Authors: Leslie Thomas
He put his elderly, wooden hand on my shoulder and led me to the door overlooking the stone harbour. It was two in the morning and there were a few doleful lights along the quay. 'Over there,' pointed the fisherman. 'Where the third light is. That is the place where she landed in Granville. The mad thing is the Germans brought her themselves. In their own boat!'
I know,' I said. 'She told me. There was an Englishman with
He nodded. 'A decent man,' he shrugged.I don't know why
they sent him.'
He closed the door against the night on the harbour and we
went inside again. There were more cognacs at the bar. It was
obvious that he was going to tell me his version of the story and he did. The others listened, making the occasional comment and observation, but in the main listening like children who know a tale by heart but are fascinated to hear it again. When he had finished we were all silent and I was looking through the bottom of my glass. 'She is back in France now,' he concluded to my surprise. 'She is dead you know. She is buried in her village near Mortagne in the Perche country of Normandy. There are some people here in Granville who would have seen her in her grave a long time ago.'
In the September of that year, by now fascinated with the story of the Dove and Dodo, I returned to Normandy and attempted to retrace the journey they took in 1940. It was the same season, the countryside was full and brown with the
harvest, cider apples were red in the orchards, and the misty
mornings gave way to delicate days.
Although there were, naturally, some changes in the land
scape, they were easily detectable and my surroundings on those autumn days must have been much as theirs would have
been. The battles of the summer of 1940 had stopped west of Dunkirk, when the French had surrendered, and from Granville through the Bocage region and the Perche, Normandy was physically unscarred. Four years later the time for battle came in that countryside. In 1940, war or no war, the harvest still needed to be gathered and the cider apples brought to the presses. The French defeat had not stopped the flowers
blooming or prevented the trees turning gold. But the land was full of weary soldiers returning, relieved but betrayed, to their
homes. For them the war was over.
At the end of this journey I went to the village cemetery at
St Luc-au-Perche, south-west of Mortagne, and without trouble
found the dignified tombstone of Marie-Thérèse Velin sitting
quietly amid all the model-village vaults in which the French take such a morbid delight. The inscription gives merely her
name and the dates 1914 to 1966. An impatient rush of Sep
tember leaves came across the stone as I was reading it. I felt a certain strangeness in this little Normandy cemetery in the autumn evening. I bent forward to brush away the leaves from her name but a fresh touch of wind did it for me. It seemed a long way from the Pacific Ocean.
The death of Marie-Thérèse Velin had released me from my promise not to write her story, but now it was necessary to seek out George Ormerod and, if possible, to persuade him to tell his part of the adventure.
It is rarely a complex matter to discover the whereabouts of a former policeman. The force tends to keep a general eye on the movements of its retired members if for no other reason than paternal concern for their welfare. It took me only a day to find that Ormerod, now in his early seventies,
was living with his wife Sarah in a block of maisonettes especi
ally designed for elderly people at Stevenage in Hertfordshire.
The following morning I drove north from London and
had no difficulty in finding Abacus Court, Stevenage, a well-
planned area with the old people's accommodation - maisonettes for couples and bed-sitting rooms for single residents -
grouped around a sheltered garden.
It appeared that ex-policeman Ormerod never availed him-
self of any of the communal amenities offered by the estab
lishment, preferring to stay within his own solid front door.
His wife was a semi-invalid and the other residents rarely saw
her. Ormerod himself would sometimes walk to the local inn,
The Antelope, stay half an hour and then return. He also did the couple's shopping and took their washing to the launderette in the High Street.
Having reconnoitered, I decided on the frontal approach, but
with some apprehension. Ormerod having been a cautious
policeman, and now a virtual recluse, would hardly stand in
dulging in a chummy chat. It would be necessary for me to tell him my business clearly and quickly. I rang the bell. He took two minutes to answer it. He must have been on the lavatory because I heard the flush go. When he arrived at the
door and opened it he was still tucking his old-fashioned striped
flannel shirt around his trouser top. 'What is it?' he asked uncompromisingly.
