Saturday, 6 February 2016
Write what you know - Part 2
My uncle died in North Africa at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in 1941. His particular battle took place within Operation Crusader, the Allied effort to relieve Tobruk which had been under siege for most of the year. Four thousand men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner at Sidi Rezegh. And, as was was the case for many families who lost loved ones in North Africa, there was little hope of a grave or a monument in that harsh desert environment.
But... some seventy years later, thanks to the South African War Graves Project, I discovered that my uncle does actually have a grave. He lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Knightsbridge Cemetary in Acroma, Libya. I don't believe that my grandparents ever knew. For them, he simply vanished.
In The Housemaid's Daughter, the fictional Phil survives the war, but returns to South Africa with post traumatic stress - what used to be called shell shock. The local doctor is unsympathetic, and his family are bewildered. Ada believes that talking about what he went through will help to heal him. So she encourages him to confide in her as a means to dispel the horror. And she succeeds... partly.
In the book, Phil's words are inspired by the accounts of men who did return and wrote about their experience. From their stories, I learned about desert warfare and my uncle's sacrifice.
So did Ada.
I realised, then, that it wasn't only the sights of war that return to soldiers, but the sound and feel of war as well.
Perhaps the closed bedroom curtains that I'd thought were his way of blocking out the light were also necessary to deflect the remembered rip of bullets over his head, and to expel the grit under his fingernails as he scratched desperately to deepen his trench...