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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Writing in Havana with Monique Roffey, November 2009

Below are pieces of writing produced by the writing group who came out to Cuba in November 2009. See

The brief was to go outside onto the streets and take detailed and closely observed notes of a building or object for twenty minutes. The group were asked to use all five senses, but to simply take notes. On returning, I gave them each a piece of paper with one word written on it. An emotion. Joy, anger, peacefulness, sorrow etc. They were then asked to write about what they had observed through this emotion.

The writing below resulted from the exercise, tiny marvellous slices of the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana. All pieces demonstrate something of what the Cuba writer Alejo Carpentier called ‘lo real maravilloso’, the Marvellous Real.

Monique Roffey, tutor, author The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Simon and Schuster)

SHRINE OF SORROWS by Judith Earnshaw

In sorrow you look for alleviation. In sorrow you pray, even if you don’t believe. You hope against hope. You hope against fear. That was the lure of the strange object I saw secreted in a garden as green as noontime Havana dust would allow.

I entered the garden, observed by three people standing by a grey-green Studebaker, and approached the shrine. They looked at me suspiciously but when I dropped to my knees before it, they smiled. I was respectful – pious even – and they were content.

This shrine sits beneath a tall palm tree, its slim grey trunk slashed horizontally as though bandaged. The bleeding heart sees the wounds. The palm bears waving green fronds high beyond reach and huge woody fruits. Some have fallen to the base of the shrine and they look like elongated coconuts, but not hairy so much as alternating a woody surface with one reminiscent of owl’s feathers. They don’t feel like owl’s feathers though. They are scratchy and harsh.

The shrine is set on a cream concrete plinth with grey islands in it where the paint has peeled. You can see the streaks where the paint has been roughly applied. In a cabinet above the plinth is a glass door framed in worn greying wood. It is locked with a tiny silver padlock.

She is inside. Our lady of the sorrows: a plastic doll with clear light blue eyes that gaze without seeing and without mercy. Oh, Mary, Mother of God, hear my prayer. She wears a ruched dress of golden satin and a gold crown. She has tight brown curls beneath the crown, but a second tier of golden tinsel hair flows down over her shoulders like a mantle. On her hand is balanced a plaster Christ child. He does not look real. I do not think He could save me. She is flanked by two candlesticks containing something like lentils topped by dirty wax. Then two tall cracked vases. On the right the vase contains yellow fabric roses. On the right, yellow arum lilies. Aren’t they the flowers of mourning and of death? Oh, Mary, Mother of God, help me.

I can hear the sound of a chainsaw in the next door garden and muted traffic from the road. The shrine smells of dust. My heart feels like dust. Dust and rock. I lean forward and lick the shrine. The observers by the Studebaker look approving. They think I am kissing the shrine. The wood tastes like ash. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. The glass door tastes like standing water. Mary, Mother of God, hear me. I do not think that she can hear. The pink plastic face and the bright blue eyes stare forth and they see nothing. The Christ child sits impotent on her hand. Lost is lost, even in this green garden.

Spikeful plant! by J.R. (Anger)

Spikeful plant! You will not shelter me as the leaves of the trees. You will hurt me if I fall on you. You don't even need watering! Large 
green cactus with your vile triangular branches. No interesting 
capillaries, just edges like waves with prickles at their crest. No 
delicacy, just blunted ends and spikes, like a caterpillar’s antennae, 
protruding from a dark brown head. Where is your hidden beauty? 
You don't rustle or sway in the breeze, or shed beautiful autumnal 
leaves. And here you stand, covered in dust from passing traffic, 
maintaining your unchanging stance, indifferent to all around.

THE FIVE PALMS by Roben das Gupta (Joy)

The five palm trees dance upon the raised dais by the side of the hotel ramp; feminine curves swaying in mutual celebration of self. Vibrant green tubes squeezed into ash-grey skirts patterned with an exuberance of design, middle-aged spread bulging luxuriantly and defiantly above the waist band. The palms exploding like cords of hair flying in anarchic disarray, whipping the air, the leaves like the teeth of a comb stand to attention; alert in anticipation of pleasures yet to come.

The choke and buzz-saw of motor-cycle, the thrum and grumble of motor car, diesel and cigarette smoke are the discarded shackles that lie at their feet as they refute the city's grey claims for constraint and conformity in their frenzy to relish the freedom of abandonment.

Love by W.O.

The ice melted on his tongue like abundant nectar at the centre of a richly coloured orchid, yearning to be harvested by the honey bees. The chants of excited children, the drone of traffic fading as the all consuming sweetness swept into his warm mouth, enveloping the ice and melding it to make it part of him. The oneness, the ecstasy of the cold liquid, giving up its heat freely. The sun pouring down rich light that diffracted in the leaves above to give a golden sheen. He had to have more, to consume the whole cold structure, to delight in its perfect texture. The perfect moment.

This last piece from one of the writer's who did not attend the 'place' workshop. This is a piece of Writing from Life.

Writing from Life by Elizabeth Hudson

The concierge opened the door to her flat to see who it was had entered the building. She shut it quickly after a short glance, looking away. She never had been particularly friendly with the residents of 36 rue Montmorency - it made things simpler that way. I walked to the corner of the courtyard. Her lack of friendliness couldn’t faze the excitement of being with Mark again after three weeks away.

He was looking forward to it too. I could hear him singing our song - the silly ditty to the tune of ‘Lola’ floating down from the second-story window. ‘Her name is Lizzy, she’s very busy’ or whatever word he could find to make it rhyme and make me laugh.

The wordless humming found its lyric.

‘Her name is Audrey.’

Chilled, I stepped into the stairwell, stubbing a toe on Madame Charriere’s buggy, neatly folded under the staircase where it always used to be. I stepped slowly up the stairs to the second floor. Putting both feet onto each step before addressing the next one. The landings smelled of beeswax, poured on every Thursday by the concierge and buffed up. We were always falling on them.

I couldn’t hear the singing any more. It was dark. I breathed in beeswax.

The shrill sting of the doorbell meant I had seconds to compose myself. It was such a small flat. But it took a very long time for Mark to answer the door. He was wearing a bath towel wrapped around his waist that reached to his ankles. He trembled, then cocked his chin.

‘You’ve come at a great time,’ he said, even though we had arranged to meet twenty minutes before.

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