by Anton Wills-Eve
I promised to start serialising my latest novel a chapter a day begining this month, but I shall have to delay for a week at least. So instead I shall be posting blogs, poems and stories such as this for the time being until I have my book as I want it. So those waiting for “John and Gemma” will have to hang on for a bit. I do apologise.
The whole family were Overjoyed when I got the letter telling me I had been offered a place at Oxford University to read Mediaeval history. It was late December 1959 and I would be starting the following September. And I also knew I would be immersing myself for at least four years in my passion for Ecclesiastical History, hopefully to the level of MA by the summer of 1964. I had won an open exhibition scholarship, and it was the closest thing I could imagine to being paid to spend all my time just doing what I loved most.
The world of academe, of which I so often dreamed, was at last a genuine reality and maybe for my whole life if I still wanted it to be as I grew older. But our world holds many twists of fate for us and it is ironic that we never expect the really important ones. In March 1960 I was not expecting my father to be hastily posted to South Africa to sort out his company’s affairs as two senior members of the staff had managed to lose control of their emotions and get themselves jailed following the Sharpeville race riot shootings. The company was ordered to stop working there but Dad did a terrific job smoothing ruffled feathers, indeed so successfully that just after returning to London in May he was told he had been appointed head of the company for Continental Europe. He would be taking up his post in mid-August and would be based in Paris for at least five years, probably longer. As with my news from Oxford, the family was once more Overjoyed.
Being overjoyed is being in a state of euphoric happiness much akin to the expression being ‘over the moon’. Have you ever seen what is on the other side of the moon? Let me tell you. It is that world in which we never even allow our minds to wander, asleep or awake. It is, above all, a world of unimagined surprises which invariably become our strongest memories in later years because they started as such wonderful moments of projected happiness. I was about to experience the first one of mine.
You see our family had a problem. There were just the five of us. Dad, Mum, who was chronically and seriously ill, my sister, fifteen months my senior and the best friend I had ever had, and my only surviving grandmother. My sister and I virtually ran the household as we got older because mum was bed ridden. Add to this the fact that my ageing grandmother was sixty four when I was born and, though she did what she could to help, as you can imagine by the time I was eighteen it was not much. Dad of course had to earn enough money to make sure my sister and I were really well educated and to provide the medical extras that my mother needed. He made an incredible number of sacrifices to ensure that all of us led the life he wanted us to enjoy. So in the summer of 1960, for the first time in our lives, when we were forty six and eighteen respectively, he had to ask me an enormous favour.
“James, look this isn’t easy, but I have to see if you can help me sort out a family problem. You know we are off to France next month and you will be going to Oxford in the Autumn, but I don’t know what to do about mum. Your sister is already a year into her university course at Cambridge and we cannot interrupt that, but is there any way you could change your place at Oxford for one at University in Paris? It would make all the difference if you could help looking after mum whenever you had enough time from your studies.” I reeled, and honestly did not know what to answer. Everything I had wanted and worked for during the last five years had been achieved and now, at the eleventh hour, it was being snatched away. I just prayed it did not show in my face. I am sure Dad would never have asked had he known just how much my Oxford place meant to me. I assumed he did not and automatically I said I would try to find out exactly what would be involved if such a change could be arranged. But most importantly I told him not to worry about mum being properly cared for. I assured him that would always come top of my priorities.
As my sister, Helen, was at home at the time I told her what Dad had asked me and she hit the roof. “You’re joking! James he wouldn’t ask that of anyone, and certainly not you!”
“Oh be fair, Helen. With the amount of work he does and the worries we all pile on him he probably hasn’t a clue what Oxford means to me. How could he? My only problem is that I cannot see how I could get my French up to the standard needed to do a degree in Paris when I have never studied seriously in the language. But I’ll ask my history master. He got an MA at Cambridge in History, so he must know if something can be worked out. I do hope it can, because Dad has done so much for all of us this quite enormous promotion for him is something he really deserves. We could never live with ourselves, well I certainly couldn’t, if he turned it down because of me.”
