It was just over four years ago that I came across a notebook written by my maternal grandmother, which contained not a diary exactly but a series of memories. From this chronicle I learned that she had been called María Angeles, not ‘old Mary’ as my father had always referred to her, and that she had been born in Spain. I found the book at the time the media was full of stories commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War. Photos and reminiscences, and letters written at the time were discovered and forwarded to the BBC, newspapers and posted on line. As I was no longer working, and time was hanging heavily on my hands, I had decided to search the attic of my father’s house to see if there were any family mementos of that time up there. I suppose I should say the attic of my house, as I had inherited it a few months earlier when my father died of a heart attack. His death was the third calamity that had happened in my life in the space of about eighteen months. I was at the time not just unemployed but also at a very low ebb because of this.
My search of the attic uncovered no letters or memoirs of any relatives from the Great War, but did result in my discovering María Angeles’ notebook along with a few letters and photographs. And in that book were her memories of two other conflicts. I had never known my mother’s mother, ‘old Mary’ as I had always thought of her, as she had died in 1986, three years before I was born. Nor did I know anything of her life, as when I was just five in 1994 my mother had also died, in childbirth.
If this is all getting a bit confusing I’d better set down a few facts about my family and the reason why, at just twenty nine, I have no job, nor the likelihood of ever being in full time employment again.
As far as I had known my family was a normal English one and had been for many generations. Then I found my grandmother’s notes and discovered that I had some Spanish blood in me.
My parents were married in 1987, when my mother was twenty three and my dad forty eight. My father was a chemist and owned three shops in the Middlesbrough area, whilst my mother was a stay at home housewife, as they’re called today. They lived in a four bedroomed house on Meadow Road almost opposite the cricket field in Marske, a village on the coast in North Yorkshire. The same house that I now own, having inherited it after my father’s death. He had sold his shops a couple of years before his death, and so as well as the house I also inherited a substantial sum of money and the proceeds of his life insurance. As I have already said, my mother died in childbirth when I was five and I was brought up by my dad and a series of au pair girls.
When I was eighteen I went to Leeds University and studied to be a civil engineer. After I qualified I got a job with a firm in Darlington and all seemed to be going well with my world. I met and got engaged to Rob, and we lived together in Darlington and were planning to get married.
Then when I was twenty four in 2013, just a few days after my birthday, everything changed.
My firm had secured a contract with the Ministry of Defence in Catterick, working on an extension to one of the army camps there, and I was sent on site as one of the civil engineers working on the contract. I must now be careful and circumspect in what I say as I had signed the Official Secrets Act when I went to work at the MOD facility. I also had to sign a non-disclosure clause when I accepted the MOD’s compensation after my accent. So I will set out what I can so you can follow my story.
One day when I was on site I got caught up in a huge explosion. As a civilian, I should never have been allowed anywhere near where it happened. I can quote what appeared in the national press about it but nothing more, as that much is already in the public domain. One paper ran the story as ‘Two soldiers were killed today and one civilian worker severely wounded after a large detonation of munitions at Catterick Camp, North Yorkshire.....’ They then went on to misquote my name and age, which I think is typical of newspaper reports.
I was in hospital for nearly a year and am still having physio for my injuries. But I am lucky to be alive and largely recovered. To look at me you probably would see no signs of my injuries, except for a certain stiffness in my right arm and fingers which however I can usually hide quite well. When dressed I show no physical results of the bomb blast, and am constantly told by any men that I go out with that I am attractive. Unclothed you can see there are faint scar marks on the right side of my body and my right arm. But if I use my right arm and hand a lot, they seize up and stop functioning so I am careful not to overuse them.
However, the more serious injuries that I have are twofold. First a piece of shrapnel pierced my side and cut into my uterus, leaving me incapable of having children. Secondly, there was some damage to one side of my brain resulting in occasional seizures and sometimes a loss of consciousness. These can be minimised and even nullified by drugs. These injuries have meant that I am not allowed to hold a driving licence or use power tools of any kind. Together these wounds have resulted in my being classed as unable to be employed for the foreseeable future.
