A damp, misty dawn saw Andy and my male staff sit up on the bus shelter benches and stretch their cramped limbs. Then, hefting their backpacks and guitar cases they headed through the grim outskirts of Irun towards the emerald green foothills of the Pyrenees, their thumbs stuck out hopefully every time a vehicle passed by and this time they even managed to work out which side of the road to walk on. It seems that the Spanish are just as silly as the French in that they too drive on the right. There wasn't a great deal of traffic, but what there was ignored them totally. Onwards and upwards they trudged until they'd left the straggling remnants of the town behind and found themselves amid a pleasant landscape of bulging, green hills, small farms, forests and streams. Slowly the sun burned though the mist and the lads' clothes, still wet from the day before began to steam. The sun was trying hard to dry their clothes but it just made them sweat and so the nett result was still wet, chaffing clothing. As they climbed higher into the hills there was less shade as the forests thinned out and the cars that had been passing at the rate of about one every ten minutes dwindled to one every half an hour and still no one stopped to give them a lift.
By lunchtime they were hot, thirsty and becoming a little short with each other. They purchased a bottle of water each from a village shop and marched on. They were still in the mountains and still walking when the sun starting to slip behind the smooth, round hills to the west so they decided to camp in a field by a stream, hidden from the road by a copse. They'd walked all day without scoring a single lift even for one kilometre, not even a hundred metres. Things did not look promising for the rest of the journey. They still had the entire length of Spain to travel and so far they had not seen the inside of a single car. Laying side by side in their cheap nylon sleeping bags in the dark inside their tent they discussed the situation and decided to try to hitch a lift back to Irun in the morning and catch a train to Algeciras - a port town all the way down south and across the bay from Gibraltar.
That night my male staff heard something snuffling outside of the tent and when he woke and crawled out from under the canvas into a a chilly, dewy dawn he put his hand in a pool of cold vomit probably deposited there by a fox or a dog or whatever it was that had been snuffling around the tent. The poor creature must have caught a whiff of the boys shoes. My male staff's cursing woke Andy who's first vision of the day was my male staff's underwear clad butt blocking the opening of the tent. It was not a good start. Andy groaned and tried to go back to sleep, but as the sun rose it became too hot under the canvas so he too crawled out and put his hand in the pool of vomit. Swearing imaginatively he wiped his hand on the wet grass and looked around for my male staff. He was kneeling by the stream with one hand in the water. "What are you doing? Tickling up a trout for breakfast?" Asked Andy.
"No, I'm washing dog puke off my hand. Be careful when you get out of the tent."
"Thanks for the warning. I'll be sure to bear it in mind." Andy joined my male staff at the stream and washed the remains of the vomit from his hand.
"So, what now?" Said my male staff. "Back to Irun, or keep going?'
"Back to Irun." Andy said emphatically. These bastards are never going to give us a lift and at this rate it's going to take us a month to get even as far as Burgos and by then we'll have run out of money. Let's do what we agreed and head back to Irun and get the train." My male staff agreed, so they packed up their tent, still sopping wet from the dew and headed back to the road that led down through the mountains to Irun.
Yep. You got it right first time. Nobody picked them up, nobody even looked remotely like picking them up and so they marched all the way back the way they'd come only the day before to Irun. It was about four in the afternoon when the arrived at the railway station, utterly exhausted, shoulders aching from their backpacks. Oh what it is too be young and stupid. Yes I was young once, but I certainly don't recall ever being quite that stupid, but then like I said, my memory has been shocking since I passed away. So, having made inquiries in their rudimentary Spanish at the ticket desk they found that they had just missed an express train by ten minutes. If only that blasted fox or dog or whatever hadn't puked outside their tent they wouldn't have put their hands in it and wouldn't have spent fifteen vital minutes washing their hands in the stream and therefore would by now have been relaxing on a nice comfy air-conditioned express train, each with an ice cold bottle of beer at their lips.
