From the rocks, Ulysses glanced up to the mouth of the cave, frantically winding his fishing line around the wooden spool. Moonlight dripped from the line like dew from a spider’s web, the sea lapping against the dark rocks, the warm water running over his bare feet.
Another gunshot split the night air, still distant, but this time closer than before. Ulysses dropped the line. Grabbing his hooked catch, he edged his way over the rocky outline towards the small patch of sand below the cave. Looking up at a sudden flurry of wings that burst into the night sky, he slipped, biting down on his bottom lip so as not to cry out from the pain of the barbed fish hook that had pierced his hand.
‘The cave!’ a man shouted from the top of the hill, twenty metres above Ulysses, ‘The entrance is down here.’
In the same moment a boy rushed out from the dark mouth of the cave, hurling himself down the hillside and falling onto the small beach below.
The boy didn’t move.
Holding his breath, Ulysses watched the bulkier outlines of two soldiers descend from the cave, as a third slid down the scree and onto the sand of the tiny inlet. Just pushing himself up now, the boy cried out: the first soldier to arrive was kicking him hard. Ulysses gazed in horror as the boy’s pleas filled the inlet, the blows driving him back down into the sand.
Petrified, Ulysses tried to hide his large form, the hooks biting further into the palm of his hand as his foot slipped from the spot where he was crouching. On the beach, one of the soldiers hit the cowering teenager again. ‘Where’re they hiding? Speak!’
Ulysses gritted his teeth and wrenched the fish hooks from the skin of his palm, every muscle tense with pain as he felt the blood run down his hand.
‘Where?!’ the soldier yelled again. His voice filled the cove before he struck the side of the boy’s head violently with his clenched fist. Then he turned as though to walk away and Ulysses was sure they were leaving – but the soldier suddenly spun round and with the full force of his stride, kicked the prisoner. Releasing a sudden gasp into the air, the boy collapsed, coughing and writhing on the ground.
Ulysses tried to hold on, his nails clawing at the rock as he struggled to control a cry of desperation. His large body slid towards the calm water, his silence finally broken as he fell backwards and into the shallows.
‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’ he gasped, floundering waist-deep in the warm Caribbean Sea, one hand above his head. A shot rang out, cutting into the lapping surf less than a meter from where he stood. ‘I’m Ulysses Rodrigo – 15 Central Avenue. I work in the port, for the Canadian – on the trawlers. I’m fishing. Just fishing. I’m Ulysses Rodrigo… ’ As the words tumbled out, his whole body was rigid with fear. Steadied, he raised his other hand.
‘Cease fire!’ The Captain spoke slowly: both soldiers’ weapons were already raised. Ulysses could see their silhouettes in the moonlight, aimed in his direction. The Captain’s pistol was pointed low at the writhing form lying on the ground. ‘Walk towards us! Slowly.’
Ulysses waded towards the three men. He felt his feet sink into the soft sand and his hands throbbed above his head, the blood trickling down one of his arms from where he’d wrenched out the fishhooks. He began to shiver.
‘Rodrigo,’ the Captain muttered, half to himself, ‘Ulysses Rodrigo.’
‘Yes. I live with my uncle and aunt. My uncle works for Hennessey’s, the -’
‘ … transport company. I know who they are, Rodrigo.’
Ulysses stopped a short distance away from the figure. The boy groaned in agony on the sand, coughing: a wet gasp for air. Ulysses couldn’t see his face – it was turned in the opposite direction: he was curled up, his arms wrapped around his middle.
Glancing at the soldiers, Ulysses could see they were young. Sweat trickled from their foreheads; the one on the right was bleeding from a cut above his eye. The Captain glared at him. Even with only the moon to light up his face, Ulysses could see the excitement of the hunt still burning in his eyes.
‘Are you a commy, Ulysses?’ the Captain growled. ‘A commy bastard like this piece of shit?’ He spat at the boy on the ground. ‘Are you one of them too, Rodrigo?’
Ulysses shook his head. ‘No sir. We have some land … and a shop in Havana. My grandfather was in the army – with Batista. He trained in America, sir.’ Ulysses thought of his grandfather’s gun, which his uncle had given him only a few hours earlier. It was in his bag, behind the Captain, near the trees. It was American-issue – and he wondered if it would help to prove he was telling the truth.
