El Comandante stood opposite me on the other side of a locked iron gate. Sweating profusely, he pleaded in stuttering Spanish to be allowed in to use the telephone. I, as guest in my surroundings, did not feel it my place to grant permission, so we remained standing, uncomfortably silent, either side of the doorway. It was one of those nights in Havana Vieja when the air is so heavy that even lying completely still you sweat to the pulsating salsa beats that resonate from every crack in every wall. El Comandante – a pale, trembling, ageing Brit – repeated his request.
I’d arrived a few hours before with just a poorly-scrawled address and an audacious disposition to my name. I’d jumped into a brand new Citroen taxi at the airport and handed the address, written on the back of a cigarette pack, to the driver. We cruised down the wide boulevards of suburban Havana, heading for ‘Yoselia’s home’, the friendliest abode in all of Havana, according to a friend of a friend.
“I thought there were only old cars in Havana!” I said to the taxi driver, who smiled sympathetically, adjusted his white flat-peak cap and turned up the radio.
We pulled up outside a tall building – once painted mint green – with freshly-sudded laundry hanging from every ledge and balcony. The taxi driver snatched the cash from my hands before I’d had a chance to count it. He wished me luck and departed at alarming speed, leaving me alone by the side of the road. I slung my bag over my shoulder and sloped my way up the wooden stairs to Yoselia’s place.
A TV barked at me from the other side of the door, as I composed myself, practised my introductory speech and gave the metal entrance my friendliest knock.
The door opened slightly – it was still on the latch – and a pair of eyes glared at me through the small slither of space we shared. The smell of frying crept out of the house and along the hallway. The eyes narrowed and considered closing the door.
“Hi, my friend James told me someone called Yoselia lived here,” I said.
“Yeah, James … Jaime …”
“Jaime! The funny English man!”
“That’s the one.”
Yoselia hurried me into her flat with a warm hug and a hearty smack on the cheek. Her home was small with wooden floors and high ceilings. Two sofas, draped in bright protective coverings, made an L shape in the centre of the room. Opposite the sofas, perched up against a sea blue wall, sat a small stereo and a pile of pirated CDs. The sound of the busy street below filtered in through drawn wooden shutters. Yoselia turned off the TV and asked me to sit down. A cup of thick, black coffee was placed in front of me.
“It’s so lovely to see a friend of Jaime,” Yoselia told me, lifting an electric fan from the kitchen and placing it next to my salt-soaked face. “How is he?”
“He’s well,” I said, without really knowing if it was true or not. I hadn’t seen him in a while.
“He said he’d come back to marry my daughter. That naughty man!”
“He said to tell you he’s missed you and that he’ll come and visit as soon as he can,” I offered.
“Well, maybe that’s why he sent you. You aren’t married are you?” she said with a coquettish smile.
“I’m not, no. But …”
Yoselia rushed off excitedly to her bedroom to fetch the most glamorous pictures of her daughter and came back with dozens of golden-framed photos.
“Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you ever saw?”
Yoselia left me looking through an album of her daughter’s quinceañera party – all puffy dresses, curled hair and plenty of makeup – as she went off to make another pot of coffee. It was then that there was a knock at the door. “Can you get that?” she called to me.
El Comandante wiped the sweat from his brow, shuffled past me and sat himself down by an old dial phone, just behind the front door. He took a deep breath, before opening a withered and slightly soggy address book at ‘A’.
“Maybe tonight will be your lucky night, right Comandante?” Yoselia said, bringing through a tray of her finest crockery – cups that looked so delicate they’d struggle to hold the freshly-brewed coffee.
“I’ve never been so sure!” he said, pulling a pair of bandaged reading glasses from his top pocket. “I’ve just got a feeling deep down in my bones.”
I looked over at Yoselia who was sat, perched forward on her chair, her nose dipped in a steaming cup, and then back at el Comandante, his finger flexing just above the dial. We watched him lift the receiver to his ear and shakily turn the dial of the phone six times – a local number. I could hear the phone ringing from across the room, carried on the back of gathered anticipation.
“Hello. It’s me.”
I’m not sure why I’d always been fascinated by Cuba. No one I knew had ever been there and I’d only been out of England a hand full of times – you know, the standard burnathon on the Costa del Full English. I didn’t really know that much about the place, though I had a poster of Che Guevara on my wall at university and tried to impress friends with eager plays of scratched Buena Vista Social Club CDs. Had it been a channel island, I might not have been so keen, but there was something massively sexy about a communist bastion floating somewhere in the Caribbean Sea.
I finally bought my flight the same day I got fired from my bar job for spending an entire shift mimicking a fax machine. I had some growing up to do. I asked my mates to come with me, but they were more interested in blowing their money on parties in Eastern Europe. My best mate gave me a bit of jip: “What, are you gonna be a hippy now?”
The lovely nurse giving me my injections couldn’t believe it when she heard: “What do you wanna go there for? Full of terrorists.”
