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I'd like to invite you to read my serialised novel. I shall be pasting an episode onto my website every Wednesday. I hope you will enjoy reading it.

 

 

 

TWO SIDES OF A COIN

(formerly The Spanish Twin)

 

A young woman searches for her brother in the chaos of the Spanish Civil War.

 

A novel serialised weekly in thirteen parts.

 

  

CATCH-UP FROM EPISODE TWELVE

Maggie had high hopes for Donald. After his rocky start in life, she prayed that he would achieve a successful career. He was a lively boy, always in a hurry and rather erratic in his studies.

'You'd better go and do your homework,' she said.

'Yeah, ok.'

'Donald, I wish you wouldn't use those Americanisms.'

He grinned and gave her a peck on the cheek. 'Too many Yankee movies, Mum.'

Half an hour later Fabian got home. 'Coming out for a bike ride, Don?' he called upstairs to his brother.

'Yeah!'

'Supper's at six o'clock,' shouted Maggie as they disappeared out of the kitchen door, the homework forgotten.

 

EPISODE THIRTEEN

Christmas that year was, as always, a family affair. Maggie loved having everybody home although, secretly, she felt there was one big gap in the circle. If only Robert could be there as well! At these times she yearned to go back to Spain, to look her brother up, to take up where they had left off. But she knew in her heart that this could never happen while Dolores had him in her clutches. She realised with a little shock that she had always hated Dolores. Before going to Spain, her life had been passive, emotionless; she had never borne anybody a grudge until she had been introduced to her brother's woman.

The result of her search for him during those Civil War years had not had a satisfactory outcome. Expecting to be reunited with the same old Robert, she had felt bitterly frustrated to find a changed man, not only in name but also in disposition. His carefree temperament had metamorphosed into single-minded fervour. She had tried to point out to him that, like her, he was British. Didn't he understand that he was fighting someone else's war? But her brief sojourn at the camp had shown her that these young men from so many different countries were like aliens. They lived for the moment, cocooned in an unfathomable loyalty to a cause which had nothing to do with their normal world. Of course, with hindsight, she saw that what had happened in Spain had had a direct effect upon the war in Europe which followed. But could these young men have foreseen this? She doubted it. And after all these years, she still felt a deep sorrow for the useless loss of life played out on the Spanish plains.

'Maggie, don't look so gloomy. It's Christmas!' Harry broke into her reflections.

'Sorry, darling, I was miles away.'

'A penny for them,' cried Eve.

'…just memories.'

Eve came over and tucked her arm through Maggie's. 'Were you thinking about Esteban?'

'Maybe, a little,' she admitted.

How did she know? Eve had surprised Maggie over the years with her intuitiveness. She wondered how much the girl remembered of her own terrible experiences. Had they scarred her for life? Her doubts were swiftly swept away when Eve whispered, 'My boyfriend's calling round tomorrow, I hope you don't mind. He's called Michael.'

'Of course I don't mind. Harry and I would love to meet him.'

'When's the feast going to be ready?' called Harry, interrupting the intimate moment between Maggie and Eve. 'Who's hungry?'

There was a chorus of 'We are, we are!'

Maggie hurried into the kitchen. With food rationing still a problem, she had managed to obtain a couple of medium-sized chickens to feed the seven of them. Caroline had also come to join them for Christmas dinner. Flour had recently been de-rationed so that Maggie had been able to make a cake, although dried fruit was still difficult to come by for the Christmas pudding.

The family sat down to their meal, laughing and joking when the Christmas crackers were pulled.

'Listen to this,' said Anthony. 'What does a frog do if his car breaks down?' They all came up with silly suggestions until he read out the answer, 'He gets it toad away.'

'Mine's better,' said Fabian. 'What lies at the bottom of the sea and shivers?'

'We don't know,' yelled Donald.

'A nervous wreck.'

'Have you heard this story?' Fabian launched into a shaggy dog tail which went on for ages. Everybody listened intently until the punch-line, which he expertly delivered.

Maggie looked at Fabian fondly. Who would have thought he would become such a raconteur? She barely recognised the little waif who had refused to open his mouth for so long.

Harry winked at her and mouthed, 'We did well, didn't we?'

