The Bullfight by Brian Kirk

‘The Bullfight’

by Brian Kirk


All day we heard the fractious blare of the tannoy announcing the evening’s bullfight. We heard it as we sat beside the pool in the morning reading our books; we heard it again in the afternoon, and actually saw the beat up old bus from which they broadcast, down at the beach front car park under the cool shade of towering pines. Dark young men in cut away jeans and slim girls in short shorts stood around smoking and chatting idly while the speakers crackled into life; a babble of guttural urgent voices drowned suddenly by the blare of mariachi trumpets.

I had barely said a word all day, but I turned to you as we dusted the sand from our feet and put on our sandals.

“We should go,” I said.

You looked at me, for the first time that day, and I returned your look, and held it calmly like one who has nothing to fear.

“We should go,” I said again, “to the bullfight tonight.”

“That’s not what we need to do tonight,” you said, and walked on ahead of me.

That’s how it is with you, Ingrid, when we’re having a row. It becomes a trial by silence, which I always break first; and when I do, the rules of the game change again, become much more subtle, ambiguous even. You make assumptions about what I should know and say, just as you did then, saying what you did when I mentioned the bullfight. What was it that we would be better served doing that night? I had no idea.  But in saying it, Ingrid, you made me feel that I should know, and in not knowing I was once again displaying clear evidence of my insensitivity. My insensitivity. That’s what it all boils down to after all.

Our son is queer. There I said it, not that I’m particularly upset or surprised by the news. You only told me the other night, before we left for Portugal. You don’t like that word do you, but Jack doesn’t mind, it’s not demeaning to him. It shouldn’t seem so strange, I know, after all they’re everywhere these days – but somehow it is for me because Jack is my son. I was only being honest on the airplane when I told you that I didn’t raise my boy for this. You didnt raise him full stop, you came back. Yea, well, then it was you who made him into what he is, the way you coddled and indulged him. I tried to toughen him a little, our one and only, I tried to get him primed for the vagaries life. He would have done anything to please me; he even ended up playing senior club rugby – a pretty decent out half I might add.

Of course he couldn’t tell me himself. He went to his mother first and you came to me. You didn’t pull your punches. I would have preferred if the two of you had gone behind my back, staged some amateur dramatics to prepare the ground a little; dropped some unsubtle clues that might have allowed even a chump like me to guess at it in my own time, but that’s not your way Ingrid, is it?

“Listen to me Charlie. I’ve got something important to tell you. Just be quiet and don’t say anything.  Your son is gay.”

I know my place so I did as I was told. I said nothing – at first.

“He’s your son, Charlie, and you should be happy for him. You should be happy that he’s strong enough to accept who he is.”

I still said nothing, but my face must have betrayed me. You got angry then as you always do when I shut up.

“You’re not going to make that boy’s life any more difficult than it already is, do you hear me?”

I nodded, wondering all the while how these things happen, how my son could change overnight from being a handsome young rugby player into a limp-wristed fairy, and how my wife who once exuded smiles and love in equal measures could become a taciturn bully.

I wouldn’t see him, not that I couldn’t give him and his lifestyle my blessing, I just needed some time to adjust so I continued to say nothing just like you asked. It’s not that I didn’t still love him, but I needed to talk to you. I needed you to just shut up and listen to me. But you said not now. We were packing for this trip, there would be plenty of time when we got here, and of course you were right.

The one bed apartment we bought in Albufeira five years ago does not afford much privacy, but we never cared about that before. In fact we savoured the time we spent here together over the years; the two of us lifted out of our hectic workaday lives, compelled to be constantly together throughout the slow heat of long holiday hours; all that comfortable silence, all that idle talking, all that lazy love-making at all hours of the day and night. Those weeks were a tonic. We fed off each other, remembering our love in those details that get forgotten when your child has grown up and your life is all about work again because there seems to be nothing else on offer.

This time it was different. I was sleeping on the sofa for starters – that wasn’t even up for discussion. Sure the time dragged, but this time not in a good way. And the silence was awful, but not nearly as bad as those stilted exchanges necessitated by the fact of our living in so confined a space. Each excuse me, or, could you move that case please, or, Im taking a shower and then having a nap you do what you want, was like a knife through my insensitive hide.

