The Swaling, Part Twenty

Verax Cincinnatus, Going Postal
The lobby is panelled and magnificent.
Ricardo Fernandez
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Myself and my duplicitous American colleague, Tammy, are in Tangiers. Becoming a familiar sight about the port, we are starting to attract the attention of a Tangier set. A semi-anonymous caller, passing as a ‘Mr Kenneth’, has invited me to meet the louche local ex-pats. Tammy reports a similar experience. Messages have been left for her at reception, and pushed under her room door, at her luxury hotel. We have an open invitation to party. Excitedly, Tammy decides, on both of our behalf’s, that we must mingle.

Emile, a maid at my less than salubrious accommodations (an ‘establishment’ indeed) urges caution. My colleague, she has deduced, and all of Tangiers (or Tanger as she prefers to call it) are out to trick me.

Ordinarily, the three of us engage in our espionage of the nearby notorious dock wall through the night and sleep through the day. However, without informing me, Mademoiselle Tammy and some American associates of hers, have been spotted doing their own research. The kind of 2pm to 6pm second job that a peasant comrade on a Soviet collective farm might engage in on an aunty’s nearby private plot. Emile is on the case. The local maid’s network, unimpressed by the bawdy behaviour of the colonials, have been enlisted to help me. A plan has presented itself.

On this particular day, instead of sleeping through, I wake myself at an unusual hour and strike out for a constitutional. Not to the harbour, beach or even to the casbah but to the Royal Maroc Hotel, knowing full well that the deceitful Mademoiselle Tammy and those other Americans will not be there.

I walk through the main door with the confidence of an English travelling gentleman already known by sight to the staff. A flunky touches the red tip of his fez as I pass. The lobby is panelled and magnificent. I address the stairs, find Tammy’s corridor and walk straight past her room.

A colleague of Emile, a member of the room cleaning community, awaits. A gentleman never has the need to abseil onto a window ledge or blow a lock with lighter fuel. He effortlessly manipulates the utility of being nice to the maids.

The girl in question was towards the end of the corridor, her progress signalled by a trolley outside an open door. I approached, coughed politely, stood in the opening and partook in an innocent scene, often observed in hotel corridors, usually initiated by those on expenses.

“Clean my room next please, miss. The Americano room.”

In the local style, I pass her some Dirham concealed by being folded in my downturned palm, my thumb pressed across them to hold them discreetly in place.

“Monsieur,” she replies, taking the notes from me and hiding them at the bottom of a pile of the day-before-yesterday’s “International Herald Tribune”. They sit on the lower shelf of her trolley. The headlines are of the Cold War, Mr Reagan and a somewhat optimistic anticipation of a ceasefire in Beiruit.

“Merci,” she continues unembarrassed. “Je m’appelle Angelique. Vous?”

More confident than Emile, she didn’t even blush, let alone try to hide her face. “Enchanté,” I felt obliged to reply as I lifted her fingers towards my mouth, that I may kiss the back of her hand.

“Moi?”, I continued, “Worth-Saying. Ashley De Pfeffel Worth-Saying. At your service, Mademoiselle Angelique.”

There is a hierarchy in all things. The chambermaid is not exempt. Emile was a simple girl, rather naive, from a tented encampment in the desert, labouring in a dockside hotel, sleeping on the roof. Angelique was an élégant, if not an éxotiqué. Although dark-skinned, her features were rather European. Compared to other local girls, her face was longer and her eyebrows more carefully defined. She was tall, almost as tall as me, cheekbones high. I couldn’t help but gaze into her eyes. The darkest of eyes, as though a Sahara night from which the stars and moon had been vanquished. A wave of indiscretion threatened to overcome me. Was Mata Hari a Moroccan? Did her prettiest grand-daughter work in a hotel? Did the spies betrayed by Ms Hari after a night of passion and careless talk, feel regret as they walked the last few steps towards the gallows? They might not have.

Complimenting the flesh and sinew, the Royal Maroc’s uniforms were as grand as the hotel. Although more of an Alamain trench’s Arabist than a five-star hotel’s, Churchill’s remark that we shape our buildings and then they shape us, remained valid. Added to which, the bricks and mortar (or carved and faced rubble rammed earth, with a hint of dung, clad in plaster and Arabic mosaic tile) dress a pretty girl to suit them.

Angelique wore a red cap, rather than a fez, a small black tassel atop it all the same. Beneath her head covering, an ocean of black hair tumbled about delicate shoulders which were held in a cotton garment. Bright white, pressed to perfection and carefully folded, it ran from neck to halfway down the calf. Not too modest about the décolletage, it became revealing again at its other extreme, cut to show a little bit too much tanned inner leg. If mention of Tangiers suggests ‘desert’ then mention of Angelique should suggest ‘oasis’.

