Keep Your Head Down, Henry
A Flash novella by Jon Tait
A Red Fox
Ah was sitting on the ootdoor netty smoking a Woodbine in me cloth cap when ah hord something scratching aboot among the bins. Whey, ah just gan oot to get away from the noise of ahl the bairns running aboot, man. Give maself ten minutes peace, you knaa. So ah up to have a look, thinking it might be a dorty black rat or something, and there he is, bowld is brass, a bonny red fox.
He looked up at me with these greet orange peepers, his bony ribs showing through his thin sides, and owld Micky Muggins here gans and takes pity on him. Ah don’t know why. Ah’ve just always had a soft spot for animals, man. Ah lift the muckle metal bin lid, and chuck him down a bit chicken carcass that we’d left over from our Sunday dinner. He looked like he was gannin to bolt, like, but when he got a waft of the bones he grabbed it up in his gob and off he went out the yard door and up the back lonnen. It’s all red brick and slates up wor raa and in the dusky twilight he was gone in a flash. Ah gave maself a little grin, chucked down the glowing tab end an got maself back in the hoose.
They’re a geet bonny animal a fox, mind, with their long snout and bushy tail, the white on their bellies.
Ah divn’t reckon they’re vormin like some of the fellas roond here will tell you. Nah, live and let live, Ah reckon, you’ve got to dee what you’ve got to dee to get by.
Ah divn’t keep ferrets like a lot of the pit marras dee and there’s ney animals in ma hoose. Ah’ve always fancied a little wiry terrier, mind, but wor lass’ll not have one while there’s young ‘uns knocking aboot. She doesn’t trust them aroond the bairns, like. She told me that she got nipped by a Jack Russell when she was just a bit bairn herself, so wor lads have got nee chance of getting a dog.
Ah work as a stone quarryman and come hyem knackered every night. It’s bloody hard yak braying lumps of rock off a stone face with a chisel, Ah tell you. So anyways, Ah gets away in in my owld collarless grandad short with the sleeves rowlled up an my hefty forearms oot and sweeps up wor Henry in one swift move. The bairn’s giggling, his white blonde hair ahl wet an sticking up from his wash in the tin bath by the coal fire, and Ah tells him what Ah’ve seen oot the back.
“What was it like, Dad?” he asks, his eyes wide in wonderment.
“Whey, it was a hungry looking thing,” Ah says.
“I divn’t reckon it’s getting much food roond here. It’d be better off oot in the countryside where it could catch rabbits and that.”
“Christ, divn’t encourage the bairns to feed a bloody fox, man, George,” says Mary, her cheeks flushed red against her blue eyes and dark hair. A bonny Irish lass, her fathaa had come ower from Dublin to work doon the pits when the tattie famine was on. Ah sometimes supped a porter with him in the club when Ah got the chance.
“Haddaway Mary, man, a fox’ll not touch the young ‘uns, thy’re mair afraid of us than we are of it. It could have mooths to feed itself. There’ll be cubs in a den somewhere up the woods ower the back. We’re not so different, me an yon fox.”
“Wheest, man,” she says in exasperation.
“You’re a bloody dreamer.”
“Aye,” ah reply, giving her a wide smile, “But that’s why you love uz, Mary Molloy.”
Ah bent ower an give her a big kiss as she swaddled the baabie then lifted wor Henry up on me showlders.
“Haway, kidda, it’s bedtime,” Ah says, and they gan trooping up the stairs.
Lenin loves a Party
Ya fox is a territorial animal. You see, we’re living on it’s land, not the other way aroond. This un must’ve been here when they built wor raa after Thu Waa. Ah look at my medals on the mantelpiece. Aye, ah was ower in France with the Northumberland Fusiliers. Jesus, you wouldn’t believe what Ah seen ower there, man. It was bloody carnage. Legs getting blown off me marras in a clarty trench, the stench of death in your nose. The rattle of the machine guns. Barbed wire, green helmets wi’ bullet howls in them, slipping in the blood and mud and clenching onto my rifle for grim death. Men shouting orders, whistles blowing and smowk blackening the skies. Ah was shitein’ myself, but you never let it show. Ah was taalkin to Tommy Watson, a fittah from Jarra, when Ah got sprayed with a mist of his blood. Just like that. A Jerry roond hit him in the heid and he fell back stone deed. You didn’t talk aboot it, though. Not in front of the bairns or the missus, like. Maybes a bit crack with a few of the lads in the club when Ah’d had a few broon ales in me belly. It just got you maudlin.
Nah, ah promised that day that ah’d never let any bairns of mine get caught up in something like that.
Ah had two dowters afore the Waa and they’re married off noo. Three laddies since – wor Jack’s eight, Henry’s five and the nippah, William, is six month.
Wor Margaret’s with a polis, but ah divn’t howld it against her. Mary’s married on a bus man. You wouldn’t believe the bloody arguments that gan on in the hoose when they come aroond for tea, man.
