Loose soil, mud and clay, dropped from his head and face as he raised his shoulders and chest. Legs still buried, he struggled to free them. Dirt-blurred eyes viewed devastation. Slowly, ears reached beyond a ghostly silence, to take in harsh distant explosive noise. Clearing vision saw distant flashes. His mind would not tell him where he was, why he was half-buried, what had happened.
A bare arm lay close to his face, fingers lightly curled, blood seeping from the severed end, He gasped, moved. Not his. Not his.
His eyes now recorded many bodies, scattered, shattered, some of them whole. Was this Hell? Why was Hell in his mind, but not his own name?
Move, that became his main instinct. He pressed down with his free arms. No strength. His legs would not pull free of their earth prison.
Something trickled on his cheek. He flicked at it with his hand. Fingers came away bright blood red. His blood. No error there. His head hurt now. Nerve ends wakening. More pain, everywhere.
With pain came some insight. If he just lay there, he would die. Like these around him. But would that be so bad?
He wept. Tears dripped into the torn earth, mingled with his own blood.
He lay still for a while, unaware of anything but that constant distant uproar. Blood trickled on his cheek again. Another warning. Desperation came over him as he tried to free his legs. Pulling at them brought more agonies tearing through him.
Face down, reaching back with his hands to move the mud and soil meant more pain. Clawing dirt, wriggling his hips through clouds of agony, his legs, at last, came free, and he was able to slither, snake-like, a few yards forward.
Looking back, he saw the depression of loose earth and somehow, sensed the horror that lay beneath all that. He struggled away from the sounds and the flashing. With each agonising yard crawled, his mind closed to what he perceived. Body parts were everywhere. Trying to skirt them brought tears to his eyes again. Part was the pain, but worse was the absence of knowing why he was there, and what had caused this devastation.
Yard by yard he was crawling between trees stripped of foliage and branch. Every so often he had to rest, not to sleep. Then onwards, roads he avoided but didn’t know why. Houses were smashed down as though from some great hand.
Just once he wondered if he would be able to stand. He would make better speed then. To reach---where? He had no idea. But at one point, he pressed his back against a tree trunk and tried to get his feet under him. No, the pain was too great. Why was he like this? He wriggled his body further, following the direction of the road, but sticking near hedgerows and ditches.
His knees and arms could take no more. Knowing where he was going, he struggled into a narrow lane, reached out for a strangely white fence, and collapsed into blackness.
My name is Jeff Berkley, I am 35 years old and a headteacher at a comfortable middle school in the north-east of England. This story started many years ago but my part in it begins here as I lean from my Bruges hotel window, viewing the sluggish canal below me.
After a stroll through the picturesque streets, loving the 19th-century architecture and sampling the delicious creamy waffles, I was reminding myself that sightseeing was not the reason I was there. Ten years earlier I would have been saying ‘What the hell could I want in Bruges?’ But tomorrow my intention was to drive my hire car out into the countryside, seeking a war memorial at a place called Ploegsteert.
November 11th was called Poppy Day when I was a kid. I doubt we appreciated the full significance of the occasion. Even when, every year, a head and shoulders photograph of a soldier appeared on the sideboard each November, a poppy stuck in the frame. This, I was told, was my grandfather, my father’s father, John Berkley, proud in his military uniform.
All my life my father’s reticence, about things relating to his family had puzzled me. And all I knew of my soldier grandfather, was that he had no known grave, and had died when my father was eleven years old.
At nine, I thought that the face in the photograph was too young to be a grandfather. He looked very solemn as if he knew what was coming. The photograph was always removed after two weeks.
My sister Jodie and I had often talked about how cruel it must have been for the family not to have a chance to at least pay their last respects. Jodie, three years my junior, was internet crazy, and she became the prime mover in finally taking us into a version of respectful action. Someone in her office had discovered information on a relative in the Great War. “And after all we‘ve talked about it. Couldn’t we check with the War Graves commission on the internet?”
Her enthusiasm both so surprised and stimulated me, that it was me who immediately followed her advice and was able to print out information of Lance Corporal John Berkley, including an ‘In Memory of’ document which stated exactly where my grandfather’s name was inscribed on a memorial at a place called Ploegsteert. It even included directions on how to find this place.
