“Ladies and gentlemen, your flight to
has departed. There is no other flight leaving for Madrid Europe tonight. I do not know when you will leave the country. I am sorry I cannot be of more help. Muchas gracias.”
With these words, the uniformed official vanished through a door behind the row of check-in desks, a door which she closed firmly behind her. No time for questions. No time to protest. Just silence and the discordant clicking and whirring of ceiling fans.
Maeve looked on aghast. She was still clutching her Cubana Aviation airline ticket, which had wilted in the oppressive heat and humidity. For six months she’d cradled and safeguarded the ticket but now it was a worthless piece of paper. Overhead there was the momentary roar of a jet plane, her plane, and then nothing but the clicking and whirring. She glanced across at her fellow travellers; all of them looked exhausted, defeated, the raggle-taggle remains of a vanquished army. Maeve moaned and put her head in her hands.
A sudden sharp insistent knocking made her look up. One of the group, a rugged well-built thirty-something man, was standing outside the door that had just closed behind the now deserted check-in desks. There was no response. The gentle tap tap tap of a typewriter on the other side remained steady, he rapped more forcefully this time, just below the sign directora. Still no pause in the typing. He turned and glanced at the group, seeking guidance. Maeve pointed to a large gap, a hole, in the office wall about three or four metres along to the man’s left. He moved swiftly to the opening and knocked again, this time on the plasterwork framing it, which began to crumble into dust under the urgency of his fist. He addressed the directora,
The typing continued unabated.
Once again he glanced back at his cohorts. Maeve shrugged her shoulders but one of the other passengers must have signalled because she saw him nod and turn to face the hole again, more decisively this time. The opening was big enough for him to get his head through if he kneeled and craned his neck, which he did, and from that position he pleaded with the directora,
“Madam, I am travelling home with my elderly mother, I have to be in
before Monday morning to start a new job at nine o’clock. What is going to happen to us?” Madrid
Still no pause in the typing. Maeve, cocked her head to one side and got an oblique glimpse of the airport director’s back, which remained stubbornly hunched over the typewriter, feigning deafness. Francisco, that was his name Maeve learned later, abandoned his somewhat ridiculous, kneeling posture, slowly got to his feet and announced that it was pointless trying to get any help from the directora.
The travellers, ten in all, withdrew en masse to the coffee bar at the back of the empty departure lounge, where they exchanged a few comments on the general hopelessness of their situation. Three were Greek and spoke only limited Spanish; they soon gave up and drifted off into their own language. Nobody showed any initiative after Francisco’s failed entreaties to the directora. They waited without knowing what they were waiting for. Each of them had been informed at the check-in desk, without apologies, that they would not be boarding their flight that evening due to overbooking. Apart from the directora’s announcement, no further information had been forthcoming.
As the evening wore on weariness began to fray the initial mood of indignation, and silence descended on the group. Maeve wondered how she would survive this setback on her sole remaining thirteen dollars. A pickpocket had cleaned her out the previous month in
. Looking again at the limp and crumpled airline ticket in her fist, she thought, and no way home either. Peru
Just before midnight a minibus arrived and took the group to the Habana Libre hotel, where accommodation had been arranged for them. All ten gathered their bags, hastened out into the humid night air and boarded the air-conditioned bus, rejoicing at this unexpected development.
Over dinner a Spanish tour guide announced that they owed their good fortune to the Cuban government. Ten French diplomats had been expelled that night, under orders to board the first flight for
“That was your flight. Normally your airline does not concern itself with passenger accommodation in cases of ‘overbooking.’ However, because this was a political matter, the Ministry insisted you be taken care of, for tonight at least. Congratulations! Tomorrow they are going to try to get you on to a flight for
Two or three members of the group laughed sarcastically and raised their nearly empty glasses to “The Ministry” while others remarked that the only cause for celebration would be their homecoming, landing in their own country. Maeve translated the message for the Greeks from Spanish into English but they looked more perplexed than ever.
“What would we do in
? We’re wearing sun hats and sandals. For God’s sake!” Moscow
“I don’t care. As long as I get to
Europe I don’t mind. Europe, east or west, is infinitely more civilised than this mess. I’ll take a train home.”
“What about visas? We have no visas.”
Maeve fantasised momentarily about this unexpected opportunity to visit
and then remembered her thirteen dollars. It was disastrous. Moscow
“So, what do you think is going to happen?”
She turned to face the man who had pleaded with the directora; he had moved round the table and was sitting next to her,
“I’m Francisco. I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself back in the airport.”
Maeve smiled inwardly at the image she had of him on his knees.
“How’s your mother coping with the disruption? Is she upset?
“There is no mother and there is no job on Monday either. But I’d sell my grandmother to get off this island. I’ve been here long enough.”
Francisco explained in some detail that he had been working in
for four months, under contract to the government. His company had been hired for a specific purpose; at this point he lowered his voice, Cuba
“I was hired as part of a diving team on a very unusual mission. We were hired to recover treasure.”
Maeve raised her eyebrows,
”Really! You mean the Inca hoards from sunken galleons?”
“No, these treasures have only been in the sea for about quarter of a century, since the time of the revolution in 1959. That was when the majority of the bourgeoisie left the country with the idea of taking a long vacation in
Florida until the new government was overthrown, at which point they would return to their very comfortable lifestyles and palatial homes in . However, as you know, Fidel and his comrades have lasted longer than anyone could have imagined. The wealthy refugees have been stranded all this time on the other side of the Florida Straits, fearful that their most prized and priceless possessions would be confiscated by a government they loathed. In many cases they were right. They’ve lost their homes, businesses, land, and a lot more besides. “ Cuba
Taking a lengthy sip of his beer he looked at Maeve and added,
“When these people left
it was a sight to see. They crammed art, antiques, elaborate pieces of jewellery, and stacks of money into their suitcases. Then they staggered on to Miami-bound planes, leaving their servants in charge back here. Taking the money was stupid, though. In 1961, the Cuban government outfoxed them by changing the paper currency virtually overnight; making all money not deposited in the bank in the hours after the decree was passed, worthless. It was a game of brinkmanship and the government won.” Cuba
“So, where do your diving skills fit into this picture?”