Vivid, poignant chron­i­cle of find­ing her father through let­ters

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - ARTS - Vivien Hor­ler ROSHEEN AND CAL FINNIGAN Tin­der Press

ROSHEEN Finnigan never re­mem­bered her father. A serv­ing naval of­fi­cer, he was in the UK when she was born in Au­gust 1940, and when he was posted to Swansea a few months later, Rosheen and her mother Mary joined him for just un­der a year.

Then in March 1942 her father – David Fran­cis – was se­lected to be part of the plan­ning team for the top-se­cret Op­er­a­tion Iron­clad, the code name for the in­va­sion of Mada­gas­car, and he sailed for Africa and, sub­se­quently, In­dia.

She never saw him again. Her mother never spoke of him, partly be­cause the new man she mar­ried in 1947 had “fear­some night­mares” that David would reap­pear.

But David was dead, felled by small­pox in In­dia in 1943, the re­sult of his Chris­tian Sci­en­tist mother re­fus­ing to let him be vac­ci­nated.

There were no traces of David in Rosheen’s child­hood Lon­don home, no pic­tures, none of the records he and Mary had loved. But all along there was a trunk up in the at­tic which con­tained the let­ters David and Mary had writ­ten to each other over the course of their pas­sion­ate love, from their meet­ing in Lon­don in mid-1938 un­til his death five years later.

Shortly be­fore Mary died in Dublin as an old woman, she gave all the let­ters to Rosheen, “and in so do­ing she gave me my father”.

Here was a man, charm­ing, en­gag­ing, clever, and ut­terly de­voted to his Mary and then to baby Rosheen.

She writes: “Of course I fell in love with the young man who emerged from the let­ters. How could I not?”

David was 20 when they met, Mary 21. She was at a party in a flat in Is­ling­ton, and was sent to the nice young man up­stairs to bor­row some glasses. He agreed to lend them, pro­vided he could come to the party too. It was, Rosheen writes, a coupe de foudre. “In a daze they find them­selves wan­der­ing in the early hours on Hamp­stead Heath. And the let­ters be­gin.”

Mary was from Ire­land, David from Lon­don. She had a sec­re­tar­ial job, he was work­ing as an ar­ti­cled clerk for a firm of ac­coun­tants.

Both were ar­dent sup­port­ers of the Com­mu­nist Party, and were also pas­sion­ate about films, literature and mu­sic. They had a lot to say to each other.

And when they were apart, they wrote to each other, some­times just hours af­ter part­ing. When David goes off on a pre-planned hol­i­day to Nor­mandy, Mary writes: “See­ing you are not avail­able, I have taken Au­den to bed with me, TS Eliot is on the floor…”

Their love was al­most in­stantly over­whelm­ing, and shortly af­ter David turned 21, and was legally able to do so, they mar­ried. War was just six weeks away. By this time Mary was work­ing out­side Lon­don at Bletch­ley Park, later the top-se­cret es­tab­lish­ment where the Enigma code was bro­ken.

They wrote to each other all the time, vir­tu­ally daily. They were ar­tic­u­late, grumpy, cheery, do­mes­tic and ex­plicit.

War meant sep­a­ra­tion. David joined the navy and was sent to a But­lin’s hol­i­day camp in Skeg­ness in Lin­colnshire for train­ing. More let­ters fol­lowed.

One of the frus­tra­tions of a story based on let­ters of long­ing is that the reader looks for­ward to their meet­ings al­most as much as they do, but there is vir­tu­ally no record of their happy times to­gether. Then they are separated again, the let­ters re­sume, and the long­ing re­builds.

Af­ter the birth of Rosheen and the fam­ily’s brief pe­riod of set­tled life in Wales, David is sent to Mada­gas­car, and now there was no chance of snatched meet­ings. They wrote, they tried to keep their own spir­its up and each other’s, they loved and they yearned. Mary’s let­ters, in par­tic­u­lar, were full of the minu­tiae of daily life in wartime Eng­land, the black­out, the strug­gle for in­ter­est­ing food, talk of money, the drea­ri­ness of it all.

She kept David abreast of Rosheen’s de­vel­op­ment, and he, hav­ing a much more ex­cit­ing life in Africa and In­dia, sent both his girls presents. An age-long year went by with no meet­ing.

Nearly a life­time later, Rosheen reads the let­ters. Af­ter know­ing noth­ing about her father, she is able to fill in the blanks.

“It was won­der­ful to un­der­stand I was part of this story – their story. It had been David, Mary – and me. We had a life to­gether… Now I know what a sweet, lov­ing father he would have been.”

This is a warm, de­light­ful read. One knows from the be­gin­ning that it does not have a happy end­ing, but the lively writ­ing, the hope and the love make it a won­der­ful book.

For this and other re­views by Hor­ler, see her web­site The Book Page (the­bookspage.co.za).

It was won­der­ful to un­der­stand I was part of this story – their story

LET­TERS FROM THE SUIT­CASE – A WARTIME LOVE STORY

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