by Liz Summerson
It's a funny place to try to mend a marriage, the battlefields of northern France.
'Just for a long weekend,' Paul said. 'We can take the car. It'll do us good to get away, Annie.'
I shrugged. A sort of Why not? shrug. It's something he's wanted to do for ages. I like France, and anything would be better than another silent weekend in London.
But now we are here, we're both biting our tongues, watching each other's faces, circling like cats. Although it's not been said, we both know we've reached stalemate.
Although it's not been said ... that, of course, is where the trouble lies. We haven't been communicating for months. We're no longer on the same wavelength. We're going to have to decide pretty soon whether there's any hope of us making contact again.
Our first night in the hotel in Arras doesn't bode well. Oh, nothing wrong with the hotel. It's a former monastery, not far from the town centre, cleverly converted to preserve its sense of calm whilst incorporating modern comforts. It's no-one's fault but our own that, over dinner in the dark wood-panelled dining room, we rack our brains for subjects of conversation, leaving our meal half-eaten. Then spend the night each clutching an unfriendly edge of the double bed where once we'd have cuddled in the middle like spoons.
Today, I'd have headed for home, given half a chance. Not that home any longer seems much of a description for the house we put so much thought into doing up only three years ago.
But Paul's ploughing on with his itinerary ...
'Shall we go to Amiens today, Annie?' he says at breakfast. 'Or would you prefer Lille? Better shopping in Lille, I expect ...'
I'm shrugging again – it seems to have become a habit – when the waiter interrupts.
'Excusez-moi, Madame, Monsieur, but you have no choice. You must go to Amiens.' He smiled. 'It is my birth-town. You 'ave to see the Cathédrale and the hortillonages. They are marvels.'
Despite myself, I return his smile. 'I've heard of the Cathedral, but the hortillonages? What are they?'
'I do not wish to spoil your surprise, Madame,' he said. 'You will discover it yourself.'
I catch Paul nodding knowingly at the waiter.
'What ...?' I begin.
Paul pushes back his chair to get up from the table. 'Let's get going, shall we, Annie?'
We gaze at the interior of the magnificent Cathedral. The brochure claims it's the best in France. The medieval woodcarvings covering the choir stalls are so old, the wood is almost black. The craftsmen's skill demands reverence, but the ancient faces are full of personality and humour.
I point to a morose individual, the spitting image of our postman at home.
'And there's old Mac from the chip shop,' Paul says.
He stifles a laugh, but I'm sure the faces are meant to be amusing. Whoever carved them knew his work would endure to show later generations how little humanity changes in hundreds of years.
I realise it's been a long time since I heard Paul laugh properly.
When we emerge into the daylight, it seems bright, even though the sky is overcast. We follow the signs to the hortillonages. Down to the river, along a footpath past the attractive waterside buildings.
Then, suddenly, we find ourselves in a breathtaking world that I'm quite unprepared for. There's an amazing network of artificial islands constructed, it seems, for market gardening. There are little footbridges straddling irrigation channels, pavilions dotting the islands, lush gardens, dense weeping willows hiding black boats that are curved like miniature gondolas. Only a handful of other people are here. We walk slowly. All around us, the water makes a gentle murmur. Everything is green, a thousand shades of green. The colour therapists have got it right: I feel calmer than I've felt for a long, long while.
'You knew about this, didn't you?' I say to Paul. 'I saw how you looked at the waiter.'
He nods. 'But only second-hand,' he says. 'It's in that Sebastian Faulks book I read. Birdsong. Some people in it had a picnic here.'
'I love the peacefulness. What's the river?' I ask idly.
Suddenly it's all spoiled. I'm taken aback when he says those two little syllables. Everyone's heard of the Somme. Such a pretty word, such a horrible symbol. I almost expect the water to contain traces of blood.
Paul is speaking. 'Talking of the Somme, I'd really like to see some of the First World War sites. Do you mind, Annie? I'll go alone if you prefer ... I could come back and pick you up later.'
I shake my head. 'No. I'll come.'
Battlefields might not be everyone's idea of a day out, but my sense of peace has retreated with the mention of the Somme. I don't know why Paul's fascinated by all the war history. You'd think our own battles were enough.
We turn back towards the town, where we've left the car.
In the early afternoon, we are sitting high above the roadside outside a village whose name I forget, eating baguettes and Brie and pâté that we bought in Amiens. Drinking Sancerre out of plastic glasses. The sky is oddly misty; it's chilly for June and no birdsong breaks the silence.
Paul's had his head in his guidebook for ages. Every now and then, he glances up to scan our surroundings, turns over a page or two, turns back again.
'What are you looking for?' I ask, beginning to get bored at so little to see.
He puts the book down and looks at me. 'It's a metaphor for us, you know. This area.'
'What ...?' I raise my eyebrows. There he goes again. Trying to be intellectual about our problems, when what we really need is to relearn how to share our feelings, like we used to.
'You and me,' he continues, 'we're like the poor blinking armies of the First World War. Fighting each other incessantly though they'd practically forgotten what started it, if they ever really knew. They kept advancing a few hundred yards, they'd have a bit of a kerfuffle, then get pushed the few hundred yards back again. One side gained the upper hand, then the other, then back to square one. Destroying everything in sight in the process.'
