Sabotage, betrayal and the terrible sadness of exile


Sabotage, betrayal and the terrible sadness of exile

Neal Ascherson's debut novel, The Death of the Fronsac, is an unforgettable recreation of life in wartime, and of the tragic fate of Poland in the 20th century. Read on for an exclusive extract.

One day, Jackie came home early from school and blew the world up.

That story should belong to her. So why am I telling it, so many years after it happened? For a strange reason: because nobody can pronounce my name.

I am called Maurycy Szczucki. Yes, Polish, although I have held a British passport for half a century now. When I renewed it in Glasgow last year, the young woman in the passport office was only the latest in the queue of well-meaning meddlers who have suggested that I change that name. ‘See, Mister, ehm, Sushi: you could make life easier being, like, Stuart or mebbe Shoesmith.’

I refuse. It’s not patriotism. It’s not even that, frankly, they could easily pronounce it if they bothered to try. ‘Sh-choot– ski’: not so hard. No, it’s because my name is one of the only two things I have left to stand by, to keep me sure about who I am. The other, less reliable, is memory.

After war and exile, I could have reconstructed what the British call a ‘normal’ life. But what happened on that day, the midday when Jackie came home early from school, led me off into fogs and mires. In the fog, other people came close to me but then were lost again. Whenever I set out on a paved road, the hard stone under my feet dissolved into marsh.

So many things happened to me – happened senselessly, I used to reckon. But when that girl in Glasgow challenged me, I suddenly thought: my name is a flag. I am still grasping it, even as an old man. If I hold it up and march back through my life, I might make sense of those memories. Not only the tale of a disordered man but a life as a geological core – mud, gravel, then sandstone full of grimacing fossils, then dead granite drilled from earliest times.

That is why I began to write this. For whom? Not for myself – I am finished with myself. Not for a namesake (I have no children) but for the sake of my name. So let us arrive in Scotland, in the year 1940, and start this story again.

One day, Jackie came home early from school and blew the world up.

I remember the day. In some ways, I remember it more sharply than what happened on the day.

It was late April, with May becoming imaginable. Pretty cold still, but handsome. From Greenock, you could see right across the big estuary. The warships and convoy ships anchored off the Tail of the Bank lay in sunlight; the Argyll mountains behind them were black in rain-mist. A northerly breeze kept jumping up and then falling away. It sent dark catspaws racing across the water from Gourock Pier to Princes Pier. The barrage balloon tethered to the Esplanade swayed and glinted.

All this I could watch from my window in the French naval headquarters. This day began as a wartime day: plenty of confident, pointless activity. Two British destroyers were making a mess of coming alongside at Gourock, thrashing up cataracts of foam as they went astern, whooping their sirens. Then a procession of blue naval lorries became stuck in the road outside the torpedo factory at Fort Matilda. Shouting broke out, though I couldn’t hear the words. Gulls lined the roof-ridges, jostling and shrieking. A white flying boat passed low overhead, landed almost out of sight by the other shore of the Firth and then, restlessly, took off again.

Everyone else was busy winning the war, but I was not. After all, I had just lost one. As a Polish officer freshly attached to the French navy, that experience gave me authority but also a certain unpopularity. I soon realised that I was losing a friend each time I said to some eager young enseigne de vaisseau from Brest or Toulon: ‘Your turn will come! Then you will see what they can do when they really mean it!’ So these days I sat at my table by the window, smoking Gold Flake and exchanging small talk with French colleagues about the eccentricity of the Scots. I had a telephone, the only one in the office, which was used by everyone else to make assignations with girls. I also took care to have papers spread out on the table, weighed down by the ashtray. These papers were my diary and some draft pages for a novel, but as nobody else could read Polish they gave a diligent impression. I read a lot, library fiction in brown-paper wrappers, to improve my English.

That day, when I came in, Commandant le Gallois told me that I was to wait indoors for the arrival of some personage from Paris. A figure from the Ministry of War wished to inspect the base and meet the foreign liaison officers. Due to the uncertainty of the trains, he might turn up at any hour of the day or night. I was to remain in the building until further orders.

This annoyed me, because there were other things I wanted to do. So, in spite of le Gallois, I did venture out twice. Why not? Who did he think he was? I should explain that all this was happening in the spring of 1940, when the French were free but not yet ‘Free French’, and nobody had heard of Charles de Gaulle.

This phoney war had, in fact, only ten days to run before Hitler’s panzers sprang out of the woods and gave France heart failure. I did not realise that it would be so soon. But of course I knew that it would happen. I had watched it happen to me and to my brave artillerymen and to my country, only seven months before. Where had France been then, with all her promises of a counter-offensive on the Western Front? Where would France be tomorrow, when the Nazi-Soviet dragon had finished digesting my country and came looking for its next meal?

I raised all this with Commandant le Gallois one evening, soon after my arrival in Scotland. He said that I was a pessimist; I said that I was a realist. A defeatist sort of realist, then? I reminded him that one of our great leaders had said that ‘to be defeated and not to give in is to be victorious’. We both sensed that it was better not to continue this conversation. Le Gallois smiled at me (he wasn’t a bad fellow), and, getting up, remarked: ‘After all, many of my colleagues think that we are fighting this war for Poland, for Danzig, but not really for France.’ I thought of saying: ‘Just wait and see!’ But then I decided to say nothing. I decided that I would continue to like le Gallois, who so calmly tolerated my waste of his time and space, but that I would no longer be in awe of him.

So I went out twice. The first time was to walk down to the noisy lorry convoy jammed on the main road at Fort Matilda, and see what it was carrying. Probably the trucks were carrying torpedoes. If they were French ones, strange contraptions with a bad safety reputation, I could accept that they were none of my business. But if they were British torpedoes, then they might be destined for one of our Polish destroyers or submarines based here, and I could make their delay very much my business. I could justify my existence.

While the drivers stared at my exotic uniform, I peered over the tailboards. No torpedoes. The lorries were carrying naval rations in crates. I went back to the office.

The second time I went out was around midday. No, a few minutes after. I meant to cross the main road at the foot of the hill and make for the gate of the torpedo factory. A British naval friend there, a lieutenant commander, had asked me to drop into the officers’ mess for lunch and a game of billiards, and I was going to leave a note explaining why I couldn’t come.

I do recall going down the headquarters steps and then stopping on the lowest one. Too much smoke in there, too many voices, and I needed to breathe for a moment. The Scottish air was cold, spiced with distant heather and bog- myrtle. Everything seemed to have gone quiet. The lorries had concluded their dispute and gone. The ships were silent; the argumentative gulls had slipped off the roofs and spun away across the water. The soldiers and children of the town behind me had stopped drilling and playing and had gone indoors for their dinner.

Even the little wind had died down. The quiet – and I swear that this is how I remember it – seemed to bulge, to become expectant. As if the universe had exhaled and now, very slowly, was beginning to draw breath again. What word or sign was coming? I thought of our enemy, that double-headed monster with its crooked cross and red star, and imagined it heaving again to its feet, filling its lungs with fire as it prepared to wade across the sea towards us.

I looked up at the sky. In my hand I was loosely holding a small brown envelope, my note to the lieutenant commander. Suddenly the envelope knocked my fingers apart and leaped to freedom. I stared after it, astonished. Then the sound came.

The Death of the Fronsac will be published by Apollo, an imprint of Head of Zeus, in hardback and ebook on 10th August