Compay Segundo, sometime cigar roller, big time Cuban musician. Is it unfair to call him the Cuban Elvis Presley? I can’t say, as honestly I only know him from the humidors. My understanding is that he’s an old club singer that sprang to worldwide fame as the star of The Buena Vista Social Club, a film I never saw. The humidor features two sizes of cigar, 55 fairly nondescript Montecristo No. 4s (more on those later), and 40 examples of this, a glorious Salomones II.
I do love a good perfecto, these giant, bulbous bastards. I showed this cigar to a non-smoker once, and he observed that it was “such a stereotypical big boss cigar.” If you must do a 57 ring gauge, Cuba, this is how to do it: 42 at the business end. A heck of a band, too: basically the Montecristo band, but in place of the crossed swords we have a portrait of the man of the hour, grinning and resplendent in a Panama hat. Has anyone else ever had their face on an official Cuban cigar band? The only one that springs to mind is Simon Bolivar, and with all due respect, he accomplished a little bit more with his time than Segundo did. I wonder if there’ll be a Cohiba Castro humidor for his 90th in a few years – 45 Lanceros and 45 Coronas Especials, each with Fidel’s smiling face on the band.
The cigar begins well, a little spice on the front palette, over roasted vegetables; the blackened skin of a charred capsicum. The tobacco is obviously first class, with a hint of cream and honey.
I’m pairing this with a bottle of crème de cacao that I found recently among my grandfather’s things. Although it appears unopened, the level has dropped down to the bottom of the neck: the angels share (although a little staining around the label indicates that perhaps the garage floor may have also taken a slice). I asked my grandfather where it came from and he said he got it from his brother’s place (my great uncle died in 1996). The fact that it was produced in Australia but bears no metric measurements or indication of alcohol content dates it to the mid-70s at the latest. Sugar and cocoa, aged in the bottle for more than three decades. I poor a little over ice, and observe the liquid churning vigorously around the ice blocks. Some kind of chemical reaction is occurring. I take a sip. It’s good. A sweet, understated chocolate. I’m not totally sure what this stuff tastes like new, but the decades of age haven’t harmed it. Well, not much. There is just a hint of mildew.
Mid-way through the cigar is very heavy, full bodied and tannic, with a surprising amount of tar for a cigar that still has five inches left to smoke. Dusty wood is on the back palette, with a hint of dried wheat (the husks are burning). As it waters down, the crème de cacao is getting worse, with rust and musty basements now dominating the aftertaste, and not in a good way. I won’t have another.
I throw on a little Compay for the sake of atmosphere, and while I’d like to say it reminds me of wild nights in Havana, that’s not true. I was a young man when I was in Cuba, and although there were certainly bands playing this kind of music on the Malecon and in the tourist restaurants, the night spots I sought out were the ones where young people go to rub their sweaty bodies against one another (back then I was in the market for another kind of dusky beauty) and for me Cuban music will always be over-loud Spanish hip-hop played through cheap speakers. No, what this Best of Compay Segundo reminds me of is eating at Nandos, and I can never think of Nandos without thinking of her.
A few years ago I worked near Doncaster Shoppingtown and would eat my lunch in the food court there. It had been six months, and I was thoroughly sick of everything that was on offer, and so as I did most lunchtimes I was prowling around, my hands in my pockets, scowling at the different menus and trying to decide what was the least offensive on this particular day. This lunchtime was worse than most; it was a week into the school holidays, and every store had a long line of itinerant youth in front of it. Nandos was never really an option for me (I don’t consider their food to be good value), so I only gave them the briefest glance, but when I did my eyes fell upon an absolute vision behind the counter. She was wearing a Nandos hat, her light, almost white blonde hair in a ponytail out the back of it, a few tendrils loose, two hanging forward, framing her face. She had high, reptilian cheek bones and a wide, pink mouth, which was pressed into a bored pout as she waited at her register for someone to approach her (she would later smile, revealing teeth that were as white as they were straight and perfect). Her skin was porcelain, with a luminescent, almost transparent quality, but the real source of her beauty was her eyes; two large limpid pools of ozone blue. My heart skipped a beat when I saw her, and then rapidly tried to make up the loss. Unthinkingly I stumbled toward her, magnetically drawn. My voice caught in my throat as I tried to place my order, as I stammered “one classic chicken burger combo, please.” She had an accent, a slight South African, “how would you like that; mild, medium, hot, extra hot or lemon and herb?”