‘He’s one of us, men,’ the Captain jeered sarcastically to his soldiers. They didn’t move. Ulysses glanced at them, then down at the figure of the boy, who was now on all fours, panting. One of the soldiers turned again to look at the Captain who threw him a glance and immediately the soldier drove the butt of his rifle into the prisoner’s right side. The boy’s agonising cry rang out around the cove.
‘Where are the rebels hiding?’ the Captain shouted, his eyes flashing between Ulysses and the boy. One of the soldiers yanked the head of his captive towards him and spat the words into his face, ‘Speak, you miserable bastard or –’
‘No!’ the boy stammered, coughing as he gasped for air, ‘I don’t know. I can’t swim. I turned back because I can’t swim … I don’t know where they are.’
From his voice, Ulysses could hear that the boy was younger than himself. The Captain laughed out loud as he strode around the prisoner and approached Ulysses: ‘An island dweller afraid of the water – or a lying little fucker.’ After a pause, he leaned forward, breathing his next words directly into Ulysses’ face. ‘What does the fisherman think ofthat?’
Ulysses’ heart pounded; he could hear its racing thud in his head and feel it in his throat. He flinched as the Captain thrust his pistol into his stomach, saying, ‘Prove it! Prove you’re not one of them … a commy bastard.’ Holding his breath, Ulysses stared into the Captain’s burning eyes, not understanding, his panic rising. How could he prove it?
‘Shoot the fucker.’
Ulysses felt like the world had stopped. The silence between them was deep and long. Even the groans from the figure in the sand had stopped. The order rang in Ulysses’ ears. He felt dizzy, gagged, his stomach churning. ‘But … I’m not a soldier. I’m a fisherman. I can’t –’ Ulysses stammered, unable to say it.
‘Kill him?’ The Captain finished his sentence for him. ‘You can’t kill a commy? Defend your country. Go on,’ he pointed to the back of the prisoner’s head, ‘shoot the fucker. There!’ He stood back, looking up at Ulysses, while still holding out the pistol. Ulysses began to tremble. The two soldiers took hold of the prisoner’s arms and with one sharp movement, dragged him to his knees, his back to Ulysses. The whimpering figure began to plead. ‘No. I swear, I don’t know anything. Please, no … ’
Ulysses stared at the prisoner’s back. The boy was crying now, his shoulders heaving from his wrenching sobs. One of the soldiers pointed his rifle at him; the other looked at the Captain once more, before taking aim at Ulysses.
‘Shoot him, Ulysses Rodrigo.’ The Captain grabbed Ulysses’ hand. Ulysses trembled, the cold metal of the gun digging into his wounded palm, the hot blood flowing again as the Captain forced him to close his grip around the handle of the pistol.
‘Shoot the fucker!’ the Captain breathed.
Consumed with dread, Ulysses shuffled forward, unable to lift his eyes from the sand. His uncle would have done it – protect the land. And Daniel.
‘Please, no,’ the boy’s voice was breaking with fear. He struggled, trying to look behind him, to plead with his executioner.
Ulysses remained rigid, as if by not moving he could hide from the moment. The gentle rhythmic rush of the water behind him seemed deafening as he stood, shaking. ‘Little more than a boy,’ Ulysses found himself thinking, focusing on the blood stains blotching the side of the boy’s torn shirt. ‘A rebel, not a boy. A rebel.’
‘Shoot – or be shot. It’s an order!’ The Captain’s voice rang clear through the darkness.
Ulysses finally lifted his eyes, the pistol shaking as he raised it up and aimed at the back of the prisoner’s head. Suddenly the clicking of the insects and the gurgle of a night bird in the trees just ten paces away were deafening: every sound was magnified by Ulysses’ fear.
As the last order rang out, Ulysses swung his hands up into the night sky, directing the barrel towards the gleaming stars. Closing his eyes, he squeezed the trigger, his entire body vibrating from the crack of the pistol. It had seemed stiff but as his tense finger finally felt the trigger’s release, the smell of burning filled his senses. With the pistol still pointing at the sky, the men on the beach remained still, the final echo of Ulysses’ single shot evaporating into the night.
