‘I hate him. I hate him so much that I know that I must one day kill him,’ murmured Francisco.
‘That is a hard thing to say of your own father.’ But the voice of the older man, half reclining on the ground beside him, registered little surprise. His sightless eyes seemed to gaze at the distant horizon. ‘But I can understand why you should hate him. If, as you said, he killed your mother ...’
The young man nodded. ‘He met another woman. Before he left he told me that if I breathed a word about what he did to my mother, he would kill me too ...’
‘And he is coming back soon?’
‘Yes. He will dock in a few days from now.’
* * *
It had been some weeks before that Francisco had wandered into the hills in his grief and fear, and discovered the old man, living as a hermit in the deserted army encampment. José was sick, very probably dying. He was almost blind and struggled to forage for what dried and tinned food remained in the store in the wreckage of the barracks. Francisco took pity on him and brought him what he could from the town in the valley to make him more comfortable, and a friendship was forged. Soon he won the old man’s confidence. It was then that José showed Francisco the guns.
The boy gaped when he first saw them, resting on their massive cradles on the hill top. They were huge and menacing. ‘This pair of guns was made by a British company in the time of the civil war, to defend the port. They are designed to fire 380 millimetre shells, weighing almost a ton for a distance of forty kilometres.’
‘In the time of the civil war, you say? But – they look almost new. How can that be?’
‘I made it my business to maintain and care for them after the rest of the men left or died. To my mind they are beautiful. To me it is a duty, and one I am proud to honour.’
‘How long is it since they ... since they were fired?’
‘They have never been fired. Never since their first trials almost eighty years ago. Their very presence kept the port safe. No ship would have dared to challenge them.’
* * *
‘José, tell me: if you wanted to fire the guns, would you be able to? I mean, after so long ...’
The old man laughed when Francisco returned two days later and slung the rucksack off his back. He put the question purposefully.
‘Did I not tell you that they are in perfect condition? Of course, they could be fired. But unfortunately, now, it cannot be done.’
‘Because it takes two men to operate them. Two to load the shells and raise the gun barrels into position. And I am the only man left.’
‘Were the only man left. I have joined you now. You could show me and together we ...’
‘Francisco, what are you saying? No-one has been near these guns for years, other than you. They have been forgotten. Have any idea how loud they are when they are fired? The hills would be overrun within hours by curious and frightened people, and the police, no doubt, and it would be all up with me.’
But a gleam in the old man’s sightless eyes told Francisco that his suggestion had sparked a dream. It was like a quiver of excitement, and awakening of a dormant passion. He paused for a minute or so and then said, quietly:
‘There are violent storms forecast for tomorrow evening. There is a good chance, surely, that when the guns fire it would be taken for thunder in the hills. Think about it, José: all the dedication and care you have shown in keeping them so well would have a real purpose in the end. And you know you cannot go on for very much longer. Do it for the guns and in honour of your dead comrades.’
And then he knew he had won the old man over. ‘You are nearly blind, now, José. You cannot see the headland any more. It is exactly twenty kilometres from the gun emplacements. That is where we shall aim’. And it is round that headland that my father is due to sail, at just that time he thought to himself. His eyes closed in anticipation of a dramatic and deadly revenge.
* * *
Vincente held the young woman close to him as they gazed across the sea towards the mountains on the far side of the great bay. The weather had become hot and close, and now lightning danced among the distant peaks. An almost constant growl of thunder rolled across the low swell.
‘It’s so dramatic – frightening really’. She spoke softly. The man tightened his grip across her shoulders.
‘You know, they say that once there were two mighty guns up in the hills to protect the port at the time of the fighting.’
‘It’s almost as if they had woken again’. Another thought crossed her mind. ‘Will your boy be safe in this?’ A violent squall was suddenly upon them. They retreated from the ship’s railings under the cover of the deck canopy.
Vincente shook his head. ‘The young pup will be skulking somewhere in the town. No doubt expecting me to dock in the old fishing boat. But no! Here I am, sailing round the headland in the greatest cruise liner on Earth, in the company of more than a thousand of the world’s wealthiest citizens, one of whom I have married!’
They did not recognise the sound when first they heard it. But as the low whine grew louder, finally reaching a crescendo, fear gripped their hearts. Like the hissing of a thousand monstrous serpents, the voice of approaching death encompassed and enveloped everything. The great detonation, at last, was beyond their hearing.