MHFTB

Excerpt
"My Heart Forgets To Beat" - Ray Noble, 1936



Part One: April,1937



Valentian girl with boots and balls

His kisses will say, “I want you, Laura” and today more than their tongues will speak. Afterwards hand-in-hand they will enter the Red Star café and the comrades may feast their eyes.
Meanwhile, Vaughan holds two cans of caviar under her nose, courtesy of Uncle Joe,
Just an itsy-bitsy picnic! Look, a bunch of the sweet onions; and here, fresh bread from the company stores. Already packed is a flask of red wine drawn from the oak of La Mancha, and a tin of Ukrainian cigarettes. She gives a cry,
Ah, the ones you bend in case the tobacco falls out.
If that is not enough, into the knapsack he carries everywhere like a donkey go water & biscuits, billycan, notebook, fountain pen and the heavy old revolver he bought off a smuggler in Barcelona. He glances up and smiles,
It's not too far into the countryside. Not too far? On foot, you should note, across fields crawling with enemies. He averts his eyes, Our own little reconnaissance sortie, my little brown dove. What a schemer! They will leave town, find trees for shade and grass for their behinds. He will ply her with food, drink and when her patience is at an end, prove his manhood. Everyone knows what caviar is good for.
Laura, he chides in abysmal Spanish learnt from the poems of Lorca, Drunken gendarmes are beating on the doors. But it is not the fascists we should fear, may they go to the devil. It is the spring, which has warmed the air and opened the first magnolias. He wags his finger, Beware of the soil, which is cold and damp as a riverbank at dawn. That said, he produces a Moroccan rug, borrowed for you-know-what. He winks, rolls it up and ties it under the sack with the knots you pull. What kind of man cares for such detail? Can he be the possessor of testicles? She yawns and stretches. His answer is to smile as though all is normal. But today will see them in action. She leans back against a wall and rolls her eyes,
Aiee, the birds have flown. Mercifully, he shoulders rifle and binoculars and off they set, like poachers of geese.

*

His Laura had ridden the fast passenger service that still ran some days between Alicante and Madrid. The irony was how the rest of the British volunteers were at the station, waiting to board the next train back to the coast. They would spend their first leave since Jarama loafing on the seaside, jammy blighters. Not Comrade Vaughan! The Welshman from Liverpool had drawn the short straw. And was he put out? Burn his union card? Did he heck-as-like. As soon as the order was posted, he'd nipped smartly over to the post office, bribed the censor and got off a telegram to his girl,

LEAVE CANCELLED STOP YOU COME HERE STOP VT

In six months, they'd met up twice, exchanged post cards and the odd crackling telephone call. They were owed, all right. After dark, Laura wired back,

HAVE TWO DAY PASS ARRIVE TOMORROW TRAIN LL

The whistle blew and in she rolled.
He weighed up the odds. On the pro side, the moon-faced girl came when called, jumped from the carriage and possessively took his arm. On the contra, she was barely half his age. Nineteen-years of smouldering cheek and a tongue to kill. He hung his head as he spoke, crawling under the trip wires and snipers of no-man's-land. Whenever he glanced up, the whites of her eyes flashed. How the brows of her angled. Why? Because he'd suggested following the tracks to the far side of town? An hour's walk at most. The quickest way into the countryside. She didn't seem impressed by the packing, either. Weren't his treats good enough? No English chocolate. The ends of her lips forked down. She crossed her arms and leaned back, shoulder blades against the wall. Ravishing! In dun-coloured overalls and floppy black beret, she managed the look of a Paris mannequin. The pose of her, pouting at the expedition on foot. His kingdom for a motorcycle! Then again, she could have raised the roof in Spanish, or worse still, screeched at him in Valencian. Give her a smile. Keep your powder dry, boyo. After all, following the railway wasn't such a bad idea; not many folk about. Slowly, slowly catch your monkey.
And anyway, all was well. Before she had time to sulk again, there they were, strutting along the branch line like a pair of alley kids, holding hands and kicking up the dust. Not the route march to damnation, just a glorious walk on a fine Spring day. So, out with it, man. Say your piece,
Where is this famous rain, then?
That turned her head,
This famous “what”?
The rain in Spain?
Her expression flinched, as if the words touched something peculiar,
The rain in Spain?” What means that?
They say it falls in the plain.
Still she gave that puzzled look. He repeated the rhyme in English, then in Spanish. She shook her head,
It's just nonsense. Are you insane?
Completely. He gave her hand a squeeze, I'm in love, see, with a smashing girl.
Aiee!
The girl would have looked smashing in an old sack, which those old overalls almost were. She had them rolled at the cuffs, the fine down of her arms rippling in the breeze. Her feet were small enough to be shod in boots more like a public schoolboy's than the general issue. A belt of black webbing drawn tightly at the waist exaggerated her hour-glass shape. Below the unbuttoned neck was a glimpse of white. She probably wore just a loose cotton slip underneath, the soap-scented boobies of her swinging from side to side. Very wanton, see. His heart forgot to beat. She answered his daftness by snapping up two long stalks of grass and offering him one. He could have prattled on, but thoughts of her underwear left him chewing the cud.
Dandelions and giant thistles along the path were staging their spring offensive while the hot noon air buzzed with the looting of insects. Underfoot, weeds were sprouting from the gravel, the rails of the track rusting. They were headed West, towards the front, effectively marching into danger land on a branch line no passenger trains had run in months. Ahead of them, bare telegraph poles strutted across green and yellow fields. Far in the distance, the mountains of Toledo rose purple and grey out of a thick haze.
What could not be seen were the hordes of fascists and religious fanatics dug in there. Like the sudden uprising of weeds, spring was coaxing them out of the ground. Fortunately, to North, South and East - that is, from the shores of the Med to the streets of Madrid - the Republic of Spain remained solid. In government reports at least, the front line was still somewhere up there in those mountains. In reality, ambushes had been reported fifty kilometres deep into the plain of Castile La Mancha. Yessir, the insurgents were getting bolder, creeping further from their caves and foxholes as the days grew long and hot.

