Thursday, November 25, 2004

Chapter 4 - A Perfectly Friendly Spy

In a stylish second floor apartment, overlooking Main Street, not far from the Café Cecil, Paco Ramirez took a long drag of his strong Spanish ‘tabacco Negro’ cigarette and finished his coffee. Resting his elbow on the beautifully worked wrought ironwork of the balcony, he sipped his Fundador cognac as he watched the passers by below. The evening had turned cooler in this early spring, he was wearing his silk cravat, and paisley patterned dressing gown over his clothes for comfort. His attention was caught momentarily by the passing flash of one of the upper rock battery searchlights on one of the many sweeps it would carry out over the town tonight, as they did every night.

Paco was the local representative of a highly respected Spanish shipping and freight company. He also wrote for a number of newspapers, as the on-the-spot reporter for a news agency in Madrid. He had arrived in Gibraltar back in ’38, to take over the post from the previous incumbent who had passed away from a virulent flu epidemic. Paco had inherited a well-organised local office that, more or less run itself and the job did not task him too much so he had taken up writing for the news agency as an extra interest. At least, that was, ostensibly, what Senor Francisco Armando Ramirez, Director of Transportes Iberia (Andalusia) SA was all about. He had always been known as Paco, the natural diminutive for Francisco. In his early forties, he had a remarkable resemblance to the excellent English actor, recently made famous through his appearances in Hollywood films, Claude Rains. When friends had commented he hadn‘t known who they meant not being to familiar with English language films and wondered if this was complimentary. Curious to find out, he had made the effort to see for himself when he had found out one of Rain’s films, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘, was being shown in Gibraltar a few months earlier. It had surprised him. No wonder his work colleagues and one or two acquaintances had instantly made the physical comparison. The likeness was surprising even to him, though he didn‘t see himself quite as chubby and he was surely a little taller. The hair, his facial expressions, the thin moustache, the way he walked were all very similar. Even a little of the way he sounded when speaking English though his accent was unmistakably Spanish! Paco was quite sophisticated and discerning in his tastes for the good things in life. In keeping with many of his compatriots, he was also a little vain. He liked to dress impeccably. One might even say a dapper dresser, right up to the colourful handkerchiefs he liked to sport in his suit and jacket top pocket and of course, always showing at least a good inch of shirt cuff and gold cufflinks below his jacket sleeves. He looked at his watch and saw it was time to go. He took his dressing gown and cravat off, changing into a tie and rather smart jacket and set off, carefully double locking the apartment behind him.

The Café Cecil was just along the now near empty street and within a couple of minutes he could already hear the strains of the music emanating from the half open but blacked out windows above as he approached. Just before the Café was The Tabacaleria Monte Cristo, a popular tobacconist and the only place he could buy his favourite ’Excelso’ black tobacco cigarettes. Three large arched doorways fronted the shop. In the shadows, in one of the doorways, he made out the figure of the person he was looking for stirring as Paco’s steps alerted him to his arrival. “Todo bien?” Paco inquired. “Si, todo parece tranquilo,” the man replied adding “but I’m not! I am getting nervous Paco. Everything still on for Sunday?“ he asked in spanish. “Yes, yes, still on. Get a grip joder” Paco said rather impatiently. “You know what you have to do. Just follow your instructions as we have discussed and all will be well! This time next week we shall be upstairs celebrating with the best French champagne in their cellars.” Paco inclined his head in the direction of the Café and squeezed the man’s shoulder to reassure him. “and tomorrow night..” he didn’t finish the question. Paco interrupted him. “Come back in twenty minutes and I shall tell you then. I’m just going up to find out. I’ll also have something to give you to take back when you cross back tomorrow! Okay? Twenty minutes and I shall be back. Don’t hang around here! They’ll think you are waiting to break in! Go on. On your way. Go and get yourself a cerveza at the Universal and I’ll see you again shortly” Paco squeezed him again. “Hasta ahora”. He turned and within a few more steps walked into the brightly lit foyer of the Café Cecil and took the stairs to the first floor.

The Tabacaleria Monte Cristo where Paco meets the shadowy figure.  Paco's apartment balcony can be seen further up the street in the centre of the photograph.

He sat on a stool at one corner of the bar and ordered a beer, conscious of the cognacs he had already drank, he wanted to keep a clear head. He was hoping others here did not have the same good intentions. The room was quite hot and smoky. Even though the windows were open at the end of the room, due to the obligatory blackout curtains, not a lot of air was able to circulate. The fans above him managed as best they could and he remembered how it would be in the summer months. In a strange way, he liked it. Somehow, it added to the exciting ambience of the Café nightclub. It looked like a different room to the one he sometimes used for his lunches. He looked around and recognized a number of faces. He noted Anthony Valoris sat at his usual corner with his lovely companion engaged in lively conversation with two other couples unknown to him. Tony caught his eye at the same instant and they nodded at each other, Paco smiling as he tried to remember the blonde’s name. Paco took an Excelso from his pack, lit it and gently spat some of the tobacco off his lips, from the unfiltered cigarette, then adjusted his cuffs. He took a drink of his beer as he looked about him some more, studying the guests.

