A World Between Us

Spain, 1936. Felix, a spirited young nurse, has travelled to Spain to help the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But she is also following Nat, a passionate young man who has joined the International Brigades fighting Franco. And George - familiar George from home - is not far behind, in pursuit of Felix ... As Spain fights for its freedom against tyranny, Felix battles a conflict of the heart. With the civil war raging around her, Felix must make choices that will change her life forever.

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2. 1

October 1936

London

 

Crowds had never bothered Felix before, so she was surprised to find herself shaking. She really shouldn’t have come this way, not when the Fascists were marching. She realised that now. Stuck in the thick of the protest, she wasn’t even sure why she’d persisted. Curiosity, perhaps, or something about the singing. Or just her stubborn streak. Anyway, it was far too late to turn back. She’d never get through all these people.

The closer she came to the police line, the louder the chanting grew.

‘One . . . two . . . three, four, five. We want Mosley, dead or alive!’

A new cry went up, less familiar.
‘No pasarán! No pasarán! No pasarán!
‘Excuse me. Excuse me.’ Nobody could hear her through

this racket. All she could smell was overcoats and sweat. Unease turned to fear, and she began to struggle for air. A battered homburg and then a bald head shifted, giving Felix another breathless glimpse of the row of helmets ahead. Not far now. Such a relief. She could explain to the police. I’m not meant to be here. My tram, you see . . . I was just trying. The station . . . They’d let her through, wouldn’t they? She didn’t exactly look like a demonstrator, not in her uniform. Everyone loves a nurse.

She stuck out her elbows and pushed. A few steps further and she saw the policemen’s faces. Set and grim, they might have been rounding up wild animals, not protecting people. Behind the line, a mounted policeman made a show of holding his nose, acting out his disgust at the stink of the East End. No point in trying to catch his eye.

And then the wall of police officers parted, and Felix knew she’d made a terrible mistake. The horses were coming straight at them. They weren’t going to stop. The police hadn’t come to defend the crowds from the Fascists. They were clearing a path so the Blackshirts could march.

Felix tried to turn and run, but lost her footing at once. Hurtling into a stranger, she was rammed against three more. Everyone was falling over each other in their efforts to get away, but there was nowhere to go. Hooves thundered on cobbles. Batons slashed through the air. Her head filled with screaming, and the icy smash of plate-glass windows shattering, and loud Yiddish curses, and the high-pitched keening of a weeping woman.

Felix glanced back to see a huge brown horse skittering towards her, skidding and sliding on marbles thrown in its path. Foam from its muzzle hit her face, and then she felt a shove in her back, pushing her away from the animal’s iron shoes and rolling white eye.

The truncheon came down like a sledgehammer. The horse ploughed on and Felix saw a dark-haired young man stumble back, dazed. He clutched his head and blood flowered from beneath his hands.

‘Nurse! Nurse! Help him. Quick.’

People started pushing her towards him. They think I’m a first aid post. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. He saw Felix’s uniform, looked her straight in the eye and grinned.

‘Hello, nurse. Will I live?’ he yelled. Then his knees gave way, and he collapsed against her, and she staggered, held up only by the crowds behind.

‘You’re all right, love, I’ll give you a hand.’ An Irishman, built like a bull, stuck his head under the boy’s shoulder. ‘Get him out the way before they charge again.’

She gulped back a sour taste, and nodded, and they pushed back through the crowd together. Missiles kept flying overhead – saucepans, bottles, rotten vegetables, God knows what. It was like a tide on the turn, with banners and placards dipping and rearing. There were all sorts here, not just East Enders. Even the side streets were packed with protestors. Most gave way to her uniform though. By the time they found an empty doorway, the young man was walking without support, though Felix couldn’t quite stop trembling. With a clenched fist salute, the Irishman left.

They were on their own. After a fashion. Something inside her hammered so hard that Felix thought it must show. She swallowed, and got her brisk voice working.

‘Let’s get you sitting down.’

He was very pale now, grey and obedient. He looked up at her, eyes expectant, trusting. She wondered if she could get him inside somehow, somewhere clean and safe, but this shop front was boarded up like all the others. You could just make out some old graffiti: Kill the Jews. It was covered over now with another whitewashed slogan. No Pasarán! They shall not pass!

Felix sat on the doorstep next to him.

‘Put your head between your knees. That’s right.’ Now she could get a better look at the wound. She began to clean it up with her hanky. ‘It’s not too bad. Is it throbbing?’

‘Bit.’ She dipped down to catch his reply and their hair touched.

