The stars swam over the bay, hidden by the smoke that danced upwards from the busy beach. The long, red-sand bay of Ghadira was full of people on that wind-less, cloud-less May night. By the water’s edge the black sea turned luminous at the touch of so many gas lamps and crackling barbecues. The gleam of the water made it feel inviting, deceitful.
The Cuban was sat near the barbecue, a pair of African bongos between his legs, he was playing with his eyes closed, biting his lips, a pair of sunglasses on his head. Next to him was Keith, a friend from the kazin, his bar, playing a saxophone. Down by the water Gabriela was dancing with Grace and watching her was her mother, Manwela, sat on a beach chair a few feet away, talking to her sister with her chin leaning on her fist.
“Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera,
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera!”
The Cuban sang from his seat during another of the sometimes monthly, sometimes annual Cuban Night he organised for his friends. Keith accompanied him on the saxophone. He played for the San Gaetano band club in Hamrun during the festa. At the Cuban’s feet a mojito was buried in the sand, embraced by an ice-pack. Next to him baby-pink sausages grew up, got tanned, and died on the grill. Keith had a beer bottle sticking out of his woolly cardigan pocket. All around them, friends from the kazin and from the Cuban’s work, his kitchen, were dancing and chattering.
They all looked at the Cuban, amazed at how profoundly happy such a simple man could be. That’s the Cuban for you, give him a mojito, some music, the sea and good food, and he’s as happy a son-of-a-bitch as you’re ever likely to see. Money can’t buy that! Cuba was the best thing that happened to him, one of the dishwashers, a short, bald man with a yellowed moustache, thought of the Cuban. Without it, I swear, he’d just be another one of those sad people you always see drinking every night and every Sunday morning in the kazin, wasting their time, their lives – I mean he does do that, but Cuba at least gives him something different.
Johnny, the chef at the Cuban’s kitchen, looked at the man playing the bongos, the man cooking for everyone, the man making mojitos for one and all, hell, the man with sunglasses on his head at night – and saw a bitter man. Not a day goes by he doesn’t wish he had stayed in Cuba. And he should have done. If there ever was a time to travel, it’s fucking now. It’s getting to be so easy. Maltese people have been stranded here for centuries, now our island is connected to the rest of the world not via corsair-infected seas, but by open skies. He’s got to take advantage of that. I would too, but the fishing here is too good. The fish aren’t anything wonderful, but taking a fishing boat miles out to sea and having sex there with a Russian escort out in the deep wide blue – fuck me, if that’s not patriotism I don’t know what is!
I wish I could be the centre of attention like him, someone in the crowd thought. Maybe I should leave catering and enroll in the army. I know a friend of mine who’s going on a UN peacekeeping mission to Croatia. I should go too, I should go, then I’d be known, I’d be admired, and I wouldn’t need bongos and mojitos to do it. I’d be doing something worthwhile. Something valuable. If I marry history I’ll have the rest of the world as my mistress.
The Cuban changed song and began singing the Chan Chan now. Keith put down his saxophone and picked up an acoustic guitar. He remembered the notes with a humble shrug – the Cuban played this song every time. De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané. The Cuban sang with his eyes closed, forcing himself to recall the first time he heard the song played at a rum factory in Havana during the Buena Vista music show. The day he first heard it he had seen a policeman beating up a young man on a colourful Havana side street for not carrying his ID. Llego a Cueto, voy para Mayarí. He remembered how the policeman grabbed the youth from the back of his head and repeatedly forced his head against the wall. El cariño que te tengo no te lo puedo negar. The youth’s mother stood on her doorstep, watching, crying, not daring to intrude, to interfere. Se me sale la babita uo no lo puedo evitar. When the youth tried to get away another policeman emerged, grabbed hold of him, held him by the neck, whilst the other policeman whipped him with his baton across the knees. You could see his knee weeping like some bloodied waterfall.
Cuando Juanica y Chan Chan
En el mar cernían arena
Como sacudía el jibe
A Chan Chan le daba pena.
