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Nov 13 - 'Enactment' by M.G. Sanchez

To celebrate the start of the Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival later on this week, we are publishing Enactment, a gritty prose piece by Gibraltarian author M. G. Sanchez, who is one of the invitees at this year’s festival.

Enactment.

A Prose Piece by M. G. Sanchez.


1.

He is standing outside a bar in Casemates Square, smoking a fag. He must be fifty-eight, possibly sixty years old, and he is leaning against one of the ancient Casemates Square walls, his umber brown eyes contracted to two weary slits, his underarms soaked in a froth of greyish-white sweat. A cluster of gold signet rings sits atop his age-stiffened and sun-blackened fingers, the skin between them wrinkly and leathery, the entire hand looking like something dug out of a peat bog. Propped up against a wall behind him is an imitation Brown Bess musket, its stippled iron barrel reflecting the glare of the late-morning sun. On his head, an ornately decorated shako, slightly tilted to the left and a little dented where the black felt covering the barrel of the hat is beginning to thin out.

With it, he measures six one, maybe six two; without it, probably about five foot five. His smallness of stature can be gleaned from the way his trousers and jacket sleeves have been carefully rolled up, as well as from the overall looseness of the scarlet coat around the shoulders. But it is not his diminutive size or his sallow appearance or even his wilting expression that I find most striking about him; it is what he says when, lowering his cigarette and shaking his head, he turns to the ‘redcoat’ beside him: 

Valiente caloh, no? Como vamo marcha de aquí al gobernadoh, no se yo!’ 

2.

It is June 2016 and I’ve been in Gibraltar now for two and a half months. I’m staying in the spare room at my mother's place in Westside. I’m waiting for my partner back in the UK to let me know that our new house is ready to move into. There is no space for my stuff in the already cluttered cupboards, so I have to keep my clothes and books in my suitcases. It is very hot and humid at night and, when I wake up in the morning, my sheets are often soaked in my own sweat. My room, the only guest room in the flat, measures about ten by twelve feet. Miniature stalactites of flaking paint cling to the whitewashed ceiling, filling the air with the smell of mould and exacerbating my nocturnal asthma. For hours and hours I lie motionless on the narrow single bed, staring at the feathery white flakes, occasionally seeing some of them break off from the ceiling and come spiralling like toxic snowflakes to the floor. The mould looks like it has been there for ages, but in fact it’s a fairly recent manifestation. In November 2013, while my mother was visiting me in the UK, her upstairs neighbour took it upon himself to fit a bathroom tap and made a mess of the job. Water filtered through into my mother’s flat for several hours, ruining her ceiling as well as her cupboards and parquet floorboards. When she eventually returned to Gibraltar, her neighbour promised to help her with the cost of the repairs, but when the time came to put his hand in his pocket, he dissociated from the whole affair and failed to give her a single penny….

3.

It is eleven in the morning and I am out on my daily constitutional – a brisk, forty-minute stroll that takes me from Westside to Southport Gates along Main Street and then back home via Queensway. The man I’m walking past is a member of the Gibraltar Re-enactment Society, one of the worthy unpaid volunteers who once a week recreate scenes from Gibraltar’s military past. He is relaxing with a group of fellow volunteers outside a bar in Casemates Square – most are tanned and Mediterranean-looking; a couple are blond and light-skinned; all of them are conversing in Yanito, the local vernacular. A bunch of tourists has already gathered around the ‘redcoats’, waiting for the man and his companions to shoulder their muskets and start marching out of the square. I thread my way past these day-trippers and then advance towards Main Street and its even higher concentration of people. Outbursts of laughter. Selfie sticks poking out at odd angles. Spanish schoolchildren, giggling and with their arms thrown around each other, clustered around an old-fashioned red telephone box. Young policemen with designer stubble and custodian helmets, the cynosure of all touristic eyes. Harassed mothers, chiding their kids in English and then speaking with their elderly relatives in Spanish. Towering over the sea of heads and faces are a couple of gravity-defying ‘living statues.’ A jowly turbaned guy, floating on a trail of ‘vapour’ corkscrewing out of an Aladdin’s lamp; a helmeted motorcyclist suspended in mid-air above an out-of-control motorcycle. ‘Quick, quick,’ someone is saying beside me, ‘grab that table over there before somebody else gets it!’

4.