He was a tall man and upright too. He had obviously been
broad in his time, although age had withered him down. The grey hair was cut very close around his powerful head. The face was lined but he had a good healthy look about him for someone who, by reputation, rarely went out. Perhaps he sat in the sun by an open window. His eyes were pale, almost as grey as his hair. He had all his own teeth.I want to ask you about France in 1940,' I said baldly.
His eyes lifted and he started to say something, then stopped
as if he could not frame the words. Then he said 'Bugger off,' and closed the door in my face.
From my reporter's experience I knew that a second knock
would either go unanswered or would result in an even ruder
dismissal. I went away. For an hour I sat in the pub, The Antelope, and thought about it before retracing the way to Abacus Court. I rang at his bell and he came to the door angrily as if he had been waiting in ambush.I told you to bugger off ...' he began.
Quickly I said:I have seen Marie-Thérèse Velin.'
That stopped him. His face changed. My hopes rose. He glanced behind him into the room. 'Can you come out?' I suggested quickly.
'Of course I can,' he replied roughly. 'It's not a bloody
prison.' His voice went quiet. 'There's a pub called The Ante
lope. I'll be in there about seven tonight.'
I heard a woman's voice from within. He closed the door on
me without a further word.
By seven o'clock I had been in The Antelope for half an hour.
I was sitting in a corner but Ormerod spotted me as soon as he
came in. I started to get to my feet but he ignored me and went
straight to the bar and ordered a pint of ordinary bitter. The barman recognized him and nodded a 'good evening' but he was obviously known as a customer who did not indulge in a lot of conversation. The beer was drawn and Ormerod, after taking a first drink from the top of the tankard, turned and came directly towards me. He sat down and put the drink on
the table in front of him. He did not look into my face. Staring
to the front he said abruptly: 'All right. When did you see her?'
'Some time ago,' I replied cautiously. If I had told him how long ago I thought he would probably have got up and walked
out. 'I'm sorry to tell you she is dead now,' I said. 'She is buried in France. In Normandy.'
He nodded. 'At St Luc-au-Perche,' he said, pronouncing it
awkwardly. 'Yes, she would be.' He drank some beer. 'She wasn't very old,' he said thoughtfully. 'She was nine years younger than me, you know.' He added a nostalgic word -
'Then.' His more conversational tone gave me hope. It was his
first sign of friendliness.
I met her in New Caledonia,' I said. 'A few years ago.'
'Where's New Caledonia when it's at home?' he asked. 'Can't
say I've ever heard of it.'
'It's a French island in the Pacific,' I told him.
'Yes, she would,' he said thinking about it. 'She always said
she wouldn't be able to live in France unless it all changed.'
I nodded. 'She was a governess for a group of French families,' I said.
'How was she then?' he asked suddenly. He looked at me
awkwardly. 'How did she look?' There was almost an embarrassing tenderness about the question.
'She was ill,' I told him carefully. 'In fact she had periods of
blindness. It was a temporary sort of thing, some tropical disease. But she was very nice. Small, neat. Like she was in
the days when they called her the Dove, I suppose,' I said that
He smiled slightly. "The Dove,' he repeated. He took a
reflective drink from his tankard. 'You seem to have gone into
this a bit thoroughly,' he said. 'Did she tell you much?'
'A good deal,' I nodded. 'But I promised her I would do nothing about it while she was alive. I've been in France and
I've seen her grave, and I've been to the bell foundry at Ville
dieu and to Bagnoles de l'Orne and the Catacombs in Paris.'
At once he looked at me with some alarm. 'What do you mean you "wouldn't do anything about it"?' he inquired suspiciously. 'What's that all about? What are you thinking of doing about it?'
'I'm a writer,' I said simply. 'I want to write the story.'
'Christ,' he muttered. 'You won't get anything from me, son.
Not a bloody word.'
