Mission Paradise

Mission Paradise

by Marjory Rae Lewis

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785075186
Publisher: New Generation Publishing Ltd
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.81(d)

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Mission Paradise

A World War Two Memoir


By Marjory Rae Lewis

Legend Times Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Marjory Rae Lewis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78507-518-6


CHAPTER 1

MISSION PARADISE

A WORLD WAR TWO MEMOIR

PART ONE

REAWAKENING 1965

'Les seuls vrais paradis sont les paradis qu'on a perdus'

PROUST


At the quayside the salt wind loosened my hair and whipped my cheeks with shining health. Overhead the sun tried to penetrate the haze. Soon the clank of chains and capstans turning, the mewling seagulls, the commands and lapping water set me tingling. It made me feel young once more, with all the exuberance of a schoolgirl.

I was on my way to Brussels at last, the city for which I had a special affinity. Only two hundred and forty miles from London, but for twenty years it had seemed as far away to me as it must have done to those wartime Lysanders acting by moonlight as ferries for 'secret consignments' between the two capitals. People think nothing of the journey today, yet as I was making it, I felt something of that earlier insecurity. It had long been my desire to come here, to indulge those emotions I had for years suppressed, to draw conviction from their reality and, especially, to meet Rose with whom I had been fitfully corresponding since 1945 – for reasons my mother would have understood.

"Do you remember the Belgians?" I could hear her. "And that Christmas?" as if I could ever forget.


From the moment I joined the summer crowds at Victoria, the tourists, school and college parties, groups of friends and lovers, at each stage of the journey had jolted my memory and spurred on my imagination. Longhaired boys and girls in jerseys and jeans, possessors of a new freedom, a more liberal code of living and loving, both widened that gulf I had set out to bridge yet at the same time narrowed it, for I still remained a witness of both worlds.

My mind needed little provocation to turn back to the war and, as we sped across Flanders, the landscape drew it all into focus. It was this same land with its doll's house cities grown up around medieval Cloth Halls and Belfries which Caesar once conquered - 'The Belgae in the North are the bravest of all Gaul', I had learnt at school. I did not dwell on the Roman Conquest. In spirit I was out there in the sunlit fields, among the pollarded willows bordering the canals and the tall regiments of poplars. In my mind's eye I saw only modern armies: the blockhouses and the gun emplacements which were there before the new, neat houses came to be built on land stained poppy-red by the blood of two world wars.

Brussels, just as full of ghosts was bustling with importance as might any capital city of Europe today. Every brick and cobble surviving from 1940 had existed through events so near to my heart that it gave me a feeling of pride to see them mellow in the sun and to feel them hard and enduring under my feet. The spirit of the old city and its long, dead heroes seemed to have roused themselves in welcome. I felt no longer alone. I sensed love around me, as if one of those gentle souls smiling down on me had put a protective arm around my shoulder. Today Brussels belonged to me. I had a place. At last into Belgium's heart had come my heart - rivals once. We had a lot in common, this little heart-shaped city and I. For all her importance, her hard-won freedom and independence, was she not in some small part indebted to me?


* * *

After I had been there two or three days Rose began to open up and speak intimately of events which had afflicted us both. I had been waiting for her to introduce the subject and she brought over a shabby cardboard box and came to sit beside me on the settee in front of the window. Outside the fast metropolitan traffic raced up and down the wide avenue. Smelly fumes of exhaust occasionally wafted in through the open casement on the warm summer breeze gently fluttering the curtains behind us. Rose put on her spectacles and with a nervous, serious preoccupation began to sort through the papers in the box, stopping every now and then to read again and refresh her memory of some detail before handing them over to let them speak for themselves. A quietness, a closeness and an overwhelming sadness overcame us both. For Rose and me, comparative strangers until now, this meeting had quickly affirmed our friendship. She had her memories and I had mine and somewhere along the way they had briefly converged. With this beautiful woman whose warmth and smile had given me a glimpse back to those days of promise, and in whose eyes I saw a spark of that kindred fire which had once burned me with an improbable love, I knew we should be able to exchange our recollections as intimately as sisters.

Presently she handed me a letter drawing my attention to a small paragraph. I saw that her eyes were full of tears. I took the paper with a shaky hand and scanned the words in silence, unable to take in much of their message written in French, for which, after years of little practice I needed special concentration. At that moment any questions would have stuck in my throat and even one glance exchanged would have spilled my tears gathering just below the surface. The writing was familiar, too painfully familiar. I saw at once that this letter was almost identical to one I had received, written in pencil on the same impersonal paper and showing similar ravages of frequent handling. Faded, tear-stained, opened and refolded so many times that brittle and antiquated in my hot hand it tried to concertina back into the seclusion of its creases and the words themselves, unless one knew them by heart, were nearly too faint to be legible. The summer heat, the oppressive lack of any easy and appropriate comment, plus the weight of our suppressed emotion became stifling. Again and again I tried to read the passage she had ear-marked for me but could only take in three words -'une petite fille' concise apt and surprisingly clear; and my tears, sympathetically encouraged by my friend, trickled down my face and fell in silent drops on to the paper magnifying odd letters and words to make them speak out more clearly than the rest. I thought of the one who had written the letter and of my mother who, with such light-hearted pride, had made that significant introduction all those years before.

