Thursday, 24 December 2009

Dog with henna eyebrows

This is a friendly little dog roaming the castle ramparts of Essaouira, Morocco, with some make-up applied by the animal's owner !

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Thursday, 17 December 2009

Number 2

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Tuesday, 1 December 2009


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Saturday, 28 November 2009


By late morning the following day, or perhaps it was the same day, we had arrived on an empty beach somewhere east of Tangier. The weather was rather overcast, but at least the sea looked reasonably calm. Omar’s eyes betrayed his utter exhaustion, and we didn’t feel much better after very little sleep.

‘My brother will come later, we must wait again till dark.’

‘Thank you, Omar’ Jess said warmly.

‘You are extremely kind’ I added.

‘Not kind. I am always seeing my first born’s face drained of all colour, and that fat pig laughing.’

He left us alone again to fetch some food and water for the crossing to Spain.

‘I hope this brother knows what he’s doing.’

‘We don’t have much choice’ I replied.

‘It’s not too late to get a ferry from Tangier.’

‘We can’t risk it, they could be on to us by now.’

‘We’ve done nothing wrong !’

‘I don’t fancy trying to explain what’s happened.’

Jess lapsed into silence, and I could see that all confidence in our ‘escape’, which sounded like an overly dramatic description, had been lost due to overwhelming tiredness and anxiety. I gazed into the murky distance, attempting to gain some solace from the gentle movement and sound of the waves.

After about an hour Omar returned with some fresh bread, cheese and olives, along with some fruit juice and water. He looked remarkably cheerful and calm, as if we were just a couple of tourists on a day trip from Tangier.

‘Please, don’t worry, my brother knows a quiet place near Algeciras; no patrol there, you can land with no trouble.’

We were both cheered by Omar’s positive attitude, and the food that tasted so wonderful after a long and uncomfortable night. It was not far across to Spain, and I didn’t know whether you could see the other side on a clear day, but it felt as though the gap was wider than the Atlantic.

‘Put your faith in God and the Prophet’ Omar said, with a big smile that showed his crooked and stained teeth.

It was still just about light when Jess woke me hours later from a deep sleep, and I immediately saw the blue fishing boat, which was quite large and not unlike the open fishing cobles at Filey.

‘We’re off soon’ she said, with a faint smile.

I watched Omar talking to his brother, and they were even laughing and joking, which seemed extraordinary in the circumstances. I realised just how large the gulf was between their simple faith and the complicated neurosis of my own troubled mind; despite the murder of his son, Omar had somehow retained so much joy.

‘Come now’ he said.

We walked forward down the gently sloping, warm sand, and his brother just smiled and nodded as we clambered aboard.

‘Thank you so much’ said Jess, but we were already leaving Morocco behind as the powerful engine gained speed.

‘Put your faith in God and the Prophet’ Omar shouted after us.


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Sunday, 22 November 2009


The most obvious route north from Marrakech might have taken us via Casablanca and Rabat, but Omar was keen to utilise his knowledge of the back roads, and to complete most of our four hundred mile journey in the dark. He made us extra nervous by saying that it was legal for vehicles to drive in Morocco with no headlights after nightfall, so long as they maintained a low speed !
I have a very clear image of the spectacular red sunset slowly colouring the tall tower of the mosque adjacent to the main square as we said goodbye to Marrakech. Despite the long journey ahead we were hopeful that we would soon be bidding farewell to Morocco and Africa as well.

‘Try to get some sleep’ our driver suggested.

‘Which way are we going ?’ I asked.

‘Towards Fez or Meknes, but don’t worry, I know these roads very well.’

Jess had her eyes closed, but I wasn’t sure if she was really getting any rest, and I found it very difficult not to succumb to my neurotic nature. Omar just appeared quietly determined, driving fast where he was able to make uninterrupted progress, and more slowly on the very minor routes. As it became properly dark the outer world became no more than a blur; occasionally we passed through a small town with a shop or cafe open late, but as we got well beyond Marrakech there was not much visible, though still an awareness of the vast Atlas mountains to the east.

I was most fearful about the sea crossing to Spain, and prayed for a calm and clear passage, despite the fact I had no sympathy for most forms of religious worship. Omar had tried to reassure us further by saying that his brother would raise both a Spanish and European Union flag as we approached the other side, but surely there would be many patrols waiting for all those fleeing Africa and hoping for a better life in Europe – so tantalisingly close across the Strait of Gibraltar.

‘What was that ?’ said Jess suddenly.

‘Nothing, just a hole in the road, go back to sleep.’

‘I can’t seem to relax.’

‘I will stop in another hour or so, I must rest for a while’ Omar said.

I did not envy him the many hours of driving; but the bitterness he felt for the man who had killed his first son was literally driving him on through the black Moroccan night. We had unintentionally provided some kind of brutal justice, and the emptiness Omar still felt in his life encouraged him to risk being arrested by helping foreigners to leave the country without the usual forms being filled-in.

He pulled off the road somewhere near Azrou, south east of Meknes, and offered a flask of coffee and some biscuits.

‘You are very kind’ said Jess wearily.

‘That policeman was very bad; I will get you home safely.’

It was almost as if he was planning to drive us all the way to York, which might have impressed friends and family – taking a Mercedes taxi the entire route from Morocco to England. He went off for a cigarette, leaving the two of us alone, with hardly a clue as to our location in the featureless landscape of darkness.

‘I love you Jess.’

‘Love you.’

Monday, 16 November 2009


We sat close to the giant cacti in the Jardin Majorelle, though not too close, because a blue fountain was spraying water high into the air of another very hot day in Marrakech. The delightful garden of abundant greenery and water features offered a similar escape to the oasis near Taroudannt, yet this place was designed and created by a French painter.

I thought about the modest garden at the Treasurer’s House in York, where the fountain wasn’t always working, though England didn’t normally have such high temperatures to contend with. If only we had been back there already, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been pissing down with rain, because we would have felt safe behind those walls.

The main square of Marrakech was a few miles distant, but in the daytime it was not the lively pantomime of every bustling evening, where a shy English person might feel intimidated by all the unfamiliar and thrilling activity.

‘Will we make it back ?’ Jess asked.

‘I trust Omar; but I’m most worried about crossing to Spain in a fishing boat. I just hope the sea is calm, and we’re not arrested along with all the other refugees trying to escape Africa.’

‘I wonder what happened to his son ?’

‘Sounds like he was just another unfortunate victim of that bloody policeman.’

Jess went for a look round the Museum of Islamic Art, which formed part of the garden, but I preferred to remain outside in the shade. There were quite a few tourists, but it was by no means busy, which allowed one to be mostly undisturbed in contemplation, forgetting about the harsh realities that lay beyond the small oasis.

It was only midday, and it felt like a long time until Omar would collect us from the riad, as though time had come to a standstill, and we would always be trapped in a strange country of both beauty and pain. I laughed to myself, thinking about all the newspaper adverts saying that Morocco was a country that ‘nurtured the soul’, which you couldn’t argue with if all one’s time was spent in surroundings like the Jardin Majorelle.

‘There’s some wonderful jewellery in there.’


‘I know such things are not your cup of tea.’

‘It’s not that, I’m just so happy sitting in this tranquil garden.’

‘I think we will get back.’

‘What’s the worst that can happen ?’

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


Omar arrived unexpectedly after breakfast the following morning, and I wondered if he’d come to ask for a bigger tip, though he didn’t seem the type.

‘They have found the policeman’ he said, without messing about.

‘I’m sorry ?’

‘In Taroudannt.’

I felt an overwhelming sense of panic, and was glad Jess was back in our room.

‘He killed my eldest son. I can help you.’

‘It wasn’t deliberate when I hit him, he was attacking....’

‘I know, that man was not good.’

‘We need to get back to England.’

