Memory

Martha Gellhorn

This is how my memory works.

I was sitting in the big inner courtyard of the New Tiran Hotel, Naama Bay, south Sinai, drinking duty-free whisky and watching the new moon. The sky was dark blue with light behind it, not yet the real desert blackness. I had the place to myself, silence made the evening faultless. I was not thinking, I was basking in sensations of my skin. I could still feel the cool smooth water of the Red Sea from that late afternoon’s snorkelling. The warm air now was soft on my arms and legs, the tiles of the paving hot under my bare feet. It is wonderful to know exactly when you are happy.

Without warning or reason, I was in a room in Gaylords Hotel in Madrid. It was winter, late 1937 at a guess. I don’t know where Gaylords is; we walked there and back to the Florida Hotel in the dark. E. had been invited to have drinks with Koltzov and I was included in my tag-along role. E. was excited about this rare occasion. No one in our little buddy circle of correspondents had been inside Gaylords or met Koltzov. Gaylords was known to be the Russians’ hotel. Koltzov, E. said, was officially the Pravda correspondent in Madrid but really he was Stalin’s man, Stalin’s eyes and ears on the spot.

Koltzov’s sitting-room was well and expensively furnished like any sitting-room in a first-class hotel in peacetime. It was lit by table lamps and warm. It did not look or feel like any other place I had been in Spain. Koltzov was a small thin man, with thick, well-cut, grey hair. He wore a dark, excellent suit. He had the kind of face that makes an immediate impression of brilliance, of wit, and the quiet manners of complete confidence. I thought he was forty or so, and more French than Russian. There were a few other people. I noticed only a plump, motherly middle-aged woman, probably the real Pravda correspondent, who did the hostess’s job, seeing that the vodka glasses were filled and, more important, passing things to eat, tidbits, I seem to see dabs of caviar on real bread. I cared much more about food but E. must have been overjoyed by the supply of vodka.

And there was Modesto. We were introduced when we arrived, and he had moved across the room, leaving E. to talk with Koltzov. One sentence hit me hard, though I was not listening carefully. Koltzov said: ‘We take Villanueva de la Mierda and they take Córdoba.’ Maybe it wasn’t Córdoba but it was definitely Villanueva de la Mierda. How dare he, living in such singular luxury, speak with cynicism or disdain about the brave, poorly armed men fighting this war. For I believed in the cause of the Spanish Republic as I believed in nothing before or since. I did not like Koltzov, I did not listen any more and I walked away to a table which held a tray of the invaluable tidbits.

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