The Discovery of Cuba

by Syd Peck


Nine year old Alice Riordan was an only child who had no father. The two lived in Gateshead, in an old flat on the top of a three-storey building opposite the vinegar factory and the Mission Hall, just off the main Bensham Road.

Alice liked going to school, although she did not like the way the teacher talked about her being poor and unwanted. But Alice loved learning new things, and she had always loved maps. For as long as she remembered they had held a fascination for her unrivaled by anything else on the bookshelf or in the toy chest. At school the best lessons were the geography half-hour each day, which went all too quickly. Her mind wandered constantly from the confines of Bensham Road to the limitless space of the Pacific, and the endless variety of strange names in Japan or Siberia. When she wasn’t looking at maps she was drawing them. She had a good memory for the shapes, sizes, and positions of countries.

Mum had an older sister Mary in Wallsend, and her six children were of great interest to Alice. They were friendly enough, and Alice’s favourite was the youngest of the boys, Leslie. At nineteen he was already a fine, strong fellow, and had been in the merchant navy for two years. Alice was attracted to him because he actually went to all the strange places that she only imagined and marked carefully on her sketch maps. He could tell stories of sandstorms over the Suez Canal, and icebergs in the wintry North Atlantic. He knew how to pronounce Port Said properly to rhyme with “you’re a seed”, and not as the teacher at school pronounced it to rhyme with “short dead”.

“Mum, mum, it’s Leslie come to see us, Mum!”

The announcement was hardly needed because the noise of the motorbike told Alice’s mother who it was.

“Well, Leslie, it’s ages since we saw you! Are you home for long?”

Mum’s affection showed itself in food prepared for a young man who must always be starving after the wind on the motorbike. And his affection showed in the game of cards where he lost a good sum of money, mostly to Alice. Alice never stopped to wonder how a sailor with experience of gambling houses from Hong Kong to San Francisco could be so inept at rummy as to lose such a lot of money. And it was such a simple game really.

Mum and Leslie enjoyed an easy familiarity in chatting. Alice eavesdropped on Leslie’s derring-do while she crayoned Mexico yellow, then Brazil brown. The fire began to fade and Leslie prepared to go.

“Well, how’s my little navigator getting on? Let’s have a look at what you’re doing… That’s lovely work, pet. What’s this?”

“That’s Florida, and that’s Mexico, and that’s Brazil, the brown one.”

“You’ve missed out a big island just here, pet lamb. It’s called Cuba. I was there last month. They say it was discovered by Columbus.”

“Yes, Columbus… Oh — I never knew it was such a big island. And I must have been missing it out every time.”

And he drew the correct elongated banana-shape just in the right spot below Florida. Then he put the pencil down, kissed her on the cheek, and was off on his motorbike.
Every time Alice Riordan drew the Atlantic Ocean from then on, she never forgot to draw in the coastline of the new world of Cuba.

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