 

September 1962

 

Over the years, communication with her brother had become erratic. Maggie knew  this was due to the restrictions imposed by Franco's harsh regime, but by the early sixties, the dictator had changed tactics, opening up Spain to foreign tourists. She still missed Robert terribly. There was, after all, no one with whom she could share early memories, no one with whom to reminisce about abuelo and abuela. But now her fiftieth birthday was looming, and over the months, she became obsessed with the idea of spending her half century with her twin brother. When she put forward the idea to Harry, he tried to discourage her.

'It's risky, Maggie, you could find yourself in trouble. They scrutinize foreign visitors very thoroughly, especially as you have Spanish connections.'

'What? How could I be in trouble? I've got a British passport and…' She gave Harry a sly look, '…and an English surname thanks to you.'

'I don't want you to go. It could be dangerous.'

'Don't be ridiculous! It would be lovely seeing Robert again, catching up on all those lost years. What could possibly happen on a visit to see my brother?'

'You don't know what Robert's been up to since the war ended. How d'you know he's not caught up in some subversive movement?'

'Subversive movement!' scoffed Maggie.

Harry pressed on. 'I don't want you to be disappointed. Your brother may be different to the way you remember him. Twenty-five years is a long time. He may not be the gallant hero you imagine him to be. Besides, how many times did you come back from Tres Lomas upset by something he had said or done?'

Maggie got angry. 'That was because of the tensions of the moment. How do you know what Robert will be like? You've never even met him. Besides, we're both older and wiser now; it's only right that twins should get together after all these years.'

Harry gave a shrug. 'All right, I'll book our flight.'

Maggie stiffened. 'Not you. I want to go on my own. If things work out well, you can come with me next time.' She could see she had hurt him and hated herself for it.

He brushed off her rebuttal with, 'Eve might want to go with you.'

'Out of the question!' snapped Maggie. It was one thing for her to go back but there was no way she'd want Eve to risk returning. Eve's British nationality had been formalised by Harry at the time of their marriage, but just the same…

Realising how sharply she had spoken, she raked her mind for a more acceptable excuse, mumbling, 'Who…who'd look after their children? Michael can't take time off work.'

'I suppose that would present a problem,' admitted Harry.

'I'm going alone.'

Harry put on a brave face, bowing to the inevitable with a show of levity. 'Like you did in '37?' He laughed. 'For heaven's sake, don't come back with a brood of orphans this time. Seriously though, I'd rather you'd let me come with you. I'll keep out of your way, I'll stay in the hotel while you go and visit Robert.'

'Please don't insist, darling,' pleaded Maggie. Contrition made her words seem persuasive rather than emphatic, to the point where she could sense that Harry thought she might change her mind.

'What's wrong with an extended visit so that we can take a holiday over there?' he suggested in a light-hearted tone.

'No, I want to see my brother on my own to start with. Don't make it difficult for me, darling we can go on holiday another time.'

His face clouded. 'I think you're mad but who am I to tell you what to do? A new age husband isn't supposed to do that.'

New age husband! Is that how Harry saw himself? She almost laughed out loud but a glance at his face told her to tread carefully as, for an awful moment, she thought the discussion was going to develop into a full-blown row. She didn't want that because Harry's logic always won an argument.

The image of her brother rose in her mind's eye. How lovely it would be to see him again. How he must have changed? A little tubbier perhaps, greying at the temples or maybe that thick hatch of hair was thinner now. She had always intended going back to Spain but during the earlier Francoist years it had been impossible. 

She left Harry and went upstairs to the bedroom to stare at her own reflection in the full-length mirror. A still acceptably slim middle-aged woman stared back at her. The dark hair was peppered with grey but the contours of the face were still firm and the eyes had not lost their sparkle. She went downstairs again, praying that Harry would let the matter drop, but this wasn't to be.

 'You'll write and tell him you're coming, won't you? I mean it wouldn't be fair to spring it on him, would it?'

'Spring it on him?' Maggie echoed indignantly. 'Why, if Robert were to turn up on our doorstep without any warning, do you think I'd turn him away? On the contrary, I would be delighted. Don't worry he'll welcome me, his only sister.'

'I didn't mean that,' Harry tried to explain himself. 'It's just that you don't know what his circumstances are, how he's living, what his job is.'

It was true that Robert had never told her what he did for a living. He was a qualified engineer and she had assumed that at the end of hostilities, after POUM and the International Brigades had disbanded, he had gone back to his chosen profession. His brief messages had been uninformative about his personal life. For the first time she felt a stab of doubt. Until now, she had never imagined for one moment that he was not comfortably off. Surely if things were difficult for him he would have asked her to release his share of the funds from their mother's inheritance, which was still accumulating interest in the bank.

