Been thinking a lot about 100 years anniversary of the Armistice of World War 1 and now the day has come.I want to do something on my own to mark the loss of Corporal Ronald Edward Heslewood, the grandfather I never met. It feels right to do it here by the shore on the west side of Morecambe Bay.
I start with socks. Knitted and posted with love to soldiers on the battlefield. If not worn through by now, or, if you ever dared to take them off to dry, they could be nicked or eaten by rats. I decide to forgo socks this morning. Pulling on my rubber boots to know what it feels like with bare feet inside. It’s cold and gritty.
10 am, low tide and I set off with a garden hoe – a primitive ancient tool – to carve my grandfather’s name into the bed of the sea. The hoe is a rusty metal tool slotted onto a wooden shaft. One side pointed, the other broad and flat ended. As long as people have forged iron, this is what they would have made. To make the mud writing readable I must use the corner of the blunt side. Like a snow plough it scrapes a line and throws up mud banks with each stroke. The writing is clumsy and coarse; this mud heavy and stubborn. I start on R for Ronald. Immediately the first down stroke fills with water. The curve of the R is tricky. I pull, I drag. It is impossible to shake redundant clumps of mud off the hoe.
In my mind this carving of his name was to be an elegant calligraphy, including name, rank, number, dates of birth and death. But it is harder than I thought and comes out ugly and crude. I abbreviate Ronald to Ron, omit his middle name and move straight on to the surname. No rank, no dates. This engraving of just his name is turning out bigger than I expected. W was a joy, the straight angled lines of it. By the time I get to OO in Heslewood I have arrived at a shallow pool, so OO is permanently drowning.
The wind out in the Bay is raw. This exertion with the hoe is not enough to warm me. Although these boots are water tight, my feet are cold and my bare toes are getting punished from the friction yet I have scarcely walked more then 300 m. Glad I am not forced to do a route march with sore feet and bursting blisters. John joins me and I speak:
Corporal Ronald Edward Heslewood, 13/1104 East Yorkshire Regiment - Hull Pals. Born 1880.
You marry Maud Redhead, a nurse and have 4 children – the second was Muriel May, my mother. You work with Solomon Redhead your father-in –law, who for years fished off Flambrough Head in the cold North Sea before moving to Hull as a blacksmith. Solomon got you the job working as a ships' rigger.
Then one day, aged thirty three and a half, father of 4 children, you come home to Airlie Street, your own front door, with the paper in your hand. You have joined up. Did you know you were signing away your life to be kicked around the fields of France? Maybe it was the news of the death in action of Maud’s brother Percy, a regular in the 1st Coldstream Guards? Maybe that was it? We’ll never know. We’ll never know the thoughts or regrets you might have had in the constant mud.
You do well. You are promoted. Somehow you survive two and a half years in the trenches until the day you suffer severe shrapnel wounds to your legs and abdomen and it takes you 17 days to die in hospital near Boulogne and there’s nine weeks left of the war before the Armistice. Maud will receive a weekly widow’s pension of 79p.
Unscrewing the top of the silver hipflask to share a toast, the neck is a bullet hole through metal. It whines in the wind, it moans. Some spirit uncorked from its misery. Hard ripples on the bed of the sea run diagonal as far as the eye can see. Cream fingernail shells lie in the gullies, row on row on row. Viewed from above they are tiny gravestones that signal a civilization obsessed with the obscenity of war. Twice a day the tide covers and uncovers, permitting us briefly to forget.
We retreat to shelter on the shore, I am still plodding on these feet. The tide is due in enough to cover the inscription about 12 o’clock, so time for hot coffee in tin mugs and more brandy down on the beach. Oystercatchers are gathering to feed on what the incoming tide beckons up from below the surface. One thousand birds, give or take, squawking and squealing. They line up in one straggling straight line facing the waves, then move in closer, denser, their black backs to us, ready to go on the signal. As we drink our coffee, a platoon of reeds in the wind leans over to one side, its arms wave overhead for rescue from the mud, waving without rest. Somebody! Anybody!
It has stopped raining. Blue sky appears, sun bounces off the bed of the sea and off the underbelly of the birds and now the oystercatchers transform into an ethereal white flock. Yet over in the southwest, rain clouds still hover, on their way out of the Bay casting a shadow on the advancing tide, turning the sea gunmetal. Looking back from the shore, the inscription is a freshly stitched wound in the landscape. 12.33 and the incoming 8.91m tide covers it. Gone. Dissolved and dispersed into the Bay. We walk back along the familiar path where a stone is waiting for me. It is the shape that beckons and makes me bend to pick it up. A heart. A granite heart.
It’s all over now. Well past 11am, but the wind is not yet over. It takes a couple of hours for the news to sink in.
The Wound in Time Carol Ann Duffy 2018
It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.
This poem was commissioned by 14/18/NOW as part of Danny Boyle's project 'PAGES of the SEA' on beaches around the shores of the UK, where portraits of a fallen soldier from each region were raked in the sand, only to be erased and dispersed by the incoming tide.