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Authors: Jack Ludlow

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Again, Cal experienced a sea change in attitude; Xavier, hitherto seen as a noisy and argumentative pest, was now transformed into a hero who would not countenance that anyone else but a miner should undertake the task, not that he had too much opposition to that stand. Laporta, who had barely spoken to Cal since the confrontation with Xavier, called to him and, with the aid of Florencia, sought his views. They were given freely, but the primary recommendation was to take time and to comprehensively explain
to each person taking part, in proper detail, their individual task.

‘Otherwise, monsieur, you will have confusion, and if you have that, it will fail.’

 

Dusk was close by the time that task was completed, the front of the east-facing building now in deep and useful shadow. The attack was split into three parts, four if the cannon were included. Vince, with his single sticks of dynamite, took one party down the avenue well away from the exchange; Cal took another in the opposite direction and that included Xavier, both sets of attackers obliged to dodge from doorway to doorway until they were far enough off to cross the road. They would come at the exchange from the sides, using their proximity to the front of those adjoining buildings, as well as their doorways and moulded parapets, to provide some protection.

Laporta had his riflemen aiming at what remained of the roof, to keep down the heads of those watching the attackers’ movements. Any sight of one popping up resulted in a fusillade; that such action presaged an assault just had to be accepted. At the signal, the artillery would take over that task while the rifles were trained on the windows, their orders, which only existed as a hope, being that they would put a series of single shots through each one to suppress the defence enough to provide the time needed to place the charge.

At Laporta’s signal Cal and Vince led their groups forward, backs pressed into stone as the docker-artilleryman aimed the shot, falling masonry another risk that just had to be accepted. The defenders knew what was coming and the first grenade, a proper one, popped out to bounce on the rubble-strewn pavement, really too far off to do serious damage.

As soon as that emerged, Vince’s men went into a huddle in
which matches were set to lengths of fuse, the explosion acting as the signal to rush forward and for the riflemen to commence their suppression fire. There was no way to throw those individual sticks through the destroyed windows without stepping back to do so, and that created another risk.

Anyone shot dropping a lit fuse would endanger his own, something which happened immediately. This was an occasion when suicidal courage was admirable: the man shot did not let his dropped stick injure his fellows; twisting, he flung his body on top of the charge, bouncing in the air, his guts blown apart as it detonated.

The other sticks made their targets, exploding inside and below the level of the sills under which the attackers were now crouched, protecting their heads from both the blast which emerged and the bits of stone crashing down from above, some of them big enough to kill. Steady gunfire was coming from the main position as Xavier flung himself into the doorway and with great care lit the fuse. Just as he did so, a second grenade dropped no more than ten feet away from him.

Cal Jardine dashed forward and just kicked it, sending it spinning away before he flung his body into the doorway to huddle beside the miner, who had used his own bulk to shield the charge, cheek pressed against the cold bronze and arm up to cover his face, aware that time was limited; that fuse was fizzing. Thankfully, exploding in the open, the blast of the grenade, now too far away to wound, was dispersed and, as soon as that dissipated, Cal grabbed Xavier and dragged him away.

There was no time left to get clear, the only security lay in using the corner of the building. Dodging into the narrow alleyway, both men hunched down, hands pressed over their ears as the charge went
off with an almighty drum-splitting boom. Cal was unable to observe the result, not that he was looking, but when he did open his eyes and look out it was to see a mass of workers, led by Laporta, rushing across the intervening ground, yelling and firing their weapons, to rush through the blasted and now-gaping doorway and into the building. Once inside, there could only be one outcome.

 

Darkness was upon them by the time the exchange was fully secured, every defender either killed or taken prisoner, mostly the former. The telephonic systems, the stacks of switching gear, housed in the basement, were intact, thus restoring communication not only with Madrid, but also with the rest of the world. It was a dust-covered Cal Jardine that joined an equally mucky and weary Vince Castellano and a delighted, if grubby, Florencia, who gave him a hug.

‘That,’ Cal sighed, ‘has got to be enough for one day. Time to go back to the hotel and clean up.’

