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Mark Sanchez returns to Gibraltar for Literature Week

UK-based Gibraltarian author M. G. Sanchez will be taking part in Gibraltar Literature Week this Saturday. Mark has written over a dozen Gibraltar-themed books over the years, among them novels, books of essays, short story collections and autobiographical memoirs. This Summer Mark published Marlboro Man, a novel about the misadventures of two young tobacco and drug smugglers in the late 1980s. In today’s paper we publish an extract from the novel describing a high-speed chase out at sea.

A day or two later, however, I was brought back to my senses. We were about five miles off the Moroccan coast at the time – with a full cargo of hash and Elfatmi sitting like a mannequin behind us – when one of the Spanish helicopters appeared overhead and started tailing us. It was one of the blue-liveried aduana copters you sometimes saw in the summer from Gibraltar’s beaches, and she kept swooping down on our RIB, trying to clip our radio antenna with her landing skids, screaming abuse at us through its megaphones.

With a full load and over twenty miles to our destination, all the odds were against us, so we changed course and headed back to the North African coast, knowing that the Spaniards would be reluctant to follow us into Moroccan airspace and territorial waters. However, the b-----d stalking us that night was in gung-ho mode – refusing to get off our tail even as we drifted closer and closer to the shore. Straight away we knew we had a problem on our hands. If we turned around and headed out to sea, the chopper would carry on hounding us and communicating our movements to all the guardia and aduana boats in the Alboran area, coordinating with them and their land-based colleagues in a bid to tighten the net around us and ensnare us.

Alternatively, we could land on the beach at Lqassarine and try to get our Moroccan loaders to shift the cargo out of the RIB’s hold – but with a full moon in the sky (and the Spanish copter causing such a fuss above us) there was a good chance that the Moroccan authorities (I mean those elements that weren’t in Al-Jaouhari’s pocket!) would already be there on the beach waiting to pounce on us. Confronted by these two equally unpalatable options, we decided to tuck behind la Isla de Perejil, the uninhabited rocky islet which lies two hundred yards off the Moroccan coast and about three miles from the Morocco-Ceuta border. The isla is technically owned by Spain, but the Moroccans get really tetchy whenever Spanish law-enforcement vessels or aircraft come anywhere near what they regard, with some justification, as their sovereign territory. Surely, surely, this p--- in the copter wouldn’t follow us all the way there, would he?

But, guess what, this is what the guy did – herding us further and further inshore, reducing our chances of coming out of this one unscathed. Like a rabbit hunted by a low-flying eagle, Manu swerved the boat from side to side, slicing through clouds of stinging sea spray, forcing Elfatmi and me to cling to the zodiac’s handrails for fear of being catapulted overboard. Meanwhile, our Moroccan minder began shouting something in Arabic and pointing with his head at the bales in the back of the vessel. Was he saying that we should toss them into the sea? I wondered, staring at his opening and closing mouth. Or was he demanding that we should keep them safe whatever the circumstances? No matter, I thought. Either way we’re screwed.

As I came to this depressing verdict, I looked to my right and realised that we were now just ten or fifteen yards from the island and getting closer and closer with every millisecond. I could even, thanks to the beam of light trailing us, see the tufts of wild parsley growing out of its birdshit-stained cliffs. ‘Quillo, Manu,’ I thought. ‘What the f---- are you trying to do? Crash head-on against the f---- patuca?’ Then I saw the gap in the rocks – a fissure not much wider than your average one-vehicle garage. With consummate skill, ignoring the helicopter floating above us, Manu turned the RIB around and slowly reversed into this tight space, our rubber fenders scraping against the jagged cave walls as we went in, the overworked Yamaha engine coughing up fumes like a consumptive in his death throes.

‘Salgan de esa cueva ahora mismo!’ came the megaphoned response seconds later. ‘Lo repito, salgan de esa cueva inmediatamente!’
We thought they wouldn’t dare try anything beyond a verbal warning, but next thing we knew the helicopter was hovering just inches off the sea and shining its lights into the cave, blinding us with their glare. Not knowing what else to do, the three of us leaned forward and tucked our heads under the plastic windshield, making ourselves as small as possible. Ten, maybe twelve yards now separated the front of our RIB from the helicopter, and the sound of the latter’s rotor blades was hitting and bouncing off the cavern’s low ceiling, enveloping us in a deafening cocoon of white noise.

Also, because we were in such an enclosed space, the air was filling up with the smell of diesel fumes, making it hard to breathe. This is it, I thought. The end is upon us. Mentally, I cursed the b----d beside me for having entered this bloody cave and turned us into sitting ducks. But instead of the expected hail of bullets a startling thing happened: the lights slowly receded into the darkness and the rotor blades lost their threatening rawness. Quieter and quieter they became, until in the end, after twenty or thirty seconds, all you could hear was the lapping of the waves and our fenders being crushed between the gunwale and the cavern walls, a squeaking, high-pitched sound that, of all things, reminded me of the mating call made by a love-sick dolphin.

‘How did you know they wouldn’t shoot at us?’ I asked Manu when I finally dared to look up. ‘Cómo ’tabas tan seguro?’
‘I wasn’t sure of anything,’ he replied, pulling off his balaclava in the darkness. ‘I just had a feeling they wouldn’t hang around here for long being so close to the Moroccan shore. No van a empezá una p--- guerra con los moros por dos p---- gayumberos llanitos como nosotros, despué de tó, you know what I’m saying, bro?’

Mark Sanchez will be delivering his talk this Saturday at midday in the John Mackintosh Hall.

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