A very distant relative on my mother's side witnessed the first marching column of troops captured in Africa. Dusty and forlorn, tramping through this quiet Yorkshire town, the same Italian men would transform a mere stockade of canvas and barbed wire into the prefab barracks that became home to them, and in turn, to Polish and German soldiers. For the most part, they were as good and honest as the livings they made, the soil they worked. They helped the farmers with the sowing, harrowing, ploughing and harvesting and fell in love with the local lasses. They came to know that their greatest enemy was boredom.
spit and mud
bound with horsehair . . .
They wrote letters, poetry, took up oil painting or ornithology, played guitar. Some crafted things from bric-a-brac: baby bootees knitted from fabric strips or fashioned from tobacco pouches; wooden cameos; cribbage sets carved from bone.
In time, Nature drew up her own peace treaty, signed and countersigned with brambles and birdsong. The old huts were used as grain stores, some were sub-let as workshops, until a businessman had the notion of creating a museum within a museum -- lest we forget, he said.
Now every year there's a steady stream of visitors. In the front parlour, they gather around the radio with the family to hear Neville Chamberlain deliver the Declaration of War. They stand with the mothers on the railway platform, bidding farewell to the evacuees, or suddenly feel the ground rolling and lurching beneath their feet as they become part of a U-boat's sickening sway and the click and boom of its depth charge. They pore over the week's rations, wondering how they're going to make ends meet. Then there is that eerie, rasping sound, as if an old two-stroke motorcycle has become airborne, followed by fifteen seconds of silence after the pulse motor of the doodlebug cuts out; a silence that says this is it! Plunged into darkness on the Blitz-torn street, they hear the Civil Defence wardens screaming their orders, smell the acrid smoke, the seething rubble of a house that took a direct hit. Some grit their teeth and stare down the barrel of a howitzer.
born blind moon . . .
of blood-red gapes
Few of them notice us, or our comings and goings. There are always jobs to be done, children to be fed. Unlike the day-trippers, we don't startle at the wail of the air raid siren. Bluebirds fly out of the Officer's Mess, courtesy of the Forces Sweetheart.
An old man looks out across the cornfield, says to his daughter, "I don't know what happened to her, that Land Girl. The one who picked a poppy for my lapel; said it was for her uncle who died at Ypres".
A young mother steers her two boys out of the Holocaust exhibit, whispers to her husband, "I'm not ready to see that, so I'm sure they aren't --"
This way and that, a glimpse here, a snippet there. A teenage girl squeals with delight.
"Did you see those hand-painted shoes made entirely from bread dough? Well, the Italians always did make nice shoes . . ."
Another veteran comes to sit outside. He's just seen himself in a photograph.
"It was the shock . . . who'd have thought it?" he says to the army cadet who's brought him a glass of water.
"I was in The British Royal Artillery 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment. We liberated Belsen in April 1945. I can still see my mate in the bulldozer, pushing the bodies into mass graves".
Near the Dig for Victory garden, bribed with a biscuit, a little girl sits patiently in her pushchair while her mother tops up her sunscreen and braids her white-blond hair. Out of the blue she notices me, points up at the telegraph wires, "Look, Mum!"
P.O.W. huts –
a new generation
of barn swallows
Note: Camp 83, otherwise known as "Eden Camp", North Yorkshire, England.