Now, I was about to find this Memorial and photograph my grandfather’s name, John Berkley, which should be carved there. With a brother and two sisters, my father being the eldest, at no time had a memorial been mentioned. They had all passed away by the time I began my research. It had become a sadness buried in the past.
My sister, conducting her own search, found that Stanley and Anne Berkley, John Berkley’s parents, had never been married. More than that, John Berkley and his wife Ruth had been married just two months before the birth of my father. I could well imagine my father, straightlaced as he was, shying away from such knowledge. Times change.
Yet it was irrelevant to my research now. With all my downloaded information had come a massive urge, encouraged by Jodie, to do what no one in the family had even known of, and travel to see the memorial at Ploegsteert. Summer break gave me that opportunity. Only Jodie’s well-advanced pregnancy prevented her from going with me. This would be a chance that my father and his siblings had never had.
I retired that night, unaware that this visit would hold much more than I could ever imagine.
Awake early, a quick breakfast and I was out into a warm sunny July morning, wearing only a light blue, short-sleeved, summer shirt and cotton pants. The small hired Citroen seemed lively enough for my purposes.
As I drove, I found it difficult to visualise this meticulously cultivated land being war-torn, as I knew it had been.
Very soon I was on the road which led to Ploegsteert.
Another sign showed that I was fifteen kilometres from the town of Ypres.
Then, no more than two kilometres further and I saw what I knew had to be the Ploegsteert Memorial. I was stunned at the very size of it, as I approached. A curved structure, at least ten metres high, guarded by two large stone lions.
Across the road from the Memorial was a small, rather crude looking café, with a convenient car park. I wondered what business they did out here when no one was viewing the memorial. But there were three cars already parked there, and a couple of vague shapes of customers showed at the café windows.
I parked there too, and as I left the car, I could see no one at the memorial. Walking between the huge lions and towards the monument, I passed a cluster of single gravestones leading up to it. Such sadness in me as I noted ages of the dead as 17, 18 or 19.
The Memorial itself was most impressive. Not just curved, but a circular colonnade of pillars. The vast lists of carved names on separated panels and the documents in my hand told me that my grandfather’s name would be on panel 6. I found it easily, but high enough to be beyond touching distance, and the bright sun cast a shadow over that part of the plate.
Unperturbed, I took several shots, using the flash to ensure I’d have at least one clear image. Then, photographing the whole structure from various angles, ensuring that the two lions weren’t missed, I noticed the small cupboard-like door set into a stone wall.
Opening the door revealed a weighty thick volume inscribed, ‘Casualty Details’.
Taking the book, I sat on the steps in the sunshine and began to peruse through it. First, it informed me that the Memorial commemorated the names of 11,368 men who had no known grave. That was more than the total supporters at my local football team. The enormity of that fact alone filled my mind.
Then I read that the details of each soldier’s last known sighting were promised throughout the book.
I quickly scanned through the names until I found ‘Lance Cpl John Berkley’ and was amazed to read, apart from the usual military information, that he was killed during heavy bombardment of the British and French trenches during the very last enemy push near the town of Bailleul, which was not far from this spot.
Hearing what sounded like the click of a camera, I looked left along the platform, and was surprised to see a youngish looking lady in a neat lemon summer dress pointing her camera up towards a higher name. Without even considering possible language difficulties, I stood, replaced the book, and moved towards her.
She was standing on the same spot from where I had photographed my grandfather’s name. Not that it mattered so much.
The lady, her loose, tawny hair pulled back from her face, was still focussing through her camera as I approached. “Difficult to hit a name when they’re too high,” I said quietly.
“That’s the trouble,” she agreed, a gentle voice, excellent English. I wondered if she was just a tourist. “And the shadows don’t—” She lowered her camera as she turned, face to face, gasped, and, looking shocked, hastily stepped backwards as though I had slapped her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” I said, feeling awkward as I nodded towards the plates. “An elderly relative?”
The young lady was hurriedly groping in the bag hanging from her shoulder. “My grandfather.”
