He finished a Galoise, and stubbed it out in the small puddle on the bench beside him, listening to the sizzle of the hot-end in the water. Then he cursed himself. “Silly old man," he said. He pulled out another cigarette, and squeezed the filter into his mouth, rolling it between his lips like a baby’s dummy. He put his face under his wax-jacket, trying to get a sustained flame under its protection, but after five or six failed attempts he stood up, and cursed the world.
The wash from the boat was a stretching spine in the ocean black as night. He noticed the similarity now, watched the waves brought up frothing, like the saliva of the sea, and thought of bones excavated from graves not nearly so deep. He thought of his sister. A rub of moon hung low in the sky, glittered by stars, dead, the colour of jaundice. The wind gushed like the easy words of easy friends. It tousled his thin strips of silvering hair; it slapped onto his face like a sandpaper fist; it rocked the boat and made him feel ill, and because of its ferocity none of his matches stayed lit. But wait! A flame. He puffed at the Galoise, and shuddered, holding in a death-cough.
Another five miles to the homeland. He could not wait to kick up French soil. It was different to soil found anywhere else in the world. It smelt of God. Now, English soil- that was a different matter. He had noticed it two days before, in Weymouth, at the funeral; a horrid plastic odour like credit cards or lycée chairs. As if everything was synthetic; soil, priest, death, belief. And his sister’s freshly dead body became part of that. Poor Antoinette! She deserved so much more. Twelve English guests stood around her grave, him the only Frenchman. Husband, son, crying like little girls fallen over with scabs on their knees. The weak English.
He had shown respect. While her fool of an old-man husband collapsed, he had stood strong-still, a memorial, cold and stone and grey. It came to him, then, that all this was a punishment. It served her right for ending her years on the wrong side of the Channel. She had betrayed her French blood, so what could it do? It had to betray her. Turn poisonous and run black like a stream full of cow shit. Clot and coagulate, turn her arteries into a tangle of rosaries. And then burst her heart like a nail through flesh.
He had only been to England twice. The first time in the late 60s, when he had watched her die at the altar, relinquishing all she had been before to become Mrs Jeremy Scott, the woman taken off the shelf by the noble war-hero. He still remembered her now, already turned anaemic by the ghastly British weather, her face perfect porcelain under the marriage-shroud. She had difficulties with the vows. In three months she had met the bastard, fallen in love, and arranged the banns, and her English was still broken. She could say, ‘I do.,, 1 do …,’ but she spluttered the rest nervously, so that it seemed she promised ‘To love and hobby.’
It had caused an uproar. Girls giggled at the back as they smoothed hands over their pasty legs, while the haughty maidens who only came out for Christenings, Marriages and Funerals sighed, muttering that nothing was safe from the brutal nature of the women’s liberty movement. But the worst thing, the thing that made him clench his big, tanned hands into prize-fight fists, was the attitude of the groom’s parents. He saw it in their faces. Silly frog bitch. And marrying our son. Where did we go wrong?
He wanted to rescue her then. Battle his way through all opposition, up, up, up the aisle, and reclaim her. Indeed he had half-stood up, and the old organ-player beside him had smiled, anxious for some excitement to make new the routine monotony of his yet-another ceremony, but just then he had seen his sister look at her still-Intended, and he knew that he had ceased to exist for her. She was in love with another, and the love would always be stronger than the one that they had shared. And he sat down and wept quietly.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving in Boulogne …’
He looked out at the dirtiest sea he had ever seen, and it was lighter now, the sky. Nearly 8 a.m. He swung back and glanced over his shoulder. In the distance a thread of orange sun spooled out over the horizon, and it seemed as if England had a monopoly on the light just now. He returned his gaze to the port. The lighthouse was in darkness, and it was as if he was not welcome. He looked at the small square shades on land, terra cota houses, and thought of the run-down barn in which he and his sister had made a home when their father died, surviving the Second World War by three weeks and a day, leaving them orphans forever. How he hated his father! The only thing he had left him, his little inheritance, was a sound knowledge of the English language. That, and an ability to hate.
