Over All Of Spain...

My head felt thick and cloudy. I wasn’t used to the heat and, as the radio had told us, over all of Spain the sky was crystal clear but it was more than just the weather. We sat in the shade and I could feel the sweat on my arms and forehead and pulling the shirt to my back. But the light was just beginning to decay and it had started to occasionally feel cool where we sat, making me shiver but it was pleasant after the day we’d had and I welcomed the cool breeze when it came.

The Spaniard and I sat smoking cigarettes – his, not mine. He sat rolling them now, while he had the chance, placing each one carefully in a cigarette tin when it was finished. I took a drag on the one I already had and closed my eyes, trying to relax. Occasionally soldiers would walk past and nod to us as they did so or a messenger would cut the corner to our right and have to jump over our feet but there was a relative calm that was rarely broken, except by the sound of gunshot and explosion on the edge of the city. The fighting had died down for now and the quiet allowed my mind time to wander places I did not want it to go.

I took a final drag on my cigarette and blew the smoke high into the air. The Spaniard noticed and leaned over to offer me another. As I took it and thanked him I realised that this man had saved my life today and I didn’t even know his name.

“Rodrigo,” he answered. “My name is Rodrigo.”

‘I’m Richard. Ricardo.’ I offered him my hand and he shook it. ‘I feel better taking your cigarettes now that I know your name.’ He smiled at that, the first smile I had seen in a while.

“If it is okay with you I will continue to call you Englishman. I have never known an Englishman before.” I nodded to him.

‘Well if it is okay with you, I think I’ll call you Rodrigo. I think there are yet many Spaniards for me to meet.’ With that he looked at me and we both smiled before he settled back against the wall, rolling cigarettes while one hung limply from his lips. He was a relaxed man and it settled me. I too rested back against the wall and lit my cigarette.

As I sat there I thought about how much he’d helped me. I might have been dead if it weren’t for him and all I could do was to sit here and smoke his cigarettes in silence while my mind forever tried to wander back to the nuns. I was about the ask Rodrigo what he thought of it all when he spoke.

“I can see you thinking too much, Englishman. It will do you no good.” I looked over and he was still rolling cigarettes, looking at me occasionally. “I think you know all too well that it will do you no good. So why do it? Just let it go.” I held my tongue and looked across the street at nothing. I stared into nothing and out of nothing my mind wandered again.

‘This never would have happened in Paris,’ I said aloud to myself in English. Rodrigo looked over at me so I repeated myself in Spanish.

“What do you mean?”

‘This: all of this. If I’d gone to Paris instead of Madrid I’d have been reading about all of this in the newspaper and writing poetry about it as if I was here. Instead I am here, seeing things I never thought I’d see and doing things no man should do. Why? I should have gone to Paris and carried on being a poet. I’m not a soldier.’ Rodrigo paused for a moment, staring at me, before continuing to roll his cigarettes.

“I told you not to think too much.”

He stopped and looked at me out of the corner of his eye and smiled and we laughed a strong, sincere laugh that felt like it would never end. This morning I wouldn’t have believed I could ever laugh like this again. I never thought I’d laugh like this today. We laughed for all the fighting we’d done and for all the cigarettes we’d smoked. We laughed at the fact that we’d stood together, fought together and only now, sitting in the shade, did we know each other’s names. We laughed for the dying men and we laughed for those nuns. I’m not sure about Rodrigo but I also saved a laugh for Paris and for home. Not because any of it was funny but because we were here and there was nothing else for us to do. Some soldiers walked past and stared at us like we were crazy but we still didn’t stop. There is no way to stop a genuine laugh once it has started and by God, this was as sincere and human as laughter got.

Eventually we stopped laughing and instead of rolling more cigarettes Rodrigo lit one for himself and offered me another. We sat there, as we were before, relaxed and waiting.

“Englishman, you say you aren’t a soldier.”

‘No. I’m not a soldier.’

“Are you sure? I haven’t seen you write much poetry lately.”

We both sat in silence and thought about that for a moment before he went back to rolling his cigarettes.

‘Rodrigo. Why did they do it?’ He shuffled around a little, perhaps unsure of how to answer me, certainly reluctant to do so.

“Will this do any good?”

‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’

“Well, as far as I could tell, some of the soldiers propositioned them. They refused.”

‘And they died for it? They killed them for it?’

“It’s all about honour. The soldiers had something to prove. In the eyes of the nuns, they are on their way to heaven because they stayed true to their God. To the soldiers they’re wrong. Their God does not exist and they’re not going to heaven. It’s all about what you believe.”

I could believe that. But it didn’t help me to get the image of the nuns out of my mind. They had been choked with their own rosary beads – rammed down their throats as punishment. It seems that just because people are on the same side doesn’t mean that they fight for the same reasons. Everyone has their own scores to settle.

I couldn’t help but think that mine would have been better off settled in Paris but I was here now and, despite my doubts, I was thankful for a couple of things. I had Rodrigo, who seemed like a good man. I had faith in him. Importantly, I also had faith in his country.

One thing I think we had over on Paris. At least the sky was clear.

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