Mary’s fella reckons there’s ganna be a revolution. Says they’re flying the red flag off the Toon Hall ower in Chopwell. The pitmen have ahlwis been bloody mental, man, ah tells him. Whe wants to gan doon in the blackness and howk at a seam six mile oot under the North Sea? Nah, give me the outdoors anyday. Ah’d rather be oot braying at rocks with me chisel in the sunshine than gan doon that hell hole.
Thy’re oot on strike an the TUC want us all oot on General Strike. Ten Useless Cunts, the lads at work reckon. Margaret’s bloke, the coppah, tells him to keep his yak shut, like. Reckons he’ll get himself in bother.
Wor lass’ll rowl her eyes an ah try and lighten the mood a little by taalkin shite.
“He loves a party, does Lenin,” ah say.
“Ah knaa, ya waaldn’t believe it, waald yah? He lucks muckle serious wi his suit an scowl. But thi goatee beard is thi giveaway. He’s a reet hipster, owld Vladimir. Me mate Bob was sent ower ti Moscow as part ovih delegation from thi British Party. Mind, Bob cud be a real heed-thi-bahl himsel, but hee’d promised to be on ees best behaviour for thi trip. Imagine ees surprise when V.I. tells the lads to stop playin thi serious Soviet stuff an gans an slaps on a Jazz recad, a 78 thit he plays it thi wrang speed for a giggle.”
The coppah looks at uz like ah’m daft. Ah’m not. Ah still reckon ah’m like yon fox. The rich’ll run us ahl doon if they get half a chance. Ah’ve seen them oot on the hunt, blaaing their horns in their red coats with the hoonds ahl excited runnin aroond in front. Poor bloody animal. There’s nowt humane aboot chasing a fox ower the fields and seeing him torn apart by the pack in a hedgeraa.
Ah tapt another tab from ma packet and lit it up, chucking me cloth cap on the back of the chair, and pulled the smowk doon into me lungs. Aye, wor Henry, son, ah think of the laddie as ah enjoy the hit, keep your heid doon and avoid the hunt and the hoonds.
Be smart like yon fox in wah backyard.
You’re aboot as much good as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest, Henry, ma fathaa had berated me as Ah got owlder. That was afore Ah ran off with the circus and married the dark-haired fortune teller.
Now Ah used those mocking words as motivation as the sweat poured off me.
Ah rolled ma neck and gripped onto the side ropes, tattoos of ships, busty pin-up girls and swallows, blue as fivers, bulging on my biceps. The white-haired second, who also mucked oot the elephants, sprayed water into my mooth and after swilling it aroond, Ah spat it into the bucket with a dull metallic splash like a dog cocking its leg up a lamp-post.
The crowd’s chanting grew more intense under the soft yellow light of the big top, adorned in Union Jack flags, as wads of crumpled greasy notes were exchanged by gamblers in sharp overcoats and bowler hats.
Ah turned in the sawdust to face my next opponent and was gob-smacked as up he hopped.
The one-legged man. Ma nemesis.
Ma own bloody fathaa, army moustache, waistcoat, scowl and all, the Bosch shrapnel having done its worst in the trenches of the Somme and him getting it lopped off some years later. He took the heavy green greatcoat off his shoulders and handed it to a man with a bulldog. The golden Regimental shoulder badges flashed for an instant as he rolled the coat into a tight bahl and patted ma fathaa on the back.
Once Ah got ower the initial surprise of seeing him, face red with rage, Ah pounded ma gloves together and strode forward purposefully. Raised ma fists and waited for the forst bell.
Ma wife never saw that coming in her crystal bahl.
A Bad Man
Mind, she never saw me running off to join the International Brigade, either.
They reckon that we’re the scum of Europe in the newspapers; and Ah admit it, Ah’m a bad man. Not nasty or wicked, just bad.
One night Ah was swaying aroond the back of a rough owld sailor’s pub by the docks in the weak orange glow of a street light with the laughter and music inside muffled and distant like the final sounds a drooning man hears, when a cat started twisting between my feet and rubbing against ma boots.
A ginger Tom. A bonny looking thing.
Ah had half a rolled-up tab burning ma lips and the smoke was stinging ma eyes as Ah unzipped to release the ten pints of Scotch bitter that were pressing hard on ma borsting bladder.
Ah didn’t hear the expected flow against the wall, but a softer sound then the wail of the cat as it ran off, the fur flattened on its back.
To be honest, Ah laughed as Ah imagined it gannin back hyem through the flap and its owners wondering if it was raining ootside.
Ah chuckled to myself almost as much as the time when Rab Dodd and myself weren’t allowed into a party one Christmas because of our reputations for womanising and hard drinking, so we pissed in the girl’s fathaas’ Wellingtons at the back door and hoped he would splash into them when he went to take the spaniels for their morning waalk up the misty river.
But then Ah’m a bad man.
And lazy, an’ ahl; it was like a load was lifted when the show boss eventually came and gave us a weeks’ notice.
The speculation over our jobs had been going on for a while and when it got to the point where he fired us, it was almost a relief.
He was red-faced and made some lame excuse aboot the dip in the global economy and a depression in the market, some crash on Wahl Street, before clearing off quickly.
