Another kiss from death’s sweet breath?

Emily and the boys halted at daybreak on the side of a wooded hill overlooking the burning town of Gandesa. As the only surviving officer, the poetcaster had kept them going in the Great Retreats since Belchite and somehow held them together as a coherent unit. Travelling in silence east by starlight, they’d somehow managed to evade the encircling movements of the Italian cavalry and other fascist motorised groups busy mopping up other less fortunate stragglers. They’d been walking for 14 nights by now, with little but a little local tinto to sustain their wanderings, laden down as they were with the looted contents of a haberdashery they’d spotted in Azalia, with their three additional handcarts full of locally produced tin glazed earthenware purloined from a shop in Asco bringing up the rear. The contents of a pet shop in Batea had also been appropriated and many of the animals had decided to throw in their lot with the last remnants of the Lincolns in the attempt to get over the Ebro and to Brigade. The dogs, driven demented from lack of water, barked incessantly at the sun. During the night they’d pause briefly before turning their howls towards the moon. For days now they had been attracting the increasingly accurate fire of the Moroccan snipers on the little group. The poet had to admire her men, who without having had as much as a thimble of vino for the last few days, continued to carry 37 full glass goldfish bowls over steeply terraced hillsides of vines and olives in the black of night. The goldfish within were surely now impervious to the dangers they were facing from the German 88s, who even then were pounding the very hillside they were on. The more intelligent among them recognised a more immediate threat of heat exhaustion brought on by evaporation. The gunners’ aim was inadvertently assisted at every squawk from the giant Brazilian macaw, whose magnificent foliage glistened off the sun, a flaming red and green arrow which pointed to our boys’ position as if to say, ‘Sind sie blinde? Die sind ja gnau hier, idioten!’.

Every neutrino of Emily’s poetic intellect had anticipated the present predicament. In previous moments of great stress, she’d read to the men from the Bible and from a small collection of French pornography she’d looted from the pockets of a dead nun whose last wish, unbeknownst to herself, was to examine the cooling system on the poetcaster’s Maxim machine gun. Her cherished early printing of the New England cookbook Delicious Recepies Just Like Mamma Used To Make and her 1935 edition of the Good Beer Guide had  themselves become victims of war and had disappeared by the third night of their thirsty odyssey.

More was called for now, but the question remained, had these boys any more to give?

The New England poet lit up the stub of a cheroot she’d swopped for her Maxim, its 1200 rounds and several articles of her underwear stolen from Hemingway after their lusty night together in the Hotel Las Palmeras. She dismounted the zebra and looked around her, regretting, only for the second time in Spain, her leaving of Amherst and her throwing in her lot with the Comintern. For it was a rum ragged bunch indeed before her, preening at each other with their newly-acquired pets; mostly Irish it seemed, from the soft south side of Dublin.

The winner and runner-ups from the XV Brigade Conor McHale Lookalike Competition, 1937

Emily recognised a few fellow travelers on the confessional front perhaps, but nothing too High Church. One such brigadista had taken on the role of her batman since her bare-knuckle fight with Dave Doran against the flaming ruins of Caspe. McHale was his name, a diminutive cartoonist, popular with the men, who’d specialised in vintage ladies’ underwear since joining No. 2 (Terenure) Company of the Irish Republican Army at the age of six.

McHale in happier times behind the lines

McHale rummaged in one of his three suitcases and removed a battered banjo he’d shot an elderly lady for at Quinto while hastily assembling a mouth harp grip around his scrawny neck. He broke cover as he roared for his assistant to bring forth his lambeg from the handcart to the rear. His shy and chronically inhibited factotum, Hayden, felt the swizz of an 88 shell singe the lower reaches of his beard as he bent over to retrieve the 6’ diameter drum the McHale had liberated from some of his own brethren in the British Battalion (after firstly poisoning them all with paraquat). Having secured the drum to his back and the footpedal to his left heel, McHale proceeded to belly crawl across the slope of the hill against the guns of the fascists (and, it is said, a few of his own) before making a final dash to the neighbouring wooded hilltop some 400m away. He was followed by Hayden who’d been told to Dash! by the doughty old lady who had brought them this far.