By the time I reach the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned, the crowds have dispersed and I am able to walk in a straight line again. Soon afterwards I reach Cathedral Square, the small tree-lined piazza where brawny, middle-aged taxi drivers congregate every day to sell Round-the-Rock tours to tourists, switching from Cockney to Castellano with practised ease. I turn my head to the right at this point and I see Archdeacon Decimus Storry Govett – or at least the statue erected to his memory. Decimus was one of the leading lights in the fin-de-siècle campaign against alcoholism and organised prostitution, as well as an all-round do-gooder. He is currently standing on a plinth just in front of the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, some thirty or forty paces away. He has been brought back to life in the form of a six-foot granitic angel, his stony wings folded down behind him, an open book clutched between his long-fingered hands. He doesn’t look very happy, does he, our Decimus, standing there half-hidden behind the untrimmed shrubbery. Can’t be the most enthralling business, I suppose, watching all these taxi drivers tout for business day in, day out. Moments later, as I’m passing the law courts, I notice there’s a large crowd in Convent Place. Looks like something’s going on up there, isn’t there? The Changing of the Guard, perhaps? The Ceremony of the Keys? Some other act of military pageantry connected with the ‘redcoats’ I saw earlier? The crowds before the Convent, as the Governor’s palace is commonly known, are so dense that they have spilled out of the square and pushed out into the adjacent ramps and side streets. I try to squeeze my way past this living throng, but the pavement is very narrow and, on top of that, just to make things even more complicated, is cut off from the road by a three-foot metal rail. Excuse me, excuse me, I keep repeating, trying to wriggle my way through. I need to get past, I need to get through. But after four or five paces I give up. Most of the folk in front of me have come to a transfixed standstill, iPhones in their hands and excited looks on their faces, little caring that there are people behind them trying to get past. This lack of movement ensures that within seconds the footpath is blocked and we are all thrown together in a congealed mass, spectators and passers-by alike, our perspiring bodies hemmed in by the three-foot metal rail which skirts the edge of the pavement like a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. And since I have been stopped and immobilised in this way, since I am, as it were, trapped by the masses, I look up in the same direction as everybody else and notice that they are staring at the raised marbled balcony which projects out of the Convent’s façade like the prow of a mighty battleship. Epaulettes and peaked caps. Tanned faces. Immaculately cut Savile Row suits. Spanish-style abanicos. A flagpole flying the Union Jack. Unshaved bobbies holding machine guns and chewing gum. Someone in the crowd shouting ‘callate ya, for God’s sake!’ It is one of those wonderful scenographic combinations that can only be found in Gibraltar, a spectacular mishmash of British and Mediterranean elements that couldn’t be topped even if Queen Elizabeth II and her entourage suddenly materialised one day in the middle of the Sevillian Semana Santa….  

5.

The crowds eventually clear and once again I’m dashing along Main Street in a Southerly direction. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly energetic, I extend my walk by leaving Main Street and taking a detour through la Alameda, Gibraltar’s botanical gardens – and today is one of those days. Passing through the short subway going under Europa Road, I emerge into the Alameda’s principal promenading avenue, a long, cambered, slowly steepening hill riddled with potholes and lined on one side with backless wooden benches. The gardens, Gibraltar’s first purpose-built public recreational space, were constructed in 1816 under the auspices of General Sir George Don, the fortieth Governor of Gibraltar. The work was funded by private subscription and took just over a year to complete, an achievement all the more impressive when one considers that the gardens stand on a bedrock of limestone and red sand. As I leisurely make my way into the Alameda’s leafy interior, I come across the kind of people that you don’t normally encounter in Main Street: truanting school children, lost-looking Scandinavian backpackers, jobless Eastern European migrants, local drunks staring into space and mumbling sweet-nothings to themselves. A few days ago, as I was walking along this same lane, a kid of about twelve left the group he was with and marched challengingly beside me for a couple of paces, a spliff as big as a Gran Corona cigar dangling from his sneering lips. Watching that boy made me think of the Alameda’s well-known but little talked about reputation as a site of transgressive activity, as a place of sanctuary for outcasts, misfits and ne’er-do-wells. When the red-light district shut down in 1922, for instance, prostitutes continued bringing their clients here in defiance of the British authorities. And several decades later, when the civilian evacuation of 1941 had emptied the Rock of its womenfolk, soldiers and sailors used the gardens as an illicit cruising zone.[1] Even as recently as the late Seventies and early Eighties, it was not uncommon for Gibraltarian mothers to warn their teenage daughters to steer clear of the gardens whenever Royal Navy warships were in port: ‘Cusha, dear, no pase cerca de la Alameda, okay? Que hay mucho marinero en la calle and anything can happen, vale?

6.