Some of the others took it quite badly; there were a few tears and a fair bit of cursing and hard drinking in the trailer park.
Ah just couldn’t face the daily monotony of the unemployment office, the grey drudge through the vacant jobs section of the local newspapers while sipping at a lukewarm mug of coffee and, in my darker moments, pressed the cold, black barrel of a Luger to ma temple.
So it was with a heavy heart that Ah eyed ma worn red gloves one last time then packed them carefully into my suitcase. You never knew when the market might pick up again.
Ah walked oot of the caravan and sniffed the air. Though still tinged with candyfloss, hot dogs and dodgem oil, it smelt of freedom.
Truth is Ah always hated the bloody circus anyway and Ah just joined the British Battalion to piss the owld man off.
Whey, that and to get away from the nagging of the fortune teller.
Ah’d only seen one woman fire a gun afore Ah went oot to Spain. Ma owld nana lived on a farm up in the hills and Ah was sent from the coal and soot blackened streets of the pit toon where we lived to stay and help clear my lungs. Ah got ma own bed at nanas, a large scratchy but soft multi-coloured patchwork quilt pulled up tight aroond my neck. It sure beat lying top to tail with my brothers in the drafty bedroom at hyem. We only had one pair of boots between us, so if you didn’t get the boots, you didn’t gan to school. They were too big and cumbersome for me, so often Ah’d just sit on the end of the metal bed at hyem and look out of the window at the big winding gear of the pit heid, the streams of smoke from the red chimney stacks billowing into the sky.
One day Ah saw an adder curled up basking on the stone steps leading up to nana’s cottage out beside the owld cow byre. Ah went in to tell her and was surprised as she went into the pantry by the warm Aga stove and came oot with a double barrelled shotgun that looked ower heavy for her to carry and loaded it up with a couple of shells. Nana’s weather worn face was as wizened as an old currant and she had a shock of white hair. She went oot and gave the snake both barrels, the kick rocking her on her feet, leaving it a torn and tangled mess of blood and guts. She was no-nonsense, owld nana. And tough. She did the lambing on her own or with just me to help, pulling a wet lamb from the hind end of its bleating mother and rubbing its nose with straw from the floor until it got on its shaky long legs. But that was the first time that Ah’d seen the gun and marvelled at the polished wooden stock and the oily metal of the barrels, the smell of cold steel. Ah’d had plenty of chances to handle a weapon since joining the Brigade, though, even if we didn’t have enough to gan aroond at times.
Ah was in the shade of some orange trees sat with ma mate Harry, a machinist from one of the Lancashire mill towns, wiping the sweat from under the collar of ma uniform jacket with an oily rag, when three young women walked by. Two were obviously local Spanish girls with their long dark hair tied up under their forage hats, broon eyes and the sleeves of their shirts rolled up. The third had striking ice-cold blue eyes and blonde hair and a Soviet badge on her black beret. She cut an impressive figure with her confident upright stride, smudges of dirt and dust on her high cheekbones and full lips with a the leather strap of her sniper rifle slung over her shoulder.
“Is she Russian?” Ah asked Harry in hushed tones.
“That’s Natalya,” he said. “She’s from Ukraine, I think.”
Her boots were powdered with the yellow sand that billowed around in the wind that got in our tin mugs of coffee and our hair, a leather belt tight around her slender waist. We were told to get our gear together and make our way up to the ridge that overlooked the fascist forces on the other side of the valley. Ah was setting down my backpack in the dust when Natalya called me over.
“Can you use binoculars, comrade?” she asked in a heavily accented, husky voice.
“Aye,” Ah replied, holding out the set that hung from around ma neck, ma pulse quickening somewhat under the gaze of those salient blue eyes, and made ma way across to her.
“Keep low,” she said, causing me to get down on ma honkers. “Don’t break the skyline.”
She took the rifle off her back and crawled up to a hollow in the dust on the precipice, indicating me to do the same.
“I need you to be spotter. Find me a target.”
Ah lay beside Natalya aware of her steady, rhythmic breathing that was sometimes warm on the nape of my neck, the rise and fahl of her back. Ah began scanning the enemy positions through the glass, focusing in on groups of men in black uniforms smoking and sitting on ammunition boxes, blurred then becoming crystal clear and seemingly very near as Ah turned the lenses. Ah’d got the binoculars off an owld farmer when Ah was staying at nanas once. He’d encouraged me to do some bird spotting. We only ever saw big clouds of starlings circling the skies at home in a big, black, shifting mass, flying around the old brick gable ends painted with tobacco advertising, the wet slates of the roof tops shining. But up in the dead red bracken and purple heather moorlands Ah’d seen sparrow hawks and kestrels and grouse beating their wings rapidly with a sudden whoosh as they were startled out of nesting spots. Now Ah trained ma eyes on an officer in the trenches on the other side of the winding river from our high vantage point. Natalya set her rifle in a firing position, getting the butt comfortably set against her shoulder and setting the telescopic sights with slender fingers that were hardened and calloused through action. Ah set doon the binoculars, worried about any sun glints on the glass giving away our position.
