Read A Bitter Field Online

Authors: Jack Ludlow

A Bitter Field

A BITTER FIELD

JACK LUDLOW

To
Richard Mantle,
who as Deputy MD
oversaw my dismissal from ENO.
If his help was inadvertent, he is
in some measure responsible
for my publishing
30 novels over 25 years.
Thanks Richard.

C
allum Jardine was practised in the art of looking relaxed when he was not – much more so, he observed, than those keeping an eye on his movements. The two men who had tailed him from the Marconi Wireless office, almost caricature Frenchmen in their berets, striped jerseys and too-clean blue overalls, were now sitting a few tables away, making a poor fist of their supposedly disinterested surveillance.

Their attempt to look like working men was risible; worse, they were fidgeting, acting as though he was about to get up any second, dash to the edge of the quay, jump into a boat and vanish, when in fact he was quite content, given he had nothing to do for several hours, to keep them in this café while he read his newspaper and consumed his
petit déjeuner.

When not idly scanning the news he could watch the last of the fishing boats enter the harbour of La Rochelle to unload their
overnight catch, which made it pleasant to sit and while away time on a fine late August morning, already warm and getting warmer, and to idly speculate about the history of a part of France he had never previously visited.

In a country where governments came and went with tedious regularity, in which politics and politicians seemed to operate on a revolving door, the same faces reappearing in various ministerial disguises, and one much given to strikes by dissatisfied workers, La Rochelle had an air of tranquillity belonging to a port and city that had been rich for millennia, a sort of bastion of a more conservative France.

The harbour reflected this longevity, dominated as it was by three medieval towers; they formed as well as narrowed the entrance to the inner anchorage, which made it easy to imagine how the locals had come by their wealth, with, over a millennium, ancient galleys and sailing ships needing to pass through that gap and pay for the privilege, an entry point for goods from all over the world, including at one time, highly profitable African slaves.

Little of that passed through now; the inner port had long been replaced by a large exterior commercial dock. It was now home to the fishing fleet and leisure craft: the yachts and motor vessels of affluent Frenchmen, the less significant craft of the weekend sailors as well as the bobbing small boats of indeterminate ownership that featured in every anchorage. The quayside reflected that change from commerce to leisure, being lined now with cafés and restaurants instead of the warehouses and ships’ chandlers of the past.

What had not changed was the noise created by the women who descended on to the quay of a morning to buy the fresh catch of
silver-bodied
fish, as well as to poke at the piles of still-live crustaceans –
crabs, langoustines and lobsters – that were sold from sturdy tables. Such a sight reminded Cal of what he had witnessed as a growing child in Marseilles; his formative years had been spent in France, which allowed him to act and feel as relaxed as a native.

If he stiffened at all – and he tried very hard not to – it was brought on by the surprise, bordering on actual shock, of seeing a one-time fellow army officer, and more recently something of a comrade in a clandestine venture, approaching along the cobbled quay. What the hell was Peter Lanchester doing in La Rochelle?

As was Peter’s habit, he presented the picture of the perfect Englishman abroad, very erect in his cream linen suit and panama hat, with an MCC hatband and a matching red and yellow tie. The highly polished malacca cane he was carrying was an affectation, there for no other purpose than to beat out a tattoo on the pavement to complement that of his heels, or perhaps to swipe a less-than-respectful Johnny Foreigner.

Fearing he might approach and call out his name, Cal slowly raised his copy of
Le Temps
and pretended to read the front-page story about the continuing crisis in Czechoslovakia, though without being too obvious and hiding his whole face. He need not have worried; Peter might look and act the part of the typical ‘milord’ on his travels but he was anything but a foppish fool and that raised newspaper seemed enough to tell him to mind what he said.

He stopped a few feet away and leant on his stick, looking around the harbour with an air of obvious frustration, as though the whole place had been built and designed to in some way thwart his purpose, a pose he held until the waiter emerged with a tray bearing two tiny coffee cups and a pair of morning stiffeners, probably brandies. That the fellow was about his occupation and there were two people
waiting for their order impinged on Peter not at all.

