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
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 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.
‘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
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.