Dragging her feet somewhat, the girl from the coast still looked irked by her trip into the countryside. It wouldn't do to guess what she was thinking. Chastened somewhat, Vaughan let go of her hand and stalked ahead. There was a water tower and a fork where a passing track began. He stopped at the levers and waved her to join him. It was odd. A watchman's hut stood behind the levers, the obvious place for a guard post, yet it was deserted. Why leave it without a picket? He would report as much to Brigade. Furthermore... He a gave a puzzled cry. What was that ahead? He took the suffering girl's hand again and pulled her on. In the distance stood a lone rail car, shunted onto the passing track and basking in the full glare of the sun. First class, by its livery. Laura sighed,
Is there a problem?
Well, is this any way to do things?
The anarchist in her spat,
Huh! The rich travel in style and the poor walk in bare feet under the pitiless sun. Let us find a nice tree to shade us and rest a while.
Yes, the bloody sun was always there. Never mind the privileges of rich folk, the sun was absolute monarch even in the republic. Throughout the winter months, dry as they were, the sun had reigned unchallenged. Now it was only April, look you, and his brain had cooked in its hat. Talk about mad dogs and Englishmen. How could anyone think in such heat? Whenever he fixed his eyes on an object he was always distracted; any object, that shimmering rail car for example. Immediately he spotted it, some old newsreel images flashed into his head. What were they now? A forest clearing, limousines, Field Marshals bowing stiffly, shaking hands and climbing aboard. Of course, the carriage where the Armistice was signed in 1918! He lifted his beret and smeared the sweat across his brow.
Idle thoughts. This was Spain, 1937, not France in 1918. Anyone who thought either side, Nationalist or Republican, were ready to throw in the towel was a damn fool. Christmas had long come and gone in this bitch of a war. That old carriage would become a roost for chickens years before the fighting was done. In fact, a stalemate had been reached. Russia was on one side, the German-Italian Axis on the other, Britain and France playing neutral. A civil war like this could stretch on for decades. And a simple foot soldier could do nothing but keep slogging, day-in, day-out. So why not put the thing to some use? At least they could step aboard, sit down on plush seats and cool their pounding heads.
Closer up, the carriage transformed from blazing mirage into stark nightmare. At a hundred paces, they saw all the windows were smashed in. At fifty, rows of shell holes showed up in the woodwork. At twenty the sound volume came up like a bad change of reel in a picture house, suddenly a swarm of angry of flies hovered above the roof. Level with the foot-plates, the smell of rotting flesh hit them. Toxic fumes tore the insides of their nostrils. Speechless, they covered their faces and strutted past.
A hundred metres on, Vaughan was still shaking. To calm himself, he strained to think how such a shambles had come about, how long ago it was attacked, if it was it stationery, strafed by planes, ambushed on the ground? Why hadn't the bodies - there must be many dead - been removed? Presumably the victims were fascists, but not having the stomach to look inside, he didn't know if they were soldiers or civilians. The questions soon had his head spinning. And still they came. He tried to see it from a tactical point of view. What had become of the battle reports? Perhaps they were sitting on some commissar's desk waiting for action. He might pick them up every day and put them straight down again in disgust. Was no one available to clear up the mess? Or was there no one willing?
Laura said nothing, walking with hands in pockets and thinking her own thoughts. The things you saw in a war. Like the three monkeys, sometimes you simply had to shut your eyes stop your ears and keep your stupid mouth shut. But that awful smell. It seemed to follow them along, threatening to cast a dark shadow over the day. Had it got into their clothes? Onto their skin? The only thing to be done, Vaughan decided at length, was to go back and burn the thing. Light a fire under it and let it burn, bodies and all. Otherwise they'd have cholera breaking out or an epidemic of typhoid on their hands. Fire, yes, fire was the only answer. Pile wood and straw underneath then... drat! The flames would only destroy the sleepers and buckle the rails.
At last, needing to voice his thoughts, he tried to catch Laura's eye. The expression on her face stopped his tongue. She had moved on and he realised she was staring at something further down the track. His eyes followed hers, and at first he couldn't see the wood for the tree. In the strangest of reversals, they had stumbled upon the most powerful symbol of life you could wish for: a giant hawthorn in full bloom. It was a truly magnificent specimen, even for Spain. A thousand creamy blossoms sprouted from the branches and held up a shimmering world of honey bees and butterflies. Without a word, they stooped under its shade, sat with their backs to the trunk and drank in the delicious air. The contrast in smell was like a religious conversion. Even the loud buzz of insects was calm and without menace. When they turned to face each other, a smile creased Laura's mouth and he noticed that her teeth were even brighter than the whites of her eyes.

Eventually, reluctantly, they left the shade of the hawthorn tree. Fragrant and beautiful as it was, it was no place for a picnic. The trackside thereabouts was bordered by rows of ugly buildings; poor people's hovels to one side, artisan's workshops to the other. All were deserted, forlorn and decrepit. His search for beauty and quietude, for an idyllic grove or enchanted bower would have to proceed. Laura had been right to peeve about their walk. The way seemed full of troubles and was getting worse instead of better. Just a little further on, they entered a badlands of shunting yards and sidings. The path veered way from the track and lost direction, zigzagging between piles of chipping stones and stacks of old sleepers. With no shade, the sun beat mercilessly on the floppy berets that swaddled their heads. It became painful just to raise an eye above the horizon.
At the very edge of town, the route narrowed again and passed under the garden wall of a great house. Branches hung over the track, leaves fresh and bright, flowers in lovely pastel shades. He counted mulberry, cherry, fig and the rosy blossoms of a strange species in bloom before it leafed. Was that what they called a Judas? Best of all was a huge horse chestnut, of a type unknown to him, holding up great triangles of petals like pink Christmas trees. In the corner, the wall had been broken through, offering a glimpse of rich folks' pleasure garden.
Good place for the picnic?
Laura shook her head. The great house stood empty and spooky, just like the hovels of the poor. Most of the population had fled to Toledo when the soldiers came to town.
The first living souls they saw since setting off were a group of pickets guarding the points and levers at the end of the passing line. Anarchist militia, by the red and black of their armbands, they sheltered under the awning of another watchman's cabin. This one, at least, was manned. Concertina music sashayed from a military wireless set. The youths lounged with their cigarettes, shamelessly gazing Laura's way before suddenly standing up. The music stopped. All saluted with clenched fists,
Solidarity!
Solidarity!
Vaughan would have lingered to smoke, chat and enjoy the music, but Laura squeezed his hand and drew him away. A few paces on, she began her talk,
Aiee! Such fellows.
You know those comrades?
I know farm boys.

