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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While he held the café door open for her, she ducked under his arm, and his elbow knocked her starched cap askew again. He looked down at her. Felix was already looking up at him, and noticing more and more. A jacket that was old but well-cut. Blood on his collar. The length of his eyelashes. Their gazes were afraid to hold each other for long.

There was an empty booth near the counter, so they squeezed along the benches opposite each other, knees briefly touching under the white marble table. The windows were clouded with steam from the huge urn.

‘Thought I was about to be arrested back there. Just before I got clobbered. That would have scuppered everything. A mate from the YCL’s in prison right now. Wormwood Scrubs. Four months. He was heckling at a Fascist meeting in Victoria Park. The police carted him off to the station and planted a brick in his pocket. That I didn’t need.’

Criminal elements. Felix heard her brother’s voice in her head.

‘The YCL?’ She knew she ought to know.

‘Young Communist League. Stepney branch.’ As if it was obvious.

‘Oh.’
‘Don’t look like that. It’s not what you think. You should
come to our meetings. They’re dead lively, very mixed, you know. And plenty of girls come.’

As Nat talked, a dart of jealousy surprised Felix and she lost concentration for a moment. She imagined him at the centre of a crowd of girls. In a hall? A bar?

‘It’s changed my life really. I can see everything more clearly now. It gives you hope, doesn’t it? When you realise how things could be so much better, so much fairer? And that you can do something about it.’

‘I suppose it must.’ Life isn’t fair, thought Felix. But she’d never met anyone before who thought you could change the fact.

And then he just blurted it out. ‘That’s why I’m going to Spain.’

The word ‘Spain’ came out as a croak, so he repeated it quickly, with too much emphasis.

‘Spain?’ said Felix, uselessly.
He nodded.
‘To fight. No pasarán. You know,’ he said. And watched for
a reaction.
‘Spain. That’s . . .’ She fumbled with her thoughts. ‘That’s
brave. Very brave.’
‘You’re not going to try and talk me out of going?’
‘Should I?’ she said, wishing she knew more. Is that what he
wants me to do?

Spain always seemed so far away. She had never really thought about its civil war till she saw the banners today. ‘Surely you’re not going right now, are you?’

‘A few weeks, I reckon. But nobody knows yet . . . Not even my sister. It’s best that way. Believe me, my parents would kill me if they knew.’ He laughed and shook his head and Felix found herself laughing too, though she wanted to cry. ‘I don’t even know why I’m telling you. I just wanted you to know. Because if I wasn’t going, I’d want to see you again. I really would. I can tell you that for nothing. I knew it right away.’

Felix thanked God she wasn’t the blushing type.

‘You really are feeling better?’ she asked. ‘Sometimes a blow to the head can—’

‘Yes, yes, don’t worry. I am in my right mind, honest I am. Never felt clearer about anything, in fact.’ He shook his head. He started his speech. It was as if he had to tell someone. ‘The thing is I’ve had it with demonstrations and petitions and collecting tins. I’ve done what I can but it’s not enough, not any more. You can see it coming, all over Europe . . . it’ll be here too before you know it.’

Nat’s voice was low and urgent and he rocked slightly as he spoke. It frightened and fascinated Felix.

‘Germany and Italy do what they like,’ he went on. ‘But when the Spanish government turns to us for help, what do we do? Oh dear! Oh no!’ (He affected a posh accent.) ’We can’t possibly sell arms to the wicked Reds. Not in our interests to encourage the Bolshies, is it?’ That’s what our government really thinks about democracy.’

She had never had a conversation like this before. She thought about what she’d seen today.

‘It makes me sick.’ Nat’s voice began to shake. ‘And now the Fascists in Spain are nearly at Madrid. But the bastards would be nowhere without Hitler and Mussolini. Anyone can see that!’

Felix was hypnotised by the gleam in his eyes and the tension in his throat. She looked at his white shirt, undone at the neck, and showing a fragile glimpse of hair. She thought about the hands that would scrub at the bloodstained collar, and iron it crisp again.

I must learn this face, before it’s too late, she thought. Learn it by heart.

Heavy eyebrows sloped in a way that gave a hint of irony to everything he said, and made his strong high cheekbones less formidable. Dark hair, pale skin. She could hardly be the first to fall for a face like that. Yet he didn’t seem very aware of his charm. Hadn’t he noticed the way the waitress looked at him when they came in? Maybe that was part of the attraction, this indifference.

‘Does your boss know you’re leaving?’ she asked. Did he even have a job?

‘Does my boss know? God forbid! But he won’t miss me.’

A troublemaker then. And proud of it. And what was he . . . seventeen? Eighteen? He couldn’t be much older than her.

‘And you? You’re a probationer?’ He was looking at her uniform. The kind of person who just knows things: one of those boys who absorbs facts like air. She liked that.

‘Yes, I’ve been training since January. I’m hoping to be a theatre nurse. I really want to be a surgeon. One day, maybe.’

‘You never know.’

Nat kept shifting in his seat, apologising when his foot brushed hers. He didn’t take his eyes off her. It was as if he found her own stillness compelling.

‘Shame you’re not qualified. Spain needs surgeons. And nurses of course.’

‘Well, I don’t think . . . I couldn’t possibly . . .’

‘Never mind.’ Nat put a hand on hers and shook his head, and let go too soon. Then he took a book and a pencil from his pocket. At first Felix thought he wanted to give her a reading list. The latest history of Spain. The Communist Manifesto? Well, it would make a change from anatomy text books, and general hygiene, and dressing techniques. Though what Neville would think if he knew . . .

‘Look, how about I write to you?’ he said. She wasn’t expecting that. ‘It won’t be too often, mind you. I’m not so good with words, so don’t get your hopes up. But just to know I can, if I get the chance . . . It’ll make a difference.’

‘To have a girl at home?’ The words escaped with a self- mocking smile she hadn’t intended. But Nat looked at her so seriously that her heart began to beat faster. And then she thought of the bundles of letters from her father that her mother still kept from the Great War. She stared back at him with a sober face.

‘If you like.’

He pushed the book towards her, and offered her a flyleaf to write on. It was Jack London. The Iron Heel. A well-read copy. Felix decided Tredegar House was safer than her mother’s address in Sydenham. Fewer questions at the nurses’ home.

Her writing was rounded, smooth, clear and young. ‘So nurses aren’t like doctors then,’ Nat joked. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I can read this.’

‘Good.’
‘Felix?’
‘Felicity really, but my friends call me Felix. Always have.

I’ve no idea why, really.’
‘I like it . . . Felix Rose . . . I like it a lot. Now, don’t move.’ Nat stared at Felix intently, eyes moving over her features.

Then he licked the pencil stub and in a few swift lines he caught her heart-shaped face and her calm smile and the straightness of her nose. A strand of hair had escaped from its grip, she saw. She tucked it back behind her ear.

‘Very clever. Very nice. You’re good. Really,’ she said. She meant it.

It crossed her mind that he might have a whole bookshelf of paperbacks like this – a different girl’s name, address and portrait in each. When she met his gaze again, she decided it couldn’t be true.

‘You don’t mind, then?’ he said quietly. ‘Was that a liberty?’ ‘No. Of course not. Not at all.’
They talked a little longer, until Felix became too anxious

about the time, and then they both rose from the banquette at the same time, and nearly bumped heads. Nat paid for the coffees. Outside they stood and shivered for a moment, uncer- tain what came next. Then Felix clenched her fist, and held it awkwardly, up by her ear.

No pasarán?
No pasarán,’ he replied firmly, returning her salute.

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