My grandmother used to say that the village, meaning Shoreham, would find you, take you in, scrub you up and only let you go when you were a happier, smiling person.
The reason I mention this, is that it may have some bearing on the story I am about to tell you. As usual don’t blame me, I am only repeating what my grandmother told my grandfather – just before he said ‘stop talking stupid, Annie’ and went to the Rising Sun for an ale.
For the sake of the story I have to take you back to the winter of 1944, when things were a lot different from they are today. The war had been raging for several years and most people had just got on with things. My grandmother, as well as bringing up her family, was a cleaner in and around Shoreham. On a Tuesday she would help out at the Old George at the top of Church Street. It was here, that she met a young French girl, Eloise, who had probably been on this Earth twenty summers at the time. The two women hit it off immediately and became best pals.
One cold, snowy December morning a ray of sunshine walked into my grandmother’s life. It was the Hollywood actor, David Niven, who had returned home for the war and had taken part in the Allied invasion of Normandy earlier that year. He would sometimes drop into the George on the way to, or from, London. He told my grandmother once that he was based in Chilham, and that was as much as he could tell her. It wasn’t until years later, when she read one of his autobiographies, that she found out he had been in some Signal’s Unit or another.
Both my grandmother and Eloise were smitten by the rascal and had things been different, Niven might have been my grandfather. One morning on his way back to his Kent village, David Niven stopped by the George for a chat. David asked my grandmother if Eloise was about – but apparently she was at the Co-operative shop on the High Street – so they made a date for that evening for all three of them, and a pal of David’s, to meet in a tea-room at the other end of the village.
My grandmother had a million-and-one errands to run before their tea-time meeting. Eloise, on the other hand, spent the rest of the day borrowing what little make-up there was, painting stockings on her legs and generally looking like a beautiful young French girl.
In the end, my grandmother never got to that tea-time meeting, for she was too busy, mending and re-mending clothes that belonged to my mother and her brother. My grandmother, like most women and men during the war years, never stopped working to repair and make-do.
The next-time Eloise ran into my grandmother, the French girl had a bounce in her step and a smile that almost cut her face in two. Apparently the American gentleman whom David had introduced to Eloise, had been the most ‘wonderful companion’.
“So funny, Annie, and so clever. He is a musician,” Eloise told my grandmother. Even after all these years, my grandmother couldn’t understand why it hadn’t twigged at the time who the man was.
Eloise, David and the man all went out for drinks in the city and over the next weeks, my grandmother saw less and less of Eloise. That was until that very cold afternoon in November when my mother had taken a few minutes from her day to walk up by the Cross. It gave her a sense of perspective walking up there:
“It would keep me going for the rest of the day,” she would say, and it was up there that she first met the American gentleman. My grandmother said he was a lot older than Eloise but in those days of the war that wasn’t unusual, younger men were thin on the ground back then.
“He kept humming little tunes, then he’d giggle in that American way before kissing the French girl. I think he was married, he never really talked about his family,” said my grandmother.
It was a day in early December, when my grandmother entered the George public house to find Eloise crying in a corner of one of the bars.
Eloise told my grandmother that the American gentleman had fallen madly, totally, head-over-heels in love with her and that she felt exactly the same.
“He wants us to go away, except…he is in the army and he must do what he is told,” Eloise said. “He will either be killed or he must go back to America, to his…family.”
My grandmother said that Eloise was heart-broken.
December the 13th was the last time my grandmother saw Eloise or her American friend. My grandmother received a post card at Christmas that year from Scarborough in Yorkshire – the card just said ‘Merci. Eloise’.
It was probably around the same time that my grandmother heard about a famous musician who had disappeared over the English Channel on his way to France. The photo in the newspaper was the same man she had met with Eloise up by the Cross that day.
Or at least it looked like him. My grandmother was convinced it was Glenn Miller that she had met that day.
The weird thing was David Niven was Miller’s best buddy in England, and apparently had drinks with him the night before he disappeared – but he never mentioned any of it in his autobiography. My grandmother had bought a copy to see if she, or Eloise, or Shoreham were ever mentioned – but they hadn’t.
Like everyone else, my grandmother just got on with her life. Sometimes, when she had a ginger wine or two, she’d tell folks of her meeting in Shoreham with David Niven. Once or twice she thought about telling the story of Glenn Miller – but she would always change her mind.
She’d just raise a glass to the French girl and smile.