As I was sorting through my mother’s possessions after her death in 2005, I found a battered, cardboard chocolate box at the bottom of her wardrobe. It was decorated with red roses and tied with a piece of red ribbon. Inside, I found bundles of faded love letters, tightly bound with string and fastened with tiny knots.
The letters were from my mother’s fiancé, Martin Preston, the nephew of the poet, Robert Graves. They had met at Oxford in 1937 – she was a schoolgirl, Martin was at St. Edmund’s College – and had fallen madly in love. At the outbreak of World War II, Martin enlisted with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, travelling to northern France in 1940 with the British Expeditionary Force. Shortly before he left, they got engaged.
I had always known of Martin’s existence. Right up to her death, under the glass on her dressing table, next to pictures of my father and her three children, she kept a faded photograph of Martin, sitting on a bench in Oxford, in a cricket blazer, his thick, brown hair swept back off his forehead.
Yet she had never spoken about the story of her love affair. Who was this dreamy-looking, young man, who looked up at us from under the glass? What happened to him? What was their story? The more I read his letters to my mother, the more I wanted to find out.
The box of letters propelled me on a journey of discovery that took me from Oxford to the battlefields of northern Europe, from historical archives to abandoned blockhouses on the Maginot Line. Each letter unpacked a bit more of the story. Each letter threw up new questions. Piecing together the narrative, I discovered the story my mother never knew; the truth about Martin’s disappearance.
Their letters were their gift to me. This book is my gift to them.