Ulysses felt a sudden movement from the ground as he turned to see the nearest soldier drop his riffle and stagger back in a cloud of sand, his hands over his eyes. The other swung his gun and fired in the direction of the fleeing figure but before the second round of shots rang out, Ulysses had twisted his whole body and hurled away the pistol as far as possible into the darkness, as if unable to bear the weight of its responsibility any longer.
Within seconds more shots rang out. The gurgling cry of the Captain exploded into Ulysses’ face. ‘You stupid, dumb fucker!’ The Captain lunged forward, grabbing Ulysses by the throat, ‘He’s escaped!’ Ulysses fought to breathe as the Captain’s grip closed around his neck. He struggled against the man’s powerful forearm before feeling the first blow to his head. Ulysses staggered. Biting, stinging him, more punches rained down into his face.
‘You’re a commy bastard – a stupid –’ Each interjection was accompanied by another blow. ‘You stupid fuck, Rodrigo – I’ll have you shot –’
Ulysses lurched back, almost losing consciousness as he felt the crushing blows to his face and neck.
‘Don’t you understand?’ Another blow to the left, then the right. ‘Doesn’t anyone understand? If these commy bastards win, we’re screwed. Finished. Lost.’ Ulysses reeled under the thrust and pain of each punch. He covered his face with his hands, feeling the blood pour from his nose and mouth.
Then it was over. He gasped for air, falling to his knees, the moonlit sand cold on his blood-wet hands. In the time it had taken him to fall, the Captain had seized the soldier’s rifle, raising it up and spinning around to where Ulysses kneeled. The blow from the rifle’s butt ripped open the side of Ulysses’ face, the blood like hot lava erupting from the gash to his head. Ulysses fell onto the sand, enveloped in darkness.
‘Hello!’ Stephen heard Carla shout over the Latin charanga beat, a trumpet screeching high above her greeting. The smell of spicy food filled his Kensington studio apartment.
‘How was your day?’ Stephen said, as he looked around, smiling at the sight of Carla’s slim dark Cuban figure framed in the light of the open door.
‘Long,’ Carla said, as she placed her bag and laptop on the black leather couch, tip-toeing through three years of Stephen’s course notes scattered across the floor, mixed with travel and sailing magazines. As she made her way over to the music centre, she took care not to knock the white high-rise paper towers and yellow Post-it stickers torn and scuffed like tiny dusters, worn through the constant polishing of ideas that marked the syllabus’s long drawn-out development. In Stephen’s living room, each topic determined its own neighborhood across the varnished wooden floor.
Stephen watched as Carla opened the glass door of the music centre and turned the volume dial: the screeching trumpeter was almost silenced. ‘What’s up?’ shouted Stephen, pretending the music was still playing loudly. He came from behind the kitchen bar, smiling as he reached out to hug Carla.
‘Nothing’s up,’ Carla replied, returning his smile. ‘But, Jesus, Stephen, your neighbours … Aren’t you afraid they’ll complain?’ She accentuated ‘complain’ melodramatically in her best English accent, stretching up to wrap her arms around his neck.
‘Relax, Carla. I thought you’d like it. It’s Calzado – Habanera. A reminder of home. Those Havana nights. It’s a present for you.’ He kissed her gently. ‘Anyway, it’s better than that crap Disco Dave plays upstairs. What about him? I don’t see him worrying about his neighbors.’
‘I like it a lot,’ she said, squeezing him tightly as they swayed to the Latin beat. She stretched up to kiss him gently on the mouth. ‘Thank you.’
‘So, how was your day? Were you working on the exams, by any chance?’ Stephen laughed, teasing her. ‘Are the papers in your bag? I’ll take them through to the bedroom, if you like.’
Carla twisted away from him, sweeping the case from the couch and wrapping her arms around it protectively. ‘Stephen,’ she laughed, ‘I’ve told you, you haven’t earned enough points. You’re miles out – although the dinner smells good. But I think something’s beginning to burn.’
