A Spanish love affair

As a child, Wendy Salisbury was seduced by the excitement of the Costa Brava. As a teenager, she fell for a star bullfighter. Here, she explains her lifelong romance with all things Español

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 have only 15 seconds in which to do it and they haven't the faintest idea who you are?

This happened to me recently... but first, let me fill in the gaps.

My grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants. My father was born in Buenos Aires and my mother studied art in Paris before the Second World War broke out. They met and married in London, had my sister and me, then emigrated to New York. And it was into this melting pot that they so readily dissolved and their love affair with Spain began: watching their first flamenco show.

We returned to London in 1950. The bombed-out city was a drab and sepia place, all post-war gloom and pea-soup fogs. My parents worked hard and as soon as they could afford it, they took us on holiday to the Costa Brava. It was 1955 and the package price for two weeks was £39. Dad decreed, "in order to fully absorb the culture", that we see a corrida de toros. I was nine years old.

The trumpet sounded, the gates swung open and a vivid swagger of masculinity stepped on to the sand. I was instantly mesmerised. The sights! The sounds! The smells! Resplendent in their satin suits of lights, three demigods performed an ancient art: unprotected save for a piece of cloth, they danced a bloody ballet with a high-horned raging bull. The raw courage and savage beauty took my breath away. And when they strutted round the ring victorious, catching eyes and flowers, my pre-pubescent heart stirred with a passion yet unknown.

On returning home, I delved more deeply into Spain's rich history. I'd browse the bookshops of Charing Cross Road seeking tales of bullfighting. I learnt Spanish at school and took flamenco classes at the local institute.

By the time I was 14, my parents had built a villa in Marbella costing £2,000. My sister married a Spaniard in 1962 and when I reached 19, having saved up all my wages, they allowed me a three-month trip to Spain. I longed to see more bullfights. My grandmother muttered darkly: "Be careful what you wish for."

I explored the great Moorish cities of Andalusia but my money soon ran out. Back on the coast, I got talking to an American journalist one afternoon. He'd just been commissioned to write the biography of Manuel Benitez, "El Cordobes" (I'll Dress You in Mourning by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, which went on to become a best-seller). He needed an interpreter to start immediately! We agreed terms and set off next morning for Cordoba.

It was the summer of 1965. Manolo – as he was known – was at the top of his game. Aged 29, wildly charismatic, his was the quintessential "rags to riches" story: illiterate Gypsy orphan rises, through sheer bravura, to status of global idol – the highest-paid, most theatrical matador in the history of la tauromaquia. Women of all ages swooned at his feet. He was a rock star – with the added twist: he faced death every afternoon.

My boss placed me in his path to find out the inside story. On fight days, we'd buzz from town to city in his Piper Aztec aircraft, or travel across country in his Mercedes limousine. He'd clamber in straight from the arena, elated or deflated, depending how the bulls had run. Once free of clamouring fans, he'd wriggle into less restrictive clothing, then fall asleep exhausted in my lap. I'd brush the sweat-soaked hair from his face and keep vigil with the chauffeur on the long road through the night.

On rest days, we'd ride out on his ranch, across the peaceful pastures to check the breeding herd, lunching under the trees, then partying with friends beneath the stars.

The international press soon picked up our story: the incongruity of a "little English girl" – who must love animals, surely! – and a man who killed livestock for a living.

 

They wrote about "the Wendy with her personal Peter Pan" and that El Cordobes was learning the language of Shakespeare for his English fiancée. In truth, he was still illiterate, but his priest travelled with us, teaching him to read and write.

Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager, flew out from Liverpool to meet the man they called the "Spanish Beatle". Alan Whicker's team filmed Matador for BBC TV and later interviewed the "little English girl" for an episode of Late Night Line-up.

At one fight, he dedicated his bull to me – a high accolade considering Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Orson Welles were in the crowd. The animal did not share his sentiments and tossed him mercilessly until his pants were ripped, exposing his buttocks. Bruised and battered, down but not out, he bellowed for a pair of jeans and went back out there to face his foe. He won the trophies of two ears that day. He threw me one, which I still have.

When the Spanish season ends, toreros, like swallows, fly south for the winter. Latin America awaits its idols in the flesh. He invited me to join him but my father said no, and so ended my summer in the sun .

I packed away my photos, press cuttings, diaries and the precious trophy ear and returned home to marry the first man who asked me. I stored my memories away in an old shoe box.

Four decades, two marriages, two daughters and five grandchildren later, my sister called me one morning from her home in Marbella.

"Manolo's receiving a lifetime achievement award next Saturday in our bullring..." I was on the airline website before she'd finished talking.

I was flustered and nervous, no longer 19, yet still feeling it. We waited backstage for his car to draw up, and then I saw him through the glass: 73 years old yet still fit and handsome.

I approached quickly and explained – in the short time before the press pounced – exactly who I was. At first he looked confused but then he beamed: that sunshine smile that still lit up my world. He kissed me warmly on both cheeks, exclaiming: "You're still so pretty!" My heart felt fit to burst – pretty good for 64, maybe! Bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia now in a move more political than cultural. Aficion still reigns in Spain and still reigns in me. My book, Blood on the Sand, imagines what may have happened had the English girl wed her torero.

 

'Blood on the Sand', £1.49, is available on Kindle now

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