That I have unburied relatives in France. I take a trip to Ypres with my father and father-in-law. Over four days we visit sites on the Ypres Salient, the Somme and finally the industrial wilds of Dunkirk. By day, we enter our own private worlds and protect ourselves from the enormity of everything; under bright skies we shield our eyes from the glare off bone-white graves. By night we roar at each other through smoke in Belgian bars, silence the last thing on our minds.
We enter Passchendaele, which in the imagination is a maelstrom of mud and horror. The town has a bakers and a shoe shop with a sale on. We stop and buy bread and olives. Later, we enter the eerie quiet of a French cemetery. The wooden crosses in diagonal rows are stained by the weather and compared to the immaculate condition of the commonwealth graves look tired and of age. The cemetery is presided over by a blackened statue of Christ on the cross. Beneath him are two cloaked figures and an anguished soldier in his death throes.
At the end of the third day, numbed by numbers and names we enter Loos, site of one of the first British assaults on the Western Front in 1915. My dad has a book listing the locations of all 917 Commonwealth war graves in France, his uncle, whose body has yet to be discovered, is listed on a plaque in a cemetery just outside Loos. The day is fierce hot. We carry a frantic air with us as we find two then three cemeteries – none of which is the right one. Then it comes: The Loos Memorial Cemetery, by the side of a nondescript main road. We perform the well-rehearsed glance at names, the by-now vague shudder of recognition at a surname, a place name. We’re looking for plaque 91, and after everything there it is, in plain view in the shade of a walnut tree. Plaque 91.
There are 55,000 names on the Menin Gate, another 72,000 on the Memorial to the Missing of The Somme. Names of those never found. No bodies, just a name, a regiment, a job. There is something so vast and abstract about the weight of numbers that you search around for a viable emotional response – you look within yourself, or you look to the thronged ranks of onlookers for guidance. Standing here though, light-headed and swaying slightly in the heat, a simple collection of letters, a known name, and all that abstraction is suddenly given focus. I feel the air change shape as the old man breathes deeply, I feel him buckle and turn, bearing away the dark weight of things. I wonder if things of this immensity give us a glimpse of something secret within ourselves. Something usually inviolable. Catching a sight of this space within someone else has the feel of the sacred.
In some way, this completes things. We leave and drive across France back into the welcome flatness of Belgium. That night we roar louder than ever.
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