In the end, she took Harry's advice and wrote to Robert giving him the date of her intended arrival, and on the seventh of September, she flew from Heathrow to Barajas Airport. She spent a night in Madrid, taking the opportunity to look around the modern metropolis, which was barely recognisable from the war-torn city she remembered. It was difficult to believe that she had fled Madrid with a brood of orphaned children. How different those children were now! And strangely only one of them had wanted to visit Spain. Last year Donald had gone on a camping holiday to Asturias with some friends. He had come back full of enthusiasm about the hospitality of the Basque people. It got her wondering about his Spanish relatives. How sad that they would never know what had happened to him!

The others led busy lives. Eve had her hands full with two lively daughters, Fabian too was married with a couple of youngsters. He had developed into a talented artist and was running his own graphic design business. Thankfully, his heartrending sketches of death and destruction had long been abandoned. Anthony had moved to New York with his American bride. They rarely heard from him but Maggie knew that he lived life to the full and was making a lot of money practising law. His glamorous wife, who Maggie and Harry had only met once, was a top model. Donald was as yet unmarried although he wasn't lacking opportunity. He had had girlfriends aplenty.

With her head filled with nostalgia, Maggie didn't feel the least bit lonely on the journey. She was glad she had dissuaded Harry from accompanying her. It was better to exorcise the remaining demons from that bizarre interlude in her life on her own.

 

She got up next morning feeling excited and not a little nervous. She checked and re-checked that she had everything ready: photos of Harry and the children at different stages in their lives and a snapshot of the old pile. She was sure Robert would be interested in that.

She took the train from Atocha to Zaragoza. A young man helped her with her suitcase, loading it into the luggage rack. This reminded her of her first encounter with Tomás and the way he had taken charge of her suitcase on that occasion. What had happened to him, she wondered. Making a rough calculation, she realised that if he had survived, he would be all of seventy-five, maybe older.

It felt strange hearing Spanish again. She hadn't spoken the language for a long time since, once the children had settled into the British way of life, the family always spoke English. Maggie sometimes wondered how much of their native language they remembered.

On reaching Zaragoza she had no idea how she was going to make her way to Robert's village. He hadn't replied to her letter telling him of her arrival, although she had lied to Harry, telling him that her brother was expecting her. She hoped he hadn't moved away but felt sure that in such a small village someone would know where he had gone.

She took the local bus, which trundled slowly along. It's wooden seats were far from comfortable but she enjoyed the opportunity to gaze out of the grimy window at the familiar scenery. It looked peaceful now but she couldn't stop her mind from winging back to the days when she had driven an ambulance over a pot-holed road, fearing they could at any moment be blown up. At last the bus drew to a halt but Maggie knew she still had some way to go. Robert's house was tucked away in a remote area. She wondered why he had not taken up residence in the Toledo villa their grandfather had left him.

The bus drove on, leaving her standing on a dusty road with her suitcase beside her. Her navy linen skirt looked creased, a light breeze blew a strand of hair into her eyes. She brushed the hair aside, momentarily carried back twenty-five years earlier to another lonely road near Tres Lomas where Tomás had angrily dropped her off after she had smuggled a lift in his lorry.

Picking up the suitcase, she headed into the village and found a solitary shop. Inside there was no one to be seen. She waited for five minutes, then called out, 'Is anybody at home?'

The proprietor appeared from a back room. 'Can I help you?' he asked in Catalan.

'Yes please, I'm a stranger around here and I'd like to know whether there's a bus that can take me to Cantaveija.'

Recognising her Madrid accent, the proprietor smiled and immediately went into Spanish. 'Are you visiting someone?'

'My brother. Here's his address.' She drew out the piece of paper she had with Robert's address on it.

'Ah, I know the place. You won't get a bus out there. You'll have to walk.' He glanced down at her feet and saw that she was wearing a pair of high heeled shoes. 'Those shoes won't do. Why don't you buy a pair of espadrilles?' He pointed to a pair which were hanging on a rack by the counter.

'The espadrilles are a good idea!' said Maggie. 'But I hope it isn't far.'

'It's only a couple of kilometres but why not wait until later when it's not so hot. There's a café down the road. Spend an hour or two there.'