The Cuban forced himself to open his eyes. He wiped a quick finger across his cheeks, pretending he had an itch, then quickly put his hand back on the bongos. And then, he saw Gabriela, dancing. It was one of those rare moments life bequeaths all of us, when it’s feeling generous or mischievous, when time literally slows down so you could feel its passing like a breeze on your skin, and so you could watch life actually happening, all the strings somehow exposed.
Gabriela twirled lightly on the heavy sand, her unbound hair bobbing on her tight shoulders; her face looked concentrated and happy like a clock that smiled a quarter past nine, but her movements were erratic, comic, childish, her dancing was a minestra of hopping, skipping and gymnastics. Grace was dancing beside her. But she didn’t matter. No, she couldn’t, in that moment only Gabriela could matter.
My daughter is happy. Happy with the songs I’m playing her. She’s happy because of me, I’ve created that happiness and that puts me right up there, doesn’t it? Look at her, with her Hawaiian flowers around her neck, in her long white dress, her tanned olive skin; she’s an achievement that matches, what, the Mona Lisa, the pyramids, all the space stations, all the revolutions, everything! She’s my indulgence, literally. A stupid thing to say – my indulgence – fuck, I know. But no matter how silly-angry I get, no matter how much I drink, or fucking swear: all of that is forgiven, because Gabriela is my masterpiece!
As the song came to an end and Gabriela came running into her daddy’s arms, hugging him from head to toe, the Cuban suddenly wondered: but is she enough, can even Gabriela be enough to absolve me for not staying in Cuba?
“Daddy, let’s go for a walk down the beach, I want to find a good place to dive in from when we come swim here in summer.”
“Alright, let’s vamos.”
“Wait! Daddy, don’t forget your mojito!”
As the two of them walked away down the long, black beach, the winds turned and blew a northern chill over Manwela and her sister, Rose. Manwela wrapped her arms around herself to keep warm. She looked at the dwindled fire of the barbecue and edged closer to it. The night felt suddenly hostile.
“But as I was telling you, Tony absolutely doesn’t want to take Gabriela to a psychologist.”
“I don’t see why not, everyone does it now.” Rose replied as she crossed her legs so she was sat on her right foot. In her crab-like pose her tall, curvy frame looked diminished, her charms stolen from her, as if she were trying to squeeze herself into Pandora’s box.
“You know what he’s like. But I won’t stand for it, not this time. Over Gabriela, no, I won’t let him have this one.”
“Just take her without telling him.”
“As if! If he finds out then he’ll be even angrier.”
“Come on Manwela, don’t tell me you’re still scared of him after all these years, Madonna!”
In that moment, still cold and lonely, Manwela thanked God Tony wasn’t a beating-class husband. He’d come close to it, many a time, and sometimes his words can be as bad as a beating, but at least, you know. I’m grateful, ever so grateful, that he never met wife-beaters in Cuba. Or that, so far as I know or heard, Fidel Castro never beat up his wife. That’s all he would have needed, I think. Even so:
“I can’t go behind his back, it’s not fair.”
“You have to do what’s best for Gabriela.”
“I know. And I will. You’ll see. The girl’s smart, she won’t be discouraged by whatever she has, but she needs help, isn’t that right, yes?”
“Don’t tell me, I know you’re speaking truthfully. You’d think someone so obsessed with Cuba would appreciate science and doctors. Wasn’t that was Castro was all about?”
“Don’t talk to me of Cuba, for God’s sake! Tony just uses it as it suits him. This is nothing to do with Cuba. To say everything there is to say, this is about Gabriela – he absolutely adores her, absolutely. And the fact that there might be something wrong with her terrifies him.”
“I think you’re wrong. I think he just doesn’t see it as being a problem. Let’s say she has a learning difficulty. So what? She won’t finish school, just like he didn’t. That doesn’t bother him.”
“Forget about it! The girl will continue school, don’t you see, you think I’m going to let her be another waste-of-space like his scum-picking father? Like hell she will.”