Pleased that we had something in common, I nodded. “Mine’s up there too.”
Her green eyes were looking deeply into my face, with an intensity that unnerved me slightly. Taking in a deep breath, she asked, “On this plate 6?” And she began withdrawing what looked like a card from her bag.
I pointed up towards the name.
“John Berkley,” the young lady affirmed, without question.
My God, I was stunned. “How could you know which name I was pointing at?”
Smiling uncertainly, she held out the card she was holding, and I saw that it was, in fact, a black and white photograph. “Because he’s my grandfather.”
This was so ridiculous. I knew she had to be mistaken. I had to suppress a chuckle, as I pointed out, “Can’t be. My name is Jeff Berkley. I’m his only grandchild.”
Now I looked more closely at the picture she’d handed me. A man in shirt sleeves, smiling widely, as he leaned against a fence. Instantly, despite the heat of the day, a chill ran through me as I found what was impossible, could be possible.
“You may have the name, you certainly have the look,” she said, and her smile was sweet as she went on. “My name is Laura Tennet, my father’s surname. But you can see why your appearance shocked me.”
Numbly, I nodded, studying the smiling man. Dark hair combed flatter than mine, ears more prominent, but otherwise it was like looking at a photograph of myself.
In such a daze, words were difficult, as I held up the photograph. “This is?”
My memory of the solemn-faced soldier with a poppy over the frame became meaningless.
I couldn’t demand, but obviously, some kind of explanation was needed. I had little doubt that I was his only grandchild. My father’s younger siblings hadn’t produced offspring until the late 1920s.
Still, in a state of confusion, I hesitantly asked, “May I call you Laura?” And her smiling agreement touched somewhere deep inside me. Her hair, loose now around her high cheek-boned face, emphasised her gentle attractiveness.
“You obviously have much to tell me,” I ventured, and nodded towards the café. “Should we talk over coffee?”
“I would like that very much.”
As we walked past the headstones, I was wondering how much I should read into the keenness of her response. She might have said a non-committal, “If you like.” And why, apart from needing clarification of this unexpected situation, should it matter?
The rough exterior of the café belied the elegance inside. A dozen small tables were all discreetly covered with checked tablecloths and a small posy of fresh flowers centred each table. A neatly aproned waitress took our order, and I learned that my companion spoke fluent French. Soon we were facing each other over two brimming cups of latte.
I watched Laura as she took her first sip, and I knew, no matter how much explanation I needed, I was going to enjoy the looking part of whatever was to follow.
“Have you been here before?” I asked as an opener.
“I used to come every few months to my Grannie Annette’s cottage, where she’d lived most of her life. That wasn’t far from here. She passed away a number of years ago.”
Laura took another sip at her coffee, and I feared overdoing my admiring gaze as she spoke, “When my late research brought positive results, I couldn’t resist coming back to see this Ploegsteert memorial.”
“Research?” I queried, even more interested now. What could she be researching? “I’ve done some searching myself.”
“Oh, what triggered your research?”
I told her of our shock that no one in my family had bothered before. “Most have passed on now, without knowing of this place. What about you?”
Laura looked out of the window towards the monument and for a moment I feared she was reconsidering her offer to explain, but finally, she said, “A long story. Have you time to listen?”
“All the time in the world,” I said, wondering whether applying the prefix, ‘For you,’ might have scared her off. “Tell me.”
Laura smiled and leaned over the table as though avid to talk.
“My background first,” she began. “My mother is Belgian but her good English and other linguistic abilities at University earned her a good secretarial job in London, where, at just twenty, she met my father, Paul Tennet, just as World War II was ending. They hit it off immediately and were married within three months. As a police officer, he was transferred to Washington, County Durham shortly after they married, and I was born in 1947. “
She must have seen the look on my face as she added, “That surprises you?”
On this day, full of coincidences, here was another. “I live in Morpeth”
“But I live in Ambleside now.”
Only slightly disappointed I observed, “You work in the Lake District?”
“I edit a woman’s magazine in Carlisle,” she said, nodding her head, “But let’s stay with the main subject. My grandmother.”