He had heard her story the first night they danced. A syndicalist from a town on the coast, she served in a militia unit that was raised from the Collective of Footwear Factories. There were many ready-made boot and shoe businesses in the cantons of Catalonia. Two weeks after the Nationalists started the insurrection, she had quit her job and volunteered. Why? She paused. The reason was a personal grudge. Her brother was doing his Military Service. The officers at his barracks, all of them the sons of whores, ordered the men in their charge over to the rebels. A few of the conscripts slipped away or went sick. Most followed like dumb sheep. Only Miguel and some other fellows from the East stuck to their republican oaths. The boys were arrested and court-martialed for refusing to obey military orders in an emergency. As soon as sentence was passed, they were frog-marched out of the barracks and shot by firing squad. Their former comrades! Word of this atrocity had travelled fast, the fascists not shy of broadcasting their intention to liquidate all soldiers loyal to the Republic. Neither professionals nor conscripts, officers nor privates, would be spared. The bitterness of Laura's story was sharpened by the matter-of-fact way she told it. On their second meeting, she had repeated the facts, verbatim, to a group of comrades in the Brigade. The words had a chilling impact; if anything the story of her brother's execution was like Laura's creed, her fundamental belief or even faith. Death would be repaid with death. For every comrade murdered, a nationalist rebel would die. The score would be settled, mother's son for mother's son until all was fair and square. Both times he heard her telling the story, Vaughan shivered at its stark logic. And in the secrecy of his heart, he felt most for the girl's parents; distraught at the loss of a son, how would they face losing the daughter?
Laura was unlike any girl he'd met in England or Wales. Fiercely pretty, her voice was deep and husky, her moves often feral or unladylike. She would meet your eye stare for stare. Unmarried, a fact she let slip rather soon; Vaughan, in turn, hadn't exactly lied when he countered that he too was, “On the market”. They laughed together at their shared joke, and for the first time he believed he would speak the language well enough to win someone's heart. Still, he knew, there would be the inevitable fiancé.
Promised from childhood. A Yank who'd fought in the Mexican Revolution warned the men of the company, Any fit Latino broad not destined for a nunnery is surely spoken for.
These words had been borne out by experience, few other members of the British Battalion finding themselves in the arms of local sweethearts. No matter, and not withstanding International Brigade regulations about what could be done in or out of uniform, comrades willing to hand over money soon found themselves in clover. The great cities of Spain, it so happened, had certain café-bars from which the pimps led you to discrete, well-organised brothels. Tales of joy abounded. Since Vaughan was not a stranger to the bordello, his curiosity, shall we say, was aroused. Had collectivisation, as Marx prophesied, penetrated every sector of the market? No kidding. But to share such a joke was as far as he would go, for it was years since the seedier side of sex had a pull on him. He reckoned himself lucky in love; and if local girls were ruled off limits, it was down to him to prove the exception.
Whenever they were on leave, he took to asking people where you went to get a dance. This led to several puzzling conversations on street corners, in shops and café-bars. One day in Alicante, still speaking in broken Spanish, he stopped a pair of militia men outside a musical instrument shop. From them he learnt that dancing in the American style had all but stopped. Before the war, there were many hotels with bands and dance floors. Such places had either closed, or else found themselves a different clientèle. Two young women passing, also in uniform, happened to overhear their conversation and joined in. One of them suggested a café very famous for its flamenco and where at least you could watch the gypsies dance. Vaughan, bold as brass, asked the one who had spoken for a date. There was a long silence. The two local lads folded their arms and looked straight at the girls. This seemed to stir up a bit of pique and there followed some heated words in Valencian, which he would never decipher. The girl who had spoken, quite red in the face by then, turned to him and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he was put right in the picture. She spoke rapidly, but in a simplified Spanish and without accent,
First of all, I want to say, as a foreigner you are welcome to be our guest and we want to thank you for coming to the aid of the Spanish Republic. However, as to your request, it is not considered decent for a young man, a complete stranger in any case, to ask a young woman to walk out with him in that way. You see, even in these revolutionary times, if she says yes, then people will get the idea she is not respectable. Here is Spain, not England or France. In fact, I and my friend are striving to be modern in our ideas, though avoiding all bourgeois materialism. We have seen the films of America, France and England and take from them only what is useful. We believe nowadays that young men and young women should be free to meet and dance and maybe even to drink a little something together; and who can say we are wrong to do this? Too long, the church and the police in Spain have stopped the youth from enjoying themselves. Finally, I propose that if you have one or two young friends from England or America such as yourself, then the group of you, in the spirit of international solidarity, we can meet. Here she nodded to the two Spanish lads, making clear she intended them to act a chaperones. They had listened in admiration and immediately nodded their approval of her speech, We can meet in the Square this evening and go to the café of the flamenco.
Vaughan was drawn to this strong-willed, pretty girl in uniform, who spoke her mind so surely, and who despite being embarrassed and intimidated at first by the local lads, had flashed a smile at him that was quite wanton. In a way, she reminded him of Ruth, when she was younger. Later that evening, he even managed to dance a few steamy numbers with her. Fabulous music, too, though exactly what the steps were he never could recall.

