Friday, 23 February 2007

Chapter 30

Colin McAllistair’s journey north was uneventful enough. It gave him plenty of time to mull over his discussion with Cyril Galloway, although he was looking forward to their planned lunch later that day with the kind of trepidation a mouse might feel when approaching a piece of cheese laid out on a trap. He tensed in his seat as he wondered how one, fleeting mistake a quarter of a century ago could come back to haunt him.

After he’d left Jonathan Harcourt’s house, McAllistair had driven into the centre of Thirsk, looking for somewhere to stay for the night. Parking in the high street, not far from the imposing clock which dominated the market square, he watched as the shop-keepers busied themselves shutting up their premises, Setting off in his search for a hotel, he might have turned left here, or right there, carrying his briefcase by his side. As it happened, his route found him passing a small antique shop, hidden away up a side street. It was almost five o’clock, but Colin noticed it was still open. It wouldn’t hurt to get an idea, at least, of what these medals were worth, he thought.

He pushed open the door, and found himself in a small room about ten feet square, surrounded by cabinets stuffed full with clocks, ornaments, silver tea services … the stock trade of a small antique dealer. A door in the corner led off to a larger room, where he could see items of furniture, and a small, glass-topped counter was set to the side of the door. A moment later, a small, slightly overweight man in (McAllistair judged) his early forties, emerged from the back room. As he positioned himself behind the counter, he surveyed his customer – seeming to take the measure of him. He saw a young man, and noticed the briefcase he was carrying. A student, no doubt.

“What may I do for you, young man?” McAllistair found his tone a little too ingratiating.

“I have some … medals. I wondered if you could give me some idea of their value?”

“Of course, sir,” and a thin, weak smile showed on his face. “May I see them?”

McAllistair fished inside his briefcase, pulling out the box Harcourt had given him less than half an hour ago.

The man opened the box carefully, taking each of the medals out, laying them one by one on a red velvet pad that sat on the counter.

“Well, let’s see…” he said, picking up the largest one and turning it over, briefly, before flipping it back. “Now, these are interesting, you see.” McAllistair waited for an assessment, but instead, the man asked “What do you know about them, Mr …?”

“McAllistair – Colin McAllistair,” Colin replied, automatically reaching his hand out over the counter.

“And I am Cyril Galloway,” the auctioneer had said. His handshake was limp, his hand slightly damp and cloying, McAllistair had thought.

“I only know that they belonged to a journalist who fought in the…” And here, Galloway had interrupted him.

“The Spanish Civil War. Yes, that much I can see. Of course, I’m not an expert on these matters,” he said, fingering the remaining medals. “But if you could... ah … leave them with me for a day or two, I’m sure I could get an idea of their value for you.”

McAllistair seemed to consider this for a moment or two.

“I’m afraid I’m not local, Mr Galloway. I’m heading back down to Oxford tomorrow.”

Galloway looked disappointed, but noticed, too, how the young student emphasized ‘Oxford’ in his Scots burr.

“That’s such a shame. I suppose if I could take a note of them, I might be able to discover something – I can’t promise anything quite so quickly as tomorrow, but I’ll do my best,” he said, picking up a pencil and executing a remarkably accurate sketch of each of the medals on a small notepad he had pulled from his pocket.

“Tell me, Mr McAllistair,” he said, as he continued his sketching, “your journalist friend. Is he still alive?”

McAllistair had often thought, since that time, what instinct it was that led him to reply “No”, but had never reached a satisfactory conclusion.

“But I take it you know the man’s name? That might help in the valuation, you know,” Galloway had said.

“It was Jonathan Harcourt.” Galloway seemed to be considering the name, trying to place it. He picked up the larger of the medals again, turned it over to look at the reverse, then put it back down on the velvet pad, face upwards.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t know any Harcourts. Not to worry, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

And they’d left it that McAllistair would return the next day, to see what the auctioneer had found out.

As he watched the young student leave, Cyril Galloway was wondering whether Colin McAllistair had been entirely truthful. Why would this Jonathan Harcourt have had a set of medals from the Spanish Civil War that were inscribed, on the reverse, with the details ‘JL, 1937’?

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