WRITTEN BY LINDA MARCH
As soon as I read this story, I was transported back to a trip I made to Flanders Fields, the trenches and the graves of the fallen from both sides of the war. It was heartbreaking yet ultimately inspiring – just like this story. Karen Byrom, My Weekly Fiction Editor
A second honeymoon and a date of unknown significance turn out to have a far deeper meaning in this moving, evocative story
“Looks like we’re in for a smooth crossing and a glorious weekend,” observed Andy, one hand on the rail of the ferry’s upper deck, the other drawing Beth closer in the sunshine.
“France!” Beth’s face was lit with anticipation. “I can’t believe we’re here – a whole weekend of freedom.”
“A whole weekend,” echoed her husband. “No squabbling over TV cartoons, no tripping over toys…”
“No ‘Mummy, where are you?’ if I disappear for ten seconds.”
“No ‘Mummy and Daddy’ at all. Just Beth and Andy, like it used to be.”
“Candlelit dinners in French restaurants,” she said dreamily.
“Unbridled passion in French hotels.”
“And if we can just find that wonderful little hotel in the middle of nowhere…”
“We can relive the honeymoon!”
“After ten years and two children, do you really think we’re capable of that?” laughed Beth.
“I’m prepared to give it my best shot!”
Three hours later they were deep in the haze of a midsummer afternoon. The toll road left behind at Arras, cars were few and fields swept past, their grasses almost at eye level so the road seemed like a private route through a secret green estate.
“Any of this look familiar?”
“Not really.” Beth shook her head. “Perhaps it was crazy to think we’d find it again after all these years. I’m surprised they don’t have a website.”
“If we don’t manage to find La Maison Rouge then I’m sure we’ll find some other little place, just as romantic.”
“But it would be just perfect if we could. I always believed we’d come back, you know.”
The tall grasses came to an abrupt end and they were relieved when the landscape opened out into livestock fields bordered by tall poplars.
“There’s someone up ahead.”
Beth pointed. “Let’s stop and ask. Pardon, Monsieur, nous cherchons La Maison Rouge…”
Despite the searing heat, the young man wore a heavy greatcoat. There was a gash of red as he hastily covered the brightness of his shirt and turned away, but he waved his arm vigorously for them to continue.
“I presume that means straight ahead,” Beth said.
“Hmm. As he started waving his hand before you even spoke, I think it was his French way of saying ‘Get lost!’” Andy observed wryly.
“What was he doing in the middle of nowhere?” Beth wondered, searching the wing mirror for the young man, but they must have been travelling faster than she thought for he had disappeared.
“Probably paid to misdirect all the British tourists.”
Voilà! La Maison Rouge
“Oh ye of little faith!” triumphed Beth moments later as she spotted the wooden sign. “Voilà! La Maison Rouge.”
“Break out the champagne,” grinned Andy. “Here come the honeymooners.”
JULY 1, 2006 – the day my life began. Beth sighed as she read the inscription on the inside of the gold bangle. “Oh Andy, it’s beautiful, thank you! Ten years, who’d have thought it?”
“Not your mother, for one.”
“True! But this is just perfect: the hotel, the bracelet, the weather,” her eyes rose from the terrace, where they were enjoying coffee and croissants, to the unbroken blue above, “everything!”
“We have this beautiful day – what shall we do?”
“I think there may be a parade.”
“Yes. Didn’t you hear the soldiers?”
“No.” He frowned.
“Early, maybe around dawn.”
Beth wasn’t sure what had woken her from such deep sleep. There was no breeze to rustle the leaves of the large oak outside their window, but something stirred and she uncoiled herself from Andy’s embrace to tiptoe to the window.
Parting the shutters slightly, she’d relished the coolness on her skin. The fields were still cloaked in mist, but she could make out the fluffy whiteness of sheep near the hedgerows and a distant flash of red. She could hear them quite clearly, the soldiers, their voices carrying across the fields.
Come on, lads, rise and shine, an important day today
First an older man, a sergeant-major type. “Come on, lads, rise and shine, an important day today. Plenty of visitors.” Then the cheering of the men before he called them to “attention!”
“But what would soldiers be doing here?” questioned Andy. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming, my love?”
“Madame,” Beth hailed the hotelier as she passed with a pot of coffee. “Are there any parades of soldiers near here today?”
“Certainly, but very early morning. It is the first of July, no?” Madame moved on as if the date spoke for itself.
“See?” Beth said.
“Yes, but don’t tell me they break out the army to celebrate our anniversary each year,” Andy reasoned. “And, apart from that, what’s the significance of the first of July?”
