Thursday, 22 March 2007

Chapter 54

“Something on your mind, Harry?” Danny Longhurst asked, once he’d finished the call to Lillian McFry. He thought Harry looked a bit on edge. It was getting late in the day, and Harry had started printing out reports from his genealogical software, a copy for each of them.

Harry had a couple of things to say that he didn’t relish broaching with Danny. ‘Better get it over with,’ the voice in his head was saying.

“I need you to do one last thing before we shut up shop, Danny,” he said, opening a drawer and pulling out a chequebook. Danny watched as he wrote out a couple of cheques, which he handed to Danny with what looked like a degree of embarrassment. “Here,” he said, “this is your first paycheck. You’ll need some money if we’re going to Madrid, I’m sure. The other, I want you to take down to Mrs Shipman. It’s the rent for the office.”

Danny smiled as he folded the first cheque away: “Thanks, Harry. I’ll take this other one down right away, should I?”

Harry seemed relieved: “Yes, that would be good,” he said, as Danny stood up. “I should warn you Danny … she’s quite a ‘powerful’ woman.”

Danny disappeared out of the office, leaving Harry to wonder whether he’d sensed his reluctance to confront the redoubtable ‘Ma Shipman’. As he collated the reports, he thought it might also be a respectable time to suggest to Danny that they convene in the Brass Balance for a drink or two, the better to relax and mull over where they’d got to so far with Laurel McFry’s case. Just then, the telephone rang. “Harry McFry, GPI,” he said, lighting a cigarette as he cradled the receiver on his shoulder.

Colin McAllistair was already back in his North London flat, and had wasted no time in ringing Harry.

“Mr McFry – it’s Colin McAllistair here: we met earlier today…”

Harry recognized the soft Scots brogue immediately. “Mr McAllistair … what can I do for you?” Harry sensed a slight hesitation in McAllistair’s tone, as if he was ringing on a rather delicate matter, although he knew it could only be about the medals.

“I .. need to tell you something. It’s something that has a great bearing on your medals, Mr McFry. You see, I know there’s a certificate of some sorts that came with the medals.” Harry instinctively glanced at the box, still on the corner of his desk.

“I’m listening,” was all that Harry said.

McAllistair continued: “The dealer I mentioned to Stan – Cyril Galloway from Telford. He’s already seen them at Lillian McFry’s house. And from what he told me, the certificate with the medals – whatever it is – I get the sense that it might be more valuable than the medals themselves.”

Harry was considering this new information – wondering why McAllistair might have volunteered it. He’d already worked out that McAllistair’s relationship with Galloway was more than casual: how else had he known to ask about the box that housed the medals, in the first place?

“I’m not sure where you’re coming from, Mr McAllistair,” Harry said, guardedly.

“You see, I have reason to believe that Cyril Galloway might go to extreme lengths to get his hands on that piece of paper. Of course, he’s interested in the medals, too, but I got the sense earlier that they’d become more … how can I put this? … ‘incidental’.”

Harry homed in on only one word McAllistair had said: ‘earlier’. Did this mean he’d spoken to this Galloway character already?

“Why didn’t you tell me all this when we met at Stan’s?” he asked.

Colin realized he would have to tell Harry all about his lunchtime meeting with Cyril Galloway, and perhaps even about his previous encounter with him a quarter of a century ago. And that is what he did, in the kind of confessional conversation which can relieve a man of a heavy burden. He may not have mentioned the precise details of how he had sold Jonathan Harcourt’s medals – little sense in that, he thought – but he painted a picture of the auctioneer that made Harry start to wonder about that transaction.

“Can I just ask you,” Harry said “how it was you came to meet up with Mr Galloway today?” McAllistair was frank in his response, explaining how he’d received a call, out of the blue, from Galloway just the previous day, shortly after he’d heard from Stan and made his arrangements to travel north.

Harry was wishing they’d had this discussion earlier. He didn’t like the co-incidence of those calls, and he’d like to be able to see McAllistair, face to face: he was conscious, instead, that he’d have to rely on the tiniest inflexions transmitted down the phone. It was McAllistair’s turn to ask questions, however.

“Mr McFry, I’m very anxious to meet Lillian McFry. May I ask you how you and she are related?”

It was an obvious question, Harry realized, and he kicked himself for not anticipating it. “We’re not. Not at all. It’s a pure co-incidence,” he said, thinking the truth might serve him best just now.

McAllistair seemed to pause before he replied. “But your uncle – he was a McFry, wasn’t he?” Harry remembered he’d told McAllistair that the medals had come from his uncle. No sense in making it easy for McAllistair, he thought, before replying “No.”

“Well, what’s important is that I believe Lillian McFry and Lillian Blyth are one and the same person. That’s the only thing I can think. And I’d very much like to meet her. She may be one of the last living testimonies to the contribution made by the International Brigades. Her story deserves to be told. How can I contact her?” McAllistair seemed genuinely concerned. Harry was wondering whether he was motivated by academic desire or by something else. Could he trust him? What if this was all a ploy, to get nearer the medals?

How best to protect Lillian McFry was uppermost in his mind at the moment. Until he knew for sure that Colin McAllistair still wasn’t in league with Galloway, he’d better play it safe.

“I’m afraid that Lillian McFry died, Mr McAllistair. Just last week.” His tone sounded suitably grave, but even as he said it he wasn’t sure his listener would believe him.


It was a reasonably novel feeling for Harry to be walking through the foyer of Meldew Buildings, and not to have to worry about a bark from Mrs Shipman’s office. As he and Danny passed her door, he noticed his companion shaking his head slightly from side to side. “You might have warned me about her, Harry!” Danny said, his voice low, almost a whisper. Maybe it had been cruel to send Danny on that errand, Harry thought. Still, he might as well get to know the woman the hard way. “She’s one scary lady!” Danny continued, his voice still low even as they left the building.

“Thanks for doing that, Danny. She is pretty formidable, isn’t she? Now Doris, she’s an altogether different type. Let me tell you all about Doris…” he said, as they crossed the road to the bar, where Harry revealed to Danny the peculiarities and the foibles of his non-existent secretary. But not before he’d ordered the drinks.

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