I nearly forgot to finish the tale of our journey through France and Belgium, writing about it has taken a hell of alot longer than the actual trip itself. Anyway, let’s just get on with it and we can then move on to other outlandish and often tall tales of derring do.
We left the story, if you remember, with the fantastic four having just visited the bloody Hooge Crater and heading off into the wilds of Belgium to find Tyne Cot, the biggest of the many graveyards that dot this countryside.
Having forgotten already the tantrum upon hearing that stupid song in the museum, I was in high spirits and had returned to my usual demeanor with a song in my heart and a knife in my sock. (Don’t worry, I don’t really carry a knife in my sock, it is just an expression. I mean why would I need a knife in my sock when I’ve got a gun in my waistband? – Just kidding!)
I was explaining to my uncle how I considered myself a sort of missionary when travelling to other countries in Europe and that includes his native Ireland. “How so?” He asked, “You’re a Godless English heathen.”
“Ah, but my mission isn’t driven by religion.” I paused, considering my next line while looking out of the car window into the middle distance, “I see myself as bringing culture to the dark places where there is none.”
“Do ya hear him? Sweet tundering Jaysus, would yous ever shuddup?”
Satisfied that I had annoyed him sufficiently for the time being we pulled into the car park at Tyne Cot. There is a visitor centre there where you can read about the action seen in the area, you can see various items such as cap badges, paybooks, and personal items of the soldiers. The bit that got me were letters home from the boys at the front, donated by their families. All the while the names of the lost are being read out on the p.a. system. I must admit my earlier light mood was gone and I felt emotionally drained.
We left there and followed a path towards the cemetery itself, and what a sight to behold! Nearly 12,ooo headstones standing to attention under the summer sun. Row after row, the majority of which do not contain a name, the graves are marked known unto God. To me that seemed like a final indignity; when the body has perished and the soul goes to heaven (if that is your belief), when there is nothing left all you have is your name, who you were; they were even deprived of that.
I don’t know what other people think when they wander amongst these stones, but I wonder who these boys were. I wonder what made them laugh, what made them happy, what made them sad; I wonder what they dreamt about doing when the war was over; I wonder who waited for them to come home.
At one end of the cemetery is the Memorial to the Missing, a wall containing the names that they didn’t have room for at the Menin Gate: 33,783 UK servicemen and another 1,176 from New Zealand.
Ask them if it was worth it…
We jumped into the jalopy and headed south towards France. As we entered Lille I realised my mission was coming to an end and I hoped, I told my uncle, that the people of France and Belgium had been somehow enlightened by my presence if only for a short time. “Stupid boy!” Came the reply.
We were staying the night in Lille before catching the Eurostar in the morning. My sister had a set of instructions about where to park the hire car and it all seemed straight forward enough. Then you reach the underground carparks at the centre of Lille and realise that you have entered a maze that would rival the one under the palace of Knossos. I suggested we play out a ball of wool so we could find our way back out. Driving around in that subterranean puzzle I realised two things: 1) the ball of wool hadn’t been made that could take the job on and 2) I knew where Dante Alighieri had found inspiration for the Divine Comedy; if only we had Virgil and Beatrice to lead us through this Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, but they were nowhere to be seen – they were probably lost too.
Eventually we parked it anywhere and Teresa and Neil vowed to return and take another crack at it later after we’d got our luggage to the hotel. That was the next task at hand, where was the hotel? Dragging cases behind us we set off looking for daylight, to our utter amazement and confusion the exit signs pointed towards each other so we found ourselves wondering if we would ever see the sky again. Somehow, by accident I think, we found ourselves outside in the middle of a square. We had to find Rue somethingorother. I asked directions of two women who looked as if they might know where they were. Like typical Johnny Foriegner they pretended that they knew not a word of English; I knew they were lying just to make life difficult but I couldn’t prove it. I tried in my dreadful, halting French and they gleefuly sent us in entirely the wrong direction.
After a while we were able to find the place and soon wished we hadn’t. There was no restaurant on site so we would have to venture out to scavenge for food. My legs were aching and the last thing I wanted to do was more walking so I asked the receptionist if she would whip us up something, just as a joke, but she took it the wrong way. I think she heard the word whip and immediately decided I was a pervert. I’ve been called worse and it’s better than being French, the miserable mare.
The room lacked air conditioning and I slept with the windows open, hoping a real pervert with determination didn’t see this as an invitation, you never know do you? There wasn’t a bit of breeze and the room was stifling, if I got an hours sleep it was only due to exhaustion.
The next day I was glad to be getting on the train and heading home. As we came out of the tunnel to see merry old England the first thing we noticed was that it was still raining like it was when we left. Ah well, as William Cowper once wrote: “England, with all thy faults, love thee still my country.”