We’re in the western Mediterranean, on the North African side. Literally in it, myself and Tammy are embarked upon an afternoon swim having escaped from the ever-present pestering mob of Tangiers hustlers, to the empty beaches about the coastal villages. Beyond the magnificent crescent bay, apart from ourselves, the only others are small groups of small boys, who can be bribed with cigarettes in return for seedy local knowledge.
I tried clinging to Tammy but the swell became too rough. For a while, we swam side by side but when still only yards from land, Neptune became angrier yet. Separated, I spotted something ahead, perhaps a buoy or a porpoise? I struck out for it, assuming Tammy would follow. From land, the Med had looked calm, almost idyllic, but within fifty yards of the shore, I was being thrown about and not enjoying myself. The experience was too bracing, so much so that I began to envy the stifling heat of the land.
Treading water to take in the view, I was thrown about some more, but what a vista! Looking from the harbour walls to the dockside warehouses, up the hill to the narrow streets of old Tangiers and right around that bay, I made no apology for admiring the magnificent crescent beach one more time. Villages were peppered along the coast, on the fringe of the desert, interrupted by trails of loaded camels and the occasional cluster of playing children. All of this happening below God and Allah’s curious white sky.
Despite the landscape, I still wasn’t enjoying myself. The seascape was a challenge. Yes, it was refreshing, good exercise and no doubt excellent for the constitution, but the waves were too enthusiastic, allowing me little control of my swim. Added to which, I had either lost sight of the buoy or the porpoise had swum away.
I turned to head back, momentarily panicking that some malicious Barbary current might haul me away. After some energetic strokes, the shoreline appeared to be nearing, despite my clumsy but brisk breaststroke. There was Tammy. She had made the wise choice of swimming closer to land, aware of the limits of her courage and ability, not striking out like a fool like myself. She practised a very rough doggy paddle cum front crawl, with her head well out of the water. She was even managing to keep her hair dry. I made sure I bumped into her. Unaware of the depth, I disappeared under the water after wrongly assuming that I was within reach of the bottom. I pulled myself back up to the fresh air with two strong strokes and trod water beside her, wiping the brine from my eyes. She was laughing.
“Don’t forget to swim.”
We turned for the shore. This time I waited until I was scooping up handfuls of sand before I stood up.
“What’s it like out there?” She asked.
“Too choppy for me,” I replied honestly, “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it and it did me good but I was getting bashed about.”
“Can you see a buoy out there, a marker buoy,” I continued, turning to face the horizon, placing a finger and thumb across my brow, my palm keeping the glare of the sky from my face.
Tammy did the same.
“I’m not so sure,” she replied, “I don’t think so.”
“I’m not so sure either. I was swimming to something. Maybe not.”
“Anyway,” I continued decisively, “I enjoyed that, thanks.”
We walked back towards our belongings. They were under a scrub bush in what passed for shade. My boxer shorts were clingy wet and had gone see-through. Tammy’s swimsuit, tight and revealing to start with, had shrunk. It was a Garden of Eden moment. Innocently pre-fall, we held hands and chatted. Our unprotected shoulders and necks would suffer through the night, the soles of our feet were suffering now on the oven hot sand.
We sat beside our bush. She asked me to look the other way.
“You taking your swimsuit off?” I accidentally asked aloud.
“No, silly, I’m setting the camera. You can look now.”
Settings carefully complete, the ghost in the machine had been freed. The ordinary compact holiday snap camera had now turned mega intelligence-gathering sensitive. Tammy was looking out to sea, apparently at nothing.
“There’s your buoy.”
“Really?” I replied, surprised.
I felt obliged to sit behind her and put my hands on her shoulders. They were red hot, she would burn and blister later.
“Let me see.”
I looked through the viewfinder and was amazed at how far I could see and in how much detail. As suspected, I had been over-ambitious about the buoy, it was a long way from the shore. Noting it’s shape and colours I suspected that, referring to an admiralty chart, it’s instruction to mariners might include “don’t even think about swimming out to me (exclamation mark).”
“And when the film’s processed you can see even more?” I asked.
