My Great Grandpa: Magician and Refugee?

Three years ago I had an idea for a detective novel set in the Normandy city of Bayeux in the 1880s, inspired partly by heavily embroidered and likely inaccurate family stories. Whoever was discussing Great Grandpa, the central myth was that he and Great Grandma had escaped persecution in France by stowing away aboard a sea-going barge.

Part of the famous tapestry on display in Bayeux

I was lucky enough to meet my Great Grandpa. He entertained me with magic tricks, palming coins and once, making an egg appear from behind my ear, which made the four-year-old me scream. I had no idea eggs could fall out of my ears! How terrifying!

He lived with his younger wife, who I was to call Great Aunt, in a tiny cottage that smelled of wool and tobacco and rain. The walls were lined with brown and cream striped wallpaper. My memory shows me no pictures on the walls and only a pair of high backed chairs and a small table on which a green vase sat. Once there were bluebells in the vase, another time those tall ‘dog’ daisies often seen crowding English roadsides.

If he had been a refugee from France there was no way I could tell, and certainly not now, from this distance. He was simply a kindly but incredibly old gentleman who I felt would not be with us for long. He would have one eye on me and another focussed beyond the curtain of this world.

Gustave Caillebotte, ‘Man on Balcony’ 1880

It is true to say that my memories of Great Grandpa contributed the spark but I also had a desire to explore other aspects of my family history. There are rumours of links that go back further to the 17th century Huguenot exodus from France.

So what did I discover and what am I writing now? Well, as there is no hard evidence I can point to I thought I would make some up and properly romanticise the family mythology in a work of pure fiction set in the late 19th century.

At the end of August 2019 I began to fill a note book with one case for a young chief of police recently returned from the colonies to take control of the gendarmerie in his home town. On his first day in the job he discovers that an old schoolfriend is dead, drowned in the river Aure, and that his father, the retired magician, is missing. I spilled the words onto paper, a lined hardback notebook, and didn’t stop, or look back until it was full.

Almost a year later and I am penning the fifth book in what has become a series while writing up book one on my computer. The Magician of Bayeux: The Wolf and the Boar, is the story of Inspector Bassé and his first confrontation with the arch criminal Le Loup.

I have no idea when this project will be finished. Perhaps I am just getting started? At times the books seem to write themselves, the characters talking directly to me. It’s like standing in a river of words and I am simply the channel taking the current to the page.

I can write anywhere, anytime. I just need enough light and enough ink in my pen.

Inspector Bassé’s father is still missing and Le Loup is still at large. There are rumours that the elderly magician has been seen in London and a trail of letters has been discovered filled with hints and clues to the old man’s fate.

What Great Grandpa’s real story is I might never find out. Perhaps one day I will have the time to research through parish papers and registry files. Until then I am happy to enjoy the mythmaking of his sons and daughters while inventing my own.

About 14thcenturypoet

Author of Mandorlinfiore, an historical fantasy based on traditional Italian folk tales...
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