We’re at a beach near Tangiers, saved from the worst of the city’s sprawl and its hustlers by being some way around the coast. Tammy has just told me that she assumes our mission to be a mop-up of the last of a seedy trade in young human misery, already banished from England.
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Deciding that, in the heat and humidity, we’re are dry as we’re likely to get following our afternoon swim, we begin to get dressed. We pull our clothes onto our damp bodies, over my sticky boxer shorts and her shrunken black swimsuit.
Trying to look like an Arab girl, Tammy applied two scarfs to her sunburnt head. I wore a fez, too small, that I’d bought in a panic from a stall earlier in the day. Beneath it, my head had gone bright red, making me look more like ‘Tomato Man’ than a Moroccan sophisticate taking the air along the promenade with his pretty wife. We got away with it all the same, only a few children asked for cigarettes, only one old man tried to sell us a carpet. I mutter to her as we walk.
“There were a couple of prosecutions in London and a mountain of more evidence,” I confide in her. “The police had been following cars from the chicken rack and meat rack near Leicester square. The Minister, that means Secretary in Americanese, was happy. Surveillance had an eye on people and locations. Logs were kept, photographs taken, cars and their registrations noted.”
“It wasn’t as if it was covered up. It was hiding in plain sight. Celebrities, well-known politicians, blue bloods. There were discreet adverts in the papers, PO box numbers, a little magazine was passed around. You didn’t even have to read between the lines. What we were doing was a proper operation. It had a name, operation Swaling? Do you know what ‘swaling” is Tammy?”
She surprised me. Yes, she did know, explaining, “It’s a trip to Morocco to collect photographic evidence.”
She did have a point.
“It is now,” I conceded, “but it wasn’t supposed to be. ‘Swaling’ means burning. A controlled burning of the land. We were going to burn out the bad people exploiting those children and finish them off once and for all. Yes, big scandal, but conducted in the courts under the law, above which nobody is. All out in the open, finished with, a one-off. If done thoroughly, it also exonerates everybody not prosecuted and kills any untrue gossip and innuendo. The good will thrive, the bad banished. A cleansing fire that takes the moor side and improves the next year’s grazing. They have that where you live?”
“In suburban Newark, New Jersey?” She replied sarcastically. “No, they don’t, Worth. I think you know that.”
“Thoroughly good thing. I was mad keen,” I continued, “I think my dowdy colleague Williams was too, but she’s awfully quiet and slow and doesn’t say much. Is it because she’s a female?”
“Uh-huh, and because you were getting overexcited, ahead of yourself, weren’t noticing the signs, weren’t listening,” Tammy observed.
Not taking any notice of her, I continued, puzzled, “Then all of a sudden one or two memories went. There’s two coppers in a car, one can remember the VIP arriving at an expensive and notorious flat, the other can’t. One can remember a Rolls Royce and its number plate, the other remembers a Ford Cortina with its registration hidden in the dark. A notebook goes missing, as does a roll of film. Our friends in the press, erstwhile friends, start writing giant articles full of fantasists repeating the most unbelievable rumours, rather than credible witnesses telling the press what they’d told operation Swaling.”
“The whole thing stalls. The next prosecution was based on the weakest case, not the strongest. Goodness knows why it was chosen. It was the defendant with the least evidence against him, not the most. It was a farce, discredited the whole operation. Everything went cold.”
“Somebody pissing on your grass fire?” Tammy observed.
“Exactly. Richer pickings in Tangiers, we hope.”
My room was well above street level and did have a window. Getting Tammy through it would have been a doable challenge. However, throwing wide its shutters revealed a party bricked-up opening with only a small gap at the top. Squeezing her though would have been fun but a bit obvious to passers-by. By Tangiers standards my establishment’s street was by no means busy but people, donkeys and other livestock did pass by. One doesn’t like to frighten the camels.
Smuggling her though the modest reception, past the bead curtain and bouncing her up the stone stairs in a laundry basket would also have been great fun, but rather silly. Instead, I paid her into my room, for the equivalent of a pound, dropped into the cashbox next to the over made-up lady who sat at a stained desk at right angles to the always open front door.
Tammy made the effort. She covered her head and face in scarf and wore her long skirt. She put her hand across what could still be seen of her face and looked to the floor, as if consumed by guilt rather than to hide her giveaway blue eyes. I doubt if anyone was fooled.
Within her long skirt, Tammy had concealed the super-secret camera and its films. Despite appearances, we were off to work. I asked for the maid girl Emile to be sent up to my room, and when she arrived I instructed her to kneel on her hands and knees below the open shutters of the part bricked-up window.
