The Second Gibraltar
There was nothing left for him to do now. He got back into the E-Type and headed for the coast. He hoped the ferry was still running.
But London was no different from Belfast, derelict and gutted as though post-earthquake, bones picked clean by vultures. He accelerated down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, bouncing over debris and potholes.
It was just the same there. Through the old iron gates he could see the famous facade had crumbled away to reveal the rooms behind. Decay had paid no favours to heritage. He left the engine running and picked his way over to the gates. They pushed open and he ambled across the forecourt where crows changed the guard to an audience of one. The front door was locked. He shrugged and went back to the car.
Five minutes later he was in Trafalgar Square. Lord Nelson had long since toppled to shatter his marble innards on the fountains where more crows picked at human bones. He chuckled aloud at the thought that, despite so much change, people were still feeding the birds in the Square.
It started to rain, great gobbets like bird shit that sheeted down in curtains across the stage. Was this the interval or was the performance now over? Feeling down and out of whisky he turned up the taper and meandered through the deserted old streets. The wrecked buildings were like old friends now passed away, returned to dust and ashes but lacking a decent burial. He felt too impotent to help and cursed himself for gloating, but continued to wallow in his mood while it lasted.
With a sigh of relief he saw that by some miracle Marble Arch was still intact. There was hope yet.
He found the first signs of human habitation in Hyde Park. In the middle of the lawns like a Wild West wagon train was an assortment of US Army trucks, jeeps and half-tracks. He turned the E-Type onto the grass towards them, carving another set of ruts in the turf, then sped into the centre of the circle to spin the car to a flamboyant halt that mocked modern warfare techniques.
A soldier appeared and sauntered over, oblivious to the rain. Without saying a word he led him through the mud to a caravan trailer, and ushered him up the steps and inside. The makeshift office was filled with the noise of the rain on the roof and the damp stench of clothes drying by the gas heater. There was an American flag in the corner, half hidden by a clutter of boxes and papers; the officer behind the desk wore a major’s insignia. The newcomer recognised him immediately.
“Hello Jerry. I was wondering when you were going to turn up.”
“I was just taking a last look round, thought I’d pop in and say hello and goodbye. Didn’t expect to bump into you though.” He sat down unbidden on the edge of the desk and dangled a leg in the air. “What’s the set-up, Frank? You don’t usually work with the Yanks, so what’s in it for you?”
Frank shifted in his chair and stared at the desk-top. He looked tired, very tired.
“Oh, manpower, resources …” he replied after a moment.
“Round here? This place is fucked. You’re just clearing up the pieces. Scavenging’s not your scene.”
“Yeah, but you never know what you might find.”
“What? Or whom?”
Frank looked up sharply. “All right Jerry, I’ll come clean with you.”
“That makes a change –”
“For fuck’s sake Jerry! It’s in both our interests … I’m looking for Cath.”
“Well I haven’t got her, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Exactly. I saw Beesley and he said Miss Brunner’s around. Una’s been flitting in and out as well.”
“That’s hardly surprising. A place like this is like rotten meat for flies like them. What’s it got to do with Cathy?”
“I don’t know. I’m just sure they’re hatching something.”
“What for? Why would they want to turn against you after all these years?”
“Not me Jerry – Cath.”
“Come on Frank. She’s not our kid sister any more. She knows how to look after herself.”
“I don’t think so. Not against them. She may not be a little girl but she’s still our sister. What would mother have said if we’d let her get into trouble, eh?”
Jerry dreaded to think. The mere thought of his mother was too much, especially now. “Are you suggesting we join forces? You and me?”
“We’ve got to Jerry. It’s family.”
“No, Frank. You’re wasting your time. I’ll go my separate way.”
“I don’t know. South, probably, with all the rest.”
“You’ll regret it, Jerry.”
“Maybe. We’ll see, eh? It’s OK, I’ll see myself out.”
Outside the rain had slowed to a drizzle but the mud was over his ankles. He slopped back to the E-Type and started up, but the car just sank deeper into the ground. He wound down the window and called to the corporal on guard.
“Hey, soldier! Can you give us a tow?”
He parked outside his West London flat and let himself in by the front door. He was only stopping by on the off-chance that Catherine might have turned up, though this would have been the first place that Frank had checked.
Inside, everything was as he’d left it, as if he’d only been gone for the day instead of for weeks. This side of the city had not been as badly hit as the rest and the building was almost intact. As expected, the electricity was off.