The hotel’s picnic lunches were as they remembered – crusty baguettes, creamy Brie, sweet ripe tomatoes, deep red wine. They had spread the travel rug on the grass in the lush valley of a slow-flowing river. Now, replete, they lay on a tartan raft in the red sea of poppies.
“Is this heaven, or what?” sighed Andy, fixing a poppy in Beth’s hair. “It’s so peaceful – no kids, no noise, no…”
“No birds,” Beth sat up suddenly.
“How odd that there’s no birdsong in a place like this on a day like this.” She indicated the nearby copse of trees and the clear blue sky.
“Perhaps they’re too hot to sing, perhaps they’re enjoying the peace,” muttered Andy as he rolled onto his back and raised his arm for shade. “I think I’ll have forty winks.”
Hugging her knees, Beth gazed round the valley. Field upon rosy field, trimmed with sturdy oaks and poplars. She must be further from the river than she realised for it to flow so silently. Yearning for a sound of some kind to break the heavy stillness, she began to make her way towards the river.
Despite its dryness, the ground felt heavy. Hard clods attacked her sandals, tussocks barred her way, and she stumbled frequently on the roots of grasses and the wiry stems of poppies. Finally, seated on the river bank, she could bathe her hot feet. But after a moment the river’s iciness made her shiver. She bent to retrieve her sandals.
A sudden pain sliced through her. As blood flowered on her hand, she realised she had been cut by barbed wire.
The darkness of a shadow had her raising her eyes heavenward. Four large crows circled silently above her.
“Something’s wrong here.” Her voice startled her. What had become of the peace of the afternoon? As she bent to rinse her hand, it seemed momentarily that the river ran red.
She wanted to get back to Andy, to his lazy logic that would make it all right. She began hurrying back, her hand leaving a spotted trail of blood.
Screwing her eyes against the sun, she saw with dismay that the rug was empty. Close by was a blaze of red, as if poppies had grown tall as a man.
It was a young man in a red shirt. He met her, tearing a ribbon from its tail.
“For your hand,” he said.
Dumbly, she took the cloth and began winding it round her hand. The cut was not deep, the bleeding would soon stop.
“My husband?” she murmured.
“Yes, I’ve a message for him, but he won’t listen.”
“What? Haven’t I seen you…?” A country road bordered by poplars…
Eddie’s waiting for him. His uncle. He’s never had no visitors
“Eddie’s waiting for him. His uncle. It’s important, see. He’s never had no visitors, not one.”
He couldn’t have been more than a teenager, the urgency of his message strengthening his West Country accent.
“Andy’s uncle?” Beth asked, trying to take it all in. “Where?”
“In the garden down the road. Just over the bridge. You’ll know Eddie, he’s next to me – Joe Stone. I gotta go, time’s almost up. Tell him to visit Eddie.”
Beth turned to search for her husband and the young man was gone.
“Andy!” she shouted desperately.
“Where’s the fire?” Andy was emerging from the small copse.
“Where have you been?”
“Little boys’ room.”
“OK, but I want it on record that you’ve gone doolally,” Andy sighed as they drove away. “I have two uncles: Howard in Penzance and George in Exeter.” He looked at his watch. “If I’m not mistaken, both watching the cricket.”
“Here’s the bridge.”
“But where’s the garden?”
To the memory of those who lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 1st July 1916
“Garden of Remembrance,” read Beth as they rounded a turn and parked. “To the memory of those who lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 1st July 1916.”
“That explains the soldiers,” Andy said. “One hundred years ago today.”
“So many graves.”
“But no Uncle Eddie. No one here.”
A breeze rustled. A blaze of red blew along the neat paths, coming to rest on the whiteness of a headstone.
Beth glanced at her bandage.
Removing the crimson cloth from the stone, a chill ran through her as she read, “Private Joseph Stone, aged 18.”
“But no Eddie.” Andy read the inscription on the left. “Corporal Arthur Johnson.”
“On Joe’s right?” queried Beth and was amazed to see the colour drain from her husband’s face. “What is it?”
“A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God,” Andy read. “Of course! It must be him.”
“Who? You said…”
“Not my uncle, my grandad’s Uncle Edward. Not that Grandad ever met him – just a young lad, killed at the Somme in the First World War. Apparently it was always a great sadness to Edward’s mother that his body wasn’t found and there was no grave to visit.”
“He’s never had a visitor,” Beth repeated, “not one.” Kneeling down, she pulled the poppy from her hair to lay it on the grave.
“It’s taken a century, but his family’s here now.” Andy placed his hand on the cool white stone. “Hello, Eddie.”
Later, as they left the cemetery hand in hand, a gardener arrived by bicycle. Waving his cap towards the graves, many of them dotted with small wreaths and posies of flowers, he smiled.
“Today they are happy,” he said. “They have visitors.”