Rather than being in a nun’s hostel, or a train compartment (with the Spanish army sleeping in the luggage racks), we’re on a balcony at the Royal Maroc hotel in Tangiers, thanks to Tammy and Uncle Sam’s plastic card. Standing in our ‘R’ embroidered with ‘M’ bath gowns, we look at the stars. It is romantic but it is not the moment. A double bed beneath a lazily circling fan beckons but Tammy will sleep there alone. Perhaps she will dream of me, perhaps she will dream of her mon and pop’s clapperboard house in the suburbs of Newark, New Jersey?
“You saw what was happening at the docks,” she said, “That’s where you need to find a room.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” I suggested, “Or even the day after.”
She put up the worst type of resistance. She talked hard, logical, undeniable sense.
“We’re on a task. We have to complete your operation Swaling. You have to find a room near the docks.”
I dressed and made my way downstairs. At the door, a uniformed gentleman, with a knowing smile, offered a taxi. I declined.
Outside, the streets had quietened. The excitement of the arriving ferry had passed. I walked as close to the docks as I dare. The ferry’s connecting train had left. Somewhere, far out of sight and earshot, it was addressing the desert en route to Casablanca. I followed the empty railway line, steel rails sunk into the cobbles, taking me closer to that line of girls standing by a dock wall. In the shadows, under the canopies opposite, the shapes of men could be seen huddled beside the doorways of scruffy closed shops. Before reaching them, I took a detour up a steep side street, looking for a boarding establishment. A row of cheap hotels began. I chose one at random.
Compared to the Royal Maroc, this lobby was modest, announcing an artisan’s establishment than a Sultan’s. A large and over made-up lady sat at a stained counter. Behind her was a bead curtain, beside her a cash box. I enquired of rates. Enlightened, I informed her that I wanted to see the accommodation before parting with my three pounds. She clicked her fingers and a boy appeared. He led me up bare stone stairs to a corridor. Clean towels and bedding were piled outside each room. I was shown a pleasing bathroom.
The rooms were basic, contained plenty of clean sheets and towels, sufficient for three pounds a night. There was no toilet but a b-day which would do for keeping my feet clean. The windows were shuttered. Were they pointing in the right direction for Tammy’s photography? Only one way to find out. I asked the boy to open them. The shutters opened inwards as the window was partially bricked up. There was a gap at the top. I gestured to the boy for a leg up. Sure enough, with my chin on the high cill, there was a view of the docks. All roads led in that direction, as old town Tangiers fanned out from the harbour.
The deal was done. I told the boy I would take it. I gave him the equivalent of three pounds, in Spanish pesos, and told him to leave me in peace. He hurried away as if relieved. I undressed and lay under a single cotton sheet upon a firm mattress, on an iron framed bed. This would be my little cell, clean, safe and peaceful. My dream of Tammy was interrupted by a tap, tap, tap on the door. I hadn’t called room service. I couldn’t call room service, there wasn’t a phone. Who on earth could it be?
It was a girl, I sent her away.
Never mind. Settling down to sleep again, I was interrupted again by another tap, tap, tap on the door.
“I don’t want anything, girl,” I told somebody else, “I didn’t ask for room service, go away.”
Another tap, tap, tap. Another girl. They must have been queueing up on the stairs, tormenting me in relay.
“What?” I barked at her, my head peeping out from around the door while standing undressed beside my bed.
She looked up at me through her fringe. From the lino floor upwards, she was sandals with dark feet, brown ankles, a long dark dress, a belt and baggy blouse, a little face under a head scarf, two necklaces tangled together, one silver and one bead.
The beginning of an avalanche of pennies began to drop. One or two, slipping off the edge of the cliff, jangled laughter towards me as they fell to the floor. It could be worse. About to send her away, I became wary of what might be next in the queue. Two footed, four footed, cloven footed? Tangiers did have a bit of a reputation, which, let’s face it, is why I’d been dispatched there in the first place.
I invited her into my room, simultaneously pulling the cotton sheet from the bed and wrapping it around myself to preserve my modesty. She came in, turned to close the door and then turned to face me. We stood and looked at each other in silence. What to do? Given the circumstances it would be ironic if, having come all this way, and done all of these things, that I was the one was set up to be ‘swaled’. Life’s sometimes like that.
I pointed at myself, “Worth” I told her. Everybody calls me “Worth” or occasionally the cringingly awful but likeable, “Worthers”. I assumed Ashley dePefferal Worth-Saying would be a bit much for the poor girl, probably impenetrable to an Arab. I feared it would cause more confusion. I might have been wrong. There is a fair bit of French about that territory, of which she reminded by pointed at herself and saying, “Emile.”
