I’m on the rooftop of my cheap hotel in Tangiers. I have escorted the duplicitous Miss Tammy back to the luxurious Royal Maroc, after another night photographing the notorious comings and goings at the Port of Tangiers dock wall. I am crouched beside a bundle of rags which conceals a shape. Above me, only stars, about me, the deathtrap accoutrements of a North African open-air wet kitchen and laundry.
I give the pile of rags a little shake.
“Emile, Emile, wake up.”
The little maid girl stirs, rubs her eyes and pulls her blanket to one side revealing herself to be covered in more nighttime clothes than she wears during the day. It is cold for her sleeping on the rooftop. The magnificent, cloudless firmament means the heat of the day has evaporated and been blown out to sea by a dry wind from the desert. We whisper our confidences beneath the constellations. Short of street lights, there’s little to bleach out the stars. The firmament above us is magnificent.
“What have you found out from the maids at the Royal Moroc?” I ask of Emile. Yes, there is a ‘maid’s network’ in the Moroccan port, in the same way that there is in every other place on Earth that offers a bed or a mat to the weary traveller. Need it be said again? Always keep on the right side of the staff.
“Mademoiselle Tammy has friends there, three men.”
“New friends?” I ask.
“Are they new friends that she has made since she arrived?” I demand of Emile.
She squatted up beside me, her feet now tucked under her bottom. She shivered as she replied,
“They are very familiar with her. They checked in ahead of her and greeted her soon after she arrived. They keep out of your way and mock you behind your back.”
She reported her final revelation for a second time. Her head was bowed. Her voice became the deep, sand soaked Berber of the country girl in the big city. As if ashamed on the Americano’s behalf, she muttered again, “They mock you behind your back.”
“It’s cabin fever, Emile. They have to let off steam. Don’t let it bother you. It doesn’t bother me.”
“Mademoiselle Tammy says that she used to really like you but now you’re just irritating. With annoying mannerisms.”
We were conducting this conversation in my French, which is middling to variable, and Emile’s French which had more than a little impenetrable Arab dialect about it. After a few more lessons for the pair of us, the translation might have been a bit more complimentary.
“That’s enough about me, Emile,” I said, becoming irritated and starting to twitch.
“And they photograph you, like you photograph the bad men and the lost boys at the docks.”
“They have a taxi,” she continued. “A fake taxi. They drive the streets. Through the day Mademoiselle Tammy sleeps little and travels much. At night time the men party. They drink alcohol and shout.”
“Colonials Emile, they can’t help it. What do they have in their rooms?”
“Chemicals and boxes, they make photographs from your films.”
“Hmmm”, I thought to myself. The duplicity multiplied. Tammy had told me that the films were being kept and, requiring a special process, would be sent back to America to be developed, hence all the delays in establishing better descriptions, and possibly even identifying, the suspects at the docks.
“They will trick you my friend,” Emile said. “My only friend,” she began to blubber. “The only one who gives presents. This poor Berber maid.”
Emile began to sob. She became inconsolable and howled as if an overloaded camel being whipped up a sand dune. She banged her forehead against my chest and put an arm around my shoulders. Her tears dripped on to my shirt, mingling with my sweat. Just because she was cold didn’t mean that I was. These things are relative.
“A nomad from the desert, my father still a slave,” she wailed.
I was unconvinced. Like the lazy camel, she protested too much. Becoming more aware of the ways of the Arab, I had a suspicion that, with her free hand, she was picking my pocket.
“Chin up Emile, no more of that,” I instructed her. “Have a look at the view instead.”
Our clandestine photography filled my nights, added to which my little cell had only a quarter of a window, the rest of it being bricked up. Tangiers by night, at my leisure, without walls or a ceiling, was new to me. From the roof, there was quite a vista.
It was the darkest part of the night, just before dawn. What light there was, was dotted around the old city and consisted of the occasional blinking street light, augmented by the odd glow from a window, behind shutters which cast patterned silhouettes to the night. Laid out below us, towards the beach, the old colonial seafront fared better.
