I find accounts of spacetime slips in all sorts of places; folks share their first-hand experiences with me, I run across them on line, and, now and then, in books. This week I’ve been reading a nonfiction book entitled NURSE, COME YOU HERE!. It’s a wonderful reminiscence by Mary J. MacLeod of her years serving as a nurse on the Hebridean island of Papavray. On cold winter eves neighbors would gather in “ceilidhs”—get-togethers where they’d share tea, treats, and tales. One snowy winter night at a local ceilidh, neighbor and friend “Belag,” shared a remarkable Back to the Past TWIDDER that her father experienced as a soldier in France during World War I. Following is this account.
“It was like this, y’see,” she began. “Twas in the war—the first one, y’understand, when Father was in France. His platoon was marching through some mountains ‘n it was snowin’ and blowin’ that bad they couldna see where they were going. Well, ‘twas rough ground—a lot of boulders and the like, and Father and a couple of others got left behind. The rest went on, not realising that they weren’t with them. Ach, they floundered about for a bit and then Father said, ‘We’re lost!’ Aye,” Behag nodded and continued, “Angus agreed with him, but Jake said to carry on—they’d find the others.
“Well, they got into deeper and deeper snow; and the mist was comin’ down and it was getting dark. Angus thought they should stay where they were until morning and this time even Jake agreed. They were cold and tired and hungry.
“Aye, they would be indeed, indeed,” murmured Morag, nodding.
“Well, I just said so,” bridled Behag. Mary handed her a cup of tea to placate her. She continued. “Aye, well! They found a spot behind a rock and out of the wind and tried to get a bitty warmer, but they were near freezin’.” Here Behag gave Morag a look designed to quell any further remarks. A chastened Morag stayed quiet!
Behag resumed, “They had something called emergency rations . . . “
“Iron,” said Mary.
“What?” said Behag with a scowl.
“Iron rations. I’ve heard of it,” replied Mary with pride.
“Ach, woman, hold your wheisht. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” ordered Archie.
“Oh, yes, she does!” Surprisingly, Fergie spoke up. We all looked at him in amazement, as he was usually the first to pour contumely on his cousin. “She’s quite right.”
Mary, however, accepted everyone’s admiration with the same placid murmur she used when folk laughed at her many mistakes.
“Ay, well. Where was I?” Behag sounded irritable. “Ah, yes, they were trying to get out of the wind and get a bit warmer. After a whiley they fell asleep. I’m thinking that they were lucky to wake up again, as I’ve heard that folk, caught in snow, should stay awake or they might die. But they did wake, foreby, stiff and near frozen they were.”
Behag paused and Morag handed her some dumpling. She continued, her voice a little muffled.
“Angus went to the edge of the cliff they were on and looked around. The snow had stopped, the mist had lifted, and the sun was trying to come through. As he peered out over the big lumpy hills, he suddenly shouted, ‘Come you here!’
“In front and below them, there was a deep glen with a village at the bottom. Father said it was only a huddle of houses. They don’t call them ‘glen’ in France y-understand.” Behag was proud to share this knowledge and looked round the rapt circle for approbation.
After a reviving gulp of tea, she continued, “Jake said it was too dangerous to try to climb down the steep hills but Father said it would be better than freezing to death. Angus said that they ought to get going before the mist closed in again, though Jake worried that there might be Germans in the village. But Father said, “Let’s go!” That was Father for you. So they went!
“It took them hours and hours to get to this village because of the snow, and by the time they did get there, they were fit to collapse. But there were no Germans there and it hadna been blown up, like most of villages that they had marched through. There wasn’t any snow down in the glen either.
“The village was very tiny, Father said: Only a few wee houses and some old-fashioned-looking people busy working in the fields. No one seemed to notice them, but they saw a church so they made for that.
There was a priest standing in front of the altar. It’s all Roman over there, y’see, so the priest was called ‘Father.’ They couldn’t speak the language much, o’course, but the priest took them to his house. They were that tired, they collapsed onto a seat inside. The Father shouted something and in came a woman in funny long clothes, with some bowls of soup and hunks of homemade bread. Were they thankful for that! Then he fetched some blankets or rugs, or something, and they had a good sleep.