“Worth?” Tammy wailed. I was treating the lower orders badly. Tammy called me medieval again. Far from it, I had promoted poor sweet Emile from the dogsbody (general) to the have-your-back-stood-on quartile.
I lay on the bed, making polite conversation and preparing to write down Tammy’s ‘say what you see’ observations as she watched the nefarious comings and goings down at the dock wall through the mega sensitive camera’s mega sensitive viewfinder. A blue school notebook and a proper ink pen were my aide-memoire.
Emile knelt down uncomplaining. Out of consideration, Tammy took off her shoes and addressed the maid’s back. As she did so, Emile made a terrible noise, as though the weight uncomfortably too much. Such a plaintive wail that it tugged me to getting down beside her so that Tammy could place a foot on each of us. If I may plead a unique suffering, beneath my shirt I was bright red, sunburnt and starting to blister.
What did the three of us look like? A circus act. The fourth member of the troupe being the chinaware that I was now jammed against. Inspired, I suggested, “Why not stand in the bidet instead, Tamz?”
“Yuk,” she replied, both at the thought of placing her little white feet into the receptacle of my (and countless other) bare bottoms and, possibly worse, amongst my dirty clothes that were soaking in it. Adding to her discomfort was being called ‘Tamz’. ‘Miss Tammy’, another endearment that I had tried out on her, was rebuffed as it made her sound like a plantation owner’s daughter. What’s wrong with that I’d asked? It had been the wrong thing to say.
By now, it was well after dark. The last ferry from Algeciras had disembarked. Its connecting train had left for Casablanca. The crowds of passengers and hustlers, all noise and dust and bustle, had fanned away from the harbour and into the town. A calmness fell behind them, one which drew a clientele from the shadows towards the notorious dock wall.
Tammy steadied herself, forearms and elbows flat to the horizontal on the shelf provided by the top row of bricks in the part filled-in window. She took photographs by the million, swapping the used films for new and throwing the exposed rolls in their cassettes to the floor.
As she did so she gave a commentary. Registration plates, taxi company’s names and numbers, descriptions, facial features, physiques, ages, even guesses at occupations and nationalities. On all fours beneath her, taking half of her weight, I wrote it all down. Myself and Emile shuffled about, trying to make ourselves more comfortable. Tammy didn’t complain, she was consumed by her work, her knees and hips twitching as she absorbed our movements.
“It’s like riding two hoses at once,” She observed in a tone that suggested that she’d actually tried it. “Which is neat,” she concluded, as usual.
Unavoidably, I rubbed against the main girl, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, occasionally hand accidentally placed on hand. Did she leave her little brown palm across my burnt and smarting knuckles for just an instant too long? Was her quick whisper an apology or was she trying to say something else?
She leant her head against mine. Her scarf brushed my face. It cannot have been an accident. Emile whispered again. My French is variable but, upon an issue of importance, like reception on the BBC World Service on a transistor radio, it can suddenly improve.
Aware that Tammy might sense, as women can, a change of mood in the room (especially when it involves another woman), I pretended that Emile had asked me a question.
“My favourite colour?” I said in a stage whisper.
Then I couldn’t think of a reply.
“Orange. Green,” I said uncertainly and then realised, “deepest, darkest black, given what we’re up to.”
If Tammy understood the deception beneath her, she did so without flinching. Not one iota of doubt transmitted itself from her size four sole to my back. I prayed that she was too absorbed in her work to notice the conspirators, literally, at her feet.
It was a very long session. Trade didn’t die until the late early hours. As the predators and prey drifted apart, so did out little troupe. Emile wandered along the corridor towards some steps. Did she sleep on the roof? I walked Tammy back to the Royal Maroc. Over to the east, the sun now threatening to rise. The first of its glow, from the general direction of Ghazaouet, was already casting the stars at the lowest part of the horizon to invisible.
There was an awkward moment at the entrance to the hotel. By the red monogrammed ‘R’ and ‘M’ characters embossed in a pale green glass door (with a dark green image of a palm tree inlaid), we shared a platonic kiss.
Tammy held my forearms, I held her by the shoulders.
“Must you go?” She asked.
“I’ll have to get back, I’m exhausted,” I replied.
“Back to Emile and the bidet?”
“Back to sleep. We’re going to have to work all night and sleep all day from now on.”
“Ok”, she nodded, taking a step backwards and punching me gently and playfully on the arm. She signed off with, “Great working with you, Worth.”
Behind my smile and nod of appreciation, the whispered confidence of Emile, in fluid French hard-edged with a thick Berber accent, still rang in my ears.
“Don’t trust Mademoiselle Tammy, she tricks you.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file