• Promises Made and Broken: A War Time Romance

    Sometimes I wonder if my enduring love of writing romantic stories comes from my awareness of my parent’s tragic love story. My debut novel The Long Shadow is set in Greece and has as a theme the conflict of a child who is born from parents of Greek and English nationality and the subsequent tension in that person’s soul over where their roots lie and where their heart belongs. There must be many people in Britain who face this dilemma nowadays and in the end I’m not sure there’s a real conclusion. But you’ll have to read the book to see the possible solution!

    My father, Alex Cairns, joined the RAF when he was eighteen years old, spending his twenty-first birthday on a troop ship bound for the North West Frontier in India. Here he served for six years before being sent on to Aden, then Malta. The Second World War broke out and my father was posted in 1940 with the Mediterranean Forces and sent to Athens. As he was out on the town with a friend one day, he spotted a beautiful young woman walking along arm in arm with her own friends. They were a group of cheerful, young theatrical performers celebrating their latest success and singing as they walked along happily through Constitution Square. Alex fell in love in an instant. He said he knew she was his destiny there and then. He and his friend joined up with the group and both being fluent in French they began a conversation. During a drink at a nearby cafeneion Alex asked Diana Safralis to meet him again.

    Now my father was as handsome as Diana was beautiful; she was attracted to him and agreed ...why not?...with a shrug of her slender shoulders...but she was a much courted and admired young actress and singer and so in the end she didn’t bother to turn up for the date. On second thoughts...a British airman, not even a commissioned officer! He soon went out of her mind.

    However, my Dad was a persistent and crafty Geordie lad. He had followed her home when they parted after that first meeting and later arrived uninvited, knocking at her door, flowers spilling from his arms, full of Geordie charm, determined to win this glorious Greek goddess.

    My mother was a trifle snooty in those days. She came from a comfortable and educated family with servants, a two storey house in an Athens suburb. So it wasn’t as easy a courtship as he might have liked and he promised her all sorts of things. I do believe he meant to try and make them come true. Well, win her he did. They swiftly became engaged. The impending invasion of the Nazis hastened the wedding date and may well have played a part in my mother’s sudden acceptance of marriage. I think she may well have refused him otherwise. But this is hindsight and the outcome was that they married on Easter Day in 1941 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens. The only flowers available were arum lilies as it was Easter. My superstitious mother has always felt white flowers to be bad luck since then.

    At the reception a car arrived from HQ and my father and his best man were taken back to base. The Germans were marching from Salonika and the Forces had to withdraw with all speed to Crete. Diana, now a British citizen, claimed her passport at the British Embassy and was taken to the port of Piraeus. There were two boats waiting to evacuate the British civilians and with the wisdom of youth, she asked to go on the uncomfortable little ferry ship rather than the large elegant cruiser, Patrice 2. She felt instinctively that it would be less easy to spot. She was right for the larger ship was sunk while her smaller vessel made it to Suda Bay. She claims to this day that her miraculous ikon, packed in her little case, helped to save them all. The soldiers went on into the mountains and forests to hide and she was the only woman amongst them. Diana recalls the officers sleeping in a ring around her to protect her from the Australian soldiers who, sadly, had a bad reputation in those days where women were concerned though no-one denied their bravery in battle. She had a blanket above her and another below and it was cold in those mountains.

    Because Diana was Greek, she managed to get some eggs from a local farmer and made the officers an enormous omelette much to their delight. They rolled back their collars and cuffs because they were so dirty and did their best to look smart when called to her tent for the repast.

    Then she was taken over in a Sutherland to Egypt and Dad was allowed to come with her as they were newly wed. He sat at her feet in the plane, holding her hand. Thus they arrived safely in Alexandria, Egypt. My father went off with his squadron and my mother stayed with her Auntie Emilia who lived there. Auntie had the unenviable task of using paraffin and a comb to get the lice out of Diana’s hair! Later Diana managed to find a flat in Cairo and in that magical city I was destined to enter the world!

    Sadly the marriage was never an easy one despite these romantic and exciting beginnings. My father arrived at the flat in Cairo one evening without shoes, without his cap, looking deranged and shocked. He had to be taken to a mental hospital. The strain of the war had suddenly taken its toll on his nervous system. He recovered but was never quite the same man again.

    The marvellous life, the servants and fine house my naughty Dad promised were never likely to materialise in Newcastle, a city then so grimy, poor and undeveloped. My Gran’s dark, Victorian house in Woodstock Rd. and the bleakness of post-war Britain was an immense culture shock for my Greek mother who literally fainted from the cold snows of 1947, one of the worst winters of the century. Immediately after the war, Mum took me over from Egypt to visit my grandmother in Athens but that was the last we saw of her for many years. I was only to meet her again when she came briefly to England in my teens. We lived the Forces life, moving from one married quarters to another until Dad at last retired from the RAF and we came to live in London. Life was poor and difficult and he fell ill once more, unable to cope with civilian life, succumbing to the manic-depression that haunted him until his early death at the age of 68.

    However, Mum stuck faithfully and loyally to her unhappy marriage till Dad died in 1977 and their war-time love story ended forever

    Diana re-married in 1981 and she and Norman Strassen were very happy together till his death in 1998.

    Angela Diana Strassen nee Safralis died on 4th December 2010

LORETTA PROCTOR

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