Saturday 30 March 2013

Mary Nichols: 'Escape by Moonlight'

As usual Allison and Busby have given me a lovely cover. It is so atmospheric and perfectly reflects the story of danger and intrigue during World War II when ordinary people found themselves in extraordinary situations. I like writing about the Second World War and it amuses me to think that is it now considered history because it happened in my lifetime. And like everyone who spent their formative years during those six years, it made an indelible impression on me. It is a fund of good plots.

This is the story of two girls, Elizabeth de Lacey and Lucy Storey, both from the Norfolk village of Nayton, the one wealthy and privileged, the other the daughter of the local stationmaster, poles apart but linked by war.
Elizabeth is holidaying with her maternal grandparents in Haute Savoie in 1939 when war breaks out. Along with her aunt, Justine, she becomes involved with the French Resistance helping allied airmen and escaped prisoners of war over the Swiss border, which becomes more and more risky as Germany takes over the whole of France. Lizzie's life is one of secrets, betrayal and danger culminating in a fierce battle between the resistance fighters hiding in the mountains and the Germans determined to wipe them out. The death of a cousin, the demise of her grandparents and falling in love with Roger, an SOE agent, add to her anxieties. They are in terrible danger and the only way to save them is to fetch them home to England. But that is not as easy as it sounds.
In England, Lucy works for her bullying father at the Nayton railway station. She secretly loves Jack de Lacey, Elizabeth's half brother, but she knows he is way above her socially and in every other way, but when he saves her from being raped, their friendship deepens into love. But there is class prejudice and a mystery surrounding Lucy's past to overcome. It takes Jack's other sister, Amy, an inquisitive evacuee living with the de Laceys, a German bomb and an explosion on the railway line to bring everything to a head in Lucy's world.


