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Reminiscences

1

I would have been about twenty five when my father told me a story that I have occasionally puzzled over in the last fifteen years, and thought about it that little bit more in the months since his recent death. We had been talking just the two of us, on an early summer’s afternoon, in the beer garden of a pub in the New Town here in Edinburgh. It was around four, and after a lunch with my mother, my sister and a few friends who were all celebrating the PhD I had just received. My mother had gone back to work, a cousin had a lecture in the early afternoon, and several friends left, I almost think now, as if to let my father and I talk alone.

While I had sometimes seen him take a drink too many of an evening, this was the first occasion I had noticed him look a little red-eyed in the afternoon. The seven of us had shared two bottles of Rose with a trout dish that we had all ordered except for my sister, who was a vegetarian and had gone for the Halloumi salad. Everyone else was still drinking the remaining wine in their glasses after lunch when my father asked if anybody wanted another drink, and as we all shook our heads, he said that he would get another bottle anyway, returning with a bottle of red. The others left not long after, and while I allowed him to splash my glass with a few drops, he drank most of the bottle himself. By the time he told me the story I suppose he was quite drunk.

2

He said he would have been around my age when his father, whose name was Bill, told him about a colleague who’d fought with Bill in the same regiment during the war. They were in France, waiting for a few days before managing to get on a boat that would take them back to England, when the friend said he found it ironic that there he had been fighting the Germans for the last few years, helping save the allies from defeat, when he had been a product of aggression that came out of WWl. Bill enquired further, but the friend said maybe he would tell him someday. Bill knew that Philippe, who had never known his father, was born in France, that his mother had moved to Britain shortly after his birth, but he thought that was irony enough: that here was a man fighting for the British as he defended the French land that the baby Philippe was born on. The additional surprise Bill would hear about much later. Yet Bill added that there had been many surprises during the war. He had seen colleagues die in mid-sentence handing him a cigarette and, smoking it half an hour later, wondering whether the now dead soldier had been offering it to him so he could light it and take a few drags and then hand it back, or giving it to him so that he could smoke the whole thing. Even long after the war, whenever anybody on the street asked him if he had a ciggie, Bill would look at the person requesting it as though they had asked to sleep with his wife. It was always a shock, and sometimes the person would walk away, foregoing the possibility of a fag as though fearing much more the possibility of a fight. How could the person have known about the much greater aggression that had led his father to react so strongly, my father mused, looking at me as if wondering if he had acted similarly.

3

I had no memory at all of my father as a violent man, as a figure demanding wariness. My memories of my grandfather, however, who had died while I was halfway through my PhD, was always of a man I was careful around, even if he never gave me a reason for this feeling of trepidation. Perhaps it came from my father’s body language and voice, which was usually beseeching and hesitant, compliant and deferential in his company. My grandfather might have asked for a cup of tea in a pleasant manner, but I sometimes noticed that my father or my grandmother would bring it to him as though he had ordered it with the authority of a decree. The family fussed around him and I think I often found this odd, because in books and films I would watch, usually such behaviour was evidence of a bullying, belligerent figure dictating the behaviour of others. I never saw this aspect of my grandfather, so the subservience on their part seemed to lack a clear source.

Yet I too, was slightly obsequious around him. I assumed by the time I was growing up he was no longer traumatized as he had been in the years after the war, and while my grandmother and father were all perhaps still showing in their own body language traces of his temperamental behaviour, I was doing no more than responding to those traces found in them rather than him.

4

That afternoon in the beer garden we did not at all talk about this, however, as my father told me more about the man who fought against the Germans with greater ferocity than anyone else his father had known. One afternoon the eight members of the regiment were approaching a farmhouse. They were tired and hungry. They had slept the previous three nights sleeping rough after defeating the Germans in a small French village and their orders had been to keep marching towards the German border. The high command expected them to keep fighting, finding other villages to regain, and Germans to defeat, but for my grandfather and some of the others they wanted to make their way with the minimum of risk. They had lost four of their troops in the taking of the village, and with the war, it seemed, almost over, hoped by the time they reached Germany that the Nazis would have been defeated.