Cathy wasn’t there. He went to the drinks cabinet and poured some whisky, downed it and refilled the glass. Rummaging in his bedroom he found his old tape machine and a few cassettes. He chose one at random and turned on the taper.
It was way past dusk when, sitting in the dark, the batteries in the tape recorder long dead, he decided to go to bed.
He woke up and killed the alarm clock. He couldn’t remember setting it. He went back to sleep.
When he woke up again much later the sun was streaming onto the bed, half blinding him. It was pointless trying to get back to sleep, so he went to the bathroom for a shower. There was no hot water but he stepped under the icy jet regardless, exhilarated by the new day’s potential. Over the sound of the water he thought he heard someone in the next room, but he gave the matter no further thought.
He towelled himself down vigorously and went back to the bedroom. Miss Brunner was lying on the four-poster, a feline smile on the painted symmetry of her lips.
“Hello,” said Jerry.
“Hello,” purred Miss Brunner.
“It’s been a long time,” said Jerry, sitting down on the bed.
“It most certainly has,” replied Miss Brunner, pulling the sheets up to her chin.
Jerry decided to go back to bed after all.
“So how was Belfast?”
“Much the same.”
“London, Glasgow, Paris, Bonn – they all got it.”
“Shame about the Eiffel Tower.”
“These things happen. Good bloody riddance, I say.”
“We were lucky to get across to France, you know.”
“The Americans had everything sealed off to mop up. I thought they’d have stopped us getting out of Britain.”
“They wouldn’t do that – it’s bad for their image … Besides, Frank probably feels better with us out of the way.”
“Your brother? What’s he got to do with it?”
“I bumped into him in Hyde Park. He’s made himself a major in the US Army.”
“Hardly his style.”
“That’s what I said. Claimed he needed the back-up.”
“Said he was looking for Cath.”
“That’s bullshit for a start. She went out with the first wave, probably living it up in the South of France by now if I know her.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. He’s obviously planning something. He mentioned something about Beesley being around …”
“If those two are involved perhaps we’re better off out of the way …”
“At least with leaving it so late the roads have had a chance to clear.”
It was true. The autoroute was empty and Jerry kept his foot to the floor, only slowing to pass through the occasional burnt-out toll station. It was a glorious day and the air whipped through the open windows. They skirted Lyon and followed the Rhône south, flanked by untended wine terraces. They both wore shades.
“We’ll hit the refugees when we reach the Med, though.”
“’Ere, Manwell! Gerrus anuvver o’ them Cooby Leebries, will ya?”
The raucous voice resounded round the open-air beach bar and people looked up to stare, while those already familiar with the coarse English woman simply tut-tutted in despair.
Mrs Cornelius nudged the young couple under the neighbouring umbrella. “Duntcha fink ’e looks just like that waiter on the telly?”
“Actually, I believe he comes from Sheffield,” the timid husband ventured.
“These Spanish waiters all look the same to me,” she chortled on. “Randy little buggers too, tell that by their tight little bums …”
The waiter tried to deliver her drink unobtrusively but Mrs C. was too quick for him. She forced him to sit on the vastness of her lap, her chuckle like a minor earthquake beneath him.
“Ker ker ker … owd’ja fancy takin’ me back to me room an’ makin’ an old lady ’appy for a while, ker ker ker …”
The waiter, half smothered in her voluminous bosom, said something muffled and undecipherable in reply.
“Ker ker ker … perhaps we can sort aht me bill at the same time, like we do wiv the milkman, ker ker ker …”
Tapping on unknown reserves and no doubt invoking some major deity known only to himself, the hapless waiter somehow managed to escape from the bear-like hug and flee for safety behind the bar.
Still chortling happily to herself, Mrs Cornelius took a long slurp of her Bacardi and Coke, adjusted the knotted handkerchief on her head, then settled herself more comfortably in her chair, the metal legs sinking dangerously into the sand. “This is the life, eh?” she announced, terrorising the surrounding tables again. “Just like Margit innit, only more sun.”
She looked down the beach from under her umbrella. The golden sand was packed with sunsoakers, and down in the wavelets kids splashed and played ball. A couple of topless pretty girls jiggled merrily past right in front of her, and she gave them an approving eye. “Pity Catherine an’ the boys ain’t ’ere,” she thought, “they ain’t ’ad an holiday for ages …”
Mrs Cornelius gulped back the last of her drink and slammed the empty glass down on the table.
