Imagine being trapped in an accordion playing Old Macdonald Had a Farm on a loop. That’s what it was like on the bouncing oven of a bus from Tangier to Tetuan. Amidst the menagerie of clucking chickens, a mewling kitten and the oinking piglet in a basket beneath our seat, infants whined and veiled mothers babbled. We thwacked at blowflies drunk on the simmering gravy smell of body odour, manure and stale garlic. Between my breasts, a greasy oil slick slithered.
The kid behind me fiddling incessantly with my plaits needed a slap.
‘Your blond hair certainly attracts a lot of attention,’ whispered David, a pretzel of discomfort beside me. It was ok for him. Liquorish curls and molasses skin made him look like he’d been born in Morocco. Limping off the bus, I breathed in hot dust and unglued the kaftan from my legs. We made for the nearest cheap hotel. The Hotel Kasbah.
‘Is there anyway I can make your stay more comfortable?’ The hotel manager fixed chocolate eyes on my hair. Tall like a pine, in western clothes, he showed us a shabby room with long shuttered windows overlooking minarets and a ziggurat of rooftops. It had a bath. Nirvana.
They call Tetuan the White Dove. Snow blind from from the city’s wedding cake white walls, we retreated to the shade of the medina maze where pomander spice scents mingled with fruity detritus and high meat. Mangy dogs and insistent men wearing medallions materialised from dingy doorways. They followed us asking questions. ‘Allemagne. Pay-Bas? Oh English. You want come my cousin’s shop?’
I was a pale pied piper. When one youth with a bum fluff moustache asked David if he’d swap me for his sister, we abandoned British reserve and hurled abuse. Outside the Mosque, a veteran English tour guide was herding a group of perspiring Americans. How, we asked, could we prevent this pestering? ‘Dye your hair or just tell them to bugger off,’ he laughed. ‘The Moroccan army was the only one issued with running shoes.’
Back at the Hotel Kasbah, the hotel manager inclined his head and lowered his voice. ‘You want something special, I get for you.’
An indolent heat made a sauna of our room. I lay in a cold bath. ‘Dare we ask him?’ I said.
‘Undo your plaits and I bet he’ll do it for you,’ David replied, handing me a mouse coloured towel.
Some hours later Mohammed, as we’d been invited to call him, knocked on the door. He held a tray bearing a bottle of gin, an ice bucket, four tonics and a small silver paper packet.
David thanked him and handed over a bundle of filthy dirham. Mohammed remained, grinning expectantly in the doorway. ‘Would you like to come in, Mohammed?’
He sat on the only chair, rifle stiff; hands on knees. We perched on the bed and offered gin. He refused, placing a hand over his heart. Small, hesitant talk revealed our intention to visit Fez.
‘I go Fez tomorrow. For business,” said Mohammed. ‘I drive you. You stay in a sister hotel there. Two days, I come back for you.’ It seemed like a great idea on half a bottle of gin.
When Mohammed finally left, David rolled a joint. We stretched on the bed like baked starfish. The sinking sun’s fuschia rays prowled the room as the eerie muezzin wail ebbed and flowed across our bodies. David’s fingers painted misty watercolours on my skin. We were shifting sands, seaweed, and mother of pearl. Dolphin sleek, I dived deep.
I woke at dawn with Vesuvius erupting in my guts. I pictured the ice in my gin, a dissolving cube of invisible assassins. Coiled on the bathroom’s uneven black tiles, I fought the fist twisting my entrails. David found me in the morning, shaking like barley. The hotel manager was waiting for us, he said. Could I make it? I swallowed two Diacalm and set off on new born lamb legs to pack my rucksack.
Mohammed drove his big dusty Mercedes at warp speed. I lay on the cracked leather back seat, my stomach a bag of writhing worms. Snatches of desultory football based conversation drifted from the front seats. I gulped warm air humming from the vehicle’s inefficient air conditioning. After a couple of hours rocked by reckless driving, I needed a loo. Screeching to a halt in a petrol station, Mohammed filled the tank whilst we went to find facilities.
Walking back to the car, sunshine settling on my shoulders like a pelt, I realised I’d forgotten to buy water. David offered to go back to the kiosk. He shuffled off, hands in pockets. I flopped on the back seat. Mohammed climbed in the driver’s seat and twisted around to look at me.
Drawing his lips back in a lascivious grin, he turned the ignition and gunned the engine.
‘Wait for David,’ I wailed as the car lurched forward. Sitting up, I saw David, elbows and knees pistons pumping, running across the forecourt and into the path of the accelerating Mercedes. Mohammed screeched to a halt inches from David who banged both palms on the bonnet shouting, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
Wrenching open the passenger door, he glared at Mohammed who shrugged his shoulders and grinned like a viper. ‘Only moving car from pumps.’
‘At that speed?’
Mohammed revved the engines again. It sounded like a threat. ‘No need Mr David,’ he said breezily. ‘It’s OK. We go Fez now.’
‘You must be joking,’ David said, contempt in his voice ‘We’ll make our own way thanks.’
‘As you wish,’ said Mohammed, inclining his head as if indulging a child.
David shot me a meaningful look and said, ‘Come on Mel. Give me the rucksacks. Let’s go.’
I tried opening my rear door. It was stuck. I slithered across the seat and tried the other one.
My fingers, sticky with sweat, tried flicking the lock release button up and down. Mohammed’s face leered at me in the rearview mirror.
‘Open this door,’ I screamed. David banged on the window. Casually, Mohammed reached for a switch on the dashboard. The door suddenly released sending David reeling backwards. I flung the rucksacks onto the ground and clambered from the car.
Spinning tyres spat gravel over us as Mohammed accelerated away. The rear door was still swinging open. It slammed shut as he zigzagged across the forecourt before the Merc pulled out onto the black tarmacked road and disappeared into a shimmering heat haze.
We heaved on our rucksacks and trudged to the mud baked roadside. Traffic thundered past shrouding us in sooty fumes and pirouetting dust devils.
‘So what do we do now?’
‘I haven’t a clue,’ said David, ‘I’m still wondering why he didn’t try offering me his sister in exchange?’
‘Cheeky,’ I laughed, giving him a mock slap on the cheek. David caught my hand and pulled me to him. He held me tight, breathing into my hair. We broke apart in time to see a bus heading towards us.
David ran into the road, waving his arms. Brakes squealing, the bus slalomed to a halt beside us. The door wheezed open. I clambered on board. Behind me, David whistled atuneless version of Old Macdonald.
Published in Issue #9