Thursday, 15 March 2007

Chapter 50

“Did you hear that dog barking, Danny?” Harry asked, as his companion continued to work through the certificates. Danny paused, and listened, but heard nothing.

He shook his head, a slight look of bewilderment on his face. Harry stared back at him. “There was no dog, Danny. The point is, in this game we’ve got to start looking at the information that isn’t here, as much as the information that is. Take our Laurel McFry. A woman of independent means, doesn’t have to work, inherited a bundle when her dad died. Smell anything odd?”

Danny pondered again. “Not really … what are you driving at?” he asked.

“Laurel McFry’s father was a company manager when he married Colleen Blyth. Within four years, according to Laurel’s birth certificate, he was a company director. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d want to look at that a bit further. Laurel told us her father was pretty much absent during her childhood years – dealing with the family business. I’m starting to wonder about our Philip McFry, that’s all.”

“I thought it all rang pretty true, what she said, Harry,” Danny said.

“Maybe. But then again, McFry and Sons was already a hugely successful undertaking before the war. I’d like you to check out a list of the company directors in 1974, sometime - when we’ve finished up with these certificates.”

“OK, Harry,” Danny said, jotting a note down on a pad on the desk. Harry savoured the moment: it was a change for him not to have to clog up his mind with those curled-up post-it notes he kept writing himself, a pleasure to have someone he could delegate a job to. He could get used to the idea.

“Now – where were we? We missed something from Philip McFry’s marriage cert,” he said.

Danny hadn’t a clue what Harry was getting at. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Harry paused, for effect, before responding: “The witnesses.”

Danny picked up the marriage certificate again, and stared at it. Just a little sheepishly, he read out the names: “Margaret Lawrence and James McNaughton. Mean anything to you, Harry?”

“Could be friends. Could be relatives of either Philip or Colleen. But Philip’s mother was a Lawrence, so it’s unlikely they’re strangers pulled in off the street. Whoever they are, we might need to find out more about them.” He saw Danny scribble another note.

“Moving on – what have we got next?”

“How about Lillian Blyth’s birth cert? Lillian Susannah Blyth, born 1 August 1904 at Low Mills, Ripon, registered 12 August 1904. Father, Leonard Blyth, joiner. Mother, Christiana Blyth, maiden name Garbutt, born Ripon. Harry paused from keying in the details.

“You know, Danny… we could really do with seeing this Lillian McFry of ours. But it’s going to be delicate.”

Danny considered what Harry was saying. Lillian McFry was technically ‘his’ client, not ‘ours’. She might not take kindly to knowing he’d discussed her medals with someone else. “We’ll have to take it carefully, Harry,” Danny said. “Remember, she doesn’t know we’re looking into Laurel’s little problem.”

“That’s what I meant by it being ‘delicate’. Maybe we could just approach her from the angle of the medals – see what else she has to say?” Harry watched as Danny thought this over.

“I’m due to ring her later. I’ll see what she says,” Danny replied. It wasn’t out of the question that she should be told they thought someone else was after her medals, and Danny felt sure he could work up some excuse or other for Harry being around.

“What’s bugging me, Harry, is we never found a marriage reference for Lillian Blyth. At least not between 1940 and 1970, when Thomas McFry died.

Too many parts of this family just don’t seem to be there!”

Danny was right, Harry thought. The Blyth’s and the McFry’s, between them, seemed to be doing a good job of hiding themselves away.

“What have we got for Thomas?” he asked, turning back to his PC. 'Better press on,' he was thinking – those gaps would have to wait until later.

“Thomas McFry. Born 15 September 1911, Howgrave, North Yorkshire. Father, James McFry, Clothing Business Owner. Mother, Anne McFry, maiden name Lawrence, born Topcliffe, North Yorkshire. Registered at Ripon, North Yorkshire, 4 October 1911. That tally’s with Philip McFry’s details, doesn’t it, Harry?”

Harry nodded. “What about Stuart?” he asked.

“Stuart Allaister McFry. Born 12 July 1908, Howgrave, North Yorkshire. All the other details the same as those for Thomas.”

“Don’t you find it only slightly reassuring, Danny,” Harry said, leaning back in his chair, “that in all of this mess of people missing from the census, at least we know that these people actually existed?” He was smiling, and Danny, he noticed, was smiling, too.


Ah, but lives are so … complicated.

