Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

There she is just like everyday. Dirty, blue coat covering her slender frame, thick-rimmed glasses sitting on the bridge of her nose and a hunched back pinned down by the weight of her years. There she is just like everyday. Braving the cars while kneeling down on the road named after a county in East Anglia, checking under the parked vehicles, not once looking around to see what the traffic going past her is up to. She just keeps searching, checking, seeking... what? I don't know. I see her when I drive my daughter to school. My little one's also noticed her. The elderly, grey-haired woman who's always clutching the same dirty, blue coat, rain or shine, winter or summer. My daughter asks me "What's she looking for?" I don't know is my answer. At first I thought it was cigarette butts. It was common in Havana in the 90s, why should it be different in London in the noughties? But no, this woman is searching for something else. Her lost past, a dear relative who died in dire circumstances, or shall we go for the grandstanding statement: her soul? Or maybe there's no rational explanation for her out-of-the-ordinary daily activity?

If all the world's a stage on which we're merely players, surely it should follow that there ought to be leading and supporting roles on it for all of us. It's the latter we rarely remark upon. The bit-players, like this woman, who help (involuntarily, mind) make our lives more bearable and colourful. Even if sometimes their contribution comes at the cost of their health, physical and/or mental.

We all know who these characters are. They're the silent ones (although that doesn't necessarily imply introversion) who become accidental backdrops to our lives. The irony is that we only notice them when we stop seeing them all of a sudden. It's like the unexpected realisation that Cezanne's Still Life with Onions is missing a pungent bulb. That happened to me once, actually. I dreamt that a couple of onions were gone from the painting. The dream was so vivid that I woke up concerned that there were just ten onions instead of the sixteen - if I got the number right - that appear in the still life originally.

It's strange to think that this supporting cast can have such a deep impact on someone's life and yet sometimes we're unaware of it. Cuban readers of my generation will probably still remember Guagüita, a tall, lanky, black guy who pretended to be a bus (hence his nickname, "Little Bus") and travelled down Havana's main avenues standing his ground against the mad traffic around him. He obviously had mental problems and legends about him abounded. Some said that he'd been a bright university student once who'd burnt out too soon. Others attributed his state of mind to love; he'd been rejected by a woman for whom he'd fallen head over heels. Whatever the reason for his mental deterioration, Guagüita became part of the cityscape with which I grew up. I can't recall when I first saw him or when I last spotted his registration number (he had one, tucked in his belt and beaming at the vehicles behind him). I do remember once my friends and I riding our bikes, cycling past him and shouting out: Guagüita! Guagüita! And he waved back. Ironically he could have taught some drivers a thing or two about being careful behind the wheel. He did all the manoeuvres perfectly, including indicating, braking and overtaking.

These are the real characters of one's life, the unsung heroes whose presence we recall with misty eyes and grey hairs. Like the elderly gentleman who turns up at some salsa events in London (I've seen him at the Southbank, Clissold Park, Victoria Park and Barbican) dressed smartly and dancing his head off. By the way, it's not precisely salsa what he's dancing, but who cares, he's having so much fun that it's hard to be pedantic about his style.

Our lives are full of leading actors and actresses: our parents, other relatives, our children - those of us who have them - and our friends. Occasionally we step into that role, too. These characters are the ones to whom we delegate the most important lines, the soliloquies that will accompany us for most of our lives. Yet, there're also the brief appearances by a supporting cast whose cameos steal the show every now and then. Their charisma, whether intended or not, is enough for them to leave an indelible mark on our lives. It could be the woman with the dirty, blue coat looking under parked cars, or the young, tall, black man pretending to be a bus, or the actor who played Hamlet the night before and is now on the same queue the morning after. Queuing just like you, laughing at your jokes, fixing you with his tired eyes and asking you about your family. And reassuring you inadvertently that there are still sixteen onions in Cezanne's painting.

And this is all from me for the time being. I will be taking a cyber-holiday for Easter and will return on Sunday 29th April. In the meantime my blog will have music and I'll probably publish a couple of older posts again. Think of them as a couple of tracks from a "Greatest Hits" collection. I wish you all a Happy Easter!

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 28th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 18 March 2012

Exercises on Free Writing


Do you really have to go?

It’s the third time that day she’s asked the same question and he’s fed up with it. You know I haven’t got any options, he replies. Or does he? The repetition of that same phrase has probably cancelled out any choices he might have. But deep inside he knows he’s run out of alternatives. He stretches fully on the noisy bed and gives her a curt reply: yes, I have to. Next he knows she’ll ask him why and he’ll have to go over the reasons again. They’ve been through this situation a few times this week. Maybe it was a mistake to let her in on his little “secret”. After all Pepe was clear about the operation: “Don’t tell a soul, jábico. We all want to make it safe to the other side. Imagine when we get there and get rich and send photos back home standing next to our very own motor. Uh? Then, all those naysayers, all those who chickened out, all those who preferred to stay behind and suck up to El Barba; they’ll regret the day they didn’t seize their chance.”

The other side. Funny euphemism for ninety miles. Ninety miles through choppy seas, ninety miles with sharks for company, ninety miles on a makeshift boat made of inner tubes. For some it’s a path to freedom, for others a quicker way to join their Maker. Albeit unconsciously. And for him? He is about to find out that night.

He turns to face her. Her naked body glows in the sunlight streaming through one of the broken slats of the bedroom window. Her short, curly hair is damp. She is still sweating from drawing shapes of Roman numbers with him on the old bed: an illegible, twisted L here, a spread-eagled X there, a bent, capital I here, another all-embracing X there. They both know that they have been exhausting themselves and each other before oblivion eventually does its dirty job. He looks at her plump body, masses of fat rolling to the sides every time she moves. In college they were known as the “number 10” couple due to her huge size in contrast to his skinniness. Whereas she was immediately noticed when entering a room, he would often blend in. He’s never minded her body shape, though. To him, her beauty is of the private view type, to be enjoyed only by the lucky few.

