Take the road to Brugge from Victoria station. Join a coach to Dover that’s
down from Doncaster with two school classes on their Easter outing. Just us two
boys joining as fill up passengers, among all the girls. Shy and
straightforward, northern lassies, but smart, with plenty of elbow. They crowd
around, to hear our funny English, like on the radio in Doncaster.
Dover road, we see the sea from the South Downs and tell the girls about the
castle, England’s key. They listen to our accents, not caring what we say.
Flemish boat today, foot passengers boarding, wondering at the Brandkraan,
the Toegang Verboten and Aleene Maatschappij. Now, white cliffs behind us,
standing in the funnel smoke we try to look unconcerned, with England fading.
Lump in the throat.
The sight of Calais coast where England ruled. We tell the girls. Now north
to Gravelines roads where the Armada anchored. Past Dunkirk’s sand bars, Jean
Bart’s roadstead, our embarkation beaches, Malo and Leffrinckouke. Then Bray
Dunes and De Panne where the French held the ring for us.
Nieuwport, and at last, Oostende. Turn into the Havengeul where Vindictive
sank to block the U Boots. On the quayside, goodbye girls forever, you’re going
on to Blankenberge and Zeebrugge, go stand on the mole and remember the Dover
Patrol and St Georges day for us.
Walk on the Visserkaai eating frites with mayonnaise. It’s time for the
train, local line to Brugge, not Bruges here, where French is frowned upon.
See the Belfry from far, built tall to overlook the plain. We hump our cases
through the park into the Zilverstraat. Carillon is playing Bach. Old hotel, we
know you well. They’re waiting for us, the women and girls. Motherly and clean,
eyes painted by Vermeer. “Hertelijk Willkommen jongens”.
Eating with the family the first evening, “Eet smaakelijk”. Empty dining
room, we are between school classes. Chicken dinner made especially for us.
First, thin green “grass soup”, it goes down well with pepper. Small new
potatoes boiled and sautéed brown in a pan with chicken fat, not soapy white,
English style. We don’t know how to clean our plates, no bread on the table at
home. They show us with rye bread, we soon learn.
They’re talking and smiling together, we can see they are pleased. Soft
Vlaams in the firelight, the language of Flanders, that keeps our soldiers.
We feel at home.
Breakfast early, always the same, round bread rolls hot from over the road.
Anneke brings them in a big white cloth carried over her shoulder. Good salted
butter, curled and floating in water. Quince jelly and apple cheese, home made,
and always a big tin coffee pot. No tea. No milk, only cream. They urge us to
eat more, finding us underfed.
Out in the streets, wet from the night rain. Sun’s coming through, going to
be a hot one. Big American cars, bakers everywhere beautifully decorated. One
has eleven different breads to buy. More cakes than we can count. Gingerbread
for Easter, sepia postcards. Cafés already open, locals taking breakfast. No
Old Belfry’s watching everything, always has done. Use our French at the
Tourist Office, learned at school. Laughing, they answer in English. Get the
Museum Card with sixteen different visits, a special stamp for each. Bring it
back full they say and there’s an extra stamp for you. Rewarding the faithful.
Keep it forever, still have mine somewhere. Don’t lose it now.
Visit the quiet Memling, the Holy Blood, Love’s lake the Minnewater, the
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (the Church of our dear Lady) to see Charles the Bold.
See the crossbows, borne to Bouillon to join Godefroy, then along the long land
way to take Jerusalem, where Godefroy refused to wear a crown of gold where
Christ had worn thorns.
Walk with the Beguines, in their old private garden. Sit on the hot stone
bridge in the garden of Boniface, our countryman, come here before us. Winfreth
(Fairface), friend to Pepin father of the Great Charles, Karl de Groote,
Charlemagne, England’s scholar, slain by the heathen Friesians, bearing the
Bells ringing in the tower. Ringing all together, no English changes and
bobs, pushing and jumbling, falling, shouting. Fighting like cats in a sack.
Shaking the stonework, telling us to go, we desecrate their garden. Tingling
hands on the stone when the great bell tolls.
Slowly back through the hot streets, over bridges and bridges. Following the
carillon, calling us home.
Calling us today, everyday. Still waiting our coming. Fifty years now,
faithful and true.