This letter was found unsigned in woods near Blighty Valley
British Cemetery, Départment de la Somme.
This is the strangest letter you will ever receive from me. Please forgive me if this story disturbs you. I must tell someone and you are so much a part of this alter-ego to whom I always turn my whispers and my pen in times of trouble.
Of course you were right – this was not the way to recuperate, not the right ‘holiday’ under the circumstances. It all started well enough; the weather has been glorious here. It’s harvest time and the corn shimmers a pink-tinged beige before the combine harvesters. Remember what I read to you about the Golden Virgin of Albert? Well, I didn’t know they had rebuilt her until I reached the brow of a hill and saw her radiating over the Town in the afternoon sunshine. I stepped off my bike to savour the moment. I could feel my physical health returning, and as for the other…I had almost forgotten.
Five of Albert’s hotels were closed, their owners gone on holiday to avoid the tourist season. The sixth, needless to say, was full. I climbed out of the Town, tired but still in good spirits, vaguely heading towards the British monument at Thiepval. It wasn’t difficult to find. It dominates the landscape and casts a long shadow over its procession of pilgrims, mainly English, like me. I sat under one of the pillars covered with names and watched them come and go, recognising some of the same faces from the other cemeteries. What brings them here? I searched the visitors’ books and found only repetition: “lest we forget”, “rest in peace” – a collective failure of language, of imagination. I cheated, with a quote: “These men are worth your tears”.
My spirits were sinking with the sun as I set off again in search of accommodation. You’ll see no woods of any size on the map of this area, but I seemed to have found one. I’m surrounded by it as I write and I still haven’t found the way out. Perhaps it was my tiredness but I seemed to ride for ages until I saw a sign saying “Auberge”. Crossing my fingers over the handlebars I turned down a gravel track through the trees to what I can only describe as a chateau, like the ones you see in the forests around Paris – pointed towers, grand arches – unusual for these parts. Some iron chairs and tables were arranged café style to one side of the main entrance. There was no sign of life at the reception or anywhere else. I slumped into one of the chairs, exhausted, and closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, an old man was sitting opposite me. I sat up, startled, and tangled my French.
“It’s O.K., I’m English, like you,” he said, smiling at me through
“I, I tried to ring but no-one came. Do you know if there are any rooms available?”
“I should think so. Gaston will be along presently.” His clothes were shabby but he spoke with an upper-class home counties accent.
“Any idea how much the rooms cost here?” The place looked a bit grand for my budget.
“It’s not expensive – two, three hundred francs a night.” He leaned towards me and I watched his sunken eyes disappear into the gloom. “You weren’t planning to pay by cheque, in Euros were you?”
“No, no in cash, in francs.”
“Good. Gaston and I are of one mind about that. Two world wars have not changed the nature of the beast, the Boche…What do you think?” I didn’t feel like that kind of discussion, so I said nothing. “This is your first time here, isn’t it?” I nodded (how did he know?).
“Let me show you something.” From his bag he pulled a rusty artillery shell. “See this? I have hundreds of these at home. And there are thousands more where this came from. Every so often the authorities say they are going to clear them all but they never will. There are too many of them, too deep.” He was brandishing the shell like a weapon towards me and I felt a twitch of fear. Was he just a harmless eccentric, or something more sinister? A dim light came on inside and I was about to excuse myself when he said:
“Let me tell you what first brought me here.
I think we share a common interest in this war, you and I.
I can see the pity in your eyes. I
have a particular reason for my fascination, my obsession you might say…”
“Did you serve in the Second War?” He snorted a laugh.
“How old do you think I look?”
I tried to make out the lines of his ashen face in the glow from the window. “Late fifties?” I lied. He laughed again.
“My friend, I am forty-seven, and whatever hope is yours, was mine also, not so long ago. I was about your age when I suffered my first…reactive depression, they called it.” I could feel my throat tightening, and that sensation of looking at someone down a long tunnel. These were the last things I wanted to hear. Then fortunately we were interrupted by the sound of feet on the gravel.
