the sea is my ghost
Tired heavy eyes
sieze each aching
gave, halting our softest tears,
trusting her. Enshrined,
she exhumes aromas
gone – hush of silence. Time
the haunting ends,
sister, end! Allow
its stop –
gypsy hovering over slipping tide.
December 2013, Croatia
Autumn is early
It seems to be autumn
and I am here
pyjamas, pen in hand
a crossword below,
the air hinting at – smoke
In the near distance
a strimmer sings
Closer, the phone of a neighbour
To his gentle voice
my dog sleeps
heavy; deep in unknown dreams
as the leaves rustle soft
My brain calms –
the safety of an English breeze
It seems to be autumn
and I am here
pyjamas, pen in hand
Alice Mary Williamson
24th August 2020
I was in the woods the day things became crystalline. I remember the raindrops - plump, heavy raindrops - and the calf with its glistening eyes and coat of honeyed curls.
I have an admission to make. My memory is not as reliable as I would hope it to be. I am sure there were three or four things that day, on that walk - maybe they are written somewhere on a forgotten piece of paper - but for now, it is the rain and the calf that remain.
The walls that had enclosed my mind for so long expanded outwards, dissolved, even. For two or three years I had been in black and white and grey. Grey - it nauseates me to think of it - so many greys: brownish greys, blackish greys, greenish greys, sickly greys, cardboard greys. My mouth had even tasted somehow grey, my reflection looked grey, my clothes had smelt grey.
But there in the woods, the sunlight through those obscenely clear, cleansing raindrops, wash me back into colour again. Like the moment in The Artist where film becomes colour and suddenly we are awash with the luminance of it.
Something about that calf I still can’t determine - its mother nowhere to be seen, standing in mud yet its coat so perfect, shining liquid brown eyes, as though it weren’t real, a Chagallian motif planted before me.
I am not religious, but in those hours I felt baptised, cleansed, like the calf was a symbol of new-ness, rebirth, the raindrops some kind of holy water rinsing away my sins, the dark thoughts that had gestated, festered within me.
Suddenly my life was the photo that Daniele had given me, her words had materialised magically into reality, something from Sophie’s World. The only reason I know Daniele’s name is because she wrote it under the words, on the back of the photo, the photo she took, of raindrops falling onto dusty grey ground. Otherwise I don’t remember much about her, I don’t remember why we were sitting together in the pub, with her husband, and Asa. I don’t remember how I knew Asa. What were we doing? How can I have forgotten so much? My life was still grey then, perhaps that’s why, so many memories have slipped away of that monochrome time.
Como Alicia en el pais de los maravilias, la luz a veces se encuentre en los lugotes mas oscuros: la solidad, la melancolia, las pelias magniticos con los amores tormentosos.
Pero como los tormentas, todo al final se disuelve en gotas de agua, que la limpian todo.
"Like Alice in Wonderland, light is sometimes found in the darkest places: solitude, melancholy, magnetic fights with stormy loves.
But like storms, everything finally dissolves into drops of water, which cleanse everything."
Split, Croatia - 2008
Lavender hangs in the air with rosemary, pine and sage, and milky sunlight seeps across morning shores like the thinnest of silks, only to be taken over by a searing glare by mid afternoon – rendering all but the sturdiest of lizards dysfunctional – when locals slumber and travellers toast their sea-salted skin.
I was visiting my family from ‘over there’. The ‘over there’ that once upon a time elicited responses of “Oh, I’m sorry” in any conversation mentioning heritage. And could rapidly bring the conversation to a stilted close. But within twenty years, morphed word by word into “Oh we just love it there, aren’t they all so friendly, rented this gorgeous place on an island from a local man who gave us homemade grappa and figs to die for”. And somehow this makes me wince as much as the “Oh, I’m sorry”.
At twenty three, it was a recent epiphany for me to visit alone, by train, and immerse myself when I could afford to in the idiosyncrasies of the aging single cousins once or twice removed, and the unswerving mental youth of my grandmother, my baka. I was desperate to know them and feel part of them. My heart was there but my mind didn’t always fit in, I didn’t understand the tempo of things, didn’t know what was being said half the time – we had missed a lot of contact as children and I was determined this wouldn’t feel normal.
It is the last day of this visit. On this particular autumn afternoon we are moving languidly on from lunch and a card game with turkish coffee, and discussing the family photos arranged amongst dried flowers and unpolished silver on the mantelpiece, to opening up the bottom drawers brimming with piles of musty photos and papers and albums laying quiet and almost forgotten. My cousin once removed, my Baka, and I – three generations, excavating page by page this past, this family – my family. This is my first glimpse of anything beyond the surface of shared moments and overheard utterances.