‘Shit!’ Stephen cursed, as he darted back to the kitchen and his cooking. He could hear Carla laughing, as she turned towards the bathroom.
‘Do you ever take anything seriously?’ she shouted down the corridor.
‘Of course! I take not taking things too seriously very seriously. And you. I take you seriously,’ Stephen shouted back, frantically trying to save the rice that had stuck to the bottom of the pan.
A moment later she was back. ‘There.’ Her hand sought the skin of his back, as she pulled the shirt from out of his jeans, ‘Exams under lock and key.’
Carla’s beauty lay not only in her figure – which was defined but not fully revealed through the loose clothes she wore – but also in her character. To Stephen, her continual striving to achieve beyond her best was beautiful, although at times he felt it put her under strain. The long hours of class preparation had told on her complexion and made her eyes appear even darker. Most of the other lecturers used the same notes as the previous years or bastardised what they found on the internet. Carla was continually looking for new material.
‘Thanks a bunch, Professor,’ Stephen continued to tease, as he scooped the rice onto her plate. ‘Anyway … I’ve a surprise for you.’ He smiled as he handed Carla her dinner, while she pulled the stool out from under the American-style bar. They always ate there when Carla was over: the table in the corner was full of Stephen’s notes and travel books.
‘What surprise?’ Carla said, a note of apprehension in her voice. ‘I don’t like surprises.’ She looked up at Stephen, her smile fading.
‘Smells great,’ Carla said quietly, raising her plate and breathing in, ‘especially that sort of burning aroma. I love that about your cooking.’ She glanced at Stephen. ‘I’ve a surprise too.’
‘Yes?’ Stephen said, his eyebrows raised. ‘What?’ He had known Carla for three years but it was the first time she had had a surprise for him. It was true that she didn’t like surprises, but he was hoping the one he had for her would be a welcome one. ‘Well?’ He smiled, thinking how mad it would be if her surprise was the same as his.
‘You first,’ she said apprehensively, before lifting the fork to her mouth. Stephen watched the silver reflection in the gloss of her lips.
‘No – you first.’
Her eyes fixed on his, Carla shook her head. ‘Go on … what is it?’
The sound of children playing on the green outside drifted in through the open third-floor window. Most of the Edwardian houses around the square had been converted into apartments. It was once a rundown London suburb, but the boom had brought change and it was now a sought-after part of the city – too expensive for Stephen’s student loan, but he stayed there anyway, constantly postponing the reality of the state of his finances until after his exams.
Carla leaned over the tiled surface and stroked the back of Stephen’s hand as they blew on their vegetarian curry. ‘Tell me,’ she whispered, ‘what’s your surprise?’
Stephen leaned over and pulled the sheets of paper from under his laptop. He ran his other hand forward over his short brown hair. ‘There’s an offer – two for the price of one – to Cuba. You could visit home and show me everything you’ve talked about. I’d love to see it, Carla. I want you to show it to me.’ Stephen paused, staring at Carla expectantly. He knew she hadn’t been home in years. He watched, as she stopped eating and put her folk down.
‘No,’ Carla said, looking down at her plate. ‘We can’t. You can’t.’
‘We can. The visa’s easy for me.’
‘You’ve your final exams in less than a month.’
‘No – after,’ Stephen said, thinking that Carla thought they were going immediately, ‘26 June. After the exams.’
‘Why?’ Stephen looked into Carla’s eyes. Her face was taut; tense.
‘Christ, Stephen! Because you have a student loan to pay; you have a car to fix; you have a credit card bill longer than your bloody arm, and you need to find a job,’ – she looked around his apartment – ‘to pay for all of this.’
‘Don’t worry about the money Carla, I’ll pay. Well,’ Stephen smiled mischievously, ‘I have paid.’ He pushed the sheets of paper towards her plate. ‘They’re e-tickets. The rest comes through the post. It’s for eight weeks – for the summer holidays.’
Stephen watched as Carla looked around his apartment. The photographs next to the plasma screen – in one of them, Stephen’s slender outline leaning out of a dinghy, the white spray of a wave drenching him. In another, next to it, he was laughing, holding up a trophy: she had taken that one last year when he had won the laser class regatta against 29 competing Universities. The small golden trophy was next to the picture. The apartment was full of his life.
