Cuba, 1958: When Elisa first meets Duardo she knows he's the love of her life. But Duardo is a rebel, determined to fight in Castro's army, and Elisa is forced to leave behind her homeland and rebuild her life in distant England. England, 2012: Grace has a troubled relationship with her father and this year more than ever she could do with a shoulder to cry on. She's begun to develop feelings for her best friend Theo, however is the passion Grace feels for Theo enough to risk her family's happiness.
Release date: May 19, 2016
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Last Dance in Havana
‘Will you dance?’
The voice took her completely by surprise, so wrapped in her thoughts had she been. Elisa looked up and there he stood.
She had begged to come to La Cueva tonight with Pueblo.
‘You’re too young,’ her cousin had scoffed. ‘You’re just a baby. Do you think anyone will want to dance with you?’
Elisa had tossed her head. ‘I can watch,’ she said. I can pretend. Though she didn’t say that last bit. She was young, yes, but in a month or two she would be sixteen. And that wasn’t so young.
‘Come on then, little cousin,’ Pueblo had said at last. ‘But you’ll have to look after yourself. I’m not going to be your babysitter all night.’
‘I will.’ And she was so thrilled by the prospect in store that she forgot even to be offended.
She borrowed the mimosa-yellow dress from her cousin Ramira and her mother pinned a white mariposa flower in her dark hair. It was the white ginger, the butterfly flower, and Elisa could smell the honeyed scent as she and Pueblo hurried through the dark backstreets of Havana to La Cueva.
When they stepped inside, Elisa almost lost her nerve. The walls were painted red and black and it was indeed like walking into a grotto; the lighting was low, a fug of smoke hung heavy in the air, and shimmering, perspiring bodies heaved and twirled on the dance floor to the salsa rhythm being played by the band. Elisa’s jaw dropped open and she forced herself to swallow hard. She had grown up with dance – but not this kind of dance. It seemed to exude something she couldn’t quite understand, a sensuality that was as yet unknown.
Her thoughts strayed to the boys she had grown up with – not just her cousin Pueblo, but the other boys who lived in her neighbourhood, the boys she’d gone to school with; who swam and fished for pescado from the beach with bamboo canes and catgut, who played tag on the shore or street baseball in the squares of the Old City of Havana. They were so familiar; they were like brothers: Miguel, Santino, Vincente and the others. They’d played together as children; their families all knew one another – some of them even lived in the same gritty old apartment block as she did.
Now, though things were changing. They were all growing less innocent; they were looking at each other in a different and less open way. Elisa and her girlfriends tossed their heads and conscientiously ignored these same boys they had grown up with as they passed them by on street corners. They would dance with them though – at parties in their families’ apartments or in the balmy evenings when the music and the dancing spilled out of the city’s bars and cafés and onto the pavements warmed by the hot sultry sun of Havana.
Elisa looked around her as she followed Pueblo through the sea of bodies in the nightclub. But they had never danced with the boys like this . . .
Pueblo found his friends and a chair in a corner for Elisa. ‘Stay here,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll fetch you a lemonade.’ And he disappeared.
Sometime later, when she’d drunk it and when Pueblo had quite forgotten about her, and many more couples were entwined on the dance floor or draped over chairs at the bar and tables, Elisa noticed the boy. He was sturdy with a broad chest, short curly dark hair and full, sensual African features. He was about her height and not much older than her, she guessed, though he had an air of confidence about him that she couldn’t help but envy. She looked at him once, then again, and the third time she looked, he was staring straight at her. She shivered. There was something so fixed in that look of his, so intense; it seemed to cut right through the people on the dance floor and hit her – just like the blast of heat from her mother’s oven when she crouched down to open the door.
The drummers changed tempo and the singer began the introduction to a new number, vocalising syllables that made no sense. This was the diana, the opening segment of the rumba, sung in a strong voice that seemed to hold the ache of the Cuban people somewhere deep within. Elisa sighed. She was hungry to dance. But everyone here seemed so self-assured. She was just a young girl – and totally out of her depth.
