The church Eulalie would have preferred was St. Catherine’s. This is also on the tour, the largest wooden church in France. The old stone one burned centuries ago in the Hundred Years War, their father explains, praising the local shipbuilders who, rather than wait for the war to be over, for the Church to allocate funds and masons and craftsmen for a new one, built with what they knew. All axe-work, he says, the beams and the thousands of wooden shingles covering the roof and walls. The beams in the newer bays are shorter, mounted on stone footings, and do not match the towering straight oaks of the old nave. There are no longer any such trees to be found in Normandy. There is an obvious lesson here, Eric’s father explains, about resourcefulness, about initiative. “They didn’t wait for someone else to help,” he insists. “They made the best of things.”
“Well,” Eric says dismissively. “One hundred years is a long time to wait.”
“They didn’t know it would be a hundred years. And the war wasn’t really like that. It kept stopping and starting.” Eric senses his father’s impatience, as if Alfred knows he is not getting through. “They might have thought the war would be over in days, and they’d have all the stonemasons they wanted. No one knows these things, when they’re living inside them. Wars only have their names put to them later.”
Eric can make no sense of a war lasting a century, of how long that might be. He can make no sense of a war fought with England, a place the family vacationed once, at the seaside in Brighton. A voice whispers in his head that his mother will be dead for a century, and a century after that, and all the centuries after.
That Eric’s own name will last a century after his death, a century at least, does not enter his mind. He does not feel born to fame, nor entitled to it. Greatness sounds like a lot of work, frankly, and he is not given to study, nor to practicing his piano. There are other kinds of fame, that require provocation more than they require accomplishment, and people will argue, in the years to come, whether Eric’s claim is to the former or the latter. His name will last at least to the moment you are reading this page, but may not last a whole century more. This will still be longer than his mother’s, longer than his sister’s or his grandmother’s or his father’s. But none of this has happened yet. Lives, like wars, carry names only assigned to them once they’re over.
The family climbs the St. Catherine’s bell tower, set across a small courtyard. The church sits on a slope overlooking the harbor, and the height of a bell tower invites lightning. The largest wooden church in France is also the most flammable church in France. The roof shingling is green with moss, and there is a moist, rotting smell in the small belfry. Bats rustle above them. Alfred lifts the children up so they can see through the wooden window slats: the harbor, the town, the city of Le Havre across the narrow channel, all barred into dim slices. “Townspeople here call it ‘the city on the other coast’,” their father tells Eric, of Havre. He is trying to share a joke, but to Eric the distance looks vast enough for the name to be entirely appropriate. On the way back to his grandmother’s house, Eric whispers words of his mother’s English: “House, house, house,” he says, and does not think to say “home.” He traces the letters on his leg, his finger moving through the fabric of his pocket, a frantic charm against forgetting.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase issue 27.1 here