It’s Armistice Day/ Veterans Day. Here’s my tribute:
Chapter Twenty – Shortbread
8th of May, 1997
A small miracle sprouted inside. Our first baby had decided upon us, and descended from her twinkling star on a clear and icy winter’s night. I smoothed my lover’s warm hands across my belly and smiled at our darling Pip, safely ensconced in her watery world and nourished with never-ending love.
On clear, cold spring mornings I wrapped in warm clothes, and contentedly strolled around the mediaeval nunnery, known as the Beguinhof, where, in the 13th century a progressive community of nuns, single women, children and widows has once lived. Nowadays visiting academics to the University of Leuven live there, and so it too became our wonderful neighbourhood. I felt a warmth and acceptance from the old red buildings. I smiled like the Giaconda at every red brick, window casing and worn cobble. The gracious, wimple bedecked buildings noted my ability to realize the past. They nodded their consent at my glowing, yet preoccupied eyes. Then blessed me and prayed for my morals. Albeit a little loose, but as in their golden age, young women should be proven to be fertile prior to their nuptials. They all nodded in agreement, and retrieved old memories of when their own extraordinary community had thrived. With an absent-minded air, they collectively sighed and returned to their needlework.
I stopped for a while on the sunny back steps of a gothic church. I began to compose a letter to my mother, explaining her wayward daughter’s newly found contentment. After four sentences my concentration was broken by high, sweet notes played on a flute inside the old church. I lifted my head and sat back in the weak sunlight, feeling it wash over me in gentle, lapping waves. This place, that I had fled to from Paris, had graced me with a new life to nurture and the wisdom of a thousand years.
One day in late spring I took a bike ride. There were clear skies, soft wisps of spun sugar clouds and the sound of scooters revving insanely in the distance. I packed water, juicy peaches and a blanket for a shady nap, and then pedalled sedately through the twisting old centre of the town, past the belching ring road and back onto quiet old roads; sunken paths, that once conveyed the cloth merchants pack horses on their way to Ghent, Mechlen and Bruges.
The hedgerows were swathed in extravagant plantings of cow parsley, forget-me-not’s, mallow and briar rose. I breathed the sharp sweet perfumes in, and told Pip how she would make garlands for her and her little sisters’ hair on such a pretty May morning. A soft wind blew and made the tall dry grasses sway. Thousands of thistle seeds billowed into the air and parted noiselessly as the bicycle clicked and ratcheted through them at a steady pace.
After leaving the outskirts of Leuven far behind, I simply followed the old road and let her make the itinerary; a farmstead with a barking dog, soft meadows full of sweet-faced Charolais cattle, through dark stands of pine trees, where the wolf stood hiding behind a thick trunk, self-consciously picking his teeth with a dry splint of grass. A prickle of fear, then blessedly back to the sweet light-dappled hedgerows, and an entourage of pesky flies. To the left I saw a high conifer hedge, a neat gate and space for parking cars. Curious, I dismounted, pedalled the bicycle to the hedge and opened the gate.
It was a war cemetery. I was startled that I hadn’t realised, but had been letting the meandering road take us where she wished. I resented being there initially, and wanted to take myself and my new life back to the light. The wolf had known in the pine forest; he was never to be trusted, as we are reminded once again.
Steeling myself, I placed my hand on my belly and began to walk down the first row of neat graves, then, compelled and taking onboard the vastness of the tragedy. The deeply carved inscriptions took my breath away with their collective grief:
Lieutenant Arthur Waverly: Born 1922. Died 1942
Private Thomas Bridstow: Born 1919. Died 1942
Private Ravi Patel: Born 1926. Died 1942
Sergeant Scott Nolan: Born 1920. Died 1942
They died near here, united in their sacrifice. Their homelands were Britain, India, the USA, Australia, and Canada. I walked on, they hovered all around me. Groaning, weeping and calling for their mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sweethearts and unborn children. I patrolled the neat rows and became aware of my status as a pregnant woman carrying the next generation. I carried on like a visiting dignitary, with blessings and calm words to all the weeping young men. I felt their fear and their eternal homesickness, as they flickered in and out of the space in between. I brought them snapshots of their countries choked in motor cars and vibrant with democracy, of the outcome of WW2, of jumbo jets, men walking on the moon and rock and roll. I brought them shortbread biscuits and cups of strong tea, and told them how we appreciate all that they paid for with their short lives.
But I knew that the history books were tired of this war. And, as the last survivors staggered into the sunset, that these lost souls were very far from our collective hearts. New blood was being shed by a new generation of young men, egged on by cynical old men once more. I glanced at and acknowledged 10 by 65 rows of strong emotional disturbance. I was not afraid, more conscious of the role that I had to fulfill and to bear witness that they were still lost in action.
My unborn child and I passed by and addressed every grave, then returned to the gate, lifted the latch and walked back into the blossom filled world. The stricken young men rolled over on their sides and wept.
Recipe for Shortbread
A handkerchief, a strong cup of tea and a shortbread biscuit are now called for.
Take 130g of softened butter, 60g of sugar and cream together until fluffy. Add 130g flour, 60g of rice flour and (yes) a teaspoon of sea salt. Form the ingredients into a smooth dough. Preheat the oven to 170°C / 325°F / Gas 3. Using a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin, press the dough into the tin and smooth it down with the back of a spoon. Crimp the edges prettily using the tips of two fingers, then score the mixture into eight segments and prick each triangle three times with a fork. Bake for 30 minutes until it is pale golden, never dark. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with sugar.
This is a chapter taken from my book, Rice Pudding in a Duvet. It’s available at Amazon, and yes – there’s a recipe after ever chapter no matter what!