Tess Reitzel née Picot was the main character in my third novel Tess of Portelet Manor. She left Jersey in 1953 with her new husband Arno to live in England.
In 1970 a young journalist/writer Britt Skrabanek, on holiday in Europe, tracked her down, much to her surprise. Here are the notes she made at the time.
I arrived late for my appointment at a smart, detached house in leafy Dulwich, South London. I was greeted by a slim, lively woman who showed me into her bright conservatory. Over coffee and biscuits she explained that she and Arno had lived in the north of England up until two years ago. Then her stepfather had died and they had moved to London to be close to her mother who still lived in nearby Brixton but who was now rather frail.
Britt: Tess, you’re such a firecracker! You’ve been known to help anyone without an agenda, find a new experience and tackle it with gusto, and stand up for what’s right. Have you slowed down a little, or are you still as zestful as ever?
Tess: It’s that book isn’t it? Maybe it’s given you a false impression! All I can say is that when I was younger you got off your backside or you starved. Either that or go and beg for a pittance at the parish hall. So maybe I learnt to work hard, and I liked to help others whenever I could. Yes I suppose you could say I’m still the same – I always seem to be on this committee or that, fundraising and so on.
B: This restless spirit you have is something I deeply connect with. Do you ever feel that life’s possibilities are overwhelming? That you try to do it all, but you can’t?
T: My poor friend Lucille was the restless one, the dreamer, Britt. If I was ever restless I am no longer – I have everything I could ever want or need. But if you have dreams dear you must follow them where they will take you.
B: During the 1930s and 1940s, you were coming into your own as a young woman. However, you lived on your own, working, and even bought a car. Though these things are common today, they weren’t at the time, and some may consider your bold demeanour on par with feminism. Did you know you were doing anything special, or was it just another day for Tess Picot?
T: Yes, looking back now I suppose I was something of an impetuous young woman. It never occurred to me though to hold back just because I was female. But things could easily have turned out otherwise…
B: Maybe I’m just being overly romantic about a place I’ve never been to, but Jersey seems like it has such a mystical beauty about it. Is there more to Jersey than meets the eye?
T: It’s in the eye of the beholder Britt. But there’s a reason people go back time and again. I love Jersey, I always will.
B: You used every penny you had to turn – let’s face it, a bit of a shanty – into a beautiful cottage. You named it Portelet Manor, and the story behind that witty name is rather interesting. Can you share it with us?
T: A shanty? It was worse than that my dear! I was so ashamed to have my friends there that I used to call it Portelet Manor out of scorn. Then when the Germans made me name it officially I thought it was a clever way of giving them two fingers, don’t you think so?
B: Does Portelet Manor still stand today?
T: Oh yes. Or at least the agent keeps sending me the rent!
B: Many of us are familiar with the Nazi Occupation in larger countries, but Jersey endured many hardships as well. Are there any World War II scars visible today?
T: The people got rid of what they could, threw the big guns over the cliffs, dumped the small arms at sea. But it would be just impossible to get rid of the thousands of tons of concrete fortifications, bunkers and the rest. Maybe that’s as well, in order to remind everyone of those awful years.
B: After the Occupation, censored all those years from the outside world, how did you feel when Jersey became free again?
T: Britt, only when you’ve been kept prisoner for five years, hungry and cold most of the time, you know what freedom is like. To see those Tommies marching ashore to free us in May 1945 and to be part of those celebrations, I’ll remember it for ever.
B: Even the most courageous people in the world have fears. So, what about Tess?
B: When you were younger, your heart was broken badly and it seemed like it would never mend. But it did, didn’t it? Tell us, did you find a great love?
T: No it didn’t, not quite. Even now, so many years later, I still wonder what I did wrong. But I’ve been blessed to meet and marry my soul mate and that has taken away most of the hurt.
B: What’s next for you?
T: Well I need to think of something won’t I? My lovely daughter is 16 now and won’t need me much longer. Maybe Arno will take some extended leave and we’ll travel. I’d like to see something of the world while I still can, maybe the United States!
B: Tess, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. Take care and I wish you a great future.
T: I’m honoured that you thought it worth your while to seek me out Britt, thank you.
Thanks a million to Britt for playing along. If you’re not already a follower then you should visit her inspirational life blog here.