“There’s an officer in the trench,” Ah said, giving her an approximate distance, elevation and wind speed and looked on with growing admiration – adoration, even - as she squinted one of those beautiful blue eyes to the sight and braced herself, squeezed the trigger and took the shot. Ah peered through the binoculars. The officer dropped like a sack of coal. Natalya smiled.
It was Natalya who taught me how to shoot; it’s the breathing that’s important.
Slow and steady. Ignore the heavy heartbeat pounding in your chest.
Ma soft-worn battered brown leather jacket creaked as it rose and fell steadily with each measured breath.
Ah scanned the palm-lined plaza from ma rooftop vantage through the scope. A fairground wheel, the pomp of brass bands mingling with the jangle from a carnival wooden horse ride, the low chattering grumble of a flag-waving crowd.
Ah kissed the red Party pin for luck and tucked back inside ma jacket, cool against ma unshaven neck and suntanned skin.
The mayor stood at the platform in a sash.
Ah pulled the trigger.
Ma dreams are distorbed by the Jarrow marchers, lean and hungry as whippets, ahl flat caps and mufflers and double breasted-coats, banners and hob-nailed boots rapping steady on the road as the rattle of a machine gun and when Ah jolt awake in the sticky heat Ah think it is the retort of rounds that has conjured up the images, ma heid making the association.
But then the big Swede Nils on the canvass camp bed alongside mine will fart again, little squeakers and huge explosions almost as dangerous as Franco’s bombs.
The Spanish rations divn’t agree with the large Swede’s guts and he’s ahlways letting rip, man.
Nils has a scruffy blonde beard and sticking up yellow hair with an apologetic grin, his once-white woolly jumper grimy with grease and dort and the fella grumbles that we divn’t get much fish.
We’ve got ahlsorts sleeping in the dusty church that we’ve commandeered as a post for the sniper unit, rushing to the windows cursing in a variety of languages as the Jorman planes drone ower the top like big deadly birds. It’s not so different from the circus, like, full of dreamers and drifters and runaways.
Although Ah believed in the collective, Ah relied more on maself; as a bare knuckle champion and show boxer Ah had naebody watching ma back. It was face to face, up close with the smell of sweat as ripe as wor digs up in your nostrils.
The hammer was ma jab, the sickle ma uppercut.
You had to rely on your own nerves.
That made being a sniper a doddle for me. Hitting a target from distance through a glass sight made it ahl feel a bit impersonal, like. It almost didn’t feel real, seeing the fine red mist and bits of brains spray from an entry wound and watching them fahl.
Ah felt nowt. Not even a numbness. The Moors or the Italians and Jormans fighting for Franco would kill me given half a chance. Some of the Spanish even mair so. They hated us for being in their country, spat at and despised. The brass casing flying oot of ma bolt slot with a metallic ping and that existential moment before the roond hit home was probably mair satisfying than landing a knock-oot blow.
People starving at hyem, people lying deid in the hot streets here, blood congealed thick on the pavement, reduced to just bundles torn clothes contorted into unnatural shapes, raw meat buzzing with flies.
Nowt lasts. The world can be a bloody cruel place.
That fox in the backyard that me fathaa was so fond of? That had getten both barrels off a twelve bore. Its bloody tail was lopped off and hung limp from a fence at the top of the raa like a sad memento.
The Union Guy
Little Pepe was the union guy. He wore these big black plastic rimmed spectacles and had balding white hair, slicked back with pomade. The phone was ahlways ringing in Little Pepe’s office. He ran the garment makers and we were constantly pushing racks of smart suits out the back of warehooses amang the chaos of bombing raids and gunfire. If anyone complained, Little Pepe would threaten them with a strike.
Ah was ahlways scoring here and there when Ah got a bit leave from the front. It was frowned on by the Brigade top brass, mind; nae petty pilfering.
It was on leave when Ah met blokes like Little Pepe and Fat Louie, a chef from the Garibaldi Battalion, who encouraged me to mek the most of a bad situation.
Divn’t burn the garlic in the olive oil. That was always Fat Louie’s refrain. Divn’t let it broon, let it melt.
He was a pizzaiola from Napoli with silver streaks in his dark hair and forearms thick as joints of beef. Louie made the greatest tomato sauce, loaded with meatballs and spicy sausage whenever we got the chance to take ower a bullet-riddled hotel.
He was also handy with a gun and a knife.
But what he really liked was to be in a steaming hot kitchen with steel pans, the clatter of cutlery, shouting orders. So it was kind of ironic when his heart packed up at the stove.
One night Ah’d manoeuvred a couple of exotic dark local lasses tired of conflict from a raucous bar up into me tatty room with a bottle of brandy, the thrill of the silk nylons and hungry mouths meeting, tongues entwined and yanking each other’s clothes off as we bounced on the course sheets of the bumpy bed. A curl of pubic mound, legs entwining, a slender neck, hair stroked behind an ear. They just wanted into me pay, like, but ah wasn’t going to let that bother me.
