Poppy marked a cross.
They’d named her Poppy for their grandfather, her “great gramps”, a man she’d never met because he’d fallen at the Somme when he was just 23. They’d taken her a few years ago so they could all find his name on the Thiepval Memorial, etched in stone beneath unadorned red brick. She hadn’t expected to feel a connection, hadn’t expected to feel much at all if she was honest with herself. Paris was next on the itinerary and she’d been itching to idle away afternoons sipping café and watching people drift around the 6th arrondissement. She was young and France was art and intellectuals and Les Deux Magots and, yes, again if she was honest with herself, it was also going to be shopping. France was Sartre and De Beauvoir but it was Chanel and Dior and Louboutin and Lacroix as well.
She remembered the surprise when they’d arrived and the sheer size of the monument as it loomed over her, impressing on her the sense of the scale of the loss. She was one person looking up, humbled, in memory at the absence of seventy two thousand. As she picked her way around the base of the structure the names were overwhelming: Joseph Anstee, Charles Balding, Frank Bell, Arthur Boon, David Brannick… All from the Lincolnshire Regiment. She found him, nestled alphabetically alongside his brothers, and traced the letters of his name carved in the stone with her finger. They’d found her there a few minutes later kneeling in front of a wall of the dead and weeping for a man she’d never known.
She wore her name with a certain pride after that day. A pride she nurtured through journeys to the beaches in Normandy to see where her grandfather had landed less then thirty years after his father had died. She’d driven across the country in pursuit of the route he’d taken: Pont L’Eveque, Saint Maclou, Pavilly, Yerville, Motteville, Yvetot, Bermonville, and Valmont. They were small, sleepy farming villages where tourists wouldn’t ordinarily go but she’d always, generally been welcomed. Her faltering French delivered in a distinctly English accent seemed to open as many doors amongst the older residents as it closed them among the young. Wherever she went they delighted in her name, some even calling her coquelicot, wild poppy: she loved it.
When she’d met Dan he’d loved the coquelicot story too and had adopted it as they’d grown in intimacy, a kind of petits noms d’amour. She’d carried that name along with her birth name as the two of them had followed his family history back across a broader sweep of Europe. He’d been inspired by her desire to know her roots and so they’d ranged across Poland and Romania visiting run down old synagogues in forgotten corners of old city quarters, looking for the places his ancestors had fled from. Their travels took them, eventually, to the silence of the long liberated camp at Dachau where one of the trails they’d been following ran to the coldest stop. The other trails ran back home to England.
They had family marked with crosses across the continent. From France to Germany, from Poland to Romania. They both used to joke that they wished their grandparents and their great grandparents had managed to venture somewhere warmer as they’d traveled across northern Europe, as they’d looked to thread together their shared past. Your granddad wasn’t much for the sun, even if he could have gone, her parents had told her with a smile, your grandma could barely get him to Skegness every year.
She didn’t know what they would have wanted but she was certain they’d have wanted her to make her own choice. To choose for herself and not for them. She stood in the polling booth and thought about connections and about all the people she had met and about her future and her past. She had family marked with crosses across the continent.
Poppy marked a cross.
This is story 34 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This was written on the 100th anniversary of the senseless Battle Of The Somme and I guess is my small tribute to lots of braver people than me. It’s also some attempt to capture my genuine sadness in the wake of the EU referendum vote last week and, in particular, the tone of the debate and the upturn in nationalism and xenophobia that’s been evident since. In or out there’s more that unites us than divides us.