“Washing”, I announced, “you can do my washing, Emile.”
She looked blank. I tried the old English trick of shouting at an uncomprehending foreigner.
“DO MY WASHING, GIRL.”
Used to being shouted at, she just looked unimpressed. Stage two of the same device, is to translate everything into mangled and bad French, delivered in such a way that the body language deployed precisely contradicts what’s being said. I tried that too. I made washing gestures with my hands which were misunderstood. She replied with hand gestures of her own, much simpler and self explanatory. Two hands palm down moving outwards, an open palm then presented towards my mattress. She thought my kneading fists were suggesting a back rub.
“No, no, no, washing.”
I found my little canvas pack. I’d propped it at the end of the wire framed bed. I undid the tags, pulling them their metal clips, while holding it by the bottom and shaking the contents onto the linoleum. I was travelling light. One spare pair of everything fell on to the floor, two of underwear and socks. A few dirty hankies.
I made more kneading gestures with my hands. A few Dirham’s dropped. She understood and began to bundle up my clothes in her arms. As a gentleman, despite being naked from the waist up and gowned in a folded sheet, I opened the door for her and gestured to the corridor. It was too late. She’d headed for the bidet, already knelt beside it, she was starting on my spare shirt.
I gave up and retired to bed. If this was some kind of an elaborate set up, planned across three continents to kibosh myself and Tammy’s operation before it had started, then I know nothing of it. I slept though it while the girl slaved over my clothes. If the Moroccan secret service kicked the door in, flashbulbs blazing, in some kind of reverse counter-swaling then they’ll have some pictures of myself fast asleep and a sweet girl called Emile knelt down pounding my underwear in a bidet. There are some strange people out there. I doubt if the Chief of Police and his Lieutenants will have been shocked.
Next day, an excellent job had been done. My clothes were perfect, clean, folded and dry. The lady of the establishment was going to charge me 60p for breakfast. I declined and made my way, unmolested through an empty early morning North African conurbation, to the Royal Maroc. Immaculate jeans with a shining tee shirt, all perfectly creased, put me just on the right side of the dress code.
I rendezvoused with Miss Tammy, she was pleased to see me. I received a little kiss on the cheek and a platonic half hug, one arm around my back, palm rubbing between my shoulder blades. We would breakfast together. Confessing a restless night, she complained of having been too comfortable. These days she needed somebody standing beside the bed shaking it, to simulate the movement of an overnight train, before she could sleep.
Her previous point about the view was valid. On the breakfast terrace, there wasn’t a view of anything, let alone the docks. We looked at date palms and a servant watering the grass before a high wall. Swarms of little birds, common sparrows, hopped around and flocked after crumbs. We would have a business breakfast like they do in America. Clicking her fingers, she introduced herself to a passing waiter by asking, “How you doing?” She ordered me a “medium”.
The Moroccans appeared to start the day with a feast of low hanging fruit and weeds. Tucking into my leaves and grapes, over a very strong coffee, I told Tammy the funny story about Emile. I laughed aloud but she didn’t.
“It’s a man’s name,” she claimed.
I corrected her, “But it ends in an ‘e’.”
“And she wore a skirt.”
“In a kinda cheap dump? Kinda near the docks? Kinda in, like kinda, Tangiers?”
I pushed my tongue into cheek, made an “err” noise and looked to the ground where the sparrows were pecking at our trainers.
“If there’s a National Association of Moroccan Madams you’ll be in their hall of fame, congratulations.”
Tammy was wearing her churches and galleries skirt and a long sleeved top with a very large napkin tucked into it. She preferred to discuss to-days “Go”, by which I assumed she meant our itinerary.
Essentially, we had nothing to do until night time. We would sight see, stroll the back streets, mosques and Casbah and then enjoy a siesta on the magnificent crescent beach. Tammy told me that she had her swimsuit on under her skirt. I had a pair of boxer shorts on under my jeans.
“We must swim,” we decided together.
Finishing our meal, she did that thing that all women of long hair can do, weaved it into two plats, tied it in a knot and put it on the top of her head, all with one hand. Then she took her napkin and wrapped it as a scarf. All of this done without seeming to think about it. Looking at me at the same time, she talked of something else, asking for my napkin, folding it and pocketing it, “Just in case.”
We prepared to address Tangiers, hoping we’d be unmolested, assumed to be no more than invisible student buddy tourists doing Morocco. We were in for a disappointment.
To be continued….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file