That’s what the serious Marxists in the leadership couldn’t get a handle on; a woman can be equal, but someone’s still got to be on top in the bedroom, man. The Catholic priests were even worse. Lust isn’t aboot dry political theory or religious doctrine, it’s aboot dampness and passion and getting wild noo and then, unscrewing the top from the bottle and taking a long slug amid the moans of pleasure and gasps of sensation, all the while thinking of the striking Natalya. There’s nae shame in sex.
The Fascists picked Little Pepe up on a racketeering charge and his picture made the front page on the newsstands. When he was led away in handcuffs, he cursed madly at the Fascists to watch his dapper suit.
Ah never saw him again.
Ah’d never seen Mosley’s blackshirts, but Ah’d heard tell of them. Bloody maniacs with their lightening bolt armbands and Nazi salutes, goose-stepping up the East End of London with their Union flags flying and flapping in the wind.
Some of the Cockney lads in the Battalion had been at the Battle of Cable Street when they’d stopped Mosley marching.
They’d stood shoulder to shoulder on street barricades in their trilby hats and wool overcoats with Jews, trade unionists, ordinary working men, women and kids, lobbing marbles at the intimidating ranks and pulling people to safety when the police horses ran at them.
Hitler, Mosley, Mussolini, Franco, all these pathetic little men in their daft uniforms offering the illusion of power to the powerless, selling them false dreams about taking back control of their countries. What bloody control?
Give us ten minutes in the ring with them, man, and Ah’d sort them oot. You just didn’t see owt like that aroond ma way, where the NUM and the Labour Party held sway in the Social Clubs and Welfare Institutes.
Cockney Bob was an owlder bloke with a bit of a gut and deep-lined face, a pigeon fancier with a loft at home who fretted aboot his birds before handing me his rolled up copy of the Daily Worker. Bob was ahlreet, man. Worked in a factory doon by the docks, great black cranes on the skyline through the London smog.
“Oh, you should have seen it, Geordie,” he says, tapping a cheap Spanish tab oot of the flimsy packet on his tin helmet and lighting up as he sits on an ammunition box in his white string vest.
“They shall not pass. No Pasaran! We beat the buggers there, and we’ll beat the buggers here.”
Bob soaring into the air with his birds flapping around him ahl grey and black in gentle applause; later killed by machine gun fire at the Ebro.
The intoxication of eyes
Natalya has a smell that’s intoxicating. Just soap, but clean, and Ah inhale deeply as Ah lay in a dusty dip close by her. Ah try not to get caught admiring the curves of her buttocks in her tight black pants and it’s a bit weird to just think of her as a Comrade; Ah see it in her smoky blue eyes too, a lingering look sometimes, a subtle bite of her bottom lip, flicking her blonde hair off her face. There’s definitely an attraction. But Ah daren’t do nowt about it. The Political Commissars would string me up by ma bahls.
Natalya can’t believe that Ah’m English and laughs at ma accent in wor almost domestic moments when we get a brew of coffee on between action, clinking wor tin mugs together and blaaing the steam off.
Ah’m from the extremities, the frontier lands, the far North, Ah try and explain.
“Maybe you are Scottish, Henry?” she asks, picking up on the accents of the Glasgow and Edinburgh lads that fight alongside us in the Machine Gun and Artillery batteries.
“Aye, maybes, you’re close enough there,” Ah reply, scratching at my beard.
Tek a shot then move position afore the Fascists can get a fix on us and drop mortars or airplane strikes on our heads, shuffling on bent knees to stay hidden.
Moving across dry dust that breaks easily, past fig trees, orange groves, through the greenery down by glittering rivers in valley bottoms with the constant sun constantly beating down.
Ah’d noticed one of the Spanish lasses keep catching my eye at the base, too, just looking ower with these big broon eyes and catching my gaze full on, then averting her look away afore subtly returning it. A beautiful lass with a bandana tied aroond her neck, the red of the material setting off her black hair and wonderfully broon skin just perfect, man.
Her husband had been killed in action early on in the conflict and she fought with a ferocity and intensity that was attractive, but a sadness there too, a feeling of morose that just added more longing to her unattainably.
But Ah’m a sniper, an opportunist, and Ah’ll not change ma womanising ways. Ah cannit; Ah’m driven by a need for female companionship in a place where any one of us could be killed at any minute.
With ahl that death and decay aroond, the crying and wailing of wizened black-shawled widows, the sobs of small fearful children, the constant barrages of fire, the thought of feeling soft skin and mashing a pair of firm full breasts in ma scarred hands, gently squeezing a nipple between ma fingers rather than the cold steel of a trigger fills me with hope and a longing to live, though Ah’m confused by the conflicting emotions of esteem and desire for me gunning partner.
“It’s ma turn to shoot, Natalya,” ah says as we tek up a fresh position in the white sun bleached ruins and rubble of a shelled-oot building and she smiles and shrugs, the Baltic frost thawing somewhat in the heat and mutual respect we’ve built up ower time. But there’s a lot of talk aboot teking the women oot of the front line action, discrediting them as prostitutes with loose morals. It’s just propaganda, man. None of the women Ah’ve met in the trenches are interested in shagging. They just want their freedom and they’re willing to fight for it. It’s women that have the most to lose from injustice and oppression. Ah’ve seen it, believe me.
