Authors: Nicholas Shakespeare
TO LALAGE, IMOGEN, TRACEY AND CARLETON
âEverything is simple in men, and in women, if you look at them from the outside, and watch them, hesitating and laughing on the brink of the world. And everything is simple too, long afterward, when life is over and done with and you explain them after their death, looking back on lives which are now only history. It is while it is still unfolding and still taking place that fate is obscure and sometimes mysterious.'
At God's Pleasure
âWell, there are worse things than fornication.'
A Question of Loyalties
GRAHAM GREENE TO GILLIAN SUTRO
On the third day the Gestapo appeared with machine guns and drove Priscilla to 11 Rue des Saussaies. She was taken to the basement and stripped. The air was thin, sucked into the cellars by a hand-turned ventilator. Beneath a strong electric bulb a grey-uniformed woman conducted a full and humiliating body search for cyanide pills, and picked through her clothes. Then she was ordered to dress and led upstairs into a large room where a man interrogated her for twelve hours.
Priscilla was accustomed to strangers asking probing questions. In the internment camp at BesanÃ§on, she was obliged to fill out forms which demanded to know her family descent, blood group, names of parents, political persuasion, religion. She had to write the answers in duplicate, and it was confusing if you did not speak German. The Commandant had reprimanded one internee for writing âdomestic servant' in the space for religion.
This was more invasive, headier. More personal.
The man talked in French, but it was obvious that he spoke English. It served nothing to lie, his manner said. Where had she been at school? What books did she like reading? He asked about her mother and father, branching off into her marriage and lovers. He checked her replies against the two identity cards which the Gestapo had found on her, and against
her previous interrogation by the French police. He was well prepared and ruthless.
When had she first come to France? Why had she stayed? The occupying authorities had released her from BesanÃ§on, he noted, because she was expecting a child. What had happened to the baby?
It died, she said.
His eyes looked at her and dropped back to her French carte d'identitÃ© no. 40cc92076, in the name of Priscilla Doynel de la Sausserie and registering her as âsans profession'. This card was no longer valid; it had run out in October the previous year.
He picked up her British passport, flicked through the pages. Mais, Priscilla Rosemary, b. 12 July 1916, Sherborne (England). Height, 5'9”. Colour of eyes blue.
The passport â no. 181523 â was issued in London on 10 March 1937, nearly two years before her marriage. She had clung on to it against everyone's advice and not thrown it down the lavatory as her French sister-in-law had urged. But it was fortunate when Priscilla visited Cornet at his hotel that she had stuck to her old identity. If caught with her false French papers, in the name of Simone Vernier, she would have been executed.
Simone Vernier, Priscilla Mais, Vicomtesse Priscilla Doynel de la Sausserie â she was scattered among these identities, left alone by the Germans because of her blue eyes and blonde hair. She remembered her best friend Gillian before the war, sucking in her cheeks: âLa beautÃ©, c'est notre premiÃ¨re carte d'identitÃ©.'
This last identity was Priscilla's most convincing in Nazi-occupied Paris. Because at some point during the second day her interrogation was broken off: a person of influence with the Gestapo had intervened. In the evening, she was released. She was asked to sign a document with her answers written out, confirming that this was an accurate account. Then she was driven to the nursing home in Saint-Cloud, which she had given as her address.
My aunt Priscilla, my mother's sister, was a figure of unusual glamour and mystery in my childhood. She lived on a mushroom farm on the Sussex coast with her second husband Raymond, a jealous man who never let her far from his sight.
Priscilla invited us for weekends at their home in East Wittering, and whenever her name was mentioned on the journey from London I craned forward in the back of my parents' car. From an early age, I was conscious that my aunt was the sort of woman that men fell for. Both my parents loved her, but were unable to puzzle out the riddle of her relationship with Raymond, one of the most difficult men they had ever met.
Inevitably, as our mauve Singer Gazelle turned into the lane leading to Church Farm, there would be speculation about how late we were going to be, and whether Raymond, a tyrant for punctuality, would â this time â serve mushrooms. The promise of a mushroom is hard to recapture today; mass production has rendered the taste mundane. But to a seven-year-old boy accustomed to the flavour of cod's roe (âthe cheapest food we could buy, then,' said my mother), a mushroom in the early 1960s was a fantastic thing â almost as exotic, in its way, as my aunt.
Her home was a red-brick Georgian house built next to a twelfth-century
church. There was a courtyard with an injured poplar in it, and stacks of empty fish boxes for growing the mushrooms in. The âgrowing rooms' were sinister-looking Nissen sheds, thirty of them side by side, long, low with curved asbestos roofs. I was under firm instructions not to enter. My shoes risked picking up a dangerous virus called âLa France disease', which, if spread, could wipe out Raymond's crop. So I never saw inside a shed. But I do recall buckets of disinfectant and the damp, musty smell of compost.
Church Farm was not a house for a small child. I have memories of foreign housekeepers; cold stone floors with lead-piping between the flagstones; aggressive little dogs with yellow paws, from Raymond's sodium spray; and a swimming pool clouded with dark green algae, so that I was never able to swim in it. The pool water was used to cool the Nissen sheds. Everything circulated back to the forbidden mushrooms, the small, white
species known as âchampignons de Paris'. Direct sunlight caused them to lose their whiteness â another reason Raymond would not let me enter the sheds. He only ever turned on the lights for watering and picking. For the rest of the time, he kept his mushrooms at a temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit, on a diet of horse manure and gypsum, in darkness. âKept in the dark and fed on shit' was his formula for a successful flush.
Raymond, with his eagle-beak nose and black-rimmed glasses, was quite terrifying. At Church Farm, he commandeered the whole of the downstairs for his office. Board-meetings took place at the dining-room table, at which Raymond, in cut-off gumboots, liked to sit so that he might monitor his staff. He had a cowbell which he wildly shook when Priscilla was wanted on the telephone, or for meals. A formal lunch, cooked by him, was eaten at 1 p.m. â sharp. Once, his daughter Tracey rang to say that she had a puncture. He ordered her: âFix it, but don't be late for lunch.'
Raymond's fag at Harrow had taught him how to cook. Partial to sauces, he was proud of his blanquette de veau; otherwise anything that did not involve mushrooms. It was unbusinesslike to give them away or dish them out to guests, and this extended to relatives. Priscilla had warned us that if we wanted to pick them, Raymond would insist on charging the full
market rate of five shillings a punnet. The bad ones he sold at the end of the lane.
Raymond liked to be in charge, doing everything. The few meals he permitted Priscilla to make were steak and kidney pudding, risotto, and stuffed peppers â dishes with which I was already familiar. When my mother married, Priscilla had handed on these recipes, on which my mother soon became entirely dependent. Although I never succeeded in tasting a mushroom during my visits to Church Farm, in another respect I grew up on Priscilla's cooking.
My father was then a poor journalist, earning Â£500 a year, and he felt a frisson whenever he entered Priscilla's house at the prospect of meeting her smart roguish friends like the Sutros, and going out to expensive restaurants, which Raymond would pay for, and eating his luxurious meals. âChurch Farm was bitterly cold, austere, with rotten furniture. But behind it all there was something romantic.'