I pluck at the grass that's tickling my legs. 'I thought it was the officers' fault. Taking bad decisions that sacrificed so many lives. At least there are no officers controlling us.'
He frowns. 'Sometimes it feels like there are. Our jobs pull us in different directions. We seem to have no time to spend together. We're always running round in circles, trying to cram everything into too few hours. It's caused all the bickering, the sniping ...'
'But we let it happen. We didn't set our own priorities. Perhaps we didn't even ...' I decide against continuing. 'Oh, look, the sun's come out.'
Instantly, everything is bathed in gold. I feel the warmth stroke my arms. If only our relationship could be warmed as simply, as quickly.
Paul is staring to the fields beyond the road. Suddenly he exclaims. 'There! Now I see. Zigzagging, look.'
'What are you talking about, Paul?' Irritated at his excitement, I nevertheless let my eyes follow his pointing finger to a line of almost-flat grassy curves in the middle distance. They weren't visible before but, in the sudden sunlight, their contours are illuminated bright-green. They interlock like sections of a plaited loaf.
'It's an untouched trench.' His voice rises. 'A First World War trench. It's mentioned in the book. See how the land's recovered - though it's taken eighty-five years to revert to more or less how it was. Isn't that fantastic?'
Despite myself, I'm moved by the significance of the bumps that still scar the landscape. So many years to turn the mud back to verdant green. My mind is replaying that familiar sepia film that crops up every so often on the television. Silhouetted figures, helmeted, carrying rifles, climbing over the trench tops to their certain death. Their corpses have nourished the soil. No wonder the grass is so lush.
Though I've no links to the Great War, my eyes fill and I almost grab Paul's hand. My voice trembles. 'How could something so awful have happened here? Where it's so beautiful and calm?'
He shakes his head. 'Unimaginable, isn't it? There was a big wood in that direction, it says, where there was fighting for five days until not a stick remained.'
'That never recovered, then.'
'Not everything can.'
I stare at the picnic remains. 'Can we?'
He fingers his wedding ring. 'I hope so. Do you?'
We drive on to the next village where, in the scatter of houses, I glimpse a sign, hand-painted on a board. 'Stop, Paul!'
He pulls in. 'What is it?'
'Back there. I saw a notice - Musée de Guerre. War museum.'
'Some war museum that'll be,' grunts Paul. 'There'll be some old codger with a few bits and pieces trying to cash in on battlefields tourism.'
'I'd like to look, all the same.'
He looks surprised. 'OK.'
We walk back. The museum turns out to be no more than a corrugated lean-to, tacked on to a cottage wall. On a kitchen chair inside the doorway, an elderly man sits watching the world go by. As we approach, he raises his hand.
'Bonjour, Monsieur,' I say. 'Votre musée?'
'Oui.' His weatherbeaten face cracks into a gap-toothed smile. 'Vous êtes Anglais.' He doesn't ask, he announces. 'Come inside. All these remains from the Guerre I 'ave found in the fields nearby. Souvenirs. Some, you can buy.'
'Told you so,' mutters Paul.
The shed is lined with crude shelves spread with dingy pieces of twisted metal work, coated with verdigris and rust. Some are distorted beyond recognition. Others are identifiable as helmets, guns, grenades, shells. And there are more personal objects: a mess-tin, a pocket knife, buttons, even a bent pair of spectacles, the lenses intact. Further along lie a few bleached bones, a fragment of a jaw.
The man indicates a small rectangular tin. 'This came up in this year's ploughing. There is always something, every spring, every autumn.'
Though well-rusted, the lid carries the ghost of a picture.
'Ah,' says Paul, with interest. 'I know what that is. Queen Mary's Christmas gift for the troops. She sent chocolate to every soldier.'
The Frenchman's eyes gleam. 'You are right. But it does not contain chocolat now.' He turns the tin on its edge and I see tool marks where he must have forced it open. 'Inside,' he says,' was this papier.'
It's a folded yellowed fragment, almost disintegrating in the creases. Most of the looped writing has faded. It's too dark in the shed to make it out. I take it carefully to the doorway, then read aloud:
"... socks next parcel ... pray you come home safe, my darling Edward. Milly sends kisses ... your mother says ..."
'That's all.' My lip quivers. 'But Edward didn't get home.'
'We can't be sure. He could have just dropped it. But, no, he probably didn't make it back.' Paul shrugs. 'One of the thousands and thousands who died here,' he says.
To my surprise, he clinks the coins in his pocket.
'How much?' he asks the old man.
They agree a price and, taking the handful of Euros, the old man hands over the tin.
'Merci. Bonne journée, Monsieur, Madame. 'Ave a good day.'
I shake his hand.
Outside, I breathe in deeply, take the tin from Paul. 'So many pointless battles ... Poor Edward.'
'Poor girl who loved him,' says Paul. 'Poor everyone. Such a waste of life and love.' He frowns, looks searchingly at me. 'You OK? Are we OK?'
I hesitate, holding his gaze. 'I hope so, Paul. Let's try, at least.'
And tentatively I take his hand as we walk away.
©2003 Elizabeth Summerson
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