Ah tek a position, leaning me rifle on the rubble in a window and begin scanning for a new target as Natayla gives me an encouraging smile.
Ah should have browt me battered boxing gloves with us.
Maybe that would have stopped us playing with meself.
It’s Them or You
You don’t hear a round until it has zipped ower your heid. Multiply that by hundreds and you just want to bury yourself in the yellow soil, scratch yourself a hole with your bare hands. Mortars are terrifying, a thump of air pressure then the dreadful anticipation of where it’s gannin to fahl. When Ah was boxing, you could see where a punch was coming from. Oot here and it’s just tek a chance.
Airplanes strafing the groond with bullets that kick up the dirt in straight lines moving towards you fast.
The whistle of bombs, dropped like black eggs from dreadful droning dark birds hanging in blue skies.
You don’t hear the round that hits you.
The Fascists mounted a surprise full assault on our church post, holes being punched into the soft bricks. People returning fire then slumping forward as if into a sudden sleep, their rifles fahling to the floor with a clatter as they where hit. Blood splattering the yellow wahls red as large calibre rounds tore through flesh and bone.
Ah got meself up onto the roof among the confusion and shouting, the groans of injured comrades, and hunkered doon behind the sand bags.
We had a Soviet Degtyarev with a round drum magazine up there and Ah started raining doon lead on the men making their way across the dusty scrubland towards us in ragged lines.
The constant chatter of the weapon drooning oot the noise of the battle and any thoughts of panic in ma heid. Just keep up the bursts, keep watching them spin and fahl, dropped or diving to try and find cover. Forty-seven rounds in the magazine. Five hundred rounds a minute.
Just keep reloading the drums, it’s them or you, Henry lad.
Red Party Pin
Ah’ve a brass Party pin stuck in me shirt. It’s got red enamel on the front of the star. Cockney Bob gave it to me. If Ah took that off and threw it away, Ah could be anyone; just another bearded bloke in a beat-up leather jacket and a black flat cap with a curled peak.
There’s some yellowing official papers in my soft, dark wallet that Ah was handed doon by me fathaa, but Ah could curl and blacken them to ash in flames. A few crumpled notes, an owld pink bus ticket from the Haymarket to Gatesheid in one of the slots. A few coins in me trooser pocket.
Ah carry a smoothed silver pocket watch that me nana gave me in the front flap of me jacket, the green luminous dye behind the face leaking through, that Ah finger for comfort sometimes, the tactile metal warmed by the heat of my fingers and that hands that have handled it afore me.
It ticks away beside me camp bed at night. Three winds a day to keep it right.
Ah had a creased and torn black and white photo of the dark-haired fortune teller in there once, tucked away in the back, but that’s left in a draw at Mother’s with me little piece of gold, my wedding ring. Ah was married ower young. Just a daft laddie oot to prove everyone wrang with a wild gypsy woman that smashed plates ower me heid when she had the radge on.
Ah’ve got a pocket knife and a tin mug in me green canvass kit bag and that’s aboot it. Ah’m travelling like as one of the lads off the shows. It’s not much to send hyem if Ah get hit and put doon in a cowld dusty hole in the groond. Ah feel a lang way from hyem.
The sun has tanned me face like an owld cow hide and Ah miss the cowld North Sea winds, the heather and bracken on the green hills. Ah’d kill for a pint of Scotch, ahl ruby red in the glass with a white frothy heid, to quench the never-ending thirst.
They think Ah’m a builders’ labourer oot here. What are you but what you say you are? Ah can be anything. Ah could imagine meself loading a cement mixer with sand, howking a load in as it trundled and the smell of lime dust powdering me hair. It was me brother Jack’s job and Ah could talk aboot it convincingly, the sites and scaffolding, the clink of the bricks as Ah carried them up with a hod and unloaded them, the skin on me hands hardened and worn. Legends are the stories told by other men.
Ah’m mair than a red Party pin, some papers, a wallet and watch, but at the same time, Ah’m not. Your whole existence is somehow intrinsically based on other people’s perception of you and Ah wonder what Natalya sees beyond the broken nose, the tattoos and half-truths.
What she sees behind that Party pin.
Loss of Faith
Malady comes on slow like a fever. Love is a sickness that passes and it ahl got to be normal after a while. Natalya, the bombing, the red flags flying from buildings, bodies bloodied and riddled with bullet holes; Ah’ve heard tell that familiarity breeds contempt, but that just wasn’t the case for me. Familiarity made for comfort. Ah didn’t jump when Ah heard a shell exploding or feel my cheeks flushing red when the leggy Ukrainian got up close to sight a shot and Ah felt her warm breath of ma neck, the heat of her body ahlmost pressed up against mine.
Ah don’t know what aches more – me heart or me bahls.
