He had seen it many times before, of course, in books, magazines, prints. But never the actual painting itself. In the flesh, as it were. It had genuinely taken his breath away. For one thing, he hadn't appreciated the sheer scale. It must have been twenty, twenty-five feet across, he guessed. And the colours too. Or rather lack of them. He hadn't realised. He had always assumed it was because he had only ever seen black and white reproductions. But that was all there was. Just black and white, together with a sort of blue-grey wash. But it worked. It made the impact of the images - the bull, the horse's head, the people fleeing in panic, the trampled bodies, the dismembered limbs - all the more powerful.

He hadn't known anything about the bombing at the time. He was only six years old, growing up in England. Even years later, he had shown no more than a passing interest in the event. It was something that had happened a long time ago, in another country, to another people.

Was he unusual in not being curious about his past, he sometimes wondered? Wrong to play down his origins, deny - by default at least - his heritage? But then what was Spain to him? A place he had not seen since he was a small child, with a history, a language, a culture which was as alien and unfamiliar to him as to any other Englishman.

That was how he had always thought of himself, at least, and everything about him - his character, his accent, even his name - supported the premise. He had never been back to Spain, until now, and he seldom if ever thought about the country. Those first six years of his life couldn't even be described as a blur. They simply failed to exist anywhere in his consciousness. He could remember nothing about them. Except...

The school bus didn't take its usual route that morning. They didn't know why. Perhaps it was a saint's day they had forgotten about, and a special treat had been planned as a surprise. Instead of taking them into the town, it set off in the opposite direction, picking up the main road. They saw the signs for the city and became excited. They had never been before. It was going to be a great adventure, a day out to remember. Perhaps they would even see the sea.

He remembered starting to feel scared when he became separated from his best friend, Carlo. They had been taken to the part of the city where somebody said the big ships left from, and had all been made to sit in a large hall, waiting, whilst buses arrived from other towns and villages, dropping off more children. He was beginning to feel hungry, tired. It wasn't much of a treat after all. He wanted to go home.

But then some men in uniforms had started calling out names, and they had been told to get into lines. Carlo was a year older and in the next class, so he had had to go and stand in another line. Then they were marched out of the hall and up a long, covered walkway, which frightened him because it began to sway under the weight of all those tramping pairs of feet...

In history, they were taught all about England's glorious past. Trafalgar. Waterloo. The British Empire. Now and again, a lesson would touch on France, Italy, Germany. Especially Germany, and how the problems left unresolved by the first war had contributed to this second one. Spain hardly got a mention. "Nothing important ever happens there," his teacher would scoff, wondering why anybody should even bother asking. "The oranges keep on growing, and that's about it."

He had laughed, along with the rest of the class. It was the sort of comment he had become used to. He had long ago learned to stop taking them personally. But it had been hard. Back then he had looked, felt, was different from all the others. And even though he had picked up their language quickly, to the point where he had totally forgotten his own, he had found it hard to get them to accept him, to treat him as one of them. Dago, wop, nigger - the taunts were as inaccurate as they were cruel.

Leeds during the war years was a fairly bleak place to grow up in, though perhaps no worse than anywhere else in England at that time. Blackouts, rationing, the occasional air raid. At least they didn't have to put up with what they heard was happening in London, or Liverpool, or Coventry. The family who adopted him brought him up as they would - did - their own. They were Catholics, second generation Irish, with four children already, and loved the idea of taking in a little Spanish boy from the orphanage. They couldn't help but feel sorry for him. They thought it was terrible what had happened over there.

He was twelve when he first became interested in photography. "Pop" bought him a Box Brownie. He took it to pieces, put it back together again. Taught himself how to use it. Managed to get taken on as apprentice to a local photographer when he left school. Worked his way up from there. Right to the top.

It had been a good way to see the world. Travel features. Fashion shoots. Royal tours. He had been just about everywhere. Except, curiously, Spain. The occasion had just never arisen. He hadn't deliberately avoided it or refused assignments. It was just the way his career had seemed to go.

When the offer came in, he had accepted it without a second thought. With a reputation as one of the leading photographers in Europe, he could afford to be choosy. This was a job he couldn't turn down - carte blanche from the Spanish Tourist Board to take a series of publicity shots in readiness for their big year, 1992. The Olympics, Expo, European City of Culture. They would fly him first-class to Barcelona, Seville, Madrid, anywhere else that took his fancy. It was a dream. A two-year promotional campaign, and the chance for his work to be seen all over the world. Magazines, brochures, posters, hoardings, book jackets. The definitive image of Spain, imposed onto the mind's eye of a whole generation.

He began reading everything he could about the country. First the travel books, then the art and culture guides, then finally the history. He devoured Carr, Thomas, Orwell, keen to find out what had shaped modern Spain. The revolution, Franco, the civil war. Guernica was well documented. A late afternoon in April. Three hours of constant bombing. Heavy explosives, then incendiaries, and finally the machine-gunning of the people as they ran into the streets in terror. Whole families were wiped out. Hundreds were killed, the town all but destroyed. Bilbao and the rest of the Basque region fell soon afterwards, and as all of Spain gradually came under the heel of yet another little corporal, so the country retreated behind its frontiers for forty years, into a second Middle Ages.

