THE TRAVELLER

Our colum­nist finds that fan­tasies of hero­ism can eas­ily be gored

Getaway (South Africa) - - Contents -

Dar­rel Bris­tow-Bovey sniffs for bull­dust when he meets a tiny mata­dor

I’m no fan of bull­fight­ing. I’ve never been to a bull­fight but I don’t like the idea of them. I saw one once on a fuzzy tele­vi­sion in a ho­tel room in Ye­men, and I’d been long enough with­out tele­vi­sion that I would have watched toe­nails grow­ing if that’s all that was on, but I turned it off af­ter 10 min­utes. It seemed cruel and cow­ardly and I didn’t see the point. I was re­cently in Ronda in Spain and I met an old bull­fighter at a side­walk cafe. He had a cane and a heavy limp, and he kept hold­ing his hip and sigh­ing. He spoke no English but his niece did. She told me about go­ing to watch him when she was small, how afraid she was when he was in the ring, how mag­nif­i­cent he seemed – so much larger than life. It didn’t seem likely. Men get smaller with age but he couldn’t have been much to start with. The knife and fork looked enor­mous in his hands. He had feet like teacups. He waved a bread roll and yelled some­thing in Span­ish. ‘The worst day of his life,’ his niece trans­lated, ‘was the day of the ac­ci­dent. His ca­reer ended that day.’ I didn’t feel like his war sto­ries. I felt like a walk. Just down the road was his old place of work. The Ronda bull­ring (pic­tured above) is the old­est in Spain, which I as­sume means the old­est in the world. It’s low and blank and round, a faded Span­ish yel­low. Bull­fight­ing sea­son had just ended but mem­bers of the pub­lic could take an un­su­per­vised tour of the place and wan­der about un­hin­dered. It was just be­fore clos­ing time, so I had the place to my­self. In­side, I walked through a pair of wooden gates and found my­self on the pale, swept sand of the bull­ring it­self. The sun was set­ting with an Ibe­rian golden light and I was star­tled to feel a sud­den quick­en­ing of my pulse, a trem­bling in my mus­cles. The place was much smaller than I had imag­ined. The stands were steep and close to the sand. It was in­ti­mate. I stood in the very cen­tre and imag­ined the crowd, the thun­der of hooves. In my nos­trils was sud­denly a strange metal smell. I’ve been in empty box­ing rings be­fore, and in places where ter­ri­ble crimes have been com­mit­ted, but I’ve never felt such a sud­den den­sity of the air, such pal­pa­ble pres­ence. I still didn’t un­der­stand the ap­peal of bull­fight­ing but I could feel it: a vis­ceral quick­en­ing, a shame­ful, thrilling an­i­mal ex­cite­ment. I hur­ried back to the cafe, hop­ing to catch the man and his niece. I wanted to hear what it was like. I wanted to know about the ac­ci­dent. Had he been care­less? Had the bull been quick or smart? Did the horn take his hip? Had the crowd roared at the sight of his blood? They were still there but he was tired now, it was time for a nap. I told him how much the bull­ring had af­fected me and he nod­ded and shrugged. I asked him to tell me some sto­ries be­fore he went. He wasn’t keen un­til I asked about the worst day of his life, the day he was in­jured. ‘It was a day like to­day,’ his niece trans­lated. ‘Hot and bright.’ I could pic­ture it: the colours, the sound. ‘He was very hun­gry and wanted some break­fast.’ This was an un­ex­pected de­tail. ‘He was cross­ing the road to the cafe and didn’t see the mo­tor­bike.’ Wait, I said. Mo­tor­bike? What about the bull? No, she said, he broke his hip when a boy on a mo­tor­bike rode into him. He was com­ing the wrong way down the street. The old man yelled some­thing and thumped his fist on the ta­ble. ‘Mo­tor­bikes should be banned,’ his niece trans­lated. ‘They are very dan­ger­ous.’

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