Since Daniel acquired glasses, we have been spending a lot of time and money in the opticians. I’m glad it’s a nice one near home. Mostly we are served by the owner’s daughter, an efficient pleasant woman about my age. The other night, I went in to get Daniel’s glasses repaired (he and Michael had tugged them apart at the creche, it’s nice to think of them having fun) and her father was there. He was dealing with some other people and I settled down to wait, conscious all the same that Mr. Waffle was at home with three cranky children who needed dinner and bed. Finally, it was my turn.
Me: Hello, I wonder could you fix these glasses, I think you have a file on us.
Him: That’s not a Belgian accent.
Me: Er, no, it’s not, I’m from Ireland.
Him (heavily accented): Ireland, Ireland, then we can speak English.
Me (proferring deformed glasses): Mmm. Yes, if you like.
Him: Do you know Hertfordshire?
Me: Um, no, never been, I’m afraid.
Him: My father was in England during the war.
Me: The first world war?
Him (misunderstanding, I think): How old do you think I am?
Me: Um, the second world war?
Him (at cross-purposes): He died in the war.
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. In England?
Him (baffled): No, he was in England in the first world war; when he was 13.
Me (not wanting to be unsympathetic but feeling we are getting nowhere and also conscious of my loving husband and children, home alone): I see, well, I wonder, have you got a file on us?
Him (not to be deterred): He learnt to be an optician and then set up in Dendermonde when he came back.
Me: Oh Dendermonde.
Him: No, in England.
Me: Yes, I see.
Him: He died in the second world war.
Me: I’m very sorry to hear it.
Him: Yes, I was only 10.
Me (mind reprehensibly fixed on the glasses): That must have been very difficult for you.
Him: Yes, he was betrayed.
Me (surprised): By whom?
Him: He joined the résistance straight away immediately and he was betrayed by [not clear, some local perhaps]. They ask me why I do not live in Dendermonde but I know they are traitors and I can smell corruption and racism. Though, his daughter [I think the daughter of the man who betrayed his father] is a very nice woman.
Me (genuinely interested and having put the glasses to the back of my mind): How did your father die?
Him (producing formal black bordered mortuary card showing a handsome midddle-aged man): My father was taken away by the Germans and died of typhus in the camps in March 1945. I went to see him once in prison in Ghent before he was taken away. It was a hard time, the English were very good to us, an English Major and his daughter, she is an old woman now, June, but she is godmother to my daughter.
Him: I think we’ll have to send those glasses away to be fixed.
I forget how much these things are just below the surface in Belgium where two world wars were fought. Coming from a country that was neutral in the second world war and where (aside from Northern Ireland which is a long way from Cork and, after all, another country), the last major conflict occurred over 80 years ago, I have never, in living memory, lost a relative except to illness, accident or old age. Sometimes I forget how very fortunate that makes me.