Two incredible strokes of luck led to the writing of my novel ‘The Prisoner’s Wife.’
The first was the serendipity of the story itself. One day I was in an elevator at my mother’s sheltered accommodation when an elderly gentleman called Sidney Reed said, ‘I bet I could tell you a story about the war which would make your hair stand on end.’ He told me he’d been in a Nazi prison camp when two escaped prisoners were brought back in. When the guards had departed, one of the new prisoners turned to everyone in the hut and said, “I’ve got something to tell you. This other man isn’t an escaped soldier; he’s my Czech wife.”
Sidney told me there was uproar at the thought of a woman in the camp, but eventually the British prisoners decided they must protect her, hiding her in plain sight, dressed as an English soldier.
I had been a journalist and a BBC TV documentary producer, and the tingle in my spine told me that the best story of my life had just landed in my lap.
I went back to visit Sidney and he told me more detail about how the girl had to keep totally silent, how she coped with her period, how the other prisoners distracted the guards from her. He was keen to stress heroism of the men in protecting her. I was much more interested in this Czech girl, who had taken such a terrible risk for love.
I went away and began more research, eventually taking a trip to Eastern Europe, where I visited the museum of Lamsdorf Prisoner of War Camp and drove the 500 miles of the enforced ‘Long March’ through Poland and Germany. I had all the elements to begin, but something was still missing.
Perhaps I had always been interested in prisoners of war, because my dad had been one. But dad never spoke about his experiences. Not a word. So I was astonished when the second stroke of luck happened, just at the perfect moment in my research.
My dad’s best friend throughout all his life was a man called Harold. They had been captured together in North Africa and imprisoned in Italy and Austria. At my parents 40th wedding anniversary, Harold had praised my dad’s calmness and courage, but I didn’t really understand what he meant.
When Harold died, his son discovered some secret diaries which Harold had made during their time as prisoners of war. His son transcribed the diaries and gave a copy to me, because my dad was present on almost every page.
I was delighted but also anxious. Would I find out things about my lovely daddy which I didn’t want to know? But I had nothing to fear. Instead, the diary gave me the missing piece in the jigsaw of my dad’s life, and also gave me rich material for my novel, particularly for my main character Bill.
Finally, the novel could be completed.
Maggie Brookes is a British ex-journalist and BBC television producer turned poet and novelist. She is an advisory fellow for the Royal Literary Fund and also an Associate Professor at Middlesex University, London, England, where she has taught creative writing since 1990. She lives in London and Whitstable, Kent and is married, with two grown-up daughters. She has published five poetry collections in the UK under her married name of Maggie Butt.