‘I have a brother near Tangier, a fisherman, he can help.’

‘But isn’t it nearly four-hundred miles, how will we get there ?’

‘We will go in the car, I will come for you tonight.’

‘Can he really take us to Spain ?’

‘I will come at eight, be ready.’

Omar sounded completely at ease about the whole enterprise, but it seemed highly likely we would be stopped on the road north, trying to leave Morocco, or by a patrol boat in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Jess was surprisingly upbeat when I told her, as if this plan to hoodwink the authorities and escape the country was some kind of elaborate party game. She was also reassured in a strange way by hearing of the death of Omar’s son, which proved that this policeman deserved to meet a violent end himself.

‘He’s coming at eight, that means we have some more time to explore.’

‘We need to keep a low profile.’

‘Did Omar say if the police had linked his death to us ?’

‘Not yet, but they’re bound to consider all the people who stayed at our hotel in Taroudannt.’

‘I’ve always wanted to visit the Jardin Majorelle’ Jess said with enthusiasm.

‘I suppose that is out of the way, if we’re careful.’

‘Can we go in a calÄ“che ? I prefer horses to cars.’

It was good to see some brightness back in her eyes; Omar had at least given us some hope, despite the serious challenges ahead.

Friday, 6 November 2009


It was a struggle to reach our riad in Marrakech because the passages and alleyways were so cluttered with rubbish, and people coming and going from the market. The area did not look promising at all, and some kids even threw stones as we finally arrived at the solid wooden doors of our accommodation.

The transformation from the outer world to an inner space of serenity and luxury was extraordinary, and we were quickly made welcome with some chilled fruit juice. The layout was very similar to the riad in Essaouira, with a central courtyard open to the sky and several floors with balconies overlooking a modest fountain.

We had been given more or less the whole first floor of the beautifully renovated building, and there was no sign of other guests, though they were perhaps out exploring the city.

‘Let’s try and get a little rest Jess, we can go out later.’

‘We need to think about getting out of this bloody country.’

‘I know, it’s just that I’m not keen on the airport option, the security was so tight there.’

Jess lay on the vast bed and turned to face the wall, while I just sat looking at the vines and creepers spilling like a green waterfall over the marble balcony. I wasn’t really sure what to do, it seemed likely that the police would catch-up with us sooner or later, and I didn’t fancy explaining how bottling the policeman had been the only way of saving my lady.

I stripped-off and went into the large shower that was more like a substantial room in itself, and it felt good to wash away all the sweat and muck of our journey through the mountains. Omar had been a very friendly and helpful chap and seemed happy with his modest profession, driving tourists in that old, immaculately presented Mercedes.

After a couple of peaceful hours we set off for the Djemaa el-Fna, the huge main square, all the time trying to steer clear of any men in uniform. It felt quite easy to lose yourself in the crowds, and also to get seriously lost, as all we had was a very basic hand-drawn map from the riad owner.
It was around seven in the evening and the souk was still very busy; my eyes were drawn to a stall of multi-coloured handmade sweets, which were almost totally covered in black flies. I thought about the mostly orderly and hygienic market at home, but this kind of thing didn’t seem to concern any of the locals here.

Jess would normally have been enthusiastically exploring the endless variety of stalls and shops, but was unsurprisingly unable to shake-off the terrifying experience of the night before. We came to a small square where there were many caged lizards, rodents and birds, which I started to look at more closely, but then noticed that Jess was already walking ahead and out of reach.

I caught up with her not far from the entrance to the Djemaa el-Fna, which was buzzing with all kinds of activity and music. There were many tables with temporary seating serving-up food for locals and tourists, and the mixture of smells, smoke and noise was intoxicating and almost frightening. It was the lack of order and reserve, as we would understand it in England, which was so disturbing and also alluring.

Jess was standing near a snake charmer, and she didn’t even flinch when one of his assistant’s put a large cobra round her neck, though it made my heart skip a beat just watching. I gave the man a few dirhams and we continued our stroll, trying not to bump into people or be flattened by others.

‘Can we just get some food ? I’m starving.’

‘Of course, let’s go into one of these places high above the square’ I replied.

‘I don’t care where, I’m going to collapse soon.’

We chose somewhere more or less at random, which was serving both local and international food; we could have done with an alcoholic drink, but as with Taroudannt such options appeared to be extremely limited, except at the hotels. Our table had a fantastic view of all the human theatre being enacted in the noisy arena below, though Jess was still very quiet.

‘We will get home, won’t we ?’ she said eventually.

‘Of course.’

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


Despite the fact we were more than worried about how we were going to get back safely to England, it was impossible not to be swept along by the enthusiasm of our driver Omar, the cheerful chap responsible for our safe passage over the High Atlas on the Tizi n’Test road that reaches over two thousand metres into the immense sky.

Everything had seemed so normal at breakfast, except for the fact there was a dead policeman concealed in the building; we ate a little and said our goodbyes to the owner, who wished us a lovely trip through the mountains to Marrakech. I couldn’t lose the image of the bottle crashing down on the copper’s skull, but surely anybody else would have done the same if their beloved was being attacked ? It was also highly likely that this man had murdered the Aussie girl, which meant we had actually saved the Moroccan justice system some time and money.

At first it was hard to appreciate the increasingly dramatic scenery and the extraordinary views back over the Souss plain towards Taroudannt. Omar told us that the French colonialists had constructed the road through the mountains, an amazing feat of engineering in itself.

‘I’m starting to feel sick’ said Jess.

‘It’s not surprising with all these twists and turns; I’ll ask him to stop.’

Omar was happy to pull over and light a cigarette, while we gazed back to the indistinct shape of Taroudannt, which brought a small sense of encouragement as it disappeared more and more in the distance. All being well his body would not be found until we’d been home for at least a few days; yet there was always the worry somebody might look into the shaft out of curiosity, or perhaps the annual maintenance inspection was due ? No, Morocco wasn’t the kind of country where they had regular inspections, except for the police road blocks of course.

‘Shall we get going ?’

‘I’m fine now’ said Jess weakly.

‘It’ll be exciting to see Marrakech’ I said, without really believing the optimistic sound of my voice.

There was very little other traffic about as most people wanting to travel between Taroudannt and Marrakech would use the main road, not a never-ending coil of pot-holed tarmac with terrifying drops at the side. Omar kept pointing out features of interest, and told us about growing-up in the foothills of the High Atlas.

We stopped again at La Belle Vue Hotel for some coffee, situated at two thousand one hundred metres above sea level; it seemed a very long time since we had been by the sea in Essaouira, and it felt like our travels had all been some kind of bizarre dream, fast turning into a nightmare. Jess wandered into the decaying red van abandoned at the roadside, covered in many stickers and signs associated with Moroccan car rallies. She appeared completely out of it, in another world, as if she would have been happy for the van to suddenly break free and crash over the cliff edge.

‘We’d better get on’ I said.

She didn’t reply, but eventually started walking back to the white Mercedes taxi.

As our journey continued beyond the highest point we heard thunder in the distance and Omar confirmed there might be a storm coming up the valley. The landscape became more reminiscent of the Himalayan foothills I’d seen on TV, and occasionally we passed small villages that were comprised of a few ramshackle ‘bungalows’ clinging to the green mountainside. After all the dryness of the plains I hadn’t expected this sudden change to the heavy rain that was now battering our vehicle, and wondered just how severe the weather must be in winter.

Though I was keen to reach Marrakech as soon as possible, Omar insisted on a small diversion to the spectacular mosque at Tin Mal, which is quite rare in being open to non-Muslims. There was a remarkable tranquillity in the empty, roofless interior, and Omar pointed-out some owls hiding in the crumbling stonework high above us. Many of the archways were in very good repair for a building constructed in the twelfth century, and some still beautifully decorated, despite being open to the elements.

‘Are you OK, Jess ?’