The albums, labelled in ink with a beautiful Germanic handwriting, are explained at great length – photos of Baka and her sister at a slightly too tender age posing innocent yet coquettish, for a ‘friend of the family’; numerous images of steely eyed and still-faced ancestral congregations staring at ancient lenses, Nonna Mina and Nonno Turi and Nonna Minka – my great grandmother – and their sisters and aunties and cousins and children; casually there are pictures of some of them having a picnic with Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia in 1914 – my mind boggles, but discussion of this is relatively scant, more attention to Minka’s beauty and wild hair as a young girl.
I come across a blank envelope with a small collection of items – some pieces of paper, something fabric, things folded and tucked into one another. These things had been carefully kept together. Pulling out the fabric I read aloud – “Latvia” – from the embroidery. A Latvian flag. “Latvia?” I ask them innocently. I haven’t a clue what Latvia has to do with anything.
My cousin answers – Baka knows, I know, but she isn’t saying much. “Oh, Nonna Minka, she hid some Jews during the war, there was a Latvian.” And here we are sitting in the apartment where Minka lived in the second world war. Suddenly elusive stories one hears about the war are right here and tangible and part of me and it feels peculiar. This building, this family, these pieces of paper.
The rest of the envelope is all paper, different types of paper. A few lined pages folded over with dates in the corners, and written all over in neat navy ink, impenetrable small script in a language I cannot even begin to decipher. The dates are mid-war, 1940, 1941... and no more. Then a letter, no name of the addressee, with clumsy handwriting, in Croatian, bold crayon colours – orange, or peach. An oblong piece of paper on which painstakingly painted, yet somehow childlike letters in light blue watercolour – Oprostite. Forgive me.
Forgive me. I feel the moment and can grasp it, touch it, but I don’t know what that moment was. I know nothing but I can almost breathe the writers’ breath across the generations. Was it slipped under a closed door? Secretly pinned to a wall before leaving? Was there an argument or an incident, forgiven or unforgiven? Did someone laugh or cry or feel nothing when they found it?
Mixed amongst, some telegrams – GDJE JE ANTON, ‘Where is Anton?’. “Who is Anton?” I ask – my cousin again replies – “That’s mum’s pa, Baka and mum’s pa”. My baka’s father, my great grandfather. Why have I never heard anything about him? Why don’t I know his name – and where was he? I have this sudden realisation I always hear about the women, the nonnas, the sisters, the aunties – tetkica this and teta that – but nothing about the men.
A sternly typed letter on paper the colour of cornflower blue, it looks formal, something about money that I don’t understand but I know it is somehow important. It has hit a nerve with my grandmother. I am asking questions about these pieces of paper and the words and who is this and what is this about and what happened – but I only seem to be getting fragments from my cousin who wasn’t there. But now my grandmother starts to answer. “He was a bad man” – she refers to the Latvian – “you don’t want to know anything about him.” “But I do, this is my family, I want to know.” “No, he was a bad man, I will destroy the papers” – she is collecting them up into the envelope, the dated pages in Latvian, the flag, the clumsy orange letter, the Oprostite, the formal typed letter in cornflower blue, the telegram, ‘Where is Anton?’ - “I will burn them tonight”.
This gentle afternoon has come to an abrupt change of direction. I so desperately want to know what my grandmother is hiding and why. I become suddenly fraught and obsessed that I need these papers and need to show them to my mother Rosana. If no one here will tell me anything maybe she can, maybe she can translate the Croatian for me. “But why will you burn them? I can take them, I can take them away, Rosana might want to see them, she will be interested too.” Baka is resolute and cold – “No she won’t. He was a very bad person, you don’t understand. You shouldn’t know anything.” I feel the atmosphere change and an uncomfortable feeling in my throat. Why can’t I know anything about this family, why does it feel that everything has to be hushed and swept under a carpet? I swallow this feeling down and force myself to let it go. For now.
My cousin and I collect up all the albums and the years gone by and put them back into the drawer. Baka has taken the envelope and placed it out of sight. But I have followed her movements out of the corner of my eye. The mood has quietened – it is time for a siesta. Baka goes to her room, my cousin announces she will have a little ‘ziz’. I am still holding my tongue – and pretend I will do the same.