‘You have to be careful with head injuries,’ she said. Keep calm. Do what you’d normally do. This is what you’re good at. ‘They make a lot of fuss. Lots of blood. But it’s what you can’t see that’s the problem. You may be concussed. What’s your name?’

He rolled his eyes vacantly, then smiled at her frown. ‘I get it. Don’t worry. I’m all here. Nat Kaplan’s my name. Mr Stanley Baldwin is our Prime Minister, God help us, and it’s October 4th 1936.’

The loudspeakers of a slowly moving van began to blare out a message.

‘What are they saying?’ Nat screwed up his eyes as if it would help him hear, while he peered through the forest of moving legs. ‘Not sure. Hang on. Wait. Cable Street! Mosley’s going to Cable Street.’

There was a surge towards the docks, and the singing started up again.

Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers . . .
It is just like a hymn
, thought Felix.
All at once Nat pulled her to her feet, and began to bellow
out the words. His singing voice was very deep. He stood so close she could feel it vibrating through her.

And the last fight let us face.
The Internationale unites the human race.

There was something about the tune, and the words, and 
the way everyone sang them together: Felix felt herself brim- ming over and light-headed. It was like nothing she’d ever known before.

‘Let’s see if we can make it to Cable Street. They might need help there,’ said Nat, and before she could answer he had stepped out of the doorway. She followed without thinking and they were both swept right back into the current of people.

‘Hold on to me,’ he shouted, sticking out his elbow for her, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. ‘You’ll be all right.’

This time she was. It was the same crowd, but it felt completely different now. Felix didn’t mind the jostling any more, or the press of bodies against hers. The force was just as determined, but no longer threatening. She was breathless again, but not afraid. They weren’t really getting anywhere though. She couldn’t see how they could hope to get across Whitechapel Road.

‘Best stick where we are, eh?’ Nat grinned at her. And then he said it again, closer to her ear, so she could hear properly this time.

‘Don’t think we’ve got a choice.’ Felix smiled back, absorbing the warmth of his breath and worrying about his wound. At least the bleeding had definitely stopped. This wasn’t very responsible nursing, but she didn’t have much of a choice about that either. Singing and chanting, the two of them held their position with the others. Until the news finally erupted, shouted from voice to voice.

‘He’s called them off! The Blackshirts have given up! We’ve won!’

Felix looked at Nat, and saw the excitement in his eyes. He picked her up without a thought and whirled her round, while her cape flew out like a matador’s, flashing its red lining. Suddenly there was space. They could all breathe again. Fists punched the air, and hats went flying. In the explosion of back- slapping, she was enveloped by stranger after stranger, passed from embrace to embrace. Felix finally careened away from the immense bosom of an old lady whose black shawl reeked of pickled herring, and turned to laugh with Nat.

He’s gone, she realised instantly, her laughter freezing. In all this giddy rapture, he had vanished. With mounting panic, Felix ducked under the joined hands of a line of young men. They were all singing loudly, and made a move to encircle her, but she darted away in time. Weaving in and out of the crowd, looking out for Nat’s face, she kept imagining the relief of finding him. She had to find him. Surely she would see him, any moment now, and he would smile at her again.

But it was hopeless. There were so many people still milling around, and it was getting so late. Oh, what was she thinking? She knew she’d pushed her luck already, and she had quite a walk ahead of her still. Well, that was that then. She had to be sensible about it. Just one of those things. Heading for the station, Felix braced herself for her monthly visit home. Disappointment settled in her stomach.

The sun was beginning to go, but there was a lingering street party feel in the air. Happy groups kept stumbling by, half-drunk with the wonder of it all. Snatches of song and coal smoke and the noise of traffic starting up again. Felix saw a father walking with his arm round his son’s shoulders and imagined him telling the boy how they had just saved the East End from the Fascists.

The crowds were thinning when she felt Nat’s hand on her arm again.

‘Don’t go yet. We never said goodbye,’ he said. ‘I thought I’d lost you.’

Felix tried to keep her smile under control, and felt dizzy with the effort. It wasn’t a problem she was used to.

‘I thought . . .’ she began to say, not knowing how to finish. ‘I’m glad you found me.’

‘Me too. I might not get a chance to see you again.’

‘Look . . . there’s a café I know, just by the station,’ Felix said quickly. She didn’t have a chance to wonder what he had meant. She just knew she couldn’t let him go again, not right away. She couldn’t quite believe her own daring. ‘Do you have time for a coffee or something?’

Nat smiled again, and took her arm to cross the road. ‘I reckon I’ve got time.’

 

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