She smiled and patted me on the shoulder. Of course she saw the point and wished it was her decision to take. “James, I am going for a degree in history of art and only because I enjoy it, but with you it could be your whole life. I know how much you want to follow up your research into the really esoterically abstruse minutiae of mediaeval church life, and above all the hagiography that would go with it. I also know that there are few scholars of your age around who know even half as much about the subject as you do. But have you thought that the Sorbonne University might be just as useful a place to follow your subject as any British university? I can see the language problem though.” We left it there and, as it was the last week of term and of the school year, I knew the senior staff would all be around for a few more days yet.
The school reaction was one of shock and disbelief. We usually got four or five Oxbridge places a year, but the kudos of one was very important to the school’s reputation and the news that I might not take up my place was not well received. After four days of hectic telephone conversations and indulgence in the ‘old pals network’ of academic friends, the best solution that could be worked out for me was to do an extra first year at the Sorbonne, which was not marked academically, although I would have to study the full course from the start again in my first year. This would mean having to spend an extra first year to bring me up to the required level of academic French, and four years in total for my LèsL, a BA in France. However, it was also dependent on the university in Paris accepting me at an interview and this was arranged for the last week in August just after we arrived in France. But Oxford was very understanding about my circumstances and even held my place open for me until the beginning of September.
Well, to cut a long story short I just scraped through the interview and was accepted at the Sorbonne. Dad’s company considered me as still being a dependent student and agreed to pay my fees, so we were not hit as badly financially as we might have been. The following four years passed really quite enjoyably with the family living in a flat on the Ile. Saint Louis, behind Notre Dame, and within a very short walk of the university which also helped me. I made quite a few friends from lots of different countries, in particular Francesca, a very pretty girl from Pisa in Italy who became a genuinely important part of my life from the age of nineteen. Then, by the August of 1964, shortly after I had gained my degree, she was very badly hurt in a car crash. Helen had joined us the previous year to work in a French art gallery after getting her degree and she could see how badly I was hit by the news of Francesca’s accident. She spent a lot of time looking after Mum while I took the rest of the summer break in Pisa with Francesca and her family, helping to cheer her up and suddenly realising for the first time in my life that I was quite hopelessly in love. But it was not the ‘Overjoyed’ moment it should have been.
Her family had a lovely house in Tuscany and it was a treat looking after her. But there is a limit to how much one can do for a girl, however beautiful and encased forever in one’s heart, when she has to be pushed everywhere in a wheelchair and can take just a few steps on crutches, and that on a good day. After four years at university I was at a loss what to do for a career. I had always thought that had I gone to Oxford I would just have stayed there if I could, but there was no way I wanted to live forever in France. The one thing about being really good at a subject as unusual as hagiography, however, was that I could not actually get a job in it. I could have taught it, I suppose, and written books on the subject, which would never have sold, but neither option appealed. So I eventually settled for an offer from a leading American newspaper, the editor had known my family for years and he knew I could write, to work as a general news correspondent in France, Italy and Switzerland. It was to give Francesca this news that I had driven down to Pisa the day after the crash and my news was quite overshadowed by hers.
Although we both could manage reasonably well in English and Italian we always spoke to each other in French. It had been the language of our meeting and subsequent relationship. “Hey, James, don’t look so sad. You have a great opportunity ahead of you if you take it. Think, I will always be able to follow the world news and know you are somewhere in the middle of it.” Her smile was too much for me. Lying there in her room with a crushed leg, broken arm and pelvis and a scar down the left cheek of her lovely face, she seemed to want to say goodbye. I could sense it. But I could never have said goodbye to her and gone on living happily myself. I think she also knew that.
“Cara, I have to start work in Rome in three weeks, and I don’t know how long I shall be there. But I shall come back to see you every week if I can.” She stretched out her good hand and clasped my wrist as hard as she could. Tears trickled down her face but she could not lift her body upright to kiss me as she so badly wanted. Instead I put a hand behind her head and drew her face up to mine and kissed her with all the passion I could convey given her injuries. “I will never leave you, Francesca, never. You will get better, the doctors say so and, no matter how long I may have to wait, one day I will marry you, I promise.” I had not nursed a crippled mother all my life without knowing how to convey love, hope and happiness when deep inside me I doubted even myself. We lived like this for more than two years as she improved very slowly, but always fearing that she would never fully recover.