He was suddenly aware of Tony at his shoulder. “Buenas noches Paco, como va la cosa?” inquired Tony cheerily. “Tony, bien gracias,” he smiled back. “Another?” Tony asked pointing at Paco’s near empty glass. “Bueno, venga. I never like to refuse the boss!” The exchanged a few pleasantries and Paco complimented him on how well the Café was doing and how much he enjoyed the little bit of social company the Café provided him and others of his standing. Gently, he steered the conversation around to the subject that most interested him, until he got the opportunity. “No doubt, you will be there tomorrow night?” he asked finally. “Tomorrow night?” Tony asked distractedly. “Yes, the Governor’s wife’s birthday fiesta” he reminded Tony. “Oh, yes. To be honest, It had slipped my mind”, he said glancing back to their table and remembering Cindy reminding him only a couple of days ago. He had received an invitation naturally and he and Cindy did indeed plan to take it up. She was especially looking forward to it. Many of her colleagues at work and most of their friends, not to mention the very best of Gibraltar society, Garrison and Navy would be there. After all, it was going to be Lady Liddell’s 50th birthday celebration. In fact, a double celebration, since the Governor, General Sir Clive Liddell would be leaving Gibraltar next month, the appointment of the new Governor, General Sir John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, having recently been announced and Sir Clive and Lady Liddell would be departing in May, so a big send off was planned. The whole town was looking forward to it. In these austere days, everyone enjoyed a good party. “Yes, we’ll be there along with most of Gibraltar”, he smiled. “Does the top man at Transportes Iberia receive party invitations from the Governor these days then?” he asked raising his eyebrows smiling. “Yes of course. They are very ‘cumplido’ with us over at the Governor’s Palace. Most attentive and proper, yes indeed!” he said not without some pride.

Tony and Paco amiably for a while, Paco making sure he noted all details of who was likely to be at the party, encouraged by all he heard. Tony changed the subject, asking how things were coming along in Spain. The subject always made Paco sombre and as expected, the news from Spain was not good. Conditions remained very difficult but Paco explained that the Generalisimo was making all the difference with the vigorous plans he was implementing, to make Spain a great country once more. He was, as always, very emphatic and supportive of the Franco regime. They had spoken at length at other times about the new regime and the upheaval and transgressions of civil liberties going on, as Tony put it. Paco’s feelings towards Franco and the new regime in Spain was no secret and his views were no surprise to Tony. In fact, many of the Spanish workers in Gibraltar were ‘Franquistas’, supporters of the Franco regime. This had been known to cause one or two problems in the streets and bars of the town. Republican, enjoying the liberty that Gibraltar afforded them but perhaps risking consequences on their return across the border, had already had various confrontations with ‘Franquistas’, supporters of Franco’s extreme right wing government. Once, with fatal consequences, when a ‘Franquista’ had been knifed to death, allegedly in reprisal for some incident that had occurred in the latter part of the Civil War. Apparently, one of the assailant’s family had been particularly badly treated by the man and had subsequently paid with his life. He recalled another incident, not long ago, when Paco himself had been verbally abused right here in the Café. Thankfully, on that occasion, the abuser had been carefully and discreetly shown the door, clearly having had a little too much to drink and forgetting himself. Thinking about it now, Tony realised he had not seen the abuser around since the incident a two or three months ago. No doubt, he had embarrassed himself and hadn’t felt like returning yet.

Tony listened and watched Paco attentively, looking into the man’s eyes, wondering. As they spoke. It’s just the Spanish’s natural sense of curiosity, he assured himself. As he says, he does have to gather his journalistic material. He liked Paco. He was not enamoured by his politics but that was no reason to judge a man harshly. Spain was in a mess and there was no disguising that some strong measures were necessary to pull the country back together, even though he was against the Fascist ideals, which were, after all, akin to the Nazis and we were at war with them. Well, he thought, if he is a spy, he is a very friendly spy! A little while after their conversation and after Paco had waived goodbye as he left the Café, a waiter had come over to their table with a bottle of a rather good Armagnac, an offering from Paco, a sign of friendship and good fellowship in anyone’s book. He had not noticed one of the Barmen speaking to Paco, shortly before he left. The barman had waited for Tony to return to his table before approaching. Discreetly, drying some glasses, he had leant across the counter, “Todo esta listo en la casa grande!” he whispered, confirming for Paco that all was ready at the ‘big house’. On his way home, Paco once again stopped off in the arched doorway of the Tabacaleria and spoke to the shadowy figure. “Okay, just give them this message. Tell them it is done! Now go back to work and try and relax.” Paco watched him turn down Parliament Lane to walk up Irish Town, which run parallel to Main Street. Paco went home, satisfied with his night’s work. The man watched the searchlights waggling across the skies above as he walked to the southern end of Irish Town and into John Mackintosh Square, turning down some steps on the side of City Hall to finish off his night’s shift in the Town’s main civil telephone exchange.

Gibraltar's City Hall and part of John Mackintosh Square facing west.  Paco's 'Shadowy Figure' entered the Main Telephone Exhchange by a side door on the right of the building.

Early on Saturday morning, Paco’s 'shadowy figure' from the night before was hardly given a glance by the police at the border as he walked across into La Linea, mixing with other night shift workers returning home for their breakfasts.