“But—” I had wanted to explore her grandfather, but she held her fingers to her lips, a charming gesture to stop me from interrupting. And went on to speak of accompanying her mother on her frequent visits to see her grandmother Annette Dupre. And how over the years she came to love this cheerful plump woman.
Eventually, she admitted that all she knew about this man she called grandfather, was that he had been younger than her Grannie. Laura’s mother was born nine years into their relationship, and she had told Laura that she hardly remembered him. He died when she was three years old. War wounds, Laura’s mother was told.
Laura was beyond university when they were somehow informed that her ailing Grannie was needing to see them.
I saw that Laura had tears in her eyes and her lip trembled as she prepared to tell of what she found. I placed a consoling hand over hers, and said, “Stop if the memory is too painful.”
Laura went on telling of the shock of her Grannie’s condition, so wan and pale, and gargling when she spoke. A chest infection, the doctor attending, told them. But the next day, when Laura’s mother was away collecting medication and groceries, Grannie Annette had waved Laura to sit closer.
Laura’s green eyes were wide now, almost pleading but she had not moved her hand from under mine, as she begged me to let her tell this part in once burst.
One morning, on her early usual trip to the henhouse she saw, just outside the garden gate, someone had left a pile of old clothes. But quickly she realised that it was the body of a soldier. Fearful, she called for her older sister, who was, fortunately, staying with her at that time. By the tattered remains of his uniform, they could tell that he was a British soldier, barely alive. They managed to carry him onto a bed in the smaller bedroom.
As Laura paused to gather her thoughts, my mind was reeling at the undeniable possibilities that were emerging. Laura’s contention that John Berkley was her grandfather; the black and white photograph, almost my double, but undoubtedly a family connection; and now a wounded British soldier taken in.
I had to know more. “Please, don’t stop, Laura. This soldier---?”
A half-smile played on her full lips, and apart from what she was telling me, I knew I was becoming more and more attracted, not only to her pleasant looks but her manner which was so gentle and warming.
There had been no possibility of a doctor, and his shrapnel wounds were superficial, except for the wound on his head. She told of how she and her sister, stripped him completely and washed him down.
Laura stopped for a moment, her eyes on mine, as she gave what was almost a smirk, before going on, “I won’t tell you the risqué comment she made at this point.”
Anyway, they had put some kind of salve on his head wound and bandaged it, applied ointment on his minor wounds and scratches, covered him in a large nightshirt that had belonged to her late husband and put him to bed.
Laura took a final sip from her latte before putting down the empty cup,
“Another?” I asked, finishing my own.
Laura smiled and said, “No, thank you. That’s fine. I’ll finish and then I’ll take you somewhere which should be final proof about what I’ve said.”
“I’m beginning to understand already,” I admitted.
“Good,” she smiled, such a warming smile, but then her face fell as she went on and continued revealing how the soldier regained consciousness within twenty-four hours, still very weak and her Grannie continued to nurse him.
Laura stopped and drew in a deep breath before revealing that the soldier had no recall of what had happened, of his home, even his name. Every memory of his past had been wiped away. All he recalled was the agony of crawling through woods, to get away from something.
When he was back on his feet, and fairly active, Grannie ducked away from her sister’s advice for her to go to the military to report his presence. Her sister was back in Brussels, and Grannie admitted becoming selfish. She had bathed, shaved and generally looked after him. She would miss his presence, as she began calling him Jan, which, Laura pointed out, was remarkably close to his real name.
Able to converse with her slight knowledge of English, she began teaching him French. He never once questioned his own background, as he began helping around the small poultry farm. Mostly feeding and cleaning, but she expressed her delight when he began building a large enclosure and housing for the geese.
Now Laura’s green eyes, gazed at my face, as she glanced at the photograph that lay in front of us. “Grannie admitted that she found him so handsome.” And Laura’s head nodded assuredly. “I can see why.”
I felt a little pulse beat in my neck when she said that. But she deliberately looked away out to the sunlit monument before saying, serious-faced, “Her exact words escape me, but they revolved around knowing his face, having cleansed his body on many occasions, living together day after day, intimacy was inevitable.”
