There was a boy in my class whose mother was from Gibraltar and for most of the three years I sat behind him, other kids would be like “your Mum is from a shitty rock covered in monkeys!”. Like, relentlessly. I remember asking what Gibraltar was and somebody said it was just a pointless lump of dirt next to Spain. “So you’re Spanish?” I said, to the half-Gibraltan boy. “Fuck off”, said one of other classmates, whose Mum was from Madrid. “Gibraltar isn’t Spain, it’s British, isn’t it?” He glared. “It’s nothing. It’s just a stupid rock”.
All through the Brexit campaign nobody addressed the question of Gibraltar, even though the Irish border was always firmly on the table, right near the top of the priority list. And when the EU vote came through, it seemed like nobody gave a shit about Gibraltar: like it was still kind of a joke. Oh yeah, obviously they wanted to remain, well, whatever, we can’t worry about that now. Poor ol’ Gibraltar, lol. And so to be honest, growing up in mainland UK, that’s the idea I’ve always had: that Gibraltar is kind of a joke. I never bothered to do my own research or learn anything further.
It felt like even the cruise people weren’t taking it seriously: with just a few hours port time there, it was the shortest stop we had, and basically, as Charlotte said, just a booze run. I started banging on about museums and nature reserves, my usual militant research coming into play; but no, there’s no time, just see the square and get back on the cruise. Half of the passengers didn’t even get off the ship. We did. It was a surprise to learn Gibraltar is a rock in name only; it’s connected to mainland Spain and for some reason I had thought it was more detached. Actually, the rock is a huge mountain which takes up about half of the entire place; you can take a cable car to the top which has been turned into a nature reserve. Delightful. It’s a funny little place: basically one long high street that looks like Croydon in the 1950s, and a central square which is like a blend of quintessential Spanish plaza and a holiday camp. There was piped music, and pastel houses, and it felt a bit like a time warp to ye olde quaint England – the kind of England I imagine most Brexiteers want to return to, which is ironic.
We wandered around the square in the grey morning and spent most of our coffees watching a dachshund playing with a small boxer. Then, I went off alone and took the cable car up to the top of the rock to see the Barbary Macaques. It was weird to reach the quiet areas, the residential parts where no tourists were. I walked past small, quiet roads, and unassuming houses, and it felt calm and peaceful and tranquil on a cold November morning. Once I got to the top, a baby macaque befriended me, clinging to my arm and touching my hand with hers, like a toddler. After I stopped her climbing on my shoulder, she bit me, hard, around the middle finger. Who was she to know I wasn’t withholding food? My finger pulsed, the skin swelling, the pain intensifying. In a state of shock I called Ryan, in all his primate-biting wisdom, for help. Ryan was 19 when he was attacked by a spider monkey; a fucked up nail, a deep scar and a finger that doesn’t totally bend are the everyday reminders of that incident. I was scared I was about to go through the same, but almost immediately, my bite became a non-event. “That’s what babies do when they want more food from their Mum. It’s a pressure bite – if the skin isn’t broken you’ll be ok. But get it checked.” When I got back to the ship and saw the doctor, he googled it, and then just told me to call Ryan. “Hmmm.. I’m not great with animal bites. It’s best to call a vet or a zookeeper for animal bites, so if you know one of those, I’d just do that,” said the doctor, eyes scanning the screen. I snorted as I replied, “Actually, my fiance was the first person I called.”
As the rock is a nature reserve, the animals are healthy, and fit, and checked regularly. It’s true they live outside and in natural conditions, but as the guide explained – they’re healthier than you or I. And a pressure bite from a nagging, attention-seeking baby was no concern at all – aside from the obvious pain. Charlotte laughed when I found her back at the room, and we spent the rest of the evening breaking the news to everyone that I’d been viciously attacked by a monkey. “That’s quite sweet really,” said Jeremy, imagining this small macaque baby taking a shine to me and momentarily adopting me as guardian.
And that was Gibraltar. I went all the way up to the top of the rock, got bitten by a monkey, and then came all the way back down and went home.