Maggie took the proprietor's advice, bought the espadrilles and tucked her high heeled shoes into her suitcase. Although it was now September, it was still very hot and she felt exhausted by the time she reached the café. She was getting old, she told herself, twenty-five years ago the walk up the hill to the café would have been easy.

She had a snack and a coffee, and to kill time, chatted to the waiter, who offered to look after her suitcase until she returned. She thanked him and, an hour and a half later, bade him farewell and started on her way. Even now, it was still hot and she wished she had worn something more summery. She took off her smart jacket and carried it but her silk blouse clung to her body.

She was startled when a farm cart drew up beside her. The driver reined in his horse, leaned out and beckoned her. He mumbled something in Catalan and even though she didn't understand the words, it was clear from his manner that he was offering her a lift. The cart didn't look very clean but the offer was too good to refuse. He moved over so that she could climb up and sit beside him and, with a flip of the reins, urged the horse on again.

Conversation was almost impossible because the man only spoke Catalan. However, she surmised that he was asking her where she was going and he told her he knew where Esteban lived. When he stopped at the edge of the road and pointed to a deserted-looking hamlet, she thanked him and jumped down from the cart. He went on his way with a cheery wave.

She glanced around. There was no sign of life. The buildings looked to be little more than hovels. Maggie was filled with misgivings. Surely this couldn't be right! All at once, some children ran out from an alley-way, prompting a flock of pigeons to take to the wing. They were shabbily dressed and the girl's hair looked as if it could do with a comb. On seeing Maggie, she grabbed the hands of two small boys and the three of them stood staring at her with a mixture of curiosity and alarm. Maggie held her breath, reminded of Eve and Fabian's reaction all those years ago when they had cowered away from Raul. On that occasion, she had been the comforter. Now, it seemed, she was the one to pose a threat. She smiled and extended a hand in an endeavour to put them at their ease.

A dumpy woman with a weather-beaten face appeared from one of the houses. She was dressed entirely in black except for a pair of bright blue carpet slippers. She beckoned to the children, who ran to her.

Maggie blinked and came to her senses. 'I'm sorry, señora', she said. 'I didn't mean to scare your children. Can you tell me where Esteban Morán lives?'

The woman looked startled and pushed the children away from her. They turned and ran into the house.

Maggie tried again. 'Esteban Morán is my brother, my twin brother.'

Puzzlement cleared from the woman's face and she held out her arms. 'My Esteban's sister!'

'Your Esteban?' Could this be true? Maggie felt reality slipping away. Who was this woman, surely not Dolores?

'I think I've made a mistake,' she stuttered.

The woman shook her head and hurried towards her. 'No mistake, I am Esteban's woman.' She nodded towards the house and said proudly, 'They are our children.'

She ushered Maggie into the house and, once inside, called her daughter, telling her to fetch a tumbler of water for their visitor.

'I'm so sorry,' said Maggie after gulping down most of the water. 'I should have been prepared. You see, I haven't seen my brother for over twenty years. Where is he?'

The woman shooed her children out of the house. Her face clouded as she fumbled with the hem of her apron and muttered, 'I'm afraid your brother died earlier this year.'

For a moment, Maggie thought she had misunderstood the woman's odd mixture of Catalan and Spanish. 'Died?' she gasped.

Through her shock, she could sense the woman's sympathy.

'You need to rest, señora, come this way.'

As if in a trance, Maggie followed the woman into a dark bedroom. 'Tell me what happened,' she begged.

The woman started to explain but exhaustion and shock made it impossible for Maggie to comprehend her Catalan accent. Sensing her visitor's need for rest, the woman said. 'The details can wait.'

Soothed by her calmness, Maggie sank back onto a narrow bed and fell instantly asleep.

 

Maggie woke up to find the little girl standing by her bed holding a mug of coffee. The child smiled shyly and said, 'My name's Estelita.'

This revelation jerked Maggie into alertness. 'Of course,' she said. 'You're my niece.'

The girl had some difficulty with Spanish and started to gabble in Catalan. Maggie shook her head. 'I'm sorry, I don't understand,' she said.

At that moment, the woman came into the room followed by the two little boys. 'Did you sleep well?' she asked.

'Yes thank you. What time is it?'

'Nine o'clock.' Maggie could scarcely believe she had slept for four hours. The woman smiled. 'You must be hungry, I've cooked you a meal.'