He had tried to forget how to speak the foreign shit, but every word had a place on his body, where he was bruised by his father’s hands for mispronunciation of ‘boat’ or ‘because,’ or for lack of interest, or for laziness, or because there was no Napoleon left in the brandy-bottle and it was the middle of the night. He could not forget the bruises, and so he could not forget the words. He was a dictionary, a postmodern English novel. Down his forearms ran the chapter of a book.
He was almost home. He read the sign again,
a large, narrow placard spattered black by the spitting sea. The ferry was in a docking channel now, a mouth to the port surrounded on either side by the amphibeous half-mile of France, the scaffolded platforms rising out of the sea on iron stilts. He saw the network of steel ladders linking level to level, the sea to the city, and recalled the whispered tales and propositions of rough men in Brittany bars: you could lose anyone you wanted here. A few thousand francs and it could be arranged. A bit of torture, a snap of the neck, and then they were cast down, into the sea, a boulder on their bellies chain-wrapped with bobstay.
Of course he had heard many things in his life, and chosen to believe only the most implausible, but he could not accept what he had heard of this port. This was the place he had come after the first job was over, when he had escaped from the people with electric running through their fingers, the people with ice-blue eyes and burnt-black tongues, who coldly administered their jabs of pain to him, calling it modem medicine, insisting it would make the horrors stop. It was here that he hid out, 1946, trying to get through those first six months. But there had still been the nightmares. He slept in stone-floored alleys with the dead he had known for those two months of work. Wherever he went they followed. Coughing up their rotten insides, the toughened flesh of their still, black hearts and the fragments of ammunition that had pierced them. Stroking his hair with fleshless fingers, tapping his teeth with their bones. Showing him blood-spotted photos of wives and new-born children. Crying for a reprieve.
But the worst nightmare was the one about God. God’s eyes in the sky. Two flame-balls piercing the darkness, and then nothing but wails. God sleeps. “God is sleeping and missing the suffering,” he said. “He closes his eyes and we perish.”
Fifty years on, and those he had buried still followed. They even made it to England. “I have something to show you,” his brother-in-law had said, and they drove the few minutes from Weymouth to the Portland Museum. “Here it is…”
And there it was. A slab of Portland stone and a proud poster detailing its history. ‘Used by the War Commission to make the gravestones of those killed in the First and Second World Wars.’
“You worked for the War Commission, didn’t you? They do a frightfully good job. Antoinette was very proud. They have beautiful cemeteries.”
Oh yes, the beauty of those places. He felt the Portland Stone and saw the eyes of God, but they were smiling, laughing, and he heard the cries of dead men, and rubbing his face he saw nothing was moving anymore and the ferry had stopped.
His sister proud of his work? Never. She saw him, thirteen year old, unable to eat or sleep, afraid to return to those fields of mud and dug-back-up bodies, afraid but aware it was the only way they could survive. “We will get money from elsewhere, Henri,” she said, knowing they couldn’t, “Don’t go back…. we will find something else." Oh, but the smell…
The smell! Yes, he knew as he walked from the boat, just from the smell, that he was in Boulogne. Cat food. Fish and shit cat food. He stepped onto solid land and wanted to kiss the ground. Back in France! It was light now and the sky was the grey of an old birchwood tree. He watched the birds flying tight together then dispersing, swelling out like specks of wet tea-leaves thrown into the air. They disappeared behind tall buildings, re-emerging in a clump again, and he remembered the time and wanted to take out his thermos flask, filled with English Morning tea. The only English thing he liked.
He hurried through the douanes with nothing to declare, and found a wall on which to sit, so he could drink the beverage gone cold from the hours of travelling. He was at peace for that moment, watching the birds, listening to the voices of the French people walking past him. The tea was too milky. Mrs. Rogers, his brother-in-law’s once-a-week housekeeper, had come in especially to see him off, and to make his tea too milky. She was a kind woman who had been a good friend to Antoinette, and one night during his stay in England he had chatted to her about his sister. And, almost to his disappointment, he had found out that she really did have a good life. “She was happy right to the end,” Mrs. Rogers said.
