Bill travelled back to France not knowing what he’d find or what memories would return. Sitting in his granddaughter Bethany’s bright purple car he looked out over the almost familiar countryside, trying to remember. The land had healed and changed since the First World War and Bill’s last visit in the mid-sixties with his wife and five children. He turned to his granddaughter and tried to tell her this, but his mouth was dry and wordless.
There were bottles of water in the carry bag by his feet. He lent forward and dug around for one with great difficult.
‘Are you okay, Granddad? Do you want me to stop?’ Bethany shouted, slowly and clear.
He turned his head, aware she was speaking but not quite catching her words.
She repeated what she had said, but Bill shook his head as his useless fingers finally found a plastic bottle. He pulled it out, showed it to her as explanation then tried to open the lid. He could barely feel the blue top under his fingertips and couldn’t get any grip at all. He shook the bottle in vain and embarrassed turned to Bethany.
She gave a single nod, indicated and pulled smoothly over. She took the bottle from him, easily opened it and handed it back, keeping the lid in her hand.
Bill gratefully drank from the bottle.
‘We’ve not got much further to go to the cemetery now,’ Beth spoke into his ear, ‘does any of this look familiar to you?’
Bill swallowed and looked around. His lips formed a few words, but his throat didn’t give sound to them. He tried again then shook his head and drank some more water.
‘What did we do with the cards?’ Beth asked and began digging around in the footwell at Bill’s feet.
She pulled out a plastic wallet full of large picture cards, ‘here there are. Okay, Granddad. Put your glasses on.’
Bill frowned and lend down, waiting for her repeat the instructions.
Beth picked up his glasses that were resting on the dashboard and helped Bill put them on. She took the bottle of water from him, screwing the cap back on and putting it down. She pulled out the cards and looked through them with Bill watching over her shoulder. She found the new ones she was looking for and passed him one that showed a picture of France. Bill looked at it closely and nodded, not sure what Beth meant as he knew where they were.
She put another one into his hands; a war cemetery. He nodded again as he looked at her. That was their destination. Beth shuffled the cards and found one that had two clock faces on it. She changed the first set of hands to show the time now and the second clock to show their time of arrival. She gave it to her granddad and received a nod from him after a few moments.
‘Do you really understand?’ she shouted.
‘Yes,’ he forced out in a stuttered whispery voice.
Beth held her hand out and he gave her the cards back. She put them away again then drove off. Bill stared at the French countryside, barely recalling marching through it with his unit. He tried to remember the faces and names, but it was too difficult now with the photographs and writings. Strangely, he could see the horses though and thought about trying to tell Beth about them, but it was too much effort.
The sign of the cemetery appeared and Beth pointed it out to him. She then turned in and parked up amongst lots of other cars. She got out and went to the boot. Bill watched her getting his wheelchair and bringing it over to him. Beth opened the door, undid his seatbelt and helped him into the chair.
She then wheeled him forward, so she could grab the cards and hand them to Bill. Closing and locking the car door, she wheeled him away as Bill quickly looked through the cards.
‘What is it, Granddad?’ she asked loudly.
He held up one of the new cards which showed a photo of a poppy wreath lying beside a white headstone. Bill felt Beth’s breath in his bald head and heard her cry a few faint, ‘oh!’ sound before she hurried back to the car. He turned and could just make out, his granddaughter opening the passenger door and leaning over to the back seats. She pulled out the wreath and brought it back to him.
‘There, Granddad,’ she said.
He nodded and they set off again. The cemetery was crowded with people waiting for the ceremony and it took them a good few minutes to get to where they needed to be. Beth placed Bill right at the front with the other wheelchair uses. He looked down the line and saw a handful of men in similar clothing to himself. The man who he was sat next to, Bill didn’t recognise, but Bill gave him a nod anyway.
He felt Beth’s hand on his shoulder and reached up to hold her fingers. Bill looked up at the massive wall of names before them and felt tears come into his eyes.