Saturday, 31 October 2009
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
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 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.
‘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
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
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
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.’
‘Not really, it only brings confusion in my conversations with others.’
‘I suppose it would.’
‘Where are you from ?’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘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
‘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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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.’