I am woken by Suci, the village postman, knocking at our door.

‘Pavel,’ he calls, coming round to tap the shutters of my room. ‘I’ve got a letter for you – from Havana!’

It’s not often that we get letters at my house – just once or twice a year. I jump out of bed and pull on my trousers, hitting my foot against the chair in my excitement. This will be the letter I have been awaiting for almost two months now – everyone in the village knows.

Suci is fanning himself with a papaya leaf that has fallen onto the porch. His face gleams with sweat but his blue post of ce shirt is neatly pressed, as if he’s just put it on. In one hand he holds a white envelope, which bears a black embossed crest.

‘Well, Pavel,’ he says. ‘I think you’ve got your answer right here.’

I tear open the envelope and pull out the letter. Suci leans against the doorpost and watches me read.

L’Ambassade de la Republique Francaise, La Havane, Cube’ it says. This is printed in large black letters at the top of the page, then underneath, in Spanish, it says: ‘Dear Mr Martinez, I am pleased to advise you that your application for a French tourist visa has been successful. You will nd enclosed your passport, endorsed with a visa valid for six months from the date of your passport entry to France. I would remind you of your signed statement that you will undertake no employment during your stay, and that you will not marry whilst in the French Republic. Please accept my best wishes for a pleasant trip. Yours etc. Mme Fournet on behalf of M. Beaulieu, French Ambassador to Cuba.’

I tremble slightly as I read and it takes me some time. For a good minute after I have nished I do not raise my eyes because I am struggling to stop a tear from running down my cheek. When I regain my composure, I look at Suci, whom I have known since primary school, and a wide grin breaks across my face.

‘Congratulations my friend,’ he says.

***

Inside the house, my grandmother, Soledad, is standing by the kitchen door. She is looking at me with an expression I have never seen on her face before – there is defeat in her eyes. But as I get closer, she pulls herself up. ‘What were you thinking, Pavel, leaving the pigs thirsty for so long? Go – fetch some water from the tank and let them drink. Then, please, buy me two pounds of rice from the village store.’ Even though it’s nearly 11 o’clock, her kerchief is still tied around her head, which means she’s not yet combed her hair, and she seems nervous, wiping her hands repeatedly on her apron.

I do not think of Soledad for long, though. There are only seven days to go before I take the aeroplane from Havana to Paris, and much to do. I hurry to fetch water for the pigs.

I am a baker by trade, but the village bakery closed some time ago because of our shortages, so I work as a porter at the tourist hotel, I won’t pretend it’s interesting, but I like to watch the ocean, and the companeros are pleasant enough.

The hotel is where I met Mariannne. She came, like many others, for a holiday – but unlike the others – Marianne came back. We’ve been novios for nearly a year now, and she says it’s time I visited her home. If you’d told me before I met her that I’d see another country one day, I would have laughed. I think I’d have been forever content to sit beside the ocean, watching the waves and shing, or playing dominoes in the shade.

Tito is still snoring on the sofa as I pull on my boots and leave for the village store. Sun through the shutter lights his dark brown cheek. He is at college in M-, the nearest town, but as it’s summer, they are on holiday. Tito is my cousin, but I have lived with him, my aunty Lali and Soledad ever since my parents died. Last night, which belongs now to another time, we sat, Tito and I, on the porch and watched the stars. I asked him if they would look the same from Paris, but he said he did not know.

I make my way up the dirt track to the main road, and the village store.

Our neighbour is out on the porch with her husband. ‘Buen viaje!’ she shouts with a wink – it seems Suci has delivered the news. Under the eaves of the neighbours’ house, which leans precariously towards the bedroom that I share with Soledad, their son Adelmo is skinning a pig. I helped them kill it yesterday – Adelmo felt too much pity to draw the knife. He will do the same for me when it’s time to slaughter our herd.

When I return home with the rice, Soledad is nowhere to be seen. The house is neat and tidy, today’s washing on the line, and Tito is awake. He grins at me from his seat in the yard. The sun is high now; he squints through the light, a cafecito in one hand.

‘Hermano,’ he says. ‘So – your journey begins.’
I sit down next to him. We watch the hens as they pluck grain from the dirt. ‘The peppers have done well since we planted them last month,’ I say.

‘They have.’ Tito looks into his cup, which is empty now. ‘When are you going to tell Neta about your trip?’ Tito is ten years younger and shouldn’t tell me what to do. He doesn’t catch my eye but gazes out at the glossy green banana forest in the yard. ‘Neta must not be the last to know.’