‘I can’t,’ Carla said. Stephen had to lean forward to hear her. ‘I’ve a Battle of Ideas Conference. Hugo Chavez is speaking, and the department is paying for me to go over toSpain as their representative.’
‘But someone else could go.’
‘They can’t: they asked me. And I’ve to finish my doctorate; I’ve exams; I have to renew my visa.’
‘But – ’
‘I can’t!’ Carla shouted, slamming down her hand on the tiled surface of the counter. ‘And you didn’t even ask me, didn’t even think to ask if I could go, or wanted to go, or can afford to go. Christ, Stephen, when are you going to grow up … when?’
‘But you don’t have to worry about – ’
‘The money?’ Carla shouted. ‘Don’t be so stupid. Of course I do. You do – but of course, you don’t.’ Carla glared at Stephen. He stared back at her in amazement. He’d thought she would be delighted – over the moon to have a paid holiday, thrilled with the idea of eight weeks together.
‘No,’ Carla said, standing up and pushing her plate away. ‘I can’t. We can’t.’
Stephen stared at her. They very rarely argued and Carla hardly ever raised her voice like this. ‘It’s me who’s supposed to be stressed with the exams, Carla, not you.’
Their relationship had started within weeks of Stephen enrolling in Carla’s class at the university. Stephen thought of it as his second serious relationship. He didn’t know where he ranked for Carla. His first relationship had ended at the same time as his travels, which hadn’t been the usual six months’ backpacking in Australia, but six years’ travelling through Asia, Oz and then across to Latin America, where he’d learnt to speak Spanish.
‘Lost your better half,’ the lads had joked when he finally arrived back to his Wycombe home, ‘a poorer but a richer man.’ Most of his savings were gone, but Stephen’s easy way with people had secured him a job within two weeks’ of his return. A year as a sales rep had given him the funds and motivation to return to university and complete his degree. And then he had met Carla.
There were many things about her that Stephen still didn’t understand. The preservation of every bit of food, their remains collected to be used in a fry-up, even though she passed a new Super Max Tesco on her way to work every day. The way she crossed the room in the dark to draw the curtains before she switched on the light. Her cheap studio flat that backed onto the M11: it was sparse with old, peeling lino on the floor. She was a university lecturer and lived in worse conditions than her students.
Carla scraped the remains of their dinner into a Tupperware container and slid it into the fridge. He would probably throw it away tomorrow. Neither of them spoke. He watched as she tidied the kitchen and began to wash the dishes. This was something else he didn’t understand: her preservation of water – like the half-flush of the toilet when she went for a pee or the way she didn’t leave the shower running when she was washing her hair or brushing her teeth. Stephen hated washing up. And even more so, when he’d bought a perfectly good dishwasher. He had paid for the water. The Borough Council took money from his account every month for giving him his share of the rain: there was no point in saving it.
‘Go and study. I’ll finish up here,’ she said, piling the plates next to the sink.
‘I’m not hungry.’ She glanced up at the clock. ‘I could catch the nine-fifteen bus home. I’d be back at mine for eleven.’
‘Don’t be silly! You’re not going at this time of night. And there’s class first thing tomorrow morning.’ Stephen rarely lost his temper or yelled, but the frustration and disappointment he felt at Carla’s response had put him in a bad mood. ‘So, I take it you don’t feel like going home to Cuba,’ he said, trying to make light of their disagreement. It usually worked for him, but this time he was finding it difficult to reduce the tension in the air.
‘I’ve said what I have to say,’ Carla said without looking round, ‘I don’t want to talk more about it tonight. Go and study. You’ve less than three weeks before the exams.’
Stephen looked at his books on the table before turning back to Carla. ‘You haven’t told me your surprise.’ He breathed in deeply, saying sarcastically, ‘I can’t wait.’
Carla responded by making more noise as she stacked the plates on the draining board. Finally she said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’
It was almost midnight when Stephen left his books to join her in the bedroom. He walked over to the wall-mounted heater, setting the timer. Carla was always cold.