After a deep sigh to convince myself I was able to breathe, I told Rose it was impossible to take in everything at once and she replied that she would leave the box with me to investigate as I pleased. Tactfully she set about her jobs while I sifted through the rest of the contents which had been lovingly and proudly preserved. I was eager to fathom the box's treasures but also afraid of what I might unearth in the process. Amongst the letters there were photographs and tiny snapshots small enough to conceal in a deep pocket. Some were very old-fashioned as one might have expected, but others more surprising, retaining their freshness and clarity and could almost have been taken yesterday. These I found particularly unnerving for it was here that everything fell into place and the dream, which I had kept to myself for most of my life because of the nightmare it became, turned into reality. At last we found ourselves talking easily, exchanging memories which until today I had found impossible to share with anyone. Once I delved through the box and unshrouded the corresponding compartment of my soul it was all there just as it had been, as bright as the day it had been abruptly shut away. I wanted to relive the rapture with the anguish, those green, golden days of innocence and illusion. 'How can I meet you without the war,' I read in English. I had with me a collection of letters and mementoes - like Rose's, bundled into a cloth bag lovingly sewn with childish stitches. From the first they had to be hidden away. No wonder that I should feel some guilt as the story was beginning to free itself. But I am racing ahead. Every episode had some relevance and must be accounted for if this visit were to have effect.


* * *

AWAKENING 1940

My dear, plucky, ambitious mother was good at going over the past. I think she found security and strength from what had been accomplished and was safely passed over. She referred to every period which had gone before as 'The Good Old Days' and she recalled them with feeling and precision. As a rule she never liked to dwell on sadness and would make a determined effort to cast it from her mind until, enhanced by age and rarity, she would dig it from the past and polish and revere it like some prized antiquity. She would begin to talk increasingly about the war as it receded in time. It was to have significance in the lives of us both.

Given to aphorisms and cliché - the more pithy and succinct the better and a fair amount of superstition, she taught me early that love between a man and a woman was the most beautiful thing in the world. 'Love makes the world go round' was her maxim and that we had been pretty children because she and my father had been in love when my brother Robin, born two years after me, and I had been conceived.

No-one could have predicted my parents as destined for one another. They had met by chance on a railway station. My mother, the elder daughter in a family of Italian extraction, was established as a fitter in a firm of Court Dressmakers in Mayfair at the time. My father had a private fortune and was born of wealthy Scottish parents in Italy. My mother always spoke about my father's origins with great reflected glory.

The age of my infancy was referred to as Modern Times. Paris was the centre of chic and fashion, the Court of St. James the Mecca of High Society, and most of the large, fine, but ill-heated houses in London's prime residential districts were still maintained as private dwellings. Our first years were happy and the nearest we came to a normal, carefree childhood. My mother had a rich store of memories covering this period and quite a few photos to bring them to life.

When I was almost four my father, in an endeavour to conserve his dwindling fortune during the Depression, bought a derelict house and market garden in Jersey which he was setting out, with me for company, to restore with his own hands. One winter, tired out with worry and overwork, he succumbed to an attack of pneumonia and died before my mother could reach his bedside.

To this day I can remember the haunting loneliness of imminent death as I lay awake sensing the crisis of that night - the grown ups shifting noiselessly along the landing all through the small hours, a thin strip of light outlining my bedroom door on which my eyes remained fixed. I knew by instinct that if it went out all would be well, and then the ice-cold feeling of rejection the next morning when I was restrained from going into my father's room for my usual cuddle by the motherly lady who had come to take charge. "Your Daddy's gone to heaven, my darling," she said, gently bending down to gather me up in her arms, and I saw stars reflected in her bright beads.

The first move my mother made after my father's death was to take over smart business premises in Knightsbridge, within the neighbouring district of Belgravia, which were for a few years to become the centre of our world; a world of titled ladies and debutantes, tea-gowns and court dresses, tiaras and ostrich plumes, a world already doomed. I grew up to recognise a Paris Model before I understood the function of a brassière. Chanel, Worth and Schiaparelli were familiar names.

