Valley of the Fallen
By Louis Malloy
The man turned to look behind him, shielding his eyes against the sun, as if he hadn't even noticed the white stone cross which stood so tall against the hillside.
"There?" he said to David. "No, we haven't been there today. But we've been before."
"We went to the fortress as well," said the woman. "In the town. Have you been there?"
"Yes, I've been this morning. How far was it from the fortress to the cross? Can you remember? Approximately."
"Hold on," said the woman.
She went into the car and took a map book out of the glove compartment. The man was still shielding his eyes, though the sun was behind him now. They had been having a picnic in a lay-by, sitting on fold-out chairs. If he had offered some of the bread and cheese or a drink, then David would have accepted. But the man just looked at him, with an expression which meant nothing, and didn't offer him anything.
"Eleven kilometres," said the woman. She jabbed her finger at the page. "Eleven kilometres. That sounds about right. It took fifteen to twenty minutes in the car." She nodded to herself.
"Jesus Christ. How far are we now? About half way between the two?"
"I don't know. Probably," said the woman.
Suddenly she was less forthcoming. She kept looking at him, her mouth tightly closed.
"Okay," he said. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
He swung around and walked on, trying to get into a marching step again. Earlier, when he had been on the train from the city, with the sheet of blue sky pulled tight above the plains, he had felt glad that he had made the effort to get up early and come out here. He needed to get back to that feeling and there was no reason why he shouldn't. It was still a beautiful day and five or six kilometres really wasn't that far. As long as he didn't think about the guy at work who he hardly knew, the one who had said it was only two or three kilometres from the fortress to the cross. And as long as he didn't think about the couple back there, not offering him even a glass of their beer and her getting uptight just over a little blaspheming. Everything could still be fine, he just had to stay in the right frame of mind.
It took another hour of marching. The last two kilometres were the easiest, even though he was sweating now and the back of his thighs were aching from the ascent up the valley. The cross was getting bigger and he could see it all the way, even when he was in the thickest section of the tall conifers. The satisfaction he felt from making the gradual approach almost made the long walk worthwhile. He would remember it much more clearly than people like the couple who went by car. And when he got there he would relax and have a drink and look back down at the road to see how far he had come.
But once he arrived there wasn't really much to the place. He looked up at the cross and read about its history in a pamphlet. He went into the mausoleum and looked at the few famous graves and then at the dozens of lesser ones. Men, he imagined, who might have done that march as well. It would be a lot easier in a big group. He walked around and read a few of the names, but was distracted by other people. It was a lot more crowded than he expected. Walking along the road it had felt like he was the only one heading in that direction, but there were coachloads here. Children ran around and tried to slide on the smooth polished stone floor and their mothers scolded them. Voices and laughter echoed across from wall to wall. David closed his eyes and it sounded more like a swimming baths than a memorial. He sat in one of he chairs and watched the people for a while until a man in a blazer carrying a walkie-talkie came and told him that he couldn't sit there because it was reserved. David asked what it was reserved for, wondering if there was some kind of military display due to happen, but the man became sterner. Probably it was just for someone like him, a member of staff, to sit down when he got tired of walking about doing nothing. David tried to be friendly, but it didn't work. He suspected that he looked wrong for somewhere like this. The man with the walkie-talkie had thick grey hair, oiled and brushed straight back, and his florid face was freshly shaven. David went outside and stood on the platform which overlooked the valley. It was a great view, the best thing about the place. But the sun was starting to go down now and in the shade there was a wintry cold again. He felt his shoulders hunch up against the wind coming across the hillside and he walked over to the car park.
There were half-a-dozen buses waiting but none of them were painted in the blue and white of the public service. He walked across the car park twice to check what he could already see, then he went to the door of one of buses and tapped on the glass. The driver looked up from his paperback and stared. Finally he made a small gesture with his hand, indicating that David should state his business.
"Is there a public bus from here?"
David tried to mouth the words as clearly as he could, for there was no chance that the driver would be able to hear him through the door, with the rumble of engines in the background. The driver stared again and then, still in slow motion, put down his book and reached over to press a button. The door concertinaed open with a long hiss, no quicker than the driver's movements.
"Thanks. Sorry," said David. "Is there a public bus service from here?"
"Where to?" said the driver, making the small questioning gesture again.
"To the town." This much must have been obvious, there was nowhere else to go. "I'm going to the train station. Do the public buses still run this time of day?"
"The train station?" The driver rubbed his thick neck and David realised that he didn't know. He wasn't going to admit it, but he didn't know. "You need to check the timetable at the stop."
"By the information office."
With that the driver sat back and looked away, as if he had given all the help he could manage.
The driver reached over and pressed the button without looking at him.
