Saturday, 12 October 2013

Blood Red Rose

My great aunt Betty married an English man, by the name of James Ramsey in 1950, soon after a chance meeting on a trip to Dublin. The importance of grasping opportunities for happiness, was a lesson drilled in by the horror of war, so recently ended. She tried to settle in England, but it was a step to far for a girl from West Kerry. Three months after they moved to the UK, Betty arrived back, leaving James behind a heart broken man. Our poor Betty was a ruined woman, well at least she was for 48 hours. That was how long it took a tall handsome man, to come wandering up the tractor path on Kerry head, a battered little suit case swinging jauntily from his long arm.

Don’t underestimate how difficult life was for an English man in Ireland at that time, but James was a resolute individual, who was decent to his very core. It wasn't long before he was deeply in love with West Kerry, and even more so with Betty. In the intervening years even the most die-hard republicans in the area, were won over by this quite, happy gentleman. They even went as far as conveniently forgetting his nationality, and rechristening him “Posh James” because of his rolling Yorkshire accent.

Stories of life, on this most westerly point of Europe, will have to wait for another day. Today I wish to tell you of the death, of this great man. Uncle James passed away quietly in his sleep, in 1996, aged 78 years. Betty was ten years his junior, and still in the prime of her life, according to everyone. The evening after James died, I was called to the small cottage, they had shared since that first day he walked into town. My mother and Betty sat beside the open turf fire,fighting off the chill in the air,  as winter was still clasping the world, in its relentless grip.

“Harold, we need you to go with Betty, and Uncle James, to France,” Mom said.

“Why are we going to France?” I asked, skipping over the fact that Uncle James was in no state to take trips anywhere.

“It's in Jame's will, that he is to be buried in Dunkirk Town cemetery. He has a plot in his name there, for well over forty years. Did you know that James was part of the Miracle of Dunkirk?” Mom asked?

“No, but I know what happened. We covered it during history in school,” I said.

As amazing as the escape from Dunkirk was, my tale is not about that either. The only reason I mention it at all, is to explain how it happened, on a miserable winter’s day, Aunt Betty and myself took off from Shannon Airport, with poor Uncle James all boxed up with the luggage, heading for the green fields of France. When we arrived, we cleared customs and waited in a small private room, while the arrangements for Uncle Jame's burial, were completed. A hearse, and a car for us, had been arranged. When all the paperwork was in order, we were fetched by a stoic official and escorted to a side entrance for departure. It would seem, the sight of a coffin going on, or off, an airplane did nothing for the comfort of other passengers. Outside the weather was bitterly cold, snow that had fallen days ago, was frozen solid on the ground. Even with strong shoes and two pairs of socks. my feet were numb after two minutes standing outside.

The drive to Dunkirk took over 4 hours in the treacherous conditions. At last, we pulled into a little graveyard, on the edge of town. A substantial memorial was erected to the fallen of the Great War, many of whom were laid here, in final rest. A small group stood beside an open grave, the priest came and opened the door of the car for my Aunt. They spoke briefly, before the pole bearers took James on their shoulders, and began the ceremony with an air of deep respect.  In the week that had lead up to this day, Aunt Betty cried non stop, by now she was numb to the pain, a single tear crept from her eye, as the small procession neared the edge of the grave. Prayers were said with efficiency and care, Uncle James was lowered into the still frozen earth, and Aunt Betty cried as she tossed a hand full of soil on the polished wood that now held her whole world.

In the distance behind us, we began to hear singing, sad and mournful. The priest stopped in mid prayer and looked agog past us to the main gate. We turned to see what had distracted him. Coming up the path, directly toward us, was a group of people at least a hundred strong. At the head of them all was a very slight lady, who was just as old as Aunt Betty or even older. She was a dozen paces ahead of everyone else, but no one made any attempt to get any closer to her. They just followed her, every head bowed, singing quietly. The woman's white hair hung to her shoulder, around which she wore a heavy quilted shawl, under this, a long winter woolen skirt, but her feet were bare and red raw. Even from this distance, I could see the pink stains she was leaving behind on the ice and snow, where her skin had come away.

None of us moved as the group neared the grave, the strikingly beautiful, older woman, had tears running freely down her face. From under her shawl, she produced a perfect red rose with fully open petals, which she laid in the snow at the foot of Jame's head stone, which had been erected years ago. She touched the inscription with trembling hands, and traced the words, “Bombardeer James Ramsey 1918 –  “ the final date yet to be added. The lady spoke in a language that I couldn't understand, and caressed the name again and again. It was clear she was saying her good byes. At last, she turned to Aunt Betty and embraced her as if she were a lifelong friend. Only then would she let anyone assist her, a group of young women came forward and lead her away on bleeding, agonized, feet. Every one of the huge crowd, came forward one by one, to embrace and kiss my Aunt, with unashamed tears of joy and sorrow in their eyes. I was dumbfounded at this display of raw emotion, until one man shook my hand and said in English

“We have all come to say our thanks for our lives, to your Mr James,” he said, with a huge smile.

“I don’t understand, who are you all? Who is that lady?” I asked, pointing to the old woman being helped into a shiny black limousine.

“That's my Grandmother Hattie, we are from Belgium. During the war, Mr James was shot down, on the way back from a bombing raid in Germany. He parachuted out over the country side, near Zulte. My great-grandparents came across him, hanging from a tree where he had been knocked out cold. They took him to their farm, and hid him in a barn. Hattie had been in the barn giving him some soup, when solders came. Hattie had wanted to run back to the house, but James had held her tight, covering her cries, as the solders tortured and killed her whole family. That day, she lost her Mother, Father and two brothers. None of  then broke under the torture knowing that if they told, Hattie and Mr James would die too. When the solders left, James released his hold on Hattie. She cursed and hit your Uncle, saying that if he'd never came, her family would still be alive. She blamed him for everything and fought him at every turn, but Mr James refused to abandon her. He kept her with him, giving her all his food, covering her in his clothes and even giving her his boots filled with straw when hers fell apart. It took them three weeks to walk to France and he found sanctuary for my Grandmother with the French resistance. The last thing she did, before your Uncle left to join the forces at Dunkirk beach, was to spit in his face and slap him hard. She knew, by the look in his eyes, that he blamed himself a thousand times more for her family's death, than she ever would, but her anger would not let her admit it. She never got the chance to forgive him. Now it is too late. Today she heard of Mr James’s burial. We are her children and grandchildren and great grand children. She told us to come and pay our respects to a man who is father to us all. When we arrived at the square in Dunkirk, Hattie made us stop the cars. She stripped off her shoes, and said if James could walk for a week barefoot in such cold to keep her alive, the least she could do, was walk the last five miles here, to say sorry,” he explained.

I looked at my Aunt, as she was embraced by yet another tearful stranger, and her bewilderment at this amazing, heartwarming outpouring of emotion. I felt pride swell my heart, proud that I had known this amazing man, who had chosen to share her life and mine, my Uncle James.

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