A quiet, rural island of growers and dairy producers; a haven for walkers, cyclists, and families wanting a seaside break from the U.K. mainland to somewhere just close enough to France to be exotic; a place where neighbour knew neighbour, where men did what they were told by women at home, and women did what they were told by men in public; the Island was an emerald isle set in an azure sea. And, that was how the Germans found it in 1940 when they strafed the potato lorries lined up along the harbour, mistaking them for a military convoy. Daft sons-of-bitches.
Apart from pouring tons of concrete around the Island’s coast to prevent the erosion of its shoreline by the massive tidal reach that raced in its waters, the German occupation had little permanent impact on the Island. It wasn’t until the late Sixties, early Seventies, when the Island was invaded by suits from London that life began to change. The money men, seeing a tax loophole, exploited it for their own ends and those of their well-healed clients. They built homes and swimming pools and office blocks, and bought expensive cars, and increased the population so the Island entered the world’s top ten of most densely packed humans. And, ruined the pastoral idyll.
They also paid the Island’s taxes, which bought the Islanders a better health service, above average schools, well-maintained roads, Bobbies on the beat, and jobs in the growing civil service. They spent money in the restaurants, and with the builders and plumbers, and in the fashion houses, jewellers, and perfumeries. They bought with them their middle class philanthropy that held coffee mornings, and started professional men’s service clubs, and raised money for the Island’s less fortunate. But, this did nothing to endear them to the local who jealously guarded his patchwork of small, uneconomic, enclosed fields and his failing tourist industry unable to compete with package holidays to guaranteed sunshine.
The friction between local and incomer flawed the emerald isle set in a sea that was only ever azure on a blistering summer’s day. I didn’t care about the war of words that erupted every time elections to the Island’s government came around. I was a historian, and, however much the Islander wanted to believe that he stood alone, governor of his own destiny, untouched by events beyond his shore, just like everywhere else, the Island was its history and the history of the world. Blame the most recent wave of incomers for the Island’s problems and you’re missing the point that centuries of change, large and small, much of it outside the Island’s control, had led to the development of the Island’s current incarnation. How far do you want to go back to find the cause? To the U.K. taxation rates of the 1970s that saw the nation’s highest earners taxed at seventy five percent? To the crumbling of the British Empire in the 1940s that meant colonials needed somewhere safe to move their money? To the Victorian passion for the British seaside and the publicity that created the Island’s image as a sunny, unspoilt haven? To the Interregnum where the Island remained loyal to the crown and won itself a large helping of gratitude and latitude in return? To the Battle of Hastings where the Island, part of William’s duchy, took the English throne and, when Normandy went back to the French under King John, the Island, deciding it didn’t like the smell of garlic and onions, became a peculiar of the English crown, or, in other words, a law unto itself? Pick the bones out of a thousand years of history and find your own personal scapegoat.
I didn’t need to. I wasn’t an Islander. You couldn’t be unless all four of your grandparents had been born in the Island. I had reason to be grateful to the finance industry that, through its taxes and benison, supported the Island’s arts and heritage organisations. Without their patronage, I’d be out of a job. But, it wasn’t the immigrant population who came calling at the archive, seeking their family’s history. It was the Islander who wanted to know and, without their patronage, I’d be out of a job. The Island had been good to me.
The morning was oppressive, and sultry, and grey. I had spent it in the archive’s temperature-controlled vault. My fellow archivists had had the same idea. When it got so you couldn’t walk down a row of shelves without saying, “Excuse me”, I returned to my office and turned the fan on. All that did was blow warm air on the back of my neck. Had Helen Valentine wanted to blow warm air on the back of neck, I wouldn’t have said no.
By midday, a small breeze had stirred itself and the sun was beginning make some headway in the white sky. The rock face outside my office window was turning from a threatening rust to the salmon-rose of the desert. In half an hour, it would be twinkling like the Southern Cross.
As it turned out, I had been hasty in my assessment of Helen’s story. Her grandmother’s disappearance did not appear to be a simple case of deportation. I had found Kay Le Sueur’s registration card quickly. I was also fortunate in turning up an original identity card, dated January 1941, with the incongruous word “Inhaber” alongside her name. She must have left it behind when she disappeared. I guessed that Irene gifted it to the archive after the war.
The card confirmed Helen’s story that her grandmother was “Geboren am” 18 July 1919 in the Island, she was “Verwitwet” having lost her husband to the Luftwaffe’s fire the previous autumn, her “Farbe des Haares” was given as fair and her “Farbe der Augen” were grey. She was “Wohnhaft” at St Saviour’s Gardens, St Saviour.