He runs his calloused hand across her face. Don’t worry, he says, I’ll bring you once I’m settled. How do you know I want out, too? She retorts angrily. How do you know I want to be separated from my family, my friends and my country? Her voice grows louder. Shhh, his finger shoots up to her lips, the neighbours might hear you. Let them hear me, she replies, putting his hand away. Anyway, what’s this secrecy about? Everyone’s leaving. Everybody knows. This whole week I’ve seen people walking down to El Malecón hoping to make their escape, too. People are trading their cars, flats, houses, motorbikes for a boat. The business now is not in pizzas and peanut bars but in tractor tyres, ropes and compasses. To cast their dice, as they keep on repeating. Do you think people are stupid? You won’t be the first one or the last one. Her voice lowers to a normal tone now. But it might be your first and last time. She turns her face to the wall. Confronting her watered eyes are stacks of books vying for space in the improvised bookshelf that would have normally accommodated the air conditioner unit: Emilio Salgari’s The Black Corsair and Sandokan: The Pirates of Malaysia; Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe; Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. And many more. Their tattered covers and dog-eared, yellow pages betray longevity and constant reading. Two Russian dolls from an original set of seven book-end this mini-library. He often thinks of them as caricatures of Stalin and Mao, fully bloated and about to burst with their socialist ideals. One could have been a travel agent; so fond he was of sending those he perceived as enemies on “holidays” to Siberia. The other one waged a war against sparrows. God only knows what he would have done to Edith Piaf. Both were united in their hatred of intellectuals and artists whose works they couldn’t understand. And yet, the irony of it, they have both wound up re-imagined as two Matryoshkas by a thirty-three year old Cuban keen on reading.

He feels somewhat uncomfortable with her outburst. I don’t think you understand, he tells the ceiling. Can’t you see that it also hurts me to leave my mum, my brothers, their wives and my four nephews? His voice is breaking. Do you think that I just woke up one day and said to myself “let’s grab a boat and get the hell out of here!”? It ain’t easy for me, either. But it’s this fucking government that doesn’t, won’t let me live! Now it’s his voice that’s rising. Tell, me, how long have I been working? He turns back to face her. He’s poking her with his finger now. How long have I been breaking my back to provide for my mother and those two other fucking lazy bastards whose only fucking contribution in this house is to knock their wives up and carry on sponging off me? I love’em to bits, you know that. That’s my family, god damn it! But they really get on my nerves with their attitude. They didn’t want to study, fine, didn’t have to. Uni’s not for everyone. But they don’t want to work, either. And still they want to have money and opportunities. Sponging off me, that’s what they do. Day in, day out. Where are they now? On the beach. Staying in the house my mum was awarded at work for her holidays. I, too, deserve a chance. A better life. I have worked as a mechanic, run errands for that disabled woman who lives next to the fishmonger’s, done plumbing, driven a clandestine taxi, even fished in that bloody Malecón, for Christ’s sake! And what have I got to show for my efforts? A one-bed flat I share with nine other people. I can’t even be intimate with the person I love whenever I want to because I’ve got no space. I know what I’m capable of and no, I’m not afraid of work. Give me work, but I just need to feel that what I’m doing is worth something.

And do you think it will be worth anything in El Norte? She has dried her eyes and is now facing him, propped up on her right elbow. Do you know how many immigrants enter the US every year? What makes you think you’ll make it?

Well, if you don’t try, you don’t succeed, he says as he gets up. The bed complains a bit more as his weight eases off it. When the going gets tough and push comes to shove even the Devil dresses as a monk and gets down on his knees to pray to the Almighty, he intones philosophically. Paquito left last week and he’s already working at a restaurant in Miami. He’s talking now with his back turned to her. He rummages through the pockets of the torn jeans that sit on the back of the only chair in the room, until he finds what he’s looking for: a cigarette. He heads for the kitchen to light it. As he crosses the lounge-cum-dining room he walks past a huge portrait of Fidel towering over the furniture. I wonder what would happen to this country if it was you leaving on a raft and not us, he thinks to himself. On the kitchen wall a calendar from some European country, where the winter is always so cold that summer’s arrival is celebrated with fireworks and a full-on street carnival, boasts a placid countryside landscape which contrasts sharply with the emotions running through him. The burner is still on but the fire is out. Damn, no gas, he mutters. He opens the cutlery drawer and amidst the rusted forks, spoons and knives he finds the old box of matches. Two of them are damp and he discards them quickly but the third one seems fine, though it still takes him three attempts to light it. As he puffs on his cigarette, his mother’s sure rant when she gets home runs through his head: “There’re three matches missing! Did you…? No, you didn’t… Did you? How many times have I told you to light your cigarettes with the burner? That’s why I leave the burner on during the day when you’re here. So that we don’t use up the matches. They’re precious, you know.” Yes, I know, mum, he tells himself in his head, but the little buggers took the gas off. They take everything away from you, mum. He looks at the old clock on the wall. It’s five minutes past six. His mother won’t be home for another three hours. His eyes drift back to the calendar. 26th August, 1994. The day his life is going to change. It’s a stifling, typical Havana early summer evening, the one that never bothers with a cool breeze. Both balcony doors are wide open and through them the sounds from the street ten floors below crawl up to give him a taste of what he will miss:

- ¿Fefa, ya cogiste el pollo?
- Ay mi’ja, no, ¿Qué grupo llegó?
- El segundo, me parece. Hay tremenda cola.
- Pa’lla voy ahora.
- Esta es Radio Ciudad de la Habana, la emisora joven de la capital. Y ahora, Santiago Feliú con “Metamorfosis”.
- ¡Ladrón, ataja, ladrón!
- ¡Cógelo!
- ¡Ay pero que salación el barrio este, coño! No se puede ni tender la ropa. Tan pronto te viras, te la levantan…!
- Cómo puede ser/que cambie tanto un hombre de parecer/que de repente el delirio se le murió/que de prejuicios y esquemas se intoxicó...
- Vamo’ a echa’ un cuatro e’quina’, caballero’. Yo soy capitán del uno, y tú ere’ capitán del do’…
- ¡Asere, bota la go’da, coño, bota la go’da! ¿Tú ve’? Po’ culpa tuya no’ dieron viajera.
- ¡Estrella! ¡Estreeeeeella! ¡ESTREEEEEELLA!
- ¿Qué?
- Soy yo, Juanita! Ábreme la puerta del edificio, por favor, que se me quedó la llave en la casa.
- Llegó lleno de illusión/pero lo atrapó la mierda y se acostumbró/Un carro, una secretaria y un gran buró/pusieron un candado cerrado en su imaginación…