It was the look on Florencia’s face that provided the first hint, the words that followed the facts.


Querido
, some of the soldiers have taken refuge in the hotels. The Colón and the Ritz are under siege.’

‘You did not think to tell me this before?’ As usual, when challenged, Florencia did not look abashed, but defiant, as though it was he, not she, who might be in the wrong. ‘What did you think I was going to do, rush back and see if my luggage was safe?’

‘I told you, guv,’ Vince said. ‘You should have stayed in the hostel with us, not some swanky hotel.’

T
his time Cal Jardine was a spectator to a siege, and for once he was watching professionals at work. The Civil Guards were the body attacking the Ritz and doing so with some skill; it being dark, they had brought up searchlights and aimed them at the hotel front to blind the opposition and cover their own manoeuvres. No one moved without an order, no order was executed that did not come with a corresponding distraction to confuse the defence.

This was an organisation, near-military in its set-up, accustomed to dealing with civil unrest, and they were trained in the necessary tactics of fire and movement as well as those required to take a static obstacle. The only drawback to the man watching was the fact that one of the windows they were firing at was the corner room he had left in such haste twenty hours previously.

The rest of the city was far from quiet, but all the indications now pointed to it being mopping up rather than pitched battles against
the insurgents. With the telephone exchange working again, news was coming in from all over the country as well as abroad, though it was probably being managed to sustain morale. Most important was that Madrid seemed to be safe for the Republic; if the capital had fallen to rebels, it would have been fairly certain the coup had succeeded. As it was, there was some hope it could be suppressed.

Sitting on a wall behind those searchlights, far enough away from the fighting to feel reasonably safe, and after a short but restorative nap, time for reflection was possible, aided by bread, cured ham and a bottle of wine, interrupted only occasionally by the distant blast of a grenade. Vince had taken his party back to the hostel to eat and sleep, while Florencia had gone to her own home to clean up and acquire a change of clothes more suitable for the counter-revolution.

There had been no end to the desire of the various factions to show their colours, usually huge flags on trucks full of armed men roaring around the city to no seeming purpose, which did lead Cal to wonder if the present alliance would hold. The mistrust was not hidden; it was out in the open whenever the various groupings came across each other viz. those Asturian miners.

‘Florencia told me I would find you here.’

It took a moment to realise he was being addressed, and another to turn from English thoughts to spoken French, but no time at all to recognise the voice. Almost immediately Juan Luis Laporta was sitting beside him, looking right ahead at the starkly illuminated Ritz Hotel, this as an explosion erupted.

‘It is like a film, no? Eisenstein.’

‘Does the hero die or survive?’ Cal replied, while he wondered at the reason for the visit. The anarchist leader was an important
person and should surely be busy, too occupied certainly for an evening stroll and a leisurely chat.

‘There are heroes dying all over Spain, my friend, but more are still living.’

The appellation was interesting; even if the relationship throughout the day had moved from downright abrasive to a degree of mutual respect and cooperation, it had certainly never been friendly. Tempted to push as to why it should be so now, Cal nevertheless hesitated, and asked how matters were progressing elsewhere in the country, only to be given a taste of how confused was the whole situation.

Seville was very much in the hands of the insurgents, the whole of Morocco too, with, it was reported, a quick bullet for any officers who hinted that they might stay loyal to the Republic. Burgos and Valladolid had declared for the uprising – not surprising given the old heartlands of Castile and León had always been rightist in their politics – while the central Pyrenean foothills were a stronghold of the deeply religious and conservative Carlist movement and thus natural allies to the generals.

Elsewhere it was confusion, with no way of knowing whose side anyone in authority was on; before them the Civil Guard were supporting the workers, elsewhere they were in the opposite camp, the Assault Guards the same. Some regional authorities were still refusing to arm the workers, too fearful to give guns to those they trusted just as little as they trusted the army, while in separatist regions like the Basque country, support for the Republic was more an opportunistic grab at regional autonomy than driven by conviction.

