A story she first covered for the Derry Journal in 2011 has inspired reporter and author Claire Allan to pen her latest novel - The First Time I Said Goodbye.
The book, Claire’s seventh, was released this week and has already received a number of high profile reviews - and readers are already declaring it to be Claire’s best book to date.
And Claire herself admits this one is a little different than its predecessors. “This book marks a slight change in direction for me,” she said. “With every book I have tried to move on a bit as a writer and this book is the clearest example of that.
“I took an amazing true story - one of those kind you cover once in a lifetime as a journalist - and was able to use that as a base for a book which will hopefully touch a lot of people.”
The story is one of the more memorable stories in the Journal’s human interest history - and it’s one which is sure to resonate with a lot of Derry people.
“Two years ago an email landed in my inbox from a Derry woman who promised she had a very romantic story to share with me. Unsurprisingly I’m a natural romantic so the story appealed and I agreed to meet the lady in question in the Tower Hotel to hear her story.”
It was there Claire first met Avril Trenkler and her partner Bob Faunce. Avril, originally from the Fountain proceeded to tell Claire how she had fallen in love with Bob 47 years previously when they were both in their very early 20s and Bob was stationed in Derry with the US navy at Lisahally.
Bob added: “I’ll never forget meeting Avril. My life changed that day.”
During the course of their year long courtship the couple became inseparable. “We would do a lot of walking, a lot of going to the movies. Or maybe going out to the base. Bob would come back home to have his tea with my family. My mammy always said to me he was a ‘lovely wee sailor’.”
“Or we would go to the Bollies - that’s where you went to neck,” Bob laughed, with a twinkle in his eye. So in love were the pair they intended to get married - and were only separated when Bob’s stint in Derry finished and he had to return to the States.
“I was to follow him,” Avril said. “I had the money for my passport. He had sent me money for a wedding dress. I was all set and it was then I got that lovely sad letter.”
With tears in both their eyes, Bob recalls how he simply took a case of “cold feet”. “I was young, and a sailor - travelling around. I didn’t really know what I wanted and I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
It was a mistake he regretted all his life - and while both Avril and Bob settled down eventually with new partners and went on to live full and happy lives, they never could forget the love they had shared together in Derry.
More than 30 years passed before they were to hear of each other again. “It was strange really,” he said, “I was in back in Derry at a base reunion when I heard she was still alive. My heart just leapt. She was alive and I knew I had to seek her out.”
In fact it was a letter Avril had written to the ‘Derry Journal’ after her own trip back to Derry in 2007 that alerted him to the fact that she was still very much alive. “The Journal had written a story about me and my sisters - we were back for a reunion - and afterwards, well, my sister had said something not very nice about Derry and I was so angry!” Avril laughed. “So I wrote to the paper and when Bob was back for the reunion our friend, Kitty Doherty Williams, told him she had seen the letter.”
Now armed with the information that his beloved Avril was now living in the States, Bob returned home and began searching for her using the power of the Internet.
“I knew her married name and that she was now living in Rochester so I went online and tried to track her down.”
It was yet another of Avril’s letters that would lead Robert to her. He came upon a letter she had written for a local newspaper about her grandchildren.
“I knew it was her. I knew the person writing the letter was speaking about her grandchildren exactly the way I would imagine Avril to speak about her grandchildren. I knew and managed to get an email address.”
He sent her a quick email asking simply: “Are you are who I think you are.”
She replied simply: “I’m still the same. I’m me.”
Eventually they found the courage to meet again face to face and have been inseparable since. They have since married and are enjoying a long and happy retirement together.
“Fate - and my editor Martin McGinley - sent me to the Tower Hotel that day,” Claire laughed. “I was never able to get their story out of my head. It wasn’t just the fact they were finally reunited after all those years, it was the manner in which they spoke of each other. It was so romantic, so brimming with hope of a happy ending. You don’t forget that.”
Last year as Claire started to pen her latest novel, Avril and Bob’s story kept coming into her head again. “I didn’t want to simply retell their story, that is unique to them, but I wanted to tell something inspired by those times and by the Derry women who left these shores to find love with their GIs - of the relationships which worked and which didn’t.
“I had never written anything set in the past before so I wanted to make sure all those details were spot on.”
She also, of course, had to speak with Avril and Bob - who she remained in contact with - to ask their permission to use elements of their story. “I was delighted when they agreed - and even more so when Avril helped me fill in many blanks about Derry of old.”
What followed was a few months where Claire pestered her family for more authentic details of Derry in the 50s and 60s and a book which, Claire says, Derry is as much a character in as anything else.
“I cannot express how much I loved writing this story - how I loved losing myself in old Derry. I loved writing about the community bonds, the way people watched out for each other, the glamour of the old City Hotel, the factories and the tea rooms, the gowns, the clothes bought on ‘tick’ from the Chada Brothers. It was all so inspiring.”
The result is The First Time I Said Goodbye - the name itself hinting at the emotion which lies within the pages.
“It’s not merely a love story. It’s a story about loss, about father and daughter relationships, about reinventing yourself, finding yourself and never giving up hope,” Claire said.
The synopsis sounds promising: “In 1959, factory girl Stella Hegarty finds herself falling unexpectedly for the charms of a handsome US marine based in Derry.
“Caught up in a whirlwind of romance Stella finds herself planning a new life in America with her beloved Ray.
“But when tragedy steps in, both their lives are thrown into turmoil and they come to realise they may have said their first, and last goodbye.
“In 2010, Stella’s daughter Annabel, reeling from the loss of her beloved father, agrees to accompany her mother Stella back to Ireland to meet her family for the first time.
“As the pair arrive in Derry - they both start to realise that sometimes you have to say goodbye to what you thought you always wanted in order to find what you have needed all along.”
Claire will launch the book on Friday, September 13 at The Sandwich Co, The Diamond - and she promises it will be a night to remember. “In keeping with the theme of the book I’m inviting people, if they wish, to dress in vintage style clothing (1950s) - of course people are able to come along in whatever they see fit but we want to make it special.”
Music will be provided by up and coming Derry singer Niamh McCay and the wonderful Noella Hutton - one of Derry’s best loved female vocalists - and of course there will be a chance to purchase a signed copy of the book.
“We have a few surprises on the night - I want to make it a very special celebration of the City of Culture year - and there’s no better time for me to sit back and think about the fact that I now have seven books out in the world.
“I hope people will come out and help me celebrate on the night - and give this very Derry story a chance to touch their hearts.”