"There is another train." They were told. "It departs for Madrid at midnight. You can catch another train to Algeciras from there." Andy and my male staff looked at each other and sighed. What choice did they have? They bought two one way tickets to Algeciras and found a vacant bench on the platform to wait out the eight hours until the train was due. My male staff said he'd take a bit of a walk to find something to eat and drink. An hour later he returned with a large chunk of cheese a baguette the size of a baseball bat and a bottle of red wine that had cost him the equivalent of thirty pence. Later when they tried it, passing the bottle to each other (having shoved the cork into the bottle with a pen because they didn't have a corkscrew.) they discovered why it was only thirty pence, and even at that they thought it was way over priced. Nevertheless it didn't stop them drinking the vile stuff. They ate half the bread and cheese and decided to keep the rest for the train journey.
The "midnight train" finally arrived just before one 'o' clock. Evidently it had originated from somewhere in France and was already packed. There was not a single seat left on the entire train, which they discovered by walking from one end it to the other, biffing people with their backpacks and guitar cases as they squeezed by. Eventually they found a vacant spot on the floor of one of the carriages next to a particularly busy and odious toilet. Still, beggars can't be choosers as they say and they were just grateful to be able to shrug off their loads and sit down.
The two of them spent the journey inhabiting that strange semi-conscious state so common in long haul air travelers. Neither slept, yet nor were they fully awake. It was as though they'd been sedated by the train's rocking movement and the buzz of their fellow passengers conversations. Their backsides were numb from the hard floor and they'd finished their bread and cheese during the night and were starting to feel hunger pangs again. A golden dawn greeted them as they pulled into the station at Madrid. Already the sky was a deep cloudless blue and the air was crisp and free of the humidity of Irun. The first task was to find something to eat and they soon found a cafe within the railway station. They ordered "cafe con leche" and a whitebait roll. The young chap behind the counter made the roll freshly for Andy, wrapped it in greaseproof paper and handed it to him and then started on my male staff's. In the process of cutting the bread roll the fellow managed to slice his hand open. The wound dripped bright red blood onto the bread roll. Hissing several Spanish obscenities he reached for a handful of serviettes to staunch the flow. Undeterred he then returned to the blood soaked roll, filled it with whitebait, wrapped it in greaseproof paper and handed it to my male staff who was too shocked to complain. In any case his Spanish wasn't up to complaining. Instead my male staff unwrapped the roll, ripped off the bloodied bit and ate the rest. Very nice it was too apparently.
Their train to Algeciras was scheduled to depart at six 'o' clock that evening, so Andy and my male staff had about ten hours to kill. Should they find a locker in which to leave their stuff and do some sightseeing or should they find a quiet corner of the railway station and get some sleep? Fatigue conquered curiosity and the pair slept for most of the day on the cool tiles of the station, their heads resting on their sleeping bags. Ar five thirty they decided they'd better go and find their departure platform. The train was already there and a hand written notice on a blackboard listed the stations it was scheduled to stop at. It was a long list, about twenty stations in all, most of which neither Andy or my male staff had heard of. Only Toledo and Cordoba stood out as names they were familiar with. It looked like it was going to be a long trip with lots of stopping and starting.
The sun was sinking as the train rumbled through Madrid's southern suburbs and out into the dry rocky countryside. Silhouetted against the blazing sunset stood the impressive one hundred and fifty metre tall cross of El Escorial - The Valley of the Fallen - a memorial to the victims of both sides of the Spanish Civil War. A memorial to both sides it may well be, but it still attracts it's share of controversy as it is also the final resting place of General Franco, a particularly nasty bit of work and one of Adolf Hitler's buddies. Although Franco died a month before my male staff and his family first arrived in Gibraltar at the end of 1975 his policies would still make life difficult for Andy and my male staff on this trip.
The Valley of the Fallen
Beyond The Valley of the Fallen darkness fell and the boys could only see little clusters of lights through the windows, interspersed with larger settlements like Toledo of Toledo steel fame. The train was not air-conditioned and it soon grew stuffy in the carriage. Andy opened a window and immediately a delicious waft of herb, pine and eucalyptus scented air cleared the fug. At each dark and deserted station the only sound was the hum of cicadas. Nobody seemed to leave or board the train at any of these night time halts.
