In May 1939, when Professor Carl Mueller, his wife, Esther, and their three children flee Nazi Germany, and find refuge on the paradise island of Cuba, they are all full of hopes and dreams for a safe and happy future.
But those dreams are shattered when Carl and Esther are confronted by a ghost from their past, and old betrayals return to haunt them.
The turbulent years of political corruption leading to Batista’s dictatorship forces the older children to take very different paths to pursue their own dangerous dreams.
And - among the chaos and the conflict that finally leads to Castro’s revolution and victory in 1959, an unlikely love begins to grow - a love that threatens the whole family.
Having escaped a war-torn Europe, their Island of Dreams is to tear them apart forever.
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The harbour side was alive with humanity, loitering in the late afternoon sun. Young, skimpily dressed whores posed provocatively by the harbour wall, or in dark, open doorways invitingly. Swarthy, sharp-suited pimps watched idly from their shiny cars, or sat at bar tables doing deals with sailors, or with furtive male passengers from the cruise ships that lay anchored in the harbour. By a hydrant on the corner a black man was tempting a group of balding, paunchy American men with obscene postcards, while another exchanged a small packet of white powder with a young, racy couple. Among the adults, small barefoot children ran, pestering the prurient tourists for nickels, dimes and gum.
The taxi driver looked back at Carl and muttered something unintelligible in Spanish.
‘Que?...Qui passa?’ said Carl haltingly.
The man rattled off something that Carl couldn’t catch. He looked at Carl’s uncomprehending expression and gestured out of his window.
‘Senor Freddie. His house.’
Carl looked to where the man’s finger was pointing. Above a seedy café, flanked by a small bar and what was clearly a brothel, two stories of shabby windows looked blindly out across the harbour.
‘There?’ he said disbelieving. ‘Senor Freddie lives there?’
‘Si. His house. There.’
It was a moment before Carl could collect his thoughts. The heat, the noise and the movement disorientated him. Seedy, lascivious humanity swarmed at either side. And Freddie lived here?
‘Two dollar fifty,’ said the driver.
Carl paid the man and struggled to get the semi-conscious Freddie from the cab. For a moment no one came forward to help, then two lean black men, casually but neatly dressed, eased alongside and, taking an arm each, hoisted Freddie to his feet.
‘Take it easy, man.’
As the men half-carried, half-dragged Freddie to the open door beside the café, Carl found himself following as in a trance. He had to see. He followed them up the dark narrow stairs past a closed first floor door, to another flight of stairs leading to a single door at the top. Its brown varnish had long lost its lustre, the brass handle was tarnished green from neglect. One of the men opened the door. They carried Freddie over to the iron double bed and flopped him onto the thin flock mattress. With a grin and a shrug to Carl, the two men left. They had clearly done this before.
Carl stood taking in the room. It was larger than it looked from the outside. Room enough for the bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers with a basin and jug on top, a small bookcase containing dusty volumes piled haphazardly on the shelves and a tiny wooden table with two cane chairs. A faded, worn Persian carpet covered the boards between the door and the bed. Slatted blinds kept out the heat of the day and motes of dust floated and sparkled in the sunbeams that pierced the shadows. Beside the bed an empty bottle lay on its side.
Carl turned at the woman’s sharp voice. She was in her early-twenties, dressed only in a white satin shift which delineated her brown, rounded body. She would have been pretty but for the hideous scar that ran the length of her face, bisecting her full mouth so that her top lip was left puckered to one side.
‘Pardon?’ he said. ‘Me habla no Espanol,’ Carl stumbled.
‘What you do here?’ asked Conchita suspiciously.
‘I’m Professor Carl Mueller. I…er, know Senor Sanchez. I brought him home. He’s not well.’
Conchita crossed to Freddie, leaned over and smelt his breath.
‘He drink?’ she asked, eyes narrowed.
Carl nodded. ‘I’m afraid so, yes.’
Conchita crossed to the chest of drawers, snatched up the jug and flung its contents into Freddie’s face.
