top of page
  • mmholt548

Monsters in Havana.

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Hello again,

On the MM Holt Facebook page there are four photos from my visit to Cuba before the pandemic.

As usual, each photo shows my face beneath the brim of a worse-for-wear Panama hat, blocking the view of a monument, landmark, or vista.

And in most of these photos I’m smiling instead of wearing my usual serious face or scowl.

However, my true state of mind was far from a contented one.

Behind the dark lenses of my tortoiseshell Ray-Bans lay a troubled conscience.

While I strolled Havana’s humid streets and blazing plazas, I mentally wrestled with guilt, unease and self-reproach.

The truth was that I shouldn’t have been in Havana at all. Instead, I should have been somewhere far, far away.

To be specific, I should have been 100,000 light years away on the dusty surface of a planet the size of our sun, preparing to fight a monster twice my height.

And the guilt and recriminations burned me up — as the following account describes.

In search of lost time

In 2019, I boarded a Jet Blue flight in Orlando, Florida, bound for Cuba. Deep in my hand-luggage lay the unfinished manuscript for SHALE, the third book in the Alex Burns series, which I had been trying to finish for months while on the road.

I had two intentions for this trip. The first was to see a little of Cuba. The second was to cut and edit SHALE in an old Havana hotel, thereby completing a long overdue task, and at the same time, emulating two authors I admired: Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway.

In Havana, both these authors had completed renowned novels while working in the city's sun-bleached hotels. In Greene's case, the novel was the cold war spy-comedy, 'Our man in Havana;' in Hemingway's, it was ’For whom the bell tolls.'

If these two men could sharpen their manuscripts in old Havana, maybe I could too. Maybe I could draw on the city’s energy just as they had and then lock myself away and complete the manuscript, ease my guilt, and leave Havana satisfied and with a conscience swept clean. Despite what you read, it’s not easy to write a book while traveling. The day’s sightseeing wears you out. The night’s planning takes your time. That’s if the restaurants don’t get you first...or the wine. Maybe, if hadn’t travelled so far, so fast I might have made more progress. Well, it was too late now. But, in Havana, I would get my momentum rolling once more. Yes, I would have to battle the temptation of Havana’s Malecóns and mojitos; its louche nightlife; and the ghosts of famous people who once strolled the shady colonnades.

So, could I knuckle down for a week, an afternoon, an hour? Could I finally say to the angry Burns, ‘All right, Lieutenant, the wait is over. Let’s finish this.’

We would see.

In Pompeii when I should have been at work.

Man in Havana

From the moment my passport was stamped at Havana airport, I knew the mission would be tough. The distractions were formidable. The weather was T-shirt warm and hotter than Florida; the immigration officers (all attractive women) wore short skirts and fishnet stockings; and the Buicks and Chevrolets waiting outside seemed to have time traveled from the 1950s.

Pulling down the brim of my Panama, I prepared to take them on.

I grabbed the warm handle of my suitcase, slung my backpack (and SHALE) over one shoulder, and strode out into the heat determined to keep my focus no matter what I would find in the city's old and crowded streets.

‘You need a driver to take you around?’ asked the cabby as we rolled towards the city.

‘No thanks,’ I said.

‘I can take you all over Havana,’ he said. ’To Cojimar, the old city, even out of town to the Museo Hemingway. Thirty-five tourist dollars. That’s all.’

‘I’ll see,’ I said, and I could have added, ‘But Lieutenant Burns is fighting for his life against a monster on an alien planet. I’ve got to get back there.’

‘Take my card,’ the driver said. ‘You might change your mind.’

I took the card, just to be polite. That’s all. To be polite. Sightseeing was the secondary objective, right? Right. Just a landmark here or there---a famous bar, perhaps, or a stroll down a lane, and a pause on a lonely street to sense the genus loci — something like that. Only that and nothing more.

Met a new pal at El Floridita when, yet again, I should have been at work. "Another Papa Doble, EH?"

Seduced by the city

Four days later, the manuscript still waited. No, to be more precise, it languished in my small room on the fourth floor of the beautiful Hotel Inglaterra. Despite my intentions, I hadn’t sat down at the writing table and got to work. Instead, I had checked in, changed shorts, and drifted out again, pulled from the cool lobby by the sight of crumbling colonial buildings, and the chug of salsa music from bars and laneways.

