Forty years ago, on February 23rd 1981, there was an attempted military coup in Spain, and Parliament was invaded by troops led by Colonel Antonio Tejero. A sticky moment for democracy in mainland Europe and I was there. Read my story here.
The first part of the story, Milagritos, part 1, can be found using the link below:
Milagritos, part 2
The wreckage in front of us told its own story. We were onto the second pack of Ducados, the first reduced to a crumpled ball on the table, nestled between the ashtray and a variety of empties. A few beer bottles stood guard, holding the line against those of Rioja and Valdepenas and the remnants of a hastily prepared dinner provided by that cave of plenty in the little plaza downstairs, Milagritos.
In the back ground, the radio continued its hysterical drone. My rudimentary Spanish, good for survival in any bar on the Spanish mainland but little else, picked up the occasional snippet, but my growing sense of gloom was provoked more by the overall tone of the announcer rather than any precise understanding. Along with his interviewees, he veered between the sombre and the melodramatic.
Outside, through the window that looked out onto the jumble of washing lines and thin balconies that faced the inner yard of the blocks, it was dark, with a scattering of stars and a half moon. Alan paced the living room, clinging on to his cigarette as if that were the thing that would save him
“I think we should go out,“ he began, “we’ve got to do..”
I never found out what it was we had to do. The drone of the announcer’s voice suddenly changed gear, and the air in the room shifted. Even I could tell something was happening.
“Whoah, what’s that?”
“Shh!“ Alan hissed, “I need to listen to this.”
I took the hint. Wishing I’d paid less attention to my very attractive tutor’s legs and more attention to her Spanish lessons, I simmered in helpless frustration as a new voice cut through the still air of our flat. My only clue was to watch Alan’s face. He frowned and took a distracted drag on his ducados. His frown deepened and he leant closer to the radio as if he could somehow manipulate the news through an effort of will. Finally, just when I was about to burst with frustration, he turned the radio off.
“What?” I demanded. “What’s happening? What did they say? Why have you turned it off?”
Alan looked up, grim-faced. “We’re fucked. They say that martial law has been declared in Valencia and that tanks have been sent onto the streets. There are soldiers and snipers everywhere. Come on, we’ve gotta go.”
He collected up his cigarettes, and an unopened bottle of scotch and headed towards the door. I scrambled after him. He had stopped in the open doorway. He looked back into the flat, taking in the wreckage of the last few hours of political drama, and then at me.
“And they’ve declared a curfew in Valencia. Anyone found on the streets in a group of more than two is liable to be shot, or at the very least, arrested. We’d better be quick.”
“Hold on”, I protested, “I don’t fancy getting shot. Or even arrested. And where are we going anyway?”
“There’s two of us, we’re safe. I reckon we should just check out the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, and then head off to Marien’s house. They’ve got a TV.”
I hesitated, a picture of a lifetime spent in a Spanish jail, or worse, flickering across my consciousness.
Alan interrupted, exasperated. “Come on Rob, we’re British. We’re not going to get shot – this is mainland Europe for God’s sake. It’s Marien and Macu and Paco and all of that lot you should be worried about, not us.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?”
“All the Spanish people we know are card-carrying members of the Socialist party. Growing up under Franco and the Catholic church, who can blame them? If they get arrested, they’ll go straight to prison. They’ll be shitting themselves. The least we can do is give them some support. So come on, shift yer arse, or it ‘ll be over before it’s even started.”
He didn’t wait for a response, so convinced was he of his own powers of persuasion, but simply turned on his heels and strode into the corridor towards the stairs. While not exactly convinced, I was sufficiently persuaded to follow. Slamming the door behind me, I ran to catch him up, and we bowled down the staircase and out into the cool midnight air of a February Valencia night. The game was on.
An eery quiet lay heavy on the streets. Normally, at this time of night, every city in Spain was alive and throbbing. In Barrio Carmen, in particular, Midnight usually signalled the beginnings of adventure. In this area, the bohemian heart of the city, artists, musicians, writers and poets, conmen and drug dealers all emerged after dark to cast their spells. But not tonight. We made our way down the deserted streets, a spring in our step. It felt strange to be following our usual tracks in such familiar surroundings. Street lights illuminated some of our landmarks, which emerged from the gloom in pools of amber neon. Normally they would need no such help, as they would scream their existence to all and sundry, with raucous music, shouting and laughter spilling onto the pavement. Warm lighting and delicious smells would also have normally announced their presence, but now all was darkness, save for the pools of amber street lamps, and the only smells in the air were of Spanish drains, without the usual nosegays of garlic, hot olive oil, seafood and marijuana.
The unfamiliarity was compounded by our mood, a strange mixture of fear, excitement and anticipation. This cocktail sharpened our senses. Our eyes flicked nervously at every dash of a stray cat, our ears pricked at sudden, unexpected sounds. What was that? A footstep? A car door? Whispered conversation? A door closing quietly? We slipped through the empty streets in silence, all of our concentration spent on monitoring our immediate surroundings, imagining agents of the military lurking in every shadow, down every alley, in every doorway. Our own footsteps rang out on the cobbles as we turned the corner of Calle de Caballeros on to the wide open spaces of Plaza de la Virgen, only to run straight into two shifty-looking young men who were lurking in the shadows, surveying the plaza as a whole. We froze.
