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 into them by the horror of a 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 forty eight hours because that was how long it took a tall handsome man to come wandering up the tractor path on Kerry head with a battered 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 core. It wasn't long before he was deeply in love with west Kerry, and grew more in love with Betty every single day. In the following years, even the most die-hard republicans living in the area were won over by this quite, happy gentleman. They 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 a story of death, the death of a great man. Uncle James passed away quietly in his sleep aged seventy eight years of age. 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 their small cottage where they had shared every moment of life since the day he walked into town. My mother and Betty sat beside the open fire,fighting off the chill in the air,  as winter was still holding 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 a request in James' will. He wanted to be buried in Dunkirk Town cemetery. He's had a plot there for well over forty years. Did you know that James was part of the Miracle of Dunkirk?” Mom asked?

“No, but I read about it in school. Was James there?" Aunt Betty nodded but it was too painful to talk, she just folded her hands in her lap and let her tears fall upon them.

As amazing as the escape from Dunkirk was, my tale is not about that day 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. 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, the snow that had fallen a few days ago was now frozen solid on the ground. Even with strong shoes, and two pairs of socks, my feet were numb after two minutes of standing outside.


The drive to Dunkirk took over four 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 lead up to this day, Aunt Betty had cried non stop and by now she was numb to all pain but still a single tear managed to creep 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 held her whole world.


In the distance I began to hear singing, sad and mournful. The priest stopped in mid prayer and looked beyond us. We all 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 slight lady, who was just as old as Aunt Betty, or even older. She was a dozen paces ahead of everyone else but none of the group made any attempt to assist her, they just followed, every head bowed, singing quietly. The woman's white hair hung to her shoulders around which hung a heavy shawl. Her legs moved determinedly under her long woolen skirt but the feet which poked out from underneath it were bare and raw. Even from this distance I could see the pink stains she was leaving behind on the ice as she walked. The frozen ground had stripped her souls to the bleeding flesh and it must have been agony.


None of us moved as the group neared the grave, step by step the older woman approached and I could see she had tears running freely down her face. From under her shawl she produced a perfect red rose with fully open petals. She laid the bloom in the snow at the foot of James' head stone, a monument which had been erected years ago. She touched the inscription with trembling hands, and traced the words, “Bombardier 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 they were lifelong friends. Only then would she let anyone assist her, a group of young women came forward and lead the lady away on bleeding, agonized, feet. One by one the huge crowd came forward embrace my Aunt with unashamed tears in their eyes. I was dumbfounded at this display of raw emotion from a group of complete strangers until one man shook my hand and said in English, “We have all come to say thanks for all our lives, to your Mr James,” he said, with a huge smile.

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

“That's my Grandmother, Hattie, we're 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, he had been knocked out cold. They took him to their farm and hid him in a barn. Hattie was sent to the barn to give him soup when the solders came. Hattie wanted to run back to the house and fight, but James held her tight, covering her cries, as the solders tortured and killed the whole family. That day, she lost her Mother, Father and two brothers. None of  them broke under torture knowing that if they told, Hattie would die too. 

When the solders left, James released his hold on Hattie and she cursed and hit your Uncle, saying that if he'd never come, her family would still be alive. She blamed him for everything. He knew they would die if they stayed where they were and insisted they try to escape. My Grandmother fought him at every turn, but Mr James refused to abandon her. He kept her with him, giving her all the food they managed to find and covered her in his clothes. He even gave her his boots filled with straw when hers fell apart after days of walking. 

It took them three weeks to reach the French border and another one before he found sanctuary for my Grandmother with the French resistance. The last thing she did before your Uncle left 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 never let her admit such a thing. In life she never got the chance to forgive him and now it is too late. The day she heard of Mr James’s burial she knew she had to make right that insult, after all, without him she would have surely died. We are her children, her grandchildren and her great grand children. She gathered us all together and told us it was time to honor a man who was father to us all. She told us for the first time how she really escaped the Gestapo. Once we heard it nothing would keep us away. 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, the least she could do was walk the last five miles to say sorry.”

I looked at my Aunt as she was embraced by yet another tearful stranger, and I saw her bewilderment at this amazing, heartwarming, outpouring of emotion. I felt pride swell my heart, proud that I'd known this amazing man, a man who had chosen to share so little of his greatness but always gave love to others without question, my Uncle James.



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