I exit the gardens via a ramp that connects with Red Sands Road, the narrow street running past the back of the Alameda Housing Estate. Ahead of me lies Picton House, the residential block where my late father spent his formative infant and adolescent years. Not many people in Gibraltar are aware of this, but Picton House was originally named after Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, a Welsh Army officer who fought at Waterloo and in the Peninsular War and who was accused of torturing black people during his tenure as Governor of Trinidad. But I’m not really thinking about Picton and his sadistic tendencies as I make my way down Red Sands Road in the direction of Queensway; I am thinking of my father and the amount of times he must have hurried along these streets as a child and later as an adolescent. I can visualise him in my mind’s eye, a dark-eyed ragamuffin with wavy black hair and a partially inflated football under his arm, rambling away in Spanish with a few English words interspersed here and there, carrying a folded newspaper cutting of his hero Billy Liddell in a crumpled leather wallet. You wouldn’t have known it by looking at him, but my Dad was born to an Anglican father and could trace his ancestry on his grandmother’s side to the Hulme district in Manchester. This was all down to Private Joseph Brown of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a doughty, barrel-chested Mancunian who in 1889 left the army to marry a Spanish seamstress by the name of Sebastiana Villanera. Throughout Gibraltar’s long colonial history there have been countless Protestant-Catholic nuptials of this type. The template hardly varied. English soldier meets Spanish/Gibraltarian woman. Quits the military to get married. Becomes a father. Allows his children to be brought up as Catholics so that they can integrate better into the local community. This is exactly what happened in the early 1830s, when my maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Whitelock, married a Spanish lady by the name of Josefa Miró and they started having children, all of whom were duly baptised in the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned. But in Joseph Brown’s and Sebastiana Villanera’s case the last part of the formula wasn’t followed and they raised their children as Anglicans rather than as Catholics. There were five of them altogether: Florence, Charles, Isabel, Joseph and Maria Luisa. I’m not sure whether the first four continued this baptismal tradition when they themselves came to have children, but I do know that, when Maria Luisa gave birth to my grandfather Joseph while temporarily domiciling with her Gibraltarian husband Oscar Sanchez in the border town of La Línea, she wasted no time in having him baptised as an Anglican. Thus, my grandfather Joseph (who throughout his life remained uninterested in politics or religion) can in some ways be seen as the embodiment of one of those marvellous Gibraltarian paradoxes: a man who was born in Spain and whose surname was Sanchez... and yet who looked as pale and blue-eyed as an East End costermonger and who was taught as a kid to believe that the Pope was just the plain old Bishop of Rome….

7.

I am now strolling through Queensway, the last section of my walk on the way down to Westside. There are no tourists in this area, and every few paces you come across sun-dried smears of dog shit wedged between the pavement tiles. Until recently, Queensway’s western, sea-facing side used to be crammed with MOD and Navy buildings, but these were knocked down several years ago and replaced with opulent residential developments with fancy names like The Sails, The Island and Ragged Staff Wharf. Lying behind this last development is Queensway Quay, a small marina for luxury yachts. Back in the Seventies it used to be known as el Camber and was one of the few stretches of Gibraltar’s western coastline open to us locals, squeezed as it was between the Naval dockyard on one side and the stone-built warehouses of the Military Police on the other. My uncle William had his motorboat berthed here and most summer weekends my parents, my brother and I would find ourselves traipsing along the crumbling stone pier towards the Tunny, as the fifteen-footer used to be called. A rusty, waist-high rail was supposed to stop you from falling into the sea, but large sections of it were missing and this, coupled with the bad condition of the stone paving underfoot, meant that you always had to watch your step, especially when a strong Levanter was blowing and frothy jets of water would be blown onto the quay, making it even more slippery than usual. At the land end of the pier stood several half-abandoned aluminium sheds – so brittle and corroded that you could literally break off pieces of their walls with your bare hands. Stray cats would frequently hide in these old sheds, hoping to be rewarded with a fish head or two when the amateur fishing enthusiasts returned in their boats later in the evening. At some point, however, all the local boat owners were moved elsewhere and el Camber became what it is today: a screened-off, gated quay with a few luxury bungalows built at the far end of the pier. I’m not sure who owns these bungalows – probably foreign millionaires? As I saunter along the seafront with my hands in my pockets, I search for some surviving trace of the past, some topographical clue harking back to the days when this stretch of coastline used to be overrun by working-class boat-owners and their families, but I cannot see anything other than the stone pier itself, which has now been straightened out and rendered safe by sturdy black railings, the area just in front of it guarded by a series of pole-mounted CCTV cameras, its gated entrance capped by a row of metal spikes. Oh well, I tell myself, shaking my head and turning my eyes away. I’m almost back at Westside now and ready for a cup of coffee, and that’s got to count for something, hasn’t it? 

8.

