Mrs Ned, a widow, was the first person I ever knew to take a holiday abroad. Our neighbors occasionally travelled to England and Father Walsh had been to Lourdes. Mrs Ned, however, had been all the way to Spain and her extensive suntan was the talk of the half-parish for weeks. Mrs O’Malley, the migraine-tortured village gossip, found plenty of material there. Anyway, Mrs Ned brought us back some presents. There was a bottle of Rioja for Father Walsh and several pairs of noisy maracas for Mrs O’Malley’s kids to enjoy.
She presented us, however, with a tea towel on which was printed a colorful poster advertising a bullfight. On Sunday 25th June, in the town of San Felice, the poster promised that there would be a grandiosa corrida de toros con el espectaculo una banda de musico! The stars of the show were to be Manolo Segura, Martin Sanchez Pinto and Victor Quesada. Emblazoned across the poster, a matador in a yellow jump suit and a large red cape arrogantly baited a ferocious black bull and prepared to deliver the coup de grace. Mother considered bullfighting a savage and brutal spectacle. What kind of a fool would call that a sport? She stored it away in a cupboard but I pestered her for it. Somewhat reluctantly, she let me have it and I glued it to a wall in my bedroom.
I knew little or nothing about bullfighting, but I used to lie in bed staring at the poster’s bright cheerful colors and tried to imagine the town in which the bullring stood. I pictured old men in large sombreros enjoying a siesta in the shadow of its walls while children chased each other around the swings in a nearby park. From a small cafe in a tree-lined square came the sound of castanets and the frenzied strumming of flamenco guitars. On summer nights, I could hear the roar of the crowd as they cheered on Segura, Pinto, or Quesada. In winter, an icy wind rattled the windows of our cottage and heavy rain clouds drifted down from the mountains skirting the bay, but inside my room the sun blazed down and it was always fiesta time. Though I never found the town in the school atlas, I assumed it was a small dusty place somewhere in the middle of Spain. Indeed, I made a solemn promise that one day I would learn to speak Spanish like a native, follow in Mrs Ned’s footsteps and find my San Felice.
Thirty years thunder by, life unfolds and things like Mrs Ned’s gift are almost forgotten. Then one summer, we took the kids on holiday to Spain. Whilst crossing a road near the beach, I saw a parked bus that was bound for none other than, yes, San Felice and I remembered the poster. Grabbing the kids, I clambered aboard and asked for five tickets. Teresa followed open-mouthed in amazement. ‘Don’t ask now,’ I pleaded, ‘but I have to go there.’ The driver stared at us doubtfully in our scanty beachwear. ‘San Felice?’ ‘Si,’ I replied, exhausting my Spanish vocabulary. He shrugged his shoulders and took the fares. Then, with the bus lurching along a winding mountain road, I counted down the miles and was hardly able to contain my excitement. I was finally going to visit the town of my boyhood dreams. Olé! Olé! Olé!
After about an hour, the bus pulled up in the centre of a grim seaport where rusty cargo ships were loading phosphates or discharging scrap iron. The harbour was polluted with oily water and effluence, and the town reeked of industrial fumes. I hoped the stop here would be brief. ‘San Felice,’ announced the driver. No, this couldn’t possibly be San Felice! My dream town was a small dusty place slumbering in the sun; this was Hell City on the Mediterranean and my heart sunk. Reluctant to cross an endless stream of heavy traffic, we started to reboard the bus when I spotted an old friend. It was a copy of my poster pasted across the windows of a boarded-up shop. Though new heroes had replaced Segura, Pinto and Quesada, the same gaudily clad matador prepared to dispatch the bull and the poster still promised a grandiosa corrida de toros con el espectaculo una banda de musico! Welcome home to San Felice, Senor.
Teresa was dying for a cup of tea, so, leaving the family to find a cafe, I took a long walk up a steep hill through ugly suburbs. From behind slatted shutters, unseen eyes must have stared curiously at the speedo clad pilgrim heading up the Calle de Toros. There, on the outskirts and overlooking the town, stood the object of my quest: a large reinforced concrete structure, which had all the architectural charm of a wartime bunker. I stood outside its locked gates and tried to imagine the roar of the crowd as they cheered on Segura, Pinto or Quesada, but there was only silence. In vain, I looked for those tired old men in their sombreros, the happy children playing tag and the colorful flamenco dancers, but, apart from a pack of dogs roaming the car park, there was no one there. Then, from the far side of the adjoining municipal rubbish tip, came the distinctive sound of castanets, and I hurried to investigate. In the valley below, a goods train rattled over the points as it fled San Felice.
After a few minutes, I turned away sadly and, retracing the long walk back, consoled myself with some profound thoughts. All that glisters is not gold. It is better to travel in hope than to arrive. What kind of a fool would call that a sport? Yes, it had been a disappointment but sometimes in life you have to make this kind of journey and follow your dreams. You owe it to yourself for the chance may never come your way again. And then you must move on, put aside childish things and face the future with a more realistic and mature outlook. It is a time of growth.
Refreshed, the family was waiting patiently at the local bus station. ‘Did you find your bullring?’ asked Teresa. I nodded. ‘And was it just as you imagined it would be?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied, ‘In fact, it was even better.’ Olé! Olé! Olé!
Tony Crowley (c) 2002