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Between the Concrete and the Sky

I

had the sudden impulse to stick my fingers into the bullet holes in the wall of the Hotel Santa Clara Libre. As if the past flowed through the concrete scars like electricity through a plug socket. The wall was smooth save for where patches of minty green paint

had come loose and clung on by threads like the fibres in the spine of a torn book. My fingers traced the rough circumference of one of the holes, but resisted going further, as though some line would be crossed, some transgression into forbidden territory made; some sacrilege committed, like sticking a finger in a dead man’s wound. You shouted at me from across the plaza to hurry up. The hands of the clock on the Teatro de La Caridad had not yet reached 10, but the Cuban sun was already bleaching the pastel colours from the old buildings that lined the square. Your head was muzzy from last night and you had forgotten your hat. There was an edge to your voice to remind me that you could still be sleeping between the cool sheets at the Casa Mercedes. My flip flops slapped on the hot white concrete slabs as I made my way towards you, past the Club Mejunje, its shutters now serenely closed. The concrete gave way to scrubby grass. And there it was: Che’s bulldozer, bright yellow against the impossibly blue sky. I was reminded of those old hand-tinted postcards where the colours are turned up to hyper-real intensity. The yellow and blue vibrating at the peak of their chromatic scales, poised on the verge of spilling into one another. Like a pair of Tango dancers, flirting with the boundaries of space between them. You were standing a short distance away by three maroon and yellow metal boxcars, reading a bronze plaque. 


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Here is where history was made. Here is the bulldozer that Che drove. There is the train he crashed it into. This is where the revolution was won. This is how it happened. La Revolucion woz ere. There are no gaps, there is no room for dissent. The skewed boxcars are frozen in the moment of their derailing. Shards of concrete mark the point of collision. The plaque forever staples this event to the present. As I stood in the morning sun, I became aware of a presence behind me, a little way off to my left. He was leaning in the shade at the base of a statue, a cigar clenched in his teeth. I knew straight away it was him. I had caught glimpses of him since we’d arrived; standing in the leafy shade of a courtyard with faded blue and yellow tiles by a trickling fountain; in the rust-stained rear view mirror of the old Chevy driving south from Vinales to Santa Clara; in the cigar smoke that lingered under the lazy wooden fan over an empty barstool in the old quarter of the capital, La Habana Vieja. The metal was hot as I hoisted myself into the cab of the bulldozer. The first thing I noticed as he climbed into the driver’s seat beside me were his hands. A doctor’s hands, large and capable, but chapped and rough. The dirt was etched into the creases of his knuckles and the calluses on his palms. The leather of his stout black boots strained as he pushed down on the clutch. The laces were broken and knots held them together. We rolled through the streets and bearded men in khaki fatigues with gaunt cheeks and hungry eyes ran beside us. A small, skinny man shrugged the rifle from his shoulder to reload. ‘Commandante!’ he saluted. 


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A volley of shots rang out and the man flattened himself against a pillar. The bullets sliced the air by his head and glanced off the minty green wall behind him. A train’s whistle shrieked out above the noise of gunfire. And there they were ahead of us: the boxcars rattling along in a streak of maroon and yellow. The shape of history waiting to be moulded in the space between us. Metal collided with metal in a screech of molten sparks. The ragged fireworks of the revolution blazed for one brief, glorious moment and subsided to concrete. A shadow passed overhead as I stood alone on the scrubby grass. Birds circled in the Technicolor sky and dark storm clouds gathered in the west. Big drops of rain began to fall. They exploded and sizzled and sketched yellow puddles on the hot concrete slabs and splashed my bare ankles as I went to look for you in the plaza. That is how it happened, more or less. Now, we sit on a plane, somewhere between one place and the next, watching our progress mapped out on the small screen. I listen to Buena Vista Social Club on the inflight headphones, drinking beer and remembering. And it’s not you, but somebody new, who sits beside me now as the dotted line on the map marches us into the future; while somewhere down there, yellow metal sits under a Cuban sun, on the precipice between the concrete and the sky.

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Between the Concrete and the Sky