After a pregnant pause Rose gathered her thoughts and asked with a mermaid’s sigh: “what’d you think she’ll be when she grows up?”
“I don’t care, as long as she doesn’t have to struggle like we did.”
The night had settled in now. The winds grew colder and the whole nocturnal beach could make you feel whatever it wanted you to feel. That was its sole purpose. All those millions of years of slow, Sisyphean changes and evolution, the dying of the still-bright stars, the erosion of the timeless waves; all that so it can lull you into whatever fiction it fancied choosing for you.
Manwela began to wonder who was more real, the woman she felt herself to be, or the woman she gave the impression of being.
“Another drink, Rose?”
“I’m going to meet Suleiman soon, I don’t like him smelling alcohol on my breath.”
“When are you going to stop seeing him?”
“Why the fuck should I?”
“You’ve been with a lot of bad men in your time, Rose, but a Libyan?”
“I’m not like that, Manwela. You know it.” Rose moved her foot from underneath her and she rubbed it to get rid of the pins and needles. “I don’t judge people. I don’t care if they’ve done drugs or jail time or if they’re Muslim; I just see people.”
“You just see men, to say it more accurately.”
“Manwela, lay off it, you hardly even know him. The guy’s a businessman, he owns a watch-making factory in Tripoli, Gaddafi even visited it once, he’s an important guy, he’s not street-trash.”
“Rose, my sweetheart, he could have been the prince of Jordan, it has nothing to do with it. But as long as he’s a Muslim you have no future together. What will you do if you ever get married? You think he’ll let you stay a Christian? And even if you did, what would Ma think, raising children – if it came to that – without having them baptised or going to church?”
“Come on Manwela you sound like you’re from the 1500’s! The Great Siege and the war between Knights and Turks is over, you know! Things aren’t the same as when we were young. People get married regardless of their faith. I don’t understand you. You want Gabriela to have a better time of it than we did and then you go talking like that.”
“That’s different. That’s jobs and education. But religion is religion. That doesn’t change. I don’t want Gabriela to suffer like we did, but of course she’s a Christian like us.”
“Like us? Like you! Tony’s hardly a Christian.”
Manwela sighed and bit her lower lip. The conversation was over. Both women retreated back into their respective, parallel corners. They were always like that, the two of them, leading similar lives lived at similar speeds, but like parallel lines they could never meet anywhere, not in a thousand lifetimes.
Manwela was secretly seething. Not at what Rose had gotten wrong but what she’d gotten right. And Rose, herself, knew what she had gotten right. How could Manwela throw stones at me for dating a Libyan when she, in essence, married an atheist?
And not just an atheist, but a fucking Communist. No, this isn’t about religion, this is about race. It didn’t matter if Tony was obsessed with Cuba. What’s the worst Cubans could do, force you to smoke a cigar or make you dance a salsa? It didn’t matter, Tony was still Maltese. But to her Libyans, hell, Libyans are all like Gaddafi, terroristic by nature, barbaric, savages among savages. And I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit!
But she forgets, my sister, what Tony was like when they first met. After he decided to marry her, after getting it out of his head once and for all not to go back to Cuba, we had to convince him not to go off fighting in Angola, where he wanted to support Cuban troops fighting against American imperialism and South African apartheid. The way he talked back then, he absolutely frightened me. The details of the battles, the casualties, the torture – he knew all those things. Why should a man about to be married, when he should be at his happiest, be so obsessed by depravities and war? No one else in Malta was as war-starved as he was. We’d all had enough of war; the Second World War, we all hoped, was the war to end all wars in Malta. But not for Tony.
He had reached some kind of peak of anger. Not an easy thing to witness, especially for such an intimidating, strong, well-built and mysterious guy. I’ve known my fair share of criminals, but Tony, back then, looked dangerous. All Malta’s criminals, that I knew, at least, her drug dealers and petty thieves, were provincial, small-minded, dumb. But Tony was smart, he was looking at some big picture you couldn’t make out, and that omniscience made you fear something dreadful, something big.
