As mentioned in my last post, Varadero features heavily in my first novel The Phoenix Lottery — especially the duPont mansion. As an experiment, I’m posting the first chapter here. For photos of the setting you’re reading about, check my last post. (Next post, some things to see off the beach. 🙂
THE REUNION (From THE PHOENIX LOTTERY)
Varadero. December 15, 1958. Two weeks before the revolution triumphs.
Edgar and Kitty, along with four-year-old Junior and private secretary Emily Pristable, have arrived from Havana to celebrate Christmas and welcome in the New Year. But the main purpose of their visit is not relaxation. The couple hopes to use the holiday cheer to mend fences with Kitty’s parents, Henry and Althea Danderville.
Edgar had once been the Dandervilles’ darling. He’d met them at their Caledon estate, claiming himself a comrade of their late lamented son. They brought him to the drawing room where his three-hankie recollection of Joseph’s heroic death in battle earned him both a sherry and a job.
Bright and enterprising, Edgar rose quickly through the ranks. Then, betrayal! Elopment with their daughter Kitty! Imagine! And her a Havergill debutante!
The Dandervilles sought to have the marriage annulled, but Kitty proudly announced herself pregnant. Swallowing hard, Althea contacted her second-cousin, Irénée duPont, the French-born American industrialist. Within the week, he had the young couple out-of-sight-out-of-mind in Cuba, where Edgar was put to work on family interests in Havana. Oh the howls and recrimation, when Kitty’s pregnancy evaporated in the hot Cuban sun. Even the birth of grandson Junior, some years later, failed to melt the northern cold front.
This visit may change all that. Winter is increasingly hard on the Danderville bones, and for once the invitation to Christmas in Cuba has been accepted. Edgar is determined the breach be healed — no Havana apartment for his in-laws. Rather, leaving nothing to chance, he has arranged for the family to stay at Xanadu, the private retreat of Irénée duPont.
The redoubtable duPont, now a fierce eighty-four, is vacationing in the south of France and is only too happy to give Edgar the keys to his estate. Edgar, after all, has served with distinction for the past eight years: he’s a young man with a future, a ‘comer’ and drinking companion to boot. As for Althea, she and that Danderville fellow of hers raise damn fine horses on their Caledon estate. Definitely our sort.
When Irénée duPont arrived at Varadero in 1928, the little fishing village was an outlying section of Cárdenas, a city once renowned as “The Holland of the Americas”. Created out of swamp by French, American and British interests, Cárdenas was the first Cuban city to have electric lights and the second to be serviced by a railroad. While these amenities spoke to its power as a centre for sugar and coffee, its attractions were more than economic. The endless, unspoiled beauty of its Varadero beaches brought tourists by steamer and sailboat as early as 1872. In fact, Varadero was the first beach to see Europeans dressed in lightweight bathing attire. Unfortunately, Cárdenas had unravelled when nationalists razed its plantations and destroyed its rail links at the close of the nineteenth century. From that point it had been in progressive decline, its people mired in poverty, its magnificent architecture ravaged by neglect, and its tourism reduced to a faint sea-breeze.
A French-born American industrialist, duPont was a visionary who saw an opportunity to recapture the lost glory of the area, or at least of its beaches. A philanthropist of the old school, he financed a purification plant which delivered potable water to the area, underwrote the village school which provided free education to the peninsula’s children, and paid to rebuild the local church, the Iglesia Católica de Santa Elvira, when it was decimated by a cyclone in 1933. He also invested over $1.5 million to create his spectacular Xanadu retreat.
Set on 512 hectares of land on the east end of the Varadero peninsula, Xanada features an airstrip, a yacht harbour, a nine-hole golf course and a stunning three-story Spanish colonial-style mansion. The mansion, perched atop the San Bernadino butte, boasts impossibly high ceilings, green tile roof set against white stucco walls and a parade of elegant mahogany-framed windows and balconies. Surpassing these in magnificence is its piece de resistance, an expansive semi-enclosed rooftop bar which commands a breathtaking view of the powdery white sand beach along the peninsula’s north coast, as well as a suggestion of the distant village.
DuPont’s extravagance caught the attention of the world’s politicians, entertainers and mobsters. Varadero began to change. While duPont maintained his Xanadu mansion at a discreet remove from other habitation, he sold off snippets of land at its west border to members of America’s social elite. Soon luxurious pied-a-terres of white stucco and terra cotta tile dotted the shoreline. Film stars like Cary Grant could be seen jogging along the brilliant sand, while gangsters like Al Capone grilled lobster on their marble beach front patios. Offshore, Hemingway indulged his passion for deep-sea fishing, while regattas and a dizzying spin of lavish private parties provided endless recreation for the socially inclined.
Varadero has never looked back. By 1958, it is in full Renaissance. Its name alone conjures Latin rhythms, romance and intrigue. It is Heaven with a twist; Paradise straight up. Small wonder, then, that Edgar and Kitty have chosen it as the fairy tale backdrop for their planned reconciliation with the Dandervilles. But life, in the form of witchcraft and revolution, is about to provide the couple with something quite other than a fairy tale ending.