She was already in bed. Stephen didn’t speak but he could tell she was awake. Normally they chatted easily at this time of night. He never tired of listening to her ideas. Ideas and theories that he would again listen to in class and that would remind him of where he had first heard them, enveloped in her warmth or drinking coffee in the open-plan kitchenette of his apartment. Carla’s economic and social theories would meander through time and geography, and leave Stephen feeling frustrated that he’d travelled for all those years and hadn’t noticed a tenth of what she was speaking of.
Much of what she taught, Stephen couldn’t grasp in some senses. Couldn’t imagine it; couldn’t feel it. And that had become a preoccupation for him. He wanted to see things the way Carla did. It was the first time he had taken any notice of politics, having always been more interested in sailing or travel than the drudgery of economic responsibility which he assumed would be somehow connected with politicians. By going to Cuba, he would get to see it; to feel what Carla felt and saw, the things he had learned to recite for an exam, but still couldn’t imagine. A system that could deliver, make people happy.
As he slipped between the sheets, Carla remained on her side of the bed, her cool silence melting away when she said, ‘The department has asked me to help prepare more of the final exams. For the first- and second-year levels, as well as the final year. It’s good for my CV.’ Her voice was subdued.
‘Will they pay you more? Pay you for all the preparation time? They don’t pay you for half the work you do now, and they want you to do more?’
‘Stephen, it’s good for me, my future. But no,’ she sighed, exhausted, ‘no, I don’t think they’ll pay me more. But it’s good experience and I can use it to help me in my research. And extend my visa, of course,’ she added –maybe in an attempt to win his understanding?
‘The visa. The visa. Fuck, Carla,’ – he couldn’t keep the tone of frustration out of his voice – ‘you work harder than anyone I know and you still have to beg for a fucking visa!’
‘You know, I want the extra work. It all helps. But maybe I need a massage,’ Carla replied, nudging closer to Stephen. ‘Do I have to beg for one of those, too?’
Finally the distance between them dissolved, as their hands moved slowly across one another’s naked bodies, as though trying to smooth out each other’s curves, until Stephen felt her touch on the back of his neck. She had found his place. He knew when Carla placed her hand there, he’d unravel, opening up from his shell. He would place his hands over hers and draw them up to inhale her smell. She would lie back and he would place his lips on the side of her stomach, following its contour, until they enlaced their fingers. Carla would draw him up to her mouth. He would feel her outer protective confidence open to let him in and there, in her arms, he would find pleasure to have that place.
Afterwards, even though they were in Stephen’s apartment with no one else to hear them, they would talk in low whispers, wrapped together in each other’s arms. Stephen never questioned her as to why they whispered. Nobody could hear. It was something else he didn’t understand about her
As they lay together, Stephen still within that singular, encompassing warmth, Carla began to tell him about her new essay, ‘The Hands That Provide’. She spoke so quietly yet with such command that it was as though her breath formed the words by their own making. Her accent only drew Stephen in deeper, forgetting about the tickets to Cuba and Carla’s surprise that she still hadn’t told him about. They thought nothing of their interchanging language, half-cast sentences that passed from mouth to mouth.
Carla put her lips to his ear, ‘Here we are free to be free,’ she breathed.
Stephen agreed. In that place where they lay, there would be no lies.
Stephen woke to the sound of the shower and Carla’s humming. She was always up first and into the bathroom. He half-staggered into the kitchen and started preparing the breakfast. He normally ran in the mornings but it was Thursday, the only day that class started at 9 a.m. And it was raining.
‘I think I should focus on the Revolution for the exam. That period,’ Stephen shouted through to the bedroom as he went for his own shower.
‘I think you should hurry up, or we’ll be late.’
His hair still dripping, Stephen sauntered into the kitchen as Carla packed her laptop into its case and placed it on the couch by the door. Their routines never having synchronized, neither one spent more than a night or two a week at the other’s flat. He looked at the printed e-tickets next to his computer before glancing at Carla who was rinsing her dishes at the sink.
‘Carla, why don’t you use the dishwasher?’
‘Will you please hurry up? We’re going to be late,’ Carla’s voice rose an octave as Stephen poured his coffee.