This silent hour I can be unwatched and unquestioned. I need to leave for England late that night and I have been taken over by this fixation with the envelope, and what events it unfolded from. I need to bring it with me. After a swift search I find it tucked behind some stationery, badly hidden, and I am holding it. I feel a bizarre guilt at this and don’t want to risk someone waking up and walking in on me – so instead of taking any moments to look through, I empty my suitcase, open up the lining and hide the envelope there – crazed, like I am hiding drugs from customs. But it is just some pieces of paper, and I am hiding them from my 80-year old grandmother. Repack the case and lock it hastily.
I manage to escape unnoticed into town for a few hours, the obligatory run of truffle paste and lavanda ulje and pretty nicknacks, meet a family friend for a coffee and a complain. Back at Baka’s, a small and simple supper is being put together before I leave. We don’t mention the envelope but it still sticks to the silences between words.
Later, just as I am gathering my things to go, my cousin is asking me anxiously, quietly, “Why did you take the envelope? Your Baka is very upset, why did you take it?” She doesn’t want Baka to hear. I hiss back, practically in tears at the opaqueness of this family, “I just want to know, they are family things, it is my family, it is important.” Then Baka is back in the room and we are quiet again. Baka mentions nothing about it. We say our emotional goodbyes and love is sent and I must give Rosana a big kiss, and everyone must come soon – all as usual, but still this thing hanging in the air, the thing I know nothing about.
The taxi takes me to the night train and I sit in the compartment amongst the smells of cigarette smoke and warm days and leather seats. The envelope is burning at me inside my suitcase, and I feel a frustration, I feel strangely incensed by the events of the day. The events of the years gone by – I have come here to know this place and the people that led to my existence. And yet I leave here comprehending less and less.
Copyright © 2017 Alice Williamson. All Rights Reserved.
FAMILIAR TABLES OF HOME
Bleary-eyed we crawled out of our beds at around 3.30am. I'd had about 3 hours sleep, Robert (my dad) and Amelia (my sister) only 2 hours each. Toasted crumpets, peanut butter, marmite, tea, in the quiet solidarity of the English night.
‘He probably died around this sort of time’, my dad said. My sister and I looked at him, then out through the pitch-dark windows, and back at our breakfast in silence.
Our mother Rosana got up to bid goodbye and be a part of these strange goings-on. Robert – one of his pre-trip madness streaks – drove off to the local town to take out £100 emergency cash. Wife and daughters laughed between themselves at these last minute illogicalities.
4.15am – Robert came back and off we set for Dover, maybe 3 hours drive, mostly in the dark, mostly unspoken, Amelia and I dipping in and out of sleep. Stopped for petrol, sweets, toilet, somewhere – somewhere I recollect not in the tiredness and events of the day following.
We were lucky to arrive to a quiet port and catch an earlier ferry than planned, leaving at 7.30am or so. Watched the cliffs disappear and sat together in a cafe – coffees and a hot chocolate. Amelia translating badly written articles about Italian food packaging. I proofread and laughed with her about the bizarre banality of it.
Losing heart over articles describing exciting new designs such as a lid to keep food fresh (innovative!), I left Amelia to her own devices and started to look through the notes, maps and information Robert had gathered up about our ancestral quest.
He Shall Not Grow Old
Born in Kolkata in 1888, Alexander Neeve Williamson had become a school master at Blundells and Highgate School. He joined the Seaforth Highlanders, with whom he went to fight in 1914 right at the start of the Great War. Sadly he was one of the first to be killed – the first teacher to be killed in action – in the Battle of Aisne, France, at the age of just 25.
He died on the 14th September 1914 in the early hours of the morning – exactly 100 years to the day that we were making this trip. Standing on the deck in the morning sun, smokers and cyclists of all shapes and sizes surrounding us, we watched the approach to Calais, seeing Lowry-esque figures on the beaches, walking, searching for oysters.
My sister and I mused on the fact that Alexander N Williamson would have arrived by boat, maybe also to Calais or nearby. We laughed at ourselves then, the nonsensical comparison of a shipful of young soldiers, with no idea of the human disgrace they are about to step into – to a P&O ferry, with its Starbucks coffee, Lycra-bound cycling fanatics, people taking the trip for cash & carry deals. A poignant, disparate – desperate – disconnection. Amelia said, with a note of sadness in her jocular tone – ‘and he fought for all this, for people going on Facebook and posting kitten videos.’
A couple of hundred cyclists and a few swear words later we finally exited the ferry, straight onto the motorway, direction of Arras – Reims. Antoine de Saint-Exupery and his flight - so much death, so much insanity.
Music in the midst of Desolation
I felt a strange surge of emotion as my sister, in the front passenger seat (despite our ages of 29 and 34 there were still constant re-negotiations of who went in the front or the back) put a CD on – my sister, my dad and me, on the road with Louis Armstrong. It felt like going back in time, and yet so meaningful to be doing this at a time when we are (supposedly) adults, and (largely) independent from one another.