The Dandervilles arrive fresh from a Miami stopover on a private plane arranged by Edgar. This is only the second time they’ve been to Cuba. It’s also the first time they’ve seen grandson Junior since Kitty flew him up to Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital for neurological tests when he was still an infant. The atmosphere is electric. Fortunately, the Dandervilles have had a good flight.
“Kitty, Kitty, Kitty. My own, dear Kitty,” says Althea, emerging from a formal embrace on the tarmac. “You ought to have told me the good news immediately, my dear.”
“What good news?” Kitty enquires.
“That you’re in the family way, my precious. That your Junior will soon be having himself a little playmate.”
“ I’m not!” Kitty splutters.
“Oh but you can’t fool me, with those pudgy cheeks and thick waist.”
Kitty bursts into tears. “Mama, you know what the doctors said!”
“Oh my angel, forgive me. However could I be so cruel? Why, then, it must be the happy marriage that has you so nicely fleshed out. As for the problem ‘down there’, please don’t cry. I’m sure with a little prayer the good Lord will see fit to bless you with another wee one. What do doctors know anyway? In the meantime, if I may be permitted a word of advice, mind the sweets. A mother worries.”
With that, Althea sails off to the waiting convertible, her perfect hourglass form encased in a tasteful linen ensemble, her pale skin shaded from the sun by white gloves, an enormous soft-brimmed picture hat and a large floral-print umbrella carried by her doting husband, Henry.
Junior is waiting for them on the front steps of the mansion. Emily has dressed him in a blue blazer, grey wool shorts, knee-high socks and a polka dot bow tie. He is four, but confronted by Granny D. he quickly regresses.
“Aren’t we the proper little man?” Althea enthuses with what she presumes to be grandmotherly affection. She turns to Kitty. “Why he’s cute as a button.” Extending her hand to Junior she says, “Would you like to shake Granny’s hand?”
Junior shakes his head, thumb stuck firmly in mouth.
“But it’s your Granny Danderville,” Kitty encourages. “You remember your Granny Danderville, don’t you?”
Junior shakes his head and hides behind Emily’s skirts. His pants itch. He scratches his bum.
“He’s just making a bit strange,” says Emily, placing a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Some things never change,” Althea replies darkly. She remembers well the five-minute encounter with Junior she and Henry had endured at Sick Kids’. The boy had not only refused to look at them, he’d kept his hands clamped over his eyes. They’d tried coaxing a peek. No luck. Not to be denied by a tadpole, Althea had pried the screaming boy’s hands from his face finger by finger. But the stubborn beast, undaunted, had kept his eyes squinched tight shut. Not even a bribe of chocolate could tempt the creature to open them.
“Not to worry,” Althea brightens, “lots of peculiar children grow up to be normal.”
“Would you like to play horsy, Junior?” Henry asks, dropping to all fours.
“Henry, please! That’s what servants are for.”
The company passes through the foyer and enters the main reception area. Tension is instantly relieved with a chorus of appreciative ‘ooo’s and ‘ahhh’s; servants have decorated a sixteen-foot pine tree flown in from New England for the occasion. The boughs bend beneath the weight of crystal icicles, colourful balls of eggshell porcelain, seasonal figurines, and large cones gilded with gold leaf. Atop the tree is a large Christmas angel with a glittering halo and a flowing robe of real ermine studded with jewels.
Junior has been in awe of the angel since he first laid eyes on her. He’s so proud to show her off that he forgets he’s shy. “Look at the angel! Her hat is as wide as Granny’s.”
“It’s called a halo, dear,” Kitty intervenes with a nervous smile.
“I want a halo!”
The adults smile indulgently, but Junior is not to be patronized. He has found his vocation. “When I grow up,” he announces proudly, “I’m going to be a Christmas angel. And I’m going to wear a beautiful dress and have a big halo and long, golden hair, and fly around giving presents to poor people. Everybody will want to kiss me.” He begins to dance around as he imagines the Christmas angel would dance, with his hands high in the air and his long, imaginary hair flowing in the breeze.
“Yes, well,” says Edgar brusquely, “Anyone for rum punch?”
It is at this point that Junior lets out a hair-raising scream, drops to the floor and skitters backwards into a corner like a crab. Terrified, he scrunches into a ball and points at the ceiling. “The Pillow Lady’s in the chandelier!” he screams. Emily runs to comfort him. “Pillow Lady! Pillow Lady!”
“He’s still going on about the Pillow Lady?” Althea demands, her right eyebrow arching off her forehead. “I understood those Toronto head doctors had put an end to that.” Her gaze swoops to the unfortunate Kitty who collapses sobbing at Edgar’s feet. Edgar, in turn, implores Henry with the helpless look of a man who knows he ought to be doing something, but can’t figure out exactly what.
No such indecision affects Sara Pérez, the head maid. She knows she must visit the high priest, the babalawo, immediately. There is witchcraft afoot.