If you were born in the 1950’s as I was, you will no doubt remember wartime stories passed down to you from your parents.
My parents were not old enough to fight in the second world war, but their stories of gas masks and rationing, dried egg sandwiches, and night-time forays into the Andersen shelter at the bottom of the garden, stuck with me. In particular, one story fascinated me – the one about a neighbour of theirs who was taken prisoner early in the war and spent five years in a forced labour camp for the Germans. He struggled to get over his experience more than those who had actually been fighting, and I always wondered why.
Years later, I moved to a small town ; Carnforth in Lancashire. The town itself used to have a big ironworks, long since gone, but now its one claim to fame is that it was once the scene for the famous film ‘Brief Encounter’ starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. When I went to look around the Station Heritage Centre and found out more about the filming, I discovered the film was made in the last months of WWII. So now I had two ingredients – the story of a prisoner of war, and the story of the making of ‘Brief Encounter.’
Research led me to discover that in February 1945, when David Lean was filming ‘Brief Encounter’, on the very same day we were sending bombs to decimate the beautiful cultural city of Dresden. What if these two events could be brought together? So, I had the third ingredient and an idea was born, the story of a wartime couple torn apart by war. But not just that – ten years later they are married, but neither has any idea what really went on for the other during their separation, or what it will mean for their future relationship. Wartime stories by necessity deal with larger themes of love and death, and people under extraordinary pressure. Rhoda and Peter have always hidden their pasts from each other, partly from self-preservation, and partly to shield the other from the truth. When Rhoda finds a letter from another woman, and the facts begin to surface, will Rhoda and Peter survive knowing the other’s darkest secret?
I was very attracted by the visual style of the film, ‘Brief Encounter’, its light and shadow, the way it made locations significant and tell their own story, so I have tried to keep that in my descriptions. The theme of the film is that hard choices have to be made about loyalty if a relationship is to survive, and I wanted my book to reflect this.
Whilst writing Past Encounters I interviewed people who remembered wartime Carnforth, and drank more tea and ate more biscuits than is probably good for me, whilst scribbling frantically in my notebook. I was also incredibly grateful for on-line sources such as ‘The People’s War’. Memoirs of prisoners of war and soldiers who endured the Great March of Prisoners of War through frozen Germany, also helped give a backbone to the book.
One of my aims is to show just how amazing ordinary people can be, if you scratch beneath the surface. By the end of the book Rhoda and Peter have found and lost loves, fought for survival, endured tragedy, and discovered the hidden depths that make a bond between two people true and lasting.