I think I drifted off in the back seat as my memory is a bit blurred of this part of the drive. I recall Robert and Amelia talking about how this bit of land had been one of the most fought on, for hundreds of years, since the Romans. So hard to imagine when looking out at the fields of pasture and crop, the hedgerows, the spots of woodland, empty and at peace in 2014.
Many of the Aires were 'ferme' (which turned out to be the word of the day, as it happened). But we found one for a loo break and some snacks – a pasta pot, coffee, madeleines – before getting back on the road from St Quentin to our destination – a cemetery somewhere between the villages of Cuffies and Crouy near Soissons, in Aisne, Picardy.
At some point John Lennon took over Louis, his songs of angst about the loss and absence of his parents – ‘my mummy's dead’ – and about his unique, enviable love for Yoko – ‘I just believe in me, Yoko and me, that's reality’ – colouring our views of the uneventful roadsides, our tired thoughts, our imaginings of being 25 and going into a battle, the last ever, the one to end all thoughts, all life.
Off the motorway we wended our way slowly through the stone and cement houses that made up the outskirts of Crouy. The Chieftains’ evocative rhythms accompanied us as we followed the small map with the location of the cemetery where Alexander had been buried – Crouy-Vauxrot French National Cemetery. The triviality and static of the surrounding buildings – a closed sports centre, a car park, shutters shut tight on almost every building we passed – added an undercurrent of quiet discomfort to our personal endeavour as we all three searched the roadside for signs of the cemetery where one of our family lay.
‘There it is, that must be it’. To our left – a sloped gap of clammy grass and mud lined with crosses, a large stone entrance curiously grand against the humble backdrop. The car rolled to a stop as my dad respectfully turned down Ziggy Marley with the Chieftains – ‘Won’t help you to sing another song of freedom’. Stepping out, our hearts dropped as we realised the entrance was blocked by high metal fences, and a notice – ‘Ferme’ – hanging officiously. We stared for a moment at the fences, at one another, at the backdrop of muddy graves. We’d come all this way. ‘We’ll just have to break in then.’
We each found a way in, pushing gaps through the fences in companionable defiance and climbing up the slippery verge into this unkempt tribute. Piles of unmarked, clean stones stacked to one side indicated that the graveyard was being renovated – almost all the graves bar the first line of 20 or so were commemorated only by a wooden cross, no names. Unspoken, we searched the 20 ‘renovated’ graves in the hope that by some small chance Alexander’s name would be there. My sister called my dad and I over to where she was; and there – there was his name. We could barely believe he was one of the few marked stones here. Together we gathered around our great-great-uncle’s grave.
FLESH OF OUR FLESH, SPIRIT OF OUR SPIRIT
Seeing Alexander’s and our surname carved into a stone in this strange, silent place I had never heard of made me feel curiously upset. I had never met Alexander Neeve but we were separated only by my grandfather and his father. So few people connecting us yet 100 years, 3675 days, 220500 hours of battle and change and birth and death yawned in between.
Robert had brought along some of Alexander’s things – a couple of medals, a wooden stick he used at Highgate School (not a cane for hitting but a stick for pointing), and a photo of him. We put them on the grave whilst we contemplated the century that separated us and the blood that bound us – and the strangeness that we were now right beside him. His photo looked so startlingly like my dad that my stomach turned, and we all sensed the peculiarity that Alexander’s belongings were next to his body for the first time since he had died. We held vigil like this for a short time – had anyone done so before us? – remembering someone we had never laid eyes on, remembering the dark night his life was taken and everything and everyone in between, remembering our own lives and how – if – we might be remembered by someone we will never know.
STARS SHALL BE BRIGHT WHEN WE ARE DUST
As the moment passed, we turned to observe the few hundred unfinished graves behind us – mud and wood amongst occasional flecks of wild flowers; poppies shone out like spots of paint. At different paces we picked our way through all these nameless lives, all the things and times and families, joy and sadness remembered or forgotten, continued or ceased. We took in the muted clouded sky and the bizarreness of the empty village around us, we were a little unit of life and colour and desires and ‘hopes profound’, our daily lives – crumpets, marmite, tea – would carry on with Alexander and these men – this day – within it, ‘felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight’.
Copyright © 2014-2018 Alice Mary Williamson. All Rights Reserved.
Alice has done her best not to get in an aeroplane for the past twelve years, so she doesn't really fly. However her mother is from Croatia which sort of makes her Croatian, therefore faintly a 'cro'.