The MOD was quite quick to offer a substantial sum of money, without prejudice as they put it, in return for my signing a non-disclosure clause. My solicitor assured me that the ‘substantial damages’, as the press called them, were the best I could hope for without a long and costly court case. All I can say, because of the gagging clause, is that it was very substantial and that together with my father’s savings and insurance is more than enough for me to live on for the rest of my life. As long as I don’t squander it all on fripperies.
I said there were three disasters that befell me over a short space of time. The first was the explosion of course, and then the death of my dad. We were very close and as I was still in hospital when it happened I felt it rather badly.
The third which occurred just as I was about to leave hospital was to do with Rob. We had been living together and planning to get married, as I have explained, but just before I was discharged he came to visit me. I was expecting him and thought we would be planning how I would cope with life back in the real world, but I could sense his unease as soon as he entered the ward.
After a lot of humming and harring, at last he came out with it. Whilst I’d been laid there, he’d met someone else and wanted to break off the engagement. He said he wanted children and couldn’t contemplate life without them. I suspect he wasn’t too keen on being saddled with a partially disabled wife, but whatever the truth that was the end of things between us. All this added to the feeling of emptiness in my life when I finally got home.
So that is why I was at a loose end and spent some time searching the attic looking for First World War memorabilia, and found my grandmother’s jottings instead. Her story is an interesting one and starts with her early life in southern Spain. It was whilst I was reading the notes that I realised that she must have written them long after her arrival in England, as they weren’t in Spanish or even French but English.
I will just at this point give a short summary of them and then expand a bit later. Her story starts in a small village in Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War, when she was just eleven. She then travelled to France with her father, reaching her aunt’s farm about a year later. Her father was a Communist and was en route for Russia. Whilst she was in France, the Second World War started and eventually, after D-Day, she met an English officer, my grandfather, who she married and they came to live in England. Until I found her notebook in the attic, I had no knowledge of any of this at all. My mother, who might have told me, died when I was five, as I have said, and my father probably had little or no idea of her history at all.
After reading her notes, I decided to retrace her steps to see if I could find any trace of her. I had all the time I needed not being in employment, and money was no problem as I have already explained. One difficulty became immediately apparent. In her notes my grandmother makes no mention of specific place names or the family name of any of her relatives or friends. This, I think, was initially because she didn’t want any person or place to be identified if her notes fell into the hands of the Nationalist forces of General Franco. Despite this, I thought it would still be an interesting venture and in any case I was in need of a holiday and time away from home to get over my recent misfortunes.
As I started my search in France, I will begin my retelling of her story in the middle with her arrival in Normandy, and leave the first part until I myself go to Spain.
María Angeles and her father left Madrid in the June of 1937, not long after they arrived there, to travel to Normandy in France. Her father, who she said was called Antonio, had been ordered to travel to Russia by the Communist Party and he left María en route with his sister who lived in France, having married a French farmer some years before. She and her father arrived at the farmhouse on a rainy afternoon on the tenth of August and I will quote her actual words of this event: ‘We reached the farmhouse, La Ferme as I learned to call it, at about four o’clock. It was raining heavily and we were both wet through, not having waterproof coats. My father hammered loudly on the door and after a short wait it was opened by a woman a few years older than him. “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?” she asked. Despite her being dressed in typical French clothes, I saw a resemblance to my other Spanish aunts at once. My father and the woman stared at each other in silence for what seemed like ages but could only have been a few seconds. Then they both burst into smiles and shouted out, “Antonio,” and “Carmen,” at the same time. A heavy set man had come up behind my tia, aunt, and spoke to her in guttural French. Neither of the two took any notice of him as they hugged and talked to each other in Spanish. At last some order was restored and we came in out of the rain. My father introduced me to my aunt and her husband who turned out to be called Jules. Carmen translated all this to Jules and we then met their two sons. The farmhouse was not far from Rouen, quite close to the river Seine, and a fair way from the nearest village of Quevillon. My father didn’t stay long at the farm as he was anxious to get to Moscow as soon as possible and I don’t think that he and Jules liked each other very much.’