Why did he have to make the world’s problems his problems? I know blacks were suffering in South Africa, that America was colonising any country where it feared a Marxist uprising, and that the Soviet Union was supplying red-banana republics enough arms to cause dozens of miniature armageddons all over the globe – but to hell with all that, those are the world’s problems, not yours.
“You give up on one man, Rose, you give up on everyone, including your own family.” He told me that at the airport, once, when I caught him on his way to catch a flight to fucking Angola. I was working as a check-in clerk back then with the fledgling Air Malta. I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks and that was the first time I had seen him with a full, black, wiry beard. The sight of him was teasing me with a diversity of impressions. I was confused, humbled – but I refused to succumb to either feeling. For my sister’s sake.
“You can’t get on that flight, Tony.”
“Why the hell not, Rose?”
“Because Manwela’s pregnant.”
“It’s true. She told me yesterday. You can’t leave her.” His head fell into his hands. I could see his lips collapse behind his jet-black, barbed-wire beard. “Tony, please, move aside, there are other passengers waiting.” He moved aside and I checked in an old, silver-maned British couple. But I kept my eyes fixed on Tony. Who cares if I made a mistake? Air Malta wasn’t going to last anyway. The Nationalists won’t leave it standing, they’ll sell it off as soon as they get the chance.
And then it was as if, in that moment, Tony realised there was more to living than death – there was life too. That realisation made him lay down his backpack like a defecting soldier dropping his arms. And what he said to me then I took to be the dawn of a new Cuban. But I didn’t realise at the time that it also explained what the old Cuban had been about.
“I’m going to be a dad? Fuck, now’s my chance, now’s my chance to make things right.”
With that, he ran off. I knew what he was talking about, of course. His ‘chance to make things right’. He was talking about his father. Now was his chance to undo his childhood. He would be a new father. That, that would be Tony’s greatest revolution. I admired him immensely, then. And I realise now that his desire to stay in Cuba and to go to Angola emerged from the same source that made him stay behind: he wanted to get his soul as far away as possible from his father. A disgusting, feeble, lazy old man who treated his children with anger, bitterness and self-indulgence. That wouldn’t be Tony. Whatever it took. It nearly took Cuba. Nearly took a war. In the end, all it took was Gabriela.
A man will do anything to emancipate himself from the shackles of his childhood.
At this time the Cuban and Gabriela were walking along the far end of the beach. They had taken off their shoes and were walking in the shallow water. The Cuban sipped from his mojito as Gabriela fired off story after story about her school-life. Then, as if she noticed that the mojito interested her father more than her stories, she asked him: “daddy, can I have a sip?”
“Sure. But only one.” She took the long black straw into her mouth, as small as the beak of a squid, and sucked up the strong, effervescent liquid.
“Ouch. That hurts.” She said. The Cuban laughed.
“But it’s a good hurt, right?”
“Aha! Can I have another sip?”
“No, that’s enough Gabriela.”
“I don’t get it daddy, why is alcohol so bad? It’s fun right? And you always say things that are fun are good for you.”
“You’re right, Gabriela, but you have to remember, even fun has its limits. If you drink too much then you become addicted to it. And that’s bad.”
“What does add-ict-ed mean?”
“It means you want something so much you can’t control it.”
“But isn’t that a good thing, like when you love someone?”
The Cuban laughed and turned his head to the horizon screened-off by the night. “Even being addicted to love can be a bad thing, Gabriela.”
“I don’t know, really, you’re too smart for me.”
“I’m not! I’m not smart.”
“You’re smart enough to know what’s important in life, my daughter.”
“Can we go swimming daddy, can we, can we please?”
“Swimming? Gabriela can’t you feel the water’s fucking freezing!”
“So? I wanna swim, I wanna have fun!” She smiled a cheeky smile, her eyes bowed, the tips of her canines poking out behind her pursed lips.
“Oh fuck it then, but don’t tell your Ma!”
