Our Editor’s short story ‘The Unbroken’ was a finalist of Le Prix Hemingway 2016, run by the French publishers Au Diable Vauvert, the first English finalist since the prize was founded. Of 260 entries in this, the prize’s 12th year, 30 were chosen as finalists and, of them, the 16 best were chosen for publication in this year’s anthology, which is out today.
Obviously, all the stories have been translated into French, ‘The Unbroken’ as ‘Les Invincibles’, so for those who are not fluent in the language of Molière and Descartes, Maupassant and Dumas, here it is in the language of Milton and Dickens, Maugham and Dryden.
L. G. (Dep. Ed.)
The Unbroken by Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.
Winston Churchill, 1898
“L’Anglais est ici.”
Robert Gough’s head jerked up at that. He’d been wrapped around a glass of whisky trying to look as inconspicuous as he could. He saw his mistake: the bartender wasn’t referring to him but was nodding towards a dark-haired young man carrying a stack of newspapers. Robert hunched back over the polished oak of the bar.
“New York Herald Tribune!”
While his eyes studied the etchings on his glass, he noted the young Englishman’s accent: the clean diction of a private education which seemed out of place for a newspaper hawker. Robert had developed the introvert’s habit of listening to people rather than looking at them. Although today he had other reasons to hide.
He pushed his drink with the painful fingers of his left hand into the unfeeling clasp of his right, lifted the glass to his lips and let the liquid burn down into him, scalding away one more sliver of the pain.
“Laddie! Over here!”
This voice, booming down from the other end of the bar, was a completely different beast: loud, West Coast American, but most of all it pitched and rolled from syllable to syllable like a theatre actor trying to be heard over a storm at sea.
“Forty francs,” said the seller.
“I’ll buy two copies if you settle a bet between myself and this here buddy of mine, m’boy.”
The man’s voice was absurd, Robert thought to himself, although he envied it its vigour. He just hoped it wouldn’t draw too much attention. The police had been very determined in their pursuit, following him over the river and into the Latin Quarter until he’d lost them among the twists and turns of the narrow streets. He could still run at least.
“Matt here doesn’t believe the police raided the ’Trib’s offices yesterday,” another voice said.
“The offices of an American newspaper are sacred, it’s practically a United States Embassy.”
“Without diplomatic immunity or a Security Battalion.”
This other voice was also American but quieter and slightly thicker, a New Yorker with an adenoidal touch.
“They did sir. I was there reading the proofs when the chief printer came down into the presses with a pair of police nationale and they chiselled the plates off the rolls. See, front page, ‘Police Seize Copies Of European Edition Of Herald Tribune.’”
“I told you,” the New Yorker. “Goddamn it, look at that, ‘De Gaulle Starts For Paris.”
“And the navy has arrived in Algeria,” the Californian answered, “the paratroopers’ll be landing on the boulevards at any moment. Interesting times. Thanks kiddo, here’s a hundred for two, drink the change.”
As the newspaper seller moved past him, Robert gestured him over.
“Do you accept English money?” The seller was young and tall and well-built and Robert was ashamed at his resentment of this. “I’m out of francs.”
“Eight pence sir.”
“Here’s a shilling,” Robert clumsily pulled out the last of his money with his swollen left hand. “Where are you from in England? London?”
“You’re a bit young to be working abroad aren’t you?”
“I’m eighteen. I go up to Cambridge in the Autumn. I’m Clive.”
The young man put out his hand in greeting and Robert regretted beginning the conversation. He lifted his useless, right hand and showed it to the young man. The digits were half curled and rigid within a glove: it looked like a leathered claw.
The young man couldn’t hide his slight recoil at the sight, like a healthy animal from sickness.
Robert had to turn away from that.
“So am I.”
The young man, embarrassed, walked out of the café without trying to sell any more. Robert sat looking at his drink again: the bright lights of the café seemed a little less bright now, the grey sky out beyond the windows a little closer.
“What happened there Art?”
The Californian was talking loudly again, the voice pitched to be heard, although the words were directed at the New Yorker. Robert glanced in the mirror and saw the eyes of the man waiting for him there. They were blue, set in symmetrical features, with sandy hair on top like a matinee idol, but the eyes were hard.
“Leave it Matt,” said the New Yorker.
Robert looked across the bar at that. In the lights reflected on the shining bar the man’s eyes glittered and Robert could see he was drunk. The New Yorker wasn’t as drunk, but he wasn’t in command here. The Californian began to move down the bar sideways towards him, one arm sliding along for balance, but the feet still had a fighter’s gait.
