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Winter In Madrid Excerpt from Winter In Madrid

by C.J. Sansom

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Prologue

The Jarama Valley, Spain, February 1937

Bernie had lain at the foot of the knoll for hours, half conscious.

The British Battalion had been brought up to the front two days before, rattling across the bare Castilian plain in an ancient locomotive; they had marched by night to the front line. The Battalion had a few older men, veterans of the Great War, but most of the soldiers were working-class boys without even the Officer Training Corps experience that Bernie and the smattering of other public-school men possessed. Even here in their own war the working class stood at a disadvantage.

The Republic had held a strong position, on top of a hill that sloped down steeply to the Jarama river valley, dotted with little knolls and planted with olive trees. In the far distance the grey smudge of Madrid was visible, the city that had withstood the Fascists since the generals' uprising last summer. Madrid, where Barbara was.

Franco's army had already crossed the river. There were Moroccan colonial troops down there, experts at using every fold in the ground as cover. The Battalion was ordered into position to defend the hill. Their rifles were old, there was a shortage of ammunition and many did not fire properly. They had been issued with French steel helmets from the Great War that the old soldiers said weren't bullet-proof.

Despite the Battalion's ragged fire, the Moors slipped gradually up the hill as the morning advanced, hundreds of silent deadly bundles in their grey ponchos, appearing and disappearing again among the olive trees, coming ever closer. Shelling from the Fascist positions began, the yellow earth around the Battalion positions exploding in huge fountains to the terror of the raw troops. Then in the afternoon the order to retreat came. Everything turned to chaos. As they ran, Bernie saw the ground between the olive trees was strewn with books the soldiers had thrown from their packs to lighten them -- poetry and Marxist primers and pornography from the Madrid street markets.

That night the Battalion survivors crouched exhausted in an old sunken road on the meseta. There was no news of how the battle had gone elsewhere along the line. Bernie slept from sheer exhaustion.

In the morning the Russian staff commander ordered the remnants of the Battalion to advance again. Bernie saw Captain Wintringham arguing with him, their heads outlined against a cold sky turning from purple-pink to blue as the sun rose. The Battalion was exhausted, outnumbered; the Moors were dug in now and had brought up machine guns. But the Russian was adamant, his face set.

The men were ordered to line up, huddling against the lip of the sunken road. The Fascists had begun firing again with the dawn and the noise was already tremendous, loud rifle cracks and the stutter of the machine guns. Standing waiting for the order to go over, Bernie was too tired to think. The phrase 'fucking done for, fucking done for' went round and round in his head, like a metronome. Many of the men were too exhausted to do anything but stare blindly ahead; others shook with fear.

Wintringham led the charge himself and went down almost at once with a bullet to the leg. Bernie winced and jerked as bullets cracked around him, watching the men he had trained with collapse with howls or sad little sighs as they were hit. A hundred yards out the desperate urge to fall and hug the ground became too strong and Bernie threw himself behind the shelter of a thick old olive tree.

He lay against the gnarled trunk for a long time, bullets whining and cracking around him, looking at the bodies of his comrades, blood turning the pale earth black as it soaked in. He twisted his body, trying to burrow as deep as he could into the ground.

Late in the morning the firing ceased, though Bernie could hear it continuing further up the line. To his right he saw a high, steep knoll covered with scrubby grass. He decided to make a dash for it. He got up and ran, crouched over almost double, and had almost reached cover when there was a crack and he felt a stinging blow in
his right thigh. He spun over and hit the earth. He could feel blood trickling down his trousers but dared not look round. Using his elbows and his good leg he crawled frantically towards the shelter of the knoll, his old arm injury sending pain lancing into his shoulder. Another bullet made earth spit up around him but he made it to the knoll. He threw himself into the lee of the little hill and passed out.

When he came to it was afternoon; he was lying in a long shadow and the warmth of the day was receding. He had fallen against the incline of the hill and could see only a few feet of earth and stones ahead of him. He was conscious of a raging thirst. Everything was quiet and still; he could hear a bird singing in one of the olive trees but also a murmur of distant voices somewhere. They were talking Spanish so it must be the Fascists, unless the Spanish troops further north had made a breakthrough, which he couldn't believe after what had happened to his section. He lay still, his head cushioned in the dusty earth, conscious that his right leg was numb.

He drifted in and out of consciousness; still he could hear the murmuring voices, ahead and to the left somewhere. Some time later he woke properly, his head suddenly clear, his thirst agonizing. There was no sound of voices now, just the bird singing; surely not the same one.

Bernie had thought Spain would be hot; the memories of his visit with Harry six years ago were all of dry heat, hard as a hammer. But in February, although the days were warm enough, it grew cold at dusk, and he wasn't sure he could get through a night out here. He could feel the lice crawling in the thick down on his stomach. They had infested the base camp and Bernie hated their crawling itch. Pain was a strange thing: his leg was bearable but the urge to scratch his stomach was desperate. For all he knew, though, he could be surrounded by Fascist soldiers who had taken his still form for a corpse, and would open fire at any sign of movement.