Dawn found the train shuffling slowly through stupendous mountain scenery around the little town of Ronda about seventy five kilometres north of Algerciras. At this time of year the mountains were great snowless sandstone bluffs towering above idyllic green valleys with occasional stone dwellings where horses grazed in the cool shade of the scented pines. Andy and my male staff thought they must have died in the night and woken up in heaven. Even here the train driver found a reason to stop, often in the middle of nowhere with no station to be seen. Someone would jump down from the train clutching a battered suitcase and start walking to goodness knows where.
Finally the train looped around to the west towards the Atlantic before doubling back to the east and rattling down a shallow incline towards Algeciras, and there across the bay stood the Rock of Gibraltar - the northern Pillar of Hercules - in its unmistakable crouching lion pose, the little town clustered around its base, cowering under the forbidding limestone slopes that made up the Rock's western aspect. These days my male staff often wonders what Algeciras is like now. Back then it was a scruffy looking port with littered back streets and ragged children offering to sell hashish to anyone who was interested and many, like Andy and my male staff who weren't. Nowadays it's probably a beautifully clean, palm lined place full of trendy restaurants and bars, has anyone been there lately. He'd love to know.
The Rock of Gibraltar from near Algeciras
I mentioned earlier that General Franco was still making life difficult for my staff after his death. This is because in 1969 the General ordered the land border between Gibraltar and Spain at the town of La Linea be closed. Spain had claimed, and still does claim Gibraltar as its own but it remains a British outpost to this day. One would think it fair enough for Spain to claim the Rock given it's location but the Spanish are not doing themselves any favours at all by clinging onto to their own "Gibraltar" on the Moroccan mainland. Ceuta to the east of the Moroccan port of Tanger has been in Spanish hands since 1668 when it was gifted to them by Portugal. Anyway when the British refused to give Franco back his Rock he threw his toys out of his pram, went off in a huff and closed the border suddenly, splitting families of Gibraltarians and Andalusians who had been inter-marrying for centuries. It was still possible to travel from Spain to Gibraltar, but to do so one had to catch the ferry from Algecirus to Tanger in Morocco - about thirty miles and then catch another ferry from Tanger to Gibraltar - another thirty miles. Hence it now took all day to make a journey that used to be one step across a land border. Every single day back then people on either side of the border would stand at the fence and yell greetings and news across the fifty or so metres of no mans land. It was tragic.
An aerial view of Gibraltar taken from above the Spanish town of La Linea. In the distance are the Rif mountains of Morocco and the southern Pillar of Hercules. To the right of the photo is the Bay of Algeciras. The land border is just this side of the airport terminal building - the long white roof at the foot of the photo. The border is now open but now and again the Spanish government throws a hissy fit and closes it temporarily or tells their immigration officers to work as slowly as possible to make life difficult. Seriously, they need to grow up.
It was a glorious day, the Bay of Algeciras sparkled and as the sun rose to its zenith the pale limestone at the summit of the Rock, just three miles away dazzled the eyes. Andy and my staff were so close to their goal. Just three miles! It felt like they could almost hop from one cargo ship or tanker to the other to reach it and yet it was still hours away and thanks to Senor Franco, via another country, another continent - Morocco, Africa.
Next week Andy and my male staff eat rather a lot of figs.
Like lissun doods and doodesses, Sunday afternoon was like just so wikid. It was like this very speshul wunce a yeer day wen Uncal Billy's male staff kleens the underside of the deck roof. It gets pritty durty over the yeer wot with mould and dust and spydas' webs and stuff. He has to weight until it's like a reely hot day to do it cos he has to stand unda the roof with a long brush and a nose pipe wot skwirts water so he gets very, very wet.
Ennyway Sunday afternoon was like reely hot so he takes off all his clothes except his red Batman and Robin underpants, grabs the brush and a nose pipe and goes out and starts skwirting the roof with one hand and brushing with the other. Uncal Billy's female staff, me, Alfie, Toby, Tom and Paolo the budgie all have our noses pressed against the windo. Well strickly speeking Paolo hazunt got a nose, but his beek is pressed against the windo and we're all like giggling cos Uncal Billy's male staff looks so funny with no clothes on.
So he's skwirting and brushing and is abowt harfway throo the job wen he nocks down this hooge spyda's web and with it comes this hooge spyda and lands on Uncal Billy's male staff's chest. Later Uncal Billy's male staff said it was as big as Uncal Billy and just as harie but he was