Oh, yes, he will miss those sounds. Perhaps he will find them in Miami. In Calle Ocho. They say that Little Havana is a replica of the Cuban capital. That will be a nice surprise for him. As Rubén Blades used to sing: “La vida te da sorpresas/ sorpresas te da la vida”. But this trip (another euphemism) is the type of surprise he didn’t expect. In his bed (well, not his, but one of his brothers and his wife’s) lies the woman he’s loved the most in his life. The one who complements him. The one who makes him go wobbly at the knees and write silly poems on the way back from work on board El Camello. And yet, here he is, fewer than six hours away from kissing all that goodbye. He catches sight of his naked reflection on the glass of the painting hanging in the lounge-cum-dining room. Although almost skeletal, his body has a certain muscular definition. Unless, he turns sideways, in which case a big, protruding belly makes him look like a worm that has just swallowed a gigantic bean. Luckily his bald head detracts attention from his pouch. Plus, there’s his moustache. Thick and black. More distraction. Hmmm… he muses, once I get to El Yuma, I’ll join a gym to beef up a bit. The thought of exercising makes him hungry for his girlfriend’s touch and this leads him back to the bedroom. The springs moan again...

Whilst he’s been gone to the kitchen to light his cigarette she looks out of one of the broken windows. In the distance she can see the blue sea, placidly draping its turquoise cape over the rocks ashore. Patches of oil appear intermittently along the coast. How many times has she sat there, on that stretch of wall, staring out at that full and immense ocean? How many times did they both come to rest their tired bones on that concrete, communal place? Where they hatched plans and thought up projects together? I’d like our child to have your eyes and hair, he would tell her. You mean you don’t want him to be a fat whale like me, she would jokingly respond. And he would kiss her. What people call fat, sweetheart, I call curves, and that’s that. His voice always sounded so reassuring. I would like our child to take after you, not me. Look at my hard, woolly hair. What hair? She would ask her. Oh, yes, I forgot, he’d answer, patting his bald head. But you know what I mean, you know the type of hair I have. I wouldn’t like him to take after me in that department. And at that moment they would both look out to the sea and hug each other; each embrace nailing a different dream down and creating a scaffolding for the future life they were planning to live together. She’s just applied to become a member of one of the construction brigades that are building blocks of flats in Altahabana. The response was positive and she was expecting it. After all she’s been awarded the Outstanding Nurse of the Year Award four times and has been nominated twice as many. The future is looking bright. Was, rather. It was looking bright. Like the sea beyond the houses’ rooftops, the hundreds of clotheslines and the dozens of white sheets weaving a flag of surrender around them. Should she opt out of the housing scheme? Should she talk to her boss and tell him that there’s no point in her building her own house because she can’t build the future she’d planned? She dries her eyes and blows her nose. Her heavy bosom rests against the wall. To her left a small painting of Jesus Christ (a third of the size of the portrait of Fidel hanging in the lounge-cum-dining room) towers above her. The frame is semi-hidden on purpose. Away from curious eyes. The property of a mother who never totally shook her Catholic upbringing off. A Communist Party membership card in one pocket and an image of the Lord’s son in the other. It’s almost impossible to see the painting because it’s usually covered by the bedroom door. Except at night-time, when the foldaway beds come out and the house turns into a gigantic dormitory. No space is spared. The lounge-cum-dining room, the kitchen and sometimes even the balcony (if it’s too hot) are taken over by the pimpampues, the Jack-in-the-box beds with their metallic frames. Some of the children sleep next to their parents and some on their own. Should the adults feel the urge to go beyond a good-night kiss, there’s always the discreet rubbing, the slow motion under the covers, the muffled sounds, the post-coitus admonishment (you didn’t wear a rubber again! I don’t want to get pregnant! We have no space!). All that and a lot more is witnessed by the Lord’s son. The one who came to substitute so many a Cuban’s faith when trust in the government collapsed in the early 90s. I don’t believe in you, she tells the painting. But, would you look after him? She can hear him coming back into the bedroom. Now he circles his clammy arms around her. She feels his natural, sweaty scent. She turns around and welcomes his open mouth. The bedsprings moan again…

A honey-gold sunset hides the dark grey veins of the previously overcast sky. Half the sun is down and half is still showing above Pancho’s rooftop in the building across from his flat. Pancho is probably feeding his pigeons now. And he’s probably seen him and his girlfriend in action, too. It’s not a secret that Pancho is a reca, that his so-called pigeons hobby is just a cover for his voyeuristic adventures. Jesus, the guy even has a telescope on the roof of his house! Only to watch the stars, he will proclaim innocently to all those who ask him why he needs a state-of-the-art Russian telescope with a finderscope, diagonal mirror and objective lens. A woman from another building has already complained to the police. Even she, with her open-minded attitude imported from Germany where she lived for five years whilst majoring in engineering, refuses to put up with it. But the police officer who came to file her complaint just shrugged his shoulders and told her to put more clothes on instead of walking around her flat with a tiny top and shorts that barely covered her buttocks. So, Pancho keeps on spying on her and she keeps complaining.

