Book Extracts
  • Havana Red by Leonardo Padura
  • Havana Red |  Leonardo Padura
Havana Red by Leonardo Padura
The heat is a malign plague invading everything. The
heat descends like a tight, stretchy cloak of red silk,
wrapping itself round bodies, trees and things, to
inject there the dark poison of despair and a slower,
certain death. It is a punishment without appeal or
relief that seems ready to ravage the visible universe,
though its lethal vortex must fall on a heretic city, on a
district condemned to hell. It tortures mangy, forlorn
street dogs searching for a lake in the desert; old men
dragging sticks that are more exhausted than their
own legs, as they advance against the summer solstice
in their daily struggle for survival; once majestic trees,
now bent double by the fury of spiralling temperatures;
dead dust piled against the sidewalks, longing for
a rain that never comes or an indulgent wind, presences
able to upset their becalmed fate and transform
them into mud, abrasive clouds, storms or cataclysms.
The heat crushes everything, tyrannizes the world,
corrodes what could be saved and arouses only the
most infernal wrath, rancours, envies, hatreds, as if it
intended to provoke the end of time, history, humanity
and memory . . . But how the fuck can it be so hot?
he whispered as he removed his dark glasses to dry the
sweat dirtying his face and spat into the street a minuscule
gob of phlegm that rolled over the parched dust.
The sweat burned his eyes, and Lieutenant Mario
Conde looked up at the sky to clamour for a cloud that
would augur relief. And then the shouts of glee hit his
brain. The cacophony hurtled towards him, a rehearsed
chorale expanding as if it had erupted from the earth and
careered on the afternoon heat, rising up momentarily
above the din of traffic and lorries rushing along the
Calzada, gripping Conde’s memory in a sullen embrace.
But he saw them as soon as he reached the corner: while
one lot celebrated, clapped and shouted, others argued,
also at the top of their voices, and eyed each other up like
real enemies, blaming each other for the same reason
the others were so happy: vanquished and victors, he
quickly concluded as he stopped to survey the scene.
There were boys of various ages, between twelve and
sixteen, of every colour and shape, and Conde thought
how, if someone had stopped on that same corner, in
that same district, twenty years ago on hearing a similar
outcry, he’d have seen exactly what he could see now,
boys of every colour and shape, except the guy celebrating
or arguing most would have been him, the young
Conde, grandson of Rufino Conde, or the Count as
he was known to everyone. Suddenly he enjoyed the
illusion that time didn’t exist there, because it was that
side-street which had served ever since as an area for
playing baseball, though some seasons would see a sly,
treacherous football appear, or a basketball hoop
nailed to an electricity post. But soon baseball – with
bat, hand, four bases, three rolling-a-fly or at the wall –
would impose its rule not too acrimoniously, over those
passing fads: baseball infected them, like a chronic
passion, and the Count and his friends suffered virulent
Despite the heat, August afternoons had always been
the best for playing baseball on the street corner.
Holiday time meant everybody was in the neighbourhood
all the time, and had nothing better to do, and
the hyper-active summer sun allowed you to play on
beyond eight o’clock at night when a game really
deserved to be extended. Recently, however, the
Count had seen few games of baseball on the street
corner. The boys seemed to prefer other less energetic,
more sweet-smelling diversions than running, hitting
and shouting for several hours under a scorching
summer sun, and he wondered what boys nowadays
could possibly do on long summer afternoons. Not like
them: they always played baseball, he recalled, and
then recalled how few of them were left in the neighbourhood:
while some went in and out of prison for
lesser or greater crimes, others had moved on to such
disparate destinations as Alamar, Hialeah, Santiago de
las Vegas, Union City, Cojímar or Stockholm, and one
had even collected a one-way ticket to the Colón
Cemetery: poor Marquitos. Consequently, even if
they’d wanted to and still had enough strength left in
their legs and arms, the guys from that era could never
organize another game of baseball on that street
corner: because life had destroyed that option, along
with so many others.
When the celebrations and arguments were over,
the boys decided to play another game and the two
obvious group leaders prepared to pick their sides with
an eye to redistributing forces and continuing the war
in more balanced conditions. Then the Count had an
idea: he’d ask if he could play. He felt roasted by his
eight hours that day in the Information Bureau at
Police Headquarters, but it was only six in the afternoon
and he’d rather not yet return to the solitary
heat of his house. A much better idea would be to start
playing baseball. If they’d let him.