Freddie jerked and shuddered half-awake. He tried to focus, wiping the water from his eyes. When his vision cleared, he saw Carl.
Carl stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, lost for words. He looked about him. Anywhere than look at Freddie. What could he say to the man he had helped bring to this place? The brilliant young student whose career he had shattered and led him to this?
They all turned at a movement by the door. An old man, clothes hanging in rags around his thin bent body, was standing like a penitent before the altar.
‘Dr Freddie,’ he croaked, eyes wide with hope and tears.
Freddie propped himself up unsteadily on one arm, ‘Si, Manuel.’
The old man mumbled in Spanish and showed them his leg. On the skeletal shin an old wound had re-opened and was ulcerating.
‘Vamos! Manana!’ said Conchita, waving her arms as if shooing chickens from a farmyard.
‘No, Conchita,’ said Freddie. He motioned to the old man, who shambled to the bedside like a whipped dog. Freddie tried to sit up higher, but sank back on the pillow and groaned, battling nausea.
‘Carl,’ he said, his forearm shielding his eyes. ‘I have iodine and bandage in my top drawer.’
Without a word Carl went to the chest of drawers and opened the top one. Inside were a variety of bottles and rolls of bandage. Selecting a dark brown bottle and a roll of bandage, Carl took them back to the bed. Freddie attempted to sit up.
‘Wait, Freddie,’ said Carl. ‘I can do it. You just lie down.’
Freddie looked at Carl. Their eyes met and, for a moment in the shabby gloom, there was a light of recognition, memories of things past, little triumphs shared, of mutual respect, bright hopes and lost dreams. Freddie smiled weakly and lay back.
‘Proceed, Professor Mueller,’ he said, and closed his eyes.
By the time Carl had finished treating the old beggar, Freddie was sound asleep, snoring loudly on his back. When Conchita had fetched Carl hot water to clean the wound, she told him she was Freddie’s woman. She would take care of Freddie now, she said, and Carl wasn’t going to argue with those fierce, dark eyes.
Carl took his time walking back to the hotel. By the time he reached its elaborate wrought-iron entrance he was resolved.
‘No, no, no!’ screamed Esther. ‘I forbid you to contact him again!’
She paced the carpet of their bedroom, her ivory-coloured peignoir flowing behind like waves of her anger. Usually, he just gave in before the onslaught, but for once Carl stood his ground.
‘You didn’t see, Esther. Where he lives! How he lives!’
‘I don’t care! I don’t care!’ she screeched.
This time his voice was louder than hers. ‘But I do!’ he roared.
There was silence. Esther stopped her pacing and looked at him in surprise. In all their years her husband had never once raised his voice to her. He was standing in the middle of their bedroom, still wearing the formal suit he had worn to the garden party. Eyes alive with indignation, he looked taller than his six feet.
‘Do you think that Freddie Sanchez would be where he is now, in the gutter with pimps and whores and beggars, if I hadn’t acted as I did?’
‘You had to throw him out! You had to!’
‘But not as I did it. Not as he went. With my word blackening every step he took, my reputation closing every door in his face. I didn’t have to ruin his future, Esther! To destroy the career I knew he had set his heart on. That he would have been so splendid at..!’
He paused and then went on more calmly, but with fierce determination. ‘Esther, I am not asking you to play any part in this. Indeed, it would be abominable if I did. You need never ever see him again but, as God is my judge, I am going to try my utmost to help undo the damage I have done.’
Harry Duffin is an award-winning British screenwriter, who was on the first writing team of the BBC’s ‘Eastenders’ and won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best TV serial for ‘Coronation Street’.
He was Head of Development at Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment Group, producing seven major television series, including ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ starring Richard ‘John Boy’ Thomas, and ‘Twist in the Tale’, featuring William Shatner.
He was the co-creator of the UK Channel Five teen-cult drama series ‘The Tribe’, which ran for five series.
He has written three novels, Chicago May, Birth of the Mall Rats [an intro to the TV series ‘The Tribe’], and Island of Dreams, which will be published in December 2022.
Chicago May is the first book of a two-part series: www.chicagomay.com
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