I’ve had terrible trouble with my poppy this year. The first one’s stalk broke within ten minutes. I replaced it with a stick-on one which had disappeared before I had even got home. The third one fell to bits today as I put on my coat after a delicious lunch in a tapas bar (aubergine stuffed with pine nuts, fresh anchovies, a warm beetroot salad and tortilla). As I scrabbled under the tables to retrieve the various bits, the cardboardy red flower, the flimsy leaf and the black centre button, I heard someone mutter, ‘Why do you bother?’
Straightening up I glanced at him, wondering whether he meant why did I bother rescue the poppy pieces, or why did I bother wear one at all. I was tempted to say that I bothered because, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, young men just like him had died fighting in wars. But my friends were waiting at the door and I didn’t want to get into a big discussion (and judging by the look of him it wouldn’t have been a fruitful discussion anyway). So I just smiled apologetically and left. Later of course I wished I had said something.
Several years ago we spent a week in Sicily with some friends. Before setting off we happened to visit my elderly aunt who reminded me that her brother Basil (my uncle, a wartime glider pilot) had died during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and was buried in Siracusa. ‘It would be so lovely if you could go and put some flowers on his grave,’ she said and we promised that we would if we could.
Unfortunately when we arrived in Sicily we discovered that we were staying right at the other end of the island. ‘It’s too far,’ we said to each other. ‘It would take hours to drive all over there.’
But we felt guilty – after all my uncle had sacrificed his life and we wouldn’t sacrifice one day of our holiday. So we decided to go.
It took us seven hours solid driving to get from from Capo San Vito to Siracusa. (Sicily is somewhat bigger than it looks on the map.)
We arrived at about three in the afternoon, bought two bunches of flowers and made our way to the cemetery.
We were completely unprepared for the emotion that hit us. Lines and lines of small white headstones, each engraved with a young man’s name. We found my uncle’s grave quite easily, it was in the front row. Capt Basil Beazley, 29 years old.
The glider assault had been a disaster. They were launched from too far out to sea and the winds were too strong. Most landed in the water, some even crashed into Mount Etna. Military planning at its worst. Those young men must have known their chances were slim, but they did it anyway. Amazingly my uncle survived the landings but was killed later trying to hold a crucial bridge.
Seven hours later we arrived back at the villa in the pitch dark. ‘Did you have a good day?’ Our friends asked as we staggered in.
We looked at each other. For some reason I wasn’t on the car insurance so my partner (now husband) had had to drive the whole way. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘We drove for seven hours, cried for twenty minutes and then drove seven hours back again!’
But it had been worth it.
We had picked up some pebbles and a bit of dry earth from the grave and when we gave these to my aunt a few weeks later she cried too. ‘I still miss him so much,’ she said.
That’s why I rescued my poppy.