Our night of espionage, from my modest accommodations near to the notorious wall at Tangiers docks, had been cancelled. A much reduced number of comings and goings would pass unnoticed. The Gods of weather were against us. They had mustered from the desert in mid-afternoon. I probably deserved their wrath, having been rifling the rooms of some suspicious Americans at the Royal Maroc Hotel. A sympathetic maid had helped me. I was now in no doubt that, rather than being part of a British operation with American help, I was tangled into an American operation, with me as a patsy. The skies came out in sympathy with my disappointed mood. From a distance, to the stranger, it was impossible to anticipate what they planned. Was it rain, dust or sand? Just as the Eskimo has two hundred hundred words for snow, the nomads have three hundred for desert storm, the Berber four hundred. It all looked the same to me but, as a sure sign of some serious incoming meteorology, the hawkers at the bazaar were rolling up their mats, the stallholders in the nearby narrow streets, gathering their wares and heading for shelter.
When it arrived, rolling across the rooftops of old Tangiers, there was a bit of everything. Torrential dust, pelting sand, dunes of rain. Lit by lightning, percussioned with thunder. By the time I’d fought my way to my accommodations, I was soaked from head to toe, from inside by sweat, from outside by the deluge. Emile couldn’t sleep on the roof in this. She let herself through the hatch, climbed down the ladder that led to the steps and made her way to my room. All of her worldly goods were carried with her, wrapped in a mat. She awarded herself one end of my bed and curled up upon it.
“Let it come down,” I said to her in resignation as I struggled to close the shutters, pleased for once that three-quarters of my window was bricked up. Not that that was any guarantee of keeping out the storm. Not only did the desert wind whip through the slats, water wept through cracked walls and dripped through the ceiling. Fortunately, the electricity cut off. Moisture was running along the wires, dripping from the light bulb and oozing through my two-pin wall socket which was held together with matchsticks. Mohammed the houseboy brought a candle on a saucer.
The torrent filled the drains and backed them up. The bidet bubbled and threatened to spit at us. Beyond the sound of rain and falling sand, the distant, dull rumble of storm waves sounded from the coast. Were they shaking the foundations? Either that or as wet plaster melted, fresh cracks were appearing on the walls. As ever, Emile was too cold, myself too hot. My pack and all of her possessions sat between us on the bed, the floor beside us being too damp to be trusted them with. The candlelight gave both of us an elemental dignity, the honesty of a silhouette upon a cracked plaster wall. A wall that was becoming wetter by the minute, as if crying for the lost boys down at the docks.
“What will you do my friend?” Emile asked. “Now that you realise you are solely defined by your situation?”
Emile’s French was improving rapidly but by reading books, not through conversation. I had warned her against it. After a busy night of helping me and Tammy with our reconnaissance, and after her maid’s duties during the cooler parts of the day, she had fallen into the very bad and dangerous habit of, often in the full glare of the afternoon sun upon a rooftop, reading philosophers in French. I was sharp with her, “For goodness sake Emile, you’ve been doing it again, I’ve told you it’s bad for your mind, bad for your body and bad for the things around you. Throw those silly books away.”
She did the precise opposite. She unwrapped her mat and showed me her Kafka, slightly battered, her Camus, well-thumbed. About them, were other odd little bits and pieces that she treasured. Some hard earned, others pilfered. Touchingly, including the little presents that I had given her, a couple of scarfs and bangles, a pair of sandals. She clutched her favourite scarf, feeling its soft texture between her fingertips.
“From a certain point onwards there is no turning back,” she told me. “That is the point that must be reached.”
I put my hand to my pack, snook something out of it and then moved the pack one side. Emile pushed her possessions to one side also. Now there was nothing between us. A call of thunder sounded from the heavens. The building shook.
“Everybody is always leaving Tanger, but always tomorrow,” she whispered. I had to move closer to her to hear.
“In the one direction, are those pillars of Hercules, leading towards the vanity of European nihilism.”