Out of sight of the pickets, Laura and Vaughan walked hand-in-hand again and began to relax. So what would they talk about when alone at last? Of the birds and bees? The whispering grass, the wind in the trees? Not quite. Before the moment had inspired something more amorous, Laura had only asked him about the bloody English monarchy, would you believe,
How much is their power, Vaughan, and why do the English still have them?
At least the subject stretched his vocabulary. He knew no Spanish words for “constitutional”, “commonwealth” or “inherit”. He tried French, Latin, and the party game he'd played with some upper-class twits. You acted out the meanings of words in dumb-show. She groaned and laughed, making him frantic. Spain would turn him into a comic turn! Gone were the glum Welsh expressions he affected in Liverpool, his old faithful “Duw” for “God” and “Arglwydd Mawr” for “Great Lord” In contrast, Laura had no qualms about breaking into her native tongue. Boy, could she belt it out! Like a machine-gun, she was. Ideas, he well knew, only flowed best in the vernacular. But her language was a barrier. Despite his softness for Laura, and all her efforts to coax him, he drew the line at learning Valencian. Why should he? Look at her. She had demanded to know all about London and England, not Bangor or the estuaries of Ynys Môn. It was tit for tat. In fact, the very idea of Wales seemed to contradict Laura's view of the English Empire. Aiee! Did the King in London approve of other languages spoken on his soil? She scoffed when he said it was the Prince of Wales who became King. She thought she'd had him there, hadn't she? Wasn't it common knowledge King Edward had lost his throne? The newsreels had shown as much, even in war-torn Alicante. Befuddled, he found himself accounting for the blasted royals,
His brother is now king.
And this brother was a Prince of Wales, too?
Vaughan scratched the head under his beret,
Er, I don't think so. The saga of King Edward's abdication to marry the divorced, shrew-faced Simpson woman had played out since he left home. His information was mostly second-hand or filtered through the news channels of the omnipotent Communist Party. His hand moved to his chin, Just a minute, I think he was Duke of York.
There, did I not say? The English would not allow a Prince of Wales to be King.
Such things were impossible to comprehend, let alone explain. Yet if Laura's anti-monarchist views were strong, they were nothing compared to her hatred of the Church.

*

Look, here begin the lands of the monastery. Now you will see something. A stone cross with its arms broken off marked the boundary. For centuries that dry little town in the middle of the plain, so different from the great trading and fishing ports of the east coast, had existed in bland obscurity. Only the war catapulted it into the news. What had happened there, nine months before, could still get people talking, from Barcelona to Murcia. Though she had never been near it, Laura felt she knew the place well enough. She cursed the monks in Valencian.
A Cistercian monastery occupied a great swathe of land between the town and the open countryside. Filthy rich, its fields stretched west across the best soil of the plain. Inside the walled keep there was a church, refectory, cloisters, barns, a school and many other buildings. After the militias arrived in August '36, the stone perimeter wall had been torn down in places. That would make it easy for them to get inside. They drew near and saw that all the roofs were scorched by fire. They climbed through a gap in the wall and stood on a pile of rubble. Shreds of books, pieces of furniture, broken barrels, crockery, rags, old shoes, all kinds of debris littered the ground. There was a faint smell of vinegar. Laura circled the church, looking for the site that she knew only by repute. A diving wall ran between the outer transept and a small garden. She'd found it. Ugly marks showed where stray bullets had chipped the stones. The words spat dry from her mouth,
Aha! This is the wall where they shot the sons of the whores. The Englishman, nonchalant until that moment, turned white in horror. Nine months after the monks were lined up to take their stations in hell, after Autumn and Winter had scourged the flagstones, traces of their blood still showed in the cracks between. Those who drank the milk of prostitutes urged the people against the republic. Those who molested the young girls, who interfered with the young boys, who robbed the peasants of land, who sold forgiveness to thieves, murderers and rapists... those were the ones who went round the streets, urging the people, in the name of a fairytale god, to reject the elected government and welcome in the fascists. Vaughan would understand few of her words, for she was ranting in the clipped, Southern dialect of Valencian once more. But he would understand the passion in her voice, the denial of all liberal-Christian remorse, the rejection of any idea that a crime had been committed. Then, in clear, Castilian Spanish, she praised the heroism of the machine gun crew and the other volunteers forced to shoot a Civil Guard and a stupid old colonel who had stood in the path of justice.