The rumba was Elisa’s favourite dance. It could be found everywhere in Havana: on street corners on a Sunday afternoon, or in the evenings when a group of friends got together in somebody’s backyard. And it was fun to dance it with the boys she knew so well. Safe too, because the rumba was the most flirtatious dance she knew. Elisa was well aware of its sexual symbolism and what the movements were supposed to mean. Miguel, Santino and Vincente could pose, preen and try it on as much as they liked. Elisa and her friends just laughed at them.
The version of the rumba she knew best, the most popular one in their neighbourhood, was the guaguancó. In this dance, the man would use vacunaos – kicks, flicks and thrusts – to catch or distract his partner. But it was a sexual competition. The woman would cover her groin with her hands or a fan to protect herself, even while she moved forward to entice. Elisa especially liked this bit. She smiled to herself, remembering the last time she had danced it with Vincente.
‘You’re such a tease, Elisa,’ he’d hissed in her ear as the music got faster and faster, the heat rising. But she had only smiled, shaken her head and flounced away. It was just a dance, after all.
And how Elisa loved to dance . . . She sighed again. But to dance the rumba you needed a partner. She glanced across at Pueblo who was leaning close to a girl with long black hair. She was wearing the tightest and shortest red dress Elisa had ever seen, cut low to expose gleaming shoulders and breasts. No chance of dancing with him then; he’d forgotten she even existed. And for the first time Elisa longed for one of the boys she knew so well – Miguel, Santino or Vincente – to come along, to tease her, to pull her into the dancing with flirty eyes and a wide flashing grin.
‘Will you dance?’
The voice took her completely by surprise, so wrapped in her thoughts had she been. ‘Oh.’ She looked up and there he stood – the boy with the intensity in his eyes. He held out his hand. He wasn’t smiling like all the boys she’d ever danced with before.
Would she? ‘Yes.’ She got to her feet – gracefully, she hoped. ‘I will.’
The melody began to wind its way through the sweet pulse of the drums as the other singers joined in with the song. Elisa waited. She knew how it worked. As the story is told within the song, the drums tell a story of their own: conversing, questioning, responding. Then the dancers would come in.
And so. The boy fixed her with that look of his and began to move, and on the exact same beat, Elisa did too; she seemed to know which way he was going, and she slipped effortlessly into the rhythm of the dance. She stepped to the left, placing her weight, she stepped to the right and shifted, rolling the balls of her feet on and off the floor; she moved her arms and she let her hips rock to the shakes and clicks of the percussion. She tossed her head so that her dark curls flew. Her shoulders relaxed, her knees bent; the music caught her, swept her into its intoxicating beat. It was a dialogue between dancers and drums; the drumbeat responding to their story; prodding and pushing them on.
The boy still didn’t smile. His eyes darkened and he held out his hand to her, lifted their hands, which were clasped both together, like a wave as he pulled her closer, his other hand resting on her back. Elisa allowed her eyes to meet his; his gaze was hypnotic and for a moment she had no hope of looking away. They were almost touching, but not quite. Between them was a small space, and that space seemed to be charged with electricity. He kicked and he flicked and she responded in the tradition of the dance. But all the time she was thinking – he means it, he really means it. It had never happened to her before. She felt a lightness in her throat, in her breast; a giddiness she couldn’t quite comprehend.
His hand was burning into her spine now as if he were branding her somehow. He made the slightest movement of his other hand and he spun her around and back, over and under, forward and through. He kicked in a fancy, counter-metric step, accented by the quinto, the highest, lead drum and Elisa arched delicately away from him. She swept the ends of her yellow dress together languorously – as if she were whisking the energy of him away, denying him. But in the rumba it was never so simple. They were the rooster and the hen. It was invitation and it was innocence. She let her upper and lower body sway in a contrary, sensual motion; opening and closing the hem of her dress in the rhythm of the wooden clave percussion and the clicking bamboo guagua. Under the dress she felt naked. He raised an eyebrow as if he were asking her a silent question. She looked at him. He must know. He had her.
