My first journey abroad
A French grandmother and her brooch
At Easter 1965, a matter of a few months before going to agricultural college, I set off by train to spend a fortnight with my Portuguese penfriend and her family in Lisbon. Once I had crossed the Channel by ferry I had to catch a train towards Paris. From Calais we travelled in an old-fashioned railway carriage – compartments with eight seats. The train was full and we had no option but to sit facing one another, four on each side of the compartment, with our knees almost touching.
Opposite me was a woman about the same age as my grandmother, a woman in her mid-seventies, dressed as my grandmother would have dressed for a journey, with a hat and a light coat and equipped with a large handbag which she preferred to keep tucked by her side rather than placed up in the luggage rack above our heads. Like the passengers on either side of us we acknowledged one another in the way that strangers do, rather like passengers in a crowded lift, and then looked to one side, out of the window. That way we did not have to stare directly at one another.
There was a jerk and the world outside the window jerked and then slowly allowed itself to move away to one side. As the train made its way past the docks we accelerated and settled into the gentle rhythm of a train journey. Through the window we watched the French countryside hurry by, much of it like the English countryside where I had been working on farms ready to study agriculture the following September. However, one difference puzzled me; instead of tyre marks in between the rows of maize and sugar beet there were huge foot-prints. A moment’s thought and the penny dropped – horses were still in use on French farms.
For a moment I turned away from the window and looked again at the old lady opposite.
This time something else caught my eye. On the left-hand lapel of her coat she had a brooch, made of thin wires wound round a large coin. There was something familiar about the coin but it was difficult to work out just what is was without seeming to stare at the woman so I found myself looking hard out of the window and then taking hasty glances at the brooch. Each time I renewed my inspection of the brooch the French grandmother seemed to catch my eye, as if to say, what do you think you’re staring at young man?
The side of the coin which I had been studying was the reverse side of the coin, a coat of arms of the sort seen on many coins, but there was something about it that reminded me of my favourite coin, the half-crown, the largest British coin when I was a child. [The half-crown, value two shillings and sixpence – equivalent to 12 ½ pence and a little larger and heavier than a fifty pence piece.] There were eight to the pound and one of these coins would entitle you to two and a half pints of beer in those days. Once again the woman caught my eye and this time I felt that she really was expecting some sort of explanation for my interest in her brooch.
At school, my French teacher had been thorough and had passed on sufficient confidence for us to get by with the language. So it was that I could embark upon my first real conversation in French. I apologised for my excessive interest in her brooch and explained that it seemed like a British half-crown. Would she mind my asking how she came to have such a coin? She relaxed and smiled, just as my grandmother smiled when approached with politeness and a little formality. Without a word she unpinned the brooch and handed it to me.
It was a half-crown; around the edge were the familiar words, the design in the centre based on the royal coat-of-arms and the date, in the late nineteen-thirties. I turned over the brooch and there was the profile of George VI, father of the present queen. I looked up and smiled, then asked if she would tell me how it had come into her possession and why it had been made into a brooch.
Grandma had relaxed, visibly, no longer troubled by a puzzling young Englishman with some foolish enquiry. Now there was something that brought us together, something to be explained, straightforwardly, matter of fact, something that might be found in a public record that anyone would understand and appreciate. It was as if what she was about to tell me was commonplace, the sort of thing I might have read in a local paper at the time, but that, of course, would not have been possible.
During the Second World War, while France was occupied by Nazi Germany, there had been a knock at the door of the home that she shared with her husband and their children. It was late in the evening, after dark. In front of her were two British soldiers, obviously on the run from the Germans, two men who had escaped from captivity and were trying to make their way back across occupied France to the Channel coast in the hope of getting home. Grandma stood to one side, to let them in, then closed the door.
They stayed for a few days, fed from the family’s meagre supplies, keeping away from the windows, speaking with lowered voices and moving around quietly so as not to attract the attention of neighbours. As soon as it was considered safe for them to continue their journey they left. Had they been discovered they would have been returned to a prisoner of war camp; their hosts would have been shot.
Moments before they left they turned to the lady of the house, their hostess, and thanked her and her family for helping them. They had already made it clear that their names and service numbers could not be revealed; such information would be useful to the Germans should the French family be arrested. All they could leave as a token of their gratitude was a half-crown that one of the two men had found in his trouser pocket.
As a child in the nineteen-fifties, ten years after the war, I had learnt about the enormous landmarks of that conflict: Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister’s declaration of war, broadcast by the BBC; Dunkirk when thousands of British servicemen were rescued from the advancing German army; D-Day when Allied troops returned to Europe; and VE Day and VJ Day when the end of the war against Germany and Japan was celebrated. All this I had learnt from books and magazines and from films and television programmes, and from listening to grown-ups.
Now I had heard first-hand, from someone who had been there, her country occupied – something that my country has not experienced for a thousand years – and she and her family helping allies despite appalling risks. It was small-scale story but personal and direct, and it carried an authority denied books and broadcasts.
I looked again at the brooch, turning it over in my hand before returning it, a souvenir of my country that would have to remain in France. “Grandma” lifted the brooch to her lapel and re-pinned it there. She smiled at me, then relaxed against the back of the seat and slowly closed her eyes. Now I could continue to look at her and I found myself wondering what it was that she could see amongst all the memories that she had re-kindled.
What was it about the woman’s brooch that attracted the writer’s interest?
How had the woman come into possession of the coin which had been turned into a brooch?
Why was it important for the writer to hear this woman’s story?