They held each other’s hands and began to march slowly into the icy water. It felt like death row; but every shot of frigid anguish produced a ripple of laughter. When the water was around waist-high for Gabriela, he could see that she was about to give up. She can’t give up, he told himself. This is what she has to live for. So what if she’s got learning problems. In life you have to pick your battles. Gabriela, this is your battle.
“Close your eyes, go on.”
“Just close them. I’m going to carry you, ok, so you’re above the water, ok?”
“Ok… I think, yes, I guess.” She closed her eyes, her arms outstretched as if she were standing on a gymnastics beam. The Cuban picked her up, she flinched at the touch of his cold hands, then he carried her in his arms, her eyes still faithfully closed. Her dark brown curls and their cucumber scent got caught up in his prickly, cigar-washed beard. They tickled him. He giggled and then hurled Gabriela into the water.
She screamed, screeched, kicked up, the half-moon above giving her screams an other-worldly echo. He could see her splashing, thrusting and waving, one scream cascading into another, her wet curls twirling like a demented merry-go-round. Then she stopped, looked at the Cuban and shouted out through shivering lips: “are you serious?”
The Cuban’s lips were shivering too – with laughter. “I am, by god I am, but look at you, you’re doing it, you’re swimming – in May!”
“Of course I’m swimming you didn’t give me a f-f-fucking choice!” The Cuban laughed even harder as he heard her trying to howl out her first ever swear word.
“I’m sorry to trick you, but that’s life, chica!” He laughed as he watched her face roll back and forward between anger and delight.
Suddenly he could feel her crashing into him, it was a real aquatic rugby tackle, and now she was on top of him as he himself kicked and splashed in the near-god-damn-arctic water. When he re-emerged, freezing, his heart-beating several shades of blue, he saw a terrified, shrunken Gabriela trying to hug herself warm. She looks like Bobby used to, my father’s big, bastard Alsatian, when he’d eaten an expensive cut of my father’s meat and dutifully awaited punishment.
“I’m going to get you now.” He said, edging slowly closer, closer to her. She gave out a half-scream, half-laugh, then dived into the water and began swimming, her breast-strokes perfectly timed and choreographed, as the Cuban gave chase. The frenzied, mad, indecorous chase gave life to the black stillness, the church and the village on the steep hill above the bay watched on, jealously, yes, even god was jealous, no god could ever laugh this much –
– “Ow, ow, ow, ow!”
“Gabriela! What’s wrong?”
“Something bit me! Ow, ow, ow!”
He could hear she wanted to cry but the fast-flowing water kept interrupting her. The Cuban rushed up to her. In the violet darkness he could see a long, red scar going diagonally across her face, from her forehead, over the bridge of her nose, onto her flushed cheeks. He hugged her lightly and ran his hands through her hair.
“It’s alright, darling, it was just a jellyfish.”
“It hurts, it hurts.”
The Cuban carried Gabriela in his arms and began walking back to the barbecue area. As he carried her he made superficial jokes. He told her: “you look like Scar from The Lion King.” He also said to her: “we’re going to have to wee on you now.” She cried even more. “But it’s the best thing for a jellyfish sting!” “The bite’s on my face!” She bit back without any trace of humour, her eyes shrunken behind their vale of tears. So the Cuban dropped the jokes.
When they got back to the barbecue Manwela came rushing out to meet them. “What happened, my God?” The Cuban sat Gabriela down in a plastic white beach chair and began to apply vinegar to the bite. “It’s going to sting a bit darling, but then again, you’re used to that now.” She cried as he dabbed the vinegar on the sore scar. Manwela stroked her arm tenderly, whispering “shh-shh” consolingly into her ears. When the vinegar was applied Gabriela began to calm down.
“How the hell did a jellyfish bite her on her face?”
Gabriela, her tears eased like the last drizzle of rain after a storm, answered: “we went swimming and as I swam I just felt a red-hot sting all across my face!”
