Friday, 4 September 2015

Under a Croatian Moon

Prologue
April 1993: Croatia

There was no moon the night Josip Dzaja steered the Jadranka through the narrow channel between the islands of Brac and Solta.
He pointed ahead. “Lights of Split,” he said.
Brigadier Matthew Ryan, seconded from the British Army to the United Nations Protection Force solely for this mission, stood silently at Josip’s side in the small wheelhouse of the fishing boat. He peered into the blackness, and assumed the very faint glow in the night sky directly ahead of them was the Croatian city of Split.
Protected by the heavily defended Klis Pass through the mountains to the north east of the city, the people there were able to continue their normal lives, despite the sporadic fighting taking place between Croat and Serb forces further inland.
It hadn’t been considered safe, however, for Miro Klanac to enter the city. Matthew’s job was to bring him out of Croatia from a small beach several miles south-east of Split.
Josip was already turning starboard away from the glow of the city, and Matthew thought again of the information General Morillon, one of the senior French officers in the UN Force, had told him.
A fierce supporter of Croatian independence, Miro had spent over a year posing as a Serbian soldier, while secretly reporting their positions and plans first to the Croatian army and then to the United Nations force.
“His intelligence reports ended abruptly at the beginning of February,” General Morillon said. “We assumed his real identity had somehow been discovered and it was feared the Serbs had shot him. Two weeks ago, we received word from a safe house in one of the mountain villages that they had Miro holed up in their cellar. God knows how he managed to escape, but there is a price on his head, and we have to get him out.”
“Why not through Split?” Matthew asked after the General had explained how Miro was being passed down via safe houses to the coast.
“We don’t know how many Serbian spies there are in the city. All of them will have been told to watch out for Miro. We can’t risk it. Currently he’s at an old farmhouse in the hills above Omis. Once we send a signal to the Croat agent there, he’ll be brought down to the beach at Jesenice. Your job is to collect him, and take him back to Vis island, and we can then fly him to safety out of the war zone.”
Matthew nodded, and decided to ask the question he knew he probably didn’t have the right to ask a senior officer. “Why me?”
“You won a bronze medal for rowing at the Beijing Olympics—and, more importantly, you speak Croat.”
It was the answer he expected. “Yes. My grandmother was Croatian. She lived in Split and met my grandfather when his Navy ship was docked there.” He smiled. “Although she came to England, she always struggled with the English language, and taught me Croat words when I was even younger than my daughter is now. By the time I was ten, I was fairly fluent in Croat.” He paused. “If my job is simply to collect Miro Klanac from the beach, why is the language fluency important?”
“In case anything goes wrong with the pickup.”
The General’s laconic words echoed in Matthew’s ears as he climbed down the metal ladder from the wheelhouse to the deck. Now he could see lights from the villages along the coast, and even heard strains of Dalmatian music from one of the hotels.
“I switch on boat light when I stop engine,” Josip told him. “People think I do it to attract fish so not curious about boat with no lights.”
It sounded logical, Matthew reasoned as he climbed down the rope ladder over the side of the fishing vessel to the small rowing boat that was attached by a line to the stern. Once aboard, he unfastened the rope, setting the small boat free. Then he sat on the wooden bench, slid the oars through the outriggers, and started to row strongly towards the beach.
When the fishing boat’s light came on, it shone on him like a spotlight on an empty stage.
“What the hell—?” he muttered.
The pickup was supposed to be in darkness, but now his few hundreds yards row to the beach was illuminated as if he was in a brightly lit cruise ship.
“Turn the damn thing off,” he breathed as he continued to row.
Even as he thought it, some instinct told him this was no error by Josip. He tried to steer away from the light, but still it followed him.
Despite the warm breeze, icy tentacles crawled through him. Was Miro on the beach, or had he already been captured by the Serbs? And what the hell was going to happen now?
Shots rang out. The third one, hitting his shoulder, made Matthew drop the oars and lurch backwards with a yelp. The fourth hit him in the chest.
“Oh God—Sonia—Amanda—”
He collapsed forward, clutching his chest as blood splurted from the bullet wound. He was dead even before his head hit the bottom of the rowing boat.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Signature in a Guestbook

‘Irish Intrigue’ was released last week, the culmination of over a year’s work, and more if I count the earlier drafts of this story.