I watched her while I waited for my food; watched her delicate hands folding stickers around toothpicks to make the sauce flags; watched her kneel to retrieve a Sprite from the low fridge; watched her toss and salt the chips in the fryer. Her beauty was mesmerising, intoxicating, and I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t understand how nobody else seemed to be noticing her. What was this girl doing in a Nandos? A goddess was standing before us and we were doing nothing to celebrate her! Where was the parade? Where was line of fawning suitors? Why was nobody starting a war for this angel?
Her name tag had read “Beth”, and I wasn’t back in the office long before “beth +nandos +doncaster” went into my search bar. I don’t know what I was looking for, really; validation, I suppose, a post about her on some internet forum where perverts evaluate the comparative beauty of our nation’s fast food vendors. I found nothing.
I ate Nandos for lunch every day that week, but come the next Monday she had vanished, back to the ethereal plane from whence she had descended. I loitered around the next few days, but no, she was gone.
Into the last few inches, and surprisingly the cigar has mellowed, light tobacco over toast, with a little bean and sweetness. Perhaps a hint of citrus in there, in the same smoky, chemical way that scotch has a hint of citrus. I’m well into my second hour of smoking, and it’s starting to take a toll on both my palette and my constitution. I French inhale, trying to divine some deeper tasting note, but I can’t do it. I feel a little woozy. Perhaps it’s the crème.
Three months later she returned. I saw her from across the food court, a vision emerging from the water on a clamshell. Had someone been watching me as I caught sight of her they would have seen a man transformed, a scowling beast hunched in a winter coat suddenly erect and beaming, striding across the food court. She was just as I had last seen her; a perfect, lovely angel, with only one tiny difference: her nametag now read “Bethany.”
Back in the office I tried again, “bethany +nandos +doncaster,” and there she was. A Facebook page: Bethany Coetzee, seventeen years old, formerly of Cape Town, now of Doncaster High; my angel beaming at me in the privacy of my cubical. I highlighted her name and searched again, and was unsurprised by the result: a portfolio on the website of a modelling agency that listed her as ‘In Development.’ The pictures were mostly unflattering (I suspect that the makeup artist was also ‘in development’ and wanted to show off their stuff, really cake it on) but there were a few at the end that made my heart beat. They were simple Polaroids, presumably the ones she submitted to the modelling agency with her application, and in them she stood in a neutral pose, no makeup, hair unstyled, against her bedroom wall, wearing only a plain black bra and panties.
I tug on my cigar and reflect on this anecdote, which is one I’ve been bringing out for a few years on later evenings amongst more degenerate company. I tell it as an illustration of far we’ve come as an information society: I never would have imagined twenty years ago as I played Commander Keen on my x486 that two short decades later we would live in a world where one could fancy a random waitress and minutes later be looking at pictures of her in her underwear. As I think about the story now though, I realize it makes me look like an asshole.
A few weeks ago I met a guy at a wedding with a very attractive girlfriend (although nowhere near as attractive as Bethany), and when I asked how they’d met he replied that he’d walked into a room and she was the best looking woman he’d ever seen, as if that was enough of an explanation. Well, what did I do when I walked into a room and saw the best looking woman I’d ever seen? I skulked back to my lair, and creepily stalked her on the internet.
What was I thinking? I should have talked to her! Asked for her number! At the very least I should have strode up to that counter, looked right in that perfect ice blue eye and said “girl, what are you doing working here? Don’t you know how beautiful you are? My Mercedes is parked right outside. Let’s go to the airport and make some real fucking money.”
The cigar ends well, with very little tar, which is surprising, given its length and girth. If you only smoked half of it (either half), it’d be better than a Monte 4, but as it stands it’s just too damn long. Total smoking time, 3:40.