I’m a good dad. I’ve played cricket and football and Frisbee with my boys. We’ve done crazy golf on the most ill-conceived and decrepit course in the known universe. Paddle boats and kayaks. I’ve cooked a different meal for them every night on the two-burner camp stove. Pastas, stir fries, curries. Omelettes and pancakes. Barbecued meat and fish. I answer their questions. Why does the moon move across the sky? Why are all the planets spherical? Why don’t the French speak English? Why doesn’t anybody speak Dutch outside of Holland?
On a campsite in the midst of the Massif-Central, rolling hills and dense forests with the volcanic mountains in the far distance, we make a kite out of bin bags, barbecue skewers, insulation tape and fishing line. It flies, but skittishly. Could do with a longer tail for balance. I explain the principle in terms of boats and keels. I think they understand. They nod, at least. Their fair hair streaked with ash blond, bleached out by the French summer sunshine, fringes their big brown eyes. My eyes.
They write postcards to their mum, their grandparents, their childminders. They’re good at this. They want to do it and they somehow seem to know what to say. They ask about the rest of their family. So I draw them a family tree. It’s hard and I discover I don’t know—can’t remember—the names of my cousins. Haven’t seen them for years. And I’ve forgotten aunts and uncles. I tell them I returned from a holiday in Tanzania and my mum—their gran—showed me a picture of her great uncle, sepia-toned in military safari suit and pith helmet. He’d died serving his country in Africa during the First World War. Was buried in Dar Es Salaam, where I’d spent a hot, tedious day trying to find something to do. Had visited a fish market, not arriving until midday, by which time it was closed, stinking and sweltering with no shade to be had. Spent the rest of the day in a cafe being reluctantly served smeary glasses of Kilimanjaro beer by a taciturn barman who regarded me with a mixture of suspicion, hostility and disdain. Had I known about my great-great uncle, I would have paid my respects at his grave. Probably the first visitor he’d ever had. The boys wanted to know why he was in Tanzania during World War One. I said we’d have to Google it when we got home. I didn’t know.
More questions. Why do people have different colored skin? Why is French bread so crusty? What are we doing today?
Today we move camp. A couple of hours travel south west to a campsite by a lake. More kayaking and some fishing. We arrive and pitch the tent. The lake lies in a steep-sided V-shaped valley, the result of the damming of a river. We will visit the dam and marvel at the ingenuity and engineering, as we did when we crossed the bridges that span the mouth of the Seine outside Le Havre. Our lake is featureless except for the areas where the margins contain the bleak, black skeletons of dead trees. We’ll target these for our fishing, for perch and pike and zander. Above the waterline lies a lush treeline through which, directly opposite to the campsite, a shuttered chateau stands. We check the map and find it’s deserted. We make a note to pay a visit later in the week.
At breakfast there are wasps. The boys retreat to eat in the tent. Later we make wasp traps. Slice a water bottle with our pen knives, fill the bottom with jam, invert the cut off section. Wasps fly in attracted by the jam, but can’t escape the narrow aperture of the bottle.
With two more bottles we make minnow traps as bait for our fishing. Same principle, but pierce the bottle to allow the water to flow out the bottom and use stale bread as bait. Tether the traps and toss in the lake. The minnow traps disappoint, so we try spinning small lures. No bites, no takes and the boys’ patience is tested.
The wasp traps are a big success. The boys make a tally each day of their victims. Make new traps, setting them up around our camp. Every meal they sit and watch the trapped wasps struggle, their heads on the table as close to the clear plastic bottle sides as they can. Face to face with their victims, crawling yet stationary in the jam. Heads moving from side to side. Antennae relentlessly twitching. The jam a writhing, seething struggle for life. A desperate, doomed struggle.
The boys don’t ask so many questions now. The trapping of wasps has become all-consuming. Becoming scientific, they begin to make observations: that the traps have become small universes of their own, with their own cycles of activity and inertia, moving from stillness and seeming death, suddenly surging back into a teeming struggle of twisting limbs and antennae again. A cycle of desperately energetic optimism and torpid pessimism. The boys make new traps using different baits: travel sweets; pieces of chocolate; a ripe, oozing peach. They keep a tally of the body counts for each trap.
We decamp and I start to load the car again to make the long journey back to Britain, with a two-day stopover in Normandy to visit battlefields and war cemeteries. Before we set off, the boys collect all their wasp traps together and ask me to take a photo. They sit crossed legged with the traps strewn around them, their faces full of pride and satisfaction. “Say ‘Cheese’,” I say, as I take the picture, and both boys make a stiff-fingered salute. Then, ignoring their protests, I sweep the traps into a black plastic refuse sack.
In Normandy, we visit the beaches, the memorials, the war cemeteries. I feel overwhelmed by the scale of these: the simple white crosses, bearing simple inscriptions, telling of young lives not even half-lived. The boys are disappointed. And bored. It’s all so static and empty. Not at all like the war of their imaginations.
More questions. How did World War II start? How does a gun work? Would you rather drown or get shot? What is genocide?
I miss the boys when I have to drop them back to their mum. It’s been a good holiday. But I enjoy getting my life back: my life that since the break-up no longer includes them. Two weeks later, it’s my turn again. In her kitchen is the trophy shot of the boys with their wasp traps laid out before them. Two small boys striking poses like Victorian elephant hunters. Their pride in the kill.
I hang their scarves around their necks and we head off for the football. I love the thrill of a new season. Matches played out in the yellowing sunlight of an autumn afternoon. The misplaced optimism of the first home game. This brief window of time where we can let ourselves believe that this time things really will be different, that mistakes will not be repeated, that lessons will be learnt, that everything can and will be better.