In a loud voice and with an execrable French accent he demanded to be told the whereabouts of the Place du Maréchal Joffre. The waiter was naturally offended both by his peremptory manner and the level of his demand, which caused Peter to add in an even louder voice and more intemperate manner, and one carrying the implication he was addressing a complete dolt,
‘Je cherche l’Hôtel Henri Quatre
.’

Even though the waiter stopped to answer and give him directions, this did nothing to modify Peter’s tone or ease the look of irritation on his face – he wore the expression of a man absolutely certain he was likely to be lied to and sent in the wrong direction – which had him reiterate the question to ensure he was being correctly advised.

Finally sure of his route and the veracity of the instructions, mouthing an abrupt and graceless
Merci beaucoup
, Peter imperiously rapped his cane on the flagstones and stomped off, followed by hard looks aimed at his very erect back. He had upset the waiter and most of the customers by his attitude, but he had also given Cal Jardine directions as to where they should meet.

The imperious act had also underlined the uselessness of the tail: Cal’s pair of watchers, unlike everyone else in the pavement café, had studiously avoided reacting to the scene, neither frowning nor producing the expressive Gallic shrugs of their fellow observers at such a display of Anglo-Saxon arrogance. He would need to lose them, but in a city centred around a port that had changed little since the seventeenth century he anticipated no problem.

Ordering another coffee in perfect French, albeit with a hint of Marseilles in the accent, Cal went back to his newspaper, once more wondering what Peter Lanchester was doing here in La Rochelle and,
more importantly, why he needed to make contact with him in so brash a manner, indicating a need for haste.

That hinted at either danger or something very important, more likely the former, which had him reprising in his mind the precautions he had taken. There was a cargo of Czech ZB26 light machine guns sitting on a barge by an isolated inland farmhouse on the canal that led to the huge interior marshlands of the Marais-Poitevin and he needed to get them aboard a ship that night.

In the end speculation was wasted; he would have to meet with Peter and see what was up, so he picked up the bill from under the ashtray, extracted from his pocket enough francs to cover his purchases, plus a few coins as a
pourboire,
then stood slowly and stretched, like a man newly arisen from his bed. Such an act would cause no comment; it was, after all, not yet eight o’clock.

Then he made a point of yawning as he looked around the active inner port, at the wooden fishing boats with their dirty beige sails now furled, at the weary-looking crews working on their nets, sniffing at the maritime and fresh-fish smell of the place, before patting his jacket pockets like a man checking for his keys, folding his paper and sauntering off.

The two watchers were not far behind, but too much so for a city full of narrow alleys enclosed by high buildings. These led to cobbled, crowded and constricted main streets designed for carts not motor vehicles, each with its charming shaded walkway, low colonnades supported by thick stone pillars, a feature of the city, which, at this time of day were thronged with locals heading to work in their shops and offices; losing a tail was child’s play.

Peter would not be in the named hotel, but watching from a place where Cal could spot him, and he had chosen well – a small, quiet
square, hard to enter without being seen, with him loitering in a far corner well away from the hotel entrance. The panama hat, so distinctive, was rolled in his hand, the striped tie was in his pocket, and standing as he was in deep shade, his cream suit was visible without screaming out his presence.

Sure he had been spotted, Peter headed away, cane silent, with Cal following in his footsteps, crossing several busy thoroughfares into side streets, and then on to a long road lined with shops. Peter then slipped into a baker’s, allowing Cal to walk on by and stop to look into the window of a newly opened tool shop, thus accomplishing a standard check to flush out or make life awkward for anyone following.

Exiting, baguette under his arm, Peter passed him and finally, having slipped through another alleyway, stopped at the entrance to a seedy block of apartments. He waited till Cal was close before proceeding to enter and did not speak as he was followed up the narrow stone stairs, through a door and into a rather dingy and poorly furnished living room smelling of stale smoke.

In fact he said not a word until he had, having placed his baguette, hat and cane on a table, crossed the linoleum-covered floor to the shuttered windows and opened one to examine the street below, talking quietly over his shoulder.

‘We lost them, old boy?’

‘Lost who, Peter?’

‘The chaps following you.’