The food they had taken from the village, though, had almost run out. The cold cuts of meat, the bread, the dozens of boiled eggs that had been prepared for them, had made the days and night passable, but now they were mainly reliant on fruit and berries from the bushes and trees they passed along.

As they could look at the farmhouse through the binoculars they also saw a German soldier. If he were alone they would continue: he would be easy to defeat. But as they got a little closer, they looked again and saw that there were at least two of them. Bill and others decided it was too risky; they didn’t want to lose any more lives. But Philippe said that he would go alone if necessary, and if he managed to kill the soldiers before they killed him, he would signal for them to continue.

When Bill told my father this he looked at him while shaking his head. Bill and the others didn’t go with him. They tried to dissuade him, said it was pointless. They were perhaps only a day and a half away from the German border. They could survive on what they found along the way, and would perhaps come across another farmhouse where there would be no danger. But it was as though Philippe wanted the danger more than he wanted the food; or rather that he wanted to kill the enemy more than he wanted to eat.

He took with him a knife, a pistol, a rifle and a couple of grenades, and the others took turns looking through the two pairs of binoculars as Philippe moved towards the house. There were no trees surrounding the dwelling, and Philippe crawled along the ground until he was a few feet from the main building. He was hunching as he ran towards a sidewall, waited a few minutes, and as one of the Germans came out of the front door and turned the corner where Philippe was waiting, Bill, who was then looking through the binoculars, wanted to shout out but knew it would either be the useless yell of the horror fan who can’t interrupt the story, or the scream of another character in the tale who ends up causing someone’s death.

But Philippe quickly incapacitated the man with an assertive blade across the throat, and then kept moving to the back of the house where he disappeared from view. A few minutes later they saw him coming out the front door, and waving to the others that it was fine. As Bill and the rest of the regiment arrived at the famhouse entrance they looked sheepish and perhaps expected a muted welcome. Philippe was the hero and they were cowards; but no, Philippe had said to the owners that the rest of them were covering him, that it was better to have one person storming the farmhouse and the rest ready with rifles not far away. This was a fiction. Maybe twenty years later they could have covered that farmhouse with rifles with sights that would have picked off the Germans, but not with the rifles they had then.

Still, the mother, the two teen daughters and a young son, all seemed to believe the story, and Philippe and the others stayed for two nights, happily hosted by a family who saw all of them and not just Philippe as their saviours. There had been three Germans who had arrived the previous evening. They had treated the family well, but said that some of their colleagues would be joining them over the next couple of days if they could get word to them where they were. They never managed to do so before Philippe killed them, so they said the house should be safe. All this was conveyed to Bill and the others via Philippe, the only one amongst them who could speak French.

5

As my father told me the story I tried to imagine his father telling it to him. Bill wasn’t only a man who intimidated his family, he was also obviously a proud figure, and occasionally this pride manifested itself in comments he would make not so much about the war but having at least fought in one. Sometimes he would say that people were lazy because they’d never had to fight; that one reason why we managed to build a society after the war was because there was a work ethic in everyone that the war had generated. He was a Labour voter in the post-war years who became a Thatcherite in the seventies and eighties. While I could easily accept the story about his aggression, I couldn’t so easily absorb this story of his relative cowardice. I asked my father when he had talked to him about this. It was not long before he died, my father said.

In the last few years of my grandfather’s life he had become more vulnerable I remember, and then as my father said this I recalled around nine months before his death that we were visiting him and my grandmother at their house on the outskirts of London. They had moved out of the city in the sixties to have a garden, and it was there where my sister, my father and mother and my grandmother were sitting after lunch, when I noticed my grandfather had been away for more than several minutes.

I looked around downstairs, tapped lightly on the toilet door on the ground floor, and then went up to the first floor and from the landing heard gentle sobs and could see through the half-open bedroom door that he was sitting on the bed and crying. It was with the memory of this image that I could more easily believe my father’s story, though I never found out why he was sobbing on the bed that day: after seeing him I retreated back down the stairs and returned to the table in the garden. Nobody had asked where I had gone; where granddad happened to be.

