I’ve seen the films, read the books, watched the TV documentaries – but nothing, nothing prepares me for the real thing. First to hit me is the smell; perhaps it’s the weather – there’s a very fine rain – not enough perhaps to need a coat, but damp enough once I’m back in the car – and the air is still, trapping the evidence. After almost 70 years, the smell of burnt wood gives a hint of what took place here.
And then there’s the quiet. A couple of birds on a fence but no sound whatsoever. People wander through the ruins; families, children, couples – but no one speaks. There is nothing anyone can say.
One day in June 1944 soldiers of the 2nd Panzer Division of the German Army arrived in this village in central France bent on retribution. The men were lined up and shot. The women and children were locked in the church and incendiary devices thrown through the windows. A few survived but 642 people died.
There is a story that this was all a ghastly mistake; the name of the village had been confused with another. This might explain why the soldiers returned to burn the place, as if to remove all trace of what had happened here. But the stubborn, blackened stone and burned out remains of human endeavour are not so easily erased; on a street corner – a rusting car; through what was once a window – a sewing machine. And in a corner of the church, most poignant of all – a child’s pushchair. At the Visitors Centre there’s a display of the commonplace – knives, forks, combs, scissors – grotesque sculptures in black and rust. If this is a vision of Hell, then I repent now.
I’m here with Annie and her brother Rob, who lives nearby. Rob moved to France because he has prostate cancer. The drugs he needs to keep him alive, although approved in the UK, are too costly for the NHS. But here in France they are prepared to spend €3000 a month on an Englishman because of what they regard as “an accident of life”. They think he should not be punished for something that is not his fault.
Later that day he and I sit in the half-finished kitchen of his half-finished home with a couple of beers, comparing notes. There are wires, desperate for appliances, pipes in need of connection to something or other, floor tiles and tools. And tomatoes, onions and garlic on the window ledge. There is much to do, which I suspect is largely the point. It is not just the drugs that are keeping Rob alive.
He looks a picture of health; quite apart from the look of someone who has been subjected to a healthy dose of vitamin D, there is no telltale white stripe across his left wrist. He threw his watch away ages ago. I have a red nose, red forehead and pasty legs. I wear my white stripe with pride to prove to my friends back home that I’ve actually seen the sun this year.
We talk mano a mano about our respective journeys, perhaps saying things we don’t always share with our wives. Rob is realistic about what he is actually doing – buying time. There may be better drugs available next year. Or the year after. And although there is no sign at present of my cancer returning, it could be hiding in the woods, waiting for the soldiers to pass – as it did once before. We talk about what all this means for us and for our families.
I like the French approach to cancer; I like Rob’s approach too. It took a lot of courage to up sticks and move for the sake of his treatment – he doesn’t speak French let alone ‘medical’ French. For much of the time he was on his own – his wife Lesley was still back in the UK, sorting out and packing up. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to undergo chemo and radiotherapy under those circumstances.
I can imagine however, as my mind drifts back to the events of June 1944, that there are far, far worse things in this world than cancer.
Cancer is ruthless and devastating. It is cruel, taking no prisoners. It behaves in this way because it is genetically programmed to do so. It is, as the French put it, an accident of life. What occurred in this village was not an accident. It was neither mindless nor wanton nor random. It was a perfectly rational consequence of a particular political philosophy. Men thought they could – and should – do this. And that’s what makes it worse.