“Tiene hora, por favor?”
Sara sighed, registered her annoyance at the interruption, and looked askance at the stranger, paying particular attention to his wrist, he wasn’t wearing a watch. White and well dressed, she noted, she replied courteously,
“It’s just after nine o’clock.”
But he didn’t go away. Instead he complimented her on her excellent Spanish and asked for permission to walk alongside with a politeness and humility that made it difficult to refuse. She assented with a shrug of her shoulders and a tight smile. Behind her sunglasses Sara rolled her eyes, irritated at the nerve of the stranger, and steeled herself for the usual battery of questions. “Where do you come from? What are you doing in
? How long have you lived here?” Questions which were inevitably followed by the crucial, “Have you got a husband?” Cuba
The stranger surprised her by simply introducing himself, his name was Ernesto, and then he remarked at some length on the elegant landscape of Quinta Avenida, probably the most beautiful street in the world. Something in Ernesto’s tone of voice was disarming and Sara quickly relaxed into the conversation, making an effort to pay attention to his comments, banal as they were, possibly as penance for her initial cynicism and mistrust, she later reflected.
As they strolled westward in the early morning heat Sara felt blessed and privileged to be living on this exuberant
Caribbean island. Here, the colours were vivid, the breeze was gentle and the conversation was an unexpected, but not entirely welcome, distraction from her problems, mostly financial at this point, although she feared that a marital break up would soon eclipse them. Turning her attention to Ernesto, who had fallen silent as he kept abreast with her, she asked what he did for a living. Part of her was curious about the inconsistency between his demeanour and immaculate style, puzzled rather, as she later recalled. The pale blue shirt and white cotton chinos had been fastidiously ironed, boasting razor sharp creases and pleats that could only have been achieved by diligent steam pressing. His clothes suggested good taste and money but his parlance hinted otherwise. Some of the strong dialect that peppered Ernesto’s speech made Sara wince, reminding her, as it did, of her husband’s coarseness. At least he wasn’t a guajiro, a “yokel” which is how Sara translated the term when prejudice slipped past her guard. Havana
For a moment or two she mused that the Cuban revolution had produced a generation of professionals whose social status would be middle class in the outside world but whose mannerisms and general lack of cultural awareness were undoubtedly proletarian. Where in there world would you find a leading university research lecturer with an established academic reputation glued to a fourth rate soap opera, except in Cuba? Once again Sara winced, this time at her arrogance and also her naïveté, she used to dream of a socialist revolution when she was a student and now she was in a country where one had taken place her dreams had collapsed under the weight of snobbishness and cynicism.
It turned out that Ernesto was employed as a chef in one of the well-known hotels in
. He’d mentioned this while Sara was engrossed in her musings but the remark had somehow registered so she was spared the embarrassment of having to admit that she hadn’t been listening to what he had said. Now he was embarking upon an account of how his car had broken down earlier that morning, insisting, in his distress, in giving her the minutiae of the incident and its consequences for him. The temperature and humidity were rising rapidly, they’d been walking for almost forty-five minutes, and he was boring her with the detail but Sara pretended to be interested. It was only another five or six minutes before they arrived at the bank, at which point she could gracefully take her leave and rid herself of this tedious man. Havana
She nodded patiently as Ernesto continued with his tale, often repeating the specifics in an increasingly urgent tone. Sara began to feel uneasy, annoyed with him for being so exigent and frustrated with herself for having allowed him to take such liberties. Not for the first time she wondered about this sense of entitlement that Cubans seemed to have in relation to foreigners, their habit of approaching a perfect stranger in the street and offloading their problems as if they had encountered a travelling therapist, one who would hopefully oblige with some kind of donation.
At that moment they reached the bank and Sara, concealing her relief, uttered her farewell solemnly and with as much sincerity as she could summon,
“Well, I am really sorry to hear that you have such difficulties but I wish you the very best of luck in sorting them out.”
The words sounded artificial, queen like, and she cringed at herself, but there was no retraction now. She held out her hand in a gesture designed to indicate she was about to take her leave, Ernesto did not reach for it. When she summoned up the image in the days and weeks to come the gesture seemed empty and horribly bourgeois, which it was. She looked at him. He was the solemn one now. Removing his sunglasses, he restated the gravity of his situation and reproached her (mildly it must be said) for not offering to assist. In the conversation that followed, which Sara reflected upon dozens, and possibly a hundred times or more, Ernesto emphasised how important it was to tow his car out of this area of Havana and over to his work place. He was a professional and had to be in the hotel by midday. To leave the car where it had broken down was to lose it because, as they both knew, criminals were quick to make a vehicle disappear into its spare parts on the black market. If she were to loan him the modest fee required for towing the car away then he would be eternally grateful. The loan would, of course, be repaid that very evening.
A wave of incredulity washed over Sara at how the conversation had taken this turn, at how this intimacy between strangers had arisen so stealthily. The stream of traffic flowing past them seemed heavier now. Removing her sunglasses, Sara looked into Ernesto’s eyes,
“My financial situation is not good. I have no work at this point and I am just about to cash the only cheque I have received since January. If I could help, I would, but I can’t, so I’m truly sorry.”
As she turned to go, he pleaded that all he needed was 22 dollars. That was the price and he didn’t have it with him now. To testify to the truth of his words, he turned both pockets of his chinos inside out to reveal a single green five peso note.
“It’s not enough, nowhere near enough, as you know. But I swear that if you come to my hotel tonight at 8.30 I will return every cent. Please Madam, do one good turn today.”