I'd never seen so many motorcycles in all my life. They came flooding through the wide-open, wrought iron gates and towering stone archway of Les Invalides in the centre of Paris, whirring and humming like a gigantic swarm of shiny blue-and-white bees escorting their queen to the heart of her hive. Or in this case the General of the French Armed Forces, Général Ract-Madoux. Throughout the catacombed, cobblestoned courtyards the cacophonous growl of engines persisted, as the general exited his vehicle to minimal fanfare, making his way determinedly towards where we were stood rigidly to attention. We handful of Legionnaires kitted out in full parade regalia, heads shorn to the scalp, Képis glistening white in the grey, overcast, rain-interrupted metropolitan Tuesday mid-afternoon. But this was not, as is usually the case, a ceremony to be drenched in fanfare. The drenching from the rain seemed sufficiently apt. We'd leave it at that.
All throughout the morning, rehearsals of the most surreal nature had taken place. Positions, movements, arrivals, departures, had all been meticulously calculated, executed, corrected, executed once again, all under the rather bemused gaze of intermittent tourists happening upon this rather unusual sight. Cameras were unearthed from beneath a make-up and metro map rubble in a variety of handbags and rucksacks, all vying desperately to capture this rare and visually spectacular sight. They didn't understand of course. They weren't aware. They didn't know. How could they possibly?
A concerted effort was made by all involved not to let the solemnity of the occasion escape us. Not that one would be required, you might think. Yet the stark contrast between those "dry runs" throughout the morning and the real thing was so incredibly violent, so sinister, so unsettling that any wandering thoughts in the thirteen hour road trip the night before or the several hours stood waiting around in those stone, historic overhangs protecting us from the sporadic bursts of rain were blasted from our consciousness as the ceremony got underway. We took up our positions. We fixed our gaze straight ahead. Sticking to a chosen point on the wall in the distance wasn't hard, never is. That is, until the family were shown to their places only a few metres from us, facing our guard of honor head on. We tried not to look. But the gentle sobbing drew our eyes down from the distant walls and on to the faces of the distressed, destroyed, shattered human beings right in front of us. The mother, the father, the grandmother, the brothers, their girlfriends, all present and yet not. All battling fiercely to comprehend the alien surroundings while simultaneously struggling to process the profound grief wrapping itself ever tighter around their throats, suffocating their tears and allowing only muffled sobs to escape. He was just 25 years old, the same age as me. I tried to imagine my family sat there in their place, my mum and dad crippled with grief, my sister sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly relocated my spot on the wall in the distance.
By this time, a second swarm of bikes - somewhat reduced in size from the General's arrival - had entered the courtyard. However, this current wave all killed their engines in unison. The air suddenly hung still, a deafening silence ringing out across what seemed the entire city. And then the drum began. The drum. I never imagined a single sheet of plastic stretched across the end of a wooden cylinder could have such a numbing effect. The traffic outside the gates even seemed to disappear, the pigeons in the archways and nooks above ceased their previously incessant cooing, all early Winter sniffles were held back. Nothing could be heard but the sole, hollow drum and it's shiver-inducing echo, ricocheting off every individual cobblestone. As the din died away, a gentler but just-as-rhythmic sound replaced it. The sergeant led the procession, almost inaudibly calling time on the paces of the eight Legionnaires marching slowly and steadily just behind. "Un, deux, trois, quatre". Arriving at the prescribed placement, they slowly descended the coffin on to its waiting supports. The enormous French flag hung heavy, not swaying, not billowing, just enveloping the entire casket. The General spoke a few words in memory, before passing along every member of the family. By his side was a Legionnaire acting as translator. The surreality only grew as we watched each family member first listen politely if somewhat confusedly to the General's condolences, before then straining to hear the translation in their native tongue. It was almost too much. For everyone concerned.
The coffin then progressed in to the waiting chapel, and our guard of honor repositioned to the courtyard. And there we waited. Across from us, numbering easily more than a hundred were rows upon rows of high-ranking officers from the Legion and the French Army. Our two former Chefs de Corps (Head of Regiment) were there, side by side, along with several generals, colonels, and every sky-scraping rank imaginable. Following the brief ceremony inside, the small crowd poured out in to the courtyard. Our sergeant yelped our little band of decorated legionnaires to attention. The officers across the courtyard impulsively followed suit. It's not normal protocol for an NCO to bring an officer (or in this case, triple figures' worth!!) to attention, but nobody protested. The coffin passed by. All present saluted. The hearse pulled away. And the crowds all dispersed.
All but our little guard-of-honour. There we waited. Deadly still, disciplined beyond reproach by any general. Unmoving, but not unmoved. And we waited. I think the sergeant was just as lost in thought as we were. Nobody minded, although I must admit that I was relieved when he eventually stood us down. My thoughts had flitted off towards my own family. That spot on the wall had BECOME my family. Sobbing, sniffling, looking confused, angry, desperate at a French general commending their son's bravery and strength of spirit.
I was glad to leave that spot on the wall behind me. For the family of Corporal Goran Franjkovic, however, it's not nearly that simple.