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 ...

Daily Mail - - Femail Magazine - by Bar­bara Davies

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)

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