Wednesday 30 October 2013

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Bate la lluvia la vidriera
Y las rejas de los balcones
Donde tupida enredadera
Cuelga sus floridos festones

The couple cross Reina Avenue in a rush. They are headed for the other side, where they find shelter from the inclement, cyclonic, autumnal rain. Above them in houses so dilapidated, that many of the tenants inside them go down on their knees to pray to La Caridad del Cobre to keep them safe every time the sky clouds over, clothes are hurriedly snatched away from lines. The couple stop to catch their breath. The woman looks at her belly and rubs it softly. Only two more months to go. The man looks at his girlfriend, soaked to the skin and struggling to find her balance. . Her flip-flops don’t help much, sadly. Silver raindrops shine like pearls in her Afro. She gets hold of his left arm and together they walk – shuffle - carefully. The floor is covered in puddles, cracks and dog excrement. He feels a slight chill brought about by this early morning rain and his wearing vest and shorts. To his right a row of street vendors begin to set up for the day ahead. They’ll probably do well today, he thinks, the rain forcing people to find temporary refuge anywhere, especially under the high ceilings and between the large pillars of Reina Avenue Add the smells emanating from the hot chocolates, coffees, pizzas, ham sandwiches and torticas/señoritas/marquesitas/piononos (the latter should normally be dessert but sometimes they are breakfast, lunch and dinner) and they’ll be quids in. The couple carry on walking down the long pavement, occasionally pushed by yet another invasion of people running for shelter from the rain which is coming down harder now. Not that it matters to the blond-haired tourists getting drenched out in the open on the corner of Industria and Parque de la Fraternidad, waiting for an old American car-cum-taxi that will take them somewhere exotic, in this exotic city, full of exotic natives. The man stops at one of the stalls and asks for two hot chocolates. The woman leans her head on his shoulder and rubs her belly softly.

“Al último fulgor del día
Que aun el espacio gris clarea,
Abre su botón la peonia
Cierra su cáliz la ninfea

She has just come back from the doctor’s. To think that the appointment was at two in the afternoon and it’s only now as the grey day turns to dusk that she’s finally been able to get home. Well, she’s not home yet, she still has about a hundred yards to cover. It’s difficult to see with this rain, though. Luckily it’s not as hard as it was in the morning. The way it pelted down on her windowsill she thought it was the end of the world. She always thinks it’s the end of the world around this time every year. October is still hurricane season and although this tropical storm didn’t become one this time, it still left a lot of wet weather behind. Well, better not use “behind”, it’s not over yet, there’s still this annoying, persistent drizzle. She struggles with her umbrella. She doesn’t want her glasses to get wet. That’s the reason why she went to the doctor’s this afternoon. She needs a new pair of glasses and they told her that her replacement would be ready. But no, they weren’t. The doctor said something about tests, delay, and the embargo. He always blames the embargo. Everybody blames the embargo in this city. The honest truth is that she wasn’t really paying much attention to what the doctor was saying. She was thinking of her son. She hasn’t received any letters from him for a while. He’s told her to get an e-mail account but she hasn’t even got a computer. It’s her daughter who has one at work. She does have an e-mail account and that’s how they all communicate. But she still prefers to read his letters and he knows this. His hand-written letters. It’s the only time when her seventy-five year-old eyes don’t need glasses. She taught her son to read and write when he was little before he began school. His writing benefited from this early start. It’s always been neat and legible. Which is the reason she always looks forward to reading his letters. They are so articulate. She arrives at her house. Her front garden looks a bit rough. Some plants need trimming. She doesn’t want to ask her next-door neighbour, Alberto, again but she is going to have to. He doesn’t mind helping her with the gardening, she knows that. Plus, he always walks away with the same present: the bottle of rum she gets on her ration card. She doesn’t drink so it’s a win-win situation for both. But Alberto is also getting on a bit. How old is he now? Sixty? Sixty-one? She must ask him next time she sees him.  The quietness of her road in this area of Santos Suárez is a welcome contrast to the noise she’s just left behind at La Ceguera Hospital. She closes her umbrella and inserts her key in the door. These days she has to be very careful when opening her door. A couple of times she’s jammed the lock and locksmiths are quite expensive nowadays. She walks in and removes her cardigan. That’s when she notices the raindrop slowly sliding down her glasses.

Todo parece que agoniza;
Y que se envuelve lo creado
En un sudario de ceniza
Por la llovizna adiamantado.