Bishop Beesley surveyed the view from his pulpit, corpulent belly against the rail and fat hands upon the lectern. A mass of faces watched him silently, waiting for him to speak. When he did the old stone cathedral echoed with his voice, reverberating off the ornate gold altarwork, chiming up into the bell-tower and filling the sanctuary with a divine wrath that galvanised the congregation. The bishop found it strange to return to the domain of the cloth after so long, but his task transcended metaphysical mores and he warmed to it with relish.
“Do you not remember,” he was saying, “how the Moors swept north from Africa to take over your lands for seven hundred years?” There was a murmur from the pews.
“And do you not remember how, under Ferdinand and Isabella, los Reyes Católicos, your great-grandfathers reconquered your country, drove the infidel from your towns and back into the sea, returning this land to Christian righteousness and God, its one and only ruler?”
This time there were cries of agreement and olé and some people had risen to their feet. Bishop Beesley stared each and every one of his flock squarely in the eye.
“Do you not see that this has happened again? Now from the north the English and Germans, that Protestant rabble, are stealing Spain from under your feet and you sit here and let them! Are you so weak as to let your forefathers’ honour go unavenged?”
The congregation stood as one to scream their denial and he had to shout to be heard.
“Do you want to let Benidorm become a second Gibraltar? No? Then rise up against these invaders! Arm yourselves with pitchforks and scythes! Reconquer your lands! Drive out the infidel! ¡Viva España! ¡Viva la Reconquista!”
The enraged natives took up the refrain and, chanting that chorus, they surged like a rip tide for the main doors. His job done, the bishop watched them go, the serene smile of a benign padre creasing his podgy jowls. Then he squeezed himself down from the pulpit, slipped into a side room and stripped off his ceremonial finery, hanging it back on the peg, where he’d found it half an hour earlier. He produced a much-needed Mars bar from a pocket and, chewing happily, tipped a wink to the priest bound and gagged in the corner.
He stepped out into the sunlight. Not far away he heard the voice of the mob and caught the tang of smoke in his nostrils. Feeling pleased with his day’s work, he climbed into his car and drove off.
From down on the ground the microlight sounded like an irate mosquito, hovering in plain view but just out of reach.
Many found it just as irritating. The triangular wings were a big Union Jack and the pilot, impudently swigging from a hip flask, made low passes over the beach and apartment blocks to attract people’s attention. They craned their necks back and watched, muttering Gallic obscenities and hoping the mad Tommy would crash into a building and kill himself.
Then, with a cheeky dip of his wingtips, the pilot revved the engine up an octave and climbed steeply into the sky, leaving the French resort cursing and bemused.
The microlight headed further up the coast to the German resort. Here more care was needed. The pilot risked buzzing the main square, with a cheery wave to the stunned ranks of storm troopers practising drill in the sun. Some shots were hurriedly fired, but his speed and the breeze sent the bullets off target. Nonetheless he climbed to a safe height to circle the subdued and orderly town, before heading out to sea, over a shore festooned with barbed wire like a Normandy beachhead. Skimming the calm water he turned back south for home.
Jerry was the first to reach the beach. Following his lead, the rest of the team pulled their sailboards out of the water and peeled off their wetsuits. Darkly clad and with blacked-out sails there was no way they could have been seen from the shore against the night sky. They stowed their equipment and stripped down to the baggy shorts and Bahama shirts worn under the wetsuits.
Weapons at the ready, the Englishmen stole up the beach and onto the prom of the French resort, splitting into twos and threes to mingle with the volume of people they found there. Jerry let his men move ahead, sure they’d manage without him; thanks to his earlier reconnaissance he’d briefed them well. They disappeared up the avenue of gaudy piano bars and glistening trinket shops, while Jerry slipped off down a side street, feeling more comfortable out of the glare. He had business of his own to attend to. In the distance came the muffled crump of explosions and the deathwatch beetle rattle of gunfire. He smiled softly to himself. Everything was going to plan.
Jerry lay back on the sheets and whimpered. At the end of the bed the combined efforts of Cathy’s hands and mouth were driving him crazy and he knew he couldn’t hold out much longer. He tensed and quivered and relaxed in an ever faster cycle and sweat poured from his body. Any second now. Yes, any second now!