*

Vaughan hadn't even heard of the massacre. What could you say? It was common knowledge, revenge killings were rife at the outbreak of the war. The Party had it that most atrocities were committed by nationalist insurgents, that it was they too who had started them. In the July and August, university teachers, journalists, lawyers, even the great Lorca, a poet of international fame, were stood against walls just like this one and shot to death. Nowadays, prisoners of war, including wounded, were still likely to be liquidated as so much vermin. Since their induction, he and his comrades had faced the stark prospect: better to die swinging an empty gun than pleading for your life. That is what you had bargained for by setting foot on the holy soil of Spain. So there was Laura, no cherub of innocence she, sounding off about this shameful crime in passionate self-justification. He struggled, his head reeling at the gulf between them, until his grip came back,
How many did they actually shoot?
She smiled and nodded,
All who refused to salute the flag of the Republic. They say, eleven sons of whores chose death.
A likely story. Whoever chooses death?
And the rest?
Beaten and run out of town.
To spread word that the dead were martyrs for the fascist cause.
She opened her hands in disbelief,
Fascist “victims” are “martyrs”?
I'm only saying it's better to do such things by legal means. Even traitors should get a fair trial.
They supported the uprising.
Yes, treason is treason. But shot for refusing to salute a flag?
Laura shook her head slowly,
Be not sentimental for them, soldier. There can never be mercy for those who deny the people's will.
Vaughan held up his hands in surrender. It was pointless bandying words in a state ripped apart by civil war, a country whose whole regime had changed three times in as many decades. Anyone who insisted on taking the higher moral ground was simply shouted down as a fool. Talking to Spaniards and other comrades in the Brigade, the British lads had worked out the reasons and consequences of this. In the first months of the nationalist insurgency, there had been such a rapid escalation of atrocities that the principle of an eye for an eye was established. Every massacre was repaid by another, and speedily so. News of each summary killing soon spread across the fronts. Civil war had pitched brother against bother, meaning the lines of division cut right to the quick. Both sides were not simply enemies, each of them were traitors. Even the outsiders, like the volunteers of the Brigade, were caught up in this feud. The British, Germans, French and Italians all had lads fighting for both causes. What would they say if one fine day they were ordered to shoot some British idiot who had joined a fascist legion?
He lingered at the pitted wall for several minutes, trying to bridge the gulf in logic and passion that kept him distant from Laura. It was not for the first time, nor would it be the last. Meanwhile, she had wandered off. When he looked her way again, she was happily jumping over the piles of rubble and kicking at bits of tat. She was dancing on the grave of the Church. He saw that her hatred of religion was a knot he should never try to cut. There had to be a scar hidden deep inside her, some shocking piece of molestation. His heart began to soften. She picked up what looked like a bible, ripped it in two and flung the parts in either direction. Sundering the Old Testament from the New. With that, Vaughan Thomas, who had shrunk from a Welsh Baptism at fifteen years of age, laughed and shook his head. He followed her across the rubble, smiling. She beamed back. Who would wish to be the enemy of such a one?
If you looked carefully, you could see how the looting of the monastery had gone on. The monks' personal possessions had long since been dispersed. Here and there, pipes and gutters had been stripped out for scrap. Most recently, it appeared, bricks, floorboards and roofing joists had been piled up ready for carting off. Something had halted the work, though. Had second thoughts been had? Were there scruples or doubts?
At the far end of the complex, they came to a building set into the perimeter. Its partial collapse gave a handy exit. If they crawled through a broken window and climbed up what was left of its staircase, then they could jump down into the field behind. The countryside. Freedom! Their aim, should he have to remind himself, was to escape all this devastation and misery for a few hours. To forget the ruddy war. To have some fun. Perhaps, in the privacy of some abandoned shepherd's hut, do that old rude thing at last? Laura, the more agile of the two, climbed up into the house first. When she suddenly turned back, it was with an urgent, gleeful look. She waved him in, her eyes flashing. He hauled his heavy body up and strained through the gloom to see for himself what she'd found. On the floor, somehow overlooked by the looters, an old suitcase was sticking from the rubble.
Aiee! Wedged too tight to pull out, she cut into the leather with her Seville blade, Maybe there is gold from the altar?
The suitcase proved to hold a treasure trove of a quite unholy order. He jumped down beside her as she cut in and pulled out its secrets. There were no bejewelled chalices or silver candlesticks. Inside were rare examples of art and literature indeed, exotic treasures of ancient vice. The suitcase's monastic owner, if such he was, had collected icons and illuminated gospels not of venerable saints, blessed virgins or holy trinities. Vaughan blushed and Laura hooted as she handed him the specious treasures one by one: rude postcards, obscene photographs, lewd pamphlets, illustrated under-the-counter books.
Religious obscenities?
It was venal art and literature of a kind Vaughan had sworn off in his youth. The cheap pleasures of puerile fantasy which had long given way to the grown-up sex life of a single man. Still, as Laura handed him the images, there was no denying the scope of the holy man's collection. Her fingers turned over a booklet of etchings that showed couples in the very act. No travesty of the printer's art, had Vaughan been alone, he may have stuffed it into his knapsack. When the case was emptied and the contents scattered around them like an Aladdin's cave of lust, they could only stare at each other in bewilderment. What on earth did it all mean? So far, between them, there had been just a few squiffy snogs and kisses. The promise of those kisses, when she snaked her tongue into his mouth and wiggled it about, had never been fulfilled, their few evenings together had ended with each retiring to their separate company quarters. Why this was so, Vaughan was not entirely sure. Even military discipline, which was supposed to be strict, in reality turned a blind eye towards the world's other oldest profession. So what was to stop a bona fide couple? An idea gradually came to him. He spoke to her in a slow, matter of fact voice,
Shall we take this one as evidence? I mean, the one with the drawings? It looks very damming.
Laura's voice assumed the same, oh-so innocent tone,
Er, yes. You are right, Vaughan. Her fingers danced over the pages, It is very damming. I will put it into my pocket.
She slipped the booklet inside her overalls and again their eyes lingered on each other. This time, he met her eyes full square. She smiled and nodded. A few seconds later, without exchanging further words, they rose and left the monastery to its dark sorrows and shadowy joys.

Proximity to sudden death had a strong effect on the way people behaved towards each other, so Vaughan had noted in verse. Even English men became capable of physical affection, back-slapping, hugging, even strolling arm-in-arm. Well, walking arm-in-arm was picked up from their Latin comrades and quickly dropped in front of newcomers from home. But all the horseplay of wrestling and heartfelt hugs before and after combat, went on longer than anything you'd see on Saturday afternoons at English football grounds. While fighting for a cause turned shy bank clerks and happy-go-lucky tram conductors into ruthless wielders of bayonet and hand-grenade, it also brought out the softer side of men. It made warm companions out of the coldest fish.
Some of the older volunteers had been through the Great War, or served in the imperial forces of Africa or India. When you knew for yourself what fighting was like, you saw a mildness and a tolerance in the eyes of old soldiers. There was a kind of freemasonry to becoming a veteran, the possession of a secret handshake, the knowledge of coded words. Another thing: real soldiers would seldom brag or belly-ache. They didn't talk about the number of rounds they'd loosed off, the positions their units had won or the comrades lost. Their chat comprised of food, drink, cures for dysentery and the fumigation of billets. On a front-line encounter with a bloke he'd seen last on the Tottenham Court Road, all the man could do was praise “the loose lassies of Lancashire”. Vaughan had put these observations into a few lines of verse, highlighting the bits about life and death in the raw.
He himself hadn't fared too badly in the mating stakes. On arrival in Barcelona, he'd done the old rude thing with a flashy bit-of-stuff claiming to be a Polish journalist. What a turn-up she was. Less than half a day passed between his asking her, a total stranger, if she knew any place with a dance band, and his waking up in a hotel bed to find she'd skedaddled. Nothing broken, mind, nothing taken. Later on, he had reason to suspect the self-styled Pole, who in weak French had called herself Elsa, or Ilsa, was spying for the other side. If so, what she'd learnt from him would have been of no use to anyone but herself. What he got out of her, on the other hand, had kept his spirits up. This Elsa/Ilsa had strengthened his resolve to undercut “the local broads”, as an American friend referred to the female comrades of the “companionship collectives”. His parting with Ruth Parry, after seven years together, had been painful. That loss still hurt, despite a wonderful, unexpected fling with Maura Carter.
He found Maura's long, chatty letters well-written but sometimes hard to stomach. Back in Blighty, reading between the lines, Maura let slip how his old flame Ruth's success with Benny Lightfoot was all thanks to her scheming. The little sorceress. Come to think of it, he wondered if Laura wasn't a substitute for Maura, who was in turn a substitute for Ruth. And where exactly was the sex-mad thing at that moment? Her last, rather rude, letter had proposed an immanent “tête-à-tête”. Which seemed unlikely under the circumstances. Still, war was full of surprises.

