A PHOTOGRAPH in the family album shows two young boys playing in the sand. A typical post-war seaside snapshot. A contented and pleasantly rotund mother in the background; a war hero father, knotted handkerchief on head, resting with the sun on his face after years of courage, exhaustion and deprivation.
The boys have their arms brushing up against each other in fraternal love and sheer pleasure at their mutual endeavours. The two of them in a secret conversation. The sandcastle rises behind them, triumphantly.
Seventy-five years later the proud parents are long dead, and the boys are now old men.
These same brothers met for probably the final time last Monday. One suffers with cancer, and lockdown means more isolation and no opportunity to travel. The younger brother lives four hours away, given a fast car and clear roads. After the sudden announcement on the Saturday of another lockdown, Monday was ‘now or never’ and a trip was hastily convened.
And so, just after lunch that day, they met. Twenty-five minutes. A metre apart. Outside. In the rain. In masks. Wrapped in waterproofs and sheltered with umbrellas. Those carefree children now encased in old, shivering, subdued bodies; unable to touch, to hug, to breathe their brotherly emotions near the other’s face. No secret, conspiratorial conversations. The time was up before it had begun, and the younger brother walked slowly back to the still warm car. The older brother went back inside to an armchair and a wall.
The cities gradually fell away as the car ate up the mileage on the return trip – Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby. Eventually the golden arches on the motorway services called to our screaming stomachs. A near-empty car park, a one-way system that water-filled eyes could not understand, as we tripped over cones and signage. Touch screens rather than human service. No faces. No words spoken. No noise to distract from the quiet. A peculiarly consumerist service-station hell tinged with a heavy lashing of despair. Then back to the car, back to the southern suburbia, back to our houses, back to our own walls for four weeks.
I have replayed Monday’s scene in my head a few times since. However, since Wednesday, I now picture these two brothers, no longer separated just by rain and face cloth, but by the prominent image of Matt Hancock in his House of Commons seat, head down, writing in his ledger, his back turned to his few unhappy MPs just as surely as he turned his back on those brothers.
In this month of remembrance – as we commemorate those such as the proud father in that seaside snap – I now see only a collective government turning their back on all that these brave men and women stood for: freedom, courage, compassion, community, country. I know that the father in that photo fought fearlessly, refusing to let anything stand between him and his loved ones. Three generations on and we have a Prime Minister, resplendent with a poppy on lapel, who walked out of the Commons chamber so as to not hear about the destruction of values so passionately fought for by such men.
I wear a poppy this month for that wonderful father in that family seaside photo, and for the two sandcastle-building sons that he fought for. Time for the rest of us to consider our fight for those values.