6

Bill, Philippe and the others after leaving the farmhouse made their way to a border town and they arrived to hear the war was over. They stayed for a week or two there and, during this time, Philippe had become enamoured by a woman working in a boulangerie and with his fluent French, and feeling that the fling with the baker could become more serious, he stayed. Philippe married the woman a year or so later, and though Bill didn’t make it over for the wedding, he promised Philippe that they would meet again some time in the future, and perhaps by then they could both swap stories about their post-war lives and not only memories of their war ones. It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that they managed to meet. My father said he was was away at university, and Bill and my grandmother, took themselves off for their first foreign holiday, staying at Philippe’s place. Philippe was living in Cherbourg. He owned a cafe in the town. and a grocery store too. They had three children, and Bill told him that he only had the one.

It was during this trip that Philippe explained more fully his hatred for the Germans after Bill had mentioned his friend’s various acts of heroism, and reminded him of that day when he seized the farmhouse alone. Philippe said that he had always been one of those people unlucky to have been alive. Initially Bill though he’d misunderstood him, or Philippe had got mixed up, but no. He repeated that he was unlucky to have been alive. Philippe’s mother had been brought up on a farmhouse not too unlike the one where he killed the Germans, but no one had been around to help the day a few German soldiers came looking for eggs, cheese and milk one afternoon during WWI. His mother, who would have been eighteen, was raped by at least one, probably several. He never knew. What he did know was that he had no father and that not long before going off to fight his mother had admitted why that had been so. Philippe said he supposed this was why he was so fearless in the war: he wanted to kill as many Germans as he could and felt that his mother’s life would have been better had he never existed. She never had any more children, and never married. His birth had been her death, he said, though Bill had suspected this was never likely to have been true.

7

As my father told me this story I felt the tale was constantly slipping between perspectives, with my father’s sensibility somehow imposing itself on that of his father’s, even on Philippe’s. I couldn’t quite imagine my grandfather contextualizing Philippe’s story quite like this, couldn’t quite believe that Bill would have said to my father that the birth of Philippe was not at all the death of his mother. But again I remembered that moment of my grandfather sobbing, and what state was my grandfather in when he told my father about Philippe?

But it was as if in telling me all this my father wanted to tell me something else too, and yet instead he started speaking to me that afternoon in the beer garden of other things about his father, things that somehow lacked the indirect pertinence I felt lay in that story about Philippe.

On a few occasions I’d asked my father whether he ever wished he had brothers or sisters. When he would reply that there are many benefits to being an only child, I always thought that he said so not because he thought there were; more that he didn’t want to enquire too much into why he happened to be so. He would sometimes say he was lucky to be alive, and yet though he would have offered this line when I had asked him as teenager, and when I asked again in my early twenties, he would also have offered it again a few times after we had that chat in the pub about my grandfather and Philippe. Yet until recently I had never drawn together Philippe’s comment about being unlucky and my father’s remark that he was.

8

Why do I give so much thought to it now? A week after my father’s funeral, my mother and I were sitting in the garden of their basement flat in the New Town. I asked her for the first time whether he wished he had brothers and sisters. My mother had two brothers and three sisters and she said it gave her the personality to cope with the world. She wondered whether my father could only ever cope with one individual at a time. He loved the science subjects he taught, even liked the kids, but liked them individually and not as a group. He was never promoted, never really wished to have authority over other human beings. My father always had an aspect that indicated he wished to be left alone. I knew that sometimes when we holidayed in France or Spain, he would go off all day walking, coming back at around seven and looking as though he had been replenished by his own solitude. My mother looked at me as if she were sharing the same thought and then said that there she was now, on her own.

I asked her if he ever told her the story about his father and his friendship with Philippe, about their time during the war and an occasion when Philippe took a farmhouse while the others waited until he had dispatched the Germans before joining him. Yes, she said, adding it was the only time she saw my father break down. But it wasn’t the story so much as what my father said afterwards, she added.