Keep on your guard! In Spain, the fight for love and glory would seek you out any time, any place. Which meant suddenly dropping all thoughts of times past or future plans and dreams - to deal with pressing matters. Those were the swings and roundabouts of outrageous conflict, the hundred heartbeats between one day's bare survival and another's total loss. The affair with Laura, for example. How long before she cleared off?
Beyond the monastery walls, a blue sky blazed and vasty fields stretched out across the plain. It should have been a paradise, except for the abandoned crops, the plots and groves overrun by weeds. When war came, not only had the town's population fled, the countryside had emptied out too. They passed rows of frost-shrivelled grapes hanging under freshly budding vines. There were pear and quince trees surrounded by the bruised fruit of last season. Olives were left in black rings where they had fallen. They trudged across furrows which had been tilled the summer before, then abandoned to the fresh shoots and early blooms of encroaching wilderness. Saddest of all was wading through a blackened, wind-hammered field of last season's wheat.
Insects hummed, making the most of the desolation. They at least were getting on with life. Humans, it seemed, were too busy slaying each other to feed their children. Industrious bees and crane flies worked the fields with machine-like comings and goings. Early crickets took up the humming theme with bursts of sawing noises. A rather low buzz, indistinct at first, became more persistent, finally resolving itself into an angry drone. Their ears pricked to the urgency. They stopped the walk, shielded their eyes and searched the sky for the little black dots all Spain feared.
Nothing appeared overhead. Even so, they cast about them for the nearest cover. The railway track, after skirting round the monastery grounds, was again in striking distance. It had crossed Vaughan's mind to stop under a clump of trees he's spotted a few hundred metres down the line. The town was far behind them, stretching back up the hillside. Ahead, the fields spread out across the plain. The sound of the engines seemed to come from everywhere at once. Just as their search was turning frantic, Laura spotted the planes – a pair of black dots coming from the West. That was not good. Vaughan peered through his binoculars at the approaching shapes, hanging above the outline of the distant mountains. Twin-engines monoplanes. They were bombers, not fighters. Without doubt, fascists swooping in for an attack. What were they after? More than two thousand republican fighters were resting in the town. There were also tanks and armoured cars that had arrived by train the day before. Vaughan swore. Any traitorous civilian in hiding might have tipped off the enemy. He tried to remember if anyone had hidden or camouflaged the armour. He couldn't think straight. Should they run for the cover of the trees ahead? They would never make it. Laura pointed and ran towards a pile of rocks at the edge of the field. Vaughan followed as fast as his legs would bear him.
The drone of the engines rose in pitch and volume. The planes were what the German comrades called schnellbombers: Savoias from Italy or the new Nazi Dornier – their mission, to deliver packages of death and terror.

*

Laura was first to the rocks. Poor peasants had sweated to clear them from the fields, not fat lazy monks. When the Englishman came up, puffing and wheezing, she demanded the rifle. He gave it without a word, then reached into his haversack and pulled out the revolver. He took another look through his binoculars,
Dorniers! Germans that is, heading right for us.
He fired a warning shot to alert the town.
Vultures of the Nazis! Good! Expertly, she flicked the bolt of the rifle back and forward, ramming a shell into the chamber, I shoot in the belly.
They sank to their knees. Laura lifted the sights to her eye and squared the rifle at the approaching planes. The drone of their engines shook the air and they began to feel the ground beneath them tremble. The planes were closing in, one trailing behind the other. Vaughan gave a cry,
They're going for the tracks!
It happened so fast, the sun appeared to flicker. She fired upwards at the first plane and had no idea where the bullet went. Before she had cleared and reloaded the chamber, there was just the tail of the second to aim at. In the same few seconds, Vaughan's revolver had blasted three or four times. The voices of the engines roared away and they yelled after,
Bastards!
Filth!
Neither was ready for what happened next. The bombs were already falling. Simply amazed, they watched while four sticks came hurtling towards the earth. In a moment there were blinding flashes of light and great blasts of heat touching their hands and faces. The ground shuddered and they dived to the ground as if the sky would come crashing onto their backs.

*

Even if the attack were over, a whole lifetime could be spent repeating the tale of it. Explosions that big, even hundreds of metres distant, crushed the heart and blanketed the mind. When they finally raised their heads to look, there were four huge plumes of smoke curling upwards over the town. But the evil drones of the engines went on, for the attack wasn't done. The Nazis were turning north, circling back for a second run. Stuttering anti-aircraft fire came from the town, shallow arcs of red spitting out across the plain. To no effect! The enemy were flying too low and fast for the gunners' aim. Then came the stupid wailing of a siren, as if there were those who had not heard the bombs. Well, at least they'd be better prepared for a second attack. The planes banked west in a broad sweep that would bring them right back over the tracks. They would retrace their exact path. It was all going to happen again.
Vaughan's hands shook and he crouched to steady the binoculars. The planes were already half way round in their sweep. This time he got a good look and felt his bowels move with fear. Spaniards called the Nazi's new planes Codfish, but they were more like dragonflies: long and sleek with fat bulging heads. Slung underneath were machine-gun cupolas. You could even see the barrels moving, the gunners testing their traverse. He and the girl had been spotted on the first run, so this time they'd be strafed when the raiders passed over. Their little pile of rocks was no good. They needed proper deep cover or they'd be shot to pieces. Standing up, his legs actually wobbled. He took a deep breath, sprang to the top of the rocks and shielded his eyes. There was a better place. On the far side of the tracks, a gully, only metres off. He shouted and pointed. Laura still stood there, dazed from the explosions. Vaughan jumped down and pulled the rug from under his knapsack. He unrolled it and laid it on the rocks, tossing the bag alongside. That might give the gunners something to aim at. Then he grabbed Laura's hand and dragged her away. The planes were just turning in for their re-run. With a bit of luck, they wouldn't be seen.
The gully, dug to drain storm water from under the tracks, was narrow and had barely enough space for them to crouch one behind the other. The return of the planes shook the ground, compressed the very air. In no time, a thudding of machine guns opened up and with it came the awful ripping noise of shells splitting rocks. Their backs were showered with dust and small stones. This time there was no awestruck staring at the fall of the bombs. They covered their heads and ears, and they were still covered after the crashes came. A hundred heartbeats had thudded and ebbed before they raised their heads to look.