But when I finally get back to Westside, I decide to catch a bus to the Four Corners instead of going home. I’m not sure why I’m doing this; I can only surmise that I don’t want to be stuck in the flat, with no other company than my laptop and the two or three books that I keep in my suitcase. As usual, I sit on my own and with my arms crossed at the very back of the vehicle, staring distractedly at the pedestrians and cars flowing past. Old women with sharp-knuckled hands sit in pairs around me, clutching their canvas shopping carts and ceaselessly complaining about the suffocating heat. Teenagers with wraparound sunglasses stare fixedly at their iPhones and iPads. Two young men – one wearing an Everton FC top, the other a sleeveless black T-shirt – are discussing the ‘frontier queue’ on the row of seats behind mine:

Young Man no 1: Mejor ir en bus like we’re doing. La ultima ve que fuí en coche me cogió una cola que no vea.

Young Man no 2: Si, pero el coche esta pa conducirlono, bro? We can’t just give in every time lo slopi se ponen malaje.

When we eventually reach our destination, I jump out of the vehicle and start walking towards the border. It is still very hot out there and the ends of the runway are now wrapped in a shimmering haze, as if the asphalt and sky were trying to merge amorously with each other. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an elderly Spanish couple hiding behind the bus shelter next to Parody’s kiosk. The woman is half-naked and holding a money belt stuffed with cigarette packets next to her flabby abdomen. The man has a lone cigarette tucked behind his ear and is patiently winding some brown parcel tape around his wife’s midriff. This is the kind of cross-border contraband that goes on in 2016: pitiably amateurish and small-scale, its meagre profits helping to keep afloat La Línea’s neediest and most indigent classes, making a mockery of the Spanish Government’s claim that Gibraltar is un nido de delincuentes y contrabandistas.’ Looking at this particular pair of geriatric estraperlistas, I find myself thinking of spinning dervishes and the paintings of Velázquez, of the bandage-wrapped Lazarus emerging from his cracked open tomb. Most of all, though, they make me think of the Chicano writer Gloria Anzaldúa and her work of non-fiction Borderlands/La Frontera. In this splendidly eclectic and hard-edged biographical essay, Anzaldúa writes that borders are like ‘heridas abiertas’, where two worlds grate against each other and then bleed. Borderlands, she says, are the crusted scabs that form over the original wound, problematic interstitial spaces that lie suspended between the solid existential certainties on either side, their very “moral indeterminacy” attracting those whom Anzaldúa calls los atravesados: ‘the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half-dead; in short, those who cross over and pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.” ’

Though Anzaldúa was thinking about the border between the US and Mexico when she wrote these powerful words, they could very well apply to the elderly matuterasvarillas, tissue-sellers and other luckless chancers associated with our own frontier, a human grotesquerie that congregates mainly on the Spanish flank of la frontera, but sometimes spills over onto the Gibraltarian side, continually reminding us of the unnaturalness of all dividing lines. But it is so hot and oppressive today that, apart from the old geezer and his dame, there isn’t much sign of any semi-legal activity in the vicinity of the border. Even better, there is no queue at the gates and the policía nacional on duty just waves me on with a weary flick of the hand, his tired, liquid-filled eyes barely engaging with the passport I have shown him, waiting, no doubt, for the day when he will be instructed by those in Madrid to start harassing cross-border commuters again. On leaving the adjacent customs building, I make my way down la Avenida Veinte de Abril, one of the main arteries heading into the centre of La Línea. Until the mid-Nineties you could enjoy an uninterrupted view of the Rock from this street, but then some bright spark decided to pedestrianise the road and build two parallel lines of pre-fabricated commercial units down the middle, restricting the view even further by fitting the units with monstrously oversized awnings. If that wasn’t depressing enough, the buggers run out of money midway through the construction project and left over half of the units unfinished, with the ones at the northern end of the road destined to remain no more than a series of exposed rusting girders. Out of the twenty or thirty units that were actually finished, only about ten are occupied, the rest lying empty and with ‘Se Alquila’ signs fixed to their dust-covered windows. It is to one of the occupied units – a tacky little bar called Bar T…… – that I am now heading. I have already visited it several times over the last few weeks. Run by a poker-faced Eastern European and his equally taciturn wife, it attracts a splendid motley crew of working-class Spaniards and Slavic migrants, nearly all of whom sit on white plastic chairs just outside the unit, hunched over their beers or else staring at the pedestrians ambling past, completely unfazed by the smell that occasionally drifts into the air whenever someone lights a cheeky cannabis joint. 

Un café con leche?’ the Rumanian bar owner barks out, coming up to my table.  

Sí, un café con leche,’ I reply, retrieving a Café Crème from its metal case and placing it against my lips, ready to be lit.

M.G. Sanchez’s talk, ‘Representing Gibraltrianness’, will take place at 2 o’clock on November 16 at the Garrison Library. Tickets for the event can be purchased from the festival’s website: http://www.gibraltarliteraryfestival.com

[1] See Nicholas Rankin, Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler (2017), pp. 360-361.


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