12 Apr In Captivity: Week 4
I spent several hours on several days this week googling maps of Belgium and Holland in 1944 and discovering things about my father I never knew and about the war I might have known once but have forgotten.
A week or two ago, on the bottom shelf in my study a couple of notebooks caught my eye the way many things do during those long pauses in the day, moments of idling and indecision when I cast around for something purposeful to do next after the cleaning and baking is done, the garden is utterly weed-free and all the zooming and skyping has finished, but I’m not quite calm enough to settle down with a good book or start work on the masterpiece.
I have no idea how long the two notebooks have sat beside one other on the shelf, nor how many house-moves or room reorganisations they have undergone, standing at attention like a couple of soldiers rubbing shoulders with one another. I recognised one of them though I hadn’t opened it for a very long time. A hard-back notebook, black with a bright red spine and angled corners. Inside, a single word inscribed on the patterned beige fly leaf: Journal. The writing is mine. I recognise it and could date it from the style. My handwriting changed over the years as I moved through life, changed and was changed by choices and events. And there was a part of me that always searched for a ‘hand’ that was clear, steady and beautiful as if, thereby, I would find a clear, steady and beautiful self. Opening it again made me smile. And also sigh.
I didn’t recognise the other book; I may have opened it once upon a time but I know I haven’t read it. It’s a slimmer book, with battered, mottled reddish-brown covers, black spine and angled corners faded and worn. There is no inscription inside this one but on the first page is the word Belgium (30th Sept-Oct 4th), doubly underlined. Written in pencil at least on the first few pages in a hand that is so familiar, this is my father’s journal from his war service.
I spent a while trying to fathom out why I had no idea that I had it. How many years has it been nursing a spot on my bookshelf, lying in wait for me? There’s a practical answer, of course: it may have arrived with all the other documents and photographs I cleared from my mother’s flat after she died. I can imagine it in the bookcase above her bureau alongside the other unexpected treasures – like the two crisp £20 notes inside the Good News Bible, which lent a certain edge to the good book’s title. I shuffle through my memories to see if I can find the journal, lying somewhere, relive the moment when I picked it up, perhaps peeped inside briefly and then packed it away for the journey south with the rest of the legacy of words and objects, photos and clothing, bits and pieces. The witnesses of a couple of lives.
But now the war analogy is inescapable. War changes lives in the way ours are being changed rapidly, maybe profoundly. At least I suppose war does this; I’ve never been in a war before. The daily casualties rise and rise. I try not to watch or listen too much but feel I must hear the news at least once a day, have to try to take it in. Shutting it out is tempting but it would feel disrespectful to those who are risking their lives and those who are lost. When I started to write this post yesterday, I didn’t yet know anyone who had died. And now today, I do.
It is, in a way, a perfect moment to find the war journal when I have time to look at it and a need to escape, sometimes, from the present. I study those googled maps trying to decipher the place names that are so difficult to read in my father’s small, left-handed script. I want to be able to locate him, pinpoint the places he would have been driving his canteen truck. I’m not sure why this matters so much now when it didn’t seem to matter before. Something to preoccupy me during the days of confinement, perhaps, something that needs concentration but not creativity. Or is it a search for some connection, some new sense of attachment to the past now the present is bewildering and the future uncertain?