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skin-tight so no sag risked catching a passing horn. To do this, Padilla had to be physically lifted off the ground — sweat patches spread across his dresser’s shirt as he made his efforts.
For bullfighting aficionados, Padilla is like a rock star. A crowd waited for him in the hotel lobby and his retinue had to form a phalanx around him for protection as he was mobbed by fans. A small van then carried us to the ring. Crowds lined the streets, growing in size and sound as we drew closer. All the way Padilla seemed barely to notice, fiddling instead with icons that hung as amulets from his wrist.
When we were finally deposited on the street outside the arena’s main entrance, the pressure of the crowd was so great that it physically lifted us up and pushed us forward while the local Spanish police, their batons out, desperately sought to maintain control. It was a heady experience — part exhilarating, part terrifying — but one that made clear the adoration matadors can still elicit and gave the lie to the claim they are in utter decline.
Spanish culture fascinates me, with its exterior of sunshine and siestas masking a dark and violent soul. I will never forget, years ago, first seeing the canvas of Jose de Ribera’s Apollo Flaying Marsyas. Cruelty had been illuminated as beauty. The effect was utterly Iberian and utterly absorbing to behold. It is why I had been looking forward to the bullfight — indeed had wanted to enjoy it. Yet much of what followed was a disappointment: the limp fight, the angry crowd, the desperate matador. At one stage, one of the bullfighters took four or so attempts to get his sword through the right spot in the bull’s back to kill it. I found myself depressed, bored even. Almost the only emotion I could muster was the sense this was an unfair contest, and that if the matador were gored, the interests of both justice and entertainment would be far better served. Instead, this tedious affair was neither culture nor art — and certainly was not sport.
Then, however, it was Padilla’s turn to fight. He entered the arena to a fanfare of trumpets and, the sun now rapidly fading, the sequins and reflective thread of his outfit glistened in the floodlights that lit the arena. A matador’s uniform is known as the traje de luces — the suit of lights. Seeing him, I understood why. Padilla’s pink costume shone bright against the yellow sand, focusing 12,500 eyes on him. A reverential hush descended until the stadium band struck up a paso doble. Suddenly, there was a new atmosphere: one of expectation.
It was clear to even my untrained eye that in his first fight, Padilla exhibited a skill not witnessed in the other contests. For a start he ensured this bull fought. It charged at a pace that reduced it almost to a blur; then followed Padilla’s cape as the matador stood ramrodstraight and used its moving lure to direct 540kg of muscle and bone.
At one point he led the bull in a series of turns, the animal’s horns always passing barely 30cm from his frame. Again and again it thundered past him until — bewildered — it was left standing silently in front of him, immobile with confusion. Padilla turned his back on its horns to stand, hand on hip and left foot forward, to salute the crowd. That was greeted by a barrage of Oles.
This, I said to Carlos, was finally a bullfight. He nodded agreement. ‘‘ Every move, every gesture, has its own meaning,’’ he said. ‘‘ What you are seeing has been developed over centuries.’’ When the end came it was quick and clean. One moment Padilla was in front of the bull, poised on tiptoe. Then he sprang, the blade went in, and the animal fell in a moment. The arena became a sea of white handkerchiefs being waved in the traditional gesture of appreciation. The sound of the paso doble again rang around the stalls as Padilla conducted his lap of honour.
That night, in the back alleys and big avenues of Seville, a party was held. For one night, at least, it seemed as if the country’s woes were forgotten. The talk was of bullfights and matadors, and what had been good and bad in the arena. The matador was once again centre stage, accepted and adored.