Jeremy Clarke

Running wild

A social leper tells us of his miserable existence

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I'm doing 170 kilometres an hour along the motorway from Barcelona to Pamplona. I pass a sign telling me I am now entering Navarre, and passing from Aragon to the Basque country. It's a blue sign, about 20 foot square and riddled with holes. Where I live many of our road signs are peppered with shot, done for a laugh. But these are made by some sort of high-calibre rifle. The motorway is like a racetrack, black, cambered, empty, a continuous line of bougainvillaea bushes down the central reservation. I'm driving a Merc worth 20 grand. My own car back home is worth, for insurance purposes, 150 quid. I'm squirting the Merc around the insides of the bends in quiet and comfort. The outside temperature, it says on the dashboard, is 38 degrees. With the air conditioning on full I'm a pleasantly cool 16 degrees. On either side is a wide plain, parched white, and on the low hills in the distance hundreds of windmills, blades stationary.

I'm wearing clean white trousers, a laundered white shirt and the crimson sash and neckerchief commemorating the bloody wounds of St Fermin. In my trouser pocket, a three-inch thick roll of euros, two grammes of amphetamine sulphate and a box of Smints. On the CD player, Sham 69. Another road sign tells me I am 67 kilometres from Pamplona. Beside myself with excitement, I press the toe down.

At Pamplona I nose through the red and white crowds and by a miracle there is a parking space next to the bullring. I park, jump out, wave the key at the car and insinuate myself into a crowded bar. Everyone inside the bar and the majority of those outside on the pavement are dancing, and singing as they dance. It's like a mad house. At the bar a grave elderly barman reverentially pours a pint of lager into a plastic cup and charges me about four quid.

The next morning the sun wakes me at 6.30. I'm lying on my back on a grassy traffic roundabout. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds: there are small trees and pretty flowering shrubs and there are other people dressed in red and white abandoned to sleep there as well.

I go for a café con leche at the nearest bar. There is sawdust and broken glass on the floor and they are still singing and dancing in there. At ten to eight I walk down Estafeta street and take my place in the square in front of the town hall. The square is jam-packed with people in red and white, all singing. At 8 o'clock sharp a maroon goes off. This means the gates of the bull pen at the bottom have been flung open. Ten seconds later another maroon goes off. This means the bulls are all out of the pen and charging up the narrow cobbled street towards us.

Today's bulls are from the Cebada Gago ranch. A reputable ranch this. Four greys, two black. As the red and white human tide falls back before them, I think I'm about to have a heart attack. So instead of sprinting up the street with my knees almost touching my chin, when the bulls reach me I merely shrink back against the wall to let them pass. The street is about ten foot wide at this point so I have to breath in. The first four bulls, all the greys, go galloping by, no problem. But as the black pair approach, one of them makes a determined lunge at a nearby runner, connects with his head (not his horns) and both bull and runner take a tumble. The bull (a 500 kilo job) is now sliding towards me across the greasy cobbles on his back. Then the other black bull trips over his mate and he too goes down on his back, and now there are two of them on their backs, revolving.

The first bull loses momentum, scrabbles to his feet and goes hunting. He knocks down a runner with his head and gores him in the forearm. Frantic female screams from the crowd behind the barrier. Then he tries to gore his prone victim again in the head. But they aren't as accurate with their horns as one might imagine. He misses, tries again, misses. He doesn't give up. He takes a cool look at his victim, repositions him with a hoof, and this time accurately skewers him in the armpit. Intensified screaming from the crowd. The herdsmen are frantically trying to whip the bull off and eventually do so. They head off again up the street, where, I heard, the same bull, called Hormigon, gored another chap quite seriously.

Next I went to the town hall, where I am now, tapping this out with trembling fingers.