Exiliado: El Pasado Es Sepia

Photo Credit: Harry Pallas

The day before the Christmas lockdown, when things in Gibraltar held a sense of feigned normalcy and the sun still shone, I walked to the Garrison Library for an appointment. I’m in the process of writing my first novel, and I wanted to research the events that had led up to the riots of 1995. Emailing the library, I received a very pleasant message in return saying they had old Gibraltar Chronicle copies I could look at.

I walked there from the South District on a sunny but slightly chilly Monday morning. It’s funny to me how you can spend almost your entire life living somewhere, and however small it is, aspects of it don’t feel ‘yours’. I grew up by John Mackintosh Square, then we moved to the Upper Town, and finally to the reclamation area where they built Gib 5.

The South District to me was a Sunday drive, or a visit to see family. Even now, it feels like a novelty. I read somewhere that it was deemed practically uninhabitable in the early 1700s. It winks towards Africa. There’s a greater sense of time here. I imagine the Phoenicians, the Romans passing in their ships. I can look out of the window and see the spot by the refinery where the Moors began their expansion of Spain in 711, and somewhere out there in the bay is where some of Franco’s troops also landed, in an ironic repetition of history.

I walk along La Bateria, where my most vivid memory is playing after school, of children’s birthday parties at Jumper’s and a time when I was six years old and I was horrified to find maggot inside a packet of Rolos my mum bought for me in a shop on Main Street (it still exists and I still hold a grudge). I think of what a different story this must have been when the bastion was originally built, what horrors the men here saw. I look out at the dockyard where many of my ancestors worked, as did so many others, and how fortunate I feel to be walking their steps but just enjoying a stroll.

I pass Adamberry’s, where after church my grandfather would take me and my sister to buy magazines and sweets every Sunday. It’s still there too, albeit somewhat changed in the age of Covid. The woman inside sit behind a plastic screen, as do the magazines. On the other side of the street is the Convent, where my grandfather used to work. Where we used to sit outside to watch the Changing of the Guard when I went to St. Mary’s Primary School, which is still also there, up the hill.

Things change, though. King’s Chapel may boast of having been there since the 1500s, but the bookshop opposite is long gone. Amar’s has moved, and I doubt the paper they wrapped their japonesas in looks the same. Some mornings, if we were lucky, My sister and I would wake up to a japonesa or a doughnut my father had brought with him at the end of his night shift. There is no greater luxury than a japonesa for breakfast.

I was shocked to find Anita’s is gone. She seemed eternal, unmoving, almost like the Rock itself. Sitting in her little sweet shop which is now some kind of smart-looking office. I wonder if whoever works there knows how they’re standing by what used to be a counter, and how every inch of the little cave was filled with boxes of Space Invaders and Hula Hoops, Quavers and Monster Munch.

I forget how beautiful the gardens at the Garrison Library are. People who write about Gibraltar always comment on the phone boxes and the police officers. It’s like they compartmentalise the Mediterraneanness of it all for when they cross the border into Spain. But here we are, bursting with palm trees, and at night the orange blossoms by the cathedral let out their scent even though it’s late December, in a way that would make James Joyce weep with longing for a place he never visited.

I am greeted at the door by the librarian and I am shown into the high-ceilinged room where piles of newspapers have been placed on a table, ranging from May to August of 1995. I naively asked to see all of 1994 and 1995 until I was told I may want to rein in my expectations a little. Now I see why. I somehow forgot this was a daily newspaper. I am even presented with a little electric heater at my feet.

For the next four hours, I contemplate the Gibraltar of 1995 as a narrative, almost a second formation of our people. I never understood what led up to the riots, or the political tension at the border. I remember the long queues but I always took them as a fact of life. I didn’t know there were still discussions about Gibraltar’s place in Europe, or its right to self-determination or to free itself from the millstone of colonial status. The spark of the speedboat confiscation, the protests, the riots, the counter-protests, and the culmination of the Island Games with the visit of Prince Andrew symbolically showing to the world that we are in fact a nation, and one capable of looking to the future.

I would imagine people like me would not have been allowed into the Garrison Library when it was first built. I enjoy the fact I am now researching my people’s history, sitting here amongst the trinkets of those who have since ceded power.

On the way out, I talk to Dr. Jennifer Ballantine Perera, and thank her for letting me do some research in such a beautiful place, and for all her help. When I mention maps, she jumps out of her chair and ushers me back inside the library, showing me various maps of the 1990s. I love that there’s someone looking after our history, someone so passionate about what she does and who is so gracious in letting me share in that.

By the next day, Gibraltar has gone into another lockdown. One of the highlights of my day is to go running around the quiet streets, from one point of Gibraltar to the other. I pass by Gib 5, where I used to live until I left Gibraltar for the UK. I wonder who lives there now and what my old bedroom looks like, if when you move into somewhere somebody has lived before, you could even begin to imagine what stories have unfolded there before yours.

I pass the evacuation statue at the roundabout, and the blocks that have appeared in what I used to know as the coach park, and what others knew as the first land they stepped foot on when they arrived back after their World War Two exile, or the to and fro of the Mons Calpe that was so vital those decades when the border closed. I look up the Mons Calpe later, and find its final destination is to lie damaged and part sunk at a port in Mozambique. Now, there’s a story.

I run past the Hackney Carriage, and the little road leading down into Varyl Begg, and what used to be industrial buildings is now the new comprehensive school. I used to meet my grandfather often walking up Watergardens when I was on my way home to have lunch during school, and he was coming back from el pueblo, holding his mandaos, which were usually pills and bread and stamps.

He would leave me by that little road and walk to his house in Varyl Begg and I would walk to the gates into Gib 5. ‘Bye dax’, he would say, which I always thought meant he was calling me ‘ducks’ in his Llanito accent. I have since found out ‘dacks’ is Australian slang for trousers, and he lived in Australia for some years, although I don’t know if that’s any less strange.

And what makes me somewhat melancholy, is that everyone who walks past there will never know that exact spot where I shared a moment with my grandfather. And maybe in a hundred years that road won’t even exist. And so on as I run home, my feet on the ground the way lovers and freedom fighters and cheats and liars and murders, husbands and wives and children long gone have stepped before me, and many after me who won’t even know who I am or what I did will do much of the same.

Which is an interesting exercise for the ego, in this year we’ve had of (for some, anyway) much introspection about our place in the world on so many levels. What do we leave behind? Who will keep it alive? How do we keep it alive? What is worth putting down on paper, so to speak?

I returned to England and found myself in yet another lockdown, this one hopefully the last but also the one set to be the longest. it’s not quite as pleasant or gentle now, with the cold and dark that is so especially cold and dark in this country. I have a nice enough view, at least, but it’s hardly looking out at Morocco with the sun setting over the hills by Algeciras.

I’ve taken to joining Facebook groups, but nice ones. Nothing about politics or hopefully anywhere anyone will end up calling someone else an idiot or a Hitler. My favourite ones are ‘Gibraltar Old Photos 2’ and ‘La Línea A Través Del Tiempo’. Pages and pages of communal history, black and white moments of people and places long gone and barely recognised. The comments section are usually full of details, memories and stories. Above all stories.

So my time may come and go, and the time has come and gone of people before us who deserve to be talked about, who deserve to have their story shared. But maybe by putting it on a page somewhere, for someone to see and share and think about, those little streets won’t be so soon forgotten.

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Queer Llanito writer exiled in London. Entre dos aguas. Fiction in Untitled:Voices, Fruit Journal & Emerge Literary Journal. Twitter: @JSPZRO