You can see how María simply calls everyone by their first names and never says specifically where any location is. This made my hunt for where she had lived almost impossible. Her account goes on to tell of her life with her aunt, how she was giving the task of milking ‘les vaches’ as she called the cows, and feeding ‘les poulets’, the hens, and collecting the eggs. She tells of how she found milking les vaches similar to that of las cabras, goats, in her home village, a task she was familiar with. She also helped with the haymaking and wheat harvest. This meant of course that the farm was a mixed one and not just an arable or dairy farm. I thought that this may have made my search of the area easier in trying to pinpoint it, whereas in fact I discovered that nearly all the farms in the locality were of a similar nature.
The next event she chronicles was the start of the Second World War in September 1939, when she had been living at the farm for two years. During this time she had received a letter from her father, together with a photo of him in a smart uniform, posted in Madrid. Both of these were in the box where I found the diary, but obviously I couldn’t understand the Spanish writing. María herself wrote, ‘I got a letter from my father one day. He had been sent back to Spain as a political commissar by the Russian government, and was active in the defence of Madrid. He wrote that when the war was won and France defeated, he would come and collect me and we would return home. This never happened of course, and I never heard from him again and can only assume he was killed.’
Shortly after the start of the war, Jules and his eldest son joined the French army and María had to take on more work around the farm. Then on the 12th May in 1940, when María was fifteen, the German army entered France and the allied forces started to retreat. On the 22nd May she describes how German troops were passing the farm in pursuit of the allies, and two days later came the news of the English army leaving the beaches of Dunkirk in an armada of small boats. Soon after that she recorded another momentous event at the farmhouse.
‘In the early morning of May 26th, whilst I was milking, two German soldiers came to the farmhouse. When I got back to the house after I had finished, they were sat at the kitchen table. Carmen told me that they were both members of the signal corps, working in the nearby village, and that they had been billeted with us. The Germans were apparently setting up a major communications network there and these two were part of the team who were to run it. One of them was middle aged but the other, Harald, was about nineteen, and very smart and handsome. He stayed at the farmhouse until the British liberated the area. Over this time we became friends, or as close to friends as two people in our position could be. I think he wanted to be more than friends, but my aversion to the occupying forces and my aunt’s supervision of him stopped this from happening.’
María goes on to describe life in occupied France and the shortages in some detail, but they have little relevance to the story. It was the events of four years later that I want to turn to now. It was the morning of the 6th of June when María heard through her clandestine listening to the BBC of the landings of British troops on the Normandy beaches not too far away. Harald came back that evening from his stint at the communication centre in quite a state. All day there had been planes overhead and they could hear the sound of distant gunfire. Two days later, with the sound of the bombs and shells much nearer, he came to collect his belongings and say goodbye. He was being evacuated further back from the front line to help establish a new communication centre. It was at this point in her notes that María, for the first and only time, included a surname and even an address. Harald Schneider left his name and home address, and begged her to write to him if she survived the war. As far as I am aware she never did, but she put the piece of paper with her notebook, photos and her father’s letter. Before leaving on my journey to follow in her footsteps I wrote to the address in Bremen, asking if anyone had any information about him and his fate. It was a long shot, I know, but I was hopeful of an answer on my return home.
As to María’s story, shortly after Harald’s departure the first British troops arrived in the road outside the farmhouse. A few days later my grandfather came to the door. He was a captain in the Military Police and asked if he could lodge at the farm. He stayed there for two years and he and María fell in love and were married. She then came back to England with him and my mother was born in the May of 1954. María wrote very little of their courtship and I won’t say anything about the things she did write.