‘I don’t know why we have it if you’re never going to use it.’
‘They waste water, too much water.’
‘But it’s England, Carla. It never stops pissing down with rain. You don’t have to worry about the water. In fact if we don’t use it, we’ll all drown, sink in all this rain.’
‘Let’s go, Stephen, it’s a quarter to eight and the traffic will be horrendous. Now. Let’s go. Please.’ Carla had crossed to the front door and pushed the key into the lock, scooping up her bags and umbrella in the other hand.
‘Okay. Let’s go,’ Stephen replied, shovelling down the last spoon of muesli and turning towards the sink.
‘Can’t you just leave it?’ Carla pleaded, ‘Please.’
‘Not at all, I can clean up after myself. There’s time. I’m not quite that useless,’ he retorted, rinsing the bowl before sweeping up his coffee cup.
‘Your bag,’ Carla smiled, shaking her head as she pointed her umbrella to the abandoned grey rucksack on his leather couch.
Heavy rain streamed down the windscreen in front of them, the wipers battering the glass at full speed. Ahead, a long red trail of rear lights stood, motionless.
‘Carla, I’ve been thinking.’
‘Oh, God … ’
‘No, listen. About what you were saying last night, about the sense of unity and happiness. Well, if we went to Cuba together after the exams … You need a summer holiday and then I can start to look for work. I’d love you to show it me. To see it, experience Cuba – with you.’
‘I thought we were saving?’ Carla looked out into the rain before turning to look at Stephen. ‘And now you’ve bought two tickets to Cuba. I don’t understand you. You have to start to pay everything off. How? How, Stephen?’
‘Christ, Carla,’ Stephen retorted, disappointment stinging. ‘I’ve some savings, and there’s always the credit card. They’re part of the modern world. They let you do things. They’re just part of modern life.’
‘I don’t even understand them. There’s no such thing in Cuba. We never –’ Carla stopped and turned to look out of the window at pedestrians fighting to hold onto their umbrellas as they were lashed with rain. ‘And anyway, I have to prepare for my finals and finish my thesis.’ Carla pointed at the traffic lights as they turned red, ‘Drop me at the top. I’ll walk the last bit.’
‘Carla, it’s pissing down. You can’t walk in that,’ Stephen insisted.
‘I can. It’s nothing. And I don’t want to get caught now. Not with an undergraduate,’ she teased, trying to break her serious tone, putting their relationship back into its usual playful gear, ‘Not in the last few weeks.’
She opened the door as Stephen pulled on the hand break, turning round to pass her the briefcase from the back seat of the car. ‘Are they in here? The exam questions?’ Stephen smiled, as she ducked back down into the car. ‘God, those eyes, Carla,’ he whispered as she took charge of her bag.
Just as Carla was about to close the passenger door, she bent down and, sheltering under her umbrella from the driving rain, she looked across at him. The lights changed to green. Stephen glanced up at her. ‘You know, Stephen, no one can escape his struggle,’ Carla shouted over the noise of the traffic on the wet road and the blast of horns from behind them, ‘whether they want to or not. Including you.’
The lecture theatre was always full on the day of the final presentation before the exam: every student was there, hoping for the last insight into what would be on the paper. Even those that had hardly been seen throughout the year frantically typed into their Notebooks, glancing at the screens next to them. Stephen sat in the front row of the theatre, listening. He knew what Carla would tell them. She had told him only half an hour before, when she left the car.
They had kept their relationship a secret. Carla had said it wouldn’t matter after he completed his degree. But during those three years, they’d been careful not to be seen to be in breach of what Carla called the ‘strict etiquette’ between student and lecturer. Stephen was tired of their secret.
‘How could anyone agree that inequality is right? That some prosper more than those who have not benefited from economic success… ’
Stephen hung on to Carla’s words, almost still able to smell and taste the place where he’d heard them before. He looked round at the other students, at the rapid and efficient movement of hundreds of fingers over their Notebook keypads. In their search for a final clue as to what might be examined, they noted important words and phrases, like ‘equality’, ‘planned economy’, ‘unified’ and ‘no compromise’.
‘And the key is what? To this single unity to success?’