He walked over to the group, which was around the
plank chosen as home-plate, and hailed Black Felicio’s
son. Felicio was one of those he’d always played with
and the Count reckoned he must be back inside as
he’d not seen him for a long, long time. The boy was as
black as his father and had also inherited that abrasive,
acrid smell of sweat the Count knew by heart, for he
always managed to catch it when out with Felicio.
“Rubén,” he addressed the black kid, who looked at
him slightly alarmed. “Reckon I could join the game
for a bit?”
The boy kept staring as if he hadn’t understood, and
then looked at his friends. The Count thought an
explanation was in order.
“I’ve not played for some time and suddenly felt like
making a few catches . . .”
Then Rubén went over to the other players, so he
wouldn’t be the only one to bear the weight of the
decision. Best to consult on everything in this country,
thought the Count, as he waited on their verdict.
Opinions seemed divided and agreement took longer
than expected.
“All right,” Rubén finally said, from his position as
intermediary, but neither he nor the others seemed
over-pleased by their concession.
As they discussed the make-up of the teams, the
Count took off his shirt and rolled up his trouser
bottoms twice. Luckily he hadn’t taken his pistol to
work today. He put his shirt on the wall of the house
where Spaniard Enrique had lived – and also died, was
it ten, twenty or a thousand years ago? – and eventually
they told him he was in Rubén’s team and an outfielder.
But, when he found himself surrounded by boys,
shirtless like them, the Count felt it all too contrived
and ridiculous: his skin sensed the boys’ sarcastic looks
and he thought they perhaps saw him like the first
missionary to reach a remote tribe: he was a foreigner,
with a different language and customs, and wouldn’t
find it easy to integrate in that brotherhood which
hadn’t sought him out, which didn’t want or understand
him. Besides, all those boys must know he was a
policeman and, in keeping with the neighbourhood’s
ancestral ethics, they wouldn’t be particularly
delighted if others saw them on such good terms with
the Count, however close a friend he’d been of their
parents or older brothers. OK, some things never
changed on that street corner.
As the members of his team started to take up
positions, the Count grabbed his shirt and went over to
Rubén. He went to put his arm round his shoulders,
but desisted when he felt his skin touch the layer of
sweat covering the boy.
“Sorry, Rubén, I just remembered I’m expecting a
phone call. I’ll have a game another day,” he told him.
And he went off towards the Calzada, feeling the
red, merciless sun, already level with his eyes, burning
body and soul. Above his head he could see the flaming
sword indicating his irrevocable exit from that lost
paradise that had once been his, but was no longer and
would never be again. If that corner wasn’t his, what
did he own the title deeds to? A lacerating sensation
that he was alien, foreign, different, hit him so strongly
that the Count had to restrain himself and cling to his
last ounce of pride to stop himself running away. And
only then, when he realized it was too hot to be running
around street corners, did he grasp the real reason
they hadn’t wanted to count him in: how come I didn’t
get it, those bastards were playing for money . . .
“What’s the matter, wild man?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m tired.”
“It’s hot, don’t you reckon?”
“Fucking hot.”
“Your face looks really shit awful.”
“I can imagine,” the Count agreed, as he coughed
and spat out of the window in the direction of the yard.
Skinny Carlos watched him from his wheelchair and
shrugged his shoulders. He knew when his friend
behaved that way it was best to ignore him. He’d always
said the Count was a long-suffering bastard, a sucker
for nostalgia, a total hypochondriac and the most
difficult person to console in the world, and today he
didn’t feel he had time or stamina to relieve the fierce
onslaught of melancholy his friend was suffering.
“Should I put some music on?” he asked.
“You feel like it?”
“Only asking. Just to pass the time, you know?”
The Count went over to the long row of cassettes on
the top of the shelves. His eyes ran over titles and
singers, and this time was hardly surprised by Skinny’s
eclectic taste in music.
“What do you fancy? The Beatles? Chicago? Formula
V? Los Pasos? Credence?”
“Hey, Credence,” they agreed again: they liked to
hear Tom Foggerty’s tight voice and the elemental
guitars of Credence Clearwater Revival.