It was then that Ah knew it was time to move on. Ah’ve never settled. Ah’m not really the type to dwell in one place ower long. The shows were ahlways locked in a perpetual motion of stopping a couple of weeks in the toons then packing up and getting back on the road. It got under your skin, deep as Sailor’s skin art pricked in with a needle gun.
Franco was winning the fight. The Party and the Anarchists were fahling oot among themselves. Moustached men in greasy red and black bandanas with dark faces that Ah’d drank with in dingy bars before were now scowling and sullen, looking the other way when you winked a greeting.
You heard whispers of defeats. Tales of massacres that the Commissars desperately attempted to quell. Ah’m a volunteer, Ah’m here of me own free will and Ah’ll gan of me own free will.
Ah’m getting a bit sick of ahl the death and destruction. Ah’m sick of lusting after me sniping partner and getting nowt. Ah’m sick of the constant optimism of the Party officials. Ah’m sick of the sun, sick of the heat. Ah long for a cobbled pavement glinting like stars in a frosty morning, to see me breath billowing oot ahead of me. To just dee something for meself withoot tekking an order; something as simple as putting coal on the fire and holding a paper ower the front as Ah light it, me mam’s owld knick-knacks on the mantle.
But Ah’m really off farming stock. The lang line afore me fathaa had ahl worked the land, soft broon curves of a plough cutting through soil, the weak bleat of new lambs of long wobbly legs leaping for joy on wet grass. Meybe Ah could settle doon in a farm cottage near a small wood and hear cuckoos in the trees. Grow meself some roots.
For where Ah’d longed to feel Natalya’s lips pressed warm and wet against mine, wor bodies pulled tightly together, hear her little gasps of pleasure and see her beautiful blue eyes closed by delight, noo Ah just wanted to get oot alive.
Ah divn’t belong here, Ah’m losing ma faith and Ah no longer believe.
The excitement and thrill were fading; Ah could see it in Natalya’s eyes too; like candles being extinguished, the fire had burned oot.
Harry pulled a broon paper bag from the pocket of his scratchy uniform jacket and offered it to me with a subtle lift of his eyebrows. It was filled with black bullets. Sweets from hyem. Dark brown, shiny balls with a peppermint taste on your tongue. Ah divn’t knaa how or where he got them from, but as soon as a slipped one gratefully in me gob and rolled it aroond me tongue, ma heid was filled with vague happy memories of a childhood trip to the seaside.
The jars of sweets ahl lined up in rows on the shelves of a dusty owld shop off the pier, ahl dark wooden panels and a high counter that Ah couldn’t see ower, wor Jack handing ower a coin that we’d found dropped on the wooden boardwalk and sharing the bag with myself and William. The smell of fish and chips, people laughing with ice cream cones in their hands and the jangle of the fairground music.
That was the day Ah’d decided Ah could fancy joining the circus, seeing ahl the show folk milling aroond with big smiles on their faces, blokes with hairy backs and tattoos, waxed and twisted moustaches, strong men in leopard skins, the blue faces of strange tattooed men with nose rings and fathaa looking proud in his three piece Tweed Sunday best with mothaa on his arm.
It was also when Ah’d seen a glamorous shapely lady with hair black as a crow and eyes dark as coal, a bit suspender and stocking top showing through her high-cut silk skirt that laughed and smiled and ruffled me hair when she caught me gawping. Gave me a gentle kiss on ma forehead, her perfume filling ma heid as the all-enveloping smell of a forest when you lay on your back and watched the sun breaking through the leaves, marvelling at the white curves of her breasts doon her top as she bent ower. That was the magic of the shows for me. The soft touch of her lips lingering long on ma skin with a tingle. Ah’d never seen a woman as alluring as that; ahl the women roond wor raa looked owld afore their time, hanging oot wet washing on the line, smoking tabs and chatting ower fences with folded arms and greying hair tied up. They looked tired and angry and smelled of chip pan fat. This woman had smoky dark make up around her eyes and an air of not caring what anyone thought, superiority even, as she glided over the ground on high heels. Honestly, Ah was thunderstruck.
The taste of the illicit boiled sweet in my mooth then was brought back in an instant, a distant memory filed away in the depths of ma mind, the feeling of loss when ah knew the shows would pack up and be gone; and with it the Lady.
Those long repressed memories of awakening mixed with sadness and longing.
The black bullets replaced by brass bullets.
A Bees’ Nest
Foxes are noted for their cunning and guile, of course. But divn’t confuse caution for slyness. It’s nae bad thing to weigh up a situation afore wading in. Boxing was much like that; the ones that came up to me swinging wildly were knocked doon fairly sharply; the lads showing off for their lasses, playing the hard man. Pick a spot through the flailing arms and land a swift jab reet on the end of the chin. The legs went forst, wobbling and unsteady as a fresh-born calf, then the eyes, fading to black.
It was the lads that circled the ring slowly with their guard raised that you had to watch. They knew how to fight. Keep your heid. Keep your cool.
Ignore the rising grumble of the crowd, low and humming like the inside of a bees’ nest under the canvass.