Soon after, they were actually sniggering, strutting along the track side to see what damage the bombs had caused. It was equally bizarre how quickly the attackers had come and gone. You could have counted the minutes of terror on the fingers of one hand. Meanwhile, the plumes of smoke were feeing a huge anvil-shape that was drifting up and across the brilliant sky. Dark blue and grey, it boiled like a thunder cloud. Oddly enough, a rain of fine dust began to fall. Odd too was the silence that followed the clamour of the attack. All the birds and insects of spring had vamoosed, as if sucked up in the vortex of dust cloud.
Just then, and with as little warning as the coming of the bombers, Laura turned and unleashed a torrent of angry self-hate,
Why did we not shoot down the vultures on their return? Easily, we could have hit their petrol tanks and watched as they exploded in the sky. Instead, we hid ourselves in a hole and let them go. The railway line to the Toledo will be damaged past repair. No one in uniform ever knows how to do such work. Now, how will the munitions, the soldiers and the food get to the front?
She bitterly cursed herself as a fool, cursed him for pulling her away, cursed his rifle for not being a machine-gun, cursed the enemy fliers for not making a third run.
Though he heard her words clearly enough, and one part of his mind was surprised at them, Vaughan was too busy putting his own thoughts back into order. Nothing seemed to fit. The attack had jolted him out of such a pleasant reverie. Of what? Only one thing was certain, in a trice they'd been at the very threshold of death. And yet, there had been a distance to the action, like he was looking down at a road accident from a high window. The blasts still muffled his ears and burned his cheeks. Nothing could save you from bombs such as those. Even at the height of the battle for Suicide Hill, he had felt nothing compared to those sudden great explosions.
Bombs were not all they had faced. A single shell from a machine gun had torn a six inch hole in the Moroccan rug. Never mind explaining the damage to the owner; a smile shot across his face when he thought of telling him. A bullet as wide as your finger could sever an arm. That second thought wiped the smile off. Yes, a quick, clean death was preferable to such a wound. Oh boy, there was death again. Duw, they had been lucky! With that thought, the third in as many moments, he would have laughed out loud again, only for Laura turning so darned mawkish and spoiling the fun. She was still whinging,
We are disgraced by our uniforms.
To cheer her up, he conducted a post-mortem of the attack,
Come on, our part was not so bad. They spotted us shooting on the first run. Firing back on us on the second run is proof of that. Who knows if one our shells hasn't found its mark? Even now, one of those planes might be leaking fuel or have its... its... He struggled to find the Spanish word, Its flaps jammed.
I don't accept it. Categorically. We failed to engage the enemy, that is all.
He reasoned with her,
Look, on the second run, they fired machine guns as they dropped their bombs, right? So the recoil would have... Again, the Spanish eluded him, so he weaved his hands in gesture ...spoilt the bomber's sights. I'm sure the pilot was without experience.
She sneered,
If it was so, we will soon see. The bombs will have mangled the tracks for good. There were tears in her voice.
That is defeatist talk. Why, as good soldiers we must value this experience. Until today, all I saw of bombs and shelling were the two-pounders mortars of Jarama. They cleared the ground on Suicide Hill. Two poor blokes caught in the open copped it in a single blast. That was an awful sight. Makes me sick just to remember. But the sticks those planes dropped were much bigger; fifty kilos, I reckon, each like sacks of potatoes. I'll never forget the experience if I live to see victory. And don't dismiss shock we felt. That was the reason why we couldn't fire back the second time. Our hands were shaking so much.
What cowards were were! Again, her voice warbled with tears.
Never! It means, the next time we face such a barrage, we'll be cool in our heads and able to think straight.
She tutted.
The exchange over, silence fell once more. They had reached the blast zone. A layer of fine dust covered all the trees and bushes, the air became acrid and caught in their throats. They rubbed their eyes. Yet as they walked on, Vaughan felt strangely exhilarated and began smiling. Barely nine months after arriving in Spain, he'd learnt enough expressions to put together a decent dialectical argument.

At the first of the craters, they were encouraged to see one bomb had fallen twenty metres wide, and the other was even further off target. The blasts had cut two or three metres into the ground and blown the soil forward. The holes were as broad as houses. Despite that, only loose rocks had piled up on the actual rails, which were undamaged. They cleared the rocks with their boots. Two hundred metres further, they found a similar pattern on the far side of the track, a pair of craters even further off target. Two sets of bombs had unearthed nothing but the roots of trees.
Then total relief! There was no need to go on. To their great joy, a locomotive came through the dust towards them, whistling and blowing off steam. Anarchist militias of the Railway Syndicate were standing on the foot-plates, waving their rifles. Whatever havoc the other bombs had wreaked, the rails were sound. The lad from Liverpool's hopes were justified. As the engine hissed and clattered past, all gave the clenched fist,
Solidarity!
Solidarity!
Delighted, Laura hugged and kissed him in full view.

