The heartbreaking secret behind the old photo on my mother’s dressing table
The picture intrigued Simon all his life. When he investigated after his mum’s death, he uncovered a love story told in exquisitely poetic letters ...
RIGHT up until the end of her life, Nancy Worrall kept a faded black-and-white photograph of her wartime lover beneath the glass on her dressing table. Martin Preston was the dashing young Oxford undergraduate she fell in love with in 1938 — the fiancé she thought she would spend the rest of her life with before World War II separated them for ever.
Called up and sent to France to fight the advancing Germans, Martin penned Nancy a stream of achingly beautiful letters and poems, until one day they stopped arriving at her Buckinghamshire home.
Like thousands of women whose love stories were torn apart by war in Europe, Nancy learnt to bury her grief and get on with her life. She went on to marry another man, and photographs of her husband and three sons also sat beneath the dressing table glass.
Juxtaposed with Martin’s everyouthful face, they were a constant reminder of the flesh-and-blood family which could never have existed if her first great love had returned.
‘Martin was an enigmatic figure throughout our childhood,’ says Nancy’s youngest son, writer Simon Worrall. ‘We always knew of his existence. I used to look at the photograph and wonder what it would have been like if Martin had been my father.
‘But I didn’t really understand who he was and how important he was to my mother.
‘It was only later that I discovered just how extraordinary their love was.’
When Nancy died in 2005, Simon began piecing together the clues the young lovers left behind in a bid to find the truth about this tragic stranger.
As well as the faded photograph of Martin, sitting on a bench in a cricket blazer with a faraway look in his eyes, there were dozens of wartime love letters that Nancy had kept inside an old chocolate box decorated with red roses.
There was a folder containing the poetry his mother penned to express her grief and, although Nancy’s letters to Martin disappeared when he went missing in action, Simon found the unanswered letters she wrote to him afterwards, which were returned to her.
The result is his soon-to-bepublished novel, The Very White Of Love, a fictionalised retelling of their romance, which combines Nancy and Martin’s letters with meticulous historical research and Simon’s imagining of how their relationship unfolded as the storm clouds of war gathered.
‘I wanted to rescue their story from oblivion,’ he says, ‘ and make good on the hope expressed in one of Martin’s letters that this love “can’t all be there for nothing”.’
WHEN they met in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in September 1938, Martin — the nephew of poet and author Robert Graves — was 19 and about to embark upon his second year reading Law and Modern Languages at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Nancy Whelan, as she was then, was a pretty, redheaded 22-year-old secretary at an insurance company in London.
Not long after, Martin wrote to his aunt, who knew Nancy’s mother from church: ‘I’ve fallen madly in love with Nancy Claire Whelan. You’ve every right to laugh when you read that, but I’m terribly happy to have found someone so fond of me, who leaves everyone else I’ve met in the cold.’
The early days of their relationship were spent riding bicycles around the Chilterns or whizzing through Buckinghamshire’s country lanes in Martin’s twoseater Riley sports car.
They played tennis, read poetry to each other and took walks.
Back at Oxford that autumn, Martin wrote to Nancy of days filled with tutorials and hockey matches and debates at the Oxford Union.
They snatched time together at weekends, either in Oxford or Buckinghamshire or on day trips to London.
Nancy was a keen amateur actress at the Players’ Theatre Club, where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sir Michael Redgrave and Dame Margaret Rutherford.
As time went by, their correspondence became increasingly ardent. ‘I don’t know how to feel when you’re around,’ wrote Martin. ‘You turn me so inside out — no one has ever done it before.
‘What is it about you? You are unparalleled. You leave me breathless. You are the most exciting thing in the world . . . Your love is like a crown. If I could be with you right now I would frighten you with my passion. I can’t say more — you must feel it.’
Nancy sent Martin poetry: ‘This love’s immeasurable, a seed, fast-rooted, a flower bearing fruit.’
But the pair’s blossoming romance coincided with the crisis unfolding in Europe.
They met in the month British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain delivered his ill-fated promise of ‘peace in our time’ following the annexing of the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia by Hitler’s troops.
Martin, who was profoundly affected by his famous uncle’s World War I memoir Goodbye To All That, became caught up in the uncertainty of the times.
In another early letter to Nancy, penned in April 1939, he told how he had just returned from an Oxford Union debate on conscription and how he found it hard to concentrate on his studies.
‘I’ve never bothered you talking about engagements or marriage and I think you feel the same way. But I’m a little frightened, so it’s natural to want to hold your hand more tightly, isn’t it? I’m hopelessly in love with you and want to keep you for myself for the rest of my life.’
When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Martin enlisted as a lieutenant with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Before his first training in Sussex, he wrote to Nancy: ‘I know unshakeably, I’ve never known anything so well in all my life, that I am helplessly in love with you.
‘I’ve stopped trying to explain to myself why you affect me so powerfully and why I long for you all the time from my little toes to the crown of my head. I tell myself: “You are in love. You need not worry. You’ve found someone who will haunt you always if she is not beside you.” This is love.’
By the time he left for northern France in January 1940, Martin and Nancy were engaged. His letters contain fascinating accounts of daily army life and tantalising, tender glimpses of the times he spent with Nancy in England.
‘Thank you so much for your wonderful letters. I keep them under my bed and when the others have fallen asleep I take them out and read them. It’s like having you lying next to me, talking. They bring back our time together.