So it was with some surprise and a little delight that Ah saw a fox coming down the white rocky mountainside near where we’d taken up a firing position. It was a little darker than those at hyem, but unmistakable in its movement. Ah hadn’t realised that there were foxes in Spain. Ah just assumed that they were a British creature; Ah don’t know why. It put a smile on mah face, anyway. Until Ah saw an officer unbuttoning his pistol from the leather holster on his hip, that is.
“What the hell are yee deein’?” Ah asked, ahl incredulous, like.
“There is some vermin on the hillside, don’t you see it?” he replied in a heavily accented voice. He was a Belgian or something like that, with a big moustache and sad, weary eyes.
He must have noticed the scowl that darkened mah face and explained himself further.
“It will steal flesh off the bodies in the valley, Comrade.”
“So what? They’re just Fascists lying doon there, man. Let the poor bugger be.”
He shook his head in disgust and pulled the pistol from the flap. As he went to take aim, Ah was on him in a flash, a swift right hook knocking him doon into the dust.
Ah could see the hatred and loathing in his eyes as he readjusted his jaw and picked up his pistol.
Natalya came up behind me and put her hands reassuringly on my shoulder, whispering calming words in Russian as the officer got back to his feet and took a shot at the fox.
The stupid bastard missed.
The peeling grey paint on the large ship’s hull exposes pitted patches of orange and red rust above the barnacle line as dawn breaks purple and pink in the sky, the stacked crates of oranges and large coils of rope wrapped like a sleeping anaconda on the dock side.
High seagulls shriek as they circle overhead while the watter laps rhythmically against both the concrete harbour wall and the hull. Apart from that, it’s silent.
Natalya’s gone, shot or blown to pieces, locked in a Spanish jail or sent to one of Papa Stalin’s Siberian Gulags, maybe just removed from the front line. You never knew. Maybe she’d got lucky. People were constantly disappearing and you didn’t dare ask.
So Ah’m gannin’ hyem, back to Tyneside, back to the cowld steel riveted curve of the green bridge hanging ower the watter, the coal smoked gables and narrow winding nicks.
Smuggled on a cargo ship oot of Barcelona heading for the Canaries, the volcanic islands with folds of black lava and palms shaking in the trade winds, the white Saharan sands, the sunshine and chattering green parrots flitting from square white building to square white building.
Ah’d left for travel and adventure, to see the great Cities lit up in neon in the darkness of night. To sit on a Parisian hotel balcony with a cowld bottled beer watching the first orange rays of morning washing into the blackness. To see the inky watters of the Scandinavian fjords from the cold deck of a ship with a warm girl wrapped up in a scarf and Chilean woolly hat with Llamas on, soft and curved in my embrace.
To see the stars and constellations.
To get me oot of Tyneside, and bring me back like glow of a lighthouse or the sad drone of a foghorn to the misty, moody shores.
To feel the thrill of the fight, in a khaki uniform with a rifle or with me fists, to gag on the thick, warm metallic-tasting blood as a forearm smashed me in the face. Feel the connection of bone on bone as I swung a wild haymaker and felt it connect with a dull crunch.
To become a real man.
And noo ah’m heading back.
Back to the dole queues, back to the dark-haired fortune teller.
Back as a spectre, a shadow man, a former fairground boxer whose nose is buckled as a bent wheel with owld fused breaks over my heavy brow, a new tattoo of me Ukrainian partner on me arm, the ink dark as me memories.
We sit below deck, the doomed spectres of a ghostly crew, flipping cards from Tarot decks and performing Ouija boards, summoning devils in ritual black magic, desperate for visions. Pentangles scratched in chalk on the wooden boards that can call up the fierce eyes of a wooden figurehead flashing real as lightening or the sudden illumination of a slot machine at the strange, broken memories of a boom like thunder rumbling aroond her once smooth flesh, now stolen in oak.
A red-haired girl that reminds you of some slattern in a Victorian bar with breasts heaving in a tight-laced top and a wicked twinkle in her eyes, green as a cat’s, a woman in the window wet with rain, the warmth of liquor in ma belly and the hot touch of her skin, pussy slippery as ruby red Port, the moon still hanging full and bright in the wild air.
The cargo hold stuffy as a museum and stuffed with relics and icons – a mummified Egyptian prince with his face set in a perpetual scream, Inca gold face masks glimmering in the darkness, Masonic treasure marked with the pyramid and all-seeing eye, grim, grinning Mexican death dolls, Judas’ lost Gospel, souls cast adrift with wor terrible cache ….and we can’t unload it.
Waved on, we sail pass those imagined lonely lighthouses and feel the low, sad moan of the foghorns penetrate our very souls as nae port will allow us to dock up, some strange hallucinatory vibrations darkening our passage merely from the fact the glass didn’t brek when she was named, or because we’ve got broken remnants of Republican volunteers on board, one or the other. So we cast off back into the sea bobbing on the breakers like a rum bottle carrying a paper note. This is wor wretched fate. Keep your heid doon, Henry.
You see, me fathaa was right ahl alang.
The sly owld fox.