Maggie followed the others into the main room, which was lit with oil lamps. The room consisted of a small kitchen area, a table and a sagging sofa. To her surprise, there was an old television set in the corner of the room. This puzzled her. If the house was powered by electricity, why were they using oil lamps for lighting?

The woman answered her unspoken question. 'The TV doesn't work. Since Esteban's death I haven't been able to pay the electricity bill.'

Maggie was astounded. She couldn't believe her brother had been living in such poverty. 'Have you always lived here?' she asked.

The woman shook her head. 'We had to move when my Esteban became ill.'

Maggie's heart beat fast. Why had Robert allowed himself and his family to end up penniless when there was money in the bank in England? She felt out of her depth and wished she had allowed Harry to accompany her.

'What's your name?' she asked the woman.

'Pilar Lopez. You've met my Estelita, she's twelve and the boys are Jaime and Javier. They're nine and ten.' The two little boys, who had been quietly listening, gave proof to their presence by chasing one another around the table. Their mother smiled indulgently before gently urging them out of the door. 'Estelita,' she called, 'keep an eye on your brothers.'

In answer to her mother's wishes, Estelita got up and ran out to join them.

'Esteban and I were together for fourteen years,' Pilar explained, sometimes repeating herself because Maggie didn't understand her accent. 'We had a farm not far from here but the work was hard and with my Esteban's failing health - you know he was badly wounded?'

'Yes, but I thought he had recovered.'

'He was wounded several times, most of the wounds were minor but towards the end his lung was punctured. He also got a bullet in his leg.' She sighed and twisted her hands in her lap. 'He had breathing problems and he couldn't bend his knee. This made farm work very difficult.'

'But why was he working on a farm when he's a qualified engineer? I don't understand.'

Pilar shook her head. 'Life hasn't been easy under Franco. Esteban had to keep his head down.'

'But surely someone with engineering qualifications would be able to find work in the city. Why stay here in this remote region?'

'We are country people,' the woman said simply.

'Robert's not,' burst out Maggie.

The expression on Pilar's face told her she had said the wrong thing and she realised that the woman could have no concept of Robert's prior life. Her brother would not have taken the trouble to enlighten her as to their middle-class English childhood. Feeling uncomfortable, Maggie moved onto safer ground. 'When exactly did my brother pass away?'

'It was the first of May.'

Robert couldn't have chosen a better day on which to die, thought Maggie bitterly, May Day, perfect timing to fit in with his left-wing ideals! She felt puzzled. If Pilar had been her brother's companion for fourteen years what had happened to Dolores? Why had Robert left her? Perhaps he hadn't. Perhaps Dolores had been the one to leave after he had become a virtual invalid, or…she wrinkled her forehead…maybe it was after Robert had signed over power of attorney.

'Why didn't he get in touch with me?' she demanded. 'I could have helped him.'

Pilar snorted with indignation. 'Ask for help, my Esteban!'

Maggie stifled a sob. Pilar was right. Robert would never ask for help. But surely he hadn't forgotten his inheritance. Then she remembered. When he had signed it over to her, he had said he had no interest in it. Pride had always been his downfall; there was no way he would ask for it back.

She recalled the house their grandfather had left him. She had told Robert about it when they met up in Tres Lomas. He had been as surprised as she was to learn that they had each been left a property.

'Why didn't you move to the house in Toledo? Surely Esteban told you about it.'

'It was razed to the ground during the fighting.'

Conversation between the two women was proving almost impossible. Pilar frequently lapsed into Catalan, and in her confusion, Maggie found it difficult to concentrate. It was bad enough summoning up her lapsed Spanish.

Then Pilar changed the subject. 'You resemble my Esteban as I knew him fourteen years ago,' she said sadly.

'Have you got any photos of him?' asked Maggie.

Without a word, Pilar got up and pulled open a drawer in the dresser, bringing out an envelope. With a sigh, she wiped her sleeve across her face and handed it over.

Maggie slipped the dog-eared snapshots out of the envelope. The images brought tears to her eyes. The first picture showed her brother as she remembered him: looking exhilarant, standing with a rifle thrust above his head, surrounded by his laughing companions. Then there was one with his arm clasped around Dolores' shoulder, the familiar red kerchief around her neck. These had clearly been taken in the early days before the full horror of war had knocked the smiles off their faces. The other photos were much less exuberant. There was one of Robert seated on a low wall, his arm supported in a sling. That must have been taken in 1938 when he returned to the front after she had visited him at the hospital in Tres Lomas. The last one showed an older Robert. Seated on a chair, his leg outstretched, he was leaning forward awkwardly, a vacant expression on his face. The three children stood next to him. There were no photos of Pilar.

