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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Notes from the Lost - chatting to Cathie Hartigan about her latest novel

It is my great pleasure to welcome fellow novelist Cathie Hartigan as my guest today. 

It's also publication day for her latest novel Notes from the Lost, a wonderful story set in Italy and parts of the UK, especially Exeter and London, two cities she knows very well.

Cathie, please tell us something about how you came to write this book?

Thank you so much, Margaret, for inviting me on to your blog.

A hessian shopping bag would not normally be a source of inspiration for a novel, but the unassuming outside disguised what it contained. I knew it was treasure. I’d had a conversation with a friend about Italy in WW2. He’d mentioned that his father had been a prisoner for a while, but had managed to escape into the mountains by jumping from the train that was taking him to Germany.

I was immediately interested. What happened next? It was winter and he was hardly kitted out for a hike through inhospitable mountains behind enemy lines. What I heard was a moving story of courage and humanity in the face of grave danger. Then he told me his father had written about his experience. There were letters, journals and photographs, and yes, of course I was welcome to have a look. They were in the hessian bag.

I spent a long time reading Captain Wright’s journals. He had the neatest and smallest writing I’ve ever seen, and my magnifying glass was indispensable. Whilst his writing was inspirational, however, I knew that I wasn’t going to write a faithful account of his experience. In Notes from the Lost I don’t attempt to comment on the details of the surrounding battles or the wider war. This is a small scale story in a civilian community. There were many men in Italy during the war, and such was the confusion that many escaped. I was also heavily influenced by the stories of servicemen who had been helped (and still are) by the Blind Veterans UK charity. My sister is a volunteer in the archive department, and I was moved by many of their tales.

A novel, though, is a thing of many parts and I was keen to write a dual narrative story in a similar vein to my previous novel, Secret of the Song. I’ve always liked a bit of a mystery and stories full of secrets, so I decided to give my contemporary heroine a trail to follow. I did this by having her discover various items that lead to the truth about what happened in the past. The first of which is the sheet music copy of an old song. It’s a comic song, the sort popular in the thirties, with a black and white studio portrait of the singer on the front.  I studied music as a student, and it was my profession for many years, so it comes quite naturally to populate my stories with musicians. They’re people first and foremost though, and for my heroine a relationship is definitely on the cards.

I had a wonderful, and at times emotionally challenging, time writing Notes from the Lost, but I hope my appreciation for what happened all those years ago shines through.

 See the photograph of Captain Wright and his notebooks above? As Cathie tells us, what happened to him was the initial inspiration for Alfie's moving and engaging story. 

Here's the opening of the novel.

1 The Italian Apennines, 1943

‘Get your kit, Alfie.’
Frank’s voice hisses in the dark, so close I can feel the heat of his breath on my ear.
Goodbye dreams of singing to my darling Dottie at Covent Garden. While I’ve been having forty winks, he’s done it. Smashed through the bolt with the smuggled pickaxe. I go to stand, but the swaying and juddering of the cattle truck is so violent, we end up half crawling and half thrown towards the open door.
Cold mountain air rips into every corner and down all the crevices between cloth and skin. Marvellous. I want to jump now, but the train’s going too fast. What’s the use of a broken neck? We’re in trees here, but the line of the ridge is visible ahead. I see it for a moment, before clouds smudge the bright moon. The air is fresh, but there’s something else that raises the hairs on my arms.
Out there, the big outdoors, forest, mountain, the inky sky of a million stars, it all means one thing – freedom. At last, at long, long last.
Frank’s on look out. He’s the best of us four here. My school chum, a big man now, surprising seeing as how Dottie’s so slight. Siblings mostly look alike but not those two, although when they’re smiling you can see it. Trustworthy, quiet, Frank has a steady hand and enough grit to deal with mines. The train slows. Yes? If it’s a bend, we’ll go. Frank tenses, and so do I. Is this it? Is it? But instead of jumping he pushes me back.
‘Wait,’ he says. ‘Lights.’
The train slows even more. Yes, lights and a bloomin’ station. Frank’s pulling on the door trying to close it, grunting with the effort.
It’s jammed.
The wagon jolts and we nearly catapult outside there and then. We hang on to each other, then crouch on our knees. There’s something in the door runner. It feels like lumpy sand, breaking into ever-smaller pieces when you get hold of it.
‘Bloody Jerry biscuits!’
Of course, Frank’s right. Before we left Sulmona, a handful had been thrown in. Our rations for the journey to Germany. We scrape at it like madmen.
Behind us, Ted and Stan are quiet, but pushing the door with all their might. It jerks forward a couple of inches, but still won’t close. If it’s seen open, we’re done for.
The end of the platform goes by. Flashes strafe us: light, dark, light, then mercifully darkness again. We lie flat as the train whines to a halt. Over the distant engine rumble, I can hear voices further down the platform. Is this an inspection? A signal stop? This isn’t a passenger train. Nobody boards by choice.
I close my eyes, and should pray but, when an owl hoots high in the trees, all I can think of is that poem we had to learn at school, about stopping at a station in the middle of nowhere and hearing all the birds of England. Dear God, what I’d do to be there.
Heavy boots rattle the planks of the platform. Someone’s coming.
One of the others lying nose down in that stinking space has better luck with the praying. Not two yards away, the footsteps stop, there’s silence and next thing I hear something familiar. By the sounds of the splashing, the railway bank falls steeply away to leafy trees or bushes. He’s humming too, a dance tune, while we lie like corpses. I’d not be him for all the tea in China, but in another time and place that could be me.
There’s a shout from the other end of the platform.
‘Beeile dich!’
‘Ja! Ich komme.’
The guard swears too softly for anyone but us to hear, but he’s done anyway, and sets off back down the platform. None of us move. Even the Germans don’t stop a train just to go for a piss. Another door slides open and then closes smoothly on its runners. Probably more chaps like us have been loaded on. With a juddering clanking jerk, we move forward.
Once the station and village buildings give way to forest, we make ready again. The door has no problem with opening. Relax and roll, I murmur under my breath. Don’t fuck up. Just jump. No problem.
My nerves jangle. Back at the Chieti camp, escape was about tunnelling, where the dark is a solid thing. Here there’s all the space in the whole wide world. Relax and roll. Don’t get hurt.
Frank keeps look out. I catch his expression in the moonlight. Jaw clenched, he’s frowning. There’s a thinning of the trees.
‘Go. Go!’ he barks. And they do. Ted and Stan. One, two – like parachuting from a plane.
Relax and roll, relax and roll.
‘See you soon, Alfie.’ Frank’s hand on my shoulder is reassuring, but I’m the senior officer here.
I nod and give him a gentle push. He disappears into the dark.
Now me.
Relax and roll. Go, go. Now!
You tell yourself these things, but of course what actually happens is in the lap of the gods. It’s not home, or Dottie or grand thoughts of freedom in my mind. Bill Flack is though. I didn’t know him well, but he played the harmonica like a demon. He was shot dead leaping from a truck yesterday. That’s what I’m thinking when I jump.

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