Our last day in Ypres was to be a relatively slow morning at the museum (In Flanders Fields) opposite the Hotel Regina where we stayed; all this after a marathon physically and emotionally draining cycle ride through the countryside to the Tyn Cot war cemetery and the New Zealand memorial at Messines. Sadly, the previous night had not been good for either of us getting enough sleep, so there was already a low condition on the batteries.
Not a great idea to go into such a museum in that state: wave upon wave of sad imagery that told the same old story,
enhanced with hi-tech wristbands that gave you admittance and helped the electronic wizardry of the 21st century bring the dead back to a kind of life.
By the time we got to the climb up to the top of the restored Cloth Hall’s tower, I was already done for without knowing it. Halfway up the twisty steep spiral stone staircase we stopped at a display for a breather. I decided I had had enough and Jeanette bravely carried on up, while I was to wait for her descent.
Reading the panels, I discovered that in medieval times, a jester threw live cats (evil incarnate, it was believed) down to a waiting mob. In 1817, this was revised to velvet stuffed cats and the moggies of Ypres were spared this cruel fate. A blurry video showed a laughing harlequin-clad jester of modern times hurling the toy black felines down to the crowd, who once every three years gather to recall this barbaric practice, now airbrushed for the modern era – so to speak. Who catches the cat gets a wish.
I began to suffer claustrophobia and wanted out – perhaps my dear cat Tozi at home was getting vibrations from half a world away and wanted me out of there – so I decided to climb out. Halfway up, I added vertigo to my inner stress points and had to keep going. At the top, there was no Jeanette, she had been and gone, so it was back down again I had to go.
She texted me as I descended, but I was in no position to pull the phone out and reply. I plodded on down until we were reunited and I cried enough. We missed out on a few more informative items by my having to flee, but I was done for. You can only take so much.
The rebuilding of this amazing structure, all but demolished by shelling during the war and the creation of this museum testify to human memory and powers of recovery – but I do wonder about those men that survived the horrors recreated at a safe distance here. Would they want to come? Us to do this?
We had lunch but I could hardly wait to get in the rental Citroen C1 and head for Calais – anything to avoid missing the ferry. With Jeanette at the wheel, I had less control and had to talk to myself to keep it together. When the petrol pump at Calais looked like delaying us further and the woman at Europcar was getting antsy about a tiny mark we told her was in the windscreen when we picked the car up, I let her have it.
What all this amounts to I believe, is my live parcels of accumulated PTS (D), activated early in my crazy alcoholic family, re-programmed by the Christchurch earthquakes and now, making me prone to massive anxiety waves when a timetable or deadline seems pressing while we travel. I’m handling change very badly; I must need more help.I broke down in the ferry terminal and cried.
Somewhere, hovering over me like a dark bird of prey is this shadow of war: wars I never saw, wars of my parents, grandparents, and – God help us – my great grandparents back to Crimea and beyond. I am talking about this today because I need to; perhaps if you read this, you will understand, if like me, you know these phantoms.
Today, I am safe in London and I read where the Psalmist says, “They looked unto Him and were lightened: their faces were not ashamed”. Ps 34.5. Maybe I have taken my eye off the healing I know exists. Why, when peace is near, am I am so often at war? Still, I am grateful to have been to Ypres, Tyne Cot and Messines. I will know next Anzac Day God willing, where they went to die.