It was after reading her account that I decided to go to Normandy. I have already said that I am now not allowed to drive so I went by public transport. Train from Marske to Darlington then on to London. From London I took the Eurostar to Paris and then another train to Rouen. In Rouen I hired a car and driver for three days and travelled all over the area where I thought the farm may have been. But I found no evidence to indicate which of the many farms I passed it could have been. María didn’t record if Jules or his son survived the war, nor does she make any more comments about her aunt after she left for England. I did however get a feel of the area, with its long straight country roads lined with coppiced trees. And I even stopped and looked round a couple of farms which must have been similar to the one she’d lived at. The farmers were sympathetic and tried to help, but could shed no light on the actual location of Jules’ and Carmen’s place.
In the end I decided that there was no point in looking further, so I returned to Paris and flew to Málaga. When I reached there I had to spend several days resting. All the travelling of the last few days had worn me out in my weakened state after my discharge from the hospital. I had been instructed to rest and do gentle exercises. Instead I’d been travelling by train, car and plane for days. This led not just to exhaustion but a worsening of the stiffness in my arm and hand, and to a series of mini blackouts. So I spent several days in a hotel in Málaga, not moving far from my room and the bar. It was here that I met and became friendly with Guillermo, one of the barmen. But I’ll come to him a bit later in my story.
Whilst resting I re-read the first part of my grandmother’s book about her early life in Spain, where she lived in a village, a pueblo as she calls it, not too far from Málaga. So now I will start telling you of what happened before she went to Normandy in 1937.
I can do no better than to start by quoting her opening passages, as perhaps I should have done when I began this account. She wrote, ‘I was born on the sixth of February in 1926 in a small hill town in Andalucía. My father, Antonio, worked in the ayuntamiento, as the town hall is called in Spanish. He was an avid Communist and secretary of the local party. Most of the villagers worked on the land, and because of his position and regular salary I didn’t grow up in poverty as did a lot of my friends. My mother died when I was very young and I was brought up by one of Antonio’s older sisters who was a spinster.’
How odd, I thought as I read this, that my grandmother, like me, lost her mother at an early age and was brought up by her father and relatives. She was like me in other ways too. In with the book were several photos of her as a young woman which must have been taken in France. She was a good looking woman with long black hair, a pretty face and a well proportioned body. When I put these photos of her next to ones of myself and others of my mother, all taken at about the same age, the likeness between all three of us is striking.
María goes on to describe the village. She says it was set high on the slopes of the sierra to the east of Málaga, facing south. There were few roads in the area and this village could only be accessed by track or mule path and not by road. She goes on to say it was a collection or jumble of houses built almost on top of each other up the slope, with unpaved narrow streets and alleys; the town had several herds of goats housed inside it and nearly all the families had a mule stabled on the lower floor of their houses.
She goes on, ‘the streets were always full not only of people but of animals too. The goats were taken out each morning to graze and brought back in the evening, and the mules were taken to and fro all day carrying crops. All the houses were either one or two storey high, with a cellar underneath for the animals, and were built out of the local stone and rendered. Each year the walls were painted white with cal, that’s lime wash, and the roofs were tiled with red tiles which were manufactured at Vélez-Málaga a short distance away.
‘Most of the families were large, unlike mine, and the bedrooms were shared by numerous people. In our house however my father, my aunt and I all had our own rooms.’
With this description of the town and its situation, I erroneously thought I would have no difficulty finding it, especially as elsewhere she had commented that there was a spot in the pueblo where it was possible to look down on to the Mediterranean.
Further on in her story she tells of leaving the pueblo and travelling to France. I will quote the relevant passages. ‘It was probably 1934, when I was about eight, that I became aware of a lot of unrest in Spain. Like all youngsters, I didn’t take much notice of national events but all the children became conscious of the growing strife in the country. There was talk of shootings of priests, workers and caciques, as the landowners and bosses were known. Nuns were raped; churches and some of the big houses burnt and destroyed, and many atrocities were carried out. People on both sides of the argument seemed to be out of control. My father listened to the radio all the time he was home and took a newspaper every day, so I was perhaps more aware than most of my friends of what was happening.
