15 September 1968
He almost had to jump onto the platform, the train was so high, then drag his suitcase down with a bump. Thankfully it was not too heavy, containing mainly clothes for four seasons, a couple of important books, and some personal mementos with more superstitious than practical value.
Outside the station, three things struck him. First, he seemed to be nowhere near the centre of the small town, but on some kind of cobbled conveyor belt around it. He later learned that this was a peculiarity of many Belgian towns. Where he came from stations were important places, bang in the town centre.
The second was a generalised drab dark brownness — the buildings, streets, even the people — as if something had sucked the colour out of them. This was aided and abetted by an infinite low grey crumpled piece of cloud, and a drizzle which made the cobbled streets (all the streets seemed to be cobbled) glisten with a pale dirty-white light which must somehow have escaped the mass colour suckout. Was it really early Autumn ? Was the God of seasons drunk when he handed them out to this town ?
The third was a weird and powerful feeling that he had been time-travelled back 50 years. Looking over the station square at the houses, shops and streets, his mind threw old photos of Maupassant and Zola at his retina (no appropriate Belgian authors sprang to mind, or eye), horse-drawn carriages, turn-of-the-century dresses and hats, and sepia photo ghosts made flesh. He knew of timewarps from sci-fi books, but not placewarps. This was worse. It was a timeplacewarp. Shit! He touched his long hair and beard, stroked his flared trousers, thought of Hendrix and Cream, and had to pinch his mind to remember that in another world it was the Age of Aquarius.
Dizzily, he asked a passer-by — who reminded him of a washerwoman from Germinal — how far the house was, and understood that it would be too far to walk with his case. At least that’s what he thought she said. It was either some Zolaese or a dialect he’d never been taught at university. He slid shakily into an old Mercedes taxi and drove away over the cobbles, glistening in what he was already beginning to think of as their trademark dirty-white.
Steve Hardcastle had taken an early Sabena flight from Manchester to Brussels Zaventem, then a train from the Central Station to Mons. He couldn’t really afford the luxury of air travel, but felt that his first year living in Europe should have an auspicious beginning, a superstitous idea that his new life would be more successful and happy if it started with a certain ease, a certain, he had to admit, style and class — concepts much lacking in the industrial north of England. He was to spend the third year of his degree course in a French-speaking country, and he had got Belgium, and Mons.
The taxi stopped in front of a brick house on a quiet side street, surrounded by other similar but not identical brick houses of a style and vintage which were to Steve totally unplaceable. Mme Vandesteene, his new landlady, let him in (wasn’t that a Dutch name ? Had there been some terrible geographical mistake ? The washerwoman’s incomprehensible words lurched back at him.) She didn’t offer him a cup of coffee, she said (in a French he understood, ouf!) because they would shortly be having a late lunch.
His first impressions of the insides of a Mons house and of its owner complemented those of the town — an unmatched mix of styles and shapes which were either old or older, but which when seen together actually formed some sort of genre of their own. “Timeplacewarp” pinged around his brain for the second time today. He would come to call this the Monsestil (irony being his weapon of choice in the studentgeist armoury of the time), and would later spend many a drunken and merry moment with fellow foreign students comparing their latest “Monsestil trouvailles”, from town clerks to public toilets, pet shops to priests. But nothing, nothing could beat a group of Monsestilois chez eux, eating and drinking around the table in their Monsestil maison.
He had lunch with Mr and Mme Vandesteene (he must ask her about her name) in a rigid, almost total silence after the “Vous avez fait bon voyage, monsieur ?” Slices of roast beef (in his honour) with boiled potatoes and Brussels sprouts (was she joking ?), followed by a big chunk of sweet rice tart, and accompanied by a bottle of nuits-saint-georges (a generous gesture), a new experience which Steve rather enjoyed, because the only wine he had ever drunk before was cheap sweet white at student parties, usually chased with rum and whiskey and forgotten after the vomiting and two-day memory loss.
He excused himself, almost in a whisper, and went up to his small, quiet room overlooking the silent cobbled street, where the journey, wine, new experiences, and the otherwordly timeplacewarp quickly put him to sleep.
He awoke at five and decided to explore the little town. The leather soles of his hippy Army Surplus boots clicked the pavements and cobbles, solitary sounds in the quiet streets, only occasionally disturbed by a passing old car or the occasional hurrying, silent, pedestrian.