The tropical heat of the dance seemed to thicken around them. Elisa was hardly conscious of the others on the dance floor though. It was just her and this boy, this stranger. She didn’t know him but she seemed in this moment to know everything about him. His touch was on her back, her shoulders, her hands; his sweat had mingled with her own. His eyes, his intensity drew her in; his gaze seemed to wrap itself around her somehow. Together, they merged with the life pulse of the dance until she thought that they must take flight. But they stayed on the floor. And still with each chorus and each refrain, the rhythm rose and fell, faster and faster with a frenzy, driving them on to the shake of the maracas, to the clash of the marugas, to the powerful beat of the drums. And on to the final explosion when the rumba broke and they backed off, slick with sweat, panting for breath, from the dance floor.
He didn’t let go of her hand. She saw the mariposa flower, the white ginger butterfly fallen from her hair, lying limp on the wooden floor, trodden half to a pulp by the dancers.
‘Who are you?’ Elisa whispered. The heat of his skin was still with her, still touching her. It was the flame of the rumba. And she didn’t want it to ever go away.
‘My name is Duardo.’ He brought her hand to his lips, still looking at her with that intense dark stare, and he kissed it.
Grace knew that her father had been drinking as soon as he opened the door of her old family house in King Street. His eyes gave it away – bloodshot and guilty. He’d been an attractive man once; he couldn’t have caught a beautiful woman like Grace’s mother without good looks and more than his fair share of charm. He’d captured Grace’s stepmother, Elisa, too, she reminded herself. And now in his early seventies, his white-grey hair streaked with gold, though his figure rather more portly thanks to the booze, he still hadn’t lost it.
Surreptitiously, Grace checked her watch. It was four in the afternoon. She could smell it on him too; the stale alcohol seemed to seep through the pores of his skin. But she said nothing as usual. Just felt the same old shiver of distaste.
‘I wasn’t expecting you, Grace,’ he said. His hand trembled on the brass doorknob.
Clearly, thought Grace. She gave a little shrug. Back in the day, when she first became old enough to understand some of what was going on, when a slurred voice, shouting and tears combined with fast decreasing levels in a whisky bottle had begun to make sense . . . She had said something then. She had begged him to stop. Elisa had begged him too; Grace knew that. They had hidden whisky bottles, cried, cajoled, tried to make him face up to what he was doing, what his life had become. But nothing had made any difference. He was set on a pathway and he wouldn’t listen. Grace wasn’t even sure when it had begun or why. When her mother died? Earlier? She didn’t know and she wasn’t altogether sure that it mattered any more.
‘Elisa asked Robbie to take a look at her laptop.’ She held it out to him like an offering, but her father had already swung away from the door, leaving it open. Grace had grown up in this house, but since her mother’s death it had never felt like home. The house in King Street had a grand entrance with a green painted door, a brass letterbox and a Georgian fanlight and once, she had loved it. Now, it left her cold. The truth was that after a while – a long while, she reminded herself – Grace had stopped trying to help her father. She’d become almost part of the pretence; another player on the stage of her father’s alcohol dependency, she thought bitterly. On the surface, at least.
‘Elisa’s not here,’ he called back to her as he strode up the hall.
Damn it. Grace would have waited for Elisa to collect it from hers, but she knew her stepmother was busy and Robbie had specifically asked her to bring it round. Grace hesitated. Sometimes she suspected her family of conniving to make her spend time with her father, as if they thought there would suddenly be some unexpected happy ever after reunion. This wasn’t going to happen. Life wasn’t a TV show. You couldn’t simply take hold of a clean duster and wipe away the past. Once something had happened, it had happened.
Like that moment with Theo after the card trick three weeks ago, Grace found herself thinking. She pushed the thought away. It had happened, yes, but she wouldn’t think about it, and especially not now. She and Robbie hadn’t seen Theo for three weeks but there was sure to be a good reason for that – he was their best friend after all.
‘Are you coming in?’ her father called.
‘Of course.’ And Grace followed him inside the house.
Her heels clipped across the chequered Victorian floor tiles. ‘Is Elisa working?’ she asked him. Her stepmother had been officially retired for years, but she still gave occasional lessons in Spanish conversation and hosted parties where only Spanish was spoken. Then she had the regular meetings of her Spanish-speaking community group. Grace had attended those too. It was where she had first met Theo, before Robbie even.
Spain was close to Grace’s heart. After Grace’s mother had died, after the funeral and those terrible early months of loss, Grace had gone to stay with her mother’s sister in Madrid. She was ten years old and had fallen for all things Spanish.