‘Then when I was ten in the July of 1936, the army under General Mola rose up in revolt and war broke out. For a while not much happened locally except that the alcalde, as the Spanish call the mayor, organised a village militia. Most of the villagers were anarchists and my father, as a known Communist, was sidelined, much to his dismay.
‘On the morning of the third of February the army attacked Málaga. I remember the date as it was three days before my twelfth birthday. From a spot in the village we could see down to the coast and see the planes bombing the refugees who were fleeing the town. We couldn’t see the people or the road of course, that was too far away, but we could see the plumes of smoke rising in the air as the bombs exploded. Carlos, one of my friends who was my age, told me they were German planes. He knew this by the black crosses they had on their wings.
‘On the fifth, the day before my birthday, we heard artillery firing down on to the fleeing people from the top of the sierra to our west. I learned the next day that is was from Italian forces that were stationed at Zafarraya some kilometres away. It was then on the seventh, the day I was twelve, that the stranger came to our house. It was his visit that in all probability saved my life.
‘He was a Communist like my father, and he was obviously a man of authority. I was in the room when he and my father were talking together. “You have to leave the village, Antonio, first thing in the morning,” he told my father. Then he went on, “Málaga will fall to the army tomorrow at the latest and then they will sweep all over the area. Killing all those who they know to be Republicans, especially those in positions of importance, like you. They are led by General Queipo de Llano and he is a cruel and ruthless man. He has many Moorish and Italian soldiers as well as his own troops, and they will soon take all the Axarquía. You have been ordered by the party to go to Madrid, and then on to Russia, where you will be trained and sent back to Spain to fight Franco. Stalin is determined to help our cause. You must take your young daughter here with you and find somewhere safe for her to stay, for she will not fare well here as the daughter of a Communist.” Despite my father’s protests, saying that he must stay and help the defence of his village, the stranger was adamant.
‘On the ninth of February in the early morning, therefore, we left the village and began our journey. We didn’t go down to the coast road, where the refugees from Málaga were being slaughtered, but out over the old packhorse bridge and over the sierras. We followed the mule track which leads over the mountains and on to the mesa beyond. This trail has been used for centuries by traders taking goods to and fro between the coast and Granada. Once in Granada we took a train to Madrid, where we stayed for a few days. My father decided to take me to France on his way to Russia, and leave me with one of his elder sisters who had married a French farmer. Her name was Carmen and he hadn’t seen her for many years. I had no recollection of her at all, as I had only been a baby when she had left the village. Despite this, he was confident that she would take me in and look after me.’
So now we come to María’s arrival in Normandy which is where I began her story.
After a few days rest at the hotel in Málaga, I felt fully recovered and ready to start my search for my grandmother in the hills of the Axarquía. I thought I had many more clues to where she grew up than I had had of where she had stayed in Normandy. It is here that Guillermo comes into the story and so I must tell you about him.
Guillermo was a man of about my own age who worked as a barman in the hotel most evenings. He also had other jobs which he went to in the daytime. He was, he told me, saving up to be able to open his own bar and restaurant. His English was very good and I took to talking to him when he was on duty. I explained about my quest to discover more about María, my grandmother, and at his request let him read her notebook. He said that he knew the Axarquía very well, and that he had a good idea of roughly where her village must have been. There was, he told me, an arc of six villages on the southern slope of the sierra to the east of Zafarraya, any one of which he thought would fit the description. He offered to take a few days off work and drive me round them. We got on quite well together and I welcomed spending some time with him. He suggested that this wouldn’t cost me any money, dropping hints that I could repay him in kind. I wasn’t having any of that and offered him a substantial fee which he accepted.
Once we had all that arranged, I then told him that if we were to spend some days touring that I’d be quite happy to share my nights as well as days with him. I was as attracted to him as he obviously was to me. Since the accident and my desertion by Rob, I had had no sexual relationships at all, despite several men attempting to get close to me. I had always held back, suspecting that they were more interested in my money than me. With Guillermo it was different, as he had no knowledge of my wealth. I am no prude, but I am not about to describe our time together apart from the time looking for my gran’s home. That is private and will remain so.