Charley Hunter returns unwillingly to Ireland to complete the filming of a TV drama series. She still hasn’t come to terms with the tragic loss of her husband there two years previously, and the last thing she expects is an instant attraction to an Irish veterinary surgeon.

Luke Sullivan’s life is full as he tries to balance caring for his two young children with his busy rural veterinary practice. After the break-up of his marriage, he vowed to leave women well alone, but now finds himself drawn to Charley.

While Charley struggles with the re-awakening of her emotions, Luke faces a series of unexplained crises at his clinic, as well as an impending custody battle with his ex-wife.

They grow closer as their initial interest in each other develops into mutual support and then into love. But how can an English actress and an Irish vet reconcile their different worlds? And will their relationship survive when Luke believes Charley has endangered his children’s lives – and then betrayed him?

Amazon Links:
USA  http://amzn.to/1BFPm7c - 99 cents
UK  http://amzn.to/1G0npIe - 99 pence

An important character in the story is a retired actress. I’ve called her Alice Vernon, but one incident in the book originally involved a real actress.

In 2011, during one of my trips to Ireland, I visited a small village called Cong in County Mayo. The main reason was that this was where some of the movie, ‘The Quiet Man’ was filmed in the 1950s. It starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The cottage used in the film is now in ruins, but one of the cottages in the village has been set up to look like the original cottage, with authentic reproduction of the rooms and some of the costumes worn by the stars.

After we’d explored the cottage and studied the photographs and local newspaper accounts of the filming in and around the village, we were asked to sign the visitors’ book. Out of habit, I glanced at the previous page of signatures and did a double-take at the one at the bottom of the page – Maureen O’Hara - Yonkers, NY.

I must admit my immediate reaction was. “I didn’t realise she was still alive!” – but when we asked the girl in the small shop, she said, “Yes, she has a house near Cork, and often visits here when she’s in Ireland.”

I knew I would use this small incident in a novel at some point – and so in Chapter 2 of ‘Irish Intrigue’, Charley visits a small cottage – and see the signature of Alice Vernon in the guest book. Alice goes on to play an important role in the rest of the story. Originally I based her on Maureen O’Hara – but somehow as I wrote her, she became more and more like Maggie Smith! 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

An amazing talk by an amazing woman

For those who were interested in the talk by Eva Schloss I heard last night, here is a brief summary of it.

Eva Schloss is now 85 years old, and her mother married Anne Frank’s father after the Second World War. However, her talk wasn’t about her famous posthumous step-sister, but about her own life.

Born in Vienna in 1929 to a fairly well-to-do family, she had to flee Austria with her parents and brother after the Anschluss in 1938. They were no longer welcome in Austria. The mother of her (non-Jewish) best friend screamed at her never to visit their house again, and her brother was beaten up at school.

They went first to Belgium and then to Amsterdam. Anne Frank was one of her school friends there. Not a best friend, she stressed, just one of the friends she played with in the local park. “If I’d known what would happen in the future, I might have taken more notice of her,” she said with a wry smile. The main things she could remember about Anne was that she was a lively, confident chatterbox and also, even at 11, she was already interested in clothes, hairstyles, and boys, whereas Eva was still a tomboy and quite shy.

Once Germany invaded Holland in 1940, life gradually became more difficult for the Jews, as different restrictions were placed on them. They weren’t allowed to use public transport. “No problem,” she said. “We all had bicycles anyway.” As a child, she was far more upset that Jews were not allowed to visit the cinema, especially when they couldn’t go to see ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ which all their non-Jewish friends were talking about.

Despite the restrictions, she said, life was tolerable until 1942, when orders were issued that all Jews aged between 16 and 25 had to report for labour service in Germany. That was when the Franks went into hiding, and so did Eva’s family.

Unlike the Franks, however, Eva and her mother were hiding in one apartment with Dutch friends, and her father and brother with another Dutch woman. When this woman started to blackmail them for more money, Eva’s father found another place for them all with a Dutch nurse. They’d only been with her for a short time when the Gestapo arrived and arrested them. It turned out that this woman was working for the Germans and had betrayed over 100 Jews to them. After the war, she was tried but only received a 4 year sentence. Eva’s anger, however, was directed more toward to the woman who had blackmailed her father, because if that hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t have ended up hiding with the woman who betrayed them.

