Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ice cream in Havana

"If you're pregnant, then I'll be pregnant too!"

"Don't be silly," she says. "You're a bloke."

Around them, the market swirls. It's a flea market, of sorts, though every market in Havana seems like a flea market to her. This one is by the old cathedral, not far from La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemingway used to drink, where she had told him of her new status over an over-priced, over-weak mojito.

"Do you want to keep it?" he'd asked.

"Of course I do," she'd responded, her finger in her mouth, dragging her nail across the back of her teeth in an attempt to dislodge a flake of crushed mint. The room had become crowded at that moment as yet another group of tourists was herded into the small space. Having arrived just before the hordes, they'd managed to find themselves stools in the corner of the bar, giving her a good view of how the staff prepared 20 mojitos in one big splash. Around them, the new people gawped around the room, checking the signatures that inched their way across every patch of whitewashed wall. He was gawping, too, but not at the walls.

She'd watched emotions and scenarios rush through his mind, each signalled by his brows and the accordion creases sprouting from the sides of his eyes. She was impressed by how quickly his brows had collapsed from an arch of surprise into uneven, questioning horizontals; how the white traces of untanned skin had flooded the curve to his temples, then ebbed back into their folded obscurity. When the muscles in his jaw began to haul on the corners of his lips, threatening a smile, she pulled her finger free of her own mouth, gently knuckled his chin to push his mouth shut.

"Let's celebrate," she said, pulling a note free from her purse without looking at it, waving it in the direction of the fat man behind the bar.

"You shouldn't be drinking." He reached for the note – ten convertible pesos, she noticed.

"You shouldn't be telling me what to do," she said, cocking her head to one side.

"Someone needs to look after you." He slipped his hand from her thigh to her waist, running his fingers across her belly along the way. "It's not just you, now."

"That's true enough. Dos mojitos por favor, señor!"

Now he is rubbing his fingers against the back of his head, dislodging sweat and oil from the short, salt-and-pepper strands. Around them the market crowd is in full, diffident cry – the hustling for business quiet yet insistent in the mid-afternoon heat. She strolls between the stalls holding onto his arm, tugging him to a halt every few paces to look at the wares on offer: papier mache vintage cars painted in bright reds, yellows and pinks; 'ethnic' wood-carved masks for hanging on walls; oil paintings not yet imprisoned in frames, their canvases left free to sway in the wake of browsing tourists. Many of them seem to be variations on a scene, a nineteen fifties classic American car parked in front of the Bodeguita they'd so recently left, the old cathedral in the background weighed down by its grey brickwork against an intense, blue sky.

"We should buy something," she says, "to celebrate today."

"Yes," he says, though his face displays his distraction. His eyes are darting between bodies and products, seemingly unable to rest on one thing or one thought. She halts him in front of table piled high with tin aeroplanes, their recycled bodies and wings still showing the marks of their previous, disparate existences. She smiles at the stall holder, admires the white of her layered cotton dress stark against blue-black skin. The second-hand smoke of the woman's foot-long cigar leaves a spicy tang at the edge of her throat.

He picks up one of the models. "How long?" he asks.

"How long what?" She, too, lifts one of the planes into her palm, admires the way the whole thing has been shaped from a single can.

"How long before it's due?" She glances at him sidelong, but his attention is entirely on the toy in his hands.

"I did the test before we flew here."

"Oh," he says. He places the trinket back on the table, offers a weak smile to the woman as he turns away. Still attached to his arm, she barely has time to return her ornament to its place in the display.

"Are you hungry yet?"

She nods her head. "Not yet," she says. "I'm bored of the noise. Let's walk somewhere else for a while."


They cross into the strip of parkland between the lines of the market and the lanes of the main highway separating the city from its sea wall. The soil is damp in places from earlier rain, though she manages to match his even stride across the uneven grass. Beyond the grass, the road, the wall, the strip of blue water, reclines El Morro fort – old in its bricks, veiled by its trees. Turning, she looks instead along the length of the road. Beyond the market, the seafront buildings are dilapidated, needing more than a coat of paint to restore them to their thirties-gangster glory. He, too, chooses to look at the city rather than the fort.

"What I'll remember most about this city," he starts.

"The people?" she guesses. "The hustlers and loiterers and beggars?"

"The smells," he says. "Everywhere you go, the smells of dampness, decay, rot."

"It doesn't smell in the hotel," she says, drawing his waist into the crook of her elbow.

"No," he agrees. "The hotel smells of grafters scrubbed up to look handsome and pretty while they extract every peso from your pocket."

"It's not their fault. What is it that boy told us? Four and a half million people live here, but only one and a half million of them are policemen."

"He wanted ten pesos to take us to a salsa festival on the other side of town."

"At least he didn't want to sell us cigars."

"True. What do you want?"

She looks up into his face; he keeps his gaze on the cars and taxis jostling for position on the road, racing who knows where.

"I want ice cream," she answers, if only to end the brief silence. "I want veal and beef in rich sauces. I want proper vegetables. If someone offers me rice and peas, I want to say 'no, thank you.' Pizza would be nice," she adds, "or a big Chinese meal with plenty of chemical additives. In fact" – her hand reaches up to his chin, guides his eyes towards hers by his jaw-line – "I would happily kill the chambermaid for a decent cup of tea."

"They don't have tea in Cuba. They don't have kettles." He's smiling now: not his usual, social smile, but rather something smaller, more personal and reserved.

"But that's the problem," she says. "The idea of people surviving without tea and kettles is just too weird for me to handle. People need kettles; it's a basic human right."

"Families need kettles, too?"

"Yes," she says. "Families need kettles, too."

He stops, turns her to face him. "So what's the problem, then?"

"There's a world of kettles out there. So many to choose from. What if I choose the wrong kettle?"

"Can there ever be a perfect kettle?"

She's smiling now; she can feel the muscles in her cheeks bunching the skin beneath her eyes. "New kettles come on the market every year."

"Maybe kettles should be treasured. Ask the hotel staff – the chambermaid would kill for an honest, reliable, working kettle."

"Maybe you're right," she agrees. "But can a woman settle down with a kettle that was manufactured twenty years before her birth?"

He surprises her with a wink. "Maybe the woman like antiques?"

"Maybe she does," she says, returning his wink. "There's a kind of pride in owning an old kettle that still works, and polishes up nicely too."

He mocks up a look of horror for her, his eyes' tan-lined wrinkles snapping open like fans, his mouth purse-tight to lock away retorts. Then he laughs, and so does she, and they come together in a hug.

"I know of a shop that sells ice cream," he says. "You have to ask the right person, of course, and pay the tip in advance."

"Does it come with mojitos?"

"I expect so. Shall we go and find out?"

"Yes," she says, returning her arm to the back of his waist. "Let's go and find out."

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