Les Anciens Combattants

Eternelle at Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Eternelle at Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

I was sure to be the youngest person there. So wrong was this supposition that when I arrived up at the place, I thought I had stumbled into a wedding, or a children’s party. Running, shouting, weaving in and out, clambering onto the edge of the fountain and threatening to fish for coins, pulling on parental sleeves, begging for a visit to the café…which, somewhat incongruously, was blaring disco from the depths of the Seventies via an amplifier propped high on the struts of the winter-bare canopy. Breathless after the last savage incline that curves through the cemetery at the edge of the village, I found a bench, collapsed, watched the small insistent souls swirl around me.  Outside the mairie early Christmas lights sparkled in twin cypress trees: fingernail-sized, blue-white, rippling out along the feathery branches. Inevitably it came to me, that old cliché, that the path of anti-aircraft fire in a dark sky is like that of fireworks.

It was ten minutes to eleven, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Les Anciens Combattants, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Les Anciens Combattants, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Someone interrupted the disco diva in mid-screech, and put on an equally generic but more patriotic tune. A sudden swell in the crowd, and les anciens combattants began their march, clustered behind a serry of flags: French, British, Australian, others I didn’t recognise and so must hail from far-away places which one had imagined the wars of Europe could not touch. The late morning sun was bright in my eyes and so they faded into view, these ranks of elderly men in dark suits. There were as many varieties of suits as there were men: frayed at cuffs and collar, dusty, stained in odd places; or impeccably pressed with overcoats in rich fabric thrown over an arm. One particularly jaunty type strutted past in a three-piece corduroy suit. Very few were in uniform. But all wore a poppy on their lapel, made of either silk or paper, and many wore red calots, the black braided tassels placed precisely down the centre of the back of their necks. Monsieur le Maire, sturdy, hirsute, brought up the rear, working the crowd like a pro and pausing for a photograph with one of the women handing out stickers in exchange for a donation to the local VA.  Simple emotions were on display: pride, gratitude, friendship. I searched in vain for the solemnity I expected. Perhaps that would come later, at the memorial with its attendant wreaths, its spectacular view out over the hills and down towards the Baie des Anges.

Memorial, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

Memorial, Fontvieille, Mougins, 25 July 2013

One tiny blond girl – there is always a tiny blond girl – twirled along in the wake of the procession. She wore a hooded jacket covered in graffiti-esque writing, candy-striped tights, leopard-print boots. She sang a song of her own devising, to no-one in particular. Flinging out her arms, she spun faster, carving out her own space. Had she an uncle, a grandfather, somewhere in this crowd? Or was there someone asleep further down the hill whose child she might have been? A girl’s ponytail tangled on the wind, a column of smoke rising peaceably from a chimney in the valley: are these the things men and women die for? Or is that too an old lie?

It felt intrusive, dishonest, to impose the complexity of my feelings upon what was taking place before me.

Another sideways lurch, and the procession moved off through the village, trailing dogs, children, latecomers in cars.

I did not follow.

Mougins, Vieux Village, Late Winter 2012. The view towards Chateauneuf and Les Loups.

Mougins, Vieux Village, Late Winter 2012. The view towards Chateauneuf and Les Loups.

— amrh / November 2013, Mougins

4 thoughts on “Les Anciens Combattants

  1. sarkan2013 says:

    Ah, she’s been at it again, that writing thing! Seriously, though, Anne, it is a pleasure to read what you have been seeing in your neck of the woods, and from your very own perspective. It is a beautiful miniature apercu of life in a foreign clime.

    I don’t seem to find time to both read at leisure and then respond to what you are doing with your writing, but I do want to say now that I have three days off that you should keep going at it! And I hope it gives you pleasure,too.

    As I am in Florida – as you will have seen from some of the dubious photos Lisa has been taking! – she and I have been exploring how she and Nicholai could get down to see you in June, I believe, I believe, while Andrei is at Babel conferences in Moscow. (I hope you feel you can cope with them for three or four days?!) If I were not in Berlin teaching & directing up to my eyeballs I would be joining them, it would be a great gathering again, as in London five years ago!

    Love to you both

    Sarah _______________________ Sarah Kane Michael Chekhov Centre UK 2 Spring Meadow Forest Row, East Sussex RH18 5AY UK ww.michaelchekhov.org.uk sarah@michaelchekhov.org.uk UK P: +44-(0)1342-824261 UK M: +44-(0)7772-091429 DE M: +49-(0)1577-8758590

    Date: Fri, 7 Feb 2014 11:42:49 +0000 To: sar.kan@hotmail.com

    • Wombat1865 says:

      My dearest vagrant: thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond. Writing like this does give me a great deal of pleasure, something I never would have guessed two years ago when I posted that first tentative piece about Maurice Sendak and the swallows. I never know which posts are going to resonate with people, and this latest seems to have done so. For my next trick, I hope to finally finish the story of my visit to the Pantheon almost a year ago…

      And yes, we are now expecting some variety of Babels in June! Here’s hoping Andrei might be able to join Lisa and Nicholai for a little while, as it’s a happy idea of mine to watch my favourite family out of Chekhov stroll down the Promenade Anglais in Nice…although now I think of it, husband on business in Moscow whilst family “summers” on the Riviera…that’s very Chekhovian too, in its way…

      Best always, and thanks again for reading my scribbles.
      xx / am

  2. jim murphy says:

    In my own childhood 11/11 was an important holiday, almost forgotten now in this country. I saw it as a prelude to 11/13, my birthday. Keep writing and keep well,

    • Wombat1865 says:

      Hey Murph: Armistice Day has always meant a great deal to me — this year more than ever, given all the war poetry I’m required to get into the head of My Student. On Thursday I taught the hell out of “Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London.” What an amazing piece — as Byatt would say, “the kick galvanic!” Thanks for writing. best xx / annie ryan

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