Luckily the paper liked my work and, as I was unmarried and was thus dispensable, in February 1968 I was posted as one of their two correspondents to Vietnam. The salary was good, even by American standards, and I was assured that most of this could be saved as it was the easiest posting there was for living off expenses. It should have been ‘Overjoyed’ time again, but my employers knew little or nothing about my little Francesca. That wintry day as I told her my news she was inconsolable. “No. My lovely James. No. Give up your job, resign but please don’t go so very far away to die without me. Oh, my James. Please don’t leave me alone.”
It was a dreadful moment. The worst in my life. My lovely Francesca, so stubbornly fighting to return to being the girl I had come to adore. Making such progress, too, only to have the spectre of my putative demise rise up before her and hurt her so cruelly she finally gave in to her true feelings and begged me, if I loved her, to stay with her and we would somehow find a life together. Her scar had almost disappeared and with my help she could walk again, if slowly, and we often went for short strolls together in the beautiful countryside around her home as she clung to me for support both physical and mental. She had not wasted her time since her illness improved and had nearly finished the work to gain her doctorate in languages. But both of us did not know what to do in the new circumstances. My family were really pleased with the success I had made in my career in journalism, and I too had continued studying to the level of D.Hist to please myself. They would have been really upset if I had turned down such a good offer. Her parents prayed regularly for her recovery and took to me almost as a son-in-law in waiting. I would have happily married my Francesca there and then but she was adamant that she could never marry until she was fully well. Then I saw the new circumstances as an opportunity to get my own way in our ongoing dispute over our future,
“Francesca,” it was only four days before I was due to leave, “I want to do a deal with you. I can no more leave you than you can carry on without me. Well I told my boss yesterday that if the Vietnam job had not come up we would have been getting married very soon. He was very understanding and told me that there would be nothing in my contract stopping me from marrying whenever I wanted to. All the newspaper insisted on was that I was not married when they sent me to Asia. So if you came with me and we married after I had started the job that would be fine. But I am the one who is making marriage the condition. As far as I am concerned the fact that you still have physical difficulties moving your legs means nothing to me. I just want you as my wife because I could never be happy carrying on living without making love to you.” I had played the only card I felt I had left.
“My James. Si. For you, si.” Her words lit up my whole world and once again I was ‘Overjoyed’. But we have spoken of the moon before. I wondered what I would find on the other side of this one.
Landing in Saigon for the first time, when rockets and grenades were in the air and all the civilians on the aircraft were so calm it was hard to believe the whole experience was not a dream, it was both so exciting and so exhilarating. My only concern was how Francesca was going to manage disembarking. On the way across the world we had spent a week in Singapore,technically my posting had started by this time, where we had been married having arranged everything before leaving Europe. We had our honeymoon on a mile long beach on the Malay coast and all my lovely wife’s fears that her injuries would make her a total disappointment as a lover were proved completely false as we each found the other everything we could have hoped for.
Most people imagine a war zone that is under daily rocket and mortar attacks is not a nice place to live. But Francesca had a wonderful idea about how to pass her time, while I did my work, keeping my head down as best I could. She was told about a home for blind orphans aged between eight and sixteen, who desperately needed more people to help look after them and educate them. The voluntary medical and social workers were only too glad to have Francesca’s help, limited though it was. She was able to teach the youngsters three languages as well as help them in many practical ways and the set up was both therapeutic for her as well as a help for them. We had a flat in a modern block not long built by the American army for civilian workers involved in administrative war work. Quite a lot of journalists lived in this type of dwelling and we had a small and pleasant community in which we faced the trials of war together. Then one morning real terror struck. An early rocket and mortar barrage flattened the building we lived in and two of my colleagues were killed and several more were badly hurt. I was one of them, but in a way nobody realised at the time.
