Jacques Van Kelst by Sophie


As I stretch my arm to catch the bartender’s attention for another cider, my shirt lifts and reveals the inside of my wrist. Someone at the bar points at the tattoo that’s been there for ten years.

“What’s that then? What does it mean? Is it Hindi or summin’?”, he asks

I stare back at him, with no expression on my face, feeling annoyed he asked.

“It’s Lao, not Hindi. And it’s a name,” I reply drily.

As a young man, Jacques enrolled in the Army and spent several years in Laos (South East Asia) where he actively helped the local populations build new houses, bridges and roads after the First Indochina War destroyed all they had. His help and compassion towards the people didn’t go unnoticed and the King of Laos, Sisavang Vong, awarded him with a medal, the “Order of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol”. He was always very proud of this medal and had a certificate with it, written in French and translated into Lao.

When he passed away in 2005, I had the Lao version of his name tattooed on my right wrist. I wish I hadn’t. At least not somewhere people can see it. They always ask what it means and I don’t want to tell them. What was ours is now mine and I don’t like to share. More importantly, I don’t like to be reminded he’s gone.

I was born in a small town in the North of France. Empty streets and small red brick houses, everything looks the same and, day after day, under grey skies, life goes by without a sound but the rain. There is absolutely no entertainment for children over there but if that’s where you were born, you don’t know any better. Once the heart of coal mining in France, the area is filled with the painful memories of its history. Charcoal ‘mountains’ and abandoned mine shafts overlook the desolate towns and canals where nothing surprising ever happens.

Yet, I consider myself very lucky. Jacques was in my life. He was a tall, handsome man, always wearing a hat and always with a cigarette in his hand. Everybody knew him in town and even further away. He was heavily involved in the community’s activities, be it bridge lessons, the old factory worker’s symphony or keeping the mine museum alive. He was also the editor of our local newspaper and the creator of the crosswords section. Often too busy to be at home, I was trying to make the most of my time with him when he was.

He called me Soshia and I called him Papy. We loved spending precious moments together, just the two of us and here are the ones I cherish the most.

Lille’s football games.
Jacques used to be a football referee and when he was not on the pitch, he would take me to the stadium with him to watch the game. He would sit me down, hand me some greasy chips rolled in paper and tell me to keep my scarf and beanie hat on to avoid catching a cold. I never knew who had won the game, all that mattered was to be with him and watch him complain about the referee and players’ skills while chain smoking.

Jacques was very often seen sitting at his desk. It was in the conservatory at the back on the house, overlooking the garden. He would spend hours writing tons of pages. He was planning his upcoming trips, writing articles for the local newspaper and he even wrote a whole book about his time in Indochina that he self-published.
I would sit at my small desk next to him and write poems, short stories and other screenplays from the age of 6. We never talked. The sound of pens scratching the paper was music to our ears.

The cemetery.
Once a month, he would take me to a tiny cemetery where his parents were buried. I would draw flowers and write a poem before going and would stick it on the tombstone with Sellotape, replacing the one I’d left before and that the rain had washed away. He would say a prayer and I would recite my poem out loud.

Jacques lived for a few years in Germany, way before I was born, and had a strong bond with this country. Over there, he learned the art of outstanding Christmas celebrations. From choosing the tree to decorating the windows with spray snow, I always took my role very seriously. I never cared too much about presents and even less about food but I was always very excited about Christmas, knowing I was going to spend the whole day singing German carols with him and our all-time favourite French song “Le Temps Des Cerises” over and over again.

Seaside days.
As a child, I wanted to be a mermaid. I wanted to be in water all the time and loved nothing more than swimming. Jacques knew that too well and would take me once a year to the northernmost beach in France. Even in Summer, these beaches are very windy and not always warm. As for the water, it’s always cold, no matter when you go. On the beach, he would always point at the horizon and say “You know, that’s England over there. Can you see it?” and to me, England was that mysterious island somewhere at the end of the Channel. I didn’t know at the time that’s where I would settle down as an adult.
Even though I could swim, I knew the drill. Jacques would pick me up in his arms and would walk for ages in the wind to finally reach the sea. He would then make sure we caught all the waves, by going up and down and making silly sounds pretending he was drowning, but never letting go of me. I would cry with laughter for hours and neither of us ever complained about the cold.

When my mother called me at work that day to say “It’s cancer”, my immediate reaction was to say he was going to be fine and I believed it. Six months down the line, I call him and the only words he manages to let out before hanging up are “I love you, Soshia”. I was working in the South of France then and I immediately jumped in my car to drive all the way up to my Northern hometown.

I arrived too late.

When his personal belongings were made available to whoever wanted them, I chose his Laos medal, his referee whistle and one of his hats.

I never went back to the tiny cemetery. I hardly ever write, all my poems and stories are stuck in my head. I avoid Christmas at all costs.
I permanently moved to the mysterious island and I have not been to my hometown for years. It will never be the same.
I sometimes wish I was a mermaid and that maybe deep in the sea, I would find a way to see him again. But all that’s left now is a faded tattoo on a wrist.

I never told him I loved him, I never told him how much he meant to me. I’m sure he knew, I’m sure he knew.

Sophie worked in media in London, trained Western horses in Hampshire and is now looking for her next adventure in Manchester.