Truth at First Light (UG)

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Let me take you way back in time, and far away across the sea, to a little island in the Caribbean, down to its bustling capital, onto a noisy side street not far from the centre of the town, and into a music club, one of many nestled in the choking passages of downtown Havana. Now, I've been dancing since I was a girl, and I had fallen in love with the smoky atmosphere and steamy intensity of these vibrant joints. I'd also fallen in love with Carlos, one of the dancers who worked in the Corazon de Oro. He was lithe-limbed and smooth-skinned, supple both on the dance floor and off it. And my infatuation with him blinded me to his many other girlfriends, and to his more serious flirtations with Lady Luck, playing 8 dice cubolo at the open-air nightclubs.

I'd come to the island originally with my father, a jazzman eager to learn about the Cuban style, and I'd spent a summer as his assistant, getting to know the various venues and operators. When papa returned to Miami, I stayed on.

On that particular night I was longing to dance. The day had been searingly hot, making me crotchety, and I needed some intense physical activity to burn off my temper. I'd dressed carefully in a white cotton frock, with a tight-fitting bodice and a flowing skirt that twirled divinely. I had carefully applied my reddest lipstick, fantasising as I pressed the waxy cylinder to my lips about the man I hoped would soon be licking it off.

I picked my way through the scented evening air, and crossed the tree-lined Plaza de Armas. The clubs were just beginning to liven up for the evening, and snatches of sensual saxophone and cool clarinet snaked their way out of the odd open door, curling their magic around me, beckoning me to join them. I cursed the dust on the roads for sticking to my dancing shoes – red to match my lips, and my passion. Descending the stairs into the Corazon, I began my search for Carlos, but the club was practically empty. I caught the barman's eye and he poured me my usual mojito.

"Have you seen Carlos this evening?" I enquired as I sipped on the minty nectar. The barman shook his head, leaned over the bar to me, and said:

"Carlos lost a lot of money last night: now many bad men are chasing him, and wishing him dead. If he has any sense, no-one will see him for a long time."

He reached his arm to me and gently caught my wrist as I went to turn away.

"He is no good for you, senorita Beatricia, his first love will always be the dice."

I sighed heavily and pulled myself onto a bar stool, smoothing out the folds in my white skirt. I knew he was right. The plans I'd made for this evening – the frenzied excitement of dancing, the barefoot walk home in the moonlight, the warmth of another's arms – all vanished in an instant. Instead, the whole of my evening, and the whole of my life, suddenly seemed very empty. For the first time in a while, I missed my father.

I downed my mojito, jumped off the stool and climbed back up the stairs to the exit.

Outside, a gay band of revellers was filling the air with raucous glee. The juxtaposition of their laughter with my tears was too painful, and I turned off the main drag of La Rampa into a series of side alleyways, that led eventually to the back of the Hotel Nacional.

A low whistle, and a voice that called "Hey pretty lady, why so sad?" made me stop in my tracks, and I turned slowly, recognising first the voice, and then the grin on the face that poked out of the shadows and into the moonlight.

"Tito!" I cried, "How lovely to see you again! You and the boys playing here tonight?"

"Sure are!" he stated proudly, indicating his white tuxedo. I waved hola to the rest of the band, stubbing out their cigarettes and preparing to go back on stage.

"It's a mighty fine party in there tonight – why don't I sneak you in with us? You look a picture in that dress, let's go and show it off...."

I didn't need asking twice, and we made our way through the ancillary corridors, emerging beside the stage of the grand ballroom, with its parquet floor and glittering chandelier. In the centre of the room, a pyramid of champagne saucers had been constructed, and a pair of red-vested waiters were skilfully pouring the green bottles into the topmost glass, from where creamy bubbles tumbled down into the glasses below in a decadent fountain.

Around it stood a group of exquisitely dressed men and women, and a ripple of applause greeted the tower of filled glasses. The waiters began to hand out the glasses of bubbly, and I hovered next to a lady in a grey silk evening gown to obtain mine unobtrusively. I slunk back to the wall to watch, as the band struck up with El Manisero.

"Well hello there!"

I was taken by surprise by the friendly greeting from this moustachioed elderly gentleman in the slightly unkempt linen suit, but there was something about the twinkle in his eye that enticed me.

"Good evening" I said politely, turning my head slightly so that I could catch Tito's avuncular eye. The latter gave me an approving wink, and so I continued my conversation with this intriguing stranger.

"Lovely party, isn't it?"

"Oh, if you like that sort of thing, I suppose. I'd prefer to be having a proper drink in the bar. Or even better, out fishing," he replied.

"I've never tried fishing," I explained. "I can't really see the attraction."

"Oh but my dear, it's one of the finest battles between man and beast! A fellow's got to have his wits about him to catch those wily and beguiling creatures," he said, looking deep into my eyes as he did so, which made me wonder which particular creature he was currently trying to net.

"Come, let's dance." He took my champagne glass from me, and set it with his on a nearby table, before pulling me onto the dance floor and holding me close as the band swayed into a sultry rumba.

"My, you're quite a mover," he whispered into my ear, and I felt the warmth of his breath, and a frisson of exhilaration course through my body, as his right hand on my waist pressed me ever so slightly closer.

"Here's an idea," he announced. "Why don't I show you some of the fish I've caught? Maybe then you'd understand their fascination. Come on, my car's outside, it's not far."

His tone was so authoritative and commanding that I didn't dare refuse, and anyway, I was young and foolish enough to relish the risk I was taking. He propelled me round the edge of the dance floor, through the lobby and outside, where stood an imposing chrome laden Cadillac.

We drove out of town in near silence, until we reached a one-storied stucco building by the sea. The villa seemed deserted as we entered the cool marble-floored vestibule, and he led me out to the veranda with its view of the palm-fringed shore. He stood behind me as I gasped in admiration at the sight, and then whispered "Yes, it's quite stunning from where I'm standing" and gently kissed the back of my neck.

I turned my body round so that I was facing him.

He placed a hand on either side of my face, tilted my chin upwards, and planted a long, salty kiss on my mouth. His hands moved slowly so that his fingers wound their way into my hair, and I felt myself once more falling madly and instantly in love...

As we lay together in the afterglow, no sound but the gentle slap of the waves on the shore, and his rhythmic breathing beside me, I picked up a sheet of paper from a bundle lying on the side table, and began to read.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

I read on, and on, and on.

The sky in the east melted from indigo velvet into azure silk. The first rays of the morning sun fell on the crumpled bed linen, on my crumpled white dress, and on crumpled sheets of paper, where Ernest had been less than happy with what he had written. I watched the dust fairies shimmer in the hazy shaft, the brightness turning them from the mundane into sparkling. How things change depending on how they are viewed, I philosophised with the clarity that morning brings.

And at that moment, I determined that I too would become a writer.

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