I was looking through the names I had taken from the memorial on the Menin Gate, thousands upon thousands of them, names of the fallen I had downloaded while researching the Colgates and Props. I looked looking down our road, down Thornbury Drive and in 1918 every other house may had a dead or injured man, a son, a father, a brother, a husband. Surely it could never happen again, million upon million of un-named, unknown lost lives.
I have been working with the ancestors, pulling out the veneer of their stories and I am filled with thoughts of Alfred Prop and Horace Colgate. Having studied World War I and the poetry of Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Herbert Reed and others, the images of war spring readily to mind. Looking at family history , I also think of those left behind, fatherless or widowed and hence this poem. I imagine what it must have been like then when almost every house was touched by grief.
DOWN OUR STREET
Look down our street,
See the blinds pulled down, the windows dressed in black,
Like widows, pale faced, sad eyed.
Look down our street at this house and at that,
This brother’s gone, this father’s dead,
Her sons are broken,
And her son… who knows, missing…
… Nothing left but bones that catch the plough
And teeth within a sieve.
Look down our street, at every other door,
Black bow upon the pull…
Look down our street,
Our doors are bright with paint,
Glass gleaming in the sun,
We grew too many runner beans again last summer. As I am never very successful at freezing beans but not wanting to waste them, I decided to try salting them to eat in the autumn and winter. I have a book about preserving and salting was discussed and sounded so easy.
However, the salt was thick and lumpy and did not properly cover the sliced beans even though I tried to poke it between the bright green slivers. The recipe warned against air pockets… beans would go slimy and repulsive if there were air pockets.
I packed the beans in the salt but there were little bubbles of air between the layers. I tried poked the salt down with a skewer but that didn’t really work so I shook them out and tried again but by now the salt was damp and it was even more difficult to get it packed between beans.
It is spring now and we haven’t tried them yet… I have not got any great hopes… we’ll see.
I did have some success with freezing beans using an Iraqi recipe; I cooked the beans in a spicey tomato sauce and packed it into little containers and froze it. However, I didn’t choose my beans carefully enough and some were old, stringy and leathery. Note to self… only use young sprightly beans…
The salted beans… As I laid the beans inthe container, trying to lie them in neat rows, I sprinkled them with salt and unbidden an image rose in my mind of corpses laid out and sprinkled with snow, freezing before they could be buried. Was this a picture of some Nazi atrocity, or some more recent Balkan horror? Or maybe I was not thinking of snow but plague corpses laid in a pit muddled together and smothered in quick lime before earth was decently strewn across them.
Who knows where the image came from but it was uncomfortable all the same. And then as I thought about it, unbidden came a memory of a story about a little dog which I read as a child. The dog was with French soldiers straggling back from Moscow in the vile winter after Napoleon’s abortive campaign. As a children’s story it cannot have really described the full horror of men dropping as they marched snow-shod, covered soon with a deathly white blanket, but it made a deep impression on me of the horror of war and these images of of suffering and snowy deaths rose unbidden to my mind as I salted my beans.
In summer I stripped the vines of all their beans
And in a new endeavour, I salted them.
I sliced them, laid them on their bed of salt, slim green shrouded beans
And was disturbed by the image.
They lay like soldiers, buried in a fall of snow.
I had conjured Napoleon’s fleeing troops,
Dying on their wretched march
From Moscow, a winter of death away
And to some dreadful rest.
It is not snowing now,
And yet the wind buffets from the east.