“Theirs is still the best version of Proud Mary.”
“That’s not even up for discussion.”
“He sings like a black, or rather sings as if he were
fucking God.”
“Fucking right.” And were surprised as they looked
each other in the eye: both felt simultaneously the
painful inevitability of the morbid replay they were
engaged in. They’d repeated that same dialogue, the
same words, on other occasions, often, over twenty
years of friendship, and always in Skinny’s room, and
its periodical resurrection brought back the feeling
they were entering an enchanted realm of perpetual,
cyclical time, where it was possible to imagine all was
pristine and eternal. But so many visible signs, so
much skulking behind shame, fear, rancour and even
affection, gave notice that only the remastered voice
of Tom Foggerty and the Credence guitars had any
permanence. The baldness threatening the Count and
not-so-skinny Skinny’s sick flab, Mario’s inveterate
sadness and Carlos’s intractable illness were all too
conclusive proof, among a thousand others, of a
wretched decline entirely in the ascendant.
“It’s some time since you saw Red Candito?” Skinny
asked when the song came to an end.
“No kidding.”
“He was here the other afternoon and told me he’d
given up his line in shoe-making.”
“What’s he into now?”
Skinny looked at the cassette player, as if suddenly something
about the machine or song had distracted him.
“What’s up, you sly bastard?”
“Nothing’s up . . . He’s got a piloto and he’s selling
beer . . .”
The Count nodded and smiled. He could smell his
friend’s intentions from several miles.
“And he asked me why we didn’t go and pay him a
visit one of these days . . .”
The Count nodded and smiled again.
“You know I can’t go to that kind of place, Skinny.
It’s illegal and if something happens . . .”
“Mario, don’t fuck around. In this heat, with your
shit-awful face . . . and it’s only a couple of minutes to
Candito’s place . . . A few beers. Come on, let’s off.”
“I can’t, you bastard. Fucking remember I’m a
policeman . . .” his weak-willed arms feebly hoisting
flags proclaiming SOS . . . “Don’t keep on, Skinny.”
But Skinny did. “I’m damned desperate to go and I
thought you’d jump at the chance. You know I never
get out, I’m more bored than a toad under a rock . . . A
few cold beers. Just for my birthday, right? And you’re
practically not a policeman any more . . .”
“But what kind of bastard have you turned into,
Skinny? Your birthday’s not until next week.”
“All right. All right. If you don’t want to, we won’t . . .”
The Count brought the wheelchair to a halt outside
the entrance to the building. He wiped the sweat away
again, as he looked at a passageway lined with doors on
both sides. His arms hung heavy after the effort of
pushing his friend’s two hundred and fifty pounds
more than ten blocks, and the two hills he’d gone up
and down. A light flickered in the dark at the end of
the passage and the glare from television screens and
voices of the characters in the latest soap emerged
from every open door in the place. “Tell me, Mama,
who’s to blame for everything that’s happened? Please
tell me, Mama,” asked someone who’d surely suffered
terrible things in that life in daily episodes that craved
to be the real thing. Then he put his handkerchief
away and walked towards Candito’s door, the only one
still shut. As he pushed the wheelchair he tried to hide
his face between his arms: I’m still a policeman, he
thought, as the temptation from those clandestine
beers drew nearer, with the cool, delectable oblivion
their consumption would deliver.
He knocked and the door opened as if they were
expected. Cuqui, the mulatta who now lived with
Candito, had only to stretch out her arm to turn the
door handle. Like all those living in the block, she too
was watching the soap, and her face seemed to reveal
the astonishment of the character finally discovering
the whole truth. “I’m to blame,” the Count thought of
saying, but he restrained himself.
“Come in, come in,” she insisted, but her voice
retained something of the hesitancy of the character in
the soap: she refused to believe, and perhaps that was
why she shouted into the room, and kept her eyes
trained on the newcomers: “Candito, you’ve got
Like in a puppet theatre, Red Candito’s saffroncoloured
head peered out from behind the curtains
hiding the kitchen and the Count got the code: having
visitors was different to having customers, and Candito
should show himself cautiously. But as soon as he saw
them, the mulatto broke into a smile and walked over.
“Fucking hell, Carlos, you persuaded him,” he said,
as he shook hands with his two old school friends.