‘I feel very tired.’

‘It won’t be too long till we get to our hotel; Omar has recommended a riad not far from the main square, which should be more private than the Ibis we’d booked. I think it’s a good idea to stay somewhere not on our planned itinerary.’

We were soon back on the road to Marrakech, with Omar happily humming a tune to himself as we drove through the splendid scenery.

‘My wife is Fati’ he told us suddenly.

‘You still love her though ?!’

I felt Jess’s elbow in my ribs, which was usually an indication I’d said the wrong thing.

‘How many children have you got ?’ I asked, trying to move the conversation on.

‘Two, a girl and boy.’

After a few more miles we came to an unexpected traffic jam, which we soon realised had been caused by the storm and subsequent landslide, leaving the narrow road completely blocked.

‘This is the last thing we need’ muttered Jess.

‘Only thirty minutes to wait, this always happen’ Omar said cheerfully.

I got out and walked along the wet and muddy road in the direction of the collapse, where a snow plough was already working to restore a flat and safe surface. All the excitement made me forget about any worries as I marvelled at the power of nature unleashed, which was particularly striking as the only fresh water we’d seen before in Morocco had been at the oasis.

The thirty minutes promised by Omar was actually two hours before we got beyond the obstruction and resumed our drive to Marrakech; we were soon passing a large reservoir, then heading past enormous snow peaks.

‘Richard Branson Virgin have hotel up there’ Omar informed us.

‘He seems to have property everywhere’ I replied.

‘Very nice hotel’ added Omar.

The road from the mountains into Marrakech was far pleasanter than the one we’d taken to Essaouira on our arrival, which had been almost like driving through a rubbish dump. This approach to the city was a much more orderly one of wide tree-lined avenues, though it was not without a number of construction projects, mostly featuring some kind of golf resort.

‘I take you right into medina, very near hotel.’

‘Thank you Omar, we’re exhausted.’

‘Mountains are beautiful, yes ?’

‘Very beautiful.’

Saturday, 31 October 2009


I returned to our uninspiring accommodation carrying a bottle of cheap red from the Hotel Taroudannt, having left Jess reading some trashy paperback she’d bought at the airport. I’d had trouble finding my way back in the dark, but was determined not to call upon the services of a horse-drawn carriage.

As I climbed the stairs there was some unexpected noise coming from our room, and I quickly inserted the key and pushed open the door. I immediately recognised a policeman we’d seen in Essaouira, who was attempting to force Jess down onto the bed. Without thinking I rushed at him with the bottle and brought it down on the back of his skull; Jess flopped down on the bed, struggling for breath, while her attacker landed on the highly-polished tile floor. The heavy glass bottle was somehow unbroken despite the powerful impact.

‘Shit ! I think he’s dead !’ I shouted.

‘Feel for a pulse’ Jess replied, struggling to her feet.


‘Let me try.’

The man’s sweaty and smelly body showed no signs of life.

‘What the fuck do we do now ?’ Jess wondered.

‘It’s no good going to the police, we can’t trust them.’

‘I’ll get a blanket, at least we can cover him up.’

I noticed that a window to the central ventilation shaft was open, presenting us with an immediate solution to our dilemma.

‘We’ll have to dump him in there, and head for Marrakech as soon as possible.’

‘Won’t he be missed ?’ asked Jess anxiously.

‘The Essaouira police won’t think of searching in Taroudannt.’

Somehow we manhandled his fat, hairy frame onto the sill and forced the blanketed body through the narrow opening. Fortunately, there was no blood to clean up; it had been like one massive lucky punch in a heavyweight boxing bout, except there would be no doctor rushing into the ring.

‘Are you OK ?’ I asked.

‘Do you think he killed the Australian ?’

‘I’m not sure, I don’t know what to think any more.’

‘We’ve got to get away, NOW !’

‘They’re not going to find his body for a while, let’s try to behave calmly and leave in the morning as planned.’

‘I can’t stay in this room.’

‘We’ve got no choice; we’ll get the taxi to Marrakech straight after breakfast.’

‘I thought he was going to kill me.’

I stroked her hair and held her tightly as she sobbed.

‘We’ll need to get out of the country as soon as possible; I’m not sure if the airport is a good idea.’

Jess didn’t hear me, she was still caught-up in the horrific events that had just unfolded, like something from a low-budget Hollywood thriller.

Sunday, 25 October 2009


Because we had seen so little fresh water on our journey I was keen to visit the Tioute oasis only twenty or so miles from Taroudannt. Without water a country can only struggle for existence, though the local population have adapted over many thousands of years to a life without abundant rain. The Atlas Mountains of course see wet weather and snow, but it is not enough to sustain an entire population, particularly during drought periods.

As we drove along in the Mercedes taxi, Jess kept crying out every time she saw some goats at the roadside or climbing the many argan trees. She became very excited when the little ones appeared, and the driver was happy to stop so she could cuddle a small beast while I got out the camera again.

It was extremely hot by the roadside, and the driver suggested we could shelter from the sun and get a drink at the next village, with its argan cooperative. A lively market was taking place near the modest argan production facility, where women were the only ones doing the hard work, crushing an endless supply of nuts with large, smooth pebbles to release the precious oil.

‘It makes our lives seem very easy’ I commented.

‘What do you mean ? You don’t do anything !’ Jess laughed.

All the ladies appeared to have a cheerful acceptance of their lot, and could clearly understand their relationship with nature, work and elusive prosperity; something that is not always so apparent if you’re working nights in a toilet seat factory in Preston.

The driver informed us it was not much further to the oasis, though I feared the flow of water might be much reduced after several dry years. He told us proudly that the citadel above the abundant palm trees had been used for the film Ali Baba; such facts are always related with enthusiasm, as if a place can only be validated by its use in a movie, or by some other similarly notable occurrence.

A cheerful man with donkeys offered us the chance to ride around the oasis, but I didn’t think it would be fair to inflict my large, unfit body on one of the poor animals; I was also keen to have a little paddle, which would not be possible from the saddle.

A large reservoir seemed to be collecting most of the water, but we followed a small, clear stream through the shady plantation, where individual fields were marked out for growing crops. We were told that each farmer was required to pay to have land irrigated, by lifting a small ‘portcullis’ to allow an area to flood and bring the gift of pure mountain water.

‘This is so much better than the dust and heat of town.’

‘It’s a shame we can’t stay here overnight’ Jess replied.

‘I think there is a hotel, but it’s too late to arrange anything now.’

It was enough just to sit under the tall palms, with hot feet dangling in the clear, cold water, looking up towards the substantial ruins of the ancient citadel. For a short while we could forget the harsher realities of Morocco, including the probable murder of the Aussie girl, and being fleeced in the bazaar.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


In York the police were now dealing with a suspected murder, they were absolutely clueless in the case of the missing University librarian, which implied they were failing substantially, but it was simply that there were no clues whatsoever. The strain on her family had become unbearable, there seemed to be no hope of any closure in the matter, and even closest relatives feared the worst. I couldn’t understand why the police had to use old-fashioned expressions like ‘come to harm’, why couldn’t they just use plain English and say she’d most likely been harmed by a man ?

In some ways it would have been a relief to find her body floating in the Ouse or Foss, yet there was always that glimmer of hope while no physical evidence was found. Despite TV appeals and some calls from the public hardly anything other than vague reports of suspicious-looking characters around the University emerged.

The students came back from yet another long holiday, and in all those thousands of young people there was nothing significant to help the official investigation. They were mostly concerned with getting on with academic life, which consisted of drinking, plenty of sex, sleeping into the afternoon, and the minimum amount of work.

Jess continued to take the whole thing very personally, as if she was somehow directly involved in the woman’s disappearance just because she worked on the campus. I had learned to limit any questions about her day to the most banal details only, struggling at times to maintain a cheerful and optimistic atmosphere.
‘I was attacked a few years ago’ she blurted out eventually.