At least, if we’d had a child together. He can hear her voice from the bathroom. He’s just chucked the used condom in the toilet and is now flushing it down with a bucket of water. Why is she being so despondent? He wonders. Damn, he is going to bring her to live in the States with him once he settles down, whether she wants it or not. I will bring you to live in the States with me, so that we can as many children as you want, he shouts from the bathroom. He comes back into the bedroom without realising that the condom didn’t go down the toilet bowl and is still lying on the surface. I just don’t want any child of mine to grow up in a place where there’s hardly any hope any more, he says as he sits on the bed.

Her heavy frame makes the bedsprings scream in agony as she sits up. She sizes him up. You know what? I can’t believe what you’re about to do. Really, I can’t. After all the Revolution’s done for you and for people like you, like us. My parents? Poor, piss poor, both of them, before ’59. My grandmother was a maid and didn’t have the money to pay for my mum’s studies, so my mum had to start working when she was very little straight after learning her ABC. My granddad used to cut sugar cane but as soon as the season was over, he was jobless. Had to fend for himself in whatever way was possible.

No, not this now, no, I don’t need the “little speech”, he thinks to himself. He’s heard the same story so many times before. But she is in full flow. It was for people such as my grandparents and my parents that we had a revolution. Mistakes? Yes, who hasn’t made them, uh? We’ve made mistakes. Plenty of them. But can you also acknowledge the achievements? How about reminding yourself that no child in Cuba is without a school? How about reminding yourself that we, all of us, have access to free healthcare? You think that El Yuma is so perfect and you’ll find everything there at your beck and call. Well, I hope you get a reality check as soon as you get there. That is, if you do get there.

Slogans, just bloody slogans. That, we have plenty of. The words come out slowly out of his mouth. But what we haven’t got is food. You can’t eat slogans, sweetheart. Yes, I agree with you. The Revolution was for people like you and me, and your parents, and mine, and your grandparents, and mine, RIP both of them. But that was at the beginning. Now, the Revolution is only for an élite, for those up there. His forefinger points at the ceiling. You and I have nothing. That’s why, in a way, I’ve always been glad we haven’t had any children.

No, she corrects him. You didn’t’ want to have any children. I was ready the first time. You made me have the first abortion. And the second one. And then, came the two miscarriages. And now the doctor says that I have a fifty-fifty chance of getting pregnant. But what’s the point? I’m thirty-three and the man I love is going away and I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.

You will, he takes both her hands in his. He’s welling up now. You will. I promise you. As soon as I… look… as soon as I get there… I’m telling you now… I swear on my grandmother’s grave. He kisses both his thumb and forefinger. I swear to you, that I’ll come back to get you. Mi china, we’re going to be just fine. I will work in whatever; I’ll do whatever I have to do. I love you, mami, you know I do.

Then, don’t go. It is her last plea. After this, she knows she won’t be able to bring herself to ask him again.

The sun is down. The last vestiges of its orange glow are the password for Havana to enter the realm of darkness. At this precise moment several dozens of people are quietly making their way down to the coast. Guanabo, Boca Ciega, Cabañas, Mariel. Departing points in search of a dream. Springboards to gain the momentum their lives have been denied until now. Some will make it. Some won’t. The lucky survivors will be returned ashore and tell stories of constant vomiting and dehydration, of dorsal fins and children clinging onto buoys crying for help, of ten-feet waves and makeshift rafts that resemble nutshells. The whiff of the grim reaper is the overpowering smell they’ll remember. The unearthly sound of a voice, as deep as a trombone and as ethereal and spectral as the darkness surrounding them will echo in the vast ocean: Tuba mirum spargens sonum/per sepulcra regionum/ coget omnes ante thronum/Mors stupebit et natura/cum resurget creatura/judicanti responsura/Liber scriptus proferetur/in quo totum continetur/unde mundus judicetur. This is their requiem reverberating on the water, creating little ripples of foam that cannot be seen in the lightless night. The survivors will relate these tales and a few days after their ordeal, as the city is shrouded in darkness, they will set off again.

And who can judge them? Who dares to judge them? You, reader? Me, narrator? Me, silent witness? Me, passive agent? You, collaborator? You and me, collaborators? Didn’t we contribute somehow to their ordeal? Shouldn’t we have said something, at some point, to someone? But we didn’t. We played the game. We followed the rules. Any other alternative was either discussed sotto voce or kept secretly in one’s mind. The only place they couldn’t penetrate. So, reader, technically speaking, that makes you and me a pair of cowards. Me, coward narrator. I’m sitting here, relatively comfortable, in my relative London comfort, living my relatively comfortable life while he lies at the bottom of the sea. Because that’s what probably happened. He left that night and no one ever heard from him again. No letters to his mother written whilst a crucifix rests by his side on the table. No missives that read: “Mum, I’m doing well. I found a job as a mechanic in a local garage. Same thing I used to do there just before I left. It turns out that the guy I work for used to live a few blocks away from us. His dad left in 1980 and brought the whole family after. The food’s great, I can’t complain. I’ve also found a lot of support here. It’s not as bad as they tell you over there. People don’t talk about Fidel the whole time. In fact most Cubans just want to work and succeed. They really don’t get involved in politics. I also have another job cleaning in an office at night for a few hours. Don’t worry about what I’m about to say, vieja, but Miami is a bit dangerous. Sometimes, when I leave the office in the early hours of the morning, I can hear shots. But don’t worry because you know me. I’ve never taken any unnecessary risks. Funny that. I did take a chance. But there was a reason and it was then or never, vieja. I’m also saving. I’m saving as much money as I can to... Mum, have you seen her? How’s she? Is she still mad at me? Are you still mad at me, mum? Sorry for just leaving you a note, but, I knew that if I’d spoken to you about my plans, you would have kicked one off. And I had to get out. How’re my nephews? And my brothers?

Chao, vieja, I’m writing this letter in the little time I have before going to clean the office. There’s a guy going to Cuba in a couple of days. I can’t send you any money because I don’t know him that well and I’ve heard some scary stories about money getting lost and parcels never making it to relatives. Please, mum, look after yourself and if you see her... Tell her I still love her.