“I told you I’d come and here I am, right?”
“You bet, come inside. I’ve still got some stuff left.
Hey, Cuqui, get a nice snack for these mates of mine
and forget the soap, go on. Whenever I look at it,
they’re spewing out the same bullshit . . .”
Candito sorted the furniture so Skinny’s chair could
cross the room, raised the curtain which hid the kitchen
and opened the patio door: some six tables, all full,
halted the Count in his tracks. Candito looked him in
the eye and nodded: yes, he could go in. But for a
moment from the kitchen the Count scrutinized the
customers: they were almost all men, only three women,
and he tried to identify the odd face. He instinctively
touched his belt to check his pistol wasn’t there, but
calmed down when he didn’t recognize anyone. Any of
those characters could have had run-ins with him at
Headquarters and the Count didn’t like the idea of
bumping into them in a place like this.
The cheap marble tables were round, iron legged
and piled high with bottles. A cold bright light lit the
space and a cassette recorder played at top volume the
mournful songs of José Feliciano, whose voice did its
best to drown out the drinkers’ voices. By the sink, two
metal tanks sweated ice against the heat. Candito
walked over to a table in one corner, occupied by two
awesome-looking specimens. He spoke quietly. The
men agreed to give up their seats: one was huge, fairhaired,
a good six feet tall with long, dangling arms, a
face as cratered as the moon’s surface; the other was
smaller, his skin so black it was blue, and he just had to
be a direct grandson and universal heir to Cro-Magnon
man himself: Darwin’s theory of evolution was
reflected in the exaggerated jutting of his jaw and the
narrow forehead where the eyes of a wild beast of
the jungle glinted yellow. Red Candito gestured to the
Count to push Carlos’s chair nearer and to the men to
bring three beers.
“What did you tell that pair of troglodytes?” the
Count mumbled as they sat down.
“Calm down, Conde, calm it. You’re anonymous
here, right. Those guys are my business legs.”
The Count turned to look at the big blond, who was
now approaching the table with their beers; he placed
them on the table and then, without a word, walked
over to the tanks.
“They’re your bodyguards, you mean?”
“They’re my legs, Condesito, and they have a
hundred uses.”
“Hey, Candito,” Skinny butted in. “What’s a lager
cost these days?”
“Depends how you get it, Carlos. Right now it’s
tricky and I sell it for three pesos. But yours is on the
house, and no arguing, OK?” And he smiled as Cuqui
appeared with a plateful of strips of ham, and cheese
with biscuits. “All right, darling, carry on relaxing with
that soap.” And he stroked her backside farewell.
The ice-cold beer restored a degree of peace to the
Count’s over-heated spirit, and he regretted gulping
down the first bottle almost in one go. Now he was only
irritated by the aggressive volume of the music and the
sensation of vulnerability he felt at turning his back on
the other customers, but he realized it was Candito
who had to survey the remaining tables and decided to
stop worrying when the blond guy replaced the empty
bottle with a full one. Efficiency was returning to the
“What are you up to, Conde?” Candito drank in
small gulps. “I’ve not seen you in ages.”
The Count tried the ham.
“I’m in the doghouse, because they suspended me
after I had a row with an idiot there. They’ve put me on
form-filling and won’t let me as much as look into the
street . . . But you’ve switched tack completely.”
Candito took a long swig from his bottle.
“No choice, Conde, and you know it: you can’t let
yourself get burnt in any business. The shoes thing was
half down the shoot and I had to change track. You
know it’s real hard in the street and, if you don’t have a
peso, you’re no longer a player, you know.”
“If you get caught, you’ll be in dire straits. God won’t
spare you one hell of a fine . . . And if they catch me
here, I’ll be in the doghouse for the rest of my life.”
“Don’t get like that, Conde, I tell you there’ll be no
dire straits.”
“You still go to church, I suppose?”
“Yes, sometimes. You’ve got to keep on good terms
with some people . . . Like the police, for example.”
“Stop talking shit, Candito.”
“Leave off, gents,” interrupted Skinny. “These beers
are dead and gone. Tell them to pour me another,
Candito lifted his arm and said: “Three more.”