There was something chilling about those efficient little pieces of worn beige card. They represented a population deprived of liberty and every black and white photograph told the same story of pride under duress. Kay’s picture was no different. The flat, head and shoulders portrait was of an unremarkable young housewife. Her jaw was tightly set and the corners of her mouth looked strained. Those grey eyes, that had been open and smiling, now showed signs of defiance. Or, maybe they didn’t and maybe it was just the romantic in me. Maybe she was tired from having baby Irene in the house.
I wasn’t getting very far with my research so I took a stroll to the Lord Nelson for an American beer and a sandwich that had been soft and appetising once upon a time.
When I returned, a frazzled girl with a hands-free earpiece, who looked about sixteen, was talking fast at the archive’s gardien, a gentle, fleece-wearing man who, if you told him there was a car bomb parked outside, would calmly ask his god for strength and then evacuate the building. A crisis had arisen over Helen Valentine’s time of arrival at the archive. The morning’s personal appearance had taken longer than anticipated and the sixteen year old, who turned out to be a research assistant, was in the process of changing the schedule for the afternoon. The gardien blinked at her and her crisis from behind his small, round glasses.
I skirted the action and headed back to my office. It took just ten minutes for the sixteen year old to find me. She was Anne-Marie and she was keen to know how my research was going. I cheered myself up by telling her that my research was going nowhere. She seemed less keen at that. I think it made her day just perfect.
“What am I going to do? Nowlan won’t like this. We’re over budget for this series as it is. Ms. Valentine cannot get here for another half an hour; nobody on this Island has a clue where we could hire a Marshall seven inch; the hotel’s double booked the room we’re supposed to use for Ms. Valentine’s interview tomorrow; if we get through today’s recce of the locations before we lose the light it’ll be a miracle…”
She could have added that thousands are facing starvation in Africa, the polar ice cap is melting, the Baiji dolphin may already be extinct, and the Western economic model is unsustainable, but she had run out of crises in her world.
“You have to have found something. Perhaps, we could set up a rostrum camera and get some shots of the documents you’ve dug up?”
“Perhaps, I could re-unite Kay Le Sueur’s grand-daughter with her grandmother’s ID card? We could shake hands for the folks at home to show there are no hard feelings.”
She looked me up and down. Paused and then said, “No, no, I really don’t think that will work.”
It was sweet of her to take me seriously. Sweet, but dumb. I decided to throw her a bone.
“OK. I can’t find Kay Le Sueur in the main deportation lists of September and December 1942, and February 1943, but deportation is still the most likely explanation. Take a look at her mother’s maiden name.”
I pushed a copy of Kay’s parents’ marriage certificate across the desk at her.
“Eleventh of May 1914. John Marett. Heidi Kohn.”
She looked at the certificate for a moment longer before it dawned on her.
“Kohn. That’s a German name.”
“She was born in Berlin in 1896. Anything else?”
“They married just before the First World War started, which probably saved her from being interned. I don’t know what happened in the Island during World War One.”
“Pretty much the same as what happened all over Europe. They lost a generation of young men in a pointless, muddy, bloodbath.”
“Yes,” she said earnestly.
She dug around for a pen in the uniform combat trousers of her profession and began to make notes from the certificate in a large hardback diary.
“They were both living in the East End at the time of their marriage… John Marett was a feed merchant and she was a seamstress… So, they weren’t living here. They were living in England. The English would definitely have interned her. So, she must have been saved by her marriage,” she said brightly.
Not necessarily, but that was now the story that would be piped into a million living rooms: a young feed merchant called John Marett saved his fiancée from imprisonment by marrying her on the eve of the Great War. The fact that it took the newly-weds five years to produce their oldest child had escaped her. It could indicate a period of separation. Heidi’s imprisonment was a possible reason.
I helped her out again. I don’t know why I was so good to her. Perhaps, I just don’t like to see dumb animals suffer.
“Kohn is a Jewish name. Helen’s great-grandmother was a German Jew, which means Kay Marett was half-Jewish.”
I thought she’d jump at that one. Instead, she said flatly, “We’ve done the Holocaust with Larry Michaels.”
Somewhere in the dust of Germany and Poland six million human beings were dispensed with, again.
“Can you find out more about Heidi Kohn’s war? The public love a romance.”
I wondered if I was one of her public. I preferred my history from the original documents, not from the script department.
“We need background. Why was John in London? How might they have met? When did Heidi’s parents emigrate from Germany? This is just the hook Tony wanted. How long do you need?”
Before I could answer, she pressed the thing in her ear madly and started pushing buttons on her mobile telephone with her thumb, gathering up her diary with the other hand.
She was on the wrong track. Heidi Kohn’s war was not the story here.
“Give me a couple of days,” I said to her retreating back.
Copyright © 2012 Liberation Publishing (www.liberationpublishing.co.uk)