(This is an extract from Chapter 4 of my new novel, “Men with Dog Collars: a Saga of Spain’s Civil War,” available here.)
Norbert Fish had arrived in Madrid shortly after New Year’s Day, armed with a solid, steely self-confidence and a vast experience in reporting from war-zones. South-African by birth, British by passport and interested in women from the world over, he had joined the staff of the London Herald five years before, while stranded in China as a clueless traveler with no Chinese and little money, when he heard the paper needed somebody to write colorful stories about the Sino-Japanese fighting in Manchuria and beyond.
Color he had given, in large amounts, so the Herald readership had been enchanted by Fish’s inventive writing, and the unlikely cast of characters from the East he had described with so much familiarity and no little condescension. And the Herald’s editor had been impressed by his literate manners and the low salary he demanded for so much work.
From then on, the Herald had been his home: Fish had later been posted to Palestine, where he had taken a dislike to Arabs and Jews alike, and to the Herald’s headquarters in London, where his opinion about the English had taken a turn for the worst. He had covered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and developed a deep-seated hostility towards all things Italian, at the same time reinforcing his in-bred, fatherly affection for the Negro race, particularly when subjected to White rule.
Fish had won some accolades for his vivid descriptions of Italian gas-attacks against the ill-clad Abyssinian hordes, which he had never actually witnessed, but had heard talked about fairly often in the best cafes of Addis-Abeba; one of his reports had been offhandedly remarked upon by prime minister Baldwin, while chatting just outside the Commons, or so well-informed people had let him know. After that, Fish’s prima donna’s natural tendencies had grown so exhausting that mostly everyone in the London headquarters of the Herald had been happy to hear that some new war had broken somewhere away from the British Isles, so Fish could go there and do his thing. The five months that passed between the actual military coup and Fish’s trip to Madrid had been a trying time for many.
The truth was that Fish was growing tired and reluctant. He was only forty at the time, but had always been somewhat overweight and thin-haired, so he actually looked older, particularly to himself. Bad food and worse accommodations in several continents had weakened his never excellent health. In July, he had broken a leg while stumbling out of a pub in Chelsea, and his long recovery had offered a perfect excuse to delay the move to Madrid, which he dreaded.
Then he had been slow in getting the right papers for the trip: he had never liked Spain or Spaniards: not out of any ill-feeling, since he barely knew anything about the country or the people in it, but out of his dis-inclination for imperial breeds which lost wars. He loathed the imperialists as a rule, but respected them when they put down the natives, like the Italians or even the Japanese had done; for the Spaniards, he could only feel contempt, since they insisted on occupying countries, such as Morocco, which they had neither the right to rule nor the means to control. When pressed on the point, he put the example of the mess they had made of Hispanic America.
In Fish’s mind, Spain was a lost cause for everyone: his idea of Spain could be described as a stiff, garlic-smelling, blood-thirsty priest clad in black, with olive-oil stains here and there, a little hunched down, mispronouncing a base, Arabic-sounding version of Italian. He liked progressive revolutions like the next foreign correspondent – even more than many; however, he had never had any confidence that the “revolution” that had broken up in Spain as a consequence of the bungled military coup had any chance to succeed whatsoever.
The oily priest inside every Spaniard, he claimed, would eventually come out to light and smash all the loose talk about modernity. It was a matter of time, the way he saw it, and he was fairly surprised that the Spanish Republic had survived for so long.
Now, the fact was that Fish had found Madrid strangely enjoyable, despite all of that. Perhaps it was because of his low expectations, so easy to exceed. Or perhaps it was the because the Italian intervention in the war – Mussolini’s Fascist government had quickly become the main ally of Franco’s Nationals – had given Fish an unexpected advantage over most other foreign correspondents in Madrid, few of whom had covered the Abyssinian war and had any expertise on the Italian army, or the twenty-to-forty words of Italian he had managed to learn.
In any case, Fish didn’t feel unhappy in Madrid: he had soon met a like-minded British correspondent, a quiet Scottish chap named Collison with whom he drank hard and often, and who knew his way about the city; and he was free to enlighten everyone around (English-speakers only, that is understood) whenever Italian airplanes attacked Madrid in their usual ineffective manner, by pointing at the different models and describing their differences: “that is a Savoia-Marchetti,” he would say. “That one there is a Fiat such and such, a terrible choice for low-altitude bombing if you ask me.” Or: “That one with the grey wings doesn’t have big fuel tanks – the squadron must be based in Getafe or somewhere rather nearby.”
Fish was a convivial fellow. He liked to hand out scoops just like that, particularly when a little tight. He impressed the younger journalists around pretty easily, but mostly the wrong way, so in practice he scared them away somehow. That’s why he spent most of his socializing time with Collison, and that particular day there was just one other person with them, at Collison’s table in the Cafe Central on Gran Via avenue: Jurgen Kopp, a puny Austrian journalist with the Vienna Courier.
