With the potential of hellfire adrenaline and blood in the streets I woke from my deepest of sleeps. I couldn’t let Alb go out alone. Best to be at his side. If it were up to me, I would have slept.
The previous night’s festivities in the Pamplona’s summer heat precipitated my trance like state. Like a blind man, I reached for the walls and navigated with my finger-tips. The light flecked into the room in hews of florescent blue.
“We don’t have long to go,“ Alb whispered in his gravelled tone, trying not to wake up the others.
We took quick steps, the flicker of the street lights leading down the wide stairs. The sun was not yet up. The July heat was building. We opened the broad door with its bolted edges. The cobbles were wet although there had been no rain the night before. Sweeper trucks burped and skidded across the battered pavements clearing detritus from the night’s festivities. A few short hours ago the Spanish streets had teemed with humanity, filled with the smells of cooked meat and plates of paella. The revelry fuelled by pop music and rioja dripping from porrones.
Flags lay limp against the building’s flanks. The revellers scattered to their apartments. Dead to the world in their stained white garments. Exhaling hard through their wine soaked breath. The Italians exaggerated how tired they were. It was not fatigue but fear that lay behind their drooping eyelids. They were scared. Scared of the cobbled and narrow streets which led to the road of Santo Domingo that bubbled like the Devil’s cauldron. We headed into the fray and chose to be brave.
We saw people heaving up against the barricades. Their eyes fresh and wide. Alb leaned into a gap in the crowd and pulled at my arm behind him.
“Discúlpeme. Discúlpeme.” He used the words to dig our way in.
We leaned in with our shoulders and waded through the kelp-thick people. Lean forward, push. Move from side to side. Lower your hips. Squeeze and push until we were embedded and there was no way out.
Once we broke through, the road below opened up like a yawn. The people’s reticence to allow us in was fear of the drop to the road below, behind the wooden wall. Alb clambered up the splintered planks. I hoisted his right foot upwards. Once we was up, he straddled the wall and grabbed for me. First by my shoulders, and then my arm. We faced each other, mob on one side, the road below on the other. Like cowboys about to be released into the ring. Dark eyes and faces looked up at us. They reflected sun stained cobbles and sorrow. Like eyes of lovers following sailors on retreating ships.
We held onto the planks with finger tips and let our weight unravel down the side of the wall. When our feet were as far as they would go, we pushed at the wall with our knees and let go. Our spirits, buoyed by the madness, dampened the fall. There was no climbing back up that wall.
The morning sun split the sky above us.
“Let’s go this way,” I said. The red sashes thinned out at this end of the road.
We walked past a statue in the wall with its red robe stretched across its shoulders. The same glass casket that old ladies pray to at the cemetery. Sunlight flickered against the glass. It looked like the dancing candle light.
We reached the end of the road which sloped downwards.
“This is a good position,” I said. “We have open road and it’s downhill from here.”
The red sashed Spaniards congregated around the statue. Newspapers appeared from under their white shirts and were pointed at the statue like swords. A drone of voices birthed itself from the crowd. Like the echoes of dead monks in an ancestral tomb. At first a humming until words could be made out. They were singing to San Fermin, the statue in the wall receiving prayers. The sun’s rays reflected off the glass until the saint was no longer visible.
I realized my mistake as the dawn split open the sky to reveal a wrought iron gate at our road’s end. With the anthem reaching its crescendo, I could hear the clanking of the bolts unlocking. The metal doors ominously swung open, like the gates of hell. Heaving animals with steam rising from their hides pushed against the steel. We were on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the people. This was a mistake. A big mistake. It was our mistake.
A large man stepped forward, led by his stomach and fleshy forearms. He squared his shoulders and cracked the whip with the precision of a fly fisherman. I could smell his bitter breath. Coffee mixed with the sweet tinge of Patxaran. This was not a man, but a centaur from the underworld, sent to unleash the hellish beasts from cages for their daily feed.
“Other way, other way” I called out with all the seriousness I could muster and grabbed Alb’s wrist. “Go now, go now.”
We turned our backs to the gates and ran into the horde. I turned back for one brief moment – a moment which has stayed with me to this day – and saw the black mass of flesh and neck muscles run out from the paddock into the road. The confused bull righted itself at the crack of the dancing whip above its horns. It turned its shoulders towards us, its hide lathered and steaming. The head of the bull was a fireplace mantle with horns stretched above it like broadswords. The eyes coaled red and black, with orbs of light bouncing back and forth within them like souls lost at sea.
As I turned my head around, and pushed myself forward, my eyes locked onto the moving mass of red and white that jostled for position before us.
Time stood still.
Alb was smiling and grimacing as he leaned forward. He would never give up. He was a storm without calm. Inevitable like the bulls heading to their death within the arena. Every adventure with him was a fight against my inner angels. His whimsy counterbalanced my predictability which meant that planning was non-existent and life never ended up quite as expected. I have found that, after many years, this is the right way to live a life.
Euphoria and fear seared itself into us brothers at that precise moment. Like the stadium poster of the eternal matador duelling the bull in the ballet of the corrida. The matador on his toes, with red cape ruffled like an artist’s brush, the precise moment in the tercio de muerte before he pushes with his toes and drives the sword into the bull’s shoulder blades inviting its death.
Later that night, after the bull had trampled the six-foot American student called Tad, and after we had left the bullring’s cheap seats with adrenaline seeping from our bodies, Alb let me find the road to the sculpture of Ernest Hemingway with a red sash around his neck. Hemingway looked more like a polar explorer than a literary giant. Bottles of whiskey lined themselves in neat rows beneath the broad marble. Too disrespectful of a man who had written “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” Should they not instead have left great works of literature at the foot of his statue?
I expected a better reaction from myself, something profound, but all I could think of was that it would have been better to be remembered by geography. A point on the globe with your name on it like Amundsen or Scott, rather than to have your likeness encrusted in a statue that would be decorated with empty whisky bottles, lined up by tourists drunk on Spanish wine and circumstance. The proximity to the six bludgeoned and bloodied bulls stretched into a death row on the other side of the stadium walls seemed a final insult.
Heading back on the bus to Bilbao to catch the final evening flight to London, I recounted our run with the bulls at the festival of Sanfermines. I pondered the legacy of Ernest Hemingway’s statue and its empty whisky bottles.
A man should pursue actions, not words. Execution over rhetoric. To do rather than to speak.
I decided then, on a whim, that a change was required. With my head leaned up against the window of the bus, I would turn my back on everything. When I got back to the apartment, I would write up my notice, pack my bags and take the first flight out of London.
I began writing a list.