And her? I’ll tell you about her, reader. Pregnant. Nine months after, she will give birth to a beautiful mixed-raced, Chinese-looking child, yellowish, curly hair. A boy whom the neighbours will call jábico, narra, chino. And what does the boy say when they ask him about his father? He’ll just shrug his shoulders, reader. No father. Never met him in the flesh. Although, would you believe it? He’ll tell those who ask, my mum keeps a photo of him in her purse. And every time there’s a bald actor with a little bit of a belly on telly, she cries.

Ah, and one more thing before I finish: the boy was named after his dad.

So, where were we, reader? Oh, yes. Judgement… judgement… judge-ment. Oh, please, vade retro satana!

You’ll see. I’ll make it, he says. He rises again and is now facing her. His eyes sting a little, the result of his tears mixing with his sweat. I know that you have all these doubts about the journey but Pepe knows a lot about sailing, his voice rises slightly. And we’ve got a proper boat, not some little dinghy, but a proper boat. He is smiling. Cariño, when I get to El Norte and… You know what I’m thinking of doing? Setting up my own car repair business. After all, that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life and I like it. You know I do.

The only business you’re bound to set up is your own death. It is a stern tone the one she uses now to slam down her verdict. Despite the ominous nature of her message, he can’t help enjoying the way the word “death” comes out of her lips. A barely nasal “m” followed by a longer than usual diphthong “ue”, coupled with a strong rolling “r” (a rarity in Havana) and culminating in an imperceptible “te”. God, even when they're having a row, this woman’s voice sounds beautiful, he thinks.

He reaches out to hug her and upon touching her lights go out. Damn, he mutters, a blackout. He goes to the lounge and checks the clock. It’s seven, they’re really punctual. No socialist inefficiency when it comes to scheduled powercuts, he thinks. He walks to the kitchen and switches the refrigerator off. No Brazilian soap opera tonight for his mum, he ponders. After all, this is the seven-to-twelve blackout. Not that he’s going to be here to see his mother switching the fridge back on when the lights return. At that time he’ll be… Where will he be?

From his tenth-floor flat he catches sight of part of Havana. Irregular chevrons of light spread all over Malecón. This forced twilight emphasises the fine line dividing the haves and the have-nots. Around the National Hotel area it’s still bright. From the corner of 25th and O St. down to El Coppelita and on to Maceo’s park, the roads are draped in darkness. The tall Almejeiras Hospital beams out onto the unlit streets below. Another crepuscular patch stretches from Belascoaín to Galiano before reaching the Deauville Hotel. Dusk reigns on Colón St, too. In the distance he can hear people cursing the name of whom they’ll never, ever dare to talk in public, unless sycophantically. Diminutive flickers of light appear here and there: torches, candles, chismosas and quinqués are produced at the dinner table. Improvised oil lamps that travel from room to room. Carried by hands whose owners lack vision. Brought outside once the plates have been washed up, stacked up, dried and put away. Modern campfires around which the dominoes table is assembled, neighbours summoned and bottles of rum opened. In the absence of electric fans, pieces of cardboard are used to fight the stifling heat.

He goes back to the bedroom. She’s getting dressed now but stops for a moment to check the stickiness she feels in between her legs. Could it be…? No, she says to herself, no, it’s never happened before and why should it tonight? Finally she’s ready to go. Meanwhile he pulls on a pair of denim cut-offs in silence and scribbles something on a piece of paper which he then places on the table in the lounge-cum-dining room. Hopefully his mum will understand his message. It’s hard to write in the darkness and his handwriting’s never been very good. After he finishes his note he pauses for a second and raises his head. His eyes take in the city, his flat and his girlfriend. Everything he loves is right there, ready to be reclaimed… or abandoned. He enters the bedroom, puts some clothes in a bag and takes a photo where he is with his brothers, his mum and his (now errant) father. Happier times, he thinks. A yellowed family photo before divorce, wives, babies and economic crises. Is that all you’re taking? She finally breaks the silence. No, but there won’t be much more. Pepe told me to travel light. He looks into her eyes as he answers her question. Here, have this, too. She pulls out a small necklace from her bag. It’s a crucifix. I’ve never worn it, she says. My grandma gave it to me. She said that if I ever lacked strength or if I ever found myself in trouble, a prayer would push those problems away. I’ve never believed in that kind of thing, you know me. But now, since I can’t talk you out of leaving m… your family… at least… if you wear this… Damn, what am I doing? She starts sobbing again. He hugs her. I’ll wear it, he whispers, I will.

They leave his flat and go down the stairs silently. In one hand he holds a small torch, in the other one, her hand. On their way down they come across other neighbours. Hellos, how-are-yous and isn’t-it-awful-now-I-can’t-watch-the-soap-opera are exchanged. Some carry torches as he is; others depend on candles; the rest appeal to their other senses to keep their bearings.

Finally they’re out on the street. To their right the dominoes game is in full swing. Pieces are slammed down hard on the wooden table, supported by the four players on their thighs. Two men, waiting for their turn to play and standing strategically near their compadres, act as lighting technicians, pointing their torches directly on the table. A couple of women gossip. By their chairs, on the floor, two bottles of rum sit. Every now and then, one of the men takes a swig and carries on heckling – only in jest – his partner. Across the building an old ’59 Chevrolet Impala serves as a bench for a gaggle of teenage boys. Although banter seems to be the motivation for their gathering, in reality they’re leering at the dancer practicing in the semi-darkness of the house in front of them. Clad in a skin-colour leotard, she is searching for a language of her own. Almost seventeen years of age, she will be studying contemporary dance and ballet at Havana’s Higher Institute of Art from September. But art for her is not only something that happens in school but also every day, every hour, everywhere, even during a blackout. To the light of an oil lamp, she aligns, breathes and improvises movements. All performed to the rhythm of the silent soundtrack in her head. In the glow of the quinqué this human aurora borealis radiates a magnetic light powerful enough to attract the attention of the male adolescents stealing glances through the rusted iron bars of the front room window.