‘What ?!’

‘Near the Central Hall.’

‘What do you mean ? Were you hurt ?’

‘I screamed and kicked so much he ran off.’

‘But isn’t it a busy area round there anyway ?’

‘Not at two in the morning.’

‘You were OK then ?’

‘Of course I bloody wasn’t’ she screamed.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t...’

‘I only had a few scratches, he probably came off worse, but you can’t just forget about something like that.’

‘Did you report it ?’

‘I did, but I’d had quite a bit to drink, and they didn’t take my story too seriously; I couldn’t give much of a description.’

She started crying, and I tried to comfort her, but she pulled away.

Monday, 19 October 2009


After our little adventure to the souk that had gone slightly awry we started to spend a lot of time at one of the best hotels in Taroudannt, the Palais Salam, where it was possible to use one of the two swimming pools free if you purchased a meal or a few drinks. Though it was now early June the heat could still be quite a challenge for pale folk from England, which meant the cool water in the pleasant surroundings of a luxury hotel was a welcome escape from the more difficult environment outside.

The hotel is set in the beautiful gardens of a 19th-century pasha’s residence in the kasbah, and surrounded by the substantial walls that would have once provided good protection for citizens of the town, but now pigeons are the main occupants of many small holes in the crumbling battlements.

There was no way we could afford to stay at this particular establishment, but for a few hours every day could pretend that we were part of some privileged elite, while the local population worked very hard to scrape a living beyond the historic walls.

‘This is the life.’

‘It makes our accommodation look rather shabby’ Jess replied.

‘I don’t feel so bad about yesterday’s little episode.’

‘Well, nothing really awful happened.’

‘Apart from ‘losing’ about one hundred quid.’

A smartly-dressed waiter brought the tray of coffee and Moroccan patisserie to our table by the main pool; I don’t know what they thought about tourists, but they always remained very polite and attentive, even though they must have realised we were not really the big spenders they were trying to encourage.

‘I didn’t see the Australian girl this morning’ Jess said.

‘Do you think she’s gone home already ?’

‘Either that, or the she’s still here with the charity worker.’

‘How are you expected to just go home and get on with your life after a tragedy like that ?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘All you can do is keep getting up every morning and try to follow a familiar routine.’

I watched a large stork flying quite low over the hotel, returning with some nest material to the trees not far away; even though there were many positive aspects to life in Morocco, I couldn’t help feeling that everything was tainted by human grime and the struggle for existence in a harsh, dry land, except for these majestic birds able to rise above everything on currents of hot air, like feathered pterodactyls surviving into a world of petrol fumes and the stench of dead flesh drifting from the nearby tannery.

Friday, 16 October 2009


It was such a blur of human activity in Taroudannt, and Jess was so distracted by the death of the Australian girl that I can’t exactly remember if we were guided to the Arab or Berber souk by our new ‘friend.’ Of course we had a map, just like the one that had not been much use in Essaouira, but were easy pickings for a well-dressed confidence trickster.

The young local man was dressed in Western-style clothes, and kept cheerfully asking trivial questions as he rushed us down so many back alleys with the promise of bargains. It’s not as if I even like shopping, but it was me that gave this stranger our trust despite some dirty looks from Jess.

We found most Moroccans so welcoming to their fascinating country, forgetting that there must always be petty crooks (and worse) in every society. How could I have lived for more than forty years in this imperfect world of ours and still remain so gullible when it comes to a friendly smile ?

It would have been fairly easy to break free from this man, but for some reason we continued to chase after him down so many grubby streets. Eventually, he took us in to the darkness of the market, and to what he claimed was his father’s shop selling herbs and spices. Because he had actually brought us to one of the labyrinthine souks I felt some obligation towards him, which was exactly what he then played upon.

With the help of his ‘father’ a variety of items were shown to us, including a large lump of perfumed sandalwood and a mixture of spices for tagine cooking; any sensible person would have just walked away, but I still felt we owed this person something for safely guiding us to the market. He then quoted some ridiculously high figure in dirhams, which they supposed any tourist would easily be able to pay without even noticing. It is to be expected that you will always be charged more than any local, but not so much more.

Even though we didn’t want any of their products, at least it was possible to negotiate a small reduction in price, and they even threw in some roughly made pottery scrubbers for removing dead skin from feet. I handed over my wad of notes with a strong feeling of being cheated, but there was always at the back of my mind the awareness that things might turn nasty if we didn’t go along with the charade.

This event was certainly trivial in comparison to what had happened to the Australian, but it was more the fear of things getting out of control in such an unfamiliar environment that was disturbing my mind. For some reason I’d expected the old man to pull a knife and hold it under Jess’s chin until we relinquished all our money and valuables; as it turned out my own vivid imagination had exaggerated the seriousness of the situation.

Fortunately, we were not far from the main square and the Hotel Taroudannt – the only place in town you could buy alcohol. We went through the dark entrance and corridors to a jungle courtyard of faded splendour, sitting near a soothing fountain and eventually drinking some basic red wine.

‘That was an expensive waste of time’ said Jess.

‘I’m sorry, I thought he was helping us at first. At least there was no violence.’

‘Will you ever learn ?’

‘Learn what ?’

‘About human nature.’

In that particular subject could you ever successfully pass a final exam ? Surely, there was always room for more learning and a few surprises where people are concerned.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


While Jess performed her daily duty as a wage slave, I continued my almost daily explorations of the small city of my birth. The spring in particular was a lovely time, if you could utilise the brief window in time before tourists overwhelm our narrow streets and snickleways, with names like Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, The Shambles and Mad Alice Lane.

I always seemed to end-up in the compact and delightful garden of the Treasurer’s House, which was free to go into, unlike the house itself, unless going to the cafe in the haunted basement. There are few better places outdoors to munch on a large pasty or substantial baguette filled with real Yorkshire ham.

I like to watch other visitors, so long as they don’t come to close, because some are lovely young women, or so they seem on the surface. Just because you’re in a genuine love relationship doesn’t mean you can ignore female beauty, it would be an uncomfortable denial of the reproductive impulses we all share.

Yet it’s also good to have a non-human experience of pure solitude, when you’re the only soul amidst all the plants and crumbling stonework. The massive east end of the Minster looms so very close, and often concealed behind scaffolding and plastic covers.

Sometimes the fountain is working, and the sound of water gently falling into the pool of colourful fish can allow you to imagine it’s a Japanese Zen garden, where it’s possible to exist in an exalted state removed from shadows of the past or worries about the future.

‘Are you a local ?’ an American woman asked.

‘No, but it’s a lovely place’ I replied.

‘You sound like you might be from here.’

‘I’ve always had the unconscious ability to adopt the accent of any place I visit, unless it’s abroad.’

‘How fascinating.’

‘Not really, it only brings confusion in my conversations with others.’

‘I suppose it would.’

‘Where are you from ?’

‘Los Angeles.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Why ?’

‘I’ve been told it has no centre, no heart.’

‘That’s not entirely true.’

‘Don’t be offended. Anyway how are you enjoying old York ?’

‘It’s wonderful ! And the weather is great.’

‘Just like L.A. then, but with an ancient heart.’

Monday, 12 October 2009


It was a surprise at breakfast the following morning to see the other Australian girl at one of the few tables; Jess immediately went over to speak to her, which was typically brave and bold, and not the kind of thing I’m able to do with any sense of ease. I had only expected they’d exchange a few polite words, because the young woman was naturally in quite a state of grief and distress. After about twenty minutes of intense conversation Jess finally returned to the seat next to me.

‘What was all that about ?’

‘She hasn’t been able to leave yet because she’s run out of money and is waiting for funds from her parents.’

‘And that took all those minutes to explain ?’