Silence in the lecture hall, as Carla heightened the suspense.
‘It is economy, a single economy – one that works for the good of the whole, protecting those that are within it.’
As Carla moved from behind the podium, her left hand rested on its corner. Stephen stared at it. At her clean, strong fingers, polished nails and the thin silver ring he had bought her several months before, gleaming against her light brown skin.
‘Isn’t it obvious that a thousand hands will complete the task quicker when they work as one hand? And with the elimination of inequality, happiness can be achieved … for all.’
The tinted glass of the classroom windows blocked the sun that was breaking from behind the clouds – only the tops of the trees that lined the busy city centre street below were visible.
‘It’s about the world we leave for our children. The future of our society is decided now, not in the future.’
Small computer fans hummed gently, as course notes, diagrams and graphs were invisibly transported from the podium to the fifty or more electronic screens. Stephen filed the population data that arrived to his Inbox, wondering if they would ever have children. He still felt the disappointment of the night before.
Carla raised her voice, her eyes sweeping the rows of expectant faces, as Stephen suddenly remembered she hadn’t told him her surprise last night, and that he’d forgotten to ask that morning in the car.
‘Planned economies provide better healthcare systems and achieve greater happiness from the security they create. Imagine a society that consolidates its knowledge and resources like a dam. Free entry into the pool and controlled, applied usage out, eradicating waste. Efficiency applied for the good of the whole. Think of it as being like a dam.’
Stopping to take a drink of water, Carla slowly filled her glass from the tall jug that stood on the table in front of her. Silence reigned, as the lecture theatre waited, hanging on for the last direction or clue. ‘As diligent and enthusiastic students, you will of course all remember the final and famous speech made by a leading rebel before the last humanitarian assault …’
Stephen gazed at Carla, repeating her departing words from that morning when she’d leaned back into the car. He knew that that was what she was about to say. Knew it. The words of Che Guevara: ‘No-one can escape his struggle, whether they want to or not.’
‘Including me,’ Stephen mumbled to himself, as he looked around the room. ‘Including me.’
It was 4 p.m. and Stephen waited for Carla in the usual place – out of the University gates and down the third road on the right. He sat leaning out of the open car window, watching the late afternoon sun trying to break through the clouds, its reflection gleaming on the wet surface of the road. It had stopped raining and Carla turned into the street, swinging her case. A Chelsea Football flag hung wet from one of the windows, stuck against the red brick wall of the terraced row. Carla’s eye ran down the line of parked cars on both sides of the road, as the click of her heels echoed in the narrow street.
‘There’s a man in a mac on the corner. Didn’t you see him? I’m sure he was taking notes?’ Stephen said, as she got into his old blue Astra. His voice was teasing.
‘All this secrecy, Carla, it’s ridiculous. Plenty of students have relationships with lecturers. And anyway, I’m a mature student. That’s different.’ He leaned over, kissing her gently on the lips before starting the engine.
‘Again. Kiss me again,’ she said, turning towards him.
‘What about the spy?’ Stephen quipped, as he stretched towards her.
She pushed him away, ‘I’d have thought you’d be used to him by now.’
At the end of the road, Stephen tried to edge forward into the continuous flow of vehicles. Horns blared as he pulled into the oncoming traffic, knowing full well they’d be there all day if he didn’t drive aggressively. ‘Dios Santo,’ Carla exclaimed, taking hold of her necklace and kissing the polished stone: she still wasn’t used to the number of vehicles on the English roads.
‘Listen Carla, about what we were saying this morning. About going … ’
‘Stephen, I told you. I can’t. I have to finish my thesis.’
‘But it’s years since you’ve been back. Don’t you want to go back to Havana? See your family and friends? The university that you talk so much of?’
‘Stephen,’ Carla’s tone changed, warning him to drop it. ‘I don’t need you to tell me what I want. I want to finish my work, I want to renew my visa and of course I want to see my family. But I can’t, not all at once. And above all of that, you can’t afford it. Okay? So leave it out, please, shut the fuck up. I can’t go.’
Stephen was silenced.
‘And drop me at the Tube.’
Carla hardly ever swore.