With 90 million books sold worldwide, Welsh author Ken Follett is as popular as he is ambitious. Follet launched his career with the Edgar Award-winning spy thriller Eye of the Needle in 1978, and has since wowed readers with suspenseful tales of cutting-edge science (The Third Twin, Whiteout), World War II (Jackdaws, Hornet Flight), and revolutionary Iran (the true story On Wings of Eagles), among many others. Follett, who specializes in strong female characters, is best known for The Pillars of the Earth, the runaway bestseller about the construction of a medieval cathedral that returned to the charts 18 years after its original publication when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. Its sequel, World Without End, was released to widespread acclaim in 2007.
Winter of the World
Carla knew her parents were about to have a row. The second she walked into the kitchen she felt the hostility, like the bone-deep cold of the wind that blew through the streets of Berlin before a February snowstorm. She almost turned and walked back out again.
It was unusual for them to fight. Mostly they were affectionate—too much so. Carla cringed when they kissed in front of other people. Her friends thought it was strange: their parents did not do that. She had said that to her mother, once. Mother had laughed in a pleased way and said: “The day after our wedding, your father and I were separated by the Great War.” She had been born English, though you could hardly tell. “I stayed in London while he came home to Germany and joined the army.” Carla had heard this story many times, but Mother never tired of telling it. “We thought the war would last three months, but I didn’t see him again for five years. All that time I longed to touch him. Now I never tire of it.”
Father was just as bad. “Your mother is the cleverest woman I ever met,” he had said here in the kitchen just a few days ago. “That’s why I married her. It had nothing to do with . . .” He had trailed off, and Mother and he had giggled conspiratorially, as if Carla at the age of eleven knew nothing about sex. It was so embarrassing.
But once in a while they had a quarrel. Carla knew the signs. And a new one was about to erupt.
They were sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table. Father was somberly dressed in a dark gray suit, starched white shirt, and black satin tie. He looked dapper, as always, even though his hair was receding and his waistcoat bulged a little beneath the gold watch chain. His face was frozen in an expression of false calm. Carla knew that look. He wore it when one of the family had done something that angered him.
He held in his hand a copy of the weekly magazine for which Mother worked, The Democrat. She wrote a column of political and diplomatic gossip under the name of Lady Maud. Father began to read aloud. “‘Our new chancellor, Herr Adolf Hitler, made his debut in diplomatic society at President Hindenburg’s reception.’”
The president was the head of state, Carla knew. He was elected, but he stood above the squabbles of day-to-day politics, acting as referee. The chancellor was the premier. Although Hitler had been made chancellor, his Nazi Party did not have an overall majority in the Reichstag—the German parliament—so, for the present, the other parties could restrain Nazi excesses.
Father spoke with distaste, as if forced to mention something repellent, like sewage. “‘He looked uncomfortable in a formal tailcoat.’”
Carla’s mother sipped her coffee and looked out of the window to the street, as if interested in the people hurrying to work in scarves and gloves. She, too, was pretending to be calm, but Carla knew she was just waiting for her moment.
The maid, Ada, was standing at the counter in an apron, slicing cheese. She put a plate in front of Father, but he ignored it. “‘Herr Hitler was evidently charmed by Elisabeth Cerruti, the cultured wife of the Italian ambassador, in a rose-pink velvet gown trimmed with sable.’”
On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales.
The twenty-second of June, 1911, was Billy’s thirteenth birthday. He was woken by his father. Da’s technique for waking people was more effective than it was kind. He patted Billy’s cheek, in a regular rhythm, firmly and insistently. Billy was in a deep sleep, and for a second he tried to ignore it, but the patting went on relentlessly. Momentarily he felt angry; but then he remembered that he had to get up, he even wanted to get up, and he opened his eyes and sat upright with a jerk.
“Four o’clock,” Da said, then he left the room, his boots banging on the wooden staircase as he went down.
Today Billy would begin his working life by becoming an apprentice collier, as most of the men in town had done at his age. He wished he felt more like a miner. But he was determined not to make a fool of himself. David Crampton had cried on his first day down the pit, and they still called him Dai Crybaby, even though he was twenty-five and the star of the town’s rugby team.
It was the day after midsummer, and a bright early light came through the small window. Billy looked at his grandfather, lying beside him. Gramper’s eyes were open. He was always awake, whenever Billy got up; he said old people did not sleep much.
Billy got out of bed. He was wearing only his underdrawers. In cold weather he wore his shirt to bed, but Britain was enjoying a hot summer, and the nights were mild. He pulled the pot from under the bed and took off the lid.
There was no change in the size of his penis, which he called his peter. It was still the childish stub it had always been. He had hoped it might have started to grow on the night before his birthday, or perhaps that he might see just one black hair sprouting somewhere near it, but he was disappointed. His best friend, Tommy Griffiths, who had been born on the same day, was different: he had a cracked voice and a dark fuzz on his upper lip, and his peter was like a man’s. It was humiliating.
As Billy was using the pot, he looked out of the window. All he could see was the slag heap, a slate-gray mountain of tailings, waste from the coal mine, mostly shale and sandstone. This was how the world appeared on the second day of Creation, Billy thought, before God said: “Let the earth bring forth grass.” A gentle breeze wafted fine black dust off the slag onto the rows of houses.
Inside the room there was even less to look at. This was the back bedroom, a narrow space just big enough for the single bed, a chest of drawers, and Gramper’s old trunk.
Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from FALL OF GIANTS by Ken Follett.
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