He raised his head a little, gritting his teeth, dreading the impact of a bullet. Nothing. Above him only the bare hillside. Stiffly, he turned over. Pain shot through his leg like a knife and he had to clench his jaw shut against a scream. He pulled himself up on his elbows and looked down. Half his trouser leg was tom away and his thigh was covered with dark, clotted blood. It wasn't bleeding now, the bullet must have missed the artery, but if he moved too much it might start again.

To the left he saw two bodies in Brigade uniforms. Both had fallen on their faces and one was too far off to see but the other was McKie, the young Scots miner. Fearfully, trying not to move his leg, he swivelled on his elbows again and looked upwards, to the top of the knoll.

Forty feet above him, projecting over the lip of the hill, was a tank. One of the German ones Hitler had given Franco. An arm protruded limply from the gun turret. The Fascists must have brought up tanks and this one had been stopped just before it lurched down the knoll. It was precariously balanced, the front protruding almost halfway over; from where he lay Bernie could see the pipes and bolts of the underside, the heavy plated tracks. It could topple over on him at any moment; he had to move.

He began crawling slowly away. Pain stabbed through his leg and after a couple of yards he had to stop, sweating and gasping. He could see McKie now. One arm had been shot off and lay a few yards away. Untidy brown hair was ruffled slightly by the breeze, in death as it had been in life, though the face beneath was already white. McKie's eyes were closed, the pleasantly ugly face looked peaceful. Poor devil, Bernie thought, and felt tears pricking the corners of his eyes.

When he had first seen dead bodies, the men brought back from the fighting in Madrid and laid out in rows in the street, Bernie had felt sick with horror. Yet when they had gone into battle yesterday his squeamishness had vanished. It had to when you were under fire, Pa had told him on one of the rare occasions he spoke about the Somme, every sense had to be tuned to survival. You didn't see, you watched, as an animal watches. You didn't hear, you listened, as an animal listens. You became as focused and heartless as an animal. But Pa had long spells of depression, evenings spent sitting in his little office behind the shop, head bowed under the weak yellow light as he fought to forget the trenches.

Bernie remembered McKie's jokes about how Scotland would be independent under socialism, laughing as he looked forward to its being free of the useless Sassenachs. He licked his dry lips. Would this moment, McKie's hair ruffling in the breeze, come to him in dreams if he got out of it alive, even if they succeeded and created a new, free world?

He heard a creak, a small, metallic sound. He looked up; the tank was swaying slightly, the long gun barrel outlined against the darkening sky moving slowly up and down. Surely his movements at the bottom of the knoll couldn't have been enough to shift it, but it was moving.

Bernie tried to rise but pain stabbed through his injured leg. He began crawling again, past McKie's body. His leg hurt more now and he could feel blood oozing down it. His head was swimming; he had a horror of fainting and of the tank falling down the hill and crashing down onto his prone body. He must stay conscious.

Directly ahead of him was a puddle of dirty water. Despite the danger, his thirst was so great that he buried his head in it and took a deep drink. It tasted of earth and made him want to retch. He lifted his head and jerked back in surprise as he caught the reflection of his face: every line was filled with dirt above a straggly beard and his eyes looked mad. He suddenly heard Barbara's voice in his head, remembered soft hands on his neck. 'You're so beautiful,' she had said once. 'Too beautiful for me.' What would she say now?

There was another creak, louder this time, and he looked up to see the tank inching slowly forwards. A little stream of earth and stones pattered down the side of the knoll. 'Oh Christ,' he breathed. 'Oh Christ.' He heaved himself forward.

There was a creaking noise and the tank went over. It rolled slowly down the hill with a clanking grinding noise, missing Bernie's feet by inches. At the bottom the long gun buried itself in the earth and the tank came to a halt, shuddering like a huge felled beast. The observer was thrown from his turret and landed face down, spreadeagled in the trench. His hair was whitish-blond: a German. Bernie closed his eyes, gasping with relief.

Another noise made him tum and look upwards. Five men stood in a row at the top of the knoll, drawn by the noise. Their faces were as dirty and weary as Bernie's. They were Fascists; they wore the olive-green battledress of Franco's troops. They raised their rifles, covering him. One of the soldiers pulled a pistol from his holster. There was a click as he slipped the safety catch. He stepped forward and descended the knoll.

Bernie leaned on one hand and raised the other in weary supplication.

The Fascist came to a halt three feet away. He was a tall, thin man with a little moustache like the Generalisimo's. His face was hard and angry.

'Me entrego,' Bernie said. 'I surrender.' It was all there was left to do.

'¡Comunista cabrón!' The man had a heavy southern accent.

Bernie was still trying to make out the words as the Fascist brought up his pistol and aimed at his head.

The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
From WINTER IN MADRID by C.J. Sansom.
Copyright © 2006 by C.J. Sansom