“Much, much more,” she promised. “Automobile plates, faces in the dark, eye colour, moles. If your guys are open-mouthed at the depravity at the dock wall, it’ll clock dentistry. Every broken tooth and cavity, if they’re English.”
She mocked. I knelt up and began to part her fine, naturally coloured, hair. Between my fingers, a billion mousy strands met a white scalp.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
“Looking for Hairglo, one cheeky stereotype deserves another.”
Before our swim, we’d bribed some curious young local boys with cigarettes. I’d taken great care to keep to one side, almost out of earshot. Tammy had very gently cultivated them in her fluent French and surprisingly good Arabic. As expected, what culminated dressed as a girl at the docks, started with a few coins and cigarettes, apparently innocently taken, then hashish and worse. According to the boys, the docks were a business meeting for those hooked, often but not exclusively, waifs and strays from the impoverished countryside. The local police took money to look the other way.
“I suppose it’s what you’d call ‘meat rack’?” I surmised.
“I guess so.”
“Does that kind of thing happen everywhere?”
“Nope,” she replied, “there are ‘honey pot’ locations. They get known for that kind of thing. Like Daytona Beach gets known for Spring Break.”
She turned her head to one side and kissed me on the lips, quickly and surprisedly.
“Where kids go to do this,” she explained while ending the kiss. It was her turn to do some translating, “In this context, kids means college kids on spring vacation, everybody over eighteen.”
We hunched down. Even more concealed by our bush, I put my arms around her waist and my feet and knees around her hips. She put the camera down, tucked her knees up towards her chin and held my hands in hers. We didn’t seem to be getting any drier. The layer of moisture on our bodies was now poaching what had just been roasted. I snuggled my mouth into her neck. We were like one little damp, beached sea creature with two heads and eight limbs, curled up onto a ball, wondering what to do with this remarkable new discovery called ‘dry land’. It was honesty time.
“There was such a thing in London, at an amusement arcade in Leicester Square,” I told her.
“What do you call them?”
“Just, ‘arcades’. And there was only one?”
“This one caught the eye. They always said it was in Leicester Square but upon a recce, it was closer to Theatreland and the posh clubs and townhouses. More Cambridge Circus, or even Westminster. Suggesting it to Leicester Square knocked it down the class strata, made it sound like cinemas and day-trippers, a place of oiks looking for usually innocent fun.”
“We have townhouses,” Tammy reassured me, probably not understanding any of the other references.
“Much creeping about followed. Hiding behind newspapers, jumping into taxis and shouting ‘follow that car’. Many of the meat rack clientele were of a certain class, upper, scandal and security risk material.”
“Don’t forget to mention the law and the safety of children, Worth,” she interrupted in admonishment.
“Some of the victims were so young that it got called the ‘chicken shelf’”, I added, before continuing, “One or two toffs were prosecuted under false names for reasons of national security. Another one or two were taken to court for the encouragement of the others. High profile, pretty, debutant wife sobbing in the public gallery for the benefit of the newspapers. That kind of thing happen in Perry Mason?”
“Debutant?” She asked in return.
“A young lady of high family, firstly introduced to the Queen socially, afore society, for the purpose of a proper, or even a good, marriage.”
“I‘ve no idea what that means, Worth, apart from your country being medieval.” This put down was said in irritation rather than as a tease, as though she was no longer just pretending to mean them.
“Landed name, maybe a title, public school (that means private school), the City, brought down by a weakness, his children bullied at prep school because of it. Could happen to you too, old bean, get yourself sorted out man, see a psychiatrist before you hurt somebody. That kind of thing.”
“What happened next?” She queried.
“Guess?” I responded while trying for another kiss. She wriggled to avoid my lips and preferred to use hers to give a little speech instead.
“There were more court cases, sacks of publicity, a big shakeup, systems changed. Worth, did you get a promotion out of this? Were your creepy superiors let go, or jailed? Did you move up a few grades? The trade stopped, the stragglers fled to Tangiers thinking that they’re outside the reach of the law and you and me are here to finish these evil people forever and save the children.”
All of which, delivered with an earnest American enthusiasm bordering on dangerous naivety. Obviously, she couldn’t have been more wrong. I took a deep breath and prepared to shatter her illusion.
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file