A crescent of electric light ran from the warehouses at the docks, around the closed cafes and sleeping hotels, and past the railway sidings. Sidings which showed shadows of a hotchpotch of different sized wagons and idle carriages. The pair of us stood up and looked towards the sea. We shared the awe felt by generations of adventurers who had passed before us, braced before Atlas’s rock feet, which spanned two continents. The crests of tiny waves, caressed from Europe by a Western Mediterranean tide, lapped upon the sands. The reflected light of the town twinkled from them.
I was almost certain that Emile had just sneaked a hundred Dinah note out of my pocket but I didn’t like to say anything.
“There’s a Tangiers set,” I confided to her. “Writers, artists, bohemian types. A bit decadent if you ask me.”
“They are Orientalist,” replied Emile, pushing her Berber French to its limit. “They deal in tired cliches and are here for the hashish and the lost boys. They are lionised by a liberal elite in their own countries, ignorant of our place, while holding the Arab and his culture in contempt.”
“Oh,” I replied, rather startled, “Bowles? Orton? Tennessee Williams? Burroughs?”
“They lived in compounds and mixed only with their own. They are shameful. The maids think of them with disgust. Orton is a monotony of events, I’d rather listen to our own storytellers, oral tradition illiterates, who tell our own tales around the campfires of the desert,” she said.
Everybody’s a critic.
* * *
There is no rest for the wicked. As I slept through the following day, I was interrupted. Mohammed the houseboy, in his fez and waistcoat, knocked on my door. There was a phone call for me. Strange. The local communications weren’t great, use of the telephone a rarity. I followed him down the narrow stone steps from my corridor all the way to reception. For once I was led through, rather than past, the bead curtain next to the always open front door. Beyond it was a little day room. The large, over made-up lady receptionist sat sleeping in a chair. Jangly music accompanied by impenetrable lyrics played from a transistor radio on a shelf. Three mice scattered before my feet.
The telephone was sat upon the only other piece of furniture in the room, a round table with one central leg, splayed into three feet. Feet that had been chiselled to the shape of a desert leopard’s claws.
The phone was an old bakelite model, of nicotine stain colour, with a rotary plastic dial. Its receiver sat to one side, a curly wire tangling to a connection at its base. I picked it up, venturing, “Hello?”
A voice on the other end, a man’s voice, replied. Was it fake American being aped by a Moroccan, or fake Moroccan being attempted an American? I couldn’t tell, but whatever it was, alarm bells began to ring.
“My friend,” it intoned. “Welcome to Tangiers, I am so sorry it has taken so long for us to talk. You hide away, my friend, like a hermit. Why is that?”
I referred to my cover story, “I’m doing Tangiers with a travelling buddy. We keep strange hours and we’re at different hotels. Thank you for calling, goodbye.”
“One moment, my friend,” the voice replied, ignoring my attempted parting. “Why the hurry, what is wrong? You must accept some of our famous hospitality.”
“I’d rather not.”
“You must take a taxi, my friend, it will be good for you to get out,” a hint of menace having entered his tone.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to trouble you, mister, mister?’
“My friends call me, Mr Kenneth,” he replied, “I am well known in this place. I must say, Mr Worth-Saying, it is Mr Worth-Saying isn’t it? I am becoming a mite offended by your reticence, if you must know, as are other Tangerines. Why the unfriendliness, Mr Worth? You must mix. Tangiers wants to know you. Your fans demand a little more from you.”
I held the silence.
The menace deepened and returned at a whisper, “There is a party at the compound. You are invited, and a plus one. Perhaps your travelling buddy? He might come too?”
“It’s a she, Mr Kenneth,” I corrected him.
“Oh, Mr Worth, this is Tangiers, no one cares. Whatever your desire. We will see you soon.”
To be continued …….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file