Monday, 12 February 2007

Chapter 21

Colin McAllistair was feeling pretty pleased with himself. The fax from Professor Pickfield had arrived, as promised, and his notes from all those years ago were more detailed than he remembered. He’d spent the time waiting for the fax refreshing his memory about the Battle of Jamara. He knew, of course, how critically important the battle had been in the history of the Spanish Civil War. In just one day, almost 300 members of the Saklatvala Battalion – the British volunteers fighting with the Republican army – had fallen casualty. He tried to imagine the sheer bloodiness of the battle, and what had inspired so many thousands of men and women from overseas to go to Spain to fight for a cause that was ultimately a lost one.

He scanned his notes carefully. Jonathan Harcourt had been a fascinating individual. Born in 1908, he’d been too young to see service in the First War (although he had lost two older brothers in France), and had started work straight from school on the Daily Herald, a left-leaning paper that had a huge circulation between the wars. Within five or six years, he had made a name for himself as a columnist of some note, so that when his editor was scouting around for a talented writer to cover the Spanish elections in 1936, Harcourt had been an obvious choice. He was single, and this was his first foreign posting. Harcourt had told McAllistair how, after only a month or two in Madrid, he knew that he’d have to swap his pen for a gun.

Thinking back to the interview, he recalled how Harcourt seemed an incongruous figure, not at all the kind of intellectual writer he’d expected to find. In fact, when he’d turned up to the tiny, terraced house where Harcourt lived, now, alone, he’d imagined he must have somehow got the wrong house. Yet, there had been a quiet dignity about the man: he was still working, at the age of 62, in a local factory. It hadn’t been easy to track him down, three decades or more after he’d returned from Spain. To all intents and purposes, Jonathan Harcourt seemed to have disappeared, and Colin had wondered at one point whether he might even have died in Spain. His reports in the Daily Herald – vivid and moving accounts of life on the frontline of the war – stopped suddenly in 1937. Only an encounter with another survivor of the Battle of Jamara, who had fitfully kept in contact with Harcourt, led to his door. He’d been given a ‘last known address’ for him, and had wanted to ring in advance to arrange their interview: but his call to directory enquiries drew a blank. In the end, he thought a speculative visit north might be worth it.

The research for his thesis on the International Brigades – the loose name for the estimated 30,000 foreign nationals who had fought for the Republican cause in Spain - had been going well. There were still plenty of eyewitness survivors alive, but there was something about the power of Jonathan Harcourt’s writing that drew Colin to drive his battered old Austin two hundred miles to Yorkshire, to track down the man who had penned those columns all those years ago.

If he was slightly hesitant when he opened the gate and walked up the short path to knock on the door of the address he had, that was nothing to what he felt when, just a few seconds later, the door opened. Could this tired, bent old man in front of him really have been the writer of articles that shook the British establishment, and were the cause of many of his fellow-countrymen rushing to the aid of the Republicans?

For his part, ‘Jonathan Harcourt’ was, at first, almost as hesitant as his visitor. Who had sent him here? How did he get his address? Why did he want to see him? He guarded the door, uncertain whether he should let the stranger come in. Then, McAllistair had mentioned a name, someone he remembered dimly from his time in Madrid, and it was enough to make him decide that the stranger was sympathetic. After all, Harcourt reasoned, if Harry Bell had trusted him – Harry Bell, who once killed a sniper who had threatened not only himself, but the other comrades who had been sheltering in a dug-out on the hills outside of Madrid – then perhaps it would be alright.

Settled in the small back kitchen of Harcourt’s house, the two men took a moment or two to develop their trust in one another. Colin had looked again at the man – it was clear he had ‘lived’, had experienced life and its harshness. But could this old man, in his shirtsleeves, braces and (even) his flat cap, really be the person he’d come to interview? For Harcourt’s part, he wanted to know what research Colin had already undertaken.

“Are there many of us left?” he asked, with a sadness that was unexpected.

“Well, fewer every year. But it’s not so long ago. Enough of you to make sure your story is told,” Colin had replied.

“'Not so long ago'…” Harcourt had repeated. “Sometimes it seems like a different lifetime.”

Colin had pulled out his notepad, and started to piece together the fragments of Harcourt’s life that would make (he hoped- in the event, quite rightly) a substantial chapter in his thesis.

So engrossed had he become in his notes, that he didn’t immediately hear the telephone ringing. He reached across to answer it.

“Mr McAllistair?” The voice was strangely familiar.

“Yes?” he replied, trying to work out where he knew it from.

“Cyril Galloway” – a pause, while the caller waited to see if Colin remembered him - “Telford Auction Rooms. You might recall that we handled some err … medals … for you. It was some time ago, Mr McAllistair, but I’m sure you might remember them.”

McAllistair was struck, temporarily, speechless. Here he was, re-reading the notes he’d taken of an interview with a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and then a call comes through from the only other person who knew about Jonathan Harcourt’s medals. Something was very wrong here. Very wrong, indeed.

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