Now they were far from Vaughan's intended path and he was ever snotty of covering the same ground twice. Instead of retracing their steps, he led her across the railway track to a lane that bordered an orange grove. Laura was happy to take his hand again and they chatted as they walked,
Vaughan, what do you see in this Lorca, this cigar-boy of poetry?
What does it mean, cigar-boy?
You know.
I'm sure I don't.
The trees and soil were neglected as before, the rows choked with spoiled fruit and weeds. They walked on, sure of finding a good spot to stop and relax. In time the ground rose slightly and they came to a knoll of poor land dotted with outcrops of rock and flowering broom. Above the rocks, stood a clump of tall cypresses. The ground was shaded but carpeted in dried pine needles. Beyond the trees was something more promising. A stone corral for sheep or goats, built in traditional circular style. Vaughan had noticed one of these before but not had the chance to study it. It was sure to be unused in those days of hungry militias. Flocks not already slaughtered were driven into the hills. Consequently, Laura's cry of “¡Hola! ¡Hola!” went unanswered.
Vaughan shook his head. Another case of sloppy soldiering! Here again was the obvious spot for a picket, this time with a lookout. The tree tops had a great view of the whole plain. They searched and found no recent signs of life, no embers, cigarette ends or footprints. He wondered that there wasn't a shepherd's croft nearby, or any other place to billet a handful of men. There was just the lonely corral. It was a circle of dry stone, more than two metres high and about twelve across. It would do. There was a thatched roof resting on an inner ring of posts, leaving the centre open to the sky. The structure resembled a miniature bull ring, or a model he'd seen of Shakespeare's Globe. They crept inside. Probably the occupants had been driven off in a hurry, withered alfalfa leaves still littering the floor. Perhaps Laura and he were the first to stray that way since the land was abandoned.
Vaughan stretched out the Moroccan rug in the middle of the circle and they sat down to eat and drink. Laura smiled, her white teeth flashing between the natural rouge of her lips,
It is our fortune's hole.
She put her hand through the rip in the material. Vaughan was shielding his eyes to peer straight upwards,
Look! About five thousand metres above them, a solitary plane was crawling across the sky. Vaughan used his binoculars, adjusting them for the extreme distance, Another fascist by the crosses on the wings. Three engines, probably a “bat”. An Italian job. Don't worry, they can't bomb us from that height. I think it's just a spotter.
Aiee! And will they spot us?
So what if they do?
Both were too hungry to care. The food of kings and queens, caviar donated by the Russian Communist Party, would be their meat, garnished with the raw onion of the Spanish peasant. Vaughan had taken to the local habit of eating raw onion with bread. On long campaigns, the strong flavours of such food had become familiar, even something to relish. Ironically, Russian caviar, which he had first tasted at one of Sir Freddy Earlham's posh soirées, was so plentiful in the Republican zone at that time, he was almost tired of it. All the same, fish eggs were a good source of protein. Caviar was also reputed to do wonders for your sex drive. They shared one four ounce tin, then the other. They swigged the local wine straight from the flask. It burned the throat somewhat. Soon enough they were tipsy, kissing and groping each other without any fumbling first moves. When the moment arrived, Laura simply gave herself up to physical love. The herald of lust, her hungry tongue, entered his mouth and did its gyroscopic dance.
Though the centre of the corral would have done for a small bullfight, it was not designed for an al-fresco love-match. But feeling safe behind its high, round walls they stripped off all their clothes. The wide, circular gap in the roof exposed their bodies to the warm, healing rays of the sun. Vaughan was no longer the pale Briton he had been before his trip to France the previous summer; in recent trench digging at Jarama, he'd stripped to the waist and renewed much of his tan. Consequently, he'd also shed the tummy fat of his mother's table. There was wasn't much to be ashamed of in his naked, rampant state. Except that his legs were a little short. In compensation, nature had endowed him with length elsewhere. Strong drink and the corral walls wiped the first of his inhibitions. Gazing at Laura, as she stepped out of her overalls, did for the rest.
She was naturally dark. Without the contrast British girls were prone to, her skin had an all-over sheen of dusky olive. Her shape was olivine, too. Each segment of arm, leg and torso slightly bulged; and the whole of her, now that he could see her true shape, was as neat as a bundle. He picked the naked girl right off the ground, one arm under her neck and the other under her bottom, kissing the flaming mouth of her. She wasn't in the least heavy. His lips moved down to the olive mounts of her breasts and she threw her head back with her short legs kicking out in excitement. Moving on to her belly-button, she was so tickled he had to set her back on her feet. In a flourish, she threw off the beret that still enclosed her hair. What a sight that was: long, straight locks draping over her shoulders and breasts. She flicked her head and all was exposed again. He felt the blood rush to his face. Before he could scoop her into his arms once more, she laid back on the ground, parted her knees and beckoned him. A very wanton thing she was, quite unashamed and impatient in the act.
He tried to forget himself, to banish his ego and become the possession and not the possessor of Laura. She was too young, he had thought, she might be chaste, she would lead him on but never give herself up. At the same time, he had feared she was a virgin and that both of them would be killed before the precious moment arrived. In the event, he found himself sire to the perfect nymph. She was quite prepared for his this-way-and-thats, squealing with delight as he took her through the moves he knew, and those that were suddenly revealed to him. Ho-ho-ho! No need for any naughty pictures with this young thing. Whatever the Catholics harboured in their guilt, they surely cast off in the embracement of joy. Laura's lust took in all he had on offer, then more. Tiring and struggling to hold himself back, the fear rose that she was insatiable. He would fail to satisfy, which was a chastening thought. But once again, doubt proved vain. The canny girl seized the chance to roll upon him. He held on for dear life, bracing his hips to the clench of her thighs and bumps of her pelvis. At last, womanly groans and furious twitches overpowered her. Boy, then did the floodgates open. He rolled her back and soon arrived at journey's end. Their hearts seemed to thud in unison and they laid panting, side-by-side, glued together, sweaty hides dusted with alfalfa.
In the moments of clarity that followed, something about Laura was revealed. She whispered a name, probably Miguel. But soon, too soon, they sank into the deep sleep where all is forgotten.

*

The Englishman of Liverpool kisses her under the lamp of the Red Star Café. They enter hand-in-hand for all to see. Just inside, she feels his grip tighten and he draws her towards him. This shows how he feels, despite all.
Sitting at the front table is the Promised One. Smiling at him, she is holding up her glass. She who has been there in the background has followed him all the way to Spain, to a little godforsaken town many uncomfortable hours from the sea. Sitting there in the... what do you call it, the safari-suit? ...she appears just like the m'lady explorer of England in the jungles of Africa. Yet, there she is in the Red Star Café, drinking the fancy white wine of Castile with the comrades, her travelling trunk at her side and on top is the round box for the hats. She is laughing in the voice of the loud, and though you would think her Spanish abysmal, what could you say against her?

Welcome to the war for peace and justice. Let us kiss and be sisters.
"His kingdom for a motorcycle!"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Readers' comments are welcome!