Elisa Segrave

I’m in Key West on the pier, off Higgs Beach. I came to that beach nearly every day in November 1977. I didn’t know anyone; for over a week I stayed alone in the Southern Cross Hotel on Duval, Key West’s main street. It was run by two men from the Midwest. On my birthday, a professor at a university in South Carolina, whom I met on this beach, took me out to dinner at La Concha Hotel. He told me I had a religious nature and that he continually heard voices from creatures from outerspace.

Today, two Hell’s Angels, or maybe just bikers, are swimming in their clothes off this pier. So much water everywhere is soothing. On South Street, a few streets away, is a big sign saying ‘Cuba – 90 miles’. ‘Hey, Sky gets her food stamps tomorrow,’ says one of the bikers.

I sit on the pier for some time, writing in my notebook and watching a spectacular sunset. Two men talk to me. The first is a jovial family man who’s retired and enjoying being on holiday with his wife; the second has white hair, a white beard and a slim tanned body. He invites me to a poetry evening at a restaurant called the Apple-Something, where he’s going to be reading tonight. He says he’s ‘a bohemian with a very conservative daughter’ who won’t let him see his own grandchildren. Castro’s a dictator, he adds, and it’s healthy to oppose one’s government, whatever it may be. Jews and Mormons, he goes on to say, have taken over America and a lot of people will have to be exterminated for the planet to survive. He’s planning to make a speech tonight praising Hitler for stopping the growth of Communism. He recites a short poem he’s written about Oscar Wilde. Just before sunset a small aeroplane flies over, dragging an advertising banner. It says: ‘Havana/Madrid. Lobster Dinner. $15.99’.

The conversation in Key West is still about the two US civilian aircraft shot down by Cuban MiGs, the dead Cuban-American pilots and the organisation – Brothers to the Rescue – to which they belonged. Until last year they were flying small planes as part of a rescue operation for Cuban boat people trying to reach the US and shipwrecked in the Florida Straits – a stretch of water which is full of sharks.

Shortly before the incident, Juan Pablo Roque, a member of Brothers to the Rescue, who was supposed to fly out from Miami with the other pilots, made a mysterious disappearance. Two nights later, an American TV news report showed him in Havana. Then his wife, Ana, was on the morning show trying to account for this curious turn of events. She said her husband had had dealings with the FBI but she didn’t think he was a double agent: maybe he had been forced to make pro-Cuba statements in Havana. She was standing by her man.

In the early morning I swim off the pier again. There’s one other person swimming, a woman in a bathing-cap. All around us are flocks of sea-birds of different sizes, including pelicans. The sun came up two hours ago; we are swimming in light, reflected on the sea.

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