They reach the end of the block. Their hands are locked in a strong grip. So, this is where we say goodbye, she says. Not goodbye, but see you later, he quickly replies. No, you know very well that this is goodbye. I’m not leaving. This is my country and it might not be perfect, but it’s where I belong. The Revolution might have its problems, but… what’s the solution, to run away? She looks into his eyes as she speaks. In the almost absolute darkness the occasional flashes from the headlights of passing cars provide a theatrical background. A sudden chill creeps up his spine. His eyes water again. Why are you so stubborn? There’s no future here. His voice sounds almost like a whisper. He turns his head. To his right, El Malecón, the sea and his much sought-after freedom. To his left, his girlfriend’s house with her parents, grandparents and siblings, all squashed together in a two-bed flat. But there’s also love in that direction. Plenty of it. He breathes deeply and finally musters the courage to look back into her eyes. So, that’s it, then, he says at last.

And then, they hug. It’s their coda. But with no song signing them off. Only a soft, subtle rap on the dominoes table, started by a player who’s had a drink too many. The beat is picked up by his partner. They’re winning. Their heartfelt laughter contrasts with the tears streaming down the faces of the couple standing on the corner, less than twenty metres away from them. In less than a minute the two players have improvised a rumba. The onlookers join in with the usual call-and-response, their voices hoarse and low, but still clearly audible. The couple are still locked in their embrace. Schiele would have been proud.

He lets go of her, turns right and walks, walks quickly, almost runs. He doesn’t look back. That’s why he can’t hear her calling out his name. He can’t see her tears anymore, but he can feel his own, coursing down his face. Through barely-lit streets he walks until he reaches the main avenue leading to the sea. Behind him he leaves the love of his life, his life in the country of his birth, the birth he won’t see and a broken condom floating on the surface of a toilet.

© 2012

Photo taken from flickr.

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 25th March at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Killer Opening Songs - Só Deixo Meu Coração Na Mão de Quem Pode by Katia B

Lounge music is sadly one of those genres that is very rarely accorded its own value. At best, it is thought mainly as mere background music for dinner parties, at worst it's often likened to muzak. It doesn't help either that there's a whole industry built on manipulating listeneres' emotions and that a lot of melodies emanating from it are rubbish. Yet, there're also many artists under the lounge music umbrella who are very talented and whose work we ought to highlight.

One of those is Brazilian singer Katia B, whose album Mais Uma/One More Shot has been playing on a loop on Killer Opening Songs' stereo. If you're looking for a cool chill-out record with plenty of soul and no lack of meaning, this is it. Mais Uma has a soft and funky groove that runs through each and every song, making the record grow on the listener slowly but surely. One of the main reasons for this is Killer Opening Song, Só Deixo Meu Coração Na Mão de Quem Pode.

When K.O.S. was younger it heard people saying that French was the language of romance, but what they forgot to add was that Portuguese was the language of sensuality. Katia's voice exudes passion and suggestiveness partout and the result is a synergy between singer, backing band and listener, savouring every intimate nuance. This is how musical infidelity starts. You suddently catch yourself cold-shouldering your battered copy of Bebel Gilberto's Tanto Tempo and nipping downstairs with Mais Uma/One More Shot tucked inside your tweed jacket, the new kid in town. Or should K.O.S. say, the new girl in town.

Katia B defies categorisation, another reason to ignore platitudinous comments on lounge or chill-out music. Six producers are credited in her record and their ifluence is obvious. Her style ranges from furious up-tempo trip-hop, Tanto Faz Para o Amor, to laid-back piano-driven ballad Are You Sleeping?

As spring is almost here and car windows are rolled down for the first time this year, Killer Opening Songs strongly recommends this album. Whether you are heading for your first family picnic or relaxing in your back garden, this record's gentle bossa nova guitar and bold soundscape is a surefire winner.

© 2012

Next Post: “Exercises on Free Writing”, to be published on Sunday 18th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 11 March 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Rain by Edward Thomas

Rain, snow, earthquakes. Death is sometimes represented as an uprising of the elements. Nature's way of imposing order, albeit chaotically. Some of us hate to think that we could die on a nice sunny day with a smile on our faces, while out in the countryside with our beloved ones, just as we're living life to the full. Death is the last mile in the loneliness of the long distance runner. All those tiny, teeny, wee, itsy-bitsy steps we take when we're toddlers is a preparation for the marathon of life. Some of us can't bear to consider that there'll be a moment when our bodies will cross the Finish line. Some of us can bear it even less when we imagine that Finish line hovering, unexpectedly, into the field of vision of someone we care for.

Death is the concept with which we'll never be able to reconcile ourselves. It's a fundamental part of our life, but we make light of it, or ignore it. Sometimes we write about it as if to exorcise the demons that embody its omnipresent nature. A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of a close relative of my wife's. He'd been suffering from a long-term illness and I guess that we all, including his wife, expected his demise at some point soon. Just writing those words makes me want to go back and wipe them out. That's what death does to you; it leads you to a point of denial and self-denial. And yet, how can we deny its starring role in our lives?

This man's existence was punctuated by many virtues, but one stood out amongst the others: he was always laughing. Whenever I saw him, he always had a bright smile on his face. I'm sure that his three children, present at his funeral, will have stories to tell of moments of strict parental discipline, but as each of them faced the congregation on that day, they spoke of many well-lived moments, full of humour and merriment.

He died on a Sunday. The funeral was nine days later, on a Tuesday. Why so long? It's a tradition in the UK. Another custom is to celebrate the person's life. Therefore there was music on that sad day. A The Beatles compilation played on piano welcomed those in attendance, followed by a rendition of Standing on a Corner by Frank Loesser.  Irving Berlin's Blues Skies was another melody performed that day and sung by a choir. After the service the family went to a pub where I'm sure - I couldn't join them - many an anecdote about this man's life was shared, many a moment was relived. The "rain did rain upon him" in the end, but amidst the grief, I'm certain that for an instant everyone had the same thought: how lucky they were for having had him in their lives.