Not all things Spanish, she corrected herself firmly, thinking of Theo and that damn card trick again. But anyway, like Elisa, Theo was Cuban not Spanish; they also shared their Spanish roots and the language, though unlike Elisa, Theo had never lived in Cuba. His family had left when he was just a baby, he’d told them; Theo had been brought up in Florida, USA.
But as a little girl who had just lost her mother and didn’t know where to turn, Grace had fallen in love with Aunt Mag, the city of Madrid and the Spanish language which had seemed so dramatic and flamboyant back then. It still did, actually. Spain had seemed like another world too, and that was exactly what Grace had been looking for. She wanted to live somewhere else and she wanted to be someone else – someone whose mother had not run into the road, someone whose mother had not been mown down and killed. But Grace couldn’t – alas – stay with Aunt Mag forever; she was just a child and she had to return to her father and Bristol.
Even a child could make plans for the future though, Grace had thought. Maybe when she was older she could go and live with Aunt Mag in her cool, minimalist apartment with the clean white walls, flagstone floor and wrought-iron balcony overlooking a busy street. Grace had wanted to escape the clutter of her life, her home, her thoughts and her grief. This would be a good way. And so when she returned to the UK, Grace had persuaded her father to let her learn Spanish. Aunt Mag says children should learn languages as young as possible . . . She could still hear herself. And her father’s sigh – because at that stage, only a year after Grace’s mother’s death, he was still trying to do what was right – before he found someone who gave private Spanish language lessons. Elisa.
Elisa had told Grace’s father that she was Cuban. But her dark, olive complexion, raven hair and slightly haughty features reminded Grace of Spain. In her red woollen dress and with her shapely legs, she looked a bit like the flamenco dancer on Grace’s mother’s jewellery box, a present from her sister in Madrid. Grace had been irresistibly drawn to her.
‘Why do you like Spain so much?’ Elisa had asked her back then. ‘Why do you wish to learn Spanish?’
Grace couldn’t think how to reply. She liked Spain because it wasn’t England. Because her mother’s sister lived there and she seemed to be all that was left. ‘Because it’s warm,’ she said, ‘and I like the colours.’
‘My family came from Spain – originally, I mean.’ Elisa said. She taught Grace the names for the colours, one by one. And that’s when Grace knew she had come to the right place.
Grace kept up with her Spanish, which was why she still sometimes attended Elisa’s Spanish community group meetings in the church hall down the road from where she now lived. But not often, not any more. Now, there was her husband Robbie and their life together, now there was work and she had soon discovered that running her own business took up most of her time. Spain had taken a background seat in her life; even Aunt Mag, who now lived in a remote finca in the mountains of Andalucia, seemed out of reach.
‘Elisa’s always doing something,’ her father grumbled, as he led the way into the kitchen. As always it was spotlessly clean and tidy, if a little old fashioned; as always making Grace aware of her shortcomings in the housewifely arena. Not that Robbie complained and, in any case, he was as untidy as she. But he earned more than Grace and worked longer hours and Grace had decided that they couldn’t afford a cleaner. All in all, it was her responsibility.
She probably just wants to get away from you. But Grace didn’t say it. She didn’t want a row. There had already been too many.
The walls of the kitchen were yellow; on the floor were the original terracotta tiles. The old butler sink had never been replaced; neither had the painted metal bread bin. The wooden counter had the same burns and scratches that Grace had known all her life. The kettle and toaster were both new additions, but otherwise . . . This kitchen was so familiar to Grace that she felt she would be able to lay her hands on anything, even in the dead of night.
‘Coffee?’ He opened the cupboard and waggled a jar of instant in the air. Grace knew that Elisa only kept it there for when she wasn’t around to make it properly.
She was about to say no – because what was the point in them spending time together when they always ended up arguing? – when she noticed the expression in his blue-grey eyes. There was a bravado there; always, there was bravado. But there was something else too. She blinked. It looked a bit like loneliness.
‘I’ll make it,’ she said.
As her father sat down at the old farmhouse table that had also been there for ever, Grace busied herself with Elisa’s percolator, filling it with water, adding the rich, strong coffee that her stepmother preferred – no doubt a legacy of her Cuban days – and screwing on the top. She put it on the gas hob of the range cooker. It was only coffee. And he was, after all, her father.
