“It’s very flat, isn’t it?”
“The country. It’s very flat.”
“Oh yes. Flat. I suppose that’s why the soldiers couldn’t find a dry spot.”
“Imagine…being out there in the cold and mud…when it was happening…”
The woman who had spoken first looked in her fifties. She had dressed mainly in black for the day. The other, seated across the aisle of the bus, was wearing white. She was considerably older.
There was no rule, but each had felt the need to dress in a way that was vaguely formal, with one colour dominant. They had decided on a sort of uniform, as a mark.
Neither one knew the other, but there was no surprise that both were Australian, considering the destination.
There was no rush to chat or get acquainted. It was not a day for that anyway. Instead they took in the countryside: iron skies, unending stubble-fields, bare trees along ditches.
After a while the older woman resumed the conversation.
“I was glad of that lunch stop. The breakfast we got at the B&B was a bit light, even for me.”
“Yes. For me too, at my hotel. Just some bread rolls and jam.”
“I got a croissant where I was staying. So messy. I never know whether to cut or just tear those things…”
“Well, at least you weren’t wearing a dark colour. So the flakes don’t show, I mean. Imagine a croissant on this dress of mine.”
Each gave a weak laugh and went silent for some minutes, craning at the view as people do when they find nothing to say, or are not too sure if others want to talk. Then the younger one:
“First time in France?”
“I took a trip over here from London when I was young. I don’t mean right here. But I’ve been to France.”
“So you were ready for the breakfast situation.”
“Yes. Although I’d forgotten. But I don’t mind. I’m not a big eater in the mornings.”
“No, no…I eat like a bird in the mornings. But I’d prefer an egg, something that sticks to you.”
Another long pause in the conversation. Then the younger woman:
“Not far to go.”
“No, it’s not far now. So, you have a relative…?”
“Great grandfather. And you?”
Further silence. At last the older woman made a preoccupied sigh then leaned across the aisle, as if the next remarks would be confidential. Her voice was low.
“I wonder what he’d make of me, my family…if he was alive…even though he’d have passed away by now in any case. But I do wonder…”
“Yes, I have the same thoughts. Family differences and so on. My mother was badly let down by her people, though it’s not a day for thinking about all that. Still, I wonder what he’d think…”
The older woman rubbed the fingers of her gloved hand against her thumb, making the universal sign meaning “money”.
“That’s what it is most of the time.”
“Yes. It’s nearly always money, isn’t it? But today’s not the day.”
“No. Today belongs to them.”
After another few minutes the bus slowed and turned into the vast cemetery.
After they had got off the bus together the older woman squinted upward then asked:
“Umbrella, do you think? Or should I leave it back there.”
“You could come back and get it if you need to. The forecast is for cold and overcast, but not for much rain…”
“Do you know where to go? It’s a bit of a jumble, they tell me: all nationalities and even some locals from before the war. I got a plan of how to find my grandfather from the internet. I mean, I didn’t get it myself. My granddaughter’s fiance did. He knows about computers…”
She held out some printed pages, but the other shook her head.
“For some reason I made up my mind to go looking when I got here. I don’t know why…”
“No, I understand. Your legs are much younger than mine, or I’d do the same. Anyway, the map’s here if you want it. And the bus driver knows the whole place well.”
“Yes, thanks, I might need help. But I’d really like to just stroll and see if I can find him. There’s something about the idea of just finding him…”
“You go with your feeling. This sort of thing is bound to be very personal.”
As the passengers dispersed among the war graves, not perfectly aligned and maintained like others in the north of France, the two women separated, one peering down at her pages, the other strolling more freely.
From a village church above the cemetery an Angelus bell tolled. The sound carried clearly through the still air. The heavy autumn atmosphere was itself church-like.
The older woman in white was standing and looking down at the grave of her grandfather, situated right where the map had shown. Other visitors had also stopped moving about and were stationed by the appropriate grave, conversing in murmurs.
A voice from behind.
“So, found it easily?”
She turned and saw her companion from the bus.
“Yes. Thanks. I suppose I had visions of poppies or roses. You know the old song, Roses of Picardy? I’ve had that going round in my head. But it’s the wrong time of year for flowers of any sort. How about you? How’s your search going?”
“You were right. It’s a jumble. But I’ll find him.”
“Thanks…You know, I was thinking…what we were talking about…”
“Well, I have old friends, and close relatives, right where I live in Sydney. To tell you the truth, I don’t get to see most of them in a decade.”
“Yes. Life’s like that. More so as you get older. You’ll see.”
“But here we are in France, for relatives who died before we lived, while the living ones…”
“I know. That’s just life. Don’t the French have a saying? But the relatives buried here are special.”
“Of course. It’s funny though…I was named after an aunt I can’t remember, and she lives just two train stations from me. There was some sort of family dispute…Anyway, you’re right. These are the special ones. These are the ones who couldn’t come home. So we come to them.”
“That’s it. We come to them. And I’m the first one in nearly a hundred years. But you’d better hurry up. We’ve only got the two hours. Are you sure you don’t want a map?”
“Well, let me know in time.”
The younger woman moved away, then stopped as if something had occurred to her.
She turned and walked back toward the older one, who held out her printed pages, assuming there had been a change of mind.
Instead the woman in black leaned down and looked hard at the grave where the woman in white had been standing. Then she straightened and peered at the other’s face. Her brow creased.
The woman in white peered back. Her brow creased also, and in the exact same place and way.