Yes, she was happy, Antoinette. Happy with her husband, family, love, money, with her house, her horses, cars, life. He had had a car once, a battered, yellow 2CV, its spare wheel missing, its leather seat-covers cracked and spewing out sponge. And nothing else seemed to matter. As long as he had the car he could move, never settle. Move, never settle. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long.
He had no time to catch up with Boulogne now. “Not even one hour,” he said to himself. There was no time because he had a train to catch, and things to do. Final things.
They had buried their father on the plot of scrub land adjoining their small gite in Arras. He dug the grave himself. The ground was dry, hard like his father. He cried as he worked with the old, splintered spade, because he hated his father, he knew he hated his father. They had a simple ceremony, not that their father had been a religious man, but because the priest had known their mother, a Catholic of conviction, who had died so young, smiling, shouting in her last frenzy of breaths that she could see God, and he was a beautiful mulatto.
They buried their father, and Antoinette fell on the mound of soil after he was covered over, and had to be dragged away, back into the home. And that afternoon their father’s business partner arrived, flanked by four large farm-hands. Their father owed massive debts; it was a good job his heart had stopped of its own free will, for others might have stopped it for him. He had gambled with the wrong sort, playing baccara with his house as collateral, and so the children no longer had a home.
But the partner was a kind man, and offered them temporary accommodation in a disused, half-fallen down cow-shed. He remembered the little building now; how it had been their first real home, their first place filled with love. Secluded in the corner of a blazing field of coquelicot-coloured corn. Antoinette slamming closed the makeshift shutters, and serving into their two chipped ramekin dishes the slop of offal that she had cooked outside on a tiny kindled fire, a soup of sheep’s cervelle and foce. France was free again and people celebrated anything, everything that year…. “A month since Liberation! Let’s have a party!” Commemorations, celebrations- but not for them. They hid behind their rotting-wood front door in a field miles from the town, knowing that time was running out because their bit of money was. Soon Henri would have to find work.
Fifty years later, he nearly missed the train. “I am not so fast on my feet, then,” he said to himself, but he smiled, because he was sixty-five and could still walk ten miles without a rest. The train to Arras, the connection at Etaples. Ninety minutes.
The last time he had seen his sister alive was in Arras. Fifteen years ago now, when they were still able to talk without snarling. They had sat outside a cafe in la Place Foch eating crepes, watching people shop, remembering the times when they had longed to sit in a restaurant, knowing that was what sophisticated adults did with their lives. There had not been so many English then, and she had left her husband behind with the children. Henri thought she had left them, and returned for good. They had laughed at years gone by; the days when they ran around markets on a Sunday morning and stole fruit, little children not old enough for school. She had to clamber onto his little shoulders to reach the wares, and once he slipped and she was pushed onto the stall, sending a tidal wave of melons and apples down the street. In the commotion they got away with the biggest melon of all, so large that they had to roll it between them, but it got away from them, and they were left with nothing after all. Yes, they laughed at this years later, so much so that they shed tears, and Henri took out his handkerchief and handed it to his sister, and while she dried her eyes, he said, "I’m glad you’ve left him- you belong here. "
She had exploded. What sort of woman did he think she was… one who would abandon her family; her husband, her young children? She had come alone because she was worried about him. All she ever did was worry about him. It was as if he was her eldest son! But no more. He had been in and out of those- houses of the mad all his life. It was time he grew up, looked forward. He was too tied to the past. “It’s not as if you even fought in the war,” she said. "You have always been too dramatic. "
It was his turn then, but what could he say? He had walked away, stormed off in tears, and she did not follow, and although they spoke on the phone five or ten times after that, he never saw her alive again. How could she have said it? She knew what he had seen. She had heard his screams from the three months of nightmares; she had sat there and held him as he spewed out the details of the horror of bodies waiting reburial in that cemetery-site. She had comforted him, then, wrapped herself around him and kissed the back of his neck. Still he could never go back to sleep.