‘Leave that to me,’ I say. A hen sqwuaks and jumps into the guava tree.

‘How could I forget Neta? She’s my sister – all I have.’

I say goodbye to Tito and go to the road to hitch a lift to Neta’s village, S -. One or two people are waiting there already. We nod, say nothing and wait. Sometimes the trucks come, sometimes they don’t. The road is dusty, and very quiet, the little bar is closed. I swat a y from my forehead and stare up into the sky.

Three hours later, I ride into S- on the back of a logging truck. Osbel, my brother-in-law, is waiting in his trap by the side of the road.

‘Tito called the post of ce,’ he says. ‘Told them you were coming – let’s go.’

His horse whinnies and scratches at the ground. I jump in and we drive off, waving to friends along the street. it seems everyone knows I’m going away – everyone but Neta, that is: the farm is outside S – and doesn’t have a phone.

‘My friend, you’ve drawn the trump card, have you not?’ Osbel’s blue eyes glitter. ‘What will you do out there with your woman? Make a fortune and bring her back?’

I don’t know exactly what I’ll do in France but I’ve formed a kind of picture, so I hazard a guess. ‘I’ll be working,’ I say. ‘Any kind of thing – repay Marianne the money she’s spent.’

‘Plenty of work out there for the likes of you, I should think.’ Osbel whips the horse. ‘A strong fellow, not afraid of hard labour. What do they do in Paris to earn a crust? Not till the soil, that’s for sure.’ He whips the horse again. ‘A few months of luxury and you won’t want to come back home. No rations – all the food you can eat, I hear. And you earn what you need by working, no rules on what you keep.’

‘You don’t know me, hermano, if you think I’ll be tempted by those things.’

I look straight ahead at the road.

Osbel is silent

‘I, Pavel, will be coming back. Ours is the only free country in the world – Cuba libre – nothing can compare.’

In truth, I am lled with curiosity for this new place but these are thoughts I can no longer share. It’s not like talking with Osbel about the birds we’ll catch when we hunt, or when he teases me, predicting that I’ll shoot fewer than he does. Nor is it like when we imagine my future wife and child, living in a house as sweet as his, which he’ll help me build. I have entered a place where I must walk alone.

We draw up to the farm. Neta is in front of the house, treading about in the manure. There’s a shout and scuf ing behind us as we get down from the trap; Tomas, Neta’s son, rushes up with a little friend. They stop short when they see me with Osbel, and Tomas runs to Neta, hiding behind her legs.

‘Brother.’ Neta kisses my cheek. She pulls Tomas forward. ‘Say hello to your uncle. Come on, don’t be rude.’ He steps towards me, staring with his mother’s eyes, which are also mine, and reaches up for a kiss. Then he darts off to play.

‘They’re setting snares for the rabbits,’ she says. ‘I’ve told them it’s no good with all the dogs around here but they want to catch us dinner – so Papi can take a rest.’ she smiles with her mouth but not her eyes and brushes at her overalls, which are splashed with mud. ‘Come, brother, sit with us and talk.’

The whiteboard house that Osbel has built is so new I can still smell damp in the palm leaves that make up the roof. Neta serves us cold coconut milk and slices of bread with margarine. When she’s done, she pulls up a chair next to her husband and looks at me hard – she knows that something’s up. Osbel is scraping at his plate to get the last crumbs into his mouth and for a while no one else says a thing.

‘It’s some time since breakfast,’ Osbel says at last.

‘He’s up every dawn to work on the tobacco.’ Neta rubs a hand over her eyes. ‘It’s more than one man’s work, but the committee’s sent everyone else to cut cane.’

Osbel is looking at me – I have to tell her.

‘Neta…’ I begin, but don’t know how to put it. I start again. ‘Suci came this morning, with some news – I’m going to see Marianne.’

Neta looked up from her cup. ‘What, Marianne’s back in Havana?’

‘No, Neta. It’s not that.’

She pulls her overalls around her as if it’s cold. ‘You’re going away?’ Neta has never believed my trip will happen. ‘Finally, the visa came through?’ Her eyes do not move from a point slightly left of my face, where they have come to rest. They are slow and very large, she looks like Tomas, about eight years old.

I reach for her hand. ‘It’s not what you think, it’s not for good.’