I had slipped some money from my bag, it was rolled in my palm. I touched Emile on the shoulder and passed it to her. I was familiar with the ritual for such things from observing the docks. She took the money from me and, with a shake of the shoulders, allowed her outer garment to drop. She trembled.
“Or there is Africa. You must decide, my friend, or become a caricature of yourself.”
She spoke even more quietly, I had to lean even closer to her. The air in the room was close, stifling. Emile began to unbutton my shirt, to let my flesh breath. Arabia does strange things to a man, changes his psyche as sure as Kafka in the desert sun upon an uncovered head. I touched the outside of Emile’s undergarment. She put her hand inside my shirt. She whispered again. This time her lips almost touching mine, “Will you go all the way to Marrakesh? Beyond that only mountains, there is no return.”
Yes, Arabia does do strange things to a chap, but so does his love of England. I thought of my native hills and the gentle beauty they share with the lakes and pasture. I recalled the million shades of green from that pleasant land, unimaginable to the Berber. I thought of wholesome things and wholesome people, heroic types with integrity, pillars of respectability. Again, because of our espionage, I knew of another procedure. The wary and the merely curious cruised the darkened streets of the old port too. I squeezed Emile’s hand but drew it from me and guided it back to her.
“Keep the money,” I whispered to her. “Let’s talk.”
I sat upright and leant against my end of the bed, buttoning up my shirt. As I did, Emile wrapped herself back into her outer garment.
“What will I do, Emile? Kismet. Let the fates decide.”
At that very moment, there was a knock on the door. It was Mohammed the houseboy, there was a phone call for me.
Downstairs, the anteroom next to reception was outlined with candlelight. Emile tiptoed behind me. I stood by the bakelite telephone. The establishment’s madam, on a bad night for passing trade, was comatose in her chair, water lapping at her toes. Emile hid behind me all the same, terrified that the old brute would wake up and beat her for being downstairs after dark. At the other end of the receiver, was Tammy’s voice. With an intuition bordering on certainty, I could tell that others were listening in at her end of the call, in the same way that Emile was listening in at mine.
A cap of thunder interrupted her.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“I said, it’s a shame to waste the night, Worth. This is the one time we’re not working, we could party.”
“In this?” I replied, genuinely astonished.
The candlelight was augmented by a lightning flash. The doorway’s bead curtain trembled, creating a demon shaped shadow upon the wall opposite. Emile trembled with it.
“There are always taxis outside the Royal Maroc, Worth, they’ll get us there. I’ve been recommended to a compound, an open invitation to ex-pats, parties there every night. Whatever the weather.”
Emile squeezed my arm and shook her head, mouthing “Trap, trap.” Was she recalling the fake taxi used by Tammy and the other Americans? The one we weren’t supposed to know about? I recalled an ‘Earthly Desires’ business card I’d noticed on a bedside table while rifling the American’s room. ‘Whatever you desire, in Tanger it matters not’ had been the sell line.
“We could collect some evidence, I’ll take the camera, they’ll think it’s just snapshots. Safer than stopping home, Worth, the Royal Maroc’s awash, f___ knows what your dump must be like.”
Aware of Emile’s advice, I stalled.
“I can make my own way there. There are taxis hereabouts.”
Emile held me, shaking her head, “non, non, non, non,” she mouthed.
“No, no, no, no, Worth,” Tammy echoed, unaware. “I’ll have you picked up, no problem.”
The plan seemed to be to force me into a taxi and take me any which where, with myself having no say in the matter. I had to think quickly.
“We could let out hair down a bit I suppose,” I heard myself saying.
“What did you have in mind?” Tammy wondered.
“I could fill my own taxi with some fun company from nearby and meet you at the compound. It’s about time we had a good time, and we might find something out.”
Emile began to cry. She pulled herself away from me and ran through the curtain, allowing a blast of damp sand to replace her. But Tammy brightened, making a hooping sound as though she’d just won a bet.
“That sounds great, Worth. Tell your taxi driver to take you to ‘Earthly Desires’, on the Ouija old road. It’s well known around here, they’ll get you there. I’ll make my own way, in a hotel taxi. See you and our new friends soon.”
To be continued…….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file