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Radio Havana
by Martin David Edwards




Ian looked up from his father’s photo on his laptop. An old man was pushing his wheelchair towards Ian’s table in the coffee shop, wearing a rainbow coloured scarf and a thick brown winter coat. A cup was perched on his legs and rolled up and down the coat as the wheelchair squeaked closer. Ian wondered if the drink had been spilt but the coat was unstained. He recognised a faint tang of urine, too familiar from visits to his father’s nursing home.

The wheelchair stopped at his table. Ian moved his laptop closer to his seat. Three chairs were free around him and he did not want the coffee shop to complain he was hoarding space.

“What do you know about radios?” the old man asked him.

Ian lowered his screen. The wheelchair was parked in front of him, the old man’s hands resting on the wheels. Its seat was so low that he felt like a giant looking into a goldfish bowl.

“Not much. I listen to my favourite stations on the Internet,” Ian said. He wondered if the old man was about to ask him for spare change.

“I know all about computers,” the old man replied. “I was asking about radios.”

“Sorry. Of course. I mean, we all do.” Ian told himself off for his staccato-like cynicism.

The wheelchair rolled backwards on the floor. A woman holding a sandwich leapt out of its way.

Ian jumped up from his table and flapped his arms like a scarecrow. “Try your brakes,” he said.

“Just testing.” The old man’s hands disappeared to the backs of the wheels. The wheelchair returned to the table and stayed still.

“Glad to see you’re steady.” Ian sat down. In his father’s nursing home, he had sprung up and down from the visitor’s chair as if he was sitting on a coiled spring, while his father looked up at him from his own wheelchair.

“You’re all talk and no action,” the old man replied.

“I’ll have a look for radios on Google.” Ian typed Radio on his keyboard.

“You don’t seem very happy,” the old man said.

“I’m perfectly fine.”

 “Fine like my radio. The aerial snapped off and I threw it in the bin.”

Ian scrolled through the links to online stations and clicked on Shopping. Now he could be useful, like handing his father the newspaper. “What kind of radio would you like?”

The old man frowned. “Why are you asking me about radios? Are you a salesman?”

“I’m only a nobody.”

 “You’re not a nobody if you’re speaking to me.” The old man picked up the cup from his lap and rattled it in the air.

Ian remembered the cues from the nursing home. “Perhaps I could get you a tea.”

“Milk and five sugars.”

Ian smiled. His father had a sweet tooth and the nurses had suspected he was diabetic.

“Laughing to yourself is a sign of losing your marbles,” the old man said.

“I was wondering about the five sugars.”

“Make it six if the sugar’s free.”

Ian excused himself to order the tea at the counter. Scooping a dozen sugar sachets onto a tray, he returned to the table.

The old man took the tea with a trembling hand. “That’s the trouble of getting on,” he said. “You forget what you were thinking. Do you know any old people?”

Ian was not surprised by the sudden confession of self-awareness. His father could complete crossword puzzles but complained that he couldn’t remember the day of the week. “Not me,” he replied. Not anymore.

“You’re lucky. Growing old sucks.”

Ian opened the sugar sachets for the old man, hating himself for being so guarded. His father said that he was the champion keeper of secrets, while they were still capable of a conversation.

A couple sat down at a table next to them. In their twenties, Ian reckoned, the young living with regrets yet to come. They spooned marshmallows into each other’s hot chocolates.

“Interesting,” the old man said.

The girl shifted her seat to block their view. Ian blushed, embarrassed that he had also been caught watching.

“Do you like to listen to the radio?” Ian asked the old man loudly, hoping the boyfriend would not call them Peeping Toms.

The old man slurped on his tea. “I like Radio Havana.”

“As in cigars?” Ian regretted returning to the subject of radios. His father had needed reassurance, not confusion.

“Cigars are for smoking. Radio Havana is short for Radio Havana Cuba. The Cuba is too much of a mouthful, like their cigars.”

Ian typed discretely on his laptop to check if the old man was being delirious. The station even had its own website. “You must be learning Spanish,” he said. His father spoke French until he started mixing up the tenses.

“I can’t speak a word.”

“You like to salsa?” Ian was aware of a mock Spanish lilt in his voice. Being patronising was too easy with the old.

“I’m in a wheelchair, like you hadn’t noticed.” The old man tapped the arms.

“Oh.” The retort was justified.


“Another radio station?” Ian asked brightly. He had learnt the futility of forcing a conversation down one track when minds could only wander.

“Have you ever heard of a station called by a girl’s name?”

“Radio Caroline?”

“Don’t be impertinent.” The old man looked into his cup, his head hanging down on his coat.

Ian thought he had fallen asleep.

The old man raised his head. “Dorothy was my wife.”

“I’m sorry twice.” Ian wished he could sink underneath the wheelchair.

“She died two years ago. Bowel cancer, which means you go without being able to poop.”

“That sounds blocked up,” Ian said. His own mother had died of a heart attack, taken quickly without any farewells or the embarrassments of incapacitation.

“When I die, I’ll go on a potty.”

“More practical than a chair.”

The old man shook his rainbow scarf. “Dorothy flew to cloud cuckoo land with the painkillers they gave her. She couldn’t feel a thing. I’m talking about baby wipes.”

Ian’s father had insisted he could use the bathroom by himself until the nurses found him spread-eagled on the floor with his trousers around his waist. “Baby wipes are practical,” he said.