The weather forecast announces more rain for tomorrow. He gets ready to go out to work. He doesn’t like the night shift. Mornings are better. But the other security guard is ill and they asked him to cover. He knows he is not getting any overtime, just time off in lieu. In the old days, there was the extra money. That was under the previous management. But the company that runs the hotel now got rid of that. They also got rid of a lot of people. He tries to tuck his shirt inside his trousers but doesn’t succeed. The portly frame that looks back at him on the mirror reminds him that he must start to exercise soon. If only he had the time! He did have the time when he was a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics many years ago. The Abrahantes Stadium was just up the road. Walk all the way up L Street, follow the bend to the right, past the Napoleonic Museum and voilà! He used to run three or four laps round the weather-beaten track every week. Occasionally he ventured down to the gym but it was always crammed full. On top of that there were too many posers for his liking. He was fit in those years. He still is. But this job is killing him. It’s not so much the actual job, but the distance to the hotel and back and the lack of transport. He is not a spring chicken anymore, he thinks. True, at fifty-two, he is still in better shape than many of his contemporaries, especially fellow lecturers who struck lucky and found similar jobs to his, as porters and desk clerks in hotels around Havana. If only he could get rid of this massive belly! He looks at himself in profile. His wife doesn’t mind this unasked-for middle-age present. She has always been behind him, supported him through the ups and downs. That’s what drives him. That and their four children. He sees his family as a unit. A solid, hard-rock unit. Even after the farewells, of which there have been two. He manages to button up his shirt, zips up his trousers, fastens his belt, puts on his shoes and walks out of the house. The rain that fell earlier has freshened up the air. This is one of those occasions when he feels grateful for the long-sleeved shirt he has to wear as part of his uniform. The street is quiet. Nothing like heavy showers to silence the impromptu DJs who have turned reggaeaton and timba into their sole musical output. The puddles on the road reflect the light of the scattered lamps throwing up intermittent, ashen, mini full moons. Despite the many years living in the same barrio he stills feels uneasy about being out here at this time of night on his own. If he is lucky he will catch the coach that takes staff from the airport back to downtown Havana. It wasn’t long ago that his route to work took him in a different direction. He used to drive for a foreign family doing business in Havana and whose residence – mansion, really – was in the leafy suburbs of Miramar. That was the first job he got after leaving his post as lecturer at Havana University. He was one of the lucky ones. He could drive and had a valid license. He spent a couple of years with the family. Until one night when there was an adults-only party in the house. The children were dispatched to a friend’s. He knows because he drove them there. When he returned he thought he would be copping off earlier than usual only to be asked to come inside and... He left his job the next day. What embarrassed him most was telling his wife about “the thing”. She understood and stood by him completely. He still remembers her words: “The problem is that you still have morals, mi viejo”. Morals, yes, he still has them, he thinks now. That’s the reason why he doesn’t like doing the night shift. He doesn’t like coping with the drooling, pot-bellied, pink-cheeked male tourists trying to get a couple of under-age prostitutes into their rooms. It is hard for him to resist to their requests, not because he lacks the courage to say no, but because everyone else is in on the game. He doesn’t like coping with the drunken old women, saying in their mangled Spanish: “You look like a bull, be my bull tonight!”. He wipes his wide, black forehead and keeps walking to the bus stop. In the distance he can see the headlights of a coach or bus breaking through the semi-darkness. He comes close to the curb and sticks his arm out. His night shift is about to begin.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 3rd November at 10am (GMT)

The three stanzas included in this post were taken from the poem “Tardes de Lluvia” by the Cuban poet Julián del Casal


  1. Moving, beautiful - and heart-breaking.

  2. Poignant slices of life from a rich loaf. Daily bread indeed.

  3. I read this yesterday, and could not respond right away. You write with passion and compassion, with light and shadow, scenes and characters that are fully clothed, with full lives, so specific and yet so universal.
    I want to know more.

    I want to continue to feel the heart-break.


  4. very nice...i really like the story and the characters you have created here...also that you write it in the moment as it is so engaging...i def want to see more of this...and very nicely done blending in the verse as well....

  5. Haunting. Evocative. You found the heart and soul of each of your characters.

  6. nice that you built in some scents as well... always brings a story more alive for me...really cool story telling and love how you wove in the spanish verse as well

  7. What a great piece of writing. Very moving.

  8. Heartbreaking but wonderfully written.
    You truly write beautifully.
    Thank you for sharing, I really enjoyed this even if it made me sad.

  9. Hauntingly beautiful. The character build-up goes progressively smooth. Nicely CIL


  10. I have read all the previous comments and agree with every one of them. Characters that are so alive and prose so very moving giving us these glimpses into their daily lives.

  11. Absolutely heart-breaking...and so vivid in the telling...that I am overcome with emotion.
    Very powerful writing.:)

  12. Well those are some saucy old women! This such an evocative glimpse of Cuban life, it reminds me of a screenplay.I'm actually headed to see a Cuban film called El Noche next week. I'll let you know how it goes although I have yet to see a Cuban film I didn't love.

  13. A wonderfully vivid story--great details and humanity.

  14. Amazing story and sad Cil but amazing!

  15. Many thanks for your comments. The three stories are in different times but in the same season: autumn. The characters are all real. The 52-year-old man was a lecturer when my cousin was at the Faculty of Economics in the 80s. I've known him for many years. Him and his wife.

    Greetings from London.

  16. love your stories it draws us all in such talent and insight



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