My mother explained that they were on their honeymoon and they were talking about how many children they would wish to have. They were staying on the outskirts of Paris in the village of Versailles, rather more famous of course for its palace than for its town. They had been to the palace earlier that day, and walked through the woods surrounding it, taking in the Spring smells and sounds. They returned to the hotel and over dinner talked about their desire for children. My father started talking about his father, Philippe and the war, and my mother said she kindly interrupted him saying this was all very fascinating but what did it have to do with how many children they would have. My father went silent for a minute, my mother apologized, and insisted he go on with the story. The story he told her was more or less identical to the one that he had told me.

Later that evening, though, in their hotel room, he told her that of course the story he offered had nothing to do with the question she asked, or at least not directly. He said that when he was around eighteen his father was always finding fault with what he was doing, would occasionally shout at him, and once raised his fist as if to hit him. One night he was sitting in his bedroom, and his mother knocked on the door. It was after a row where he had heard his father shouting downstairs and then heard the front door slam. His father had obviously gone off to the pub, and his mother announced they needed to talk. She said to him that Bill wasn’t his biological father, that she had been seeing someone during the war and had become pregnant just before he went back to the US. She was three months pregnant when she started seeing Bill, and it was a few weeks later that she told him she was pregnant with another’s man child. She hadn’t loved the man whose child she was carrying, and had acted she supposed as frivolously as this man who was married with children and who had just wanted to have some fun while stationed abroad.

With so many people dying and nobody knowing for how long the war would go on, the idea of precautions seemed negligible next to bombs falling and buildings collapsing. Anyway, she told Bill and said that she hadn’t loved the other man, was sure she was falling in love with him, but wouldn’t try and get rid of the child. If he left her she would understand. Bill then told my grandmother the story that my father had told me, about Philippe, about his heroism, and about the fact that he was fatherless. He told the story as if to say that he would of course be the father to this boy, that he would somehow be honouring his friend’s own fatherlessness by becoming a dad to this child growing in the stomach of the woman with whom he was falling in love.

As my mother told me what she knew, I realized that she was only aware of Philippe’s fatherless status, not that his mother had been raped by German soldiers. Would this have been my father’s sensitivity, or would he at that time, when he told my mother about his own past, not have known this additional detail about Philippe? After all, Philippe would have told my grandfather about it only when he visited Normandy in the mid-sixties, and maybe my grandfather hadn’t told my father till many years later. As she filled out the story with more detail than I would have known if reliant only on what my father told me, so I realized I might have the knowledge my mother didn’t possess. I asked if he ever mentioned Philippe again, and as she said no I could see no sign of subterfuge. Here she was telling me my father was semi-adopted, and there my father was in the past having told me about someone who had fought in a war taking out Germans as though avenging his mother’s honour, a dishonour out of which Philippe was allowed to exist.

That PhD I had just received when my father told his story, was for a dissertation on narratology, taking off from the idea of the figure in The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, who avoids death by telling stories. I explored whether contemporary narratives based much more on a lack of closure somehow reflected our fear of death. As my mother informed me of my father’s past she seemed to do so with the authority of a woman on her death bed offering a final confession. But I wondered, superstitiously, if somehow she would live for a few more years as long as I didn’t tell her that the story she had told me contained information to which she had never been privy, and that if anyone was destined for the grave it would surely be the narrator of this story himself, someone for whom all the facts appeared to be evident. But it perhaps resides not in the knowing but in the telling, and so as long as I do not divulge this story to anyone else, my life is safe. If, on the other hand it finds itself with readers, then they might wonder if the narrator, very much alive as he puts these words down on paper, has just at that moment passed away.

There was certainly something in that discussion between my mother and I that I could only call coolly complicit: our conversation had the cold chill of the crypt. What I remember is the look she gave me that seemed to say that whatever I happened to do with it I must respect my father’s memory. But as I write I wonder whose memory I am respecting or disrespecting while I muse over my grandfather, Philippe and my father. I’ve always thought one day I would like to write a war story; I just never thought it would be quite the one I happen to have put down on the page here. I also find myself thinking, as I’m about to conclude, whether indeed there might be more to this story than I too can possibly know, and in that ignorance I can reveal all and remain alive.

 

©Tony McKibbin