Now Laura’s face had an open positive look as she saw my reactions and said, “My mother was born in 1927. Grannie recalled how thrilled they both were and how much he loved holding her in his arms. Then, of course, the tragedy of his sudden death brought everything tumbling down.”
There were tears in her eyes now as I asked, “No cause of death?”
“Apparently a brain tumour. I believe that’s why my mother was told war wounds. But doctors were reluctant to link the two.”
She was fumbling again, deep into the bottom of her bag, as I asked, “But how did you start your research?”
She produced what looked like a broken identity disc, which is exactly what it was. Two halves of a name tag that Laura fit together and pushed across the table for my viewing. Whatever had split it was impossible to tell, but it was so scratched and marked with a small piece missing near its centre that no name remained visible.
All that could be deciphered were three numbers before the missing section, then two numbers. 3,7,6- -2,8. I held my counsel but knew it all. “My Grannie handed me that. Said it had been around his neck when they stripped him. When she showed it to him, it produced no reaction at all.”
“But she gave it to you,” I said.
Laura was silent for just a moment. “She knew she was fading and told me I might discover the true background of my grandfather.”
“And you did.” I put a little deliberate admiration in my voice.
Her glance at me was a grateful one. “Thanks to you I might find more. That disc and the photograph were all I had. But I estimated the missing piece in that middle section could only contain two figures at the most.”
“I think you are right,” I said, knowing it was a pointless statement.
“I was,” Laura affirmed. “I sent a query to the National Archives that cover that period. I enclosed position of numbers and the gaps and asked for details of servicemen with the full numbers ordered.”
She gave a delightful chuckle that I wanted to hear again, “Yes and no. First, it took months and I thought they had forgotten.”
“But you did hear?”
“Eventually. Four pages of tightly packed soldier’s names fitting number with the middle two rearranged. I almost gave up immediately.”
Be bold, Jeff. “I’ll wager giving up is not in your character.”
Again, our eyes held momentarily. I had guessed just looking would be good, but hearing her efforts added to my respect and something strangely unaccountable.
Laura nodded, causing a strand of tawny hair to fall teasingly across her brow. Teasing for me, anyhow, as she ignored it and said, “I saw that I could reject more than half marked, ‘Left the service.’ Also those marked, ‘Severely debilitated.’ Servicemen killed in action had the location roughly of their demise.”
She paused and looked at me again as she said, “In the end, only six soldiers bearing those numbers were listed as being lost in this vicinity, and of those six, three were shown to have marked graves.”
“God, you’ve been a real beaver, haven’t you?”
Laura shrugged and smiled. “When I start something I’m hard to shake off.”
“And of those three?”
“Pure luck.” She sighed and pushed the joined disc towards me again. “Look hard. What do you think that fourth number was going to be?”
Lost in the presence of Laura, I already had the answer but pretended to look, just to please her. Then, I grabbed my file and withdrew the ‘In Memory of John Berkley’ sheet holding his service number 3769328. “Definitely a nine,” I announced.
Laura gave that charming chuckle, and cried, “You big cheat!” Pulling her hand from under my own for the first time, she reached into her bag and produced an identical ‘In Memory of’ sheet. “Snap!’ she said triumphantly, and smiling at me, she added, “Yes, that is what I guessed.”
“But you had to get that ‘3’.”
Her eyes sparkled brightly as she admitted, “Three separate queries to the War Graves people. First, two brought back names of survivors. But the third try, I knew it had to be Ploegsteert.”
“Such determination,” I said with genuine admiration.
Her face briefly lost its vivacity as she said, “I wish I could have told my mother that I’d found this.”
“You can’t tell her?”
“She passed away two years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“That’s what prompted me to follow up on Grannie Annette’s information.” Her face reddened as she added, “I’m glad I picked today.”
Was it my turn to redden as we sat in comfortable silence over empty coffee cups? Could it be my imagination or was there a growing warmness between us? I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. I didn’t know this young woman sitting opposite me. One look at those green eyes told me that I wanted to get behind them, to know her deeply. I so wanted to stay with her.
As though she had read my mind, she asked, “Could we stay together until I’ve shown you two important locations?”
“That was on my mind,” I replied, referring only to the first part of her question.
