Shadows I

Where do you begin with the past?
How do you bridge the gap between human experiences then and now and why should it matter?
But it does matter.
It matters a lot.

In October 1942 a little girl named Tania lost her father to the war.
Sometime around Jan/Feb of 1945 the same seismic convulsion claimed her mother too.
She has grown up with no memory of her father, and only two fleeting recollections of her mother, and yet her whole life has been accompanied by the legend of her mother's heroism.
Even if she wanted to, she can never escape the iconic status of her legacy.
For her, the past still defines the present.

There are books, a film, even a museum to Violette Szabo, and like Joan of Arc she has been passed into public ownership as a national heroine, a poster girl for the appalling conflict that shaped my parents generation.

Her story is almost unbelievable, and not helped by post war flag wavers who couldn't resist adding layers of sensational speculation and inaccuracy.
The truth is available now, 70 years on, and no less extraordinary.

Married to a French Legionnaire she had known for only 6 weeks, she was widowed at 21.
He died at El Alamein 4 months after the daughter he would never see was born.
Violette was inducted into the Special Operations Executive, trained like a commando and sent into occupied France to work with the Resistance.

Everything about her story is tinged with a terrible, tragic romance.
The coded poem she was given to memorise is both touching and hauntingly prophetic in the light
of events.
In photographs she looks so young, so beautiful and so resolute that it's hard to separate her from the image history has bequeathed her.
And yet she was just a girl who married, had a child, joined up with all the others who were eager to do their bit and tried her best to survive the nightmare.

On her second mission into France, in support of the Allied landings on D-Day, she was travelling as a courier between two resistance networks when the car she was in was stopped at a roadblock.
She and the driver, a local Maquis leader, made a run for it but it was already too late.
They escaped through a farm but a damaged ankle slowed her down and she was forced to stop.
She held them off for half an hour with a Sten gun which gave her companion time to get away but her capture was inevitable.
At that arbitrary spot on the map, and in that twist of circumstance, she was lost to the darkness.

It's just a junction on a country lane on the outskirts of a quaint but unremarkable French village.
It's hard to imagine roadblocks, the sounds of gunfire, and shouting, and running feet.
Most of the cottages are owned by Brits now, and since the best of summer has gone, so have they.
Little has changed here in seven decades, though.
The farm looks the same as it did then, as do all the other features that figure in the evidence of a drama that happened so, so long ago.
I've made images from old photographs of mother and daughter and try to catch their shadows in the afternoon sun but the clouds roll in, the rain falls and the light fades.
Did I really think I could make something happen here?
What on earth was I doing, trying to pull the past into the present, chasing ghosts down blind alleys and hoping for significance where it no longer existed.

And then the lights on the farm buildings come on, and there they are, together.
For a brief moment they are in the same place, at the same time, their shadows as real as yours and mine.
And in a moment, they are gone.