“Tu es une tapette?” the man asked, sliding to the colloquially crude to offend, to start something Robert was in no state to finish. “I said, are you a fag?”
Robert had almost finished his fourth whisky on an empty stomach and his good hand still throbbed through the haze. Despite pride and instincts welling up inside him, Robert knew he wouldn’t last a moment, nor did he want the police attention it would bring.
“Then why did the kid walk out without selling the rest of his stock?”
“Because,” Robert said slowly, “he is embarrassed by deformity.”
“What are you talking about? Kid’s clean as a quarter back.”
“Not his deformity, mine.”
Saying that he peeled off his glove, showing the withered hand like the foot of a dead bird, thin in all the wrong places, the wrist just skin over bone.
Robert expected the usual response to that – the combination of pity and revulsion – and so the man’s laughter took him by surprise. It rolled around from hard the tiles of the floor to the dusty mouldings on the ceiling.
“Good God laddie I’m sorry,” the man said, still smiling, “you took one in the arm didn’t you?”
“…severed the medial nerve, right?”
“How do you know that?”
“Saw a guy with the same problem in the Army hospital in Guam. Where were you?”
“On the beaches?”
“No, behind the lines holding on a bridge in Caen.”
“To stop the armour flanking us, right? Operation Deadstick?”
Robert nodded. This made it easier, at least, less shaming.
“You hear that Art? That’s irony for you. Laddie-boy here had his wings clipped on Pegasus Bridge.”
“Sorry son,” Art said. He said it with pity but it was of the right sort.
“Let me buy you another drink.” The man picked up Robert’s almost empty glass and tasted the last drops. “Joachim! Une autre Chivas pour le soldat!”
The bartender took down a bottle from the glittering array.
“Why were you in hospital in Guam?”
“Took one in the knee on the beach at Iwo Jima. Nothing permanent, though. I’m Matt Carney, Lieutenant – formerly – of the United States Marines Corps, now of La Sorbonne. This is former Art Buchwald, formerly also a gyrene, now of the Herald Tribune. We came out on the G. I. Bill.”
Matt put out his left hand to shake his Robert’s and without rancour Robert raised his other hand for inspection. The swelling was so bad now it was clear something was broken.
“I’m afraid that’s not working today either. Robert Gough. Formerly Second Lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. I came out on an invalid’s pension from His Majesty’s Government and whatever free drinks a Médaille de la France libérée can get you.”
He said the last in a voice that was meant to be a joke, but the truth of it stuck in the tone and the two men smiled and nodded.
“That’s no bullet, that’s a bad punch.” Matt said. “Who’d you hit? Anyone but a woman or a priest and the drink after this is on me as well.”
The laugh roared again.
“Even better than I’d hoped. Was there a reason?”
“He was murdering a man with his baton for shouting ‘Vive de Gaulle’ on the Champs-Elysée. I stepped in, he swung, I ducked, I swung, he went down and his friends chased me over the river. I lost them around the University. I came here as I think they’d be less likely to give me a thrashing in the Bar Americain.”
“Art, you know what we have here? A wounded warrior with the right politics and the right principles, quick on his feet and likes a drink. You need to come to Fiesta kid.”
“Where they open your eyes to the experience of existence that shows humans how to go beyond themselves.” Robert caught Art rolling his eyes and quenched his answering smile. “The greatest of them all is the fair of San Fermín in Pamplona in Navarre. They have dark haired women so beautiful there they make you want to sing, and skins of wine so cheap you want to cry, and when you have your danced and drunk your fill, there is the jota, a song made of crying. And then there you have Los Toros.”
“Toros?” Robert was enjoying playing along now. He knew he had, as so rarely happened recently, fallen into good company.
“Los toros bravos, the great black fighting bulls of Spain, who bring rebirth, wildness and alegría – joy – to those who run with them every morning of Fiesta. Then they bring sorrow and beauty and Art to those who watch them die in the corrida in the evening. You need to come and let Saint Fermin give you your soul back.”
“My friend waxes poetical, but I’ve heard it is quite a place,” Art chimed in, “and they like foreigners there. They’re not fed up with us yet, unlike the French.”
“Did you just say ‘run with’ bulls.”
“You’ve never heard of the Encierro? Then what the hell are you doing in Bar Le Select? This is Papa Hemingway’s old joint: his first novel begins this very bar! It could be about you. It starts after the First War with an invalided soldier and then he goes to Pamplona. You need to get yourself up to the bookshop on rue de la Bûcherie and ask for The Sun Also Rises and Death In The Afternoon which’ll tell you all you need to know about the bulls. The feria is the second week of July. Let me tell you what it’s like.”