“Swimming! It’s freezing out there, and you took her swimming! Are you serious?”
I took her swimming? No, she begged me to go swimming. Why is this my fault. Gabriela wanted to go swimming. Not me.
“Why not, it’s practically summer.”
“It’s a fucking cold night Tony, you don’t take a girl swimming in these conditions!”
Half-jokingly, the Cuban replied, “don’t people usually go for their first swim in the feast of St. Gregory’s? And that’s in April.”
“But they don’t go at fucking night when a majjistral is blowing!”
“Oh whatever, it’s just a jellyfish sting. She’ll live.”
“It’s not about the jellyfish Tony, what if she got sick, what if she got pneumonia! She still has school, don’t you know! You really don’t think things through.”
Why isn’t Gabriela owning up? Why is she letting me take the heat for all this? Thinking like that made the Cuban’s anger swell. “Oh leave me alone, for god’s sake, if it were up to you she’d never go anywhere, never do anything! She’s a child, she’s meant to get sick!”
“She gets sick enough without going swimming at fucking night! And what if that scar doesn’t go away?”
“Don’t be stupid now! I’ve had hundreds of jellyfish stings – they all go away. Can’t believe your stupidity sometimes.”
“I’m stupid? I’m stupid!” She laughed, contorting her face into a Lascaris mask.
The Cuban began applauding. Slowly, widely, loudly. “Give it up to Our Lady Manwela. She who does no wrong. Bow your head and worship her. The Immaculate fucking Conception.”
“Go fuck yourself, Tony.”
Manwela stormed off towards the car, and her Magdalenian shadow, her sister, followed her. As he watched her flee the Cuban felt magnanimous. He felt proud, victorious, a triumphal arch ought to be built in his fucking image. He was a tank, a blitzkrieg, a philosopher-king, yes, that too, he knew Manwela was there in the car now, weeping into her sister’s push-up bra, like a daughter suckling at her mother’s venomous teats; she cries so she can manipulate me; bring it on; I’m such a monster, a curr, a cunt, but I’m sorry, I’m right, she knows it, her god and all the saints know it, so let her cry, let her disgorge herself, and me, fuck, I fancy another mojito.
He walked through the stinging silence. He went to the cooler, took out a handful of ice and guided them into a plastic cup. He poured in the rum, the sugar, the fresh mint and soda and mixed it with a long spoon. He thrust into the drink a thick black straw and took a sip. Ebullient, he walked over to Gabriela.
“How’s it feel now, my princess?”
She shook her head, tear-less, pouting heavily.
“Poor thing. You are unlucky, aren’t you?” He placed a winged kiss on her flushed cheek.
“Daddy, why did the jellyfish bite me? It’s not fair.” She whispered the broken sentence as if she were still swimming, struggling.
“It’s not fair, I know. It doesn’t make sense, does it?”
“It’s cruel. What did I do to the jellyfish?”
“Nothing. Don’t think like that.” He could see her lips quivering again, the calm before another storm.
“It’s so mean. It’s so, so mean. Why me?” The storm now unleashed itself. But not in the way the Cuban had expected. She wasn’t sobbing nor wailing. She wept maturely, gracefully, un-moving. This seriousness disturbed the Cuban. And it made him take her words with a great pinch of seriousness.
“Listen, my heart, listen to me. These things happen. And even worse things happen. I don’t know why and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re strong. Ok? Come on, you’re my girl. You need to be strong, yes? I don’t like to see you cry. I want to see you smiling, you look so damn pretty when you smile. Now, how about a piggy-back, you want a piggy-back?” She nodded her head sullenly. “Fine. But on one condition: you have to stop crying. Otherwise no piggy-back. Deal?”
She nodded and with her dainty wrists tore away at her tears until her face was as dry as night. Forlornly, she climbed onto his back. She felt tall now, she felt as if she were flying, she could smell her father’s hair, her arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, he felt like a mountain and like a soft-toy at the same time – I wonder what Ma feels like? What would she feel like if she gave me a piggy-back?