Suddenly the door crashed open and a squad of German storm troopers burst into the room. Sub-machine guns at the ready, they formed a cordon round the bed.
Cathy sat up and screamed.
Jerry moaned in frustration.
A pair of officers swaggered to the fore; Jerry knew the two women at once and moaned again. He flopped back on the bed and waited for something to happen.
“So, zer Herr Cornelius mit zer trousers down,” remarked Miss Brunner. She would have looked rather fetching in crisp black SS oberleutnant uniform with cap tilted rakishly to one side, but for the Luger comfortable in her right hand.
“I was wondering where you’d disappeared to,” commented Jerry in reply. “Might have known you’d flit here and there as the fancy took you.” He leaned up on his elbows. “How’s the hitch-hiking coming along?”
“Banter won’t improve your situation, Jerry,” cut in Una Persson. She wore the same outfit as Miss Brunner, and they looked so alike they might have been twins. Una had her Luger in her left hand. “As you can see, you are hopelessly outnumbered – escape is impossible.”
“Furthermore,” added Miss Brunner, “we have the whole town under our control. It really was most helpful to find your men had already taken out the main points of resistance. Saved us a lot of trouble.”
“And quite a feather in our cap to have you in our hands as well …”
Catherine was already starting to dress. The storm troopers could hardly contain their disappointment.
The day was already well advanced, another Spanish scorcher to judge by the glare outside. Jerry lay quiet for a moment till he realised where he was, but when he moved to get up he was caught short with a wince, his arse suddenly on fire as if sprayed inside with Ralgex. He explored it gingerly with his fingers then eased himself gently off the bed. Una always had been a sadistic bugger with a dildo, he reflected ruefully, almost fondly. Evidently Miss Brunner had taught her some new tricks as well. Luckily for him it hadn’t been the storm troopers.
The apartment was empty.
There was a clatter of small-arms fire so he walked carefully, bandy-legged, to the window and peered out. Evidently there were still some pockets of French or English resistance to the German forces: not far away a detachment of storm troopers was laying siege to a five-star hotel and hamburger joint, without much obvious success. It was time to make use of the disruption to aid his escape.
Prudence decreed he put on some clothes before going outside, liberal though the French were about such things. All he could find was a pair of woman’s knickers, but he squeezed them on nonetheless; at least they’d pass for swimming trunks in an emergency.
He tried the door cautiously and it opened to his touch, the German guard in the corridor blissfully unaware. Jerry crept up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder, knocking him out as he turned with a straightforward punch to the jaw. An ugly old-fashioned way of resolving an awkward situation, but there was no alternative. Minutes later a figure in Wehrmacht battledress emerged from the building and made off down the street, trying hard to remain inconspicuous but moving awkwardly with discomfort as though he’d just shat himself.
Far away, on the edge of hearing, was a deep rumbling sound like half-heard thunder. It grew rapidly louder, now resembling a ground-trembling stampede of wildebeest. There was a sudden frenzy as officers tried frantically to organise their men, but the rising cacophony, now clearly a horde of clamouring voices, increased agitation and turned attempted order to confusion. Then all hell broke loose.
The mob fell on the town like a tropical tidal wave, a seething flood of provincial folk wielding whatever was at hand: butchers their cleavers, farmworkers their hoes and rakes, housewives their finest steel carving knives. Their voice was an angry volcano, spitting forth molten rage and curses.
“¡Abajo el infiel! ¡Viva la patria! !Viva la Reconquista!”
For once the Germans’ discipline failed them and they stood bemused at the sight of such strange-looking folk, the likes of whom they’d never dreamed existed in this land of beach and sun. When they finally came to their senses and raised their guns their retaliation was unconcerted and the natives hacked them down with glee. Unfortunately they also hacked down a good many of their own number in their eagerness to drive out the invaders. They swarmed on relentless through the streets.
Further into the resort the defences were more organised and the barricades were manned by English and Germans alike, their earlier antagonism forgotten. They soon reached stalemate, the Latins’ weight of numbers finely balanced by the Teutons’ training and firearms. The French, caught between the two cultures and once more reluctant hosts to conflict, were nowhere to be seen, gone to ground until the fighting passed.
Perched in one of the watch points on the barricade, Jerry, still sporting the German guard’s uniform and walking more comfortably now, thought he saw a fat cleric observing from behind the Spanish lines, but it was too far to be certain. He stripped off his tunic and his shirt and made himself comfortable in the sun.