And then the stories began.
* * *
The weeks passed but Robert didn’t go back to Le Select, and so the two men drifted from his consciousness like so many things. Then, in the shimmering heart of July, he found himself in another Left Bank bar and the same newspaper seller walked in. The young man didn’t recognise him, and so Robert paid him silently – he had francs this time – and leafed through until he saw some words that jogged his memory, “Art Buchwald, writing from Pamplona,” and he read on:
“The most important event during the Fiesta of San Fermin is El Encierro, the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona at seven o’clock in the morning. This traditional fertility rite is considered to be one of the most dangerous methods of proving one’s manhood. Those who have rode the cresta at St. Mortiz, driven in the 24-hour race at Le Mans, and hunted lion in Africa shudder when Encierro is mentioned.“
Robert quickly regretted not following up on their invitation.
“A group of about eight of us sat up all night. Matt Carney, another runner shared his bota (wine skin) with us. Bottles of cognac kept being emptied as the group spun tales of other bull runnings, gorings, and tramplings. As dawn approached it became obvious, from the conversation, that no one had ever survived an encierro.” He smiled at that, able to visualise the veterans swapping ever-inflated stories of jeopardy and joy. “…the second rocket went off and somewhere behind us we knew the bulls had started to run. The crowds in the apartment houses cheered and the ones behind the barricades screamed. And off in the distance the steady sounds of hoofs could be heard…”
The line that lifted him from his seat and sent him off to find rue de la Bûcherie, ‘Butchery Row’, came further down the page: “We can’t deny there is a sense of achievement, a feeling of accomplishment for having run with the bulls.”
* * *
There followed a hard winter for Robert. Things had happened and he’d been forced to return to England. However, he’d still made the train from Paris to Toulouse on July 1st. His money had run out there, but he’d hitched and walked, climbed and hiked, until he was over the Pyrenees and fell in with some pilgrims on the Way of St. James.
It was dawn on the 12th of July when he reached Pamplona, and, once inside the old city walls, it had the chaotic feel of a city recently sacked. Debris littered the ground as on a battlefield, although the gutters ran red with wine rather anything more opaque. Among the dregs of the bacchanal, jarringly pristine marching bands blasted alien tunes into the air from gleaming brass.
Robert asked the first sober person he could find – an elderly woman sitting in a doorway – a single word question.
She looked him up and down, laughed and pointed down a wide street; he half expected her to begin knitting black wool.
He reached a set of thick wooden barriers, constructed as though to constrain elephants rather than cattle, and he knew that he had come to the right place. He climbed through into what was obviously the town square, with a strikingly Baroque town hall, topped by a clock chiming a quarter to seven. He asked again after the bulls and a man point him down a street to the side of the building.
Robert walked down the slope. He’d taken Buchwald’s advice and dressed accordingly, from his white canvas plimsoles up, topped with a scarlet neckerchief. However, he also had his old Army rucksack which he needed to stow somewhere in the next fifteen minutes before the bulls came. He was wondering about that when a voice boomed out that brought his heart into this throat.
He turned to see a tall blond man standing foursquare on the other side of the barriers in an alleyway. He was surrounded by several men of non-Spanish mien and in various states of sleeplessness and alcoholic disrepair. Robert approached.
“You’re a year late Pegasus. Whaddya you do, walk?”
He felt himself folded into a bear hug and then the conversation continued.
“This here Englishman boys,” Matt said turning to his companions, “took a bullet on D-Day through his right arm and broke his left punching Gendarmes. Pegasus, this is Mac, David Black, Dave Pierce, Cliff Fish and Hal Casteel, who was the first of us to run in ’50 and hasn’t done so since hence he’s looking after the booze. They are veterans to a man laddie-boy.”
Robert shook the left hands of the men who even through their disarray had a distinct air of purpose about them.
“You running?” Matt asked him.
“That’s the only reason I’m here. Is there somewhere safe I can drop my bergen?”
“Right here. Marceliano’s, the best joint in town. You know it’s good because Ernest Hemingway himself has breakfasts here every day now he’s back in town. We’ve thrown over that hack Buchwald for a Nobel prize winner.” Matt took Robert’s rucksack and pulled open a door. “Señor, a mi mesa, por favor!” then he turned back to Robert, “right, we’ve got less than five minutes Lieutenant so you’re gonna need to know the enemy’s composition, disposition and strength.”
