Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, which was to go on for four and a half months and kill an unimaginable number of soldiers. My grandfather was in that war but I will never know whether he was at the Somme, because he never, ever talked about the war. Or anything much else, come to that. He was a silent man. We knew he had a double hernia from pushing heavy guns around, and would never get them treated. He lived into his nineties, still with the hernias; also with bits of shrapnel in his legs. We knew at some point, because of his injuries, he was assigned to light duties, which meant travelling back and forth across the channel, looking after horses being transported to the front. We knew he did embroidery.
This may sound strange, for a carpenter. We think he was taught it in hospital when he was recovering. We think he embroidered going across the channel, with the horses. The embroidery was always white – I have a feeling it might be called whitework – and had tiny round holes cut in it. Something like this:
He died in hospital, after a fall. He was the first person I had seen near death. It was an awful place. Green, everything green, and all around us, old men dying in metal beds. He didn’t speak, but the look he gave me was almost hostile, as if to say “Seen enough, now?” I remember Mum giving me a sweet – like she would have done when I was a child, I suppose, to cheer me up. I remember the mixture of sweet and salt in my mouth: tears and barley-sugar.
The night he died I dreamt I was in his kitchen, just standing there, and he walked past me, muttering. I could see him but he couldn’t see me. I had become the ghost. I played Brothers in Arms to myself, and cried. My husband didn’t react to emotions at all, usually, but after watching me curiously for a while he ventured: It reminds you of your granddad? This was perceptive, for him.
Don’t you sometimes wish you could go back and watch someone’s life, like a film? Don’t you sometimes wish you didn’t miss out on it all, having been born too late? I wish I knew what made my grandad my grandad, what it felt like to be swimming in mud, hurt and surrounded by death. I wish I knew what made him fall in love with Nan, whose family lived in the same road, and whose sister was married to his brother. I wonder what it felt like when they walked up the road together one grey Christmas Eve morning, to be married almost alone at St Margaret’s, without the blessing or presence of either family. I wonder what he really thought of me, the annoying grandchild. He hardly spoke to me but allowed me to accompany him down the garden to dig up potatoes and pick mint for our Sunday dinner, or to play in the sawdust in his workshop, picking up and rearranging stray offcuts of wood while he got on with his ‘making things’. We didn’t seem to need words.