Cal threw his paper on the table. ‘You’re sure I was being followed?’

Peter turned and even in the gloom of the half-shuttered room Cal could see his enigmatic smile. ‘My dear fellow, if HMG suspects
what you’re up to, then you can be damn sure the Frogs do too.’

‘What am I up to, Peter?’

‘Don’t jest with me, Cal.’ Peter jerked a thumb in the general direction of the sea. ‘Somewhere out yonder is a ship waiting for your cargo.’

‘There are lots of ships out there, Peter, it’s a bloody port.’

‘British-registered, foreign-crewed, coastal type, with the kind of shallow draught that will let you land your weapons on a beach or in some sheltered Galician cove.’

A lazy hand was waved to a chair and Cal sat down, Peter following suit and crossing his long legs to expose one highly polished brown shoe, posing the question as he took out his cigarette case and extracted what he always referred to as a ‘gasper’.

‘How am I doing, old boy?’

‘It always amazes me, Peter, that you seem to know more about what I am up to than I do myself. It’s like Hamburg all over again, especially you turning up like the proverbial bad penny to warn me of impending trouble, and the question this time is the same: how much of what you’re asking stems from knowledge and how much is deduction?’

‘Did I not save your bacon in Hamburg, Cal? If I had not turned up when I did the Gestapo would have stripped off your skin with hot pincers.’

‘I think I have already repaid that favour, but the question stands.’

‘Bit of both, given La Rochelle, while a charming spot to visit, is not your sort of town – too provincial and very short on the louche entertainments to which you are partial. But it does happen to share the Bay of Biscay with the northern coast of Spain where the Civil War still rages, though only God knows how, given they
should have utterly exhausted each other by now.’

Peter paused to tap the end of his cigarette several times on the table, but it remained unlit. ‘There are guerrillas operating in the mountains of Cantabria and they need weapons and ammo to keep up the fight, while you, who make your way in the world by the supply of same, have, thanks to your previous exploits, good contacts with both the folk who will provide them and those with the money to pay for the purchase.’

‘Anything else?’

The reply had to wait till his cigarette was alight and the first welcome drag was exhaled, to form a cloud of smoke around Peter’s head.

‘Yes, old chap, when you forge an End User Certificate saying the light machine guns you are buying from Czechoslovakia are for the Irish Republic it tickles the old hackles.’

‘Your hackles?’

‘Not only mine, but it does not make life any easier when it transpires they are in fact for Spain.’

‘You’re sure that’s their destination?’

‘If you are involved, yes.’

‘I thought you would have been pleased given what we have done in the past, though I am curious at your earlier mention of His Majesty’s Government.’

Peter was handsome in a sharp-faced way, with his black hair slicked back to leave a widow’s peak, but it ceased to be as attractive when he frowned, as he was doing now, making him look like a peevish schoolmaster.

‘I have to tell you, Cal, I am back with the old firm and the powers that be in the Government insist on Blighty being neutral. They want
nothing to do with Spain and their national bloodletting.’

‘A fact that has been made perfectly plain these last two years,’ Cal snapped; the indifference of Britain to the plight of the Spanish republicans tended to get under his skin. ‘As neutrality it’s a farce, given the arms embargo is being, and has been since the outbreak, routinely broken by the Germans and Italians.’

‘You forgot to mention the Russians.’

‘Most of whose ships have been sunk by Italian submarines, whilst the Royal Navy just stands by and looks on. HMG should be blushing to the roots, not worrying about what I am up to.’

‘I don’t make policy, Cal.’

‘It’s not so long ago you seemed as committed as I am to fighting the likes of Franco, or was the buying and shipping of weapons to Ethiopia two years back just a lark? I seem to recall a lot of talk about stopping Mussolini, and while I am aware you are not much of one for ideology, I would be disappointed to find you have done a complete volte-face and signed up with the denizens of the Right Club.’

Peter, to avoid answering what was clearly a question, stood up and went to a rather faded curtain, which, when twitched back, revealed a tiny kitchen, into which he disappeared as he responded.

‘Would you like some coffee, old boy? I can make some if I can work out this infernal pot the Frogs use.’

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