Elizabeth propped her bicycle against the barn door and stood a moment to watch a buzzard circling above the meadows, searching for prey. She saw it plummet to earth and then rise clutching something in it talons before it flew off towards the line of trees higher up the slopes. She loved this little farm in the foothills of the Haute Savoie, home of her maternal grandparents. To her it was a place of holidays, a place where she was free to wander about the paths and meadows, to enjoy the shade of the woods, to cycle along its narrow paths, swim in the lakes, ice-cold though they were, and come back to huge delicious meals, cooked by Grandmere. In the summer everywhere was lush and green, the meadows where Grandpere's cattle and goats grazed were dotted with wild flowers. Higher up, above the forest, the peaks of the alps poked upwards, bare rock in summer, covered in snow in winter.
The summer would come to an end soon, though it was taking its time this year, and she would go home to make up her mind what she was going to do with her life. Would Max ask her to marry him? Would she say yes? She was not altogether sure. She loved him, but was she ready to settle down to domestic life as the wife of a regular soldier? Wouldn't she rather have her own career, do something useful, learn to live a little first? And if there was a war, what then? Max had said war was inevitable, even after Chamberlain came back from Munich waving that piece of paper which he said meant `peace in our time' All it did, according to Max, was give the country time to step up its armaments, build more ships, aeroplanes and tanks, and train more troops in readiness. Would there be work for her to do in that event? After all, in the last war, women had done all sorts of jobs normally done by men and done them well too.
Scattering the farmyard chickens, she turned towards the house. It was a squat two storey building, half brick, half timber, with a steeply pitched, overhanging roof so the snow would run off it in winter. It was surrounded by a farmyard but there were a few flowers in a patch of garden on the road side, and pelagoniums tumbled in profusion from its window boxes. It was not large, but roomy enough for her grandparents to have brought up three children: Pierre, who lived a few kilometres to the west of Annecy and had his own small vineyard; Annelise, Elizabeth's mother; and Justine, who had been born when her mother was in her forties and was only nine years older than Elizabeth. She taught at a school in Paris.
The kitchen was the largest room and the warmest - too warm in summer because the cooking and heating of water was done on an open range. A large table, flanked by two benches, stood in the middle of it covered with a red check cloth. It was laid with cutlery and dishes taken from the dresser that filled almost the whole of one wall. Grandmere, her face red from the fire, was standing at the range stirring something in a blackened pot that smelled delicious. She was a roly poly of a woman, dressed in a long black skirt, a yellow blouse and a big white apron. Her long grey hair was pulled back into a bun.
`Where's Papie?' Lizzie asked. Brought up by a French mother who had brought her and her siblings to visit her parents frequently as they grew up, she was completely bilingual.
`He went into Annecy to see the butcher. The old cow is past milking and will have to be slaughtered. He said he would be back in time for dinner.' To Marie Clavier the midday meal was always dinner, the evening meal supper.
Elizabeth busied herself fetching out the big round home-made loaf, glasses and wine in a jug which she put ready on the table. `I saw a buzzard dive for a mouse just now. It always amazes me that they can see such a tiny creature from so high up.'
Her grandmother laughed. `What is it they say, "eyes like a hawk"?'
They heard the noisy splutter of the ancient van her grandfather used to drive into town and two minutes later he came into the kitchen, followed by his black and white mongrel. `It's all arranged,' he said, sitting in his rocking chair by the hearth to remove his boots. He wasn't a big man, but had a wiry strength that years of working a farm single-handed had bred in him. He had thin gingery hair and an untidy beard streaked with grey. `Alphonse Montbaun will come for the cow at the end of the week. He'll cut it up and keep it in his deep freeze for us.'
`Will you buy another?' Elizabeth asked him. She had become inured to the idea of eating cattle she had seen munching grass on the slopes. Grandpere had called her soft when, as a small girl on her first visit, she had recoiled at the idea.
`I think I'll get a couple of heifers and introduce them to Alphonse's bull.' He came to the table and sat in an armchair at its head while his wife ladled the soup into bowls. `When are you going home, young lady?' he asked.
Elizabeth laughed. `Do you want to be rid of me, Papie?'
`You know I don't, but the rumours are flying. The German army is gathering on the Polish border and this time it won't be like Czechoslovakia; there'll be no appeasement. You'll be safer, at home.'
`Sacre Dieu!' the old lady said, crossing herself. `You are never suggesting we are not safe here?'
`I don't know, do I? But we haven't got an English Channel between us and the Boche.'
`We've got the Maginot Line.'
`A fat lot of good that will do against aeroplanes and bombs.'
`Albert, you are frightening me. It was bad enough last time, I don't want to go through that again.'
`Perhaps you won't have to. If they come, our armies will drive them back again. That nice young man who came to stay earlier in the summer will see to that.' The `nice young man' was Captain Max Coburn who had come to share a few days of his leave with Elizabeth. He had charmed her grandparents with his old-fashioned manners, his smart uniform, his blue eyes, golden hair and neatly clipped moustache. It had been a glorious few days, the weather had been perfect and she had taken him all round her favourite haunts: the glittering ice-cold lakes, the little hamlets with their agile goats and the canyon at the Devil's Bridge Gorge, not to mention the breathtaking scenery with Mont Blanc crowning it all. Not until his last day had either of them mentioned war.
`It's going to come, Liz,' he had said. `Hitler will not be satisfied with Czechoslovakia; he wants the Danzig corridor and he'll go for Poland next. Britain and France will have to honour their commitment to help. Don't stay here too long.'
`Oh, Max, you can't think the Germans will come here surely?'
`I don't know, but I would rather you were safe at home in England.'
`And you?'
`I'll go where I'm sent.'
`I hope you're wrong. I couldn't bear to think of you in the middle of the fighting and Papie and Mamie put in fear of their lives. They remember the last war so vividly. Perhaps I should try and persuade them to come home with me.'
`Yes, do that. I'm sure your parents would approve.'
`Mama has tried to get them to come to Nayton many times over the years but Papie would never leave the farm. He always said he wouldn't trust anyone else to look after his livestock: cows, goats, chickens and his beloved dog. And I think he is a little in awe of Papa, though he would never admit it.'
`Surely not? Lord de Lacey is the mildest of men and he adores your mother.' Her paternal grandfather had died when she was small and her father had inherited the baronetcy and Nayton Manor, her Norfolk home.
`I know.'
Everyone in the family knew how her father had met her mother; it was a tale Papa loved to tell. Already a widower, though childless, he had been a major in the British army in the Great War and had been taken prisoner and shipped off to Germany. He had jumped from the train on the way and made his escape. Annelise, who was working in the hospital at Chalons at the time to be near Jacques, her soldier fiancé, had found him wounded, hungry and thirsty in a ditch, too weak to move. She had fetched help and he had been carried on a stretcher to the hospital where she continued to look after him until he was strong enough to return to duty. He had not forgotten her and when the war ended in November 1918, went to see her at her home in Dransville before going back to England. By then she had a small son, Jacques, whose father had been killed in the fighting.
They had fallen in love and, defying the conventions of the aristocracy and the ill-concealed disapproval of Papa's friends, were married in March 1919. He had adopted Jacques. Nine months later Elizabeth had been born, then Amy in August 1921, and finally young Edmund in 1927.
`I hope you are wrong. I hope you are all wrong,' she had told Max. `I can't bear the thought of people being killed and maimed. Why can't governments settle their differences without going to war?'
He had no answer to that and the following day had left to rejoin his regiment, but he left her wondering about her grandparents. Would they come to England with her? `My Channel crossing is booked for the ninth of September,' she told them as they ate their soup. `I don't see any need to go before that.'

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