Why we were in San Sebastian for Christmas 1976 is a mystery – a matter of days and kilometres, I think, rather than planning. It didn’t matter, really, we were living out of our VW van – had been for several months, wending our way across Europe to Turkey and back again. It was very cold, I remember, and drizzling slushy rain. I kept whining “but it’s Christmas” – the cold and wet and dark still an affront after four years of upside down Christmases.
How could we forget? The streets were decked out in twinkling lights
and in the park a crèche competition had drawn dozens of entries.
And miracles do happen, children – R relented and we went in search of a snug hotel room for a couple of nights. Oh, the luxury of hot water on tap. Luxury in general, in fact. All the pensioni we visited were closed for Christmas, turning their rooms over to visiting family and friends. Even R began to feel a little Joseph and Mary, no-room-at-the-inn – and that was the miracle, because we had to settle for a five-star with plush pile carpet, lifts and en suite bathrooms and yes, air-conditioning, and doormen in uniforms!
There was a kicker of course – this was Franco’s Spain, and keeping a lid on Basque resistance didn’t stop just because it was Christmas.
We had a delicious meal at an almost-deserted restaurant on the square and afterward joined the other diners taking a stroll, arm-in-arm under the twinkling trees. (It had stopped slushing, thank goodness, but even R didn’t mention that, so glad was he of those whenever-you-want-them hot showers!).
There was something in the air – other couples, small parties of friends or families were similarly strolling around the gaily lit square – measured footfalls and muffled conversations – all of us, anti-clockwise around the lozenge-shaped square. And cars too. Singly, or in clusters like the pedestrians, full of youngsters, windows down, hurling slogans into the air as they lapped the square. And following them a police car with flashing lights, and a dark-clad truck with soldiers in the rear. And around and around they went, playing follow the leader, for a mesmerizing eternity until all of a sudden, the street lights dimmed. The truck came to a halt at the narrow end up ahead, disgorging soldiers, their booted feet clattering on the road.
The passiagiata crowd dematerialised like the Cheshire cat. I saw R coming toward me at a crouch, mouthing something, one arm flailing at the ground. A flash of fire. An unknown sound. What’s happened to my arm? I looked down to see a dark, squash ball shape dribbling onto the flags at my feet. I’m still standing there like a statue in my pale, kangaroo skin coat – even I couldn’t have missed me.
I looked up, they were moving toward us – a group of them, with guns.
Usain Bolt never ran as fast as I did then – pell-mell through those unfamiliar city streets, but always, in the back of my mind the vague direction of the sanctuary of that five-star hotel. Tourists. We’ll be safe once we’re among the wealthy tourists. We slowed somewhat as the uniforms of the doormen appeared ahead but they must have seen our faces for the doors were flung open before we arrived and we didn’t stop running till we’d reached our room and flung ourselves across the bed. Cold with fear and adrenalin. Panting. And then the curiosity. I peeled off my coat, exposed my arm – already it was blue down to the elbow. How amazing. I wonder if the bullet’s still there? Did you see … ? Lets go back and see.
Well it wasn’t – someone must have picked it up. But that’s how we got to have a photograph of the square after midnight, after the army declared enough was enough, that it was time to send everyone home to bed.
I’m hoping to bring you a little Sri Lankan Christmas in the next few days, but if I don’t see you – have a safe and happy Christmas, and may your only surprises be under a tree 🙂