In Cuba, we have a different way of dealing with our dead. We bury them straight away. My auntie passed away more than twelve years ago. She died on a Thursday (close to midnight), the wake took place throughout the night and by eleven o' clock on Friday morning we were all making our way to the Colón cemetery. Over the years our attitude to death has made me feel sometimes as if we can't wait to close that chapter. The pain is too much and no amount of happy memories can quench it. We still remember them, our dead, but unlike in Britain where there's a period of mourning, of reconciling oneself to the idea that that person will be no more, back home we tend to shovel soil on the coffin the moment they close their eyes forever. Since my auntie's death I have had an uneasy feeling about things I would have liked to say to her - a second mother to me - even though she was already dead. Then, again, I was only eighteen going nineteen (she died eight days before my birthday ) when she left us. Given half a chance, I might or might not have had the strength of mind and spirit to stand up in front of a congregation of people and tell them how much she meant to me. How lucky we all were for having had her in our lives.

This is not a vis-à-vis comparison between how people deal with death in the UK and Cuba. Nor is it a statement declaring a preference for a tradition over the other. It's rather a mere adumbration, an impressionistic sketching, if you like, of what happens when we give back our life. Today's reflection is full of short brush strokes of bright colours that juxtapose each other creating an odd image. One that is full of light, but also of darkness. Because as one of the greatest singers in the Spanish language, Joan Manuel Serrat, said once: "La vida te la dan/pero no te la regalan/La vida se paga/por más que te pene" ("You get a life/But it's not for free/You return your life/No matter how much this hurts"). And despite our best efforts to seek shelter under our umbrellas, one day "rain will rain upon us".

© 2012

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 14th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Euphemisms)

I've just finished reading the French translation of Stefan Zweig's well-crafted novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman and I loved it.  In its just-over-a-hundred pages I found a wealth of human virtues and frailties. Emotions run wild (especially the female character's) and they are the book's focal point. There's also a subtle linguistic touch underlying the narrative. It is used very effectively by the eponymous woman of the title to deal with the novel's thorny issues. This made me think of one of the more recognisable traits of the British persona: their euphemistic approach to certain subjects. There's a particular passage in which this attitude is clear and yet, it's only after you've read the scene that the lingering effect of that which has not been explicitly said makes you come back and re-read it again, this time in an attempt to decipher the message.

Since the novel is written in the first person singular and the narrator is a French man, the following excerpt could also be taken as a foreigner's/male outsider's insight into the fine art of euphemism amongst the British upper classes and/or women. Please, note that only the first sentence is in English and that's how it appeared in the original novel in German. The rest of the passage is in French. Just to give you some background so that you can understand, the novel is about a group of wealthy travellers who find themselves sharing the same hotel in Monte Carlo in the days after World War I. A married woman staying in the same place with her daughter and husband elopes with a young man whom she only meets twenty-four hours before. The woman is condemned by all the guests except for one person - our narrator - who stands up for her. This creates some friction between him and the rest of the married couples. Enter Mrs C., a respectable English lady in her 60s. With the self-restraint characteristic of her class at that time, she interrupts the heated argument and asks the narrator if he really thinks that the wife's questionable behaviour is beyond reproach. To which his answer is yes. After asking the same question a couple more times in different ways she surprises him (and herself) by giving him the following response, thus, allowing the actual plot to unravel:

I don't know, if I would. Perhaps I might do it also.

Et pleine de cette assurance indescriptible avec laquelle seuls des Anglais savent mettre fin à une conversation, d'une manière radicale et cependant sans grossière brusquerie, elle se leva et me tendit amicalement la main. Grâce a son intervention le calme était rétabli et, en nous-mêmes, nous lui étions tous reconnaissants de pouvoir encore, bien qu'adversaires l'instant d'avant, nous saluer assez poliment, en voyant la tension dangereuse de l'atmosphère se dissiper sous l'effet de quelques faciles plaisanteries.

The effect of these pleasantries might dissipate the tension but it unwittingly also ignites the volcano seething inside this English woman. A volcano caused by a young Polish man whom Mrs C meets in a casino twenty years before. Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a gigantic euphemism for passion. The kind of passion in which a forty-old-year old aristocratic lady cannot afford to indulge.

All languages have euphemisms. In Spanish when a person passes away, we have many phrases besides the standard "morir" (to die) to refer to that act. For instance we talk of the deceased joining "los callados" (the quiet ones). In that respect English is no different.

Where it does differ, however, is in the frequency with which these inoffesive words crop up. Euphemisms are so embeded in the British way of life that sometimes you have short, whole sentences that are nothing but a variation of a phrase that can be considered offensive or hurtful. For instance, a couple of days ago on Radio Four I heard one of the presenters say, à propos de Putin's re-election in Russia, that the British Foreign Office was monitoring the situation in that European nation. Which is shorthand for saying that they're doing nothing because they're really scared of Putin. When Gordon Brown was said to be fully committed to his job as Britain's Prime Minister, the message was that he was a workaholic. When it was implied that he was strong of character, it was an underhand move to downplay comparisons with Stalin. Understanding these linguistics tricks  is the result of living in the UK for so many years.

However, my comments shouldn't be taken as a slight against this most British of British personality traits, up there with self-deprecation and resilience. On the contrary, this post was born out of a fascination for what I consider to be an art in the UK. Besides, coming from a land where straightforwardness is the standard, I welcome a culture where often you say what you mean but you not always mean what you say. Of course, sometimes euphemisms can be used to look down on others. For instance, imagine you're having a conversation and your interlocutor suddenly says "To be honest with you..." You'd better brace yourself, for he/she is just to unleash the hounds of hell on you. Same with "Saying that/Having said that, though...", usually deployed after you think that the other person has completely agreed with your argument. But no, he or she hasn't and they're just about to let you know why. Possibly euphemistically. And what to say of those fashionable phrases, "efficiency savings" and "staff restructuring", covert terms for "cuts" and "sackings" respectively?