“There are five steers, but they’re just the transport. Big and white, brown and bony, their horns are blunt and their minds are innocent of anger. The bulls, on the other hands, are low and beautiful and sleek and weigh about twelve hundred pounds but can shift direction as quick as a leopard and when they’re on their own they’re like a shark when there’s blood in the water.
“There’s normally six but today there are only four – number five got gored by the others unloading from the trucks and then they killed number six in the coral. If that’s what they do to their friends, imagine what they can do to their enemies. These are the bull of the sons of Don Eduardo Miura, the bulls of death.”
“These are black with foot and a half horns curved like scimitars. The corrals are at the bottom of calle Domingo – Sunday Street – here. They’re are usually together in a herd up here – especially Miuras – but there’s two spots they can separate: across the wide town hall square, or after the next street, Mercaderes, when they pile up at the ninety degree corner onto Estafeta. If you run with me, and I advise you do, they’ll catch us about halfway up the straight of Estafeta, and then we run with them down into the entry of the bullring and through onto the sand when you get out of the way and some ex-matadors lure them into the corrals there.”
“And if it goes wrong?”
Matt looked Robert up and down at that.
“When d’you last have a drink?”
Robert stood and lean and tanned from a fortnight of walking and hiking in the mountain sun.
“Two weeks ago.”
“Christ. Mac, pass that bottle.” Mac picked up a bottle that had been placed beside the door to the hotel. Robert had the impression these men might have been sitting with it for some time. “Now drink deep.” Robert did, nearly choking on the coarse spirit. “Spanish brandy is one half the answer to your question. The next is coming right up.”
With that they climbed into the street and walked down to where a group of men were standing around a figurine in a niche cut high into the wall.
“That is Saint Fermin. He’s the one this is all for. He’s the one who looks after you.”
The men gathered began a ritual chant in which the only words he could make out were ‘San Fermín’. Once they were done, Matt and Robert walked back up the street and as they did so, various people came up to him and shook his hand, saying a word which Robert couldn’t make out.
“What’re they saying?”
“Suerte. Luck. Right, last piece of advice. If you fall down, stay down: cattle are like horses and won’t tread on what they don’t know. If they want a fight, though, movement draws them to you, and on your knees your guts are horn height. Climbing is out for you with the hand, but you can drop and roll under the fences if you reach them and if you get in a doorway, stay still. There’s some good local boys out there who will help you.”
Robert looked around and saw there were more people than he’d thought – some in whites, some in suits as though going to church – all the faces were pale and serious though. Some were praying.
Robert realised his own fear was growing, and discovered how much he had missed that feeling. An old enemy was back but now it was dressed as an old friend. He began smiling and saw it echoed on Matt’s face, who bounced an elbow off his ribs.
“See, I told you. Let’s get going, nice and slow though.”
They jogged out of the square along another stretch of street. Everyone seemed to be fixing themselves now: some taking a stand, some like them running slow, others fast. Matt pointed to some of the last group.
“Los valientes. ‘The valiant ones’. They’ll be in the ring and out over the barreras long before the bulls get near ’em.”
Then what sounded like a gunshot exploded in the air and Robert flinched at the sound.
“What was that?”
“Gates of Hell?” Matt said. “They’ve opened the corrals. We’ve got a minute-thirty max, let’s get round the bend here.”
As he rounded the corner, Robert saw what he could only view as a killing field. It was a third of a mile of street straight, with a slight incline, and absolutely no exits.
“I know it looks bad son, but the plan is to be halfway up before the herd hits that corner back there, and there are fences up top before the entrance to the ring. If it gets tough, or someone shouts back at you the word montón, which means pile-up, get out through the fence. The entrance is narrow and downhill, so people lose their footing.”
They were going faster now and Robert began to worry. What was he doing? Did he really survive a World War to die with a herd of Spanish cattle because of some crazy Americans? He looked at Matt who was, if anything, smiling even more than before. Robert wondered if the man was actually insane. He started to run faster, trying to get to get to the fences in the distance. Seconds later he heard a voice shouting up the street behind him.
“They’re coming centre and left, your right is clear.”
Robert looked over his shoulder at a sight that would haunt his dreams: there were the fighting bulls, horns like blades of bone, bodies squat in their muscular bulk although rising head-high with the bounce of their gait. And running in the middle of the street with a few other men who seemed to possess the same confidence was Matt, still smiling.
Other runners were leaping out of the way, pinning themselves to the walls, throwing themselves on the floor, clawing over one another in a panic to get out of the way of Nature’s own great cavalry charge, fleeing the stampede. Robert saw the fences.
“Run!” Matt shouted, his words like those of a dying man in Robert’s imagination.
