Sunday, 30 October 2011

Tales from Elsewhere – The Multi-Storey

“Well, I don’t know…” said my father doubtfully.

“It’s getting late” said my mother, we’re in a city we don’t know, we need a hotel for the night and we’ve already tried two and they’re full.  I don’t think it matters this time if it’s not too smart – why don’t you try that one across the street and see if there are any vacancies?”

“Well I suppose so”, he said reluctantly as he slowed down to look for a parking space.   “It  does look a bit run down though…”

I was just thinking about the steak and chips I was going to have for dinner; we had covered a great distance that day, mostly on crudely asphalted roads with often only one lane for both directions of traffic which necessitated playing dare with every oncoming vehicle to see who was going to drive past with two wheels off the road.  Now we were crawling along a very busy avenue with crowds of pedestrians milling around.

We were in Curitiba, Brazil, some 1,300 km/800 miles from Buenos Aires, from whence we had departed some days earlier.  This was early 1967, and I was travelling with my parents several hundred miles further into mid Brazil to visit my uncle and his family for a holiday. 

The journey had up to now been a great adventure.  My other ventures abroad thus far had been to Uruguay and Chile, both Spanish speaking, and it was exciting to be in a country so tropical and different from my own, and where another language was spoken.   My father’s attempts to communicate in Portuguese were supposed to be amusing to the Brazilians subjected to it, but to an awkward and insecure thirteen year old they were a pure and embarrassing agony.

But it was fun because the parts of Brazil through which we travelled – very far from the coast - were clearly not accustomed to foreigners, and the number plate on our car attracted a lot of attention.  Strangers would come up to us to ask us where we were from, what we thought of Brazil, and so on.  If they were a little over-curious, they were also invariably friendly and kind, and anxious to show us how beautiful their land was.  My mother was particularly impressed by gigantic government signs we passed regularly, which said simply “Aqui se trabalha!” (Here, we work!)

I remember most of all the enormous variety of strange fruit I tasted which I had never heard of before, and haven’t since, and the fabulously delicate and strongly fragrant flowers that seemed to grow in profusion everywhere.

Dad uncurled himself stiffly from the driver’s seat and shuffled across the avenue, with creased white shirt tails flapping, while Mum and I sat and waited.  We were idly looking out of the window at where he was going, and I remarked that there seemed to be quite a queue outside the hotel entrance.  “Precisely why we must find somewhere quickly” Mum remarked “there must be some festival or other going on and the hotels are full”.

Dad was struggling to get past the queue and he seemed to be having altercations with people.  Suddenly I said “Mum, look at the queue.  There are no ladies in it.  Why’s that?”

“I don’t know” she said tiredly, “let’s just wait for him to come back”.

Then we saw him making his way back across the avenue, dodging the traffic, and strangely, he was smiling broadly.  We heard his laughter before he even opened the door to get back into the car.

“Well?  Have they any rooms?”

He laughed again despite the irritated sound to her voice.

“I’ll say they do” he said “you hire them by the hour, though.  It’s a ….”

Pas devant les enfantssaid Mum sternly.  "Just drive on".  That old chestnut, as if I didn’t understand elementary French.  My sister had briefed me long ago on what these pearls of wisdom of hers actually meant, the others beingLaisse-moi faire” (let me deal with this) and something that sounded like  Laisse leur” (supposed to be “leave it alone, no need to say anything further”).  

However I thought it strange that one should stay in a hotel and have to state for how many hours you required it.  I was about to learn more about the ways of the world.

“Stop treating her like a child”, said my father, and turning to me he said “it’s a brothel”. 

I felt proud that he had included me in on the joke, and was glad I already knew what a brothel was…

We eventually found somewhere to stay, and while we installed ourselves in our shared bedroom Dad went to park the car in the multi-storey car park nearby.  He took such a long time to return that Mum started pacing up and down the room, calling reception and asking in halting Portuguese how far away the car park actually was, not appreciating that making yourself understood in a foreign language was one thing, and understanding what was said back to you was quite another.

About an hour later Dad appeared at the door of the hotel bedroom, looking pale and shaken.  “I need a drink” he said, and sat down on the bed.

