The child stood in the dimly-lit hall between her grandmother and great-aunt, clutching the bunch of gladioli that were as
tall as her. The only light that burst through the one open door to fall on and spread across the floor was from the sitting room where, on the far wall, a French window gave onto a glass-enclosed balcony.
She wondered how long the women would talk before the cumbersome offering would be taken from her, to be arranged in a crystal vase and then placed in the centre of the sideboard. Their bright red would be the sole splash of colour in the gloom of the hall, with its highly-polished dark oak furniture and floor.
The buds tickled her nose as she shifted from one foot to the other, unsure as to whether she would be relieved to relinquish them or not, given that this would signal a move into the light beyond, a veering to the left to join her great-uncle, labouring to breathe, sitting in the chair she never saw him move from; and yet he must have done. Didn’t he need to go to bed, to the toilet? He was always there when they visited; severe, boorish, ill at ease.
Great-aunt Maria’s hands swooped down and snatched the flowers from her and bustled them towards the waiting container, ‘Go and kiss your uncle, he’s waiting for you!’ This is what she dreaded. She made her way slowly through the light. On her right, she saw the coffee table laid with the waiting china, with slices of honey bread and apricot and plum tarts. The scent of coffee drifted in with the women’s voices from the kitchen. She turned and moved towards her uncle, reached up her arms around his neck, shut her eyes and kissed his cheeks, the customary three times.
As she detached herself from his protruding belly she opened her eyes and there, fastened across his chest, was the empty sleeve of his jacket.

(August 2008 Unpublished)

Ghost Flower of 41

The envelope she gave me contained ration coupons for this and that, identity cards false and not, passes to take you here and there, letters and documents – testimonies to his resistance role in the war first in Belgium then France.

Given him by an engineer from Verviers where his brother lived, the 1941 diary – going by the crossings out – served him through 42 and probably beyond.

He collected addresses in Poland, France and Spain from people he was interned with in Manzat and Egletons. He wrote shopping lists and recorded his expenses. There are pages torn out – what was on those that they couldn’t be kept? The entries would be meaningful only to my father – names, streets, towns, figures and drawings – but he’s been dead a long time now.

But what caught my attention when I first discovered the diary, and haunts me still, is a tiny faded wildflower, a violet I think, pressed between the pages of 10th-16th August.

Did you pick it on your mother’s saint’s day, the 15th, in 41, when gathering information on enemy activities around Liège before you were forced to flee? Was it out walking in Toulouse in 42, on your way to or back from mass when, thinking of your mother, you bent down and picked it, planning to give it to her when you next saw her? Did you know she was in prison as you thought of her? Was your diary already bulging with observations on troop movements when you slipped the flower between the two pages?

Maybe you were out for a walk in the country on a hot summer’s day, along roads whose verges were bursting with the bright red, white, blue and yellow of wildflowers, humming with bees and cicadas; through fields of daisies and poppies accompanied by clouds of iridescent dragonflies; a quiet moment half way through a war that was soon to take you to Spain and eventually to England.

Or was it not you who picked the flower? Did you come across it, dropped and abandoned by the wayside, the only spot of colour on a grey day? Or was it given you, along with a smile, by a stranger who continued on her way, swinging her hips to her natural rhythm, before disappearing into the distance without turning round as you stood there and wondered at the mystery of it all?

(First published in Squid Quarterly 2009)