South from Flanders and into the French countryside.
‘He was an accomplished artist,’ I said opening a window and feeling the warmth of the road on my face. ‘We have one surviving, beautifully rendered, painting. A retriever with a game bird in its jaws.’
We crossed a main road and then back onto the sunlit tracks.
‘Sounds a bit brutal,’ he said. My guide was a young man, a recent graduate.
‘I wonder whether he thought about capturing some of the scenery,’ I said. ‘You know, for when it was all over.’
An hour later we stood in a quiet lane beside a drainage ditch. Across a ploughed field in the late afternoon light, crows vied for position in the furrows and bird cannon thumped in the distance.
Producing a folder with details of troop positions and excerpts from regimental documents, he handed me a copy of the relevant pages and pointed, ‘This is roughly where the 2nd were digging in.’
I re-read the highlighted line in the Battalion diary: Killed in action 12 March 1915.
‘I heard he was obliterated alongside his friend by a random artillery shell,’ I said as if it were just a curiosity.
We drove on a couple of miles to a walled cemetery. The area looked immaculate and inappropriately cheerful in the evening sun. Earlier we had managed to find the cemetery records from the War Graves Commission. Great-uncle F and his friend had had some visitors since they died. There was a donation revealing a visit in the 1920s from his sister, my grandmother.
I produced the photograph of my ancestor in his uniform the day he volunteered, as if this would somehow help us identify the grave. We walked across a carpet of grass along a row of memorials. No space between the two stones confirmed the family story that had faded into a kind of myth. My guide left me and made his way to the far wall while I positioned a small potted plant in front of both names.
‘A shared grave,’ I said moments later when we reconnected at the cemetery gates. ‘Just as we thought. Not because they were inseparable friends, but because their remains were inseparable.’
‘I doubt if even God could reassemble some of them,’ he said.
I recorded my visit in the book and noted a dozen other visits to the fallen in the past week. ‘We used his brass memorial plaque as a doorstop when I was little. I don’t know what happened to it.’
‘The dead man’s penny?’
‘The past seemed so distant then,’ I explained, ‘much closer now.’
‘Maybe we start off looking forward and end up looking back,’ he said.
‘Yeah, even ghosts seem preoccupied with the past. I read somewhere, there may be some activity in a corpse for a time that resembles, or relates vaguely to, the animated body in life.’
My guide looked uncomfortable.
‘But dead is certainly dead after one hundred years,’ I continued. ‘And dead is dead immediately when you are in so many pieces.’
Later, back at the hotel in Ypres, I had dinner and a few beers, then went out. Sometime after the Last Post, I entered the park near the Menin Gate where people were dispersing from the ceremony and strolling in the moonlight, their shadows gathering among the flowerbeds. I had begun to feel unwell from the day’s excursion. From the 18th century fortifications on the edge of town, looking across the Salient, I could see a road through the ploughed fields and the unexploded ordinance and shell casings put out like milk bottles for the morning collection.
About the writer:
Andrew Coombs is a London born writer, songwriter and musician. Set in 1972, Distraction: Out of the Silent Suburbs his latest novel. Writing as Jefferson Ely, he is also the author of the 1999 Science Fiction novel Stations of the Cross, concerning rival TV evangelists and a digital afterlife.