He woke up every morning and burned a page from his father’s English
dictionary. A page a day. But at work he had to translate for the foreman when the War Commission officials gave out their orders. They were always good at that, the English, giving out orders. They were not there to scrutinise the Hell of decomposing bodies, just to make sure things were going to schedule. The French peasants were working hard for their money. Burying bodies and planting flowers. Landscaping Hell on Earth into a heaven.
The train pulled into Arras station, and still the names haunted him. Robert Bryant, George Kirkpatrick, Samuel Smith, Harry Foster … Names, numbers and regiments. Dead English names, and the faces rising from beneath the stone, trying to speak, trying to tell him God was asleep. " ‘La terre emplit leur bouche pour les faire taire,"’ he said. Earth fills their mouths to keep them silent.
Opposite the station was the café where he had sat with Antoinette the last time. She had eaten a ficelle picarde, and admitted she missed good French food; he drank four glasses of Genievre and felt a dizzy-numbness glug up to his waist. How he loved this town. How he wished he could stay. He walked to le Place des Heros and got into a taxi parked on the pavement by the arcade of what he remembered to be a fine house. Now the brick was weather-beaten and the gable crumbling fast. “Longueval,” he said, to the driver.
Longueval! What a poor place. A village surrounded by those corners of France populated by the dead. He shuddered, now, remembering the empty land, how they worked in the fields of mud. It was fine at first, oh yes, but then the truck came, and his life was over. He had never seen a vehicle quite so large. Painted pitch and tumbling through the darkness of earth and sky, its headlights penetrating the relentless fog like the eyes of God, as if He was a ground-trooped come to record the crimes of his creations. It roared, rolled forward, splaying and spattering his face with the mud and the shit of the blooded French soil… rubbing his nose in it. It reminded him of the Pale Rider, this time carrying back the dead, to deposit them with a bump and thud of flesh in a pile, a pyramidic pile of blown-off-bits and blueberry faces, a thousand Turin shrouds.
A heap of bodies. He wanted to cry. A heap of bodies. He remembered it still. Stretching into the sky like an unlit pyre, arms and legs, a bundle of bones. The anonymous pile. Known unto God. Dragging bodies riled with pus. The maggots worked fast. He had fingered the holes bullets had made in skulls. He moved half-eaten bodies and the shell-shocked spines splintered like those of fishes poached in milk. He sank to his knees in that hell of mud-flats forever. No, he never fought in a war, Antoinette. But he had cried, ‘Maman,’ like a 17 year old virgin-soldier-boy, but she was sleeping with God in her grave, and when he awoke in the asylum and the dead soldiers were with him, he knew he had died in the mud like a soldier, and he knew he was in Hell, for they all spoke English.
Now he rapped on the window of the taxi, screamed for the driver to stop. A church! A church rising out of the flat, grey land of field-meeting-sky. He ran towards it. He could not recall this church, and it scared him.
It was a small building, its sacred ground cutting into a farmer’s field of rape. Of course! He remembered now that it had been shot to pieces in 1942 by the Nazis, punishment for a futile attempt at assertion by the Resistance, and when he saw it as a boy it was little more than a shell. He had to go in, now. He did not know why. Maybe it was to try, again, to make the soldiers stop. Maybe it was for his mother, maybe his father … His sister. A week ago his sister died and left him alone. His dear sister. Maybe he had wanted to cry at the funeral. Maybe he wanted to cry now. But how could he?
He ran up to the church door and lifted up his fists, but the door pushed open. Unlocked! A door that was open! Slowly he stepped inside. Before him was another door; inside this, darkness. He stepped back. There was a meter on the wall. Dix centimes for a few minutes of light. He scrambled in his pockets for change for the meter, thinking how God was an entertainer in a slot-TV set. When he realized he did not have the right coin, he resigned himself to darkness even here.
