Friday, 21 September 2007

Chapter 146

With the biscuits out of the way, it was time to move on. But Lillian, it was clear, wasn’t volunteering to begin. She seemed to be thinking something over, and the quiet in the room was nothing foreign to her. All eyes were on Harry McFry – even Dave and Jane had realised he knew more about this case than anyone else in the room. It was only a matter of seconds – though it seemed longer – before Harry broke the silence.

“So, Lillian … tell us what happened after Jamara. You lost touch with Jonathan, didn’t you?”

Lillian was looking into the near distance again, almost oblivious of her audience.

“I shouldn’t have let them separate us, of course,” Lillian continued. “That was my mistake. But he said we’d be alright, that he’d find me. Then, I got posted to the north, and realised I was expecting a baby. Everything was so chaotic up there. But I never stopped looking for Jonathan, and I hoped he would never stop looking for me.”

Harry wanted to let Lillian continue, but knew he’d have to step in now if the role of Stuart McFry was to be properly understood. “What about Stuart, Lillian? Weren’t you with Stuart McFry when you left Spain?”

Lillian looked distracted. “Yes, yes, I was with Stuart. He hadn’t been at Jamara, but I met up with him shortly afterwards in Madrid. He knew what I thought about Jonathan, but he said he loved me. And I believe he did – at least in a way Thomas never could.” She paused a moment, and took a sip from her tea, which was cold now.

“And when I discovered I was expecting, I think he thought it was his child I was carrying…”

“Stuart thought the baby was his?” Harry asked. He needed to press her on this.

“Yes,” was all she replied.

There wasn’t an easy way for Harry to put the next question.

“And … was it?”

Laurel gripped the chair she was sitting on, her knuckles white, as she thought through the implication of the question. The moment was frozen for her, as she waited for Lillian’s response. If Stuart McFry was her grandfather, then he was her uncle at the same time. Had her father known any of this, she wondered? Did that explain how reticent he’d been to talk about her mother – his own neice?

Bill Blunt, meanwhile, had lost the plot, but he saw how the old woman was affected by the discussion, and Harry’s questioning, and knew this must be significant. He remembered the bond had been Stuart’s. He hoped Harry was following the money…

Lillian was still lost somewhere, trying to remember things she had tried to forget, for so long. Suddenly, she looked the fragile centenarian she was. “The truth is … the truth is… I didn’t know!”

Harry waited a moment to let the significance of what Lillian had said percolate the room. “What you’re saying is, you weren’t sure whether Colleen Blyth’s father was Stuart or Jonathan?” he asked, as gently as he could.

Lillian turned to Harry. “That’s precisely what I’m saying.”

Harry wanted to change tack, just slightly.

“So, you travelled to the north of Spain with Stuart. When was Colleen born?”

Lillian composed herself. Ana tried not to stare at her, did her best not to show how she was hanging on her every word.

“Colleen was born not long before we were evacuated from Bilboa. I’d been nursing there, almost right up to when she was born. Stuart was working on the defences for the city. The fascists had us cornered.”

Harry noticed McAllistair was getting animated. “Perhaps you can give us some background, Colin?” he asked.

McAllistair leaned forward in his seat. He’d started to think that, the way things were going, he might not need to mention his transaction with Galloway. It wasn’t, after all, such a big part of the story, and Harry hadn’t seemed keen to press it. Was Harry being more friendly, now he knew how their paths had crossed in Paris? He’d been thinking about that conference a lot, since he’d worked out the connection. Harry, he remembered, had hooked up with one of the speakers – quite an attractive one, if his memory wasn’t playing tricks on him. He was sure she’d been part of the Spanish delegation but, for the life of him, he couldn’t recall her name. He took what seemed like an olive branch from Harry, and began to explain about the role of the north in the civil war.

“Franco had come to hate the Basques more than any other people. He thought they’d betrayed Spain, by siding with the Republicans, you see,” McAllistair said. Everyone had turned to listen to the academic. “They had a reputation for guerrilla fighting throughout their history. And they were particularly effective in stirring up international support for the Republican cause. Some people have argued that the Basque history of trading across the globe was a factor in this. Whatever it was, they were lobbying for support from the USA, and Franco was aware of this. It was easy for them to paint a picture of a beleaguered little nation – the oldest people in Europe, some say - standing firm against the tyranny of fascism…”

“Tell us about Guernica, Colin,” Harry asked. He was thinking about the Picasso in the museum in Madrid, and how it had affected him so much.

“Yes. Guernica was the spiritual capital of the Basque country. And remember, when we talk about the Basques we aren’t just talking about Spain. Three of the traditional Basque provinces are in France, remember…”

Suddenly, Lillian spoke. “Four plus three equals one!” she exclaimed. “That was what they used to say. The Basques would never be really free until they were united, the four Spanish provinces and the three French ones.”

“And the bombing? What was that like?” Harry’s question was directed to Lillian.

“That was the Germans, of course. Everyone said they used Guernica as a testing ground for their airforce. It was terrible. They flew over in wave after wave – we were just so… vulnerable…” She paused a moment. “People have forgotten, Harry. Maybe they wanted to forget?”

“But you survived, Lillian,” Harry said, reaching across to place a hand on hers. “Remember, you’re a living testimony to the awfulness of Guernica. I’m sure Colin will make sure you story’s properly told, won’t you Colin?”

McAllistair nodded. “It’s the very least I can do.”

Lillian seemed to gather strength from somewhere deep within herself.

“Yes. I am sure his viewers will be interested in the recipe for rat stew that was so popular in Bilbao, during the siege,” she said, and Harry thought, again, how smart Lillian was at sidestepping things she didn’t want to talk about. The ghost of Stuart McFry still haunted his thoughts, and he wouldn’t be happy until it was exorcised.


Anonymous said...

WOW! Excellent, TH.

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

Thank you, stumped!


70steen said...

You better not become WiFiless dear Tom as you have us on the edge of our PC's in anticipation :-)

Lord Likely said...

I literally chewed my own hands off with anticipation.


Theresa111 said...

Come on! I need more Harry McFry, please. Or as Gloria Gaynor sang..."Don't leave me this way" Cannot wait until you post again. (She slumped back and punched the cushion. "Not Fair!" she cried.

Just kidding. I promise not to pout, if you'll promise to write. :-)

Thomas Hamburger Jnr said...

To save you the trouble of checking back, it may well be a day or two before the next chapter can be posted...

Thanks, as ever, for your encouragement.

Kind Regards


Monica said...

Lillian is brilliant - I want her to be one of my ancestors!

It's just as well this isn't a finished book - I wouldn't have been able to resist turning to the end before now. You're really building up the tension and the writing's flowing beautifully.