The family were arrested in May, 1944, on Eva’s 15th birthday. They were taken first to Westerbork in Holland, which was a transit camp. Evidently a Jewish man was in charge of compiling lists of inmates for the ‘transports’ each Tuesday to the concentration camps further east. Of course, said Eva, he protected his own family and friends, and so she and her family were only at Westerbork two days before they were moved on. Over 100,000 Jews were moved to the concentration camps from Westerbork.

When they were in the cattle truck, heading east to they knew not where, her father broke down in tears and said, “I have tried to protect you, but I cannot protect you anymore. We will all have to protect ourselves now.”

During the 3 days in the cattle truck into which they were crammed, they had to take turns in sitting down, or standing by the narrow opening in the side of the truck to get some air. They had one bucket to use as a toilet, and people fainted in the truck. Some died, too.

Eva told us all this almost as if she was describing a normal train journey, while I (and the rest of the audience) listened open-mouthed.

Eventually they arrived at Auschwitz, and as they disembarked on the platform in the camp, the selections began. You were told to go to the left or to the right by the camp doctor (Mengele) in smart uniform, black boots, and white gloves. Those on the left were told they were being taken to the showers and the group on the right envied them after all the days they’d spent in the cattle truck. Of course, as we now know, the showerheads didn’t deliver water.

Eva went on to tell us about life in Auschwitz. After hours standing naked (which, she said, was excruciatingly embarrassing for a 15 year old), they gave details of their names, ages, and where they born to an official, and were tattooed with a number (which is still visible on her arm). Then they were allowed to pick up an item of clothing from one pile, and shoes from another (but it was impossible to find any matching shoes).

They were taken to already overcrowded barrack blocks – six wooden bunks for 20 or more women. After only a few days, they were all crawling with head and body lice, and trying to survive on a cup of thin soup in the morning, and some hard bread in the evening. Water was available, but you didn’t drink it, because it was contaminated, and you could end up with typhus or cholera.

By this time, you could have heard a pin drop in the hall where Eva was speaking. Even after 90 minutes, no one shuffled in their seats or even coughed. Like everyone else, I was riveted by her story.

She went on to tell how they somehow survived the bitter winter of 1944/45, how 60,000 were marched out of the camp in early January on a Death March, and how the German guards fled at the approach of the Russians. The gates (underneath the infamous watchtower through which the trains came in) were opened, but the remaining inmates stayed in the camp. They had no money, no possessions, and had no idea where they could go if they left the camp. Finally, on January 27th 1945 the camp was liberated by the Russians. Next week there will be various commemorations to mark this 70th anniversary (and Eva is going to Germany to speak to an audience of people there).

The Russians set up field kitchens, and made cabbage soup for the remaining inmates of the camp. Eva said, “I can still remember the heavenly smell of that soup.” Then she laughed. “And I spent the next night crouched over the bucket. After so many months of starvation, my body couldn’t cope with real food.” Evidently a lot of people died that night and the next day because they over-ate.

Even after the liberation, the nightmare was not over. Eva and her mother eventually reached Odessa, from where they were taken by ship to Marseilles, and finally arrived back in Amsterdam. They learned that her father and brother had both died in Auschwitz, and they met up with Otto Frank again, who also learned that his wife and daughters had died in Bergen-Belsen.

Otto, Eva said, was amazing. He visited many Jews who had lost their children, husbands, wives, or other family members, encouraging them to stay positive.

One day he came to their apartment with a bag, and said, “Look what I have found. I didn’t know my daughter at all.”

Of course, it was Anne’s diary, which Miep, one of their Dutch friends, had found and kept after the Gestapo arrested the Frank family.

What else can I say except that it was the most compelling talk I have ever heard? I’ve read plenty about Anne Frank, have been to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, and have also visited Auschwitz a couple of times, but hearing about it from someone who experienced all the fear and lived through all the cruelty and horror was, to put it mildly, mind-blowing.

I was also amazed that this woman, who had experienced and witnessed so many horrors, had somehow managed to come through it and, in the end, live a relatively ‘normal’ life in England. Not only did she have the physical strength to survive the starvation and disease at Auschwitz, she also had the mental strength to rise above the horrific experiences of her teenage years and their after-effects.

A truly amazing woman.

If you want to know more, check her out on Amazon, as she has written three books about her experiences.