A bit of back story. In 2009, I visited France with my friend Anna to retrace my father’s desperate journey from the small village, Vis-en-Artois – where he was stationed with the British Army 1940 – to the spot on the bloody beaches of Dunkirk where he was plucked to safety by one of the ‘little boats’.
I had written to the mayor asking if anyone remembered Dad. The mayor passed my letter on to Madame B, who had been a child during the war.We visited her and had a lovely day. She didn’t remember my dad, but just as we were about to leave, she said, ‘Come back on Monday. My friend Noel knew your father.’
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Excerpt from In My Father’s Footsteps by Diana Cranstoun.
Monday, we return to Vis-en-Artois. We’re the first to arrive at Madame B’s. My husband has e-mailed a picture of my Mum and Dad taken in 1936. It’s one of my favourites. They look so young. So Happy. So in love.
I’m expecting Noel to be a woman, but of course that would be Noelle. Noel is accompanied by his wife. Like Madame B, they are both friendly, alert, white-haired, fresh-faced, on the ball.
We’re introduced, I show him the photo of Mum and Dad. ‘Ahh.’ He smacks the picture in that Gallic way. “Jacques Cranstoon.’
But I’m not totally sold. After all, I wrote Dad’s name in my letter to the mayor and perhaps Noel wants this connection to the past as much as I do.
And then he says something that sends a shiver up my spine. ‘Et votre mere, Marie.’
Nowhere – nowhere – had I written my mother’s name. This is very, very, real.
We talk, Anna interpreting as I catch only every fourth or fifth word. My dad was billeted next door to Noel’s family. Throughout that bitter winter of 39/40, with no heat or lighting in their accommodation, Dad and another married soldier visited Noel’s family’s warm house every Friday evening to write letters home to their wives.
Noel reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small, rather battered brown leather diary, and offers it to me. ‘Your dad gave it to him for Christmas 1939,” Anna translates.
The hairs on my arms stand on end. It’s as though, to borrow a quote from Alan Bennett’s History Boys, a hand has reached out of the past and taken mine.
My Dad, dead for 30 years, is in the room with us.