When I was at college in Dublin I had a Spanish teacher named Mercedes Keating.
I used to go to classes with her after school once a week on Thursday evenings. She was in her mid seventies then and lived in a flat in an Edwardian terrace house not far from my boarding school.
My Spanish wasn’t bad and one day I asked her where she learned the language because she spoke it so fluently. She replied “In Barcelona and the Basque country in Spain.”
It took me weeks to get it out of her but eventually she said “I was a Communist then. I went to Spain as a nurse and worked with my friend Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionaria.”
She said “Tim hijo [son] you are here to learn Spanish.” and I replied ok but tell me the story in Spanish then, and she did. And that is how she taught me the language which I speak so fluently today.
She told me of the camps where they lived in tents and of old shepherds huts of stone high in the mountains in the Basque country where they lived. The hunger and disease and death that surrounded them. The wounded that she tended. The armed men who came down from the mountains in their wool-lined leather jackets, their faces drawn because they knew that death was near to them.
I addressed her always as Mrs Keating then of course. She used to make us a cup of tea and gave me a few bits of cake on a little plate. I was always hungry.
Months later she said “Tim, your Spanish is excelente. I am so happy to have helped you.”
We did not speak after that for a while; we just sipped our tea in silence together. She knew that she had opened her soul to me, and that I had listened with respect.
About seven years later I was living in Sydney. I got a letter from a close friend who knew her to say that her last remaining family had paid for her travel to Australia and rented a small house for her where she could end her days.
I went to see her one Saturday afternoon at Brighton-Le-Sands near to Sydney where she lived then.
She gave me a huge hug and then made the tea and her little cakes. Her blue eyes said it all; she was so pleased to see me again, and I had to hide my tears.
I said Mrs Keating “Now I know.”
And she replied “Tell the story one day but not about me. About the Civil War, tell it about our struggle in the International Brigades.”
She passed away a few months later but by then I was gone again to chase my dreams in the Middle East. I loved that lady.
Note by the author:
I have visited the site of the Battle of the Ebro several times. I used to live near there in Tarragona.
It is a sad and desolate place. The open ground was too hard to dig into to shelter in trenches from the Nationalist army artillery, and aerial bombing from the skies.
They ended up on a bare hill on open ground in August when the temperature was highest.
Franco’s troops cut off their supply lines by bombing them. They had no food, medicine, water or ammunition. They died in thousands on that hill and the war was lost.
“Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.” ~ Dolores Ibárruri