Fish usually paid Kopp little attention, and tended to think of him as a heavily-accented, uninteresting ear for his stories or reflections on burning world issues. That day, Fish had told him a partially true account of his reporting on gas attacks on Ethiopian troops, which he closed with a mediation on the sorry state of mankind, condemned as it was to repeat mistakes and use gas in every future conflict:
“I wonder when the fachas will use it against the natives,” he said, sorrowful.
“Well, perhaps they don’t plan to,” Kopp suggested.
At that point, a good-looking woman walked into the Central Cafe, and immediately managed to erase all reference of Kopp from Fish’s mind. She was smallish but properly shaped, brunette as most Spanish girls are, and wore her hair fashionably wavy, just the right shape and thickness for the season.
Now, her face was, in Fish’s quick evaluation, her most appealing feature: warm but serious-minded, submitted by a small but prominent, distinguished Roman nose. She looked just like Cleopatra of Egypt would have looked, had she been imagined by Fish, in the act of coming into the Central Cafe, in modern clothes and hairdo. Fish started an appreciative sentence:
“That’s a good-looking – ”
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Kopp waving a hand at her; and, most unbelievably, she tenuously smiled back at Kopp, while taking a seat in an empty corner, just on the opposite side of the cafe. Fish turned to Kopp with an improved estimate of his talents:
“Do you know this woman?”
“Of course. She’s an American journalist. I met her a few days back in the Propaganda Ministry.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“Well, she is a nice – ”
“I must bring her here at once. Gentlemen.”
Fish stood up, dominated by a sense of purpose he rarely felt so early in the day. He strode all the way to the lady’s table, and then flashed his best smile at her.
“Yes?” she asked, peeking up from a notebook she had just opened, with just the right combination of manners and measured annoyance.
“You do speak English,” Fish said. “Most amazing.”
“Most people do, in my country. I supposed you would too.”
“Tremendous power of deduction, indeed.”
“Right. So you – ”
“Norbert Fish,” he said, extending his hand, which she shook. “Correspondent for the London Herald, the infamous rag.”
“Sonya Smith. I’m here with the Baltimore Sun, maybe not quite as distinguished – ”
“I love the sun, don’t you?”
Smith appeared somewhat puzzled.
“It’s not bad, as far as American – ”
“But please, where are my manners. You should join us in our table.”
Smith grinned faintly. She knew men, alright. In any case, the presence of Kopp, a known factor, was reassuring. And Collison, from that distance, stroke her as just as harmless. She made a mental note to be careful with the portly charmer, though.
“Absolutely,” she said.
She gathered her things and preceded Fish to the table. He gave her his seat, and took the remaining place for himself. Then, he expanded the presentations:
“Mr. Collison here is the best reporter in town, and the only one with perfect Spanish.
You will know some with half-way decent skills, but he’s the one to come to for accurate translations of difficult stuff. Mr. Kopp here, on the other hand, you already know. I will only say that he knows his Mozart.”
Kopp knew his Spanish was just as good, or perhaps even better than Collison’s, but he picked his correction:
“Actually, I rather prefer Mahler – ”
“You know how Austrians are. Well-known the world over. Never mistaken by the Australians, isn’t that right, Kopp? No kangaroos in Austria!”
Kopp grinned along. He at least understood Fish well – his biggest, most embarrassing secret as Madrid-based reporter was that, even if he was a pretty proficient English-language speaker, he could barely make Collison’s Scottish accent. And, been practically the only German-speaking correspondent in the city, with all German journalists in Burgos extolling the virtues of the Nazi-friendly Franco government, he had little chance but to try and maintain good relations with these two.
Fish only shut up to let Mrs. Smith tell a little something about herself: she was thirty, single, and a hardened traveler by the looks of it, having been to most countries in central Europe and Turkey, working as a free-lancer for several American outfits. She spoke with the certainty of those who think they’ve earned their immodesty, and are secretly convinced that normal people can do little but stand in awe at one’s accomplishments. Both Kopp and Collison couldn’t help but noticing that Fish was being drawn to her like a chubby moth to the bonfire.
“Austria is actually a very beautiful country,” Smith said, to Fish’s enchantment. “Too bad about the Nazis though. Most people there seemed to think that it’s only a matter of time before the Nazis rise to power and force unification with Germany.”
She flashed a satisfied smile: there they had it, she was a grown-up journalist with the right concerns, unafraid of speaking her mind on the burning issues. Not just a pretty face to keep the foreign press corps entertained.
Collison silently fiddled with his coffee. Fish, taken by surprise, quickly sought for a brilliant response. And Kopp’s heart sank: for him, the whole Nazi thing was a dreadful issue, best not to be thought of. Not to mention the prospect of being sent to strict, Castilian Burgos with the other German speakers.
Or worse: being recalled to Vienna, back with his estranged wife, his awful children, away from his young Spanish girlfriend, and being told that the Spanish war and other international crises would be taken care of by the Berlin newspapers. Like the Prussians would ever have any sense to report on any of it.
“Yes, tell me about it,” he said.