from A Squandered Life / Barcelona '69
A massive shining black bull exploded out of the shadows...
Somewhere near Toulouse I encountered a young South African guy. We got to chatting and, as his planning was easily as vague as mine and he was heading for Barcelona, I offered him a lift. He was a blonde surfer type guy who I initially thought was Australian. South Africa hadn't fully entered my consciousness at the time but he brought me up to date on his views which, in a nutshell, were that “outsiders” had no right to comment on what was happening there. I'd never heard the term “munts” before, as in “You don't know what it's like to live with the munts”, as though he was talking about an extra-terrestrial species. He was a nice guy but even then this part of him sounded ugly, as if he had some kind of ghastly deformity of which he was completely unaware.
As we set off up a winding road into the heart of the Pyrenees, it got colder. Nearing the top of the pass we began to encounter snow flakes, and then it started snowing heavily. The bike ploughed steadily through what became a thick blanket on the road. There was very little other traffic so, for the most part, we were thudding through virgin white. Thick and surprising (I hadn't expected to encounter snow in Spain) as it was, I wasn't overly troubled as I'd encountered this sort of thing back home, but my passenger was getting more and more worried. He thought we might get stranded and freeze to death. We reached the border at the top of the pass and went inside to warm up and show papers. Franco's border guards were as charmless as one might expect. I'd been cultivating a beard but, as my passport photo was bare faced, they ordered me to shave it off. Nor did they invite me in to anywhere there might be hot water. They simply pointed to an outside shed with a cracked mirror over a grotty sink, a fifth of a lump of soap, and a trickle of all but freezing water. I had to borrow a razor from the South African and scraped at my face until I was able to pass muster.
About a kilometre beyond the top of the pass the weather miraculously changed. Suddenly there was no more snow and the land looked as though it couldn't imagine what might have been happening on the other side of the mountain range. We could at last believe that we were indeed in sunny Spain. We swept down the switchbacks and out into the foot hills and on across the green rolling country till we were knackered enough to pull over by a small forest to park up and camp. Later the next day we hit the rambling semi-industrial outskirts of the city and nosed through its mazes and boulevardes until we found the Ramblas and parked up.
Neither of us had a plan beyond “getting there” but as we wandered about we came across the bull ring with crowds milling around outside. We decided to see if we could get in and negotiated tickets from a tout standing by the main entrance. The interior of the ring was magnificent, with steep seating (behind a pillar for us as it happened, courtesy of our tout) and an expectant intimacy. The gilded matadors and their ornate support crews paraded decorously to the polite applause of the crowd.
The ring cleared except for one matador and a hush descended. Suddenly some wooden doors swung open and a massive shining black bull exploded out of the shadows into the sunlight in the middle of the ring. There was a loud cheer from the crowd as he stood there dazed for a moment. A flick from the matador's large cape caught his attention and without a moment's hesitation he charged. The matador stood his ground as the bull crashed past him into the empty space behind the flowing cape. A few more passes like that and, to the cheers of the crowd, the matador strode imperiously off court.
He was then replaced by a succession of gloriously dressed mounted picadors and quick banderillos who pranced about the ring like exquisitely balanced circus professionals, but who devoted their skills and attention to stabbing the massive muscles at the back of the bull's neck. In due course he was bleeding profusely, running from the nose and mouth, and struggling to keep his head up. At this point the matador reappeared with a much smaller cape. He engaged closely with the wounded bull, standing still as the massive creature hurtled around him close enough to brush him with blood and saliva.
The bull slowed, taking longer and longer between futile charges, breathing heavily, trying to take stock as his fate closed in around him. In the end he stood still, exhausted, gasping, dripping as the matador pirouetted in front of his glazing eyes with arms raised to the applauding crowd. The matador then drew a slightly bent sword from the cape he had been using, approached the bull front and centre, and, standing poised in front of the bull's lowered head, took aim with his sword as if he was drawing a bow. A silent pause, then he thrust the sword up to the hilt between the bull's shoulder blades and leapt back. The bull staggered for a moment, fell to his front knees, and collapsed on to his side. A cheer rose as the matador again raised his arms and, balletically stepping around the ring, acknowledged his adoring audience. A team of horses appeared from the wooden gates and wheeled around at the back of the expired and now forgotten bull. A crew attached chains to his back legs and he was dragged off unceremoniously through the dirt. More crew appeared with rakes to cover even the drag marks which signalled his passing and returned the stadium floor to its pristine undisturbed state.
After a bit of faffing around, the ring went quiet again as another matador took his place in the ring and awaited the thunderous arrival of yet another huge glistening animal bursting with life and energy. An identical routine followed, with the foregone conclusion awaiting all parties at its denouement. As they dragged the second bull away I'd had enough. My South African pal opted to stay so we shook hands, said our goodbyes and I left him there. Outside I felt guilty and ashamed about what I'd been a witness to and, finding my bike, decided to leave the city right away and headed north again to Gerona and San Filieu.
© 2013 Deacon Martin