05 May 2014

The battle of Flers

At the church on the hill, the one with the bells that ring through the night, I've been reading gravestones while the children run or ride their bicycles in front and behind me. The cemetery has been not be looked after, and many of the headstones have fallen over, or sunk into the ground. One, from the late eighteen hundreds, for a boy that died when he was six months, is almost completely gone, swallow up by the soft moss that covers Harborne like a blanket.

The headstones show how some men were devastated when their wives died, buying tonnes and tonnes of granite to memorialise them and assuage some guilt. You can tell yourself all sorts of elaborate stories if you want to, imagine some Emily Dickinson poem giving the Victorian creepiness presence — like Mei saying she doesn't want to ride her bike there because the dead people are watching and she's shy. Eighteen hundred eighty seven, Nineteen hundred and seven, eighteen hundred and seventy five — the dates written out.

The kneeling angel without hands, watches over several people, notably John Randolph, aged 52, who fell at the Battle of Flers. Wikipedia tells me that nearly 30,000 British soldiers died with him. It was the first battle where tanks were used, but largely unsuccessfully — many wouldn't start. In this war, the great war, people just died, over and over and over and over. The memorial placard at the church on the high street, with the virginal couple strumming the guitar and singing, showed how devastating the war was even for Harborne. A hundred names, at least.

So many people come past the church on the way up to town. A couple of boys in trainers with iPhones. Old couples with lap dogs, and Mei falls down hard on the path and I have to go pick her, up rub her knees and say, It's okay, it's okay — here get on the bike again, try again.

Naomi says to me, 'Daddy, how do you say tengoku in English?' Heaven, I say. 'Daddy, do you know I believe in heaven, so I will go there because I believe?' Oh? I say, why do you want to go to heaven? 'Because it's happy there and there are no sad things.' It sounds boring, I say to her, laughing, and she laughs too, and we head on to the park, to practice riding the bicycles some more.