Phone calls aside, the only human contact I had on my ten-day Somme battlefield tour was with the lady who ran the bed and breakfast establishment. My bed was on the upper storey of a disused light railway station in a clearing in a beech wood. Madame lived with her husband in a modern bungalow 100 yards down the line, but came along each morning to cook my bacon and eggs. The greater part of her clientele consists of British Great War buffs. But Covid-19 had kept them away and I had the breakfast table, the old station and indeed the Somme battlefield entirely to myself.
The dining room was once the waiting room. In here the walls were decorated with trench maps and other Great War memorabilia, including a tribute to Captain Billie Nevill of the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, who famously led his men over the top on 1 July 1916 by drop-kicking a football into no man’s land. He’d written on the football: ‘The great European Cup-Tie final, East Surreys v Bavarians.’ Displayed on a stand was a punctured leather replica of this celebrated football.
After a careful study of the trench maps, one day I went and found the spot from which Captain Nevill had punted his football. Then I followed his path between the British and German front line trenches. The distance was about the same as three football pitches laid end to end. History records that the East Surreys gamely chased the football up the long uphill slope but were scythed down by a German machine gun on the left wing. Captain Nevill reached the German wire and was about to chuck a hand grenade when a late tackle in the form of a bullet to the head ended the match for him. Every morning he looked levelly out from his framed portrait and watched me eat my bacon and eggs off a plate decorated with a design of red poppies. The tablecloth was a pattern of red poppies. Madame invariably served breakfast wearing a diaphanous shawl hand-embroidered with poppies.
While I ate and Captain Nevill coolly watched, Madame liked to practise her English on me. Her theme always was how hard she had to work and how underappreciated she was. She would give me selected quotes from her frequent appeals to her husband’s better nature. One such was: ‘But Raymond, I am a delicate flower. I am old. I am thin. I am tired. I cannot go on like this.’
In wintertime he makes her go into the wood to gather firewood. ‘But Raymond I am an old lady. I cannot carry such weights. I fear I will injure my back.’ Last Christmas, however, he was moved to pity and bought her a little four-wheeled cart with a pulling handle. Sometimes I would see her in the distance harnessed to this cart and plodding tiredly towards her next insuperable task.
Above the dining-room door was a framed ceramic poppy. Hand-painted poppies trailed across my bedroom wall. And outside in the garden, thriving among the decorative groups of upright German Minenwerfer shells, were several clumps of real, flowering poppies. Closer inspection revealed these to be Papaver somniferum — Himalayan opium poppies — rather than the common Papaver rhoeas. Most had dropped their flowers, leaving only the distinctive pods. These were plump with the milky opiate latex that is traditionally harvested by scoring the pods with a blade in the evening, then scraping off the brown gum residue the following morning.
What luck! What could be better than cycling the Somme battlefield during the day and spending the evenings relaxing with a half a teaspoon of Somme opium mixed with Madame’s homemade fig and raisin jam to ameliorate the bitter taste? I’d mislaid my pocketknife in a cemetery and Madame’s cutlery drawer contained only blunt instruments. But by dismembering my Gillette ProGlide Shield razor for men who care, I had the tool for the job.
At breakfast two mornings later, Madame was saying how she’d spent the previous evening doing cross stitch in front of the television as usual. Her husband decides what they watch on TV. She used to hate them, but over the years she has grown to like war films. About twice a year, however, she insists that they watch a particular film if Vincent Cassel is in it. Vincent Cassel is Madame’s idea of what a man should be. Because Vincent Cassel only chooses to be in intelligent films, her husband always says at the end, in spite of himself: ‘Good choice.’
While Madame was recounting all this, my eyes met Captain Nevill’s. And I might have imagined it, but I could swear that from beneath the peak of his officer’s cap the expression was several shades more humorous than it had been the day before.