The letter had come out of the blue, delivered by hand to his hotel in Madrid. He had had to call the front-desk to get somebody to translate it for him. It was addressed to him in his English name, Martin O'Connell; the name of the sender meant nothing, although she signed herself "a friend of the family." She explained that somebody had seen his photograph in the newspaper, next to an article about his visit. He must be doing well.

She mentioned the war, and how the children had been sent away for their own safety, well before the bombing. How the parents - many of them poor, illiterate, disorganised - had tried to protest, but had been swept aside by the authorities, who had made the decision in what they said was the children's best interests. They would not be gone long, they were told. They would return as soon as the war was won.

He hired a car rather than take a plane or the rapido. He wanted to stop off in Guernica on the way. It had turned out to be a rather pointless exercise. There was nothing he remembered, and the town, rebuilt after the war, was now a fairly soulless place, all concrete and breeze block, remarkable for nothing except its name. He pressed on to Bilbao.

With the help of a street map, he found the block of flats relatively easily, in a busy, squalid area close to the docks. It, too, depressed him, a drab, grey, claustrophobic city, a port and little else, Hamburg without the Alster, Liverpool without The Beatles.

He turned off the engine and sat for a few moments composing his thoughts, wondering what he was going to say, hoping there was at least somebody there who could speak English. He had a phrase book with him, but what use was "could you direct me to the railway station" in a situation like this?

Brushing his hand through his locks, he looked at himself in the driver's mirror. It was still a good head of hair for a man pushing sixty, greying now around the temples and flecked with white elsewhere, but thick, wavy, expensively cut. The dark eyes that - she had told him later - were what had first attracted his wife. And the moustache, as peppered now as the hair, which he had only grown ten or so years ago. He had never wanted one when he was younger; he thought it might make him look too Spanish. By his late forties, he looked English, international enough for it not to really matter.

He straightened his tie and brushed a speck of dirt off his jacket. He had wanted to look smart but wondered now whether he was perhaps a little over-dressed. Would the Italian suit and the hand-made shoes he always liked to wear be appreciated in a place like this? Or would they think he was just showing off?

Inside, the flats were dark, dingy, slightly menacing. The lift was out of order, and he began the long climb up to the fifteenth floor, stepping over split carrier bags of household rubbish, waiting in vain to be collected, their contents spilling out onto the staircase. Graffiti covered the walls, football slogans vying for space with infantile scribblings and obscene diagrams that needed no translation; on each landing a bare lightbulb did its best to alleviate the gloom; and all the way up, the pervading smell of urine he normally associated with subways and multi-storey car parks.

He wondered what sort of people lived here. And why. It couldn't be through choice. It seemed only one step up from the townships he had seen in South Africa, the favellas in Rio, the slums in Naples. It didn't seem to make any difference how many times he saw grinding poverty, it still had the capacity to shock him, to turn his stomach, to make him grateful for what he had. He had never, nor ever wanted to, become hardened to it.

An elderly woman in a heavy black dress opened the door to him. Seventy, seventy-five, she was small, thin, excessively sharp-featured; she looked as though she could have modelled for Picasso himself. He started to say something, a simple greeting he had memorised from the phrase book, but she put her finger to her lips, and shook her head gently. He had the letter in his hand, but she did not even glance down at it. She had recognised him, and motioned to him to come inside and close the door behind him.

He followed her into the bedroom. It was late morning, but the curtains were still drawn, and from the doorway, he could barely make out the shape of the figure propped up in the bed. A single candle burned on the bedside table, next to an old photograph of a family group housed in a battered frame. The windows of the room were closed, the air stale, musty with the smell of incense and old age, sour as it hit the back of his throat and began to fill his nostrils. Only the noise from the street below helped dispel the feeling that he was entering a chapel of rest.

He walked quietly over towards the bed, and as his eyes became more adjusted to the light, he was able to pick out the pale, drawn features of a peasant woman, well in her eighties, drifting in and out of consciousness, her eyelids flickering like the light from the candle, her chest wheezing asthmatically with a sound he could only compare to the dying strains of a concertina. He stood watching her in silence for a moment, but she must have sensed he was there, for she opened her eyes slowly to look up at him, and a smile started to form on her parched lips. With what seemed to be all her remaining strength, she held out her hand towards him. He took it gently in his and knelt at the side of the bed.

"Martino?" she whispered, her thin voice barely audible above the hum of the traffic.

"Si, mama," he replied softly.

July 05, 2020 08:03

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Pamela Saunders
18:00 Jul 12, 2020

Breathtakingly sad.


Paul Rouse
20:12 Jul 12, 2020

And based on a true story...


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