mother has said so, then it must be true. Her mother never lies.
They wait for what seems like ages, Maggie smoothing her hand repeatedly over the skirt of her dress, until someone comes to escort them into another room, the door easing closed behind them. There is a man standing at the end of the room, his hands laced behind his back as he peers out of the window. Maggie doesn’t understand what he could possibly find so fascinating. It’s raining and miserable outside, so it can’t be the weather capturing his attention.
“Stefan.” Her mother’s voice breaks the silence, thick with emotion. Her grasp on Maggie’s hand is tight, as if she needs something to hold onto. At the sound of her voice, the man in front of them visibly stiffens, before turning around, so very slowly. Her mother inhales shakily, hurriedly stepping closer until they are standing right in front of the man. Maggie has to stretch out her legs in order to match her mother’s quick pace, but she doesn’t complain. She doesn’t dare.
Up close, she notes that the man looks tired. His hair is slightly darker than her own, his eyes the same murky green as the Thames. He looks so very tired, and Maggie knows that when she looks that way her mother would most definitely prescribe a nap, even though she is going to turn five in less than a month’s time. She is just about to suggest her mother directs the man to do as such, when the man himself opens his mouth to speak.
“Mieke,” he murmurs, his voice unlike anything Maggie has ever heard before. She peers up at him in curiosity, the man towering above her. She doesn’t think he’s from England. He doesn’t sound like he’s from England, doesn’t sound like her teachers, like her friends, like Mrs. Roberts who looks after her after school when Mama is still at work. She knows her mother’s voice sounds different because she’s from the Netherlands, so maybe this man is to.
Unable to help herself, she queries, “Are you from the Netherlands like Mama?” When she speaks, the man looks down at her as if he has just realised she is standing there before him. Her mother reprimands her softly for her interruption, but offers her a smile nonetheless.
The man does not blink. He stares down at her, and after a quick sideways glance at her mother, Maggie returns his gaze. There is no reason for him to be staring at her as if he has never seen a little girl. She feels somewhat self-conscious under his gaze, even though Mama often tells her that she is the prettiest girl she has ever seen, even though she is wearing her finest dress and her curls have been freshly washed.
“No, I am not from the Netherlands,” is all the man finally says, still looking down at her. “Mieke…” He looks at her mother, his forehead furrowed.
Her mother nods in answer to a question that has not been asked, the smile stretching across her lips brighter than Maggie has ever seen. “She’s yours, Stefan.” She laughs gently. “Look at her, at her hair, her mouth. Of course she is yours, and she is beautiful for it. I wanted to tell you, but I knew there was no way I could. I sent you the book though, so you would know where to find me – find us. Did you get the book?”
“I did. I read it over and over again, until the pages began to crumble. I wanted it to be the last thing I ever read.”
At those words her mother’s grasp on her hand finally loosens, and Maggie watches silently as her mother’s arms wrap around the man, pulling him tight to her. Her head buries itself into the crook of his neck, the man stiff at first but then gently easing his own arms around her mother’s waist. They hold each other tight as if they are the only two people in the world, and Maggie cannot describe the feeling that arises in her chest at the sight.
Who is the man, and why does her mother look at him as if he is everything to her? Maggie cannot remember her mother ever having a man in her life, even though she knows that most women have husbands, most children have a mother and a father. She has never asked why she does not have a Papa, someone who could swing her up onto his shoulders like Elizabeth’s father does, because she doesn’t want her mother to think her ungrateful. It has been enough, just having her mother, just the two of them in their little house near the park. Perhaps her father had died in the war, perhaps he had been hurt like Mary’s father and had never been able to come home. There was no point in asking, if the question would only hurt her mother, so Maggie never did.
After a moment, or two, or perhaps even a lifetime, her mother gently eases herself away from the man, wiping away the tears that have slipped out of her eyes. The man cups her mother’s cheek tenderly, his gaze almost reverent.
He crouches in front of her, and Maggie notices that strands of his hair have come loose from the style they have been pushed back into. Her fingers itch to smooth them back, to right this man’s appearance. Everything else is in order, his shirt smoothly tucked into his pants and his collar freshly pressed, so the mussed strands of his hair are a distraction, an annoyance. Her mother shifts to kneel beside her, clutching once more at Maggie’s hand.
“Stefan,” her mother begins, her gaze darting back and forth between the man and Maggie, “this is Margaret Brandt.”
“You gave her my surname?” he questions, confusion in his eyes. Her mother nods, before directing her attention solely at Maggie.
“Sweetheart, this man…” Her mother trails off, as if searching for the right words to say. She inhales, before continuing, “This man is your papa.”
Maggie does not know what to say. She looks at her mother, and then at the man – her father. She looks at him for longer than is perhaps polite, before she remembers her manners and offers him a smile. “How do you do?” she asks. Then, without waiting for an answer, she informs him, “You may call me Maggie. If you like.”
“Maggie,” the man – her father – repeats, as if sounding out the name. She doesn’t see how he could find anything wrong with it. She shares her name with a princess, after all. She is Margaret to her teachers, to Mama’s friends, and she is Maggie to her friends, to Mama. It is an honour to let this man, even if he may be her father, to call her Maggie, seeing as they have only just met.
He smiles at her, the action causing some of the exhaustion to fade away from his eyes. “What a wonderful name.”