Jean lead us back to the first room for a simple 1940’s war-time breakfast of French baguette, jam and black coffee in deep china bowls. While we ate he showed us the contents of a folder with plastic sleeves containing black and white photographs and text extracts from war-time newspapers. We tried to understand what he was saying through all our fragments of broken language and an elaborate array of hand gestures. He explained the history of Saint Marie-du-Mont during the war and how the German soldiers had used the house as a base and shot with huge guns, from the fields outside the house, all the way onto the beaches 7.5 kilometres away.
After we had finished eating, he closed the book with a slam and said something quickly to Pascale in French, which I couldn’t quite grasp. Pascale translated – Would you like a tour of the village in the war Jeep? I looked at Haydn, he looked at me. This was getting better and better.
Outside, Jean led us to one of the old farm buildings. Inside, at the back, in the corner was a large shape. Jean briskly threw a green tarpaulin and camouflage netting up in the air. Hidden underneath was a boxy, iconic green, WWII Land Rover. It had no doors, a canvas roof and a gun holder instead of a dash-board. Jean jumped in and started up the very loud, spitting engine. We hopped in too, Haydn in the back, me in the front. Jean explained that he found the truck online and drove it back from Belgium a few years ago in December, when it was -18 degrees. The windscreen kept freezing over and because the windscreen wipers were broken he had to keep scraping it with his hand while driving. I looked across at him – his grin brimming over again. He looked like the kind of guy who might do a thing like that.
We trundled out of the gate and down the narrow country lanes of Holdy that led to Saint Marie-du-Mont. Getting faster and faster until we were hurtling along. Jean drove right in the middle of the road and would swerve out the way just in time when cars came towards us on the other side of the road. It was brilliant seeing the mystified, slightly miffed looks on the passing drivers faces. I think Jean was giving us the real experience of driving in a vehicle of status on an important mission. All the other cars had to move out of the way for us – they just weren’t in on the role play. I was really starting to like him and his madness – his excitement was infectious.
We drove around the village stopping at various points where Jean would explain details of how attacks and buildings had played a part in the bigger story of the war. When we were heading back towards the house, Jean swerved and drove up a bank into a field and stopped the truck. He opened up the plastic folder again and flicked to a page with an A4 black and white image inside. The image was of the field we were in. To the right of where Jean had stopped the car was a ditch and a high hedge that looked identical to the photograph. Nothing had changed at all. Except in the image, the ditch was filled with limp, heavy bodies that were dressed in the uniforms of the side they had died for. It was a very strange feeling – as if I could have stepped out of the truck and walked straight over to the ditch and seen them all lying there, lifeless, in front of me. I could have knelt and reached out and touched a hand – probably a young hand – a hand my own age – and held it for a moment – across time – across gender and generations and nationality – just one human hand holding another. To say sorry for our huge, undeniable history of violence and sorry for the paradox that the deaths of so many were for the sake of a peaceful future – my peaceful future.