WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY AND WTF

A viciously cold night in the middle of January, with wind howling around the eaves and shaking windows.

The Scot comes downstairs with no shirt and a pair of cutoffs.

“It’s as hot as hades in this house – who’s paying the heating bill in this place? You could fry an egg on the floor.”

With a flick of his hand, he turns the furnace off. 

“Well, you foolish thing – we’ll freeze to death,” says the Acadian. 

She turns it back on. 

He stomps off to his bedroom, complaining that “People in this house need a blood transfusion to warm them up.”

Two hours later he’s down the stairs again – hat, scarf, two pairs of pants, sweaters and a jacket. He is shivering.

“It’s cold in this house – turn the heat up – I’m freezing to death.”

Recurrent Malaria.

Chills, sweats, headache and misery – 30 years after World War II ended. The mosquito-borne illness he got in Italy never completely leaves his body.

“Took the arse out from under me - for months – and got me addicted to morphine to boot,” he says. 

As a medical sergeant, he had easy access to the syrettes of pain killing medicine. It was a bad addiction.

“Just about finished me.”

BERGEN-BELSEN 

 
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Morose and unwell, he sits on the couch the next day, recuperating.

“Mae, would you get me a cup of tea,” he asks.

I bring him his tea and sit on the couch.

“Watch ya watching?”

“The Twentieth Century – with that stupid American – this is a rerun about the war years,” he says.

The most authoritative voice on television, Walter Cronkite, describes the devastation of war and its impact on the innocent.

The black and white film is blurry and strange in some spots. I watch as a bulldozer pushes skeletal bodies into a mass grave.

I am horrified.

“They look like skeletons with skin over them – that can’t be real,” I say, looking over at the Scot.

His face is drained of all colour.

“Bergen-Belsen.” 

He stares at the television – unblinking.

“That can’t be real – that didn’t happen, did it?”

He is white-faced. Flicks his cigarette ash in the general location of the ash tray.

“It’s real. It happened. They bulldozed those poor buggers into mass graves.”

He stands.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you it didn’t happen.”

I sputter a hundred questions at his back as he leaves the room. No response.

He never talks about those days.  

I ask the Acadian why.

“Why should he? Neither he nor any of those men owe anyone an explanation,” she tells me.

“They went and saw and did horrible things. They did their duty and that’s it.”

She has her arms elbow-deep in bread dough. Lifting and flipping it from the pan, she kneads and folds the dough until it’s time to put a cloth over the pan and let it rise.

She gives me a side eye. 

“You have to understand it’s their story to tell and if they choose not to – well, you can’t torture them with your questions,” she says. 

Washing her hands at the sink, she pulls stubborn pieces of dough from her fingers.

She looks out the window and sighs.

“Andrew went when he was not much more than a boy and he certainly wasn’t the same when he got back.”

I’d never thought much about my uncle – her younger brother – as a boy.  

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ANDREW 

He’d always seemed so old to me, an unusual man with strange habits and a peculiar devotion to Catholicism.

When Beatrice was 8 years old and I was five, we ran into the house after playing barefoot in the yard. Our feet are beyond filthy.

“Oh, a blessing on your feet,” our uncle Andrew says.

Pulling out a bottle of Holy Water, he sprinkles drops on us.

“Au nom de Père, et du Fils et du Saint Esprit.”

We run outside, giggling at our strange uncle, wondering if blessing dirty feet with Holy Water was sacrilege. We worried about those kinds of things then. 

Andrew takes his religion seriously.

The priest once called the Acadian to ask if she would have a talk with her brother about his unusual habits.

“As you know, we no longer ring the bell for the Angeles during mass, but Andrew doesn’t agree with some of the Second Vatican Council changes and he is now taking an alarm clock to mass,” the priest says.

“At the time when the Angeles used to be rung, he sets off his alarm clock – it’s very distracting.”

To her credit, the Acadian stifles a laugh. This was the priest, after all.

“I will talk to him, Father but he’s very stubborn,” she says.

“Might be easier for you to just go back to ringing the Angeles when he’s at mass.”

Andrew’s eccentricity is boundless.

When Sister Catherine visits, he comes to see her.

One boiling hot day, he walks two kilometers, carrying his fiddle, a music stand and a bag of sheet music.

He was the only one who could get through the front door with a fiddle in hand. The Scot’s infamous aversion to the instrument didn’t include Andrew’s. My uncle could get away with a lot as far as the Scot was concerned.

Andrew couldn’t play to save his soul - but that didn’t stop him.

Sister Catherine is delighted to see the fiddle.

“We’ll have some music now,” says the sweet little woman, clapping her hands.

With a grand flourish, he unfolds the brass music stand and places it on the kitchen floor.

The Acadian and Sister Catherine watch patiently as he rifles through the sheet music.

“Would you like a cup of tea and some biscuits, Andrew,” the Acadian asks.

No response.

He makes his selection and places the sheet music on the stand, straightening and smoothing the paper until it sits properly.

Andrew then pulls the bow from his battered case and liberally applies the rosin, from the very top to the bottom of the hair.

With great dignity and reverence, he takes the fiddle from the case.

It is old and burnished – its mid-section covered with rosin accumulated over the years.

I’m about to speak but the Acadian places her finger to her lips, shushing me.

There must be perfect silence for the tuning of the instrument.

He delicately turns the pegs, bowing to find the perfect sound. Again and again, each individual string is bowed, fine-tuned and then tuned again – the pegs turned a small fraction one way and then back again.

Finally, Andrew tucks the old instrument under his chin, picks up the bow and places it on the strings.

He studies the music in front of him, leaning in to have a closer look at the notes.

Three short cuts to the G string.

He stops.

Without looking up, he quickly places the bow and the fiddle back in the case. He packs up his music and folds the music stand.

We watch in silence.

Andrew gathers his belongings and walks to the door. He opens the door, turns to the room and bows elegantly.

“And you can all kiss my ass.”

With that, he closes the door behind him and leaves.

THE WHY 

 
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We remain in stunned silence.

Sister Catherine speaks first.

“What did he say?”

The Acadian’s eyes dance with laughter but her face remains untouched.

“I think he said, “Au revoir.”

Later that evening, while sister says her prayers, I relay the story to the Scot.

I find the story hilarious but he doesn’t so much as crack a smile.

“Well, you never know what’s going through his mind,” he says 

“I’ve heard people make fun of him – laugh at him.”

He looks over at the Acadian who has her head down.

“He was only a kid when he went overseas – a farm boy who couldn’t even speak English and the next thing you know he’s sprawled on a fucking beach in Normandy,” says the Scot.

He shakes his head.

“At least he got on the boat – there were plenty who had to be pulled off, crying and screaming – at least the poor bugger got on the boat.”

“It does things to your mind, that.”

He goes to his room.

I feel ashamed.

The Acadian looks sympathetically at me and tries to explain. 

“It’s true,” she says.

“He was hit in the shoulder and fell just as he got to the beach. The wounded soldiers fell on top of him and he had to be dug out from under all those bodies,” she says. 

“He lost almost all the blood in his body.”

 “That’s why he never had anything – never got married or had kids – never had a real job, other than selling newspapers,” she says.

 “People see this odd man and the strange things he does – but I see the little boy who used to go into field to pet the cows and sit under the apple tree with a book.”

“He was sensitive and sweet – a sweet boy who never wished harm on anyone.”

War warps lives for years and years and endless years.