Since Daniel acquired glasses, we have been spending a lot of time and money in the opticians. Iâ€™m glad itâ€™s a nice one near home. Mostly we are served by the ownerâ€™s daughter, an efficient pleasant woman about my age. The other night, I went in to get Danielâ€™s glasses repaired (he and Michael had tugged them apart at the creche, itâ€™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: Thatâ€™s not a Belgian accent.
Me: Er, no, itâ€™s not, Iâ€™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, Iâ€™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: Iâ€™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: Iâ€™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 rÃ©sistance 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 weâ€™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.