'Why not?' I pressed. 'It's all a long time ago. You came out of it with great credit. In fact, it looks to me that you didn't get the recognition you deserved. What's your objection?'
'To start with,' he said, his voice a hard monotone, 'it was
a complete balls-up.' He paused. His glass was almost drained.
He sensed that I was about to offer him a drink and he shook his head. 'I don't want anything written,' he said. 'And that's that. Final. I was married then to the same wife I've still got. She's a sick woman and I don't want to see it in print that I went to France and killed people and especially that I went with this other woman. That would upset her.'
'Even now?' I tried. 'After all this time?'
'Even now,' he said. 'A lifetime's only short. And for us it's not all that long ago. I don't want her to know. Understand?'
'How did you manage to keep it from her the last time?' I challenged hollowly.
'Told her I was going on a special police course,' he said.
Astonished, I said: 'You mean you could go to France, go
all through that, all the killing and everything, and come back
and act as if you'd been to school?'
'I could and I did,' he said firmly. 'And that's how it's going to be.' He got up and I knew there was nothing I would be able to do to stop him going. 'If you want to write your story,' he said with almost a sneer, 'you'll have to wait until I'm dead too.'
For two weeks I left the matter to rest. There seemed little I could do. Then, as a last throw, I wrote to George Ormerod asking him to reconsider the matter, pledging that he could read the written manuscript and make any changes he wished to make, and offering him a thousand pounds for his cooperation. I told him that this would be a fee for his services, for I would need to have some extended tape-recorded sessions with him, but I guessed that, even knowing him as little as I did, his policeman's instinct would be to smell it as a bribe.
It was no surprise, therefore, when only silence followed the letter. I had to console myself with the thought that one day I would be able to write the story, albeit only from the version related to me by Marie-Thérèse and by my own inquiries in France. But even without his side of the story, that would have to wait until George Ormerod was dead.
Then three months later he wrote to me in the mannered way with which I was to become familiar. 'My wife died on Nov. 23rd,' the letter said. 'We had been married since September 7th, 1939, four days after the outbreak of the hostilities with Hitler. Since she has gone I have occupied myself with writing an account of what happened to me and to Madame Marie-Thérèse Velin in North France and Paris in 1940. It is quite long, about a hundred pages, and is true as far as I can properly remember. In those days, in France, of course I could not keep a diary in case I was captured by the enemy, but when I returned to England I privately wrote up the whole thing and kept it hidden. It is from the notes I made then that I have done this new account. I have also written up the circumstances which took place in this country before going to France in September 1940. There are also a few old photographs.
'My niece and her husband are coming back from Canada to buy a house at Chelmsford and they want me to go and live with them. I don't want to go to them empty handed and I
don't have any money except my pension. So I will take the one thousand pounds you offer me in return for all the notes I have. But this is all there is and I do not want to make any tape recordings. If you agree, send the money and I promise to send the information by return. If you think it fair I would also like to ask for another five hundred pounds if the book you write is a success.'
It was a plain man's letter, very touching in its directness and simplicity. At once I sent a reply with a cheque and waited eagerly for the return package. It arrived within four days. I opened it. His account was held in a loose-leaf binder, a hundred pages of close handwriting. On the cover he had pasted a gummed label upon which was written: 'Journal of some Operations in German Occupied France 1940.' I held it as if someone had sent me the Holy Grail. Then two envelopes fell from the binder. The first contained a dozen or more photographs of himself, Marie-Thérèse and other people all taken in France. Almost breathlessly I picked them up one by one, touching the edges only. They were brown and not very expertly taken but they were more than I could have ever hoped for. Marie-Thérèse in a baggy dress carrying a sub-machine gun; Ormerod sitting at the entrance to a cave; Ormerod and Marie-Thérèse on Chausey Island sitting in the sun; and then, heaven help me, a friendly photograph of a cheerful German staff officer with the caption hand-written on the back: 'General Wolfgang Groemann at Bagnoles. Just before he was killed. A good man.'