“I came by taxi from Bruges. You have a car?”
Her face was so open, honest, trusting that I hurriedly cleared out papers from the table as we stood up, and I blurted, “Sure, I’ll drive you back.”
She laughed that chuckling laugh again. “No, I meant to the special places you might wish to see.”
Within minutes we were seated in my car, and she directed me back along the road away from Ypres. I was longing to make some sort of comment that might hint at the way I felt. I’d never had this difficulty before with attractive women, not even my ex-wife, who couldn’t stand my preoccupation with either lesson preparation or the novel I had half-finished.
Laura was the first to speak when she explained, “So much has changed around here, especially the roads. My Grannie’s cottage is so remote now, but I think you should see it.”
The car was quite small, l but I wondered if her shoulder tight against mine was necessary. But I wasn’t complaining as she urged me to talk about John Berkley and I had to admit to very limited knowledge. I told her about the only photograph I had seen before what she’s revealed. “Working-class family. My father was the oldest. He had two younger sisters.”
“So, you have no one to share this with?”
I told her of my sister and her part in starting my search. Then, keeping my eyes firmly on the road ahead, I ventured, “When I tell her of this very attractive half Belgian lady I met and the manner she’d become a kind of half-cousin, she’s going to giggle and say, “Ooh. La, la.”
Was there extra pressure against my shoulder? Then Laura said, “Half-cousins? I hadn’t thought of that.” She paused and I risked a quick glance at her pretty face. She was looking very thoughtful. “Does that mean we can’t--? Oh, next turn on the right. Sorry. A narrow road.”
Making the sudden right turn, I was annoyed that it had come up just when Laura was about to make some telling statement about our relationship. Or was my mind just working overtime---in the wrong direction.
“Slight lane opening on your right. Can’t drive up it but view from there.”
I stopped the car at the lane opening from where I could see the long, low cottage in old stone.
“Oh, good,” Laura declared, “the new owners have kept the white gate,”
My eyes took in the whole scene. “So this is where it all began.” I turned to look at Laura and those green eyes were on me.
“Yes,” she murmured quietly, “where it all began.”
For a moment I wondered whether I might be losing my mind. Did she really look as though she expected a kiss? I took a deep breath and restarted the car. “Whither now?” I asked, trying desperately to be matter of fact.
“Actually, stay on this road. Narrow, but it takes us to our next stop.”
Next stop was surprisingly close, just giving me time to enquire about her marital state. The pressure of her shoulder against mine was undeniable as she informed me,” Never married. Had a boyfriend for a couple of years, but I was too busy on the magazine.”
I had to laugh as I told her about my wife leaving. “I was too devoted to duty, I guess.”
Laura gave her delightful chuckle. “That could easily sum up my situation. Look!”
She was pointing ahead and to our right, where a small turreted chapel had appeared, and then through a fence, I saw the many gravestones, some very old and elaborate.
“Our last stop,” Laura said. “Just pull into the space in front of the gate.”
That’s what I did. Out of the car, Laura held out her hand and said, “Come on. One more thing for me to show you.”
I eagerly took her offered hand in mine. It was deliciously cool and smooth, as I allowed her to lead me past the chapel and down a track between some elaborate graves. At a single rectangular stone which I would have walked past, she stopped.
“Here we are,” Laura said quietly.
At first disappointed that the inscription should be in French, of which I had only token knowledge I began to read haltingly, “In memory of Jan Dupre---”
There were two lines at the base of the stone that my meagre French immediately could have managed the opening, but Laura read on confidently, “The soldier at the gate who will live in the hearts of all who knew him.”
“A lovely sentiment,” I said, caught up in the emotion of the moment. “And Jan Dupre, once John Berkley, has a known grave.”
Suddenly I had a renewed surge of feeling as I became aware of her fingers entwining with mine. Two people hand in hand, at the graveside of a soldier they had never met. But whose very being had brought them together.
“Is this where it all ends?” I asked.
I turned to her and saw her lovely face turned up to me, and moving closer, she whispered, “For the past hour, I’ve been hoping that this might be where it really begins.”
Without pause, we embraced, and her lips were soft and cool against mine.