Maggie studied the snapshots, feeling reluctant to hand them back. At last, she pushed them back into the envelope and offered them to Pilar, who shook her head. 'No, you take them.'

'I couldn't do that. You'll want to keep these photos.'

Pilar smiled sadly. 'Please take them. I have his children, you have only his memory.'

'Thank you so much. I'll have them copied and return the originals to you.'

 

The next day, after a restless night, Maggie made her departure with a mixture of relief and regret. She had tried to communicate with the children but their Catalan was incomprehensible to her. She thanked Pilar and promised to send funds to help the family.

Pilar shook her head. 'There's no need.'

'Oh but there is,' declared Maggie. 'Esteban's inheritance is held in an English bank. It will have earned a great deal of interest over the years. There's no longer any need for you to live like this.'

Pilar's expression hardened. 'We manage.'

'You don't understand. By rights, this money's yours. I want you to have it. You can find yourself a nicer house, move out of here, go and live in a town if you want to. The children can go to a good school…' Seized by the need to convince the woman, she clutched her hands tightly, going on urgently, 'Esteban would have wanted his children to have a proper education.'

Pilar pulled her hands away and took a step backwards. 'No, those things are not for us.'

Maggie was flooded with despair. Twenty-five years ago she had rescued a group of children from hardship, giving them a good education and a better life, yet here were her own niece and nephews living in dire poverty with their mother refusing to be helped. It was untenable and she knew she would have to do something about it.

'At least let me send you some money,' she insisted. 'Then you can get the electricity switched on again, buy decent food for the children, get them new clothes. Wouldn't you like to see Estelita in a pretty dress?'

'I won't take charity,' muttered Pilar.

'It isn't charity,' shouted Maggie, getting more and more heated. 'You are my family. Esteban's children are my blood relations. You must let me help you.'

Alerted by the shouting, Estelita came over and took her mother's hand. She was a pretty child with her father's huge brown eyes. Pilar looked down at her and Maggie could almost read her mind. The child deserved a better life, warranted a few luxuries.

'Very well, for the sake of the children...'

Maggie grinned. 'I'll set up a bank account as soon as I get home and one day, I hope you'll all come and visit me in England.'  She knew this was unlikely. For Pilar, travelling to England would be tantamount to visiting the moon.

Pilar arranged for a local man to give Maggie a lift in his pick-up truck so that she could collect her suitcase and catch the bus connection but the trip back to Zaragoza was not a happy one. On the outward journey she had been spurred on by hope, but disappointment clouded the homeward journey. Robert was dead. She had left it too late. How could she ever forgive herself?  Meeting Robert's children had been disturbing. She realised that she couldn't take matters entirely into her own hands. How the money was spent rested with their mother. But she could hold some back so that there would be funds in the bank for their future.

On reaching Madrid she had time to spare, her flight home having been booked for the following morning. She phoned Harry, giving him the briefest of details, needing time to assimilate them herself before describing them in full. There was time to take the train into the centre of the city but her emotions were in such turmoil that she knew such a trip would only make things worse. Instead, she killed time by going to the cinema to see Los Atracadores, a recently released crime film. Afterwards, she could hardly remember anything about it. In the hotel restaurant she found a secluded table, hiding behind a novel she had brought with her in order to avoid eye contact with other hotel guests.

After a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed, she got up next morning feeling refreshed. Despite the misfortune of leaving the visit too late to catch up with her brother, she had at least met his family, a family that a few days ago she had no idea existed. All at once, she longed to get home to tell Harry all about it. He met her at Heathrow. She flew into his outstretched arms.

'My, my, that's some welcome,' he said when at last she drew away.

'I'm so glad to be home, Harry,' she whispered.

'Was it really awful, darling? It must have been such a disappointment learning that Robert had passed on. '

Maggie sniffed into the handkerchief he offered her. 'It was a terrible shock, though meeting his children was a bigger shock. Why didn't he tell me about them?'

'We'll never know.'

Harry cleared his Ford Consul through the traffic onto the open road. Maggie filled him in, describing the poverty in which Pilar and the children lived. 'I must do something to help them,' she said.

'Of course you must and perhaps one day you can persuade them to visit us.'

Maggie smiled. 'I'd like that.'

