Partagas and Pigeons

 

Here is the second tale: Partagas and Pigeons, it is set in Havana in about 2000 

 Guess which one is naive?

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This story is of a couple of naive Irishmen who are trying to buy cigars in Havana 

 

Partagas and Pigeons

 

K

ennedy and Mulligan left the Nacional Hotel in the direction of the Partagas Cigar Factory, which according to the instructions given by the concierge was nearby the Capitol. There were tours organised from the hotel, but it was time to explore by themselves, after all they decided they could read a street map as well as anybody else.

They had been told that it was only about six cuadras from the hotel on the corner of Dragones and Industria. They found the Capitol without any difficulty, they could not miss it, it was an enormous building copied stone for stone from the Capitol in Washington in the 1920’s. It had been built as the seat of the Cuban government and presidential palace, but was subsequently transformed into museums and the Cuban Academy of Sciences. The presidential palace had been relocated by Castro, firstly in what is today the Museum of the Revolution, built by Fulgencio Batista as his palace, and then to the modern Plaza de la Revolution, a monument to tasteless monolithic Eastern-European style architecture.

They made a quick circuit of the Capitol and spotted the factory without any problem. On the pediment of the building the name was written in large letters Partagas Real Fabrica de Tabacos, the factory, a sombre red building, dated back to the foundation by the owners of the business in 1845. It was considered the best producer of fine cigars in Havana, with an output of five million cigars a year.

There were a few bizarre characters parked in front of the visitors entrance to the factory, each doing their act to collect a few coins from the generous tourists, who arrived by the coach load for organised visits.

They discovered by a cursory glance into the dingy entrance of the factory a motley group of Cubans, who seemed to be trying to organise a pressing crowd of tourists, and looking beyond the confusion further into the building they saw that it appeared to be just as dim, grubby and as worn out as most of the Havana that they had already they had seen.

Without further ado they decided to go directly to the factory’s cigar shop, which was situated adjacent to the main entrance, to see what exactly they were selling. It was much smarter inside the shop, but again there was a thronging crowd. Canadians and French tourists packed against the glass counter, where the two sales persons were lethargically trying to cope with the cries of the tourists desperate to spend their money during their brief visit to the factory, the sales pitch consisted of announcing the price with a take it or leave it shrug.

The two new arrivals only just managed to get a peek into the glass display cases and the price list fixed on the wall.

“Look, a box of 25 Partagas Coronas at £8.20 for one cigar that made over £200 a box!”

“It’s a bit expensive!” complained Mulligan.

Even Kennedy, who normally did not look too closely at prices, thought it seemed expensive for a smoke. As well as having taken the pledge he was also was a non-smoker and was surprised at how much a cigar could cost in such an obviously poor country.

“Never mind, we can buy them at the hotel shop, it’s not worth all of the hassle here,” they reasoned a little disappointedly as they left the factory.

Hola, psst, amigo!

Kennedy looked around, a Cuban was gesturing to him, he was a good looking Latino, a European-Spanish type, about thirty years old, he was sitting on a low wall that surrounded the Capitol gardens on the opposite side of the street to the Partagas factory. He was with a girl friend wearing a mini-skirt and a brief tee shirt that showed off her slim midriff.

“Hey, amigo you wanna buy cigars?”

“Yesh,” he lisped.

“Comma-wi-me amigo, I ave a friend who works in the factory, our price is much lower!”

“Let’s have a look,” said Kennedy to Mulligan who shrugged, they crossed the street following the two jinteros into a sombre looking building.

The building at first glance seemed to be abandoned, a ruin, in fact it was no different from the great majority of buildings in Havana. It had been built before the revolution and forty years without upkeep had taken their toll.

The jinteros showed them to the entrance of an apartment; they went in through a front door that consisted of open iron bars, very much like that of a prison cell. At the end of a short hallway they were shown into a small plain room, the walls were painted with white distemper, it was lit by a single neon tube, giving a hard white light. The furniture consisted of two or three wooden chairs speckled with white paint drops, in one corner stood a fairly large refrigerator on the top of which sat family photos of small children.