Since getting off the train nothing had gone as he’d imagined for his first day’s life in Europe. Morale was not good. He believed strongly in the psycho-buoyant power of what he liked to call his “ironic consciousness”, but despite applying several thick coats of it already today, he was beginning to feel a dirty-grey melancholy worming up from the cobbles, through his legs, chest, and into his head. And that was dangerous.
Turning a corner he came onto a big square, bordered on three sides by cafés and restaurants and on one by an imposing old building which he took to be the Town Hall. It was dark like everything else but had a dignity, a visual ring of history that he’d noticed nowhere else today. It was still cloudy and grey but the drizzle had stopped, and lights were appearing in the cafés, lending the place a slightly festive air. There were more people in the square than he’d seen all day. Young people with bags — clearly students — walked down streets off the square or sat in small groups on café terraces. He went over to a café and ordered a beer. Lights came on in the Town Hall as more students appeared, all with bags, many stopping for a drink, meeting friends, merrily chatting, catching up — coming back this Sunday night, ready for the new term. He had a second beer, and occasionally a student, male or female, would look over and give him a quick smile. He smiled back.
Then for the first time that day there was a small break in the clouds and the sun seemed to burst through. The light on the cobbles changed from dirty off-white to pale yellow, and sitting on this gentle coloured carpet, rolled out to the hangings of scattered lights around the square, he saw hundreds of men in old uniforms, whistling.
“Monsieur, Monsieur… Monsieur Harcassel!” Knocking on the door. Pitch black. He didn’t know where he was. Looked at his watch. Midnight. It was Mme Vandesteene. “Téléphone. Pour vous. Dans le salon.”
He put down the phone, thanked his landlady and walked slowly back upstairs. Playing with the little boy next door, his grandfather had died of a heart attack at seven o’clock that evening. He was 78.
24 August 1914
Yesterday was the longest day of my life. I have not slept tonight. It is 4 a.m. and still I can’t drop off, for thinking.
The German First Army was advancing with great speed, threatening the French Fifth Army’s left flank. We had been ordered to hold the line of the Mons-Condé canal to delay their advance. Most of our men were on a salient formed by a loop in the canal jutting out away from Mons towards Nimy. This was the most difficult part to defend. We were fresh out of England and a fairly small number compared to the Germans, just 80,000 men in two corps. Field-Marshall French had told us the Germans were very cocky, well-trained and thought we would be easily dealt with — but this was our great advantage — surprise. We, the first proud soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, are all professionals, long-term volunteers and reservists. I am a corporal in the reservists. The Bosch would also get a nasty surprise from our riflemen, trained to hit 15 targets a minute at distances up to 500 yards. And did they! Throughout the morning the squareheads advanced in close formation towards the bridges to the salient and were picked off by our marksmen with such speed and accuracy that it looked more like machine gun fire that rifles. The Germans began to realise that Tommy was not going to be trampled over that easily. I don’t know how many losses they took, but it must have been a lot.
This must be my 20th cigarette. Lieutenant Barker gave me the remains of a bottle of whiskey and I’ve drunk most of it. We had left England proud, enthusiastic, happy to fight the Hun, drive him back, teach him a lesson for his latest display of arrogance. Morale was high, all the men in high spirits, giddy with the euphoria of this new wargame. We hadn’t fought on the continent since the Crimean War, 60 years ago, and it was like picking up where we left off. We were the first to fight and we knew the rules. Only two days ago our dragoons killed their first Germans, sabres drawn against lances, horses charging forcing a retreat, cavalry cutting men down as they ran. Only two days ago.
But yesterday afternoon everything changed. The Germans regrouped and attacked out of formation in great numbers, organised, unyielding. They laid pontoon bridges over the canal and forced us back. At the end of the afternoon we were ordered to retreat and humdreds of men were killed fighting messy rearguard actions. We walked, then ran, and regrouped late last night here, in Wasmes.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The lances must have been some kind of German joke to fool us. Because they have heavy artillery and machine guns more powerful, accurate and deadly than anything we’ve seen before. Six-foot tin soldiers, they march, advance, on the beat, in step, mechanised. And I hear they have tanks that crush guns, soldiers, cannon but are themselves indestructible, like big steel cockroaches.