‘No, the more disturbing news was that she had been followed by a man in Essaouira, and her description is very similar to the person I saw in the medina.’

‘The one you thought you saw.’

‘She’s also convinced that her friend didn’t drown.’

‘Does she think this man is involved ?’

‘The poor lass is not really thinking logically at all; but like ourselves she didn’t want to remain in Essaouira.’

‘I’m amazed she’s still in the country.’

‘Apparently she has a friend working in Taroudannt for some UK charity, something to do with agricultural development.’

‘So why isn’t she staying with the friend ?’

‘The chap is out in one of the Berber villages at the moment, but he’s expected back tonight or tomorrow.’

‘The poor lass looks in a right state.’

‘I asked if she wanted any help, but she said this bloke would be back soon.’

Jess didn’t touch any of her breakfast, but it would have taken something really momentous to prevent me from tucking-in, though I wasn’t too sure about the local ‘pancakes’ that looked more like the inside of a cow’s stomach. I decided to opt for the safety of croissants and coffee, and also daubed some Laughing Cow cheese on a couple of bread slices.

‘I bet you eat all the buffet at funerals’ Jess said sarcastically.

‘I’ve got a larger frame to sustain than you.’

‘I won’t argue with that.’

Saturday, 10 October 2009


We did have a brief stop in the tourist resort of Agadir for some ice cream, but the driver seemed rather unimpressed with the place, and only laughed when I asked if there was an older part of town. It was not far inland to the much more historic settlement of Taroudannt, and yet again we encountered a couple of police road blocks, presumably only dealing with routine driving infringements, rather than the death of an Australian tourist.

Our initial impressions of the small walled town were good, with long palm-fringed boulevards running in front of crumbling fortifications, and in the distance the inspiring sight of the western High Atlas Mountains. There was plenty of motorised traffic, but also quite a few horse-drawn carriages waiting patiently in the heat and dust for tourists or more affluent locals.

After the romantic riad of Essaouira it was slightly disappointing to find that our next pre-booked accommodation was more like a drab English bed and breakfast, and set in an uninspiring residential area; but after the unfortunate events involving our camel trekking companion we were relieved to move on to a new place for a few days. One excellent feature of our hotel in Taroudannt was the high roof terrace, which offered 360-degree views of the town and surrounding countryside, though we often found the mountains were obscured by dust storms. Locals were acutely aware there had been no rain in the last few years, which inevitably had an impact on the fertile soil of the Souss Valley, and the produce traded at the lively markets.

‘This room is rather modern and tacky.’

‘It seems clean enough’ Jess replied.

Our assessment of the facilities was interrupted by an invitation to ascend the narrow metal stairway for some coffee and a variety of small cakes; we were close to at least two mosques, which suddenly commenced the deafening call to prayer.

‘It’s great to be so high above the town’ Jess shouted.

‘I’m not so sure about the quality of construction - that wall is very thin considering there’s a hundred foot drop.’

‘Don’t lean on it then.’

Jess was happy to close her eyes and sit back after the long taxi ride, but I was keen to look at the view from every angle, despite all the dirt and sand that was being whipped-up and gradually suffocating the town in a wall of swirling particles.

Thursday, 8 October 2009


It would have been good to experience a massive thunderstorm in Morocco, like the one’s we sometimes get in North Yorkshire, and the aftermath when all the plants seem so much greener and the roads are flooded right across.

There was that time we were sheltering in the Netto supermarket, with the rain beating down so hard on the metal roof, and the unexpected boom of thunder that caused an old woman to drop a packet of cornflakes. By the time we’d bought a few bargain items the rain had stopped and the car park was steaming with the evaporation that had already started.

Though there might have been a chance of being struck by lightning, I recall another time when Jess and I ran out at the peak of a storm wearing only t-shirts. There was nobody else down by the river, and the Ouse looked extraordinary as the brief monsoon rain danced madly on the water’s surface.

‘We’re going to die !’ I shouted above the noise of such heavy rain.

‘Don’t be a baby !’ Jess shouted back.

I couldn’t help noticing her lovely breasts and firm nipples beneath the sodden t-shirt, even though my glasses were virtually useless in the wet conditions. We went back to the flat and ripped-off our clothes, making love on the lounge floor as the lightning and thunder continued for what seemed like hours.

‘Does my hair look a mess ?’ she asked when things had calmed down.

‘Yes, a lovely mess.’

‘I need a hot shower.’

I was left to gaze out of the window, as people emerged from the shelter of shop doorways, and normality resumed for a while until the next violent cloudburst. If we’d been smokers I suppose we’d have lit cigarettes, but instead I made some hot tea for when my lady emerged in her dressing gown. I tried putting my hand between her open thighs, hoping for a resumption of our recent activity, but she pulled away with a little smile.

‘You men are never satisfied.’

‘If we were, the human race would die out.’

‘Not now we’ve got test tubes and all those clever scientists; men are more or less redundant.’

‘Thanks a lot !’

‘Not you, you’re special.’

We both chuckled, enjoying the strong tea and watching the sun come out over the Bonding Warehouse.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


It was a relief to escape back into the countryside on our taxi journey along the spectacular Atlantic coastline towards Agadir, and then we would turn inland to the ancient market town of Taroudannt. The police had dismissed the Aussie girl’s death as an unfortunate accident, but neither of us thought this was likely because we’d heard her talking about how she missed the beaches of Australia and all the swimming opportunities - if you could avoid sharks and other hazards.

The landscape we drove through to Taroudannt was inevitably very dry, though there was plenty of vegetation, notably the unique argan trees, that provide a very good home for many wild goats, along with their more traditional use – allowing many hard-working individuals to extract fragrant oil, used in cooking and health products.

Our driver was a bit more capable in the use of English than the one who’d taken us from Marrakech to Essaouira, though he did seem pre-occupied with the rising price of oil, and kept asking me for my solution to global energy problems. I said that perhaps more use could be made of all the sunshine in Morocco, surely a boundless energy source, but he was more interested in ways of obtaining cheap petrol.

Though much of our journey to Agadir was through deserted countryside with spectacular views to the ocean, we kept encountering the sinister police road blocks, which fortunately showed no interest in tourists – despite recent events. In a relatively poor country like Morocco death is much more apparent in everyday life; the ‘drowning’ of a traveller does generate quite a bit of interest, but naturally the local population are more concerned with how to put food in their mouths.

We stopped to photograph some goats nibbling leaves in the argan trees at the roadside, which provided a welcome distraction from all the stress of recent days. They were amazing climbers, getting quite high above the ground in search of the tastiest greenery. Some grubby kids demanded that we gave them some money for taking the pictures, and despite the fact Jess knew they had nothing to do with the animals, she gave them a few small notes.

‘It’s wonderful out here’ said Jess.

‘A great place to have a house, so long as you could get a reliable water supply.’

‘I haven’t seen a trickle of water in all the stream beds we’ve crossed.’

‘No rain in last few years’ our driver volunteered.

The millions of trees appeared to be thriving for the time being, and must have adapted to the harsh conditions over many thousands of years. Humans had also learnt to harvest these unique plants, like the many olives that are also gathered and used in a wide variety of ways.

‘I love you’ Jess said.

‘Where did that come from ?’

‘Do you love me ?’

‘You know the answer to that.’

‘Say it ! Please.’

Sunday, 4 October 2009


I don’t know why dead people are so often found in the water; it was the same with the missing University worker in York, except the woman’s body found in the Ouse wasn’t her. It was an apparently less significant lady from the Doncaster area, but the whole episode was inevitably agonising for the family and friends of the disappeared library assistant, for whom hope was uncomfortably vanishing.

Despite having some inclination towards Tibetan Buddhism I have grown more into the view that when we die that’s it, unless you’re buried and literally rot away, forming an elaborate human compost in the lonely earth of the graveyard. But we can never really know, and I hate these people who are so certain that any kind of afterlife is a load of nonsense; at least we should keep our minds open – unlike those that are so definite about global warming, or that all fat people should be mercilessly ridiculed.

