At a small French cafe in 2010, Time & Regret was born. My husband and I discussed the plot all evening, the twists and turns becoming more elaborate as the bottle of wine disappeared. We took lots of pictures that summer, some of which offered inspiration for Lies Told in Silence; others are now providing ideas and texture for my next novel, Time & Regret.
Here’s the premise: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband, Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather’s WWI diaries along with a puzzling note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret he kept hidden for more than seventy years.
This first photo is the place where my husband and I stayed in Honfleur, a small town across the Seine from Le Havre. In Time & Regret, Grace stays here for the first few days of her trip to France.
“Located in a grand three-storey house with imposing columns on either side of the front door, the hotel looked elegant and, after stepping inside, I rang the bell and looked around. The room just beyond the front hall was full of ornate antiques and overgrown plants, Persian rugs and gilded ceilings. In the living room an enormous mirror filled one wall, its frame decorated with coloured glass in the shape of vines. Flanking the mirror were blue Chinese vases, at least three feet tall, etched with red, white and pink flowers. Opposite the mirror on a marble-topped chest of drawers was a chess set, a vase full of blood-red roses, a turquoise urn and a brass lamp. I could not decide whether this arrangement was contrived or random. Scattered along the other walls, as if it was important to fill as much of the room as possible, were high-backed chairs with winged sides, their wooden legs carved and gilded, and their backs and seats covered in muted floral patterns. A baby grand piano stood in the far corner, topped with an old gramophone.
Since no one had yet arrived, I rang the bell again and stepped further into the living room. Two large doorways invited exploration, one led into the solarium where tables were set with crisp white cloths and potted geraniums filled every window ledge, the other into the dining room with a mahogany table and matching sideboard, three huge canvases and the marble bust of a black warrior above the fireplace. Enchanting, in a bizarre way.”
Musee de la Grande Guerre in Peronne was a wonderful if sobering experience. Simple displays made for more impact.
“Peronne was a larger town, its streets and squares decked with hanging baskets while citizens strolled about enjoying the sunshine. Housed in a medieval chateau, the museum’s collection was laid out sparingly for maximum impact. On the floor surrounded by ten-inch wooden frames were full uniforms and kits for French, British, Canadian and German soldiers. Similar frames housed rifles, ammunition clips and light trench mortars, medical instruments, ambulance supplies, and signalling equipment. Further on, a display of camouflage techniques showed a hollowed out tree trunk used as an observation post and a range of ingenious materials to disguise artillery and command posts. Along the walls were posters exhorting civilians to donate to the cause or help in some other fashion.”
Intending to explore the areas around Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy where her grandfather fought, Grace stays at a hotel called Chateau Noyelle. Exploring the Chateau’s salon while waiting for cup of coffee, Grace finds this framed certificate.
“Stopping to order an espresso, I looked around the bar at comfortable chairs organised in small groupings for intimate conversations before dinner or perhaps a reading retreat on a rainy day. Large windows embraced by silk overlooked the front yard. I approached a display of sepia photos next to a tall curio cabinet and peered at the first one, clearly a shot of the building before it had become a hotel. Two women holding lacy umbrellas were in front of the chateau wearing long skirts and white blouses with wide sleeves and tight cuffs. Nothing alluring about those outfits, I thought. Beside them was a young boy holding a hoop in his hand, a straw hat on the ground nearby. Below the picture a silver plaque said Chateau Noyelle, 1879.
Beside that photo was a framed certificate bearing the American coat of arms. Curious, I bent my head to read the inscription: The President of the United States has directed me to express to Andre Justin-Gabriel Constant the gratitude and appreciation of the American people for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from the enemy. Underneath was the signature of Dwight Eisenhower as General of the Army. My imagination began to work, spies lurking in the corridors, an underground passage through the woods, secret doors behind . . .
“Your espresso, Madame.” “
Time & Regret is told through Grace’s voice, through her grandfather Martin’s voice and through the diary he kept. Bill Jackson, Michel Diotte and Pete Vanleuven are Martin’s friends. Butler is his commanding officer.
” “We’re gearing up for a major offensive,” said Captain Butler.
Martin was in the cellar of a house partially destroyed by shelling. He thought these brigade headquarters a distinct improvement over the dungeon HQ had occupied in December. Smelling of dried bat droppings and ancient slime, the air in that deep, dark space had created a feeling of doom as though the echoes of tortured screaming had only recently faded. He shivered, not from the cold but from the memory.
Jackson, Vanleuven and Diotte sat with Butler at a rickety table while Martin and the captain’s adjutant leaned against the wall. Rain slickers hung from hooks next to the entrance dripping remnants of sleet onto a hard mud floor.
“There’s an enemy salient near St. Eloi.” Butler stabbed at the map. “We’re part of the force ordered to eliminate it.”
“What are those, sir?” Diotte pointed to several numbered circles on the map.
Pete scratched the rash at the base of his throat. “Who occupies them?”
“That’s the problem,” said Butler. “We thought we occupied four and five and could attack craters two and three from those positions. Turns out the Germans still hold them. Our battalions couldn’t tell one crater from another. Fucking mess. We go in tomorrow night to relieve the Sixth.”
Captain Butler spent the next two hours explaining the operation and answering questions. Trench reinforcements would be the first objective, their brigade augmented for this task by two thousand reserve troops. A series of bombardments and infantry attacks would follow with the aim of securing four of the largest craters.
“Fucking mess is right,” Martin said to Bill as they slogged through the mud, the wind whipping sleet against their cheeks. He wiped his eyes and squinted. “Here’s the turn.”
“Doesn’t look promising,” Bill said.
“If the Sixth has lost more than five hundred you can imagine what we’re in for.”
April 10, 1916
Diotte has been wounded. Bill saw the stretcher bearers take him off but we’ve had no confirmation. Can’t leave my post to find out. I’ve prayed that Michel will be all right. Feels strange praying out here in the midst of what can only be described as hell.
April 12, 1916
Severe enemy bombardment. Spent the day reassuring men holding the line.
April 14, 1916
Butler said that aerial photos show all craters still in German hands. Lost Jimmy and Snowy last night. Both went down in the same scramble up the far side of a crater. Wilson and I dug them out but we couldn’t get any medics in time to save them. Snowy knew I was with him at the end. We don’t seem to make any progress. Communications often fail to get through so we are uncoordinated. No sleep. “
As they say – a picture is worth a thousand words.