After spending several hours helping to dig out the injured, I collapsed myself, but with what was at first just thought to be exhaustion. Then came the trauma. After being very dizzy and dopey for about an hour I actually lost consciousness and was out cold for some twelve hours. The medics put it down to stress and fatigue but the following day I found I could not focus properly and eventually was taken to the military hospital from where I was flown, with Francesca, to Manila, the nearest main city with decent American medical facilities. There I was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and we were both flown back to the United States where the newspaper took over the cost and trouble of looking after me. My family were extremely worried and Helen flew out to Los Angeles to see me. My employers appreciated our strange situation, that is our lack of anywhere to live. We had been in Rome and Pisa before going to Asia and I had given up my flat in the Italian capital. What the paper had to decide now was where they wanted me to work as technically I was hired by head office and so I had to return to America, which of course I had, before being posted to my next assignment.
Helen, Francesca and I stayed in a very nice hotel while the company’s doctors made sure that my experience had not left any lasting damage. After a couple of weeks they were happy that I could return to work, but where? In the course of my years travelling round southern Europe much of what I wrote was concerned with religion, politics and sport. But it was all centred on one part of the world and obviously I was going to be of most use returning to my former stomping ground. It was now September 1968 and the paper had just recalled their main European diplomatic correspondent from London to work in Washington. After several days of discussions, about which I knew nothing at the time, thank heavens, I was delighted to be offered the job of chief political correspondent in London. The salary was extremely good and when I asked Francesca if she would like me to accept the offer she was ecstatic.
“You see, James. Everything is now going to be just as we both secretly wanted it to be, isn’t it?” She was more than right. This was ‘Overjoyed’ time with a vengeance and we celebrated that evening with Helen who had to return to Paris the next day. A week later we followed and were given two weeks to find a house to live in in England and in general settle down before I went back to work. The best part of that particular period was receiving the news that under the paper’s insurance rules I qualified for a handsome injury compensation package, on top of the money I had managed to save during the six months odd I had worked in Vietnam. This left me with enough to buy a lovely house on the Thames in South West London and still have a nest egg saved to help us start a completely new life. Francesca, too, was so much better that everything really was turning out as well as it could. Well almost.
Sadly, just after Christmas 1968 my mother became very ill and in the following February she died. Dad was badly shaken, but had been expecting it for quite some time so managed to continue in his position in Paris where he now had a circle of close friends and colleagues, including Helen who had recently married, and was particularly happy for Francesca and me. It had been on March the twenty first, 1960, that the Sharpeville shooting started the whole sequence of events that led to my life taking the path it did. I had a good job, but I still spent a lot of time keeping up with my favourite subject, the lives of the Saints. I had written two books on the subject but not the sort of work that one would expect to sell in their millions. But I enjoyed writing them much more than the modest income I got from them.
Now for the last shot at the moon that seals this circular series of events which constitute these closely linked memories. On the tenth anniversary of Sharpeville, in 1970, I was at a party given to raise funds for all anti racist movements throughout the world when who should I bump into but the senior tutor who interviewed me at Oxford when I applied for a place there eleven years earlier. He was fascinated by what I was doing and had kept up with my work, especially my books. I told him about the story of Francesca and me and he was really interested in how much we had managed to study even during our war torn years. Three days later I received a letter inviting us both to the college where several professors and lecturers were interested in our story. So interested in fact that we were asked if we would like to give a lecture a term each on our experiences and the subjects in which we each now held Italian doctorates. We could hardly believe it. We may not have been offered ‘life for ever’ at Oxford, but regular working visits to the academic atmosphere we both loved started later that year and is still going on today.
In fact every time I spot one of our two grandchildren in the auditorium when I am lecturing I get an odd thumping feeling. Francesca says it is my reward for having done the right thing and put the rest of my family, and those I loved, first in my life.
But Helen only smiles and tells me that it is simply the wonderful feeling of being Overjoyed again. Only now I just enjoy it. I really don’t know why, but I have lost all interest in what lies on the other side of the beautiful moon of 2014. All I know is that God has been very good to all of us and I am just grateful and happy for all He has done for my family and especially my lovely wife.