In our so-called ‘advanced’ societies we try not to talk about death, and even pretend that life can be extended almost indefinitely with the help of medical science. In many other cultures they still retain an awareness that life and death are all part of the same process, and humans should simply make the most of what they have in the here and now. For some this means pure selfish indulgence, forgetting that the most important aspects of our lives cannot be bought at Tesco.

‘It wasn’t the lass from the Uni. then’ I commented, reading the local paper.

‘Not this time’ Jess replied.

‘You don’t hold out much hope then ?’

‘I’d like to believe she’d gone off with some bloke for romantic reasons, but she didn’t seem the type to withhold that kind of information from family and friends.’

‘She appeared to be quite sociable for a library assistant.’

‘What does that mean ?!’

‘She liked going to pubs.’

‘I don’t think libraries are the silent tombs they used to be, and some of the people working there are quite bubbly.’

‘I’ve always preferred buying books.’

‘Not everybody has your wealth.’

‘My inheritance is fast diminishing.’

‘And then what will you do ?’

Jess would ask me this question from time to time, implying that I was nothing more than a lazy, rudderless child; and I would always reply with silence.

Friday, 2 October 2009


We didn’t get the expected visit from the police to check if any light could be shed on the Aussie’s disappearance by our view of events. While out exploring Essaouira again we saw one of the guides walking in the medina, just beyond greeting distance, and his face appeared badly battered and bruised, though we didn’t get a brilliant view.

‘I bet the police have been interviewing him’ Jess said.

‘He looks a right mess !’

‘I’d thought that because we weren’t visited by those nice chaps in uniform she must have been found OK.’

We strolled down towards the harbour with the intention of getting some refreshment from a cafe overlooking the water; there was a lot of excitement in the area around the fish market, and two policemen were trying to calm things down.

‘Shall we get a bit closer ?’

‘Might not be a good idea to get involved’ Jess replied.

‘You order some drinks then. I’ll have a quick wander in that direction.’

As I got nearer to the noisy scene the familiar nauseous whiff of rotting fish made me feel light-headed; it was then I glimpsed a scruffy blanket partially covering something quite large, and I wondered if it was a prize catch of tuna or some other giant of the ocean. It was then I noticed the feet, and the familiar red Converse basketball boots worn by the Australian young woman.

I stumbled against the harbour wall, and within a few moments Jess arrived next to me looking even paler than I felt.

‘It’s the girl’ I said.

‘Are you sure ?’

‘I recognise the footwear.’

Neither of us could think of much else to say, and suddenly felt a pressing need to sit down with some strong coffee. We retreated a few hundred yards to the cafe as an ambulance arrived to take away her body.

‘I wonder if she just drowned while swimming ?’

‘It’s possible, but there could be some violence involved; you’ve seen the way some local men look at female travellers’ Jess answered.

We found ourselves unable to move from the table and ordered another drink; all I could hear was the piercing cries of the many seagulls soaring above the harbour, always looking for fish, for scraps, anything to sustain life.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


It was a real shock to wake up after a good night’s sleep in the tent and find that she was missing; at first the other Australian nurse thought her friend had simply wandered down to the ocean, or gone the other way to quietly undertake an essential bodily function.

But when she hadn’t returned for breakfast, the remaining girl was starting to become hysterical, and was not listening to our attempts at offering some rational explanation. The guides were fairly calm, and simply suggested she might have strolled back along the beach to Essaouira.

The English family were keen on calling the police, but those that had mobile phones couldn’t get a signal or were out of battery; our guides told us we should all return to the ranch and stables where we set-off, and telephone the local bobbies from there. The Australian girl just wouldn’t stop crying, and refused to leave the camp, so one of the guides and the mother from the family stayed with her, promising they would make a thorough search of the surrounding area.

There was a sombre mood in the camel train returning the last few miles to the ranch, though still the possibility she had been so fed-up with roughing it that a longish walk back to a cafe or her riad felt like the best option on a beautiful and cool morning.

‘What do you reckon, Jess ?’

‘I’m not sure, but it seems odd just to take-off without speaking to her friend.’


‘They both appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves last night.’

‘No sign of any problems at all.’

It was strange now we were almost back to feel that we’d finally mastered the art of being a camel jockey, or at least learned how to minimise the discomfort of having your legs spread so widely, accompanied by continuous jolting. What should have been an occasion to celebrate the small triumph of a successfully completed trek was completely overshadowed by the unexpected development, and the continued uncertainty about the seriousness of the situation.

‘I’ll be glad to get back to the bloody riad’ I said.

‘The police might want to question us.’

‘Well, they’ll know exactly where we are.’

‘If English coppers are anything to go by, they won’t do anything much for at least twenty-four hours.’

‘The stupid bitch is probably sat in some cafe enjoying a nice, big breakfast.’

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Even if it had been possible to drink a barrel of red wine every night at home, we still could not escape reality or ourselves, yet there is always the element of addiction that can creep up on you like the most sinister stalker. We tried to confine our drinking to the weekend period only and not in ridiculous quantities, which ought to give the body time to recuperate – from Monday to Thursday.

I do worry about people who will not even have the occasional glass of alcohol, and their lives have almost a religious fervour surrounding them. I suppose there is some kind of balance to be found between excess and abstinence, but it is not an easy place to find.

Living in the flat near the river in York, not far from Jess’s original place, the only unwelcome caller we can regularly expect is flood water, particularly, though not exclusively, during the winter months. This last winter has been exceptionally dry, apart from some brief interludes of snowy weather, which would probably bring a smug smile to the face of Al Gore and other climate change activists, but are humans really more powerful than nature itself ? They should try living by the River Ouse when the brown water is almost up to the road deck on Skeldergate Bridge !

Our water companies are pushing for all older properties to have meters (matching new-builds), yet in many parts of the United Kingdom there is an abundance of water; if they are experiencing problems in the densely-populated London area and wider Southeast, then it must of course be the same everywhere. Our utilities have become too dominated by the profit motive, and a distorted picture is sometimes presented using global warming arguments.

When the floods do come in historic York, Wales, Carlisle, Gloucestershire or wherever - if all that water was harnessed, rather than left to cause misery then dissipate, we’d have plenty for all to enjoy, using a better network of reservoirs and long-distance pipes. Jess always tells me to get off my bloody soapbox when I start to get into another argument with myself on the subject of weather, transport or health.

It’s a joy to have a window looking over the river, and not to have a property on the ground floor ! Jess loves to throw open these barriers of thin glass and let the fresh air replace any damp and staleness that has accumulated over the winter months. This is our own moment of renewal after all the months of darkness; to see her face glowing, and more radiant than all the golden daffodils on the city walls.

‘I’m glad we chose this place’ she would say.

‘It’s good, and cheap.’

‘Always counting the pennies.’

‘What else would you expect from a true Yorkshireman ?’


This would be my cue to embrace her, like gathering-up a large bouquet of spring flowers from the wilderness meadows near Wheldrake Ings, as the roaming Derwent finally finds its way to the Ouse, Humber, and the sea.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


It seemed rather harsh to see the camels with their legs tied together at the overnight camp; I’m not sure if they have to do this to stop them wandering off in the vastness of the real desert, but our guides clearly regarded it as essential for their business, much closer to civilisation.

We had arrived in a clearing not far from the ocean, with two large, traditionally decorated tents, though no toilet facilities were visible, except for many bushes and small trees. We’re so spoilt in our so-called ‘civilised’ countries that we’ve almost forgotten how to crap in the woods, unless told how to do it on TV by a survival expert.