My mother threw herself wholeheartedly into her profession. She was by nature an artist, and had never been happy confined to a domestic existence and she was a great success with her dresses. She was making clothes for some of the wealthiest socialites of the day and she made a lot of money which she spent lavishly.

As her business life encroached upon the time she could spend at home so she compensated by a whirl of activity on our behalf. We had music and dancing lessons, parties galore with the appropriate clothes to go with them, and when the summer holidays came we went to stay with our German Nanny's parents in Nazi Germany. Always with a feeling of better things around the corner, we moved several times during the prewar years and we suffered as a result. To have lost one parent was bad enough, but denied the undivided attention of the other and a stable home had its effect on my brother and me and, needless to say, it drew us close and we loved our mother with a concentration that made it difficult for anyone to come in and take her place.

At the outbreak of the Second World War my mother was approaching fifty and years in business had changed her. A woman alone in the world of commerce where with her independent spirit she was determined to be the equal of any man - she was always telling us she was both father and mother - had made her competitive and rash. Hand-in-hand with her impetuosity went a streak of immaturity, even a childishness that saved her from hardness and was one of her most endearing attributes. We were on holiday in Jersey when war was declared. Our mother liked to come and look again at the lovely old house our father had been restoring and, with a handkerchief to her nose as she cuddled us close - nostalgia had become for her the supreme emotion - she told us again about the 'old days' and our father's exalted beginnings. She looked upon us children almost as if she had had no hand in our creation, considering herself plain, unrefined and unlovable, while retaining a persisting illusion that we were just the opposite. We moved in a close-knit trio. She took us to see Walt Disney's Snow White and Errol Flynn in Robin Hood and she made it fun walking back in the blackout holding our hands. She pretended we were a family of moles burrowing underground in the same way as she had tried to comfort us as tiny children during a thunderstorm by insisting the thunder was the three bears growling in heaven and the lightning the good fairy keeping them in order. She had the most fertile imagination in the world and could tell the best stories. It was not until the war, the period in which I started to grow up, that I really began to know my mother and, contrary to her delusions, I could tell that in many ways I was like her and, because she was as she was, so I became as I was.

I think she realised that war would mean the end of her world as soon as we stepped off the boat-train at Waterloo station. Coming back to sad, blacked-out London with the war already a week old was a different proposition from the last carefree days of our holiday. There were discomforting signs cropping up all over the place:

AIR RAID SHELTER, FIRST AID POST, EMERGENCY WATER SUPPLY


All around us were troops on the move and loose crocodiles of children labelled and already weighed down with winter clothes, providentially chosen a size too large, to last until 'further notice'. Their anxious smiles masked an inner bewilderment Robin and I knew well. For once we were smug. There were no plans for us to leave home and we kept possessively close to our parent as she hailed a taxi to take us there.

In the patriotic rush in which everyone was now swept up most of my mother's customers had exchanged their fine clothes for practically-identical uniforms with only the badges V.A.D., W.V.S. or A.R.P. to distinguish them. War had no place for Haute Couture. With a heavy heart she dismissed her staff and closed down the workrooms. Her indecision did not last. True to form, she made an extraordinary move that most people without her outrageous courage would have described as foolhardy to say the least.

She left us one morning with the daily woman - Nanny, fearing internment, having soon departed to marry her English fiancé - I had noticed before she went out how unusually excited she appeared, for one burdened with bringing up two growing children with most of her income suddenly non-existent. I remember her return some time later, her dark eyes sparkling with the elation of a child as she brandished an official-looking document before us. Spreading it on the table, she scanned the paper for the relevant details.

"Look - see here, oh yes - here we are! See what it says," she read aloud, her words tumbling out in breathless excitement.

"Look - the Duke of Westminster!" she picked out slowly with her finger, "The landlord - and Mrs. Alice Letitia Rae the tenant!"

She looked up watching for our reaction and by her insistence we gathered it must be evidence of some important transaction, though neither of us was conversant with terms landlord and tenant.

"What is it?" we said, "What does it mean?"

"It means, my darlings - we are going to move, that's what it means, and we shall be living practically next door to Lady Lever," she impressed on us gathering us, both together, in her arms.

"It's an absolute bargain. Isn't it marvellous? Me and the Duke of Westminster - I can't get over that."

For a few days I was expecting the Duke of Westminster to have at least the necessary grace to move in with us.

A house in London with the prospect of air-raids had been enough to daunt most people. Those with money made arrangements to evacuate whole households into the country. Many beautiful houses in the centre of town were left empty and landlords, rather than having them falling into disrepair while they waited for the bombs to demolish them for good, now offered them to let at peppercorn rents.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mission Paradise by Marjory Rae Lewis. Copyright © 2015 Marjory Rae Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
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