Life and Death by Bernie Jordan

Our visit to Cappy in the Somme valley began on a sultry summer day. We passed countless laybys giving access to graveyards where name upon name gave us the lesson of history. Eventually we pulled over for an uphill walk, hoping for a view of the river. Fields of wheat stretched their lines into the hazy distance. The intensity of green was broken only by an odd red poppy that had escaped the weed spray. A reddish-brown effluent oozed from a pile of muck and pooled in a hollow. This was home to a Rat-tailed maggot with a snorkel tail. It squirmed like a bag of flesh inside a transparent skin.

The day wore on and all was stilled in the evening heat, so we drove to a campsite. A small man with a pointy beard met us at the entrance. He fingered the silver cross that hung on his bare chest, then chained the gate behind us, retreating to his tiny coffin-shaped tent as thunder threated from the distance. With urgency, we pitched our tents beyond the lines of static caravans. As darkness fell the thunder subsided and a chorus of frogs rasped through the night.

Waking slowly, I watched four mosquitos poking their feeding tubes into the skin of the tent, thrusting themselves forward to suck in air. I lay still, wondering whether they fed from me in the night. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and unzipped the tent, hoping they would find their way out. I tried to sweep them out with a newspaper, but they flew back, regaining their territory. I dithered but my failure to coax them out alive convinced me they would have to die. The execution tool was a soft tissue. The post-mortem showed just one had blood in its belly. I scratched the back of my hand and thought about the soldiers of the Somme.

The visitor centre was closed, and the immense church looked as if it had been abandoned long ago so, with a full day left to explore, we wandered up a canal. Recent flash floods must have hit the town. Creamy beige mud caked the streets and left splash marks up the sides of buildings. Cars were covered in dust and gutters were patterned with dried up rivulets like an unspoken reminder of the mud of trenches. We wandered out of town in search of peace. Emerging from a shady woodland, we passed a barbed wire fence and a farm building full of cattle, imprisoned behind steel bars.

This place disturbed us. We were just three tourists, free to leave; escape from unease, yet somehow, I felt captivated.

‘Shall we go?’

‘We could catch the earlier ferry.’

‘Not yet’ I said. I wanted to go but needed to stay for a reason too deep to fathom.

We wondered slowly on in silence heading for the car. A poppy lay randomly on the dusty track, its cut stem a bristle of hairs. They were like a young man’s unshaven stubble. I held it, letting its red petals lie cool and limp between my fingers, noticing the black centre surrounding an immature seed head. This poppy would not spawn. I laid it to rest in some lavender beneath the tourist sign. My mind was stilled in this moment of remembrance. Only then could I move on.