It was already approaching a glorious sunset over the Atlantic; and judging by the wonderful cooking smells our evening meal would not be far off. We exchanged a few polite words with our fellow travellers – a family from Staffordshire, and a couple of Australian nurses working in London. There hadn’t been a great deal of opportunity for conversation during the day as the camel train was strung out in a long line, but now we were obliged to make some superficial remarks.

We’d probably have to share one tent with the Aussie girls, while the other was occupied by the family of four; this made me slightly nervous because Jess was always complaining about my snoring. I could only hope that the long and uncomfortable day in the ‘saddle’ would mean that we all enjoyed a deep sleep of happy and exotic dreams.

‘I’m starving’ said Jess.

‘Me too. It shouldn’t be long.’

‘Looks like they’ve actually got some wine’ said one of the Aussies.

‘Different rules for tourists’ the other added.

I couldn’t help noticing they were both attractive women, probably in their mid-twenties, however both were smokers, which was a real turn-off for me – though it does keep the insects at bay. We hadn’t experienced any problems with mosquitoes or other creepy-crawlies, only the odd lizard disappearing rapidly over a wall.

It was no surprise to be presented with two large tagines of steaming food – one chicken and one vegetarian, along with some freshly baked flat bread, and some fruity local wine as an aid to digestion and means of blurring the edges of reality a little. We were excited that one of the guides had promised some magic tricks would follow the meal, which would perhaps include one of the colourful carpets we sat on taking a short flight around the dunes.

‘Nice red’ observed Jess.

‘It always tastes better with good food, and particularly in an environment like this.’

‘You almost sound like a wine expert.’

‘Very funny, you well know that I’m only interested in getting pissed.’

‘So long as you don’t offend the locals.’

‘Sadly, I don’t think there are enough bottles for that.’

It was properly dark as the food was cleared away, and the lantern light flickered on the gently billowing tent walls. Occasionally, a camel could be heard complaining in the distance, or the fire spitting sparks into the clear night sky of countless stars. The magic act began, and the effect of alcohol made the adults unsure of where reality began and ended, while the two young kids of the English family stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the cheerful guide performed his well-polished sleight of hand.

Monday, 28 September 2009


At least part of Jess’s reluctance to discuss campus life was because at that time the City of York was gripped by a massive police hunt for a woman employed at the University library, who’d disappeared inexplicably, leaving detectives without a single clue. She was an attractive young woman in her thirties, and from a ‘good family’, which meant the police and public were taking a keen interest; if it had been a tramp or person from the wrong side of town there wouldn’t have been half the excitement.

These kind of cases are almost as if an invisible alien spaceship has descended on our ancient and beautiful city, beaming the young woman onboard in a flash of blinding light. A more likely explanation is usually an ex-boyfriend, a member of the family, somebody known to the victim, or less commonly – abduction by a stranger.

Jess had naturally taken an interest at first, but had then gone quiet on the matter, preferring to maintain her private thoughts. The media had gone crazy, and not just locally, because she was/is a very nice girl, for whom even the splendid Archbishop of York was praying regularly.

From time to time these kind of perceived or real threats from men would grip the campus, as some attractive young student was attacked on a back lane near The Retreat ‘mental’ hospital, or chased coming out of a college bar late at night. We are always reminded that York is a very safe place, and it probably is compared to the larger cities; yet these kind of events can have a major impact on the psyche of those in a smallish community, and particularly on women, and even more so for those closely involved.

We had another recent case in Yorkshire where a young girl went missing and the outcome looked extremely grim, until one day she simply turned-up unharmed; it emerged that the mother and a male accomplice had actually arranged her abduction, with the child spending a few weeks hidden under a bed only a few miles from the family home. They had hoped to cash-in on a large financial reward for returning her safely, but only ended-up with long prison sentences and universal condemnation.

The case of the missing library assistant did not look as though it would have a positive outcome, and it was no fun to watch the father appearing on television and becoming more and more distraught as the weeks passed with absolutely no evidence as to her whereabouts.

Jess knew deep down, like everybody else, the sad fact was she had most likely come to harm at the hands of a man, either one known to her or a stranger. Bad things happen in this life; many millions can’t even afford to put food in their mouths; and even in our so-called ‘developed’ nations we cannot protect ourselves from all the sorrows.

Yet there is still some joy to be grasped, like that relished by Jess and me, still so early in our love relationship – the honeymoon period, a long, long way from any estrangement that might, or might not happen, in an uncertain future.

Sunday, 27 September 2009


It was magical to lie back after a lunch cooked for you in the open air, drifting off into a dreamlike state, with only the occasional grumble from a camel to disturb the peace. All basic human needs were satisfied, and there was no pressure to continue with the journey, which would only be a few more miles inland through the enormous dunes to the overnight camp.

I watched Jess for a while, who must have been sleeping because now and then she would snore quietly for a few seconds, before lapsing into a period of gentle breathing. I felt lucky to have established a good relationship with her in a fairly short time; life was much more fun with an attractive companion, and someone to have a laugh with.

I gazed into the dying embers of the fire, even hotter than the hot day we had been trekking through, wondering if there was any kind of real threat in the bustling markets of Essaouira. It was hard to believe bad things could happen, most locals were so friendly, despite the lack of English being spoken – they were much more inclined to use French after Arabic, because of the colonial history.

‘Are you awake Jess ?’

‘I am now; what do you want ?’

‘Nothing really.’

‘Well, thanks for disturbing me. I was having a lovely dream about Hugh Laurie.’

‘What ? The comedy actor.’

‘Apparently he’s quite a heartthrob in France.’

‘They’re a peculiar nation, despite being so close to our own geographically.’

‘I couldn’t imagine life without a hot croissant and strong coffee.’

‘We’ve had some lovely breakfasts at the riad – very much French influenced.’

‘I remember once staying in Paris; the so-called Continental breakfast was so insubstantial I nearly fainted in Pigalle.’

‘I trust you didn’t visit any of those sex shows ?’

Jess laughed, and turned away to resume her snooze.

The only problem about going on holiday is that while you can leave most things behind that are familiar and perhaps dull about your life, it’s not really possible to leave your entire self behind as well, which means you’re not just carrying the baggage for the aircraft cabin.

Perhaps though there is a much greater chance of breaking familiar patterns and rediscovering a sense of childlike joy in the world and people around you, and even some delight in your own jaded personality. This appeared to be happening, as each day in Morocco brought new experiences and a different perspective on daily existence.

In England it is only possible to sunbathe outside for a few days every year; our expectations have been raised far too high by cheap package deals to Spain or Greece, which inevitably brings a feeling of deep disappointment when we experience a chilly and damp Easter long weekend of too much chocolate and persistent drizzle.

Now, I could start to imagine myself as a ‘blue man’ – a member of the desert Tuareg people - so distinctive in their customary blue clothing that forms such a strong contrast against all the sandy colours of the endless dunes. One of these people took us down another back alley in Taroudannt to look at their wonderful hand-woven carpets, yet there was none of the hard sell or rip-off tactics used by some other cheating locals – only a quiet dignity and modesty that spoke of so many years battling the harsh elements of the vast desert, sometimes with only the strange and ugly humped beasts as their companions and means of survival.

After a long and shaded rest we left the lunchtime encampment, with both of us trying to ride side-saddle, which did offer a greater degree of comfort, but also the danger of falling more easily from a great height, and then experiencing the Moroccan health system. It’s easy enough to injure yourself riding a horse, but it feels so much higher on a camel, and the abundance of sand is no guarantee of avoiding serious injury.

‘It’s good to be back in the saddle !’ Jess shouted.

‘You sound like you’ve been with camels all your life.’

‘It’s waking-up and staring at your face every morning that reminds me so much of these delightful animals.’

‘I’ll remember that later, when you need a hand getting down.’