“I’ve been so worried.  What happened?”

“The multi-storey they sent me to is one of these circular ones, where you drive up in a spiral, and decide which floor you want – they all looked very full, so I carried on going up, counting the floors as I went, because there were no numbers anywhere.  At the eighth floor I found a space, but just as I was getting out of the car all the building lights went out – I’ve no idea why. “

He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and carried on.

“I was stuck there in the dark, and I admit to you I got quite nervous.  Then my eyes got used to the dark a bit, and I saw a series of doors.  But the signs were all in Portuguese, I didn’t understand what they meant.  I went down a dingy corridor and then I saw some little lights indicating a lift.  Such a relief!  It was obviously a goods lift though, because it was just a very small wooden platform, but what the hell I thought – it’ll do.  I just about saw a row of buttons and I pressed the lowest one, and again, such a relief when it started to go down, even though I had to hang on to a bar above me.  It was one of those lifts with no sides, so you could see the spiral driveway going up as I went down.  I counted the floors, and after four it stopped!”

He dabbed at his face again.

“I stood there wondering what to do next, I shouted, and somebody did answer me, but it echoed so badly and I didn’t understand anyway.  I was still in the dark, and eventually I realised that I was going to have to climb down the rest of the way  because it wasn’t going to go any further.  By my calculations I still had four floors to go.  I sat down on the floor and edged my way to the black hole beyond, and after a while I thought what the hell, I’ve got to get out of here.  I’m just going to jump.”

Mum gasped, her hand in front of her mouth.

“So I jumped.  And you know what?  I fell about thirty centimetres – I had been on the ground floor when it stopped!”

“But you had counted eight” I protested.

“Ah, but I didn’t realise as I was driving up that I had been counting half floors” he said, “if you’re going round in a circle it’s easy to get confused, I now know…”  He lay back on the bed holding the hanky to his forehead.

We didn’t even have dinner that night, we were all too overwhelmed by the evening’s adventures.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Fuerteventura and flower/fruit taken in England and Spain


Saturday, 22 October 2011

Tales of War and Conflict – A Foreign Field (Part II of II)

Part II of II - Lost and found …and lost.

Claire Dessenne’s news that she would be having a baby the following autumn stunned them all into silence.  Marie Coulette saw the expression on her daughter-in-law’s face, and with rare tact ushered everybody out of the kitchen.  Claire suddenly found herself alone with her mother. 

The fear and tension Eugénie had been feeling reached an intolerable pitch, for now an innocent baby was to be thrust into the maelstrom their lives had become.  Not only would Claire’s situation become infinitely more vulnerable with regard to the occupying forces, but her position in the village would create scorn, disapproval and petty jealousies, for she knew that with the extreme shortage of eligible men, Robert had become a focus for many of the young women.  She could see nothing but trouble ahead, but Claire was blind to all but the wonder of the feelings between her and Robert, and the miracle that was about to enter her life.  She was quite convinced that the village would rejoice with her.

The reality was somewhat different.  As the war had intensified, privations grew and lives were increasingly at risk from a Kommandant who as a former small town magistrate before the war had been presented with the unique opportunity to indulge his obsession with petty bureaucracy and apply his power over others with relish.  The villagers’ lives became more confined, their initial kind heartedness towards the British soldiers gradually altered by their growing awareness of the danger they courted daily.  The diminishing stores of food were a constant reminder that if nothing else, these strong and healthy men represented extra mouths to feed.  In fact, a group of Villeret villagers consisting of the older women, the children and men who could not fight – the ‘useless mouths’ as they called them – were being taken away to a place of safety, because the food was running out.

The church in Villeret, before
the First World War
It was in this atmosphere that Claire’s baby was born one late autumn day in 1915, and the little girl was named Hélène, after Robert’s mother Ellen.  He was fiercely proud of his little daughter, and soon took to walking round the village with her in his arms to show her off to anyone who would stop and look. 

He would sing her a little lullaby...