As all the villages were inland from Torre del Mar, we drove there and booked in at a hotel. We then spent four days touring the area and exploring the six villages. They spanned from Canillas de Aceituno to the west and Cómpeta in the east. The other four lay in between them. The right one had to fulfil several criteria contained in María’s description of her village, some of which I have set out in the passages I have quoted. All of the six tallied with most of these, but only two with all of them. Only Sedella and Salares as far as we knew had a packhorse bridge, a puente romano, roman bridge, to the north of the pueblo at the start of a mule track over the mountains. These two villages were also the only ones which, as far as we could ascertain, had not been accessible by road in 1936. In fact, we later learned that the road to them was only constructed in the 1960’s.
On the fifth day we therefore returned to both of them and carried out a more thorough search. The two pueblos were only a few kilometres from each other so this made the task easier. However, though we went into all the bars, shops and ayuntamientos in each village asking questions, no one had any knowledge of an Antonio or his daughter María who had lived there in the 1930’s, before the civil war. I should say of course that Guillermo asked the questions, as no one in the pueblos spoke English. It was not surprising that we drew a blank, as even the old people in the villages who had lived there back then had only been young children at the time, and were now well into their eighties or even their nineties. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was that all the official records from the time had been destroyed in the fighting, either by the villagers themselves or the Nationalist army.
In the end we called off the search, and I returned to England promising to keep in touch with Guillermo. We had in our few days and nights together grown very close.
So I returned home to my house in Marske in Yorkshire. I had had one reply from Germany about my search for Harald or his descendants. It was from the German postal authorities. His home had been destroyed in the bombing and so they had been unable to deliver the letter. With true German efficiency, they had opened it and tried to trace him but to no avail, so they returned it to me with that information. So many loose ends, I thought, reading it. But that was the nature of war, I decided.
I should really have sold my father’s house when I came out of hospital, of course, as it was far too big for one person. But I was and still am very fond of it, it was where I had been born and brought up. I knew all the neighbours and had many friends in the village. In the summer at the weekends I could walk across the road to watch the cricket, as I had often done with my dad. I could also go out on to the beach. Here I could walk to Huntcliff at Saltburn to the south or to Teesmouth in the north. Eight or so miles of flat sandy beach with Marske roughly at its centre. Walking, as long as I don’t overdo it, is the one form of exercise I can do despite my accident.
It’s about four years now since my trip to Spain, and true to my promise I kept in touch with Guillermo and went back to see him several times. A year ago he came to live in England and we got married. I have invested some of my capital in buying a pub in Redcar, and he is now developing it into a successful restaurant. He has put all his savings into the refurbishment of the place and I think we will make a go of it.
Like most Spaniards, he wants a family and we are in the process of trying to adopt a child. This is proving harder to do than I imagined, but we will get there in the end. It is however a lot easier than trying to teach Guillermo the rules of cricket.
So now here I am, just over four years after discovering my gran’s notebooks. Once again the media is full of stories, photos and memorabilia of the First World War, as the country commemorates the hundredth anniversary of its end. Just as it had done at its beginning, when I had hunted for my own memorabilia in the attic of my family home. Where I had found, not mementos of that conflict, but of two others; those of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and María’s part in them.
I had then retraced her steps from England where she ended up, through France and on into southern Spain. I don’t know if I found the actual village where she was born, but if not I found two quite similar ones in the right area. Even though the pueblos have grown and changed, having been modernised almost beyond recognition, I think I experienced some of the ambience of her life there.
As a Spanish woman, after the violence that engulfed her in Spain she went on a journey that led her to England and marriage to an Englishman. After the explosion that changed my life, I have gone back over her journey to Spain and married a Spaniard. I hope our life together will be as long and happy as hers was.
Our two lives have come full circle.