“Hombre! Que haces?” came the irritated cry from the first as he staggered back from the impact of Alan crashing into him. All four of us sprang back, ready for some kind of confrontation, only for the tension to break with mutual recognition.
“Buenas Noches, muchachos! Los Ingleses, bienvenidos a la lucha!”
It was Paco and Jesus, two of the friends we were on our way to see. After much back-slapping and hand shaking, we got down to business.
“Come on, we need to get off the plaza, it’s too open. Let’s get back to the barrio – we can talk more safely there.”
He was right. We were horribly exposed here on the edge of the deserted Plaza, and it was with some relief that we scuttled back into the dark alleys of Carmen. After a couple of minutes, when we were comfortably burrowed into the warren of streets we stopped to take stock. It transpired from Paco that they had just come out to check whether there were, in fact, tanks on the street. They had seen them at a distance, trundling along the main drag in front of the Railway station, along with a lot of troop carriers.
“That’s not all,“ said Jesus. “We met Maria and Lucia down by Ayuntamiento on our way back here. They said they had heard that there were snipers on the roof tops.”
I looked nervously up above. “Snipers! This is getting serious.”
“Tranquillo, hombre. There won’t be any here in little old Carmen. They’ll be in the city centre and by the TV and radio buildings. They’ll come for us low-lifers and communists later.”
“So, what are you gonna do now?” asked Alan “We were just on our way to yours to get some news from your TV.”
“Yeah, good idea. If we head that way, we might get some late-night churros and chocolate. Pepe’s is bound to be open. He probably won’t even know that anything’s happening, he’s just there wondering where all his usual customers are.”
It was a plan, of sorts. It would be the first time in recorded history that chocolate and churros had been part of a popular fightback against a military coup, but that was Spain for you. Nothing would get in the way of a Spaniard and his dinner.
We slipped through the network of alleys, picking our way steadily to their house. We had just reached the Mercado Central, which opened out on to one of the main roads that skirted Barrio Carmen, when we slowed down and took care to survey the empty market place, still and silent in the eerie street lamps. This was the last part of the route that could be dangerous, near to where tanks might go if they were out.
We stopped at the very edge of the market place, and listened, eyes all the while scanning the far shadowy corners for anyone else lurking there secretly.
“Its OK, I think,“ Jesus whispered, “Come on, lets……”
A low, mechanical rumbling interrupted. We froze and shrank back against the wall, listening intently. The noise, industrial and grinding, got louder as it got nearer. Then there were shouts – a couple of voices, as far as we could make out. The noise of the engines and the clanking and rumbling sound made it impossible to hear exactly what they had said, but it was unlikely to be friendly. We all looked at each other in our huddle, the tension growing to an almost unbearable pitch. There was fear in everyone’s eyes.
Alan said it first. “Shit. Must be tanks. And soldiers by the sound of it. We’ve had it.”
“Let’s make a run for it.” This was my contribution to the Great Escape.
Paco grabbed my arm. “No, no, no, hombre. We must stay. If we run they will shoot.”
And it as at that point when we all realised the key fact we had somehow forgotten. As our eyes looked around the group it dawned on us for the first time. We really were in big trouble. Jesus hissed, “Somos quatro”.
There were four of us, and the curfew applied to all groups of more than two.
We clung to each other, backs against the wall, as the rumbling, grinding, clanking sound grew to a crescendo, with assorted bangs and clashes adding to the cacophony. A street light cast a shadow, grotesquely distorted, of the tank turning the corner. Maybe they wouldn’t see us, maybe they would just go straight on, maybe……
Round the corner it came. A battered, regulation City of Valencia refuse lorry, complete with raucous crew, in hi vis jackets, laughing and joking and dragging binliners behind them. It was the Spanish bin men. They caught sight of us cowering in the shadows and burst out laughing, screwing their fingers to their temples and then miming machine gunning us with a strafe of imaginary fire. I suspect that the international code of conduct for binmen, in every culture, requires them to display no sign of sensitivity at all to the distress of another. The pathetic spectacle we had created had made their night, making their usual after midnight shift a little more bearable than normal.
We didn’t care. We weren’t going to die, and everything was bathed in blessed relief.
Sweet freedom was celebrated by a monster purchase in Pepe’s all-night Bagel bar, with bagels, chocolate and churros, and we almost skipped to Paco’s flat as if we were going to a party. The night passed off with food and drink and cigarettes and political arguments and television updates. The crisis dragged on a for a couple more days before drab normality reasserted itself. Back to business as usual, as I settled own once again to teach IBM business men some version of English, all the while thinking, with a half smile, about the time when I was nearly shot in the noble struggle against a military fascist dictatorship by a crew of Valencian dustbin men.