Some years ago a friend who worked in an aged-care home told me about one of their patients, a veteran of the First World War. He’d had his jaw shot off at the Somme, and hadn’t spoken since.
I often think of the terrible silence to which that old man had been condemned, all those dreadful memories locked up inside his head, unable to be spoken to anyone – not a comrade, a loved one -for 90 years. I always associate that story with the Cranberries’ song, Zombie, even though I know it’s nothing to do with the songwriter’s intention: It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen, in your head they’re still fighting.
I personally knew several Great War veterans, and for nearly all of them a self-imposed repression was often as thorough-going as any physical disability. “Dad never talked about the War,” is a phrase so well-known to researchers and journalists as to be almost beyond cliche. In the last years of their very long lives, however, for some the dam seemed to break. So they told their stories.
Even so, after 80 and 90 years, the memories were sometimes still unbearably painful. After a long afternoon’s session with the last living member of my grandfather’s battalion, the sprightly 101-year-old suddenly trailed off, mid-reminiscence. After a moment, he said, “but I don’t like to talk too much about those days; it brings back too many terrible memories”. So the conversation shifted, and he proudly showed off his 100th birthday telegram from the Queen.
But another World War followed the First, and another generation of young men came home with terrible memories. Memories that they kept locked away in their turn.
We never knew what Uncle Les did in the War, but sometimes when we kids would be watching a war movie on the telly, he’d quietly remark, “it wasn’t really like that, you know”. We also knew he kept his old .303 up in the shed roof, but when the older cousins sometimes dared fetch it down, Uncle Les would just take it off them without a word, and toss it back.
It was only at Uncle Les’ funeral that one of his old War mates talked, in his eulogy, about their commando training. We’d never known.
Uncle Harry was in the War, too. It was only at his funeral that my cousins talked about how he’d regularly wake up screaming in the night. Again, what he did we never knew, only that he had spent time operating deep behind enemy lines.
Uncle Jim, deep in his beer once, told me about bringing flamethrower victims on board ship.
All those terrible memories those brave, ordinary, men carried around in their heads, all those years.
Sometimes history comes slithering in to haunt us in the most innocuous circumstances. Years ago, my wife and I went to the spa town of Hepburn Springs. While my wife had a massage, I sat by the pool with our baby son. With his big, brown eyes and thick curls, he was a magnet for attention everywhere, and soon a lovely old Jewish lady next to us was fussing over him. As children will, he toddled over. As she picked him up for a cuddle, the sleeve of her gown shifted, and I saw the numbers tattooed on her arm.
But history didn’t end after the Second World War: history goes on everywhere, for everyone. As Panpan Wang’s essay about Chinese tourists reminds us, a whole generation of Chinese hold living memories of some of the most heinous crimes in human history. Wang’s father is the same age as my eldest brother, and lived through not just the unimaginable famine of the Great Leap Forward, “the largest man-made disaster in history”, but the terror of the Cultural Revolution.
A friend whose parents emigrated from South Africa in the 1980s once told me of a relative from a township who was walking home one day. Some men pulled up, dragged her into a car, drove her off and gang-raped her. There was no point reporting it. That’s just what happened, then.
A few months ago, we laid my father-in-law to rest. As a child, he’d lived through one of the longest, fiercest sieges of WWII. After the War, he married, and eventually they emigrated, like millions of others. Like those millions of others, they didn’t ask for anything of their adopted homeland but opportunity, and they made the most of it. He loved his new home. He worked hard and raised a family that grew and settled new roots into the land over four generations.
On the day we buried him, on a hillside overlooking the sea, just as he’d liked in life, I particularly noticed one other grave. It was a child’s grave, a baby’s in fact. These little headstones, with their achingly brief spans of days, always tend to catch one’s eye, I suppose, but this one more so than most. It was dated nearly 20 years before, but for all that the tiny plot was meticulously clean. Placed carefully next to the headstone was a little plush toy. Scarcely touched by sun or rain, it had plainly been put there recently.
Even after 20 years, someone still lived achingly close with the loss of a little boy. Yet no doubt they still go on, day after day. Just as those withered old men, those kindly old ladies, those loud Chinese tourists, just go on. With whatever terrible memories they keep in their heads. Because that’s what people do. We go on.
Yet that lovingly tended little plot is a reminder that, while a million deaths might be a statistic, every one of those millions is a tragedy to someone. All the history that keeps happening in the world is just more tragic memories that people will have to carry around with them every day, as they just go on.