Still, as I mentioned before, the benevolent nature of euphemisms shouldn't be overlooked. And sometimes they even make a person feel better about his or her job. If not, ask my school's site manager. Or caretaker, as we used to say back in the day.

© 2012

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 11th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 4 March 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

It seems that the Hollywood onslaught on forty- and fifty-somethings continues apace. For some time now big studio moguls have realised that the best way to make us, parents and carers, get out of bed to take our little ones to that Saturday morning show or that Sunday matinee slot is to include a few references to earlier - and probably better - cinematographic times. The two biggest winners at last week's Oscar ceremony were The Artist and Hugo, the former a tribute to the silent era of cinema (true, that could well be aimed at ninety-somethings, but then, my generation in Cuba grew up to the sight of La Comedia Silente with the excellent Armando Calderón on telly every Sunday doing all the voices and sound effects of classic silent flicks) and the latter about the magic of cinemascope.

To which we could add the latest incarnation of The Muppets.

It's hard for me to select my favourite Muppet character. Was it the drumming machine, Animal? Or hapless Kermit the frog? Or saucy - but control-freak - Miss Piggy? Despite the fact that they were dubbed in Spanish and the voices didn't always match the characters' personalities (a fact I found out much later, to my chagrin, when I came across the original programmes during my uni days) I fell for the charm of this facetious pastiche of famous songs and artists.

But the Mariel boatlift happened and a blackout on most things in English took place in Cuba. For a couple of years, from 1980 to 1982, I don't recall watching too many shows, cartoons or movies in the Germanic language. They weren't totally eliminated from our tellies; they were just replaced mostly by imports from the old socialist bloc. So, instead of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, we had the Bolshevik Tio Stiopa (Uncle Stiopa), a tall and strong police officer who stood up for the weak and punished the bullies. Lolek and Bolek arrived from Poland about the same time as Statler and Waldorf abandoned their critics' box.

But imports not only came from European countries where socialism had been imposed by pro-Stalin regimes. We also had programmes from Latin America and there's one from Brazil I remember very fondly. Its name was The Ranch of the Yellow Bird (I'm doing a literal translation). In Portuguese it was simple called Sitio do Picapau Amarelo.

Originally produced by TV Globo, this was a children's series that ran between 1977 and 1986. At the height of it, 1980-1981, the programme landed in Cuba.

Whereas the Muppets' brand of humour was on the euphemistic side (possibly, although I might be wrong, because of a certain British influence as the show was produced in the UK. Please, correct me if I'm wrong) Sitio do Picapau Amarelo oozed innocence through its every pore. Its stories were based on Brazil's rich folklore, the characters reflected that South American nation's diverse ethnic make-up - a factor that is often overlooked when analysing racial relationships in the different countries that form the Latin Diaspora - and each tale had a moral attached to it. For a nine- or ten-eleven-year, who was light-years away from the world of adult cynicism, characters such as Zé Carneiro, Emília and Narizinho were as fun as, or probably more enjoyable than the anarchic authors of the Mahna Mahna song. Whilst later on in life I became fond of the music by the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Queen, at the beginning of the 80s, the soundtrack to my childhood was the theme song of Sitio do Picapau Amarelo, composed by Gilberto Gil, who would later become Brazil's minister of culture during Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's presidency in the noughties.

Do they make them like that anymore? I mean, do they make programmes like The Muppets Show and The Ranch of the Yellow Bird? The former treated its child audience like people. It never, in my opinion, patronised them or talked down to them. It was intellectual, without being over the top, fun without being stupid and culturally challenging without dumbing down. The latter, on the other hand, was didactic without being preachy and balanced without being bland. Its remit went beyond the natural geographical borders of Brazil, and yet it was Brazilian through and through.

I will definitely be going to the cinema to watch The Muppets film with my children. And I know that when I sit there in the dark room, watching Miss Piggy chasing after Kermit the frog, a cracked voice undulating between a high and a low pitch, will be ringing in my ears, that of Zé Carneiro and his friends, mucking about in the Ranch of the Yellow, or as they called it in Brazil, Sitio do Picapau Amarelo.

Talking of music, last time an artist bared his torso on an album cover was D’Angelo with his sophomore record “Voodoo” as far back as 2000. Bearing in mind the turn his music career took thereafter, let’s hope it's not the same fate that awaits Cuban pianist virtuoso Roberto Fonseca because he’s just produced the most mature record of his short, but prolific musical career.

Yo” (“Me” in Spanish) finds the Cuban maverick extending his remit beyond the natural borders of Afro-Cuban jazz and straying into the realm of traditional African melodies. The album’s opener “80’s” kicks off with an up-tempo piano riff supported by drum and guitar that will make the listener sway from side to side. This track is followed by the mellower “Bibisa” with guest singer Fatoumata Diawara, fresh from her own success with her debut album “Fatou”. A mid-song kora-piano dialogue adds to the beauty of this track. Things can only look up from there, and they do, indeed, as evidenced on “7 Rayos” (“7 Rays”), a percussion- and piano-driven melody that samples the voice of Cuba’s National Poet and one of the pillars of Afro-Cuban culture, the late Nicolas Guillén.

Whereas up to now Fonseca’s work has mainly drawn from his Afro-Cuban roots (for instance, “Kowo Kowo” from his second album “No Limit”) and a degree of experimentation that's led him to collaborate with people like Brazilian producer Ale Siqueira (on the LP “Zamazu”, for example); with “Yo”, the Cuban pianist has made a record that’s set the tone for the future of Cuban jazz.

Roberto Fonseca will be playing at The Barbican on Monday 26th March. You can buy tickets by clicking on the link below:

Disclosure: I got sent the album "Yo" to review by Serious, one of the UK's leading producers and curators of live jazz, international and new music. Serious produces events from major concerts, festivals, national and international tours through to learning and participation programmes, artist development initiatives, conferences and specially commissioned bespoke events. Visit their website at  for more info.

© 2012

Next Post: “Living in a Bilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 7th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


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