The fair-haired guy served them again. The melodious
drunken voice of Vicentico Valdés was now playing
on the cassette recorder – confessing he was sure he
knew where to find the moon’s missing earrings – and,
as he downed his third beer, the Count felt he was
relaxing. The fact that he’d been in the police for
more than ten years had created tensions which
pursued him. Only in a few places, like Skinny’s, could
he get rid of certain obsessions and enjoy the gut
pleasures of old times, the times they were talking
about now, when they were students at La Víbora high
school and dreams of the future were possible and frequent,
because Skinny was skinny then, walked on
both legs and hadn’t been injured in the war in
Angola, Andrés wanted to be a great pitcher, Rabbit
insisted on rewriting history, Candito showed off his
effervescent, saffron Afro hair and the Count devoted
himself to beating out his first tales as an aborted
writer on an Underwood.
“Do you remember, Conde?” Candito asked, and
Mario said of course he remembered that story, a story
he hadn’t even listened to just now.
Blondie brought a fourth round of beers, and Cuqui
a second plate of titbits, which Skinny Carlos threw
himself at. The Count was bending over to get a piece
of ham, when Candito stood up, making his chair fall
“Bastard!” somebody shouted.
With no time to get up, the Count turned his head
and saw a mulatto put his hands to his face and totter
backwards, as if in flight from the big blond bruiser
standing in front of him holding a bottle. Then the
prehistoric black came up behind the guy, shouting
bastard, bastard, stood firm on his simian fighting legs
and delivered a quick flurry of hooks to the guy’s
kidneys that brought him to his knees. Big Blondie,
meanwhile, had turned his back on his companion
to look at the rest of the tables, hands on hips,
threatening: The first to try it . . . But nobody else did.
The Count, now on his feet, saw Candito walk past
him, reach the penitent mulatto and grab his shirt
collar. Blood spurted from one of his eyebrows, as the
small black, on the other side, gripped his hair and
whacked him round the ears with a wash-brush.
“Let him be,” shouted Candito, but the black kept
on with the brush. “Let him be, for fuck’s sake,” he
shouted and let go of the mulatto’s shirt to grab the
hand of the black, who only then loosened his grip.
The Count observed with almost scientific interest the
collapse of the macerated mulatto: he fell to his right
and his head resounded on the cement like a dry
coconut. No, he wouldn’t have stood much more.
Blondie walked over to the cassette recorder and
changed the music: Daniel Santos was the latest guest
for the night. Then, in no great hurry, he went after the
mulatto, held him up under the armpits, while the little
black took his ankles. They went out though a door at
the back of the yard which the Count hadn’t noticed.
Candito looked at his other customers. For a
moment only Daniel Santos’s voice could be heard.
“Nothing happened, get it . . .?” he said finally. “If
anyone wants another beer, then ask me, right?” and he
lifted up the chair knocked over by his speed of take-off.
The Count had already sat down and Skinny was
wiping away the sweat that had started to bathe every
inch of his fat body.
“What happened, Red?” Skinny took a long, long
“Don’t worry. As they say: aggro that goes with the
“The guy was after me, right?”
Now Candito gulped down his beer and took a piece
of cheese without looking up.
“I don’t know, Conde, but he was after somebody,”
he breathed loudly, still chewing.
“And how the fuck do you know, Red, if the guy
didn’t say a word?” Skinny couldn’t get over his shock.
“You don’t give them time to speak, Carlos, but he
was after somebody.”
“Fuck, they almost killed him.”
Red smiled and wiped his forehead: “The real bitch
is that’s how it’s got to be, my friend. Here it’s the law
of the jungle: respect is respect. Now neither that guy
or any of the people here or anybody who hears the
story of what happened will dare try it on.”
“And what will they do with him now?” Curiosity
gnawed at Skinny, who was sipping his drink nervously.
“They’ll put him out to rest till he cools off. And
after he pays for what he’s drunk, we’ll send him home
because he needs to get some early shut-eye today,
don’t you reckon?”
Skinny shook his head, as if he’d understood nothing,
and looked at the Count who was still silent,
apparently absorbed in the bolero Daniel Santos was
“Did you see that, you rascal?”
“You bet I did, you animal.”
“And do you get it?”
“No. I swear by my mother every day I understand
less . . . Hey, come on, Red, let’s have another beer.”
  • Havana RedLeonardo Padura