They took a seat a little nervously wondering what they had got themselves into. Glancing around they took in the scene. The floor was covered by dismal creamy brown plastic tiles. In a corner there was a small sink and a tap that dripped. A stale odour hung over the small apartment.

“Don’t worry, my name is Lina,” said the girl detecting their anxiety,  “we will wait here, the cigars will be here in five minutes. Miguel will bring them.”

Lina was close to what is described by Cubans as a criolla, that was to say of Spanish appearance, with an olive skin, dark eyes and long black hair tied low on the nape of her neck. She could have been Miguel’s sister.

They exchanged names and made an effort at small talk. She told them how life was difficult in Cuba and how little money they had.

Kennedy inspected her closely and could not help finding her attractive in an exotic way. The small room seemed to exude a certain forbidden eroticism. He could see through the opening behind Lina, there was a small back room with a bed.

Miguel returned and showed them a box of twenty five Cohibas and a box of Montecristos.

“Sixty dollars!” he said pointing to the Cohibas. “Forty dollars!” for the Monte Cristos.

They accepted without any further discussion to Miguel’s surprise. Then Mulligan asked if it was possible to have two boxes of Cohibas.

“Wait here five minutes,” said the young man and after a quick exchange in Spanish the girl disappeared.

After a short wait she re-appeared agitated.

“The police are outside, you must go!”

“What about the cigars!”

“We will bring them to your hotel, where are you staying!”

“Nacional.”

“What room number?”

They gave the room number and the girl said they should leave separately. Kennedy by the back, Mulligan by the front.

Out the back door Kennedy found himself in a sordid yard enclosed between the buildings, a concrete stairway, a fire escape, led upwards. He saw the sky above almost hidden by a tangle of ladders and pipes; the ground beneath his feet was half flooded with stagnant pools of pungent black water.

Lina indicated to the stairs of the fire escape, which were blocked with a mass of debris, an iron gate, sheets of corrugated metal, old plastic buckets and metal cans.

He clambered over the rubble with difficulty to the first stair landing, then up to the next, which was covered with a jumble of scaffolding in metal and wood with a tangle of rusty wire, which had certainly once held it together.

She led the way scrambling onto the scaffolding and prudishly tried to hold her tiny skirt down. As he looked away discreetly, avoiding the view, he thought that the skirt was more like a curtain pelmet than an item of clothing.

“Climb over there!” she said pointing to an adjacent balcony about a metre away from the concrete wall of the stairway.

It was impossible; he could not pass his bulky shoulders through the mass obstructing his passage. There was a young Black on the balcony, who seemed to apprehend the risk of the gringo falling down into the yard at the bottom stairwell, he refused to lend a hand in spite of the exhortations of the girl.

She made a sign to him to re-descend the stairs. He was now covered with red rust and white dust from the badly weathered concrete. Once back in the yard, she knocked on a decrepit door, there was a loud and rapid exchange in Spanish with a young man who suddenly appeared.

“No…no, no! No!” a woman’s voice cried from on the other side of the door.

The door opened, a heavily built but elderly woman made a symbolic effort to block his access. The young man gently but forcibly helped her to one side and Kennedy passed into what appeared to be a dark shabby apartment, it took a few instants for his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness, the apartment was grim, reeking of damp and old age and poverty.

The girl led the way and showed him the front door of the apartment and indicated the direction to take. He found himself back in the cavernous entrance hall of the building, it had probably been a prosperous down-town shopping arcade many years before, it was now a ruin of broken walls, hanging wires, and puddles of stagnant water that leaked from the rusty pipes.

He made his way to the street, waiting for Mulligan who had the cigars. Across the avenue on the pavement of the Capitol stood a PNR police officer in his blue uniform. He made a beckoning sign to Kennedy, who had no choice but to obey.