My little cockatoo
With the bright blue eye!
My pretty little chou,
My cabbage butterfly.
I'll love you in the morning
I'll love you late at night,
When the new day's dawning
You'll still be my delight.
My little cockatoo
With the bright blue eye!
My pretty little chou
My cabbage butterfly.
                                                                      - Elizabeth Major

" cabbage butterfly..."

Of course the people of Villeret couldn’t resist the miracle of a new life, this tiny morsel of happiness in a world gone mad, and were charmed by her father’s devoted care.  For a time there was a truce towards the British men.  But the bad feelings returned.

Eugénie, ever the Cassandra of the community, was quick to point out that the British soldiers were not as welcome as they once had been, and that it was merely a matter of time before someone betrayed them to the German authorities.  She claimed they all felt that they should have made greater efforts to find a way through enemy lines by now, although Claire protested vigorously that Robert was preparing the necessary paperwork and they had not tried any harder because it was still too dangerous.

And that was another point, added Eugénie – it was pretty obvious that Robert had too many compelling reasons to stay. 

Some weeks later David Martin returned from the fields with grave news.  The Kommandant had put up new posters in the villages under his control stating that he – Major Evers – was well aware that the villagers were hiding guns and food, and that there were British spies in the locality.  All British soldiers being sheltered were to surrender by 30th April 1916, when they would be held as prisoners of war.  Any found after that date would be shot and their French hosts fined and imprisoned.

In the discussion that followed, Claire was urged to go with the ‘useless mouths’ being evacuated, taking her baby with her, but she refused to even countenance being parted from Robert.  Stress levels rose further when Marie Coulette returned from the village, furious because she had learned that Tom O’Sullivan had been talking to the German guards in his terrible French/patois, cheekily asking one to light his cigarette for him, and even teasing him a little.  No bright young guard would have been fooled by this, and he had just been lucky this time.  Tom was unrepentant.  He had just been having a little bit of fun, and he was determined to go his own way.

L to R:  Robert Digby, David Martin, Tom O'Sullivan, Charlotte Lelong

But it could only have been a gesture of defiance.  Evers’ latest pronouncement meant that the likelihood of betrayal was even greater, and they would have to leave.

The British men departed that night.  Robert and Claire bade farewell in love and sorrow, trying not to dwell on the fact that they were being torn apart, and dreamed of meeting again in a better place.  

Eugénie had barely had time to calm down a little when on the following evening the men returned, looking dishevelled and desperate.  They hadn’t been able to get anywhere near the German front line, let alone cross it.  Robert commented that he thought they had been sighted by German troops, and were only just able to get away.  Marie Coulette hastily took them into the barn for the night, but they would have to decide the following morning what to do. 

Time had run out for the young British men, and this time they would be lost forever.  A few days later in the night, German soldiers burst into the barn, and only Robert Digby was quick enough to jump out of the window and disappear into the woods.  Martin and O’Sullivan were captured and put in jail.

Thus was the random cruelty of war.  Robert Digby was once more wrenched from the home he loved, and was never to see his daughter or Claire again.

Other houses in the village were raided and among others, the mayor Parfait Marié was taken into custody. 

His father Emile Marié (a man of generous girth, known as ‘Le Gros’) took over as temporary mayor of Villeret, and he proceeded to devote all his energies to getting his son freed while still obeying Evers’ orders and doing his best for the village.

Meanwhile Robert Digby hid in the woods, surviving as best he could on the spring berries left behind from the bombardments, but he realised he could not do this indefinitely and the front line was still too near.  Emile Marié knew where he was, and would bring him food and news from time to time, until one day he came to meet him in the forest and told him that Major Evers had declared that if Digby were still in the area and were to give himself up, he would be sent back to his regiment without being punished. 

While Robert remained in the Villeret area, Claire and little Hélène would be in danger of being held as hostages by Major Evers, and he did not wish Marie Coulette and Eugénie to come to any harm on his account.  He was resolute.  The following time he saw Emile Marié he quietly told him he would give himself up, and a day later he walked back to Villeret and handed himself in to Emile Marié, from where he was taken to Le Câtelet and to Major Evers.

