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London 1963


War is a Tangled Memory Linked to the Present



‘Hey, let go, you old hag…’


Theresa staggered. The hooded young men in front of her grabbed at her bag. Fear paralysed her. Unreleased screams filled her head... My secrets... Oh, God!


Images flashed into her memory, but faded away into a haze of confusion as she tried to decipher the snippets of information that her brain managed to filter.


She struggled to make sense of them and to separate the now from the past. Her fragile mind had little capacity to give her reality, having never recovered from the mental breakdown she’d suffered after the suicide of Terence, her twin brother, in 1958.


And now it took her back in time, compounding her fear as she desperately sought for answers: What's happening? Are they SS?


Frail, and old beyond her years, every bone in her body hurt. The sockets of her arms burned as she fought valiantly. Stay quiet, she told herself. Name and number only... Don’t give in.


A sudden thought trembled a deeper dread through her. The training officer of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had warned, “If caught, you may be subjected to torture.” He’d listed several possibilities, but one had stuck in her mind: “Sometimes they resort to pulling out your fingernails…” Her terror of this often catapulted her from sleep in the middle of the night. How close she’d come to such a fate!


Betrayed and captured, she’d felt the chafing of the irons that had held her and had sweated the cold sweat of terror as she’d thought her fate the same as her fellow SOE officers Eliane, Yolande, Madeleine and Noor. Just saying their names was an honour, as they were the bravest women she’d ever known.


The Germans had captured them and had executed them. After forcing them to kneel in pairs, they had shot them in the head. With these thoughts intensifying her fear, the cloying darkness of the cell the Germans had thrown her into enclosed her once more as did the desperate feeling of being alone. Alone and about to die.


Was it happening again? Were these Nazis? Had they found her? Would she tell them what she knew? Please, God, help me not to...


‘For fuck’s sake! She’s got some strength for an old ’un.’


‘What’s that she said? Did she call us Nazi bastards? The bleedin’ old cow…’


Theresa’s head flew back with the force of the blow. Her fingers felt the cold pavement slab but could not prevent her fall. A boot hovered over her hand. ‘Give us yer bag, you stupid old witch. Let go…’


The boot came down. Bones cracked. ‘14609, Theresa Louise Crompton, Officer…’


‘Christ, she’s bleedin’ mad. She’s saying something about being an officer. Ha, she must be ninety-odd. Fucking officer, my arse. This is 1963, you stupid old bat! Get her bag, quick, she’s let go of it. Come on, leg it.’


Pain seared her. Jumbled questions frustrated her: Is this London? Is the war over? Oh, dear God, what year did he say it was? No answers came, only the knowledge that she had lost the fight and that her attackers had gone. So too had the spirit that had powered her efforts. In its place lay a pit of despair.


The leg she lay on started to throb. She had to shift position to release the pressure on her hip. As she did, an agony beyond endurance brought vomit to her throat. She swallowed it down. Felt the choking sting it left in its wake. How could Derwent have thought her capable of doing this job? Yes, she spoke French, and yes, she knew the country well. But she wasn’t brave enough... She wasn’t brave enough… And what about the mission? Pierre will be waiting... Oh, Pierre, my love. Please, God, keep him safe from capture. And our son, protect our son... For hadn’t she put them in grave danger?


Those Nazis had her bag, her papers and the secrets she was charged with keeping. “Never write anything down!” they’d told her. She’d disobeyed that golden rule. She’d written everything down. She’d told where her baby son and his grandparents were and that they were Jews. The Germans would... Oh, God! Why had she done it? Why had she compiled a complete record of her life from the day she’d had to give her first child away? Now the Nazis would know everything: the rendezvous point, the codes… Millions will die… But, no, that wasn’t right. It was 1953 when I began to write about it all – long after the war. Oh, why do my thoughts swim away from me…?


A voice with a twang of Cockney to it broke into her thoughts, ‘Blimey, it’s that Miss Crompton. Have you fallen, love? It’s alright, don’t be afraid...’


It sounds like Rita, but no, Rita wouldn’t call me ‘Miss Crompton’.


Rita loved her and called her nice names. Rita was a Land Girl on her brother’s farm. They were having an affair, a liaison. Exciting, different… Oh, God! Stop it, stop this confusion... That was then. Rita is old now and smells of drink. She can be cruel and demands money.


Has Rita sent these people to hurt me?


‘Her nose is bleeding, Mum. She’s shaking...’


‘Okay, Trace, don’t just stand there. Nip across to that phone box and dial 999. Now then, love, help will be here soon. You keep yourself still. Bleedin’ hell, this is a turn-up, but you’re safe now.’


Theresa’s trepidation intensified as her yesterdays crowded her brain once more: These people seem to know me. Are they the ones who will be nice to me and try to gain my confidence…?


‘Don’t be scared. We ain’t going to hurt yer, love.’


Opening her eyes, she tried to focus but the glare of the sun overwhelmed her and she snapped them shut again. Before doing so she’d seen a blue light flashing. She’d never known the Germans to use such a warning sign. Would they take her back to Dachau? Would they shoot her? Or – no, dear God, not that... Not burned alive in the oven as they’d done to one poor girl. Oh God, help me!


More voices. How many were there? Men’s voices, trying to soothe her and to calm her. I must stay strong. Sing, that’s the thing. Concentrate on a song. ‘There’ll be blue birds over… Tomorrow, just you wait and see…’


‘That’s the spirit, love. My old mum used to tell us to sing when we were afraid or in pain. I’m Marcus, and I’m just going to give you an injection to make you more comfortable, then we need to put a splint on that leg. We think you may have fractured it. Lie still now.’


‘No… No…’ She tried to push the man’s hand away, but couldn’t. Her thigh stung; her head swam. Oh, God, no! They had warned her about this new method. “They may inject you,” they’d said. “It’s not lethal, but it relaxes you and you are no longer on your guard. If they do, try to think of something important and concentrate on it. Shut everything else out.”


‘Don’t like needles, eh? Nearly done. You’ll be better for it, love.’


Pierre, oh, Pierre, I have let you down. Please, God, don’t let them capture him. He will face certain death! No, I couldn’t bear it... I love you, Pierre.


The words he had said to her came into her mind: “Tu es le souffle de mon corps. Le sang qui coule dans mes veines et la vie à dans mon coeur.”


That is what I will think of. She could hear his voice, and drank his words deep into her as she said them in her mind over and over: “You are the breath to my body. The blood that courses through my veins and the life inside of my heart.”





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