Neta gets up to clear the table. ‘What happy news for Marianne.’ Her voice is faint and plates rattle against the sink as she puts them down. Then she wheels around and looks me in the eye. ‘What about Lucia’s husband? Twenty years of a three-week husband once a year – from what I hear he made those promises to his family when he left. Who knows whether he’s got a mistress in Florida – whatever it is that keeps him there, there’s plenty of money to buy poor Lucia gadgets, televisions and the like, toys for the grandchildren from their once-a-year grandpa. And don’t forget, they won’t let you back for a long while after you leave –’

‘ – Neta, that’s enough.’ Osbel lifts a harness from the wall and strides outside.

I look at the agstones because I can’t bear to see my sister cry. ‘Neta, listen. Thirty-two years I’ve lived content with what I have. They could pile beef onto my plate, ll my wallet with dollars – it wouldn’t change a thing.’

Neta stands at the sink, head pressed into her palms. I put my arm around her shoulders.

She turns to look up at me, quiet now. ‘I hope to God you’re right.’

It is night; the family is asleep. My bonita Marianne looks out from the photograph I hold in my hand.

When she last came to visit, she showed me pictures of her apartment. ‘Right in the centre of Paris,’ she said. ‘Near all my friends, everything – we’ll have such a good time.’

She promised to show me many things: shops that sold all you could want under one roof – shoes and food and clothes, towers that stretched up to the sky, trains that travelled beneath the sea.

The oors of her apartment were covered in carpet; paper with roses adorned the wall. In my house the oors are stone, and there are no owers – just yellow paint.

‘Are you afraid of going on the plane?’ she asked.

Now in the darkness, her words echo in my room.

‘Of course not, Marianne,’ I said.

It wasn’t quite the truth. I have never been on a plane before – when I thought of ying up there among the stars I felt a little scared, but she would never know.

She was reassured and rested her head on my shoulder. ‘You look after me, Pavel … Like no one ever has.’

My arm wrapped tighter round her. ‘Wherever we go, nena, at least I can do that.’

Tonight the memory of her voice lls my ears; I can still smell her skin. As the rst strands of dawn creep over the mountains. I nally get some sleep.

The cockerel crows and I open my eyes. I am in my bed. It’s my last day in the village; tomorrow, I leave for Havana.

Neta arrives with Tomas and the family gathers in the front room to help me pack. All that I will need ts into the blue sports bag I take to the beach: my best black trousers and shirt, khakis – good for everyday, underwear, vest and two pairs of socks. My shoes, of course, will be on my feet.

Lali says: ‘Aren’t you going to pack your jeans?’

I frown, and answer more grumpily than I mean to: ‘You don’t wear jeans in the city – they’re for hunting with Osbel.’

Lali looks at Soledad and rolls her eyes. ‘Do as Lali tells you,’ my grandmother says.

I go to the closer and pull them out. ‘Well, I suppose they might be good for work.;

Neta is silent. She’s holding Tomas to her and he’s straining to break free. Standing, he ts under her arm; his bright brown eyes watch my every move. Then he pulls away and runs outside. Neta watches him go.

‘Be careful of the cold,’ she says to me.

‘Yes, be careful – their weather’s not like ours.’ Soledad looks worried.

‘Here, take these’ – she hands me three at packages wrapped in greaseproof paper – ‘so you won’t go hungry on the plane.’ It’s touron: she spent all yesterday afternoon grinding sesame seeds to make me this.

‘And don’t go out on the streets,’ adds Neta. ‘The people are violent, it’s very dangerous – you might get picked on by a criminal if you go outside.’

Lali’s quiet, but then she pipes up: ‘If you get lonely come back straight away. I’ve heard the people there are very mean – take your money but won’t be your friend – old people sleeping on the streets.’

‘Of course I won’t be lonely.’ I zip the bag shut. ‘It’s not difficult – you want friends, just be friendly. If I find myself alone, I’ll stop an agreeable looking fellow and explain I’m new in town.’

One part of me believes this, another is not so sure. The lms we get from abroad show things that never happen here; foreigners seem to solve all their problems using guns, and while I know how to use a gun, it’s not the kind the movies show.

Early the next morning, before the sun is up, I walk to the cemetery to say goodbye to my parents. The dawn crickets are chirping as I go to the grave. When I return, Neta, Soledad, Tito and Lali are waiting on the porch. Soledad presents a ve-dollar bill into my hand.

‘Take it,’ she says. ‘Something to help you on your way.’ A single tear is lodged in the corner of her eye.

With the bag slung over my shoulder I set off for the road. I can’t look back. The last thing I hear is Tomas shouting: ‘Goodbye, uncle, goodbye! Don’t forget you promise to bring me a boat.’ When a water truck rolls past, I stop it and jump on. As we reach the edge of the village my house shrinks, with my family waving on the porch, bumping up and down in time to the wheels of the truck.