The German Kommandant never had any intention of letting Robert Digby return to his regiment, and the British soldier knew this.  He was locked in a cell within the same jail as his two other comrades, and one morning he heard their distress as they learned that they were to be shot that day.  Later on he heard the sound of their execution, and knew he was to follow shortly. 

On Tuesday 16th May 1916 he wrote letters to Eugénie asking her to look after her daughter and granddaughter for him, to his mother telling her about what had occurred and asking her to recognise Claire and Hélène as part of the Digby family, and finally to Claire:

“My darling Claire,

This is the last letter of my life.  I am condemned to die by firing squad at five past ten tonight.  Farewell, and never forget Robert, who dies happy and satisfied for France and for my own country.  I kiss you.  Embrace my baby girl and later, when she is grown, tell her the truth about her father, who has died content.  Send the letter I have already written for my mother.  I have given another letter for my family to the pastor, because the Germans have intercepted the letters of my comrades.


Your loving Robert”


Ben Macintyre came to the story in the nineties, when he met Hélène as an old lady, and she told him her story. Thus it is Hélène who tells the story in the opera.




They had been betrayed. 

The Dessenne hayloft had been discreet and remote enough to conceal the British soldiers for almost two years, and there had been no interest by the Germans in the property.  If Major Evers had ever suspected Marie Coulette of harbouring British spies he would have seen to the consequences personally. 

There were various people in Villeret who had reason to want the British soldiers gone, and not least was the frightened Eugénie.  Then there were various women – Charlotte Lelong among them – who had a crush on Robert Digby, the most handsome of the three, and resented that Claire should have him.  There were various men – the postman among them – who secretly loved Claire and wanted her lover gone.  Emile Marié understood the danger in which these men had placed them, and there were many others who no longer wished to share their meagre supplies of food.  The truth was not to be revealed for a further ninety years.

Contrary to his wishes that he be buried in Villeret, Major Evers dictated that Private Robert Digby’s grave should be dug in a remote corner of Le Câtelet cemetery and only one modest bouquet of flowers would be allowed.  Villeret villagers disobeyed however, and the grave had a huge tower of flowers deposited upon it, to the Kommandant’s annoyance. 

This is a cross erected near Villeret for another
British soldier, who died in 1918.
A few short weeks later their world went mad and the land exploded for four vicious months between July and November of 1916 while the Battle of the Somme roared around them.  It seemed at times that the struggle to stay alive was all that kept them alive, and yet for the people of Villeret there was worse to come.

In February of 1917 the order was issued that all should assemble in the village square.  From here they were forced to march into exile to the Ardennes, and Villeret was razed to the ground.  It was flattened completely, as was Le Câtelet.

The Dessennes were among the families which returned to their village after the end of the war two years later, and with struggle and great penury rebuilt their homes.  The Lelongs did not return other than briefly to view with dismay what was left of their property.


And finally…

Robert had a brother, Thomas, who coincidentally fought his war very close by to the fugitive and never knew it.  When their mother Ellen died during the twenties, Thomas found among her things the letter Robert had written to her, asking her to recognise his daughter.  From this yellowing scrap of paper he learned about Hélène for the first time, and that his mother had never wished to reveal it.  So in 1930 Thomas Digby visited Villeret and found Hélène, now aged 15, and drew up an official document at the mayor’s office in Villeret, recognising her as a Digby.

Hélene and Claire in about 1923

Hélène (left)
& Claire (right)
in later life

There is one thing left to say, which I have learned from an article written by Ben Macintyre for The Times in April 2009. 

He had recently been contacted by a Belgian historian who had learned from a forgotten archive in Brussels some facts about espionage during the First World War.  The historian had read Macintyre’s book, and thought he ought to know who had been responsible for betraying Robert Digby.

One of the documents says “…Robert was denounced by the mayor of Villeret and taken by him to the Kommandant at Le Câtelet, where he was shot with three of his companions.”

So Emile Marié – Le Gros – was probably corpulent at a time of great food privation because he had been receiving preferential treatment from the Germans, and he probably betrayed the soldiers to protect himself and get his son released from jail.  Macintyre remembered one of the villagers stating that Claire had hated Emile and wanted him dead.  Perhaps she knew.