Eve, Fabian and Donald were at home waiting to greet her. Eager to hear all the news, they bombarded her with questions until late into the evening. Finally, exhausted, she excused herself and went to bed. Harry joined her an hour later. With a sigh of contentment, she snuggled close to him, relishing the familiarity of his presence and realising that this was the man with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life.

 

Bilbao - December 1962

 

The old man yawned and rubbed his eyes with arthritic fingers. He had been dozing, lapsing into yesteryear as he was wont to do these days, reminiscing on what had happened and what might have been.

A black-clad nun shuffled up to him. He frowned and emitted a grunt. Why did she creep around so noiselessly? Her saintly tolerance was enough to spook anyone. If he had the strength he'd holler at the woman, shock her into life.

'You've got a visitor, Señor Montalvo,' she said quietly. 'Are you up to receiving visitors?'

A visitor? Outsiders didn't turn up very often these days. He couldn't remember the last time someone had paid him a social call.

'If it's that po-faced therapist, send her away,' he snarled.

The sister smiled patiently, antagonising him even more. 'This is an old friend, El Profesor Guzman. Do you remember him? I believe he occasionally writes to you.'

Of course I remember him, he bellowed in his head, do you think I'm an idiot? Aloud, he said, 'Show him in, hermana.'

When the nun beckoned to him, Raul Guzman strode across the dormitory, a hand outstretched. He saw his host's expression change from ferocious bad-temper to one of welcome as he struggled out of his chair to greet him.

'Raul! Well I never!'

'Still the same old irascible devil,' joked the newcomer, gripping the old man's hand and taking him in a bear-like hug.

Tomás Montalvo's weather-beaten face creased into a grin, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. He swayed slightly causing Raul to steady him, but the handshake and hug were as strong as ever.

'What brings you here, amigo?' Tomás demanded as he tentatively lowered himself back into his armchair. 'You've never visited me before. Surely you didn't travel all the way from Zaragoza simply to see an old dodderer like me.'

'What makes you say that?' said Raul as he took off his overcoat and hung it on the back of the chair.

'Come clean, there must be another reason to bring you to these parts.'

'Well…'

'The truth will out.'

'I'm operating in this area tomorrow. They needed a heart surgeon with my expertise at the Hospital de Basurto, so I thought I'd combine business with pleasure and pay you a visit.'

They were interrupted by the reappearance of the nun, who was carrying a tray of tea and biscuits.

'Thank you, Hermana Mercedes,' said Raul, giving her his disarming smile. 'That's very kind of you.'

'We don't usually get biscuits,' snorted Tomás.

The nun looked flustered, prompting Raul to ask light-heartedly, 'I hope Señor Montalvo has been behaving himself. I'm sure he must be a bit of a handful.'

'Of course he isn't,' protested the woman, blushing furiously. Clearly she wasn't used to having such a distinguished looking man joke with her. Turning abruptly, she left the room, her rough woollen habit brushing against the furniture in her haste to cover up her embarrassment.

After she had left, the two men talked about Raul's career, his rapid rise to professorship when he went back to medical school at the end of the hostilities. 'I was lucky,' he said. 'Despite having lost so much, my family could still afford to support me during those difficult years.'

'Lucky, my foot! You showed extraordinary talent. The new regime couldn't afford to let you go.'

Accustomed to flattery, both with regard to his looks and his ability, Raul smiled modestly and said, 'Enough about me, how have you been?'

'I've been dying,' replied the old man, 'little by little, day by day, hour by hour…of boredom. Why couldn't I have perished at the front and been hailed a hero like most of my comrades?'

He broke into a paroxysm of coughing and delved into his pocket for a handkerchief.

'It can't be as bad as that,' protested Raul, handing him his own handkerchief.

'You should try it. Those do-gooding vultures are always waiting to pounce. They enjoy funerals. I think they've got a stake in the local undertaking business. But I defy their efforts to hasten my end. I've come this far so I'll cling on for as long as I can,' replied Tomás once he had recovered.

'You always were an obstinate old devil. But seriously, do they treat you all right?'

'I suppose they do their best, given the funds available to them.' He gave a snort. 'That's enough of the ranting of an eighty-year-old fossil. Come on, tell me, what's been going on in the outside world?'

Raul grinned. 'There's something I thought would interest you.'

'Out with it, don't keep me in suspense.'