Her waist was pinched by two belts. One cotton, embroidered in gold, decorative. The other, leather, plain and stocky, containing dozens of keys. Instead of sandals, she wore little black shoes on her tiny feet. The cleavage between every dark toe peeped before the toe of the shoe. I stood there, head bowed, staring at her feet. Was I making it too obvious?

“S’il vous plaît, Monsieur Worth?” she whispered confidently. She pushed her trolley along by two rooms and, having selected from her giant bundle of keys, opened a door.

“Le President’s Suite,” she announced.

I pulled myself up to my full height, raised an eyebrow, summoned my inner Roger Moore and replied, “Is he really?”

She smiled. Her teeth were pure pearls on a beach of dark sand, framed in crimson lipstick. I thought I was going to faint. Rather than a suite, the ‘President’s’ was two ordinary rooms knocked into one. A sagging and cracked ceiling hovered above the missing supporting wall.

There were two double beds, appropriately positioned, and a third, single bed, just jammed in. Behind the door were a pile of boxes. Stoutly built, with metal handles and metal corner guards, they were covered in stickers proclaiming them to be the disguised property of “Hidden Planet, The American Guidebook Company.”

It is a bit of a bad show to rifle through other chap’s stuff, but the Americanos had been rude to the maids and Emile suspected they had been creeping about photographing me as well as the depraved dock wall suspects.

Angelique thought I was going to faint too. She suggested a glass of water and pointed me towards the bathroom. One expects to gag in a Moroccan toilet but, even by local standards, this one was a bit much. Not only gaseous (the smell was overpowering), there was a taste as if my mouth had been stuffed with acrid cotton swabs.

Upon pulling a tasselled cord swinging from the ceiling, a faint electric light, from a bare red bulb, began to gather in strength. Around me, bowls of chemicals emerged from the gloom. Photographs were strung above the bathtub, hanging to dry. Vapour came from them. Boxes on the floor, a chemical haze above them, held more soaking images.

Next to the sink was a camera in pieces, presumably being cleaned. The local dust and sand tended to get everywhere. There were lenses and rollers, as well as the remarkable silicone chips which allowed the skilled operator to turn an ordinary production compact camera into a machine capable of the most remarkable reconnaissance photography. Above the toilet was a frame containing more, bigger, lenses and plastic flasks smelling of more chemicals.

I unpinned a photograph, took it into the room and walked towards a window. Throwing the shutters open revealed a balcony and the rooftops of old Tangiers. The sunlight revealed the subjects captured on the big print. Sure enough, I was amongst them. As suspected, Tammy’s secret associates had been photographing us as we’d been photographing others. Rather than concern, I felt relief. There were myself and Tammy pictured giving cigarettes to boys, near the beach.

“Totally innocent,” I announced to myself. “What’s all the fuss about?”

Angelique’s hand appeared. It covered the image of Miss Tammy and left a picture of myself, apparently alone with boys in swimming trunks, who were smoking. Point taken. Enlarged and cropped, the photograph could be made to look incriminating.

“It is not only what ‘appened, Monsieur Worth,” Angelique observed, with the wisdom of a serving girl. “But what appears to have happened.”

“Regarde,” she continued. Getting down on her hands and knees, she looked under one of the double beds. “Vous aussi,” she instructed. I knelt down beside her and shared her cramped view. I was pleasantly surprised. Nothing to see.

“I stayed in a place in Istanbul, Angelique, loads of little pairs of mousey eyes used to stare back at me from under the bed. And that was just the mammals. You can imagine the insect life.”

“Worse than that, Monsieur Worth,” she confided. “On a bad day, we find the lost boys hidden under the beds. Smuggled in for a night and then abandoned. Sometimes not even clothes.”

I sat up and sighed.

“Mademoiselle Tammy mentioned bedside lockers used to store film,” I recalled aloud.

Angelique nodded and addressed her belt again.

“The Americano’s think they have the only keys,” she said.

She fought with the cabinet doors, opening them one at a time. As she did so, I couldn’t help but notice a little calling card, propped against a bedside lamp. It expressed a similar sentiment to an unrequested phone call that I’d received previously from the mysterious Mr Kenneth.

The card contained a little logo, a figurative K and W intertwined, and a motto, “Whatever you desire, in Tanger it matters not.” A checkered border was interrupted at the bottom right-hand corner with a phone number, charmingly containing only four digits. Likewise, the top of the border was interrupted by two words, “Earthly Desires.”

“What is this Angelique, Earthly Desires? A business? A club? A cinema?”

“It is a compound, Mr Worth, an address. Residential buildings within a high wall, on the fringe of Tanger, just before the desert, on the old camel driver’s slow road to Oujda.”

What did I desire? To gather as much information as possible for our Operation Swaling. Yes, for England but also to further my own career. Was this little introduction card the call of serendipity or of a trap?

To be continued…….

© Always Worth Saying 2020

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