‘The train to London. That little Italian restaurant, where you told me about Munich. Rowing on Christchurch Meadow. Kissing with the blinds drawn in that railway carriage. The early chapter of our love. Then all this ugliness disappears and beauty can open her eyes and smile.’
Above all, he was concerned that she shouldn’t fret about him. ‘Oh darling, all I worry about is yourself, our joy, your health, and our love, and then I don’t worry any more because I’m sure it can’t all be for nothing, can it?’
They were briefly reunited in Cornwall when Martin was sent back from France for gas attack training in April 1940. Nancy travelled by train to meet him.
THEY spent a blissful weekend together in the seaside village o f Mousehole, but rented separate rooms after agreeing to wait until they were married before consummating their relationship.
By May 1940, Hitler’s forces were advancing towards France. Aware of what was coming, but unable for reasons of security to go into details, Martin wrote to Nancy in
figurative terms: ‘This is the time to write you a long, dramatic letter but I won’t.
‘I shall just tell you that spring is turning into summer, that orchards have taken shape, that the sky is beautifully blue though sometimes disfigured by shell bursts and bombing planes, that all men must move to keep abreast of the times including ourselves, and that you must never worry about me because I am buoyant and my love and yours would not lead me into danger . . .’
It was the last letter she received from him. Martin was killed manning a machine-gun post in Hazebrouck, Northern France, on May 27, 1940, but it wasn’t until September 1941 that Nancy finally received a letter from the War Office confirming his death.
In the meantime, she carried on writing to Martin in the vain hope he might be alive.
‘My darling, where are you now?’ she wrote in November 1940. ‘What do your eyes see? I hope whatever it is, it is not too terrible. I think of you day and night. The moment I open my eyes in the morning. And when I close them at night.
‘Your love lifts me up. It’s a crown I wear in my heart. I can never forget a single incident or meaning of everything we have loved and seen and known.’
The letters were returned bearing the stamps ‘missing’ or ‘believed deceased’ or — eventually — ‘deceased’.
According to Simon, his mother never discovered exactly what happened to her fiancé beyond an account, via the Red Cross, that he had been at the front of a night patrol which came under fire, and he was never seen alive again. The courage Nancy showed in the face of grief was captured in a letter she wrote to Martin’s sister just days later:
‘Whatever happens, I know I can never stop loving Martin. I do not have to tell you that, or how much I want to go on finding kindness and beauty in life and loving it for his sake.’
Five years later, in 1946, while working for the British Council in the Czech capital Prague, she met Simon’s military attache father.
Philip Worrall was a handsome hero who had spent World War II behind enemy lines in Churchill’s elite Special Operations Executive. According to Simon: ‘They fell madly in love.’
They married in London that year and she threw herself into family life. But it is clear from the notebooks and poems she left behind that Martin was never far from her mind.
In ‘Mousehole 1940’, a poem from the Seventies, she writes of that idyllic last weekend with Martin in Cornwall: ‘Where we sucked daily love, Out of the dancing air, And a foreboding sun, Marked each hour upon the dial.’
Opposite the poem, scrawled in an angry script, she rails against ‘the false morality of the times’ that prevented her and Martin from becoming lovers before he went back to France.
Simon never spoke about Martin to his father, who died a year after Nancy in November 2006.
He believes he accepted him as part of his mother’s life before he knew her. ‘He was secure enough not to be concerned about the distant past,’ says Simon. In the early Seventies, Philip even accompanied Nancy to Hazebrouck so she could lay a wreath on Martin’s grave.
But Martin remained the incarnation of perfect love for Nancy, what Simon describes as ‘an ideal my father could never match’.
He believes it is no coincidence that to the end of her life, his mother refused to move from Buckinghamshire — ‘the orbit of her first, great love’.
For Simon, too, Martin was a ghostly presence, conjuring up what he calls ‘ an alternative narrative’ running parallel to their own lives.
‘If my father and I had a fallingout, I would wonder what it would have been like if Martin had been my father. Reading his letters 70 years later was like meeting a long-lost family member. The mysterious young man in the photograph had acquired a voice.’
ON HIS quest to piece together this extraordinary romance, Simon retraced Martin’s steps to France, using his letters to pinpoint places he’d stayed and things he’d seen.
Martin’s final days were spent serving with a battalion which formed a vital guard around Dunkirk, holding the Germans at bay for as long as possible so that British forces could be evacuated from the beaches.
Some of the letters Simon took with him were covered in his mother’s tiny handwriting, her words laid over Martin’s. Simon still isn’t sure if his mother penned them as a recently bereaved young woman or later, as a married mother of three looking back.
‘Martin, I love you in the shape of everything,’ she wrote on one envelope, ‘the bright moon, weaving among the lights of winter. I love you in the sound of voices, streams, wheels, wind and the swish of grain ripening to gold, and pheasant’s wings.’
The last few years of Nancy’s life were marked by a decline into Alzheimer’s. By the end, she barely recognised her husband or Simon and his brothers. Martin was lost to her once more.
‘Writing the book,’ says Simon, ‘was a way of resurrecting her through fiction. It brings her back to me as a young woman, in the prime of her life. It helped to wipe away the very painful images of her death.’
The Very White Of Love by S.C. Worrall is published today by hQ, price £14.99.
Lost love: Nancy and Martin (main pictures). Above, Simon gives his mother a hug
Poignant: A love letter Martin sent Nancy (top), and one of hers that was returned marked ‘deceased’ (above)