The opera was very successful, playing to full houses every night, and received excellent write-ups.  (See here, here and here) and the Wetherells hope one day to be able to stage it again.  Elizabeth Major, the opera’s librettist, could not have used Ben Macintyre’s story in its entirety, as there were numerous families in the village of Villeret who played an important part in the narrative, representing too many characters to portray on a stage.   So what I have told you is the bare bones of the story, which I hope will prompt you to buy the book and be fascinated, as I was, by the background and what happened after the war. 

To encourage you in this endeavour, I have purchased two second-hand copies of the book, which I shall be delighted to post to the first two people who leave a comment and tell me they would like to have a copy, even if a little dog-eared (and give me their e-mail address so I can contact them).

Should you wish to purchase the book yourself, these are the details:

UK:  A Foreign Field, Harper Collins, ISBN 0-00-653171-7. 
US:  The Englishman’s Daughter, Random House, ISBN 978-0-385-33679-6

Ben Macintyre


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

The cast of "A Foreign Field" - second half

Niall Hoskin (Major Evers)

Ron Moncrieff & Peter Naish (German soldiers)

Ian Arnold (David Martin)

Paul Arden-Griffith (Tom O'Sullivan)

Geraldine Aylmer-Kelly (Hélène Digby)

Eric Wetherell, Composer and Musical Director


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Tales of War and Conflict – A Foreign Field (Part I of II)

This true story dates from the First World War and happened in the French village of Villeret.  It was researched and told by writer and “The Times” journalist Ben Macintyre in his book A Foreign Field (Harper Collins 2001), published in the US as The Englishman’s Daughter.  Nine years later composer Eric Wetherell wrote an opera based on the book, with the libretto by his wife Elizabeth Major.  I came to this story via the opera, from which my narrative is taken, as the Wetherells are friends of mine.  I was privileged to be asked to take the pictures at rehearsals and at the final dress rehearsal, and have included some below, outlined in red.   The historical pictures come from the book, or the internet. 

The opera programme

The UK & US versions of the books
(for more details see end of Part II)


Part I of II – Lost and Found…

Villeret is a small village situated a few short miles from the river Somme in Picardy, Northern France.  As part of the Western Front, it was occupied by German forces throughout most of the First World War, and had to withstand direct bombardment on many occasions.  During the Battle of the Somme the constant sound of bombs exploding around it lasted four months.  Hundreds, sometimes thousands of wounded, starving and exhausted German soldiers would flood regularly through Villeret requiring food and rest, which its inhabitants were expected to provide. 

The village had been occupied by the German army since 1914, with Major Karl Evers seconded to the nearby village of Le Câtelet as Etappen-Kommandant of the surrounding villages.  His brief was to “ensure that the civilian population did not impede the German war effort, to flush out spies, to provide adequate billets in the scattered villages for the thousands of troops heading back and forth to the front, and to extract from the land and its people whatever could be of use, value or pleasure”.  (Ben Macintyre, A Foreign Field). 

A tough and brutal man, particularly when drunk, Major Evers enjoyed issuing daily edicts which restricted the lives of the inhabitants:  all livestock, milk and eggs had to be accounted for and were primarily for German military use; all homes were to be searched and items requisitioned as the soldiers saw fit.  This included furniture as well as contents of larders and cellars.  Heavy fines were imposed for minor or imagined misdemeanours, and any French citizen who was considered a spy or who was seen to be assisting or harbouring a spy was summarily shot.

It was into this uncertain world that British soldier Private Robert Digby of the Royal Hampshire Regiment stumbled one August evening in 1914.  He had been wounded in the arm and with the front line shifting constantly, separated from his regiment which had retreated south, and he had linked up with two other soldiers who were as lost as he was. 

The set

The three Dessenne women were in the kitchen of their little cottage of Rue d’en Bas in Villeret, discussing the war.  Marie Coulette was the feisty and garrulous grandmother...

...a matriarch and leader of the family even before the men folk had gone to war;

her daughter-in-law Eugénie, nervous and fearful,and the latter’s nineteen year-old daughter Claire Dessenne, the acknowledged beauty of the village with her grandmother’s spirited personality and view of life. 