Holding on to the backs of the pews he felt his way down the aisle towards the altar. Darkness and silence! But wait!… Three candle flames at the bottom of the church. He walked towards them, his hands free now, he trusted them, his hands, the flames, the light. His whole body thudded… He was nearly safe.
He was at the altar. He lit a candle and waited. “Help me,” he whispered, “Help me!”
Silence and darkness. Darkness and silence. Four flickering candle flames in a world of darkness. He could feel two thin trails burning down his face, tears, tears. A sudden torrent of tears. “Help me!” he screamed, “They will not leave me alone!” He wanted to light up the world. He wanted to wake up God. He lit the candles, one, two, three, then he dropped the taper on the floor and the flame was extinguished. He collapsed after it, and as he bawled he felt the salty sting of the tears drip from his nose, and tasted his sorrow stored for fifty years.
Then he saw the face, and could not move. An old face, ninety years old at least, and off-coloured with a patchwork of shadows from the seven lit candles. A nose too big for the face, and eyes the colour of candle flames. God or devil, he thought, God or devil?
And then he knew. Deep in France, and the man was English. “Hello,” he said, and Henri screamed, and leapt up and back, spilling the candles on the floor, and all was in darkness again.
“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. Henri ran, trying to find the aisle, but was winded by the back of a pew. “Please stop!” the voice said, and the voice broke, and Henri could hear the sobs, “I’m visiting my sons, all three killed in the war.”
Devil’s tricks? He found the aisle and ran for the door. The sobbing became distant. As he opened the door he turned back: the silhouette of an old man, little more than five feet tall, an old man crying. Just a man.
Outside he got his breath back and knew he would wait no longer. He had to see the cemetery, see it now. 100 yards and left- he remembered the route well. He ran over fields which had seen battles before he was born, in the Great War. The one to end them all. He remembered his father sitting him on his knee just once, and telling him of a journey he had taken in 1928 as a child, looking at whole forests fallen down to the ground, the trunks and branches criss-crossing, weaving like a maze. A cemetery of trees. Burnt bodies. Fallen bodies. Leaves withering, returning to earth. A deathly stench of trees.
He remembered a deathly stench of men. He passed a tiny garden of commemoration, a twenty-foot tall Jesus on a Crucifix rising out into the grey sky, God’s eyes in the sky two slits of nothing. He felt a cold breeze brush him and stopped, panting. He could see it- there it was. The cemetery. Why was he not scared?
Back. He opened the gate and he saw that this place had been made beautiful. He had helped, helped with the lie. Cutting arches in the privet, laying down a few stones, a few empty words, empty gestures. But it was quiet, so quiet.
He looked out at the grave-stones lined up like dominoes and, one by one, he saw them, raising their heads, raising their hands, waving at him, restored. They were restored. Rested and restored. Oh, he had had enough of them. This was not their rightful place of peace. Most of them had not died here, but hundred of kilometers away in Caen. They had been buried there, and were only sent here after the war. This was his place of rest.
He had been running away all his life, and yet it was inescapable. He had never got away. He took out the visitors’ book from a metal alcove in the wall, and looked at the comments. Mostly English visitors, but-there – a Frenchman, there an Australian … a South African, an Italian, an American … even a German. All English words scrawling over the page like insects; like dead-cut tree branches dripping sap; like tangled limbs of putrid-flesh bodies. Words of loss. Words of respect. Words.
He inked in his name. What else? What else? What did it all mean? He felt his body go weak, the feeling he had had when he sank to his knees in the mud here, fifty years ago, and awoke in the asylum of dead soldiers. Grasping the pen, for support, for strength, he wrote his message: “Home.”
This story was inspired by a visit to see my grandfather’s grave in northern France. The War Commission cemeteries are filled with peace, but there is the knowledge that most of the fallen were originally buried close to where they died, in another part of the country, before being dug back up for reburial elsewhere.
I started to think of what that would mean for the people paid to do this work; how it would damage those already suffering from the fall-out of war.