Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Chapter 25

By the time Jonathan Harcourt had finished his account of his exploits in the Spanish Civil War, the little clock on the kitchen wall had quietly ticked away three hours. On the table in front of him lay a dozen or so sheets of foolscap paper, covered on both sides in Colin McAllistair’s tiny, cursive script. Harcourt, Colin remembered, had looked exhausted. At a distance of a quarter of a century, he wondered (for the first time) whether, when he had arrived to interview Harcourt on that sunny afternoon in North Yorkshire, his host had perhaps only just returned from a shift in the factory where he was then working.

Now, McAllistair was trying desperately to decode those same notes on smudgy, shiny fax paper laid on the desk in his study. When had Harcourt first mentioned the medals? It must have been towards the end of the interview. He flicked towards the back of the notes, his mind awash with emotion.

McAllistair had been a typical student from the provinces, while at Oxford. His life in a small town in the west of Scotland had seemed like pages from the biography of a stranger, so successfully had he infiltrated academia. Money had been tight, of course – that went without saying. It took a certain income to maintain life in an Oxford college. He remembered how his parents would send him a crisp, five pound note in the post each week, ‘just to keep you going’. It wouldn’t have been easy for them: his father, a miner, and his mother, working in a canning factory in the town. Yet, that five pounds a week had been a lifeline for him, arriving just when he had run out of cigarettes, or sometimes when he had been invited to join a group of fellow-students for a drink. Of course, for most of the other students, there had been no need to look out for the post in the porter’s lodge with quite the same keenness. They had allowances from ‘pater ’ that permitted a more lavish lifestyle. Perhaps if he had enjoyed a similar income, he would have been less tempted to do what he did with the medals? He was suddenly haunted by the words of Benjamin Franklin: ‘He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else’, and he wondered, even as he tried to suppress the guilt welling up inside of him, whether these were words that ever crossed the mind of Cyril Galloway.

Listening to Harcourt’s account had been like watching an epic movie unfurl. One moment, you were on a balcony overlooking the central Post Office in Madrid, the plaza a frenzy of activity as armoured cars, open-backed lorries decked in the red and yellow of the Republic and carrying smiling soldiers, and a constant mill of people – where had they all come from? – passed along below you. The next, you were at the back of a huge hall, listening with thousands of others to the passionate speeches of Dolores Ibarruri – the passion flower – as she rallied her fellow MadrileƱos to fight against the Nationalists. Moments later, you would be in a small bar, somewhere near the bullring, watching earnest men fight their corner in arguments with their equally earnest companions. But wherever you were, Colin had noticed, Lillian was beside you. He remembered envying Jonathan Harcourt that love. From that chance meeting near the Montana barracks, the two were inseparable. She had traveled to Spain with her lover, Thomas McFry, both members of the Independent Labour Party in England, both committed to the anti-fascist cause and both intending to join the International Brigades. Thomas had signed up first, and had been drafted to the north of Spain where a training camp had been set up to equip the new recruits with the skills they would need if they were to pick up a rifle, aim it at a stranger, and shoot them. Lillian, meanwhile, found herself pressed (protesting) into service at a large hospital in the centre of Madrid. She had been taking a coffee between grueling shifts when she had noticed the square-jawed man by the window, and had thought to smile at him, just briefly, as he had glanced in her direction. What force propelled her to walk across to him, she never knew. Maybe it was the slight innocence in his face, or the way he seemed to struggle with his pen? He was younger than her, but not much. She had wondered, idly, whether he might be an author: she had heard how many had flocked to Spain on news that ‘something’ might be in the offing. Thoughts of Thomas McFry were far from her mind.

One night together in the sweet, moonlit expanse of the Parque del Buen Retiro, their own private retreat until sunrise, had sealed the twin fates of Jonathan and Lillian. Harcourt told how they woke to the mellow flute of a blackbird, perched on the branches of a nearby bush. They had discovered, improbably, that they were both born within ten miles of each other, their lives never crossing until a common cause had pulled them both to Spain. “We were meant to be here. Meant to be together,” Lillian had told him, and Jonathan had smiled, wondering at the great, unwritten script that had brought them there, now, lying arm in arm as the sun began to heat the damp grass on which they had made their bed. Then, they had both determined to pledge themselves to the Republican cause: not as writer or nurse, but as fighters. Within a week, they had walked into the recruitment office for the International Brigade and enlisted – Jonathan arguing with the young, bespectacled clerk who seemed intent on refusing Lillian’s application until, finally, he had relented.

The sun was starting to set outside McAllistair’s north London home. He reached across to switch on the desk-lamp, its light flooding across the last page of his notes. Jonathan Harcourt had been awarded the highest distinction it was possible to receive for his actions in the Spanish Civil War: the Medallion of Supreme Honour, and its companion pieces for individual battles in which he had excelled. Colin recalled the pride with which the old man had told him this and how, when he had asked him if he wanted to see them, he had disappeared upstairs for a few minutes. On his return he was clutching a simple, cardboard box, which he handed to Colin. “You know, there were only two people in the world who received these medals,” Harcourt had said. “Myself”, (and here he had paused – McAllistair was sure – for effect) “and Lillian Blyth.”

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