Death is all around... only in the grave­yards is the grey de­fied

The Herald Magazine - - FIRST UP - FIDELMA COOK

TH­ESE Novem­ber morn­ings the shut­ters no longer open to that blast of heat that wilts the plants and bakes the land to cracked stone.

In­stead of a cobalt blue sky, a haze of heat shim­mer­ing the hori­zon, there is just grey – dank, pin­pointed grey that pen­e­trates both clothes and soul.

Most days the parc is eerily shrouded in mist. Some­times I can see no fur­ther than the fig tree near the en­trance of Ce­sar’s com­pound.

The frelon trap, now empty of its hor­net-en­tic­ing beer, swings for­lornly on its branches, a sway­ing repos­i­tory of dried-out in­sect bod­ies.

Other days the fog ends at the be­gin­ning of my land, oblit­er­at­ing the cross­road with its two sin­gle-track roads to the same des­ti­na­tion – Lavit.

As the last of the leaves fall, turn­ing and wind­ing in a fi­nal bright can­dle of colour, there is once again a pound­ing sense of the cy­cle of life.

Birth, growth, death – year af­ter year; obey­ing a tune we hear but faintly, and as hu­mans turn quickly from, un­will­ing, un­able, to face our own mor­tal­ity.

But one can­not be in­su­lated from destiny in La France Pro­fonde. Death is all around this melan­cholic month, start­ing with All Souls, or Hal­loween.

Only in the grave­yards is the grey de­fied. Huge pots of chrysan­the­mums are placed at al­most ev­ery tomb, brought by the fam­i­lies in re­mem­brance.

For days be­fore, super­mar­kets, vil­lage shops and florists have had th­ese mon­strous heads on sale in yel­lows, or­anges and the favourite, pur­ple. But we’ve moved on now. Tous­sant – All Saints – is over and all are ready for the com­ing solem­nity of Armistice Day.

It is not hard on th­ese morn­ings to con­jure up vi­sions of young men see­ing sim­i­lar mist from their First World War trenches be­fore launch­ing them­selves into obliv­ion. Books and films in our graphic age have fleshed them out for us, or so we be­lieve. Even those fast-trot­ting mov­ing pic­tures have been slowed and colourised un­til we are sur­pris­ingly jolted into the re­al­i­sa­tion of dear, fa­mil­iar – hu­man – faces.

Faces like ours: or rather faces of men; des­per­ately young men, marched from vil­lages such as those all around me. They ban­ter; they jos­tle each other like naughty school­boys, share a clope (fag) and of­ten are shown tend­ing to the weary horses equally ripped from farm and small­hold­ing.

Some gen­tly cra­dle a tiny kit­ten as if in its heart­beat they will find a way back home. We con­tem­plate both boy and kit­ten and their un­doubted, dread­ful fate. We con­tem­plate from the mo­men­tary seat of life.

We need to fo­cus on the sin­gu­lar. The scale of num­bers is in truth be­yond com­pre­hen­sion.

In France alone 1.3 mil­lion mo­bilised men were slaugh­tered; 4.2 mil­lion were wounded and 537,000 were listed as POWs or miss­ing.

Only Rus­sia suf­fered worse deaths and in­juries. They were drawn from the land – coun­try boys whose lives were cur­tailed by vil­lage bound­aries and ex­pec­ta­tions.

Some race mem­ory may have hard­ened them to bat­tle, for France has been the cru­cible of war since man first walked. In­vaded, con­quered, prized and routed, she has sac­ri­ficed her be­wil­dered chil­dren gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion.

Since com­ing here I have been drawn to the squares or cor­ners in even the tini­est ham­lets where the memo­ri­als show a ver­sion of the same stone sol­dier.

Al­ways small, head bowed, hands rest­ing on ri­fle, he has a tired res­ig­na­tion and, I fancy, recog­ni­tion of his fate, un­like the heroic fa­cades of many UK mon­u­ments.

And then, as I be­came ac­quainted with my neigh­bours, I saw their names re­peated over and over in the me­mo­rial tablets be­neath those sad fig­ures. Those same names will be car­ried to­mor­row by those who will gather on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Our sashed may­ors will read out the names, and chil­dren will do sim­i­lar. They are taught in school, from their first years, of their his­tory – their lo­cal his­tory, their fore­bears. Their story – their place in this world.

All in town or vil­lage will be in­vited to the may­oral par­lour or vil­lage hall to toast those who died and tales will be told fam­ily to fam­ily of those who re­turned and those who didn’t.

The splen­did re­mem­brance ser­vice in Paris is im­ma­te­rial here where all is per­sonal, very per­sonal, and noth­ing is for­got­ten.

With pop­ulism – fas­cism by any other name – seem­ingly ris­ing world­wide, I cling to this cer­e­mony as hope that all is not lost; mem­ory will not be erad­i­cated even though in this cen­te­nary there is not one soul alive in France who was there.

It is par­tic­u­larly poignant this bruit year but I don’t in­tend to labour the rea­sons why. If you don’t un­der­stand why our com­mon union has kept peace and changed the destiny of our ever-war­ring lands, there is no hope for you.

Mean­while, af­ter the morn­ing mists there is usu­ally a rais­ing come early af­ter­noon. It starts with the dim out­line of the sun be­hind the grey and, bit by bit, al­most like a ma­gi­cian pulling the table­cloth, it has gone.

Voila! The me­lan­choly lifts, as do the spir­its. And one is re­minded once more: there is al­ways hope.

cook­fi­delma@hot­mail.com Twit­ter: @fi­del­ma­cook

PIC­TURE: AN­GUS BREM­NER

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