She might not have been that wide of the mark according to my book on the flight over, which reckons the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro hundreds of times. Still, I was nothing but excited – I couldn’t wait to be thousands of miles from home. I’d got a pocket full of pesos from Marks and Spencer’s, a Hawaiian shirt from Matalan and an incredibly uncomfortable money belt tightly strapped to my waist. You can never be too careful.
It was a friend of a friend who’d given me Yoselia’s address.
“Best digs in all of Havana,” he said. “She’ll whip up an omelette in less than a minute and teach you all the tricks you need in Cuba.”
I was a bit unsure about turning up at a stranger’s house unannounced, but my friend assured me that she’d be more than happy to see me.
Yoselia and I looked at each other in eager anticipation, sweet smiles glued to our faces. El Comandante’s Spanish was painful on the ear (even to me) and his initial enthusiasm had all but disappeared. He hung up the phone.
“Keep smiling mi Comandante,” Yoselia said. “You’re only on ‘C’”.
“It’s … it’s hopeless,” he said looking out the window at a lady sat in the apartment opposite gently rock in her chair. “I just can’t figure out where I’m going wrong.”
“How about I make us some dinner?” Yoselia said.
I waited for el Comandante to respond, but he just sat there staring into empty space.
“That’d be great,” I replied.
El Comandante let out a deep sigh, turned the page of his address book and picked up the receiver again. I went to help Yoselia.
“He hasn’t always been like this,” she told me from the safety of the kitchen. “You won’t believe me, but he used to have the run of the island.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“He used to come on vacation – once every few years at first, but then more frequently, each time staying for longer and longer. He used to be the talk of the town – everyone knew el Comandante: the Englishman with the impeccably styled hair and the whitest tennis shoes the world had ever seen. He was something of a hit with the … well, you know what I mean.”
“So how did he end up staying in Cuba?”
“He fell in love with the place and its people. He loved the fact that he was someone here. He loved how special we made him feel. And he got stuck in. He did his best to learn Spanish – Cuban Spanish – and he worked where he could. He spent a lot of his time volunteering at clinics, schools and anywhere he could float along just under the radar, raising a few suspicions along the way, but always being able to charm his way out of trouble.”
“And how did you two meet?”
“He … he saved my daughter’s life.”
Yoselia stopped, her hands shaking and her eyes drawing out the scene.
“I don’t want to talk about that right now … I owe him so much.”
“That’s OK” I said, placing my hand on her shoulder. “Does he come to use the phone a lot?”
“Most days. Sometimes he might not show up for a few weeks, when he’s visiting his daughter in Santiago, on the other side of the island. But there are weeks when he’s here every day, sometimes twice a day. It’s nice to see him … though as time passes, the sadder he gets, I think. Sometimes the hardest thing is accepting it’s not the world that is changing, but you.”
“Huh, I’ve always liked to think it was the other way round.”
“Quick, hold this, he’s coming …” Yoselia said, handing me a frying pan.
Dinner was incredible: rice, beans and plantain. El Comandante made slow progress, prodding around his plate with the distraction of a heart-broken man.
“So, what are you doing here, boy?” he asked me, with his best attempt at a smile.
“I’m just on holiday. I’ve always wanted to come to Cuba.”
“Oh, you’re going to love it,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll make a lot friends, right Yoselia?”
“A handsome man like you will have all the friends you want,” she said with a hearty chuckle.
“Maybe you can show me the ropes,” I said to el Comandante.
He winked at me.
El Comandante spent another couple of hours on the phone, but eventually conceded defeat. He sat, bewildered, in his chair by the phone for another half an hour, swaying in the stolid heat of the early evening. The light was fading fast, but the street lights wouldn’t come on for another few hours. People were still doing business in the road below, trading car parts, cleaning products and camcorder-quality DVDs. The faintest of breezes carried the scent of sea salt from the nearby Malecón.
“I should be going,” el Comandante said.
“Same time tomorrow?” Yoselia probed.
“Si dios quiere.”
And with that, he was gone.
Yoselia and I sat in our chairs, doing our best to move as little as possible and talking through my plans on the island. She passed me the names of cousins, aunts, friends and brothers who would very happy to put me up for a small fee. I asked if they cooked as well as she did.
“Not a chance,” she beamed.
A moment’s silence fell between us.
“So who exactly does el Comandante call?” I asked.
“Do you really want me to break the illusion?”
I went to bed that evening with excitement pouring from my fingers and toes. Yoselia had made a bed up for me on the sofa – a tightly stretched set of sheets and a miniature pillow.
“Do you want me to close the shutters?” she asked, moving towards the window.
“No, thanks,” I said. “You can leave them open.”
Yoselia turned off the light and the room went from lemon to orange, as the exposed light bulb of the lounge gave way to the flickering torches of the street. I could hear feet moving over the polished cement below, climbing up the buildings either side and disappearing into the heavy black air. The occasional motor chugged past, sometimes beeping its horn to warn passing traffic it had no intention of stopping. And that music … the distant sound of brass and timbales, of hips slaloming across ice and feet tapping on hard-wood floors, of rich, rich salsa, of telephones dialling off into the night: A, B, C, D, E …