I had to say something, unable to wait until the time was right. It was the first night of our holiday and we had drunk a bottle of red wine at dinner and I’d followed it up with two glasses of port and a brandy. You don’t like me when I drink spirits, I know that. I don’t like myself too much either. We were back at the apartment and you were avoiding me still, pottering around, finding your book and your reading glasses, checking your mobile phone for messages, making a point of letting me see how you smiled at his message and promptly replied with a dexterous thumb. I told myself I wasn’t going to ask.

“Was that him?” I asked, wondering why I hadn’t used Jack’s name.

You looked up at me momentarily, over the rim of your glasses, looking every bit the school teacher you are. You’re still a fine looking woman Ingrid, do you know that? Sometimes I believe that if we spoke less and fucked more we might be happier – who knows.

“Jack,” I said this time.


“Was it Jack?”



“What? He’s still gay, if that’s what you mean!”

I hate your sarcasm. I hate the way you make me say everything out loud even though you know just what I’m thinking.

“How is he?”

“What do you care?”

“Jesus Ingrid, I’m his father!”


Exactly! What the fuck does that mean?

I just wanted to talk, I just needed a way in, a nod from you to say, Charlie, youre a bloody fool and youre wrong, but I know why youre acting this way. But no, so I shut up again.

After another silent dinner tonight you went straight home, a headache or something. I never believed in your headaches. They are friends more than enemies to you, releasing you from my lustful attentions on week nights when you have to get up early for a staff meeting. I kept my mouth shut. I went for a walk by the beach front restaurants, listening to the rush of the invisible ocean below me and the rustle of the ornamental palms above my head.

I stopped in a bar and sipped a large brandy, watching the trickle of low season package holiday makers come and go with their small children in tow, some sleeping in buggies, others running about excitedly under starlight. On a whim I bought a pack of cigarettes, knowing you would not approve, thinking what it took for me to give them up when Jack was just a baby. I lit one and inhaled the once familiar taste. An old friend. It seemed right somehow to be smoking here, as Portuguese as the charcoal smell of Piri Piri cooking in the restaurants along the strip, or the heady aroma of the pepper blossoms that fall across the wall opposite our balcony.

Before I knew it I was out on the street again, purposefully making my way up along the strip in the direction of the Bull Ring. When I got there the doors were already open and a large crowd was beginning to go inside. Everyone was eating, drinking, smoking, talking, laughing, and above all this clamour the noise of the tannoy calling the people could be heard punctuated by the screech of brassy trumpets.

I queued at a booth and bought a ticket, lit a cigarette and shuffled inside with the mob. Although it was still only May the crowd was boisterous, and not yet made up completely of tourists – perhaps families from Lisbon here for the weekend. The bullfighters paraded like heroes dressed in bright colours, waving flags and short swords they call banderillas; some others were on horse back – beautiful steel grey animals, very powerful but with fine heads and feet.

I understood why someone would want a life of this kind. There was a dangerous beauty in the spectacle and an unselfconscious pride among the players. It seemed like a natural and good life, so unlike my own safe yet venal existence. I lit another cigarette and watched the performers depart the ring waving and blowing kisses, leaving only two horsemen circling at speed. All around me people laughed and shouted to each other, drinks and snacks were passed around. A hush fell suddenly. I scanned the ring but I could not see the bull, and I realised that I had forgotten completely about the protagonist and his part in all of this.

Someone had told me once that in Portugal the bull is not killed; more than that I knew little of what was about to happen.

The horsemen reined in and a cheer rose from nowhere under the bright lights.  A gate opened and a black bull wandered aimlessly into the arena. The cavaleiros began their manoeuvres passing the bull in turn, each pass coming closer and closer, provoking a twist of a horned head, a stamping of feet, followed by a wild lunge at one of the horses.  The two horsemen then drew their swords as they rode, held them aloft to an approving roar, and one after the other they passed the bull inserting the blade expertly between the maddened animal’s shoulders.  They did this three times until six banderillas, six swords, protruded from the hide of the poor beast. The blood flowed down its heaving sides like rainwater and its moan could be heard above the din of the crowd.