How long had she been telling herself that? She felt a brief wave of affection for him, for the father he had once been. Turned round and caught him taking a quick slug from the bottle of whisky he kept in the pocket of his tweed jacket. Shit, she thought, what was she even doing here?
‘How’s work?’ he asked when she put the coffee in front of him a few minutes later.
‘OK.’ She sat down opposite him but she was wary. Her father didn’t approve of her new career direction. He thought it was beneath her – which was plainly ridiculous. He didn’t say it in so many words. He didn’t have to.
‘Found any more clients?’
God, he made it sound so sleazy. How did he do that? Grace gripped her coffee mug a little more tightly. ‘A few.’ She was a massage therapist. A healer, she liked to think.
It had taken a while for Grace to find her way. She’d not done especially well in her ‘O’ levels, even worse in her ‘A’s – sometimes she suspected she’d done this on purpose to make a point to her father – but she’d worked in a bank and then an insurance company, and if the work wasn’t thrilling, at least it was a friendly office and . . . The truth was, she’d always wanted to do something different. She’d said this to Robbie many times, half-hoping he would encourage her to give up her job, maybe even do a degree. You’re still young, she imagined him saying. It’s not too late to start a new career, something more fulfilling, more creative perhaps. But Robbie didn’t say any of these things because as Grace knew only too well, Robbie wanted her to do something else entirely.
And then one night about two years ago, she, Robbie and Theo had been sitting round the kitchen table and Robbie had complained of his shoulders aching.
‘Let me.’ She got up, kneaded out the knots he got from hunching over his computer all day.
‘Oh, my God. That’s so good . . .’
Theo had rolled his eyes. ‘Please. Get a room,’ he’d muttered.
Grace had playfully swiped out at him.
‘You should try it.’ Robbie flexed his shoulders. ‘Go on, Grace. Give him five minutes.’
Grace had touched Theo many times without thinking. She had hugged him, she had kissed his cheek, he had even taken her hand to cross the street. But this felt different. She stood behind him and laid her palms on his shoulders. He was wearing a roughly woven cream linen shirt. Underneath this, his body felt warm.
She began to massage with her thumbs, gently at first and then, aware of a ripple of tension, she pressed. ‘Jesus,’ said Theo to Robbie. ‘I see what you mean.’ And they’d all laughed.
Theo caught her hand before she could take it away. ‘You should train,’ he said. His black eyes were serious.
‘Do it for a living. You’ve got the touch.’
Grace looked down at their hands and pulled hers from his grasp, with a light laugh. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘It beats insurance. But we have to pay the mortgage, don’t forget.’
But Theo had been serious. He had leaned forwards in that way he had, intense and yet utterly relaxed, brow furrowed, sweeping his dark hair away from his face. ‘If Robbie could keep things going on the financial front, you could train to be a massage therapist,’ he said. ‘Start up your own business. Work from home.’
‘Massage therapist,’ she echoed. The idea appealed. She looked across at Robbie.
‘We could manage,’ he said, ‘if that’s what you wanted.’
And she knew what he was thinking. This kind of change of direction was all right. It was safe. It’s something Grace can still do when we start a family . . . They’d had the conversation monthly (yes, and Grace was aware of the irony) for more than a year. Grace was already in her late thirties. It wasn’t as if she had a thrilling career that meant a lot to her. How long did she want to wait?
‘It’s a good idea,’ Robbie said. And: ‘Fancy a beer?’ to Theo.
The moment passed. But the spark of the idea had lit something in Grace. She had investigated local courses and opportunities online to find out more. She’d given it a lot of thought. She even sometimes wondered if it had been in her background life for a long time simply waiting to be recognised. And now . . . She wanted to do it properly, she decided. She didn’t intend to work in a beauty parlour; she wanted her work to have a more serious purpose, and if she really wanted to alleviate people’s pain and stress, then she had to understand as much as possible about the process, how massage worked, how the muscles, joints, tissue functioned and responded to different methods.
