‘This will probably be my last holiday, you know.’ His hand, translucent in the sunshine, wobbles on his walking stick, and I steady his elbow. The greenish lines of his veins flow over the tendinous ridges of his hands.
‘You always say that Grandad,’ I josh him, ‘Every year.’
We are looking at the beach, but it’s not one to build sandcastles on, and he’s in old gent clothes: an olive coloured cardigan, beige duck trousers and polished brown shoes. Beside him, Amber, my teenager, is embarrassing in bright shorts and flip-flops, the passing boys eyeing her slender brown legs.
‘Brave boys, the Yanks,’ Grandad says. A breeze catches a wisp of his white hair and his voice is suddenly hoarser.
Amber looks wistfully at the beach. She’s wearing her bikini top under her t-shirt, the halter tied in a white bow at the back of her neck. She pulls out her phone and takes a few photos. A few groups of people move along the water’s edge.
The information board says it’s an outdoor museum. The wife’s peering at the maps, at black and white battle photos. ‘Shall we go into the visitor centre?’ she says. She always avoids sand, disliking its way of sticking damply to feet, permeating clothes and picnics and belongings, and ending up, an unwanted souvenir, in the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner.
Grandad is maybe trying to picture the battle. He flew in the RAF, Lancaster bombers. I remember Grandma telling stories of living at Evesham, or somewhere, and seeing Grandad flying overhead, and waving. But he’s never talked about the war. Or I’ve never asked him.
I look at the beach, and wonder about the memories of sand. At Omaha Beach, the blast fused the quartz particles into small spheres, and tiny shards of shrapnel are intermingled with the sand; here the battle was less intense. As a geologist, I know that stratigraphy shows a beach has a memory that stretches back through the geological periods, each one leaving its fingerprint of particles and fossils. A memory that extends millions of years further than the mere centuries of the modern anthropogenic archive. Here, the artefacts of war: the cratered headlands, the stone lined casemates, are from a more recent, briefer history. And our memorials: the visitor centre, the monuments, the metal road sign panels seem as ephemeral as the lost lives. I remember that I get on a little better with rocks than with people.
Amber looks up from Facebook, and drags languid limbs towards the visitor centre. Grandad and I walk round together. The wife has walked on ahead. I don’t know if she really wants him with us. She’d never say anything. She knows that he and Grandma were the true goodness that sustained me through my orphaned life. And he does enjoy our touring holidays.
It must have gone against his nature to fly air raids. He is a peaceful man, quick to forgive, and with such a love of architecture and history. In our holidays together, since I was a child, we must have visited every historic building in Britain and Europe. Apart from Dresden. He’s never wanted to go there, even though the city centre has been so perfectly restored.
‘We fought our cousins, you know. It had to be done. But after the war, we remembered that we were so alike.’ Grandad is looking at a display of German uniforms. After the RAF, in the 1970s, he worked in local government. Outside of work, he ran the twinning arrangements between his town and a German city. While Grandma was still alive, they ran the Monday club for the elderly at the local church, organising lunches and coach trips. They supported charities. They travelled the world and made friends wherever they went. It was hard to spot when he retired; they were always so busy. They campaigned about Third World debt, and marched in the G8 demonstration in Milan in 2009. He’s full of anecdotes about their travels. But he’s never spoken about the war.
I stoop down, peering into the cockpit of a fighter. A narrow dark green space, full of switches and dials. I look out through the metal-framed oblongs of glass. The museum space is hung with bright flags. Could I, a geologist, drop a bomb on a town? I imagine the fire, the blood and the destruction. I can’t imagine Grandad doing it. I straighten up and make way for him to see.
He has been waiting for me, leaning on his stick. I gesture, ushering him towards the cockpit, offering a supporting arm, but he raises his hand and turns away with a chuckle. ‘Should we remember, or should we move on? Don’t want to end up like Northern Ireland, still fighting over a Dutchman.’
Amber stares into a glass case. In the painted sky, downlights catch the wings of the bombers, a swarm of soldiers spills from the small landing craft drawn up to the beach, running forward between the dragons’ teeth, a line of trucks rolls from the larger vessels, she can almost hear their engines whine, and then perhaps the bombs cratering the headland, the machine-gun fire, the drone of aircraft, and the screams and shouts.
‘They look so tiny,’ she says, looking down like a young deity on the multitude of plastic figures.
The wife is chatting to a couple from Warwick. They’d been in Oiustreham for the D Day commemoration, ‘…couldn’t get into town at all from the campsite, too many cars, the Queen was there, it was the Sword Beach ceremony, we missed it all. Wish we’d had bikes, as it was, we can’t walk far, it’s his back you know. And my hip. We watched it on the telly in the motorhome.’
I smile. A fleet of the huge white vehicles is lined up in the sandy car park.
We move back outside. Grandad pauses again by the barbed wire at the top of the grassy dunes, looking across the expanse of sand and water at the distant breakers. The silisiclastic evolution of a coastline murmurs to me the elegy of the milennia. But at Omaha Beach, chemical corrosion and abrasion will destroy the grains of battle in a century or so, and only human memory will remain. I must ask Grandad about the war, before it’s too late. It might be his last holiday with us.
A tear has formed in Amber’s eye.
© M Wallis 2020