How do you explain to someone you haven’t seen for 44 years the depth of the footprint they left on your life? Especially when you only have 15 seconds in which to do it and they haven’t the faintest idea who you are!
This happened to me last week - but first let me take you back to 1965. . .
The place is Marbella, a sleepy fishing village on the southern coast of Spain. An 18-year old English girl is taking an extended vacation from her boring job, capricious friends and controlling parents.
She escaped to Spain because when she was nine, on holiday in Alicante, the girl had an epiphany: she was taken to see her first bullfight. Mesmerized by the passion, drama and raw courage of a man prepared to place himself - unprotected save for a piece of cloth - in front of a wild and raging bull, she became fascinated by the savage beauty of this ancient art.
Over the next few years, the girl researched the culture, studied the language and learned to dance flamenco. She longed to spend more time in her beloved Spain, her greatest wish being to see more bullfights.
Her grandmother muttered: Be careful what you wish for . . .
The girl enjoyed her first few weeks away, but money became tight so she began to look around for something to do. Sitting at a sidewalk café one afternoon, she got talking to an American - a journalist. He’d been commissioned to write the life story of the world’s most famous bullfighter, Manuel Benítez El Cordobés! He needed assistant and interpreter! The girl could not believe her luck! They set off next morning for Córdoba.
I was that girl and over the next few months, I travelled the length and breadth of the Iberian Peninsula as part of the matador’s entourage. Manolo, as he was known, was the craziest, most charismatic person on the planet. He’d begun life as a feral, gypsy orphan and had risen, through sheer bravery and determination to global stardom – the quintessential ‘rags to riches’ story.
The title of the book “. . . or I’ll Dress You in Mourning” was taken from what Manolo said to his sister on the morning of his first fight.
“Tonight, Angelita,” he told the fretting woman as he left the hovel where they lived, “I will buy you a house or I’ll dress you in mourning. . . ”
Angelita got her house and then some.
Although initially banned in Spain due to its references to the Civil War and supposed disrespect for the dictator, Franco, it went on to become an international best seller.
The problem with Manolo was you couldn’t just take him or leave him – you had to get involved. Women threw themselves at him wherever we went. Young, old, married, single - he was The One they all wanted to know.
Even nuns in convents campaigned to have TVs installed so they could watch their hero fight, twitching no doubt later in the privacy of their cells in places man had never been. He was James Dean, Elvis, John Lennon and Mick Jagger all rolled into one. Except he had an added twist: he faced death every afternoon.
Although I found him magnetically attractive, I tried to keep my feelings hidden. I was, after all, working - doing a serious research job. He wasn’t an easy man to resist, but resist him I did. . .
Over time, we became rather attached. He was relaxed and comfortable in my company – unlike the others, I wasn’t after him for what I could get.
On rest days, we’d spend lazy afternoons at his ranch, hanging out with his friends and family, sharing al fresco lunches and flamenco-fuelled dinners or buzzing around Andalucía in his Piper Aztec plane.
On fight days, we’d travel across country in his chauffeur-driven limo, him asleep with his head in my lap, me tenderly stroking his forehead, my heart melting with love as I kept vigil on the long roads through the night.
The international press soon picked up our story. They called him ‘the English girl Wendy’s personal Peter Pan’ and wrote that ‘El Cordobés had a British fiancée and was learning the language of Shakespeare’! In truth, his parish priest travelled alongside us teaching him to read and write. A scholar of the Bard he was not!
One afternoon, in the middle of his hectic season, he dedicated the life of his noble bull to me - a high accolade and display of affection of a very public nature. The animal, however, did not share this affection and tossed him mercilessly until his pants were ripped to shreds, his buttocks exposed for all to see.
He raked his fingers through his floppy hair and changed hurriedly into a pair of jeans. Then he went back on the sand and showed that toro who was boss. He displayed such valour and artistry that he was awarded the trophy of an ear.
To further compliment his dedication to me, he lobbed the severed appendage straight into my outstretched hands. As I caught it in a clap, warm blood splattered all over my dress. Boy! Was I proud of that! I never washed it off and later, if anyone asked me where the stains came from, I bloody well told them!
That night, persuasion overcame propriety and I allowed him the sword thrust he had so often sought. . .
In October, the Spanish bullfight season terminated and the toreros prepared to fly south for the winter, to Mexico and Latin America. I was invited to accompany them but my father wouldn’t let me. And so the dream ended and I went sadly home. I packed up my photographs, press cuttings, cine films, diaries, letters and bull’s ear and stored them away in my memory bank.
Over the next four decades, I revisited those memories many, many times. I also got married and divorced twice, had two daughters and now have four grandchildren. Manolo also married and is the father of five children.
I continued to visit Spain two or three times a year, but I never saw him again. I became an antique dealer and then a writer. Last year I wrote my first novel, Blood On The Sand, based on our story or at least the beginning of it. . .
And then I heard he was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented to him in Marbella. A grand occasion was planned: a midnight bullfight by candle light with flamenco music instead of a brass band showcasing three of Spain’s top matadors. I didn’t hesitate. I booked my flight . . .
I arrived at the bullring with my sister well ahead of time, flustered and nervous. I was no longer 19 yet I still felt it inside! A limo drew up. I could see him through the window. Without hesitation, I pounced like a panther and explained - in the 15 seconds I had available before the press descended - exactly who I was.
He smiled broadly and took my hands in his. He looked confused, bemused, amused.
“You’re still so pretty!” he enthused kissing me warmly on both cheeks. At 63, I could have been a wizened old crone. . .
I showed him some of our old photos. He beamed and put his arm around me. My sister took a picture. My heart soared. I was right back in 1965. Maybe I should have defied my father and gone away with him after all. Who knows how my life may have turned out?
After the bullfight and award ceremony, I managed to snatch another few moments just as he was leaving.
“We have so much to talk about!” I told him. “Talk to me! Talk!” he managed before another microphone and TV camera were shoved in his face.
He did his interview then the chauffeur floored the pedal and off they sped - out of my life for a second time.
I’m sure I’ll see him again, though. I’ll make damn certain of it. And it won’t be another 44 years this time!