“Do I look like a baby?” the old man scowled. “I can look after my own bottom, thank you very much.”

“I prefer to keep my behind to myself as well.”

“Try to keep to the subject instead of making propositions,” the old man said. “I was talking about Dorothy.”

“I’m listening.” Ian knew he was telling a half-truth.

“I moved into the home after her funeral. The Council said I couldn’t live on my own without help. Dorothy probably had a hand.”

“Dorothy sounds like a lovely wife.” Keeping track of the moments of clarity with his father had been like savouring an unexpected gift, except that Ian had too often sent the present back unwrapped.

The old man stared up at him from his wheelchair, his face moonlike. “I couldn’t stand the cow.”

“Marriages. You always know what you’re missing.” Out of the blue, his father had expressed a wish for grandchildren. Ian had replied that the weather was warming, not wanting to remind his father that his son was single and childless.

“Dorothy knew what she was missing for fifty-four years.”

“Childhood sweethearts,” Ian smiled. His parents’ marriage had lasted three years less, but he stopped himself from giving a comparison. Staying together wasn’t a competition.

“I was too young to know better.” The old man squeaked in his wheelchair to inspect the couple at the next table for a second time.

He was a disapprover, not a voyeur, Ian thought.

“Everything had to have a purpose with Dorothy,” the old man continued, tracking the girl as she tapped on her phone screen. “I couldn’t do anything I wanted without asking her permission first.”

“I know the feeling,” Ian said helplessly, clutching at clichés.

“You don’t know at all. Looks can fool you. Dorothy hated anything she couldn’t understand.”

Like bowel cancer, Ian thought.

“Radio Havana was my vengeance. I found it on my radio when I was fiddling with my knob,” the old man said loudly.

Ian checked the next table, hoping he would not have to ask the old man to lower his voice. The couple were glued to their phones.

“Dorothy couldn’t understand why I wanted to listen. She said we couldn’t even follow what they were saying with their funny voices.”

“The music must have been nice,” Ian replied, cautious of appearing to take sides. Gardening had been his father’s own Radio Havana when he wanted to escape his mother.

“The battle axe hated the music even more. She preferred the Beatles,” the old man said.

Ian conjured up an image in his mind of the reason-loving Dorothy listening to the Beatles while wielding an axe. Perhaps they were both meandering. “How’s the sugar in the tea?” he asked.

“I take seven sugars.”

“Seven is a lucky number.” Remembering the number of sugars you took didn’t matter when the ability to count was fading away.

The old man creaked his head at the ceiling, the rainbow scarf slipping down his neck. “Dorothy is floating up above and telling me to be rational in my radio choices. I’m not giving her a moment’s peace until I join her.”

“I hope that’s not anytime soon. You’ve got Radio Havana to listen to.” Ian looked up at the ceiling in tandem. His father had stopped believing in an afterlife when his mother had died. He said God was a sadist for making her die and then letting him live.

“Radio Havana? Never heard of it, but I like to salsa.” The old man tapped a rhythm on his wheelchair.

“You could buy a radio so you could listen.”

The tapping quickened into a tango. “A nurse at the home said a new radio would cost three hundred pounds. He offered to buy one for me.”

Someone was making money off old people, Ian suspected. He looked up the price of radios on his laptop. “Forty pounds,” he said, reading his screen. “Fifty if you want rechargeable batteries.”

“Batteries? This is the first time I’ve been out in a year and a plug is all I need. I wanted to go to the cashpoint for the nurse, but I needed the toilet.” The old man paused. “And a cup of tea.”

Ian clenched his fists. He was angry at himself for not realising why the old man carried the smell of urine, angrier still that all he had managed was disjointed small talk. The visits to his father were repeating themselves. “I’ll buy the radio,” he said.

The old man started crying, tears running down his face unchecked.

On the next table, the couple stopped scrolling on their phone screens and looked across. Their raised eyebrows questioned if Ian had upset the old man.

“I’ll be a minute,” Ian said. He had to struggle not to run to the counter.

“Am I going back to the home?” the old man asked after him.

“I was cruel to you. Here’s my apology.” Ian returned to the table with a handful of serviettes.

The boyfriend was talking to the old man. Ian handed over the serviettes and waited while the old man wiped his nose, readying himself for the punch from the boyfriend that would be coming next.

“Your dad says you’re the best son he’s ever had,” the boyfriend said to him.

“We only met in the coffee shop. You better get on with the punishment I deserve,” Ian replied, turning his cheek.

“I wish I was a son like you. I don’t even see my dad for his birthdays,” the boyfriend said and shook his head.

His girlfriend wrapped her arms around his shoulders and led him out of the coffee shop.

“Why is everybody talking about my son?” the old man asked, his eyes open wide at the couple leaving. “He lives in Cuba and says he’s too busy to travel to see me.”

The old man had been surrounded by sons, caught in the tragedy of excuses. Ian blamed himself for steering a conversation that should have become an act of oblivion. “Let’s get the radio later,” he said. “You need a passport first.”

“Am I visiting Dorothy upstairs?” The old man straightened his scarf. “I’ll tell her I didn’t mean to be rude. I just didn’t like the poop.”

To Ian, the old man looked as if he was drowning. “We’re not visiting Dorothy, not before it’s too late for either of us.” He reached behind the wheelchair and unclicked the brakes. “You and I are off to Cuba.”




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