The more she found out, the more she realised that she was stepping outside her comfort zone. But it seemed like something she needed to do. The course she chose – which fortuitously enough was right here in Bristol – was intensive and required a lot of studying, forty hours of massage practise, and a commitment – not just to the subject, but to herself. It included honest self-reflection, the keeping of a journal in which to express her own insights and experiences of her journey through the course, the study of anatomy, pathology and how the body systems such as the respiratory and digestive systems worked, and learning about the quality of touch.
But the more she thought about it, the more Grace liked the idea. She wanted to work with people and she relished the thought of doing something worthwhile. She was ready for the challenge. She wanted to develop as a person and become more self-aware. She wanted to use her sense of touch. There would be self-doubts of course. There would be times when her confidence would wane and the whole idea would probably seem a bit crazy. But Grace became determined to make it happen. She would build her practice and client base and she would make it her own.
Elisa approved too and it was only Grace’s father who couldn’t seem to get his head around the idea. Robbie and Theo both thought she was good at massage. Theo had said she had the touch. It was true that when she was working on Robbie’s shoulders, she could feel the knots and the tensions; she almost sensed what needed to be done to make things right. A new career, a new life-direction was beckoning. And Grace decided to grab it. She did the introductory course as a taster and enjoyed it. It gave her the confidence she needed to go forward.
She called her business Equilibrium – since harmony and balance were what she was striving to achieve. Physical harmony with the body working as it should do, but mental harmony too; relaxation of the mind worked in conjunction with relaxation of the body, or so Grace believed. And the healing properties of touch. Some people experienced touch so rarely, and even for those who did experience it, how often was touch a communicator, a comforter, a healer – rather than a sexual touch? Touch was – had always been – integral to humanity. And Grace remembered the time in class when she’d done a foot massage for Cathy. When she finished, Cathy was so warm and relaxed that she hadn’t realised for a full five minutes that Grace was no longer touching her. The powerful sensation of touch had remained . . . and Grace had felt proud.
She glanced across at her father. ‘Perhaps you should come along for a massage one day.’ She tried to make her voice light. Grace worked from their cottage in Passage Street but also travelled to clients’ homes if necessary, to broaden her options and increase her client base. Sometimes it was good to offer a mobile service. No one had time any more. And that’s what she was offering. Time given to oneself; in which to be nurtured and cared for. Time that everyone needed in this stressful and technological world they all lived in. Or let me come to you, she’d put on her website and business cards. And so far, her flexibility seemed to be paying dividends.
‘Me?’ Her father snorted in disbelief.
‘Perhaps it might . . . help.’
But he looked at her as if she were proposing something unmentionable. ‘I don’t need any help,’ he growled.
Even so, she saw something in his eyes. Fear perhaps? And again she softened. He was from a different generation after all. She blamed him for so much, but in the end he was still her father and she still cared for him. She put down her coffee cup and leaned towards him. ‘I know it’s not exactly what you wanted me to do with my life,’ she said. She wanted to tell him that it was a good thing, despite what he thought. She wanted to tell him that he was mistaken in the assumptions that he’d made. She wanted him to take her in his arms and hold her in the way that a father should. But there were so many barriers between them. His attitude, the blame Grace had laid at his door. His drinking, her mother’s death, his guilt. All these things seemed to stand there like sentinels, determined not to let her through.
‘It’s not, no.’ He gave her a look – unusually serious and direct. ‘But it’s your decision, Grace. It was important to both of us, me and your mother, to give you a good education, that’s all.’
Grace could scream. And then he had to bring her mother into it. ‘But I’ve used that education,’ she said, forcing herself to stay calm. She should show him her APP work. The study of anatomy was complex, the work had always been challenging. Plus there was a huge responsibility on the therapist’s shoulders. The client trusted his or her therapist to make a difference. And if the therapist didn’t deliver in a way, they’d failed. ‘I have a foundation degree, Dad. I researched the courses and I chose a good one. Why can’t you see? Massage therapy is a serious profession.’ Her name was on an accredited register and she was bound to keep her skills up to the mark through CPD, continuing professional development. But she shouldn’t even have to explain all this to him.
‘Call it what you like, it’s still what it is,’ her father muttered. His left eye had started to twitch. It was a sign she’d learnt to recognise. ‘We’ve had massage parlours sin
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