The information office was closed now. In the window there was a timetable for the public bus and the last one had left half-an-hour ago. Everything seemed to be stopping quite suddenly, just as the sun was going down. The crowds came out of the mausoleum and families went back to their cars. Groups of men in their heavy overcoats got onto buses. Everyone seemed to have arrangements except for him. He knew the trains went back into the city until eight o'clock and he briefly thought of walking all the way back to the train station. It was possible in the time, but it was getting dark and growing much colder than it had been even an hour ago. And there was already a blister on one of his toes. He swore to himself and for a few minutes put off the thought that he was going to have to ask for a ride.
He felt uncomfortable that he alone, out of what might have been several hundred people, should have come without any proper plan of how to get back. At first he wondered about waiting for a while and then hitch-hiking. But if he let them all go first then there might be very little other traffic on the road. The big cross was out on its own, the solitude and grandeur was all part of the point. There was no other reason to come out here.
He walked around the buses again. All of the drivers looked the same, unwelcoming and unlikely to make much effort to help. The bus he had gone to before had filled up first and the door was open. At least he wouldn't need to explain himself again.
"There are no more public buses today. Is it possible I could get a lift back with you to town. I know it's a private bus, but if I paid you something. Otherwise it's a hell of a walk." He tried a smile.
"You went to the stop?"
"Yes. There's a timetable on the window. The last one went half-an-hour ago."
"You sure there's not another one today?"
The driver was so languid that David wondered if he'd been drinking or at least dozing during the hours alone in the bus.
Then there was silence and the driver rubbed his neck again and stared through the big windscreen, not looking as if he'd make a decision anytime soon.
"What do you want?"
One of the men in the heavy overcoats, who was just about to get on, looked at David. His tone was sharp but after the lethargy of the driver it was still a relief.
"I've missed the public bus," said David "I'm looking to get back to the train station in town and I was wondering if there was any chance of a ride. If I paid. It's a hell of walk."
He tried the smile again. He realised that he might have to use the same routine twenty times and it would get more natural with each repetition.
Another man had joined them.
"What's going on?" There was the same sternness and suspicion about him.
"He's missed his bus."
"Who were you with?" said the second man.
"No-one. Not with one of the buses."
"So how did you get here?"
"I walked. But I was going to get the public bus and then the train to the city."
"Have the public buses stopped already?"
"Public services," said the first man. He turned to his companion. "That's public services for you."
They laughed. David couldn't really see what was funny, but it wasn't unfriendly laughter, so he joined in as best he could.
"Joe," said the man to the driver. "Public services. Don't you wish you drove one of their buses."
"Socialism in action!" said the second man.
They kept up the deep laughter and the driver smiled now and nodded his head, though he seemed to have no more idea than David about what was funny.
"You walked here you say?" said the first man. "All this way."
"You've visited the graves? The general?"
"Yes." David had come to see the huge cross, but he was getting a feel for what this was about. "I spent an hour in there. It 's very impressive."
"Carved out of the rock. It's a great memorial. It's a special day for us today."
"There are a lot of people here," said David.
"There are plenty of people today," said the man, coming closer and nodding, holding him by the elbow. "But there are always visitors here."
"All come to pay their respects. There are a lot of supporters," said the other man. Their voices were softer now. "Always plenty on the special anniversaries. And at demonstrations in the city. Though the newspapers don't report them."
"Or if they do they halve the numbers. There are thousands of supporters who will come out."
"Tens of thousands."
They stood there nodding. David nodded too, trying to look properly interested.
"Come on," said the first man. He grinned and directed David into the bus with an expansive gesture. "Joe, we can give this young gentleman a lift, can't we?" It was an order more than a question
"You're going near the train station?" said David.
"No no no. You can come all the way back to the city. You don't need to take the train."
"Public services. The train will probably be gone too," called the second man from behind and when they laughed again, David was right on cue.
Half-an-hour later he had relaxed into a companionable atmosphere, though he had learnt little about the men on the bus. They were from a local section of the fascist party. He wondered if that party still actually existed, but didn't ask. He was careful with his information too. He told them that he worked in computing, which was true, but not that he was in a government-funded department. He told them about his parents and brothers, the big family who still lived in one of the old villages, but nothing about his mother's foreign blood or both brothers' divorces. And so the conviviality survived. John, who was the first man who had spoken to him, produced packages of food. Cooked meat, big triangles of cheese, tomatoes. Someone pulled a stick of bread from the pile on the luggage rack above.
"Eat. Eat David. Are you hungry?"
"When did you last eat?"
"I had some chocolate earlier. I missed out on lunch. Bad planning."
"Three square meals a day. That's what keeps me going," said John.
He patted his stomach and his companions laughed and there was another of the long exchanges where every comment sounded scripted but the laughter still came. David didn't mind. The food was excellent. He wished that it was daylight again and that they could pass the couple he had met on the way, having their picnic on the side of the road. He would have liked to stand at the window with food in his hand and a bottle of wine to his mouth, while they ate their plain meal and breathed in exhaust fumes.