Marie Coulette Dessenne                    Eugénie Dessenne (in later life)

Robert Digby and Claire Dessenne
The urgent knock at the door revealed the wounded Robert Digby, who asked the women if he could have some food for him and the two fellow soldiers who were hiding in the woods with him.  While Claire dressed his wound, Marie Coulette ordered the reluctant Eugénie to wrap up some food for him. 

Thanking them, Digby disappeared into the night, leaving them arguing about whether it had been the right thing to do.  Eugénie wanted no part in helping any soldiers, whether friend or foe, and the other two stoutly inveighed against her uncharitable attitude. 

Another knock on the door made them jump, but this time it was a neighbour, Charlotte Lelong. 

Her father was the village baker, and there was little love lost between the Lelongs and the Dessennes.  The Lelongs fancied themselves a cut above the Dessennes, and Marie treated their snobbery with open contempt.  However Charlotte had come to warn them that the bread supply was running low because of German requisitions. 

The Lelong family, with Charlotte back right.
The air of menace in the room was broken by the pounding on the door once again and the frightened Eugénie stifled a scream.   This time it was the three bedraggled stragglers who were ushered into the warm kitchen.  Digby apologised for this new intrusion, introducing them to his comrades David Martin and Tom O’Sullivan, and explained that having been on the run for several weeks, they were exhausted and asked if they could lodge in the barn for the night. 

To Eugénie’s manifest disapproval Marie Coulette welcomed them in.  Claire explained the situation to the surprised Charlotte, and her grandmother told her that the strangers must be cared for until they could rejoin their regiments.  Her father would need to provide the bread rations with which to feed them.  All must pull together, she declared.

For their part, the grateful men assured them that while they waited they would assist with any heavy work required in the fields and the house.  Marie pushed her reluctant daughter-in-law to go and fetch extra blankets, while she took Martin and O’Sullivan to the barn.

Left alone, Claire and Robert Digby soon found there was an obvious magnetism between them.  She saw a fair, handsome soldier who spoke passable French; beneath the exhaustion and the stress and despite the broken arm which was clearly causing him pain, there was an intelligent and gentle man who hated the war as much as she did.  He saw an extremely pretty girl with large, brown eyes and dark, wavy hair, a vivacious expression and a personality full of passion.  She told him of her hatred of the locally billeted German soldiers whose eyes seemed to follow the young women everywhere as they worked in the fields. 

Robert found himself telling her about his family in England, and his life before the war.  He had a brother, Thomas, who was also fighting somewhere in France, he knew not where.  Robert had lived in Paris for a wile, working in a café on the Seine – it was all so different now.  His sadness was palpable and she wanted to reach out to him to tell him the good times would return one day, but felt suddenly shy.

The Digby family
As the weeks went by with no prospect of the men returning to their regiments despite various attempts to find them, the villagers of Villeret got used to having them around, still believing that they would not be staying for long.  But the German army had settled in five miles south of Villeret and the first trenches had been dug.  Digby, Martin and O’Sullivan were on the wrong side of the front line, and surrounded by the enemy army.

Villeret before the war
Villeret is today set back from the main road that crosses the region, just as it was then.  To the villagers outsiders were foreigners, whether they came from Belgium or Le Câtelet several miles away.  Seasonal farming and working the looms kept them mostly self-sufficient and they kept to themselves, thus they were perceived locally as being antisocial and somewhat surly.  This was in part due to a local industry, a phosphate mine.  Its dust had left many miners with damaged lungs, which they were fond of washing down with blanche, a white liqueur similar to absinthe.  While it may have dulled the pain, it also destroyed the mind, and at that time there were at least forty men with brain damage resulting from their addiction to blanche, which must have done little to enhance its reputation.

To outsiders Villeret was rustic and frozen in time, and so must it have seemed to Robert Digby, for he fell in love with the village and its beautiful countryside before falling in love with its most enchanting inhabitant, Claire Dessenne. 