I was certainly glad to be wearing a hat as we snaked through the baking afternoon dunes towards our night under the stars, occasionally responding with a smile to a look of concern from our guides, as they observed our lack of skill in adopting the correct travelling position when riding one of their forever jerking camels.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


I had plenty of time to re-acquaint myself with the delights of historic York, while poor Jess had to make the short journey up to the University on a daily basis to earn her crust. My personality is not really suited to full-time labour, or any work come to that – I just like to wander the streets and reflect on things, like a vagrant of the mind.

Thanks to the small inheritance left by my dad I’d escaped one of York’s major employers, the City Council, and what I considered to be the nonsense of targets and worksheets. If I had any kind of definite role it was now that of the traditional ‘housewife’, with the vague expectation that I would conjure from a few fresh and not so fresh ingredients, an evening meal for my beloved.

It’s impossible to live in a place like York and not be aware of all those that have inhabited the city before – to some these are literally ghosts marching as Roman soldiers in the basement of the Treasurer’s House, but mostly the awareness comes from the surviving architectural history, or the rubbish excavated from places like the famous Viking dig.

‘And what did you do today dear ?’

‘I like to forget about my job when I get home’ said Jess wearily.

‘Does any real work go on at that campus ? Apart from folk like the cleaners and cooks.’

‘I guess it’s not heavy engineering or traditional manufacturing; the cutting edge of science and thought perhaps.’

‘I thought it was all students getting pissed and jumping in the lake.’

‘I can’t deny that’s part of it. What have you been up to anyway ?’

‘I strolled across Ouse Bridge, explored the streets off Micklegate.’

‘Sounds exciting.’

‘Not many shopping opportunities where I went; wouldn’t be any good for you.’

‘I once went in the Cock and Bottle over there, it’s supposed to be haunted.’

‘So they say.’

‘Don’t you believe in all that ?’

‘I think most apparitions come from the person’s imagination.’

‘Maybe.....I’m not so sure.’

Even though we had somehow got onto the subject of haunting, Jess seemed a little more cheerful, though always reluctant to talk about her work, as if she was employed at a top-secret military research establishment.

‘This concoction is interesting. Is it yesterday’s lamb ?’

‘Sprinkled with some of those spices we got mail order.’

‘Yes, I can definitely taste something exotic.’

‘That might be the Marmite.’

Friday, 25 September 2009


Riding a camel proved to be one of the most uncomfortable activities of my life; neither of us had experienced the pain of giving birth, but it seemed that this particular pursuit must at least match a prolonged and painful labour.

I suppose it depends on the type of camel, the design of seat, and the suppleness of the jockey – all of which conspired to grind our hip joints into premature disintegration. I think it was even worse for Jess as she comes from a family that are no strangers to arthritis and the early onset of the most painful joint conditions.

A famous gymnast such as Olga Korbut would experience little discomfort mounting and riding one of these peculiar beasts of the desert, at least that would have been true in her youth, perhaps not during the challenging period of middle-age and beyond.

We joined several other brave souls on a camel ‘ranch’ not far from Essaouira, with the intention of trekking in the massive dunes by the wild Atlantic Ocean, then spending the night under canvas ‘away from it all.’ Perhaps not the challenge of the vast Sahara, but on first mounting my unfamiliar companion it seemed I’d be lucky to make more than a few yards.

Our guides, one of whom was a local surprisingly called Barry, told us that the ancient ruins beyond Essaouira were a popular haunt with hippies in the sixties and seventies; the kind of lifestyle that was not really compatible with the teachings of Islam. Most tourists these days were of the more well-heeled and well-behaved kind, which didn’t much apply to us two – in terms of wealth anyway.

‘Bloody hell Jess !’

‘Shit !!!’ was all she could utter as we both jerked skyward and upright, attempting not to dismount on to the rough, stony ground.

‘This is agony.’

‘Good view though.......ouch !’

We were beside the only stream in Morocco that actually had water in it, though it was possibly only an inlet of salty water. I wondered how the country could function with years of little rain, except in the mountains; in England we’re always making a fuss about water shortages, but nothing compared to this.

‘I don’t think I can stand it.’

‘Don’t be a baby !’

‘Are you enjoying it ?’

‘Not yet.’

We were led in a modest camel train towards the ocean roar, the deserted shores that stretch endlessly – at least to Agadir anyway. A kind of rhythm established, but it was an uncomfortable one felt in hip joints and lower back; the sun was also getting high and hot, despite it being only late spring.

Apart from the dramatic scenery of enormous sand dunes and untamed ocean, I found some distraction in watching the arse of the Australian nurse in front – not an exceptional arse, but good enough to ease the discomfort of our jarring passage through sand and waves breaking on the shore.

After an hour or so our guides encouraged the camels to kneel, which they did fairly readily, allowing us the relief of standing tall again. The beasts were all in good humour; I’d expected a more cantankerous attitude from them, and plenty of spitting, but perhaps their reputation was not justified as pains in the arse, except literally.

‘Thank God for that’ Jess exclaimed.

‘It’d be more comfortable riding a pushbike without a saddle !’

‘I’m going to just walk with the camel on the next bit.’

‘Good idea.’

It was fantastic just to lie back on the sand, drinking from a bottle of mineral water, and watching the waves crash in; a shame that the idyllic spot was spoilt by all the rubbish that had either washed up on the beach or blown from Essaouira.

‘I’m sure somebody was following us in the medina.’

‘You’re imagining it’ I replied.

‘Maybe so, but this bloke looked really dodgy.’

‘How do you mean ?’

‘I don’t know, there was just something about him.’

‘That kind of detailed evidence should really help the police.’

‘No, you’re probably right, nothing to worry about. Blokes are always staring at women.’

‘Reproduction is a biological imperative.’

‘This was just leering.’

After a short break the camel train continued through the sands a little more quickly than walking pace, which meant that Jess and I were trailing behind the main party - who were not showing the same level of discomfort in their temporary role as camel jockeys. We didn’t mind losing touch with the group, walking barefoot in the clear shallows of the ocean, occasionally looking back towards the white fortifications of Essaouira several miles distant.

‘There’s nobody out here to follow us’ Jess said.

‘No, we are the followers now. I’m ready for some grub.’

‘Always thinking of your stomach.’

We watched the camels turn inland, and we struggled to keep in touch at all through the deep, soft sand; it was well past midday, and we were both dripping with sweat, which was not a bad feeling, as if all the real and perceived toxins of daily life were being expelled through our burning skin.

Our guides had already lit a fire in the shade of some trees and placed a couple of large tagines on the embers, which were quickly releasing some wonderful smells of cooking chicken. The camels had all settled down not far from the people, who were either guzzling from large bottles of mineral water or swapping stories about their adventures in Morocco. It seemed like there was almost a competition going on – who had stayed in the most luxurious riad in Marrakech ? Who had come closest to being killed in a traffic accident ? Who had met the most amazing travellers in Fez ?

Jess was much keener to get involved in this kind of conversation, but I was happy to just lie back in the shade and listen to the food bubbling away above the now distant sound of the Atlantic breaking on the seemingly endless shoreline.

‘It’s good to be away from all the traffic’ I said.

‘I’m quite excited about camping out overnight.’

‘What are the toilet arrangements ?’

‘Trust you to break the spell of romance.’

‘These things are important, particularly as one gets older.’

‘You’re hardly a pensioner !’

‘A man reaches a physical peak in late teens.’

‘I suppose that is a long time ago for you. Women blossom much later of course.’

‘And you certainly have.’

The simple feast of tagine chicken, couscous, a variety of salad and fresh bread seemed superior to the finest restaurant cuisine, because we had already taken part in a small adventure away from our humdrum lives, an uncomfortable journey in parts, yet it felt like we were almost real travellers replicating the same kind of odyssey that had been undertaken throughout human history, in a challenging environment where nothing seems to flourish but death, under the relentless sun.