“Passport!”

Kennedy shrugged his shoulders. The policeman made a sign towards the plastic bag that Kennedy opened for inspection. It was disappointing, just a guidebook and a street map. He had hoped for more, an opportunity missed. It was not unusual for police to boost their meagre salary by a little extortion from naive tourists. The policeman turned away feigning disinterest and Kennedy walked further along the pavement to the corner of the block looking for a sign of Mulligan.

The girl appeared on the opposite pavement and proceeded in the direction of a run down corner cafe. He crossed the road to join her. She pretended to ignore him, but nodding sharply towards the cafe, her eyes fixed firmly ahead.

Once in the cafe he saw Mulligan who was greatly relieved to see him again.

“Jesus, did you see the police. What’s going on?”

Lina explained that it was illegal to sell cigars outside of the official shops and hotels. The police surveyed tourists and the jinteros who tried to sell them cigars.

“The police make problems for us, they want money. Don’t worry I will come to your room, at six with my brother Miguel everything is O.K!” she smiled nervously.

The two sheepishly returned to the hotel rather shaken by their little adventure.

“Jesus, what a wretched place, did you ever such a thing, Holy Mother of Christ!” said Mulligan.

“Yesh, we were lucky we could have been arrested.”

“They’re so poor, I can hardly believe it. Do you think we’ll get the cigars?” They had left sixty dollars with the couple.

“Never mind,” said Kennedy thinking about Lina. “We’ll get our cigars and that’s the end of that. Don’t let on to the others what happened.”

At just after six, there was a knock on Kennedy’s door, he opened the door and Lina was standing there holding plastic bag in her hand with a smile that displayed her fine white teeth.

“Come in.”

She was dressed differently, she wore flat shoes, her skirt was of a fairly respectable length and she had chosen a high buttoned pale blue blouse, it was obligatory, to avoid the problem of getting past the hotel doorman. There was in theory a law against Cubans visiting hotel rooms, the patrolling Vice Squad, when it suited them, cracked down on the jinteras.  On the other hand the Ministry of Tourism frowned on severe crackdowns on the girls, as it was not good for business. However, the general rule was that if the girls looked well dressed enough they encountered relatively few problems, and that applied especially to attractive criollas like Lina.

“Here are the cigars,” she opened the bag to show him. “Do you have the rest of the money?”

“Yesh,” he replied handing over the eighty dollars he had prepared.

She took the money, folded the bills and deftly slipped them into a small pocket on the side of her skirt.

“Nice room you have Pat!”

She walked over to the window. Kennedy looked at her. She had a nice figure, nice legs and she was pretty.

“Where is your brother?”

“He had something else to do,” she replied nonchalantly, “do you have something to drink?”

He opened the mini-bar and made a gesture, indicating to her to choose what she wanted.

“An orange juice will be OK,” she smiled sitting on the edge of the bed and crossing her legs.

“Would you like me to stay for a while!” she asked him coyly.

“If you like,” he replied with a forced air of disinterest, trying to hide his mounting excitement as he realised that he was being propositioned.

The telephone rang, it was Mulligan. Kennedy lay naked on the large bed, his skin red from sunburn; he had been in Lina’s arms for thirty minutes.

“Oh! Hallo John. Well I’m a little tired, a bit of a headache. I think it’s the jet lag or the sun. Why don’t we meet later!” He put down the phone and returned to Lina who waited patiently looking at him with her large dark eyes. She knew instinctively that she had found a willing benefactor whom she could count on for as long as he was in Cuba, and perhaps a little longer.

A surveillance report reached the desk of the head of security at Cuban Minister of the Interior some hours later. He was pleased with the information that his men had collected. A little talk with the girl, Lina, would convince her to keep him updated on the movements of the Irishman, Kennedy. He wondered if he was related to the other Kennedy who had caused so much trouble for Cuba.