An afternoon spent with my mother and an opportunity to go over ground that was familiar and ground that was new.
The familiar came with Uncle Clem. “Did you know he had shrapnel in his lungs?” asked my mother.
I did, although when I was young I would have had no real idea of what shrapnel meant, nor had any conception of what he might have gone through to suffer such injuries.
Uncle Clem was truly avuncular, an uncle who understood that small boys enjoyed mischief. With laughter, he would open the door of the privy at the bottom of the garden that revealed the thunderbox within. It must have been some years since the earth closet had been used for there is no sense of smell associated with its recall, and smell is the sense most connected with memory.
Uncle Clem always seemed old, but perhaps anyone over forty years of age seemed old. He was seventy-five years old when he died in 1972, which, I suppose, was a good age to have reached five decades ago; and was a particularly good age to have reached with shrapnel in his lungs.
No-one ever talked about Uncle Clem’s war service; no-one ever spoke about what had happened on the Western Front for him to carry injuries that affected him for the rest of his life. Perhaps there were so many war wounded, anyway; perhaps the memories of the Second World War were still so raw that no-one wanted to talk about the Great War that had preceded it.
Uncle Clem’s tale of being wounded in an artillery barrage probably seemed to him as a dull tale compared to the stories told by many veterans. It is odd to think that the gentle and quiet man who would sit at Aunt Ella’s tea table and chat with a small boy once had to don a uniform and march off to the futile slaughter of France and Flanders.
The tiny village in which Uncle Clem farmed, and where he and Aunt Ella had their home, is still a place apart. Take the modern cars from the driveways and remove the electric and telephone wires, and there would be much that Uncle Clem would recognize from his boyhood days. While the village school is long closed, it is a striking stone building and serves as the parish hall; remove the noticeboard outside and a young Clem Hill would have not hesitated to regard it as the school.
“Do you remember Uncle Clem?” It was familiar ground.
The unfamiliar ground was the tale of an assault my mother suffered as a teenager. Repeating familiar stories is much more comfortable.