Later that afternoon the air was once more shattered with noise, this time instantly recognisable. A dozen US transport helicopters appeared from behind the concrete skyline to hover over no man’s land while their cargoes of marines abseiled down to earth. The Chinooks went away again and the Americans set up their equipment in the portal of a swish hotel. Then the young officer in command came forward with a megaphone and addressed the two camps.
“Hi guys! We thought we’d just drop in and see if we could help you sort out your little problem peacefully, y’know? So if your two commanding officers’d care to come forward we’ll –”
A shot rang out from the barricade and the American dropped dead in mid-sentence. “Fuck off Yanks! This is one pie you won’t stick your dirty fingers in!”
A fusillade followed and marines toppled like nine pins, while the rest ran for cover in the hotel foyer. On the other side the Spaniards were firing their captured rifles and pelting the Americans with stones. There were shouts of "¡Yanquis a la mierda! ¡Toma por culo, yanqui!", and the multitude surged forward. The Teutons deserted their barricades and rushed to join them, and inside the hotel a petrified NCO radioed for reinforcements.
Feeling pleased with his marksmanship, Jerry clambered down from the watch point and headed for the beach.
There was an excellent view of the coast from the deck of the Teddy Bear. It was a warm, calm night and the boat rocked gently on the slight swell; they lounged in deckchairs sipping G&Ts.
As they watched, a flight of US combat choppers swooped low over the resort, their guns sounding faint across the water. One of the choppers was caught by groundfire and went supernova, briefly illuminating that part of the town as the wreckage sprayed down.
“The Euros seem to have got their act together quite well,” remarked Frank Cornelius when the flare had died out. He had only just arrived and was still in American uniform.
Miss Brunner gave a derisive sneer. “But when they’ve seen off the Yanks they’ll go back to their regional squabbles just like before.”
“What they need,” said Frank, “is a messiah, a fanatic who’ll inspire them and maintain their unity.”
“That’s what was so easy with the Germans,” said Una. “They had the discipline and the mass identity, and were simply waiting for someone to give the orders.”
“Terribly easy to exploit though.”
Una ignored the comment and carried on, inspired by the gin and her recent achievements. “Once we got moving the Dutch and the Scandinavians didn’t stand a chance, same as the French. We were the only ones who looked to the future, all the rest were just living for the moment, having a holiday in the sun. Just look at the Brits, up all night drinking beer and all day on the beach sleeping it off.”
“But you must admit, my dear, you met your match in rabble-rousing,” said Bishop Beesley quietly, pausing from the peanut bowl where his attention had so far been concentrated.
Frank nodded in agreement. “Just as well, really. You can have too much of a good thing.”
“Trust the Swiss to have taken over Andorra.”
“What makes them so sure one mountain refuge is any better than another?”
“I hear there’re some new little states down on the Adriatic, might be worth a look-see …”
The discussion progressed, more animated and disjointed as they ran out of gin and started on the vodka.
Jerry leaned on the rail and said nothing. The day’s elation had long since dissolved to leave a sour ache deep in his gut; he tipped his drink over the side and dropped the glass into the water after it. He was sick of it. The endless cycle of destruction … London, home, childhood, he’d willingly danced on that grave. There was no going back now, nothing to go back for.
Cathy was all he had left now. He tried to attract her attention, but she was engrossed with Una. Before long the two women went below to find a cabin, though their giggles and squeals were still quite audible on deck.
Jerry shrugged. He’d hoped Catherine would have come with him, but it was getting late, he couldn’t afford to wait any longer. He went to the stern and swung out the Teddy Bear’s lifeboat, climbed in and lowered himself into the water. He pushed off and started rowing for land, aiming for part of the beach well away from the fighting. He’d had enough of fighting.
When he reached the shore he hopped out of the little boat and stood looking out to sea. He glanced at his watch, saw the second hand striding purposefully round to the top of the dial. Not long now.
Then a sudden vision of Cathy rose unbidden in his mind, and he remembered the feel of her skin, the touch of her fingers, her lips. There was no one like Cathy …
He tore off his watch, ground it under his heel madly, desperately. But time stops for no man and the quick flash-boom came nevertheless. So much destruction … fighting fire with fire … had to be … had to be stopped.
Jerry walked off along the sand, leaving the wreck of the Teddy Bear guttering behind him. He allowed himself one small comfort.
He still had his mother.