The men on the bus all began to look the same. All at least middle-aged, all still in the big coats, sitting straight-backed even as they drank, faces tilted upwards and ready for a challenge. There was singing. Anthems or military songs, he wasn't sure which. Songs about destiny and loyalty. David ate and drank more and the men encouraged him and shared more of their strange jokes and harsh laughter.
By the time Joe the driver pulled the big steering wheel around to bring the bus away from the main road and towards the city, there was less noise. There were still songs being sung but in lower, more pleasant voices now. A few of the men had fallen asleep, their heads fallen neatly onto their chests. David was relieved that John was one of them, so that he didn't have to maintain the tiring performance of gratitude and amusement. He was sleepy himself, after three of four cups of wine, and he watched the streetlights outside become a blurred line.
A loud thump on the side of the bus made him suddenly alert. John let out a growl as he woke. The driver made the questioning gesture with his hand again, but this time it was much more urgent and confused. David looked outside. They were just coming into a square near the city centre.
"Rabble," shouted John. "Red rabble."
There was a roar which could have been a cheer.
"Look. To the left."
They all rushed to the window.
"Look at them. Like sheep," said a voice, which could have been John, but really could have been any of them. "Baa. Baa."
They all started imitating the sound and making aggressive but not obscene gestures at a group of forty or so people outside. Another stone was thrown and there was a loud animal roar from the bus.
"Stop Joe. We'll all get out here. Everyone ready for the rabble?"
There was another roar. David looked outside again. It was a young crowd with at least half-a-dozen girls among them. There were a few banners with political slogans and they were all shouting together, though with the noise on the bus it was impossible to hear.
The driver looked around nervously and opened the doors, remaining in his seat. A policeman had appeared. David could see more outside, starting to form a cordon against the small but volatile crowd.
"Everyone leave quietly," said the policeman, getting onto the bus. "We'll be here for as long as we need to be, but you must leave the area quickly."
"Are you going to arrest them officer?" said John. His tone was polite but insistent. "They have damaged the vehicle at least. And are they permitted to be causing a nuisance here? Interfering with ordinary people going about their business."
There were shouts of agreement and more questions. The policeman, remaining calm, looking almost bored, held up his hand and closed his eyes for a moment.
"Leave quietly please. Respect the public peace."
There were more shouted questions. They all made sure to congratulate the policemen on doing his job but wondered why the demonstrators - the communists, the socialists, the rabble, the criminals - were allowed to behave like this. The policeman looked straight ahead, repeated his orders and then John led them off the bus and through the cordon.
The abuse between the two groups was loud and well-practised. There were a few steps towards each other but no contact and there were no more stones thrown. When David got off he felt out of place amongst everyone. He was the same age as the demonstrators and dressed much more like them than his companions in their coats and brogue shoes. The sound of whistles and chants was weird and keening in the cold dry air, echoing off the tall buildings around them.
"Bastard. Fascist bastard."
It was a girl's voice, managing to break through as David passed her. He knew that he shouldn't look, but he did, straight into her light brown eyes. He felt lost for a second.
"You fascist bastard. Traitor."
He wanted to explain but there was no time for a conversation. Only insults would carry, but he didn't want to do that. The men on the bus had shared their food and given him a ride, but they couldn't expect him to insult the girl.
He broke away from the group as soon as they were beyond the cordon and slipped into the normal early evening crowds walking into the city towards the bars and cinemas. He wondered where the men would go and whether they really didn't like this modern city now that their time was over, whether they ever ate or drank in the same places as he did.
Walking in a large circle, it was twenty minutes before he came back towards the square. The spectators of the demonstration had dispersed, but the young crowd were still there. He watched them pack up their banners. They moved away, chattering and nodding and holding each other by the arm. They weren't quite laughing but the sense of triumph, of having done what they set out to do in front of witnesses, was evident to him in their every movement. They went up one of the streets where there were plenty of bars and he imagined they would stop in one of them to drink until late. He would have liked to be there and talk to the girl. He would struggle at first:
"I missed the bus, I was cold".
"You were cold so you thought you'd become a fascist for the day."
Her eyes would glare into his, her face gaunt with anger. Bet he would explain and she would shrug and after a drink she would take off her hat and shake down her hair and they would talk about normal things, about everyday life and she would realise that there was much more to him than she had thought.
He watched until the last of the group had disappeared. Now that the shock of the demonstration was over, he felt tired. It was the long walk to the valley and the effect of the wine. At least he hadn't done that walk again. If he had, he would probably still be on the road, realising by now that he would never make the train. They had shown him a kindness and he had taken help where he could find it. He was still talking to the girl, in the imaginary conversation. In a bar where glasses of beer were being passed across tables, where people threw their coats into the corner as the room became hot with the crowd. He would have tried to tell her that sometimes really you did just have to take help where you found it, and she would have shrugged and said "maybe" and then he could have stayed in the bar with everyone, drinking until it was late.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006