I think I’m beginning to be afraid. Not of the fighting or of being wounded, or even dying, but of this new war. These new no-rules. This is just the beginning. If the war lasts, it can only get worse and in ways I do not want to imagine.
My tent collapses, sucks me in, blows over, out and away. The noise hits as I roll, infrasounds wrenching my guts. I pull myself out into dust, rifles, pots, pans, kit. A hole in the ground. Horses’ heads and legs by the edge. Lost men wandering around. Moaning, crying from the hole, a crater. Must be 10 feet deep and 30 yards across. What do they have that can make craters that big ? Through the dust I make out seven men in the hole, or what’s left of them. Some have legs, heads missing or gaping bloody holes in their chests. One man’s face has been blown off, his teeth and eyes hanging out over his chin. His two arms are missing. I can’t see where they are. I hear the moaning again, and through the now clearing dust see Lieutenant Barker on his back, clutching his stomach. I shout for help, shout and shout. Two privates run over, slide into the hole, pick him up as softly as they can, but he screams and screams as they pass him up. Three men lay him on the ground. He is shivering, his face white. I tell him he’ll be all right, the stretcher bearers are on their way, he’ll soon be in the field hospital. He still clutches his stomach. Blood is seeping through his fingers. He’s shivering more and more and his teeth are chattering.
The dust covering the sky is settling to reveal a glorious sun, low and warm. Behind the crater it falls onto the remains of a field, its grass, recently grazed, shining back at the sky. I tell the men to move Barker into the sun. Lying there his shivering slows, gradually, then stops. He looks up and smiles, very faintly, takes a deep breath and lets out a long sigh, not of sadness, or disappointment, but of some small satisfaction. He lifts his hands from his stomach and all his insides flop out bloodily onto his uniform then slide onto the grass. Then, silently, he dies.
I see a big puff of smoke in the distance, don’t have time to hear the explosion, feel my body lifting into the blackening dust.
6 January 2014
Steven was smoking his second cigarette and drinking a Jupiler beer on the terrace of a café on the square. It was a chilly day, but the café had those heaters on poles so clients could drink outside all year round. Or rather smoke, because now you couldn’t smoke anywhere inside a public building. Another daft politically correct idea. He would quietly finish his beer, maybe have another and a last smoke, then go inside for a hearty Belgian lunch. The square and the Town Hall had almost the same colour as when he’d first come here – drab brownness he thought he’d called it — although efforts had been made to clean up the buildings and the square in the movement-for-the-prettying-up-of-old-towns-for-nice-young-families-and-their-kids. And bikes… Not disneyfication exactly, but… He took a long drag on his cigarette. He was getting old and cynical.
He had not been back to Mons since he left in 1969. He was there now because he was selling his Art Nouveau house in Brussels, and some arcane Belgian custom apparently required that he use the notary whose grandfather had originally sold the house in 1901. Who lived in Mons. Don’t ask, as they say. That business concluded, he was now free to smoke, drink, eat and take a few hesitant steps down memory lane.
When he had finished his degree in England, Steven had almost immediately got a job as a translator at a publisher of language dictionaries in Scotland. It was enjoyable, challenging, and fairly easy work, and he would sometimes pore for hours over the most fitting translation of an untranslatable French word or phrase. But then the United Kingdom joined the European Community and the doors of Brussels were flung open to the Brits, especially translators. Steven applied, took the exams, and was accepted. He’d been there ever since. In August, on his 65th birthday, he would retire. He had lived long enough in Brussels and would now spend much of his time in the old house he had bought 20 years earlier in a village outside Aix-en-Provence — sunny, peaceful, and countrified enough for his older years, but only half-an-hour from the TGV which whisked him to Paris — to see his daughter and granddaughters, or to fly to New York to visit his son. All very neat and well planned, he thought.
His year in Mons in the late 1960s had been a key stepping stone on what he called his Big Move South. But the starting point was the summer of 1963, and it was an epiphany.
He was 14 and went on a school trip by train from chilly, windy, rainy Yorkshire through France and Switzerland into Italy, stayed in Milan, Rome and Sorrento, climbed Vesuvius, saw the frozen dead at Pompei, and took early morning swims in the Mediterranean. And what he discovered — in his bones, blood, muscle, heart, but not yet in his head, not for a long time in his head — was that this dense, amorphous universe of colour, heat and sun, sun and light that he had never seen or felt before, was home. It was where he belonged.