'Well…quite out of the blue, I came into contact with a patient who gave me some news about a mutual friend.'

'…an ex POUM member?'

'Yes, Esteban Morán.'

'Don't tell me that rascal survived? The last I heard was that he was badly wounded. I really thought he'd bought it.'

'He died earlier this year.'

'So he hung on for more than a couple of decades?'

'Yes, but he suffered from poor health for the remainder of his life. What's interesting is, according to my patient, just after his death his sister went to see his widow…'

'He was married?' Tomás eyes lit up with interest.

'Yes, married with three children.'

'What a surprise! I never thought that woman of his would be interested in motherhood.'

'Dolores you mean?' Raul laughed. 'He didn't marry Dolores. She made off after he handed all his money over to his sister. He married a woman from one of the villages; they ran a farm together until his health deteriorated.'

Tomás sat forward eagerly. 'Tell me, what happened to his sister, the little inglesa?' He winked. 'You were involved with her, weren’t you?'

'I was for a short while.' Not wanting to dwell on that episode, Raul went on. 'Apparently, Maggie is going to set his family up with a trust fund. This is money taken from Esteban's inheritance so it's rightfully the widow's anyway. It seems, Maggie had no idea her brother was living in poverty - he was a qualified engineer you know - let alone married with a family.'

'Didn't they keep in touch over the years?'

'I'm sure she tried but you know what a bastard that brother of hers was. He was pretty offhand with her when she came to track him down way back in '37. He was so full of his own importance, he didn't appreciate how courageous she was, travelling out to the front line to find him.'

After another bout of coughing, Tomás asked, 'What happened to her? Is she living in England?'

'Yes.'

Raul's reluctance to expound on Maggie's circumstances fuelled Tomás' curiosity. He leant forward in his eagerness to learn more. 'Well, come on tell me, did she get those children safely out of Spain?'

'Yes, what's more, she brought them all up as her own, including that young tearaway, Ángel. Would you believe it, he's a lawyer now?'

'I'll be damned! But I suppose she was a match for any member of the male gender. Did she ever get married?'

'Yes,' said Raul quietly. 'She married that British diplomat.'

'Harry Fforbes!' Tomás gave a roar of laughter as he flopped back in his chair. 'Well I never! That woman was the feistiest female I ever came across. She would never take 'no' for an answer. Talk about stubborn and to think that when I first met her, she was afraid of her own shadow.'

Raul joined in with his companion's amusement although privately he did not share his gleeful recollections. His memories were sad: images of a naïve young girl with whom he had had the misfortune to fall in love. No woman before or since had matched up to her. He had missed his opportunity, hampered by war and his own stupidity. He often thought about her, and wondered whether she was happy with her English husband. How different the Morán twins had turned out to be. Two sides of a coin.

Tomás carried on. 'And she refused to have an abortion…'

'…abortion? I didn't know anything about that,' said Raul, his shoulders stiffening.

Tomás immediately realised he had spoken out of turn. 'I thought she'd told you.'

'Was it mine?' Raul asked the question but he already knew the answer.

'Who else's could it have been?' Raul heard Tomás carry on speaking. 'She lost it anyway. In fact, she was seriously ill for a while.'

'She lost my child?' Raul echoed Tomás' words as if in a trance.

'I'm sorry, I thought you knew.'

'Why didn't she tell me?'

'Maybe you didn't give her a chance.'

The meeting that had started out so jovially came to an abrupt end. Making the excuse of a pressing engagement, Raul Guzman took his leave of Tomás Montalvo, leaving the room with the old man's shocking words still ringing in his ears. In 1938, linked by a brave English girl, they had shared so much. And not knowing what had happened to Maggie had united them. Having exchanged information, Tomás would be left to while away his remaining years with fond memories but Raul had heard more than he wanted to hear.

After bidding farewell to Hermana Mercedes, he left the retreat knowing that, despite having promised to keep in touch, he would never visit Tomás again. With Maggie's secret revealed, the link between the two men was broken.

THE END

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Dear Reader,

   I hope you enjoyed my novel. It took two years to write and was inspired by visits to my son and his family who live near Madrid. I have tried to be accurate with regard to events of the Spanish Civil War but please bear in mind that this is a work of fiction.Your feed-back at the end of this website would be appreciated.

   Finally, if you have enjoyed this novel please take a look at my other books, extracts of which can be found on the following pages. All my books are available from Amazon and high street bookshops.

Elaine Hankin