Worryingly, the insurgents seemingly held the major military port of Cádiz and the narrows at Gibraltar, though Valencia was an unknown quantity. Most of the navy was loyal – the lower deck had
been very organised – yet there existed ships where the officers had prevailed, and it was suspected such vessels would be heading for the Straits to help the Army of Africa get troops and heavy equipment to the mainland.

A depressing rumour was circulating that two large German warships were also actively screening such a crossing from interference, which removed the doubt – if there ever had been any – that this was a fascist coup welcomed in both Berlin and Rome, who had already, it was fairly obvious, supplied weapons like rifles and machine guns.

Unclear was what the democracies would do in response, for neither France nor Britain would be happy to see Spain go into the dictators’ camp, the latter especially, with the route to India to protect. Yet just as telling was the fact that there was no mention of the Royal Navy in what Laporta was telling him; a mere gesture from the fleet based at Gibraltar and Valletta, which included several battleships, would send those two German warships packing.

Tempted to mention the fact, Cal kept silent; from what he knew of the British officer class, naval or otherwise, sympathy for Republican ideals was not a common thread. They would only act if instructed to do so and, quite inadvertently, he was back in Simpson’s, looking into the faces of the kind of folk who constituted what really passed for public opinion in good old Blighty – if they had no sympathy for the dispossessed in their own country, it was highly likely they would have even less for foreign workers.

‘How soon will this end?’ the Spaniard asked, waving a lazy hand at the besieged hotel, as a sudden burst of fire chopped bits of stone from the frontage.

‘It will end as soon as whoever is leading the defence realises they
cannot win. It’s a choice, really: die in the hotel, or come out and hope the treatment you receive is better than that being meted out by your confrères.’

Cal waited, not with much in the way of hope, to see if Laporta would condemn some of the excesses being reported from around the city, albeit mostly by rumour; little mercy was being shown to those who failed to quickly surrender, and not much to those who did. A tale was circulating that some priests had been shot, accused by a party of workers of firing at them from their steeples, and in many places it seemed summary executions were taking place as old scores were settled with ruthless employers or outright class and political enemies.

Such acts were troubling but not unexpected; revolutions were always bloody affairs and luck played as much a part in survival as any other factor. Able to intervene, Cal Jardine would have stopped such activities, yet he knew that even if the desire to do so was strong, leaders like Laporta risked a bullet themselves if they interfered with passions let loose after decades of resentment. Turning a blind eye was often necessary, regardless of personal feelings.

That he, himself, had a streak of callousness Jardine did not doubt; how could it be otherwise after the experiences he had endured in the last six months of the Great War? When you have seen your friends die, led men in a battle knowing many will not survive, witnessed mass slaughter and inflicted death on enemies yourself, life loses some of its value. When you have, in cold blood, shot your wife’s lover in the marital bed you shared, it is hypocrisy to expect morality in conflict from others.

‘I would just bring up the Schneider cannon and blast them to hell,’ Laporta said, breaking too long a silence.

‘I wouldn’t. My luggage is in there.’

‘Why did you come to Spain, monsieur, at such a time?’

Implicit in the question was the intimation that he had some prior knowledge of the coup, which was true, not that he was about to say so. ‘The People’s Olympiad.’

‘You are not a socialist.’

‘I am not anything. I was in London, I was asked to do something as a favour and I agreed.’

‘London I do not know, Paris yes, but I think they must be the same, full of rich fascists and oppressed workers.’

‘You lived there?’

‘When I fled Spain, yes.’

‘I won’t ask why you had to get out.’

‘I have spent my life fighting the oppressors,’ Laporta responded, though not with any hint of fire. ‘Even those in France.’

The man was weary, leading Cal to wonder if he had managed even a short nap, something the low wall on which he was sitting had provided during a lull in the fighting. As if in answer to the question not posed, Laporta gave a huge yawn.

‘And at times it seems I wonder if I will ever reach my goal.’

Tempted to enquire about that, Cal hesitated again; the last thing he could face was a lecture on the ambitions of anarchism. Instead he asked Laporta about how he came to be where he was, a leader obviously, and a man deferred to as a fighter of long experience. It was the tale of a poor upbringing for a bright boy, and the struggle to make his way in a world pitted against his class, of fights for his elders and parents with miserly employers who did not hesitate to hire assassins to shoot those who dared to lead strikes demanding better pay and conditions.