I put down my sour beer and lit another cigarette while the horsemen made their exit to rapturous applause. The flayed animal staggered around in the centre of the arena, blowing hard, moaning. I thought it was over, but then eight men entered the ring. These were part of the original parade I noticed. They were brightly dressed, more like clowns than bullfighters I thought. One of them took the lead and approached the bull now, playing to the crowd, wagging his finger at the beast, attempting dance steps as he approached the poor animal. A rage grew up inside me then. If I had a gun I would have shot that bloody fool, and shot the bull also out of pity, for I believe that it was almost dead by then.

This idiot then reached out and grabbed the poor thing by the horns and was lifted by the animal, and to the delight of the baying crowd he held on until his fellows grabbed the bull along with him. One of them even took the tail and pulled on it. I heard the bull cry louder still – out of shame I suppose. Between the eight of them they wrestled it to the floor. Raucous cheers rose up above the blinding lights and into the dark sky. I hurried out, mortified, burrowing my way ungraciously through the crowd, regardless of the shouts and curses that followed me.

Walking home I felt sick. It must have been the cigarettes. I left them and a plastic lighter I had bought on a wall for someone to find. I thought once again of how I gave them up twenty years ago just after Jack was born. I thought about you Ingrid, and how you found out about the affair I was having at work; how you threatened to leave me forever and take our son with you. I remembered how I begged and pleaded to be forgiven, how I promised I would change my ways, drink less, come home after work each day, quit smoking. And how you put me out of the house and out of your life for six long months.

But I kept my promise Ingrid, I did it all. I hardly drank for years, I quit smoking, I came home to you and Jack every day after that, because that was what I wanted. I wanted you and our son, a proper life that was real and that meant something.

When I let myself into the apartment, there was no sound. I switched on the light in the hall and peered into the room where you slept. The curtains moved slightly in the cool night breeze that crept in from the open window and a sliver of light fell like a bright knife across the crumpled sheets that covered your body. I stood there for a long time, watching the rise and fall as your breath came and went. I was waiting for something but I wasn’t sure what. I was waiting for you to wake up and give me a sign perhaps, a small token of your continuing love. You might lift up the sheet and beckon me into your arms with a smile.

I stood in the doorway for a long time as you slept. Eventually I switched off the hall light. I went to the fridge and drank a long cold draught of water before removing the sofa cushions and making my bed for the night.


Did you like the story? Opinions? Praise? Please leave a comment below



Brian KirkBrian Kirk is a short story writer, poet and playwright from Dublin. He has been shortlisted for numerous awards including Hennessy New Irish Writer Awards for fiction in 2008 and 2011. He won the inaugural Writing Spirit Award in 2009 with his story Perpetuity. He was shortlisted twice for the RTE PJ O’Connor Award for radio drama. He is currently seeking a publisher for his first novel Winter Journey. This year he was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions series. His story The Shawl was published in March in the Long Story Short Literary Journal and he was shortlisted for the inaugural Doolin Short Story Competition in May. His work has appeared in the Sunday Tribune, Crannóg Magazine, The Stony Thursday Book, Revival, Abridged(NI), Southword, Burning Bush 2, WortMosaik(GER), Boyne Berries, Wordlegs, Long Story Short Literary Journal, Can Can, Shotglass Journal, Bare Hands Poetry, The First Cut and various anthologies. He blogs at:

Inner Peace

Inner Peace

Photo by Richard Goodwin

Richard is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, and the author of the novel Scattershot, published by Seedpod Publishing. He lives in Vancouver, Washington and teaches at Portland Community College.

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7 Responses to The Bullfight by Brian Kirk

  1. The description of the bullfight brought me to tears, and the feeling of impotence coming off the central character was beautifully observed and written. Great piece.

  2. garreth keating

    I think the elements of the bullfight, the father-son relationship and the character’s final narrative of his relationship with his wife are skilfully woven together here

  3. Top drawer, Brian. You had me from the first sentence and never let go.
    Every word rings true.

  4. Thanks Jeff, Garreth, Kate, It’s great to get such a positive response to a story. Much appreciated.

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