The British men settled into the life of the village.  With German soldiers swarming around and Major Evers and his men poking into every nook and cranny, it was never going to be possible for them to hide.  They chose instead to work in the fields and learn the local patois, even going so far as to speak to the German guards in the language, which they did not understand.    

While Robert Digby’s language skills were good, the efforts of the other two were frankly pitiful.  O’Sullivan was Irish by birth, and his high spirits often made him stand out, which was a cause of great worry to the others.  The Villeret people observed him on occasion chatting to the German guards and naturally feared that he could give them away.  They could only imagine what cruelties would be forthcoming from the Kommandant if he discovered that he had foreigners living under his nose.

The mayor Parfait Marié worried the most.  He worried about the harvest because so many of the able bodied men had joined up, he worried that the villagers would eventually starve because of the quantities of food being requisitioned by Major Evers and he worried about the number of enemy soldiers crowding into every home and taking the best of every space and crumb of food for themselves.  He was forced to trudge daily to the Kommandant’s office in Le Câtelet – as were all the mayors of the villages under his command – to listen to him demand more livestock and more food, impose more fines and rant about spies.  Most of all he worried that the presence of the British soldiers would be discovered and their village would be razed to the ground.

And amidst all the noise, the exhaustion, the misery and the death, life was shiny new and just beginning for Robert and Claire.  The young man had come into her life as a lost soul, and now they had found love together. 

People around them pretended they didn’t know why they disappeared into the hayloft or went for long walks in the twilight, but were careful to ensure that they were left alone.  It was as if with happiness being so scarce, the village was living through the young couple and was happy for them.

One evening Eugénie and Claire were preparing the evening meal and talking to Charlotte Lelong, who had dropped by obviously hoping to see the men when they returned from the fields.  There were relaxed when they arrived, and Tom O’Sullivan started to hum a jaunty tune and dance a jig, inviting Claire to join him. 

She quickly learned the steps...

... and in the merriment that followed Claire suggested Charlotte should try it for herself and ask Robert to dance with her.  If anyone had been observing her closely they would have noticed her eyes flashing with anger at this suggestion, for she had witnessed the growing closeness between Claire and Robert, and was trying to conceal the fact that she had fallen for him too.

A peremptory knock on the door brought the entertainment to an abrupt end however, for as Eugénie opened it there standing before her were Major Evers, Sergeant Scholl and a German private.  While Marie Coulette greeted them in surly manner, the British soldiers discreetly withdrew to a back room to play cards in dim light and ensure they made frequent appropriate exclamations in patois.

Major Evers had heard the singing and laughter, and as he demanded to be given some of the local gin for which he knew Eugénie’s husband was famous, he claimed to be on a courtesy call. 

He then proceeded to remind them of the rules he was putting in place in the village, until his eye was caught by the handsome clock on the mantelpiece.  In reply to his enquiry Marie Coulette told him it was a family heirloom but that it did not keep good time.  She made no pretence at hiding her contempt, and was not surprised when Evers told Scholl to bring it to him because he fancied it would look rather smart in his office.  He seemed to accept it as normal that locals were playing cards in the back room and did not remark upon it, as if his purpose on that occasion had been solely to terrorise the women.  After making a few more veiled threats he and his men departed.

As the card players drifted back into the kitchen, all tried to shake off the gloom caused by Evers’ visit.  While Charlotte tried to make the point that not all Germans were bad and their soldiers were suffering in equal measure, Marie Coulette angrily countered that she would neither pity them nor ever give in.  But it was clear that nothing could dampen Claire’s happiness.  As long as the sun shone and they had enough to eat, she said, all would be well, and there would soon be another mouth to feed….


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

The cast of "A Foreign Field"
(in two parts - second half follows with second post)

Liz & Eric Wetherell
(Librettist and Composer/Conductor respectively)

John Telfer

Pam Rudge (Marie Coulette)

Pauline Wetherell (Eugénie Dessenne)

Rosie Clifford (Claire Dessenne)

Simon Woodhead (Robert Digby)

Gemma Dunster (Charlotte Lelong)


Concludes in the next post, and I have a special giveaway offer for you, so don't miss it...

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