“Here comes Gaston.”
“I would like a room for the night…”
“And first, a beer,” said my new friend.
“A beer, yes I could do with one.”
“Une bičre?” echoed Gaston. The old man smiled and said nothing.
“Deux, s’il vous plait.” It looked like I was paying.
“Deux bičres?” Gaston asked, as though he hadn’t understood my prononciation.
“Oui, deux bičres,” I repeated, slightly annoyed.
The old man watched him leave before asking: “Have you ever heard of regression therapy?”
“Yes, yes I saw a television programme about it once.”
“I was recommended to someone. He started with my childhood and worked backwards. I listened to the tapes he gave me at the end of each session, remembering nothing – my voice and the words of another man, a soldier. After the fourth or fifth session I started to see flashbacks. I remember one of us all jumping naked into a lake. They were a good-looking bunch, my lads.” He moved his bony hand across the table to grasp mine. “You remind me of one of them.” I pulled my hand away.
“Funny, as a cure it seemed to work by distraction. At each session I would find another clue to the identity of this unknown soldier. On one tape I mentioned a name – my ‘dead name’ we came to call it: Richard Nevilleson. You’ll see it inscribed over there at Thiepval.” He gestured towards the dark valley. “Anyway, this quack, therapist, call him what you will, advised me to write down my thoughts, to keep a diary. I gave it a try and found strange words kept creeping in, out of context: ‘the Hun’, ‘toffee apple’, ‘Blighty wound’…Then, one night I woke to what I thought was artillery fire, and half-awake, half-asleep I staggered to my desk and wrote this…He pulled a crumpled letter from his inside pocket as Gaston arrived with the beers and my key.
“Monsieur, you will be in room three.” I looked up to thank him and thought I saw puzzlement, even fear, on his face as he turned to leave us.
“Can you read it?” I turned the paper to the light and read:
June 30th 1916
My dearest mother,
I hope this letter passes the
censor. By the time it arrives, our
‘secret’ will be out. Tomorrow
is the big day and I sense we may be moving up the line for the last time.
There’s a wood on the side of a hill near here and I reckon whatever
happens there will seal my fate. With
luck it’ll be a Blighty and I’ll see you again before too long.
If not, please take care of my diaries until Jane is old enough to
You remember what I wrote when I first signed up, and now, all I can do is warn…
“You didn’t finish it,
“No, I tried many times and always came to a block at that point. That’s when I decided to come here, to look around. It didn’t take me long. Look.”
He pulled something else from his pocket. Turning it to the light I recognised a British Army standard identity disc: ‘Essex Regiment, Lieutenant Richard Nevilleson’.
“Where did you find it?”
“Over there, under a rock.”
“D’you know how he died?”
“Not exactly but I knew as soon as I set eyes on this wood, this was the one – the final resting place for the chosen many. Don’t you feel it?” The tips of his fingers froze against my hand. I stood up.
“Erm, a fascinating story. Look...I, I must go and check in now. Perhaps I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow?” He made no reply.
I turned to snatch the panniers
off my bike and hurried indoors, up the staircase lined with old rifles and
photographs from the Great War, slammed the door of my room and turned the key.
That night, it all started again: the sweating, the turning, the racing
pulse. Unable to sleep, I dressed
and went outside. On the table where we had sat were one full and one half-full
glass, the letter and the identity disc. It
was starting to drizzle, so I picked them up and hurried back inside, to see
Gaston in a dark jacket with polished buttons facing me with a hard expression.
I extended my finds as a peace offering.
“The monsieur who was drinking with me earlier, he has left these on the table.” He lifted one eyebrow.
“The one opposite me when you served us with beer.” His eyes narrowed as he shook his head. Exasperated, I turned away, looked again at the disc, just to reassure myself I hadn’t imagined it. There it was: the regiment, and below it in shaky capital letters – my name.