An extract from ‘Nell and the Girls’

Prologue: March 19

Tom came home with five identical square boxes.

‘Now then you three, line up!’

He called out, ‘Nell, come in here a minute, we ’re going to try our gasmasks on!’ Out of the boxes came the most horrible, grotesque apparitions, straight out of Jeanne’s worst nightmares. She was stiff with terror. Tom, Nell and her sisters tried theirs on. Tom, wearing the fearsome mask, brought his face right down to Jeanne’s level.

‘Now, come on Jeannot, be reasonable. Don’t be a silly girl!’ His voice came out of the mask, thin and muffled, and making the most awful sound when he took his breath in, just like Sandy next door when his asthma was playing him up.

Jeanne sobbed, frightened. ‘No, no . . . I can’t. I’m scared . . . I won’t be able to breathe.’

Tom was angry now. ‘Come on, don’t be stupid! You can see we ’re all wearing them and we can all breathe.’ Panic set in. Jeanne gave full vent to her hysteria. She opened her mouth wide. ‘Wa-a-a-gh!’

Tom lunged towards her, her way of escape into the hall cut off by hands trying to grab hold of her. There was only one thing for it – quick! – behind the piano. As luck would have it, the piano had been placed at an angle across the corner of the room. She squeezed in and curled herself up into a very tight ball. Tom could not get hold of her, either from the side or from the top. Her sisters, Marie and Irene, giggled eerily somewhere deep inside their gasmasks.

Tom took off his mask and threw it to the ground. ‘Oh, I give up. That child’s becoming impossible, Nell.’ As though it was Nell’s fault.

Jeanne stayed curled up in her haven behind the piano, quietly sobbing to herself until it was safe to come out.


1890 – 1940


William ‘Bill’ Simpson Sarginson and his friend Willie Peacock left Penrith, Cumberland, in the early 1890s to seek their fortunes. They were both tailors at a time when British materials and tailoring were much sought after.

Bill was soon employed as First Cutter by the prestigious House of Worth in Paris. He married Jeanne Marie- Francoise Tirefort, a giletiere (waistcoat maker) and they had two children, Marguerite ‘Maggie ’, born in 1894, and Tom, born in 1896.

When Tom was baptised, the Catholic priest refused to name him Tom as it was not a saint’s name but said that Thomas would do. Bill insisted that he wanted the child named Tom after his uncle back in Penrith. The priest agreed, but only if the boy also had another name, that of a saint. Bill and Jeanne thought quickly, and so the boy was named Tom Paul, after the acceptable name of a saint. Bill had Tom registered as a British citizen at the British Consulate in Paris.

The family lived in a flat in central Paris: 22, rue Cler in the shadow of Les Invalides. Bill had a workshop where he had a full-scale model of a horse, as he specialised in ladies’ riding habits en amazone – meaning side-saddle, to ride in the Bois de Boulogne. The model enabled him to drape the habit to his satisfaction and the children were allowed to ride on the horse when they visited occasionally. On one of their visits they met one of Bill’s clients, a Belgian princess who entertained the children by letting her jewel-encrusted pet scarab beetle run up and down the mantelpiece much to their delight.

While in Paris, young Tom was taken to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. What a treat that was for a boy, he was most struck by the Whirling Dervishes, one on each corner of the showground, who, he said, never stopped spinning for the whole four hours. He also saw La Goulue, the dancer depicted dancing on Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous posters of the Moulin Rouge. She had become known as the ‘Queen of Paris’ but, by the time Tom saw her exhibited in a lion’s cage in a circus show, she was old and well past her glory days.

When the children were in their early teens, Bill was promoted to manager of Old England, an establishment promoting British tailoring in Brussels, and the whole family moved there. They lived in rue de l’Arbre Beni, Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels.

Maggie was apprenticed to a leading Belgian milliner and was to make the rosettes for the wedding bonnet of the Belgian Princess Marie-Jose who married the Italian Crown Prince.

Bill had advised Tom to go into Electricity. ‘That’s where the future is, my boy.’ And so, in 1912, Tom was apprenticed to a Swiss firm in Brussels, Appareillage Gardy, learning about high and low tension switchgear.

When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, Tom and Bill were arrested and taken to the Ecole Militaire together with other British subjects at the end of August 1914. Bill, observing the comings and goings of crowds of people, all seeking help or information of some sort or other, said to Tom, ‘Look, I think we can escape. Just follow me, don’t look right nor left.’ And that’s exactly what they did. They threaded their way through the crowd looking neither right nor left, and found themselves back in the street and free.

They couldn’t go home and so stayed with kind friends: Bill at one house and Tom at another. They met Jeanne and Maggie, who were still free, at church on Sundays or in the park to exchange news and washing. Jeanne and Maggie were repatriated to England soon after by the Americans who were not yet in the war.

© Jeanne Gask