It would be a long time before he heard of karma, reincarnation, synchronicity, Jung or chaos theory ; before he read D.H. Lawrence’s Italian poems ; before he was aware that his wandering around Rome in the balmy summer evenings, meeting Italian teenagers on pieces of waste land dotted with fairground attractions was pure Fellini. Because it was only much later that his body’s memory later developed the cognitive awareness and intellectual curiosity to drive him to wonder and ponder why this modest lad whose family had lived in the north of England for generations, was drawn so completely, so physically and temperamentally, to the sun.
It had started to rain, a heavy drizzle mixed with sleet, and a light wind had got up. He went into the overheated café and ordered carbonnades flamandes, chips, and a glass of red wine. Waiting for his food he went to the toilet at the end of a dingy corridor with yellowish walls. For some reason the corridor was hung with old photos of the First World War. He understood that part of the tourist attraction of Mons was the war museum and former battlefields. But why in the corridor, there but half-forgotten, like footnotes.
He looked up the Battle of Mons on Wikipedia. He knew his grandfather had fought there of course, had been shellshocked, injured by shrapnel — luckily not in any vital body parts — and had been sent back home where, after recovering, he had been promoted and spent the rest of the war training the ever-increasing and ever-younger new soldiers. He had seen lots of sepia pictures of his grandad in uniform but he had talked very little about the war, and had died before Steven would take the interest in the war that he developed later in life, and which still fascinated and appalled him now, that first of the great 20th century horrors.
His grandfather had been lucky. He had fought at the beginning of the war in fairly ’normal’ combat conditions and had been wounded enough — but not too much — to spend the rest of the war in England. Not so those who followed. First the cheery volunteers of 1914-15, then the conscripts, shipped over to be torn apart in the flooded shellholes and cold, muddy, stinking, rat- and corpse-filled trenches of Thiepdal, Ypres, Passchendaele, and all the rest. 15 million dead young Europeans. No, it wasn’t because of his grandfather that he had become fascinated with this war, nor by the why, where, or what. But by the how. How men could go on living, knowing they would die today, tomorrow, or next week at the latest ; how the others could knowingly order the slaughter of their own men on a massive scale, and commit and go on committing unconscionable acts of such enormity that only the French expression got near the truth : “contre-nature”.
The carbonnades arrived steaming, and the chips were light brown and crispy. The café was almost full of both drinkers and eaters and the heat from the people and the radiators generated an invisible steam of conviviality. This is what Steven had liked about the continental life when he’d settled down in Mons. He ordered another wine.
He dreaded the centenary now upon them. Everyone would be beating drums or lamenting slaughter, the killing and stupidity harnessed to a multitude of ideological wagons. His friend, the German Martin Shultz, President of the European Parliament, had been quoted in today’s paper : “One essential difference between 1914 and 2014 is that we have the EU to ensure that democratic values cannot and will not be undermined… European integration is the answer to the catastrophe of the first half of the 20th century…” Steven was too old, experienced and cynical to buy into a half, even a quarter, of the “shining future of European democracy and integration”. The horror of the First World War — Conrad’s Horror before its time — had soon been forgotten in the Disneyland of the ’20s. It had not stopped Hitler, Stalin, the deathcamps, and all the genocides. But Europe had now been war-free for 70 years. Unlike his grandfather and father he himself had never had to fight… He had no answers. He wasn’t sure anyone did.
What he did know, and what had kept him going in his search for the non-existent meaning of the black hole that was the 1914-18 war, was the poems and novels, for they got the closest to whatever meaning there might be. And although no-one, no-one, could or ever would find an answer, some of them — Owen’s poems, Faulks’ “Birdsong” — did drill down towards some emotional and existential core, come close, and let him feel it, just, quietly throbbing.
It had stopped raining and blowing and he walked to the station. He felt weighed down and needed to get away from here, from this, the non-meaning, the absence of answers. He would go south next weekend. Even in the middle of winter Provence was light and warm. It would soon be his home, finally, away from the drizzle, drabness and incomprehensible death. In the sun.