McHale in less happier times, before the fascist firing squad (which he skillfully evaded)

The 88s were silenced for some fifteen minutes or so as McHale began to strike up some songs well known to the rugby-playing fraternity, finishing the recital with a sentimental rendition of Kumbaya My Lord, which of course had been written by Emily back in Amherst. As the last echoes of McHale’s extended mouth harp solo merged with the snapping of his last banjo string into the already stifling Catalan morning, he sat down and awaited his fate, pulling out an old apple pastry he’d kept over his two years in Spain from his pencil case, spitting on the encrusted dirt and bloodstains and breaking off a corner for the ever faithful Hayden. The latter presented it as a last love gift to his albino poodle Bianca, who’d accompanied her master on the short, but dangerous run across to the hilltop. Hayden’s tuba was now beyond use, having received a direct hit from an 88 during the middle 8 of The Turfman from Ardee. He placed it carefully on the taffeta rug he brought across for this purpose, beside the bullet-ridden remnants of McHale’s lambeg drum. A single tear smeared the dust on his cheek before disappearing into the facial forest of his young manhood. McHale stifled a belly laugh, uncomfortable as he was during  Hayden’s more sentimental moments.

Bianca escaped the fascists and was subsequently awarded Hero of the Soviet Union after her participation in the Battle of Stalingrad

Emily hadn’t been inactive as the fascists’ attentions had been focused on McHale’s Hill (as it was to be forever remembered in the rich historical topography of the Lincoln Battalion). A breakfast of Earl Grey and toasted crumpets was washed down by a quart of neat gin as she wryly surveyed the musical goings-on on the summit beside her. She dictated a few verses to the one comrade still in possession of sufficient fingers to hold her nickel-plated pencil, which even then glinted beautifully in the morning sunlight, an eloquent reminder for one Berber sharpshooter that indeed, there was still a war going on. Something in the music filtering through from McHale’s Hill reminded her of the location of a convent somewhere to the north where further help may have been at hand (probably indeed the faint strains of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, just audible under the gunfire). After carefully supervising the washing and packing up of her breakfast plate and cutlery, she and her men broke away in the lea of the fascist artillery and make their way northwards, but not before giving themselves a last opportunity to bid adieu to their musical comrades, who, unbeknownst to the poetess were at that moment entertaining several Gestapo officers to some old timey songs from the foothills of the Dublin Mountains on autoharp and celiste. A common love for the music of Lindisfarne encouraged the Germans to join their voices with those of McHale and Hayden in the chorus of Run For Home, where their proficiency at the key change surely saved the Irishmen’s lives.

Hayden, shorn slightly after capture but unbeaten nonetheless

The convent was spotted by 12.30. and after an hour carefully assaying the shape and body weight of several of its occupants and the  spending several more hours in the little girls’ rooms and the well-equipped gym, a deal was struck and the small group continued safely on the Ebro. There were several less mouths to feed in the convent that night and a mass was offered in thanks.

Our boys fail at the last hurdle (Robert Capa)

The crossing of the Ebro was marred however by the accurate fire of anarchist machine-gunners on the far shore, who took our boys for Francoist 5th columnists. By a stroke of luck, the moment was captured by the lens of Robert Capa who’d already paid the anarchists to aim well and low.

Emily’s leadership abilities were not ignored by Brigade, who immediately offered her a staff position, despite her previous membership of the International Workers of the World. As is well known, Emily refused to leave her comrades on the front line and rejoined her old Transmiciones unit, crossing the Ebro again that September in that one last push against the Fascists.

The comrades immediately prior to their escape from the convent

1 Response to “Another kiss from death’s sweet breath?”

  1. September 28, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    ‘A diminutive cartoonist’? I’m six foot shagging two!!

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