When we draw into Havana eight hours later, my cousin Frank is waiting in his Chevrolet to take me to the tower block where he lives. I have a shower and we walk over to his mother’s house to eat.

Frank pulls a photograph from a drawer after dinner. ‘Her name was Annie. We met in a London bar.’

Frank has been abroad – he worked on ships and stopped in ports around the world. The girl in the picture is grinning and has long red hair. Frank is by her side, slimmer than now, one arm around her waist.

‘She was fun. The people there were kind.’ Frank puts the picture back into the drawer and shuts it. He looks sad. ‘Make the most of your chance, cousin – don’t let opportunity pass you by.’

Today is my last day in Cuba. I spend it helping Frank x his car, which has suddenly refused to start. We’re not talking much – the work’s too hot – but if I wanted to, Frank would listen. We connect a temporary petrol tank to the engine with a runner tube – it should be good for tonight’s run to the airport and back.

Afterwards, we sit on the balcony, sixteen floors up with a bottle of rum.

‘Taking a nal look?’ Frank asks, as I lean over the rusty balustrade. My back is sweaty and there’s engine oil under my nails but I want to stand here for a while before I wash. The city is orange now, sky a burning red, huge globe of sun sinking to the sea. It is strangely quiet. From up here the people look like ants, and the smells of decomposing rubbish are gone.

‘Marianne will be waiting for you at the other end.’ Frank puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘Six months isn’t long.’

I say nothing. The longest I have been away from home is a week.

Frank half-smiles as he pours the rum; the slanting sun catches his spectacles.

‘Salud,’ he says.

‘Salud.’ I raise my glass.

Only Frank comes with me to the airport. I wanted it like this. Half-way there the car grumbles to a halt, but with some minor tinkering we get it started again. As we step into the departure hall I can still smell petrol on Frank’s shirt. The only other Cubans there are guards.

A line of foreign tourists winds back towards the door. We join it. The sign at the door says Air France – this must be my plane.
The of cial behind the desk looks closely at my papers. Sweat pricks my armpits. She takes a full minute to check each page: visa, exit stamp, ID. But then she raises her head and smiles: ‘Your rst time out?’

I nod.

‘Well – enjoy the trip. Passport control is to your left and down the stairs.’

In front of us is a line of booths. You step inside and shut the door. If they let you through, a buzzer sounds, the light goes green, and you push open a door to the other side.

The of cial in my booth looks at me for a long time; I look back. He rustles my documents and sighs, then picks up a stamp and brings it down on my passport, which he pushes back to me under the glass.

The buzzer is so loud that it shuts out everything else. I see Frank mouthing goodbye. In front of me is the door, behind me Frank. I pause for seconds, minutes almost, looking back. The of cial taps on the glass and the buzzer sounds again.

Frank’s face is frozen. I am looking at his face and he is smiling, but the smile is very small. It is printed onto my mind as I reach the other side because the lights there are so bright I have to stop for a minute and close my eyes. When I open them I see a bank of shops. Neon ashes off diamond and steel, sickly perfume lls the air. I cannot breathe.

I make for some benches where people are sitting, and take a plastic bottle lled with orange drink from my bag. I sip on it to settle my stomach. Crushed into a corner at the bottom of the bag I and the touron that Soledad made; the greaseproof paper has torn and it’s gathered bits of uff.

People start to move. I follow them towards the gate.

Inside, the plane is like the bowel of an enormous boat – so many seats I cannot see the end. Everyone else is already sitting; I look at the number on my ticket and nd my place.

As we take off, there is a roar and my body glues heavy to the seat. I close my eyes and see only darkness. When I open them again, a map of stars hangs beneath me – then I realise the stars are the city lights.

Nothing has been this beautiful before: Havana, like magic, all in one.

Taken from Breathe: stories from Cuba by Leila Segal, copyright © 2016. Reprinted by permission of the author and flipped eye publishing


Leila Segal was born in London, of Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian descent. Breathe: Stories from Cuba (flipped eye, 2016) is her debut collection, and originates in the time she lived in Havana and the Pinar del Río province of Cuba. Her stories have appeared in Litro, Wasafiri Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, Mechanics’ Institute Review, Generations Literary Journal, Papeles de la Mancuspia, Loose Muse, Square Peg, and Ink, Sweat & Tears. She is the director of Voice of Freedom, a creative writing and photography project with women who have escaped slavery.

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