So Burns waited for me yet again while I roamed up and down the hot cobblestones. And oh, how I roamed that city! I walked from the sea-lashed Malecon, to the stately Plaza Vieja, to the old castle and the giant dome of the National Capitol Building. Then, I traveled way out of town in a big yellow taxi to the Museo Hemingway (the fare was only 30 tourist dollars!), and then returned to town to sit daydreaming at a table on a terrace, resting my exhausted leather Timberland boat shoes---all while a band played nearby, and an imaginary Ingrid Bergman pushed a strand of hair behind one ear, and asked me to light her cigarette.

During my perambulations, I met many local people, mostly smiling waiters and waitresses, but also a man who had lived all over the US and who claimed to have been in prison for causing someone’s death in a car crash; and a maitre d’hotel who assured me that the Buena Vista Social Club band, made famous by Ry Cooder, would be playing tonight, yes, tonight! So I had better book early to assure myself a seat. The price was only twenty or thirty tourist dollars.

Then there were the lingering smiles from women who sashayed up and down the narrow streets. One of these young ladies dropped a card at my cafe table offering a ‘Holiday Massage,’ and then turned and grinned at me over her shoulder, presumably to demonstrate how supple a man would feel under her strong hands — after one hour and just twenty tourist dollars.

But no! The time had come. It had been four days already. Now, I had to work on the manuscript.

The manuscript!


That evening, after dinner, I sat down at the writing desk in my room and prepared to work. I opened the laptop and grabbed the mouse. Then, I took a breath, clicked the icon for Scrivener, and watched as the 110,000 words of SHALE swelled onto the glowing screen.

Right, I thought. Let’s get busy.

Through the plantation shutters that led to my small balcony, the night sounds drifted up. Laughter from the Parque Central mixed with the music from the terrace, and from within the hotel came the happy twittering of guests descending the stairs to the bar. I had seen the bar already and had felt certain Graham Greene had ordered a gin there. I could just slip downstairs and …

No, the manuscript.

I returned to the screen. To aid concentration, I scrolled to the most page-turning battle: the one in which Lieutenant Burns confronts a monster on an alien planet. Then, I started reading. The monster reared up, massive and terrifying, while the brave lieutenant courageously stood his ground. It was gripping reading and before long, I was deep in concentration, finding many ways to improve the scene. This wasn’t so bad, I thought. What was I worried about?

But then, the band on the terrace began playing a salsa version of ‘Hey Jude,’ and I couldn’t help but remind myself that my hotel, the Hotel Inglaterra was actually mentioned in Graham Greene’s ‘Our man in Havana,’ and that Hemingway’s regular bar, El Floridita was just across the very park from which the laughter drifted. I could reach it in less than five minutes. Surely, it was one more place I had to visit while I was here. It would be a waste to…

No, the manuscript.

I turned back to the glowing screen and the blinking cursor, which seemed to be tapping its foot. Then, I began reading once more. This time with my hands over my ears. Burns and the monster seemed impatient. They resented waiting. They’d been talking behind my back while I daydreamed about frozen daiquiris, smart talk, and Ava Gardner wearing that dress from movie version of ’The sun also rises.’

OK, I said. I’m back. Now, I’ll really concentrate.

I clicked and dabbed. I read and adjusted. I searched for and found active verbs and appropriate adjectives. I sensed the horror, heard the baying mob, felt the clammy shirt on my back, and recoiled at the monster’s obscene and lolling tongue. I was working. The scene was coming alive!

Then, more laughter drifted up from the terrace downstairs. And was that a clinking glass? What song was the band playing now? Are those more guests descending the stairs to the bar? Glamorous lady guests? And just what is going on in that park? In El Foridita? In the whole mysterious city?

Before I knew it, I was standing. The window of Scrivener was closing. So was the laptop lid. It was my last night in Havana after all. And before I knew it, I was heading to the door, my pocket clinking with tourist dollars.

Burns and the monsters could wait a little longer.

Until next time,

M.M. Holt

85 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page