“I was born in 1900. I’m the same age as the year,” my great aunt Helena used to tell us back in the 20th century.
In the 1960’s when my brother and I were children, she came to stay with our family for occasional weekends and every Christmas. She was scary so we nicknamed her ‘The Dragon’. She had wiry grey hair and wore thick stockings on her legs and a frown on her face. She didn’t like noise – and wasn’t very fond of children either.
The Dragon worked in an office in London but never talked about her job. She was fussy about her food and insisted on helping my mother prepare meals. Though she never played with us, she was very generous and gave us £5 in our Birthday cards and £10 in red envelopes at Christmas. And the Dragon always arrived with a bottle of gin or whisky for my father, her favourite nephew.
When she retired from her job, I remember Daddy whispering to us that great aunt Helena was a spy – but he often told jokes and we didn’t believe a word.
Ten years later I was working in London and needed accommodation for a few weeks. My brother suggested I contact the Dragon whose flat happened to be near my place of work. In my twenties I was less frightened of my formidable great aunt and, as I was desperate for somewhere to stay, I telephoned her.
She could not have been more kind and soon I was installed in her formal but comfortable spare bedroom. During those weeks, I got to know the old lady better and discovered that a barking laugh was combined with a biting wit. We often ate together and she told me about her schooldays, her fluent French and how she had driven an ambulance during the First World War at the age of 17 – in France! She showed me faded photographs of her flapper days in the 1920’s – she was so pretty then.
I was amazed when she told me about her marriage at the age of 25 to a dashing young ex-army officer called George. He was older and had been married before – so her parents were not at all pleased. They made a handsome couple and were very much in love. But George left her five years after their wedding. He ran away to America with a nightclub singer and a scandalous divorce ensued. When her eyes filled with misty tears, I felt embarrassed. “He broke my heart,” she said. She never re-married, though George moved on to a fourth wife.
The Dragon mentioned she’d gone to Germany in the 1930’s and learned the language. In the war she started working for a security service in London. After her death in 1990 I learned this was MI5. Daddy had told the truth. Broken-hearted Helena – the awesome Dragon – had been a Spy.