Joan Brown, 74, from Rotherham, looked around shiftily. "We're going to do something we were told not to," she confessed, as her stepson dodged about the scrubland on the outskirts of Madrid cradling a cardboard box.
On the iron bridge that crosses the Jarama river, scores of International Brigaders in their 80s and 90s, many in wheelchairs, sang "Ay Carmela" and waved their fists. They were celebrating their formation 65 years ago to help defend Republican Spain from Franco's Nationalist troops.
But Joan and her three stepsons – John, Stuart and Rob – were to conduct a more private ceremony at the north end of this symbolic bridge, held for months against a fascist offensive in the spring of 1937 in which hundreds died. While attention was diverted, Stuart quietly took a plastic canister from his box, unscrewed the lid and prepared to tip the contents into the valley below.
"My father, Christopher Smith, fought for weeks to defend this bridge," John tells me. "The fascists never took it, so the Republicans' supply road into Madrid kept open till the end of the Civil War. This battle of Jarama was the first check to fascism's advance in Europe."
The thick dust cascaded in the autumn sunshine and the family dropped red carnations in its wake. "Pop never actually said he wanted his ashes scattered here, but he was proud of what he did, and when he died last Christmas we thought it would be what he wanted," John murmured. "Now he can look east to where Franco's artillery faced him, and defy them forever. "
The brothers, their wives and Joan – Christopher's partner for 15 years after his wife died – wept and embraced, then cheers and songs rang from the crowd, celebrating a victorious battle of the war they eventually lost.
Last week Madrid's local authorities finally made an effort to thank survivors of that band of idealistic young volunteers from across Europe and the US who came to Spain in November 1936 to fight Franco. Veterans and families were offered long lunches, brass band concerts of battle songs and visits to the tombs of fallen comrades, and to view Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica. The frail but spirited ex-combatants from Rotherham and Marseilles, from Berlin, Philadelphia, Oslo and Bologna, were touched to be greeted at the Reina Sofia Museum by a squad of young guides each ready to explain the work to them, in their own language.
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Madrid's chamber of commerce has issued taxi drivers with a manual instructing them on proper behaviour. To counter an avalanche of complaints about rudeness, swindling and filth, the manual advises taxi drivers not to monopolise conversation, keep their cab sweet-smelling and avoid controversial topics such as politics.
I find most Madrid taxi drivers either taciturn or cheery, which is fine, but I've come across a couple who might benefit. One, when I clambered in clutching a fabulous bouquet of roses, snapped: "Don't put that on the seat or my next client will complain it's damp."
Another, chomping a cigar at the crack of dawn, responded to my mild request to extinguish it with a rant about smokers' rights that left me dizzy. Finally, with a defiant flourish, he laid the smouldering stub in the ashtray between the seats, so the stinking fumes eddied backwards and upwards and fair blew my head off.Reuse content