Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Chapter 27

Colin McAllistair’s mind was more than a little preoccupied as he made himself something to eat in the small kitchen of his north London flat. He was thinking of the first time he met Cyril Galloway. His interview with Jonathan Harcourt had concluded when the former journalist had produced, with a flourish, his campaign medals from the Spanish Civil War. Colin, then a young undergraduate, knew next to nothing about the value of that kind of thing, but he sensed, nonetheless, that they were extremely important, and should find their place in a museum somewhere. He remembered imagining them in a glass cabinet, with a brief, typed note affixed to the display, explaining how they had been ‘lost’ for 40 years, but had been ‘discovered’ by a brilliant, young student from Oxford named Colin McAllistair.

“You know, Mr Harcourt, these medals are very important, from an historical point of view,” he had said. “I can think of a dozen museums that would be honoured to have them.”

Harcourt had seemed unmoved. “Perhaps, if you will permit me, I could take them to be valued, as a first step?” Colin had asked, sensing, however, that the old man’s mind was elsewhere. A few seconds passed before he’d replied:

“These medals don’t mean anything to anyone, anymore. They’re from a different time. Nobody appreciates what they represent.” His voice was tired, and flat, Colin recalled, as if the three-hour interview had sucked him dry. Another pause, before Harcourt had went on: “Take them. If they have any value, let me know.”

McAllistair had re-assured him he would have them valued, and contact him as soon as he knew their worth. He’d taken a contact phone number, slipped the medals into his briefcase and started to gather together his papers, when he’d been struck by a thought: “Whatever happened to Lillian Blyth, Mr Harcourt?”

Looking into the middle-distance, Harcourt had seemed to gather a little strength before replying:

“Lillian … I don’t know what happened to Lillian. After Jamara, it was all just chaos. We were in Madrid for a couple of days, then they split our battalion. She got sent to the north, to Guernica I think. I stayed in Madrid another week, then got posted to the south. It was chaos out there.”

McAllistair had wondered, briefly, if he shouldn’t start taking notes again, but he’d dismissed the thought at once. He’d come back to see Harcourt again, he resolved. He’d imagined flourishing a cheque in front of him, paid on the bank of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Harcourt would be incredulous that his old war medals had brought such a sum, enough, perhaps, to mean he could retire from his job in the factory.

With that thought, Colin had made his leave. As he stood at the door, he had turned to Harcourt and said: “Thank you so much for your time. I can assure you that you’ll be remembered for a long time, Mr Harcourt. I’ll be in touch as soon as I can,” and he’d walked to his car, thinking that it was too late to journey back to Oxford just now, and that he would be better finding himself a little bed and breakfast for the night.

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