Raffles estate, Carlisle, late Saturday night.
Mary (not her real name) hears a heavy knocking on her front door. In her eighties and recently widowed she takes a long time to reach the entrance and slot the safety chain into the frame. She’s lived on the estate all her life and knows its dangers too well. Her eyes struggle with the darkness and she can barely believe her eyes when she sees two bulky men in uniform standing to attention on her doorstep.
Clearly they’ve come to the wrong address. They’re wearing identical smart black uniforms but speak with strange foreign accents. Surely can’t be police.She asks them to wait while she phones for her son. Looking out of her window she sees their car; bigger and blacker than the Daimler hired for her husband’s funeral. And there’s a flag on the bonnet, she can just make out the colours under the street lights – red, white and blue.
Her son arrives in minutes. Known as the local enforcer his legend is usually enough to keep anyone from messing with his mum.
Aware the neighbour’s curtains are twitching he invites the strangers inside. He can barely believe it when they announce they’ve come from Moscow with a special honour for his dad. What exactly did his dad do in the war?
In a brief ceremony they present his mum with the highest honour for bravery that the Russian people can award, to a foreigner – the gold star.
As soon as the Russians leave he sits his mum down, makes a cup of tea and fires off questions. All his mum remembers is that his dad spent half the war in prison, up in Scotland. Well a sort of prison, it was really an internment camp.
But his dad was English to his bones. What on earth had he been doing that condemned him to spend half the war in prison? Was he spying for the Russians? That couldn’t be right surely.
Next day he looked through his dad’s papers, discovering that he’d served in the Merchant Navy before the war began. So what led to him being arrested? Nothing in the boxes of photographs and faded documents explained this time in prison.
That’s when he asked if I could do some research. And I discovered a dark secret that the government tried very hard to hide. So much so that everyone involved spent the rest of the war in an internment camp. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.