“You’re sharp enough to cut yourself,” said Mr Sheltenham, and Lix felt her chin go up in the gesture her mum called obstinate and her teachers used to roll their eyes at.
“That’s as may be,” she said, “but you know I’m right. You have no one there who knows Spanish or who can write worth a damn; you can use me,” and she didn’t blink when his eyebrows twitched at the innuendo. When you acted like you didn’t hear it, they usually felt too ashamed to point it out.
“I’d ask how you know exactly which reporters are in Spain or what they do and do not know, but you do have a gift for research,” Mr Sheltenham said.
You mean I come up with half the leads for your bloody Foreign Affairs desk, she thought, and didn’t smile. Of course she knew which reporters were in Spain, and of course she knew that none of them could speak Spanish or write anything worthwhile; she had to edit all the copy they sent over.
“Go,” he said. “But stay out of trouble, my capability for intervening on behalf of foolhardy lady reporters is limited.”
She inherited a Rollei camera from someone who was returning to England, leg useless after being caught in mortar fire.
“I’m aware that a Fritz-manufactured camera might be a little distasteful, considering the circumstances,” he said, and she didn’t let herself think about Guernica beyond I wish more people had been there to see, I wish I had been there. George Steer had been, and thank God for that, but something that momentous needed more people, or all that the world had to make do with were rumours until that one fellow had made it to safety and could report back. And if he hadn’t made it, the world would never have known.
“That is all they’re good for,” she said (the expected reply), “so why not take advantage of it?”
He laughed, grimacing a little. “That is indeed the whole truth, unvarnished, and nothing but the truth.”
“God help us all,” his fellow brother of misfortune chimed in, flexing his nonexistent fingers.
Lix no longer flinched when she saw such injuries. She hadn’t always been able to look without wincing, not when she first arrived, but now these wounds seemed an unavoidable part of life. Though she didn’t flinch now, she still held some of that original fear. Not, however, in the way people would expect her to be frightened.
“Aren’t you afraid of what the war will do to that face of yours?” they’d asked when she first sat down with the other, more seasoned, war correspondents. But that had never been her terror. Losing her sight, losing her legs or hands or wit, therein laid the frightening possibilities. I was made for this, and what if they make me leave?
It was sometimes hard to sleep. She was out with a regiment of Republicans, and they had lost twenty soldiers to an attack today. Lix was stuck remembering their names under a torch, the one who had given her a cigarette, the one who had lit it, grinning like he was five years older than his actual eighteen, the one who had told her about his courses at the university, whose hands were so uncertain on his rifle. She was stuck remembering their names and writing them down, wishing for the angle that would let her commemorate them in print. But names weren’t enough, nice boys weren’t enough.
Her hands were steady. The camera didn’t shake, even with only her elbows as support. She had to be very quiet, lie very still behind the blown-out window. The Nationalists were lining people up on the street. Bare-headed, the soldiers she knew and the ones she hadn’t met stood in the mid-day sun. She could hear the distant thuds behind the closed door, probably only because everything else was so silent. There was an old woman on the street, running away from the house where her husband was being executed. The picture caught her mid-stride, her face frozen.
Lix’s eyes didn’t burn. Her camera clicked. Clicked again.
Damn, I’ve got no bloody film.
She kept that print. She’d only got three usable pictures out of that film, the sun spoiling most of the ones she got before she ran out, but the ones she could use made the front page and the article she wrote won her some kind of an award, later. World-class reporting, they said. What a photographer she is.
Her editor sent a telegram, too, while she was still in Spain.
Drinks on me. Sheltenham.
Lix didn’t give a damn about their approval, any of them. She went on to France when the war in Spain wound down, after a brief interlude of six months in London when she kept on telling them that Hitler could not be done yet, that she was certain he was about to launch something new. Everything she had out of Germany pointed in that direction, every source she had spoke of factories increasing production and of increasingly restrictive laws. The speeches, too, were clearly not the speeches of a peacetime leader.
“He’s about to go to war, Sheltenham, and you are a bigger fool than I thought if you can’t see that,” she said once, and he nearly laughed.
“So give me something I can use,” he said. “Chamberlain says ‘it is peace in our time’; who am I to scare the hard-working denizens of this country saying something different?”
“Fear of the truth is what we are meant to prevent,” she said. “That’s why we come to work every day. Truth, the real truth, people deserve to know it so they can live their lives accordingly.”
He didn’t let her write anything, but when the news came through, he bought her a bottle of whiskey and she didn’t tell him she wished she’d been wrong.
He sent her to France, then. She didn’t have to ask.