Robert knew not to look back, that it would only slow him down, and reckoned he only had twenty yards to the fences, if he could only get there. He dug into his reserves only to see a great dark shape draw up beside him. The gloss-black sphere of the bull’s eye, alien and alone, studied him as it blocked him from the exit route. He looked to his left and there were two steers, careening down the street helter-skelter, great hooves clacking on the cobbles and bells ringing round their necks like doom. They hemmed him in, cutting off all possibility of escape.
Robert chanced a look behind and saw two more bulls coming up directly behind him, the points of their horns aimed steady as rifles at the square of his back. He now lacked the breath to outrun the animals, and to drop back into that forest of swaying horns and pounding hooves was unthinkable. Between the last two animals, running at a flying sprint and laughing like a demon was Matt Carney.
“The herd’s accepted you. Fly Pegasus, fly with them.”
At that Robert realised the madman was right. The animals alongside him were not trying to hem him in, nor those behind to use their horns. They were in fact gathering around him, almost as though to protect him, and they were certainly clearing the street in front of him. His feet warned him of the downward gradient of the street as a great structure of concrete and stone loomed in front of him: he had arrived at the bull-ring. He focused on his footing and kept with the bulls as the last of his stamina flowed out of him into the cobbles. He entered a narrow tunnel and felt a hand on his shoulder as the great beasts glided past him, before the hand gripped his shirt and jerked him to the side.
“There’s one more behind and he’s not happy. We’re out Lieutenant,” said Matt.
They both ran over to the wooden barrier as a last bull entered with a runner in front and Robert could see the difference. It wasn’t running with the man, but after him, and it caught him, throwing him fifteen feet through the air with a careless shrug of its swollen shoulder muscles. The bull then turned and appeared to catch sight of Robert who had just reached the barrier. However, with only one arm, and legs as weak as a fresh foal’s, he could couldn’t climb over.
The animal’s own massive leg muscles bunched and exploded so it seemed almost to leap out of itself as it charged directly at him. Robert knew there was nothing he could do.
It was in that moment of recognition and resignation that two things happened at once: first, a voice in his ear shouted,
The barked command kick-started old drill-reflexes, stiffening his slack muscles and allowing a pair of arms to grab his shoulders and literally pivot him head first over the planks. At the same time a lone man run out in front of the bull, with nothing but his red neckerchief in his hand, and caught its attention, drawing its charge away.
“Now that, laddie-boy, is the cape of Saint Fermin interceding with the Devil on your behalf!” said the madman who had pulled him out and was now standing over him. Matt was still laughing as he helped Robert to his feet.
Robert, unable to stop himself, and despite the fact that he was still panting from adrenaline and exertion, he began to laugh in response. It was over, and it had been beautiful, with none of the mixed feelings – the tainted moralities or tragic consequences – of war. He had not felt this good, and this much himself, in years.
“And that, laddie-boy, is alegría. Now, what we need is to check on the rest of the cuadrilla and then head up to Bar Choko. I hear Hemingway has been up there signing autographs with Ordóñez every day.”
“Who’s Ordóñez? Jesus, you haven’t even seen a bullfight have you? Oh, you’ve got a hell of a day ahead of you.”
“Tomorrow we do it all over again. Welcome home.”
British playwright, actor and journalist born in 1976, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, has written for a number of newspapers across the Channel like The Times. He has also corresponded from London for Spanish newspapers like ABC and El Norte de Castilla. He has authored in the language of Shakespeare several contributions on Pamplona, Hemingway and Orson Welles, and in 2011 published Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books), the product of two years bullfighting in Spain. This is his first participation in the Hemingway Prize.
All characters who appear with the exception of Robert Gough are real.
Matt Carney’s encounter with Ernest Hemingway later that day is recounted in his book Peripheral American and also in James Michener’s Iberia, but not in Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer.
The encierro is as described by Antonio Díaz Cañabate in ABC (our friend Rolf von Essen of the Peña Taurino Los Suecos was there.)
With thanks to Matt Carney’s children, Allen and Deirdre, and Joe Distler, to Ernest Hemingway’s grandson John, to my father Clive Fiske Harrison who did indeed sell the Herald Tribune on the Left Bank in ’58, and to Antonio and the staff of Le Select.
In memory of my dear friend Noel Chandler with whom I first visited Le Select as an adult – along with Larry Belcher and Ana Cerón – of David Pierce who appears in the story – and Art Buchwald’s article – who died while it was being written, of Julen Madina who died this month and all the other runners of the encierros of bulls, my brothers-in-arms.