The bitter boy had grown into a man determined to effect change, and if those he fought used murder as a weapon, then so must he. He and his colleagues had formed a tight cell dedicated to assassination, even at one time trying to kill King Alfonso. Naturally, those in power had struck back hard and forced flight.

Laporta had fought just as hard in France for those things in which he believed. There was a strong Spanish community in Paris, as well as left-leaning thinkers from all over Europe, many of them exiles rather than living there from choice, and if Spain was a troubled country politically, so was France, with its
right-wing
madmen, members of organisations like the
Croix de Feu
and
Action Française
.

In his time with Florencia, the limited knowledge he had of the Iberian Peninsula had been fleshed out, albeit from her point of view, and even allowing for her bias it was a tale of terrible poverty, haughty aristocrats unwilling to surrender an ounce of their prerogatives, intransigent land and factory owners and particularly pernicious mine managers, of a country mired in the trap of a
post-imperial
legacy and centuries of an obscurantist Catholic religion, which made the British Isles, for all its manifest faults and problems, sound like a haven of peace and harmony.

‘But I have not come to talk of such things, monsieur.’

‘I didn’t think you had.’

There was a very lengthy pause before Laporta continued; it was as if he was looking for certain words and those that emerged seemed to Cal to be somehow amiss. ‘Once we have secured the city, which will be soon, we must seek to aid our comrades elsewhere.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Saragossa first – it is under threat; in fact, it might have already
fallen to the generals.’ There was reflected light enough for Laporta to see that the name, even if he knew it to be a large city, did not register in any other way. ‘It is the capital of Aragón and an anarchist stronghold, a place we cannot allow to remain in the hands of the generals and their lackeys, who will shoot anyone who opposes them. The CNT leadership are forming a flying column to bring relief to the city.’

Another pause accompanied by a sigh. ‘Florencia has told me things about you, as you already know.’ Which I now regret telling her, Cal thought. ‘I must go to what I hope will be a final conference—’


Another
one?’ Cal interrupted, which brought a rare smile to the lips of a man not much given to such expressions.

‘A necessary curse, monsieur; everyone must have their say, even in the highest councils of Catalonia. I have come from the first and I must return soon for a second.’

The conferences were being held at the Generalitat, the seat of the regional government. It seemed all the time Callum Jardine had spent snoozing and as a spectator, Laporta had spent arguing about what course to take next to defeat the insurgency, without a final decision being made. As related, it did not sound like fun, but was Laporta seeking advice or maybe just a disinterested sounding board?

‘You asked me a question before, and I think you will know my opinion of your conferences by what I said then.’

‘We have agreed not to send thousands of men into Aragón without the leadership of an appointed commander; in this case the committee has put forward Colonel Villabova, who has stayed loyal to the Republic.’

‘That is good, surely?’

‘Is it? Villabova is sure he is another Cortez, but he is an arrogant
fool who has no idea of how useless he is, and neither do those proposing him.’

‘He will be appointed by vote?’ Laporta nodded. ‘Not yours, then?’

The response was spat out. ‘No!’

Why was Laporta telling him this? Indeed, with so much going on, why had he sought him out? Was he looking for help? If he was, the man was too proud to say the words and Cal would have to think about that. Any decision would have much to do with what Vince and his boys intended and, as well as those committed to the fight, the majority of the People’s Olympians had to be accounted for. Most would want to get out of the country, and he had as much responsibility for that as anything else, given it would be a proper use of what remained of the funds entrusted to him.

A ship was the most obvious, but even if the Spanish navy was mostly on the side of the elected government, that was not wholly the case and rebel warships might intercept vessels sailing for other Mediterranean ports. The land route, provided it was not blocked, or a zone of battle, was the safest, quickest and, no small consideration, the cheapest way out, but only if he could find them transport to the French border and that was going to be hard; a lot of the Barcelona buses had been used as barricades, and if the anarchists were off to Saragossa they would need what was left for transport.

BOOK: A Broken Land
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