“When they woke, there was more food and then the priest told them that his name was “Father Armand”—funny name, that! French, o’course. And the village was called Perrene. Then they were taken outside to a sort o’ yard behind the house and there were four donkeys standing there. Father said they were puzzled when the priest got on one and told them to get on the others and follow him. Well, off they went! Up and up and up the hill. It took hours and hours, but eventually they came to the path they had been looking for in the mist the night afore. And they couldn’t believe it when there, comin’ towards them, were some of their platoon come looking for them. Were they pleased to see them! They jumped off the donkeys and ran to meet them. But then Father thought that they should show a bit of gratitude to the priest and got a couple o’coins out of his pocket. He turned round to offer them to him but he’d gone! Donkeys and all. Not a sign. They were amazed, I’m tellin’ you.”
She paused to sneak a look at us, the MacLeod family, to observe our reaction. We must have looked impressed, because she continued with a satisfied grunt.
“Their mates looked at them a bit oddly when they started to walk back and peer around the rocks and the like. Jake told them about the priest who’d helped them and that they were wondering where he and the donkeys had gone. Their mates thought they were crazy because they hadn’t seen any priest or any donkeys, they said.
“Well, they had to get on to the camp and go before the major or whoever and explain themselves. He said they were a disgrace to the regiment and I don’t know what. They told him about the mist and the village and the priest and so on, but he wouldn’t believe them. He sent for the lot who had gone looking for them and they had to say that they hadna seen the village or this or the donkeys. Oh my! What a do Father said that was! The major got out the map of the area and told them to show him where this village was. Well they looked and peered and pointed, but they couldn’t find any village at all. The Major thought they had made it all up and they got into awful trouble. They couldn’t understand it themselves.
“But they were soon fighting again; so villages and priests and such were a long way from their minds.
“Jake was killed; but Father and Angus went on for another year or more. Then Father lost his leg and was sent home. Angus came home too, but he died. Father was very upset.” She sighed and shook her head.
She continued, “Well, there was no work here for a one-legged man and we didna have the croft then, y’see. So he did all sorts of jobs all over the place. Mother used to say that she never knew where he was off to next.
“He’d picked up a bit of the French lingo in the war so he got a job down in England for a while, as a driver’s mate in a lorry delivering stuff to France. They didn’t have much of anything in France, after the war,’ o’course.”
Behag shifted a little on her seat and we waited for her to start again.
“Father always worried and wondered about that village and the priest and was hopin’ he might get back there sometime. Aye, well! It turned out that the town he visited most often was ‘Ay—mens’—not far from the hills where they had been lost. Well, one time when they were there, he decided to try to find the village and thank the priest for helping them that time, back in ’16. He’d always been bothered because they had never said thank you, y’see.
“They couldna take the lorry up into the hills, the roads were too steep and narrow. A bit like ours, I suppose. Well, Father got a French taxi driver to take him to find this ‘Perrene.’ Well, Frenchie didn’t seem to have heard of it, so they drove around for a whiley, with Father trying to remember where it was they got lost. Somehow they found the hill and went down into that deep glen. There was a fairly good road been built by then, y’see.
“The village was there all right but it was all in ruins! And not wartime ruins, if y’understand me, but old ruins, where it had just gradually fallen down. Father couldn’t understand it. He could see the church but that was in ruins too! And the priest’s house! That had fallen down altogether. No roof—nothing! Then Father looked around and could see that there were no neat fields or tidy walls like before—just heaps of stones and weeds and scrubby trees. And no people! Everywhere was empty.”
Behag looked around to make sure that we believed her.
“Father asked Frenchie what had happened in the village. Frenchie said nothing happened: It was just that the village hadn’t been occupied for about a hundred years. ‘Not true,’ said Father, and tried to tell him about his adventures and the kind priest.
“Frenchie obviously thought he was mad but, after a moment’s thought, he beckoned him to the graveyard. There, they looked at every stone, and the latest burial had been in 1810! And Father Armand’s was there too. 1805!”
“‘But he was alive and helped us in 1916,’” said Father. Frenchie just shrugged the way they do—the French, y’know.
“Well, they went into the nearest town and father bought a map. He brought it home and I remember him sitting by our lum of an evening with this map on his knee, porin’ over it and jabbin’ his finger into it. It said very clearly, “Perrene—abandoned in 1820 and now derelict.” In French, o’course. Then he’d burst out, “But we were there in 1916.” None of us ever understood it at all.