'Helium' by Niki Baker

I’d known exactly what Mum would say when I told her I was going.

‘But why Cuba, of all places? Is it safe?’

God, I hoped not. I’d had enough of safe. I was bored to the point of screaming by safe.

I sat small in the taxi from José Martí airport with my face pressed to the warm window, conscious of my eyes flicking fast, reading the city hungrily as I travelled further and further away from all that I knew, blinking quickly so as not to miss the gaudy blur of unfamiliar things.

Adrian had managed to tame me for a while. So many people had told me he was just what I needed that I almost believed them. Once, when we were new and our eyes still sparkled when we looked at each other, I told him I felt like I was a helium balloon and I needed him to hold on to my string and keep me grounded.

The taxi slowed outside a decaying façade and the driver said something in Spanish. I peeled my legs from the old leather and slid out of the car, dragging my heavy backpack with me and fumbling for currency. I had the same delicious jittery feeling inside as I’d had on my first ever trip abroad, aged eleven, spilling off the coach in Normandy with the rest of my classmates from Sandhill Secondary, and Duncan Purkiss yanking one of my unravelling pigtails.

I hadn’t been able to guess what Adrian would say when I told him I was going. As it was, he didn’t say anything at all, just turned away and slammed the door, severing the string that held us together. All the other times the door had slammed, it had pulled at something inside and I’d been heavy with tears and longing. But this last slam had left me bobbing about on the ceiling, free.

I deliberately hadn’t booked the kind of hotel Adrian would have chosen. I didn’t want to feel insulated from Havana’s heartbeat in a forgettable air-conditioned box. I wanted to live it. The foyer was cool with shadows as I stepped inside, leaving the sun-baked street a million miles away. While my eyes were still adjusting, the proprietor materialised to check me in. His grubby vest, straining braces and cigar-reeking stubble were not what I’d expected but precisely what I’d hoped for, and I stifled a grin when he accompanied me to the top floor in the little metal cage that served as a lift.

As soon as he’d gone, I twirled and let the grin out. It grew while I bounced experimentally on the creaky bed with its lumpy mattress and crisp cotton sheets. I rose off the floor towards the lazy fan and couldn’t contain a giggle.

The windows in my room opened onto sunlight and salsa music and a tiny balcony whose aged concrete crumbled away beneath my feet. I was far from safe, but by then I was flying.


Niki Baker is practically nocturnal, enjoying the world best when the stars are out and most of the people are in. She has received recognition for numerous short stories, poems and travel articles, and is currently seeking a publisher for her first full-length novel. Find her on Twitter at @NRBakerWriter.

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