Jonathan Harcourt might never have known what happened to Lillian Blyth after they got split up in Madrid – although he thought she’d been sent to Guernica, in the north. But Philippe Bergerac knew. By the time the little fishing boat had landed its catch, it was early morning and the storms seemed to have died down, leaving only a trace of billowing cloud on the horizon.

His English wasn’t good, but the two strangers had a little French, and between them all they managed to make themselves understood well enough. He let them know that they, and their young baby, could stay at his house until they were ready to leave. He lived in a small cottage in the centre of St Jean de Luz, not far from the Spanish border, his widowed mother his only companion. As they walked from the harbour up towards the cottage, he learned more about the couple’s ordeal.

The two strangers, the petite woman and her younger, sandy-haired companion, told how they had been with the International Brigades, in Viscaya, one of the four Basque provinces that made up the north of Spain. They’d survived the atrocity of Guernica, a word that in a short time had become synonymous around the world with bloody death and the new warfare of aerial bombing. Philippe knew all about what had happened at Guernica, how the German aircraft had used the town as a proving ground for tactics that everyone fully expected would be used elsewhere in Europe in the not to distant future, if Adolf Hitler’s rise went unchecked. The French newspapers had reported how upwards of 1,600 people had died in the town as a result of the bombing alone. The whole of northern Spain was a chaotic patchwork of zones and areas held by differing forces, as the Basque republican armies pulled back in a desperate attempt to save Bilbao. The British and French governments, while militarily neutral, had provided some humanitarian aid, the British even taking boatloads of children to live in temporary accommodation in the English countryside, traumatized refugees from that ‘complicated’ war. Philippe had seen the slivers of dull grey on the horizon, British destroyers remaining at ‘arms length’ while the children had been ferried aboard.

Philippe Bergerac - a patriotic Basque from the south of France, had already done much to assist in finding homes for the stream of hungry, desolate souls who had made it across the border from Spain. When the flow of people fell to a trickle, he knew it was because the Nationalists had managed to close off the passes, not because the situation had improved for those living through the turmoil. It hadn’t been a surprise to see the little boat that night, but he hadn’t expected to find English people on it. Still less, a heroine.

When they had settled themselves in front of the fire in the downstairs room of the cottage, and Philippe’s mother had fed them with dishes of the robust fish stew the Bergerac’s seemed to subsist on, Lillian Blyth began to tell him more of her story. How she had come to enlist in the International Brigades, and had fought at Jamara, the river crossing to the east of Madrid. Had Philippe heard of Jonathan Harcourt? Did she know if he was still alive? She had asked. He shook his head: why would he know of this stranger? But he saw how the man who was with her – the man she called ‘Stuart’ – seemed to shift uneasily when she mentioned Harcourt’s name, and wondered why he might be jealous of him. Philippe could see the beauty of the woman before him, as she cradled her infant girl. She would be a very easy woman to fall in love with, he thought. At Jamara, Philippe learned, she had killed more than thirty Nationalists, occupying a trench with Harcourt. He, too, had played a heroic part in the battle, she said. Jamara was a name Philippe knew well – he had heard how hundreds of International Brigade soldiers had died there, defending Madrid.

After Jamara, she had been posted to the north, as part of a small group of International Brigaders that eventually found its base, fatefully, in Guernica, supporting Basque troops against advancing Nationalists. It was where they were on the afternoon of Monday, 26 April 1937, when they first heard the heavy drone of the bombers, heading down from the Bay of Biscay. She described to Philippe the firestorm that had erupted in the town, and the heavy civilian casualties that ensued. Ironically, their brigade headquarters was unscathed, but any thought of fighting back was abated. Lillian’s skills as a nurse were needed in the makeshift hospital camps that were set up to tend to the wounded.

Now, the young man took over, telling his host how Lillian had worked ceaselessly to help the casualties, not just of the bombing, but of the constant skirmishes between the republican and Francoist troops. “She should have a medal for what she did there. We lost count of the lives she saved,” he had told Philippe, shaking his head slowly, from side to side, as he spoke. It was at the moment he heard those words, Philippe would later recall, that he had determined that the endeavours of the Englishwoman should be remembered, that her contribution to his ‘country’ should be properly, and appropriately, acknowledged.


Apple said...

I was wrong before about Laurel's relationships to Lillian. But I think I see it now! Or do I?

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Who said family history was meant to be easy?

The paternity of Laurel's mother is the key to this tale. And I just wouldn't like to guess who that Colleen's father was just now!

Thanks, as ever, apple, for reading!